A while ago, I was going to write some essays covering the “underserved” areas of RPGing – cop fiction, crime fiction, and war fiction. I got through the cop and crime ones but got bogged down before I got to war. There’s a lot of WWII type gaming out there but not much newer.
I’ve been working over it for a while, and as a preface here’s some books I’ve read on the recent war(s). They are educational in general but also I will later demonstrate how the most successful military approach – small special operations groups embedded in the local populace – also solves a lot of the problems with creating a modern “War RPG”.
So without further ado, the list! Together they have given me an extremely interesting and fairly complete perspective on the recent war. Presented in the order I read them.
Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda
A very interesting book about a major operation in Afghanistan when the military’s focus had already been diverted to Iraq. Also shows how some of the military intra-unit political BS, seemingly undiminished since Civil War days, fucks things up bad. A good read especially because maybe we’ll actually be trying to go back there and take care of business soon. And man, the terrain is awful. “Sorry,our Apaches can’t fly though air that thin.” Did you know that Holistic Design came out with a “d20 Afghanistan” game when the war was new? I have it, it’s pretty good.
In The Company Of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat
This one’s OK… Written by a Pulitzer Prize winner, but basically just him following the 101st Airborne in the initial assault on Baghdad. Interesting and action-packed, but necessarily limited in scope. Bonus in that he’s hanging around with Petraeus in the early days, when he was just a major general commanding the 101st. He spends too much time with the officers and not enough with the line units so it’s a bit white-collar. I’d only give it three out of five stars but we’ll be seeing Petraeus more later.
The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier’s Account of the War in Iraq
Not awesomely written because it’s just the memoir of a Florida National Guard grunt, but it’s the most pure “soldier experience” of the lot. His unit got kept over there for like three years because his CO wanted to get some of that wartime glory. He ended up all fucked up, hooked on Valium and post-traumatic-stress-disordered. Great look into the everyday soldier’s life over there and how bad it was/is. Definitely movie ready, like that FX “Over There” series or something. Did you know there’s an interesting ashcan RPG called “Black Cadillacs” that tries to insert this kind of experience into a war story?
Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground
Dang, I got ripped off at Half Price Books, this hardbacks’ on sale for $6.99 through Amazon. This is a really scholarly military history book, more than a Black Hawk Down memoir type – the author (who also wrote Balkan Ghosts) goes to every major theater and hangs out with the grunts in everywhere from Colombia to the Philippines to Iraq. He gets a really good view into the weaknesses of the American approach – our specops work fine, but as an organization overall the focus on technology, force protection, etc. is harmful. He basically comes to the exact same conclusions that Petraeus will later as he rewrites the book on COIN before heading back to Iraq. Holistic also did a Colombia d20 RPG, which seemed an odd choice of country to me (they also did Afghanistan and Somalia) but having read this book I understand, and see that the Holistic guys were pretty well plugged in.
One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer
Now this one’s awesome. This guy went to Dartmouth and decided to go Marine ROTC. I remember his father told him “The Marines will teach you everything about life that I love you too much to.” He later joined First Recon, the even-more-elite arm of the Marines. The book covers everything, from boot camp on through to the end. He brings together the painful on-the-ground experience of “Last True Story” with the analysis of a highly educated mind of “Imperial Grunts.” He leaves the military because he sees that their anti-civilian approach was so damn retarded (going on to a dual Harvard Law/ Kennedy Business double major program). Oh, and you know that Rolling Stone guy’s “Generation Kill” book that HBO made into a series or something? It was THIS GUY’S UNIT.
The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008
All the previous books were older. This one is kinda the payoff for all of them though. Turns out after the initial run on Baghdad they squirrelled Petraeus away at the Army war college and he rewrote the book on counterinsurgency (literally). A retired general named Keane saw how jacked up things were and pulled strings from retirement to basically bypass the Chiefs of Staff and get Petraeus and others in place commanding in Iraq and give them the latitude they needed to get stuff done. Basically he recognized the entire approach was wrong and that the military had deliberately tossed out everything they learned from Vietnam. The surge, which I admit I thought was a retarded idea, wasn’t just a “throw more heads at it” play, it was part of a transformation from the approach, so well illustrated in these previous books, of “hide in a fortress, then drive around in armored Humvees to see if anyone will shoot at us” to the more “community policing” model of COIN that Kaplan identified as so successful in other theaters back in Imperial Grunts. In the end, though, it portrays the surge as being successful at achieving more modest goals – but the question of “no really, is it worth doing?” is still unanswered.
More on the RPG angle later, but I wanted to share the bibliography first.
Another good book from a possible gaming standpoint is “House to House: An Epic Memoir of War” by SSG David Bellavia, about the nasty urban combat he was part of during the battle of Fallujah in 2004.
I agree that war RPGing is pretty thin outside of the WW2 era. I guess part of it is that “war” tends to be indiscriminate in terms of who lives and who dies – your 42 hit points probably don’t matter if you get hit by a lucky artillery shell.
I think what is a lot more game-worthy is techno-thriller style black ops / commando style gaming, even in a modern era. Playing a team of Delta Force operators or Navy SEALs would be pretty awesome.
I’m running an old d20 version of Starship Troopers, so I’ll have to take a peek at some of this stuff.
@Badelaire: A luck artillery shell or a random one. That’s something that most RPGs are weak on, particularly when dealing with modern combat. Artillery is often aimed at a small region, not at people or vehicles and thus being hit by one is really very random. It’s hard to make your PCs run through a game in which they can be killed in a moment because a shell doesn’t land 100 ft away or 50 ft away or 10 ft away, but instead lands on you, killing you instantly. A lot of people still play RPGs to be the “hero” and it’s hard when the heroes can be one-shotted by almost anything on the field of battle and a lot of it is almost peripherally targeted at them, making it very random.
Which is why some of these books are interesting, in that they address the small group in counterinsurgency operations – taking the focus off a large mixed-arms battlefield, which does present more problems. Although not insurmountable problems, there are many games that solve that problem mechanically. Like Deadlands – the core Wild West gunfight mechanic is very deadly. However, with their luck poker-chip mechanic, a PC has more survivability without compromising the setting.
Yeah, hitting the balance between random death as a real threat and non-fun play (what do you mean my PC just bought the farm? crap!) is tough.
In Black Cadillacs, I decided to solve it by having PC death be delayed — as you do stuff in play, you increase the likelihood of taking a dirt nap in the closing moments of a session. It’s not a perfect solution, but it allows for a real threat of death for the focal characters, but without sidelining a player during the guts of play.
It works pretty well.