One of the great benefits of community, both online and in person, is they provide you with information about new games and opportunity to actually play them. By expanding my circle online I’m hearing about more projects than just word-of-mouth, and by diving deep into the one-off world I discussed last time my friends and I keep trying games. This weekend saw us trying out two new ones, one of which is Bully Pulpit’s The Climb (which I’ll get to next time) and Sidney Icarus’s Rider’s Last Rites.
The game is a quick read and plays in about an hour (or longer if you get really chatty). It’s a 4-player freeform one-shot available on itch.io, an indie game market that has a growing rpg culture on the “physical games” tab. This game in particular was part of the #sadmechjam design project, where game designers all riff on a common theme. It stood out to me because games like Mechwarrior feature the thrilling heroics of mech/sci-fi combat, but few have ever embraced the moment of loss when a comrade falls in battle. This blurb caught my attention:
Felix Rider, a First-Class Pilot of the Ninth Guard, has fallen in battle. Inside Valiant Fox rests enough parts to repair other fighting units in the fleet, but it would mean giving up whatever is left of Rider’s personality, and violating her wishes to be burned alongside Valiant Fox.
Rider’s closest friends gather to remember her, and to decide what is right.
If you are wired anything like me, that’s a winning pitch. So I snapped it up, read it that night, and proposed it to friends later that week. Character creation is as simple as naming your pre-generated relationship to Rider (lover, oldest friend, wingman, commanding officer) and selecting answers to some key questions about your relationship to Rider. In that regard, there’s some definite replayability with new players or swapping archetypes and choosing different answers. For this play-through, I was her commanding officer, torn between how much this hotshot pilot reminded me of my daughter back home and my need to keep pressing forward and not lose any more ground on the war front.
The game itself plays in two phases: The Eulogy and The Decision (with a third phase to debrief after the game, something my group does instinctively. I’m glad it was called for specifically on this one, since it deals with some pretty heavy themes). For the Eulogy, each player raises a glass and reminisces about the best of Felix Rider: how we met her, what she mean to us, our dearest memories. Each player raises questions to the group or follows up on comments from the other players (with suggestions in the gamebook to get the conversation started). It’s important to leave space to ponder, to drink, to mourn between these revelations and clarifications, so as a result it is one of the most deliberate gaming segments I’ve ever participated in my life. Not slow as in waiting for your turn, but naturally tending towards quiet reflection. We talked about who she was as a child, how lucky we were to know her, her impossible success on the battlefield, and her singular relationship with her mech, Valiant Fox. One of my favorite questions to both her lover and her wingman was if they were jealous of her connection to her fighting frame, since it defined her relationships in a lot of ways. Some very interesting thoughts on that topic were shared. It’s also the only game I’ve played that times a segment with how long it takes you to finish a drink, and certainly not in a “everybody do shots” drinking-game way.
The Decision is where the game raises the stakes: something has to be done with the remains of her mech. Since mechs can only bond to one pilot, no one will ever get Valiant Fox to move (much less fight) again. Each character sheet proposes an answer: extract Rider’s tactical acumen as a sort of digital ghost, strip the Fox for parts and repair the entire unit, burn the whole thing along with her during the official ceremony the next morning, or leave it to rust on the battlefield and allocate resources elsewhere. It is a war, after all. Since no answer can get everyone everything they want, it becomes an extended conversation about how we remember, what is a fitting tribute, and touches on how to let go and (in our case) an analogue to organ donation. This part of the game culminates in the commanding officer signing off on an order summarizing what needs to be done in relation to Valiant Fox. Having this as a physical prop is a stroke of genius and gives the conversation some real weight. The game concludes with negotiating an outcome and signing the order.
If it sounds like I’m trying to sell you hard on this one, then you have correctly guessed my intent. I have rarely played a game that lends itself to this level of immersion and depth so readily and that gives you this much room to breathe and play out a tender, heartfelt moment without expectation that we’d wrap it up and get back to kicking ass shortly. One player described having chills the entire game, another quipped that she might love Rider more than a few of her actual exes, and I cried actual tears in thinking about how I’d want my fictional daughter remembered if it were her laid out on that pyre the next morning. With the right group of mature players who feel safe enough to open themselves up, this game could be as a revelatory for you as it was for us. I immediately wanted to open a campaign of Mechwarrior or some other ace pilot game with a variation on this, so you start the game with a sense of stakes and some immediate buy-in on how your team will face the inevitable loss of their peers. Do yourself a favor and check this one out for a unique, somber moment that will stick with you.