Resistance: a Grey Ranks Hack
There are these two things that I love that, for a long time now, I’ve wanted to smash together: Grey Ranks and the Terminator resistance war.
I got to play Grey Ranks at Dreamation 2009 with Jason Morningstar facilitating it. That single convention session cemented itself as one of the strongest emotional moments I’ve had in a game.
For those who don’t know what Grey Ranks is, here’s the quick pitch from the site:
In Grey Ranks, you will assume the role of a young Polish partisan before, during, and after the disastrous 1944 Uprising against the Germans. Together with your friends, you’ll create the story of a group of teens who fight to free their city, one of countless Grey Ranks “crews” that take up arms. Your characters – child soldiers – will have all the faults and enthusiasms of youth. Across sixty days of armed rebellion, they will grow up fast – or die.
I suggest that, if you’re interested in one of the rare RPGs that is actually about war and not about just winning a series of battles, read up.
I have been a Terminator fanboy forever. For my 13th birthday, my mom took me & some friends to see Terminator 2: Judgement Day. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched that. I love the shit out of Terminator: Sarah Conner Chronicles. I even rewatched T3 (which was not great) in preparation to watch Terminator: Salvation (also not great). But even though those movies were disappointments, I still ate up the world-building.
I still eat it up. And maybe part of the reason the Resistance War intrigues me is that, until Salvation, we heard about it the way we hear about many real words: second or third-hand, as people telling stories. It’s fascinating.
One of my favorite little bits is the slang introduced by the TV show: “I won’t be the bastard that brings metal down on the Connors.” I like “metal” over “toaster,” maybe because it sounds more natural to me?
Because Grey Ranks is truly about how war changes you and how you’re a person with desires, and because it’s a game about an occupation, it felt like a possibility for being a game that tells Tech-Com’s story. I’ve been codenaming this project “Resistance” for the last few years, but it never went beyond notes and drinking with friends (notably my good friend Justin Smith). A few months ago when John LeBoeuf-Little came up with the final piece of the puzzle that might make the game work, but I still hadn’t tried playing it until last night.
From here on, this post assumes you know what the fuck I’m talking about, in terms of both of those.
The core story of Grey Ranks is of kids growing up during an uprising that will fail. Here, the Human Resistance is destined to win, and about the personal costs of that victory as heroes grow into battle-scarred, PTSD-suffering veterans. The tagline is “How much of a machine will you become in order to fight the machines?”
I should start off saying that there’s no time travel. If there is time travel, that’s another Tech-Com unit, not you guys, and you don’t know shit about that.
The world follows, more or less, how you’d except from the Terminator-verse, but with a sprinkling of Matrix and Battlestar Galactica — the machines have to have human collaborators, so that there’s that conflict. And Skynet has a plan for humanity that doesn’t solely involve wiping them out, which is why there are Skynet Work Camps and why the machines round people up rather than just bomb them.
Resistance takes place in the city you’re in, rather than telling you about another location. This will make the Situation Elements either difficult or vague to construct, but some of that can be solved through some setting creation, where we turn our current city into one that’s suffered machine devastation for five years.
A brief timeline that throws out factual Terminator canon, in favor of something a little simpler/easier for those who aren’t well-versed in the IP:
- Five years ago, Skynet happened. It restricted human freedoms, but didn’t immediately nuke us. It just took away all our guns and ruled over the world.
- Four years ago, the Retaking failed. Humans attempted to shut down Skynet, but Skynet saw it coming. Seeing that humans would not accept machine rule in this manner, it began creating internment arcologies, and with that nations were sundered.
- Two years ago, the First Human Uprising finally broke, its leaders’ executions broadcasted. Humans were warned that further insurgency would “forfeit humanity.”
- A few months ago, we seized an opportunity, and the Second Human Uprising began. True to its word, Skynet began slaughtering armies. It’s destined to win, but at what cost?
What Stays the Same
The grid does. The basic mechanics of a chapter does. I liked all that and didn’t want to fuck with it.
First of all, all the Grey Ranks fiction trapping need to be replaced: the Radio Lightning, the situation elements, etc. Frankly, that’s the hardest (or at least most work-intensive) part, and definitely the part I haven’t touched yet.
Naturally, as heroes of Tech-Com and not as teens growing up, the characters are very much different.
- Pseudonym becomes Callsign
- Age isn’t 15/16/17, but teen/early 20’s/pushing 30
- District shifts to Before Skynet, but I don’t know what all’s there right now. It’s not about places, but about what you remember about how the world was.
- Thing You Hold Dear only shifts slightly: “Country” becomes “Humanity” and “First Love” becomes “Romance”
- Add Role, your job in Tech-Com. Pick two off this list: heavy weapons, hacker, pilot, scout, combat engineer, demolitions (note, “commander” and similar intentionally not on this list, as to not mess with the Mission Leader bits)
- Your Reputations start off as positive, heroic things. You choose them for your character (with a healthy list, sure) When you mark off the d10 (not the d8), it becomes the negative — either going too far or going the other direction. (“Brave” could become “Suicidually Overconfident” or become “Shell-shocked.) The rest of the group decides on the new reputation for you.
- Characters need to want some sort of life beyond smashing metal.
The last part is one of this game’s darlings, the first idea I had back in 2009 about hacking Grey Ranks for the Resistance War.
Personal scenes don’t change. Mission scenes change slightly: they always require a human extra, whether someone from Tech-Com or some civilian encountered. If you give a d10 for a mission scene, a human (extra) is killed in the process — making the contribution dice not about success/failure, but about consequence and people surviving. Success/failure feels very “teenagers in over their heads,” not “heroes of the Resistance.” And I think “cost” is a recurring theme to play with.
Because of the situation, I think we’re going to be a bit more ready to have these characters die than we do in Grey Ranks, but full-on play would tell if that’s true.
Humanity’s “Hit Points”
This is the bit that John LeBeouf-Little came up with to make this interesting. Humanity has a list of five things about its future, and every time a mission’s lost, we cross one off. So, yes, humanity will certainly win the war, but we’re playing for humanity to not lose itself in the process (just as we’re hoping to not lose our characters in the process):
- Faith & Spirituality
- Hope for the Future
- Rule of Law
I call this “Our Ideals.” I suspect that often, Technology will be the first thing to go. Humanity’s dump stat, if you will — but still, it’s an interesting choice. And if the table can’t agree, the Mission Leader chooses.
If you lose all five, the game is over. Sure, humanity beats Skynet, but what point is there in fighting for it?
Tech-Com has an overall game sheet. Along with Our Ideals, it has a large section whose background is a bit like a war memorial, and its titled “The People Who Died So Humanity Could Live.”
Every time a human dies — from putting a d10+ in the Mission, from the corners on the Grid, from the rule below, etc — we take a moment and write down a bit about that person. If your mechanical action or narration killed someone, you write it down. If your character dies, someone else writes it down.
You don’t just write down a name, but also a little more. Here’s from our game:
- “Stickshift,” he was useful in his skinniness
- That little girl on the road in her dirty flower dress, she never saw the HKs coming
- “Jackknife” — thought it was responsible for everyone, and we loved him for it
“The New Character Rule”
A fresh character with all their Thing You Hold Dear checkmarks ready to go — that’s a valuable asset to a mission. Characters who have used all that up in a strange way become a liability. So I just, while typing this post, came up with a new rule: In between missions, if you want a new character, narrate your current character committing suicide.
(This is part of that whole “making mechanics that you hope people won’t choose, but by giving the option you make not choosing it — and choose it — have meaning.” vibe)
Always Name/Describe Human Extras
Just what it says — always name and describe them when they show up. Make humans real.
I would need name/callsign lists, lists of people with different descriptions, etc.
I’m not sure how to approach chapters 1 & 10 yet.
Those are my notes for the moment. There’s clearly more work to do, if I were to fuck with this more.
A huge thanks to Justin Smith & John LaBoeuf-Little for talking with me about it, and for Kit La Touche and Lillian Cohen-Moore for testing a chapter with me last night (despite all of us being pretty tired).
 Which Jason recorded back then, all of us talking about the game after the fact.