Hamilton and the Hubris Box, Part 1 of 3: The world is gonna know your name

Theater-Hamilton Cast Album

Hubris Box is a roleplaying game by Paul Richardson that is designed to emulate classic stories of tragic heroes, especially ones with great ambition who do incredible (if often villainous) feats and are later destroyed by the consequences of their past actions.

The game’s structure mirrors Aristotelian tragic plot structure. In Act One, as the protagonist takes actions to achieve their ambitions, players write on index cards (or scraps of paper) phrases that reflect the way that the protagonist has influenced the world. These cards are then posted into a box, the eponymous Hubris Box. Eventually, there is a Turn leading into Act Two, in which the players take cards out of the Hubris Box and use them to frame scenes that tear the protagonist down. For example, in Act One a card may say that the protagonist has defeated an enemy; when this card emerges in Act Two, perhaps the defeated enemy’s people return for revenge.

It’s a very cool game. Unfortunately, it also doesn’t exist yet.

Look at where you are, look at where you started

Actually, it would be fairer to say that Hubris Box is a work in progress. Hubris Box was a concept that Paul came up with when we discussed Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer (which I mentioned in a previous post). As a way of modelling the self-destructive narratives of villain protagonists that Sorcerer was made for, Paul described the central mechanic as I have outlined in the paragraph above.

For months, that simple summary, that concept, was the only part of the game that existed. Lately Paul and I have, separately, returned to thinking about the game and we have started to build a game out of it. Paul has even set out his own thoughts on Hubris Box on his own blog, Harbottle Productions.

Amusingly and intriguingly, Paul’s vision of the game, while sharing the same central conceit, is quite different from mine in a lot of ways. Mine is a diceless game with a player (the Protagonist) and several GMs (the Antagonists); Paul’s is a wholly GM-less game with rotating roles, which uses a (potentially) random conflict resolution mechanic. Mine leaves the majority of major decisions in the hands of the Protagonist player; Paul’s gives the decision-making to the downtrodden minions.

These differences will be interesting to explore. At some point we’ll get together and see how these styles might work together. For now, though, there’s nothing wrong with two interpretations of the same system. The world is wide enough for both.

The villain in your history

Paul also focuses a lot more on what you might called the standard example of a Hubris Box story, which is a villain protagonist, one who perhaps starts out noble but does increasingly evil acts, and who accumulates power at the expense of those around them before being karmically punished. For example, Paul refers to the protagonist as “the bad guy” and “the mastermind”, with NPCs representing “minions” for the protagonist to control, manipulate and abuse.

When I was thinking about the game, I thought about the way it might be used to analyse different rise-and-fall stories from our media. Shakespearean tragic heroes like Brutus (from Julius Caesar), Hamlet and Macbeth all have the key features of a Hubris Box protagonist. So does Oedipus. So does Scarface. So does Walter White from Breaking Bad. And a hundred others.

But the core game mechanic is flexible enough that you need not be limited to playing a villain. To prove it, I’m going to use (my version of) Hubris Box to interpret the musical Hamilton.

Alexander Hamilton

Hamilton is a fantastic musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, about the life of Alexander Hamilton.

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here about why it’s so amazing, because if I started I’d never shut up and I already had to split this blog post into three parts because it was so long. There are other people on other blogs and websites who can give you a full review, but honestly I recommend you just listen to it for yourself. Literally, listen to it right now. You can listen to original Broadway soundtrack for free on the official website.

The important thing for now is that Alexander Hamilton, especially as presented in the musical, is a perfect example of a protagonist in a Hubris Box game. He dragged himself up from humble origins with his wit and his mind, became one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, only to fall from grace and (spoilers) die young. He was flawed, but he was not a villain.

So, again, go listen to Hamilton if you haven’t already. This blog series will have spoilers and a lot of what follows will make a lot less sense if you haven’t heard it. Take some tissues with you. You’ll be back.

Are you back? Let’s go.

There’s a million things I haven’t done

Although I’m using Hubris Box to interpret Hamilton, I’m primarily using Hamilton to showcase what Hubris Box can do.

As such, this interpretation will barely scratch the surface of Hamilton‘s densely layered structure and its meaningful motifs, echoes and callbacks. To keep the post manageable, I skip to specific key events and paint them in broad strokes. Some characters are pushed into the background and others are left out.

The rest of this post will be about the set-up of an imaginary game of Hubris Box. Part 2 will feature Act One of the game (it doesn’t exactly line up with Act I of the musical, but it’s pretty close), with Hamilton rising up to become a hero. Part 3 will feature Act Two of the game, with Hamilton’s fall and legacy.

For clarity, if I refer to any Hubris Box rules that weren’t in the second paragraph of this blog post, I made them up myself.


America sings for you

Three roleplayers, Lin, Manuel, and Miranda, get together to play a game of Hubris Box. Manuel has already played it once, as the Protagonist player. He played Walter White, a timid schoolteacher who turns himself into a drug kingpin. As such, he’s happy to play one of the Antagonists (all players except the Protagonist play Antagonists, essentially sharing GM responsibilities) and let Lin or Miranda play the Protagonist. They flip a coin, and Lin is picked as the Protagonist. Miranda will play an Antagonist alongside Manuel.

The last time these three played together, they played a game of Microscope in which they created the history of a fictional country called America. One of the eras that they barely explored was the ‘Revolutionary War’ period. Basically the only things they know about this period are:

  1. Prior to the war, America is under the tyrannical oppression of King George of Britain, a tiny and disproportionately powerful island across the sea.
  2. The colonists rise up against the British, win their independence in the Revolutionary War, and establish a republic.
  3. General George Washington becomes America’s first president.
  4. As for their level of technological advancement, they have gunpowder weapons and the printing press.

Everyone is cool with the idea of exploring this period of American history. They decide to start just before the war starts.

What’s your name, man?

In this setting, Lin decides to play an outsider, an orphan immigrant who adopts America as his own country. He’ll be unpolished, from humble origins, and he’ll have survived hardship, disease and disaster while growing up. He’ll have a drive to prove himself (therefore having the necessary ambition to be a Hubris Box Protagonist) and he’ll be a talented writer. In fact, it was his skill with a pen that got him enough money to immigrate in the first place.

Lin names the character Alexander Hamilton.

Protagonists in Hubris Box need a Noble Goal and one or more Fatal Flaws. Given the period they are playing in, Lin decides that Hamilton’s Noble Goal will be “Secure the future of America”. Manuel reminds everyone that the Turn, the point at which Act One ends and items start being pulled out of the Hubris Box instead of being put in, happens when the Protagonist acts counter to their Noble Goal, so that will have to happen at some point. Lin and Miranda are fine with that.

For Fatal Flaws, Manuel suggests Pride (it worked really well as a flaw for Walter White). Miranda, riffing on the idea of using the Seven Deadly Sins, suggests Lust, Wrath and Greed. Lin isn’t sure about these, but accepts Lust and Pride. Lin likes the idea of subverting Wrath and Greed, though: Hamilton is impulsive and wants to go to war, not for Wrath but to make a name for himself; Hamilton deals with money, not for Greed but because he knows proper finances are vital to the running of a country.

The players have their Protagonist and they are ready to begin Act One.

Check out Part 2 to see what comes next

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