#TTRPG or #Wargame? — Thoughts on “Adventure Wargames” inspired by Five Parsecs from Home (@Modiphius, 2022) and Twilight: 2000 (@FreeLeaguePub, 2021)

I recently acquired two games that got me thinking, yet again, about the definition of a “wargame.”

The first game is Five Parsecs from Home: Solo Adventure Wargaming (Modiphius, 2022). Five Parsecs from Home is a skirmish-scale wargame where the battles are driven by a “story” developed using roleplaying game elements.

The second game is Twilight: 2000—Roleplaying in the World War III That Never Was (Free League Publishing, 2021). This 4th edition of the Twilight: 2000 family is a self-proclaimed “hexcrawl” military roleplaying game. As a military roleplaying game, Twilight: 2000 focuses on military player characters (PCs) and leans into the combat aspects of the setting, so much so that it’s not inconceivable that some might consider this a roleplaying wargame.

My local FLGS had Five Parsecs from Home stocked on the roleplaying game shelves. This was also where they sold Twilight: 2000 from. Could either of these games be sold from the wargaming side of the store?

My answer is yes, if one fully embraces the concept of an “Adventure Wargame.”

Adventure Wargame?

While my recognition of Adventure Wargaming is relatively new, the truth to the matter is I have owned Adventure Wargames since the early 1980’s. If I had use one game to define this genre, it would be Behind Enemy Lines (1st edition, FASA, 1982). This is how Behind Enemy Lines describes itself:

Behind Enemy Lines is a role-playing game which allows you to take on the character of a U.S. infantryman in World War II. Parachute drops, night raids, sniper ambushes, pitched battles, combat patrols, and long-range reconnaissance probes are the challenges you face. Your enemy is cunning, well-trained, and well-equipped. Your ingenuity, your courage, and skill are all that stand between you and disaster.

Behind Enemy Lines box back

The box for Behind Enemy Lines included (courtesy RPGGeek):

  • Book 1 – Character Generation and Basic Rules. 96 pages of information and tables ranging from character generation, tank data and equipment weights to the basic sighting and fire tables.
  • Book 2 – Event Tables – 48 pages filled with event tables for all types of terrain and situations. In all, 38 tables giving detailed Game Master information and general player descriptions are included.
  • Book 3 – Missions – A 56 page booklet containing three full length missions, four incidents, historical biographies, and 192 non-player characters. A 16 page booklet filled with maps for the missions and incidents is also included.
  • 112 illustrated counters depicting American and German soldiers, civilians and special equipment, are provided. The counters are two-sided, showing active and incapacitated states of the various characters.
  • Four cardstock sheets of the charts and tables most used in play. Also included is a sample character sheet.
  • Two six-sided dice.

Book 1 was clearly intended to make Behind Enemy Lines a roleplaying game. On this point there is no controversy as the game was nominated for—and won—the 1982 H.G. Wells Award for “Best Roleplaying Rules” given by the the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design (AAGAD) at the Origins Game Fair.

To understand what an Adventure Wargame is, we must first understand what military roleplaying games are. Fortunately for us, some have already given thought on the matter:

THE CHALLENGE OF MILITARY ROLE-PLAYING

Serious role-playing games are built around drama, and there is no situation more dramatic than that of a soldier in wartime, so you might think the military is a natural setting for role- playing. However, RPGs work best in anarchic situations— where the player characters are their own bosses— and, in the army, discipline and coordinated group action are the keys to success. To get around this, the most successful military RPGs have settings where small groups can act with a large degree of autonomy, on commando raids, during guerilla warfare, or (most popular of all) after civilization has broken down due to holocaust or invasion.

The first attempt at military role-playing was Eric Goldberg’s Commando (SPI, 1979), which was primarily a board game of small-unit combat that had some role-playing features. The first version of The Morrow Project (Timeline, 1980) was also mainly a set of combat rules, but the designers were perceptive enough to set it in a post-holocaust future where the players could have freedom of action. This was also the case with Aftermath (Fantasy Games Unlimited, 1981), a game of paramilitary survival after a nuclear war.

These were followed by Behind Enemy Lines (FASA, 1982), a World War II game; Recon (RPG Inc., 1982), set on the fringes of the Vietnam War; and Merc (Fantasy Games Unlimited, 1983), which tried to capitalize on the brief public fascination with mercenary soldiers fighting in Third-World nations. None of these games met with sustained success. It looked as there might not really be a steady market for military RPGs until GDW released Frank Chadwick’s Twilight: 2000 in 1984. Once again the setting was after civilization was shattered by World War III, but this time background was more believable and worked out in great detail. The rules were unexciting but solid, and GDW supported them with a steady stream of scenarios and supplements that catered to players’ fascination with modem military machinery. Other contemporary military systems debuted in 1986 (The Price of Freedom, West End Games; Phoenix Command, Leading Edge Games; Delta Force, Task Force Games; Freedom Fighters, Fantasy Games Unlimited), but none have been able to make much headway against Twilight: 2000, which recently [1988] received a complete updating and revision.

Lawrence Schick
Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games
Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books 1991

In each of these games, the PCs were cast as military members and the focus of adventuring was combat. These setting conditions are remarkably similar to many skirmish-scale wargames that focus on man-to-man combat. Similar, but not identical. Indeed, I see a spectrum of military roleplaying games to wargames with Adventure Wargames in the middle.

On the Spectrum

To illustrate my vision of the military roleplaying game to wargame spectrum, I mapped out where I think various titles in my gaming collection fall (see below).

Created by RMN

I’m not the greatest graphics artist, so please bear with me as I try to explain what you see here. I envision a spectrum of gaming that goes from military roleplaying games on the left to skirmish-scale wargames on the right. The more to the left you go the more the games are composed of narrative storytelling and character creation. The further you move to the right of the spectrum the more the focus of the game is purely on combat. In the middle are games that I am willing to call an “Adventure Wargame.”

I note that several of the games on the left side of the spectrum have related wargames. The Babylon Project has rules for fleet combat in its Earthforce Sourcebook that use the Full Thrust game system. Of course, the Traveller RPG has many wargames connected to it. Even FASA Star Trek was connected to the Star Trek: Starship Tactical Combat Simulator where the characters could play individual bridge crew members. However, just because a military roleplaying game might have a connected wargame that does not automatically make it an Adventure Wargame.

The middle of the spectrum is where Behind Enemy Lines (FASA, 1982) sits. I also have placed two roleplaying game supplements here to help further illustrate what I see as an Adventure Wargame. Hammer’s Slammers for Mongoose Traveller (Mongoose Publishing, 2010) is a supplement that brings David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers mercenary stories to life using the Mongoose Traveller 1st Edition rules. Players create characters using the RPG rules but the setting fully expects that they will be in combat situations. Likewise, ALIEN: Colonial Marines (Free League Publishing, 2022) is a sourcebook for the ALIEN Roleplaying Game (Free League Publishing, 2021) where the characters are assumed to be Colonial Marines and will undertake (mostly combat) missions across the known—and unknown—galaxy.

The further to the right you move on the spectrum the less important narrative storytelling becomes. You also find that the further you move to the right the “thinner” the character creation systems are until you pass into pre-generated “characters” or characters defined only by skills. Of note, there are some games like Car Wars or Battletech that have supplemental roleplaying games that can help define individual characters.

Moving even further to the right, other games like Star Warriors have no character creation system per se, but the system used is ready to integrate with a roleplaying game; in this case West End Games Star Wars D6 system.

To the far right of the spectrum are skirmish-scale wargames that lack character development. Individual soldiers may be depicted, but they are generally not given any defining personality and instead are defined simply by skills or abilities. They may be individuals, but they are defined very generically and only for the purposes of enhancing combat, not to help create any sort of narrative story.

All Models are Imperfect

I fully recognize my spectrum is imperfect. Even I have made the argument before that a good wargame helps create a narrative story, thus meaning the narrative story bar should extend across the entire spectrum.

In earlier drafts of my spectrum, there were two boardgames I considered including but eventually didn’t:

  • I initially considered placing Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game in the Adventure Wargame area of the spectrum, but eventually dropped it because, while it tells a narrative story, it lacks character creation and the focus is not on combat but on survival with a traitor in your midst.
  • I had placed Pandemic: Fall of Rome just to the right of Adventure Wargames because it had individual, pre-defined characters and a strong focus on combat; I eventually dropped it because I reconsidered the real depth of those individual characters and decided they were just too generic and more an archetype vice a well-defined individual.

Going back a few years, U-Boot: The Board Game won the 2021 Charlies Award for “Best Wargame of the Year.” That event has spurred many a discussion on the “Mentioned in Dispatches” podcast of the Armchair Dragoons. Some of you might be tempted to tell me, “Hey, U-Boot fits your Adventure Wargame definition and really is a wargame!” In response, I will tell you I (still) disagree because, while U-Boot has pre-defined characters and has combat situations, the focus of the game is not actually the combat but the cooperative effort to operate the U-Boat. In other words, combat is the driver behind the need for cooperative action, but it is not the focus of the game. Too bad, so sad!


RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

4 thoughts on “#TTRPG or #Wargame? — Thoughts on “Adventure Wargames” inspired by Five Parsecs from Home (@Modiphius, 2022) and Twilight: 2000 (@FreeLeaguePub, 2021)

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