This is the one hundredth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
The random number generators have picked a selection from the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality that involves a lot of random numbers. It’s True Believer, by Ben “Bee” Scerri, Red World Press, and it’s messing up my intro formatting by not having a tagline in the bundle at all. Touché, Red World Press, touché.
True Believer is a tabletop role-playing game, but unlike most of those, it can be played solo as well as with other people. That means that, in a surprise twist, I can actually play it! And I have. And now I am telling you about it.
It’s a quick game, no epic campaigns here. The rules fit on a single page PDF, although there are two more pages included, one for character sheets and one to act as the theatre of war which will be updated during play. It can accommodate any number of players, but 1-6 is recommended. These players will step into the roles of soldiers fighting in an endless war of attrition, the titular true believers, who adhere to the official doctrine that tells us the enemy is inhuman, that they do not worship the Birth-Star as we do, that they do not feel, that they cannot love. Despite some evidence to the contrary. I was interested to see that Scerri cites a song as the inspiration for the game: True Believer, by clipping. I thought I was unfamiliar with clipping., but while listening I realized some friends had pointed me towards an earlier song of theirs, “The Deep”, a while ago. The song “True Believer” is striking, taken from their album Splendor & Misery, an afrofuturist concept album about an escaped slave aboard a starship. That particular song describes interplanetary war, which is clearly the theme of the game.
But those looking for a lot of sci-fi flavor will not find it here. Examples given for military actions that might take place in the game are reminiscent of World War I trench warfare more than anything else: going over the top, taking shelter from artillery barrages. But it soon becomes clear that these details aren’t that important. True Believer is about telling a story of soldiers forced to face the humanity of their enemy, forced to understand the cost of their dogmatic belief. Played with one or more ten-sided dice (or a digital equivalent), the rules revolve around each player’s randomly assigned serial number. After each player rolls dice to get their assigned number, the others give them a nickname based on their number. A soldier’s true name is known only to themselves, yet already the nicknames are a way to humanize those who the war’s commanders wish to reduce to mere numbers.
At the start of the game, players draw a line across the theatre of war to indicate the front line. On each player’s turn, they describe some military action they must attempt, and then roll a ten-sided die. If the result is higher than any of the digits in their serial number, it is successful, and they can then draw a new line across the theatre of war, moving towards the enemy. If the die result is lower than all of the digits in the serial number, the action fails, and the front line must move backwards. In each case, the players must narrate what happens, paying particular attention to the enemy. If the players captured a location from the enemy, what do they find there? What was left behind, and how does it remind the players of home? On a failed action, players must similarly muse over what was lost, and how they mourn.
The key rule kicks in when the die roll is equal to a digit in the serial number, in which case the action was successful, but only barely. The player must cross out the matching digit from their serial number (only one, if there are multiples of the same digit) and then describe how another non-player character lost their life in the attempt. Players come together to eulogize the fallen, before play continues. In principle, play should proceed through a series of victories and losses, with players gradually losing their friends in the fight, their luck slowly running out as their digits are crossed out one by one. Eventually, they’ll lose their last digit and therefore their own lives, with surviving players eulogizing them before fighting on.
That’s not really how it worked out when I played, however. At the start, I had a mix of successes and failures, which offered some opportunity to explore the enemy as well as my own compatriots. But after a few of my digits were crossed off, I was left with a string of failure after failure, consistently rolling below the large remaining digits. Eventually I gave up, as the front line had receded all the way to the “True Believers” side. I was supposed to continue until my own soldier’s death, but frankly it was getting tedious. The constant losses were inconducive to the game’s goal of humanizing the enemy, too. Suffering setback after setback tends to have the opposite effect, making it all too easy to cast the enemy as an inhuman force responsible for all of our troubles. It’s the moments of victory that force players to think on who it was they have been killing.
I like the concept of the soldier’s serial numbers as a way to explore how war reduces lives to mere numbers, willing to sacrifice people in the name of a greater goal, no matter how misguided that goal might be. But in practice it’s just a bunch of random numbers, and my soldier happened to have a lot of large digits in his serial number, which meant he was doomed to mostly fail. With more players, this might be mitigated somewhat, and telling the story collaboratively may be more rewarding as well. But my biggest issue with the game is that the explorations of the enemy and the dangers of dogmatism are entirely on the players’ shoulders, without much support from the rules themselves. With the right group this won’t be a problem, but without it the game can fall flat easily.
If you do have that group, however, you might want to give True Believer a look. If you missed it in the bundle, it’s sold for a minimum price of $5, including both a PDF version and plain text version. At the very least, you should check out the song “True Believer” by clipping., it’s pretty cool.
That’s a cool 100 down! Only 1641 left, let’s do this.