Ross Rifles RPG: The Sapper (Playbook)

I’m a fan of table-top RPGs. A favourite of mine is Apocalypse World, and in the past few years there have been a number of other other games developed that use the Apocalypse World system (called AW hacks, or “Powered by the Apocalypse”). I’ve had the chance to play some of these, like Dungeon World, Tremulus, and Urban Shadows. A couple years ago a new AW hack was announced that combined my interest in table-top RPGs with my love of Canadian history: Ross Rifles. I’ve created an unofficial, bonus playbook for Ross Rifles.

Ross Rifles is designed to capture the Canadian experience during the First World War, and the sourcebook is a clear labour of love replete with historical detail. The authors worked to capture the dreary, appalling conditions of life in the trenches. The game also does an admirable job of incorporating the psychological toll of warfare through its Stress system. There are detailed accounts of WWI era Canadian firearms, modules based on four major battles Canadians participated in, and details on life in the German trenches so that game -runners can flesh out the enemy. There is everything you need to set your story in WWI.

In most AW hacks, character creation utilizes “playbooks” which the player fills in with the details and abilities that their character has. These are similar to “character sheets” in other games. Ross Rifles comes with seven playbooks, which are each an archetype that a player’s soldier can embody. For instance, The Creative playbook represents an artist who tries to use their artistic skills to inspire their comrades. After choosing a playbook, players make further choices to individualize their character with the playbook giving them a range of related abilities to choose from. There is a long tradition in AW hacks of folks making unofficial playbooks to give players more options and create possibilities for the game. In keeping with this tradition, I created The Sapper playbook for Ross Rifles.

The term “sapper” refers to combat engineers. To this day in the Canadian Forces, trained Privates in the combat engineer trade hold the rank of Sapper. You’ll probably notice that the Sapper playbook also includes abilities and equipment related to signalers. During the First World War, Canadian signalers were part of the Engineering Corps. Only later would signalers became a fully separate trade within the Canadian military. Consequently, I took the opportunity to design The Sapper playbook to have features of both the engineer and signaler trades, so that players can choose to create a character that fits into either trade.

A further option included in The Sapper playbook is to play as a Despatch Rider. Despatch Riders were messengers who rode either motorcycles or horses to deliver their messages. They were rare, but existed throughout the military, not just the Engineering Corps. The rationale for including them in this playbook is that most Canadian despatch riders were signalers, and since all signalers were sappers, most of the despatch riders were sappers.

The inclusion of these three trades should indicate that there are multiple ways to play a character using this playbook. The more engineer-oriented moves are intended to enable preparation instead of being immediately useful in the thick of battle. A character might gather materials and use Constructive Contribution in advance of the upcoming trench raid to build a bridge that bypasses a significant obstacle in the section’s path. Or maybe they’ll take Tunnelling, and try to strategically place mines under the enemy’s position.

The signaler-oriented options also centre on supportive actions but with an appropriate focus on communication. Linesman is meant to facilitate coordination with the player’s NPC allies within the narrative; if they maintain the lines they may be able to call another section or artillery for assistance. Wireless Set keeps the game’s momentum moving by permitting the player to send out a message or try to overhear the enemy — always with the potential cost of being overheard themselves or hearing something wrong. Despatch Rider is the most straightforward move on the playbook: you get a horse or a motorcycle.

My only worry in designing the playbook is that a Player Character could accumulate too many useful abilities in a long campaign. I’ve written the playbook so that a player only gets one of these abilities at the start of a game, and while they can acquire more through advancements, Ross Rifles is a game that is better suited to one-shots or short campaigns. I think it’s safe to assume that most campaigns won’t last long enough for this to become an issue, and in the cases where they do the character might end up being killed anyway. The only part that bothers me is that it’s improbable that a real soldier would have gotten both engineer and signaler skills instead of staying in their lane. In the end, this is just a game, and who knows, maybe if a sapper lived long enough they’d learn different things!

I made this playbook for use in my own game, but I hope other people enjoy it. If I get feedback from my own or other games perhaps I’ll make some adjustments. Regardless, I encourage people to play Ross Rifles and support the developers by buying the game. The legacy of the First World War is likely to be increasingly contested in the coming decades, but whatever people come to think of it a great many Canadians sacrificed their lives for their country. Ross Rifles is a loving tribute to their experiences and I’m really grateful to those who brought the game to life. Ross Rifles can be bought from Dundas West Games.

St. Ursula’s Convent

St. Ursula’s Convent was the first novel published in Canada which was also written by an author born in Canada. Though this fact alone entitles the novel to a place in the annals of Canadian literature, there are several other remarkable facts about the work, not the least of which being that it was written when the author was only seventeen. Published first in Kingston in 1824, St. Ursula’s Convent had been written ten years earlier when the author was a teenager living in Nova Scotia. That the author of Canada’s first home-grown novel was a young woman informs the novel in interesting ways.

St. Ursula’s Convent passes the Bechdel test by its second chapter. A refreshing surprise given my complaints about the lack of female characters in the last novel I read — however understandable that is in a eight-decade-old novel about the Spanish Civil War. In fact, the novel centres mainly on two female protagonists. The foremost character, Adelaide, is the daughter of a Quebec seigneur who attends a convent in Quebec City as part of her education. There she meets the titular Nun of Canada, Mother St. Catherine, whose story occupies much of the first half of the book. Many of the other characters of any importance are also women, with the story being told from their perspective.

It’s difficult to summarize the plot of St. Ursula’s Convent, as the novel covers significant ground in only 200 pages. The introduction to my edition notes that some early reviewers describes the pace as “manic”, and I think that’s a fair characterization. To give you some idea of the general plot: Adelaide attends a convent in Quebec City, where she meets the virtuous Mother St. Catherine, who shares with Adelaide her own disheartening life story. Adelaide also becomes close friends with Charlotte, the daughter of a British officer living in Quebec, and is invited to travel with them to England. During her travels to Europe, Adelaide discovers some secrets about her own past, and that of Mother St. Catherine.

The novel includes piracy, kidnapping, shipwrecks, and effusive praise of the Canadian countryside. Children are revealed to have been swapped at birth, people given up for dead make a surprise appearance, and as a consequence I understand why early readers were critical of the novel’s sometimes melodramatic plot. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it though. The final quarter of the novel drags since by that time the central mysteries and drama have already been revealed and solved, and the denouement stretches longer than is necessary. The prose is mostly “tell” and not “show”, which generally hurts the novel. However, there are places where this works to the advantage of the story. At least two lengthy stretches of the novel consist of characters retelling their own pasts, and here the tell-don’t-show prose effectively captures the feeling of someone relating an anecdote to an audience. I’ll admit I’m more forgiving since I know the author was a teenager at the time — I couldn’t have written this well at seventeen. Perhaps I owe Ted Allen an apology for saying This Time A Better Earth “has the hallmarks of an early career work”, however.

Julia Catherine Beckwith Hart would go onto write two other novels, Tonnewonte, and Edith, or The Doom. I will definitely locate, read, and discuss these other two novels here at some point, although to my knowledge Tonnewonte has never received a reissue after it’s initial publication in 1825. There are probably scanned digital versions I can find online, but I might be thwarted in my efforts to find a physical copy to read. The case of Edith, or The Doom is even more unfortunate. Some selections from the novel were published in New Brunswick newspapers in 1848-9, but the finished novel was never published. There does exist a scholarly edition of Edith, in the form of an MA thesis completed by Jennifer Slauenwhite (née Jeffries) in 1991. At the moment that’s the most accessible version I can recommend. I’ve spoken with Ms. Slauenwhite, who stated that she might have the chance to revisit her edition of Edith in a few years, and hopefully find a publisher. I hope she gets the chance — I think Julia Catherine Beckwith Hart deserves more critical and scholarly attention that considers more than just St. Ursula’s Convent.

Perhaps because of its place in the history of Canadian literature, St. Ursula’s Convent has had better luck when it comes to remaining in print. My edition comes from the Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts (CEECT), a sadly defunct project based out of Carleton University. Initially published by Carleton University Press, McGill-Queen’s took over distributing the books reissued by the CEECT when Carleton University Press closed up shop in 1999. Twelve books were reissued through the CEECT series, between 1985 and 2012. Of these I have St. Ursula’s Convent and their version of John Richardson’s Wacousta. On the basis of these two editions I highly recommend the CEECT versions of any book.

The 1991 CEECT reissue of St. Ursula’s Convent is the most recent to my knowledge, and remains in print through McGill-Queen’s. There were two earlier reissues, one through the “Maritimes Literature Reprint Series” based out of Mount Alison University in 1978, and one through The Cherry Tress Press in 1981. The most commonly available version of St. Ursula’s Convent appears to be the CEECT one, although I have seen a few copies of The Cherry Tree edition online. Naturally, the CEECT edition comes highly recommended.

This Time A Better Earth

In 2020, I read some Earle Birney, Mordecai Richler, and a few offerings from smaller Canadian presses like Coach House. The last book I read this year was Ted Allan’s 1939 novel, This Time A Better Earth.

This Time a Better Earth, by Ted Allan: A Critical Edition: Allan, Ted,  Vautour, Bart: 9780776621630: Books - Amazon.ca

The University of Ottawa Press publishes an excellent Canadian literature series, and my copy of Ted Allan’s novel is their 2015 reissue. I had previously read their reissue of Irene Baird’s Waste Heritage, and earlier in 2020 I read their fantastic collection of Earle Birney’s early Trotskyist writings, edited by Bruce Nesbitt. The epithet “critical edition” is more than applicable to the uOttawa Press editions, which contain scholarly introductions that highlights each work’s literary and historical importance.

This Time A Better Earth is a novel about the Spanish Civil War. Allan’s book is based on his own time serving in the International Brigade during the war, specifically the Abraham Lincoln Brigade which housed most of the American and Canadian volunteers. The novel follows a Canadian volunteer, Bob Curtis, who goes to Spain to serve in the International Brigades and support the Republican forces against the Spanish fascists. After being wounded during an aerial bombardment while travelling to the front, Bob is tasked with writing and sending English radio broadcasts to North America and sent to Madrid. In Madrid he cultivates a romance with a German photojournalist named Lisa Kammerer.

The only work about the Spanish Civil War I’d read previously was George Orwell’s autobiographical Homage to Catalonia. The two books make for an interesting contrast given that Orwell served in the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM) faction of the Republican forces rather than with the International Brigades. The POUM had a broadly Trotskyist membership that opposed the Stalinist communism adopted by much of the Popular Front that led the Spanish Republic forces. There was significant infighting between the POUM and the Popular Front in the Spanish Civil War, despite their being on the same side of the conflict, culminating in the May Days clashes in Catalonia.

From Orwell’s perspective the POUM was antagonized and suppressed by the Stalinists eventually being declared illegal. Ted Allan, however, adopts the perspective of the Popular Front government:

A week later came the news that the POUM had attempted to overthrow the Popular Front government in Barcelona. With it came the news of an intensified fascist drive in Asturian and Basque provinces. The communiques were brief and to the point. After three days of street fighting, the Popular Front government had restored order. The leaders of POUM were arrested.

This Time A Better Earth, 137

At best the description of the May Days street fighting is an over-simplification. Though in fairness to Allan, this is surely how the Popular Front government in Barcelona would have told their members in Madrid the events occurred. POUM is only mentioned in passing in This Time A Better Earth, since the action of the novel focuses on the International Brigades near Madrid. Several characters express exasperation at the Republican infighting, though in Allan’s novel the fault lies squarely with POUM.

Related to the brief mentions of the POUM in Allan’s novel, the problems of unification and divisions within the Republican forces recur in the story. Early on Comandante Kuller addresses the amassed volunteers of the International Brigades heading to the front to tell them that there are no politics or party divisions in the Brigades, they are simply unified by opposing fascism in Spain. Kuller’s speech is less a statement of fact than a instruction not to allow sectarian divisions to undermine the cause. Although most of the international volunteers are socialists or collectivists of some stripe, there are some interesting outliers. Late in the novel appears Captain Brown, a self-described Tory Imperialist from Britain who joined the International Brigades to promote Britain’s imperial interests in Spain. The novel does not have much explicit to say about the fault lines in the Republican forces yet it does effectively capture the perspective members of the International Brigade had towards the divisions.

As the critical introduction helpful explains, the character of Lisa Kammerer the protagonists’ love interest is based on real life female photojournalist Gerda Taro, who died during the Spanish Civil War. Taro was a compelling figure to fictionalize in the novel, although Lisa Kammerer’s personality and vocation are more interesting than her romance with protagonist Bob Curtis. The romance is the weakest aspect of the novel. The constant objectification of Lisa Kammerer the “pretty blonde” by the other characters, while maybe true to life, is also grating. The real Gerda Taro was a skilled artist and daring war photographer. While there are glimpses of that in her fictionalized counterpart, the more intriguing questions surrounding her motivations and vocation are sidelined for the stilted romance.

Don’t let my complaints about the romance subplot sour your impression of the novel, however. This Time A Better Earth is strongest in its depiction of the Civil War itself. Allan’s early portrayal of aerial bombardment employs a clipped, staccato prose that effectively communicates the chaos and dread. Bob is continually shaken by the destruction he witnesses, and unnerved by how his comrades come to accept it so quickly once stationed at the front. Though clearly aligned with the Republican cause, the novel does not avoid depicting their disorganization and frailty. This Time A Better Earth has the hallmarks of an early career work, but for a debut novel penned in Allan’s mid-twenties it impresses.

Next I plan on looking at another novel of historical interest, this time reprinted by the sadly defunct Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts (CEECT). More on that soon.