The Independents: CRUSH the REBELLION

The Human Empire spans galaxies, its size difficult to truly comprehend, it’s bureaucracy enough to make Kafka weep. As a result the universe is one of amazing technology, ancient mysticism, and near-constant despair and darkness. The Emperor sits upon His throne on the Imperial Homeworld, consulting only with His Inner Circle, using fear, intimidation, and unlimited resources to oppress all who would oppose Him. To that end, He dispatches teams of elite agents to execute his will across the Empire. These agents are highly skilled, but their skill is matched only by their treachery and ambition. Each has their own agenda, and will do anything to see it carried out, even as they work to CRUSH the REBELLION.

CRUSH the REBELLION is an Apocalypse World-style game for 3 to 7 players published by DDE Adventures and created by C. Steven Ross. In it, the players take the roles of Agents of the Emperor, tasked with carrying out His will across the Human Empire. Suffice to say, this does not involve any large number of good deeds. Oppression, destruction, and treachery are the order of the day. It doesn’t help that every single agent has enough power, influence, and ambition to pursue goals of their own, which often conflict with the Emperor. Even worse, those goals often interfere with one another: a team of agents is a hotbed of intrigue and betrayal where every individual is trying to look after their own interests while also trying to satisfy the Emperor and avoid His lethal wrath.

Fortunately for us (but not for the poor oppressed masses of the Empire), C. Steven Ross was willing to show me a copy of the game, which was released this past February 1st. Even better, Ross was willing to answer questions along the way.

Like most Apocalypse-style games, character creation and set-up is quick and easy, and gameplay moves fast. The first thing to be done is to shuffle the Secret Agenda cards and hand out on to each player. Once everyone has their card, they receive the Agent Sheet associated with that Secret Agenda. No two players may have the same Agenda, as each has very different steps and goals, and each Agent Sheet offers different Special Abilities. Examples of Secret Agendas include unearthing a powerful mystic artifact and keeping it for yourself, destroying your homeworld’s local rivals, constructing a superweapon without Imperial authorization, killing a hidden Sorcerer-Lord before the Emperor can gain another apprentice, and illegally wiping out an entire sentient species.

Next, each agent draws a Career Card. As with Agendas, no two agents may have the same career.  Each career, such as the Propagandist and Saboteur, provide a +1 to a Move if the narrative of the Move’s action matches the career’s description. After that, you choose your skills: Combat, Cunning, Loyalty, and Reputation. Each player chooses a set of values to distribute however they wish, as specialized as -2, +0, +1, +2 and as balanced as +0, +0, +0, +1. If your agent is Human, they get an additional +1 to a skill of your choice (although no skill can exceed +3). If your agent is one of the rare aliens who has clawed their way to a place of power, you instead get to start with one of your Sheet’s Special Abilities. Each character then starts with 0 Destiny. Destiny is a resource gained through play that can be spent on a one-to-one basis to add +1 to a roll. As CtR is based on Apocalypse World, where you roll 2d6 + Skill and anything short of a 10 means complications while 6 or lower means devastating failure, Destiny ends up being a powerful resource.

Once all that is done, each Agent chooses a type of homeworld; they’ll gain another +1 if a mission take them to the same type of locale. They then choose their Raiment and their Features, how the Agent looks to others. Finally, each player draws an Honors card. Usually awarded by the Emperor for the successful completion of a mission, Honors cards are the tool that Agents are going to be hunting after. Honors cards are used to betray your fellow agents in order to advance your Secret Agenda, and can also result in increasing skills or gaining Special Abilities. Most interesting is that, like with all actions in CtR, the use of an Honors card mandates world-building. As an example, there is a card that allows you to betray another agent if they roll a 7-9 for a Loyalty check. If you succeed, you gain a new Special Ability, but then must describe how you have incriminated an innocent party. As a result of this, when included with other such mandatory bits of narrative, the entire group is actually helping to build and shape the setting as the game goes on.

Once all the agents have been created, the team begins their first mission by voting for who will be Mission Leader. No one may be the Mission Leader on consecutive missions, because the Leader doesn’t actually participate in the Mission; rather, he or she decides who does what, picking from among the other Agents. Once the Mission Leader has been picked, he or she makes an Edict, describing how the Emperor has decreed a specific skill to be restricted; rather than 2d6 plus skill, for the remainder of the mission the chosen skill rolls 3d6 and takes the two lowest results. That done, the Leader draws from three decks for Mission Creation: what the Emperor is concerned about, where the mission is taking place, and why the Agents are needed to deal with the problem. For instance, The Emperor might be concerned about sinister local government corruption located in the Mid Rim borderlands, caused by the presence of a Sorcerer-Lord come back from the 3,114th Intergalactic Crusade. It is up to the Leader to describe the situation facing the Agents, and then assign roles. Once Mission Creation is completed, each player foretells a Prophecy about another agent, which can be difficult to fulfill but must at least be possible; if the subject agent manages to fulfill the Prophecy, they gain +1 Destiny.

At bare minimum the Agents must Prepare for the mission, Travel to where the mission is taking place, and then complete one or more Operations. If either of the first two go poorly, the Agents might also have to deal with an Ambush, and with the right circumstances and an Honors card a player could decide to Betray an Agent and Advance their Secret Agenda. Successful mission completion leads to receiving Honors, while being taken out of the mission due to wounds or failing at your assigned task means you get nothing. This reveals the twisted methods of the Mission Leader: you want the people you assign to missions to fail so that they don’t receive Honors at the end of a mission. On the other hand, if the mission fails entirely (or if you fail when Betraying an Agent) you will be forced to Face the Emperor to explain yourself; if He is not convinced, it’s a gruesome public execution for your Agent.

Since Mission Leader is a temporary position that rotates between players, and is in fact a position that is determined by the group as a whole for every mission, CRUSH the REBELLION is a Game Master-less game. That being a feature that isn’t very common, I asked Ross why that was built into the game, and what it contributed.

“Well, it keeps people in the hot seat and out of their comfort zone, and that is very purposeful. The kind of games I like are interactive and full of energy. There’s no place to be a wallflower here, you can’t just relax and let the other players carry the story for you. You have to crush your own rebellions. You can’t be a passive observer here. That said, the rotating assignment of mission commander tends to move pretty quickly, so you never get bored or worn down by feeling like you’re the person in charge all of the time. One of the dangers here, of course, is that if you’re in a gaming group where only one person GM’s the games and is capable of carrying the storytelling load, the other players might struggle a little when you give them a taste of the hard work the GM has been doing all this time.”

If an Agent manages to Advance their Secret Agenda five times, they’ve irrevocably altered the setting and won the game. Congratulations! Fortunately, even if an Agent dies in an Ambush or is executed before the Emperor, their Secret Agenda lives on. While all Honors, Destiny, and Special Abilities gained over the course of an Agent’s life are lost, the newly built Agent (an ally, comrade, or relation of the deceased) carries on their predecessor’s efforts and begins play with the same Secret Agenda with the same number of Advances.

The backstory for how CtR was made was an interesting one, and actually involves a different game entirely. Ross actually ran a Star War Age of Rebellion game called Crush the Rebellion, wherein the players were all agents of the Galactic Empire who nonetheless had secret agendas they were trying to complete. The campaign actually ended with one agent managing to assassinate Emperor Palpatine and assuming the throne (I had more details here, but was informed that our new Bothan Emperor would find them quite treasonous, and thought better of it). Having read of this campaign on Triumph and Despair some time ago, one of the first questions that jumped into my head was how CtR become its own game, what happened to it along the way, and what sort of challenges Ross faced in porting over the concept.

“The original Crush the Rebellion campaign I ran was back in the early winter of 2013. It was an amazing game and a real eye opener in terms of how much you could really push the limits of the FFG Star Wars system. Fast forward to the summer of 2015 and Night Witches comes out and we play the hell out of that. Again, very interesting mechanics and just a solid, tight design that I am very impressed by. July 31st 2015 – I send a tweet talking about how it’d be cool to reskin Night Witches with TIE Fighter pilots. The rest is history,” Ross explained.

“And that’s because the harsh brutality of Night Witches reminded me so much of one of the big gaming influences on my designs, namely the 1990’s flight simulator TIE Fighter. One wrong move and you’re blown out of the sky. That aesthetic of fighting against insurmountable odds is something I really embrace in my game design. When you think about it, who are the guys in Star Wars that have it the worst? Who has to go up against the hardest challenge? It’s always been the Empire. They get ambushed at every turn, their starfighters are completely unshielded, and these crazy wizards bully them around and choke them for doing their job. I didn’t want to design a game that was easy, so I went this route.

The transition went very well. Right from the outset, I had a real clarity of vision and a very strong theme. The design process and iterations produced a more and more streamlined version of the game. With each new version, I always saw a tightening of rules and a laser focus on what the principles of Crush the Rebellion were. It was as if Destiny was guiding me.

One hurdle in the game design was incentivizing players to fail. Failing parts of the mission are at the heart of the game, but it runs counter-intuitive to how most RPG players approach a game. In Crush the Rebellion, however, it’s in the mission leader’s best interests to send out agents ill-equipped to handle the challenges presented, so that they fail and don’t gain any benefits when the mission is over. Clever players pick up on it right away after seeing how the wounds system interacts with the mission and rewards systems. Not-so-clever players lose the game.

I will say that at one point in design I was really forced to scale back on the harshness and penalties. The Honors Deck used to have a mechanic wherein The Emperor would unpredictably become jealous and angry at an agent, instantly killing them from out of nowhere. The playtesters ended up creating these weird strategies to avoid gaining honors at all cost, so clearly that was too prohibitive a game mechanic and producing play that I didn’t want to see.

The greatest challenge was, like in most good designs, killing the darlings. There are so many great things about Night Witches which I started with, things that I love in that game, that really needed to be weeded out not only for the sake of making Crush the Rebellion its own game, but to focus and hone in on its theme.
The most fun was organizing the mission creation deck, and updating it from my earlier notes on Triumph & Despair. It’s such a great tool for inspiring creativity at the table and expanding players’ visions as to what is possible in an infinite universe.”

Towards the beginning of the book there is a listing of the game’s ‘Principles’, themes that the players should be keeping in mind when they narrate their agent’s actions or build upon the setting. Aside from “Abide by the fiction, the fiction is sacrosanct”, which is almost universal for Apocalypse-style games, these Principles can be quite . . . dire. Betray your friends whenever it suits your unstoppable ambition. Oppress the masses. Abuse your power. Crush rebellions. Serve the Emperor above all others. None of the otherPrinciples are much nicer. It follows that the agents, by necessity, are going to have to do some pretty nasty things, so I asked Ross why he went about making a game full of bad guys. The answer wasn’t one I expected.

“Who says the players are bad guys? The Grand Admiral is just trying to defect to a better place, the Emperor’s Voice is fighting for the safety of her homeworld, the Shadow Commander is out to uphold justice, and the Emperor’s Hand is trying to kill The Emperor and end His awful reign.

That’s one of the implied conceits here – good people doing bad things. Some of them go down this path for a noble cause, and yes some are despicable. It’s a really interesting part of sociology to think about and play around with in the safety of a tabletop game.

Another reason to make a game like this is because almost no one else goes this way, and not this far. It’s something different, and if I do say myself, something different done well. You see stories of RPG gamers getting excited about these thoughts of playing an “evil” campaign all the time, and all the time it ends in failure. Well of course it does, the games they’re using aren’t designed for this. Crush the Rebellion is; it’s designed knowing that the group of players are going to stab each other in the back, that agents are going to die, and that there will be winners and losers. That’s baked into the core mechanics here, that well-known, anticipated, and provided for.”

At the very end of the book, Ross provides a list of books, films, and other games that he recommends for those looking for inspiration in their efforts to capture the feel of CtR. It’s an impressive list. Fahrenheit 451, God Emperor of Dune, Dredd, The Chronicles of Riddick, and Warhammer 40,000 number among those listed. I asked Ross which one of these he felt contributed the most, and it came back to Star Wars: TIE Fighter.

“It has high lethality, secret societies, backstabbing treason, divine worship of The Emperor, labeling the rebellion as terrorists, and of course what made the game most famous – you play for the “dark side”, all while understanding the nuances and shades of gray morality in that the empire actually does a lot of good out in the galaxy by imposing peace and order.”

Finally, we come to exactly how to go about playing the game in your no-doubt-already-busy schedule. Within the book itself CtR aspires to both be playable at the one-shot or convention level and as a longer-running campaign. I made sure to see what Ross had to say on this particular topic.

“Firstly, it’s actually very difficult to squeeze in all five steps of an agenda in a standard 4-hour con slot. Crush the Rebellion is really best enjoyed as a 2 or 3 part game. You can easily make it happen in a shorter amount of time, you just need to cut down on the number of steps to everyone’s agenda. I’d recommend 2 or 3 for most groups looking to make this a one-shot.

But yes, absolutely, this game engenders play beyond the first game. I think you can’t necessarily run Crush the Rebellion twice with the same characters because the in-game universe is, by definition, radically altered by the fallout of an agent completing their secret agenda. I think a really cool idea here would be to have a run at Crush the Rebellion, then use the results to inform a more traditional, longer term RPG campaign. Is The Emperor even still alive? Does He have a new apprentice? Was a powerful alien species wiped out of existence? These kinds of questions, directly related to the secret agendas, just scratch the surface. When you go through all the gonzo world-building of a session of Crush the Rebellion, you end up with a unique scifi universe that only you and your friends can call their own.”

CRUSH the REBELLION is available at DriveThruRPG for $3.99, which will get you the PDF, the Agent Sheets, and all the various cards you’ll need to play the game. To get in touch with Ross and the publisher you can check out the DDE site, or visit them on Twitter @CStevenRoss and @DDEAdventures respectively.

Looking for a competitive tabletop RPG that nonetheless has a strong focus on narrative and cooperative world-building? Want to play in a grim universe of oppression and the whims of the powerful, where the only way to get ahead is to betray your closest allies? Then give CRUSH the REBELLION a try!

Final words from Ross?


Originally posted 2/25/15 on the Mad Adventurers Society!

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