Back in August, I played a game of Hot War at Gen Con with Malcolm Craig, Rob Bohl (designer of Misspent Youth), Matt Machell (designer of Covenant), and Greg Stolze (designer of Unknown Armies). Hot War is the follow-up to Cold City, one of my favorite games and the spiritual descendant of The Mountain Witch, which makes the following story all that much stranger (sadder?).
You will note that Rob seems to be a recurring character in the drama of my drama. He was much more reasonable than I was.
See, here’s what happened. Malcolm, the designer of the game, was at my house the week before Gen Con. We’d been talking about what we wanted to do in a game of Hot War. I’d said, first jokingly, that I wanted to play James Bond.
Then I realized, no, seriously, I want to play James Bond.
See, the first game, Cold City, takes place in 1950. WWII is over and the old powers of Europe — and the emerging Superpowers of the US and USSR — all want some of that occult Nazi technology that the Thule Society was so keen on. So they send secret agents, ostensibly to aid each other, but usually to steal the goodies for their own purposes. These powers, being ganglial conspiracies themselves, often don’t inspire the greatest loyalty in their own agents, who then accept the mission for their own purposes. It’s very grim. The tone is that there’s something horrible writhing under the skin of Berlin, and you’re about to trap and release these horrors for purposes national or personal — but whatever the outcome, they’re horrors.
On the other hand, in Hot War, the writhing ugliness under the skin of society has frothed into the open. It posits that, in 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis became more than a mere crisis and not only were nuclear weapons unleashed, but also the mysterious and occult Nazi technologies that had been collected a decade earlier. Clockwork soldiers, ghost guns and medusoid gazes are overt weapons of apocalypse. Despite that, the British government, such as it is, believes it can retain secrets and control. Wanting back its power and finding no one to conquer but its own citizens, it has turned inward. Ration cards are hoarded by those who want their neighbors hungry. Communication about the supernatural horrors you’ve seen is treason. Spam is once again a wartime delicacy. The skies of London are free of pigeons, the last of which were eaten weeks ago. The waters of the Thames, never potable in recent memory, are a clogged and polluted sludge.
Enter Bond. James Bond. Sent to sabotage a Soviet submarine off the coast of Cuba to prevent WWIII, he’s returned to London. But he doesn’t know. When he left Cuba in a British sub, the world was normal, even if there was to be a war on — after all, there was always to be a war on. But with the nukes flew the ghosts in Zyklon B canisters, the diesel-powered and human-brained robots, the things unknown and unknowable, between all powers and all who wished themselves powers. When his sub surfaced in the UK, the whole world had changed. But he was going to save Queen and Country, and he was going to do it with the techniques that worked so well: by sexing up beautiful scientists, by shooting the bad guy, by blowing up a building, and by exposing SPECTRE.
That was months ago. He’s still in his tuxedo, but he can’t get it cleaned or mended, so it’s a bit of a mess. The only person remaining in M Branch in Moneypenny, who’s doing her best to shield James from the news and tell him he did a good job. His gadgets are used up or comically unreliable. SPECTRE seems to be wholly a figment of his imagination.
Now, Matt Machell played a cop. A vicious, racist, misogynistic, stupid cop. He was hilarious. He was a vomit fountain of profanity for hours on end. And so here’s the thing. I wouldn’t have played my silly, fish-out-of-water James Bond if he’d come up with a straight character. Really! I would have come up with something else! But his character was designed to be irredeemably vile and hilarious. Sort of like Cartman with a York accent and a truncheon. And even were it not for Matt’s character, I still might have gone for something more serious were it not for the choice of starting situation: there are people exploding all over London. I mean, it’s not like it’s the souls of citizens, turned to pure quantum state by nuclear fission, and asking if their children are alright. It’s not like there were the brains of RAF pilots wired into rocket interceptors that were supposed to destroy incoming missiles, wondering if they can go home now. This is exploding Londoners. I just couldn’t see it seriously.
If I sound a little defensive, it’s because it’s how I feel. Rob’s character, a Jamaican cab driver, was the only reasonable character in the story. He talked to a witness while James was seducing a secondary character and Machell’s cop was shoe-groining some kid. The taxi driver came up with clever solutions and rolled his eyes as James took credit and gave his “sidekick” a pat on the back, completely missing the racial epithets thrown at him. I just hope I didn’t diminish Rob’s fun. There was some gnarly shit about racism that was going on, but I’d committed to a course. The course that led to my scientist paramour exploding in her tattered nightgown when she looked into her microscope.
(Greg seemed to be having a good time. He likes to laugh, and the game was absurd. Adding to the absurdity was Greg’s astounding impression of a London accent. I wish I could remember his character, but all I recall now is the accent. It was amazing. It was )
Malcolm’s games are gritty by design and use clever devices to make the humanity of the characters apparent. He said it was the only game of Hot War that had ever gone the way it went. I’m hoping that it was a fun way for everyone to go, even if it’s probably best to not go that way again.