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The Fate of John Brown, 1859

by Bill Offutt

John Brown--execute or not for what he did?

In 1859, John Brown gathered a small force and attacked the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia to obtain thousands of weapons, which he planned to distribute to the slaves to free themselves. The plan failed catastrophically, with most of Brown’s force either dead or captured in less than two days. Now John Brown, recovering from his wounds, has been tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. This game is set at a fictitious conference, called to debate whether John Brown should be executed. Most importantly, this game engages students with the nation’s gravest existential crisis, revolving around the place of slavery in America’s future. The issues faced then have their parallels now: when is the use of violence for political purposes justified (if ever)? When law collides with a moral code (a higher law), which should be obeyed? Can a political system riven by seemingly irreconcilable conflicts and divisions survive? Are compromises morally acceptable or simply selling out?



Conflict and War Studies; Cultural and Social History; Western Civ/History


19th Century; Late Modern Period

In a Few Words

Fast moving, surprising, dramatic

United States of America; North America

Themes and Issues  


Player Interactions 
Factional, Competitive, Coalition-Building

Sample Class Titles
The American Civil War

Level 2+ Short Game (what's that mean?

Notable Roles

John Brown, Frederick Douglass, John Wilkes Booth

Rolling Dice

Chaos and Demand on Instructor 
This game features very clearly defined gameplay; the role of the Gamemaster at the end is spelled out. Not much in class chaos, although lots of mingling/plotting is possible.

Primary Source Highlights

John Brown, speech at trial; Thoreau, On Civil Disobedience

Using the Game

Class Time  
For this game, 2 sessions are recommended. Set-up is a portion of a class session; one week of class time.

Possible Reacting Game Pairings
This game can be used on its own, or with other games. These pairings are meant to be illustrative rather than exhaustive or prescriptive. John Brown may pair well with:

You can adjust the assignments based on the desired learning outcomes of your class. This game can include traditional paper/research/thesis-driven writing. All roles may have to give formal speeches.

Class Size and Scalability
This game is recommended for classes with 10-40 students.


Instructors can access all basic game materials (Gamebook, Role Sheets, Instructor's Guide, and Handouts) below.


Students need a Gamebook, which includes directions, resources, and historical content.

VERSION 3.2. Updated August 2019.

Instructor's Manual

The Instructor's Guide includes guidance for assigning roles, presenting historical context, assignments, activities and discussion topics, and more.

Role Sheets & Name Tents

Students also need a Role Sheet, which contains biographical information, role-specific resources or assignments, and their character's secret victory objectives.


Bill Offutt

Bill Offutt is Professor of History and Faculty Advisor for the Pforzheimer Honors College at Pace University. He received his AB from Stanford University, and his J.D. from Stanford Law School. Abandoning the law, he then went to graduate school, earning a Ph.D. in Early American History at Johns Hopkins University under Professor Jack P. Greene. His first book, Of Good Laws and Good Men: Law and Society in the Delaware Valley 1680–1710, was published by Illinois University Press. His academic interests focus on the relationship between law and society, particularly the methods by which legal systems obtain and keep their legitimacy. He has taught courses on colonial America, revolutionary America, the Civil War, Constitutional history, and American women’s history. In addition to his own Reacting games, he has taught eight other Reacting games to students at Pace, and he has participated in numerous Reacting conferences as Gamemaster and/or player.

Reacting and Related Titles


Members can contact game authors directly

We invite instructors join our Facebook Faculty Lounge, where you'll find a wonderful community eager to help and answer questions. We also encourage you to submit your question for the forthcoming FAQ, and to check out our upcoming events


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