Sunday, April 16, 2023

Fantastic Detours - The Country

You know when sometimes there’s something you feel like you should’ve seen on Twitter, but instead you don’t hear about it for days or weeks or months so you feel like you missed out on it? On 2021-04-19, Luke Gearing published a blog post called “The Country”, a lifepath character generator and descriptive list of factions for a World War II-inspired war game setting [1]. One month later, on 2021-05-19, Roz of Two Rats Press released a zine adaptation The Country which includes Gearing’s combat ruleset Violence [2]. Graciously, like the blog post, the zine is available for free online, so that was my first contact with the text.

The Country is an excellent basis for a modern period campaign. It’s giving something like Braunstein or Blackmoor or Boot Hill, except instead of being about Napoleonic Germany or “medieval fantasy” or the American West, it’s about a twentieth-century “Uryupean” town full of liberals, monarchists, fascists, and communists—a familiar situation that could have taken place anywhere across Europe from Spain to Germany. It’s extremely fruitful for a war gaming plus political intrigue campaign, especially with its fleshed-out character generation procedure.

The Lifepath

I thought it was weird, at first, that you roll percentile dice to determine your character’s age. It wasn’t until reading over the different age-category background tables that I felt something click. Maybe I’m misreading or taking away something different than was intended, but there’s nothing wrong with that if it turns out productive. The lifepath works, as I understand it, by rolling for your character’s age and then rolling on each background table representing major years of their life. If you rolled a 100, for example, you’d have an especially full life, with memories from when you were 16-24, and 25-45, and 46-70, and 71+.

The fun part is that, like in Traveller, your character’s survival is not guaranteed during character creation. At each step, there is at least a 1-in-6 chance of dying. This creates a really interesting, morbid perception, something like “This character could have lived to be 100, if they had not died in the War.” That’s compelling when incorporating themes like trauma from violence, which is not just relevant when discussing the World Wars but also pertinent to considering the long-term effects of violence on people in general. Like, gee, did you know that violence is complicated and traumatic even if you’re fighting for the right thing? This is a level of depth which is missing from most treatments of the time period, or from period war gaming in general. In some sense, that consideration may even be the tipping point from war game to role-playing game, where the participants are not just concerned with winning or losing, but also with the personal (subjective) consequences of either outcome.

AHEM! This is future Marcia speaking, oh man, six months from when the above was written! Having reread the text, I think I misread it and the player is meant to roll on just one table corresponding to their character’s age band. This is evident from the instructions as well as the backgrounds themselves, since only young characters have a chance of dying during The War, whereas older characters could have died during The War or The Revolution that preceded it. Mea culpa, but this is not a fruitless mistake. I even think a little bit of Cassandra popped out up there when I said, “…there’s nothing wrong with [misreading] if it turns out productive.” Regardless of the author’s intent or the ‘true’ meaning of the text, my misinterpretation provoked strong feelings in myself and proffered a new way to use and relate to the text. How’s that for an example of the relationship between intent and meaning, especially as it pertains to ‘technical’ texts that are not just read but applied? Characters can still die during background determination, though, so my commentary is not completely null and void.

Something I would have liked to have seen is correlation between a character’s life story and their faction. There is something to be said for leaving the connection up to the player since it gives them the ability to weave things together sensically, or greater freedom to create a more unique character. However, it leaves some (not all) backgrounds feeling disconnected from each other as well as from the setting’s history. The most interesting backgrounds immerse the player in a critical situation (“Your mother told you to never mention the foreign men with coats and money who took envelopes from the garden”); the least interesting serve as character trivia without obvious or interesting motivation (“The War was not your first guerilla campaign”). I think a life path would have been an opportunity to observe a character’s social mobility during their life, whether they survive social crises or come out on top of them, and what that means for their current standing and motivation. Here we rub up against the other pillar of the text, which is how it portrays its setting’s factions.

The Factions

This club has everything: fascists, liberals, Christians, communists, monarchists, lumpenproles, and spies of any aforementioned faction or belonging to a corporation. I’m not a war gamer but I am a drama lover (and someone with an interest in how social movements are motivated and interact with each other), so imagine my delight. Each faction has a description of their ideological underpinnings, their demographic makeup, their members’ typical holdings, and their most common allies. I’ve made a graph of ally relationships below; notice that fascists ally themselves with republicans, but not vice versa. Meanwhile, the communists’ only allies are from the northern countries whose revolutions have succeeded for the time being. And there is no honor among thieves.

This is really neat! You can visualize the sorts of treaties and concessions that might take place. This is a superficial complaint, but I wish that there was a little bit more going on. As it were, the fascists, monarchists, and clergy constitute a single political bloc except that fascists are willing to engage with the republicans. This is not historically inaccurate, at least on a high level, but some entanglement would produce greater intrigue. For example, in both Italy and Spain, the republican movement (which is on some level distinct from the broader liberal movement) enjoyed some cooperation with the communist movements with respect to the Civil War. Maybe it would be worth distinguishing the radical republicans from the liberal government, even if they are ultimately radical liberals. Maybe it should be a distinction between communists, socialists, and liberals. Who knows. The important part is less the lines themselves than the conflicts they generate. Why do people take sides? Put a pin in it.

A deeper issue I have is best exemplified by the following injunction: “You might be a member of any of the following [factions] - except a Fascist. If you want to play a fascist, I suggest you play in traffic instead.” The so-called Olivia Hill Rule usually says that fascists shall not play a certain game; this is almost an inverse, that you shall not play a fascist. Superficially, it makes sense. You don’t want someone to internalize the ostensible values of nationalism and the insurmountable might of the human will while playing your war game. Yet this sentence made me evaluate the stated natures of each faction more closely. The communists are utopians. The republicans are liberals. The fascists are losers with lineage. On one hand, these descriptions seem very much like they belong to an observer from our time period rather than from someone who might be participating in that faction during that past time. Would a twentieth-century communist say they are fighting for a utopia, rather than some shit about historical materialism and class consciousness? Would a fascist call themselves a sore loser?

Related to this and more importantly, however, is that these factions seem to be motivated by abstract ideas more than by the material conditions of its members. It’s very funny and accurate to call fascists losers with respect to their cuck ideology. But perhaps it is more insightful to regard fascism in its social function. Historically, fascists are members of the petite or national bourgeoisie who resist downward social mobility (a handy term: “proletarianization”) as a result of competing with the big or international bourgeoisie. We could maybe speak more generally than their position relative to capital—for example, we can think of racists or sexists who are scared of losing their social privilege. In any case, though, we find a solid motivation: they are scared of losing what they have. The communists, on the other hand, have famously described themselves as having nothing to lose. Distinguishing themselves from the utopians, they characterized themselves as being driven by their own living conditions (notably, a lack of property) and by a scientific comprehension of history—being a Marxist myself, I’ll spare you my opinion. The liberals get away with the best representation of their ideology, and yet don’t have much reason for it. Why not talk about their relationship to international capital [3]? Or why else do they want things to stay more of the same? Anyway, this is all just to say that I think role-playing someone with particular class interests and living conditions might be a productive angle of critique, to understand what choices they make and anticipate what they will do next.

Besides, in the social and historical context of early twentieth-century Europe, what makes a fascist worse than a monarchist or even a liberal, not even insofar as these factions often collaborated in their own countries? I can think of three atrocities at the top of my head—the Bengal famine under Churchill, the Congo genocide under Leopold II, and the Holodomor under Stalin—that were orchestrated by non-fascist governments. Reducing fascism to an ideology elides its social function which yet operated in nominally non-fascist governments, and ignores that such governments very well enacted similar policies [4].

Also, I don’t know, I think there’s some potentially juicy stuff in there if you put fascists on the table. Maybe you know about this or maybe you don’t, but Benito Mussolini up until 1914 was the director of the Italian socialist newspaper Avanti!, whose headquarters the fascists would later attack in 1919. Mussolini left the socialist party and founded the fascist party because he thought that Italy should participate in the First World War against the advanced (i.e. imperialist) countries [5]. His ex-fellow party members, Amadeo Bordiga and Antonio Gramsci, would also end up leaving and forming a communist party because the socialist party went reformist. At some point, Gramsci gave a speech at parliament against the political acts of violence committed by the fascists—Mussolini would then, condescendingly, quote Bordiga back at Gramsci about the justification of violence for political aims [6]. That’s like a whole angst fanfic right there. Anyway, there’s something engaging about interpersonal relationships mixing with political struggle, or using one to explore the other.

Future Marcia again! I do feel like there might be a difference between "You shall not play a fascist" versus "You shall not want to play a fascist", the latter of which is fair as far as you wouldn't want someone who themselves identifies with fascism to participate. However, I still felt like the former was important to draw out—especially in a historical war game where, if no one else, the referee is likely to play a fascist (or, if you read it as a Braunstein, someone in your group is going to play the baddie). In such a case, how should the participant handle playing as a fascist? Should participants only play as non-fascists but yet still collaborate with fascists, as per the faction graph? That's more the angle I wanted to poke at.

The Braunstein

What do you get when you combine motivated characters, entangling factions, and a war game? You might get something like a Braunstein. Braunstein was the name of a Napoleonic campaign run by Dave Wesley in 1969; specifically, Braunstein was the name of the German city in which the game took place. The players expected to be participating in a standard war game, where you control troops on a battlefield and fight to the death et cetera et cetera. Wesley instead assigned each player a role of a certain individual in the town, with their own motivations and connections and so on. Before long, the players stopped coming to Wesley with ‘commands’ for their characters [7], and ended up interacting directly with each other’s characters on the map. Wesley thought he fucked up, but everyone else had fun. It especially influenced college student Dave Arneson, whose medieval fantasy campaign Blackmoor would lay the groundwork for his later campaign guide Dungeons & Dragons (coauthored by, of course, Gary Gygax). To summarize, a Braunstein is a campaign that tricks war gamers into LARPing or playing with dolls.

Reading The Country as a Braunstein helps contextualize the way in which it elevates its subject matter and formal rules. Despite the ‘system’ only really explaining how to shoot guns at people, the gun-shooting is incidental to the interests of the characters and their factions. Even if your goal is strictly to eliminate a target, that goal is contextualized by individual desire and factional disputes. The outcome is comparable to how Adam Decamp of Chocolate Hammer describes his campaign of Boot Hill [8]:

There was another benefit to not having any social mechanics at all in the game, counter-intuitive thought it might seem for a game about managing adversarial relationships without combat. While combat in Boot Hill is decided immediately and obviously, and is thus very well suited to open dice rolls, the game’s social conflicts created tension by being uncertain. One never knew whether to trust an NPC, whether an NPC trusted them, whether a bluff had succeeded, or whether a threat had landed. They had no reason to expect success because a number was high or failure because a number was low.

It’s for this reason that Decamp calls Boot Hill “the best political intrigue system” he has ever used, and it’s this same tendency that elevates The Country. Perhaps not coincidentally, Gearing’s firearm ruleset Violence takes inspiration from Boot Hill. Admittedly, I think (like Boot Hill) it’s a little bit clunky, but since it’s sort of arbitrary with respect to the campaign itself, it feels easy to substitute with something quicker if one wanted.

I have just one more comment, tangential to the above discussions: the text is somewhat male-centric. We see this in both the backgrounds and the factions’ demographics. Politics is considered by many to be the discourse of men, and it’s not inaccurate to say that women were not employed by many of these factions as foot soldiers anyway. Even if women typically occupied different roles in social movements, though, it is still worthwhile to explore those roles. This is not even to mention that women did, indeed, take on positions in leadership and armed struggle during this time period. Why does it matter? I play nothing straight because I’m gay lol, and because even for things I like a lot there’s always something that I end up adjusting to taste for myself or my friends. Still, although there is nothing stopping myself from playing a character similar to the likes of Rosa Luxemburg or what have you, it’s disappointing that the text lacks this dimension.


The thing about a fire is it burns after being extinguished. Embers glow beneath the ash. The powers beat out the fire, but don't worry about the glow they can't see.

The Country offers a great campaign framework for characters and factions to explore the political dynamics of twentieth century Europe. It feels like a modern take on the Braunstein game and its immediate descendants in Blackmoor and Boot Hill, with its emphasis on character drive, factional strife, and rules-avoidant play. However, for its efforts to model social conflict, it falters by ascribing such conflict to ideologies rather than to the material conditions which give rise to them. It is still one of my favorite playable things I’ve read in the past year. Gearing is an evocative writer without pretension, so that combined with his approach and subject matter is compelling.


[1] Luke Gearing. 2021-04-19. “The Country”, Luke Gearing.

[2] Luke Gearing & Roz. 2021-05-19. The Country.

[3] Yeah, I know this is specific to the government liberals and not the aforementioned radical republicans. Keep scrolling.

[4] Referring to Churchill, Leopold II, or Stalin’s governments as fascist misses the point. Fascism is not a particularly special state of capitalist society, but (w.r.t. its violent repressive function) it is an utterly normal and essential aspect of it.

This is not to say that liberal governments in general are not qualitatively distinct from fascist governments. Liberal governments (at least, in theory) tend to work towards dismantling non-capitalist social relations, such as racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia, transphobia, et cetera. Fascism meanwhile relies upon these things to privilege a certain subset of the population and violently repress the rest (notably using often the same techniques as liberal states, only towards its own population instead of or in addition to those of other nations). This is related to the conflict between international and national capital, but has implications for the wellbeing of victimized groups beyond the scope of capital as such. It also impacts the extent to which these domestic groups can seek better treatment within the scope of the government: it is easier for trans people (e.g.) to advocate for reform within liberal structures than for them to take up arms against a state violently repressing them. So to speak, I much prefer Biden over Trump; however, especially in the context of the twentieth century, it is difficult to suppose that the big players are not all reprehensible in practice if not in theory.

Besides, liberal states love a little fascism as a treat. American police have killed approximately 30,800 people from 1980 to 2019, and 1,182,170 people are incarcerated across the country as of 2020 (peaking in 2009, with 1,553,570 incarcerated). Black people are overrepresented in both of these metrics, being 3-5 times as likely to be killed or incarcerated than white people. See "Fatal police violence by race and state in the USA, 1980–2019: a network meta-regression" (The Lancet 398.10307, pp. 1239-1255), and "Growth in Mass Incarceration" (The Sentencing Project, 2020). It’s not inaccurate to say that most capitalist countries enjoy a mix of liberal and fascist policy, often along racial, religious, or geographical lines—and this is to the “benefit” of the country.

Let’s also not forget colonialism and imperialist war, in case you walk out of this long-ass footnote thinking that domestic (i.e. internal) policy is all that matters. If a capitalist state is eating its own babies, you might guess that it’s because other babies are hard to come by. Have I sufficiently qualified all this? Goddamn. This is what I get for running things by our very own Union of Soviet Writers, not that I’m complaining.

[5] Mussolini was, I think, employing the notion of the imperialist stage of capitalism where countries with excess capital flood other (developing) countries and thus take over their economic development. Lenin’s original stance was that such imperialized countries should revolt in order to establish their own democratic (capitalist) states—meanwhile the communist party should also equip the burgeoning proletariat there with the practical and theoretical means to join the international movement, being careful not to treat the democratic state as the end-all-be-all. Mussolini, on the other hand, considered Italy a “proletarian nation”, such that its struggle against other nations superseded the class struggle within itself. Notice that these stances represent the interests of different classes.

[6] My partner said something really funny: "I think I know why Bordiga is in jail, and why Gramsci is speaking at parliament."

[7] In this style of war game, players usually communicated troop orders to the referee who would resolve them on the map.

[8] Adam Decamp. 2019-01-09. “Boot Hill and the Fear of Dice”, Chocolate Hammer.

Monday, April 3, 2023

Mundane Vacations - Cy_Borg

Cy_Borg is a ‘nano-infested’ cyberpunk RPG by Christian Sahlén, based on the rules of Mork Börg, and published in 2022. Layout and art by Johan Nohr, perhaps even more ambitious and out there than in the aforementioned Mork Börg. Let’s not mince words – this book is pretty, but what does it bring to the cyberpunk games and genre as a whole? As a bonus I go on a tangent about character moral choices.

Entering the Cy

Cy is the cyberpunk future megacity where the game takes place. It is divided into regions such as the toxic industries, or the high end hills. It reminded me of Bastionland, in the way that the city is the main focus of the game. Beyond Cy the world is basically uninhabitable.

Each region is provided with half a page of description and a unique illustration. The art by Johan Nohr does a lot to communicate the vibes of each location, but the text also gives some hooks for your imagination to latch on to. For example the region G0 has a music club within its walls that’s tied to a secret society faction. I only wish there were more descriptions like that.

In a way, the setting of Cy_Borg assumes you are familiar with the cyberpunk genre, in the same way Mork Borg assumes you are familiar with fantasy. It provides minimal details for its Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner inspired world, with the idea that the GM fills in the gaps to suit their needs.

As the campaign progresses, the GM will roll on a table of Miserable Headlines, which change Cy in one way or another. For example rolling 6.5 on d66 will cause a solar storm to shut down all communications. When the 7th headline is rolled, the last (and intriguing) headline is rolled. I enjoy systems that provide a way for the world to change, the characters never get too comfortable and have to adapt. The only issue I find in Cy_Borg is that it provides no way to determine when to roll for these headlines. Yes the game says to roll every night, but how many actions do the characters take per day? Can they just never roll if the whole campaign occurs within one very eventful day? The GM will have to think of a way to track time that suits them.

Another theme with Cy is the layering of past structures, commonly present in OSR fantasy settings. Cy is full of ruins, abandoned buildings and maze-like tunnels, waiting to trap unlucky explorers. Overall it’s a great catch-all setting which allows for any variety of cyberpunk action.

System of Cy

The game system chapter opens with this paragraph:

You are encouraged to break every rule in this book except this one: Player Characters cannot be loyal to or have sympathy for the corps, the cops, or the capitalist system. They might find themselves reluctantly forced to do missions for them or their minions. But make no mistake—they are the enemy.

As Ben Milton points out, I get that they are trying to put you into the headspace of a rebel in the cyberpunk world, but it’s an odd rule. I think that (1) it takes away a decision point for players without providing any new ones, (2) it assumes that characters have to be anticapitalist to assume anticapitalist themes and (3) in these ways it is counter to a lot of media in the cyberpunk genre.

Let’s compare it to another cyberpunk rpg. In Cyberpunk 2020 you can get any cybernetics you want in exchange for eternal servitude to a corporation that will give you only the most dangerous and rigged missions (Pondsmith et al., 1990, p. 94):

You don’t have a choice. You just sold your soul. Welcome to 2020, smartboy.

2020 is a game about shopping for cybernetics and the cruel nature of capitalism. It does not stop you from being loyal to anyone really, but it lets you know that it will be a nightmare. In 2020, it is a decision to refuse the perks of corp loyalty.

Dreaming Dragonslayer provides an alternative by giving characters XP for working against the system. I also do not think that it is a solid solution. As Zedeck Siew has written in Lorn Song of the Bachelor (2019, p. 46):

Lorn Song of the Bachelor tries not to prompt players one way or the other. If I offered a mechanical incentive for you to fight colonial invaders, you wouldn’t be making a moral decision, but a mercenary one.

I agree with Siew in that if characters receive bonuses for working against the corporations, it defeats the point of the choice. Working against the corporations in a cyberpunk ultra-capitalist world is the harder alternative, and I think a system should reflect that.

A better way to use an XP system would be to focus on motivations, instead of morality. Cy_Borg has a great motivation table on page 57 (entries such as mayhem, love, freedom, burn it all down). Characters may get XP for actions that align with their motivations. In effect, they still get XP for working against the system, but the characters retain the right of moral choice.

I found another interesting way of tackling working for the “wrong side” in Vultures (Batts, 2020, p.14):

[…] a Vulture’s job is not a good one, and definitely not something to be proud of. And the job of the game is to see how long it takes before the system turns the players into rebels. From there they live outside the rules, as the rules are written by Space Mom for the use of being bounty hunters. What happens when you use those systems against something not detailed in the book. How do you rebel against the system? How do you rebel against the game?

In Vultures, characters start loyal to the system, and they do not have mechanical incentives to do otherwise. However, the game prompts the GM to explore the process of characters turning into rebels. The GM can do that by highlighting the humanity of the bounty hunters’ targets for instance.

To me the cyberpunk genre is fundamentally about making a choice. For instance (the most famous cyberpunk choice of all time) in The Matrix, the choice was between continuing being loyal to the system, or taking a hard path of working against it.

So what do characters actually do in Cy_Borg? Characters start with a debt they have to pay (similar to games such as Bastionland), which will be their primary motivation for completing missions. The character classes have unique abilities, but they are all very focused on fighting. Games in the cyberpunk genre usually include classes focused on social skills, such as fixers, but Cy_Borg seems to be exclusively focused on the slasher aspect. The game is firmly built around combat encounters and does not provide any rules for rebellious activity.

There are rules for combat, hacking and the cyberpunk equivalent of magic which are soaked in flavour. Followed by many pages of foes and corporations those abilities can be used against. However, the game doesn’t provide any tools for the characters to influence the world. There is a table of events for the city and the net, which are superb hooks, but they happen independently from character actions. Mechanically speaking, characters in Cy_Borg are powerless against the system.

I would solve this by using a faction system (such as the one in Mausritter) to advance corporation goals. The corp index in appendix 1 could be used for that. Characters could then hinder corporation progress, or exploit their rivalries to find weaknesses. Then they could actually work to change Cy, instead of aimlessly slashing cops.

Heisting in Cy

Lucky Flight Takedown is an introductory heist included in the book. It is a casino that includes a variety of environments, such a dirty club sort of setting and luxury VIP lounges. I enjoyed how it was described both when it is closed and when it’s open, featuring different encounters and consequences. Since I used a system where every action costs time (akin to clocks), this created an interesting choice; do the characters go in when the casino is closed and safer, but they race against the clock, or when it’s open so they can take it slow, but surrounded by security.

The casino has several entrances/exits, which also allows for heist flexibility. The layout overall is quite open, that is if the players find a way to get into the staff only areas. Most violence will lead to security forces swiftly arriving, so players will have to be sneaky and/or persuade their way in.

The adventure’s aftermath provides some hooks for the players to continue their campaign. I should also note that the PDF is wonderfully hyperlinked and a pleasure to use. Overall it is a great introductory mission with interactive rooms and many consequences. My only issue during play was how it meshes with the rest of Cy_Borg’s system, as the players are geared towards combat, which is discouraged in the heist.


All in all, Cy_Borg will suit players and GMs familiar with Mork Börg (or other rules-light games) who want to play a cyberpunk action adventure. If the group wants to pursue a more social oriented experience, the GM will have to work to adapt the system to their needs.

Folie à Trois: Trophy Gold

Below is a shared review of Trophy Gold (2022) , a fantasy adventure game designed by Jesse Ross and published by The Gauntlet. Although it...