The Cost of Sincerity

How to explain West End Games’ oddity The Price of Freedom? Well, put it this way: had it come out in the mid-1990s, when West End Games were absolutely cuckoo for licensing movie properties to adapt them into tabletop RPGs without giving any consideration for a) whether there was a market for these properties as RPGs or b) whether it was even possible to adapt them into RPGs, then The Price of Freedom wouldn’t be called The Price of Freedom: it’d be the official Red Dawn RPG.

Yep, turns out that all that glasnost business was the sham that the John Birchers thought it was. After a “gutless” President signs misguided weapon control treaties with the Soviet Union – treaties the USSR’s tyrannical regime sees nothing wrong in breaching themselves – the Soviets are able to perfect a nigh-perfect missile defence system for the motherland whilst gaining an overwhelming strategic advantage against the USA. The President capitulates to USSR demands, and soon enough Soviet forces begin landing in the US (along with their Cuban and Nicaraguan buddies) to act as a peacekeeping force in support of a puppet government.

The PCs in The Price of Freedom are, much like the Wolverines in Red Dawn, an unlikely rabble of freedom fighters – ordinary Americans having to face up to extraordinary times, fighting against a regime near-indistinguishable from the Stalinist version of the Soviet Union. On the face of it, this is undeniably a fantasy scenario derived in a large part from the fears of the extreme right of the 1980s; the very concept that the Soviets would mount an invasion of the USA, and attempt to occupy it in the long term, was considered absurd by most even at the time. (After the Cold War ended, declassified Soviet-era documents revealed that not even the Soviets thought that an invasion of the US was a good idea – primarily because of there being way too many guns floating around.)

On the other hand, the game was released by West End Games – known in RPG circles at the time mainly for Paranoia and Ghostbusters – and designed by Greg Costikyan, known both for his work on those games and on Toon. All comedic games – with Paranoia, in particular, incorporating a fat dose of Cold War satire. Was the game supposed to be taken seriously, or was it a really dry satire? Opinion at the time was sharply divided, with some convinced that the game couldn’t possibly be intended to be taken seriously, whilst others believing that West End had gone full Reaganite on its audience.

Possibly this is because Costikyan is in the awkward position of trying to write a game focused on a scenario which he considers to be absurd on the face of it (and more or less directly says as much), but which he seems to have been briefed to treat at least semi-seriously. Based on his work on the likes of Paranoia or Violence, I am pretty sure that if Costikyan wanted to go full-bore satirical with this, the game would have a very different character.

In particular, rather than presenting a system full of goofy jokes and which is a mere facade over saying “Look, just make shit up” like Paranoia and Toon were (and which Ghostbusters was to a certain extent), The Price of Freedom offers a somewhat more rigorous setup. Sure, the basic stats-and-skills, “roll under on a D20” system is pretty simple on the face of it – indeed, a variant on it with swapped-out stat and skill names would be used for Paranoia 2nd Edition a year after. However, the detailed weapons statistics and the use of hex-and-chit maps for more complex combat scenarios means that The Price of Freedom is entirely open to wargaming out some scenarios.

Indeed, at the back of the gamemaster’s booklet in the core set there’s descriptions of some combat scenarios you can set up and play through wargame-style. Given that the game came out at a time when West End still (just about) put out more wargame material than roleplaying games, it feels like The Price of Freedom was intended to, in part, act as a sort of two-way gateway drug – showcasing for roleplayers the enjoyment of hex-and-chit combat simulations, whilst offering a military scenario which would appeal to wargamers and make it easy for them to get into the roleplaying side of things. Going full-on clown car with the comedy would have made the wargaming aspects of the game fall flat.

That said, I think that there are aspects of comedy to the game , but you have to drill deeper to find it than in Paranoia or Violence, both games in which it’s very much at the surface. Part of this lies in the somewhat weary way that Costikyan addresses the core premise – referring to it, in a “Note For Liberal Readers” in the player booklet, as “Lord of the Rings meets William F. Buckley” and generally making it clear that he considered the premise absurd. The pregenerated characters in the core box have some sharp political differences seeded among them – enough so that, at best, you’d expect a Stalinist invasion to be the only thing which could drive them together, and at worst you could expect a group roleplaying those political differences intensely enough to fail to even get around to resisting the Soviets due to their infighting.

Costikyan also works little nods here and there to suggest a more comedic take on the game than much of its text defaults to; the Soviet-issued “identification papers” provided as handouts for the game require holders to sign statements that they are not and have never been members of the Republican Party (a clear riff on McCarthyism). There’s an entire adventure seed, The Last Congressman, in which the titular character turns out to be a womanising drunk emblematic of the self-indulgent worst of American democracy.

Perhaps the slyest dig at the premise, however, is the way that most of the quotable quotes in the chapter describing guerrilla warfare tactics come from Chairman Mao or Che Guevara. For that matter, the game can work just as well to simulate any late 20th Century guerrilla movement fighting an occupying superpower… you know, like in Vietnam.

Perhaps to keep his enthusiasm up, or perhaps as a means of kicking back against the rather dry, low-roleplaying/high-wargaming approaches of other military-focused RPGs of the era like Twilight: 2000The Price of Freedom actually combines some rather bang-on-the-cutting-edge roleplaying ideas. Hero points are a thing here – having been introduced to the field in Victory Games’ James Bond RPG (later the basis of Classified) – and characters also each have to choose a “passion” – something which they are obliged to roleplay consistently with – and a set of “interests”, which are like passions except on a suitable D20 role the character can resist them. This resembles a highly simplified version of the Passions mechanics from Pendragon, only without the upside of having a handsome bonus to action when you’re impassioned. With Pendragon having only come out the previous year, this is evidence of just how closely Costikyan had his finger on the pulse at the time.

On top of this, the game throws in the idea of “physical tags” and personality tags. This is a simple way of getting a physical and personality description of a character; rather than coming up with an exhaustive description of them, you just think up the feature which stands out the most about them. Then you can fill in the rest and add depth through the process of roleplaying them – so long as you have a distinctive tag to hang that portrayal on to begin with, it’s a good way both to keep NPCs distinctive and to help players not used to roleplaying used to playing characters unlike them.

The game also discusses a mode of play it calls “avatar roleplaying”, but which is essentially a rehash of ideas dating back at least to Villains & Vigilantes in terms of published suggestions for how to play a game (and, realistically speaking, dates back to the first time someone played a self-insert in a D&D playtest). This is the idea of having a PC who is you, or at least a close approximation of you; it’s suggested that since many players likely won’t have sufficient skills to survive, you set your attribute and the first 100 points allocated of your skill scores to reflect your personal qualities and knowledge, and then spend the last 50 points on combat and other survival-critical skills, since in the world of The Price of Freedom the risk of Soviet invasion was obviously higher than in our world (as in “above zero”) and your PC is a version of you who’ve seen this coming and prepared accordingly.

This is, incidentally, further evidence that the politics of The Price of Freedom aren’t as simplistically right-wing as they’re often assumed to be. After all, here the game is explicitly stating that the scenario it’s outlining can’t happen in our world; for it to even be viable, we’d have to be looking at an alternate history sufficiently distinct from our own that it’d have prompted your player group to take up a few survivalist hobbies because they’d seen which way the wind was blowing and wanted to be prepared.

One thing that many West End Games RPGs shared was a certain embrace of illusionism in its GMing advice – generally, it’s suggested that you write a linear adventure, and then if your players aren’t following the railroad, nudge them to go back onto the railroad. This was an attitude which worked for Paranoia, a comedy RPG about a society where the PCs have no real agency, but which feels increasingly incongruous in a game where the players are meant to be making meaningful tactical and strategic decisions about responding to the invading Soviets. Costikyan has various philosophical arguments to support this, but they tend to fall flat for me.

For instance, he argues that preparing a branched adventure where you plan for the PCs to take multiple routes results in a lot of wasted time, because it means you end up prepping encounters which don’t get used. This thinking is completely muddle-headed form my perspective. First off, encounters not met on an adventure can be reskinned and recycled later on; if the PCs didn’t choose the route which took them to the “hostage negotiation” encounter, you can file that away and then pull it out later on when you need a framework for a hostage negotiation encounter. so it’s not wasted effort at all.. In addition, this attitude undervalues the place of improvisation in RPGs – and in particular, GM improvisation which “yes, ands” what the players have come up with, rather than blocking them off. However, set aside the occasional bit of odd 1980s adversarial GM thinking like that, and the book has some very interesting things to say about campaign and adventure design.

The Price of Freedom emerged with a clutch of support materials, but vanished quickly. The GM screen pack included a useful set of guidelines to help flesh out Soviet adversaries for the PCs, including “the Mayberry Regiment” – a premade occupying force for PCs to mess with. The adventure module, Your Own Private Idaho, is more interesting to mine for ideas than to actually play through itself.

And that’s about it. It’s not a game which seems to have gained much of a cult following, and to be honest given the directions which alt-right Gamergatey sorts would have taken it in, that’s probably for the best. Still, hidden away here is some of the most forward-thinking game design and writing about gamemastering which the 1980s would have to offer, all wrapped up in a game which you could just as happily use to play the resistance against any other occupying force… provided your gaming table is happy with the PCs, say, blowing the limbs off young Americans with IEDs.

In retrospect, the disturbing nature of much of the game and its unflinching depiction of violence (combined with Costikyan’s mocking suggestion that since most people play this sort of thing to let off steam, having a socially acceptable reason to blow up your local library is pretty cathartic) can potentially make The Price of Freedom somewhat unpalatable. If you play it “straight”, the risk of meandering into an alt-right fantasy is palpable; if you apply it to other military occupation scenarios, the majority of examples of such in recent years would put a very different spin on things.

In retrospect, 1980s Reagan-tastic endorsement of and covert support to violent resistance movements, without much fussiness about the ethics thereof, has aged poorly – 9/11 being the ultimate instance of one of the groups so supported turning around to bite the hand that fed it. That said, if you actually read the materials presented by Costikyan, rather than playing up to the John Milius-esque fantasies conjured up by the game’s concept, I suspect you’d find it to be a rather more thoughtful affair than the premise suggests.

3 thoughts on “The Cost of Sincerity

  1. theoaxner

    Some historical trivia: While this game was (and mostly remains) pretty much totally unknown in Sweden, it’s had a kind of phantom presence since it was the main inspiration for the most famous Swedish RPG never to be actually published, Partisan.

    In the mid-to-late-80s Äventyrsspel, the leading (almost-monopoly) Swedish RPG publisher, projected this game about playing resistance fighters in an occupied Sweden. The idea was that the game would support several different alt-historical / alt-present campaign settings: apart from the obvious Soviet occupation also a fascist US occupation, a 1940s Nazi occupation and a near-future sci-fi alien occupation. There was a lot of hype about this but it kept being delayed and then never came out. At the time Äventyrsspel mumbled something about it being inopportune due to controversies about “violent toys”, but many years later the then-editors confirmed that the main reason was that The Price of Freedom bombed. “If WEG can’t sell this concept to Americans we’re not going to be able to sell it to Swedes.”

    Because of its nonexistence Partisan has acquired a kind of mythic status. Some of the manuscripts were rediscovered last year or so, but the game was never more than half-finished.

    1. Fascinating! I wonder if the original game would have had more legs if it worked in the idea of alternate occupations more overtly from the start?

  2. Pingback: Four Sides of the 1980s – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

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