Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Revolutionary PC

It probably counts as a truism that sandbox games really work well when the PCs are rogues, and not when they are superheroes, or even heroes - and that this is down to logistics more than anything else: for a sandbox game to sing, the PCs need the initiative and need to be the engine.

I was struck, today, by the thought that ultimate rogue is really the revolutionary. I had this thought while reading the excellent Young Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore. What a lot of people don't know about Stalin is that he began his Bolshevik career as a kind of Marxist-Leninist version of Robin Hood, with the Caucasus Mountains as his Sherwood Forest and his revolutionary comrades as his Merry Men. Except that rather than rob from the rich to feed the poor directly, he did it in a far more attenuated fashion: robbing the rich to feed the Bolshevik revolution, which would (come the revolution) result in food for the poor in the long run (except that it didn't, but we won't go into that). Most famously, he organised the 1907 Tiflis bank robbery, in which he and his gang stole around £1.7 million in broad daylight, killing 40 guards and civilians and wounding 50 more. The money was used to fund revolutionary activities throughout Russia - although it seems to have had a negative effect on Bolshevik popularity in Georgia, at least.

The picture painted of Stalin's young life is hugely romantic. He was head of a band of brigands, revolutionaries and gangsters, roaming the Caucasus, with a woman in each town, a glass of wine in one hand, a sabre in the other, having a roaring good time - and fermenting revolution on the way. It gives one a sense that being a Bolshevik was probably a whale of a time.

Being a revolutionary is extremely game-able - perhaps more so even than the standard murder-hobo routine, because these are rogues with a cause. Their chaotic money-making schemes, carefree adventuring and casual murder has a purpose. The players have to make careful plans, engage in all manner of derring-do, and roam about looking for adventure, just like they always do, but at the same time they have to think about how to help The Cause. A number of "revolutionary sandboxes" randomly themselves:


  • Genuine Robin Hood style outlaws: "Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen..."
  • Druids and rangers protecting some natural wilderness from exploitation through terrorist action
  • Cyberpunk Marxist-Leninists undermining the capitalist system from within
  • Religious fanatics in a quasi-counter-reformation, avoiding the inquisition while trying to convert the world from sin
  • Suffragete-style campaigners trying to bring about Rights for Women/Men/Trolls/Ferengi/Werewolves/whatever
  • Psionicists in a land where WIZARDS HAVE BANNED PSIONICS
etc.

13 comments:

  1. What happens when the PCs 'win', though?

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    1. THEY NEVER WIN.

      Actually it depends. By that point so much will have gone on there'll be all kinds of other things to get involved with.

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    2. Start killing off your fellow PCs in the quest for total power, of course.

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  2. I hesitate to poke at an OSR truism, but it seems to me that a revolutionary PC - unless he is a dishonest opportunist and not a real revolutionary - would certainly see himself as a hero, and would probably be seen as a hero by other revolutionaries if he or she is successful.

    How would you divide "revolutionary" from "hero", at least from a subjective point of view?

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    1. That's a fair comment. I suppose the word "hero" has a certain connotation in fantasy that implies something specific: somebody who fights for good against evil. This does not connotate "revolution" and could perhaps be very reactionary.

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    2. I think the important distinction is that heroes are supposedly selfless, whereas revolutionaries are basically selfish, even if they're doing everything for the good of their cause rather than directly for themselves.

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  3. Years ago, I ran an urban adventure in which the players were tasked with overthrowing the local ruler (by a god whose worship he had outlawed). I gave them a big map of the city and absolutely no leads to start with, and let them figure it out from there. It was fun, but I handled it wrong - I'd set it up so that a couple of pre-existing powerful groups had a vested interest in helping the PCs, which ended up sapping away a lot of the players' initiative. That, and the goal was more about killing the current ruler than building a viable power base and taking his place. If I ran it again, I would make the various power blocs much more disinterested and wrapped up in their own concerns, so that the players would actually have to make deals and broker alliances, and make them have to secure their power or else face reprisals from the ruler's allies.

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    1. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about, for sure.

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  4. I love the idea of PCs as revolutionaries. I can imagine the fun you could have running revolutionay PCs in a Greyhawk campaign, fomenting dissent in The Great Kingdon or the Theocracy of the Pale.

    Also, look into the early years of Che Gueverra and Fidel Castro for Robin Hood-style revolutionaries.

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    1. I'd also recommend 'Bandits' by Eric Hobsbawm - a nice slim book with plenty of inspiration for a revolutionary campaign.

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    2. And check out anything about Che in Congo if you want to know what happens when a revolutionary Player Comrade rolls on the fumble table.

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  5. Running a game based on your last suggestion could finally cure my irrational hatred of psionics.

    ...while also letting me roleplay a lot of NPCs that hate psionics.

    Truly win-win!

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  6. Hmm, this makes me want to run a sandbox 'The Price of Freedom' game.... but should I set it in 1985 or 2015?

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