A long time ago -- late in 2005, it seems -- I created a role playing game called Stalin's Story. It combined the structures that Vladimir Propp found in Russian fairy tales with a totalitarian Stalin figure. One of the players is Stalin and has unlimited power to kill people and change the rules; the others are either actors trying to tell a Proppian tale or courtiers trying to use the tale's elements to have each other killed.
I never played it, because I had serious doubts about the game achieving my design goals. However, I just found a post by Harry Giles who says he has played it several times, and goes on to say that
“Stalin’s Story” is rich, multi-dimensional, original and scary fun[.]He is definitely being too charitable in that piece, but I do need to talk to him about his play experiences! But this blog post is not about Stalin's Story.
Stalin apparently still occupies my brain. I've just gotten back into playing RPGs, and I already found myself grappling with a new Stalin game. It is so different from the former one that it needs a new name: Comrade Stalin.
The game is a bit like Mafia or Werewolves, but with a stronger role playing component, more tactics, and a bigger dose of paranoia, power games and backstabbing.
Comrade Stalin is all about paranoia and power.
- The players will portray people at the centre of a totalitarian government. Their situation is characterised by paranoia, and in fact by justified paranoia. There's not just the fear that someone is plotting to kill you. Some actually is plotting to kill you.
- A totalitarian leader has power, and it may seem as if this makes him safe. But in fact, it makes him vulnerable. Not just because other people want that power for themselves, but mostly because that power is inherently unstable and illusionary. The leader is wholly dependent on other people doing his bidding; if they refuse, there's nothing he can do except calling on yet other people to punish them.
(It turns out that by making Stalin himself threatened, I was following advice given me by Troy Costisick. I had completely forgotten about that, but am happy to rediscover the thread.)
To play Comrade Stalin, you need a single deck of normal playing cards (or special cards for this game, but I'll write up the rules for use with normal playing cards now) and printed out character sheets for all of the characters you're using. (There are no character sheets yet.)
You need at least 5 players, and a table to sit around that is big enough to hold three playing cards and a character sheet for every player.
From a game of cards, take all aces, kings, queens, jacks, 10s, and any further numbers such that there is one value of card for each player. Thus, in a five player game you take aces to 10s; in a six player game aces to 9s; and so on. Discard the other cards -- they will not be used.
Now take all diamonds. Shuffle them, and deal one card to every person. Once the cards are dealt, everyone reveals their card and puts that card face-up on the table before them. This card determines which role you play:
Ace: Comrade Stalin
King: Comrade Beria
[Roles to be defined later. If you know of colourful members of Stalin's court, let me know! Beria was Stalin's notorious chief of secret police.]
Take the aces of spades, hearts and clubs. Shuffle them, then discard one. Nobody is allowed to see which one.
Then shuffle the rest of the spades, hearts and clubs. Discard some of them, so many that you are left with 2 * (players - 2) cards. So in a 5 player game, keep 6 cards. In a 6 player game, keep 8 cards. And so on.
Add the two spades you have left to this pile. Shuffle them again. Now everyone except Stalin is dealt two of these cards, face down. (There are exactly enough cards left to do this. The preceding procedures were for making sure that there are precisely two aces in the cards that are dealt.)
The players can only look at their own two cards. During the game, these should be kept on the table, in front of the player, next to the revealed diamonds card. These two cards are your goal cards, which are explained below.
Once the cards are dealt, Stalin takes an alarm clock of any sort (a mobile phone, for instance), and sets it to go off at anywhere between 15 and 30 minutes in the future. Stalin does not tell anyone what time he has chosen.
Winning the game
This is what the goal cards mean:
- A black card (clubs or spades) means that you need the indicated person to be killed. So a king of clubs means that Beria must die; an ace of spades means that Stalin must die.
- A red card (hearts) means that you must protect the indicated person. So a king of hearts means that Beria must survive.
- If any card indicates yourself, it applies to Stalin instead. So if you have a card that means that you must die, it instead means that Stalin must die.
It is possible to have incompatible goals (when you need to kill and protect the same person). This means that you cannot win. However, you can get rid of goal cards by killing people (see below), so make sure you kill someone.
Stalin wins when the game ends, and (a) Stalin is still alive, and (b) nobody who is still alive has a card meaning that Stalin must die. If someone has such a card, Stalin has failed to purge his court of assassins. He will soon die (though not during the game).
It is possible for more than one person to win. It is also possible for nobody to win.
Ending the game
The game ends when any of the following conditions is met:
- The alarm clock goes off. (If you're in the middle of an attempted killing, that attempt is aborted.)
- Stalin declares that all traitors are dead.
- At this point, any of the surviving players can still attempt an assassination of Stalin. If such an attempt takes place, the game doesn't end; though Stalin can repeat his declaration afterwards, if he survives and still wants to.
- Stalin is killed.
A player who is not Stalin can only be killed by Stalin asking the group in general to kill them. If at least one of the other players offers to perform the killing, and Stalin accepts the offer, that player dies. If nobody does, the player survives. For instance:
- Stalin says: "Comrade Kruglov is an enemy of the people. He must be removed from this world." Nobody says anything in response. Kruglov is not killed, because Stalin cannot kill someone on his own.
- Stalin says: "Comrade Kruglov is an enemy of the people. He must be removed from this world." Beria says: "I will take him out for you, comrade!" Stalin accepts this offer, and Beria kills Kruglov.
- Stalin indicates that he wants Kruglov dead. Beria and Khrushchev both step up to do the deed. Stalin chooses one of them (or stops the procedure), and that person gets to kill Kruglov.
If there are fewer defenders than killers, Stalin can order the killing to proceed. He can also have one or more of the defenders killed; and he can have this done even if he decides to spare the potential victim's life at the last moment. If more than one person is killed, Stalin must give each job to a different killer.
- Stalin indicates that he wants Kruglov dead. Beria states that he will perform the killing. Khrushchev says: "But no, comrade Stalin! I am sure that comrade Kruglov is a true communist. We should not kill him." If nobody else says anything, Kruglov survives.
- Stalin indicates that he wants Kruglov dead. Beria states that he will perform the killing. Khrushchev defends him. Malenkov now offers to kill Kruglov. The killers (Beria and Malenkov) outnumber the defenders (Khrushchev), and so Stalin can have Kruglov killed. He can also have Khrushchev killed, or have both Kruglov and Khrushchev killed. If he chooses the latter, he must let Beria kill one of them and Malenkov the other.
- the killer discards one of his goal cards; nobody gets to see it;
- the killed person chooses one of his goal cards and gives it to the killer; only the killer gets to see it. It cannot be refused.
Anyone can attempt to assassinate Stalin, simply by saying so.
Other players may step up to defend Stalin. They may also decide to join the assassin. (Stalin cannot do either.) Once it is clear that nobody wants to join either of the groups any more (either because everyone has joined a group, or because all non-declared players remain silent), count the number of assassins and the number of defenders.
If the number of assassins (including the original assassin) is greater than the number of defenders, the assassins win. Stalin is killed. The original assassin, and the original assassin only, decides which of the defenders also die in their attempt to protect the great leader. They are effectively in charge of the coup.
If the number of assassins is equal to or less than the number of defenders, Stalin -- and everybody else -- survives. It is of course highly probable that Stalin will immediately start an attempt to kill the would-be assassin.
During an attempted assassination, Stalin cannot start an attempt to kill one of the players. During an attempted killing of a player, nobody can start an attempt to assassinate Stalin. Resolve the current attempt first, and try the other attempt thereafter. (Usually, the order doesn't matter anyhow. If more than half the players want to kill Stalin now, then they'll also not allow Stalin to kill one of the potential assassins.)
You do not get to discard a goal card after killing Stalin.
Each character sheet will have a short description of the character on it, and several special rules and abilities pertaining to that character. For instance, the special rules and abilities of Beria might be:
- Stalin's confidant: if you have a single goal card indicating that you must kill Stalin, it means that you must protect him instead. If you have two of them, you must kill Stalin normally.
- Despised by all: if Stalin dies, all surviving players -- except for you -- immediately vote on your fate. If a majority, or even just half, of them want to kill you, you die and cannot win the game.
- Killer: whenever you kill someone, your spying ability becomes available again.
- Spying (ability): You can look at one goal card on the table. Do no show it to anyone else. (You can of course tell people what you have seen... but you might lie.) One use only.
This will make the game more tactical than games like Mafia and Werewolves, which are almost entirely about gut feeling, body language, and revenge for earlier games (and, at least for me, somewhat disappointing because of that).
Each character will have several rules or abilities to set them apart from the others, so that playing any of them will feel different from playing any other. Those with abilities or rules that specifically threaten Stalin will also have an ability or rule that makes them more useful to Stalin (otherwise, they would always be eliminated early in the game).
What do you think?
Comments and ideas are very welcome!