On Wednesday night, a group of friends and I gathered to spark a revolution. We were playing Comrades, a tabletop RPG that puts its players in the shoes of leftist activists fighting for their causes.
I make it no secret that I am a socialist. That’s right! I’m the political dissident the President is warning you about! Sometimes, my dangerous friends and I gather to play tabletop games. When writer William Akers sent me an advance copy of his new game Comrades, which will launch its Kickstarter campaign next Wednesday, I knew that I had to try it.
The game is based on the Apocalypse World engine, meaning there’s a lot more roleplaying than dice-rolling. Together, we created our world and the right wing regime we would be railing against. In our fictional town of Monarch, Nevada, a right wing family had taken over the government and was threatening to put into place legislation that would devastate the local ecological system.
Our first mission was a protest at a monarch butterfly reserve that suddenly turned to violence. Our little team of leftists was tasked with de-escalating the crowd and extracting an activist-turned-media darling who had been injured.
Here’s what we actually spent most of our time on: arguing. Each of the character types come from different backgrounds, and they ended up having different personal goals. Our wealthy Patron, Nadir, was really in it to get back at his family. The Mystic, Father Oppenheimer, believed in the cause, but also wanted to expand the influence of his cult.
Natasha, the Professional who could jury-rig a weapon out of anything lying around, was loosely based on real-life activist Brace Belden, also known as Twitter User PissPigGranddad, who volunteered to join a Kurdish militia in Syria. Natasha’s main concern was staying out of the spotlight. Our leader was Stan, a trade union leader turned blogger who made a zine called The New Leaf that leftists in Monarch had rallied around.
Although all these people were united under the same cause and also wanted the same end result, getting from point A to point B was a struggle. As the GM, I kept having to remind them that there was more to this fight than their own personal needs. I started introducing more immediate dangers — cops with batons, tear gas — to keep them moving and thinking on their feet. We had some disastrous, and hilarious, failures.
When Natasha tried to use her MacGyver skills to make a smoke bomb, she rolled a four, so she ended up covered in soot and attracting attention to herself. When Stan tried to get the word out that they were being attacked by the police, he also rolled a four, and so social media turned on him instead. Telling him, “Nah man, you’re getting roasted on Twitter right now,” was a personal highlight for me as a GM.
This is not all that different from how activism goes down in real life. Leftists tend to pride themselves on being able to hold their own side accountable, but that leads to a lot of infighting. Around the table, people started jokingly calling other people “wreckers” for being detriments to the cause. Still, by the end of the game, our players came together, because they realised that they had to.
No matter how much some of the characters personally disliked each other—and some of them did not like each other very much at all — we all knew that we were here to fight for a better world. Personal disagreements could be hashed out later. Right now, we needed to escape the cops and live to fight another day. Comrades’ system really emphasises the communal nature of leftist activism.
At the end of a session, players vote on which of them had best embodied the revolutionary spirit, and that character then rolls to see whether or not the revolution as a whole advances because of the group’s actions. For us, we decided the moment Natasha kept the front line together, linking their arms against the cops charging at them, was the truest to the spirit of our cause. No matter the foibles that followed, that image of strength and unity in the face of adversity was the one we wanted to remember.
We are socialists because we believe in a better world. I don’t agree with every single socialist that has ever lived, and just like the activists in our game, I sometimes find that I really hate people who are technically on “my side.” Ultimately, though, what matters most to me is creating a more just society that serves the most destitute among us.
Playing Comrades was a good reminder of what really matters. Keep on eye on Akers’s newsletter to keep up with updates about the game. If you too dream of a day when there are no more billionaires, then playing this game can help you keep your eyes on the prize.