Role playing games have roots in historical wargaming. Gygax and Arneson were inspired to add fantasy elements to their wargame campaign which began the foundations of Dungeons & Dragons. While historical wargames have flourished, they have often struggled in the roleplaying arena. While there are classics like Boot Hill and Gangbusters, RPG often seem to need a fantastical element to resonate with gamers. War Stories, by Firelock Games, looks to buck this trend by encouraging gamers to tell stories in World War II without monsters, magic or Cthulhu anywhere near the table. The company sent me a copy of the main rules for review along with some game aids. Did these rules survive first contact with the enemy? Let’s play to find out.
War Stories uses the classic Year Zero Engine created by Free League Publishing. This is the same engine that powers hit games like Tales From The Loop and Alien. Free League has a reputation for designing games that tailor the engine to the genre. Designers G. I. Garcia, Dave Semark and Michael Santana take an opposite approach here by sprinkling elements from those Free League titles, including elements from games like Blade Runner which traded in dice pools for escalating die types. If you’ve ever wanted to see what the lifepath system for Twilight: 2000 looked like for the original D6 die pool, you could probably lift it from this.
The core resolution remains the same. Players assemble a dice pool of d6 and look for rolls of 6 as successes. Players can choose to reroll some of the dice for more 6s at a risk of losing resources or taking damage. It’s here that War Stories takes a step away from other Year Zero games. Most of them incur a level or stress or a condition in exchange for a reroll. The designers instead take a little inspiration from Cortex Plus. Any ones rolled in the pool, called duds, are not just taken out of the pool but they also give the opposing side a Plot Point style resource to spend on future rolls. It adds a bit more tactical gaming to a system that’s generally known for being narrative.
Tactical elements abound in the War Stories book. It is a game where various World War II armaments get lovely illustrations (Indeed, the artwork throughout the book looks great). Combat feels a bit heavier than the usual Year Zero game with damage rolls, defense rolls and the like. But then, this is called War Stories, isn’t it? The opening rules discuss scaling the game from gritty, historical combat to cinematic action adventure tales. There are plenty of optional rules to add in or take out, which I like, but I also wish the designers had discussed which rules they use to achieve the different styles of the game. The default settings seem to lean towards a Saving Private Ryan type of game that nods to the grueling realities of war while still giving players a chance to have heroic moments for their characters.
The game walks a similar line in regards to historical accuracy. The archetypes contain two character types that are open to women in combat; the partisan fighter and the war correspondent. While the game drills down into specific elements of the war including a run down of what a paratrooper took with them into the field, there’s some discussion about how important accuracy is. The designers seem to take a similar tack to background that many tables take to rules accuracy; if it hampers your fun, change it. Nobody will send a history teacher assassin squad for anyone running a game with a mixed race and gender tank crew.
The book focuses on the European theater and squad based tactics. This is a game on squad based tactics featuring infantry. There are rules for larger battles but they exist primarily to add flavor to the skirmishes of the PCs. The rules on creating background characters seem inspired by Star Trek Adventures where a minor character can assist a main character or step in for a main character if they have no business on the current mission. Beware those mass battles, however; bad rolls can kill off beloved supporting characters as part of the cost of war.
War Stories is a heavier take on the Year Zero Engine that tackles a unique genre in RPGs. Fans of history should take note.