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Black Cadillacs playtest

Started by AGP, February 25, 2008, 11:06:32 PM

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Two months ago I had the opportunity to participate in a playtest of "Black Cadillacs." This is a war RPG created by Darcy Burgess ("Black Cadillacs" is WWII Canadian Slang for army boots) with the emphasis not on the combat itself, but the stories generated by the combat.  Or, as it says atop the rule sheet, "It's not about war.  It's about war stories.  The fiction that comes home to roost."

As Darcy explains in the Black Cadillacs Facebook Group ( ,
"Black Cadillacs is my attempt to make some sense out of war. By "make sense" I don't mean "why wars happen" or even "why countries go to war". To me, "making sense" is all about achieving a very personal understanding of war at an individual, human level. It's an attempt at giving people like me, who have never fought in or been directly touched by a war, a chance to fumble in the dark and hopefully achieve some sort of meaningful experience about war."

I hadn't played an RPG in years, so playing this game brought back a flood of nostalgic memories.  I had forgotten how vivid RPG imagery can be-- ah, the power of collaborative imagination! 

There were three of us, and we decided to set our game during the Tet Offensive.  We chose to play the side of the Americans, and then we created our troopers.

One thing I found really interesting about Black Cadillacs (BC) is that unlike other RPGs I've played, my trooper character in BC was not fully "owned and operated" by me.  As Darcy explains in the BC rules:  "the rules assume that all of the players create the fiction together, and that the Troopers are the focus of the action.  Individual players take particular responsibility for the fiction surrounding "their" Trooper, but they are by no means the only contributor to it."

I was skeptical of this at first, but creating Troopers collaboratively really worked.  The Troopers thus created had a level of depth to them that made them really interesting characters.  Also, the collaborative character creation gave all the players an emotional investment in all the Troopers, and thus set the ground for a truly collaborative gaming experience.

At the time I played, the actual mechanics of the game were still being fine-tuned, which led to moments of choppiness where play halted so the mechanics could be explained.  This was to be expected, though-- a small price to pay for the opportunity to play and in some small way contribute to the birth of a brand new RPG.

We played for about three hours and I had a blast.  Images from the fiction we created (a U.S. airfield being overrun) have stayed with me:  a Vietnamese civilian stabbing a U.S. solider in the chest; "my" trooper attempting to save a wounded man by scooping his intestines off the ground and shoving them back into the wounded man's gaping stomach. 

At the end of the mission, we played a card game to determine the answer to three main questions:  (1) Who Lives?  (2) Who Rises to The Challenge? and (3) Who Gets Out?  After the answer to these questions was determined, we came one of my favorite parts of the game:  an opportunity to craft a story.  As Darcy explains in the rules, "A story is your personal take on one of the fictional events you've just experienced.  Choose a moment of play that affected you on some human level.  Maybe it made you laugh.  Maybe it shocked you.  Maybe it made you want to hit the person next to you.  Maybe it made you squirm.  Regardless, it affected you in some way, and it was noteworthy.  Re-tell that moment of play.  Maybe you craft it as a letter home from the front.  Maybe it's an after-action report.  Maybe it's a newsreel.  Here's the important part:  you can choose any medium that you like, but you must not simply regurgitate the fiction that you're re-telling.  You must change it in some fashion.  The specifics of the change, and its magnitude are at your discretion."

The story-telling aspect of this game really appealed to me.  Being able to re-craft the adventure we had just played was a really interesting creative challenge that added an additional layer of meaning to the game.  This is where I understood what Darcy meant when he said, "To me, "making sense" is all about achieving a very personal understanding of war at an individual, human level."

I'm very grateful I had the opportunity to take part in this playtest.  It's an incredibly fun game, especially if you enjoy storytelling.  I'm looking forward to playing it again.

Ron Edwards

Fantastic! I greatly appreciate seeing this, because of the productively bumpy playtest I participated in last year. That showed me the game had immense promise, but now I can see the promise bearing out.

Did any of the resulting stories differ significantly from what was initially played, as you see it? In other words, there was some interpretation or post-event re-tooling that illustrated how the storyteller was spinning things? To be clear, I think a "yes" would be very cool, because part of play therefore includes recognizing that people (and we as a culture) do this.

Here's my question, and it may be a little deep, who knows ... what, if anything, was invoked that could be described as a judgment upon our actual historical involvement in Vietnam, at that time? I'm especially interested in the "stories" part - or more accurately, some combination of first-stage play and story-stage play.

Best, Ron


Hi Ron:

Great questions.  The only spin I noticed in the resulting stories was an emphasis on the role of the  storyteller in the action:  which of course is a very human thing to do (locating one's self at the center of the action).  In this playtest I and the other players used the storytelling part of the game to further explore the Troopers we had collaboratively created:  how the action affected them (based on their personality types), what they had learned, how they had changed.  The stories also left us with a sense of how these characters would apply their newfound knowledge in their day-to-day lives:  there was a definite sense that the characters had grown from their experiences, and would continue to grow. 

Frankly I was amazed that we were able to create such realistic, well-rounded characters in such a short timeframe (three hours!).  The mechanics Darcy has created for this game are incredibly powerful story-telling tools. 

As for a judgment upon our involvement in Vietnam... I believe this came through in the portrayal of the characters.  Two of our troopers were draftees from poor backgrounds (one urban, one country) whereas the third trooper was an idealistic University graduate who joined up because he felt it was The Right Thing To Do.  The draftees were trying to make the best of a bad situation-- they didn't want to be there, but they had no choice-- and the idealistic trooper had re-upped twice, fighting his own private war, seemingly blind to the rapidly changing conditions on the ground.

The fact that the different Troopers had different motivations yet had to work together made the game that much more realistic, and that much more interesting.  These motivations were worked seamlessly into the characters' backstories, and then were explored further during the stories at the end of the game.

Darcy Burgess

Hi AGP, Hi Ron;

This conversation is really relevant to me right now.  I just wrapped my Barbed Wire & Bayonets playtest this past Tuesday.  It ended on a really productive down-note.  Specifically, I came to the realization that I'd been so concerned with procedural and creative issues (specifically, overcoming 'blank canvas' syndrome as players are at a loss for what to pull out of thin air next), that I hadn't been paying the Stories mechanics the attention it needed.

Stories aren't working reliably.  Ron, from your question to AGP, I'm inferring that we have similar personal definitions of 'working'.  However, my wider definition of working is this: The Stories are the Players' personal soapboxes.  They use them to pass commentary and/or judgment on the fiction they just created.

Here's why I know they're not working reliably:

  • At the end of an evening, it's really tough to get all deep and introspective.  Sometimes, the creative tank is empty.
  • I haven't been passing judgement anywhere as often as I thought I would.  Mostly, I've been fulfilling the mechanical criteria (pick a moment, retell it, change it) to play by the rules.  I've noticed similar play with others.
  • The banner event that made me think that Stories were working (way back in the first session of the Bayonets playtest) turned out to be not so outstanding.  The player later revealed to me that he wasn't pursuing any kind of editorial agenda, just sort of scrabbling in the dirt, trying to come up with something, anything, to fulfill the criteria.

That being said, they have worked sporadically.  My previous Viet Nam session had at least one successful Story.

AGP, can you remember some of the details of your Trooper's story, and the events that it was based on?  I'm afraid that I'm drawing a blank.

Black Cadillacs - Your soapbox about War.  Use it.


Hi Darcy:

I remember my Trooper coming home, and being a braver person than when he left. 

Here's a crazy thought.  Maybe the stories are NOT the Players' personal soapboxes.  Is it  a story or is it an editorial?  Obviously it can be both, but I don't think you should limit the scope or purpose of the story to be purely editorial.   As I've said, I used the story part of the game to further explore the action, to see the action through a more personal lens.  Perhaps overt editorializing isn't necessary to create a satisfying storyline. 

In other words, playing the game is more fun than passing judgement. 

I realize that "passing judgement" is a large part of this game, but I believe that how the Players feel about war and the events they've just witnessed/created will come through in the game play without the need for mechanics that force introspection.

If you create mechanics which force people to editorialize when they don't want to editorialize, you're going to get a game that's less fun and satisfying to play. 

My Two Cents,

p.s.:  That being said, maybe you could work in an 'introspection' round of some kind.  Or divide the story section into 'narrative' and 'introspection.'  Or have the players be able to choose between the two.  Just throwin' stuff out there.

Darcy Burgess


As it stands right now, the rules for Stories read:


  • Choose a moment of play that affected you on some human level. Maybe it made you laugh. Maybe it shocked you. Maybe it made you want to hit the person next to you. Maybe it made you squirm. Regardless, it affected you in some way, and it was noteworthy.
  • Re-tell that moment of play. Maybe you craft it as a letter home from the front.  Maybe it's an after-action report. Maybe it's a newsreel. Here's the important part: you can choose any medium that you like, but you must not simply regurgitate the fiction that you're re-telling. You must change it in some fashion. The specifics of the change, and its magnitude are at your discretion. An additional restriction is that you may not prognosticate any Trooper or important Extra's survival of, or state of mind after, the war.

So, what's important here is that the rules don't say anything about why this mechanic is in the game.  There's no instruction regarding editorializing or passing judgement.  However, I'm also expressing my surprise and dismay over the fact that I expected that (at the very least) I would be using the Stories as a personal soapbox.  I'm not down on them being used for other purposes.  Although I don't remember the exact details of the Stories that came out of our session at your place, I do remember a good feeling about them.  They felt fulfilling.

It's the hit-and-miss nature of the results that have me irked.  I know that they won't always produce the same sort of result.  Some people aren't into editorializing, they'd rather do character exploration (like you).  That's cool.  Some people are all about interesting narrative (like my editor, Sean).  That's fine too.

What's of concern is that the overall quality of play during this phase of the game is uneven.  I don't like that it's been arduous for some (most?) of my playtesters, myself included.  I don't know if it's a case of mismatching mechanics and individuals, or if there's a larger procedural issue that's contributing to the problem.

I'm also keenly interested in your idea of an introspection round.  Would you care to expand on what such a thing would look and sound like at the game table?  I don't think I'm grasping your idea.

Black Cadillacs - Your soapbox about War.  Use it.