Historical RPGs are having a moment in the sun in the 2010s. Thanks to more focused games becoming the norm, it becomes possible to drill down into a historical event in a way that the market didn’t accept earlier on. In the 20th century, a historical RPG looked more like Pendragon, which spans the entire Arthurian era and can cover literally generations of play. Now, a historical RPG looks more like Night Witches, focusing on one smaller cast of characters in a fascinating corner of the Second World War. Splitting the difference between those two is Revolutionaries, a fascinating game from Make-Believe Games which focuses on the American Revolutionary War.
Revolutionaries is steeped in early American lore, and both the cast of characters and the two adventures included with the game demonstrate this. However, the game’s setting and characters are not quite historical themselves. Players create characters who are part of the Culper Ring, a clandestine organization of espionage cells spread throughout the Thirteen Colonies. The Culper Ring is tasked with spying on British soldiers on behalf of George Washington, and helping to bring about an American victory in the Revolutionary War. What’s fascinating about this as a story choice is that the setting material emphasizes the degree to which the Culper Ring acts in secret, and only the highest ranking American officers even know about their existence. This is wonderful for a historical RPG, because it allows the GM to place the characters at any event they find interesting, without necessarily worrying about “historical accuracy”.
Kind of. The Culper Spy Ring actually existed, and the activities of Benjamin Tallmadge and George Washington with regards to the spies are, for the most part, rooted in historical record. That said, it is also known that Washington didn’t know the identity of all the spies within the organization, and the dedication to secrecy, including elaborate ciphers, is taken from history. A clever GM who wants to use this game’s premise to the fullest is going to need to take out their American History books and do a little review. There’s a good amount of interesting material, but the game is not a history book and there is an inherent assumption that it will be supplemented, at the very least from Wikipedia. The setting book included with the game provides a solid base of items both fairly grounded (Hessians and Redcoats, a very brief primer on the French and Indian War and British forts) as well as “historic” but fanciful (the Turtle submarine, a real but not particularly effective invention from the era).
There are places where the book marches right into fantasy, though. Despite the historical nature, this game has a magic system. Though not anywhere near the “cast a fireball” sort of magic, the abilities, called “Rites”, enable mystical abilities which get more powerful as characters advance. The Rites are steeped in Masonic symbology and are referred to in the setting book as “Illuminism”. It’s pretty obvious which story seeds the authors are sprinkling about, even if the game itself doesn’t go into Freemasonry or the Illuminati in depth. While in a serious historical text I may roll my eyes at these references, it’s a relevant and fun story element for an RPG.
The mechanics of the game are interesting, specifically around character creation. Your character is defined by a number of cards, which you draw and choose according to one of a few methods outlined within the rulebook. These cards are designed to make character creation as straightforward as possible: each card has a colored border, and those borders determine your scores in the four characteristics. Each card also has two of the sixteen skills listed, so the skills listed and how many cards you have with the same skill determine your scores in those skills. Finally, the cards are sorted into three piles: while the characteristics and skills should all be visible, the cards on the top of the pile also have abilities listed which a character can use in appropriate situations.
The actual mechanics get a bit fiddly. The game is a dice pool system, and you get to roll a number of six-sided dice depending on your scores in the given characteristic and skill, as well as any applicable modifiers (“boons and banes”). When the dice fall, though, things are a bit different. Scores of 1 through 4 count as that number, but both 5s and 6s are special faces. 5s are “Death”, and 6s are “Liberty”. In addition to tracking special results, each scene has a hazard number from 0 to 4, and dice which are equal to or lower than the hazard number give “hazard results”. So that’s three different things to track for each die. Oof. Hazard results are your “success with cost” mechanic: the more dice you have under the hazard number, the bigger the new problem is. Since these dice still count towards your score, though, it’s still possible to succeed even with four or more hazard dice and a result that is, essentially, a disaster.
Death results on dice both reduce your roll (by the first target number of the turn, so by a lot) and create “death tokens”. Death tokens are what determine the value of the hazard number; if you receive a number of tokens equal to the number of players times 3, the hazard number goes up by 1. Therefore, a group of four players with 24 death tokens would have a hazard number of two. Liberty results on your roll produce “liberty tokens”, which are also given at the start of the session and for role-playing character liabilities. These tokens can be used for a number of positive results, including reducing damage, powering abilities listed on your cards, and boosting your roll (each liberty token can give a +4 to a roll). The most important use of liberty tokens, however, is “covering” hazard and death results in the roll, especially since death results can give hefty penalties. Covering a death result with a liberty token gets rid of the penalty, but the table still earns a death token. Give me Liberty *and* Give me Death, I suppose.
Combat is relatively simple, but the damage system is worth noting. Each damage to a character is represented by flipping over a card, and each card has a ‘hurt’ face to represent this. This into and of itself is a nicely elegant way to show damage; as characters gain in power they gain cards, so the ability to take more damage is built into this. It gets neater, though. On the “healthy” side of a card are character assets, which are benefits in relevant situations. On the “hurt” side are liabilities, which come into play when the character is hurt or under duress. Also, the “feat”, an ability the character gets when the card is on the top of one of the piles, can change depending on whether the character is healthy or hurt. This is a neat way to show how the situation changes as characters are under pressure, and one that would likely be too fiddly to model without the cards this game has.
Revolutionaries combines a solid yet flexible historical premise with simple rules and a lot of embedded mechanics. The card mechanic for characters is wonderful in that it both takes a lot of work away from the players while providing a rich amount of historically relevant detail and some character constraints that are appropriate to the era. The books that come in the game are slim volumes, and if all the rules for assets, liabilities, and feats had to be reprinted in the book instead of just being on the cards, the game would get a lot bulkier. As a result, the game’s rule book comes in at a scant 44 pages and yet doesn’t feel “rules-light”. The setting book is similarly thin, though this is where condensing may not have been the best choice. The game provides enough setting information to pick up and play, but it’s obvious that this game is intended for players who already have an interest in the era. This and the somewhat over-complicated dice mechanics are both examples of attempting to tighten the design as much as possible, and in one case (setting) too much is removed, while in the other (dice) a little expansion would probably have made for an easier game compared to attempting to track so many things in every roll. Despite these issues, the game generally makes good use of its design towards compactness.
Revolutionaries is a game worth checking out, both for its fun take on the American Revolution as well as its board game-inspired, card-driven mechanics. I would recommend two things: First, Make-Believe Games sells custom dice for this system. While I’m not generally a fan of custom dice, these custom dice with graphic faces for 5s and 6s will make the idiosyncrasies of the mechanics easier to track. Second, it would benefit any GM who wants to run this game to do some outside reading. There are tons of great books on the American Revolution, but even the Wikipedia article on the Culper Spy Ring would be a great start (do be sure to follow some links). If you’re willing to put in the work to run a solid historical game, Revolutionaries will help you do it.