Review: Ross Rifles
by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 18, 2018
Ross Rifles is a brand new RPG from Dundas West Games that is still in development. It was the last game I played at BreakoutCon, and the first game of the convention that I had never played before. The session I was a part of was run by one its creators, Daniel Kwan. (Daniel is notable for his work running the RPG program at the ROM for kids, his podcast Curiosity in Focus.) Ross Rifles is like D&D, but the dungeons are the trenches of the First World War.
The quick start rules of the game are available now, but the game is very much still in development. The version I played at BreakoutCon has diverged a little bit from the game described in the quick start booklet, and I as I write this Daniel is play testing some new morale rules. They hope to have the game ready to be kickstarted at the tail end of the year. Still, the quick start rules capture the core of the game, which I suspect won’t change much over the coming months.
Ross Rifles is an apocalypse world hack. The quick start is a bit rough: I think it might not be easy to follow if you haven’t actually played the game. The booklet could likely be reorganized to better explain the game and how the various changes to Apocalypse World work. A brief overview of how the game plays and moves from phase to phase would be helpful. With Apocalypse World games you have your agenda and principles and all that noise. I think it’d be good to put some of that down on the page for people who want to run a game of Ross Rifles themselves.1 That said, the game’s rules are quite straight forward, and it doesn’t drift far from the core of Apocalypse World, so playbooks in hand I suspect most groups will manage fine.
Ross Rifles was fun. It plays like a good war movie. We began with our arrival to the front line. Players can play Sergeants, Corporals, and Privates, each described in their own playbook. The game will look similar to anyone who has played a Powered by the Apocalypse game. Some changes of note: characters have a harm track and a fatigue track, with 4 harm indicating death, and 4 fatigue indicating shell shock (which impacts your ability to things)2; each character can gain vigilance points they can spend to do particular actions or impact the fiction of the game (like call throw a grenade, call in artillery, etc); each character can gain ground that represents their forward position on the battlefield. Gaining Ground and moves you trigger by spending your Vigilance points are generally how you succeed at the missions your soldiers are assigned.
After settling in we were greeted by our commanding officer Stan Ho and tasked with searching for and retrieving the camera from a downed German spy plane which crashed in the No Man’s Land. This mission required a majority of our group to gain 3 ground, and that one of the players triggered the Fall Back vigilance move. We spent some time trying to get organized: cleaning our guns, studying maps, surveying the region from the ‘safety’ of our trench. There are moves you trigger while in this phase that might grant bonuses for the later phases. In our case, we mostly flubbed rolls and accumulated shock/fatigue.
Flubbing rolls also meant Daniel collected Threat tokens, which he could later spend to fuck with us, basically. This was one of my favourite parts of the game. It’s like the inverse of mission points in Night Witches. When a player rolled low they would sometimes be presented with the option of succeeding anyway if the DM gets a threat token. As he slowly collected tokens the tension around whether we should eat the set backs from our rolls ratcheted up.
We were ready for action and ventured out into No Man’s Land.3 The moves here are all about making your way forward unseen through all the muck and craters and barbed wire that pock marked the front. Our brawniest private began things by crawling over to cut through some barb wire blocking our path—and rolled snake eyes. So he was stuck under the wire, which remained uncut, and could hear the approach of two German stormtroopers. The rest of us tried to lay low and get in a good position to shoot the troops. (This time we rolled well.) We waited for an artillery strike to provide some noise and light and took out the troops. Our private managed to cut through the wire and we began our advance. My character managed to make it to the camera first. Success! Or so we thought: it was a trap.
We were now under fire, the third phase of the game.4 Here the game shifts to charging forward, trying to circumvent craters, barbed wire, and other obstacles, shooting at your enemies (as they shoot at you), and getting up close and personal with whatever weapons you have on hand. This part of the game was exciting and fun. It’s where the rest of our team managed to make all their ground as they ran to save me from the German machine gunners that had me pinned down and some storm troopers that were making their way to the crater of a plane I was hiding behind. A few of us took some wounds as we were shot and beaten, but in the end we prevailed. I was rescued and we fell back (and so succeeded at our mission).
We played through another short mission and called it a day.5 It was a fun session. I found it all really interesting, as well. I have to wonder if they’ll be able to some how transplant all that knowledge of its creators into the eventual game book itself. I don’t know much about the First World War, so the game felt compelling just from an educational standpoint. The game is very fast to get going. Unlike a lot of other Apocalypse World hacks, you don’t spend a lot of time up front building out the game world or the relationships between all your characters. The setting is set and your relationships are what come out of play. Daniel runs the game with children, and I suspect a lot of how it was designed is to make playing and running the game as straight forward as possible. I think they’ve succeeded quite well in that regard. I’m looking forward to where they end up going with this game.
Magpie Games does a good job with their pre-release versions of their games. They have a good structure I think everyone should copy. (You can grab their “ash can” editions of Velvet Glove, Cartel, The Ward, and Pasión de las Pasiones as PDFs to see some great examples of quick start rules.) ↩
In the game I played Daniel had merged the harm track and the fatigue track. There are now two spots for shock, and 3 spots for physical harm. When you fill up both your shock spots you now roll for shell shock. When you fill up all the harm you’re dead. ↩
The quick start rules call this part of the game “Over the Top” (of the trenches). ↩
The quick start rules call this part of the game “On Patrol”. ↩
I’m skipping over our side trip to find a European beaver to make our mascot because I don’t think it was really core to the main experience of the game, but obviously that was fun. ↩