Hubris Box: A draft

Hubris Box is a diceless roleplaying game that I wrote based on a core mechanic created by Paul Richardson.1 In a game of Hubris Box, players collaboratively tell the story of a protagonist whose ambition spurs them to greatness before they are destroyed by their own flaws.

I posted about Hubris Box before, in a three-part series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) that presented the rules I developed for the game and an example of play that depicted the musical Hamilton as a session of Hubris Box with three players. Hamilton made sense to me as an example because it fit the narrative structure I was aiming for, but it turns out that a lot of people avoided reading those blog posts because they hadn’t listened to Hamilton yet.

Therefore, here are the rules for my version of Hubris Box with the play example removed. If anyone gives it a try, please please please let me know how it goes and what you think. This is a first draft and will almost certainly need tweaking, and I’d appreciate any feedback I get. Thanks!


Overview

Hubris Box is a game about flawed Protagonists: tragic heroes with great ambition who do incredible—often villainous—feats and are later destroyed by the consequences of their past actions. The game’s structure mirrors Aristotelian tragic plot structure.

Protagonists generally do not consider themselves to be villains (at least not at first), and therefore they justify their actions as being in service of a Noble Goal, even while their Fatal Flaws tempt them to take actions that will lead away from this goal.

In Act One, the Protagonist takes actions to achieve their ambitions. The Protagonist player writes how the Protagonist has influenced the world on an index card or scrap of paper, then posts into a box, the eponymous Hubris Box.

When the Protagonist overreaches and starts to act against their Noble Goal, there is a Turn leading into Act Two, in which the Antagonists take cards out of the Hubris Box and use them to frame scenes that tear the Protagonist down.

At the end of Act Two, the Protagonist has been completely crushed, probably dead, but they leave behind a legacy that determines how they will be remembered after they are gone.

Before you start

To play, you need one player for the Protagonist and one or more other players to be the Antagonists. The Protagonist controls one character but has considerable agency and power to affect the story; the Antagonists collectively control all supporting characters and the rest of the world, and their job is to challenge the Protagonist and spur them to action.

You will also need some cards or small scraps of paper that you can write on.

And you will need a box. This is the Hubris Box. The Hubris Box must have a slot or a hole through which you can post the cards you write on, and it should be big enough to fit all of the cards you are going to use. You must be able to take cards out of the box one at a time.

Character creation

A game of Hubris Box begins by creating a Protagonist to play. The Protagonist needs a name, a Noble Goal, and one or more Fatal Flaws.

It is the Noble Goal that initially spurs the Protagonist to action, and it is what they will use to justify the lengths they later go to. It is also a limit, an allotted measure of what the Protagonist is allowed to reach for without being punished. As long as the Protagonist is pursuing their Noble Goal, the game stays in Act One and the Protagonist retains control over their own destiny. However, as soon as they start acting for other reasons (out of self interest, or personal ambition, or according to one of their other Fatal Flaws), the game switches to Act Two. As such, the Noble Goal is the single most important element of character creation.

The Noble Goal need not, technically, be very noble, although I’d certainly recommend it for the first few games you play. My two main suggestions for Noble Goals are to have no fixed end point (so that Protagonists cannot achieve their objective and then retire) and to focus on benefit to other people rather than the Protagonists themselves. However, fixed-end and selfish Noble Goals can both work. Consider, for instance, a Protagonist who wants to rule a fictional country, but once this is done they push further and overreach by trying to conquer other lands.

Fatal Flaws do not have a direct mechanical impact on the game, but they are flags of shared understanding as to what sort of temptation the Protagonist will respond to. If the Protagonist picks a Fatal Flaw of wrath, for example, then this is a signal to the Antagonist players to introduce situations for the purposes of upsetting and angering the Protagonist.

You can have any number of Fatal Flaws. More than one is recommended, although if you have too many they may lose some of their impact. In my examples, I have used Fatal Flaws based on the seven deadly sins, but this is not necessary. Fatal Flaws could be almost any type of character flaw: curiosity, gullibility, fear, obsession, etc. They can be general or specific, e.g. a need to gain the acceptance of a distant or cruel parent. A Fatal Flaw of ambition will help to encourage the more traditional tragic rise and fall story that Hubris Box is designed for.

Act One

In Act One, gameplay is broken down into scenes of freeform roleplaying. Scenes are set by the Antagonists, which can be based (although this is not absolutely necessary, especially towards the end of the Act) on a small goal chosen by the Protagonist that will get them closer to their Noble Goal. The Antagonists can create scenes collaboratively or take turns to frame them, depending on their preference.

The Protagonist player only plays the Protagonist character, and reacts to the situations presented by the Antagonists. When the Protagonist wants to resolve the scene, they can write something that happens on an index card or a scrap of paper, which they post in the Hubris Box. Whatever they write must happen. This is the game’s only resolution mechanic.

Useful cards may show both what the Protagonist does to get the outcome they want (especially if it’s morally dubious) and what the consequences are (for the Protagonist and for any other people that they have upset or harmed). These cards will be used to tear the Protagonist down again in Act Two, so it’s in everyone’s interests to make them meaningful.

The Antagonists play every other character in the scene, as well as everything around the Protagonist. Their job is to:

  1. act in accordance with established fact;
  2. present opportunities for the Protagonist to reach their small goals;
  3. throw as many obstacles in the Protagonist’s way as possible in order to force them into posting to the Hubris Box; and
  4. challenge the Protagonist’s morals and ethics, so that they go to increasingly extreme measures to get what they want.

The Turn

The Turn is the midpoint of the game and ends Act One. It happens when the Protagonist puts a card in the Hubris Box that does not pursue their Noble Goal. The card that initiates the Turn is the last card that will go into the Hubris Box in the game.

The action behind this card will usually be motivated by self-aggrandisement instead of the Noble Goal, but may also be because the action exceeds the limitations set by the Noble Goal. It does not need to be actively opposing the Noble Goal. The Protagonist character can and should continue to justify their actions as pursuing the Noble Goal, even though the players can see otherwise.

The Protagonist and the Antagonists share a responsibility to aim for a Turn. The Antagonists are encouraged to challenge the Protagonist and present threats to their gains, status or loved ones that can only be dealt with by setting aside or violating the Noble Goal. The Protagonist player is encouraged to think about how their character might go against the Noble Goal early on. The Protagonist and Antagonists are allowed to discuss this in advance if they choose.

Act Two

After the Turn, the game moves on to Act Two, in which the Antagonist players start to take cards out of the Hubris Box. Once again, play is broken down into scenes.

At the start of Act Two, every Antagonist takes a card from the Hubris Box and keeps it in their hand so that only they can read it. One other card is placed face up on the table so that all players can see it. In games with only one Antagonist, they can have three cards in their hand and none on the table. When a card is played, either from a hand or the table, a new card is immediately drawn from the Hubris Box to replace it.

Cards usually aren’t shuffled or the Box shaken up, but depending on the relative sizes of the Hubris Box and the cards they might not fall in a neat stack, and therefore might not come out exactly in reverse order. This is fine, and adds a small element of randomness to the game.

At the start of each scene, an Antagonist presents a card from their hand or from the table, suggesting either an echo or reversal of what is written on the card. The Antagonists are even allowed to suggest things that the Protagonist might do in order to make the echo or reversal possible, and the Protagonist player is encouraged to accept although they do have a veto on this. Whatever happens, it should lead to consequences that strip away some of the power the Protagonist accumulated in Act One. Ideally, each card played should take from the Protagonist the benefit they received by playing the card in the first place, but this is not always possible or reasonable.

For each card that is played (except for the very last card), the Protagonist gets to protect one element that would otherwise be threatened, or to deflect some of the worst effects that the Antagonists suggest. All players, incuding the Protagonist, will then play out the scene based on the consequences that have been discussed. The Protagonist player is encouraged to lean into their character’s fall from grace as much as possible, to heighten the tragedy.

What the players are looking for in Act Two is a cascade, when one card has consequences that lead directly into another card and then another and another. If it makes sense to do so, Antagonists can play cards during a scene that was set up using a different card, although the scene should be given just as much weight after the second card as before. It may be easier in general to start a new scene but have very little time pass since the previous one.

The End

When the very last card in the game is played, the scene is discussed as normal for Act Two but, this time, the Protagonist does not get to protect anything from the Antagonists. This time, the Protagonist is going to die, unless the players unanimously agree that it wouldn’t be fitting.

After the Protagonist is killed (or, with agreement, suffers another final fate), the Protagonist player gets to determine what legacy their character has left behind in the world. Optionally, each Antagonist can offer a prompt or ask a question about how the setting has reacted to the Protagonist’s life and death. The Protagonist has free rein to describe those reactions and how they are remembered by the world after they are gone.


Example set-ups

The rest of the rules would be example set-ups to give some structure to the game and help new players get into it. If I was ever to publish the game I would need a good handful, but here are a few that I’ve been thinking about. (I bet if someone had a Netflix account they could find some TV shows that are sorta similar to these, but that’s probably a coincidence.)

Newbie criminal

A law-abiding citizen is lured into a life of crime because they need money to support themselves, their family or their friends. They think they’ll be able to stop when they earn what they need, that they won’t let themselves be drawn in too deep, that they won’t change who they are. They’re wrong.

Noble Goal: Earn money to support myself/my family/my friends (specify)

Fatal Flaws: Pride, greed, poor judgement or impulse control, enjoys the excitement of breaking the law

Things to determine up-front: Why the Protagonist can’t earn money another way; why they need so much money; who the Protagonist is supporting (names, backgrounds, etc.); what crime they are committing (usually non-violent to begin with, e.g. selling drugs)

Possible Turns: Continue earning money after you have enough; commit a crime that has no expectation of payment; act out of selfish interests instead of for the benefit of those you support

Vigilante

Sick of the crime and corruption in their city, an apparently ordinary person secretly starts to spend their nights beating up villains and cleaning up the town. But not all vigilantes are heroes, and not all have the strength of will to resist becoming as bad as those they fight.

Noble Goal: Stop crime without being corrupted/committing murder/hurting the innocent/revealing my secret identity (specify)

Fatal Flaws: Self-righteousness, saviour complex, wrath, enjoys violence

Other things to determine up-front: The nature of crime in the city (e.g. mob, institutional corruption); the Protagonist’s ordinary day job and supporting cast; the Protagonist’s special gift (not necessarily powers, but what lets them fight crime)

Possible Turns: Kill a criminal to stop them hurting other people; accidentally attack or injure an innocent person; engage in criminal behaviour by filling a role left by one of the villains you dealt with; reveal your secret identity

Politician

An idealistic politician wants to help the little people who got them into office, but implementing real change for the greater good requires getting a little dirty, dealing with some bad people, and sacrificing a little of your soul. Perhaps a little too much.

Noble Goal: Improve the lives of the people in my constituency

Fatal Flaws: Ambition, greed, lust, addiction (specify), overly trusting or utterly cynical (choose)

Other things to determine up-front: An outline sketch of the political system; how much more power they need to get the change they want; what the Protagonist’s constituents want or need

Possible Turns: Act for personal gain; act to protect yourself, e.g. to cover up something scandalous like an affair, criminality or addiction


1 In my earlier blog series on Hubris Box, I mentioned that Paul Richardson had come up with his own interpretation of the game (which can be found here), and that we were going to meet up and work out ways of reconciling our two version. The new plan is to write the versions as separate games, along with versions written up by anyone else who takes an interest, and package them together. In a box.

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