I have said before that 2017 was the year of the wargame for me as I rediscovered by wargaming roots. But that is not to say I have forgotten the roleplaying game part of my gaming expereince. In 2017, I still managed to get some make a few RPG purchases and get in a few plays.
Gypsy Knights Games continues to support their awesome The Clement Sectorsetting. In addition to their great Wendy’s Naval-series which lays out the fleet of various subsectors, this year also focused on pirates and uplifts or alterants. All three introduce true grey-areas into the setting morality and can be used to play anything from a campy to dark setting. I like this; GKG has given me many tools to make the setting I want.
In early December, Zozer Games released their new rules/setting called Hostile for Cepheus Engine. This “Gritty Sci-Fi RPG” draws heavily from popular franchises like Alienor movies like Outland. The setting is right in my wheelhouse and it certainly deserves its own deeper dive in the near future (no pun intended).
I know my RPG tastes are not mainstream; I am not a Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition fan nor have I dug deeper into the Star Wars Roleplaying Game. In 2017, as wargames and family boardgames grew in popularity in the RockyMountainNavy house, something else in my gaming world had to give. I have given up a lot of RPG experiences, but by keeping to a simple rules system with wonderful setting support I still find a way to keep my RPG gaming going.
This sounds to me too much like a publisher’s question; a fishing expedition to get the RPG community during #RPGaDay 2017 to do their marketing research. I think the question is a red herring.
There are no ‘dead’ RPGs. From a publisher’s perspective, there may be a long out-of-print RPG that the fan base still pines for. From the gamer’s perspective, there are RPGs that don’t get played as much, or maybe even forgotten.
As part of my RPG Retrospective I looked at many of my older games. A few will be “reborn” in campaigns this winter. A few will stay “dormant.” But none of them are “dead” – just lesser used.
Hammer’s Slammers is a true hex-n-counter game using small counters, a thick modular mapboard, and a 2d6 Combat Results Table (CRT). There are four forces provided; Hammer’s Slammers (blue), another Mercenary Force (red), and two Conventional Armies (green and tan). Interestingly, there is no scale designated although units look to be platoon/battery organizations and each hex multiple (?) kilometers.
Hammer’s Slammers is taken straight from the first book. Hover Tanks, Combat Cars, Infantry on hover scooters, and Hover Self-Propelled Artillery. The “Red” Mercenary Force is the same plus optional Large/Small guns (for indirect or direct fire), Howitzers (indirect fire only), or a Self-Propelled Calliope (for Counter Paratrooper or Counter Artillery Fires). Slammers and Mercenary units generally pack more firepower, have better protection, and come with superior speed. Conventional Forces use Tracked Tanks, Armored Cars, Armored Personnel Carriers, Large/Small Guns, Howitzers, Tracked Self-Propelled Artillery, Wheeled Self-Propelled Calliopes, and towed Calliopes. This mix of units lets one recreate many of the battles found in the books where the technologically superior but numerically inferior Slammers fought against other mercenary or conventional units.
The main rulebook is 16 pages long, but the first nine are reprints of the “Interludes” found in the original Hammer’s Slammersbook. This leaves seven pages of two-column text and tables for the rules. Every turn each player sequentially resolves their action in the order of Rally (Moving Player) – Paradrop & Counter Paradrop Fire – Move (Moving Player) – Ranged Combat (All Players – Indirect Artillery & Counter Artillery Fire – Direct Fire) – Close Assaults (All Players). Once all players have gone the next turn begins.
Units that are Disrupted in Combat can Rally. For this each force has a Morale Number that must be rolled above on 2d6. Many scenarios have a variable Morale Number based on increasing losses – the more units lost the harder it becomes to rally a unit. A simple mechanic that doesn’t get in the way of play but adds a nice layer of realism.
I don’t remember any paradrop operations in the original stories so Paradrop & Counter Paradrop Fire seems a bit out of place to me. It does allow a nice way to enter units onto the map quickly.
Movement is again very traditional with each hex having a movement cost to enter. Hover and Conventional units have separate movement charts reflecting the different mobility of hover versus tracked/wheeled. There is not much difference but there is enough to be evocative of the setting.
Ranged Combat is where the differences between forces really stands out beginning with Indirect Fire & Counter Artillery Fire. Indirect Fire attacks the defense factor of the hex, not the units. This makes indirect fire very dangerous because the 8-defense factor Hover Tank in the Clear hex actually has a defense factor of 2 against artillery. To offset this vulnerability, Hover Tanks and Calliopes have the Counter Artillery Fire (CAF) capability which allows each unit to cancel a single artillery barrage in range. Of course, this comes at a cost; units firing CAF cannot fire in the Direct Fire phase.
Direct Fire is very simple; compare Attack Factor to Defense Factor, convert to odds, roll on CRT. Stacked units can combine fire and attack other stacks or individual units. Firing out to twice your range cuts the Attack Factor in half. Terrain Modifiers add to the Defense Factor. Combat results are No Effect, Disrupted (no indirect or direct fire, half movement), Defender Eliminated, or Defender Eliminated with Rubble (adds to movement and defense). There is an optional rule for Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) which allows Mercenary and Slammer Hover Tanks to “jam” conventional units which means the target cannot combine their attack nor spot for an indirect fire unit.
Close Assault takes place when units are in the same hex. All undisrupted units get a positive column shift and infantry fights with doubled Attack Factors. Units in Close Assault cannot leave the hex until all enemy units are eliminated.
There are other rules for Fortresses and Gas Attacks but generally that is it. You can play one of the 14 scenarios or Design Your Own using the point-buy system provided.
I played two scenarios. “Badger Hunt” is the introductory scenario that uses Conventional Forces only. I also played “Slammers” which is a three-way brawl with the Slammers squaring off against the Green Army (lots of long-range artillery and infantry with few mechanized) and the Tan Army (Mechanized and supported by a few Small Guns – no infantry). Each player has six turns to get as many points as possible (points are scored using the Design Your Own Scenario values). I used the Slammers with ECM to get as much high-tech effect as possible.
Hammer’s Slammersplays out much differently than I remember. I kinda remember the CPF and CAF rules and I don’t think I ever actually played with the ECM rules. I sorta remember the game as being very vanilla; simple and bland.
This time it was a much deeper experience. The low rules overhead meant the game could be played with minimal relearning. The differences in forces is just enough that there is no one-size-fits-all approach or best strategy. In the “Slammers” scenario, the Slammers start in the center and must determine how to deal with each force. I painfully learned that the Hover Tanks greatest asset is not its firepower but its CAF capability. The Hover Tanks ended up providing cover for the Combat Cars until they got close enough to dash in and deal with the guns. Of course, nipping at the flanks or blocking the direct route was that pesky tracked armor. This forced a decision; drop the CAF for Direct Fire or cover the force and let the lesser combat cars try to deal with the threat? For the Green or Tan Conventional Armies the key is combined arms and interlocking fields of fire. Artillery is in many ways still the King of the Battle.
As much as Mayfair’s Hammer’s Slammersgame captures the flavor the of books, it best replicates battlefield force-on-force situations. There is one scenario, “Hangman,” where a Mercenary force takes on Militia and Buses. It’s a one-sided bloodbath. The game has no real ability to present an asymmetric combat situation. I have to admit the best game I have in my collection for that is actually Tomorrow’s War: Science Fiction Wargaming Rules (Ambush Alley Games/Osprey Publishing 2011). This is a skirmish game played at a much more granular scale than Hammer’s Slammers. In many ways, Tomorrow’s Waris a direct competitor to my other HS game, The Hammer’s Slammers Handbook(Pireme Publishing Ltd, 2004) which is a set of miniatures skirmish rules published in the UK which still has its own website.
So when I look at the Mayfair Hammer’s Slammers game today I actually see a real gem. The game is a close to an introductory-level game in terms of rules, but the variable forces and modular map make for endless play variations. As simple as the rules are, the designer has actually captured a good deal of the flavor of combat in the Hammerverse. The game also has a very small footprint; the “Slammers” scenario map was playable in an area literally 18’x24″. A 3’x3′ table is more than sufficient for even the largest scenarios!
Victory in the Pacific (VITP) is one of the oldest games in my collection. Originally published in 1977, it won the Charles S. Roberts Award for Best Strategic Game that year. My copy is a Second Edition with a 1988 Avalon Hill Game Company catalog inside. For many years the game sat on my shelf partially because – as itself states – it is an Introductory-level wargame and my personal tastes run to other difficulty levels. However, with the RMN boys now getting into more wargaming, I pulled VITP out to see if it would make a good game for them. What I discovered is that VITP is a “diamond in the rough.” The game itself (mechanics and gameplay) are wonderful, but the game suffers from early wargame publishing issues that present challenges.
1.01 The rulebook for VITP is short but difficult to understand. It is laid out in the old SPI style (numbered paragraphs) that should make it easy to cross reference. However, the arrangement of the rules is not intuitively easy to follow; finding even basic game concepts like the Sequence of Play or the Combat Round Action Sequence [my term] is very difficult. It’s all there, but buried within walls of text with little real cross-reference or even logical order. I do not want to turn this game over to the RMN boys “as-is” because the rules will likely create confusion. Even if I was to introduce the game to them, I eventually will need to let them go it alone; the rules as written are not very supportive of that course of action.
The mapboard is functional. The colors are very 1970’s – not totally hideous but abstract in a classic Monopoly sort of way. The mapboard is in some ways too big; there is some real estate around the edges that could possibly be used for port holding boxes (like Yokosuka or Truk or Ceylon or Pearl Harbor). This would certainly help with stacking counters on the map!
Speaking of counters, they are nice and big. This makes them easy to stack or sort. The counters themselves are a great example of functional simplicity with easy-to-read factors. The color palate is a bit bland, but once again it was the 1970’s!
Reinforcements – Movement – Combat – Control. Speed Rolls can be a bit confusing because the Speed Factor on the counter is not a “speed” in terms of areas moved but number that must be rolled under to move an additional area. Combat resolution is from the school of “Yahtzee combat”; roll a number of d6 equal to your Attack Factor and try to get 6’s (or 5-6 if the firing unit has an Attack Bonus). A 5 Disables, a 6 is a Hit with another d6 rolled for the amount of Damage. When Damage exceeds the Armor Factor (defense rating) a ship is Sunk (removed from the game) or an air unit/amphib destroyed (to return two turns later). Doesn’t really get much simpler.
Now that I look at it, I see that movement is “roll low” but combat is “roll high.” Another rules area of potential confusion?
Although VITP is an Introductory-level game, I was pleasantly surprised (and delighted) with the “historical feel” of the game. At the strategic level, the Japanese start out dominating in force but must husband ships for the long conflict. This is neatly in contrast to the Allies who over the course of several turns build up huge forces. Thus, the Allies will likely favor a longer view of battle (i.e. the Allies must be patient and not rush for a quick victory). This in turn drives a strategy that is very historical where the Japanese player pushes out to establish a defensive perimeter and then tries to attrite the Allied player as they start the island-hopping campaign across the Pacific. Having the US move second in each phase also is a nice nod to the historical intelligence advantage the US possessed.
At the operational level, the choice of Patroller or Raider makes for an interesting dynamic. Patrollers move first and can control an area at the end of the turn. Raiders move later in the turn (after Patrollers have been set) but cannot control an area. Like at the strategic level, having the Allies move second is a nice nod to the operational advantage intelligence gave Allied commanders.
At the tactical level the choice of Day (air strikes) or Night (surface gunnery) actions is evocative of the era. Even the use of a simple Attack Bonus creates the feel more capable/better trained/elite forces.
All that said, it is indicative of just how “game changing” the Japanese battle plan for the opening of the war was that it requires special rules to handle. The Turn 1 Pearl Harbor Air Raid and Indonesia rules actually “break” the game to force a more historical opening. I look forward to playing where the Japanese forego the Pearl Harbor Air Raid and see how that war develops.
If I had to pick a weakness of the game, I would point to the Order of Appearance charts. Not that they are ahistorical, but I wonder if they give too much information to the players. The Japanese player can easily see that the forces they start with are pretty much going to be it for the war, whereas the Allied player will see his forces grow turn after turn. This potentially creates a metagame situation for the players; does knowing what reinforcements are coming unduly influence player decisions? I understand that this is addressed by the Japanese player bidding Points of Control at the beginning of the game, but this is a mechanic to balance between players and in effect recognizes that the game (like the historical situation?) is not balanced. In effect, VITP is “play with what you get” not necessarily “what you need.” Does this make it a failed game? No, but it explains other strategic Pacific War games that introduce resources and variable reinforcements. It certainly gives me a new appreciation of the Card Driven Game (CDG) mechanic used in games like Mark Herman’s Empire of the Sun (GMT Games, 2005) which has, to borrow an RPG term, more player agency (and complexity).
Even given its warts, VITP is a good introductory-level wargame. Like I did for GDW’s Mayday game before, I come back to my “simply complex” characterization; the game is simple in mechanics but complex in the depth of gameplay. That said, on the scale of game vs. simulation VITP certainly falls on the game side of the spectrum. That doesn’t make it bad, but highlights to me how I need to frame any “history lesson” that my boys may derive from play. I will eventually hand VITP over to the boys, but not before I search grognard.com or ConSimWorld for some player aids to help “smooth the edges” of this great game.
In late 1979, I found a small store in the upper levels of the old Southglenn Mall in south Denver. Fascination Corner was a store unlike any I had seen before; it had games of war! For Christmas that year, I convinced my parents to get me Panzer by Yaquinto Games.
Not long after, I was browsing through the store and came across a small black box with a simple message:
This is the Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone…Mayday, Mayday…we are under attack…main drive is gone..turret number one not responding…Mayday…losing cabin pressure fast…calling anyone…please help…This is the Free Trade Beowulf…Mayday…
Thus began my life-long passion for Travellerand science-fiction role-playing games.
What I Remember at the Time – Travellerinstantly became THE GAME for my group of friends. We didn’t understand design intent behind task resolution or core mechanics and we barely used the setting. What we did do was HAVE FUN. Our favorite scenario was a simple, straight-up bar brawl.
What I Think of It Today – Over the years, I always found myself coming back to (Classic) Travellerbecause so many parts of the game worked together. The system allows for complete world-building; characters, equipment, ships, worlds, combat from tactical to strategic. It is very wargaming-centric. Today I see the core mechanic as very simplistic, but appealing. Judging from the success of Mongoose Traveller and now the Cepheus Engine (2d6 SciFi) it apparently is not only popular with me. I also have branched out to using the rules in other settings and not automatically the default Third Imperium.
(Classic) Traveller also became a touchstone of my RPG experience. Given it was my first RPG, all others are inevitably compared to it. For the longest time I thought that character generation in ALL RPGs was done in a career system! I also thought a “real” RPG doesn’t need funny dice – any old set of 2d6 will do!
Totally Subjective Game Rating (Scale of 1-5)
System Crunch = 2 (Classic Travellerdidn’t really have a formal Task Resolution system, or Core Mechanic – the real crunch was in the design segments making ships or vehicles or creatures)
Simulationist = 3.5 (There are many ways to DIE in this game)
Narrativism = 1 (No Hero Points or Bennies or Fate Points or whatever; GM controls all)
Commando: The Combat Adventure Game was published by SPI in 1979. I didn’t buy this game; it came to me thru a trade with a friend sometime between 1980 and 1982. I was running our (Classic) Traveller RPG adventures and use both the 1978 [Little Black] Book 4: Mercenary and the 1979 green box, first edition of Snapshot: Close Combat Aboard Starships in the Far Future for expanded combat. Given our group came from a wargaming background, we were looking for different combat rules. We avoided Striker(1981), likely because it was a set of miniatures rules and we couldn’t afford miniatures! At one point we tried to integrate Commandointo our games. My copy has scribbles (like only middle schoolers can do) where weapons on tables were replaced with their Traveller versions. As I recall, this system integration effort didn’t get far mostly because Commando is a very rules-dense game with a very specific Sequence of Play. More importantly, the game is historically focused and us middle schoolers couldn’t wrap our heads around how to integrate the Fusion Gun, Man Portable-15 (FGMP-15) into the game. Far easier to just use Snapshot!
When preparing for this article, I was surprised to discover that Commando was the 1979 H.G. Wells Best Roleplaying Rules Winner. So is this a wargame or an RPG? Interestingly, the game has an entry both at BoardGameGeek and RPGGeek. The Historical Game is clearly a wargame. More specifically, it is a skirmish game of man-to-man battle. A 48-page rulebook uses the SPI classic Case System of numbered paragraphs. The other game of Commando is the role-playing game. This game is covered in a second 24-page rulebook. Here one finds the classic components of an RPG including gamemaster hints, character creation, and running a campaign.
Looking at the game today, The Designer’s Notes and Expansion Notes at the end of the role-playing game rules are true treasures. Note that in the late 70’s I was not a Dungeons & Dragons (Original or Basic/First Edition) player – I actually avoided D&D because I preferred science fiction over fantasy genres. Although I didn’t understand it at the time, these notes capture the dynamics of the competition between wargamers and the rising RPG community. There is so much goodness here and I hope the legacy SPI copyright holders can forgive me for some lengthy quotes.
First off, some choice lines from the Designer’s Notes written by Eric Goldberg in 1979:
Role-playing is perhaps the fastest growing genre within the wargaming hobby. Boosted by the phenomenal success of fantasy role-playing, the field is branching out from its roots into more conventional endeavors. There is no serious doubt that fantasy role-playing will continue to hold sway within the field, but there are many other possible applications of role-play. While fantasy does have some problems of its own (chief being the need to define magic numerically, which strips it of its mystery), designers of fantasy role-playing games can justify almost anything through magic.
One of the first design mechanics resolved was the use of the Miraculous Escape Matrix and the incorporation of a Character in a fire team. Because the Historical Game was already being used as the combat system (a choice which makes eminently good sense; Players appreciate a game being complete when received – generally not a custom observed by role-playing designers), the fatality rate of Characters was at a level unacceptable to the average Player. After all, a Player would have little incentive to build up and breathe life into his Character if he knew the odds had it that he would have to start all over again every five missions. There is no recourse to the fantasy role-playing solution – the last Man purported to be resurrected was a gentleman of Nazareth, but that was 2000 years ago, and it was understood He had considerable help from the man upstairs.
Character generation systems have proliferated in recent months, but basically represent two schools of thought. One holds Characters should be different, and this difference should be determined randomly (generally by dice). The logic behind this approach is that life isn’t fair in distributing physical and mental characteristics to you and me, and why should it be any different in a role-playing game? The illogic in the use of the system it that it clearly proved the better dice-roller is Homo Superior. The other approach is the all Characters are equal, which is usually resolved by a point assignment system – Characters may have “X” points assigned to their various characteristics in a particular fashion. Thus, Characters are molded to their players’ preferences. The argument for this system is obvious; free choice of character-type and all Characters are equal. In truth, the second claim is a sham; there is not one role-playing game on the market which will work equitably with a point assignment system. The general problem is that one or two characteristics are extremely important, and therefore, to be competitive, all Characters will be essentially similar.
Commando breaks a bit of new ground in role-playing games by the very nature of its subject, and also because of its design approach. The game will appeal to those who feel most comfortable with suspense fiction, and those who can easily make the transition from tactical game or role-playing games. There is certainly tremendous unmapped territory to be gone over in this field. Commando is nearly the groundbreaker.
Greg Costikyan contributed Expansion Notes (again from 1979):
…true role-playing games can be divided into two general categories (with some overlap between categories occurring); closed-system role-playing games and open-ended role-playing games. An open-ended role-playing game requires a Gamemaster to invent a world, construct adventures for the characters, and provide new rules as necessary to round out his world. The rules to an open-ended role-playing game are designed not so much to limit the Gamemaster, as to provide a flexible framework of rules to be amended as he desires, and which aid him in the construction and operation of a world.
A closed-system role-playing game, by contrast, may not even require a Gamemaster. The best example of this is En Garde!A closed-system role-playing game provides a set of rules that are closer to the rules of standard historical games in spirit than the the rules of open-ended role-playing games. The rules cover every eventuality that may arise in the course of play; they are a closed-system not requiring outside interference.
…the existence of a Gamemaster in Commando means that the game can be readily developed into an open-ended role-playing game with comparative ease. Doing so requires junking the scenario generation system, because an open-ended games must deal with the everyday life of the characters, as well as whatever combat actions they involve themselves in. (Thus, in a good fantasy role-playing world, the emphasis of the game is not on hack-and-slash monster fighting, but on development of characters and the world.)
…. In an open-ended game, anything (well, almost anything) is possible; the game is limited only by the flexible framework of the rules, and the imagination of the Gamemaster and Players….The appeal of even badly-written role-playing games lies in this potentially infinite variety; while one may be bored with a boardgame after the fifth playing, one will never be bored with an open-ended role-playing game (assuming a sufficiently imaginative Gamemaster).
Unbeknownst to me at the time, these notes actually captured much of what I was feeling in my early role-playing days. SPI was one of the powerhouses of wargames; as a true grognard if this was their perspective I needed to pay attention! With the benefit of nearly 30 years of hindsight, I can now see that my wargaming roots started me out as a closed-system aficionado. As I go though my retrospective of RPGs, its going to be interesting to see how my tastes evolved over time.
From an RPG-perspective, I give this game a Totally Subjective Game Rating (Scale of 1-5):
System Crunch = 5 (Combat system from Historical Game is rules-heavy)
Simulationist = 4 (There is a reason you create a Character and the Fireteam)
Narrativism = 1.5 (The Miraculous Escape Matrix necessitates a large suspension of reality)
I have played role-playing games since 1979 or ’80. This summer I was bringing my RPG Collection on RPG Geek up to date and realized that I have a lot of games. I started thinking about what I like, and don’t like, about a particular game.
In trying to map out my games, I found myself coming back to a three-axis assessment:
System Crunch – This is my totally subjective assessment of how “crunchy” the system is. Not to be confused with how crunchy the setting is. I loosely define System Crunch as a combination of the Core Mechanic and Combat Resolution. For example, in Classic Traveller the Core Mechanic is a simple Roll 2d6+Skill Level = 8+ for Success. Combat Resolution is really a look-up table where one compares the weapon to the armor of the target. Not very crunchy; unlike the Third Imperium setting which can get really crunchy (building stellar battleships and plotting entire star systems).
Simulationist – To be taken in conjunction with the third axis, Narrativism. Simulationist is my subjective assessment of how strongly the rules force a simulation of the reality. Traveller 5 (T5) is a very Simulationist system in that it has many rules to cover many events.
Narrativism – In conjunction with Simulationist, Narrativism is my subjective assessment of how much the RPG system encourages narrative play. Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is a more Narrativism-based game in that the the system encourages narrative play over strict rules interpretation.
Looking back over my games, I can see an interesting evolution of my RPG interests over time. I also see how the industry has changed over the years. When I look at my RPG collection from this perspective, I can see a change not only in the industry but also in my own interests.