I’ve previously discussed insights we can get from Arcane magazine’s Top 50 RPGs feature, but there’s one other feature from the magazine which I think has aged particularly interestingly. Rather than being presented in a single article, though, it unfolded over the span of the magazine’s existence.
This was the monthly Retro feature, each instalment of which offered a one-page retrospective of an old game, by and large (with a very few exceptions) one which was well out of print by the time. This is interesting to look back on now because when Arcane was being published the hobby was some 21-23 years old; this year it’s 46. In other words, more time has now passed since Arcane magazine ended than passed between the emergence of D&D and the appearance of Arcane. It’s interesting, then, to look back and see what games were considered to be old-timey classics from that perspective, and how things have developed since.
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.