Take World War II To Your RPG Night With War Stories

A heavier take on the Year Zero Engine.

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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.
 

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Rob Wieland

Rob Wieland


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Giantrollorc

Explorer
A ttrpg for WWII… yes please!! A campaign through the rubble in the streets of Stalingrad, or the labyrinthine jungles of Guadalcanal or New Guinea!! Sounds awesome… and I can use all of my Bolt Action miniatures and terrain!! Oh yes I’m in 😎
 


Von Ether

Legend
If they're using the Year One Engine, I think so. I've never seen a version of that in anything but d6.
Is this d6 based resolution mechanics?
Valid question since Free League created a step die version (the difficulty increases or decreases the size of the die used vs adding more dice to a dice pool) of their house system when they did Twilight 2000 and Blade Runner. Both versions are in the YZE SRD.

It makes sense either way: Use the dice pool version if Firelock's designers have been gaming YZE for years OR use the step die version since there are tons of Cold War tech examples thanks to Twilight 2000.

For all we know, Twilight might have been their introduction to YZE and they had already kitbashed it for WWII when the SRD came out. :ROFLMAO:
 
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MGibster

Legend
Valid question since Free League created a step die version (the difficulty increases or decreases the size of the die used vs adding more dice to a dice pool) of their house system when they did Twilight 2000 and Blade Runner. Both versions are in the YZE SRD.
I own Twilight 2000, so I should have remembered that they used a step die version. I've never actually played it though.
 

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.
I have to say this is a bit surprising. While the majority of the soldiers was certainly male, it's not like female soldiers didn't exist in WW2 (most well-known probably the Night Witches).
 

aramis erak

Legend
On that note, As a long time hospice nurse, I've had a lot of WWII vets as my patients. The two theaters were like two different wars. The guys from the European theater were always eager to talk about their experiences. The Pacific vets were much more subdued or even wanted to avoid talking about the war.
I've only met one WW II pacific vet who was willing to talk about it openly... Greg Boyington.
Most of the WW II vets I've met willing, or even wanting, to talk about it were Atlantic.

My maternal grandfather was in PacFlt; BG Enterprise, from Aug '41 to end of the war, on a destroyer. He was hesitant to talk of the war until I was in NJROTC; then he opened up about it a bit. I found out, my senior year, why... he sent me a photocopy of the program from his Sonar School graduation...of the roughly 60 names, only 3 weren't on the wall at the Memorial. The 3 who were assigned to BG Enterprise.

What I've gathered from researches into it (my undergrad was in Russian History) leads me to the conclusion that the cultural differences resulted in far worse views of the enemy, and the lack of visible

I own Twilight 2000, so I should have remembered that they used a step die version. I've never actually played it though.
Just ended another T2K 4e... the dice step system is nice, but I still prefer the d6-only. The dice step system really needs another step...

A quick look at the sheets shows, yes, it is the d6 version.
 

MGibster

Legend
I have to say this is a bit surprising. While the majority of the soldiers was certainly male, it's not like female soldiers didn't exist in WW2 (most well-known probably the Night Witches).

From what I've observed, most military games set during either of the World Wars tends to focus on playing the Americans or the British with some lip service paid to the Soviets. If you have a campaign where everyone is part of the Red Army, it's easy to fit a woman in the infantry, but not so simple if your campaign is centered around American or British forces.

And as with most of historical games, people who play these thigns are going to have to figure out how to deal with some rather uncomfortable truths. At this time, the US military was still segregated and women weren't assigned to combat roles. How do you choose to address that? Do you address it at all?
 

RareBreed

Adventurer
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
How true this (unfortunately) is. I have often wondered why RPG gamers veered off into the fantastic so much. Back in the 80s, there were quite a few popular games that had nothing to do with fantasy or science fiction. It made me think, is it a supply or demand causation? Was fantasy what gamers mostly wanted, so that's what game companies gave? Or is that primarily what game companies made, and that's what most gamers became accustomed to?

What I noticed about my early gaming background was that I mostly played games where you were just a regular human, albeit a perhaps highly skilled one. The games I most played included games like:

  • James Bond 007
  • Justice Inc
  • Top Secret (mostly 1st ed, but a little 2nd ed)
  • Twilight 2000 (1st and 2nd ed)
  • Aftermath
  • Bushido
  • Living Steel
  • Recon (both the original edition from RPG Inc, and the remake from Palladium)
  • A homegrown Vietnam era campaign using the Phoenix Command Combat System rules
  • Traveller 2300

I also wanted to play, but didn't have a chance to play the following:

  • Behind Enemy Lines
  • SPI's Commando (a hybrid RPG/tactical game)

Other than a fair bit of Champions and some Car Wars, it was relatively rare that I played fantasy or other non "realistic" RPG's. Of course, I did play some AD&D, a handful of Runequest, and even some Thieves Guild back in the day. After the WotC debacle with the OGL, I realized that a very large number of gamers simply don't know any other RPG's other than D&D (another mystifying topic in its own right). However, there are a large number of gamers who do know games of other genres exist, but simply don't want to play them. I have always wondered why fantasy resonates so deeply with gamers, and I suspect that over the decades, the escapist aspect of fantasy has become more appealing than playing a character who doesn't have powers...and thus has less control over things.

As for WW2 in particular, my grandfather and all his brothers served in WW2 on my father's side. I wish I had been a little bit older so I could have asked my grandfather or great uncles some questions. I remember that my grand father's friend was at the battle of the Surigao Strait, and I remember him saying that they had fired so many rounds at the Japanese, that they were down to firing starshells (illumination rounds) at them. Another of my great uncles was in the 82nd AA, and was in D-Day and Operation Market Garden. Another great uncle, like my grand father, was in the Pacific with the seabees. My grandfather himself commanded a destroyer escort early in the war, and later commanded a destroyer escort squadron. He helped with naval bombardment at Kwajalein, Tarawa, and Guadalcanal (IIRC), and was also at the retaking of the Philippines.

I'm also half Filipino (well, quarter Filipino, quarter Bangsamoro), and on my mom's side, my oldest uncle (tito in Tagalog, or bapa in Tausug) was a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese. My mom said he never talked about the war, but according to my aunts (tita or babu), his unit would go Japanese head hunting at night. Where my mother is from, the Moros (the Muslim part of the Philippines in Mindanao, including the Sulu archipelago, Cotabato, and southern Palawan) had basically already drive off the Japanese. The Japanese were so terrified of the Moros that they basically slept in their ships at night. By the time MacArthur had returned, a large part of Moro Mindanao was effectively already free of the Japanese.

I do hope we get more of the Pacific campaign, and for that matter, non-American campaigns. For example, the Chindits in Burma or Merril's Marauders.
 
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Bagpuss

Legend
At this time, the US military was still segregated and women weren't assigned to combat roles. How do you choose to address that? Do you address it at all?

I guess you address it if it comes up. I certainly wouldn't want to paint it as if it didn't happen, I'd keep it historical. If someone wants to play a black or female character then that kind of limits the rolls they were in during the war, and would likely dramatically effect the focus of the campaign.

But if your all playing white British Paras taking Pegasus Bridge it isn't likely to come up.

I suppose you could overlook it, but then I think you are doing a disservice to real struggles people had to put up with in that era. Which was a criticism of the horror film Overlord. I'd rather have a scenario focused on the 761st Tank Battalion for example.
 
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