[Grey Ranks] The joy of soul-crushing defeat

Started by GreatWolf, January 15, 2008, 01:17:21 AM

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We gathered again to play Grey Ranks.  (Our last session is here.)  To kick things off on a cheery note, I played a portion of the Radio Lightning broadcast and the appropriate documentary clips from the Warsaw Uprising website.  Hearing the sound of the Stukas screaming from the sky was an appropriate mood setter for the evening.

Then, after an impromptu political discussion, we got down to brass tacks.

Session Two:  Uprising

Chapter 4:  Desperate Street Fighting

Mission Leader:  Keith

Situation elements:
Maria Dunajewsky, English teacher and dirty traitor
The Chestnut Café in the yard of the Deaf and Dumb Institute
A flamboyant bouquet of cheap flowers
A group of Home Army troops has been cut off and is trapped in the sewers.

The mission was immediately obvious.  Keith told us about the group of Home Army troops and how we were being sent to locate them and guide them out of the sewers.

(Side note:  on the Warsaw Uprising website, I read someone's account of being trapped in the sewers.  The Germans were dumping water and chemicals into the sewers to make them impassable.  Then, when people would come out of the sewers in German-held territory, soldiers were waiting to gun them down.  The man writing about his experience wandered for two and a half days in the sewers of Warsaw.  Cheery.)

So, of course, we sent Leon down the manhole first to scout ahead.  Keith contributed his d8 to the mission pool and told us how he ran into German sentries in the sewers and was captured.

In the meantime, I called for my personal scene.  Chapter 4 is the day after Chapter 3, so Plug and Gigant were still dancing around the fact that Gigant had beaten up Plug the day before.  So Gigant tries to patch things up with Plug, talking about how they could die today and he didn't want this sitting between them.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  patch things up with Plug.)  I rolled a d6 and failed, so Plug blew off Gigant.

At this point, the string that Leon was running behind him went slack.  Something is wrong.  So Gigant takes the crew's one rifle and an oil lamp and descends into the sewer to rescue him.  I contribute a d6 to the mission pool and say how Gigant is fumbling with the light and rifle, but manages to shoot the one German and knock the other one out by using the rifle as a club.  I'm making this sound all heroic; it wasn't.  Gigant was scared and desperate.

At the same time, Leon is cowering in the water, trying to be brave.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  don't be a coward)  Keith rolled a d4 and failed, so Leon yields to his cowardice while Gigant fought the Germans.

When the rest of the crew heard the gunshot, Ola ordered Plug to go down and help Gigant.  But Plug wasn't having any of it.  Ralph contributed a d10 to the mission pool and described how Plug actually deserted, walking away from the rest of the crew.

So Plug is outside the crew's HQ, grumbling and kicking at stones, when Edmund Telakowski comes out of the building, weapon in hand.  He sees Plug and wants to know why he isn't with the crew.  When Plug gives some moan story, Edmund knew that Plug needed some encouragement.  So he tells him about the need to defend Mother Poland and how the greater good requires his sacrifices.  (Goal of Personal scene:  Shore up Plug's flagging patriotism).  Ralph rolled a d6 and fails.  So Plug blows off Edmund, too.  Edmund stiffens and says, "At least I am doing my duty" and hurries off.

Well, Ola knows that she needs to go after Gigant.  So down the sewers she goes.  Crystal contributed a d8 to the mission pool and Keith rolled.


Crystal exposed her Thing Held Dear to reroll one of the dice, but it wasn't enough.

So Crystal narrated how Ola bumped into Gigant in the dark while he was dragging Leon out.  Since they couldn't see each other, Gigant lashed out, elbowing Ola in the forehead, knocking her out.  So, once again, Gigant is lugging something.  (I joked that one of his Reputations should have been "pack mule").

After the mission, Ola returns home to find a bouquet of flowers from Hans and a letter, saying how he could get them out of the city.  So Ola decides to lay plans with Hans to escape Warsaw.  (Goal of Personal scene:   use this opportunity to gather information to help her friends.)  Crystal rolled a d6 and failed.  So she threatened her Thing Held Dear for a d12 and the reroll, which gave her success.  So she did the right thing, although she wrote about her moment of weakness in her journal.

I think that Crystal singled out Leon to get him further away from the corner, but I don't remember for sure.  (I forgot to include this in my notes.)

Keith deliberately set himself up to fail his Personal scene, because of his Grid position.  Otherwise, he would have visited a second corner and been written out.  This would not be the first time that Grid strategy would shape our stories.

Chapter 5:  The High Water Mark of the Uprising

I was the mission leader for this Chapter.

Situation Elements:
A root cellar containing a happy surprise
Mother, we're young and need to have fun
A picnic basket with chocolate bars, salami, fresh fruit, wine, and a glass container of laudanum

The mission was straightforward.  Somehow the Germans had discovered our crew's little HQ.  We needed to evacuate and re-establish ourselves somewhere else.

We jumped right into the middle of the action.  Here come the Germans!  Edward started barking orders.  Ola leaped into action.  Crystal contributed a d6 to the mission pool and described how Ola destroyed various sensitive documents that we didn't want in German hands.

Meanwhile, Plug had run outside to try to stop the Germans.  He and Danka took up firing positions and began firing at the oncoming Germans.  Ralph contributed a d10 to the mission pool and described how Plug actually managed to get one of the Germans.  But when he turned to Danka to celebrate, she was spread-eagled in the middle of the road, already dead.

Gigant takes his personal scene.  He's holding a club and is about to charge into combat.  He pulls out a locket from under his shirt and kisses it.  Flashback to last summer on the farm.  Gigant is sitting at dinner, talking to several of the other students on the farm.  One of them is a girl named Honoratka, who happens to be Danka's sister.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  impress Honoratka in conversation).  I rolled a d8 and failed, so I exposed my Thing Held Dear and rerolled with a d12.  Success.  So, despite some social awkwardness, Honoratka actually finds Gigant endearing.

Edward grabs Leon.  "Distract those Germans!  Now!"  With that, he gave Leon a shove into the street.  The Germans saw him, and there was only one thing to do:  run.  Keith donated a d6 to the mission pool.  So, Leon gave them a good chase, eventually leading them into the cellar with the dog fight pits.

Meanwhile, Gigant suddenly sees Germans coming out of the HQ building, dragging Edmund with them.  They are forming up an impromptu firing squad.  I contributed a d8 to the mission pool, and then I rolled.


So I narrated how Edmund looked up and made eye contact with Gigant, who could only watch in horror.

A sound of gunfire.

The crew was scattered to the four winds without central command and communications.

Leon is foraging for food while he is out in the city.  He spies a basket of food on a window sill and decides to steal it.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  have the food be from a German, not a Pole.)  Keith rolled a d8 and succeeded.  So Leon makes off with the food, having not compromised his principles.

After the demoralizing defeat, Ola flees back to her home.  She is discouraged and really just wants to connect with her mother.  Sure, she's been trying to make her parents mad, but now she suddenly wants their love and attention.  So she goes to her mom and wants to spend some time, playing a game like they did when they were younger.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  connect with her mother).  Crystal rolls a d4 and fails.  So Ralph destroyed her Thing Held Dear to have her reroll with a d12.  She still failed.  So Ola's mother is too busy with important work and cannot spend the time with Ola.  So she goes up to her room in utter despair.  She takes her journal and throws it away.  Her friends are lost to her.  Her family no longer cares.  Only one person really cares about her anymore.


I singled out Plug for this Chapter.  I don't remember why; he may simply have been the least bad of the available options.

Ola's personal scene was fascinating.  By having her Thing Held Dear destroyed (her friends), she was actually turning her back on her peer group.  It could have been a moment of reconciliation and restoration with her family.  It could have been a moment of growing maturity.  Instead, the moment passed, and Ola fled to the arms of Hans.

For myself, I needed to win that personal scene.  Otherwise, there was no way to save me from being written out.  Singling me out would have only changed how I went out.  Again, the Grid drives our game choices.

Chapter 6:  German Tanks against Home-made Rifles

Ralph was the mission leader for this Chapter.

Situation Elements:
British and Polish Air Force are making poorly-aimed supply drops
A hole dug in to the foundation of the Peiffer tannery
The ruins of your living room
Somebody is pregnant

The mission wasn't really a formal thing.  Instead, the crew is working on its own initiative, trying to recover some of the air-dropped supplies that landed in German territory.  We're running out of food, and we're hungry.

Ralph calls for his personal scene right away.  Plug is at Ola's house, trying to find her.  Instead, all he finds is rubble.  The Stuka attacks of the day before have leveled the house.  He scrambles through the wreckage, looking for her.  Instead, he finds the journal and, reading it, discovers about Hans.  (Goal for Personal Scene:  go rescue Ola.)  Ralph rolled a d8 and was successful.  So Plug heads off to find Ola and rescue her from Hans.

So, Plug and Gigant are heading into German territory.  Gigant is carrying a machine gun that he took from a dead German soldier.  So, when they find a group of German soldiers working on recovering an air-dropped crate, Gigant sets up and opens fire.  I contributed a d10 to the mission pool.  So, sure, Gigant gunned down the Germans.  But he went berserk, shredding the crate into splinters with the machine gun and attracting the attention of a nearby halftrack.

On Black Saturday, the SS caught Leon's mother out in the open.  Leon was nearby and tried to help.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  save mother from SS.)  Keith rolled a d4 and failed.  Leon watches as the Germans gun down his mother.

Leon was captured, and now the Germans are pumping him for information.  Keith contributed a d10 to the mission pool.  Leon broke down and spilled everything.  Names, places, all of it.  Troops were dispatched to various locations, including Ola's house, where they captured Ola's mother.

Crystal was very clear that there was a veil over the next scene.  But Ola and Hans sleep together.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  don't get pregnant.)  Crystal rolled a d6 and failed.  So Ola is now pregnant with Hans' child.

Ola and Hans poked their heads out of the tent in the German encampment to see Ola's mother being marched in one direction with an interested officer reading Ola's journal walking in the other direction.  Ola begged Hans for help.  Crystal contributed a d8 to the mission pool and narrated how Hans was able to get her mother free by knifing one of the other German soldiers.  But the Germans now have the contents of the journal, including Hans' identity.

Flashback.  It's the last night on the farm, and Gigant is going to have to say goodbye to Honoratka.  Of course, it's that first awkward kiss thing.  (Goal of Personal Scene: kiss Honoratka.)  I rolled a d6 and failed.  Honoratka is sorry (and probably a little flustered).  She just wants to be friends.

Plug disguised himself in a German uniform taken from a dead soldier and worked his way into the German camp.  Ralph contributed a d8 to the mission pool and rolled.


So Keith exposed Leon's Thing Held Dear for a reroll with a d12.


Well, it's about time.

So Ralph narrated how Plug was able to locate Ola, just as she was leaving with Hans.  So he didn't actually make contact with her, but he was able to steal a halftrack with food and such in it and drive it back into Warsaw.

In the meantime, Leon was still sitting in the German camp.  Looking out the window, he could see the sun glinting off the spires of St. John's Cathedral, and he cursed his cowardice.

I think that Ralph singled out Leon, but I don't remember for sure.  The important take-away point is that we stared at the Grid, trying to figure out the best possible dice that we could eke out of the Grid and eventually singling out whoever it was on the basis of that dice strategy.

I know that I don't have the order of those personal scenes quite right, except for Ralph's.  Oh well.

Post Game Reflection

Yeah.  It felt much better this time around.  Jason was right; things do start clicking more in Session 2.  Here are some thoughts from the game.

I found that chronology was important.  Chapter 3 is Tuesday, August 1.  Chapter 4 is Wednesday, August 2.  Chapter 5 is Friday, August 4.  Chapter 6 is Monday, August 7.  In other words, Session 2 (Chapters 4-6) is only five days long.  And yet it takes up a third of the game.  The power that only a few days can have on a life....

Additionally, it meant that there wasn't a lot of time to resolve long-term issues and grudges.  So, for example, you see the immediate aftermath of Gigant's assault on Plug.  Time may heal all wounds, but there's actually not a lot of time in Session 2 of Grey Ranks.  The action comes fast and furious, and the emotional impact can be a little overwhelming, actually.

Anyways, the upshot of all this:  pay attention to the dates in Radio Lightning.  They are an important part of the fiction.

In other news, we started wrapping our minds around the system.

This is a seriously slick game.

First, the escalating difficulty meshes nicely with the dice probabilities.  The game gives the players the tools to grab the larger dice, mostly by pushing Reputations.  Of course, that won't be quite enough, but it's not quite as overwhelming as it first appears.  Instead, the escalating difficulty enforces the necessity of constantly developing your Reputations and improving your Grid position.  Plus, in a pinch, you can always burn extra Reputation dice to grab that big d10, and there's always all those Things Held Dear out there.  Now, we haven't hit the crunch of Session 3 yet, but at this point, I'd say that the difficulty number for missions usually feels just barely out of reach, but never completely impossible.  I'll let you know if I still think this after Session 3

We also figured out that you could somewhat dictate the outcome of a mission scene, simply by noting which dice were available to a player.  So, if my remaining die is a d10, you know that whatever mission scene you give to me will end in abject failure.  Therefore, you can hand me a mission scene that you would like to see end in failure for dramatic reasons and be assured that it will go mostly the way that you think it should.  This is very cool.  We used this to good effect, as I will discuss in a moment.

The Grid is a work of genius.  Jason, our hats are off to you.  At the end of the game, Ralph picked up the Grid and said that the thought process that produced the Grid was totally alien to him.  Never in a thousand years would he have thought of something like this.  I concur.  (Yes, I know that Dirty Secrets has a Grid.  That's different.)  The Grid is so central to the game, and yet it took us all of last session to come to understand why.

First, the Grid gives you reasons to choose failure.  Too much of either failure or success is bad.  Staying near the center is better.  Sometimes, this means trying to fail either your personal scene or the mission.  So far, I don't think that anyone has tried to spike the mission for his own benefit; personally, I think that we would probably gut anyone who tried.  Uh, not to be violent about it or anything.  But Keith actually needed very badly to fail a personal scene to keep Leon in the game.  Of course, the results in the fiction aren't really pretty.

Second, the Grid incorporates a fairly nasty death spiral, but in a completely productive way.  If you look at the Grid, you'll see that the upper left corner has better dice than the lower right corner.  Sure, extremes are dangerous, but, if you need to pick an extreme, enthusiasm and love are generally more productive.  Of course, moving this direction requires success on both mission and personal scenes.  As you lose, you slip lower and lower on the Grid, which gives you worse dice, making it harder to climb out....  It's possible to break out using Reputations or Things Held Dear, or you can be really daring and slip through a corner, so you're not completely trapped by the death spiral.  However, I was impressed that the engine that runs the game is actually a death spiral.

Again, Jason, we salute you.

A word on bleakness

At this point, I figured that I'd give a special word to the reputation that this game has earned as being bleak.  It is certainly heavy material, and the situations are often intense and heavy.  However, I do not think that it's fair to depict this game as being bleak and hopeless.  In fact, there's an odd joy in crafting a good heartbreaking scene.

Gigant's mission scene in Chapter 5 is a perfect example of this.  Ralph looked over at my sheet, saw that I only had a d8, and said, "Here's your scene.  They're dragging out Edmund and putting together an impromptu firing squad.  They're going to fire in five...four...three..."

There was nothing that I could do.  We both knew that; it was a d8.  But it was exactly the right scene, for both the situation and the character.  As soon as Ralph framed the scene, I knew what needed to happen.  So while Ralph was counting down, I described Edmund meeting Gigant's eyes, and then the gunfire.

Crystal said, "That's horrible!"  Ralph and I gave each other a fist pound.  Because, yes, it was horrible, and yes, Ralph technically backed me into a corner.  But it's a corner I wanted to be in, and it was a well-played scene.  And, regardless of emotional weight, there's something profoundly satisfying about a well-played scene.

Next week we will wrap Grey Ranks with Session 3:  Disaster.

Postscript:  A Funny Story

Each time that we start, Ralph says, "So, tonight is the night that we beat the Germans and kill Hiter, right?"  Because, secretly, he's hoping that somehow we'll be able to change history and save Warsaw somehow.  So, this night, someone pointed out how we couldn't end the game by killing Hitler, because the difficulty number would be too high.  Without missing a beat, Keith says, "Then we should have tried to kill Hitler back in Chapter 2."

(edited to add link to previous session report)
Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown

Jason Morningstar

Hey Seth,

It sounds like you did some homework, looking up the Uprising on the Web.  Was that helpful?  Did it inform your play?  I'm interested in the experience of players approaching the game with no knowledge of the events, or varying knowledge.  Can you comment on this?


Let's see.  Way back when you were first talking about Grey Ranks, I did some reading up on the Uprising.  That's part of what informed my desire to play.  However, I still have internalized only a very little bit, comparable to what you include in the book.

During our first session, I breezed over the history, discussing just enough for people to get a sense of what was up.  In talking after the game, Crystal indicated to me that some more information might be helpful.  So I went back to the Web, mostly to find a timeline.  That's when I stumbled on the Radio Lightning broadcast and realized that a couple of the documentary clips applied directly to our session.

As far as the group goes, I still know the most, but not really all that much.  I think that the big deal is gathering a "look-and-feel" for what is going on and the general animosity.  But, really, the game is about coming of age in a war zone.  It could almost be any war zone, I would think, and still function as a game.

Does that answer your question, Jason?
Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown

Jason Morningstar


This game sounds very interesting - where can I find more information on it?
I especially like how you explain the grid mechanic.
There is no true power with but one edge.

Penetrator - WIP, Cyberpunk/Sci-fi RPG


I'll let Seth polish off the third AP report for this game, which we finished off this Friday.

I'll just say this:

Jason, this game is a true work of design genius.  As with any game tackling emotionally intense subject manner and relying on fairly open mechanics, it does require a group with a willingness to engage the topic and a certain basic talent with improv; but unlike many improv heavy games this one is not just free form with some transparent "get out of the way" mechanics thrown in.

The Grid is one of the single most incredible RPG innovations I've ever seen.  I can't imagine how it could could have been designed any better.
The die distribution on the grid is key.  In order to maintain the higher die sizes you have to continue to win, but the difficulty keeps the pressure up and as the losses mount, the die sizes shrink making further losses and begining to "circle the drain" of Suicidal Depression all but inevitable.

The "outs" in the corners that let you wrap to the other side of the grid keep this death spiral from being pointlessly hopeless, but this requires either the cooperation of the Mission Leader to single you out or taking the leadership role yourself.  And God help you if two players find themselves needing to pop through on the same Chapter.

But having all the border cells wrap would have been a mistake...maybe not a "break the game" mistake, but definitely not as effective.  Choosing to only wrap at the corners was exactly right, even though the grid is square, the piece movement becomes very circular as a result.

The labels at the corner are perfectly identified.  I tried to think if I could come up with a "better" phrase for any of the corners, and nope...not only were they thematically appropriate and tied sensibly to the win / loss combinations, they mapped over darn near perfectly to the fiction we were creating...in both directions.  Meaning the corner labels informed how we played, and how we played matched up eerily well to the movement of the pieces on the grid.

Having a list of setting elements that may be incorporated into each chapter was good.  Tieing different lists to each grid position was positively inspired.  I also would have been sorely tempted to have the elements do something more than just "being there"...like making them manditory or tying them to die selection or some mechanical link.  NOT doing that was the right choice.

Knowing the direction you need to move to both maximize your dice and map out a wrap to avoid that second corner adds a much appreciated strategic element.  Even though it doesn't directly map over to the fiction, it FEELS like a planning session you and your mates might have over a dirty map by dim lantern light planning out a strike against the Nazis and realizing the odds are slim.  A great example of how a mechanic can add enormously to the theme of a game without being a direct sim of anything.

I could come up with a dozen mechanics for bringing emotional content and mental state into the game with some mechanical reinforcement.  I never in a million years would have hit upon this solution.  Rarely does a particular mechanic strike me as being absolutely, flawlessly, perfect at doing what its meant to do in a game.  The Grey Ranks grid is such a mechanic.  Kudos.


Reithan, check out the official website for information, links, and whatnot.

And I totally agree with Ralph.

Final AP is coming real soon now.  Maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow.
Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown

Ron Edwards

Seth, that's a really good point about the chronology. When we played, we didn't pay much attention to that, and the next time, I think I will make a special effort to do so.

Best, Ron

Jason Morningstar

Thanks for the praise, Ralph, that means a lot to me. 

I was careful about picking dates with the intention of mentally pacing the game.  Most of the narratives I read were similarly sequenced - you'd get a solid half or more that took place over a single week, with slower sections on either end.  I wanted to emulate that.  In retrospect I probably should have called more attention to this.

It looks like character death didn't cause any problems for you guys in later scenes, but I'm interested in how players of dead characters interacted late in the game - any thoughts on this?

Paul T

I just wanted to say...

This AP led me to check out the website for the game, and from there I jumped over to watch the little "demo" that's linked on YouTube. What a brilliant idea! I loved it--a great way to explain, demonstrate, and advertise your game. Great stuff!

(Has anyone else done a video demo?)


Ron Edwards

I believe I may have begun that particular deal with Spione, Paul. Since my current videos on the site are actually from older playtesting, I haven't been talking it up much. I need to get it updated.

Best, Ron