Jonathan Cook & Michael Laub
Preface: Refusing to Play
The following is an experiment in pen and paper gaming. To frame the drudgery and alienation of Capitalism as a game is to call attention to its unspoken rules and to point out that it has been designed, that it is optional, and that it can be remade. Most of what has been written on this topic of capitalism within the last century falls into the trap of philosophy. There it is born and there it dies ensnared. We propose, instead, a kind of game. And unlike the game of philosophy, this game is intended to be fun.
Perhaps by gamifying Capitalism’s contradictions we can encourage others to find new ways to play the game or perhaps refuse the game altogether. To that end, might we suggest you get together with a few friends and play a tabletop role-playing game? They’re cheap or free and unlike almost any other commodity, they encourage you to think for yourself and play in your own way. In fact, we’re making a TTRPG inspired by communist theory, liberation theology and situationist philosophy called SURREALPUNK! and you can follow our journey to complete it on various billionaire-owned media platforms like twitter.com/SURREALPUNKRPG.
The totally fictional adventure game where YOU are the Corporate Drone trapped in a banal economic system.
Bootstrapper is a solo adventure in the Capitalism role-playing game series. Capitalism is a role-playing game the object of which is to combat alienation by accumulating and consuming goods.
What You Will Need
To play this solo adventure you will need a writing implement (pen, pencil, or the sweat of your brow), 2 six-sided dice (referred to as 2d6), and the capacity to detect satire.
First, familiarize yourself with the rules described in A Game of Contests. Second, familiarize yourself with the Productivity Stats. Third, Choose an Employee and begin your adventure in the section titled Start Here and proceed as instructed. Finally, please do not question the system. This is the best possible system mankind can create and to suggest otherwise makes you whiny and ungrateful.
A Game of Contests
This is a game of Contests. Throughout your workday, you’ll find yourself in combat against the grinding gears of industry. Whether you’re locked in a battle of wills with an overbearing supervisor, ensnared in the trap of an unending meeting, or slashing through red tape, a single test isn’t going to cut it.
Should you prevail in one contest, simply move onto the next. Should you reach your max Weltschmerz, go directly to the section titled existential crisis. That is the game in a nutshell.
What are Contests?
Contests are a lot like boss fights except, sadly, you never get to fight your boss. During Contests, you will roll for both contestants (you and your literary opponent) by rolling 2d6 and adding their total relevant Ability to the skill (listed in each contest). The higher roll deals 2 “damage” to the loser, adding 2 to your Weltschmerz score (if you roll lower) or subtracting 2 from your opponent’s Will (if they roll lower). Ties go to you, dear worker. The contest ends when your opponent’s Will is reduced to 0 or you hit your maximum Weltschmerz.
Here’s an example of a Contest Block between you and a Stack of Paperwork (your opponent)
As you can see in the above contest, your opponent (the paperwork) has a Will Ability of 6 and Hustle Ability of 5.. To determine the outcome of the contest, you will take turns rolling 2d6 for yourself and your opponent, adding the appropriate Hustle score to each result. For example, in rolling for the paperwork, you would roll 2d6 and add 5 for Hustle. Let’s say the contest’s 2d6 added up to 8. By adding 5 it becomes 13. a. 13 is the total score for your opponent for their turn.
Next, you would roll for your employee. Bill (see below) has a Hustle Ability Score of 8. Say you roll a 1 and 5 on the dice, for a total of 6. When you add 8 (Hustle) to 6 the total is 14. Since 14 is bigger than 13, Bill wins this round and his foe, the paperwork, losses 2 Will. When the foe’s Will is reduced to zero, the opponent “dies” and Bill wins the contest. If the paperwork rolled a higher number, however, Bill would add +2 to his current Weltschmerz. When the Weltschmerz number reaches 10 (his Max), Bill would go directly to Existential Crisis.
Note that your opponents and your employee have special abilities which grant them boons during contests. Read those and apply them during each round. Sometimes these special abilities will benefit you, the employee, but not often. In this case, the Stack of Paperwork has the “The Work Never Ends” ability. This means that when its will is reduced to zero, it can roll a 1d6. On a roll of 1, 2, and 3, it regains 1 life. Bill also has a special ability, that means he takes half damage (1 instead of 2) if his opponent rolls a 5 or 6 on either die.
Employee Resume: Bill
Here is Bill’s Resume. It contains all of his stats, which you can read about in a little bit. You will refer to your employee’s resume throughout play in order to know their strengths, weaknesses, and how to use them in contests.
You have five statistic that represent the innate abilities and psychological capacities you will use to navigate and survive Capitalism. Read them below if you feel like having a laugh. Otherwise, just refer to them throughout the game whenever a contest requires it.
Think of creative solutions, see through bullshitters, and center yourself in times of existential distress. Useful in moderation, but in excess often leads to the unhealthy realization of just how powerless you truly are in this world.
Raw productive output, the ability to withstand tedium, and willingness to commit to the grind in spite of common sense. All traits perfect for a bodybuilder or a go-getting entry level intern. You will use your Hustle stat to power your way through oppression and injustice with the pure force of bootstrap pulling.
Never doubt the power of a well-timed business card, the pitch-perfect memo, the correct social opinions, or the ability to hide devastating criticism in the depths of a compliment. Networking is the skill to synergize (read: manipulate) people and navigate the ever-shifting winds of office politics. It is an essential tool for any up-and-coming captain or captainess (we see you girl!) of industry. While you might not actually get anything done, the effect on morale alone is well worth your salary.
All rats are equal, but some are more equal than others. Unearned advantages you came into this world, like wealth, social status, and IQ, are represented by your Privilege score.
Weltschmerz is German for “world-weariness” and represents the toll of Capitalism on your psyche. As you play, you will accumulate or lose Weltschmerz. If your Weltschmerz reaches your maximum (as indicated in your chosen employee’s stats), you must go directly to the page titled Existential Crisis. To determine your starting Weltschmerz, roll 1d6.
Job security, like gas lamps and labor unions, is a relic of a bygone era. The modern employee cuts ties with their former career as easily as a Millennial cuts the cord from their cable package. Yet, unlike with pensions, health insurance, and sick days, employers cannot retain the skills their workers learn during their time of employment. To simulate this phenomenon each playable employee has a “Past Employment Skill” which grants certain benefits during work.
Choose an Employee Resume
Keep track of your Contests
Our tale takes us through the mists of time to the legendary year of 2019…
This is an era of peace and productivity before the plague ravaged our land, the orange tyrant held his court of fools, and the magus Trebek provided answers to our questions. For those who ruled it was paradise. For those who served, it was the promise of paradise yet to come.
It is in this time of myth and legend that you find yourself. You live on the shore of a glittering metropolis in a cramped one-bedroom hovel with three other villagers.
Lucky for you and your roommates, you have secured gainful employment as a Junior Account Manager for Lockmar Solutions. What accounts you manage and what solutions you provide, you do not know. Nevertheless, you muddle your way through your responsibilities, vary as they will, while your pay remains as fixed as the firmament.
You never wanted this life. You had dreams of something else. But what you wanted seems impossible to remember.
Recently, you’ve heard rumors whispered by frightened interns at the watercooler, that the Evaluator is arriving today. The Evaluator is said to be a being so powerful that they can kill entire departments with the swift fall of an ax. The Managers have been silent, but the spiritually attuned know that the Ghost of Layoffs-Yet-to-Come haunts the ceiling tiles.
You’re not one for office gossip, but you’ve seen the signs, too. This job might be unfulfilling, stressful, and morally dubious but it’s your job, god damnit! You know in your heart that tomorrow is the day you must prove your worthiness to the Evaluator.
Now you slumber and though your sleep is troubled you are grateful for the respite. For now, you are free to roam impossible worlds and dream impossible dreams while your unconscious prepares you for the coming adventure. If you wish to remain asleep stop reading now.
The first of your seven alarms goes off at 5:30 AM. You’re still groggy, eyes heavy with sleep. . The alarm continues to ring as you fight yourself awake. You don’t have to be up until 7 AM, but this is the only time of day for personal improvement. And yet the void beckons.
With a palpable feeling of relief, your midsize sedan lurches to life at the first turn of the key and the check engine light goes dark just as you inch onto the onramp of the highway. Traffic feels worse today. Despite your growing car sickness, you gradually escape into a fantasy of living in an apartment closer to your work. You feel stress rising in your throat as your financial future slams against you in rhythm with the stop and go of traffic: twenty minutes down, fifty minutes to go.
You arrive at your desk to see a stack of paperwork. “Damnit, I should’ve just finished this before I left!”, you mutter to yourself. Indeed, you mutter this to yourself every morning.
Your watch beeps to remind you of your meeting with your boss, Doris. You enter her office and she immediately quips, “Yes, yes, can’t you see I’m busy?”. Dorris is the VP of something or other and not good at her job, but she got in on the ground floor. She glares at you from behind a barrier of desk toys and pictures of the family she never sees.
“It’s not working. The damn thing must be malfunctioning!”, Dorris spits through clenched teeth. She is hunched over her laptop, pecking each key with her index fingers typing, “M-A-K-E D-O-C P-D-F, P-L-E-A-S-E.” With a full arm motion, she slams the “ENTER” button. Nothing happens. She shoots a glance in your direction. The anger in her eyes melts into hope when she asks, “You’re good with gadgets. See if you can make this work.”
With her consent, you sit down behind her desk and look at the VP’s computer. The screen of hundreds of tabs, outdated toolbars, and enough malware to keep three government agencies fully informed stretches out before you. It’s a mess. You look over at Doris, eyes blazing with that ‘get to it’ look. Questions, like “How did you” and “Why,” begin to form at the edges of your lips, but you bite them back. She can give you no answers to justify this blasphemy to digital hygiene.
You give a short prayer to the productivity gods above, crack your knuckles, and prepare to do a simple technical task for a person that makes three times your salary.
You leave the meeting having accomplished nothing beyond converting a document into PDF. Your stomach growls as you enter the canteen. You sit at the least crowded table and try to enjoy your meager fair without being sucked into an awful conversation, but the group suddenly turns to you. They want your opinion on a volatile political topic. The only way to win is to recall the correct social opinions and repeat them to the crowd. Your memory is fuzzy. Am I allowed to say “X” or has it been co-opted by “Y”? What is the slogan that social media algorithms have recently presented as a symbol of your enlightenment apropos of nothing at all? You rack your memory.
You return to your desk after lunch. From outside of your cubical, you appear to be hard to work. When you’re not staring hard at your computer you’re lost in thought with an important look on your face. “He gives so much!”, thinks Dan the intern as he passes your station. In truth, you’re doing nothing of the sort. You’re actually playing BORK, a text-based RPG from the 90’s that your friend in IT snuck onto your computer for you. These corporate lords may have you from 9 to noon, but after lunch, you’re adventuring in the fantasyland of Bytefrost where anything is possible.
It wasn’t meant to last. You jolt in your seat as Doris informs you that you’re late for your meeting with the Evaluator. “What meeting? How did I…”, you realize you haven’t checked your email all day. Usually, this would be of zero consequence, but not today. You powerwalk to the conference room faster than you can think and plop down in front of a man who would have been a Gestapo officer in another life. Time for your evaluation.
You sweat through your evaluation, answering question after question with an exacting combination of obsequiousness, nonchalance, and corporate speak. The process exhausts your psyche bringing you to your wits end. Fifteen minutes of eternity, and then The Evaluator looks up at you from a blank yellow legal pad. He lets out a slow sigh that smells of afternoon martini and says, “Alright. Good work! You’re clearly an asset to this company.” Your body relaxes with all the relief of a stay of execution. “That said, I do have a few lingering questions for you. Nothing big. So … let’s meet again tomorrow. Sometime after lunch is fine. I’ll email you.”
End of Day
Congratulations on making it through the American workday. Your reward is another day of work. This process only ends in death, so reset your Weltschmerz to zero and begin again at [START HERE].
If you have reached your maximum Weltschmerz read the following. You are engulfed by a tsunami of panic and sweat. Your legs carry you to a secluded space;an empty cubicle, a bathroom stall, a nearby parking lot. You close your eyes your psyche burning with the indignity of it all. Three questions arise and demand an answer.
Read each of the following questions and roll 2d6. If during any question you roll a 9 or higher then read: Psychotic Break. If you rolled 8 or lower, then subtract 6 from your total Weltschmerz and resume the game where you left off. Restart your last contest from the beginning. If you come back here again, repeat the process until you’ve finished the workday or had a psychotic break.
As you read each question*, answer them for yourself, your employee, or all of humanity. Demand the universe make sense. Make note of your answers and post them in your actual real-life workspace. They’ll keep you going, and your boss will appreciate the initiative you’re taking to address your well-being. Good work, employee number 07864!
Question 1: What keeps me going?
Question 2: What can I do to make today just a little bit better?
Question 3: What’s one thing I can do to make someone else smile?
Question 4: Why did we organize society like this?
DO NOT ROLL!
ANSWER: We live in a naturally existing hierarchy. Like… uh, lobsters! Yes, that’s right. Somehow the behaviors of crustaceans apply 1 to 1 with complex human social structures. We’re all just lobsters in khakis doing our absolute best. Humanity has peaked. Recommended reading: “Enlightenment Now!” by Stephen Pinker.
You begin spiraling. Deeper and darker pits of despair overwhelm you. “There’s nothing I can personally or collectively do about anything. I can’t even think my way-” An idea strikes you like a flashbang of holy light. “It’s thoughts that are the problem. No thoughts, no problem. I’m just going to stop thinking. Period!” A few days later you leave your job, loving partner, and cat to become a permanent resident at a yuppie Buddhist retreat center. There you think about nothing whatsoever. You are phased by nothing whatsoever. Not even when you are repeatedly warned by your teachers that you are, in fact, ‘doing it wrong’ are you even remotely tempted to start thinking again. A month passes and you can’t understand why anyone would form an opinion on anything. Just drop it already! Your zombie body continues like this for many years when one day it is run over and crushed by a passing vehicle. Game Over.
*QUESTION 4 HAS BEEN ANSWERED FOR YOU. NO NEED TO ROLL FOR IT OR ANSWER IT. -LINDA FROM HR
Jon Hook is a level 31 psychomancer from Michigan. When Jon is not playing games, he roleplays as a Marxist, psychotherapist, and writer. Across all of these roles, Jon is interested in interrogating the games we choose to play and rewriting their unspoken rules.
Michael Laub is a producer and writer in Los Angeles. He exchanges his labor mostly for True Crime documentaries and trivia shows. Michael spends his limited time designing role-playing games, writing science fiction, and spreading Marxist theory. Please don’t follow him on any social media or in public.