[Grey Ranks] Joyriding in tanks and other skylarks that will get you killed

Started by GreatWolf, January 07, 2008, 09:47:57 PM

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Our Friday night group sat down and planned out the next stretch of roleplaying that we're going to do.  We agreed to give Grey Ranks a whirl and then head into Nine Worlds.  Should be fun.  So, last Friday, we fired up Grey Ranks.

For those of you who don't know, Grey Ranks is a GMless RPG set during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, where the Polish resistance forces unsuccessfully tried to liberate their capital from their German invaders.  You play teens in the Grey Ranks, which is essentially the underground Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of Poland, which had been outlawed in the wake of the German invasion of 1939.

You cannot change the course of history; Warsaw will still fall.  Instead, the game uses the Warsaw Uprising as a setting for coming-of-age stories about these teen characters.  I told Crystal that Grey Ranks is a romance story set in a war zone.  She looked at me funny, but I was being serious.  Grey Ranks is not about the war; it's about the effects of the war.  That makes all the difference.

Players and Dramatis Personae

Thank God for names lists!  Between the lists in the book and the Story Games Names Project, I felt like we had enough to work with.  Here's what we came up with:

Seth—Lech Dabrowska ("Gigant") from Wola.
Age: 16
Thing held dear: his First Love, symbolized by a locket with his girlfriend's picture.
Reputations:  Slow Thinker, Brutal
Starting Grid Location:  D4

Ralph—Henryk Leska ("Plug") from Wola
Age: 15
Thing held dear:  his Family, symbolized by his brother's shoes
Reputations:  Reckless, Unreliable
Starting Grid Location:  B2

Keith—Jerzy Teska ("Leon") from Old Town
Age: 16
Thing held dear: his Faith, symbolized by St. John's Cathedral
Reputations:  Coward, Naïve
Starting Grid Location:  B4

Crystal—Krysha Zwolinski ("Ola") from Old Town
Age: 15
Things held dear:  her Friends, symbolized by her journal
Reputations:  Mean, Bossy
Starting Grid Location:  D2

I noted to everyone that you don't have to start on different Grid locations, but we did.  In fact, Ralph assigned me D4.

So, yeah, I ended up with the big kid, a brooding loner with the heart of a romantic.

I'm playing myself.  How do I get stuck in these situations?

Session 1:  Resistance

Chapter 1:  Monkey-wrenching the Occupation

Gameplay is divided into Chapters.  Chapter 1 is actually a special prologue Chapter, similar in concept to Dogs in the Vineyars initiations, where you're fleshing out your character.  In Grey Ranks, your accomplishments aren't random.  Rather, this is an opportunity to get a feel for your character and to do some basic exposition of your character's personality.  Things Held Dear and Reputations are selected after Chapter 1, so you definitely want to showcase who you are so that this last step of character development goes well.

Also, at the beginning of each Chapter, someone at the table reads the Radio Lightning broadcast from the book, then each player selects a Situation Element from a list.  These are things like "A brother puts his foot down" or "Your parents want to kill me".  You don't have to include these in the Chapter; rather, they serve as inspiration for the Chapter ahead.  Chapter 1 has a special list, but, generally speaking, you choose based on your Grid Position.  There are 10 items per list, which ends up taking up a large chunk of the book.   I found these to be really helpful.  Just the process of selecting one for myself got the ideas rolling, but then seeing my selection next to the other players' selections sparked many ideas.

For Chapter 1, our situation elements were:

A brother puts his foot down
A letter authorizing the bearer to break curfew
Your parents want to kill me
Jerzy Nowicki, softspoken greengrocer who knows everyone

The situation quickly assembled itself.  We were being sent out after dark to retrieve a food shipment from Jerzy, which would then be squirreled away for use by the Resistance at some point in the future.

We each showed our true colors.  Plug was scouting ahead and ran into a German patrol.  He led them on a wild goose chase, eventually leading them into a cellar where dogfights were held.  He released the dogs so that they would attack the Germans.

Gigant ended up getting the job of carrying the food, since he's so big.  On the way back, one of the dogs that escaped from the cellar knocked him over, spilling the huge pile that he was carrying.  This frustrated him a great deal.

Leon was mugged by an old Pole who was starving.  Rather than resisting, Leon stabbed the loaf of bread that he was carrying onto the mugger's knife and then ran off.

Ola was generally bossy to everyone, ordering people around, even though she had no right to do so.  Then someone beckoned to her from a nearby alley.  It was Hans, a German soldier that she had been dating to irritate her parents.  He wanted to talk, but she blew him off.

Sigh.  Kids.

Chapter 2:  The Nazis Begin to Get Nervous

Ralph had an idea for this mission, so he became our mission leader.

Situation Elements:

Edmund Telakowski, dashing partisan and liar
A coward shows his true colors
A tightly bound collection of love letters, soaking in the gutter
A tearful farewell

Here's the situation.  The crew is walking near the German motor pool, when Plug and Stefan (a friend of his) get into an argument about whether or not they could steal a German tank.  Eventually, Stefan double dog dared Plug to do it.  The rest of the crew thought that this would be a good idea.  They'd steal a tank and embarrass the Germans.  High fives all around.

So, to distract the guards, they started a fight outside the motor pool.  In the chaos and confusion, Plug slipped into the facility and managed to find a tank, already idling.  (Ralph contributed a d4 to the mission pool.)

As he was sneaking toward the tank, Plug remembered the day that his brother left to join the Home Army.  Plug has always idolized his big brother, and he wanted to impress him when he was leaving.  (Goal of the Personal Scene:  impress my older brother).  Ralph succeeded on this roll, so, as John was leaving, he gave Plug "the talk" about being the man of the house and all that.  Then, as he walked out the door, he turned and winked at Plug.

Tanks are hard to drive, but Plug did his best.  On the way out of the motor pool, he took out one of the guard posts by running it over.  The other members of the crew started to pile onto the tank.  But Leon was stuck out in the open.  As the Germans began to open fire, he ran as quickly as possible for the tank.  Eventually, he grabbed the treads, using them to pull him up onto the tank.  Then Gigant pulled him aboard.  (Keith contributed a d6 to the mission pool.)

Gigant pulled himself into the tank and started yelling at Plug, who is all over the road.  Then they turned down a side street and found themselves staring down a German roadblock.  "Shoot at them!" Plug yelled.  Gigant tried to figure out how to use the main turret.  First he had to get it cranked around.  Then he tried to fire, but it was unloaded.  So he loaded it, got the turret turned around and fired!  (I contributed a d6 to the mission pool.)

Gigant struggles with figuring things out that he's not good at.  So this incident reminded him of last summer, when he spent a few weeks in the country on a farm.  The farmer took him out to the barn, gestured with a grunt, and then left.  Gigant didn't know what he was supposed to do.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  figure something out and do it right).  I rolled and succeeded, so Gigant was able to figure out that there was a hole in the barn that needed to be repaired, and he was able to do it.

Now, Ola had a plan.  She wanted to get the tank turned around and go after a German encampment of some kind.  Do some damage!  Make the Germans sorry!  Crystal contributed a d4 to the mission pool, and Ralph rolled.


Yep, target number of 12 and we failed.  This was actually pretty funny at this point.

So, Plug turned down a normal alley shortcut and got the tank stuck.  German forces were on alert, converging on our position, so Gigant put his foot down.  Time to go.  The crew abandoned the tank and made their escape.

Later, the crew was receiving a blistering rebuke from Edmund Telakowski, one of their superiors.  Plug was taking the credit for the idea, but Leon really didn't want to get in trouble.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  pass as much blame as possible to someone else).  Keith rolled and was successful, so Leon managed to come out look least bad of anyone in the crew.

Later, Hans came and confronted Ola.  He had been one of the guards at the motorpool, and he had recognized them.  So now he was blackmailing Ola.  Either she goes out with him or he will inform on them.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  make sure no one finds out I'm dating a German).  Crystal rolled and was successful, so she kept this secret...for now.

At the end of the Chapter, we adjusted our Grid positions, and Ralph singled out Gigant.  Why, you ask?  Because that would put Gigant into E5, the "suicidal depression" corner.  I'm playing a Goth Pole in World War II.  Great.

Plus, Gigant has now taken one step towards leaving the game forever.

Chapter 3:  The Uprising Begins

We decided to make Crystal the mission leader for this one.  So she told us that our mission was a courier trip.  Polish partisans in another part of the city needed a weapons delivery, and we were the ones for the job.

Situation Elements:

Some home-made vodka in shampoo bottles, terrible tasting but potent
An "abandoned" German tank, booby-trapped with explosives
Someone is lying and she is believing
A German-only theater in City Center

Before we were given our mission, Plug took his personal scene.  He and Stefan are outside the command post, drinking this home-made vodka and spinning "exaggerated" war stories for the girls who are nearby.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  make out with one of the girls.)  Ralph rolled and was successful, so Plug copped a feel before being called in for his orders.

Edmund Telakowski gave the crew its marching orders.  They were to deliver several crates of weapons to a group of Polish partisans on the other side of town.

Most of the route is through the sewers, but there's a stretch where the crew has to cross an open plaza.  When they get there, they find German soldiers forming up in the plaza, preparing to counter-attack a Polish position down the street.

So, Gigant and Ola are watching from the sewer entrance, waiting for the Germans to leave.  In the meantime, in the back of the group, Stefan and Plug are getting crazy again.  (Ralph contributes a d10 to the mission pool.)  "I'll bet we could take those Germans ourselves."  "Yeah, we have all these weapons."  They soon talked themselves into it.  Grabbing a couple of submachine guns, they burst from the sewers and opened fire on the Germans.  A couple went down, but the Germans quickly reorganized themselves and opened fire.  Plug got under cover.  Stefan wasn't so lucky.  He was transfixed by gunfire, body jerking before he fell backwards into the sewer.  "Run!" Gigant yelled.  The Germans charged forward.  One of them fired a Panzerfaust down the sewer, but the crew was clear.

But what a shambles.  Some of the weapons crates were lost, and Stefan was dead.

At this point, Gigant turned on Plug.  He jacked him up against the wall and began smashing him into it, over and over again.  Plug vomited cheap vodka all over Gigant.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  get control of himself before injuring Plug.)  I rolled and failed.  So Gigant went berserk on Plug.  It was only through Ola's intervention that Plug wasn't hurt worse than he was.

Ola took charge and started barking orders.  The crew formed up and tried an alternate route to their rendezvous point.  (Crystal contributed a d6 to the mission pool.)  So they cut through the burned-out ruins of the Jewish ghetto.

As they got closer, Ola sent Leon on ahead to scout the area ahead.  He slipped up and made sure that the coast was clear.  (Keith contributed a d4 to the mission pool.)  All clear.

Flashback.  It's four years ago, and Leon and Ola are playing hide-and-seek.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  impress Ola with his hiding skills.)  Keith rolled and was successful.  So Ola remembered how well Leon had hid in the past.  That's probably why she trusts him now with the scouting duties.

The last stretch of the trip involves crossing an open sewer.  It's not big, but it's deep enough to be a problem.  So Gigant finds himself hip-deep in sewage, passing weapons boxes and people from one side of the sewer to the other.  (Seth contributes a d6 to the mission pool.)

The dice are rolled; success!

The crew gets the weapons to the undergunned partisans that they were resupplying.  With the extra weapons, the partisans are able to drive back their German opponents.

Last week, Ola went on a date with Hans.  He brings her some beautiful clothes to wear, takes her to a nice restaurant, and even slips her into a German-only theater.  She hasn't seen a movie in years, and her resolve is beginning to waver.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  resist falling for Hans.)  Crystal rolled and was successful.  So, despite Hans' best efforts, he wasn't able to win over Ola.

We adjusted our Grid positions, and Crystal singled out Gigant to make sure that he got a better die for the next Chapter.  But that meant that Leon slid into Nervous Breakdown, visiting a corner for the first time.

Grid positions at the end of Chapter 3:

Gigant:  E3
Plug:  A3
Leon:  A5
Ola:  C3

Post Game Reflection

Playing this game was odd.  There's some specific constraints within the game, and yet, much of it feels almost freeform.  I've not actually played The Shab-al-Hiri Roach, but from what I can tell, this is a feature of that game as well.  So, maybe this is a Morningstar hallmark.

In particular, the GMless nature of the game is a little hard to grok at first.  There aren't actually assigned roles in the game, unlike Polaris or Dirty Secrets, so you need to be able to shift rapidly between playing your character and doing GM duty for everyone else.  At first, I was looking for more structure to guide this transition, but as the game went on, I became more comfortable with it.

I also found the lack of guidance about a "scene" to be challenging.  Personal scenes make sense, because they are usually self-contained.  But how much action goes into a mission scene?  The best answer, obviously, is "about one quarter of all the action in the mission", but that can be hard to feel out in the middle of the game.

Finally, I found the beginning of the game to require some heavy lifting to get things moving.  This may have just been my own problem, but I found myself groping at the beginning of the game for stuff to narrate.  Not surprisingly, as the game moved on, this became easier, because we had created material that we could then reincorporate.  It's like pushing a car; it's hard to get started but, once it's rolling, it's easy to keep it moving.

I don't think that this is a knock against Grey Ranks; I've felt the same when starting a game of Polaris.  Also, I had the additional pressure of teaching a game that I wanted the rest of the group to like, so perhaps my attention was divided up a bit.

Now, to be fair, the game has several tools to help you get things moving, both at the beginning of the game and for each Chapter.  The Radio Lightning introduction to each Chapter and the situation elements are really helpful to provoke inspiration.  I'm glad that these were left as inspiration and not mechanically enforced somehow.  I think that this would have been distracting.  Instead, they are just allowed to be grist for brainstorming, which is really cool.

We also really enjoyed the mission die mechanic.  I remember being somewhat skeptical when I first heard about it, but seeing it in play made me a believer.  After all, you generally want to succeed at your missions, right?  So you want to contribute big dice to the mission pool.  But how big?  If you give dice that are too big, you're just guaranteeing massive amounts of tragedy.  So, maybe you just contribute a d8 instead of a d10 and hope for a good roll.  But will that be enough?  A delightful tension.

I'm also coming to see how the Grid messes with the apparent simplicity of winning or losing scenes.  After all, maybe you're in a place where winning the mission will push you into a corner for the second time.  Or, to pick an example from our game, if Keith had lost his personal scene in Chapter 3, he wouldn't have ended up in the corner.  I think that it will become important for the players to learn to read the Grid to be able to make the best possible strategic choices.

No one has yet exposed their Thing Held Dear.  I came close, though.  If we hadn't won the mission in Chapter 3, I would have ended up in Derangement in E1.  So I was prepared to do what had to be done.

As are we all.  Next week we will continue Grey Ranks with Session 2: Uprising.

Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown

Jason Morningstar

Whoa, Leon is in trouble.  You've already got a guy on the verge of complete emotional collapse...and things aren't even truly hellish yet. 

Your comments on scene guidance are well-taken, and I've definitely seen people struggle with that.  Thing is, it always works out because it has to, which is kind of interesting - if somebody uses their Mission scene to describe what would normally be considered the goal of the mission, that's totally OK.  It can't be, unless they are the last person to go.  So you might need to get creative with pacing, or timing, or even causality.  I tend to be pretty loose about the definition of "mission", too - if you deliver the ammo to the barricade early, maybe the mission includes getting home in one piece. 

Thanks for the thoughtful write-up!  Your Crew seems really cool. 

One note - mission target number is scene number multiplied by the number of players, so for Chapter two, it should have been 8. 


Quote from: Jason Morningstar on January 08, 2008, 07:35:41 AM
Your comments on scene guidance are well-taken, and I've definitely seen people struggle with that.  Thing is, it always works out because it has to, which is kind of interesting - if somebody uses their Mission scene to describe what would normally be considered the goal of the mission, that's totally OK.  It can't be, unless they are the last person to go.  So you might need to get creative with pacing, or timing, or even causality.  I tend to be pretty loose about the definition of "mission", too - if you deliver the ammo to the barricade early, maybe the mission includes getting home in one piece. 

And it seems to be working out here, too.  Over on Story Games, Steve Segedy mentioned a facilitator's handout.  This should probably be an item on that handout.  It's cool if a group is supposed to find its own sense of how long a scene should be, as long as they know it going in.  (Personal design bias.)

One note - mission target number is scene number multiplied by the number of players, so for Chapter two, it should have been 8. 

How do you say "I'm dumb" in Polish?  Yeah, we played with a target number of 8; I just wrote it down wrong.

Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown

Ron Edwards

Hi Seth,

The thing I liked most about Grey Ranks, among many excellent things, is the arrangement of Action scenes within a mission. If I'm recalling correctly, anyone can call for someone else's Action scene, and in that way become a mini-GM for a bit. Only one person can call per chapter, and everyone gets one and only one Action scene. They can go in any order for characters.

This has lots of small effects that add up to a very usable, understandable, and flexible structure in play. For example, the relationship of the current Team Leader to the Mission can vary all the way from a dramatic act in the beginning to a desperate last-ditch bid for success in the end. For example, who "calls" and who "gets" narrows down through the mission until the last one is dictated in terms of players.

It also interacts nicely with the slightly more straightforward Personal scenes, because they are totally flexible in terms of placement, and a given player calls one upon himself or herself.

We played with four people, so every chapter had eight scenes. Every Mission was different in terms of "who goes when," and how Personal scenes related to that. My point is that arriving at that structure for each one was easy. It was neither dictated through some rigid formula, nor wide-open and thus subject to tedious negotiation.

The reason I'm bringing this up is because it means the person who really wants to frame a hot scene this minute can do so, and anyone who doesn't feel the spirit moving them this minute doesn't have to. And it gets easier after the halfway point of the Mission because so much has happened. The "frame you now" sorts can hop right in, and the "must have stuff to riff off" sorts can wait for it.

We found that Radio Lightning always provided inspiration for the Mission itself, so armed with this structured flexibility, scene framing was actually ten times easier for us than when playing Polaris or some other "you! now frame this!" games.

Did you and the others in this game really make use of that particular rules feature?

Best, Ron

Filip Luszczyk

QuoteHow do you say "I'm dumb" in Polish?

I suggest "Jestem glupi" or "Ale ze mnie jelop" for bonus sophistication. "Koziel, powiadasz?" is a good expression to use in such a situation as well.

However, in this particular context, we'd normally just use the all-purpose word.




Awesome!  Now I can try to mangle the pronunciation like an American!

Amusing story:  My brother-in-law is Polish.  (He emigrated to the U.S. at age 8 after his father spent three months in jail for being part of Solidarity.)  When I saw him for Thanksgiving, I mentioned how Polish is known as the "secret language", because it's so hard for non-Poles to learn.  He looked at me in utter confusion.  "It's simple.  Just look at the letters on the page and say them."  I almost laughed in his face.

Turns out he's right, though.  Once you know the rules, Polish is apparently easier to pronounce than English, with all its silly exceptions....


QuoteWe found that Radio Lightning always provided inspiration for the Mission itself, so armed with this structured flexibility, scene framing was actually ten times easier for us than when playing Polaris or some other "you! now frame this!" games.

Did you and the others in this game really make use of that particular rules feature?

Radio Lightning was quite helpful.  In fact, our Chapter 3 mission was framed straight out of Radio Lightning information.  It's a great tool, especially combined with the Situation Elements. 
As I've thought about it more, I've realized that this is a common issue that most GMless designs need to address.  "We have our characters, but now the situation needs motion."  And, oddly enough, the start of the Uprising isn't enough.  This is a change in the setting, but it's still up to the players to establish what this means for the characters.  (I'm running into a similar issue with my current design; I'll be posting about it in Playtest in the near future.)

Upon some reflection, I think that Chapter 1 was probably the hardest for me, because we were establishing our characters in play.  Since I didn't have a good sense of who my character was, I was trying to figure out what to do in the situation.  Combine this with my confusion over the "length" of a Mission scene, and I found myself a little adrift.  Once I got my Reputations and (especially) my Thing Held Dear, I had a better sense of what do this with this character.  (For example, Gigant is set up for a horribly tragic love story of some kind.)

I do agree that the interaction of Mission scenes with Personal scenes is quite powerful.  I made sure to stress to the players that they can call for Personal scenes whenever they want.  I suppose that I could simply view the "scene length" the same way.  In other words, just keep going until you run out of ideas or someone else frames another scene.

Now, maybe this is just my open personal hangup, and now I'm performing self-therapy on an Internet forum.  Dunno.  Am I alone in this?  I'd love to hear from other folks who have played Grey Ranks.
Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown


The mini GM capability of assigning someone a mission scene works pretty well.

In Chapter Two after careening wildly out of the tank park for my initial mission scene, and after Keith's mission scene of trying to get on the tank, I looked at Seth and said, "we've encountered a road block...shoot the gun! shoot the gun!".

In Chapter Three after getting my friend killed due to the tragedy of my d10 die, and after Seth's Gigant beat Plug unconcious for it, and after Crystal had her moment of bossing every one around to try and salvage the mission by taking an alternate route I looked at Keith and said, "Stephan's dead, I'm unconcious, Gigant is carrying the guns and me...guess who has to scout ahead for a safe way through the old ghetto..."

There are certain actions that just seem to follow as an "obvious" next step for the mission, and so far its been equally "obvious" whose character just has to get it done.

If we had to choose our own mission scenes that would suck.

Having to narrate the chosen mission scene when we've taken the "total tragedy" die also sucks...but in a very good way.