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Sunday 2 June 2024

Year ’44

It has been decades since there has been a big roleplaying game based on World War 2 published that took its history straight. Most World War 2 roleplaying games mix in another element, typically horror, whether that is Lovecraftian horror as in Achtung! Cthulhu or more traditional horror, like that of Weird War II from Pinnacle Entertainment Group. GURPS WWII from Steve Jackson Games is one of the few exceptions to play it straight, although it does have it own supplement to add horror and other oddities, GURPS Weird War II. It should be noted that both the original version of Weird War IIWeird War II: Blood on the Rhine for the d20 System—and GURPS WWII were released in the early noughties, at a time when in interest in World War 2, mankind’s greatest conflict, was at its height. It was then the sixtieth anniversary of the USA’s entry into World War 2, and this was being marked culturally on television, on film, and yes, in roleplaying. Since then, Achtung! Cthulhu has been the flagbearer for gaming in the period, but it is interesting to note that with the passing of the eightieth anniversary of the events of World War 2, there has been much, much less of an interest in the roleplaying hobby in the period. It is essentially passing out of memory and into history. However, as June 6th 2024—the eightieth anniversary of Operation Overlord, of the D-Day landings—approaches, there is a roleplaying is a new roleplaying game based on World War 2 which does take its history straight and does focus on the D-Day landings and the subsequent campaign to liberate Europe from the Nazi yoke.

War Stories: A War World 2 RPG is published by Firelock Games and is notable for using the system du jour that is the Year Zero Engine, first seen in Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days. It is also notable in defaulting to the years 1944 and 1945 in its focus, the years of the Allied invasion of Europe. This does not mean that it cannot be set in earlier years during the war or in other theatres of conflict and the rules will support that. The arms and armour, though, that are detailed in the core rules are fielded by the Allies and the German forces in the European and North African theatres of operation. The Game Master wanting information on the Asian theatres will have to wait for further supplements. The play of War Stories: A War World 2 RPG also differs from other World War 2 roleplaying games which tend to focus on special operations conducted by an ad hoc mix of characters—in other words, Player Characters.
War Stories: A War World 2 RPG can do that style of play, but the default in War Stories: A War World 2 RPG is that the Player Characters are members of squad, part of a platoon, in a company, and so on. In addition to the Player Characters, there will be Background Characters, a supporting cast which makes up the rest of the platoon, which can come into play supporting the Player Characters, interacting with them, and even replacing them if a Player Character is wounded or killed in action. This brings in elements of troupe play as it gives the players a wider range of character to roleplay, although mechanically, Background Characters are not as detailed as Player Characters. By default, the Player Characters will be members of the 101st Airborne a la the television series, Band of Brothers, but other units are also possible and the Player Characters could even be members of a tank crew with some adjustment. The roleplaying game’s first supplement, War Stories Campaign Book: Rendezvous With Destiny, supports the default.

War Stories: A War World 2 RPG also addresses the role women and minorities played during the war and the prejudices that they were confronted with. The authors advise that these prejudices should not be basis for scenarios in War Stories: A War World 2 RPG, and that where it does arises as part of any story, it should be handled with care and responsibility. It notes too that minorities fought with distinction too, and that women were involved in the conflict as well, and one of the archetypes suggested as part of character creation is a Partisan who is portrayed as a woman as is the War Correspondent. Similarly, one of the archetypes is portrayed as an African American. Lastly, it notes that whilst War Stories: A War World 2 RPG is not alternative history roleplaying game, the likelihood is that any campaign run by a Game Master is likely to stray from exactly what happened historically.

A Player Character in
War Stories: A War World 2 RPG has four Attributes—Strength, Agility, Intelligence, and Empathy. These are rated between one and five. He also has several skills, rated between zero and five. These are associated with each of the four Attributes. For example, Calisthenics is a Strength skill, Ranged Combat an Agility skill, Insight an Intelligence skill, and Guts an Empathy skill. Specialisations, such as Grunt, Stealth, Sharpshooter, Born to Lie, and Counsellor add dice to Action Tests and come in two tiers. Talents like Intimidating, Fast Reflexes, Hardy, Polyglot, and Intense Focus: Empathy provide further bonuses. For example, Polyglot grants a chance to understand the basis of other languages, whilst Fast Reflexes enables a player to draw an extra Initiative card and chose the best. All five Player Characters have Flaws and Virtues, for example, Aloof or Naïve, Careful or Well-Spoken. In play, the Game Master can invoke a Player Character’s Flaw or Virtue to impose a negative or positive Die Modifier respectively.

In addition to Endurance, a Player Character’s capacity to handle the physical and mental stresses of combat and other challenges, he also has a Conditions Tracker which measures the effect of damage suffered. The Conditions Tracker has four categories, one for each Attribute, and each category has three ranks. Wounds is linked to Strength and a Player Character can either be ‘Gashed’, ‘Cut’, or ‘Nicked’. Weariness is linked to Agility, Fear to Intelligence, and Morale to Empathy. Each rank levies a penalty on all rolls made with its associated Attribute.

War Stories: A War World 2 RPG provides two options when it comes to character creation. The first involves choosing an Archetype, one of its suggested Service Branches, assign three points to attributes, assign set values to the archetype’s skills, choose Specialisations and Talents, a Flaw and a Virtue, and a buddy from the amongst the other Player Characters. The eight Archetypes consist of Rifleman, Scout, Medic, Weapon Specialist, Leader, Engineer, Partisan, and Correspondent.

Name: Albert Emerson
Rank: Private
Nationality: British Age: 22
Service Branch/Career: Airborne
Buddy: Johnny Abbot Languages: English (Tier II)
Virtues: Hard-working Flaws: Impatient
Lucky Strikes: 0 FUBARs: 0
Endurance: 5

Strength: 4 – Calisthenics 1, Stamina 1
Agility: 4 – Ranged Combat 2, Infiltrate 3
Intelligence: 4 – Perception 2
Empathy: 3 – Guts 1

Specialisations: Paratrooper I, Scout I, Stealth I
Talents: Hard to Find

Equipment: Mk I Sten Gun, Denison Smock, MK1 Paratrooper Steel Helmet, 1937 Webbing, lightweight gas mask, toggle rope

The second method is more involved, but gives a more rounded and detailed result. This is the Life Path method which involves rolling tables for nationality, upbringing, experience both before and during the war. The result can be a bit messy and unfocused if using this method, but it can also create some interesting Player Character Backgrounds. Alternatively, a player can simply choose the results to give himself more control over the outcome and so design rather than randomly create a character. In comparison, the means for creating Background Characters is simple and straightforward, producing NPCs with basic stats, skills, and specialisations that are easy to bring into play.

Name: Élodie Robillard
Rank: Partisan
Nationality: French Age: 23
Upbringing: Rural/Small Town (Carnival)
Pre-War Experience: Minor Criminal (Gang Leader)
War Experience: Partisan (Smuggler)
Buddy: – Languages: French (Tier II), Dutch (Tier II)
Virtues: Determined Flaws: Impatient
Lucky Strikes: 0 FUBARs: 0
Endurance: 4

Strength: 2
Agility: 4 – Infiltrate 1, Nimble 1, Ranged Combat 1
Intelligence: 4 – Insight 2, Perception 2
Empathy: 5 – Command 1, Persuasion 2

Specialisations: Born to lie I, Street Smart I
Talents: Judge of Character

Equipment: Throwing Knife

Mechanically, the
War Stories: A War World 2 RPG uses the Year Zero Engine, which requires six-sided dice. To have his character undertake an action, a player must roll an Action Test. The player rolls a number of six-sided dice equal to the skill value and its associated Attribute. Further dice can come from Specialisations, the situation, and equipment used. Each six rolled counts as a Success. Only one Success is typically required to succeed at an Action Test. Extra Successes can be used to generate additional effects, for example, bonuses to damage in combat or extra Lucky Strike tokens.

If no Successes are rolled or if he wants to generate more Successes, a player can chose to ‘Push Your Luck’. This enables him to reroll any dice that did not roll Successes or results of one. He can only this once for any Action Test. However, a ‘Push Your Luck’ attempt turns any result of a one—on either the original roll or the reroll, into Duds. Any Dud results after a ‘Push Your Luck’ earn the Player Character a FUBAR point. A Player Character can hold up to a maximum of two FUBAR points, any excess going into a pool that the Game Master give out to a Player Character when narratively appropriate.

Along with FUBAR points, Lucky Strikes are the two types of luck or hero points in War Stories: A World War 2 RPG. A player can use his Player Character’s Lucky Strikes or FUBAR points to reroll ones on a ‘Push Your Attempt’, add more dice to an Action Test, reroll a damage roll, change a minor plot point, gain Fast Actions in combat, remove Suppression effects, and re-rolling Critical Results. Thus, FUBAR points are not necessarily as dangerous as they first appear or sound, but the Game Master can use them in three other ways that a player cannot. This is ‘Push an NPC Test’, essentially a ‘Push Your Luck’, but for NPCs; impose a narratively suitable Condition on a Player Character without the need for Endurance loss; and introduce a Random Bad Luck Event into the current scenario. If there is an issue here, it is the number of options for the players to choose from, and remembering them in play.

It should be no surprise that a strong emphasis is placed on combat in
War Stories: A War World 2 RPG. The mechanics use the same rules as Action Tests, whilst initiative is handled by drawing cards from the Initiative Deck, and can be altered as the result of Talents, such as ‘Fast Reflexes’ or Extra Successes generated on certain Action Tests. In one Round, a Player Character can undertake one Slow Action and one Fast Action, or two Fast Actions. Slow actions include Close Combat Attack, First Aid, and Rally, whilst Fast Actions include Aim, Go On Overwatch, and Operate Vehicle. The rules cover aiming, rendering first aid, rallying an ally, and overwatch, as well as range, obstructions, visibility, suppressive fire, and zones. The latter are combat areas which vary in size according to the needs of the narrative. Thus, one room in a house-to-house fight could be a zone, as could a wheat field outside a village. The rules also take into account rapid fire by semiautomatic weapons, burst fire, and full auto, along with suppressive fire, explosions, protection, cover, and personal armour.

When an attack is successful, a roll is required on the Damage Table. This is made with the ten-sided die. Bonuses to this roll can come from the weapon used, depending upon its lethality, and any extra Success rolled on the Action Test. Damage is deducted from the Player Character’s Endurance and applied to his Conditions Tracker. The first Condition is determined by the Game Master as narratively appropriate, whilst the player is free to assign the damage elsewhere on the Conditions Tracker. Rest, First Aid, and Rally can also be used to restore Endurance and remove Conditions. Damage rolls of ten or more inflict three points of damage and a Critical Hit. There are Critical Hits Charts for each of the body locations. There are rules too for fatigue and stress, a Player Character having to save against both with a Stamina or Guts Test respectively, and it is possible to be incapacitated due to stress and suffer from combat fatigue. The rules for healing are almost as complex as those for combat, but they necessary since combat is far more lethal than in most other roleplaying games. What is also clear is that a good medic is required on the battlefield.

The rules for vehicle combat work in a similar fashion to infantry combat, but with initiative cards being drawn by each member of a vehicle crew if manned by Player Characters, or a single card for an entire NPC crewed vehicle by the Game Master. Vehicles have their own Critical Hits Charts. The list vehicles include tanks, transports, and anti-tank guns, the latter in addition to the portable anti-tank weapons listed elsewhere in the extensive gear list. There are also options for advanced vehicle combat, but the Game Master is provided with optional rules throughout
War Stories: A War World 2 RPG. These include perks granted for being awarded certain medals, dynamic hidden initiative, co-ordinating manoeuvres, infections and permanent injuries.

For the Game Master,
War Stories: A War World 2 RPG provides a lot of support starting with rules for handling the campaign, that is, the wider battle going on around the Player Characters. This is simply not just for the Game Master to run. Although the primary player involvement is to zoom into the actions that their characters are fighting, they also have some control over what the Background Characters are doing and directing what objectives they are trying to achieve. The rules zoom in and out of the battle, first with the Player Phase, focusing on the Player Characters, before zooming out for the Battle Phase when rolls are made for wider outcomes, followed by a Casualty Phase and then a Narrative Phase when the Game Master describes the outcomes and the players decides the actions for the next Player Phase. There are rules too for movement between engagements, creating Areas of Operations, random encounters, and even tables of scavenged finds and loot!

Advice for the Game Master is decent, and there are suggestions for campaign ideas other than the default invasion of Europe, such as playing members of the Resistance or a tank crew, all supported by adventure ideas. Using miniatures is also discussed, but perhaps the most important piece of Game Master advice covers the possibility of arbitrary death, which is ever present in
War Stories: A War World 2 RPG. The advice is to agree beforehand with the players whether or not to include it in the campaign. If they agree to its inclusion, in game it is simply not a matter of a Player Character being killed in an indiscriminate fashion, but rather that there is a chance of him being killed in such a way. There is also a section on ‘1940s Lingo’, an overview of the European Theatre of Operations in 1944 and 1945, and stats for the combatants involved—primarily German, perhaps more importantly a discussion of discussion of how both Allied and Axis forces were organised, how they operated, and what their tactics were. This is very useful, the guide to tactics very useful, as for the Allies, it will give the players some idea how their characters are expected to operate and how their allies will act, whilst also having some understanding of how the enemy will act. For the Game Master it is a good guide to both sides and will help her portray their actions over the course of a battle.

Lastly, there is a short, introductory scenario, ‘The Tank: Intro Scenario’. It takes place in late August of 1944 as the Allies attempt to close the Falaise Pocket and prevent a German breakout from Normandy. The Allies have learned that from captured prisoners that German troops are regrouping at a village to the east called Moulins-sur-Orne and they have a Panzer IV with them. The tank is possible threat to the rapid breakout that the Allied armies want to make out of Normandy. The Player Characters, consisting of a single squad, with no Background Characters, is ordered to reconnoitre the village, verify the intelligence gathered from German prisoners, and if confirmed, to destroy the tank. Playable in a single session, it is grim affair that mixes up shellshocked French civilians, Germans wanting to surrender, and Germans wanting to fight. The only issue with the scenario is a lack of a map and the fact that it does not make full use of the rules including Background Characters. ‘The Tank: Intro Scenario’ is set after the events of War Stories Campaign Book: Rendezvous With Destiny, so the Game Master could wait to run it or even treat it as a sort of ‘flash forward’ for events after that campaign.

Rounding out
War Stories: A War World 2 RPG are a series of appendices that provide a glossary, bibliography, all of the game’s tables for ease of reference, a section of pre-generated Player Characters and NPCs, and lastly, the index. There are enough pre-generated Player Characters to choose from to play ‘The Tank: Intro Scenario’ and they include a female partisan. Her presence could increase the number of players for the scenario from four to five.

War Stories: A War World 2 RPG is well presented book. The artwork in particular is very good, although as good as it is, depicting a Gestapo agent as looking like SS-Sturmbannführer Arnold Toht from Raiders of the Lost Ark does suggest a pulp tone that the roleplaying game does not actively support, although there is an option for it. Lastly, it does need an edit in places.

The primary issues with
War Stories: A War World 2 RPG are two-fold. Neither is an unfair criticism. One is that its focus on D-Day and the European theatre of operations means that huge swathes of the conflict are ignored. To be fair, covering the whole of World War 2 would result in a very unwieldy book and instead it focuses on a period of the war that is more familiar than others. Second is that its focus is on the Americans and the 101st Airborne, which comes fully to the fore with the first supplement for the roleplaying game, War Stories Campaign Book: Rendezvous With Destiny. It is a criticism that is often labelled at treatments of World War 2, but then, Firelock Games is an American publisher and the USA is a bigger market, and again, there is the familiarity of the operations of the 101st Airborne via Band of Brothers—both book and television series.

War Stories: A War World 2 RPG is a gripping, gritty treatment of the biggest conflict of the twentieth century. It is well written, well designed, and very well presented. If a gaming group is looking to roleplay the historical World War 2, then War Stories: A War World 2 RPG is the obvious choice.

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