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Saturday, 2 July 2016

Hacking the Big One

Mark Hunt is probably best known for bringing another TSR, Inc. title, GangBusters – 1920’s Adventure Roleplaying Game back to the hobby after an absence of twenty-five years. This began with the release of GBM1 Joe’s Diner and has since led to the release of GangBusters-The Blue Book Detective Agency Beginner Game, a new and introductory edition of the game that focuses on playing private investigators. This, together with a new and expanded edition of GBM-1 Joe’s Diner and Welcome to Rock Junction, formed the basis for the Gangbusters Limited Edition Box BEGINNER GAME. Of course, for professional reasons, Reviews from R’lyeh cannot review any of the aforementioned books or indeed the boxed set, but it can review the author’s World War 2 RPG, The Front.

The first book available for this is The Front Field Manual. Available as a PDF from the usual vendors as well as in print from lulu.com, The Front is a quick and dirty treatment of World War 2 that brings the biggest conflict of the twentieth century to the Old School Renaissance. As much as it is based in the Old School Renaissance, it draws upon more modern approaches to game play and design for its mechanics, as did the more recent The Black Hack, in being player facing.

The Front gives four Classes—Combat, Intelligence, Leadership, and Reconnaissance. A soldier with Combat Training can recover Hit Points (once per hour), make multiple attacks against opponents of lower Hit Dice, and sunder a piece of equipment to avoid damage. With Intelligence Training a soldier has the Advantage with written languages, processing prisoners, and captured documents, whilst through Logistics can locate a desired piece of equipment on the black market. With Leadership Training, a soldier has the Advantage when performing leadership challenges, providing training, and tactics, and through ‘Lead by Example’, have his men fight to the death for him. A Soldier with Reconnaissance Training has the Advantage when attacking from behind and inflicts more damage as well as having the Advantage when listening, picking locks, sneaking, and so on. In addition, each of the Classes can swap out a standard weapon for something more specialised. For example, a soldier with Intelligence Training can take a Thompson Submachine Gun instead of a pistol (though this does look like a mistake—perhaps it should have been instead of a rifle?).

One thing that The Front does address in creating a character is asking what a solider did before he enlisted or was drafted. This is a simple matter of rolling a twenty-sided die and consulting the appropriate table. The result is an occupation, from Unemployed and Plumber to Dilettante and Scientist, which when it applies to the game, the soldier has an Advantage.

Name: Harold R. Schultz Rank: Technician, Fourth Grade
Level 1 Intelligence Training 
Before the war I was a Lawyer
Strength 06 Dexterity 10 Intelligence 15
Awareness 16 Constitution 08 Charisma 11

Hit Points: 08

I have the Advantage with
written languages, processing prisoners, and captured documents, and finding a desired piece of equipment on the black market.

Thompson Submachine Gun
Colt M1911 .45 automatic pistol

Mechanically, The Front is very simple. Whenever a soldier wants to take an action that requires a die roll, his player rolls a twenty-sided die and attempts an attribute test against the appropriate attribute. For example, if he needs to spot an ambush, then he must make an Awareness test. The Front is also player facing, meaning that the players make all of the dice rolls rather than the GM. So for example, in combat, a soldier would make Dexterity test not only to shoot his rifle at a target, but also to avoid the incoming blast from an enemy flamethrower. If a soldier has an Advantage on any roll, two twenty-sided dice are rolled and the best result used. Having the Disadvantage works the same way, but the worst result is kept. For example, if Harold Schulz needs to get some information out of a prisoner, he has the Advantage when he makes his Charisma test.

Combat itself is understandably deadly. There are rules for the different types of weapon available, from pistols and grenades to flamethrowers and machine guns, and of course, not only do they do a lot of damage, a soldier does not have a lot of Hit Points. These start out equal to the soldier’s Constitution and in a Gritty game, they do not rise as the soldier gains Levels. The Hollywood option allows for some Hit Points to be gained at each Level. In actuality, Hit Points in The Front represent the amount of damage a soldier may suffer before he is classed as being ‘Out of Action’ and cannot act. Only after an engagement is over will a soldier know if he survived by rolling on an ‘Outcome’ table. This may result in the soldier being KIA or MIA, disfigured, crippled, shell shocked, and so on.

In terms of character progression, The Front has just ten Levels. After that, a soldier is rotated out of combat or promoted away from the front. Only a relatively few Experience Points, for example, five to go from Level One to Level Two, are needed to go up in Level. At each new Level, a soldier can request new equipment, test each attribute to see if it increases in value—these have to be fail rather than succeed to gain the increase, and at Levels Three and Six, assign permanent Advantage to one of his attributes.

The Front not only discusses the nature of campaigns set during World War 2, but also offers campaign ideas. These include playing as partisans, as members of a resistance organisation, and of course, as part of an elite unit. More interesting though, is the campaign idea involving minor or ethnic nationalities. None of these campaign ideas is explored in any great depth, but The Front: Field Manual is a relatively short rulebook. That said, the discussion of the involvement of minorities in the conflict is a welcome one as it is not often addressed in World War 2 set RPGs. Lastly, the option is given to allow the war to go ‘weird’ and essentially have the Nazis unleash Dungeons & Dragons style monsters on the Allies. Again, it is a quick and dirty treatment and other RPGs, notably Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Weird Wars: Weird War 2 and Modiphius Entertainment’s Achtung! Cthulhu have presented this very familiar idea in more depth and detail.

Physically, The Front: Field Manual is illustrated with a range of suitable photographs. The writing and the layout though, feels rather rushed and is perhaps a bit scrappy in places. If there is an issue with the content, it is twofold. First, it is written with an obviously American slant, but that is no surprise given the nationality of the author and the nationality of the bulk of the audience for this RPG. Second, that perhaps the four given Classes do not quite offer enough variety. Perhaps, the Medic and Engineer Classes would have been reasonable inclusions too?

The Front is essentially The Big One Hack—the ‘Big One’ being the nickname for World War 2. Despite its relatively low number of pages, it packs quite a lot in without getting bogged down in details. Above all, The Front is quick and dirty, but has a suitably deadly feel that reflects the dangers of the fight.

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