Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Retrospective: The Price of Freedom

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.

31 comments:

  1. Never heard of this one, thanks for the article. This seems like an RPG adaptation of the movie Red Dawn(1984)! (as biopunk also notes, heh) I think people who aren't willing to try campy RPGs are missing out on a fun aspect of the hobby. My D&D group sometimes played Paranoia as a filler game when someone missed the session, and it was huge fun.

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  2. I played this a lot in high school (late 80s) and we had a great time. By the time the campaign died we had manage to nab an apache helicopter ... but this was after quite awhile. We loved the hero point system and had a lot of fun RPing it. Never knew it was considered "Right Wing," though our GM did go onto West Point :).

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  3. As an aside, we didn't consider it campy ... we approached it much the same way as Twilight 2000.

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  4. I've always wanted to play this game.

    I was born in 88 so I missed the whole Cold War, but I've studied it at college and this game has always stood out to me.

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  5. It's funny you should say that, richardpratt, as I've often seen The Price of Freedom as the less po-faced version of Twilight 2000!

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  6. Never played it, but at the time it did feel like a role-playing version of Red Dawn (and the dates fit), which was definitely considered right-wing, at least here in Europe.

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  7. We played both this and Twilight 2000 and we played them straight despite the fact that we viewed them as being very American. That said, being closer to the USSR, we viewed the USA's arch fears of Communsim with just a little irony. I suspect that comes of our views of Reagan at the time... There is much to love in The Price of Freedom, especially in its graphical touches and in the material included. (One scenario was published, Your Own Private Idaho).

    The other game to look at in this 1980s anti-Communist genre is FGU's Year of the Phoenix. Which we liked rather a lot.

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  8. AKA, what to play next if you lose as the USA in Fortress America ...

    And don't worry, the Red Dawn scenario can always live on as an alternate-universe scenario, Man in the High Castle style.

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  9. Never played it, did see it in the store. Never knew what the tone was. I do remember Swayze doing press/talk shows about Red Dawn. The movie had driven him nuts. He was going on and on about how it could really happen. The ridiculousness of that certainly tainted anything similar for me and my group at the time.

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  10. At the time, at least, a significant minority of people seem to have had real beliefs that weren't obviously less ridiculous. So maybe that was people's problem?

    But couldn't you just play it that the bad guys were Nazis, or domestic right-wingers who staged a coup?

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  11. Left-wing/"Liberal" gamers are pretty consistently hostile to games with Left-Wing enemies (why I remmber the reaction on uk.games.roleplay when I published a fighting-the-IRA scenario ca 1995!), so the hostile reaction was not surprising, esp in Europe.

    This is what Nazis are for - to the Left they're Nationalist, to the Right they're Socialist, making them the perfect foe!

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  12. AIR the Soviet victory in PoF depends on some magi-tech maguffin, an SDI that really worked, which causes the USA to surrender prior to their invasion, and was considerably more plausible than the Soviet paratroopers dropping in unannounced on small-town Colorado(?) in Red Dawn.

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  13. I'm pretty much a commie, and I have no problem with games like this. My current supers game takes place in the late 40's and is full of red menace stuff. As a teen though I was far less worried about politics than I was mutually assured destruction.

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  14. Most of my group is probably somewhat right on the political spectrum (we grew up in Cincinnati, OH), though I'm currently a vegetarian university professor living in CA. I don't ever remember having a political discussion at the time (we where 16 or so). I suspect it was just a little before our individual political awakenings so the politics of it didn't effect the game.

    I did always think that the cover of the box was a little strange.

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  15. I don't find The Price of Freedom absurd -- in a good way -- because I have liberal tendencies. I find it absurd because as a Brit growing up in the 80's, the idea of a Soviet invasion just didn't seem very plausible at all. As James notes, it's fantasy, just in then-modern trappings.

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  16. I wouldn't want to play this game, mostly because I lived through the eighties paranoia about Communism and see no need to experience it again. It was precisely because the threat was small and declining that the paranoia was whipped up to such a fever pitch. I do think one's political persuasion will influence how one perceives this game.

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  17. I saw an add for this as a kid and wanted it bad. Growing up in a small town on the Washington/Idaho border my friends and I thought Red Dawn could hapen at any time. Now that i think about it the only thing that probably prevented an invasion was Rocky's speach at the end of Rocky IV.

    Red Dawn still hold a special place in my heart. writen by the John Milius who directed the much mailigned Conan movie and co wrote Apocalypse Now, I think it gets unfairly critized. Of course i think that because part of me is still a 12 year old hick kid who can't wait to fight some Commies.

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  18. The cover tips off the comedic angle -- even as a tween, I thought "so Bruce Springsteen, Olivia Newton-John, and Bill Cosby are in the Red Dawn RPG?"

    As for your comment "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" -- you've never thought of "Al-Qaeda: The RPG of Global Jihad"?

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  19. I found this at a craft store in the 90's! Had never heard of it and never did get to play it.

    But what really interested me about it was the mention of the option to play as yourselves. It allowed me to think of the area I knew well strategically-- where I might get guns, where I might hole up-- very fun. I suppose a zombie game might allow for this too.

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  20. I remember seeing this game in stores in the '80s but never picked it up. Now I want a copy, lol. We did play lots of Twilight 2000 though.

    It sounds like a game that could be converted to different scenarios though: alien invastion, Chinese invasion, zombie apocalypse (as Telecanter mentions above) and other similar scenarios.

    Ed Green

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  21. I personally thought the movie "Red Dawn" was kind of unlikely. This did not stop me from enjoying it at the theatre.

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  22. I own this game. Part of my collection. But I never played it. Even in 1986 it seemed to blatantly absurd I just couldn't enjoy it. At the time I was a right leaning conservative. I am now a liberal progressive socialist.

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  23. (This is richardpratt from above, changed name)

    This is not directed at anyone specifically ... and maybe this topic has come up before. But how does somebody decide which games are absurd and which games are not, when those labeled not absurd deal with magic, dragons, elves and what not.

    I played basic D&D and AD&D, Star Frontiers, Cyberpunk, Champions, Marvel Super Heroes, etc. and Price of Freedom. It never occurred to me until now that it was somehow less realistic (or more absurd) then the others. I'm curious if anyone could elaborate on this.

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  24. Richard/Gully, I can't speak for anyone else, but to me, The Price of Freedom seems like parody, or at least hyperbole, or perhaps both. In that way, it is similar -- again, to my eyes -- to something like Paranoia.

    (I don't doubt you could play a serious game of TPoF, by the way. I just don't think I could!)

    I don't consider TPoF any less of a fantasy than Marvel Super Heroes or D&D. Nor do I consider it any more realistic than them.

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  25. I was interested in it back in the day but never saw it anywhere and probably couldn't have gotten anyone to play had I did. :(

    Though I still use Commies as villains in certain games. Or heck, make the PCs all Warsaw Pact troopers.

    Commies are fun. Well imaginary Commies. Real ones not so much.

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  26. What do magic, dragons and elves have to do with absurd? There's no reason to assume that just because something is fantastic, doesn't mean it doesn't exist within an internally consistent world. For example, I would judge Pern harder for lacking religion then having dragons; the second is reasonably consistent in the world, but the first is inconsistent with what we know about humans in the real world.

    Secondly, people judge the real world harder. Who knows what would happen if we had dragons running around--but I do know a lot about the Soviet Union and its terminal days, and changing things forces me not to apply things I know to the game. That makes things harder.

    Lastly, people don't like to be villains. Jonathan Tweet has an article on his website being outraged at a Christian RPG that sets up atheists (i.e. him) in the same role orcs play in D&D. This is not as extreme, but you're still setting one political group out as being disastrously wrong. If you had had a right-wing president force the Soviets to a military stance, deposing Gorbachev for an extremist, and then the US attacked the Soviets and lost badly, it may not have been any more realistic, but a different group of people would have been squawking about it.

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  27. Sorry I'm late getting back here, and this will probably wrap this up.

    @kevingreen I can see your point ... and as you imply the rules of PoF didn't necessarily require you to play it as a parody but Paranoia does. Its not so much the game as the GM that would make PoF absurd.

    @Prosfilaes PoF is an internally consistent world that starts with a wildly unrealistic premise. You might find having dragons less absurd than not having religion but we wont agree here.

    As for your second point PoF world is as real as Shadowrun's and I don't hear people saying Shadowrun is too absurd to play (in Shadowrun elves and dragons invade America instead of Russians).

    As to your last point, people will find something political if they want too. But it seems besides the point, because I don't see a connection to having your political group be a villain and something being absurd.

    PoF is not a game of politics or ideologies and has no mechanics in the game for politics. The antagonist are not important to the system as long as the protagonists are modern suburban civilians making guerrilla warfare. It could work as well with Nazis (maybe better) but I'm not ready to argue (and I think its a moot point) wether Nazis, Russians or Dragons (Shadowrun) invading modern America is more absurd. In some case labeling it absurd seems to be a round about way of saying someone finds it politically offensive.

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  28. But the premise is what people hear. Unless a product is hugely successful, most people's opinions are going to be of the superficial aspects, and this game was billed as "Red Dawn", not "GURPS Invaded America".

    PoF is more absurd than Shadowrun. Shadowrun offers a simple fantastic explanation for its premise, and absurd simply doesn't apply to fantastic. You can describe how it develops as absurd, but the alien fruit bats themselves are generally out of bounds. PoF talks about the real world with real world constraints, so all parts are open to accusations of being absurd.

    It is a perfectly valid attitude to find magic in the real world absurd. I suspect a number of people didn't buy into Shadowrun for that exact reason. But most people are willing to give the fantastic elements a walk because by their nature they have to be unreal. Future histories generally have to be believable or they're going to rub people wrong.

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  29. Casus Belli, the main french RPG magazine in the 80's and begining 90's - and still the reference - had an article on Price of Freedom entitled "No to Reagan games!". Even if the magazine was focussed on the hobby (RPG, but also wargames and related topics), it was generaly left-winged. This was especialy clear in the Wargames rubric, which was discretely pro-soviet (remember in France, communist party was the main politcal force after WWI, with hundred of thosuands members, a prestige gained in the Resistance against nazism, so being soflty inclined toward USSR was pretty common).

    I never had the opportunity to play PoF, but a friend of mine had a good fun with a reverse campaign - playing brave USSR citizens resisting US imperialist invasion.

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  30. I played the game for almost a year back in my college days in the late 80's. We had a BLAST, we played 'the avatar' side of it (we kinda sorta stated up and played ourselves) and rocked and rolled all over Greene County (Springfield and surrounding areas) Missouri... Had not had that much fun up to date in an extended campaign in a long time. Actually since then either. Our GM was ROTC and good at strategy too :) What made that the most fun for me was the fact I knew the area and layout of where we were at in game :)

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