Grey Ranks - Review

I had always wanted to try a ‘story game’, but was afraid to try. I didn’t think I’d have the creative wits to be any good at it, let alone enjoy it. So it was my great good fortune that my first exposure was via the amazing Grey Ranks.

Story games. A category of RPGs which used rules to facilitate collaborative storytelling. It is a category which I had been aware of for quite some time, but I didn’t dare have a go. I didn’t know anyone locally who played anything other than traditional tabletop RPGs, and although there were occasionally run at the ‘house con’ which I have the good fortune of attending, there were so many amazingly creative, cool role-players there that I was too intimidated to try.

Then in 2012 Betsy planned to run the following game:

“You are part of a group of teens who fight to free their city, taking up arms among the countless Grey Ranks “crews” in the disastrous 1944 Polish Uprising against the Germans. Your characters – child soldiers – have all the faults and enthusiasms of youth. Across sixty days of armed rebellion, they will grow up fast – or die. They will face difficult choices as they are drawn to the opposing extremes of love and hate, enthusiasm and exhaustion. Success or failure will pull them in unexpected directions, and where these strong currents intersect lie death and heartbreak. This collaborative storytelling game addresses mature themes.”

I couldn’t resist the opportunity, and that four-hour session was intense and emotional, and I was hooked.

About the game

Grey Ranks is by Jason Morningstar, and published by Bully Pulpit games. Playing the full game takes you through sixty days of the Warsaw uprising, using ten scenes of increasing difficulty (when I played we only had time for four scenes).

Your characters are simply drawn - a name, an age, a couple of characteristics and something you hold dear. In each scene every person has a personal scene and contributes to a mission scene. You’ve got a couple of dice and most of the time you decide whether you want to contribute the best one to the mission… or your personal issues. You are fighting together against the Nazis, but you are also teens thrown together in emotional circumstances.

As the scenes progress everything becomes harder as the grip of the invaders tightens. We know it is going to end badly, although the characters themselves do not. In desperation your characteristics mature, and you may invoke the thing you hold dear in order to get a bigger dice when you need it. But once invoked, anyone else can threaten and eventually destroy the thing you hold dear!

Crucial to play is a grid which reflects your characters emotional state - and mission success or failure and personal success or failure move your characters position around on the grid. The position on the grid gives lists of thematic elements for scenes you are in, and contribute a dice of a particular size for you to use. But as you move around you know that the corners mean death and an early exit from the story.

What I really like about it

This game engaged my emotions in a way I had never experienced while playing an RPG before. The combination of teenage emotions and the horrors of occupation and war were particularly telling. The fact that this was based on a historical reality added to the impact.

The ‘Radio Lightning’ resistance briefings at the start of each scene set out the mission and added to the atmosphere - especially the atmosphere of increasing desperation as the resistance was drawing to its unfortunate finale.

Seeing the character markers moving around the grid added to the sense of danger. It also complicated our individual decisions - if we could see that mission success would put us into a danger zone… do we prefer our personal scene to the mission scene in the hope that the mission fails and our emotional state moves to safety? But what does that do to our friends?

At the conclusion of the game, we all just sat and looked at each other. Each of us players had been moved by the experience of playing out the lives of these children, and seeing their tragedies unfold. We couldn’t just get up and walk away without discussing what the game meant to us.

It also gave me the chance to talk to a Polish colleague once I got back to work. She was surprised that I knew about this dark chapter in her country’s history, but welcomed the chance to talk about it.

I would commend to you this amazing game. On the Bully Pulpit website you can find more information as well as ‘actual play’ examples.