Comrades: A Revolutionary RPG
Comrades: A Revolutionary RPG is about participating in a fictional revolution. Influenced by real-world events, past and present, players are members of a fledgling underground movement that aims to rise up against a corrupt government, forced to plan, work, and fight from the shadows. Can they do what is necessary when the cause requires it to free the people? Like the past’s real-world revolutions, none are clearly defined, bloodless, or victimless, and neither is Comrades: A Revolutionary RPG.
A word of caution – Comrades: A Revolutionary RPG deals with mature themes such as violence, murder, intolerance, xenophobia, and mayhem. Campaigns occur in a world not too far removed from our own; players should treat these themes with the seriousness and respect they deserve. In response to dealing with dark topics and rationalizing them as part of the game, Comrades’ author recommends using X-Card by John Stavropolous.
Comrades is powered by D. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World game engine with a few modifications. If you’re unfamiliar with the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) system, there are many variants and derivatives; it’s impossible to point to an all-inclusive system primer. I will do my best to provide a short primer as it relates to Comrades.
- Playbooks – archetypes; character sheets with a set of questions and stats that define the character
- Stats – Body, Mind, Spirit, and Guile
- Bonds – represent relationships between comrades, positive or negative.
- Experience – earned through failing rolls, Bonds reaching +4 or -3, and Pathway Rolls
- Advances – taken when five experience have been earned; 10 in total
- Gangs – certain playbooks contain an Advance allowing a comrade to assemble a gang of like-minded radicals to aid the cause.
- Pathways Move – end of session event, five paths leading to revolution. If the roll is successful, advancing reshapes the world around the players, the harder the enemies will push back. Advancing on multiple paths is likely based on in-game narrative.
- Player’s manifesto: fight, refuse compromise, and don’t let the bastards get away with it!
- GM’s manifesto: play to find out what happens, oppress the comrades, and make them heroes.
- GMs do NOT roll dice.
The dice mechanic employed in Comrades: A Revolutionary RPG is a simple 2d6+stat (i.e., 2d6+Guile) to determine the level of success or failure of a Move. On a 10+, you’re successful. You are partially successful on a 7-9, but with a drawback or complication. Lastly, rolling a 6 or less means you have failed to accomplish the task in the way you had intended; the GM will now be able to impose direct or indirect complications into the narrative (e.g., GM Moves).
Moves are actions triggered by the narrative; they’re typically triggered to resolve something or to move the story forward. There are several types of Moves in Comrades: Basic Moves, Special Moves, and GM Moves. Without breaking down each Move, readers should take away the following: Basic Moves are accessible to all comrades, Special Moves are specific to an archetype and are only available to that comrade, GM’s Moves guide their behavior and are intended to keep the story moving without constraining the players.
Comrades is best approached as a multi-session campaign of 5-15 sessions of several hours each, instead of a one-shot. The game’s design promotes campaign play specifically through the Pathway Moves. These Moves tracks five separate pathways (Force, Organization, Zealotry, Mayhem, Fellowship), each leading to a revolution influenced and inspired by that specific tactic. At the end of each session, a single comrade rolls for each Pathway Move whose criteria were met during the session. Each Pathway has five steps incrementally leading toward revolution; once the fifth step is reached, players may attempt to seize power!
The first session of each new campaign serves to accomplish three things. First, it provides a means for the GM to teach players the game’s core concepts and rules—safety tools should be addressed due to its mature themes. Second, players will create their comrades and collaboratively work together to shape the setting in which their campaign will be played. This process’s structure may seem a little haphazard to some with—comrade creation (part 1) – collaborative world/setting building – comrade creation (part 2)—though it all works rather seamlessly together. Third, the first session ends with the GM running a short in media res story, putting the comrades in the middle of an emerging situation prompted by something that arose from the previous collaborative process.
As a result of the collaborative work done in the first session, the players and, to some extent, the GM have provided foundational information the GM will use to create the campaign. It’s here between the first and second sessions that the GM does a lot of the heavy lifting. Using the setting details outlined in the first session, GMs will flesh out opposing factions, creating several NPCs for each opposing faction, naming and describing locations throughout the city, creating possible conflicts to introduce later, and establish a list of NPC names as a quick reference.
While those things will breathe life into the setting, the lion’s share of their time will be spent creating several Fronts. Fronts (also called Threats in Apocalypse World) are summaries of the dangers menacing the comrades and their nation, any of which will soon overwhelm and destroy the country. Fronts consist of six elements: a name, a type, a motivation, an approach, the steps it will take toward realizing its goal, and associated NPCs. There are normally two or three active Fronts at any given time in a campaign. Below is an example of a Front taken from page 113.
Front: The Neighborhood Watch
Approach: Brute Force
- When an immigrant family moves into his building, Martin Hogg and his neighbors launch a campaign of intimidation to drive them out.
- Residents in other buildings invite Hogg and his friends, now a uniformed Neighborhood Watch, to do the same in their buildings.
- Trying to fight back, a young couple is killed by the Watch, and Hogg is arrested for the murder.
- The Watch invites like-minded gangs from other parts of the city to demonstrate outside the police station, and Hogg escapes in the ensuing riot.
- The Watch erects barricades around their neighborhood, keeping the police out and the residents in.
- Hogg leads a house-to-house search, robbing and killing anyone they suspect of being an immigrant.
- Now armed to the teeth, the Watch declares their block a sovereign, white supremacist state, and the police are too cowed to disagree.
Fronts are a series of thematically connected escalating threats—essentially escalation clocks. Meaning that if there is no intervention by the players, each emerging threat (#1-7 above) will come to pass. The threats in each Front can happen on- or off-screen; either way, their effects have implications on the story. Similarly, Fronts can be quite fragile. Once the players are aware of an emerging threat, if they choose to respond to it and are successful in that endeavor, the GM may need to revise the Front or discard it in favor of another Front that has been silently progressing in the background.
The game provides a complete setting entitled “Khresht 1915.” Khresht is a fictional empire teetering on the edge of a revolution in February 1915. It provides a guide to the city, the country, and the ideologies grappling for control, geared toward both the players and the GM. GMs are provided with ready-made Fronts for a Khreshti campaign, lists of relevant NPCs, and seeds for future conflict and adventure in this sprawling, dying empire. The setting provides enough gaps for the players to help personalize it during normal session one activities. If “Khresht 1915” does not appeal to the group, it can serve as a blueprint for the GM in creating their own.
Even If not used, Kresht provides a roadmap of what a fully fleshed out campaign structure should contain and look like. Using the tools and advice available, GMs can create campaigns in both real-world or fantasy settings. The game provides the structure and methodology of play, but the setting, Fronts, and campaign details are left to the GM and players to map out.
While the book offers some general guidance on developing a campaign’s setting, it offers nearly no concrete examples. A list of “popular choices” of historical revolutions is given on page 91, noting nothing more than location and year. It would have been nice to see a selection of historical and fictional settings loosely sketched out. I would offer that if done with sensitivity and proper historical research, an interesting campaign would be Warsaw, Poland, 1943 during the run-up to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. While history informs us about the tragic outcome of the Uprising, the Jewish residents resisted and fought with ferocity and tenacity to save their people. Comrades offers players a chance to explore what these Jewish heroes did and how they rose up against genocidal Nazi oppression.
The book ends with some examples of play in two other settings that show how adaptable the game can be. There is also a short chapter with advice on making the game “your own.” Here readers will find advice on adapting Comrades to other times and cities and how to write custom Moves and new playbooks.
Owning only the digital version, I am unable to provide feedback on the quality of the Print on Demand (PoD) version available through DriveThruRPG. The digital version is well-edited, logically presented, and spaciously laid out, including wide margins. All of which makes reading and comprehending the game’s concepts and rules an enjoyable process. The layout uses a two-color palette—maroon and black (see insets). The artwork is attractive and used to good effect.
Let me wrap up this review with some “real talk.” Comrades: A Revolutionary RPG is meant to be provocative and explore real-world themes in fictional and non-fictional settings. To that end, some will find the idea of such a game unconscionable, even provoking anger. Others will find it a fun and creative way to safely relieve some stress, especially in our current politically charged society. Never lose sight of the fact this game takes place in fictional worlds, regardless of the setting, with fictional people!
Comrades is all about the story of how a group of uniquely different revolutionaries works together, that oftentimes against each other, to give rise and life to their revolution. Unlike other PbtA games, Comrades shines when it is played over a series of sessions. As a result of this organic play structure, it falls short when played as a one-shot—players just won’t get the full experience. The game design is well thought out and logically presented. Its core concepts and rules are straightforward, a rather streamlined PbtA game that remains focused on the story. Whether you’re a veteran or new to PbtA games, Comrades is one that you might want to have a look at, provided you’re not put off by the theme.
The game is heavily inspired by the real revolutions of the early and mid-twentieth century. In particular, the Russian Revolution is used as a template for the provided fictional setting as well as the art style throughout is reminiscent of Constructivism. Its theme is purposely provoking, seeking to elicit a specific game experience, and is likely to come across as hate-filled. Comrades can be placed in any historical period, such as the French, Haitian, or American Revolutions. Human history is rife with examples of oppressed peoples rising up; some do so successfully, while most fail in their endeavors. Or a setting can be a fictional place inspired by a historical event. Much like Kresht 1915 appears to be influenced by the events preceding the Russian Revolution of 1917. It could be argued that if W.M. Akers had used any number of other revolutions rather than the very horrific Russian Revolution as the thematic basis for the game’s design, it could have achieved the same results, but in a far more positive way. Instead, we’re presented with a politically skewed game. This will not be a game for most people; it’s unclear if it will have much appeal to a wider audience.
I don’t personally find the game offensive or hate-filled, but rather a politically skewed game that wants to explore its theme in context to its many historical influences. That said, I acknowledge that Comrades is designed to play out in certain ways based on those real-life influences, even within the framework of a fictional setting. Comrades was crowdfunded in the spring of 2019, at a time of rising political tension within the United States that left many feeling disenfranchised and oppressed. It’s reasonable that the game is a physical response to the Author’s desire to resist and rail against that rising tension. All of that said, I believe that good stories can still be told, like that of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, if done properly. I will leave it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.
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