Years ago, I used to write game reviews for a now-defunct site called Robot Lasers. This was one of those reviews.
WELCOME TO THE UPRISING
A few days ago our Grey Ranks game came to a conclusion. Each of the last several chapters of play were brought on strong and deeper emotional reactions than the last. It was exhausting, cathartic, and changing.
Grey Ranks, by Jason Morningstar (who also wrote Fiasco), is a story game set in the Polish Uprising of 1944 in Warsaw. You will play a crew of the Grey Ranks. The Grey Ranks were teenagers not yet old enough to join the army. A game of Grey Ranks is played in ten chapters over three sessions. In this time your characters will undergo personal transformations and endure great hardships as the fight to repel the German occupation and save Warsaw. They will fail.
Grey Ranks is a GM-less game that passes responsibility for scene framing and conflict presentation around as play progresses. Though you cannot and should not prepare for a game of Grey Ranks, all players should read the game text and watch a few of the suggested movies. The mechanics are very light and simple and are only there to guide your play. Though this is a game set in World War II, you will not find tactical play of any kind here. This is about the personal lives of these child soldiers, and the tragedies large and small that befell them.
Grey Ranks is also an award-winning game, having won multiple awards in 2007, and most notably, the prestigious Diana Jones Award in 2008.
Grey Ranks is very deliberately a strong experience. Obviously, the setting contributes a lot to that, but the gameplay also steers the narrative in a way that highlights the features of the setting. I’d like to examine how Grey Ranks does this beyond just setting the game in a particularly tragic moment in history.
DEATH AND ROMANCE IN WARSAW '44
First of all, you can’t win this war. Warsaw is going to get demolished. You can’t change that. This story is not about winning or losing, it’s about how you cope with loss and the meaning of futile action. That’s a big pill to swallow on its own. But that’s just the beginning.
The core mechanic of the game revolves around moving on the Grid. The Grid monitors your character’s emotional state along two axes; Love - Hate, and Enthusiasm - Exhaustion. Each character begins the game in a different location. During a chapter, your character will move based on how they perform in their mission and personal scenes. The flow of the Grid tends to spin characters outward toward the corners. The corners signify Martyrdom, Nervous Breakdown, Derangement, and Suicidal Depression. The second time a character visits the same corner, they get written out of the game, be it through death or some other means.
As mentioned, in each chapter each character has one mission scene and one personal scene. However, since each character begins in a different spot, this means that each player will want to win or lose these scenes differently. And this is aside from whatever you want to see happen in the narrative.
This is the first instance of the strong theming in Grey Ranks. You can pretty much never have everything you want. In this case, you will often find your narrative desires for your character at odds with the mechanical stakes in regards to how the Grid is mapping out your demise. You can’t have both, and heartbreak will happen either way, so which is it going to be? Does this make it meaningless, or is there still purpose? This is your last cubic centimeter of freedom; what will you do with it?
But it doesn’t end there! Each chapter your character has two dice; one for each scene. But you get to choose which die goes to which scene. If you want your larger die for your personal scene then you will be left with your smaller die for your mission scene. Again, you can’t have everything, you must choose.
But even then, the dice for the mission get pooled and rolled together at the end of the chapter. So when you make decisions about dice, you aren’t just choosing for your own character’s fate, but for that of your whole squad. And then, you still may not get the desired outcome since everybody wants to move on the Grid differently.
And even then that’s not all! When you contribute a large die to the mission, you have to narrate failure on your mission scene (and visa versa for smaller dice). So, even a successful mission is rife with disaster.
These conflicted choices that are both good and bad layered throughout the design of the game are the key method Grey Ranks uses to create a strongly affecting tragic experience through play. When you make these choices you can’t do it simply based on winning or losing, because that’s unclear (and ultimately futile). You make those choices because you, the player, care about something because you find particular value in some detail of the situation. Or else you do it because you have to.
In these cases, the experience of making these choices is pushed onto the player’s personal values, who then has to make an active choice in the decision. Were these choices not conflicted, the player would be making a mere passive calculation for optimal result, and the spell would be broken.
I must admit now that I lied a little. Sometimes you can get everything you want… but only if you lose in some deeper more personal way. Each character has a Thing Held Dear, such as their faith, first love, or country. These are their core motivation for fighting, no matter the odds. These Things Held Dear can be Invoked, Threatened, or Destroyed in order to re-roll any single die rolled in a scene (if you want to lose) or replace a die with a d12 (the largest die in the game if you want to win). But here’s the catch. Only you can Invoke your Thing Held Dear, which grants you your trump die, if you will. But once you do, any player can Threaten or Destroy your Thing Held Dear, and they get the trump die. They might do that because they’re desperate, or because they don’t want to jeopardize their Thing Held Dear. Or perhaps for some narrative reason.
Your Thing Held Dear is your most vulnerable asset, and having it Destroyed is the worst thing that can happen to your character. Everybody knows this, and the decision to pull the trigger is in the hands of all players. This is crucial because everybody understands what it means. This is a very obvious point of empathy and sympathy for the character’s loss. The threat against your Thing Held Dear looms over you as it stares you down from the middle of your character sheet the whole game. And when it finally happens… well, the final chapters become so difficult that even when you get the d12 you still have only a one in four chance of success, but that's better than one in ten, or zero because the dice are just not large enough at the end. Near the end of the game, Things Held Dear are your only hope, and even then it probably won’t be enough.
This point of empathic contact is very significant, because this is a historical game, and as horrific as these circumstances were, they were the real lives of real people. The subject matter of the young lives within one of the greatest atrocities of modern history deserves to be treated with respect. Had this game been designed without the required emotional investment and the points of empathy I would wonder if these events were being used simply as a point of entertainment largely for people far removed from the reality of those events. Thankfully, Grey Ranks does treat the subject with the appropriate handling.
JOINING THE RESISTANCE
This summarizes the core of my Grey Ranks experience. It is a highly acclaimed game and is deserving of your time if any of this interests you. But if you do, here are five pieces of advice that we learned the hard way. I wish I had them at the beginning of our play.
When you are creating characters, read the criterion carefully. One quality they must possess in order to be a legal character is that they must be capable of hate. You will not be engaging with the subject matter if you are resisting it my disallowing your character to be pushed. This provides context for your character’s Reputations, which begin as immature traits that others see in them, but over time develop into a more mature expression. Mature does not mean good or positive, it means more conscious. These kids grow up very fast, after all.
The questions in personal scenes should be aimed at relationships. As in, changing them or developing them. The Grid handles your character’s inner state very thoroughly. While you’re at it, get to the romance often and early.
As a side note, my character’s strange hateful romance with another character was the most complex and real relationship I’ve ever witnessed in a story game before. Seriously, this game can do it, but you have to follow the rabbit down the hole.
Pursue your Grid-based objectives tenaciously, but do not collaborate with the other players. Let it be deliciously heartbreaking when it just barely doesn’t work out. Near the end of the game, or when one or more characters are close to being written out, it’s good to check-in and make sure everybody is okay with what’s transpiring on the Grid. It might be weird if a character gets written out before chapter six or so, and you may want to try to avoid that.
The advice for creating a mission is insufficient. When planning a mission, discuss as a group all of the interesting scenes you might play in that chapter, roughly in order. Things will go much more smoothly if you practice transparency in this department. You don’t have to know exactly whose scene will be in which order, but if everybody knows the outline then they will be able to time their personal scenes more effectively as well, and everything will be better for it.
Along those lines, a failure could mean “a costly success” or “a success with consequences” instead of “a failed or abandoned objective.” Sometimes you will need to make the objectives in order for the mission to remain coherent.
Check in with your fellow players often about how they feel about what is happening in the game. You will better understand how to involve the other players, and it will help clear the air if something particularly vivid happens in play. [Trigger warning: mention of animal abuse.] For example, early in our game some horses were slaughtered in the road to create an obstruction. This would end up being one of the most affecting scenes in the game, but it was only okay because we checked in first to ask if everybody was comfortable being pushed in that way. Remember, your characters are by definition capable of hate, and they are desperate and locked in a futile struggle. [End trigger warning.]
This is worth doing even if it means breaking the three session structure as prescribed by the text.
Though this is a serious game, I believe the experience is valuable I encourage you to try it. This was one of the highest payoff games I’ve ever played, and I have played many games. Gather some like-minded friends and brace yourselves, and give it everything you’ve got.
You can learn more about Grey Ranks here: http://www.bullypulpitgames.com/games/grey-ranks/.