Today we’re going to be talking about the new game Revolutionaries from Make Believe Games. It’s a game of secrets and spies during the American Revolution, not a made-up revolutionary world of horrors like Colonial Gothic or a crazy steampunk version like Sons of Liberty. This is pure historical fiction where you play out the Americans’ spy network and try to win an unwinnable war.
So why am I starting with Book 2? Well, there are four books in the core set and I plan to take a look at each of them. To start, though, Book 2 is where the game mechanics and options are outlined and where the game is laid out clearly. Book 1 which comes before it is a set of in-character documents for the spies themselves when they are inducted. It’s good but I want to tackle that setting stuff after we look at the game itself.
In a nutshell, Revolutionaries is a collaborative game that uses assemblies of cards to create characters and tries to remain flexible to meet the needs of a variety of game groups. It’s an interesting game with a lot of creative approaches, but I’ll let you be the judge of whether it’s for you.
The Axiom System
The system used in Revolutionaries is called the Axiom System since it is composed of a series of axioms (rule sets) which are billed as flexible and interconnected so that you can use what you think you want for your game. To my mind, not every axiom is created equal (that’s a little Revolution humor for you) but I think in theory I see how any of them could be removed or retained with the others remaining functional.
For instance, you might want a game that’s pure sneaking, lying, and politics so you remove the Combat, Initiative, Damage, and Healing to streamline things. On the other hand, you might want to have a game of deadly cat-and-mouse scenarios so you include those combat-related axioms but take out the axioms that give your characters mechanical advantages to make them sweat more. Of particular note is the last axiom, Sciences, which introduces a supernatural element to the game. I have strong opinions about this but I’ll get to that later.
Generating characters (which is itself an axiom, probably the only indispensable one but not immutable) involves drawing five cards. On each card is a particular archetype from Doctor and Aide de Camp to the Frontiersman and Deserter. There’s even (gasp) the Lady! There are a few female archetypes, actually, but this game does definitely suffer from some gender issues, which you and your group could adjust of course.
Cards come in four different varieties: Mental, Social, Physical, and Mayhem. Most of those are self-explanatory except Physical (running, jumping, climbing trees) and Mayhem (the ultraviolence) which I can see people mixing up a lot to start. The cards are also marked with Skills (an axiom), Feats (another axiom), Resources, Assets (axiom), and Allegiance (a really cool axiom). You set all of these in front of you and they inform your abilities and stuff as well as your health (damage will flip over your cards to a Hurt side and when they’re all flipped you’re incapacitated and in trouble).
“But how can you have five different identities, Mephit?” I hear you ask, “Can someone be five people at once?” Well, they can in a spy game! You decide what each card means so the “Farmer” card might not mean you’re actually a farmer, just that you grew up on a farm or you leave in farm country. At the same time, you might have one or more cards that are just masks you wear and project to the world. One of the cards is your True Self which is what you think of yourself deep down. As your character moves through the campaign too they “level up” by adding additional cards. Incidentally, all of this is just another axiom so you can skip if you like.
As far as base mechanics, you roll a number of d6s equal to the number of cards in your stack that apply to that skill as determined by the four-way split mentioned earlier. Different skills (if you’re using that axiom) and other actions have values that act as target numbers for your roll, and you can boost it with token spends, feats (if you’re using those), and equipment.
I’m calling out this particular axiom because it’s really great but also a little complex. Each of your cards has an allegiance symbol on the Hurt side that is either for the Colonials, the Crown, or is balanced scales for a Neutral outlook. Getting into the spies-wear-many-hats feel, once per session per faction (so three times a session) you can declare for one of these. The number of dice is equal to your rank in the spy network and the number of the faction’s symbols showing. There are more details in the book, of course, but basically you’re rolling to see if you can get some reprieve. If you declared for the Colonials you can heal up, if you declared for the Crown you can reduce the danger of the situation, and if you declared for Neutral you can gain more tokens to spend on rolls.
If this was the whole thing it would be just a fun, thematic way to recharge your abilities but while declaring is a game term with game consequences, it’s actually a roleplaying prompt too. To get the right to your roll your character has to express his support in game to the people around him. That means that to heal some flipped cards your character has to turn to the folks around him and say “King George can stuff it!” To get some more tokens he has to say “I just think we ought to keep our heads down.”
I like this a lot because it leads to interesting narrative choices. You might think to yourself “I think I ought to declare for the Crown and deescalate this situation.” When this happens, though, you could be in a tavern of patriots where saying you are having second thoughts about this whole Revolution thing is a bad idea. Do you speak your mind anyways and risk the backlash or do you keep your thoughts to yourself and soldier on? This prompts exactly the sort of conflict you might expect in a game of people keeping secrets and maintaining covers within covers. Just watch at least three episodes of Turn and you can see exactly how this might look in play.
This is an axiom on the other side of the spectrum, that I feel little desire to include in the game at all. Though they might seem innocuous, “sciences” are supernatural practices that you are initiated into when you prove yourself and advance farther and farther into Culper which in this reading is a mystical brotherhood like the Freemasons but actually magical. See, this is why we can’t have nice things.
I understand the need to spice things up and the idea that many gamers would bemoan the need for magic in their RPGs so that they can do things like cause fear in people or heal wounds. They might gripe for that, but they don’t really need it. This reminds me of Würm all over again. This is a fine game with a lot of potential and then it feels like this bit was tacked on to fit some expectation of what the game should be. It shouldn’t. If you want the American Revolution with magic then Colonial Gothic already has you beat and it’ll be an uphill battle. Just do your own thing!
I guess if you really want to include this stuff then, objectively, the system here works fine and makes sense with the rest of the game. Personally, though, if I wanted a game with a little more occult I’d make use of the initiation framework, cast this as a secretive brotherhood (a dime a dozen in the 18th century), and chuck out all these spells.
Next time I’ll be looking at the other four books of Revolutionaries and discuss the setting materials, sample campaign, and code book. I’ll also try to make some sense of what groups might be interested in so novel a game and how you might pitch it to them.