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.

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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: