Monday, November 23, 2015

Grey Ranks

July 2nd, 1944: a letter authorising to break curfew and a pair of boots spotted with blood

Lukasz, Julia, Jadwiga and Janusz, teenage members of the Grey Ranks, are gearing up to steal some gasoline right out of a truck with German soldiers sitting in the cabin, at a checkpoint. It's the middle of the night and everything's quiet. Jadwiga takes the letter authorising her to break curfew and walks up to the barrier to distract the soldiers. Meanwhile, Janusz does his best to open the tank stealthily and to not choke on gasoline when he siphons it out. The first can is filled with gasoline and Lukasz takes it and runs.

At the checkpoint, things are not going too well and Jadwiga turns on the waterworks. One of the soldiers in the truck gets out to see what's the problem, Julia and Janusz take a dive under the truck. They have a little more time to half-fill the last can, almost attract the attention of the soldiers and can make it to the meeting point. A couple of minutes later, Jadwiga joins them, the soldiers allowed her through. At the last moment, she spotted the blood on the soldiers' boots and it was all she could do not to run. There is some bickering between the four, but on the whole, their first mission for the Home Army went well.

July 27th 1944: A freight train, a bridge, a soft-hearted officer and some rags, bottles and ten litres of gasoline

A lucky accident has played into the hands of the group: they have the time table for a train carrying horses and other goods to the Easterns Front. Eager to make a contribution, they plan to stop the train on a bridge outside Warsaw so that the Home Army can raid or destroy it. Jadwiga steals papers and tickets to Krakow for Janusz and herself and Lukasz steals a truck from a greengrocer as transportation and to barricade the bridge.

Janusz and Jadwiga, carrying a big chest filled with the bottles and the gasoline, pretty much just walk up to the train and don't get noticed among the forced labourers who are loading the train. They hide away in the carriage with the horses and soon, the train starts moving. They have some time for a talk, fuelled by some wine left in one of the bottles. They talk about their families - Janusz is Jewish, his father is hiding in the woods around Warsaw and Jadwiga's family disapproves of her being part of the Grey Ranks - and about what they would do if the war ended tomorrow. Janusz wants to open a nursery and Jadwiga wants to go to university. They make a pact that they will go to Paris together once this is all over and both are only half joking.

Julia and Lukasz have reached the bridge and Julia walks up to the checkpoint. She spins a story about needing to visit her grandmother in the next village and the officer is kind-hearted enough to let her through. Once she reaches the checkpoint on the other side of the bridge, she attacks the guard and shoves him off the bridge. She then climbs up on the bridge's support beams to distract the soldiers who start shooting at her. This gives Lukasz the chance to drive up on the bridge, ramming the two soldiers in his way and probably killing them. But they don't stop to check, just firebomb the car, steal the weapons and get off the bridge. The train is getting close and starts to slow once the engineer spots the burning truck. Janusz and Jadwiga jump off and throw Molotov cocktails into the carriage, setting the straw and the horses on fire. It's chaos in a matter of seconds and the Home Army attacks. The screams of the dying horses follow them into the night.

August 4th 1944: German police are abandoning Pawiak Prison, a midnight blue dress, a box of chocolates and a supervised visit

Pavel Wiczek, an engineer with important knowledge, is supposed to be brought to Germany in the next few days and the Home Army wants to keep him in Poland. The group uses the confusion of the last days before the Germans will abandon the prison to try and get him out. They have organised a box of chocolate, papers that make Jadwiga into Pavel's daughter and a beautiful blue dress that unfortunately belongs to the wife of the prison's commander. Jadwiga has never before worn anything like this, cannot get the zipper of the dress closed and calls Janusz for help. He navigates that situation pretty well, if a bit taken aback by the sight of Jadwiga in a dress and high-heeled shoes.

A couple of hours later, everyone is in place: Janusz on a rooftop, ready to snipe away at the guards, Julia and Lukasz in the sewers, ready to get Pavel out. Jadwiga gets into the prison without problems and visits Pavel. When he's brought back to his cell, he passes right next to the courtyard with the sewer grating Lukasz has just climb out of. Lukasz attack the guards and at the same time Jadwiga has to make a run for it because soldiers recognise the dress. The prison suddenly is in uproar, Pavel gets shot in the leg, Janusz starts shooting and Julia throws a grenade at the guards who try to stop Lukasz. They make it back into the sewer and run for it, as fast as they can. Lukasz keeps himself upright through sheer willpower, he has been peppered with grenade fragments and is bleeding heavily. Once they reach the support troops of the Home Army who take care of Pavel, he collapses. Julia does her best to dress his wounds and sings a song for him, like her mother used to sing for her. But Lukasz is unconscious and does not hear her.

August 7th 1944: An apartment near the ruins of Leszno Street, a thick album full of family photos, a brief moment of peace and Unterfeldwebel Walter Singer and his battle-hardened squad

The four are sitting in the apartment of Janusz' family, now a ruin missing the entire front wall. They have come here to make plans, but Janusz has found an old photo album and leafs through it, showing the others the photos. Everyone listens to his stories about the past, when life was still good and there was hope. From outside, they hear the sound of a violin - someone is playing amidst the ruins.

Their short moment of peace is over when the door gets kicked in and they recognise Walter Singer, an Unterfeldwebel with a very bad reputation. Jadwiga starts shooting immediately, Lukasz grabs the maps and plans they had spread out on the table. One of the soldiers throws a grenade and so does Julia. Jadwiga grabs the album and drags Janusz simply out through the destroyed wall, falling a couple of meters. Lukasz is too slow and gets caught in the blast of the grenades, he's badly hurt but makes the jump down to the street at well. Julia jumps, too, and they all run, while the rest of the German patrol is shooting at them.

They make their way to the cemetery near the street where they hope to find a hiding place. When they arrive there, Julia is not with them. Jadwiga give Janusz the album and then goes to look for Julia. She finds her cowered into a doorway, staring at a photo of her and her family. Unknown to the others, Julia has seen the old man playing the violin while they ran. He smiled at her and then collapsed, hit by one of the bullets meant for them. It takes a while, but Jadwiga manages to talk her into getting up and they join the others at the cemetery.

September 2. 1944: Dozens of Polish children are kept hostage at their school, a Nazi informant, a 14 year old deaf boy lost in hostile territory and a sniper picking off people one by one

After a tip by an informant, the Germans have imprisoned dozens of Polish children at their (illegal) school. The group is on their way there to free them when they come across a young boy wandering through enemy territory. Other Home Army soldiers have been trying to reach him but they have been shot by a sniper. The boy does not hear their frantic calling and so they come up with a desperate plan: Janusz climbs up high to get a good vantage point and will try to snipe the sniper. But he needs one more shot to spot him. Lukasz will draw fire by running out into the street. At least he picks up a helmet lost by a German soldier. Before Janusz leaves, Jadwiga hugs and kisses him for the first time. The plan works, although Lukasz gets shot in the shoulder and Janusz's rifle jams on the first shot.

They get the boy to safety and make their way to the school. The boy has escaped from there and has told them that the soldiers are Russian auxillary forces, well known for their cruelty. By chance, two other Grey Ranks members, Radio and Alice, have captured a German tank and Julia climbs aboard, to try and draw the soldiers out. Lukasz and Janusz hide, planning to shoot at the soldiers when they leave the school and Jadwiga makes her way to the back of the school to get the children out. At first, this plan also works. The soldiers are so glad to see one of their own tanks in what is more or less enemy territory that they do leave the school. Jadwiga shoots two guards, gets shot herself, but she can lead the children out at the back.

Radio opens fire with the tank's main gun, pulverising many of the soldiers and a fire fight begins. In their panic, many of the children run off in the wrong direction, right into the line of fire. They are almost all cut down, Jadwiga can only save two of them. One of the soldiers fires a Panzerschreck and Janusz is too slow to stop him with his very last shot. It's not a full hit, but the tank is damaged badly, driving right into some ruins. The fighting has drawn other Home Army soldiers and the Germans retreat. When the group gets to the tank, they find Radio and Alice dead and Julia in bad shape. On their way home, Janusz almost breaks down and they all try to tell him that he did all he could and that there is sense in what they are doing. He is half-convinced at best.

September 10th 1944: The headquarters of the 4. Panzerdivision in Ochota, a talk about love, patriotism and faith, a solemn promise and driving away the one you love for their own good

The Russians have arrived, but they have stopped and do not advance on Warsaw, leaving the Home Army to fend for itself in a desperate situation. The group has orders to attack the headquarters of the 4th Panzerdivision and to kill as many officers as possible. Before they go, Jadwiga takes Janusz aside and they promise each other that if they survive, they are going to flee the city and make their way to Paris. Lukasz hears that and waits until Janusz is alone before he confronts him. They have a heated discussion about patriotism and duty. Lukasz throws Janusz's own words into his face about how he wanted to do something, to fight for a better future and Janusz throws a punch. In the end, Lukasz cannot convince him and walks away, disappointed.

At the heavily guarded headquarters, Jadwiga takes a British-made time-fuse and some explosives to blow up an ammunitions depot as a diversion. She gets into the compound unseen, as do Lukasz and Julia. But the depot explodes way too early and Lukasz and Julia are caught out in the open, between the guards and the soldiers coming out of the headquarters. Janusz does his best to snipe as many enemies as possible. Lukasz grabs his grenades, shoves Julia over to keep her from following him and runs into the house to take out as many people as he can. By the time Julia has gotten to her feet again, the explosions have started. Janusz has to watch Julia getting overpowered by German soldiers. He takes aim to shoot her, but he cannot do it and she's taken away. Jadwiga does not return. When Janusz makes his way back to the meeting point, only Lukasz waits for him there.

October 3rd 1944

The Home Army puts down their weapons. The fight is lost.

In the end, Jadwiga died when the time-fuse malfunctioned. Julia was taken prisoner, tortured and died. Lukasz committed suicide when his personal hero Bór, commander in chief of the Home Army, capitulated and the country was lost. Janusz made his way to Paris and, after the war, opened a nursery. He returned to Warsaw in 1994. On a memorial, he found the names of Julia and Jadwiga. Lukasz fate is unclear and Janusz prefers to keep it that way, he'd rather think of Lukasz as alive.


Grey Ranks is a freeform roleplaying game set during the time of the Warsaw Uprising. We played it in a single, long session and cut a few scenes - it is meant to be played over three sessions normally. But it still worked very well. Players pick situation elements for each of the ten chapters and with hindsight, it was interesting how we automatically raised the stakes for our characters. We took a break after each chapter and particularly for the last three, it was badly needed. If you haven't gathered as much from the theme, Grey Ranks does not make for light-hearted play. Things got very intense.

Proceed with caution and do absolutely not skip the suggested pre-play discussion about themes you'd rather avoid and the talk about the game afterwards. But it's absolutely worth playing. I suggest that you read at least the information provided by the rulebook about the Grey Ranks and the Warsaw Uprising and maybe do some more research. The game is absolutely playable without detailed knowledge, though, and provides important information with Radio Lighting broadcasts before each chapter. These are also very handy to set the mood for the chapters and to get a sense of the passing time.

The Warsaw Uprising Museum has produced a documentary of original footage, colourised and with added dialogue taken from eyewitness accounts. You can watch it here:

Monday, October 26, 2015

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Out of Dodge

After a botched heist, Mole leadfoots it out of there, with Toad bleeding all over the backseat next to Badger and Rat riding shotgun. None of them really knows what went wrong, just that there were a lot more people in the shop than they reckoned with and,more importantly, a lot more serious firepower.

Toad has managed to grab a bag that he says contains the gold. The others are sceptical and after some bickering, Badger grabs the bag and opens it. It contains coins, Reichsmark to be exact. Not the loot they were hoping for and nothing they can sell quickly. Toad begs them to take him to a doctor and Mole says that they’ll cross the river first to get some more miles between them and the crime scene, then they’ll just put a gun to the head of the next doctor they find.

Badger comes up with another idea: how about they ask the Afghan, you know, Mole, that guy who bought all that heroin from us that time? Mole stops the car and turns on Badger. „We don’t fucking talk about the Afghan! You know I want nothing to do with that guy! Apologise or we can sit here all day, fine by me.“

Badger not only doesn’t apologise, she cannot fucking believe that Mole still has a chip on his shoulder about the Afghan. „Come on, the guy can help us! He’ll give us a good price for the coins AND he’ll have a doctor for Toad. Hands up everyone who’s for the Afghan.“ Two hands go up in the backseat, Rat’s undecided and Mole is pissed off, but at least starts driving again.

„Okay. Here’s an idea, how about we go to Prague?“ Badger almost punches Mole at hearing this. „Prague? Are you out of your mind, we can’t go back to Prague! I don’t even want to THINK about Prague. Man, I never puked so hard in my life, what were you thinking doing THAT to the guy in OUR hotel room? Fuck Prague.“

Toad interrupts the discussion by dying noisily and in agony. That solves the doctor problem, but not the problem of where to go and adds the problem of where to put the body. Another problem is that the ferry won’t leave for some time. Still, they take a break at the small harbour, Mole goes for a smoke and the three people left in the car start to wonder if there might be a rat among them. Everyone looks at Rat. „Jeez, guys, it’s a codename!“ It does nothing for their peace of mind that Badger recognises a car that she thinks she has seen at the jewellery story. They drive off again and Rat really starts to dig into Badger, harping on how it was her contact who came up with the idea for the heist.

Mole tells her to check Toad, to see if he’s wired. Badger does that, pulls Toad’s gun and shoots Rat in the head, splattering the windshield with blood and brains. Mole almost drives the car off the road. „You cannot shoot people while I’m driving! Couldn’t you have waited until we pull over again?“ Badger isn’t very sorry for what she did. „That guy got on my nerve.“ On cue, they encounter a parade of five tractors, driving very slowly. There is no way they can have missed all that blood. Five hundred metres down the road, there’s the annual firefighter festival, with even more people and, of course, firefighters and police.

Mole takes a desperate turn to get off that particular road and fairly quickly, he no longer has any idea where they are headed. „We’re NOT lost,I just don’t know where we are going!“ With only the two of them in the car, talk turns to Mole’s therapy (he no longer goes and may or may not have killed his psychiatrist), bickering about Prague and the Afghan („We don’t fucking talk about…“) and the realisation that it might be a good time to take a break from each other.

Mole makes a stop at a small dirt track to give them a chance to hide the two bodies in the boot of the car. He takes his pistol because he’s not an idiot and has a bad feeling about Badger, but she still gets the drop on him and he goes down with a bullet to the head. Badger takes a deep breath, enjoys the quiet for a moment and then realises that she’s standing next to a car with three bodies, with rubbish coins for loot, that she cannot drive and is in the middle of nowhere. She can only hope that the Afghan will make good on his promise.


And that was our game of Out of Dodge. For me (Badger),it really picked up speed when the Afghan was brought into play. He immediately turned into the Keyser Soyze-figure and suddenly, Mole and Badger had a past together.

The way the game works is that everyone has a keyword they are supposed to work into the conversation. That word is a prompt for one of the others to say or do something specific. If anyone dies, they can still play – sniping the conversation with suggestions like: don’t you think she will betray you? Wasn’t Mole supposed to be in therapy for that? Didn’t work out or what?.

The timing of me shooting Rat and the tractor parade was flawless. Mole had just said: ‘people will see all that blood!’ when they came into view and they would have had to have been blind indeed to miss the blood if this had been real.

It’s not strictly neccessary, but we took nerf guns along for the ride, without ammo, and that made for some extra realism. Please do not wave fake guns around where people can get nervous about it. Also a nice surprise: Mr Ook had switched our generic fake coins to real Reichsmark without telling me - I had asked him to prepare the props and character envelopes because I didn’t want to spoil myself.

So, if you’ve got a car, three friends and some time on your hand, go play this. It’s hilarious and there are no rules to learn, just: improvise. Don’t be afraid to make a mess of the situation…what AM I saying, the situation IS already a mess. Roll with it.

Monday, June 1, 2015

I Aten't Dead

I'm sorry for the silence, but I lost my laptop to a faulty mainboard and I'm using my tablet just now. The mobile Blogger interface makes me want to kill it with fire. Regular services will resume as soon as possible.

In the meantime, let me recommend The Corpse Door to you, a short,animated comic about a dead Norseman. Very creepy and very well done.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

If you find me

Carey lives hidden away in the woods with her little sister Jenessa and their meth-addicted mother. One day, her mother has been gone for weeks already, her father comes to take the girls to live with him.

If you find me by Emily Murdoch is a chilling book to read, especially when you think about that children really go through this: abducted by their own parent, hidden away somewhere, abused. But what happened to Carey in the woods is revealed only slowly and mostly, you have to read between the lines, until the very end of the book.

One thing that bothered me a bit is that Carey is something of a Mary Sue. She is very beautiful, she's an extremely talented violin player, she's very intelligent and the most popular boy in her grade immediately falls in love with her. There's a reason why he's interested in her, but the other things are pretty Mary Sue-ish. It doesn't really harm the book because it's well written and the story is gripping. Also, the reason why Mary Sues are so popular and get written so often is that young girls identify with them, they make them feel powerful. When you see it like that, it's actually a plus for the book. Also, the horrible things that happened to the girls are never glamorised or idealised.

I love the relationship between the characters, between Carey and her new family. Even her new stepsister, who doesn't like her at all - but she has her reasons and she's not the caricature of a Mean Girl she could have been. The relationship between Carey and her sister is my favourite, though. Carey has been more her mother than their real mother has ever been and whenever Janessa is concerned, she quickly switches back into adult mode. You get to see the world through the eyes of a girl who has had only very little contact with everything we think of as normal and just enough that this doesn't turn into The Wolf Boy.

I highly recommend this book because of its subtlety and because of its positive outlook. There are many YA novels that deal with teens who have a horrible life, but way too many of them never offer any hope or way out. Kevin Brooks, I'm looking at you. When You Find Me is different and that's important.

3. book for the Everything YA challenge

Reviews 2015

Monday, April 27, 2015

Alif the Unseen

Alif thought that State cybersecurity are the biggest of his worries. Evading them on his mission to protect his clients, people with opinions forbidden in the Emirate, is hard enough. But when he suddenly steps into a part of the city where he encounters marid, effrit and a book that is even more wanted by State security than he himself is, his life suddenly gets a lot worse.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson is Cyberpunk goes 1001 Nights during the Arabian Spring. The setting works really well and the combination of jinn and cybertechnology starts to look fairly natural. But never so natural as to be boring, more like: yeah, okay, sounds logical now that I think about it. I mean, of course jinn will go with the time and acquire their own computers. Create the Jinnternet.

The book has the same kind of energy I love about, for example, Cory Doctorow's novels, the excitement about technology and the changes it brings to society. The new ways people interact and link the online world with the real one. If there is such a distinction to be made at all. It's a fast-paced story, hilarious at times, and yet it always finds time for some philosophy. Seeing technology through the eyes of jinn opens the way for some really creative hacking.

Alif may be the main character, but it's the women who drive this book. In particular, Alif's childhood friend Dina, a deeply religious woman who gets caught up in Alif's problems against her will. I liked it very much that she stays true to her beliefs during the book and doesn't confirm to some Western idea of a free woman. She's independent, but on her own terms, thank you very much.

Reviews 2015

Third book for the Diversity on the Shelves Challenge.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Vampire: Don't Drink the Pianist

Here's a transcript of the diary I found at the archive. It's been badly damaged by mold and mice, but it's still readable, mainly thanks to the owner's Copperplate penmanship. A lost art, methinks. Anyway, read it and tell me this isn't huge.


The Prince held the first Conclave for ten years and he has opened his own house for it. It was a grand occasion and people had dressed the part, which meant that fashion styles from the last five hundred years were being worn. It was the first time I had ever seen all of our society in one place and there were quite a few people I hadn't met before or only heard about. Rolf introduced me to some and later I made my own way around the room, ending up at a table with some archeologists. There were discussing the possibility of an expedition to Russia and Poland to recover artifacts, but decided that the time was not yet right for this. And after all, there was so much still in Germany. Which is a very polite way of saying that the Germans have stolen and plundered their way across the continent.

The talk was interrupted, mostly pleasantly, by Lysann Couronne who captured everyone's attention with a beautiful piano piece she performed on the Steinway and dedicated to the Prince. He was flattered indeed. Quite to my surprise, he invited me to keep him company when Rolf introduced me. A few minutes later, I found myself in the library with the Prince, Miss Couronne and Professor Justus-Emmanuel Hoffman, the archeologist who had advised patience in the matter of the Russian expedition. The Prince told us that he is expecting a train from Berlin and for reasons unknown to him, it's three days overdue. That is late even considering the fact that the route has just been restored from the damage it took during the war. The reason he is so eager for the train to arrive is that an heirloom of his is on board, a dagger supposedly enchanted by the Tremere. It enables Ventrue to forgo their clan weakness and chose any vessel to drink from. We have been charged with finding that train. Despite my low status, my ability with languages has made me part of this. I suspect that my experiences during the war have been taken into consideration as well.

Before we left the room, Lysann noticed that a single rose placed in a vase had moved even though none of us were anywhere near it. We also saw someone making a very hurried exit from the main room. I followed him, but once outside, I saw no-one, except for one of the British soldiers guarding the house. He told me that he had seen no-one. Well. For someone with enough practice in obfuscating themselves, the guard wouldn't have been much of a problem. Professor Hoffmann had followed me and searched for tracks, but found none. However, I did find a soldier, half-hidden in the bushes with his neck broken. The same soldier standing guard outside the door. Who was gone when we looked again. This, too, is possible for someone who has a higher degree of Obfuscate, but we hadn't heard anything. I know of no clan possessing that kind of power. Rolf did, when I asked him, the Assamites.

I told the Price of my suspicion. There had been rumours about the Sabbath making their way into Germany from the East and it seems they are true. After checking the guest list, one name turned up: Arno Friedman. Apparently a Russian spy who disappeared right after being captured. His real name is Nikolas Poliakov and the Prince identified him as Ragna, an Assamite who has been feuding with him for the last two hundred years and who will now be on his way to get the dagger for himself.

This has made our mission that much more dangerous and urgent. We left Hamburg the next evening, equipped with fake travel documents, a truck and enough gas to last us the way. I volunteered as driver, I've always enjoyed it. We all brought along our ghouls. I do hope Miss Couronne's ghoul is less of a Quex that he looks to be or Peter may be hard-pressed to hold his tongue. While driving, I found myself telling Miss Couronne about my past. Not in detail, but if she hasn't known before, she and Hoffmann now know that I fought in Warsaw, once on the winning and once of the losing side.

We were stopped by the British when we left Hamburg. Apparently, they are on the lookout for a murdered. Miss Couronne solved the situation by charming the Sergeant. It's a useful skill to have, I must admit. I'm sure we'll have need of it again before this is over.

So. Did I promise too much? I don't think so. I haven't found out much yet, but the diary's owner is one Albin Wozniak, a Pole captured during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 and brought to Germany as a Fremdarbeiter (the other Battle of Warsaw he mentions is probably the 1920 one). Official records state that he was killed during the bombing of the Lagerhaus G, a subcamp of the Konzentrationslager Neuengamme. I haven't yet found out about the people he's working with, but give me time. I don't know if you know what a Quex is, I had to look it up. Seems that the guy looks like the perfect model for the Hitler Youth. Probably not something that wins him any sympathies with Albin.

It's an intriguing find, wouldn't you say? I'm very sure that it's genuine.


It's been ages since I last played Vampire: The Masquerade. It was my first roleplaying game and I love it very much. I was a bit afraid that this might be nostalgia, but so far it's holding up. The dreaded meeting of the characters went really well, we connected over a couple of things and it wasn't just the Prince's order to work together.

I did a lot of reading for Albin's backstory - Polish history is complicated. I always played older vampires, but he's only 2 years old. Very much a child, as far as the others are concerned. And he still feels connected to his old life, I doubt that this will stop any time soon.