RogerBW's Blog

Reflections on Ten Years of the Second World War 20 October 2017

My alternate-history World War II (with magic) game has now lasted for ten years of real time, something over 100 sessions (we play roughly monthly and sometimes skip a month).

In 2005 I put together a group of some of the Cambridge regulars and some others, originally to play a GURPS Infinite Worlds campaign. That lasted about a year. In 2006, Steve Jackson Games started selling the Transhuman Space books cheaply (to help make room in the warehouse for GURPS Fourth Edition); I picked them up and started a campaign using them, with the same group, which also lasted about a year. This is fairly usual for me.

In 2007, SJGames also put the hardcopy GURPS World War II books on sale. Well, using them seemed like the obvious thing to do next, and on 13 October 2007 I ran the first session of Irresponsible and Right, set in a world in which magic is present, but has not been a major factor… until now.

Well, it's a bit more complicated than that. One of my standard problems with "magic in the real world" games is why it hasn't affected history, and the usual answers seem to be: it has, and that's how we get the history we know, but it's still secret; it's limited to a small group; or it's just coming into the world now, so while the past is recognisable the future will look quite different from the one we know. This game uses that last option, mostly.

Another consideration was how alternate the alternate history can get. Obviously if things go too far off the historical track then all those sourcebooks aren't much use any more. (Thus the abandonment of Operation Oi Adolf No, in which the party's supernaturally persuasive man was to be dropped into Berlin with some very good brandy.) On the other hand, if all the "big" events happen exactly the way they did in our world, there's a certain sense of futility and defensiveness: it's all very well to defeat the magical Nazi plot to take over the world, again, but to return always to the status quo ante seems like insufficient reward.

The time travel (very limited) wasn't intended to be a part of the setting at the start, but it seemed like a good solution for allowing those of my players who know a lot about the period to use their knowledge and research skills, rather than having to keep that segmented from their characters' knowledge. As a one-off event, the PCs obtained a summarised history of the course of the war to its end, and some events afterwards. This, combined with their record of successful operations, has certainly helped them have some influence in staff and political circles beyond what their rank would dictate.

This is the longest campaign in real-time that I've run, and I think the longest in terms of number of sessions too (though if I ever complete the Great Pendragon Campaign with Whartson Hall it may end up longer overall). I think it's probably also my favourite. I'm still not quite sure just what's gone right: I've run other games with the same people, which have been good, but not like this.

I think it may be that the Second World War is in a sweet spot for research: there's so much raw data that it's generally possible to find most of the information one wants fairly quickly (unlike earlier periods where it's not documented, or later periods where it's often locked up in copyright vaults, and one has to pay for access before one can even know whether it'll be useful). The power level has gradually escalated from fighting against individual agents to situations where the PCs are, while not actually capable of wiping out armies, certainly influential over their fates.

Anyway, we're now in October 1944, and the end is in sight. Stalin has "resigned" and "chosen to end his own life" in favour of someone whom the PCs know believes himself to be the last heir of the Tsars, which has changed the negotiations over the future of Europe rather substantially. Meanwhile, thanks in part to the interaction between nuclear processes and magic (something else that wasn't in my notes on day one), the Manhattan Project is stalled as far as anyone knows, which is going to have implications for Japan.

I would never have kept all this organised had I not been keeping a campaign log. It's now 175,000 words long, the size of a substantial modern novel.

And (since it is public so that the players can see and correct it) it inspired one gentleman to write to me as he was doing some research on his ancestor, Graf Hans von Blumenthal (the actual German military governor of Neufchâteau during the First World War), but he hadn't previously come across a mention of his interest in occultism: could I tell him more about it? Er, sorry, I just made that up as useful background detail…

All this research I've done has, without my noticing it, made me rather more knowledgeable about the war than most people I know (but some people I hang around with are experts so I don't get cocky).

But what can I do with all this research material once the game's over? World War Cthulhu has come out and largely disappeared again since I started this campaign. I don't think I could usefully write a game supplement about it, because it's been very much adapted to what interested the players. Suggestions welcome.

Tags: gurps rpgs

  1. Posted by John Dallman at 11:32am on 20 October 2017

    One of the reasons it has worked so well for me is that WWII is (just about) within my cultural horizon. I wasn't born until 16 years after it ended, but I have known people who experienced it directly, and it feels far more "real" for me than most imaginary game settings. Since none of the players are young, that may apply to several of us.

    Another reason is that you've got the magic just about right: it is consistent enough that the characters and players can develop insight into it, but complex enough that surprises are still possible. Supporting that, you've always followed through on the logic of events, so that it has been worthwhile to spend out-of-game time trying to figure out what's happening, and what would be worth trying. I have about 40,000 words of notes from doing that.

    A benefit of all the research material is that the world has always felt thoroughly plausible. There have been places where history has been got wrong, but they've always been ones where it's hard to argue that things could not have happened this way.

    We were also amazingly fortunate in the variety of characters in the game. They are from very assorted backgrounds, but have learned to work together, and to know how they can rely on each other, in spite of disagreements. They've all become more capable and versatile, but they're still people; they haven't become super-beings or monsters.

  2. Posted by Michael Cule at 12:22pm on 20 October 2017

    "The time travel (very limited) wasn't intended to be a part of the setting at the start"

    Yeah, yeah: they all say that...

    Nowadays my players make me promise not to put time travel in at beginning. And dimension hopping. AND the end of the world...

    You could write a novel!

  3. Posted by RogerBW at 12:43pm on 20 October 2017

    John: it may also help that I'm just enough younger that it's just outside my cultural horizon: I haven't known people who've had direct experience of it, and when I was young people a bit older than me simply assumed that everyone knew all about it so they didn't talk about it. So although I got the "everybody knows" clichés (Dunkirk, finest hour, overpaid/oversexed/over here, etc.) at fourth or fifth hand I don't have strong visceral feelings about particular people, events, and so on.

    With a complex magical setup there's always an element of exploring the GM's headspace (this may be how Michael feels about his complex religious setups); it may be that because I have a solid real-world background to rely on I can put most of my inventiveness into creating the puzzle-box rather than making up cultures and geography and so on.

    I'm very much of the opinion that this is the right group of players. People who wanted to play superheroes, or anguished misunderstood souls, wouldn't fit in the game. To be fair, they wouldn't fit in most of my games.

    Michael: the time travel has, now, always been part of the setting from the start.

    The novel would have to have entirely different characters, though…

  4. Posted by Owen Smith at 06:09pm on 20 October 2017

    I was born in 1966, and WWII is outside my cultural horizon. No-one ever talked about it, I didn't find out that the builder my parents used a few times had been a Hurricane pilot in the Battle Of Britain until he died. Lovely man, wish I could find a builder as professional. My parents remember rationing but that's all, one of my grandads was a fire watcher and the other defended Hexthorpe Flats wielding a brush shaft. Dad's Army is as close as my family came to seeing action.

  5. Posted by Dr Bob at 11:14am on 21 October 2017

    WW2 was on my cultural horizon less because the people who had served talked about it, but because the war widows (like Gran) had photos of their husbands in uniform, and because it was just EVERYWHERE in popular culture: comics, songs, movies. We lived just up the coast from the HQ of DC Thomson, so every newsagent was awash in war comics - Commando, Warlord, The Victor. Gran used us kids as an excuse to buy these so she could read them - sometimes by the boxload at a jumble sale. There were also B&W WW2 movies on BBC2 every Saturday afternoon, and quite often colour ones on Saturday evenings. It was also a time when Royal Marines Commando bases held open days (so hordes of screaming schoolkids could run riot across their base) and Remembrance Sunday was a big thing. Showing your mates Grandad's name on the war memorial was a normal thing to do when you went to the park. The fact that my Dad is a lot older than my Mum may also have impacted: Mum's father died at roughly the time Dad was called up for his national service. Dad's contribution to WW2 was to chase some escaped POWs across Dartmoor.

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