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Comrades: A Revolutionary RPG
Publisher: W.M. Akers
by Michael B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 03/29/2019 16:10:56

Personally, I run hot and cold on ptbA games. I love the simplicity of the system and the clarity of design that a good execution of pbtA enforces. But Apocalypse World 1e had some rough edges and some fuzziness about its version of the wasteland that made it hard for me to see how I'd ever play it. Dungeon World is alright, but if you want to have high fantasy adventures, why not just play D&D, or 13th Age, the best version of D&D? And while Night Witches is absolute masterpiece of design, I'm never going to find another person to play it with. Comrades is the antidote to my all my problems with pbtA.

Comrades distills both pbtA and revolution down to their essences, and what remains is as close to a utopian ideal of an RPG as I can imagine. This is a game about your revolutionary vanguard, about a small band of comrades who are willing to dare everything to bring about a better world. You'll throw down with thugs from across the political spectrum, out-manuever splinter factions in your own movement, suffer under the oppressive tactics of the secret police, hear a dying comrade's last words, raise a mob, and strike a blow for revolution.

The moves and playbooks are wonderfully calibrated to revolutionary action: I especially appreciate the inclusion of a universal Start Something move to incite a mob, and the perceptive list of questions on the What's Going On Here? move to read a situation. The GM advice helps develop the ideology of the comrades, and put them under pressure from adversarial fronts, which work through a series of steps that cause the world to crumble. I particularly like the Pathway Moves, end of session rolls which describe how the comrades are advancing towards revolution on five tracks, ranging from a democratic victory at the ballot box to assassinating the head of state.

Nearly a decade on from the release of Apocalypse World, designers have a good sense of how pbtA works. W. M. Akers has written one of the best examples of the ruleset, perfectly calibrated for telling a thrilling tale of revolution, with plenty of examples on how to make the game the your own. Comrades includes a fully-fleshed out setting for Khresht 1915, a fictional country inspired mostly by the Russian revolution, and thumbnails settings for New York 1776 and Callisto 2219. You also get 10 playbooks for comrades from Artist to Worker, and great advice on running the game, and building your revolution. The visual design is spare and evocative, with well-chosen black-and-white prints standing out against a red and yellow color scheme. Comrades is inspired by the radical leftists of the 19th and 20th century, but there's not a set ideological stance in the game. This game is about anybody who is willing to die for their ideals, to fight bravely for a better world, and bring down the evil SOBs in charge.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Comrades: A Revolutionary RPG
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Winterhorn
Publisher: Bully Pulpit Games
by Michael B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 11/22/2018 16:31:58

Winterhorn is an incredible game that does for LARPs what Papers Please did for videogames, making the banality of evil in authoritarian regimes real.

You are an interagency working group in an unnamed country loosely based on East Germany (but even western democracies have secret police, the FBI ran COINTELPRO for decades, and in 2003 a British undercover agent had a child with an activist before disappearing.) Your target is Winterhorn, an activist group composed of seven core members with ideals, desires, and weaknesses laid out in the briefing material. Additionally, you have a role as a secret police agent, with a past and an agenda of your own.

Over three rounds of thirty minutes each, your secret police squad will select seven options from deck of twelve secret police tactics, ranging in violence from hands-off wiretapping to sending 'patriotic' thugs (off-duty cops) to assault members of Winterhorn. You can also be tricky, setting up front groups to siphon away recruits and using "bad jacketing" to destroy the cohesion of the group by planting rumors suggesting some members are informers for the secret police. At the end of the game, the seven tactics that you chose in the last round are used to create a final report drawn from paragraphs in the rules, which describes how well the group succeeded in its mission. Then you debrief and discuss the ethics of the secret police.

Winterhorn is a shining example of rules-light design. Key game information like character roleplaying notes, OOC roles, and the results of operations, are contained on playing cards. The system of choosing seven of twelve options forces the group to evaluate and select tactics, but it is possible to over-commit and blow the operation. It's a brilliant piece of game design which creates an emergent narrative without getting tied down in complex rules or props. Twelve alternate operation cards provide a smidgen of replayability, but Winterhorn is mostly a one-and-done experience. The graphic design is top-notch, with bureaucratic memos describing Winterhorn, and a samizdat zine describing the secret police. You can choose to print-and-play the cards or buy them (mine are in the mail, and I full expect them to be excellent). A brief essay on the history of subverting political enemies rounds out the materials.

With the caveats that this is a read-through review rather than a playtest review, though I can't imagine the rules breaking, and that I didn't comprehensively crosscheck the cards to see if nonsense outcomes could arise, I love this game. Education and LARPing are two flavors that should go together like chocolate and peanut butter, but making a good EduLARP is surprisingly hard. As a tabletop gamer and professor, I've been only moderately impressed with the games put out by the Reacting to the Past (RttP) consortium. RttP may beat the standard rigmarole of lectures and essays, but the game design is not particularly sophisticated, and my time in the RttP facebook group suggests that most professors have similar problems about students not reading background material, not getting involved, and the game system giving nonsensical answers about how the siege of Athens proceeds. My own efforts in this area were a near-total failure of design goals saved only by brilliant improvisation on the part of my co-instructors. So believe me when I say A) this stuff is hard and B) Jason Morningstar has cracked the code.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Winterhorn
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