The popularity of genres wax and wane as time passes, and so it is that the superhero genre is no longer as popular as it once was. Certainly not popular to be supported with regular supplements, but one exception to that is GODLIKE: Superhero Roleplaying in a World on Fire, 1936-1946. Originally published in 2002, Arc Dreams' RPG is supported by various supplements including a full campaign in the form of Black Devils Brigade: The First Special Service Force and the Italian Campaign, 1943–1944. This is now followed by a companion mini-campaign, Combat Orders No. 4 - The Courtyard of Hell. What separates the two are the Apennine Mountains and their differing scopes.
As its title suggests, Black Devils Brigade concerns the whole of the Italian Campaign, including the battle for Anzio and the eventual drive on Rome. Geographically, it is set entirely on the western side of the Apennine Mountains. The Courtyard of Hell takes place on the eastern side of the Apennine on the Adriatic Coast, in just the one location, that of the port town of Ortona. Located on a steep-sided plateau and comprised of narrow streets lined with stone buildings, the town was the site of fierce street fighting between the defending Fallschirmjäger troops and the attacking Canadians in the final weeks of 1943 that Winston Churchill came to call the battle for the town, ‘Little Stalingrad’.
In The Courtyard of Hell as in GODLIKE, the player characters are Talents, members of the Allied forces who have been ‘blessed’ with an amazing ability such as controlling the blood flow of the wounded, being able to map out a location with a shout, or smash open the armour on a Tiger tank with a single punch! The player characters are soldiers first before being trained to use their Talent effectively in battle, but as more and more Talents manifest on the battlefield, there is not always the time or the chance for newly expressed Talents to receive this training before being thrown back into fray. This often means that they will be prepared to face the Übermenschen, the Nazi Talents who are part of the SS and who revel in their powers and the Aryan ideals of the ‘Super Race’. This will be an issue in The Courtyard of Hell as will be a Talent’s Will. It is his Will that fuels a Talent’s powers and his ability to cancel out another Talent’s powers that can be lost in a contest of Wills with an enemy Talent.
The Courtyard of Hell takes place in the last week of December, 1943. The soldiers of the 2nd Brigade, the Loyal Edmonton Regiment, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, and Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry have recently made a hard fought and bloody crossing of the Moro River and now need Talent support in taking Ortona. The battle is depicted in thirteen scenes that take place between December 20th and December 27th, as the Talents, being among the first Canadians to manifest as Talents, are thrown into support the assault on the town. This will see them leading the attack on Ortona’s outskirts before becoming embroiled in street fighting against troops of the 1st Fallschirmjäger Division. Intelligence reports that there are Übermenschen in the town, including at least one flyer. What is curious about these Übermenschen is that they are not members of the SS as are most Nazi Übermenschen, but have remained with the elite Fallschirmjäger troops rather than transferring to the SS as is expected of all Übermenschen. Technically then, these Übermenschen are members of the Luftwaffe!
In the seven days of the battle for Ortona, the Talents will support tanks, fight from one building to the next, move heavy artillery, and come to the rescue of their comrades and civilians alike. They will also find themselves fighting Übermenschen other than Fallschirmjäger as the intensity of the fighting increases and Übermenschen of the SS are brought into to support the German defence of the town. Throughout, the Talents will be shadowed by newsmen and photographers who are eager to report on the success and activities of Canada’s first Talents in battle.
Based on a real battle, with two of the battle’s actual participants being included in the seven pre-generated Canadian Talents, The Courtyard of Hell is a combat intensive affair. Designed to be played by between six and seven players, guidelines are included to help the GM adjust the difficulty of the scenario’s encounters so that they can be played by a smaller group. Further support comes in the form of descriptions of the weapons and vehicles used by both sides; guidelines for handling large battles as well as a means to quickly set up interesting encounters using the ‘One Roll Cityfight’ rules; full stats for both the Canadian and Fallschirmjäger troops; and some twenty-four fully detailed and described Übermenschen in addition to the six pre-generated Canadian Talents.
In previous releases for Godlike, the design of the Übermenschen and the Allied Talents has been somewhat underwhelming, perhaps even unimaginative. Admittedly, it is not easy to come up with interesting Talent concepts, let alone create them on the limited number of points available during character creation. With over thirty presented in the pages of The Courtyard of Hell, there is a surprisingly degree of invention on show.
Physically, The Courtyard of Hell is generally well presented. In places it needs another edit and in places the text has faded to the point of near illegibility. The maps are also hard to read in places, primarily because of the difficulty of depicting the necessary detail in grayscale rather than colour. Otherwise, The Courtyard of Hell is decently illustrated.
The Courtyard of Hell is much more focused and much shorter affair than Black Devils Brigade, though the possibility of soldiers from the First Special Service Force being sent over the Apennines to fight in the battle for Ortona is discussed. It could thus be used as an extension to the campaign presented in Black Devils Brigade: The First Special Service Force and the Italian Campaign, 1943–1944, but even if not, it should offer several sessions of challenging combat. Well-researched, solidly-presented, Combat Orders No. 4 - The Courtyard of Hell presents the opportunity for the players to explore a heroically tough if little known battle of World War Two.