Soldiers out on the front. It’s bloody, heroic, tense and horrifying. But then the game changes as you go back and describe what happened between games – you change the story, emphasize your part, or even de-emphasize it. You create the stories upon which the war will be remembered later.
One of the players in my D&D group lugs this really cool looking book around in his gaming box (appropriately enough, a .50cal ammo box, that the book seems to be built to fit into). It’s heavy, hard, and even has a metal plate rivetted onto the “toe” of the book. It’s the most hard-core looking RPG I have ever seen.
Black Cadillacs is described as an RPG about war. Not about the conflicts of war, precisely, but about the humanity, the horror and the honour. It is also extremely narrativist in design, making it a bit of work for many gamers to get comfortable with.
It’s actually so far outside the box in general play, that most gamers come away looking for a more traditional style of RPG afterwards, but our stories manage to be remembered from the three games we’ve played of it to date. Black Cadillacs is memorable, that’s for certain.
Unlike most games (but in keeping with the Indie movement games like Burning Wheel / Burning Empires), the first part of playing Black Cadillacs is deciding on the war, the front and the sides to be played. As well as deciding on who will be the “Foe” (basically the GM). We’ve played the game three times – the first two sessions were about an A-Team in Vietnam, very much pulled from the pages of the Recon RPG. The third time we played we agreed on something very different – a team of Global Security soldiers from a near-future earth who were in the process of invading Wonderland, down the rabit hole and everything.
I’ll stick to my Vietnam team member, he’s a little easier to deal with.
Characters in Black Cadillacs (oh yeah – the name of the game, I’m told, is Canadian military slang for combat boots) are called Troopers. The first step in making your trooper is to give him a name and a next of kin (not necessarily a legal next of kin – but someone back home that the Trooper is tied to in a powerful emotional way). I go with Johann Sebastian Werz as the name, and decide his “next of kin” is his aunt Gertrude in Chicago who took care of him when his parents (including her sister) died in a car wreck when he was seven. She cooks amazing food and is incredibly soft-hearted, and can’t believe that he enlisted when so many young men are being drafted and killed.
Then it was time to pass the character sheets to the player on the right. That player gives the character a background – a quick sketch of the character’s life so far and how it fits into the big picture. I get handed the sheet of “Simon Cole” who’s next of kin is “Jennie Jones, high school sweetheart”. For his background I ponder for a minute and add “Drafted at 18, Simon is a young idealist who would rather be playing the trumpet in an R&B band than be stuck out in the mud”.
We then pass the sheets again to the right. This time I get “Matthew Niles Aaron Douglas III” who’s next of kin is “Matthew Niles Aaron Douglas II, strict and proud father turned to a life of crime to support his family” who’s background is “Desperately wanted to be an officer like his grandfather M.N.A.D the first, but couldn’t afford a good school and is now an enlisted grunt.” This time we have to add the “Last Night at Home” detail – a brief description about the Trooper’s last night of true freedom. For MNAD III (who was referred to as “Emm-Nad the Third” or just “Private the Third” throughout the rest of the game), I added “Went back to his father to hand over his current savings from his time in the service in basic training (hopefully to help his father give up his life of crime), only to find him stinking drunk with several mafia button men who were leering at his mother. Ended up in a fistfight with his father in the alley behind their brownstone apartment. Turned up for duty with a broken nose.”
Then I got Johann Sebastian Werz back with his information filled in. And that’s it – it becomes time to start playing the game with that material – and three “strains”, but all start at zero (Horror, Hubris and Valor).
Name: Johann Sebastian Werz, Private, U.S. Marine Corps
Next of Kin: Aunt Gertrude in Chicago, soft-hearted aunt and only living parental figure.
Background: Child of a german father and black mother, Johann was drafted along with far too many other young black men. Johann has, however, taken well to the discipline of the corps and if he doesn’t die is likely going to find himself in an NCO position soon.
Last Night: Spent upstairs from a seedy jazz club, smoking dope with the musicians and close fans, enjoying himself until he got absorbed in a stack of newspaper articles detailing the many coffins brought back from Vietnam – other young men like him sacrificed so far from home.
After three games, my biggest complaint about the game is how little this character creation material slots into game play. While there is a mechanical benefit for a memory interacting with a “story” or a “rumour” I think there should also be a benefit for it interacting with the character’s Background or Last Night.