Sons of Liberty rocks on toast

edited February 2009 in Story Games
So, I finally bought Josh Roby's Sons of Liberty. If you don't know, it's a madcap version of the American Revolution, and the subtitle is "a roleplaying game of freedom and badassery." That pretty much sums it up.

Being very much into the madcap (pretty clear if you've read Super Action Now!), and since I have tremendous respect for many of the figures of the American Revolution (Benjamin Franklin, in particular, is one of my personal heroes), I was interested as soon as I found out about it. But, reading about it, I had to ask myself, "Does it do anything that Super Action Now! doesn't?"

I took the chance and bought it (the page count was actually a big factor in this) anyway. And the answer to my question is a resounding "YES." The game is brilliant from top to bottom. It has some of the coolest character mechanics I've ever seen; the Circumstances are absolute genius. I loved all the profiles of the important figures, and I especially loved the little tweaks to them -- Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys riding on mooses? John Adams in 10-foot tall clockwork power armor? Fantastic.

The illustrations are really good too. George Washington looks absolutely BAD ASS with his power armor and mechanical horse -- this really looks like the guy who would ride across the battlefield in front of his soldiers, in the midst of enemy fire, to instill courage in his troops. John Hancock, wearing like eight guns, looks like he belongs in the American Revolution version of Samurai Shodown.

I can't wait to play the damn thing.

Now, Josh, I've got a question for ya.
See, as I was reading the thing, it reminded me of a video game. Not in the general sense, which would be clear to anyone with the way that campaigns are broken into Levels and you have an Options Screen, but a specific game. I eventually figured out which one it was: Samurai Warriors. And, yeah, Dynasty Warriors, which came first and is the same thing except in Three Kingdoms era China, rather than Sengoku Japan, but I prefer Samurai Warriors because I have greater knowledge about Sengoku than Three Kingdoms -- and knowing the real history makes the game more fun.

So, in most ways, SoL is just like SW: it takes prominent figures from a historical war, ratchets up their badassitude (not to make them seem better than they were, but to beat into our thick, modern skulls just how awesome they really were), and sets them loose to rock 'n roll.

There's one big difference, though. In SoL, the history of the war is set in stone -- you play in and around it, but the outcome never changes. No characters die, because they all lived through the war. But in SW, you get to re-write history. You get to see what might have happened if the Oda had not managed to defeat the Imagawa, or if Honganji's Ikko-Ikki had managed to hold their own against Nobunaga (with the help of mercenary Saika Magoichi), or even if (improbability of improbabilities) Date Masamune had single-handedly defeated the Uesugi, the Oda, the Tokugawa, and the Takeda, and united Japan.

So, Josh, my question is this: what do you think would needed to play SoL in such a history re-writing mode?
I can think of two things: 1.) players who are quite knowledgeable about the real history, and 2) rules for character death (specifically, rules to determine if, upon being defeated, a character is killed or just routed -- as in SW and DW)


  • edited February 2009
    Here's a conversation I had with Ben Lehman in May 2006 about the French RPG Qin: The Warring States:

    Ben: Man, if it were like Dynasty Warriors, that would be awesome.
    Jonathan: hells yeah.
    Ben: That game rocks. But I don't think this game is nearly as cool looking.
    Ben: "Pick a historical figure. You're this guy. Now make your character."
    Ben: "Okay, so historically I was a failed general. In this game I have bright blue hair and assassinate people with a giant yoyo."
    Jonathan: that would be the shit.
    Ben: Andy and I wanted to make Dynasty Warriors for the American Revolution.
    Ben: With, like, crazy power attacks and such.
    Jonathan: that would be even cooler.
    Jonathan: I wanna be Paul Revere and kill people by flinging horseshoes at them.
    Ben: We have more myths about the revolution, but the civil war game would sell really well in the south.
    Jonathan: or we could mash them together and ignore the anachrony.
    Ben: Nah, but then we couldn't draw money out of a sequel.
    Ben: Anyway, the Civil War is our three kingdoms period.
    Jonathan: i suppose.
    Jonathan: we'd have to include characters from that general era, though. because I wanna be Nat Turner.
    Ben: Oh, man, you could even do the Indian Wars.
    Ben: I want to play John Stark.
    Jonathan: or, yeah, Crazy Horse.
    Ben: Man.
    Jonathan: John MFing Brown.
    Ben: This is really a limitless franchise :-)
    Jonathan: Fredrick Douglas rhetorical attack!
    Ben: Fredrick Douglas has a humongous axe.
    Ben: And blasts people with force bolts.
    Jonathan: John C. Calhoun Fillibuster Shock Prana!
  • Hey Marshall,

    I'm not Josh.

    But I have played the game once and have been in the presence of a lot of it being played. I can tell you right now that history is in no way safe in that game. Sure, the patriots don't die but uh, the setting and history along with it tends to get trashed. First of all there's the simple fact that the Tory can win.

    Then there's the fact that the game plays so ridiculously fast that there's no room for self-censuring your input. You either say what's on the tip of your tongue or you don't play This leads to some pretty crazy stuff.

    For example, in the game I played we ended up canonizing Ben Franklin as a alternative to the Church of England there by establishing The Church of Franklin. Another game I happened to be near had just one word drift my way: "robo-theist".

    From what I've seen of the game I'd be far more tempted to ask the opposite question: Is there anyway to NOT rewrite history so extremely?

    I recommend playing it as written preferably with people as enthusiastic about it as you are and see what happens. The game does something very specific that I think takes people by surprise.

  • edited February 2009
    Yeah, I see all of that, but that all happens within the framework of the historical events -- all of the crazy shit could easily be "the stuff they didn't tell you in the textbooks." Hence the "secret history" that is alluded to here and there in the text. But despite all of that, there is, f'rinstance, no way for the Tories to win the war. If you lose the Final Battle, well, that's too bad, but Cornwallis still surrenders to Washington.

    EDIT: Hang on, my "someone's gonna jump on my ass" sense is tingling, so let me amend that last line. "But Cornwallis still surrenders to Washington, eventually."

    Also, let me add that I don't think there's anything wrong with the game as-is. I'm excited about playing it as-is. I get what it does as-is. I'm just curious about this particular possibility.
  • edited February 2009
    Dude, RoboTheist was the shit. Sadly, the Deistdroids took him down with their Quakerbot allies. Or something similar; I can't remember. All the crazy games of Sons that I've played just sort of melt together in my brain.

    And yeah, the game's conceit comes direct from Ben and Jonathan, which I believe I pointed out at the back of the book, and if I didn't I'm a bad, bad person. (I actually check... oh, I didn't. That's right, I took out the entire last chapter due to space constraints. I guess I am a bad, bad person.)

    But to answer your question, Marshall...

    The one big difference between SoL and its inspirations like Dynasty Warriors is that in Sons, there are two very defined sides, and most of the players are playing the Patriots. In DW and similar games, you the single player often play both sides (or more, in some cases), so no matter how things develop, you continue playing big names from history. To implement that in Sons, you'd need to figure out how to play, say, General Gauge versus General Howe, once the insurgency is crushed and these two British generals squabble over who gets to run the colonies. Now, Versus mode sort of allows you to play past the defeat of the Tories, and you can totally have Washington versus Allen on the sovereignty of individual states — but again, that actually happened, so you're not deviating from history (much). In any case, the very fact that Patriots and Tories work in fundamentally different ways means that the game can't deviate (far) from its current structure. This is intentional, of course, because from a gamewise perspective, I was trying to create an us-versus-them environment, which was very much the flavor of the day (as opposed to Three Kingdoms era, which was much more a question of shifting loyalties and ambition — at least, according to Dynasty Warriors). To some extent I was also after the sense of inevitability that the American Revolution had — especially after the French waded into things, there was lots of ways for the British to lose, and few to no ways that they could actually win.

    Now all that said...

    If you play in campaign mode and make the least bit of effort to reincorporate the events of prior battles into the current battle, you will quickly find yourself with a Revolution of a very different shape than the historical one. Certainly "the Patriots win" but what that actually means is open to vast, vast amounts of interpretation. Do the Patriots win by establishing a scarily fascist police state that crushes dissent? Do they win by swaying the hearts and minds of the colonists with a religious awakening? Do the Patriots win by bribing and corrupting the British generals? Or bringing them over to their side? I've seen all of these happen, and watching this sort of thing result from play is one of the reasons I'm a terrible Tory player — I don't pay enough attention to my cards.

    In terms of specific techniques, note that whoever wins a level describes how the objective is completed. This says absolutely nothing about the Patriots coming out with a strategic advantage. The only thing that is mechanically constrained is the objective completion. Given that the objectives themselves are produced via mad libs and are the subject of heavy interpretation, it's incredibly easy to steer the game away from history. This also goes for the final objective and the results of an entire battle. Stack a lot of these battles together in campaign mode, and you have a lot of leeway. Certainly, eventually, the Patriots will win — but what is never mechanically constrained is what that means.

    The Tory player also has more fictional options available to him than is first apparent. Take a second look at the list of Tory figures, which includes spies, preachers, and civic leaders. While the Tory player can spend all his time stealing guns, arresting colonists, and burning towns, he can also just as easily blackmail patriots, make them devilish offers, hold their families hostage, and so on. The thing of it is, by the way the game plays, he's cycling cards no matter what he does, so all avenues are open to him. Compound this with the fact that the Patriot players can respond to these blackmail/offers/hostages in any way they like, even so far as playing along and working with the Tory figures, and still be laying down cards. You can easily turn the entire game upside-down, with Patriots employing questionable if not deplorable tactics and the Tory figures leading them along or even trying to stop them or do virtuous things like protecting citizens.

    And here's the clincher — I don't think I've seen a single game that didn't hedge into this territory to some extent. As Jesse pointed out, there is very little self-censoring once this game gets going, so it's a common thing that players end up doing some things that aren't what they would do if they had a lot of time to think through their options. This leads to gut reactions and impulsive behavior, and a lot of "ahistorical" action.

    Does that answer your question, Marshall? I know to some extent this might seem dismissive of what you were after, but I'm pretty sure your goals are already quite achievable with the game as-is.
  • Oh, and: you can totally narrate a Patriot figure's death in the final narration at the end of a battle. Patriot figures can totally die. However, this has no mechanical constraint on whether or not that figure can come back in later battles. You'll just need to do a little explaining as they arrive at the Grand Lodge of the Americas. Given the madcap angle on "history" that the game employs, your explanation can be as simple as "I fell into the Charles river, but my body was never found" all the way to "Franklin took my flayed carcass and applied his electricity to it, and now with the benefit of these clockwork limbs, I fight for liberty again!" Or, if nobody ever plays that particular figure again, maybe he really did die...
  • The one big difference between SoL and its inspirations like Dynasty Warriors is that in Sons, there are two very defined sides
    Now that's something I didn't think of.

    But, yeah, like I said, I don't think the game is deficient in any way as written -- I'm not gonna go, "Screw this game," if I can't do it with "what if we lost the Battle of Yorktown?" or whatever. So, no, not really dismissive; no worries there.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this!
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