Weird War II
Website: Pinnacle Entertainment Group
World War II GMing Tips
A Guest Article By Dennis Detwiller and Shane Ivey
Copyright Arc Dream Publishing
Whether you’re playing GODLIKE, GURPS WW2, Weird Wars, or D20 Modern, World War II is a challenging and rewarding environment for roleplaying. The action is non-stop, but the heroes are, more often than not, very human. Their vulnerability makes their risks and courage all the more heroic–and their fears make their mistakes and cruelties all the more tragic.
But no World War II game should just be a series of firefights. Don’t pass up the opportunity to use this unique setting to its fullest. Here are a few tips.
Don’t Forget The Locals
Many game masters overlook one crucial fact of warfare– wherever you are fighting, from Burma to France, you are fighting where someone lives. This is particularly true in western Europe, where nearly every square mile has someone who calls it home.
During the vicious fighting in western Europe, locals retreated to basements, train tunnels, or the wilderness. They would only rise in the dark and lulls to escape the bombs and bullets, locate food and water, and try to stay alive another day. Sometimes they were caught in the crossfire.
So when you set up your Browning .30 behind “defilade” in France and an old lady screams at you to get out of her potato patch, don’t be surprised.
Artillery: The Great Motivator
Is your game bogging down? Are your troops wandering around without direction? Hit ’em with some artillery! Nothing will motivate a group faster than a couple of 88mm rounds. Where are the shells coming from? Which direction? More importantly, who’s directing the fire?
A couple of shells will lead to a lot of questions, and boom!–so to speak–instant motivation.
There’s Always A Bigger Gun
Some players fixate on guns as a method of survival. In reality, the particular type of gun a soldier carried had very little to do with whether or not he survived the conflict. Common sense, quick thinking, and a determination to survive were far more important.
Remind players, through lack of ammo availability and lack of resupply, that there were reasons for standardized Allied weapons such as the M1 rifle. If they want to lug around cutting-edge equipment, wish them good luck in finding ammo belts for it at the average field location. A great gun with no ammo is just an expensive club.
Furlough And Shore Leave
Soldiers were often “rotated” to less combative areas after a period of time “on the line.” Don’t gloss over these respites–play them. After a month of shelling, a character let loose in London’s bustling Picadilly Circus will likely have a hard time not being a little nervous. Let them interact with the locals, see who they’re fighting for, and have a little fun.
Or, if your players are a bit more “adventure” oriented, spin a tale of intrigue. They can hear the odd staccato beat of a telegraph in the room next to them late at night. Just what is going on in there? It usually only takes a little push to get the players going.
Grunt Life, Day By Day
“A soldier’s life,” the old saying goes, “is 90% mud and 10% combat.” If the players don’t dig their trenches, no one else is going to do it for them, and then where will they be when the mortar attack comes? And food doesn’t serve itself –you have to snake your way to the Command Post and open yourself to possible sniper attack just for a cup of gruel and moldy bread.
In short, people in the field still eat, clean themselves, and relieve themselves, despite the outrageous conditions they are often forced to endure. But even those tasks can be dangerous. Make your players experience this. Perhaps then they can have an inkling of what the real men who fought went through in the field.
When Good Guys Go Bad
Sometimes good people do wrong things. This is particularly prevalent in warfare. What if you and your compatriots capture a dozen Waffen-SS men who executed 50 innocent men, women, and children just moments before you arrive? The bodies are still cooling when the Nazi surrenders with a smile… What would you do?
It’s very easy to slip from a “good guy vs. bad guy” game into the more realistic and challenging moral gray areas of war. Such a transformation usually occurs normally over time. As player characters are lost to enemy action, the remaining characters naturally become more and more callous towards the enemy. It’s your job as game master to remind them of the consequences.
No one can keep up the fight forever. After weeks or months at the front, even the most resilient individual will crack. The best way to demonstrate this aspect of combat is to create a non-player character who is the epitome of the soldier. A man who risks his life for others, fights no matter the odds, and never backs down from dangerous duty. Establish this character as a fixture in the game, someone who appears and reappears, more often than not making things easier for the characters with his dramatic and heroic actions.
Then let him disappear. What happened to him? Where is he? Oh, he’s been rotated back for fatigue. When he comes back, make him a shell of what he once was. An empty-eyed, lost individual who wants nothing more than to rest, one way or another. This should paint a clear picture of what combat fatigue does do to a man.
Hurts, Don’t It?
In most World War II games there are no potions of Cure Moderate Wounds. If a player character gets shot, blown up by a grenade, or stabbed by a bayonet, odds are he’s in trouble. As game master, use these events to add a sense of desperation to your game. The players don’t just need to find and demolish the Nazi rocket lab, they need to worry about getting their buddy with the blown-out knee to safety, too. Or can they even risk bringing him along? What will it do to their morale, and their trust in each other, if they can’t?
Still Hurts, Don’t It?
Many games use hit points to represent injury. You’re hit, you heal, and you move on. This is no good in simulating a realistic war–especially World War II, where only the most grievously injured individual was sent home. Most were patched up and sent back up to the front after a day, week, or month in the hospital. This recovery time is an opportunity for unusual roleplaying or even adventure. Your players might be the only ones in a position to stop an enemy saboteur–but what about all those plaster casts on their arms and legs?
And while wounds do heal, often they don’t heal completely. Take a fragment in the leg in Anzio? A year later in Aachen it still sometimes hurts, and it might, under the worst of circumstances, cause you to trip and fall–while under fire!
It adds a lot to a game when a game master recalls the scars and injuries of the player characters, and, even better, when he brings them up later in the game.
The Other Poor Dumb Bastard
As General Patton said, “Nobody ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making some other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” Just remember, the guys in your gun sights aren’t all murderous fanatics. They have hobbies, houses, and dreams. A lot of them are decent human beings. All of them have families, either loving parents or kids of their own, waiting at home. And they sure don’t want you to kill them. As a GM, introduce your players to the enemy, up close and personal, both the downright evil ones and the poor dumb bastards you just can’t bring yourself to hate. Odds are, they won’t be able to hate the players, either. But they’ll do their best to kill them if it means a chance to get home in one piece.
Stacked like Sardines
As an infantryman at war, if you’re not digging a trench or slogging through mud in soaking-wet boots, you’re most likely aboard a ship on your way to some new muddy field. And if you’re on a ship, so are about a thousand other guys, as many as that ship can squeeze into every last nook and cranny, for weeks at a time. Sweating, stinking, lonely, and nervous, you all stumble over each other as you eat or play cards, and you sleep on a hammock only inches below the next guy up. You eat greasy soup–and you’re lucky if bad meat doesn’t give you a stomach ache to go with nauseating seasickness- and you can bet those crunchy black specks in your bread aren’t raisins. And did we mention the chance that an enemy submarine might surprise you with a torpedo below the waterline? Between the gambling and the rivalries and the tall tales, that many NPCs in that much tension makes a ripe (in every sense) opportunity for roleplaying.
The Great Outdoors
Use your environment! Everything affects soldiers at war. What’s the weather like? Is it foggy? Rainy? Has it been so dry that the grass and twigs crackle and make stealth impossible? Have your characters been in the snow so long that they’re losing toes to frostbite? And never mind the rocks and trees and buildings in the immediate area–what do you see five miles away across the plain? Is there a steeple a mile off? Could a sniper be hiding there with a good enough scope to take a shot at your squad?
How long have your characters gone without a bath? Without medical treatment? If you’re in the jungle, who suffers the most from bugs? From malaria? If somebody snores like a freight train, how do the others keep him from tipping off the enemy that may be patrolling fifty yards away? In roleplaying games, it’s easy to focus on the characters and their interactions with NPCs; don’t forget that they’re marching through a big world, and most of that world is not fit for human survival, let alone comfort. And in World War II, the enemy has weapons that can reach awfully far.