Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday 4 June 2022

Gaming Gaol

Condemned to time in chokey. Put behind bars. Going down for a crime you definitely did not commit. Doing a stretch or bird. Serving time in prison can lead to some great opportunities for storytelling, whether it is The Count of Monte Christo, films such as The Shawshank Redemption or Escape from Alcatraz, or even television series such as Oz. In terms of roleplaying, prisons are typically somewhere to break out of, probably because the Player Characters have been wrongly imprisoned. What though, if they had not been wrongly accused, tried, convicted, and sentenced to term in prison, perhaps a life sentence, or even a death sentence? What if you were guilty? Did you get caught? Did someone rat you out? Perhaps you got sloppy in the end? It makes no difference now. You are in the system, and only the sentences are longer than the shadows and the grudges held in this god forsaken place...

This is the situation in Life & Death at Freedom Penitentiary, a Swedish roleplaying game published by FantastiskFiktion. It is set within the grey walls of Freedom Penitentiary, the most notorious prison in Sweden. It stands amidst the tundra ten miles from the nearest town, home to over a thousand inmates, who serve out their sentences under the watchful and shadowy presence of the hated Warden and his often-corrupt Corrections Officers.

An Inmate in Life & Death at Freedom Penitentiary is defined by his General Features, Talents, Archetype, Crime, and Job. He has six General Features—or attributes—Muscle, Sense, Smarts, Acting, Notoriety, and Precision. Talents like ‘Hiding’ or ‘Dialects’ or ‘Killing Blow’ each increase a General Feature’s modifier by one, whilst an Archetype adds two or three adjustments to modifiers and determines the Inmate’s Hit Points. The Crime adds further modifiers, two Talents to choose from, and options in terms of an Inmate’s Sentence Level. The latter ranges between one and four, and represents the Inmate’s sentence length, security level, and extra Talents and modifiers, if any. For example, a Sentence Level of three has a sentence length of fifty years to life and a security level of High, as well as two extra Talents and an extra modifier of one. The Archetypes include Member of the Family, Good, Activist, Professor, and more, whilst the Crimes include Assault, Murder and Mass Murder, Drug Trafficking, Money Laundering, as well as others. The Job is the work that the Inmate does whilst incarcerated, such as Wood Shop or Canteen. Again, this adds another modifier.

To create an Inmate, a player assigns an array of values to his General Features, and selects an Archetype and a Crime, as well the Sentence Level. It is quick and easy.

Name: Gudmund Ekerlid
Archetype: Goon
Crime: Manslaughter
Sentence Level: 2
Job: Road Crew
Hit Points: 10
Muscle 4 (+3) Sense 3 Smarts 2 (-2) Acting 2 (+1) Notoriety 3 Precision 3

Act on Impulse

Mechanically, Life & Death at Freedom Penitentiary is straightforward and simple. It uses a pool of six-sided dice, either two, three, or four, depending upon the Imamate’s General Features. The modifier of the General Feature is added to the total, whilst a Talent lets a player reroll one die. A roll of nine or more is a Conditional Success, twelve or more is a Regular Success, and fifteen or more a Flawless Success. Essentially, a ‘Yes, but…’, ‘Yes’, and ‘Yes, and…’. If any two dice result in Snake Eyes, or rolls of one, the action is an automatic failure. Effectively, the more dice an Inmate’s player rolls, the greater the chance of his rolling Snake Eyes. This is due to the Inmate’s overconfidence.

Combat uses the same mechanics. Brawling inflicts one point of damage, with improvised melee weapons inflicting two or three points.

During play, an Inmate can acquire Nods and Dots. Nods are awarded for good behaviour (and play). Gain three Nods or three Dots and the player can expend them to increase a modifier for a General Feature or gain a Talent. Dots are gained for negative or disruptive behaviour. When an Inmate gains three Dots, also receives a punishment from the Corrections Officers (or even from the other Inmates depending upon the situation). The player describes what the punishment is, but the record is then wiped clean. Nods and Dots are handed out at the end of each session.

For the Game Master, there is a description of Freedom Penitentiary—or ‘Frihetsfängelse’—and advice on running the game. This is to keep up the tension, constantly keeping the Inmates on their toes, with their guard up against threats from either the Warden, Corrections Officers, or the other Inmates. The Inmates are in constant danger, their meagre belongings likely to be stolen, and more. It also advises that unlike the boring reality of prison life, life in Freedom Penitentiary should be eventful, plus it should involve an element of horror. This can play a more prominent role in a campaign in Freedom Penitentiary depending upon the type of campaign that the Game Master wants to run. And of course, the Game Master should be bringing story elements into play which remind each Inmate of the crimes he committed.

Before each session, the Game Master should also roll to see if the Corrections Officers search the cells and if so, if they find any contraband. The other event he should roll for is to see if any Inmate with a Sentence Level of four, that is, a death sentence, has had his execution date brought forward. Lastly, there is a list of NPCs and a short scenario generator.

Physically, Life & Death at Freedom Penitentiary is almost presented as an Inmate’s record. It has a rough, mimeographed quality, although one done on quite sturdy paper. The artwork is rough, but suitably utilitarian. It does need an edit in places, but the main issue
is the organisation which switches back and forth between Inmate creation and rules, often making it difficult to quite keep track of things.

Life & Death at Freedom Penitentiary is not a game for everyone. Its theme and setting is mature in nature, with the players taking the roles of criminals who have done wrong, committed crimes, including murder. And that is even before taking into account the fact that it involves capital punishment. That said, its themes are universal, and it does suggest that the Inmates’ crimes and the effects of those crimes be brought into play and explored in terms of storytelling. Likewise, although Life & Death at Freedom Penitentiary is set in a prison in sub-artic climes, its themes are so universal that the roleplaying game can easily be set in the prison of the Game Master’s choice. The real issue, at least mechanically, with Life & Death at Freedom Penitentiary is that it does not really help the Game Master in running the game in the long term—what is the ultimate story that the players and their Inmates are going to tell? In addition, the Game Master will also need to look beyond the pages of Life & Death at Freedom Penitentiary for further inspiration. As written, Life & Death at Freedom Penitentiary has a very short-term feel and the Game Master will need to work hard to develop it beyond that. Whilst keeping that in mind though, Life & Death at Freedom Penitentiary does have the potential for rich, dark storytelling about the lives of offenders and recidivists.

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