[Grey Ranks] Life in the ruins

Started by GreatWolf, January 21, 2008, 06:35:16 PM

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We finished up Grey Ranks on Friday.  We started off the night tired and dragged out.  Nevertheless, we managed to wrap up an incredible game with an incredibly powerful session.  (The previous ones:  Session One, Session Two

Session Three:  Disaster

Chapter 7:  Old Town Must Hold

Mission Leader:  Seth

Situation Elements:
Ralph:  A badly injured German soldier, Gefreiter Horst Kuhn, is hiding in a ditch
Seth:  We're about to be killed, we cannot wait any longer
Crystal:  A tearful farewell
Keith:  A coward shows his true colors

Mission:  smuggle elderly civilians, including Ola's mom, out of Warsaw.

We needed to get the civilians through German lines to the partisans in the woods outside.  The crew didn't know that Leon had sold them out.  So he was on point for this mission.  He went on ahead until he was challenged by German sentries.  He used the passphrase that he had been given to identify himself.  Keith contributed a d6 to the mission pool.  Then he lied to the Germans, telling them that the breakout would happen somewhere else.

I'll admit that I was on edge for this.  I was sure that Leon was going to sell us out.

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew was getting the civilians moving.  But they were elderly and couldn't keep up the pace.  So Gigant had to carry them to the edge of town.  I grumbled at Ralph for doing this to me and then donated a d4 to the mission pool.  So Gigant lugged the civilians, one at a time, across an open plaza, getting them to safety.

It's the previous winter.  Gigant is tossing pebbles at Honoratka's window at her house in Warsaw, trying to get her attention.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  Impress Honoratka.)  I rolled a d8 and failed.  I threatened my Thing Held Dear to reroll, but I still failed.  I knew that failing this personal scene meant that Gigant would be written out.  But I decided to let it go.  So Honoratka's window pops open.  The man standing there is not her father.

Gigant saw the locket lying on the ground.  Apparently it has torn off his neck while he was carrying the civilians.  So he picked it up and stuffed it in his pocket.

While in the German encampment, Leon tries to make off with a functioning German pistol.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  snag a working weapon.)  Keith rolled a d6 and failed.  So, while Leon made off with the gun, it was being field-stripped and was useless.

Ola and her mother crouched in the rubble of a building.  For some reason, Ola's mom decided that this was a good time to start arguing with her daughter.  Crystal sighed and contributed a d8 to the mission pool.  So the German patrol passing nearby heard them fighting and released the dogs.  Ola and her mom run.

Plug is nearby and sees this happening.  Flashback to earlier this week.  His brother is patched up as best as he will be.  His group is just about out of ammunition; they are all wounded.  Nevertheless, they are going out to the front lines.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  does Plug understand why his brother is making this sacrifice?)  Ralph rolled a d8 and succeeded.  So Plug stands up a little straighter and salutes as his brother fades into the distance.  Then he turns and walks the other way.

Plug knew what he had to do.  Ralph contributed a d4 to the mission pool and rolled. 


So Plug leapt from his hiding place and ran towards the dogs, distracting them from Ola and her mom.  Then he ran, the dogs hot on his heels.  The last camera shot is of his shoes, racing through the dark, with the feet of the dogs following close behind.  One of them jumped for Plug's back....

Meanwhile, back at the German encampment, a German officer entered the camp and told them that the information on the breakout was incorrect.  He directed the sentries to the proper location.

The firelight fell on the officer's face, revealing his identity.  Hans had made a deal, selling out the Grey Ranks in exchange for the lives of Ola and her mother.

All the civilians except Ola's mother were captured and executed.

Ola is pregnant, remember.  So she and her mom make their escape and are huddled in an alley somewhere.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  keep control of her emotions).  Much to everyone's surprise, Crystal rolled a d8 and succeeded.  So, Ola keeps herself under control.  There's still work to be done.

I singled out Gigant, which landed him on Suicidal Depression.  Plug  landed on Martyrdom.  This was the second visit for both characters, so they would be written out during their next scenes.

Chapter 8:  Old Town Falls and the Sewers Become a Highway

Mission Leader:  Keith

Situation Elements:
Ralph:  Igo Sym, a delightful Polish actor and Nazi informant
Seth:  A matched pair of simple white gold rings, bound with a lock of hair
Crystal:  Late for a funeral
Keith:  An empty Parabellum pistol

Mission:  Kill Igo Sym, a sympathizer who is undermining Polish morale.  Would they send children to do this?  Well, at this point, things are getting desperate....

It's the day after the disastrous escape attempt.  The sun is shining in a little rubble-choked plaza.  The German soldiers have a beaten and battered Plug.  They put him up against a wall.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  does Plug die bravely?)  Ralph rolled a d10 and failed.  So he threatened his Thing Held Dear and rolled again.  Failure.  So I destroyed my Thing Held Dear and he rolled again.  Failure.  So he destroyed his Thing Held Dear and rolled again.  Failure.  So I reached across the table and threatened Leon's Thing Held Dear, and Ralph rolled again.  Success!  (I'm pretty sure that's the proper order of all that.)

Yeah, we wanted Plug to win.

So, as the German guns come up, suddenly Plug straightens up.  He wipes his face and faces the guns.  In defiance, he shouts out in devotion to Poland.

The guns fire.

His body is thrown on a pile of bodies lying nearby.  After the Germans leave, some poor wretch steals Plug's shoes.

For this Chapter, Ralph converted one of Plug's reputations.  He had been "unreliable".  Now he was a "hero of the people".

It's the day after the disastrous escape attempt.  The sun is shining in an alley.  Gigant looks up as he hears the sound of gunfire.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  find the will to care).  I rolled a d4 and failed.  He is holding the locket, but it doesn't matter anymore.  He casts it away.  Then he blows his brains out.

Ola and Leon headed to where Igo Sym is supposed to be showing up.  Crystal contributed a d10 to the mission pool, so someone tipped off Sym.  He arrived with German soldiers, who open fire on the gathered Polish partisans.  It's a disaster.

The rest of the mission scenes fit inside this basic structure.

So, while Ola and Leon waited to launch their ambush, some of the Polish partisans start hitting on Ola.  It's been a while since they've seen a woman, and they get out of hand.  I contributed a d8 to the mission pool.  Tomacz, the third member of the crew, tried to intervene to save Ola.  It's what Gigant would have done.  But he is too weak and is beaten for his efforts.  As a result, when the ambush fails, he is shot and killed.

Leon actually started the fight.  He found himself in a perfect position to fire at Sym.  So he pulled out his stolen German gun.  Keith contributed a d10 to the mission pool.  Obviously, the gun didn't work.  Instead, Leon got shot for his trouble.

In the chaos and confusion, Ola saw a kid running by in Plug's shoes.  Ralph contributed a d12 to the mission pool and Keith rolled.


So, after the surviving Poles scatter, the German commander on the scene said to Sym, "We don't need you anymore" and executed him.

Leon sees the execution.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  does Leon avoid having a flashback of his mother's death?)  Keith rolled a d4 and failed.  So Leon sees the scene repeating over and over again.  So he crawls away into shelter and holds himself and cries.

Flashback to before the mission.  Hans has explained to Ola the nature of his deal with the Germans.  She has appeared before them and sworn fealty.  But that's not enough.  They need proof that she is seriously switching sides.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  does Ola hold fast?)  Crystal rolled a d6 and failed.  So she tells the Germans about the planned assassination of Igo Sym.

That's right.  Ola tipped the Germans off.

Keith singled out Leon.

Chapter 9:  The Soviets Reach the Vistula and Stop Cold

Mission Leader:  Ralph

Situation Elements:
Ralph:  dozens of Polish children are rounded up at their primary school and are being used as hostages
Seth:  an "abandoned" German tank, booby-trapped with explosives
Crystal:  In the back of an armored, 3-ton Chevy German postal service bank truck
Keith:  Betrayal

Mission:  rescue the Polish hostages from the school to allow the Russians to attack

Ralph framed the mission in a particularly heartbreaking way.  See, the Russians are just across the river, right?  Well, in Leon's head, the problem is that these Polish children are being held hostage.  So, if somehow Leon could rescue them, the Russians would attack and save them all.

So Leon gathered his weaponry and ammunition.  I contributed a d4 to the mission pool.  If Gigant could lug all this stuff, then so could Leon!  It wasn't really weapons, though.  It was empty bandoliers and grenade boxes full of rocks and stuff like that.  Leon was hovering on the verge of derangement, after all.  It made sense.

Ola was inside the school, trying to take care of the children.  Ralph contributed a d4 to the mission pool.  So the children were telling each other stories about Plug, the hero of the Uprising.  About how he stole a tank and attacked the Germans.  How he commandeered a German bomber and used it to airdrop supplies to the Poles.  How his brother was a general in the Home Army.  The stories kept getting bigger and more improbable.

The Germans were growing tired of all the noise from the children.  So they told Ola to keep them quiet.  Crystal donated a d10 to the mission pool.  So, Ola tried to tell the children about how she knew Plug.  But they didn't believe her, and began arguing with her.  So one of the German soldiers came back into the room and clubbed one of the children to death with the butt of his rifle.

Plug is in heaven.  He and his brother have their shoes off and are kicking their feet in the water.  They're fishing together.  Everything is good.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  Plug dies before realizing that it's a hallucination.)  Ralph rolled a d12 and was successful.  So Plus dies happy.

Now Leon attacked the school.  Keith contributed a d8 to the mission pool and rolled.

Failure.  Like we're really surprised, you know.

So Leon charged the school, throwing rock "grenades" and making all the sound effects himself.  A German soldier came out to see what was going on, and Leon pulled out his gun.  Much to everyone's surprise, there was an actual live round in the gun, and Leon shot the German soldier.  But it wasn't enough.  Leon was shot in the shoulder and captured.

Leon is all that is left of the original crew.  Everyone else is dead or turned.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  Leon avoids survivor's guilt.)  Keith rolled a d10 and failed, so Leon is left feeling guilty that he is still alive somehow.

Flashback to last summer.  Gigant is wandering out to this farm.  His parents made him go and he doesn't want to.  So he's in a bad mood.  Someone asks him to help carry something.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  have a good attitude at the farm.)  I rolled a d4 and failed.  So Gigant loses his temper and beats up the person asking for help.

Ola is now left with Hans.  (Goal of Personal Scene:  have a happy life with Hans)  Crystal rolled a d8 and failed.  So, instead, Hans is transferred out, but he leaves her in the care of one of his friends.  He is an awful man and turns Ola into the camp whore.  She is repeatedly gang raped by the Germans.  And then, one night, as she huddles in the corner of her room, someone tosses her a piece of bread.  She picks it up and sings, "Happy Birthday" to herself.  Happy 17th...

Ralph singled out Leon, which meant that he slipped through the Derangement corner and into Martyrdom.  So, Leon would be written out next scene.  Yes, technically that is in the epilogue, but it still worked out.

Chapter 10:  Capitulation

Chapter 10 is all about epilogues.  Where do the characters end up after the end of the Uprising?

Plug and Gigant don't get epilogues.  Or, rather, we played out their epilogues already.

Leon ended up in the same prison camp as Ola.  One night, he interrupted a German soldier raping Ola.  Leon had managed to make a shiv, and he used it on the soldier.  He stopped the rape, but he didn't kill the soldier.  Enraged, the soldier choked Leon to death.

Time passes....

It is now 1981.  Solidarity is beginning to shake the foundations of Polish society.  Martial law has been declared.  Once again, occupying troops walk the streets of Warsaw, but this time they are Polish.

Ola is now 54 years old.  She gave birth to a son, whom she named Leon.  She never told him the truth about his father.  Instead, she told him that she named him after his father, who died protecting her.

Leon's daughter is fifteen.  She's a feisty one, too, running messages for the developing Solidarity movement and engaged in other anti-Communist activities.  Reminds Ola a bit of herself.  She quietly encourages these activities, remembering her own youth.

But her granddaughter is still human and still needs love.  One day, Ola is at home when her granddaughter shows up at the door.  "Will you play a game with me?" she asks.

Smiling, Ola sits down at the table with her granddaughter.

The End

Final Grid positions:


Post Game Reflections




Playing Grey Ranks was one of the most deeply moving roleplaying experiences that I've had.  In a way, I think that it was a bit of a bonding experience for our group, similar to a previous experience that we had playing Primetime Adventures.  Maybe I'm reading a lot into it, but I think that this will go down in the annals of our gameplay as being one of Those Games.

Ralph had some good things to say over here about the Grid and such that I didn't want to get lost, and also because they bear repeating over here.  In short, the Grid=good!

Being cruel to your crewmates

Grey Ranks isn't all hippie improvisation.  There is a definite "screw your neighbor" angle to the game that is very interesting to me.  It manifests itself in at least three ways that I noticed:

--deliberately framing mission scenes that a player does not want to fail but, due to available dice, must fail

--Singling out a character

--Using someone else's Thing Held Dear

Ralph picked up on the first item fairly quickly.  Indeed, he seemed to relish the opportunity to make the other players squirm.  Particularly me, come to think of it.  Hmm.

The other items were really only used once apiece, and I did the using of them.

Ralph had discussed wanting a martyr's ending for Plug.  At the end of Chapter 7, I knew that I could save Plug by singling him out.  But, honestly, I wanted him to have a martyr's outcome.  I asked Ralph if that was a problem, and he rightly dodged the question.  It wasn't his choice; it was mine.  So I took it, singling out Gigant instead.

Then, during Plug's last stand before the firing squad, we really wanted Plug to win.  So much so that, as Ralph continued to roll badly, I used a Thing Held Dear slot off Keith's sheet.  Literally reached across the table and marked it off.  Keith wasn't particularly pleased by this, but such is life.

It occurs to me that Ralph and I were far more willing to put the screws to other players than Crystal and Keith.  I wonder what this says about us....0

A word on Chapter 9

Ola's sad fate in Chapter 9 deserves some special discussion.

Rape in games is dangerous territory.  Very dangerous.  There have been discussions in various forums about the use of in-game rape to play power games with other players at the table, especially female players.

So it's important to note that Crystal was the one who introduced the gang rape angle of Ola's fate.  I didn't sense any coercion on her part; she chose to go into that territory.

That bit about the bread and the birthday?  Crystal's narration.  That's where she chose to go with the character, and we went with her.  (By the way, it hurts me whenever I think of that part.  Even writing it up for this report was hard.)

Another word on bleakness

In my last report, I said, "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."  I figured that I would return to this comment, now that we have finished the game.

Yes, Grey Ranks is a hard game.  A very hard game.  But I would still argue that it is not bleak.  I would argue that, with the exception of Gigant, the various characters actually had good endings.  Consider the character arcs:

--Plug goes from being a punk kid with no sense of honor or responsibility to dying a martyr's death, sacrificing his life to save someone else.

--Leon goes from being a whimpering coward, afraid of a bum with a knife, to single-handedly attacking a German installation and, in the end, fighting a German soldier to save a friend.

--Ola goes from being a rebellious girl, intent on ditching her family for the sake of her peer group, to understanding and embracing both her family and her country.

Really, Gigant is the tragic figure in the game.  Perhaps if he had matured earlier, if Honoratka had seen his compassionate side emerging, things might have been different.  As it was, he was useful because of his size, but no one really connected with him.  In the end, he died alone.  And that, I grant, is heartbreaking.

Ralph said that this would have made an excellent independent film.  It would be in Polish, of course, and subtitled, but you'd be able to understand the underlying universal themes.  I think that he is right.

So, I stand on my opinion:  Grey Ranks is not a bleak game without hope.  And I think that my crew will stand with me.


Jason, it's a dangerous thing to connect the world of games to real-life events.  People can think that you're being flippant or disrespectful.  I know that you did not approach Grey Ranks in this way.  I know that you desire this to be a gesture of respect to the real Polish teens who gave their lives in the defense of their country.

I believe that you have succeeded.

This is a worthy testament to the boys and girls of the Szare Szeregi.

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

Jason Morningstar

I just posted a question about character death in the "chapter two" thread that was meant for here, I suppose - I'm particularly interested in how the players of dead characters interacted in later chapters. 

Thanks very much for this thorough and detailed write-up - it is enormously informative and compelling. 


I initially had some concerns about it.  I found myself in a position where it was almost certain (barring herculean effort) that I was going to wind up in my second corner (Martyr) after Chapter 7.  That meant I'd be going through 2 chapters and the epilogue...dead.  Seth assured me that wouldn't be a problem, so we plunged right in.

It really wasn't. 

My role as a player didn't change much.  I was mission leader for Chapter 9 even though Plug was dead.  It wasn't that hard to come up with a "mission scene" for Plug though it was clearly more of a reach than if he'd been alive and participating.

If this were a game that would be played more frequently, or if there's been more players written out earlier, then the "more of a reach" probably would get old as the "easy" options would quickly get used (and reused, and reused).

If that's a concern for you, then for the next edition I'd come up with either 1) a list of possible examples for participation that serves as a springboard or 2) change the function of how a player interacts with the mission when they're passed.


Some Random Comments

Hey, here's some additional comments about the game.

I love the bookmark.  I'd use it to mark the next section of Radio Lightning to read, plus I'd consult it to keep track of what we were supposed to be doing.  For some reason, I'd always forget something at the beginning of a Chapter, but then I'd glance at the bookmark, and there it is.

The game also led to an interesting exchange.  At one point, Keith made the comment that Crystal made two types of characters:  fluffy bunny characters, or character that she doesn't like and then destroys.  I told him that he wasn't right.  The game went on.

Then, a couple minutes later, Keith says to Crystal, "No, it's this.  You make a character that you do like, and then you destroy her."

Yeah, that.

In later conversation, Crystal commented to me, "The next step is when he understands that I identified with Ola."

Makes me look around the table and wonder.  Crystal was playing close to home.  What about the rest of us?  What were we saying about ourselves through our characters?

I See Dead Characters

Jason, I pretty much agree with Ralph.  Personal scenes were relatively simple, because you can always flashback to some past time.  Mission scenes were harder, though, because they needed to be in the present.  It was only a couple of Chapters, so it was possible to talk about other characters being "inspired by Gigant's memory" or discussing Plug's amazing exploits.  And, to be fair, a couple of those scenes were quite emotionally powerful.  I'm thinking here especially of the scene with the children talking about Plug's adventures, with Ola the turncoat listening to them all.

But, at the same time, it might have been difficult to keep up the pace if it had been more than a couple of Chapters.

Now, if the characters hadn't been dead, it might be different.  But I'm having a hard time seeing how to interpret "martyrdom" as anything other than a death.  I can even see "suicidal depression" theoretically not requiring a death, but "martyrdom" is a hard stretch.

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

Jason Morningstar

Thanks, guys.  I can definitely understand how an early death (there's a hard limit to how early it can happen based on grid movement, so it can never get too bad) would have the potential to get tedious with mission scenes. 

The bookmarks were a Gen Con freebie - sounds like I ought to print up some more.