Arise, ye workers, from your slumber
Original SA post
Part 1: Arise, ye workers, from your slumber
One morning I awakened,
oh bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao!
One morning I awakened
And I found the invader.
- Bella Ciao
Succesfully Kickstarted in March 2019 and written by W.M. Akers (author of Deadball
, a dice-rolling baseball game, and Westside
, an urban fantasy novel), Comrades
is a game in which the players take up arms against an oppressive government in a country on the verge of revolution. It is a game about life in the revolutionary underground, about sacrifice, about bravery, and about risking your life for your ideals. I love this game and want more people to know about it, to buy it and to introduce it to their gaming friends.
Comrades uses the Powered by the Apocalypse game engine and doesn’t do any drastic changes to it. If you’ve ever played or read a PbtA game before, all of the mechanics presented in the book will be familiar to you. Gameplay is narrative and a game session is constructed as a conversation: the gm and the players will talk through a jointly-imagined story, rolling dice when the players attempt something that contains an element of chance. I won’t spend much time dwelling on the basic mechanics of the game in this writeup. If you’ve never read or even heard of the Apocalypse engine, Evil Mastermind’s Fatal & Friends review of Apocalypse World
(or a writeup of other Apocalypse World engine games) can help you get started.
Comrades is a slim book, just barely getting past 160 pages, split into nine chapters:
In Getting Started
we will be told the inspiration behind Comrades, learn what the game is all about and how it works.
In The Game
we will learn the core concepts of the game and the mechanics.
In The Comrades
we will meet the members of our revolution.
In The GM
we will be told the role of the GM and their principles.
In The First Session
we will go through the first session of the game and what that entails.
In More Trouble
we will talk about filling the world, creating it’s NPCs and about making obstacles for our comrades to overcome.
In Khresht: 1915
we will be introduced to an example setting, an empire on the verge of collapse during the horrors of the Great War.
In Two Examples
we are given two short ideas for campaign settings, one taking place in real world history and the other in the far future.
In Make it Yours
we will be told how to change the game to suit our needs and how to make a revolution all our own.
Getting Started, Part One
Before we get to the game itself, the book has an important question to ask of us:
When did the left forget how to fight?
Before he has even mentioned the words role, playing, or game, Akers first tells us why he wrote Comrades:
W.M. Akers posted:
In a historical moment when the right is on the ascendant, when nativists and conservatives and outright fascists have seized power, the left sleeps. This game was built to wake them up.
Comrades is inspired by the left-wing revolutionaries and resistance movements of the 20th century. Events like the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the Prague Spring of ’68 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, where people were willing to fight and die for something they believed in against a corrupt and reactionary government. Movies like Z
and The Battle of Algiers
, books like Homage to Catalonia
and Ten Days that Shook the World
. But most importantly it was inspired by the world of today.
Akers blames the left of today of doing nothing while fascism is reborn and hate is normalized. His viewpoint is that of someone living in the United States under the Trump presidency, where children are held in concentration camps while the opposition spends it’s time ”whining, squabbling, repackaging the same tired ideas and begging us to believe that they are new.” Comrades was written to remind the leftists of today how the left used to fight for their ideals and for a better world.
W.M. Akers posted:
I hope that a few hours on the front lines of an imaginary revolution will steel you for the unromantic reality of fighting for change: calling your representatives, working for charity, running for office, and speaking out, not just against what we hate, but in favor of what we love.
This game asks you to throw cynicism and pragmatism aside and fight for a dream. When reality grinds you down, remember that within your chest beats the heart of a comrade. With a roll of the dice, you can change the world.
Next time I will go though the rest of the introductory chapter, which gives us the basics of the game, how it works and tries to answer the most important question: why play Comrades?
You can buy Comrades from DriveThruRPG.
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles
Original SA post
Part 2: The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles
Then raise the scarlet standard high,
Within its shade we'll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here.
- The Red Flag
Getting Started, Part Two
In the opening pages of the book W.M. Akers took his time to tell us why he decided to write up Comrades and what served as an inspiration for it. Normally in my experience you’d see something like this at the end of a roleplaying book, and I think having it be the first thing you read is a good choice here. It gives you the very foundation upon which everything else is built upon front and centre: the basic core of a band of left-wing resistance fighters struggling to overthrow a fascist regime. Though we later learn that a game of Comrades doesn’t have to slavishly follow that premise, having that simple idea in our minds as we read the rest of the book helps us understand it.
After the author has told us why Comrades exist we get a short explanation of what the game is and what you need to play, like almost every rpg rulebook in the history of man. Once again we are told that Comrades is a game of revolutionaries, taking place anywhere and anytime, real or fictional, fighting against a crumbling system on the brink of collapse. You’ve read this part if you’ve ever read another rpg book.
We then have a short section on ideology. While Comrades is inspired by real-life radical leftists of the 19th and 20th century and it’s assumed premise is of left-wing revolutionaries, Akers acknowledges that through history these people have described themselves with a myriad of different words like Marxist, trade unionist, anarchist and so on often with overlapping and contradicting meanings that have changed over time: therefore the group the player characters are a part of will be called either ”comrades” or ”revolutionaries” throughout the book. Players are encouraged to get specific about their character’s personal philosophies during play and the example campaign setting has an abundant list of examples that you can draw inspiration from.
We all know that the one thing the left loves to fight more than the fash is themselves, so using a generic umbrella term to refer to the player’s characters and their organization without getting into specifics is an understandable choice. It gives the group the opportunity to discuss among themselves what exactly they want their revolutionaries to be all about. They could all be followers of different, sometimes even hostile, ideologies brought together by the need to bash some fash, and this is something that the game encourages. After all, the revolution devours its children mercilessly.
The other reason, I assume, why the game avoids straigh-out calling the player’s group socialists or leftists or communists is that there are still a hell of a lot of people who think calling someone any of those is an insult - in fact when Comrades was first put up on DriveThruRpg, the comment section was filled with idiots asking if the game was meant to be satire or calling it ”RaHoWa: the other side.” Akers is an american, and there is still a large and vocal number of americans who think socialism comes from hell.
Right, next let’s talk about our Manifesto
. To anyone who’s ever played a PbtA game before this is a familiar concept: a set of principles for the player’s that will help them steer their characters in what they say and do. Comrades have three points in their Manifesto that they all must seek to uphold:
. When you see injustice being carried out, don’t stay silent or shake your head in disapproval while walking away. Take up your weapon, walk over to the fascist bastard and slug them right in their face. Your character’s are ordinary people willing to die for their ideals, so run into battle with your head held high without fear of death.
. This is not the US Democratic Party of today, filled with decorum elementals who are willing to give ground to the right in the name of bipartisanship. This is a revolution, and a fictional one at that. Being civilized is for those too weak-willed to fight for what is right. You know what you want and you won’t let anyone get in your way – not even your comrades, if need be.
Don’t let the bastards get away with it
. In real life the bad guys – the greedy, incompetent, fascist, racist, misogynistic assholes who rule the world – usually win and get away scot-free. Not in Comrades. Identify your enemies, find out where they are, and give them a taste of people power.
Simple and to the point.
The next few pages in the book tell us the basics of how the Apocalypse system works. I won’t get into the details here: the game flows as a conversation between players and the GM, and every now and then the GM can ask one of the players to roll their dice according to one of the game’s Moves and see what happens. The result then moves the fiction forward, and so on. We are reminded that like in all PbtA games, the GM is not a dictator who holds all power – the narrative power is shared between everyone in the group. The GM’s role is to give structure to the story that everyone is telling together. There’s a few notes on how to conduct the first session, the sessions after that and how to frame scenes capped with a short example of play. Again, if you’ve ever read or played Apocalypse World or games using the system you already know everything you need to know about the mechanics. I’ll talk more about the things unique to Comrades once we get there in the later chapters. Comrades doesn’t do anything groundbreaking with the system, and I don't think it needs to.
After we get past the basics of the mechanics it’s time to talk about revolutions. Every revolution in history has been different: some have started in the streets, others in parliaments. Some end in widescale riots that drive the despot out of the country, while others end with a coup so well organized that most people don’t even know its happened. To help the group replicate the variety in revolutions, Comrades gives the players different Pathways to Revolution, letting them topple the oppressors in a way that suits them best. Some of them are legal and morally acceptable, others are not. It is up to the players and their actions during the game to decide which paths are open to them. We’ll get to read about the different ways you can achieve a revolution in the next chapter.
So, why make a system like this? Because all revolutions are made of different moments chained together, and the players will only be a part of the story. The Pathway system lets us turn what happens at the table into a larger movement and keep the comrades moving towards their inevitable victory. As they progress down one or more paths the world around them changes accordingly, and the opposition gets stronger. The Revolution itself will change as it progresses and gathers strength, maybe even becoming something none of the comrades asked for and spiraling out of control. The pathways are Comrades' biggest original mechanic, and I think they are simply wonderful. I'll talk about them more once we get to them.
The introductory chapter ends with Akers trying to answer the most important question: why would you want to play this game?
W. M. Akers posted:
Because Comrades tells great stories. Your players will create daring, beautiful, uncompromising characters. They will support each other, love each other, betray each other, and die in each other’s arms. These will be moments you and your friends will never forget.
Because in real life, you will probably never get to start a revolution. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, there have been times in your life that you’ve been angry at the way things are. Comrades will let you use that rage to remake a world.
Because fantasizing about fictional revolution will help you cope with a reality in which political change is not so exciting. My hope is that this game will give you the strength to be a little less compromising and free you to demand government live up to your beautiful ideals.
And, finally, because you want to know what happens next. When you set this story in motion, your players will bring it to life and take it places you never imagined. You are lucky to be along for the ride.
With that we conclude Getting Started
, the first chapter of the book. Next time we will talk about The Game
and how you play it.
You can buy Comrades from DriveThruRPG.
When one makes a revolution, one must always go forward
Original SA post
Part 3: When one makes a revolution, one must always go forward
They let you dream just to watch 'em shatter
You're just a step on the boss-man's ladder
But you got dreams he'll never take away
You're in the same boat with a lotta your friends.
- 9 to 5
The second chapter of the book explains the Apocalypse engine mechanics and how they work. A character has four numbered Stats: Body, Mind, Spirit and Guile, and a number of Bonds with other characters, all ranging from -3 to +3. During the game the GM may call for the players to roll according to one of the game’s Moves: rolls are made with a 2d6 and are adjusted by the Stat corresponding to that move and other possible modifiers. Generally rolling a 6 or less is a failure, a 7-9 is a moderate success and 10+ is a strong success. The Basic Moves that anyone can roll are:
when you try to hurt someone,
What’s going on here?
for trying to figure out a person or a situation,
Take a risk
for, uh, taking a risk,
for when you want to to get a crowd of people to do what you want, be it going on a strike or starting a riot,
to convince someone to do what you want,
to get something past someone without them noticing,
Help or Hinder a comrade
to give another player bonuses or penalties to their roll when they try to make a Move,
Share a quiet moment
to connect with your comrades so you can work better as a team,
and Cradle a dying comrade
to give comfort to someone on the verge of death.
This is a pretty standard list for Moves for a PbtA game, with Starting something and Cradling a dying comrade being tailor-made for Comrades. Take a risk is meant as the catch-all Move the GM can ask someone to roll when none of the other Moves fit. A player could conceivably argue for most things they try to do to fall under Take a risk (like Act under fire from the original Apocalypse World), but the GM has the final say and what Move you roll. In addition to the Basic Moves listed above each Playbook (the rough equivalent of classes for PbtA characters) has a number of Special Moves only they can roll.
Everything else is pretty much as it is in most Apocalypse engine games: a character gains experience during play and can choose from a list of advances when they get five total experience. Characters can take up to 4 harm, and when they do they are dying and need someone else to roll Cradle to pull them back from the brink – unless the damage is so severe that death is inarguable. Comrades leaves the amount of harm characters take from their actions up to the GM’s discretion, and it doesn’t have to be physical. It is advised to give characters harm from mental trauma or exhaustion only when they haven’t yet taken any harm, though. GM’s are also encouraged to be generous with healing, letting the characters wipe off all harm at the start of each session (unless they’ve taken a very severe injury, like a broken leg). The less harm the characters have the more you can hurt them during play.
Some playbooks can assemble a gang under their banner, giving them a bonus to all rolls made when the gang lends them a hand (and the situation allows for their help – you wont get any aid from your gangmembers when trying to share a moment with someone). If you use your gang when fighting a group that’s smaller, you get an increase to all harm you deal. You won’t get anything for fighting a group that’s equal or greater in size. Players must keep in mind that a gang isnt just a faceless mook-squad that exists solely to give them bonuses to rolls – the GM should ask the player to describe a few notable members of their gang when creating it. These NPCs are people, with their own personalities and goals, there to be used by the GM to provide conflicts and opportunity within the movement itself. Having a gang should always be a double-edged sword: if they grow powerful enough and the player doesn’t pay enough attention to keeping them under control during play, one or more of the members might challenge the character for leadership. Gangs are a good way of breathing life into the revolutionary movement, making it be more than just the players’ characters.
Now, let’s get to the Pathways to Revolution
. These are the things the Comrades are working towards, a collection of different paths they will inevitably progress along as they fight the good fight. How it works is that at the end of every game session, the party chooses a comrade who in their mind best exemplified the ideals of the revolutionary underground during play. That player then gets to roll one or more pathway moves using the according stat depending on the comrades’ actions during the game. If any other player’s character died during the session and another comrade got to hear their last words (the moderate success result when Cradling a dying comrade), they can influence a pathway move of their choice if they want to. On a strong success, the party’s rank in that pathway increases. A moderate success gives everyone in the party experience without progressing on the pathway, and a failure has no immediate consequences. The GM is encouraged to use failures as inspiration for possible problems in later session: maybe there’s a public backlash to the group’s actions, or maybe the secret police starts to plan a counterattack. Groups who want to play a shorter campaign can progress on a pathway on a moderate success in exchange for starting the next session with serious problems, which are up to the GM.
Each pathway is ranked from 0 to 5. When the comrades reach 5 in any of them, the revolution is at hand and it’s time to try and seize power during the next session. This attempt can succeed or fail: after all, most revolutions rarely succeeded on the first try. A loss doesn’t mean an automatic end of play, though – comrades who get knocked back but not put down can keep on fighting and the campaign continues. If the group wants to play a more open-ended campaign they can ignore or modify the pathway rules to suit their style.
The pathways are more than just a number that tells you how close you are to a revolution: they are an abstraction of the entire revolutionary movement, telling everyone what is happening off-screen between scenes and sessions while the campaign keeps moving forward towards it’s inevitable climax. As the revolution moves forward on a pathway, the world changes with it, for both good and bad. As you take the next step towards taking power, the harder the powers that be try to keep you down and the more direct their methods get. A vast majority of groups will advance on more than one pathway simultaneously, making their movement unique from all others. In the rarest cases, when a party suffers a setback of catastrophic proportions, the revolution might take a step backwards on a path. Each level in a pathway gives the party, and the revolution at large, advantages as the movement becomes more proficient in that particular method of resistance.
When the comrades use their strength to smash their opposition, they roll Force
. Force is the pathway of changing the world with your fists, whether it’s against the police, the army or rival revolutionary groups. Force represents the revolution fighting openly on the streets, defeating the opposing forces in battle and driving them before you. As they progress on this pathway the revolutionaries transform from a cadre of like-minded individuals into an effective fighting force, eventually adopting uniforms or armbands and even using violence and intimidation during elections to get the results they want. When a revolution reaches 5 in Force, it is time to overthrow the oppressors and prepare for open battle in the streets with the government bootlickers. Parties have to be careful when treading this path: the more they rely on violence and brute strength to get what they want, the more they start to resemble the fascists they are supposed to be fighting against.
When the comrades execute their plans with precision and care, they roll Organization
. This is the hardest path for a revolution to walk upon. Organization is your party’s logistic network, your infrastructure, the ability to plan ahead and the discipline among your comrades. The further the revolution proceeds on the path of organization, the better it functions in an orderly manner and the more respectable it becomes in the eyes of society. A revolutionary movement that reaches 5 in Organization can try to seize power through legal means, calling for elections in which they are allowed to participate and win.
When the comrades do something to inspire the oppressed masses, they roll Zealotry
. Zealotry is the path of mob rule, of grassroot movements that over time grow into tides that wash over the old order. A revolution that walks the path of the zealot will find supporters and symphatizers everywhere they go, with people holding demonstrations for your cause and filling your coffers with money. A revolution that reaches 5 in Zealotry can try to overthrow the government with a popular uprising, filling the streets with your people demanding the fascists to step down. As a movement advances further along Zealotry it gets closer and closer to spinning out of the party's control, causing chaos and destruction if the comrades aren’t careful.
When the comrades use indiscriminate violence to spread fear and chaos among the people, they roll Mayhem
. Mayhem represents bombing campaigns, terror attacks and assassinations. The higher the revolution's rank in Mayhem, the easier it is for it’s members to procure explosives and other tools of terror and to find opportunities to kill important government officials. A movement that reaches 5 in Mayhem can start a campaign of terror and chaos on a massive scale in the capital, hoping that the ensuing fear drives the populace mad and gives them the opportunity to seize power. The book calls Mayhem the most problematic of all the pathways. Resorting to Mayhem means attacks against the civilian populace, regardless of casualties. Relying on it too much can turn the people against the revolution, labeling them terrorists and criminals.
When the comrades risk their lives for each other, they roll Fellowship
. Fellowship is the movement’s esprit de corps
, the belief that their camaraderie and ability to work together trumps any ideology. Fellowship is the only pathway with clear mechanical rewards and is the easiest path to starting a revolution, but it’s effects are limited. As they progress along Fellowship the movement will recruit from their close friends and strengthen their bonds of trust. Comrades who reach 5 in Fellowship can plan an assassination against the head of state without fear of someone ratting them out – but whether or not this is enough to topple the government is uncertain.
The violent means of resistance – Force and Mayhem – are presented as problematic and dangerous if left unchecked, with ugly and painful consequences for our comrades that they shouldn’t feel good about. It is up to individual readers to decide whether or not they agree with the sentiment. In Aker’s view murder is evil, even if effective. An ideal revolution in Comrades only uses violence when absolutely necessary, otherwise trying to advance their cause through legal and peaceful means no matter how long it might take or futile they efforts might seem.
Each pathway is clearly recognizable and inspired by revolutions and resistance movements of the last century, but it is left to the GM’s discretion as to what effects they have on the world around the comrades and how effective they are depending on the setting and the group you're playing with. Players that use violence and combat without care should see and feel the the change over time as the revolution turns into something ugly and abhorrent, no longer worthy of idolizing or even fighting for. In my experience the pathways are a very good way of representing the revolutionary movement's existence beyond the player's characters, while still having them be the driving force behind it and giving them the agency of steering it towards different methods and goals. The GM should take extra care to discuss the pathways with the players and make clear what consequences each path may bring so the players don't feel cheated if the revolutions turn sour. Give them a chance to change course and tactics if you feel they are only resorting to violence or other unsavory methods – if they keep steaming ahead regardless, it’s time for the revolution to eat it’s children, perhaps after it has succeeded. History is filled with examples of revolutionary heroes turning into villains and getting shot for all their efforts after the new order is established.
In the next chapter, The Comrades
, we get to meet the members of our revolutionary underground.
You can buy Comrades from DriveThruRPG.