The War genre is widely variable. Depending on nation creating the media, the level of patriotism acceptable in the cultural environment and the directors intent, a ‘War Story’ can be anything from a heavily edited propaganda piece, meditation on the cost of war, a high action thriller, documentary or long running comedy that also makes you cry. Join me in this fog of war as we look to see how we can achieve victory and salvage something from this FUBAR.
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Saving Private Genre
So how do we approach such a vast and unwieldy genre and then find something from it for our games? I think it’s important to be clear what we’re talking about in this genre, you often are representing a real conflict and need to think about how you portray it. With that in mind, we are going be using the tested media of War Films as a reference point.
War Films have evolved alongside national identities and there’s no other genre that is more of a definitive statement on a countries foreign policy. But to understand the genre as a resource, we as GM’s have to strip away all the patriotic identities to find the core what a war film is ‘about’. You can add national identities back in later. Hell, maybe you’ll add Elves and Hobgoblins back in instead. So for now, we cut the propaganda. Most of it is culturally unique anyway, making each one it’s own kind of sub-genre.
It is an important to realise that there is a difference between a war story and a story set in a war. One is a genre, the other is just Misc-en-Scene. If you want to have a story about a daring elite unit that sneaks in and accomplishes missions, that is likely to fit the pulp genre a lot better, you might want to look at that article. When I ran a World War II supers game, I went for that feel. I wasn’t really making a ‘War’ story. Find out if the game you are running is high-action pulp or true War.
This doesn’t mean that we can examine war films without action. Instead of dramatic exaggeration, the action in a true war film has to be realistic and believable for it to count. More than any genre we’ve discussed a true modern War Story is hunting for simulationism and I think that’s what turns a lot of GM’s off. They are worried about getting the calibre of a gun wrong or specifics of a particular conflict incorrect. Or that it just won’t ‘feel like war’. The notion of War in an RPG can seem overwhelming in scale and hard to define outside of the abstract.
This examination of conflict on a grand scale can be brought home by using the first rule of the GM – Players are the focus. In many War genre stories – What academic Jeanine Basinger would define as the ‘Combat Film’, we see the viewpoint of one squad amongst hundreds and their struggle to overcome an insurmountable enemy. It’s through this human lens we can see the truth of war – it destroys individuals by either killing them of making them into a state tool. But it also creates bonds between soldiers, who have a shared experience.
So what do we want from a War Story – what is the point in telling it? Basinger went on to examine the Combat Film in depth and talked about how society views itself, either in opposition or support of a war. We attempt to write the history of the moment through our lens, try to understand what made people slaughter each other on such a vast scale. But in discussion of ‘Third Wave’ war films of the 40’s, Basinger may have hit on the most profound of statements. She suggested that war films we made to deal with a war psychologically. We make the film to put the war behind us. It’s a cultural attempt at a final statement. Once we have perspective, we can move on.
I think when you realise that after hundreds of films, we’re still trying to do that, you can relax a little about getting everything ‘just so’ for you tabletop game.
Examples in RPG
There are a ton of war based RPG’s but a lot of them fall into the espionage or pulp genre. Here I’ve tried to select games that are about the act of war:
Godlike: This game of emergent supers during a world war two setting packs an unexpected punch and is very interested in creating a ‘realistic’ version of a second world war where things are made infinity more deadly by the inclusion of super powers.
Black Cadillacs: Quite an hard RPG to track down, Black Cadillacs is a game about the stories of war, framed as a very collaborative experience. It aims to tell a specific story every session and invites the players to re-frame the action afterwards, forcing them to seek meaning in each encounter.
M*A*S*H*E*D: No prizes for guessing what this one is about. A powered by the apocalypse game and therefore tied to a very specific concept. Mashed does what it does well, with the discord between the comedy standard rpg scenes and the tense, often mechanical surgery scenes striking a discord that feel very like the TV show it is inspired by.
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What Is It Good For?
Mostly a good play experience.
Life Is Cheap But Lives Are Not
In war stories, it should be comically easy to lose someone. Accidents, minor exchanges of fire or infected wounds can drop specific PC and NPCs and it is possible to lose half the supporting cast in one big push. But you have to work up to this. Every life lost should be one the PC’s know and taking a life should be a hard thing. To really show the impact of war, you have to create the bonds before you get rid of them.
Troupe-ing the colours
In order to create a sense of danger, a DM should look into the idea of PC playing several soldiers in a troupe style play – where the table of five or so players portrays maybe thirty of so people, rotating the cast. The players now feel that characters they love can die at any point because they are playing more than one.
Even if you aren’t doing troupe play, tell stories that aren’t about the ‘main cast’. Have the players portray a squad caught behind enemy lines for a session or two, then have the actual PC come and rescue them. Or what is left of them. This adds a feel of a larger scale to the proceedings by decentralising the characters. It’s still their story but it’s set within a larger more complex narrative of war.
Scale Goes Up
Make sure in a pitched battle that the PC’s situation is writ large across the whole field. Don’t use hundreds of miniatures and result to tactical play but do advance description to show what is happening. Blow up the scenery, slay the entire front rank. Make sure the impact hits home in a large way.
Consider Telegraphing The Result
War stories aren’t complete without at least one mission that turns into a retreat but it can be hard to portray this when you have a group of confident and capable PCs. At the opening of any part of the conflict it’s okay to turn to a group of players and say ‘look guys, your side loses this one. This isn’t a story about who wins, it’s a story about who got out alive and what counted’. This might sound like a minor heresy but as long as you do it sparingly with players that trust you, it can create some really beautiful scenes. Just remind them that they will at some point get their own back.
Have A Map And Alter It
Players need to see that the fight they take part in makes a difference. A good way to do this is to have a campaign map and update it as the game progresses, giving them a solid idea of how what they did relates to the war. For added madness, in an event any PC is captured, refuse to show them the updated map – make them get home without knowledge of where exactly the new enemy lines are.
That’s it for now folks, hope that sees you through the combat zone without too many scrapes. Next time, we’ll be taking another ‘heroes of our world’ look at genre that’s rapidly had to update itself to stay modern – The Espionage genre.