The Independents: Comrades: A Revolutionary RPG

The government has turned corrupt, and what should be serving the people now crushes them under the weight of fear and oppression. Secret police hunt for any kind of dissent, and authoritarian goons stalk the streets looking for heads to crack. Whether in public rallies or in secret meetings, with fists and firepower or words and willpower, revolutionaries fight to realize their ideals and create a better world. But how will they make those ideals come true? What are they willing to do, how far are they ready to go, to overthrow their oppressors and build a future? And even if they ‘win’, will that future be one that’s worth the cost, or will it be another nightmare? That’s the kind of story you’ll be telling if you play Comrades: A Revolutionary RPG by W.M. Akers, currently live on Kickstarter.

I’m going to pull straight from the Kickstarter campaign to sum this project up:

“Comrades is a tabletop RPG about life in the revolutionary underground. Based on the Apocalypse World engine, it pits players against a corrupt government, forcing them to fight from the shadows to free the people from their chains.

Playing as characters like the Soldier, the Student, the Propagandist, and the Worker, your comrades will mount rallies, stage coups, evade the secret police, and fight fascist goons. A campaign of Comrades can take place in any setting the players dream up—modern or historical, real or imagined—giving them a chance to create a revolution all their own. “

Here’s the thing: Comrades is written as a political statement as much as it is a game, and Akers isn’t shy about it. He “created this game to remind the left that they are heir to a proud tradition of fighting, body and soul, for the cause of the working class.” There’s of course the argument that everything is political in some way, but why take this particular tack? Why choose a roleplaying game to make the statement? Those were the first questions I asked of Akers.

“Because it’s fun! Overly political art can be tiresome, but because a roleplaying game is fun, because you play it with your friends, because you’re in control of the narrative, it’s a form that lets us explore political ideas without it becoming didactic or boring. The system is designed for players to make it their own, which means they can explore the complexities of revolutionary politics without feeling like I’m shoving my own beliefs down their throats.”

Historically speaking revolutions of any kind, and the ones on the left certainly aren’t exempt, are messy affairs as likely to turn on themselves or make things worse as to succeed or simply fail. I’ll admit, I was concerned before reading over how Comrades would address that fact, and was pleasantly surprised at how honest it was with itself. Especially in the Pathways to Revolution: Force points out how the use of violence can spiral into tyranny, Zealotry can spin out of control, and Mayhem is a disaster just waiting to happen. So I asked Akers what his thoughts were about creating a game that features very real-life actions and consequences vs. avoiding (successfully, I think) coming across as advocating for those more problematic actions. For a follow-up, why then still make a game about revolutions?

“I believe very firmly that sitting down to play a roleplaying game does not exempt us from thinking morally. Just as I wouldn’t write a novel that glorified violence or senseless murder, I didn’t want to create a game that did the same. It was a tough line to walk. Violence is unquestionably part of the game, just as it is for most RPGs, but because the subject matter is so close to real life—and based in most instances on tragedies that befell real people—I warn the GM to always show the consequences of the players’ actions and to treat all human life in the game as something precious. I used the Pathways to Revolution tracks to give players different ways to advance in the game. Organization, which allows players to take power in a bloodless political coup, may be the hardest path to walk, but it is also the most noble. Players who think their characters would choose to pursue one of the other, more problematic, pathways are encouraged to do so, so long as they and the GM are ready to reckon with the human cost.

So why make a game about revolutions if revolutions are such a moral, emotional mess? Just for that reason! What draws me to stories about underground leftist revolutionaries is their bravery, their daring, their ability to cling to their ideals even in the face of overwhelming odds. I become even more interested in those people when their ideals collide with reality, and they are forced to choose between giving into pragmatism and hanging on to their dream—or even better, to come to terms with the fact that their ideals have led them to do something terrible.”

Speaking of the Pathways. Comrades is a Powered by the Apocalypse game, so a lot of the bones look familiar. Say what you’re doing, your actions will either correspond to an existing Move or the GM will help you craft one, and roll 2d6 plus a stat with a 6 or less being a miss with a 7 or greater being a hit, 10+ being the best. Unsurprisingly the game has its own unique set of playbooks, which range from the wealthy Patron to the religious Mystic to the brutal Thug to the blue-collar Worker. Aside from what the actual playbooks offer there is of course a Comrades-specific set of Moves for player characters to use. Perhaps the most interesting are Share a Quiet Moment, which is expressly meant for emotional moments between the characters, and Cradle a Dying Comrade. Cradle a Dying Comrade is the Comrades version of a last ditch Move seen in several other PbtA games, Dungeon World among them, that allows a character on the edge of death to claw their way back. What makes it unique is that another player character has to be the one making the attempt, rolling 2d6+bond (the game’s relationship score). On a 10+ their wounded comrade lives; on a 7-9 they still perish, but pass on their final words, which helps the survivors fight on in their name.

The Pathways that Akers and I referenced above are essentially a way for the players to determine how they are driving the narrative, and thus their own revolution, forward. At the end of every session the players take stock and determine if their actions over the course of play fit within the criteria of the separate Pathways: Force, Organization, Zealotry, Mayhem, or Fellowship. Depending on what the players actually did, and on an end-of-session roll, they may advance upon one or more Pathways, eventually culminating in one of the Pathways reaching the point where an actual revolution can be attempted, although the closer they get the more dangerous things become.

“The PbtA system was a natural fit for a number of reasons. It does an excellent job of simulating the messy dynamics of small groups of people trapped in an intense situation—whether that’s an outpost on the edge of a radioactive wasteland or the halls of a suburban high school.

The focus of Comrades is a group of people engaged in a secret, illegal pact, hemmed in on all sides by the army, the secret police, and enemies on the right and left. The Comrades’ individual approaches to revolution, their backgrounds, their attitudes—all of that is designed to promote conflict within the group, and to produce the kinds of cracks that have been the hallmark of leftist groups throughout history.

But mostly, I like using PbtA games because they’re fun as hell, move like lightning, and are easy to teach. I wanted this game to appeal not just to seasoned players, but to people who are interested in the political angle and have never played an RPG before. When you have a system like PbtA, which you can teach to a new player in literally five minutes, how could you say no?”

What were the biggest challenges over the course of the game’s development? What changed from original concept to final/Kickstarted product?

“The game was originally designed for a campaign set in New York in 2025, when the city has seceded from the United States, and in which it’s being fought over by factions of anarchists, socialists, reactionaries, American loyalists, neo-liberals, and straight-up fascists. My players and I designed it together, bringing all our love for the city in order to make the story come alive. We fought gentrifiers on Washington Avenue, rallied together to save a beloved bodega, crashed a conservative rally on Eastern Parkway… It’s probably the first time a roleplaying game ever featured a scene set in the Brooklyn Central Library.

In the end, that campaign fell flat for reasons that became central to my conception of the game. The players were too bound by the same things that hamstring leftists in real life: an overwhelming urge to be reasonable, to compromise, to talk softly instead of screaming for what they know is right. I reimagined the game basically as a tool to help people on the left rediscover their uncompromising side—to unlock the radical within, as it were—and since then it’s taken off like gangbusters. If we hit $20,000, I’m going to include the New York: 2025 setting, though, because I think the world we came up with is fascinating and it will be a wonderful playground for fictional characters to cause trouble—it just didn’t work for my crew.”

Another thing that sets Comrades apart from many of its PbtA brethren is that it includes a setting in the core, and not just a broad-strokes one: Khresht 1915, an entire ready-to-play campaign, is what closes out the book. Why include a pre-made game right off the bat, and what went into making Khresht?

“I always wanted to include a setting with the game, even though I knew it was slightly out of keeping with the PbtA ethos of letting players design the world. When I first read Dungeon World, I didn’t really understand how it worked until I got my hands on one of the digital supplements that included a super-basic framework for a possible setting. Once I saw what kind of world the game was designed for, it became easier to imagine the world my players and I would build.

After I set New York: 2025 aside, I created Khresht to provide a classic, Russian Revolution-inspired revolutionary setting. It’s got NPCs, seeds for conflict, readymade fronts, and an overview of the countless political factions vying for control of this dying empire. What it doesn’t have is a map, or a series of steps players have to take to satisfy the campaign. Khresht is not prescriptive—players still have to bring themselves to it, and make it their own. Really, it’s a big toolbox full of useful ideas for players and GMs to use as necessary.”

What’s the single most important piece of advice Akers would give to prospective Comrades players? What about to a prospective GM?

“The advice would be the same to both. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a favorite line from Raymond Chandler, who said that Dashiell Hammett “wrote as if pain hurt and life mattered.” Keep that in mind as you play this—or any other—game. The people in Comrades are not superheroes. They are not gods. They are ordinary people trying to do an extraordinary thing. When they get hit, it hurts. When they die, it’s tragic—and that goes for every person in the game.”

The Kickstarter has blown past its goal, and while the review copy sent to CHG wasn’t 100% finished it looks very close to done and done. So what’s the future look like for Comrades? Does Akers have any other RPG projects, Comrades-related or otherwise, on the horizon?

“My thinking with a games Kickstarter is that it’s easier for everyone—myself and the backers—if the game is as close as possible to finished when it goes online. That means that any delays in the conception, writing, play-testing, and layout process come before I’ve got several hundred people excitedly waiting for the game. The finished PDF will be available two weeks after the Kickstarter closes, and once I’ve got all the stretch materials completed I’ll be able to move on to other projects.  I’ve got a huge pile of ideas for other RPGs, including a sequel to Comrades, but there is a lot I have to get through first. I’ve got a new Deadball book to finish, I have to finish rewrites on the sequel to Westside, I have one or two other novels to write…it’s going to be a very busy year!”

Final words for our readers?

“Check out the Kickstarter and tell your friends to do the same!”

Comrades is definitely in the category of ‘not for everyone’. If you’re uncomfortable bringing politics to the gaming table then it’s right out, and like some other games featured among The Independents it focuses on mature events very close to real life that may hit too close to home for some. A game for the kids it is not (including a section about the X Card was a smart move).

That being said, it made for an interesting read and I think it’s worth checking out. Comrades also falls into the category of games that seeks to talk about something real and important, which is a design space that I think needs to be filled. It does some interesting things in its own take on the Powered by Apocalypse System: I find myself hoping to see some more player-driven campaign progression systems like the Pathways in other games, and putting the ‘last chance at life’ move in the hands of your players was a good touch to drive party bonding and character moments. Finally, and to my mind most importantly: Comrades makes its case without being blinded by its own goals. Yes, it is championing ideals of the political left, but it also doesn’t shy away from admitting that many times those same ideals have fallen to corruption or usurped morals, and that going down the Pathway of Zealotry can be dangerous for everyone involved. If not for that caution and self-awareness, it would be a much poorer work, both as a game and as a statement.

The Kickstarter for Comrades: A Revolutionary RPG runs until March 15th, and as of this writing is a slam dunk to fund, raising $15,000+ of its $500 goal. Backing at any level gets you immediate access to a 70-page preview of the book. The entry level for backing is $15.00, which at the end will net you the full-color PDF version.

So. You have a chance to topple an empire and drag your country into the future. But what future will you choose?

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