Games That Capture a Moment in History

edited October 2008 in Story Games
I am new to the whole story game movement (if, indeed, movement is the right word for it), and I find myself wholly fascinated with Grey Ranks. I’ve not played it yet, but I’ve been reading through the play reports while waiting for the opportunity to order myself a copy. It seems, from the reports, an unequivocal work of genius. What fascinates me most, however, is the limited scope of its background. 60 days. Period. No matter how many times you play, you’re still playing within the same 60-day window. :mindboggle:

Before coming across the idea of story games I would not have thought such a brief window could inspire much in the way of a game – a single scenario, sure. Now, though, I find myself wondering what other time periods (read Antiquity, which I enjoy far more than WWII) this framework might apply to – especially in terms of re-playability and the verisimilitude of scenario ideas within the window in question.

Would the structure of Grey Ranks work, say, in a more combat-oriented simulation? Perhaps in a game based around the Battle of Thermopylae, with characters as allied Greeks or Spartan helots? Or perhaps around the Athenian siege of Syracuse, where characters are young Athenian soldiers coping with savage hand-to-hand fighting, disease, and the horrors of an eventual defeat? The possibilities seem endless, but how much does our shared history of WWII play into the audience’s appreciation (enjoyment?) of the game? Is Antiquity too remote for the same emotional response to be felt by modern players?

In any case: bravo, Jason!




  • Thanks for the praise! You should look at Frederik Jensen's game Montsegur 1244, which is shares a similar intense focus with Grey Ranks but is otherwise a completely different and more awesome animal.

    I know the structure of Grey Ranks could be ported to other settings - the key ingredients are the intersection of coming-of-age and total war. I hadn't considered antiquity but it would probably work just fine (my top three: Berlin '45, the Baltic states '52, Lwów '18). I think there is something to be said for familiarity - we all know what a mid-century city in central Europe is "supposed" to look like, we're all familiar with the tools with which the second world war was fought. But beyond that stuff, which is easy to provide, I think the underlying themes are pretty timeless. If you decide to hack the game, let me know!
  • edited October 2008
    It's praise well-deserved, Jason. You'd mentioned in another thread that you were on the verge of reprinting Grey Ranks. Any clue when that will be? If it's going to be a while I'll go ahead and order a copy today . . .

    And, thanks for the link to Montsegur 1244! That sounds like another game right up my alley. I'm torn, though, between experimenting with a story game concept or writing something more traditional based on my own novels (two ancient historical, one historical sword-and-sorcery). I guess I could combine the two: a story game concept based upon my own IP. Ack! Indecision . . .

    Anyway, I like the notion of the Athenian siege of Syracuse in 415-413 BC; the characters will be rather older than in Grey Ranks (I believe the absolute youngest soldier in the invasion force would have been 20 -- the youngest age class and the eldest would have stayed behind as part of the "Home Guard"), and in some ways they were far more accustomed to war than we are now, especially as the expedition to Sicily occured during the second phase of the Peloponnesian War, after the Plague Years at Athens. It might be hard to intersect coming-of-age with total war in a Greek setting. But, hey, challenges rock ;)

    Thanks, again!

  • edited October 2008
    Wow, if you've got books, I would definitely use that asset. Make things that tie it all together, so readers are drawn to the games and gamers are drawn to the books. That's a really valuable synergy. What a cool opportunity.

    Regarding Grey Ranks, there shouldn't be much of a dry spell in availability and it is ever available from Lulu, and in .pdf format.

    I'm unfamiliar with the siege, but if I was hacking Grey Ranks into that situation I wouldn't make the protagonists the soldiers on either side. I'd make it about the youngsters on the defending side who were considered too young to fight (whatever that means for the culture), but who end up fighting anyway.
  • Games in a historical context must have player freedom somewhere. No matter how much you as the designer is in love with the place, time, conflict and juicy details, this must come across to the players as an experience that they can relate to with little up front effort. The story that will drive the players into your game world is based on human experiences that span the eons: love, war, growing up, the lot. Carefully decide where the players can bring their own creative energy to the table. Too many details and the players will be afraid to improvise and take creative ownership of the story. Too few details and you get a generic, archetypical story.

    The trick I use in Montsegur 1244 is to make template characters that covers children, teenagers, adults and old people of both sexes, building a society with timeless content such as family relations, love, war, death, adultery, envy, treasure, obedience, religion, child birth.

    If you want to do a war story, then think of why you want to do a war story in ancient Sicily rather than in WWI or II? In what sense does the setting matter? To what degree can you reuse the structure of other war stories (honor, bonding, longing, fear, pain, death)?
  • Hi Frederik! Montsegur 1244 looks great; I eagerly await its release!

    Thanks, too, for giving me much to think about. The tropes you mention (Honor, Bonding, Longing, Fear, Pain, Death) all would work great in a setting based on ancient Greek warfare. The only one missing from the list is Glory. Having Glory attached to ones name was the way to alleviate the otherwise bleak Greek afterlife, and it often spurred men on when Fear, Pain, and Death sought to hobble them. It didn't always work, of course. But that dynamic of Death vs Glory has long fascinated me (it was the theme of my first novel).

    Probably I would choose exploring the ramifications of war in an ancient setting over one more modern because, through self-interest and professional research, I understand ancient warfare better. But, your points, and Jason's, are well-taken. There must be room in the design for each player to take ownership of the story. I very much like the notion of character templates -- would something like the oracles from IAWA work equally well? "A young Athenian soldier, untested, pining for Glory", that sort of thing? Then give the players what tools they'll need to flesh out the skeleton.

    Jason: unfortunately, in hoplite warfare there's not much a non-combatant can do. Even light troops, such as slingers and archers, were generally highly-trained. This particular siege started with an amphibious assault on Syracuse, an ally of Sparta, that gained the Athenians little; to my recollection, the Athenians never breached the city's walls, nor ever fully blockaded the harbor; starving them out was impossible. Both sides fought a ground war over the small fort that commanded the heights above the city (complete with night assualts and the building of walls and counter walls). Finally, the Spartans sent a single man who whipped the Syracusans into shape and led them against the demoralized, diesease-ridden, and poorly-led besiegers. It ended in complete disaster for the Athenians; what few men survived the battle were kept as slaves in the quarry of Syracuse until they died or were ransomed. This defeat probably hastened Sparta's victory over Athens. I like the idea of telling the story from the Athenian POV, as tragedy makes for the best drama, though this was before the days of great herds of camp followers so the soldiers' POV would be the default.

    One thing I'm toying with where my books are concerned -- just the most recent, actually: it's due out in early 2010 from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press -- is a story game that fills in the blanks, so to speak, of the novel. The book is "historical sword-and-sorcery" set in Cairo in roughly 1169 AD, Robert E. Howard-inspired with overtones of the Arabian Nights and ancient Egyptian sorcery. The book takes place over a five day span of palace coups, civil unrest, the approach of two hostile armies, and a looming siege. Perforce, it chronicles the deeds of the great. What if the game version followed the lives of the people in the streets during the same five day window? Cairo teems with people of all sorts, and their personal stories would be legion. It might be the way to go . . .

    But, I'm rambling ;) Thanks, once again, to both of you. You've given me much to consider.


  • Posted By: ScottOdenI very much like the notion of character templates -- would something like the oracles from IAWA work equally well? "A young Athenian soldier, untested, pining for Glory", that sort of thing? Then give the players what tools they'll need to flesh out the skeleton.
    You've got function and motivation - now you need relations.

    Coup d'etat over five days in medieval Cairo sounds extremely cool. But why would the players not play characters central to the events? A coup d'etat is a pivotal point in time where values are tested. Will your side prevail, will you die trying, or will you give in to another point of view?

    Check out 1001 Nights as well, now you are talking about Arabian Nights and telling stories about a society. It is not about historical depth, but an example of player freedom inside a tight setup.

    Good luck with your books. And thanks for your interest in Montsegur 1244 - it gives an extra push for finishing the English version.
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