Flames of Freedom Review: A Delightfully Grim and Historically Thoughtful RPG

Flames of Freedom is an impressive tabletop roleplaying game both in terms of its mechanics and for its thoughtful and terrifying take on American history. The new game, which is set to be released by Andrew McMeel Publishing later this year, presents a unique version of early American history steeped in actual historical fact and research but mixed with a dash of the occult and strange. In Flames of Freedom, players not only need to contend with the realities of the colonies at war – there are also witches, monsters, and other strange phenomenon that lurk on the fringes of society.

The rules and setting for Flames of Freedom can be found in a single volume with nearly 650 pages worth of material. This hefty tome contains everything you need to play the game and serves as a combination rulebook/bestiary/setting guide. Because the Zweihander rules system that powers the game takes a bit of time to learn – it's less complicated than Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition or Pathfinder Second Edition but more complex than the Powered by the Apocalypse game system – I feel that there players will benefit from having a couple of rulebooks handy at the table during play.

The setting of Flames of Freedom leans into the idea of a "secret history" that hides behind the curtain of the American history taught by children. These hidden threats not only incorporates the fanciful interpretations of the Knights Templar and Freemasons that one sees on The History Channel shows but also more terrifying creatures like the Leeds Devil, Shadow Things, and Vampyres. Folklore and the occult feature heavily in Flames of Freedom, but the magical elements don't overwhelm the more mundane or realistic aspects of the setting. While the typical Flames of Freedom campaign will likely feature its fair shares of terrifying encounters against supernatural monsters, the occult elements of the setting largely lurk at the fringes of society, mentioned in whispers and rumors and creating a sense of unease without overtaking the history that players can envelop themselves in.

Flames of Freedom uses a variation of the Zweihander game system, a game engine that emphasizes the unforgiving nature and terrible consequences of a horror-themed story. One player (called the Historian) guides the narrative, while the remaining players create characters using one of over 70 occupations found in the book. Each profession comes with its own traits, talents, and quirks meaning that no two backgrounds are exactly alike. The core system uses a d100 system to determine checks with successes determined by rolling under a certain percentage and the baseline determined by a combination of a player's skills and abilities and the overall difficulty or drama of the check they're trying to make. Rolling a matching dice (when both dice show the same number of it) becomes either a critical success or a failure depending on if the roll would have been a success or failure under normal circumstances, and there are several other mechanics that allow players to gain more narrative control of their story under different circumstances.

Like the core Zweihander game, players accumulate both peril and injuries as they move through a Flames of Freedom campaign. Peril mostly impacts a player's ability to make successful skill checks, while injuries are inflicted whenever a player takes damage greater than their damage threshold which impose mechanical disadvantages and can become permanent if left untreated. The game uses a track system to chart overall damage – whenever a character takes total damage over their threshold, they automatically move down the track by a space and potentially suffer an injury. A character dies when they move down the damage track five times, meaning that every successful attack made against them is dangerous, even if they avoid injury. Additionally, healing isn't a guarantee – players will need to make successful heal checks or even undergo surgery if they wish to have their character back to full health.

As an American history enthusiast and former history scholar, I appreciated how much thoughtful consideration went into presenting American history in Flames of Freedom. The American Revolution has been somewhat mythologized by American society, ignoring or minimizing the hardships faced by people of color, Indigenous people, and women. Flames of Freedom opens with an acknowledgement of these real-life oppressions and wrongs and then lays out how its take on American history presents a narrative of liberation and opportunity for characters of any background. In Flames of Freedom, no character is given any mechanical advantage based on their gender or cultural background nor is there is room for prejudice in either the game's narrative or the game table.

While Flames of Freedom makes a deliberate embrace of the people often ignored in history books while pushing away the prejudices they experienced, the book is still very thoroughly researched. The game's bibliography contains dozens of sources, both contemporary and modern, that were used to make Flames of Freedom truly feel like a historically grounded world. The book not only contains a section on everyday life during the 1770s that showcases colonial culture, but also an even larger section that discusses several prominent Indigenous cultures of the time period. Flames of Freedom was written in consultation with Indigenous scholars and culture, and that work can be seen in its very respectful approach that avoids any sort of fetishization or stereotypes.

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Overall, Flames of Freedom provides players with the tools to create a unique narrative that combines familiar history with strange and terrifying dangers. It treats the people of that era with a level of respect and nuance and deliberately empowers characters who wouldn't necessarily have been afforded those freedoms and opportunities in that historical time period. This is a game that doesn't mythologize American history but rather uses it as a tool to celebrate the best qualities of humanity while also reminding people of the grim realities that horror can inflict upon people. The setting alone makes Flames of Freedom a must-buy, but I believe that any RPG enthusiast will enjoy this game.

Flames of Freedom will be released on September 28th, 2021. The single volume rulebook will have a retail price of $65.