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Heart of Darkness

Started by Daredevil, August 03, 2002, 09:58:08 PM

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"I realized they were stronger than we because they could stand it. These men fought with their hearts, who have families, children, who were filled with love, but they have the strength, the strength to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, then our troubles would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral, and at the same time, who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment. Because it is judgment that defeats us."
- Apocalypse Now, Marlon Brando (General Kurtz) -

As one of the designs I'm working on currently is a war-based role-playing game, with the Second World War as the intended setting, but with no real limitations on that. It's inspired by several things: I've always wanted to do a war campaign for a game, but I've noted the need for a specialized system; I recently browsed through some of the old threads on war games on here; and lastly I have watched several episodes of the Band of Brothers as it finally started running over here.

The intent of the game is to provide a fairly sim-type rule set for the battles, keeping the necessary flow and sense of danger in battle with its necessary tactical details, but with mechanics that empower the players to explore a narrative premise in the game. I want the players to get in character and develop their characters equally before and after combat encounters, then play them out amidst the battlefield while dealing with the inevitable horrors of war. I want those stressful experiences brought back with the characters and affecting them meaningfully, reflecting on their personalities, until they are forced to go into the frying pan again.

I want the players' and the characters' reactions to the rare honorable challenges and all too common moral dilemmas found on the battlefield to become meaningful within the game.

Characters accumulate stress from the battlefield, equally from being the object of war as well as the subject. Wounds suffered, failed missions, comrades killed are all equal sources of stress to atrocities committed by character. However, that very stress can be turned to become a valuable resource for the characters. By performing heroic deeds, such as carrying a fellow trooper from amidst enemy fire or saving the lives of innocents caught in the battles, the character can burn these stress points and convert them into character advancement. Only by embracing the horrors of war can the characters become better soldiers, more likely to survive the war and go home alive, but they cannot become simple murderers or creatures of no morals, they must instead embrace the few chances at heroism they encounter.

Those are the mechanics to tackle the premise, as illustrated by the 'Apocalypse Now' quote in the beginning. The exact workings of the mechanics are not yet written down.

As for the more sim combat rules, I had some specific concerns. I have always felt that the concept of a 3 or 6 second game turn has a very negative effect on role-playing inside combat as they become overly mechanized and restrictive. I wanted to avoid this as I definately want to see the characters role-played during the fights themselves. However, a realistic sense of mortality and a certain grittiness is required.

So, I decided for the following approach. Rounds represent an ambigious amount of time, from seconds to minutes. The actual length of the round, if it must be determined, will be done so by the GM based on the content and action contained in the round. Characters gain an allotment of Action Dice for each round, which represents the amount of actions they can take. The Action Dice represent both chances at taking actions opening up, as well as the the character's physical capability and mental resolve to do so. If a character runs out of Action Dice, she may do nothing during the round except wait for the next one. Thus players are encouraged to use Action Dice sparingly and cunningly.

Action Dice are spent to do various actions, such as movement and shooting. The turn progresses in a free-form manner, so dice may be spent at any time the player wishes to, but the character's attributes limit the amount of dice that can be spent on each type of action (ie. a character has a set limit on Shooting, Movement, etc). Dice used to do an action represent an action taken immediately. For example, a Shooting Die spent represents a shot fired. One die represents one shot and the roll is made under the currently effective conditions. A character with dice left for shooting can shoot someone that moves into view, so if an opponent surges from full cover into view, intending to end her movement again in full cover, a character with a shooting die can take a shot at her.

If several characters want to act out at the same time, the initiative system will determine who goes first. I expect there to be a flurry of action in the first moments of combat or during more important events, but a slow gradual pace being present during other moments.

Importantly, characters may talk at any time at will, with the provision that the actions of allies or the enemy may interrupt the discussions.

Another idea currently in the first stages of conception is the use of tactics and leadership via the game mechanics. Action Points may also be spent on commands. By spending enough command points, a character can initiate Tactical Manuevers (such as Suppressive Fire, Organized Retreat, Concentrated Fire, etc). Each Tactical Manuever has certain requirements and effects based on the amount of points used. For example, Suppressive Fire could cost 1 command point for each character participating in it (paid by the officer or officers organizing it), but the bonus is dependant on how many dice from their Shooting quota the participants are contributing. The bonus for Suppressive Fire could be added to the opponent's difficulty in trying to hit character's participating in the Tactical Manuever.

The idea is to provide game mechanical support for this important battlefield element, while requiring role-playing to accompany it and not allowing the mechanics to overtake that. These manuevers will facilitate role-playing by requiring communication between the characters, making them dart from position to position to hear out the officer's orders. Also, some manuevers may require more command points than one officer can supply, so the officers must gather within communicating distance to initiate the manuever. Hopefully you can see how within this type of combat system this generates a lot of interesting action, while making the characters communicate inside combat.

That's that for now. Let me know if you have any ideas or thoughts about this.

- Joachim Buchert -

Robert K Beckett

Congrats on an interesting idea.

Have you seen the Twilight:2000 RPG combat rules? They are very gritty rules for modern combat with 30 second turns. The turns are broken up 6 segments of 5 secs apiece. The interesting thing is that how early and how often a character can act is determined by his "level" (eg newbie, veteran, elite; 6 "levels" total). So an elite soldier can act once each segment (ie 6 times per round) while a newbie can act only once, in the last segment of the round. I assume this models the effects of confusion and fear-induced hesitation on the modern battlefield.

FYI, the "level" doesn't refer to a skill level with a particular weapon, but rather to a character's overall level of training and battlefield experience. And from what I understand, it should also be reflected by situational factors like presence of leaders and cohesiveness.

Also, your system of using Action Points for command puts me in mind of the Command Point system used in GDW's Assault series of tactical wargames. Command points can be accumulated over several turns and then spent en masse (modelling a commander's ability to figure out what's going on, then make a plan, then communicate & execute the plan).

So much for combat mechanics. Your mention of morality and combat stress reminded me of the writings of Jonathan Shay, an Army psychologist and military reform advocate. He has written non-technical articles (available free online) with titles like "Preventing Psychological and Moral Injury in Military Service", "Cohesion", and "Killing Rage: Physis or Nomos - or Both?". The titles sound dry, but his writing is very engaging and accessible. He stresses the importance of fraternal love and a sense of belonging as factors in the military effectiveness & psychological well-being of soldiers.  Shay's articles can be found at You may find them informative.

Speaking of movies and moral dilemmas in combat, remember the scene in Saving Private Ryan when they had just successfully attacked the German machinegun position in the radar tower? They captured a single German officer and were debating (heatedly) whether to execute him, but only after making him dig his own grave. That was hard to watch, and would definitely make for some interesting roleplaying from a morality perspective.

Anyhoo, your ideas sound interesting. Definitely a refreshing take on the role of combat in RPGs. I look forward to hearing more about it.
Robert K Beckett


You might want to look at this [url http=]UnSung[/url]. I think you wanted more detailed combat, but some of the concepts are probably there. I'd le the actual author mention it, but he's probably at GenCon (grumble).


I wish I was at GenCon.

But please do check out Unsung. I'd be particularly interested in what you think of the mission rules and the Lapse rules.
love * Eris * RPGs  * Anime * Magick * Carroll * techno * hats * cats * Dada
Kirt "Loki" Dankmyer -- Dance, damn you, dance! -- UNSUNG IS OUT


Heya folks.


Excellent links. I had read one essay by Shay, but the ones you referred to were new ones to me. Thanks.

The idea of experience level in Twilight 2000 sounds interesting, though I do see more merit in using an action point based one. Somehow, it feels less mechanical and is suited to my goal of creating an almost real-time fighting experience (of course, this requires a low handling time -- something I'm trying to keep to a minimum).

Re: Unsung,

Somehow I had missed this game at the Forge! Interesting, with a lot of similarity to my ideas. Especially the idea of Responsibility and Instinct being adversely affected by each other sounds similar to my idea of heroism vs the horror of war.

Also, curiously I have a mechanism were you accept one Stress point and automatically succeed at one die roll, which mirrors the Rule of Sacrifice in Unsung. In concert with heroic deeds burning out Stress, this will have the nice effect of characters taking insane chances at heroics and succeeding at them because of the beast mentality, but that being justified and even glorified by the heroic goals of the action. The end result is no Stress lost or gained, but the plan being almost certain to succeed.

I do appreciate the idea of lapses, which is then something completely different.

The missions rules remind me of something I have been thinking about for a while, inspired originally by the battle table from L5R. That is basically nothing more than a random encounter table for battle sequences, but I always felt there was more to be done with the concept. My idea (still very much theoretical) was to create a sort of relationship map for a battle (a Battlemap), with the units/personages listed along with key relationships between them, taking into account the chain of command.

What then? Enter war objectives into the chain of command, watch them filter down, being affected by the characters and their relationships and taking shape in battles and post-battle sequences, the result than fed back into the top of the system, creating new objectives.

What comes out of the Battle Map during this process? Specific battles, continuing military careers, medals, leave passes, etc.

- Joachim Buchert -


Oooh, a battle-oriented Relationship Map. I really like that idea. I may just have to steal that. ;-)

Hmmm, not much to say other than that. I really need to get on the stick and playtest Unsung s'more. Perhaps I can get the kids on Indie Net.Gaming Monday to help me out...
love * Eris * RPGs  * Anime * Magick * Carroll * techno * hats * cats * Dada
Kirt "Loki" Dankmyer -- Dance, damn you, dance! -- UNSUNG IS OUT