1986 is usually well outside the timeframe of the gaming products I highlight in my weekly retrospectives, but I'm going to make an exception in the case of Greg Costikyan's The Price of Freedom. Published by a pre-Star Wars RPG West End Games, back when the company produced more wargames than roleplaying games (though it had released Costikyan's earlier effort, Paranoia, two years earlier), The Price of Freedom was a game of "roleplaying in occupied America," as its cover proclaimed. Its basic premise was that, thanks to the election of a "gutless" president and the USA's signing of agreements that prohibited the continuation of the Strategic Defense Initiative -- agreements by which the USSR of course did not itself abide -- the Soviets gain the military and political upper hand that enables them to launch a successful invasion and occupation of North America. Players take the role of individuals committed to fighting the Soviets and ending their reign of tyranny.
Students of history will no doubt chime in that The Price of Freedom's premise was always a ridiculous one, particularly so in 1986, a year after Mikhail Gorbachev launched a series of wide-ranging initiatives intended to reform the policies of the USSR and a mere three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. And, if you actually read The Price of Freedom, there's little doubt that Greg Costikyan didn't think its premise plausible either, but to fixate on its plausibility is to miss the point entirely. This is, after all, a game that includes a brief English-Russian phrasebook that includes the phrase, "I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Republican Party." This isn't exactly a game that takes itself too seriously.
In an amusingly titled section of the rules called "A Note to Liberal Readers," Costikyan asks his readers to "think of the game as The Lord of the Rings meets William F. Buckley" -- in short a fantasy roleplaying game, but with an Evil Empire and "orcs" grounded at least partly in the real world. Costikyan goes on to say, "The question isn't whether or not such a terrible thing could happen, but whether or not you could enjoy pretending it has." My limited experience suggests that a lot of gamers could not bring themselves to do so. Indeed, I met many who seemed to believe that The Price of Freedom was deadly serious, a kind of right-wing fever dream given life as an RPG. How anyone familiar with Greg Costikyan's earlier work could think such a thing beggars the imagination, but there it is.
And that's a shame, because, like Paranoia, The Price of Freedom is actually a well-designed little game. System-wise, it's straightforward and (mostly) uncomplicated, using a 1D20 roll under an attribute or a skill. Characters also have Hero Points that can be spent in order to save a character from death or enable them to perform an action above and beyond what would normally be allowed (such as taking two actions in a single combat round). Hero Points can only be accrued through "heroic" actions, at the discretion of the Gamemaster. What's interesting is that the Player Book, which includes everything needed to play, is only 32 pages long and much of it is taken up with topics other than rules, such as information on the Soviet occupation and how to wage a guerrilla war. The Gamemaster Book is 64 pages long and less than half of its pagecount is devoted to rules. Instead, you get several sample scenarios, adventure hooks, and advice on creating and running a campaign.
The Price of Freedom is thus an object lesson in the virtues of concision. Granted, the focus of the game is quite narrow -- rebels against the Soviet empire -- but a great deal of ground is covered nonetheless. You really could run a successful campaign with nothing more than what's in this box, which, in addition to the two rulebooks, consisted of maps and counters for use in adjudicating large combats. After all, what's a game of righteous insurgency against the godless Commies without the opportunity to engage in mass battles? The Price of Freedom is a game that knows what it's about and provides you with all the tools you need to play many adventures based on its central premise.
But, ultimately, it's that very premise that wrecks the game for a lot of people. For whatever reason, they were unable or unwilling to use the overblown fears of Soviet aggression as a springboard for a different flavor of fantasy roleplaying. Consequently, I never had the chance to play The Price of Freedom back in the day. I don't imagine the situation would be even better nowadays. It's hard, in 2010, to really remember what it was like to unironically look on the Soviet Union as a modern-day Mordor and, for many gamers, the Cold War is about as intelligible as living in fear of Napoleon Bonaparte or the Spanish Inquisition. That's too bad, because I've long wanted to run a campaign about guerrillas warfare against an implacable foe, but I've never managed to find the right inspiration to do so. For someone of my generation, the USSR seems ready-made to fill a role that, at the moment, only extraterrestrials could conceivably occupy as well -- except that aliens probably won't have an anthem as strangely compelling as the Gosudarstvenniy Gimn SSSR. Ah well.