It’s 1950, and you find yourself assigned to the 8099th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, posted to the embattled South Korea. North Korea has invaded their southern neighbor, and the United States and the United Nations have begun a ‘police action’ that will one day be known as the Korean War. Casualties pour in, and whether you’re a surgeon or a nurse or just a grunt who got stuck here you find yourself responsible for trying to save them body, mind, and maybe even soul. The days are long, the sights grisly, the fighting never too far away, and the stress unimaginable. Rotation home seems a long way away, and you’ll have to rely on your fellows to keep yourself alive and sane enough to make it. This is what it is to be a player character in MASHED from Brabblemark Press.
MASHED is a unique historical RPG written by Mark Plemmons, following a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital’s personnel (medics, doctors, nurses, assistants, technicians, chaplains, the whole lot) from the beginning of the Korean War in 1950 until the conflict’s end in 1953. Currently being Kickstarted, Mark sent us here at the Society the same copy of the game provided to backers of any level. As The Independents had already featured some of Mark’s work, I agreed to take a look, and Mark was willing to answer a few questions. First up, where’d he get the idea?
I’ve always been a big fan of the TV show M*A*S*H, and it was playing in the background while I was reading Jason Morningstar’s Night Witches (a Powered by the Apocalypse Game about WWII female Russian pilots). The idea just hit me in that perfect confluence of events. I realized that, by focusing on medics during wartime, I could create a game where you try to save lives rather than take them, and where you try to blow off stress and live your life even while death is all around you.
While obviously fiction, MASHED is thus based on real history that affected many, many actual people profoundly (provided they survived the history in question). Mark spent what I feel was an impressive amount of time digging into that history for the game.
I spent over a year researching, digging up everything I could find on Korean War MASH units. However, there are only a handful that focus on medics and MASH units, so I had to comb through dozens of sources to piece together disparate scraps of information. The moniker of ‘the Forgotten War’ certainly is appropriate for this conflict!
The effort definitely looks like it paid off. The book is packed with quotes, and finishes with an extensive glossary and nine pages worth of references for further reading. Of course, that takes care of the setting, but what about the system? Mark went with Powered by the Apocalypse, adapting the system from Apocalypse World like Night Witches before him. With it’s 2d6 + Stat rolls, relationship mechanics, and complicated successes, why did Mark pick this system in particular?
The Apocalypse World ‘engine’ is perfect for MASHED because it focuses so heavily on character interaction, and this is really important when you’re dealing with dozens of characters living together in an area the size of a football field. It allowed me to create moves (character action) that focus on what’s important to the game – not only medical moves, but also ways to influence and intervene in other characters’ personal lives and Army responsibilities.
There are seven playbooks – four medical (Angel, Corpsman, Cutter, Doc) and three affiliated (Cowboy, Grunt, and Padre), all with their own unique moves. Originally I started with four ‘personality type’ playbooks based loosely on the Greek humors of phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine, and melancholic – but as I continued to research and learned more about how a MASH functioned, it become clear that I needed to focus on responsibilities and roles, instead. Those became the Angel, Corpsman, Cutter, Doc, and Padre, but (again) more research led me to conclude that I needed to cover all types of personnel, so I added the Cowboy and Grunt to round off the set. The original idea of personality types turned into Roles (like Casanova, Clown, Misanthrope, and Stickler) that each give a single unique move. You keep the same playbook throughout the game, but too much stress may affect your personality and have you choose a different role as part of your coping process.
Your playbook essentially defines your duties in the 8099th and grants you access to moves unique to the ‘book to help you fulfill them, starting you off with one of these unique moves while allowing more to be gained through advancement. The playbook also determines what sort of stat arrays you have available to assign to Luck, Nerve, Skill, and Tough. Once you’ve chosen your playbook, your unique move, and assigned your stats, you choose your Role. As Mark mentioned above, these are basically your character’s personality quirk/outlook/attitude. A Padre whose Role is the prankster Clown is going to be a very different character from one whose Role as the Gray has them avoiding work whenever possible. Your chosen Role also determines your History (the stat that represents relationships, positive or negative) with other characters. The Casanova, for instance, gets along pretty well with the Clown, but doesn’t much care for the rules-loving Stickler.
In Apocalypse World the person running the game is referred to as the Master of Ceremonies (MC), the DM/GM equivalent. One of the tricks when playing Powered by the Apocalypse games, however, is picking up on what’s changed from the basic assumptions of AW, and how the MC’s goals reflect that. So what sort of challenges are facing a MASHED MC?
In MASHED the Master of Ceremonies is called the Commanding Officer (CO), and is not just the game’s CO, but also the camp’s CO and Chief Medic. This lets the CO be more directly involved in whatever shenanigans the players introduce, serving as an ally or opponent depending on the situation. Two of the CO’s chief functions are: 1) imposing Stress points on the players when they ‘miss’ (get a 6 or less on their move result) or whenever the situation seems to call for it, and 2) determining how slowly or rapidly to fill up the Countdown Clock during surgical scenes. Fortunately, this just involves getting a feel for the players – if they’re really showing interest in roleplaying out new stress and critical situations, you may want to add more Stress points and speed up the clock; if they seem too frazzled, then impose Stress points less often and go slower with the countdown.
Speaking of Stress, there’s no denying that the subject matter of MASHED can be, well, stressful. Aside from the life-and-death medical procedures (thankfully compressed for gameplay purposes, as trying to play the actual work hours of a MASH would have everyone passed out at the table), there’s also the fact that you’re in a war zone in what’s probably a foreign land. There’s also the fact that it’s the 1950s, with all the social burdens and conflicts of the era. None of these topics should be addressed lightly, so how did Mark go about incorporating them into the game?
With MASHED, it was important to be respectful of the men and women who served in the Korean War (as well as anyone serving in the armed forces today). However, it was equally important to me that the game not ignore the problems faced by anyone who wasn’t the stereotypical white male ‘G.I. Joe’. With that in mind, I included a mature content section near the beginning of the book that discusses the sexism, racism, and gender struggles that existed in the early 1950s, and ways to deal with them in play. Beyond those issues, MASHED also allows players to create stories about traumatic stress, cowardice versus bravery, body horror, sex, suicide, and more, any of which can be sensitive issues not just for veterans, but for anyone. As I pondered how to address this in the book, I realized I already had the perfect article in my gaming library.
The creator of Monsterhearts, Avery Alder, had written a nice supplement (Safe Hearts) about ways to deal with mature content in her own game, and she kindly allowed me to include the parts of it that I felt were most relevant for MASHED. It’s a short section that suggests telling the other players what mature content you’re interested in exploring – and what you’re not – as well as some ways to recover if some of the mature content become too overwhelming.
MASHED isn’t going to be for everyone. If the above mentioned mature content just isn’t your thing, no matter what sort of Safe Hearts-style boundaries you establish, then it’s going to be a non-starter of a game for you. If you don’t like or don’t end up liking the Powered by the Apocalypse system, which is relatively light on rules and narrative heavy, then you’re going to end up trying to adapt another system for your stories.
However, if neither of those things is a problem for you, MASHED looks like a winner. The playbooks and rules are interesting, the content thought-provoking and dramatic with great opportunities for stories and character development, and the system holds up to what Mark wants it to do. You can save lives in the surgical tent, and then try to keep yourselves sane and build relationships around the camp, playing your Role to your heart’s content. Whether playing MASHED as a one-shot or convention game or enlisting for the duration, the book will guide player characters and COs to whatever end they manage to find, a safe return home or otherwise.
So, what’s next for MASHED, Mark, and Brabblemark Press?
After the Kickstarter closes, I’m going to keep polishing the game for the next couple of months, giving backers a chance to read and playtest. After all of the MASHED books have shipped (by March 2017) and any other add-ons and rewards have been fulfilled, my plan is to turn my attention back to my Arthurian urban fantasy game, Corporia. I promised my readers that the next project would be “Inhuman Resources” – a monster compendium that expands on the creatures in the core rulebook and adding news ones. When I need a break from that, I may write some short MASHED playsets (ala tremulus, but on a smaller scale) to provide COs with some new material and story ideas. As far as the next big project, I have some vague ideas, but nothing concrete yet. I’ll definitely let you know!
MASHED is on Kickstarter until October 25th and has already far surpassed its goal. The basic level of $10 nets you the digital edition, and once you’ve become a backer you’ll immediately receive the current version of that edition, the very same one that we received for review. You can catch up with Mark on Twitter @brabblemark, or visit his site.
If you’re looking for a game that focuses on saving lives in wartime instead of taking them, where you’ll struggle to keep yourself from being overwhelmed with the help of your relationships while confronting real and mature problems from history, then give MASHED a look.
It’s going to be a rough war. Hang in there, save everyone you can, and stick with your comrades. You might just make it.
Originally posted 10/21/16 on the Mad Adventurers Society!