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What I think I’m doing with Counter-colonial Heistcrawl

So some guy called Sean Nittner annoyed a bunch of people with talk of “reinforcing colonialist narratives without interrogating them.” And +Scrap Princess said “there needs to be more takes on colonialism other than ones where the players are the invaders” and wondered if anyone was doing that, and so I thought maybe I should explain what I’m up to with this game I’m running. Which I might one day package and sell.

Counter-colonial Heistcrawl started out as something quite modest: a pirates game, drawing a bit on Traveller tramp-trading, set in island Southeast Asia because everybody does the Caribbean and it seemed to me there were possibilities in this other highly interesting part of the world. In particular I wanted Chinese mafias running protection rackets.

That was 20 years ago. I started running it, put it on the backburner, and went back to college. Along the way I picked up some courses in history, southeast Asian area studies, anthropology and a few other things. They fed into what I was thinking, which started to look less like an innocent pirate game and more like a theory. And then, after my initial enthusiasm for historical theory-formation faded, like an antidote to theory. I finally played Civilisation and my dissatisfaction with its self-satisfaction made me dust off the old obsession and think about it seriously again.

Here is what Counter-colonial Heistcrawl is: it’s an open-ended game like any other kind of trad RPG. The players do stuff. Depending on what they do and the force-multipliers they bring to bear, the world reacts in a bigger or smaller way. It’s also a Civilization style domain game from session 1. No matter how much or little the players have, no matter how Picaresque or Romantic their adventures, we keep a tally of what they have and what they’ve done. Every grain of rice is domain. Every action brings them followers and/or enemies. It’s their civilization against others, whether at the knife, ship, county, kingdom or empire level.

And their world is under attack, and if they don’t do anything, history plays out exactly as we think it did, up to today.

They start in island Southeast Asia in 1610. Why? Because in 1610 the Spanish and Portuguese have already demonstrated the structures of European colonialism to the local area, but in Southeast Asia up to this moment they’ve mostly behaved like any other warlord. The Dutch and English show up around 1600 and also mostly behave like warlords to begin with but they have a bit of a different idea that’s just beginning to form: they plan to systematize their intrusions into the local economy and subvert it. Eventually they will plan an empire independent of territory, where they’re not responsible for anything but profits. But in 1610, their plans are still forming. They represent a big but defeatable pirate fleet. in 1610 it’s still possible to start from nothing and beat them.

Beat them at their own game? Doesn’t this just make them colonialist invaders without the explicit necessity of having white skin? Well, not necessarily. That’s why I want it to be a game. I don’t know. It’s up to the players. I’m not preaching to anyone about what should happen. But I’m certain that the situations of colonialism will all come up in play because if nobody else introduces them, the Dutch and English will. Right now (in 1610) they’re fighting a war of monopoly and influence in the Banda islands, over nutmeg. Left unchecked, that war will end up with genocide against the Bandanese, imported African slaves operating nutmeg plantations, and the first Dutch global monopoly on nutmeg and mace, which the Dutch will parlay into growing control over cloves, cinnamon etc. So the players have an opportunity to do something about that. But what? What will they have to do, what will they have to become, in order to stop the English and Dutch? Will they ally with them against the Chinese (who are far from benign), the Japanese (who are in an expansive mode and well placed, right now, to rival Europeans), Mappillas from south India or the Sultans of Aceh or Riau or Ambon, all of whom know an economic opportunity when they see one?

Who are they working with and for? If they resist gaining followers, that will severely limit the influence they can have in the world. If they accept them, they have to figure out some methods of governing them, or at least maintaining them. Being in the world’s great archipelago gives me 2 basic political units, the ship and the island, which is kind of an unmoving ship because (a) it’s oh so Nusantara, and (b) it’s the most romanticized of all nation models. And using this little discrete polity, we can work out the relations of power, how people will work together (that is, for someone else), who is in and who is out of the polity, and how the outs are treated (which is what nobody wants to talk about when the topic of pirate ship democracy comes up, nor the externalities of democracies in general). And networks of trust and trading to make up where the polity is not self-sufficient and all that Ricardian economic stuff.

And the point is, if you want to do anything, you can’t keep clean hands. You will have to make difficult and often unattractive decisions. And you might have episodes where you look like the good guys but we’re not going to cut and roll credits there. You will certainly also find yourselves in the position of bad guys.

And I’ve got this far without even saying what I think colonialism is or why you might not want to do it.

Colonialism is getting forcefully in the way between people’s production and consumption and demanding that some of it be diverted into your own mouth/hands/accounts/networks. Very simply, it’s theft. Although it tends quickly to get administered so as to look routine. Capitalism is this too (against what a lot of people say on the internet, Marx’s theory of capitalism lays it out quite clearly and explains how it’s different from just trade or free markets or whatever). It’s no accident that they grew up together.

Both have good sides, for some people. Both make things possible that would not be possible otherwise. Both are so deeply imbricated in our world system that everyone reading this will owe their livelihood one way or another to them – indeed, the computer probably couldn’t have been invented without them. That business about leading or governing – it’s hard to imagine that happening without some of this kind of diverting of labour and resources. So the PCs will presumably get implicated in it and might be enthusiastic and ruthless proponents of it and if they are/do then they will have to make all those decisions about how to run their ship/legion/nation/empire. But they don’t start with an empire or nation. They have to make their own categories and draw their own lines about who gets exploited by whom, and as they draw those lines, they will know that the same lines can be used against them by their allies, enemies, children, cabin boys, priests and historians.

Why Heistcrawl? Because as a stated design principle the PCs start with little. Maybe a ship, maybe not even that. And the reason for this is, it places them in the poorer position in any fight, together with the people being exploited, not together with the invaders. If they are to find allies, it will first be among the dispossessed. And they will be able to tell themselves, at least until they achieve some measure of success, that their desperate ends justify their means. And the theory I’m operating with, for how they can go from knife-wielding to empire-wielding, is that everything is an alliance. If you want to conduct a pirate raid you need to ally together under your command:
troops and their loyalty
ships and their expert handlers
information and plans
materiel (guns, ammo, powder, etc)
markets where you can trade the booty.

Colonialists do exactly this for themselves. Then they interpose themselves in someone else’s production/trading/selling network and pull those other people’s alliances apart to stick themselves in the middle. If you want to counter them, you have to pull their networks apart, find the weaknesses among their alliances, subvert and divert. And you can’t do it (initially at least) with strength, so you have to use planning and wits.

The challenge with making this publishable is that I would have to come up with systems for scaling all this action from the club level up to the empire. So that’s what I’m quietly working on.


Tony Demetriou, BTW, offered a pretty good response in a G+ comment. I have taken the liberty of reproducing it here where someone might be able to still see it in 5 years time:

I feel like it’s both too much and too little.

Too much because the mechanics aren’t very complicated, but I think you can get a better bang for your buck by looking at how you can use the existing mechanics instead.

And too little, because I think that if you simplify things down to a set bonus or penalty you don’t get much player engagement other than “I chose this option.” Try to, instead, create gameplay around the players making choices that have no clear “right” answer, but instead have two good (or two bad) outcomes, where they need to make in-character decisions and tradeoffs and the personality of their PCs shape what choices they make.

May I also suggest that, if you want politics, you need to create asymmetrical tradeoffs.

What I mean is that, if doing X gives you a penalty and doing Y gives you a bonus, then you’re making strategic choices, not really looking at the politics.

I’m not one of your players, and I’m sure they have a different play style to me – so do what you think best. But using your example, I wouldn’t really “engage” with the colonisation aspect. Yeah, I’d see that war destabilises things, but that would be a background part of the setting. It’d be like knowing that drought causes famine, it’s something that happens, something that creates plots in the game that my PC is involved with, but not something I think about deeply or try to influence. I’d probably pick a warlord to throw my lot in with, and try to capture other land. Then try to hold that land until the economy recovers. So, effectively, it just means “newly captured land isn’t as valuable as holding land.” – it changes the tactics a little, but doesn’t really explore colonialism.

Saying “war disrupts the economy” is very different to showing that it disrupts the economy. And saying “war is bad” is very different to showing that war creates opportunities – there’s a reason people go to war, because it’s very profitable for them. Either in economic terms, or in social terms.

If you can get the players to the point where they morally know what they support, they know how to do that, but don’t know if they should – NOW they’re really engaging with the topic.

Maybe start by brainstorming the things you want to show about colonialism. Then you can build those in with asymmetrical game mechanics.

My list would be:
– Destruction of culture and society
– Wealth creation for the colonists, wealth destruction for the colonised
– Transition and adoption of new technology and attitudes
– Assimilation of the colonised people, class standing, wealth opportunities, etc.

How would I bring those into the game mechanics? I’d look for the sort of gameplay my players love, and I’d give them meaningful choices that come with benefits and disadvantages.

So, for example, maybe you can buy ectoplasmic ammo. Everyone knows that the ammo is mostly imported by Shadow Nomads. They travel the waste, using this ammo to defend themselves, and know how to create it. Yeah, other people also know the secrets, but it’s a very involved technique that takes years of practice to get right, and needs you to trap ghosts which requires it’s own technique. The Shadow Nomads capture the ghosts as part of defending themselves, distil the ectoplasmic ammo while camping, then trade the excess for other equipment they need. Their nomadic lifestyle means that they don’t tend to accumulate or consolidate a lot of wealth – if they make a profitable trade, they’ll spend it on a better tent or more horses, since they need to carry it with them.

Mechanically, we can say that the Shadow Nomads would be easy to conquer. But if you do, that will disrupt this situation, and ectoplasmic ammo will become scarcer. At first, just more expensive. But longer term, more problems with ghosts in the cities, spirit wardens stop trying to defend the poorer areas, and so on. Maybe leading up towards another lost district. Or a new ectoplasmic ammo manufacturer (create a factory and mass produce for the entire city! So much money to be made!)

It’s this balance between opportunity and cost that you want. Something that the PCs can get involved in – both because they can be the ones to profit or lose, but also because they can see that everything comes with tradeoffs. And it’s fine if they “deal with it” by just paying more for the ammo, and carrying on with the game. They still get to experience the impact.

But why stop there? That’s just dealing with the problem in front of the players: “ammo is getting scarce.”

You can bring it into the stories. The next time a PC is possessed, they’ll be able to sort that out – the shadow nomads know how to do an excorcism. Except how do you find a shadow nomad shaman? They certainly still exist, but no longer advertise themselves (after conquering them, their new rulers don’t want shamen competing for positions of authority. Or do they? Have they incorporated the shamen into their authority structure or let the shamen speak for their people?) – they might not be willing to help an “outsider” now that relationships have soured. They might want a favour in return – perhaps an assassination.

The next time they do a train robbery, it’s to steal the ammo shipment. The next time a contact’s child is missing, it’s because they were lured away by a ghost. The next time there’s a rebellion, their goal is to bring down the spark towers and let the ghosts in now that the defenders won’t be able to repel that type of attack. The next time they are hired, it’s to help protect workers as they build a new train line (because without nomadic traders, there’s increased profit opportunities for a train line connecting those cities)

Oh, and that’s only looking at the destroyed culture. The colonists took that land, and did whatever-they-did to the shadow nomads for a reason. That will also create opportunities and costs. Are the expanding industrialisation? Strip mining for coal, steel and wood? Is this creating an economic boom in the nearby cities? With the population able to see that war is bad, but supporting it because of their benefits. With the new steel and copper and coal, their city walls and stronger, their sparkworks protect from spirits, their trains bring in food even when they’ve got local food shortages, and everyone is happy, if they’re one of the colonists. Or are they? Who loses from this? What changes?

Mechanically, maybe fine guns are cheaper for the players. Maybe they get paid an extra coin when doing work for the colonists, due to the colonists having more money. There’s certainly advantages to siding with the winners!

… that’s the first point from my list. And my initial brainstorm. With only one cultural group.

Jot down four or five different ideas for the various groups. Don’t go into detail yet. Then jot down a few ideas of how you can bring those “colonialism” ideas into the game.

Each of the groups, and each of the ideas, will lead the game in very different directions. As you come up with the pros and cons of these colonisation themes, you’ll automatically “fill in the details” about those cultures. Even so, try to keep it simple, so there’s room for the players and the gameplay to shape them and fill in the blanks.

This sounds really complicated, but as long as you start simple and keep a focus on how it will create choices for the players, you’ll probably find that it all falls together pretty easily.

These mysteries work less great for RPGs because it’s quite possible that the players make their super cool mysterious characters and then say “what now?” and the GM is also going “oh crap… what now?”. 

make sure it’s super clear, what that war actually amounts to and what actions they will take in it. Also, maybe consider maybe not war? (see above)

I want to know the roots of that power in the setting, and I think establishing those roots will help not only define the scope of the power, but the likely outcomes (and consequences) of wielding it.

Consider your values and how they affect your design choices. They always are!

Calling something a monster makes it “other” and creates a justification for killing it and taking it’s possession, the same justification for many atrocities in our history.

  1. September 23, 2018 at 6:35 am
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