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.