12 World War II GMing Tips
From Dennis Detwiller and Shane Ivey
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #171
- 1. Don’t Forget The Locals
- 2. Artillery: The Great Motivator
- 3. There’s Always A Bigger Gun
- 4. Furlough And Shore Leave
- 5. Grunt Life, Day By Day
- 6. When Good Guys Go Bad
- 7. Battle Fatigue
- 8. Hurts, Don’t It?
- 9. Still Hurts, Don’t It?
- 10. The Other Poor Dumb Bastard
- 11. Stacked like Sardines
- 12. The Great Outdoors
- Last Week Of Contest: Wilderness Encounters & Conflicts
- Campaign Update
- 2 Rules For Staging Memorable Combats
- 10 Ways To Add Flavor To Monsters
- Index Card Tip
- Morality In RPGs And A Few Plot Ideas
- World War II Links
- 3 Great Wilderness Encounter Contest Entries
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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. Battle Fatigue
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.
8. 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?
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. 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.
Dennis Detwiller is the author of GODLIKE: Superhero Roleplaying in a World on Fire, 1936-1946, a critically acclaimed game of grittily realistic superpowered action in World War II. He and Shane Ivey founded Arc Dream Publishing, the new home of GODLIKE and publisher of the upcoming GODLIKE supplements: Talent Operations Command Intelligence Bulletin No. 2: Talents in the European Theatre, Talent Operations Command Intelligence Bulletin No. 3: Talents in the Pacific Theatre, Combat Orders No. 1: Dinar’s Hammer, the GODLIKE GM Screen, and Operation TORCH, the first full-length GODLIKE campaign. Find out more at Godlike RPG.
A Brief Word From Johnn
Last Week Of Contest: Wilderness Encounters & Conflicts
This is the last week of the contest, which ends May 10th. Send in an interesting wilderness encounter (between one sentence to 500 words max) to enter. Multiple entries are allowed to increase your chances for loot.
Up for grabs is:
- 2 Print Books: “NPC Essentials” By: RPG Objects & Johnn Four
- 3 eBooks: “Swords of Our Fathers” By: The Game Mechanics
- 4 eBooks: “101 Arcane Spell Components” By Spider Bite Games & Philip J. Reed
Tribebook: Red Talons (1st Edition)
Check out Reader’s Tip #6 for 3 great contest entries that I received this week.
Send your wilderness encounters & conflicts contest entries to: [email protected]
Session #2 of my new campaign last Monday went well. I’m finding paper-based planning is easier for me as I can do that during my daily work commute. The PCs are in a small tomb so I was able to draw the map on graph paper and make all the encounter notes I needed beside rooms and areas.
As I’ll discuss in my upcoming GM Mastery: Encounter Essentials book, I find outlining just three major aspects of dungeon-type encounters gives me more than enough to work with in-game and I can make up the other details on-the-fly:
- Conflict. What are the PCs struggling against?
- Reward. What’s at stake for the PCs?
- Rules. I’m not familiar enough with D&D 3E to have every monster, skill, trap, poison, and spell memorized, so it helps tremendously to have this stuff created ahead of time.
Having these core details fleshed out frees up my mind and imagination to work out transitions, dialogue, and current state of the campaign area as I GM.
The session ended with an encounter where a small group of goblins confronted the PCs and asked for directions to what turned out to be the PCs’ home village. Now the characters are leaving the dungeon and hurrying back home to warn their families and friends.
Happy gaming this week!
Cary Grant: Apparently the only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead.
James Mason: Your very next role, and you will be quite convincing, I assure you.
—North by Northwest
Bring Your NPCs To A New Level
The reviews are in and NPC Essentials is a hit. Tips, tricks, and techniques for designing and managing NPCs in your games. To receive a free article from the book, “INTRODUCING NPCs”, send a blank email to: [email protected]
To buy NPC Essentials:
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
2 Rules For Staging Memorable Combats
I have two golden rules that can sum up how to make a cool conflict scene, at least as far as combat goes.
- There’s always something else happening besides the fight itself.
- A catch-22 location is always great. Make it dangerous to stay in the location, make retreat just as bad.
Any fight scene becomes memorable when something else is going on. Even if all you do is set fire to the building, or fill it full of gas so that a spark can set it off, or swing from rings over a lava pit. It’s dangerous to stay, but backing down should have just as many consequences, none of which should be the death of the PCs. (I don’t believe in killing players but if they live and have lost, you have a bigger stick with which to beat them next time.)
The memorable fight scenes in any movie always have something else at stake. e.g. in “The Matrix”, the fight in the lobby against all the SWAT teams is more desperate than the final battle, because more is at stake. It’s dangerous, they could attract Agents before they are ready, but if they back away, Morpheus might get hacked. That on top of the normal risk associated with flying bullets puts an edge on what would be a stylish but otherwise ho-hum battle scene.
Or, in “The World is Not Enough”, not only does James Bond have to fight the bad guys trying to steal the nuke, but he also has to avoid getting blown up by the other one at the same time. Not only does he go through all that, but failure is going to mean the death of thousands, not just him.
In “The Princess Bride”, the sword fight between the Man in Black and Inigo Montoya is in a dangerous place–the top of cliffs, rough terrain, easy to slip, and if he gives up he loses Buttercup. What makes it memorable is the battle of wits: professional pride is at stake as well as lives.
I hope that makes sense. I find it a very quick way to look at a fight scene and quickly change it into something memorable.
10 Ways To Add Flavor To Monsters
From Joel Fox
I generally use the following methods to make monsters spicy.
1. Use The Book
Sometimes the book can be useful–if you use it the right way. The book is a good tool for modifying monsters. It gives rules for advancement, making monsters bigger and tougher (huge-sized goblin), as well as adding templates (vampiric toad). Just take a look in the back and beginning of the book for rules on templates and advancement. [Comment from Johnn: in this case, I believe Joel is referring to the D&D 3E Monster Manual when he says “the book”.]
2. Change The Element
Sometimes, you can simply change a few things that a monster has to make him interesting. Changing their resistances, damage types, and other stuff is the easiest way.
For example, you could change a winter wolf into a thunder wolf: a wolf with black fur and jagged yellow stripes with a lightning breath weapon. It’s easy enough to do: cold to lightning damage, cold sub-type to lightning sub-type. Sometimes it’s that simple.
3. Add An Ability
I am particularly fond of adding an ability to a monster to make it more dangerous. Add spellcasting abilities, psionics, religious fervor, poison; anything you can think of can make a monster more fun. Sometimes it’s as easy as just adding a spellcasting class, but that’s not as fun. Try the necromummy–a mummy that can use up to 4th level necromancy effects by draining its own negative energy.
4. Lock The Door Behind ’em
Have the monster come from a different place, like the steamy jungle or another plane. When you put a monster out of his element, he becomes more exciting. Take an owl bear: by his own, he’s tons o’ fun. But make him from the Beastlands, and he’s a riot. Try one from the Plane of Fire, and he’s a hoot.
Monsters by themselves are tough enough, but when they’re organized–part of a group, guild, company, etc.–they’re real tough. There are lots of groups around: mercenary troupes, guilds, religious cults, and anything else. A group of athachs who zealously worship, say, Gruumsh wouldn’t be fun to meet. A group also adds the possibility of monsters working together, which is convenient for certain plot hooks, as well as fun.
6. Look at it From a Different Perspective
This one may be hard to catch, but I’ll put it in anyway. Look at a monster in the book, but not the monster itself– just its stats and abilities. Then think of a monster that could have those stats.
Confused? Try this in-game example from my last DMing session. The wizard of this certain dungeon was an accomplished animator whose specialty was skeletons. So, he crafts up a skeleton and stitches a conduit to the Weave into him. But the skeleton stats in the MM aren’t up to par with a magical super skeleton!
So, I look at the ghoul stat block. Physically tougher than the skeleton, as well as having a 2nd level-plus spell ability (paralyzing touch, but better). So, I make the ghoul stat block into the Eldritch Skeleton, and give him an enhanced second level spell– pyrotechnics. Worked pretty well.
7. Make ’em Villainous
There’s no better way to add flavor to a monster than to villainize it. Make them cruel, sadistic, scheming, subtle, and everything else you’d add to a villain. This can also make them the master of other monsters of the same type. A smart, villainous goblin with lots of goblin cronies is a real threat; ask my PC who got smoked by one.
8. Throw Them in The Sandbox
‘The sandbox of doom’ was one of my most recent adventures as a PC. Our DM sent us into an excellent dungeon; it wasn’t dozens of huddled rooms, full of traps and monsters–it was a long hallway. Beside the 100? pillars lining it, there was one catch: the walls were magic sand. Touch them, and you were drawn in like quicksand. And to add to the fun, he threw a wyrm at us who could travel through the sand like a fish through water. The point is: I died. Throw a monster into an interesting environment with lots of trouble in it; for more fun, make him symbiotic with the environment.
9. Personify Them
Since in reality, the worst monster around is man, it makes sense to make monsters more like people. Give them human traits, like emotion, and they become bad news. Take HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey” for instance; he was just a machine, but a heuristically programmed one. He learns and feels, like the Terminator. His sense of pride (an EMOTION) made him go berserk. For an in-game translation, make a shield guardian that loves his master. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
10. Make It Up
Sometimes you just gotta put logic aside and have fun. Remember: D&D, or any RPG, is a game, and the point of a game is to have fun. I remember one time when the DM sent us up against an invisible dragon who’s only goal was to pull our pants down. The farther you are from logic, the more fun and better play session you’ll have.
These are all basic, simple rules for adding spice to monsters. The real trick is deciding when to use which one, and why. As for challenge ratings, I never really paid much attention to them. I always just assigned experience according to effort put forth, and how close the PCs came to getting waxed. So next time you would throw a band of bugbears against the PCs, throw some angry cultist psion fire toads at them instead.
Index Card Tip
From John G.
Regarding the tip from Issue 166 about using 3×5 cards for magic items, I’ve been doing this for a while (although putting a picture of the item was a new twist!). One thing I can add to this tip is: on the card, put the adventure name and encounter number. This helps ID the item, especially if PCs don’t know what it does.
I typically tell them, “You find a wand. On your sheet mark it as Banshee’s Revenge #23.” Then as they’re trying to figure out what it is, I just refer to the card. When they’ve ID’d the item, I simply give them the card.
Morality In RPGs And A Few Plot Ideas
From Peter Whitley
The following topic is a bit abstract for your average roleplaying game but I find it interesting anyway.
Villainous villains are only found in comic books and fairy tales. As preposterous as it might seem, consider for a moment that one’s motive for any action is almost always guided by a sense of self-betterment. The pickpocket, for example, robs because it makes him wealthier…and being wealthier is good.
In fantasy settings we have alignments that help to create heroic conflicts. It’s dangerous to delve too deeply into the motives of the criminal mastermind or wicked sadist, as you run the risk of having the party’s resolve derailed by sympathy. On the other hand, as the adventure designer, you might allow your party to switch allegiances mid-stream when they find that the “villain’s” sense of good is more like their own. If this type of adventure appeals to you then be prepared to handle some difficult alignment questions from your players.
Here are a few sample scenarios where the villain may be driven by a sympathetic cause:
- An evil wizard blights an area with disease to clear it for his own people as that land is their ancestral homeland.
- High-powered civic and military leaders are being assassinated. The assassin works for a neighboring city- state that has no desire to engage in the war that the victims are preparing for.
- Orcish tribes are on the move and it’s the party’s job to stop them or turn them away. However, the orcs were recently displaced from their homes by another civilized race and have nowhere else to go.
- The party is enlisted to lead a small group of mercenaries to dispatch a goblin tribe. However, the mercenaries prove to be reckless and sadistic in their methods and resistant to party leadership.
Anyone writing a psycho- or social-political adventure should consider how the “good” party would be perceived by the “bad” parties. As in the four examples above, the PCs ultimately are regarded as villains by the original “villains”.
And finally, the roleplaying tip: These kinds of complex moral dilemmas can easily confuse players and mire roleplaying nights. Any GM interested in these kinds of elaborate morality plays should do so VERY carefully:
- Test ambiguous choices first in non-dangerous settings. (A woman asks the party if they would kill her abusive husband.)
- Encourage the party to talk amongst themselves but don’t get involved, as they’ll be looking to you for the “right” choice.
- Don’t throw additional complexities into the mix later. Give them most of what they need to know at the outset. They probably won’t appreciate being repeatedly bogged down with additional nuances. (The husband turns out to be a high- ranking member of the local guard, philanthropic, and wise. The woman turns out to be vindictive and bitter. However, he still beats her and their children.)
- Be prepared for their decision. They may find a solution that you hadn’t thought of. (The party decides to contact high superiors in a nearby town rather than get involved directly.)
- Have a good time and reward them for their convictions, regardless of how “right” or “wrong” it may seem at the time. Let their villain then BE a villain. It’s supposed to be fun. (In the end, the party confronts the abusive husband. He goes berserk at the accusation and attempts to kill the PCs.)
Over time your players will become more accustomed to this type of choice. The plots can then have complicating factors that make the choices more and more gray.
World War II Links
From Keith M. & Tips Subscribers
WWII roleplaying with a twist. Characters are superheroes acting in special units or undercover.
Free d20/Open Game version of Godlike rpg for download. Covers character generation, powers etc.
Godlike Open Source
Excellent start page for light research and general overview of the period.
An amazing site with reference data for hundreds of WWII armoured vehicles, tanks, etc. Also contains excellent photos.
World War II Vehicles, Tanks, Airplanes, and Ships
A daily (yes daily!) chronology of the entire war.
A comprehensive site detailing U-boat history and an activity log for each known U-boat. Also covers some Allied vessels. The site contains photographs.
Includes battle plans for major WWII confrontations. Includes information on troop positions and movements.
Details of WWII tanks including blueprint-like drawings.
A site that covers some German aircraft that never made it into action. Includes some bizarre plans and some computer- generated images.
Introduction to Allied code breaking efforts at Bletchley Park in UK.
Breaking Germany’s Enigma Code
Just about everything you might want to know about the German armed forces from 1918 to 1945.
German Armed Forces Research 1918-1945
3 Great Wilderness Encounter Contest Entries
1. Exposed Idol
An idol, once concealed by heavy undergrowth, is revealed when a wind storm knocks a tree down dragging the underbrush from the idol. Nesting in the idol is a Stone Bee hive whose honey has curing properties. Depending on the level of magic or technology, the honey can be used raw to cure wounds or transformed into more potent cures. Add in a rumor of there being an active hive of Stone Bees in the area that no one can find, maybe overheard at the last village.
2. Child’s Cry
The sounds of a crying child are coming from thick underbrush. Vines, branches and closely packed trees hinder the travel. Two possible results for the rescuers:
- They find a child being tormented by a monster, giving the PCs a chance to rescue him/her.
- The sounds were a mimic to get the PCs to fall for an ambush.
Remember the thick underbrush and obstacles in the ensuing combat. Swinging a great sword will be impossible. Moving to swing most weapons will be impossible. Aiming bows at the rapidly moving monsters would be very difficult. The fight will require close-in and short thrusting weapons.
3. Bird Strike
This can be used for several genres: fantasy, modern, or sci-fi. The PCs are in flight close to the earth at a rapid speed when a flock of birds spring up into their path causing a Bird Strike. In a fantasy setting they may get knocked off the flying carpet. In modern or sci-fi settings the engines may take a hit. In that case, jet style engines can suck a bird in and blow the engine. Now they are flying a crippled craft and may need to land. The landing can be a rapid crash or a more controlled, safe attempt.
The location of a bird strike does not have to be limited to woods and jungles. Low brush can hid birds until they rise up in the immediate flight path. If the flight is at a greater altitude, the flock may be malevolent and maneuver in front of the aircraft in a suicide attack. Also, large birds can change the severity of the strike. A flock of large birds would need to be dodged through, with more severe results in a strike. [Comment from Johnn: great wilderness encounters Bick10. Three contest entries logged for you. Good luck!]