Comrades: a Revolutionary RPG by W.M. Akers

Monday, 22 June 2020 6-minute read

Of all the table-top role-playing systems I have come across, Comrades: a Revolutionary RPG by W.M. Akers is the most on brand for me. After having tried to instigate a Communist uprising as a subplot in almost all of the campaigns I’ve played in, it is nice to see a game where this is the main focus. The source book is even typeset in Garamond. This is the RPG I look forward to running most. I have not yet played this game, so my reflections on this system are from an initial reading of the source book, comparisons with games that I have run, and thoughts on why I love these kinds of stories in TRPGs.

As far as a preliminary review of the system is concerned, the game is based on the Powered by the Apocalypse engine, which is a rules framework derived from the game Apocalypse World by D Vincent Baker and Meguey Baker. PbtA games tend to favour streamlined rules compared to traditional games like Dungeons & Dragons, facilitate a more egalitarian sharing of narrative control between players and game masters, and emphasise a ‘fiction first’ style of gameplay where game mechanics respond to the storytelling to advance the plot rather than dictating what narrative options are available to players. To examine the way in which the aspects of the game satisfies these design principles would be pointless and tedious, because it obviously has these in spades. More interestingly, the game’s implementation of the PbtA framework, in which all players equal co-creators of the world through collaborative and reciprocal conversation, is well suited to the theme and aspirations of building a collective movement. I would really like to see a GM-less version of this to take the anarchic egalitarianism one step further.

To these ends, the game’s general mechanics are very well crafted and have the right flavour and tone for what Comrades is all about. I especially appreciate the way the source book suggests possible consequences to the various moves players can make as part of the explanatory text for it the game. This might actually make a GM-less implementation easier because it gives all the players at the table clear parameters within which they can achieve a consensus without having an authoritative referee. But the game shows a very clear sense of how these mechanics flow together without the excessive rigidity of the chained moves in a game like Jason Morningstar’s Night Witches. There are some irregularities, like the Student’s special move that allows them to cite esoteric knowledge and make it true in the setting, which, depending on the way the game is facilitated, is either redundant (because every player can effectively shape the fictional world) or disproportionately overpowered (as one character has a privileged ability to alter the fiction). Another one of the Student’s moves gains the player secret information, something which I avoid in my games.

But in contrast to the general mechanics, the character archetypes or ‘playbooks’, feel rather superficial, lacking a real sense of following through with the system’s narrative conceits. The playbooks feel stripped down to standard archetypes of an RPG party defined by their role within the group. The Artist, for example, uses art to inspire or console allies or charm other characters. The Student is an idealist with extraordinary talents. They lack in following through with the radical energies of the rest of the game. The Artist playbook, for example, doesn’t consider the ways in which art itself can be radical or what it means to make radical art; rather art is just a generic support skill. The Student, likewise, uses esoteric knowledge as a MacGuffin to change the fiction, but doesn’t really imagine what a radical pedagogy can be. Trade unions, similarly, is a passing bit of flavour text in one of the Worker’s abilities, and the playbook doesn’t reflect on the politics of work or the organisation of labour within capitalist society. It is possible for a creative interpretation of the existing moves reflect these aspects that the playbooks miss out, but that reflects how a player re-interprets the text rather than the game itself.

This is where my review of the system ends and my personal reflections begin: I find this superficiality with regard to the playbooks reflects the game’s wider obliviousness of different forms of radical politics. The introductory text begins with a series of polemical questions, many of which can be answered with some variation of the phrase ‘right here, where they should be’. The book’s lamenting the diminishing of armed resistance from the past is rather disinterested in the many forms of organising and work that have been ongoing, like in the trade union movement today, or across university campuses where students are forcing universities to reckon with the complicity of higher learning within an ongoing present of colonial violence. There is, moreover, something cloying about the machismo with which the game text is nostalgic for the armed violence of the Russian Revolution or Madrid or Barcelona in their stand against the Fascists, et cetera. The specificities and complexities of the social, political, and ecological crises we face today require more than just militant action, but a fundamental reorganisation of the way we see society and human (and non-human) life.

As a trade union activist and as someone who has seen the work done every day by students, activists, and organisers, I find the book’s exhortation ‘when did the Left forget how to fight?’ to be rather vexing. There are countless people who never stopped fighting, and stereotyping all of ‘the Left’ as a homogeneous, disorganised, and disengaged bloc is rather disappointing. It grossly neglects how other forms of radical action driven by a politics and ethics of care, for instance. Nevertheless, I share the frustration of seeing the supposedly progressive side of the aisle capitulate forensically to the status quo. I am terrified by the continuing ascendancy of fascist politics. I am fully sympathetic of the game as a response to today’s politics. This is why I want to play this game so badly, with the hope that, as Akers puts it, being ‘on the front lines of an imaginary revolution will steel you for the unromantic reality of fighting for change’. The kinds of stories that we can tell through a game like this would help us imagine what we want our world to be like, and the joy of escapist fantasy might give us pause to reflect on how we can make this a reality. It gives us an opportunity to learn about different tactics of resistance and activism. And it gives us a way of making struggle the language of our grief.