Thursday, July 15, 2010

War is Hell, Gaming is Fun

People who have been following this blog for awhile probably have at least some idea of my feelings on the subject of war: namely, that there is no such thing as a “good” or “just” war, and no excuse or justification for invading another’s country with the intent of doing violence. Ever. People that do this are assholes, pure and simple.

There isn’t a valid reason for taking someone’s life in the name of war. No person’s life is more valuable than another. An American soldier does not have more “right to life” than a person from Afghanistan or Iraq. We (my fellow Americans and I) are no more “valuable” than other humans on this planet. There is no such thing as “acceptable” casualties or losses of life. And the acts of few psychotic criminals (e.g. “terrorists”) is never a reason to hold entire nations accountable. That’s as insane as shelling Lockport, NY with artillery because it gave birth to Timothy McVeigh.

It’s the 21st century. Kids are raised not to hit each other. Corporal punishment is no longer administered in schools, and rarely in homes. Most 1st-world nations have banned capital punishment. All countries have laws against perpetrating violence acts against each other. While many religious texts (including the Bible) have passages that say when it is “right” to attack others, most contemporary religious leaders are preaching peace and Brotherly Love to their congregations. Humanity has the means to be united in spirit…war is a leftover relic from our barbaric past, one that should be removed like an enflamed appendix.

[and, yes, pacifist though I am, I understand there are sticky situations that may require the use of force…if wholesale genocide is being committed against a culture or community that is unable to defend itself, is military intervention warranted? Possibly…it’s just as evil to stand back and allow the slaughter of innocents as it is to preemptively attack someone you think MIGHT attack you in the future. I also do NOT think a nation should disarm itself to the point that it cannot protect its own soil from outside invaders. As I said, invaders are assholes]

So that’s what I believe. I acknowledge that not everyone sees things my way.

Now while I hate and loathe war and violence in “real life,” it still holds a place for me in my imagination and at the gaming table. I enjoy war games and “playing war,” as long as no one is actually dying because of it. I have one pacifist friend who would turn up his nose at this…he abhors anything that glorifies violence and killing, and would probably see role-playing as doing just that. My take is a little different.

Acknowledging the evils of REAL war, one can still learn from it; we can learn from its history, and how it has impacted our present lives, as well as (hopefully) learning from past mistakes. Also, it provides an entertaining outlet for some of the darker parts of our human nature…we do have adrenal glands after all, and playing a game at the table is better than shooting real people.

In addition, the conflict and drama in violent role-playing games isn’t JUST about the violence (or shouldn’t be, anyway…but that’s another post). RPGs give us the opportunity to “struggle mightily,” just like the heroes of myth and legend. We are allowed the opportunity to live as those types of struggling heroes when we sit at the gaming table…we are forced to use our wits and our virtual strength, just as Heracles did against the Nemean Lion. However, unlike Heracles, we face no threat of ACTUALLY dying in a game. We are allowed to join in the struggle, creating our own myths and stories through our vicarious “adventures.”

And if we want to tell myths and stories about the hell of war…well that’s a good struggle, too.

So having got the whole anti-war preamble out of the way, let’s dive right into Revised Recon from Palladium, a game I managed to pick up used for $4 the other day. This may just be the best $4 I’ve ever spent at the game shop.

Recon (I’ll drop the “revised” – just be aware that I’m talking about the 2nd edition of the game) is…well, frankly it’s fascinating. It is also a damn good game…perhaps the best single game book I’ve ever published from Palladium. And, no, there are no cyborgs in it.

Let’s talk about the fascinating first: wow. This is a game that could ONLY have been published in 1986. I mean, I can’t see how they would get away with some of this stuff today. But in the mid-1980s…with the Rambo movies and Chuck Norris’s Missing in Action series, not to mention Reagan’s New Cold War…this game really seems to be a “sign of the times” in which it was written.

And yet it’s not some cheesy, Hollywood-cinematic RPG.

Recon is a game of modern warfare, specifically set in the Vietnam War. That’s that war in the 60s-70s that you see so many movies about with American G.I.s slogging through jungles. If RPGs have wargaming roots, this game is both a return to those roots (I mean it is a WAR game) and is an UPDATING of those roots: this ain’t no Napoleonic/Medieval warfare. And it sure ain’t Civil.

What’s fascinating is that it is written close enough to the war that the author could well have had older friends/siblings actually in the ‘Nam…Siembieda is of an age that he probably grew up watching the war on television, not just seeing Oliver Stone movies.

And the book appears meticulously researched. More than any other Palladium book I’ve seen (and I’ve blogged a bit about how much effort goes into those Rifts world books) there’s a ton of information on the history of the fighting men in Vietnam, the equipment they used (more historical weapons and vehicles are present than perhaps even Godlike…certainly more than I’ve seen in any other Palladium game), their procedures, their training. Heck, it’s the first game book of Palladium I have that has both a real bibliography AND a suggested reading list for information and inspiration.

Now back to the 1986 part: the game is definitely American-centric. The introductory paragraph says it all:

“To put it simply, this is a game where the good guys are the US troops and their allies. All the game players are good guys. The bad guys are Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army Troopers (NVA). The Mission Director ‘plays’ the bad guys.”

There’s no “grey area” in this game regarding who’s the black hats. If you want to know what this game is about, check out that front cover where the grunt is coldcocking Charlie with the butt of his rifle while the guy in the tree is WEARING A RICE PADDY HAT. ‘Cause, you know…those hats were as much a part of the VC uniform as the army’s green socks…wouldn’t want to be caught up a tree without it!

I’m not of Asian descent but I wonder what people who are would think about this.

Or some of these other interesting bits of ugliness: like randomly rolling for height and weight with Westerners (i.e. Americans) having a range of 5’ to 6’6” while “indigenous people” (whether from Vietnam, South America, or “other Third World Hotspots”) only run from 4’11” to 5’8”. It’s a class war between the tall and the short apparently.

ANYWAY…let’s disregard this stuff and get to the game itself. I mean, I knew that any game about Vietnam was going to be at least slightly irritating (to me, see above) but I wanted to see how Palladium handled modern warfare.

Pretty darn good, as it turns out.

First off, the Recon system is quite a bit different from the normal Palladium engine. Oh, there are conversion notes for making Recon soldiers into Heroes Unlimited type characters…but for my money the Recon game system is superior. I’d prefer to convert HU to Recon and no, that’s not a given option.

Character creation is fast and easy…as one would hope in a game where players can expect characters to die regularly. Each character has three characteristics (Strength, Alertness, and Agility) and a handful of skills chosen based on a character’s military occupation. Some military occupations have minimum requirements…like a high strength if you want to be the heavy weapons specialist.

Strength measures one’s carrying capacity and health (i.e. hit points). Alertness measure’s one’s ability to observe and detect stuff (like ambushes and booby-traps). Agility is your ability to fight in hand-to-hand, throw grenades, climb, disarm booby-traps, etc. All are based on the roll of percentage dice, and this represents the character’s percentage chance (for Alertness and Agility) of accomplishing things covered by those characteristics.

Skills are a much smaller list than standard Palladium and all are pertinent to the game…there’s nothing extraneous, nor are there any “ability boosting” skills. All skills are determined by random dice roll. This is awesome. I liked it with HackMaster Basic and I like it even better here. Everyone goes to boot camp and learns how to shoot and service the M-16, but not everyone is equally good. Roll D% and that’s your skill (though most skills have a base minimum…for example, no one has an effectiveness with assault rifle lower than 30%. If you want more skill, you can use more skill selection to increase the effectiveness. There’s nothing for the player or Mission Director (GM) to “look up” in the book later…you make a note of the % on your character sheet and that’s it. Simple. And again, most pertinent “skills” that might be found in other games’ skill lists are simply subsumed into Alertness and Agility. Only skills specifically trained/learned in Basic are available as picks.

Experience points are gained similar to the XP gained in normal Palladium, however, there are no levels. Points gained may be saved or spent to improve characteristics and skills. Again, I find this superior to standard Palladium, especially given the limited selection of options for expenditure.

Alignment: again, wow. Recon uses a completely different alignment base than other Palladium games, very much reflecting personality types found in professional soldiers in our modern world. This is, hands down, the best alignment system I’ve seen in ANY role-playing game…as far as “encapsulating the character’s personality in a nutshell for easy identification.” There are no mechanical effects of alignment, but all are appropriate to this specific game (another example of system does matter…in a big way!). The alignments are: Idealistic, Idealistic-Pacifist, Opportunist, Opportunist-Righteous, Opportunist-Karmic, Malignant, and Malignant-Psychotic. Wow. Just reading them makes me excited to use them in the game. How many alignment systems get YOU jazzed?!

Combat is made to be fast (it’s a lot more stream-lined compared to other Palladium games), realistic (there are hefty penalties for any kind of shooting combat unless you ambush your opponents), and deadly (no one’s walking away if you get hit by multiple bullets). It’s also abstract, not using detailed maps or even keeping track of ammunition. Basically, it plays the way I want to play firefights in the jungle…and for me, that’s a good thing.

[a note about deadliness…in Recon you roll up TWO characters in the beginning of the game…this is similar to my previous favorite War RPG, Albedo…but Recon chargen is a LOT faster than Albedo]

Not only that, Recon provides rules for artillery strikes, helicopter gunships, and calling down the napalm. Some people might be put off by the idea of playing the radio operator in the squad, but Siembieda points out these guys are the equivalent of the party wizard, able to call in huge amounts of firepower if they’re kept protected.

And that’s part of the coolness of Recon. Some people have compared D&D to “fantasy Vietnam” play, where a party has its specific squad members, each playing a vital role. Recon is ACTUAL Vietnam fantasy and it’s done well, with your small unit having the right skills and abilities to scout the jungle.

And it doesn’t just have to be played in Vietnam. As the game points out, it can be used for any kind of jungle or 3rd world conflict, and there are rules for converting your players into mercenaries (um…”security contractors”) to fight around the world. The game states you can fight guerillas in Central America or help the Freedom Fighters of Afghanistan against the Russians (hey, maybe YOUR guys are the ones that trained Bin Laden!).

Okay, okay…back to the point. I said this is the best game Palladium’s ever published and I meant it. It is STAND ALONE. It tells you HOW TO PLAY. It has random MISSION GENERATORS in a style that echoes the best Old School games. It has several ADVENTURES and optional scenarios. It has RULES FOR TANKS and PATROL BOATS as well as DESERT SKILLS FOR MERCENARIES, in case you want to play a private contractor in some Mid East conflict, or other.

To me, Recon is a great, no-holds-barred WAR role-playing game. If you want to explore the stresses and struggles of war with a traditional RPG (instead of a mainly psychological indie game like Carry or Grey Ranks), this is the one to get. When I wrote about Albedo before, I said I wished it could be adapted to something OTHER than anthropomorphic animals in space (not because I have a problem with Anthro-Animals, but because I WANTED a human war game). I don’t wish that anymore.

I DO wish it provided rules for converting other Palladium games to the Recon system. I’d love to run a scenario similar to the movie Predator, and Recon is just the system to do it.


  1. Many years ago I played this version of the game, 1-on-1, with me playing an entire squad of "Stateside" soldiers. They did all right for a few missions, until the one fateful day when an enemy ambush wasn't detected during a chopper pickup, and literally everyone but the heavy weapons guy was killed in a hail of gunfire before they even had a chance to respond. The one survivor was knocked down to exactly 0 hits, when per the system meant he was just unconscious. Random rolls told me he had lost an eye and was sent back home as a trainer for future soldiers. I still occasionally think about the sheer butchery of that moment.

  2. @ Aaron: I don't know if it's the subject matter that's fallen out of vogue, the un-popularity of "modern games," or Palladium's terrible reputation but I've found very few people who've ever admitted to playing Recon. Thanks for comment!

  3. This is on the shelf at my favorite used book store. On your strong review, I might head down there tomorrow...though it would be the third time I've been there this week...

  4. @ Ryan: I'm fortunate enough to live a couple blocks from my local shop...I pop in their several times a week just while taking my "evening constitutionals." Ya' never know what lost treasure you're going to find!
    : )

  5. Pacifism doesn't work.

    I love it the idea of it too.

    Deterrent however, is the only proven mthod in reducing war.

    The good thing is, major countries have not gone to war with each other of late, and mass genocidal conflicts that would ensue have been prevented, due to presence of nuclear weapons.

    That is of course, until error or boiling point occurs, and then it is truly GAME OVER from the very nukes that have prevented global and most regional conflicts save for a few proxy and civil wars.

    So, if we survive long enough, the zeitgeist will get to a more peaceful status... slowly, and hopefully surely.

    And, the argument is complicated. Good you do acknowledge it. World War 2 is really, really hard to argue against. No case works. Without intervention, millions more would be dead, and perhaps the whole world in a WMD event from a mad dictator.

  6. We played this when I was in Highschool and "Tour of Duty" and "China Beach" were on TV. I don't remember much about the gameplay itself though.

  7. The whole height/weight ranges for Americans and Vietnamese people were pretty accurate. The armed forces have height/weight requirements, recruits that pass (or are close enough and able to lose any excess weight) are accepted while people who are too tall/heavy or too short/light in the ass will be shown the door. When I was in basic training in the '90s we were all about the same height. Go figure.

    I have read military reports, accounts of combat and knew a couple Viet Nam vets. They all said the Vietnamese people were noticeably shorter and had less body mass. This doesn't mean they were weaklings, though. They could be downright bad ass...

    Having said my piece, RR was a really cool system. I just purchased a copy on Amazon.

    Now I need to solve the same problem I had in high school, finding people willing to play a game about Viet Nam.