I realized I'd never posted this account of playtesting at Forge Midwest, so brushed it up a little, and here it is. Players included Raven, Todd, Larry, Dan, and another guy whose name escapes me … it's a little confusing now because one of the characters had the same name as one of the players, and now I can't remember either, or if it was even him. I totally remember everyone's face and their distinct ways of contributing to play.
OK, so the way you start playing Amerikkka is for everyone to identify something right now
that they think is institutionally deeply wrong, I mean, really criminally wrong and real-world disastrous. It could be utterly legal or someone might be getting away with it, either way, but it has to be established in the existing power structure – and apparently immune to any sort of standard redress.
Then walk it back to the 70s. What did it look like then? What harbingers of its eventual horrible effects existed then? What kinds of activist groups might have been interested in it? What groups missed it when they shouldn't have? What reforms failed to nip it in the bud, if any?
You make up a group who saw the problem clearly, back then. And realized that it wasn't
going to get dealt with effectively. And who realized that if they didn't stop it, didn't bring it to others' attention, that it would be disastrous for America's future. In other words, they are 100% right.
The issue that got going at our table concerned military accountability, basically a desire to see military come under political review, civilian processes of justice, congressional impeachment, and any other way to break the "fuck it up and get a general's star" and the "retire and get out of criticism" dodge. Clearly a deep, deep rage regarding Eisenhower's famous warning about the military-industrial complex and how it was profoundly ignored in practice, especially during and after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.
The fictional group shaped up to be pretty wild. They conducted lots of veteran outreach, lots of detox from heroin and alcohol, albeit also favoring deep acid trip encounter group meetings. Their more direct actions focused hard on industrial collusion with militarism; they totally foresaw the destruction of local industry jobs and their replacement by military-hardware and menial base jobs.
So we each made up a character, getting Ned the Moral Center Pal (veteran), Brother Yang-Zho the Scary Visionary (communist; incidentally, very white), the Scary Old Guy (veteran), the Rebel Old Guy, and Lanie the Scary Chick (women/veteran); the mechanics allowed us to add Officer Carson the Scary Face in play.
Those designations come from the eight terms called Roles and a character is composed of two of them. The only constraint is that no two characters can be Roles duplicates. A given Role is specialized in Inspiration, Experience, Action, or Voice – for example, the character I made, Ned, could initiate action in Experience (from Pal) and Inspiration (from Moral Center).
As I described in a couple of previous threads, playing this game at its most mechanical stage entails a specific effort at direct action by the group. We found we had time for two such actions, called Episodes. I think everyone was pretty pumped at how well they played.
You play the character you made in the first episode, but you can’t play the same character two episodes in a row. Therefore I played Ned in the first Episode and Officer Carson in the second; Raven played Brother Yang-Zho in the first and Lanie in the second, and so on.
OK, here's a brief and with any luck clear soundbyte about how it’s done. Recall that every character has two roles, and each Role is associated with one of Inspiration, Experience, Action, and Voice. For example, a Visionary Face would have Inspiration (from Visionary) and Voice (from Face), a Scary Rebel would have Action twice, and so on. Here's the way those terms are arranged on this little Playmat thing
. Here, those four terms indicate four scenes which occur in that linear sequence from Inspiration to Voice (actually one of three linear sequences depending on whether Experience is used, Action is used, or both). I call them Steps because what really matters fictionally are the arrows – play is all about generating a causal chronological sequence of that kind. Here's the thing: although in the fiction, it's linear, the scenes are actually played ad-lib. You "open" them by playing a card to that Step, which you can do only if one of your Roles lets you. (Anyone can add to an open scene though, but less effectively.) So the first opened could be any of them, and later play allows any opened Step to be made longer, i.e., to keep playing that scene.
The Establishment accumulates cards too, and sooner or later a total is achieved for both sides, and further play occurs after that too. Basically, the action in question either fails or succeeds in the essential way, whether the Voice step can be validated to the mainstream.
Mechanically and with sufficient color and characterization, an Episode plays really fast in real time. Too fast, I think. We even had time for a discussion in which I held forth on my notions about the Symbionese Liberation Army, which in the eventual book is going to be the finishing Profile. Fun as that was, I need to open Episode play up a little for more relaxed and exploratory play inside scenes, a little more characterization beyond the minimal, and especially character visuals.
The first Episode concerned protesting a dedication or opening of a workplace under military contract, Dow Chemical if I remember correctly. One of the subtlest yet most productive features of the game is the Chick role, deeply problematic in real-life history and also in the fiction/non-fiction/media of the time. I typically distinguish between the Voice and Chick roles as the first being about proving
the point to the mainstream, and the second being about displaying
the point to the mainstream. Think of the iconic photo of the woman crying out over the body of one of the people shot at Kent State. (Nothing stops a character from being both, of course.)
One of the features within the Chick concept is painful … the possibility of martyrdom in one fashion or another. We were really hard on our Chick! Lanie got her face broken during the scuffle with the police, and it even turned out that beating her for the cameras was planned.
That emerged from when, in this Episode, one player used a Joker card to convert an Establishment character to the cause, which also allowed add-ons to the Experience scene to show how that character had become "turned" to the activist cause. (I realize with some pain that this game could fairly be called "Now let's re-make Billy Jack and have it be good.") This was a serious and surprising twist which introduced a hell of lot of content, maybe even too much. I realized that I wasn't sure just how far I wanted to let that go. (The latest rules changes provide a lot more structure to Establishment characters and Jokers can't be used, only banked, in the first Episode. So the equivalent act using the current draft would be possible, but much less out of the blue.)
I say all that to impart to readers here that card play
is present in the game. It's present in both Shahida and Spione too, at very precise points, although to my aggravation more than one person has claimed the mechanics have no choices in them.
I mentioned further play once the preliminary totals are known. Mechanically, the group’s current aim is made more effective through exploiting the social breakpoints in the group, i.e., being dicks to one another. What this genuinely represents is subtle: I’m not saying that dysfunctional internal interactions makes an activist group more effective; rather, the point is strictly that people are too often careless with one another when making snap decisions, which in this case of this particular fiction might end up being effective. I’m going for the historical and difficult fact that these groups’ internal stresses ramp up swiftly just when their message to the general population actually starts being articulated successfully. Some of this historical effect was due to agents provocateur
, but some of it was not, and that latter is what I’m doing mechanically in this case. (Said agents are in play too, but that's a feature of the Action step.)
The second Episode we played was about stealing some files from the FBI liaison at the police station to bust on Dow some more. This was a big deal in that era; a famous "extraction" from a rural FBI office broke open tons of operations that were clearly carrying out COINTELPRO tactics despite the agency's lengthy denials and reassurances that all such things lay in the past. Who did it remains unknown to this day, but from that point forward, files became a major target of direct-action groups.
Even worse, the Chick got bushwhacked yet again. In this case, the only way to overcome the Establishment score was for Lanie to burn her Scary Role to add points to the Experience scene, in doing so, being allowed to enhance the fictional arrow from Experience to Voice. So from now on, Lanie is Scary no more, just a Chick. The fictional content was quite horrible by today's standards but could easily have been found in the literature and values of the time – to what extent the hard-acre, equally-touch female character uses her body as an object to further the objectives. Reminded me of the scene in Hair
when Sheila actually fucks a guy in public as part of her head-games with Claude … it's not "free love," it's not "sexual liberation," it's basically emotionally very unhappy.
The game's fundamental dynamic is sound, just as I found in a preliminary very-alpha playtest last year, and sessions like this one allow me to refine bits and pieces, tweaking a few minor mechanics as I go.
I've been daydreaming about using music during play, along the lines of a player choosing an album or making a play-set of the era, per character. I can't really think of an elegant or easy way to do that, but putting that aside for the moment, the idea would be that if you opened (say) the Action step, then you set the music going, and it plays until play-attention shifts to some other step, and when and if you revisit the Action step, you play that particular music again. Or something like that. It might contribute to slowing play down, too.
So you know, the 6-CD combination in my car at the moment is the C.A. Quintet, A Trip Through Hell; Dragon, double album Universal Radio and Scented Gardens for the Blind; Harsh Reality, Heaven and Hell; Gentle Giant, Octopus; Camel, Moonmadness; and Uriah Heep, The Magician’s Birthday. It's not just Creedence and Stones hits I'm talking about.
I don’t want play just to be Episodes, though, I want a more complex starting point and a larger card-oriented activity at work too. The first one is nicely met by the fantastic book American Nations
. For the second, I've written the alpha version of inter-Episode play, which will round out the whole political spectrum and afford a deeper, novel-like perspective on what’s going on – as well as rigging play in the favor of the Establishment deck, naturally.
edited to fix Sheila's name; I mixed it up with the song "My Donna" initially