I Have the High Ground
Jess Levine, Ezra Rose, Vin Tanner, satah, Will Jobst
Let’s face it: dueling is sexy.
But do you know what’s sexier than combat? That slower, higher tension duel that occurs before any damage is done—before any blow is even struck. The duel of word and wit, of melodramatic motion and threatening maneuvers. I Have the High Ground is a short collaborative roleplaying and storytelling game for 2 players about that kind of duel. It's GM-less and genre-neutral, and takes 1-2 hours to play.
Using game mechanics inspired by competitive fencing, players choose moves in secret. After their choices are revealed, the winner takes the opportunity to flaunt their bravado or to perform subtle acts that leave a dramatic and imposing quiet in their wake. Your game is not an action-packed fight to the death but rather a portrayal of the slow, smoldering tension between two people about to risk their pride, their reputation, or even their lives.
I Have the High Ground also encourages players to ask: what exactly is a duel? You might be knights or fencers with your blades crossed for sport or mortal combat. But what if you were hackers vying for control of a contested server? A murderer and the aggrieved loved one avenging their victim? What if you’re assassins and ex-girlfriends, or in a boxing match, or bar fight, or even just a school talent show? So, who will you be? What will you do? There’s only one way to find out.
Pick your weapons, push the limits, and whenever justifiable: flourish your capes.
I Have the High Ground is mechanically light, with a rulebook totaling to only 24 pages. It's GM-less and intended for one-shot play. It can be played in any genre, and even adapted to use characters from an existing campaign—it's a great way to zoom in on a tense, pre-battle scene from a game in another system.
The mechanics in I Have the High Ground are inspired by competitive fencing, and each round, players choose in secret to thrust, feint, or parry. The moves are arranged in a rock-paper-scissors triangle, where thrust beats feint, feint beats parry, and parry beats thrust, scoring one point for the victor. These moves do not, however, translate to the bloody jabs of a sword. Instead, they help structure the narration that follows: thrusts resolve to vicious insults or imperious gestures, feints into provocative bait that incites opponents into emotional vulnerability, while parries resolve as cunning repartees. When one player reaches 9 points, their opponent is defeated, and the loser is forced—in a shameful outburst of emotion—to use their weapon and strike the blow that begins the ensuing battle!
The mechanical victory provides inspiration and structure for the narration that follows, shaping the story players tell about the exchange. The rules establish who gets the narrative "last word" and how players negotiate their actions so that the loser gives the victor a satisfying chance to demonstrate their victory. In the end, I Have the High Ground is a collaborative game. Players are expected to help each other tell the stories they want to tell, treating losses as an opportunity to show their characters weaknesses and demonstrate their opponent's strengths.
Character and Setting Creation
In its unique setting and character creation system, players proceed through a combination of open-ended prompts and pre-written options designed to ensure that each character develops into a dramatic foil of their opponent. Players establish a history between their characters, whether that be “rivals”, “ex-lovers”, or both, and select narrative advantages—like the “the high ground”, “superior fashion” or “to be your opponent’s exact type.” Which player selects first depends directly on the most important mechanic: the cape rubric. The player with the finest cape chooses the section of character creation in which they will receive first pick.
"I don't know the last time I've played a game as electric as I Have the High Ground. Every roll, every turn, every action came dripping with drama, panache, excitement and energy. It was thrilling, beginning to end. I can't wait to play again."
— Jeff Stormer, of the Party of One Actual Play Podcast
“Jess is a game designer after a feeling—what might be a fleeting taste, a cloying fragment, a single thread that becomes her art’s raison d'etre. I Have the High Ground is exactly this, the expertly observed, distilled, and supercharged work that makes you feel the cape on your back and the rapier in your sheathe. It is taut, fast, and fucky, demanding to be played. So. Play it."
— Will Jobst, creator of This Discord Has Ghosts In It, cohost of the Brain Trust podcast, editor of I Have the High Ground
"We had a ton of fun [playtesting]! The major thing we got from the game was that it is extremely romantic."
— Kathleen Hyslop, of the Chicks with Dice Podcast