I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.
Contenders is a nifty little Forge-era about boxing and the hard fates befalling it’s titular contenders. The game has a nifty framing device where in the beginning an aspiring boxer arrives to town and gets a stack of boxing cards. At intervals through the book, these are used as illustrations and to bring out the game’s themes and milieu.
This is a narrative game preoccupied with the framing of scenes and who gets to narrate what. It uses an ordinary card deck as a randomizer and has a dedicated combat system for bouts.
Each contender has stats like Hope and Pain which demonstrate the current balance of their life. They have personal connections who give them Hope but constantly need money. To get money, the contenders can win in the ring or take on shadier jobs such as acting as legbreakers for card sharks.
The milieu of the game is decidedly grim, driving its characters to destroy themselves in the pursuit of success. In a thematically appropriate touch, a contender can sacrifice Hope to succeed in the ring. They may win the bout but their broader chances of happiness get worse.
I like the clear player character positioning. We know who the characters are and what they want. We know their motivations. They’re easy to empathize with. The game has a pre-designed ending where Pain and Hope is tallied for each contender. Those for whom Hope wins get a positive end scene while higher Pain means a sad ending.