Socialist Tabletop Game Reminded Me That You Have To Stop Infighting To Get Shit Done

Image: W. M. AKers

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.

Image: W. M. AKers

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.

Image: W. M. AKers

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.


    I grew up in a Communist family and I learned this: Every time you settle for a named political ideology, you forfeit the integrity of your own thoughts, opinions, and mental adaptability. Just so you can belong to group that offers you some backing for your moral stand point.
    It's not worth it, Gita. Don't be a socialist. Just be a good human being.

      There's a difference between 'identify with' and 'be defined by' though. You can identify with any ideology and still keep your flexibility of thought and choice. It's not like socialism and good human are mutually exclusive - to quote Old El Paso, por que no los dos?

      I think that people being good is a nice idea but not sure anything ever changed. Who gets to define “good”. If you work for a company that sells a product based on explotiting people in third world counties but you always drive at the speed limit, does that make you good or bad.
      Not sure much was ever gained by people being good. As good usually means abiding by the status quo.

        I just go with my inner moral Tom Tom now. It’s just easier to interpret your own moral compass as opposed to adopting one based to what you think people wanna see.

        I think being a good person is a powerful enough thing but it’s more than just being polite and not groping. It’s like you assert your goodness when it’s called upon, not just on the internet when somebody is diminishing #metoo and so forth. You have to kinda nurture the goodness in yourself rather than inflict it on others. I think that’s inspiring in itself. Batman stylez.

          That's where what Zombie Jesus responded comes into play: You have your inner compass instead of taking your cues from someone else. However, with time you start to realise that certain people belonging to whatever group share most of your values. As you go on, you also start noticing how the group is more successful at fighting against those who'd violate those values that you alone can.

          If, for example, you believe that people shouldn't be discriminated based on race, religion, etc, you'll surely realise that by yourself you cannot do much to change a society in which such behaviour is still quite prevalent. At that point you have a choice: you keep to yourself and try to be the best you can, and yet, keep living in a world where every day you'll hear heartbreaking news regarding discrimination of other human beings, or you team up with other people and start sounding your message and voting in significant numbers for representatives who support it.

          And that's exactly why the right has done much work into applying and demonising labels: "libs", "socialists", "leftists", etc. are all labels liberally applied to generally socially progressive people and then unwarranted links between Soviet Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, etc are made, to scare people away from it all. So I do understand a reluctance to accept one of those labels, but at some point, you just have to stop caring about that maligned interpretation and embrace being part of a group that fights together for a more just world.

    If you too dream of a day when there are no more billionaires...I don't, because that means the economy has tanked and I'm now one of the destitute along with everybody else, or there's a violent revolution and we've got bigger problems.

    The rise of pop culture socialism seems to conveniently forget (or dismiss) all the previous 'revolutionary' attempts were ultimately failures that just created a different kind of destitute or powerless class. Capitalism sure has its flaws (I'd argue for a social democratic state like we have in Australia - largely capitalist but with social welfare) but there's a reason the Western world has prospered under it, and that people like Gita are able to make money posting about how everything is awful.

      My father and I were discussing this very sort of thing yesterday. How our capitalist society is probably one of the best in the world at the moment and leaves us as one of the most fortunate people currently going.

      He and I discussed how groups like Antifa and the Proudboys go too far these days, taking actions of violence against those who would go against their views but in an odd way, it's a sign that we're free. He said to me "You're lucky you live in a world where they can." I asked why he would say that, how it was horrible they would do that to each other.

      Then he regaled me with a story about how he served in Vietnam, and how during a freedom rally, where 300 or so Vietnamese people got together to protest, a man got up to speak. During that rally, the police waded in, grabbed the lead speaker and beat him to death in front of the crowd. He said him, two other servicemen and a few people checked him after the local police had left, and he'd been beaten, stabbed and just absolutely destroyed for speaking up.

      He said words to the effect of "Each political group you have, no matter who they are, has a counter balance these days, no matter who you support, and you're lucky you live in a country like you do. I've seen the alternative and I'm glad we don't live in a country like that. The people who think we live in a police state, who think we live in an oppressed society here have no idea what true oppression is."

        This is why I laugh when people accuse modern Western societies as being fascist. If it was, they'd simply put you up against a wall and shoot you for daring to oppose them. Things aren't perfect but it's a hell of a lot better than many other places.

          The notion that we are free is false, we are so chained to the pursuit of greed we will kill ourselves off in the next century.

            You're still more free than in many other nation states or for much of human history.

              This. Every single human being on the planet is statistically safer now than any other point in history. The world is getting better and the end is not nigh. Don't listen to Jehovah's Witnesses.

              Last edited 12/02/19 10:59 am

              Total statements such as that are pretty hard to prove, and are almost entirely rooted in the notion that the more knowledge we have, and the more people expressing differing opinions from that knowledge is equatable to freedom, and ultimately generates a false equilivancy as it doesn't count the persons happiness and willigness in working with the social structure at the time.

                No dude it isn't - you can objectively look back at human history and compare with other states and see that you have more freedom today. It wasn't all that long ago that most of us were doomed to a life of menial labour purely to feed the populous and ourselves.

                The mere fact that you can post on a site like this and have your say, or call the PM or president or whoever racist or horrible or whatever, is proof of that. You can go on about greed and wage slaves or whatever, and yeah life isn't perfect, but we're still better off.

                  And thats the point, you see growing food and sustaining ourselves as less free, when we sit here in our offices slowly killing ourselves based on a globalised society which will kill itself unless drastic change happens in the next century, and of which said change is prevented due to oligarchies that continue to prioritise wealth over our very continued existance.

                  Saying this is free is a Faustian pact, and is akin to being offered the freedom of a last meal before tomorrows execution.

                  @Camm Do you have choice? Then you have freedom. We're all slaves, but you can choose your master. That's the only real freedom ;-)

                  @camm Yes I see what you're saying but you're still objectively wrong - in the past you didn't get the luxury of thinking about that, you just went into the fields or factories without the time to even consider what was happening.

                  Either way socialism wouldn't fix the problem you note - they'll rip up the planet in the name of 'the people' instead of money.

                  Oh wasn't suggesting Socialism is (well, actually no, a form of Socialism probably is, Communism definitely isn't).

                  Anyway, agree to disagree on this one.

            Better than killing each other for food. Each to their own though

          I agree that we cannot say that, for example, the US is fascist, but I wouldn't laugh: the fact that it isn't doesn't mean that it could not be. And whenever worrying signs appear that resound with the rising of all fascist regimes, shouldn't people sound the alarm? What good is to wait until a country becomes effectively fascist to start using the word? I'd rather it be used as a clarion that helps deter the course of events.

          For example, when Trump constantly claims that the Free Media is "the enemy of the people" and constantly name-drops every outlet that he doesn't approve of (effectively, those who dare run negative news and opinions on him), isn't that a huge red flag? Or that his supporters, gladly, and with hardly any encouragement all watch exclusively what it's at this point an unashamed state propaganda news outlet? Or when white supremacists rallying cause the death of an innocent protestor, Trump only says "they are fine people" and when pressed to condemn the matter, the best he can do is say "there are bad people on both sides?"

          What point is close enough to fascism to warrant start sounding the alarm?

            You're right that we should watch for danger signs, but mere bluster isn't proof positive of fascism. The term has lost all meaning because it's been applied to something as simple as police enforcing the law. If I see something as actually fascist I'll call it out, but Trump saying some dumb shit means little if there's no government action with it.

            It's worth remembering that the radical left borrow their own fascistic elements to maintain groupthink and enforce their will - they're battling against right-leaning media, engaging in character assassination, attempting to use large tech firms to silence dissenting voices, or Antifa/Black Bloc/BLM engaging in their own form of actual violence and rioting (and the Yellow Vests are the opposite side of the coin in France).

            The term 'fascist' is merely a way to paint the other side as being Nazis without actually saying Nazi because enough people have realised how fucking ridiculous it is. Meanwhile the general populous shakes their head at the lunacy of both the far left and far eight screeching at each other for the same behaviour ad infinitum.

              I have to say that those are false equivalences. You (and I) may disapprove of the violent methods employed by Antifa/etc AND white supremacists/nationalists/etc, but when you actually stop and look into it, how many casualties have each side raked in the last, say 5 years? In fact, I genuinely request you to let me know if you know of a single one by the former group because I haven't been able to find any. On the other hand, the latter group has many casualties and grave terrorist attacks (such as bombings). So why mention both "sides" in the same breath?

              This is further compounded by the fact that the targets of attacks by supremacists (is it really wrong to call them "Nazis" when they are throwing Nazi gestures and chants?) are innocent civilians from among the groups they despise (PoC, Muslims, LGTB, etc) while the targets from Antifa are almost exclusively supremacists and other bigots. So if one of the groups exists almost entirely to counteract another group which is already murdering innocents... isn't it more practical (not to say morally responsible) to use all our condemnation on the murderers? Once they are gone, the other group logically has to go as well... and if they don't? Well, then they'll be exposed as liars and hypocrites and /then/ we can focus on them.

              If any, you should think the "both sides" argument is dubious by the fact that is the get-go argument from the supremacists and their sympathisers. it's a facile, immediate way of deflecting much of the blame after a violent incident and encouraging inaction (i.e. your "shake their heads") among the rest of the populace.

        Your father is very wise and that is what many are completely missing these days.

        Some are so quick to tar people with the most evil brush they can find. Often members of the Liberals are compared to Nazi SS soldiers and else where I've seen people imply the coalition is basically the Forth Reich.

        Two points always come to mind when I see these people comment.

        First, if the current government really is as bad as they say, then the comments would not have been possible in the first place.

        And second, and this is the worst part, they are in effect watering down terms to shoe-horn those they do not like into said terms.

        At the end of the day, main fail to realise that the Australia we live in is not under threat. It is a classic result of democracy in operation. Many either have forgotten what democracy really means outside the basics (majority vote seems to be all they know) or have no understanding at all.

          For a lot of those on the left of the spectrum, they fail to realise that democracy is exactly the thing that allows them to preach their socialist groupthink agenda. Most also seem to forget even the basics (majority over minority) of democracy. That's why we have rampant stupidity in most (but not all) of our political system.

          Pop culture socialism and it being 'fashionable' for those either rich enough to play at it or those who somehow manage to BS their way into govt money ("artists and activists") doesnt help either

          All that said, if i ever got a chance to play this game i'd do it just for the shits and giggles of what may happen when a rational conservative plays a round

        Two things:

        1. My thoughts exactly; and
        2. Thank you Papaweresmurf for your service.

        "It could be like this horror story" is an admirable lesson in perspective, but we have to be careful not to let it turn into a relative privation fallacy and stop us from exploring potentially better alternatives. It easily leads the mind to the false dichotomy that the only two options are 'the system we have' and 'beaten to death for thinking differently'. It's not a unique property of American-style capitalism that produces that freedom, as the Nordic model exemplifies with its countries consistently rating higher than the US on both happiness and freedom indexes.

          Excellent point. Current system is creating massive inequality which is leading to break down of social contract between state and people. As people are loosing faith in capitalism and it’s abiltiy to share the proceeds of growth.
          I would add that a system based on compuneded year on year growth will hit a limit at some point.
          There are massive issues baked right into capitalism which means it will alway lurch from one crisis to another. As we have witnessed with the GFC. People in Australia have been sheltered from main effects of this.
          Also we don’t have a proper free market. We have corporatism where big companies can lobby governments to ensure they don’t get taxed or get massive government subsidies.

          This is just the other extreme though - nothing I've said prohibits considering the alternative. The problem is that the socialist alternative the article subscribes to is actually likely to be worse... and Gita probably doesn't even want it but rather more of a welfare state. Remember the Nordic countries aren't socialist, they're still capitalist.

            Remember the Nordic countries aren't socialist, they're still capitalist.

            Just reiterating that point because people forget that.

            I'm not sure that my comment relates to what you said though, it was a reply to Weresmurf.

            The Nordic model is a mixed economy, it employs both socialist and capitalist systems. The two aren't mutually exclusive despite populist belief - for example, it's a misconception that socialism requires state ownership, but rather can also be cooperative ownership, shared equity or other mechanisms. There's nothing in socialism that prohibits competition, and market socialism specifically does retain competition, market participation and profit motive.

            It's worth also noting here, socialism is a broad set of principles that apply across multiple domains, one of which is economic; while capitalism exists solely in the economic domain. While there's inevitably some compromise when capitalist and socialist economic systems coexist, there's nothing at all stopping socialist social systems coexisting with capitalist economics.

              They're socialist in the same way that we are but they are fundamentally a capitalist economic model. It's more of a social democracy, which is probably what Gita actually wants but instead pushes socialism as an economic model which she definitely wouldn't want to live under. The red banners won't unfurl any time soon.

                They're quite distant from the capitalist model we use. The Nordic model makes ample use of cooperatives and worker negotiation that you'll basically see here never. State ownership specifically is somewhere around 30%, drastically higher than any Anglo-Saxon style capitalist model. They're definitely not socialist the way we are, taxes are above 50% and social services are mostly free. They operate on both a system and a level quite distinct from the way our own systems function.

          It easily leads the mind to the false dichotomy that the only two options are 'the system we have' and 'beaten to death for thinking differently'.

          That's not what he was getting at though. Moreso what he was talking about, was the fortunate nature of our society, that although there are people who rush to judgement on our current status, saying 'we live in a totalitarian state' etc, that 'it's a nazi state' etc, that we're lucky, we are indeed lucky that we have the rights and the ability afforded to us to speak up, to protest, to actually stand up and be counted in our opinions.

          Others aren't that lucky of course but it doesn't leave us in an 'either or situation', that's pretty much his point. We're lucky because we *aren't* in that situation, we have that ability not to be because we're lucky to live in a democratic, capitalist/socialist country. Do we want it to be different? Sure, maybe, possibly? I mean if we do, then we can absolutely effect that change as a democracy, we can go ahead and say 'I think we, as a people, en masse want our system to be slightly better, so I think we should work towards it'.

          It may not happen in our lifetime, but over a period of time, it very well may happen. In other places, Cambodia, Vietnam (back then), parts of Europe etc, this is never, ever able to happen as what happened to that man is an everyday occurrence unfortunately. But in the end, we are indeed lucky. He saw the horrific side of it and it made him value his freedom even more.

            I wasn't replying to him, I was replying to you. I don't know why both of you are talking about what he said, because I was responding to what you said specifically. What you said was a description of what your father said, which can very easily be read as 'this or that' and I think I both characterised and countered the risks involved with that reasonably.

              No worries, but there's no problem with having some civil discussion around it :) I think you had some salient points, I'm just responding. Have a good one :)

                Sorry if that sounded short. I'd just got back from a pretty long evening out, was a bit tired.

      (I'd argue for a social democratic state like we have in Australia - largely capitalist but with social welfare)

      100% agree with you here. One of the biggest problems of US right now (where Gita is from), is that even something as ultimately tame--and proven successful--as a social democracy is labeled as "socialism" by the Right in there. So you end up with a huge group of people ranging from the ones with more extreme views, like Gita, and those who just want affordable, quality healthcare and education like the one we have here, all demonised as "socialists". And well, since the latter group has more in common with the former than it does with the "conservatives", most people do end embracing the label--especially disaffected youth who, by nature, enjoy being transgressive.

    Politics in our board games now too huh *stares unblinking blankly at the screen*

    Glory to Arstotzka Comrade!

    But in all seriousness, having actual morals makes dealing with devils to get shit done difficult

    While the other side having no morals to hold back their practicality can steamroll us like crazy because they dont have to play by the rules and moral constraints we do

    From the rise of the modern tea party to trumps whitehouse playing constitutional hardball and throwing out all the unspoken rules that kept congress and the judiciary in check for short term political gain theyve shown that ignoring the rules is pretty damn effective as a strategy

    It sure is effective being practical rather than moral

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