Fire Ships At Midnight
Fraser S, Sarah J
Fire Ships At Midnight is a storygame that has 3 players take on the roles of The Duke of Medina Sidonia, Cardinal Ribera, and Captain Salazar. It captures a moment of history I was not even remotely aware of: the legendary disaster of the Spanish Armada as they attempted to invade the English in 1588.
We don't play to affect the outcome of the disaster, though. We play to find out which of the three characters can save their reputations, each vying for their own course of action using the mechanics of the game. You wager dice in an attempt to outbid the others. But your failures and successes are linked, ultimately. And when you play to drive the fiction toward your ideal outcome, you also find yourself slipping into your character; "fighting" with the people you realize you're in bed with, as you are the only people who will be judged...and rewarded.
In the first scene, I found myself advocating for a course of action that was actually the second scene's most positive outcome for my character, the Captain. The plan I quickly thought up when attempting to embody my character was my character's primary goal—how perfect is that?!
As we continued, I found that this was similar for everyone. The desired outcomes also goalpost what your character would do and want, making it so easy to roleplay their possible mode of thinking, maneuvering to the end game.
Even when you start out advocating for the lives of your men and the safest, sanest, course of action, you think. You end up on the precipice, deciding if you want to be crowned in glory (all the while knowing you're all responsible for a horrendous outcome for the lives of those you are, perhaps, most responsible for as the Captain) or be disgraced.
That's when you are really playing to find out; when you're realizing your immense, titanic privilege in a situation with lives in the balance; when you're choosing the best outcome for yourself.
And remember: that is what the game says it's about. It warned you the whole time.
To foreshadow my character's own decision, midway through play the Duke offered to help me when we returned. Promises writhed in ostentatious firelight splaying across his gilded quarters. On a player level, I lost and missed my favored outcome, as did the Cardinal, who lost so direly they were out of the game. But while the Cardinal held fast despite this loss, I gave one of my losing dice to the Duke, bending to his will.
In the end, we were crowned as heroes and the Cardinal fell to dysentery in the hull of the ship. He prayed and prayed and cursed us as he died. His grandson, the bishop, looked so much like the Cardinal as we held our final conference. Talking of executing deserters or disbanding the fleet, trusting the captains to sail for Spain and king and country. All the while the words of the bishop, like the shadows on the wall when we spoke last to the Cardinal, fell on deaf ears. In the end, even if you're god fearing, you want the king on your side; not god.
Moment of Insight
No matter what outcome you vie for it is all false valor and bluster. If it happens to align for the best outcome for the army and best sailors belonging to Spain, well, that is particularly lucky for them.
Fireships at Midnight is available in Codex - Flame, which you can pick up for FREE right here.