I Have The High Ground Review – Dueling Wits and Flourished Capes

You might be knights or fencers with your blades crossed for sport or mortal combat. But what if you were hackers vying for control of a contested server? A murderer and the aggrieved loved one avenging their victim? What if you’re assassins and ex-girlfriends, or in a boxing match, or a bar fight, or even just a school talent show? So, who will you be? What will you do? There’s only one way to find out. Pick your weapons, push the limits, flourish your capes whenever justifiable, and play through a session of I Have The High Ground from Jess Levine!

I Have The High Ground is a GMless, one-shot, two-player roleplaying game of characters in a duel of posture. It’s about trading barbs, psyching out your opponent, physical intimidation, and stabbing wit. IHTHG was actually a part of Zine Month back in February, which I am now quite annoyed to have missed at the time with our coverage of the event, especially since it was successful on Game On Tabletop. Still, it’s now released to the public and properly on our radar!  So, how do you play it, and what kind of stories will it help you tell? Let’s find out!

Setting Up

Setting up a game of I Have The High Ground consists of two broad functions: Background and Characters. Background can be defined simply as the where/why/how/what/etc. of the duel. You pick the session’s genre, the stakes (ranging from a ‘friendly’ match with no lethal consequences to a fight that could turn the tide of a great big bloody battle), the history between the characters (Rivals? Ex-Lovers? Mutual Respect?), some basic descriptors to make sure the characters are foils of one another (vengeful vs forgiving, careful vs reckless, debonair vs utilitarian), what brought the two of you together on this particular day, and what sort of environment the duel takes place in. 

With the setup work done, and with a few notes on the duelists in the bargain, it’s time to make your characters. Character creation for IHTHG has to be done together, partially for mechanical reasons and partially so that they’re tied together in a narrative sense to make things more interesting. First of all, and in violation of certain superheroic edicts, you have to pick a Cape.

Now, you may not have a Cape. That’s… fine, I guess. You’re not really penalized for it.  You can get some advantages if you do, however. When designing your Capes you might discuss this in the open, or you may keep it secretive. Either way, you’ve got to describe it in detail. Then the Capes are compared. There’s a Rubric , which starts with wearing a cape, goes to whose Cape is closest to floor length without going over, through some real-world cape ownership, and finally resolving with a die roll. The winner of this Cape-off gets to pick between Priority and Advantages. Advantages are ways that a character can gain the upper hand in a fight, and we’ll dig into them shortly. Priority functions as a tiebreaker of sorts, “procedural” not “narrative”, in order to keep things running during the actual gameplay. Again, we’ll see how that works in a bit.

That’s the end for the Cape’s mechanical implications, although to pull a quote from the designer’s notes the players “are encouraged to describe the motion and appearance of their cape as often as possible. There is no mechanical advantage – only my undying respect and gratitude.” This is an important clue to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing with this game, in this case being stylish as hell

Next up come those Advantages. Now, these aren’t things that will convey a mechanical benefit, but they can provide topics and narrative logic for what’s coming up. There’s a list for players to alternate choosing from, until each has two, such as desperation, a more accomplished record, the element of surprise, and the eponymous high ground. If the winner of the Cape-off chose Advantages, they get to pick first, and if they chose Priority instead, then the loser picks first.

Clothing, Inventory, and Weapons are again tools for the narrative instead of being providers of any kind of +1. The only rules here are that you want two or more details each for Clothing and Inventory, and your Weapon should be roughly matched up with your opponent’s in terms of power level.

Finally, you determine the circumstances of the duel – perhaps an elevator door opens, a seemingly innocuous corner is turned, both characters finally reach the top of the Cliffs of Insanity, a Master appears on the ship ramp to challenge his fallen Apprentice-

You get the idea. However, if you’re having trouble deciding or are uncomfortable at first, you can choose one of several pre-established openings: The Challenge, The Chance Encounter, and The Trap. These openings will help designate each character’s place in the fiction – who is setting The Trap and who falls into it, for example – and then ask you to either roll a die or answer some questions. Whichever method you choose it will help resolve the first round of actual Play, and the duel has commenced!

Playing the Game

I Have The High Ground progresses through turns, the winner of each turn gaining a point; gain a total of 9 points and you win the game and begin the Resolution. Each turn is simple: each player secretly chooses one of three available Moves, and then reveals their choice at the same time. Thrust beats Feint, Feint beats Parry, and Parry beats Thrust. Pretty standard rock-paper-scissors set-up. If your Move beats your opponent’s, you win that turn and get the point. If both players chose the same Move then whoever has Priority wins – if the winner of the cape-off chose Priority then they have it on the first turn, if not then the other player does, and it alternates back and forth every turn. Then, the two players narrate/roleplay out how the round went in the story, with the Moves helping to guide what a win, a loss, and even a Priority-broken tie might look like.

Now, here’s something really important to keep in mind: the duel in IHTHG is a “duel of posture and bravado”. Exactly what that means is, of course, up to the people playing, but the intent is that things only advance to actual violence during the Resolution (with one potential exception). The names for the moves are symbolic, not a 1:1 for the physical action taking place. To help explain, I’m going to pull directly from the examples for what a win looks like.

A duelist who wins with a Thrust “takes a firm step inward to which the loser flinches, too intimidated to act. Or instead, the victor might stab with a cunning insult that causes the loser to become visibly upset.” A winning Feint “might bait them into revealing a vulnerable feeling they’ve kept secret so far— “Just because I loved you doesn’t mean I feel the same way now—” “You loved me? How pitiful.” Alternatively, the victor might fake a reach for her weapon causing the loser to overreact” If you’re gaining a point via Parry, perhaps “the loser ridicules the victor for their meager physique, allowing the victor to counter with the fact that despite this, they still bested the loser in their last two matches— “Can’t even take a ‘wimp’ to the mat, then?” It might involve the loser drawing their weapon, as the victor stands calmly and confidently, unreacting, as the loser huffs at their own failure to provoke.”

See? No actual stabbing. Not even, as presented here, any real attempts at actual stabbing. You don’t even need to have your weapon drawn most of the time. Now, you can draw it whenever you want to serve the narrative, like with that last Parry example. However, once your opponent reaches 8 points, you have to draw your weapon as part of that turn’s narrative. Things are ramping up, you are losing control of the situation, and this rule helps make sure that gets conveyed. 

There is one exception to this normal course of events: a Penalty Move. This is when the façade of politeness falls away for a moment, and you utterly disrespect your opponent. Again, exactly what this looks like is up to the players, but the most common example is from fencing: ‘turning your back’, declaring an intent to walk away from the duel. In IHTHG this also means disarming yourself in a meaningful way, not just sheathing your weapon, to show your opponent the scorn you have for them. Once per game, a player can choose to use a Penalty Move instead of a normal one, rolling 2d6 and comparing it to their current score. The opponent’s choice of Move has no effect here, unless they also chose Penalty Move, at which point Priority decides who gets to roll. If you roll above your score, your opponent gains a point and Priority, even if this means they’d get it two turns in a row. Roll under your current score, and you gain 2 points. Roll exactly your current score, and you fail in an unexpected way – you get a response from your opponent, but you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. For this one result, the opponent can make an actual combat-related action, including physical blows, before things revert back to the duel of posture.

Penalty Moves might not always get used – there has to be a certain amount of animosity to justify their use, so they don’t make a lot of sense if you’re playing a friendly match – but oh boy, do they ever provide quite a lot of drama when they do show up. Mechanically speaking, they also offer a way to come from behind if you’re trailing, or seal the deal if you’re ahead – which is why every result talks about how to tie it into the Resolution if the Move puts you over the 9 point line.

As for that Resolution. When a player reaches 9 points they win, and in response the loser leaps into action, trying to strike the first blow of actual combat as the duel of posture ends and the actual duel begins. What that looks like will be determined by the losing Move and the player’s decisions and even dialogue. However, the winning player narrates their reaction to this attempted strike and gets final say on what it all looks like. “A mace bounces off of the winner’s shield. A lightsaber meets the sudden flash of a second saber, locking them together while sparks fly. A bullet is deftly dodged, or strikes hidden body armor, or even a personal forcefield.”

And that’s the end! You might talk out how the actual duel goes. You might continue the duel in another, more mechanically-inclined game. Or you may simply leave your characters in a snapshot as their weapons collide and they lock eyes over the blades.

“Let’s face it: dueling is sexy” is the game’s tagline, and it’s hard to argue with it even if you wanted to. That Thirsty Sword Lesbians is mentioned in the press kit as a game that IHTHG is following in the footsteps of when it comes to getting “to play in the space of queer—and specifically lesbian—romance and the inherently homoerotic nature of swordplay” is, like, the least surprising thing I’ve ever read. I’d been reading IHTHG for maybe ten seconds before TSL came to mind. That being said, if romance of any variety isn’t your thing, it doesn’t have to be the center of the game. What IHTHG wants is for emotions to be running hot, and there are a lot of stories that can get to that level. So long as you do, IHTHG is going to work according to spec.

Romance just happens to be one of the more interesting ones, and yeah, let’s face it, dueling is sexy.

If you want to test your characters’ skills in an actual duel, I Have The High Ground ain’t it. You could take the names of the Moves a bit more literally, I suppose, but you’d be losing the spirit of the game, which is to fight with style, wit, sick burns, and well-timed cape flourishes instead of stabby motions. You also lose some of the game’s narrative flexibility – hackers are mentioned as one unorthodox pair of duelists, or you could be racers posturing on the starting line, or wrestlers showboating for the crowd, or something else entirely. There are plenty of other games that will let you roll the dice in a 1v1 competition.

Interestingly, I think many of them would also be quite good for the ‘play the actual duel out in a different game’ method of ending IHTHG. Thirsty Sword Lesbians comes to mind again, an iaijutsu duel in Legend of the Five Rings seems appropriate, and I could totally see the result of IHTHG granting a free Triumph to the winner’s first action in FFG Star Wars. Actually, it would be nice to have some more advice on how IHTHG’s resolution impacts the follow-up game, but since that follow-up game could be anything, it’s fair to leave that up for the players to parse out if they want.

My preference would still probably be the snapshot ending, though. Really lands a final emotional punch.

If you want a good and dramatic story, I Have The Ground is definitely it. Everything about this game’s mechanics is helping to set up the narrative that the players are going to be building – there’s nothing you could trim away without losing something important in the bargain. There’s also a ton of advice about how to tell stories with this game, including an entire page of tips, the designer’s notes, and a few sidebars scattered throughout. Emphasizing the cooperative nature of the storytelling even though the duel is competitive, using tone to make certain lines hit differently, sharing intent, differentiating between external actions and internal perspectives, and more. Not for nothing, but IHTHG might be worth the price of admission just to get these tips to adapt and use with other duet storytelling games.

You can get a PDF copy of I Have The High Ground for $8 on itch.io. Alternatively, if you’re hard up for cash you could grab one of the free community copies, of which there are more than 900 as of this writing with almost ten thousand to-be-generated by people paying $11 for the game instead of $8. You, uh, well there was a chance to get a physical zine of the game at IPR for $15… but there were only two copies left when we checked on the day of the game’s release last week, and those two last copies standing have long since been vaporized. That says an awful lot about the quality of the game all on its own, frankly – if you want physical copies to return for a second round, you should reach out here.

Financially speaking there’s no reason not to own a copy of I Have The High Ground, and in terms of game quality… yeah, not finding any reasons there either to be honest. Duet games are, by their very nature, intimate experiences. How much more intimate can you get then when you’re sitting on the razor edge of a blade almost drawn? Whether it’s a truly tumultuous romantic experience, former brothers-in-arms and the damage they’ve down to one another, or something else, I Have The High Ground will let you tell a story of dashing capes and pounding heartbeats, and leave you with a final flourish that makes you want to have another go.

Thanks to Jess Levine for sending us a PDF copy to review!

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