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A Black woman raises a cavalry saber while holding the early flag of Virgnia. Her eye is bandaged. An Indigenous man standing behind her load a musket. Image: Ken Duquet/Andrews McMeel Publishing

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Flames of Freedom tabletop RPG mixes Hamilton with Stranger Things

Button your doublets, it’s a brave New World

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Flames of Freedom Grim & Perilous RPG, the latest from Andrews McMeel Publishing, begins with a bold assertion. It instructs players, firmly and directly, to scrap the conventionally taught history of the American Revolution in favor of a new set of rules. Players should throw absolutely all of the exploitative, colonialist violence into a period appropriate dumpster and set it on fire. What remains is exactly what it says on the tin — a grim and perilous world filled with mystery, horror, and adventure — and the chance to rewrite the American Revolution.

Flames of Freedom is a supernatural setting that feels like a mix of Hamilton and Stranger Things. While your neighbors are marching off to fight the Red Coats, you’ll be lurking in the shadows battling against arcane powers that have existed on the continent for thousands of years. In this tabletop RPG, the process of play becomes instead a story of creation, an open and absorbing alternate history of the troubled founding of our troubled nation where everyone — and I mean everyone — gets a hand on the ball.

A team of Rebels behind a log barricade readies an artillery piece. Image: Dejan Mandic/Andrew McMeel Publishing

On the road to Trenton, Archibald’s party had fallen in with a new traveling companion. He said his name was Livingston Hobb, and he claimed to be a Quaker. His dog, Biffer, was as quiet and well mannered as his owner. Together, they must have made a curious sight for folks heading in the opposite direction.

Leading the way was Gideon, the knurled grip of his musketoon held loosely in his Black hand, a portion of bird seed spilling out of the other. Beauregard followed him most days, the foppish young dilettante daubing his pasty brow with a silk kerchief. Nanye-hi walked at Archibald’s side. She kept up an agreeable patter, telling tales of the birthing practices of the Cherokee nation. Next came Mercedes, a devout Spaniard whose purple birthmarks contrasted her long, dark hair. Red Bonny, their green eyes always fixed in the shadows beyond the roadside trees, had the rear. Sweat glistened off of the dark sleeves of tattoos on their forearms.

They would need to work quickly to find the Rebel spy, their contact in town. The snow crunched beneath his boots. Hopefully it wasn’t too late to save them.

A dilettante stands on a street corner, a silk kerchief in one hand. Image: Dejan Mandic/Andrews McMeel Publishing

The Revolutionary War is in full swing, with armies on the march and Boston under siege. Also magic is real, incredibly rare, and difficult to use. Players go up against supernatural beings, like vampires and werewolves. You’ll also find demons that are unique to the Americas, like the Skin-Walker, a mysterious shapeshifting creature born from the oral traditions of the Navajo.

Players will need to defend themselves with period weapons, like the Brown Bess musket that sends its massive .75 caliber projectiles into the world behind a blinding cloud of smoke. The action is quick and brutal, with engagements that last only a few terrifying rounds.

History is written by the victors, and in Flames of Freedom the goal is victory at any cost. Trouble is that the enemy isn’t always who you expect it to be. But the book itself succeeds early and often in making this dangerous setting inviting for a range of players, through its framing and the developer’s conscientious research. This is clear from the introduction, called the Preamble, in which expectations for the Historian (aka game master) are set:

Flames of Freedom is not a tabletop role-playing game where you will discriminate against women, practice slavery and indentured servitude, slaughter innocent people or ‘tame the wilderness’ of Indigenous Nations. It is a game where people come together to fend off a secret war that took root long before the American Revolutionary War. [...] It is up to the gaming group to decide how strictly it will hew to history. Everyone should be a part of this decision, and it should be a unanimous one.

The game fills the room with energy from the start thanks to its character creation system. In Flames of Freedom, players are encouraged to create characters at random. A roll of the dice assigns your “culture” — either Black, British, Colonial, French, Indigenous, Multicultural, or Spanish. The authors admit that it’s a catch-all term, but ultimately it’s up to the players to define what it means for their character.

“We do not intend it to imply that the culture is monolithic in sentiment,” the developers add, “as people are individuals.” They then proceed to inform players what life was at that time, letting them daydream about where their character might fit in. The 660-page book presents concise-yet-detailed information on everything from marriage and economics, to education, crime, and punishment. Chapter 11 is the largest by far of this sort of background material, with nearly 40 pages detailing 16 different Indigenous nations in and around the Colonies at that time.

A section of the text displaying a content warning about slavery. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

To create this wealth of world-building detail, Flames of Freedom developers worked with numerous accessibility, cultural, and safety consultants. Content warnings are clear and well-placed. The credits read like a who’s who of modern game design. In fact, developer Daniel D. Fox tells Polygon that his team only included Indigenous nations in the book if a member of one of those modern nations vetted their work.

This type of guidance is pervasive and consistent from cover to cover. As a result, everyone at the table feels well-armed with a shared set of values, and a deep-seated desire to kill every single monster that plagues the struggling colonies.

Inside the cabin, the creature sloughed off its human form like a nightgown. Beneath was a tangle of wet flesh bristling with long bones. Red Bonny’s breath caught in their throat, the oil pot hanging limply in their hand. Mercedes burst through the doorway behind them, a small pistol leveled at its chest. She fired.

The round hit the monster in the face, demolishing its lower jaw. A foam of thick black ichor bubbled from its ruined face. The door behind it barred, the thing unfolded six limbs and twisted backward. In a tumble of bare knees and damp elbows it forced its bulk up the narrow staircase, pulling itself along like a rat through the bilge of a ship.

If the spy was still alive, she was upstairs too. Nanye-hi and Gideon charged after it.

A Black man with graying dreadlocks and a missing hand feeds birds. Image: Dejan Mandic/Andrews McMeel Publishing

Mechanically, Flames of Freedom runs on the Zweihänder system. Published in 2017 after a successful Kickstarter campaign, the original Zweihänder Grim & Perilous RPG won an Ennie award for best game the following year. It’s a d100-based design that’s simple enough to use. Unlike Dungeons & Dragons, it allows for both critical successes and critical failures. But I enjoy how it trades power between the players and the Historian.

Flames of Freedom includes a kind of narrative currency, which is represented by a small pool of coins shared by everyone at the table. At the beginning of a session the players have most of those coins. By pushing one across the table to the Historian they can edit the scene in interesting ways; re-rolling the dice, enhancing combat damage, or adding something to their inventory. It’s a clever way to give players agency over the story, but the Historian can use those coins against the players as well.

Another quirk comes with the game’s classes, which are represented by more than 90 different historical professions. Players can be brewers or boatswains, folk healers or freebooters, vagrants, weavers, or whalers. Professions offer stunts, powerful abilities to bend the game rules that are thematically based on a character’s lived experience. As a character levels up, they’ll take on new professions. In gameplay terms, that means you won’t have to roll up a new character to have a fresh experience at the table — unlike other TRPGs where characters don’t evolve so much as they get traded out for more powerful versions of themselves.

What was left of the spy hung like wet leather from the monster’s shoulders as it cowered in the bedroom. Archibald and the others had failed to reach her in time. Cornered and unmasked, the creature knew that there would be no escape. It began the chant through broken teeth, its snaking tongue struggling to form the ancient syllables.

The old magistrate rushed forward, his dark stiff robes casting a flowing, flickering shadow across the wall. He buried the flaming torch inside what was left of the creature’s mouth. Gideon and then Nanye-hi both fired, and its perforated body fell backward into the wash basin.

As it sank, what was left of the other missing townsfolk floated to the surface.

Perched at the top of the character sheet is a conflict tracker. On the left side is your character’s flaw, and on the right is their core belief. Players can either hew closely to their beliefs or lean into that flaw. Then, at the end of every session, everyone at the table participates in a sort of debrief, piecing together how their characters are responding to the inherent conflicts between their ideals and their flaws. Ultimately, the Historian acts as the final arbiter. The result is a slow but inevitable progression from a normal, gods-fearing resident of the original 13 colonies to a hardened, monster-killing warrior with a dark and deadly past. That’s the real magic that will propel your group into the next session and beyond.

Flames of Freedom Grim & Perilous RPG is one of the best new TRPGs released this year, but it is not for the faint of heart. You can get a taste with a free quickstart version, which includes a short adventure and a selection of pre-generated characters. But, even if you never roll a die in anger, it’s nonetheless a treasure trove of thoughtful historical information. The book officially goes up for sale on Oct. 12. Expect a community-made campaign to be available online around the same time.

Flames of Freedom Grim & Perilous RPG was reviewed with a final retail version provided by Andrews McMeel Publishing. Thanks to our playtesters who helped bring this game to life: Patrick Gill, Cicero Holmes, Ash Parrish, Tasha Robinson, and Tricia Schneider. Our Historian was Daniel D. Fox. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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