Up a Creek and Against All Odds – Blowback Role-Playing Game

February 16, 2011

Blowback Cover

As Giorgio Agamben establishes in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, human history can be summarized in terms of sovereign states separating citizens (with rights, privileges, protections) from “bare life” – mere human bodies excepted from the law and fully subject to the forces of the world arrayed against them.

Blowback by Elizabeth Shoemaker Sampat is a role-playing game that explores what happens when citizens with exemptions (i.e., government-backed operatives) suddenly become bare lives, which then threaten the mere citizens (i.e., the civilians) about whom they still care.  This “caring” transforms from a passive activity into an active, perilous dance.  As Sampat beautifully puts it:

All you have, all you are, is you. So you make nice with the few people who’ll have you, and rely on them more than you should – but if you’re too cold or uncaring, they’ll turn on you. And if you care too much, the people who are after you will exploit them to hurt you. And if you cared about them at all, you wouldn’t care about them even a little.

Sampat has framed the game as “heavily inspired by the American teleivision show Burn Notice and movies like the Bourne trilogy.”  Some reviews have mentioned the game overstates this influence a bit, but I appreciate that the game knows where it is coming from and proudly wears this badge on its shoulder.  The media that inspire the game are just a springboard, however, for a whole host of questions concerning our ability to function under stress – specifically the stressful conditions imposed by our would-be action movie – and what that does to our relationship to our environment, ourselves and, well, our relationships.

In Blowback, you play a mixture of Professionals and Civilians who have suddenly become interconnected by a botched mission.  While this premise appears incredibly specific, it appears to be to the spy genre what the dame-walks-into-the-private-eye’s-office trick is to film noir: Salt (2010),  Eye of the Needle (1981), The American (2010), The Replacement Killers (1998) — they’ve all got traces of the “botched job” trope.  The GM plays The Agency opposite them, whose role is to turn up the heat under the characters at strategic moments, all the while teasing us with details about the botched job.  The player-characters often find themselves caught between their past and present, with the future virtually unforeseeable (except as a repository for further anxiety).

The game system itself puts you into a fairly rigorous but easy-to-follow flowchart of action, with a lot riding on the tense web of relationships generated in the early part of play (this is an indie game, after all).  The dramaturgy of every session is structured by an individual Job — a man wants to be extracted from his company, a little girl hires you to track down the man who killed her father, whatever — that is further subdivided into the Analysis, Operation and Blowback phases.  Each offer you a chance to indulge in all the cliches of the spy genre while inventing your own:  Analysis is where you trick cameras and bribe informants, Operation is when your plan goes awry but generally alright, and Blowback is where you find out that it’s not okay for you to kidnap visiting state dignitaries and put them in your brother’s garage.  You get a certain number of overall actions, and legible flowcharts within each phase let you figure out the consequences of your decision-making/dice-rolling.  Game echoes of Cyberpunk or Shadowrun, where you assemble crack teams for jobs, mix with the television-relationship dynamics of games like Smallville or Primetime Adventure.  As Sampat was on the playtesting crew for Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World, her careful delineation of The Agency’s responsibilities in making the player-characters’ lives “not boring” remains in dialog with Baker’s game on many levels.  Unlike Apocalypse World, however, “opportunities should always seem like the result of what’s happening in the game, not a result of the roll.”  The game’s architecture insists that story remain queen of the realm.

The system and the book itself (printed in glossy full-color) aside, Blowback has some philosophical subtlety built into its design.  The bare life principle, for example, foregrounds the notion of human expendability in the face of modern systems of control and governance.  You as the player-character suddenly begin to take a good, hard look at your surroundings and ask yourself: what are my resources here in Great Falls, MT?  Who here can I trust?  Where does this podunk town fit into the great game?  Then you open your eyes and see it:  at least in the United States, the military-industrial complex surrounds us. It has hardened into a kind of invisible carapace that nevertheless locks us into untenable courses of action:  wars we cannot win in distant countries, mass-scale corruption, families dependent and vulnerable on the few industries that remain, guns sold over the counter to dubious people, and so forth.  And the beginning of heroic action against/within this complex comes from our interpersonal relations, that we ourselves might personally experience the consequences of violence and intrigue and try to spare others from the same.  Blowback thus co-opts the often corporate-fantasy-dominated spy genre for the purposes of exploring what happens when the insulation that keep our professional and personal lives apart is removed, when the ugly foundation of world power is exposed through a seemingly inconsequential “gray op.”

On the one hand, Blowback is all good guys, bad guys and explosions.  And on the other, it’s all instant pain, hope and social critique.  Honestly, what else are you looking for in a role-playing game?

And beyond that, can any of us – Pro or Civilian – survive being cut off?

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Hopi Hopes and Navajo Nightmares: How We Came to Live Here

August 6, 2010

In honor of the currently-in-progress GenCon Indy 2010, where this game is in the running for an ENnie Award for Best Writing, I give you a review of Brennan Taylor’s How We Came to Live Here: Stories of the Fifth World.

As the somewhat alliterative title of the blog post suggests, this tabletop role-playing game has you playing tribes from the American Southwest in the era before white colonial forces came mucking about with pox-infested blankets, massacres and exploitative casino contracts.  It is a game set in a time of legend, when the myth-tellers walk with myths, and where mythemes can achieve expression with a minimal level of modern cultural baggage.  Yet it is also a game that tells the story of a village, and by no means a simple one.  By the time you are done creating your characters and the relationships between them, these Native Americans might as well join the cast of Dallas, with all their interrelated bits of familial business.

One Game, Two Gamemasters

How We Came to Live Here’s certifiable “schtick” is the fact that it’s a small group game (for 3-5 players maximum) with two “gamemasters” whose main role is to provide conflict and adversity to the remaining 1-3 Hero Players.  The Outside Player pulls the strings of the external threats to the village, whilst the Inside Player controls the festering internal conflicts that may rot it from the center. Now most seasoned role-players would be skeptical about the entertainment value in having two different scheming folks plotting adversity against their poor, defenseless heroes.  Believe me: it’s entertaining.  The village itself comes alive through two souls tasked with playing a lot of NPCs, the scenes more readily push toward conflict – which is itself stripped down to its essence on account of the setting (i.e., the People’s crops are on fire, one of the People committed incest and is becoming Corrupted whilst covering it up, etc.) – and the Heroes seem, well, frankly more heroic by the virtue of there being fewer of them and driven to address conflict with alarming frequency.

To Build a Village

The creation of the characters and village is, however, the most charming aspect of this game by far.  In our playtest, we came up with the village Water Horse Crossing, which was set in a previously inhabited, crumbling cliff overlooking a raging river and tucked below a broad plateau where the horses grazed.  Our two protagonists, She-Who-Conquers-the-Horse (the horse-tamer) and He-Who-Ties-Us-Together (the rope-maker) were our Hero characters and good childhood friends whose mothers had conspired for an arranged marriage against their will.  She-Who-Conquers-the-Horse was also the object of affection for at least two other men in the village (He-Dives-Off-Cliffs and He-Laughs-at-Danger), whilst the rope master struggled with obligations owed to the maligned village outsider He-Who-Hides-in-Shadows.  To top it off, the Shadow Dwellers within the abandoned, unused part of the village have begun to stir up trouble and the witch She-Sings-Horses-Away began to pick off the tribe’s precious herd.  After two hours of coming up with family lineage, communities, ambitions and threats as a group, it is a pleasure to finally breathe life into it all.  It also offers you little opportunity to rely on crass stereotypes and ideal images to provide convenient shorthand for your characters: they are so well-developed, there is no reason to rely on such easy shortcuts.

Conflicts Abound

Taylor’s conflict resolution mechanism uses FUDGE dice and presents a hybrid between the pacing mechanisms of Primetime Adventures, where an actual character arc is established before the game is established, and the “hand” system of Dogs in the Vineyard, in which you deploy individual dice as part of a way to map out the “beats” of a scene.  The Heroes can more or less sell their soul to get what they want out of a conflict, but then bad things begin to happen to them.  The system encourages the Hero Players to push their characters’ capabilities and test their limits without abandoning conventional RPG stand-bys like dice pools and deployable traits.

Though the character sheet design was a little cramped, the added fiction a bit too plentiful, and a few typos were found (“villiage”), the game by all means should walk away with its Best Writing award. Clear instructions make a complex narrative generator into a breezy, pleasurable affair.  How We Came to Live Here relishes in the pleasures of sandbox creation without abandoning the sweet delights of the creative destruction wrought by plots afoot and disasters aplenty.  Like Mortal Coil, we are asked to play in a dream world where the nightmares are encroaching in on us from the periphery.

If Neil Gaiman wrote fiction about the ancient Native Americans, you’d likely get a session of this game. Try it – your brain will like you for it.


Ahoy There! An Excellent Swashbuckling RPG!

August 8, 2009
A fanciful new RPG from the people who brought us Spirit of the Century

A fanciful new RPG from the people who brought us Spirit of the Century

Opening Salvo

“Air pirates? AIR PIRATES!” I shouted with glee as I seized the Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies from the “Indie Press Role-Playing Games” section of my local comics/gaming store. Completely un-phased by the $30 I was about ready to fork over for a softcover, I ran to the cashier and exclaimed with elation: “You know you’ve finally got a tabletop RPG about air pirates?” He shot me a look back.
“Well, there was always Skyrealms of Jorune, Castle Falkenstein,” he said, tallying them on his fingers. “And we just got a new steampunk book in: Victoriana.” The wind still billowing my sails, I laid it down on the counter and said in my most gallant voice: “Avast! my good sir, for this one appears to be good.” And he took my money.

Preface

A few words of explanation are warranted before I dive into a thorough review of said book purchase.  First of all, why the heck was I looking for a book in the “Indie Press Role-Playing Games” section of the store anyway?  Well, it just so happens that I A) live in western Massachusetts, a kind of mini-Mecca for the budding independent role-playing game designer (give the proximity of New York and Boston and number of nerdly college grads in the area), and B) regularly run these people’s RPGs at local and national gaming conventions.  Having been a convention gamemaster (GM) for 16 years and counting, I’ve discovered that this is where all the action is happening these days. These games (by which I mean my Top 11: Primetime Adventures, InSpectres, Mist-Robed Gate, 1,001 Nights, Dread, Dogs in the Vineyard, Shock, Annalise, Misspent Youth, Tales of the Fisherman’s Wife, Shooting the Moon) are the best in system design, the most conscious of social exigencies involved in the role-playing hobby, and the most academically cross-referenced and critiqued.  Many are designed by women, and most by graduates of small liberal arts colleges.  All I have to say is: check them out.  They are the future.

Furthermore, I’d like to say for the record that I’m not really a pirates fan per se (otherwise I’d be reviewing 7th Sea here), but for some reason I really dig the idea of air pirates.  I attribute it to an unhealthy amount of Skies of Arcadia played and Last Exile viewed while I was in college, as well as a desperate urge to see a kind of Star Wars-style epic played out in skyships – as opposed to space in a galaxy far, far away controlled by an indifferent, bearded Lucas-man.

A Brief Summary

Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies (S7S), written by Chad Underkoffler (whom I think I met at Dreamation 2008, and who wrote some great Unknown Armies supplements), is a game of fast-paced, swashbuckling action set in a world where islands float in a vast sky over a mysterious substance called the Blue.  Players create characters intended to accomplish great feats of derring-do and, without much ado, dive headlong into dangerous situations for a chance at eternal glory.  The system is designed on the Prose Descriptive Qualities (PDQ) model, which is synonymous with quick task resolution and immediate character empowerment (as opposed to waiting sessions and sessions to become effective against the big, bad mega-villain, characters in S7S tend to be ready to take him on right out the gate).

It’s a Big Sky Out There

A full four chapters of this book are devoted to the dense setting of the 7 Skies, which ironically serves the primary purpose of catapulting characters into the action without bogging them down with too much back-story.  A kind of fantastical pseudo-18th Century world order is established among 6 primary sky islands and a plethora of secondary islands.  There are the intrigue-obsessed Barathi (more like 16th Century Italy under the Borges — noble houses and poison, etc.), the resolute Viridese (Nordic/Scandinavian-type folks), the passionate Colronan Royalty (France), their neighbors the aloof Colronan Zultanistas (Ottoman Turks), the cosmopolitan Crailese (think 19th Century New York with some religious nutjobs outside the city limits), the ascetic Sha Ka Ruq (a cross between the Congo and Japan — Orientalism meets Token Fetishism, but I digress), the rebellious Ilwuzi (a pirate isle in the Caribbean) and the lost island of Kroy (Atlantis… or Laputa).  Each nationality is basically an excuse to have a different flavor of sword-wielding badass, from a weapon-snapping, fur-wearing Viridese to a tough-talking, cutlass-bearing Ilwuzi and so forth.  Magic and skyships are smoothly integrated into a world system that is believable as a fantasy setting – Underkoffler did a great job of creating a world that’s basically one giant opportunity for adventure where one nevertheless knows what to expect in each port, so to speak.  Read enough of his Bibliography – with entries from Wu Ch’eng-en to Alexandre Dumas, from Neil Gaiman (Stardust, of course!) to Rafael Sabatini – and you will understand that the world exists to put crazily passionate people with swords at odds with each other in dangerous, exotic, and breathtakingly beautiful locales.

System, Shmystem

The PDQ system is also particularly well-executed in this book.  I played Spirit of the Century – another Evil Hat production and an RPG-geneaological predecessor to S7S that has you generate pulp characters who are starring in a number of cross-overs – and found it to be surprisingly difficult to master at first.  S7S, however, seems to have struck an enviably perfect balance between – using the terms of Ron Edwards’ Big Model theory – Setting Simulationism, Style Simulationism, and Narrativism.  “Whoa!” you say, reaching for your musket.  “Where’d all these landlubber ‘-isms’ blow into port from?”  In simpler terms, the game does a good job of A) giving players a deep and enriching established world to explore, B) allowing stylistic tropes from swashbuckling books/movies to become game mechanics (i.e., you can have your cape flapping in the wind give you game benefits), and C) encouraging creativity in the storytelling realm, as opposed to that of maximizing personal player power.  In S7S, if you succeed with your dice roll, you may narrate how you succeed.  If you fail, you get points toward giving your character an extra oomph in the future and can choose to narrate how they botched this job.  It allows for and encourages Princess Bride-style antics in the way that games like 7th Sea only vaguely dreamed about.

One of the nicer bits of the system is a comprehensive ship combat system that revolves around teamwork – a captain giving orders to a crew in the heat of battle – while preserving a dueling system that emphasizes the primacy of individual coolness.  Another is the Style Dice mechanic:  players get handed dice to use in their favor if the GM decides to screw them over rather nastily.  There is an economy established that notably resembles the narrative economy one witnesses in swashbuckling fiction.  All suffering becomes more pleasurable when the hero can take the sweeter reward in the end.

Why You Should Get This Game in Great Haste

Actually, you should be checking out all the RPGs I mentioned in my Preface:  they’re the games so many of us were waiting for as we hunkered down in our mediocre games of D&D and Shadowrun, waiting for some narrative control to be handed back to us.  Why you should go pick up a copy of S7S is simple:  few games are as accessible, intuitive and richly devoted to players’ creative well-being as this one.  Now I’m off to liberate a Crailese freighter of its most burdensome cargo!