Series Info...Playing with History #10:

Settings, Part II: The Cold War

by Michael Karlin
June 11, 2003

“It was man who ended the Cold War in case you didn't notice. It wasn't weaponry, or technology, or armies or campaigns. It was just man.” — John le Carré, novelist.

Roughly from the end of the Second World War to 1989, the world lived in a state of crystallized flux, oscillating between powers attempting to control one another, or the pawns that were other states. Control was a dominant theme during the Cold War, be it control of territory, natural resources or the fundamental beliefs along which life is led.

Last article, I wrote about certain themes that were prevalent in the Western genre. The Western era was one marked by independence, a blatant disregard for authority, and rugged individualism. It offers much to players desiring to play dramatic, romantic characters who act with bravado and self-assertion. If eras in history were simplistic enough to have opposites, the Cold War would be as close as one could get. The Cold War, the bifurcated period in recent human history, stripped most people of individualism no matter what side of the line they were on. Ideological camps were created that were, supposedly, greater than any single individual. The ideological differences meant similar and different societies existed simultaneously. One was to conform to the state's wishes for the greater cause of freedom, or for the greater cause of proletarian empowerment. At its core, however, the individual became the unit, the statistic calculated among millions of others potentially lost in nuclear holocaust.

What a dark and distressing era... sounds perfect for a computer game!

The Cold War is not new to popular media, and this is no exception with computer games. However, in the context of online roleplaying, the Cold War is a relatively untapped resource. Firstly, let's review the factions involved. In the individualist setting such as the Western, factions are relatively dynamic. Gangs can easily fold, others can be created, and most political posts can be replaced without any significant adjustment to the theme required because everything is so Decentralized. With the command model such as the Cold War, the individual factions play a much more prominent role and are more static. This means that any serious adjustment to them would seemingly discredit the history of your game, and risk making historical fiction simply fiction. The factions are perceptually and organizationally different, but for the most part both are rational pragmatists voracious for economic and military power. They are:

  • The United States/North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) - The US, Canada and most of Western Europe stood for democracy and capitalism and all their merits. They had technological advantage, but not the sheer military numbers. Their methods are much more subtle than their antagonists. Especially in the late-1970's and after, they are the ones with more belief in their ideological system than the East. However, despite the obvious dominance of the US in this faction, constant bickering occurs within the faction, making it far less cohesive on day-to-day matters.
  • The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics/Warsaw Treaty Organization (WATO) - The USSR and most of Central/Eastern Europe stood for socialism and command economy and all their merits. The military machine was massive, but questionable in its effectiveness. Especially in the 1950's, order is kept using brutal and overt methods, which is necessary in their perception because an implicit discontent regularly bubbles into violent confrontation. Some countries (Romania) are much, much more severe than others, who enjoy relatively relaxed environs (Hungary). Most people are cynical, and care little for their ideology as long as they have food on the table. Governments are completely and utterly controlled from Moscow, with the exception of Romania.
  • The Group of Non-Aligned States - Started by the charismatic leaders of democratic India and socialist Yugoslavia, this was a group of countries impotent of power but persistent in their rhetoric. They resented the aforementioned factions and their desire to meddle in the affairs of countries. They have economic ties to them, but their sovereignty is usually preserved.
  • The uninvolved/neutral states - For one reason or another, be it historical precedent (Switzerland) or strategic prudence (Finland), some countries refused to become involved with the conflict, which usually resulted in them being a breeding ground of spying. I personally recommend staging your game in one of these countries for this reason. In this group, I also include states who had a firm ideological position, but despised all the factions. Most notably, China belongs in this category. It is commonly known in many security circles that more Soviet nuclear weapons were pointed at Beijing than Washington.

Many of the factions are quite similar to one another, and certain themes underlie their interaction. The primary theme of this era is subtlety; any significant political move might trigger a massive war and thus must be completed through subterfuge and backroom dealing. Secrecy and deception were also important, and fear was a subtext that underlined the actions of those who knew to what extent the conflict could have escalated. But few did; even the participants were not aware of the greater implications of the cryptic orders received. Taking these themes into consideration, it comes without surprise that the cliched, misrepresented character type of the Cold War era is the intelligence operative, or spy. A spy might be formally employed by a country's agency, or they may be recruited by formal spies in an information network to serve a specialized gathering purpose. The spy's primary role is to gather information about political, economic and military movements on the other side. Secondary roles include sabotage, and counter-espionage. Contrary to popular belief, assassination was fairly tertiary. Staff could create massive schemes, players the intrigues, and technology the "magic" of the era. The Cold War leaves little to be desired, but most of it is elusive and shadowy.

There are going to be a few difficulties. Plotting staff might find it difficult to keep up with the constantly-adapting environment and who has betrayed who over lunch. While it does empower players to create their own webs of intrigue, staff-created plotting may be slightly more frustrating than usual. Administratively, there is a lot of backstabbing involved here, so I strongly recommend having a large player counsellor (StoryGuide) corps to deal with the many inevitable in-character/out-of-character crossover issues that come with constant betrayal and lying. I don't envisage a Cold War game being one that creates a cohesive community, but I do see it bringing out some of the best roleplayers that are around.

Subtle and intelligent, the Cold War roleplaying game offers a great stimulus for the clever mind. I would continue and tell you more, but then I'd have to kill you.

In two weeks: "Liberté, Fraternité, Égalité ou la mort!" The French Revolution as a transition setting.

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