So I have these burning ideas based on the improv class I’m in. Taking a scene and heightening it by interspersing related small scenes. Rewarding players for making connections between utterly disparate elements.

If you check this first stab out, you’ll note that the math is badly against you, especially in the last three scenes. This is mitigated a bit by the potential for lots of bonus points for bringing in setting elements in a 4-5 player game, and you are supposed to lose. Your reward for winning is not getting hurt. I may have to make it harsher rather than more forgiving. I’m liking the “scene doesn’t end until we run out of points, so you better keep coming up with cool-ass stuff for us to reward”, but I can see that going both ways – fun and lame. I stripped out the very complicated relationship and mission building formulae and replaced it with, basically, nothing, so I’m interested in what you all think. Comments and analysis very welcome.


Prologue: 8 September 1939. The siege of Warsaw begins, seven days after the German invasion. This scene is an “establishing shot” of the player characters, aged 10-13. It should provide an opportunity to demonstrate the youth pairs of the characters, but there are no dice or points. When it is done, we should have a good idea who these characters would have been, had the Germans not invaded.

Scene One: 1 July. Monkey-wrenching the occupation.
Scene Two: 27 July. The Nazis begin to get nervous.
Scene Three: 1 August. The Uprising begins!

Scene Four: 2 August. Desperate street fighting.
Scene Five: 4 August. The high water mark of the Uprising.
Scene Six: 7 August. German tanks against home-made rifles.

Scene Seven: 14 August. Old Town must hold.
Scene Eight: 2 September. Old Town falls. The sewers become a highway.
Scene Nine: 10 September. The Russians reach the Vistula and stop cold.

Epilogue: 2 October. Capitulation. Like the prologue, no dice or points are involved. This is every player’s opportunity to describe how their character faces capitulation and to narrate a future for them.

Grey Ranks is divided into a prologue, nine scenes, and an epilogue.

At the beginning of each scene, each player may introduce an element from the charts — a person, object, or event rolled randomly. Any player may invoke these elements in the mission or a vignette, and doing so provides a bonus.

Each scene takes place on a specific day during the Uprising — scene four takes place on 2 August 1944, for example. A scene is framed by a mission, in which which all the player characters will take part. Interspersed throughout the mission are vignettes — relationship-focused moments affecting individual player characters. Each player must contribute a vignette to each scene.

Vignettes interrupt the narrative flow of a mission. They can take place during a mission, but they are more likely to be flashbacks. Vignettes should be crafted to offer a compelling tie-in to, or commentary on, the mission. For example, perhaps the mission reaches a point where the player characters are pinned down by machine gun fire. A player narrates the terror his character feels, and immediately jumps into his vignette, which focuses on how his character overcame the fear of telling his girlfriend he loved her. Tying vignette to mission provides a bonus to the success of the mission.

In each scene, a player has ten points to divide between mission and vignette. Points used for the vignette represent the personal challenge — roll this number of less on two six-sided dice to succeed. Frame the vignette, roll the dice, and then play out the scene. Failing a vignette results in the loss of something you hold dear.

The points awarded to the mission must be given away to acknowledge and reward the cool narration of other players. These are thrown into a cup, so that unless you count as the scene progresses, you won’t be entirely sure of the number. The mission ends when every player has had a vignette and has no points left to give away.

Every mission has a target number, which is the scene number multiplied by the number of players. If the total points allocated to the mission equals or exceeds this number, the mission is a success.

A failed mission results in all the player characters growing up a little by scratching off a youthful pair.

Narrating in a setting element that was selected at the beginning of the scene for the first time provides a bonus — in a vignette it raises the target roll by one and in a mission it adds one to the cumulative pool.


Steve, playing the Girl Guide Henia, and Mike, playing the Boy Scout Marek, are ready to begin scene six — 7 August, with the general theme of “German tanks against home-made rifles”. They decide this sounds cool and agree to generally take it literally.

Steve chooses a place, and introduces “Church of the Holy Cross in Old Town”. Mike chooses an event, and brings in “A badly injured German soldier, Gefreiter Horst Kuhn, is hiding in a ditch”.

The pair will need to have 12 in the mission pool to succeed.

STEVE: OK, let’s go. We’re at a barricade on Jerusalem avenue, Henia and Marek, waiting for a German attack we know is coming. They’ve been probing all day and it is just inevitable. And the two of us are stuck behind this barricade, and we’ve stuck up a bunch of copper pipes to look like the gun barrels of Home Army troops who are just not here. It’s you and me.

MIKE: Awesome. I’m throwing a point in the mission pool for that set-up. What’s going on?

STEVE: We’re huddling up against an overturned tram car. The ground is literally shaking as a German tank rounds the corner, and we’re staring at each other in complete terror.

MIKE: Oh, that’s great. Here’s another point for the mission pool, and I want my vignette now.

STEVE: Go for it! Who am I?

MIKE: My old girlfriend, Jadwiga. It’s a flashback, and I’m giving it six points.

STEVE: You’ll only have two left!

MIKE: I know. Marek and Jadwiga are praying in the Church of the Holy Cross, the night before the Uprising is to commence. The pews are filled, and the hymns are being sung so loud that the ground seemed to shake. This memory comes to Marek as the tank approaches, and he uses it to pluck up his courage.

STEVE: Very cool. Introducing the church, a setting element, allows you to increase your vignette target from six to seven.

MIKE: And connecting my vignette to the mission – the vibration, and how Marek’s courage is returning at the memory of it — means I get to toss an extra point in the mission pool. Time to roll.

(Mike rolls two dice, hoping for a seven or less, and gets an eleven — failure. Something he holds dear must be lost, and Mike, as Marek, and Steve, as his girlfriend, play out a scene in the rectory of the Church of the Holy Cross, in which they part angrily. Moving back to the mission, Mike narrates a courier arriving to tell them that the church has been dynamited by the Germans, and he crosses “my faith” off Marek’s list. Steve tosses a point in the mission pool for this heart-breaking exchange with the courier, then gets back to business — there’s a tank rumbling down Jerusalem avenue straight at them. So far there are three points in the mission pool, and Mike has spent a total of eight — two to reward Steve for cool narration and six on his vignette. Steve has only spent one.)

STEVE: You better take the lead so I can give some mission points.

MIKE: Right.

(Mike describes an elaborate action sequence involving a buried home-made bomb, some molotov cocktails, and the eventual destruction of the tank — during which Steve enthusiastically throws three more points into the mission pool. As the tank grinds to a halt, he declares his vignette, which focuses on him standing up to a bully — another free point for the mission pool after some discussion on whether it really ties in. Steve could put all six of his remaining points into his vignette, but instead he chooses to hold one back for the mission and use only five. Although a five or less is a long shot, he succeeds and does not lose anything he holds dear. Including two bonuses there are eight points in the mission pool, Steve has one point left, and Mike has two.)

STEVE: Henia runs up to the burning tank and pulls a guy out of it. He’s the German gunner, badly burned and screaming. Henia gets him out and starts kicking him in the ribs.

MIKE: Holy crap! Mission point for that, and the bonus for introducing the setting element, too!

STEVE: Thanks, I guess I’m taking some liberties, exchanging the ditch for the tank.

MIKE: No problem, that’s awesome. So you’re beating this guy up as he’s lying there, horribly burned and screaming. And Marek’s never seen this side of you, and it is not all right. Mission point for that. And Marek starts to move, to stop her, but he can’t. He just stands there, fascinated.

STEVE: Point for that, too! Horrible! Henia’s absolutely insane with rage. She clears the action on her home-made submachinegun and points it at the tanker’s head. And she looks up at Marek, and stares into his eyes as she pulls the trigger.

MIKE: Whoa. Let’s see what’s in the cup – I spent four points and you spent five on the mission, and we earned three bonus points. So we did it – twelve. Mission accomplished.

Grey Ranks: How It Works
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3 thoughts on “Grey Ranks: How It Works

  • April 27, 2006 at 3:56 pm

    Eric “The Manimal” Provost savaged this reworking, asking why getting your pals to agree your narration is cool is the central mechanism for success. I’m currently rethinking and my brain is aching with Tony LB-style revolving wheels of currency. But I do like it plenty. it just needs a little something-something.

  • May 3, 2006 at 11:52 am

    You are crazy and awesome. Just wanted to say that.

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