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Sunday, 24 February 2019

OSR & The Big One

Although the publication of Behind Enemy Lines by FASA in 1982 was the first roleplaying set during World War II, it would not be until the year 2001, the sixtieth anniversary of the United States of America’s entry into that conflict, that the hobby industry really became interested in the period with Pinnacle Entertainment Group, Inc.’s Weird War II: Blood on the Rhine and Godlike: Superhero Roleplaying in a World on Fire, 1936-1946 from Arc Dream Publishing. Both though added an extra genre to World War II, horror and superheroes respectively, whereas Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS World War II line kept it purely historical for the most part… Once piqued, in the fifteen or so years since interest in the period as a setting for gaming has never really gone away, so it should be no surprise that the Old School Renaissance has turned its attention to it as well.

Mark Hunt has already published The Front, a quick and dirty treatment of the conflict based on The Black Hack, but for a more traditional take on the conflict, using more traditional mechanics, there is WWII: Operation Whitebox. Published by Small Niche Games, it uses Mythmere Games’ Swords & Wizardry as its core mechanics, but adjusts them to fit the modern era and to take into account the dangers of modern, firearms combat. The rules cover character creation, both small arms and mass combat, vehicles, and so on, and come with advice for both player and Referee, an extensive example of play, and a scenario. Its focus is on small small campaigns, with characters starting at First Level and able to advance only as far as Fifth Level, participating in special forces operations by the Allies in Nazi-occupied Europe and North Africa against an enemy that you can definitely hate.

Characters in WWII: Operation Whitebox look like characters from other Old School Renaissance retroclones, with the usual attributes, Armour Class, Hit Points, character Classes, and so on. Instead of Race, a character has a Nationality and a Profession, which are rolled for, as well as a Class, which is not. The six nationalities are American, British, Canadian, German, French, or Russian. There are a number of issues inherent in this list and they all stem from the inclusion of the German Nationality as an option. These represent Germans who have decided to fight for the Allies and whilst that would have happened, it takes away from all of the other possible Nationalities which fled occupied Europe to fight against the Nazis or came from around the world to fight against them. Instead, perhaps this option should have been given as ‘Other’ and another table been given which included all of those other Nationalities. Primarily though, a character’s Nationality will determine the languages that he knows.

Professions are either Blue Collar or White Collar and will provide a character with a simple bonus for any roll related to the Profession. In terms of Rank, most characters will be Enlisted with one or two Officers amongst their number, but general, rank will not come into play a great deal, missions intended to be co-operative in nature, just as in any other roleplaying situation. In terms of Classes, WWII: Operation Whitebox gives eight. These are Charmer, Combat Engineer, Grunt, Maquis, Sniper, Tactician, Wheelman, and Überläufer. Essentially, there is nothing that a character of one Class cannot do of another, but a Class represents dedicated training, a Military Occupation Speciality. The Charmer is charismatic, can charm others, and detect deception; the Combat Engineer are excellent mechanics and at blowing things up; and Grunts are good at fighting. Maquis fighters can cobble technology together on the go, conceal items, and have plenty of contacts; Snipers master one weapon and are good at hiding and spotting ambushes; Tacticians are good at planning—the Referee can give hints or highlight flaws when the team is planning a mission—and rallying the troops; and the Wheelman is good at driving almost any vehicle. Lastly, the Überläufer has knowledge of the Wehrmacht, hates the Nazis, and knows how to survive in the wilderness. Of the six Nationality options and the six Classes, the German Nationality seems specifically linked to the Überläufer Class.

One aspect that WWII: Operation Whitebox does highlight is the role of women in the conflict. In most cases women did not fight as frontline troops, but many served as spies or fought in the resistance in Europe or helped with planning or served in some capacity. The Classes given here could all be male or female characters. So famously, there were excellent Russian Snipers who were women, a driver could actually turn out to be a dab hand behind the wheel and so be a Wheelman (Wheelwoman?), a member of the SOE could be a Combat Engineer and good at sabotage, and a member of the resistance need not be a Maquis, but could be a Charmer. So there is a pleasing mix of possibilities here without having to break historical verisimilitude.

Our sample character is Larissa Tosca, a Brooklyn, New York native who has charmed her way into the OSS and serves as a liaison with SOE. In fact, she is a Russian plant, working for Moscow to monitor the activities of both. Of course, if she can facilitate the Nazis getting a good kicking along the way, all the better. (The character is taken from a series of books by John Lawton.)

Name: Larissa Tosca
Nationality: American (Russian) Age: 28
Rank: Corporal
Class: Charmer Level: 1
Profession: Criminal/Military 
Languages: English, Russian, French (Basic), German (Basic)

Strength 10 Dexterity 12 Constitution 12
Intelligence 15 (+1) Wisdom 10 Charisma 17 (+1)

Saving Throw: 15 Armor Class 12 Hit Points 5

Class Abilities
Friendly Demeanour, Smooth Operator

At its core, WWII: Operation Whitebox will mechanically still play like a retroclone, with rolls of the twenty-sided die being made for attack rolls and saving throws and weapons inflicting damage with rolls of six-sided dice. Options are included for both ascending and descending Armour Class, which better to reflect the player characters’ training is never going to be amazing. Since small arms typically inflict 1d6-1, 1d6, or 1d6+1, and characters have similar ranges in terms of their Hit Points, even small arms fire is going to be deadly. Especially when taking into account the low level of healing available. Things get even worse when grenades start getting chucked about, combatants are sprayed with automatic fire, strafing and suppressive fire comes blazing the characters’ direction, tanks roll onto the battlefield, and so on. Combat and damage though, does not represent a character being shot every time an attack succeeds and he takes damage, but rather reflect effect of avoiding taking deadly damage. It is only when a character’s Hit Points are reduced to zero, that he suffers a mortal blow.

Although the players should be encouraged to have their characters use stealth, ambushes, and other tactics to avoid direct confrontations, as well as being ready to dive for cover, the Referee is provided numerous optional rules which push WWII: Operation Whitebox towards a cinematic style of play. These include Advanced Attribute Bonuses; ‘Heroic’ and ‘Inglorious’ levels of play which increase the characters’ Hit Points; a ‘Gut Check’ for when a character needs to succeed by sheer force of will; and criticals and fumbles. There is even an optional ‘Trial by Fire’ set-up for teaching the rules that drops the player characters into the middle of a larger scale battle.

Besides equipment lists that include vehicles and covert gear, WWII: Operation Whitebox comes with rules for both vehicle and mass combat. Neither though are the focus of the game. Certainly the player characters will be encountering and battling vehicles, but they are not going to be driving them into battle on a regular basis, and really, the somewhat abstract mass combat rules are there to determine the results of events that are going on around the player characters rather than ones they are directly controlling.

In terms of background, WWII: Operation Whitebox provides both player and Referee with a good overview and introduction to the conflict without getting mired into too much detail. For a history buff it will probably be a bit basic, but it is a good start, and anyway, not everyone is necessarily going to know this. It does cover the the darker aspects of World War II too, the Holocaust, on the dehumanising effect of the war, Hitler’s commando order, though the latter is the more likely to come into play. Two timelines are provided. One covers the length of the war, the other special forces operations, from Operation Collar in June, 1940 to Operation Varsity in March, 1945. This accompanies the descriptions of the special forces and the resistance forces fighting in the European theatre of operations. This is a good list and includes German special forces should the Referee want his player characters to face similar opposition. There is also a suggestion that a game could be played with the player characters as members of the German special forces. It suggests that such an option may not be to everyone’s taste which is undoubtedly true. Although it is a possibility, as a suggestion it would have better if it had been bumped to a sidebar where the author could have better denounced as an option he would not condone. Especially as he states that there are no greater villains than the Nazis.

Various types of operations and missions and what they involve are discussed as possible styles of play, including going on leave or playing as the cre of a vehicle. There is good advice for the Referee on how to run the game, who receives further support in a good list of foes and a bestiary as well as an introductory mission, ‘Resistance at the Ponteville Bridge’. It is a mini-sandbox in which the team has to conduct a support mission alongside the main mission, having to parachute into France and blow up a bridge. How the team does it is up to the players, but there is plenty for the Referee to throw in their characters’ way. It should provide a couple of good sessions worth of play. In addition, there is also a lengthy example of play which nicely showcases how the game is designed to play.

In the long term, surviving player characters are likely to get promoted and posted away from field operations, hence the Level Five cap on progression. Getting there is not a measure of finding treasure, but killing the enemy, achieving objectives, and taking advantage of ‘Targets of Opportunity’, side missions which will benefit the war effort. Beyond WWII: Operation Whitebox, there are suggestion on how to take into alternate history, mixing it up with Science Fiction or fantasy. This is not too difficult since it is compatible with both Swords & Wizardry and Barrel Rider Games’ White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying. Three mini settings are included at the end the book in are essentially three appendices. The first is ‘Nazi Superscience’, which pushes WWII: Operation Whitebox into the Pulp genre with weird-science gear and Nazi super-science monsters. The second is ‘Nazi Occult’, which mixes World War II with magic. It draws heavily on Dungeons & Dragons for its inspiration and is really only what you would expect. The last is ‘Galaxy War 1939 - Space Operations Executive’, which builds on the idea that space travel was discovered in the early 1920s and mankind has spread to the stars via rails which run between star systems where strange aliens have been found. This is the most interesting of three mini-settings and of the three, is the one that begs to be developed.

Physically, WWII: Operation Whitebox is a sturdy hardback. Behind its very nicely done full colour cover, it is well written, tidily presented, and an engaging read. It is only lightly illustrated, but the artwork is decent, if a little cartoonish in places. The one real problem with book is that some subject matters could have been handled with a little more delicacy than they are in its pages. The probably unpalatable possibility of playing German special forces characters has already been mentioned, but the examples of NPCs who could have the same Classes as the player characters could have been given a more diverse mix of examples. That said, the inclusion of women and female characters was well handled and says much in the designer’s favour. A bibliography would have been nice, but there are so many books, movies, and documentaries on the period, that the Referee is spoilt for choice.

WWII: Operation Whitebox is a solid, well done treatment of its subject, taking the underlying aspects of  the ‘special forces’ set-up integral to every Dungeons & Dragons-style of game and applying them to a real world situation where the characters’ roles are just as strong and just as clearly defined. It being a World War II set game, there is also a strong moral compass at the heart of the game too. In fact, the set-up of the game is likely to be more familiar too, since there are more movies about World War II than there are about Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy. Which all together suggests that WWII: Operation Whitebox would actually work as a decent introductory roleplaying game—at least to play, if not run—though it is really written from first principles.

Overall, WWII: Operation Whitebox is a superbly done treatment of special forces operations in World War II. It is both a solid roleplaying game and a further showcase of just what the Old School Renaissance can do.

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