INSPO: Elizabeth R

INSPO is a series of posts about non-horror topics that could nonetheless be used as inspiration for a horror game. The rest of the series can be found here.

Like most living entities, Britain has a tendency to assemble its identity from episodes cherry-picked from its own past. In some cases, episodes have been selected to fit the vibes of a particular moment only for these moments and their cultural signifiers to be discarded when the vibes change and the old memories no longer serve as a buttress for who we want to be.

This practice is most evident in the case of modern Britain’s relationship with the Victorian era where growing awkwardness about Britain’s blood-spattered colonial history has resulted in whole facets of Victorian life being either ignored or quietly memory-holed until all that’s left of the British empire is some vaguely Dickensian imagery in a Christmas supermarket advert for Oreo-flavoured mince pies.

One of the biggest differences between today’s Britain and Britain in the 1990s is a change in its favoured royal spirit-animal. Contemporary Britain finds solace in the idea of an obese and visibly drunk Henry VIII driving a digger through a load of boxes and declaring his intention to get Brexit done and by formally severing all ecclesiastical ties between Rome and the Church of England. Back in the 1990s, people tended to look to the reign of Elizabeth I as the early stages of Britain’s colonial project seemed to chime with British companies outsourcing all of their manufacturing capacity to Third World sweatshops. Elizabeth I also seems ‘liberal’ by the standards of British monarchs but I suspect that was mostly down to the fact that she ended her half-sister’s policy of torturing Protestants and burning them at the stake. The British royal family doesn’t get many W’s when it comes to being progressive but not having town councils burn people alive was definitely one of them. Kudos Good Queen Bess… welcome to the Resistance.

The 90s reclamation of Elizabeth and all things Elizabethan resulted in a number of film and TV series including Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchette. The success of Elizabeth meant that Kapur and Blanchette were able to team up again to produce a sequel entitled Elizabeth: The Golden Age that featured a more mature and confident Elizabeth facing down the might of Spain.  The Golden Age has less of a cultural finger-print than the original partly by virtue of the fact that it appeared nine years later and partly by virtue of the fact that the film’s bright and hyper-saturated visual palette was so radically at odds with the shadowy grimness of the original that it felt like a completely unrelated project. This was deliberate as while the first film is all about Elizabeth trying to secure and hold onto her throne, the second film is about high-level strategic decisions made by a woman who was in absolute control of her body-politic.

This deliberate tonal shift intended to represent different stages of Elizabeth’s life was not entirely original. Though well-remembered and well-loved, Elizabeth is a film that borrowed quite freely from a much older TV adaptation of Elizabeth’s life entitled Elizabeth R. This is a series that has much to teach us about an interesting approach to structuring campaigns.

First televised between February and March 1971, Elizabeth R was written and directed by diverse hands and it co-starred many of the most notable British TV actors of its day. For someone who grew up in the 1980s, watching it is a bit like an early waft of senility: You know all of these faces but you can’t remember their names or where you’re supposed to know them from. It’s all so familiar and yet so strange… except for Siegfried from All Creatures Great and Small strutting about the place in a set of tights and a fur waist-coat so broad-shouldered that it makes him look like an enormous hairy fridge. You don’t forget that shit.

The different writers and directors serve to give each episode a different feel. The technology and budgetary constraints on a BBC drama mean that every episode falls within a certain visual range but some directors favour intimate head-to-head dialogues while others favour speeches delivered before court and shot from mid-distance. The patterns of speech and structure of the narratives also change from episode to episode. The changes are never so extreme as to render the viewing experience in any way disjointed, but they are enough to give each episode its own distinct vibe.

Holding the whole project together is a performance by Glenda Jackson that is rightly remembered as an absolute tour-de-force: From giddy, sexually-charged young woman to embittered and cynical older woman. Every mood is rendered with clarity, subtlety and moments of glorious bombast. The rotating supporting cast all seem to pull different things from her, old acquaintances are comfortably relaxed, while new adversaries see her disappearing behind the smug superiority of Queen-ship. It is absolutely masterful as Jackson’s charisma and performance really serve to pull together what might otherwise have been an episodic and piece-meal affair.

What is interesting about Elizabeth R is the fact that its creators decided to try and explore Elizabeth’s life through a series of self-contained scenes taken from different points in her life: We have her as a young woman dealing with hostile court politics and trying to keep one step ahead of the executioner before outliving her sister and ascending the throne. Then we have Elizabeth being torn between the requirements of the state and her desires as a woman and deciding to favour the state. Then we have an exploration of the way that the decision to place the interests of the queen over the needs of the woman leave her in a position where she cannot allow herself to fall in love with anyone new and the fact that her emotions are frozen in aspic then has a knock-on effect on the people around her who benefit from that emotional status quo. With each new scene, we see Elizabeth grow in maturity and confidence, but we also see the birth of neuroses and the terror of first being alone and then dying alone. It is beautifully and profoundly done but it also left me wondering why a similar campaign structure has not been explored using RPGs.

The exemplar of the kind of story-telling I am thinking of remains Chaosium’s Pendragon in which you start off as little more than a teenager taking their first steps towards knighthood, then you watch as the character ages, gets married, has kids, and eventually dies only to be replaced by their oldest child who assumes control of both their estate and their titles. Pendragon’s campaign structure is enormously satisfying but to fully realise the game’s potential requires literally dozens of sessions (one for each year of a PC’s life) whereas it might be possible to base a campaign around 6 or 8 sessions, each one focussing on a different point in the characters’ lives. You could even keep the ball rolling by retaining the structure and passing through another generation.

Usually, this kind of aggressive framing is the purview of non-conventional ‘indie’ RPGs. These tend to have a very narrow and precise thematic focus that makes aggressive scene-framing almost an absolute necessity. I mean… how else are you going to make a game ‘about parenthood’ without starting a session with the character having recently sprogged?

One of the more ironic things about ‘indie’ RPGs is that while they will often lament the role of the traditional GM and seek to ‘deconstruct’ the role they play at the table, many of the traditional GM’s duties are simply removed from the table and placed in the hands of the author who determines the themes of the game, what kinds of scenes will turn up, and how to stitch the various bits and pieces together into a coherent story. I would argue that because the author is removed from the table and beyond the reach of responsibility, handing large amounts of narrative work to the author is arguably less democratic and inflexible than simply trusting conventional GMs to tell a story about a bunch of teenagers, pick up on a few hanging threads, and then use those hanging threads to construct a story about a bunch of young adults.

Returning to Elizabeth R, the most interesting thing about Jackson’s performance is that she holds the entire project together: Another actor might have been swayed by changes in writing and direction but Jackson’s Elizabeth serves as a solid core that pulls the whole thing together. Elizabeth R is always a series that is about Jackson’s Elizabeth and I imagine a very similar effect might take place by virtue of getting the same people to play the same characters at different points in their lives.

I’m not sure I have that much to say about this idea at the moment, but I think it would make for a really interesting, short but player-focused campaign.

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