Take World War II To Your RPG Night With War Stories

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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

R_J_K75

Legend
Well, usually the natives don't like to be occupied by a foreign power...so yes. Almost all of South East Asia was colonized by a European power except Thailand. The rest of Indochina by France (Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam) , Burma (Myanmar) and Malaysia by England, Indonesia by Holland, and the Philippines by Spain and America.

But which Vietnam war do you speak of? The French used the pretext of the killings of Catholics (including Bishops) in the early/mid 1800s to invade Vietnam. Later in a turnabout, while Catholics were a minority in Vietnam, Ngo Diem (the President of South Vietnam that both France and the United States would eventually abandon), was a devout Catholic and his brother was an Arch Bishop. Hoping to get more recognition for his brother, he confiscated Buddhist temples and monasteries, and forbade some Buddhist holidays...one of them being the Buddhist equivalent of Christmas. The famous picture of a monk self-immolating was not a protest about the French or the war. It was in defiance to the Catholic persecution of Buddhists.

Talking about war in Vietnam could also mean the fighting against the Japanese during WW2 (and the Viet Minh....the precursors to the Viet Cong...also fought against the French). At first, despite being Communist, Ho Chi Minh and othe Vietnamese communist leaders thought the Americans would be more sympathetic to their cause given similiar origin stories. And indeed, many Americans were in support of Ho Chi Minh, including military officers. But by late 50s, and early 60s, the whole Domino Theory was entrenched, and it became anathema to support Communism at all.

So, after the French catastrophically failed at Dien Bien Phu, the Americans thought if Vietnam fell, neighboring South East Asia would succumb too. The Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon aka Hukbalahap (for New People's Army) was gaining steam in the Philippines over grievances with the Hacienderos (typically Mestizo, or mixed Eurasian Filipinos descended from the Spanish/Mexican authorities) who held almost all the wealth and power in the Philippines. So this fear of Communist contagion to neighboring countries began the inexorable lead up to war by the Americans against (ostensibly) the North Vietnamese. The South Vietnamese government was rotten to the core, but if you were anti-communist, you were golden in America's eyes at the time (eg, see the Contras vs Sandinistas, or why we supported a dictator like Ferdinand Marcos for so long)

And while technically fought in Cambodia, you could call the Vietnamese "rescue" of the Cambodians against Pol Pot's madness as a "Vietnamese War" since no one else in the world was doing anything about the Killing Fields. And then lastly, there was the failed war of the Chinese against the Vietnamese...which I actually don't know that much about (other than the Chinese being mostly humiliated).

This is why I love history, and why I am somewhat mystified why gamers want fantasy so much. Real history is far more intriguing and fascinating than anything George Martin or even JRR Tolkien ever dreamed up of. While historical military games do have some challenges such as being true to history (what about minority representation? Well, if it is ok to play a race/gender the player is not...I honestly don't see it as being a big deal to play a ethnicity/gender authentic for the period). The problem of player agency was never really a problem for our group. First off, players (not characters) should learn to become more cohesive. A team of characters needs to be just that....a team. Not a gang of maverick lone-wolfves who just happen to have the same end-goal in mind. If this means taking orders, even from one of their own, should not be an issue.

And if this really is an issue, and players (not characters) truly don't like the idea of being told what to do, then there's always solo roleplaying
This is great. Taught me not to make an off handed comments about the French or just an off-handed comment in general. I can 100% respect someone like you who knows their history. As I said upthread, I know enough to be dangerous but I also know enough to stay in my lane. Nice treatise on Viet Nam. Really good. I learned a lot. Two thumbs up
 

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RareBreed

Adventurer
This is great. Taught me not to make an off handed comments about the French or just an off-handed comment in general. I can 100% respect someone like you who knows their history. As I said upthread, I know enough to be dangerous but I also know enough to stay in my lane. Nice treatise on Viet Nam. Really good. I learned a lot. Two thumbs up
I'm an amateur historian at best. My paternal grandfather served in WW2 and the Korean War and for a time, was the Commandant of the NROTC at Northwestern University in Illinois. He wrote 3 semi-fictional books about Naval officers during the War of 1812 (well, technically, one of them was about John Gamble, a Marine Corps officer who has the distinction of being the only Marine to command a warship in time of war). My brother also got a masters in history with his thesis on the Cold War Soviet Navy. So, perhaps it just runs in my blood.

I was but a teenager in the 80s when I became fascinated with the Vietnam War, mainly due to how returning veterans were treated. In high school, hearing stories about how returning Vietnam Vets were treated boiled my blood even as a teenager, and made me want to learn more about this tragic conflict and how my own countrymen could treat their own veterans. As I learned, a thing happened that we are familiar with from web browsing: visiting related links. I wanted to know not just what happened, but why. And if you learn about the US Vietnam War, you have to start following the thread backwards; to the French, the Japanese, and the French again (and even the Chinese if you go back far enough).

So, in order to understand the Vietnam War, you have to really go back to WW2, and how WW2 was the first time for many countries to fight back not just against the Japanese, but their European colonial masters, because the chaos of war and the Japanese overthrow of the Europeans gave an opportunity for the natives to regain their own foothold. This played out in the series of uprisings of the Malays against the British in the 50s, and the Indonesian conflict against the Dutch also in the 50s and 60s. The same happened with the Philippines too. To some degree, you can trace the Islamic "terrorism" in the Philippines (I put that in quotes, because from their point of view, they are freedom fighters rebelling against the same foreign occupiers that have plagued their people literally since the Spanish came in the 1500s) to the taste of freedom that the Bangsamoro people got when the Japanese temporarily expelled the Americans from their region.

This is the kind of stuff I want to see in a WW2 game. Not the same rehashing of D-Day or the Battle of the Bulge. Not even stuff they almost never cover, like any of the North African or Italy campaigns. I actually want to see stories about the guerrila fighters or paramilitary units like the Chindits. What about the Maquis of France? The aforementioned Hukbalahaps of the Philippines, or Viet Minh of Vietnam? And in these scenarios, you can play women or even an atypical ethnic group (for example, in a Maquis campaign, you could be someone from a French colony like eg Tunisia).

Playing these groups also throws in a certain moral grey area. For example, the resistance groups of France had some shady goings on, as did the Hukbalahaps in the Philippines. The Moro guerrilla fighters (of which my oldest uncle was a member) often fought not just the Japanese, but the Americans too.
 

Dr Magister

Explorer
I've always though Operation Jedburgh would make a great concept for an RPG. A small team of specialists dropped behind enemy lines to link up with the resistance and conduct guerrilla attacks and sabotage missions to prepare the ground for D-day.

The SOE used female agents too, who had to go through the full military training, so female characters would be a possibility.

I've had vague plans to run it using Dogs of WAR, but haven't got round to it yet.
 

dragoner

KosmicRPG.com
On the East Front, a Partisan campaign would work best, though Conscripts, and People's Militia would work as well early war.
 

aramis erak

Legend
So, in order to understand the Vietnam War, you have to really go back to WW2,
Before that, actually... 1880s for the direct roots. And not just Vietnam, but also Cambodia and Laos, as well. Considering one without the others leaves major gaps.

The war itself is a result of the French occupation, the French pullout, and the status as a proxy war for the Chinese, Russian, Japanese, and US imperial actions...

Likewise, WW II is often blamed squarely upon Hitler and the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (Abbr: NSDAP, Nazi)...
The roots, however, also go back to the late 1800s... and Otto von Bismark.
The Lebensraum concept of the NSDAP and Chancellor Hitler are very much continuations of Chancellor Otto von Bismark's views. And the conditions imposed by the US, UK, France, and Russia at the end of WW I.

Most wars origins go back to key elements 50 to 100 years prior to the war itself. Some, further than that...
 

RareBreed

Adventurer
Before that, actually... 1880s for the direct roots. And not just Vietnam, but also Cambodia and Laos, as well. Considering one without the others leaves major gaps.

The war itself is a result of the French occupation, the French pullout, and the status as a proxy war for the Chinese, Russian, Japanese, and US imperial actions...

Likewise, WW II is often blamed squarely upon Hitler and the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (Abbr: NSDAP, Nazi)...
The roots, however, also go back to the late 1800s... and Otto von Bismark.
The Lebensraum concept of the NSDAP and Chancellor Hitler are very much continuations of Chancellor Otto von Bismark's views. And the conditions imposed by the US, UK, France, and Russia at the end of WW I.

Most wars origins go back to key elements 50 to 100 years prior to the war itself. Some, further than that...
Yes, I mentioned some of this in an earlier reply on this thread. Like how the French used the pretext of the killings of Catholics in the mid 1800s to control Vietnam, and a reversal where the Catholics persecuted the Buddhists so that Ngo Diem could help his Arch Bishop brother (the famous picture of a Buddhist monk burning himself alive was not a protest against the French, Americans or Communists, but against the Catholic persecution of Buddhists).

And yeah, pulling the thread back is useful when examining all of history. In many ways, WW2 was a continuation of WW1, and the onerous burdens placed on Germany through the Treaty of Versailles. And then you can look at the causes of WW1 itself, which, though often blamed on entangling alliances has other root causes as well.

I have often told people who don't like history: "You don't know where you are, unless you know where you have been. And you can't know where you are going, unless you know where you are". Or sometimes, as George Santayana said "Those who can not remember the past are condemned to repeat it".
 
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MGibster

Legend
And if this really is an issue, and players (not characters) truly don't like the idea of being told what to do, then there's always solo roleplaying

For a military campaign, I find its best to give the PCs their orders (the mission) and let them figure out how they're going to accomplish it. At least for the US Armed Forces, even during WWII, even non-commissioned officers generally had a lot of leeway in how they accomplished their goals.

At West Point, an instructor showed the cadets a map and asked them how they would go about taking it from the enemy.

Cadet #1: Sir, I'd probe their defenses, find a weak point, and concentrate my forces there.
Cadet #2: Sir, I'd call in an artillery strike to soften up their defenses and send my forces to mop the remains.
Cadet #3: Sir, I'd find my sergeant and order him to take that hill.
 

R_J_K75

Legend
I'm an amateur historian at best. My paternal grandfather served in WW2 and the Korean War and for a time, was the Commandant of the NROTC at Northwestern University in Illinois. He wrote 3 semi-fictional books about Naval officers during the War of 1812 (well, technically, one of them was about John Gamble, a Marine Corps officer who has the distinction of being the only Marine to command a warship in time of war). My brother also got a masters in history with his thesis on the Cold War Soviet Navy. So, perhaps it just runs in my blood.

I was but a teenager in the 80s when I became fascinated with the Vietnam War, mainly due to how returning veterans were treated. In high school, hearing stories about how returning Vietnam Vets were treated boiled my blood even as a teenager, and made me want to learn more about this tragic conflict and how my own countrymen could treat their own veterans. As I learned, a thing happened that we are familiar with from web browsing: visiting related links. I wanted to know not just what happened, but why. And if you learn about the US Vietnam War, you have to start following the thread backwards; to the French, the Japanese, and the French again (and even the Chinese if you go back far enough).

So, in order to understand the Vietnam War, you have to really go back to WW2, and how WW2 was the first time for many countries to fight back not just against the Japanese, but their European colonial masters, because the chaos of war and the Japanese overthrow of the Europeans gave an opportunity for the natives to regain their own foothold. This played out in the series of uprisings of the Malays against the British in the 50s, and the Indonesian conflict against the Dutch also in the 50s and 60s. The same happened with the Philippines too. To some degree, you can trace the Islamic "terrorism" in the Philippines (I put that in quotes, because from their point of view, they are freedom fighters rebelling against the same foreign occupiers that have plagued their people literally since the Spanish came in the 1500s) to the taste of freedom that the Bangsamoro people got when the Japanese temporarily expelled the Americans from their region.

This is the kind of stuff I want to see in a WW2 game. Not the same rehashing of D-Day or the Battle of the Bulge. Not even stuff they almost never cover, like any of the North African or Italy campaigns. I actually want to see stories about the guerrila fighters or paramilitary units like the Chindits. What about the Maquis of France? The aforementioned Hukbalahaps of the Philippines, or Viet Minh of Vietnam? And in these scenarios, you can play women or even an atypical ethnic group (for example, in a Maquis campaign, you could be someone from a French colony like eg Tunisia).

Playing these groups also throws in a certain moral grey area. For example, the resistance groups of France had some shady goings on, as did the Hukbalahaps in the Philippines. The Moro guerrilla fighters (of which my oldest uncle was a member) often fought not just the Japanese, but the Americans too.
Anytime you want to understand a war you need to research decades or centuries prior to realize exactly what went on.
 


R_J_K75

Legend
It also often helps as well to look at the neighboring polities and ethno-cultural regions. Even those not directly involved.
There are so many factors and variables that precede and lead up to a confrontation of a political/economical/and geographical conflict that its almost impossible to see it coming beforehand as its usually a series of smaller events that lead up to it.
 

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