Grey Ranks is an indie, limited duration, narrativist tabletop RPG set during the Warsaw uprising of 1944 against the Nazis.
To recap the history: the Polish resistance, which owed allegiance to the British-supported Polish government in exile, rose in 1944 as Soviet troops invested eastern Poland and advanced toward Warsaw. Soviet troops halted their advance scant kilometers from Warsaw, and waited until the Nazis had utterly destroyed the uprising, advancing only afterward, ultimately installing their own puppet Communist regime. The British and Americans asked Stalin permission to use airstrips behind Soviet lines to airdrop supplies to the Poles, and were refused. Stalin thus gained twice; the resistance injured the Germans, and the Germans wiped out any possibility of organized Polish resistance to the establishment of a Soviet-controlled regime in Poland.
The "Grey Ranks" were, in essence, the Polish Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, organizations banned by the Nazis upon their occupation of Poland, that went underground in service to the "Home Army," the resistance forces. (The Nazis also banned any education of Poles after elementary school, aiming to turn the entire Polish nation into a body of slave workers for the Reich for all time to come. And, of course, had basically exterminated the large Jewish population of Poland by 1944, many after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, the only armed resistance offered by Jews against the Nazis in the entirely of WWII.)
So let's start from first principles here: Most RPGs are escapism, power fantasies in which people get to play mighty-thewed barbarian heroes, or tights-clad superheroes or the like. It's hard to conceive of a more dire or tragedic setting for a game than Poland, 1944 (although Steal Away Jordan, in which you play a Negro slave in antebellum America comes close).
And that in itself is noteworthy; games do bombast, and power fantasy, and noir, pretty well. They don't normally do tragedy.
Grey Ranks is inevitably a tragedy. The PCs are teenagers fighting the Nazis, and no handful of teenagers is going to change the course of history. The uprising will be suppressed. Warsaw will be virtually razed. Hundreds of thousands of Poles will die, in addition to the millions already slaughtered, and Poland as a whole will be condemned to totalitarian tyranny for another forty years. Nothing you can possibly do will change this.
Yet on another level, Grey Ranks is a story of adolescence: the surging emotions, the overwrought behavior, the tendency to ascribe cataclysmic importance to what an adult might view as fairly minor problems, the sheer sturm und drang of the teenage years. Except, of course, that in the setting of Warsaw, in 1944, these tumultuous teen emotions are not fantasy but reality: events are of cataclysmic importance, whole families, and indeed, the nation will live or die, the most fundamental issues of human dignity and freedom are at stake.
Grey Ranks is a narrativist RPG; the emphasis is on character and story, not on simulation. It takes place in ten acts; the first and last involve no die-rolls and scant tension. The first is a bit of a lark, in which the players work to establish their characters and engage in a bit of light-hearted adolescent mischief against the Nazi occupation; the last, a sort of post-sequel, in which the future paths of those (possibly few, or even nonexistent) characters who survive are narrated. In between, each act begins with a broadcast from "Radio Lightning," the clandestine pirate radio of the Resistance. Then, a series of "mission scenes" and "personal scenes" are played out; each act has one main mission the PCs are attempting to accomplish, but each PC takes an important role in one 'scene' of the mission, and in addition, a "personal scene" of emotional importance to the player takes place -- quite possibly as a flash-back, or some other event that interrupts the normal sequence of play (a scheme reminiscent of The Upgrade).
The basic situation faced by the resistance is invariant, and determined by the scene's radio broadcast; but in addition, each character has a counter on a sort of board, a 5/5 square grid. The X axis of the grid represents "exhaustion vs. enthusiasm," and the Y axis "hate vs love". The corners represent potentially dangerous places that can lead to the departure of a player from the game (from death, capture, insanity, or some other means): the extreme of love and enthusiasm is martyrdom; of love and exhaustion, nervous breakdown, of hate and exhaustion, suicidal depression; and of hate and enthusiasm, derangement. Depending on the outcome of a scene's mission and personal scene, his or her counter moves one, or in some cases two, spaces on the grid.
Grey Ranks has no 'gamemaster', though during each act a "leader" is chosen who takes something of GM role. A "situation list" is provided to give some guide to events that occur during an act; basically, each player finds his current postion on the grid, looks at the list of events keyed by that grid position, and chooses one. These situations then must be woven into the story of the current act. Here's an example:
D4: Toward Hate and Exhaustion
- Dr. Friedrich Uhlig, inquisitive police inspector with a list.
- Henryk Grzedzielski, reluctant hero and enthusiastic womanizer.
- An SS-operated farm outside the city proper.
- An apparel factory opposite the police barracks in Wola
- Home-distilled 190 proof “bimber,” mixed with raspberry juice.
- Is he just an annoyance, or something more dangerous?
- A steamy make-out session.
- A coward shows his true colors.
- Eavesdropping and distrust.
- The ruins of your living room.
Thus, unlike most narrativist RPGs, which tend to be remarkable freeform, Grey Ranks provides a quite specific set of ideas to be woven into a particular story.
Die rolls are not excluded; in each scene, a player has two dice, of varying size (number of sides) to provide, one for his personal scene, and one to contribute to the overall mission for the act. A system is used to determine whether the scene or mission is "successful" or not, with the players improvising what that means. There's a system of escalating dice that provides a degree of tension -- you must judge whether to increase your dice size, and when, because there are limiations on how you may do so, and what this means for your character -- but the net effect is still to produce a game that is very much an exercise in collaborative story-telling, and very little a die-rolling game.
Reading the rules to the game, there are moments when I found myself frustrated at the obtuseness of the creators -- or perhaps, it would be more accurate to say, at the gentleness of the creators in trying to persuade relatively unsophisticated gamers to give it a try. This is a setting, and a game, of potentially harrowing emotional impact -- not only because of its setting, but also because of its portrayal of raw youth responding to its setting. And yet the rules at times attempt to persuade you that this will be "fun."
Perhaps this can be excused, because the universal opinion seems to be that games should be "fun" -- and, perhaps, that games cannot be art because all they are is "fun."
Movies are fun: Now go watch "Grave of the Fireflies," and tell me whether it was "fun". It's not the right word. You will be devastated, if you are not a psychopath. But you will be enriched by watching it.
Novels are fun: Now go read Naked Lunch, and tell me whether it was "fun." I don't think you will. But it may well shock you into realizing the power of the novel as a form.
Grey Ranks is not a fun game. But it demonstrates a high level of pathos, and understand well the nature of the catharsis of tragedy. You may find yourself moved to tears in playing it.
"Fun"? Fuck fun.