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Friday 8 May 2015

RPGPundit Reviews: In Harm's Way: Pigboats

This is a review of the RPG "In Harm's Way: Pigboats", written by Clash Bowley, published by Flying Mice Games.  It is (as usual) a review of the print edition, which is a softcover book, 188 pages long (not counting the index), with a full-color cover and black and white illustrations.

For the sake of transparency I have to note that many years ago now, Clash Bowley and Flying Mice published my very first RPG, ("Forward... to Adventure!", and its supplement "FtA!GN!"); but I honestly do not think that this will have a significant effect on the objectivity of my review.

Pigboats is a game in the IHW series, which all have relatively similar rules; I've reviewed quite a few of these before.  From napoleonic sailing ships to WWI flying aces, to this present game, the IHW series is some of the most carefully-detailed military-themed RPGs ever.  All of them have in common a combination of (more traditional) playing of specific characters with almost wargame-like vehicle combat systems of some kind.  In this case, the theme is of "American Submariners in World War II", specifically in the Pacific theatre of operations.

The game system of Pigboats is essentially similar to every other IHW-series game, so I'll refer you to one of the earlier reviews for more details.

In Pigboats, troupe play is very strongly encouraged.  That is, you will play a number of different PCs, switching between them as the adventure demands. This allows players to be active in different areas of the action, playing officers and enlisted men, taking on a variety of activities.

One of the challenges of this type of rigid military RPG is that you have a chain of command; this is not the type of game where you get to play rebel loners (at least not without very extreme complications) and PCs will be routinely needing to take (and give) orders from (and to) other PCs.  There's the question of who gets to be the commanding officer of the boat; the author presents a few choices: either the Players could vote for it among themselves, or you could have an auction system where players sacrifice points to bid on their rank (which only works if you are using the point-buy system for character generation).

So on that subject of character creation, you can derive attributes in Pigboats either by random rolls or by point buy (I think the former is something that did not appear in all the IHW series, where earlier books in the series pretty much required point-buy, so this is a great innovation).  You can pick your background skills by a template (with template options right out of war movies: like "the cowboy", "the professor", "the farmboy", "the playboy", "the charmer", "the crook", etc.), or use are more detailed "directed" method. After that, there's the standard "Traveller-esque" system of serving terms wherein you gain skills for each term you served. You also may or may not go to college, and you'll have some "avocation" skills representing hobbies, interests, etc.

As in other IHW games, in Pigboats your rank (after the initial process) is determined by how much "Notice" you get.  Notice is an "in-game representation of your superior's opinion of you.  Gain enough notice, and you get a promotion. Commander is the highest rank that's typically found on a sub, so if you get yourself promoted past that to Captain, you are basically promoted off the sub.  Likewise, if there's a situation where there are too many officers of a certain subaltern rank on the sub, one or more of them will get transferred away.  In those situations, their players will have to make new (ensign rank) characters.  Alternately, its possible to play in "wolf pack" mode, where if an executive officer makes command rank, he may move to a new sub (possibly taking some of the other PCs with him), while others remain on the old one; and you then proceed to run adventures on BOTH subs (with players making new characters for whichever sub their current characters aren't on).

Overall, my feeling is that as Bowley has progressed in his work, he's gotten more and more capable at streamlining the character creation process compared to his earlier RPGs. I guess that's one advantage of repeating the same system.

As before, there's a fairly gigantic list of skills, all quite appropriate. Amusingly, Bowley actually addresses this with a two-page essay/guideline called "a digression on skills", where he addresses some of the concerns that come up from people who might complain there are too many skills, and in essence says not to worry about it, as the real cause of that complaint is that usually games with a lot of skills have a lot of exclusivity, exceptions, and special rules about when skills can or should be used.  Instead he advises that GMs shouldn't stress these things and that in Pigboats the GM should play fast and loose with the skills and focus on playability rather than being too anal about it all (note: nowhere does he say "anal", that's my word, not his).

Repeating one of the curious quirks of Bowley's games, the "task resolution" system is actually four different systems, based on the theory that a given GM/group might like one more than another.  There's the "Starnova" system, the "Starzero", "Starperc" and "Starpool" system. All of them, curiously, use the exact same stats from the characters, they just use different die-rolling mechanics:  starperc is a d% roll-under system, starzero is a D6-D6+skill system, starnova is a D6 pool system (where you have to roll over a difficulty number), and starpool is a D20 pool system (where you have to count successes).

On the one hand, the opportunity to present a variety of methods to do task resolution is a kind of perk.  On the other, it means that it takes 30 pages of the 190 page book to cover task-resolution and you'll only end up actually using roughly 25% of those 30 pages.  I'm not entirely sure four whole task resolution systems are really necessary; two might have been enough.  None of them are stunningly innovative, as you might have guessed from the brief descriptions above (not that any are really awful, either).

There's a section on NPCs, with various tables for quick-rolling NPCs' skills, stats, personalities, wealth/status, as well as missions and objects of missions.  These tables, I believe, were cut/pasted from earlier books; in any case, the missions/objects tables seem somewhat out of place.  I'm not too sure how a "prophet" or "refugee" or even a "member of a political cabal" can somehow find their way onto a U.S. submarine.  The "missions" just don't seem to fit the very claustrophobic setting.
There's also quick statblocks for typical NPCs, but as these are for "soldiers & airmen", I think they were probably cut/paste from the "IHW: Aces In Spades" game (the WWI-pilot version of IHW).  I have to say that's a bit sloppy.

I'll note that later on there are a set of optional 'events' that happen in "shore leave", which are new material, and are generated with a deck of playing cards.

Where the book gets back on track is in its section on Submarines.  Like most of the IHW books, there is a sort of game-within-a-game; whether its dealing with ships, airplanes, the logistics of mercenary companies, or now submarines, you get a whole set of very detailed rules to govern the object-theme of the game.  In this case there's a tremendous amount of detail of how the WWII subs are equipped, their methods of things like positioning, how to handle combat, schematics (with modifications as the war progresses), a targeting chart, rules to govern escaping/sea-chases and chances of detection, details on all the different sections of the sub, and the different classes of U.S. subs in operation.  A bit further down you get very wargame-like "vehicle control sheets" which are for each type of sub, with little boxes to mark the different stats for the sub as they change.

Contrary to the earlier tables I mentioned, here we find some new tables, where you can randomly roll which type of sub your party starts in, where their home base is, what's their primary mission (that is to say, in which area of the pacific naval theatre will they be operating) and the types of missions they'll be having (this time realistic missions based on the sort of things subs were actually doing back then, like recon, patrol, rescue, etc.).

Besides the floorplans, we get some nice maps of the different regions of activity.  Also, all the tables have modifications based on what year you are running things in. There are also encounter tables (for ship encounters; things like convoys, small craft, aircraft, naval task forces), with rolls also for the types of ships encountered.  Again this is all adapted by year.  Successful missions earn the sub "mod points" which are used to be assigned improvements to the sub (some improvements happen automatically over the course of the war, of course).

There are likewise detailed lists of what kind of activities generate "notice", various kinds of awards and decorations (with images so you know what they look like), and guns. Plus more details on patrol areas, torpedoes, and lots of other stuff like that.

Finally, we get a sample adventure, 25 pages long, called "Turmoil in Turk".  It's set in 1942 in the Caroline Islands region. There's pregenerated officers, but they're optional. The adventure begins with an optional roleplaying-focused scene in Pearl Harbor. There's some NPCs for the characters to meet and interact with.  They get their mission, which is to patrol and sink ships. There's also a fairly suicidal recon mission to conduct in the Turk islands.
Then we get some information about the Japanese forces in the area, both their ships and their commanders.

The adventure in some ways highlights my issues with Pigboats.  By definition, a theme of any "submarine" setting is claustrophobia, of limited space, of being (as the game itself publicizes in its back cover) "under pressure". As certain war movies have shown, that makes for potentially excellent drama, but I'm not sure if it will make for an excellent RPG campaign unless you have a very specific kind of group. In other IHW games there's more opportunities for interacting in ways different from just the main theme.  In Pigboats, its submarine combat, close-quarter RP with other PCs or NPCs on the sub, the occasional shore leave, and recon missions where you'll mostly be shooting at people.

I think that a certain type of group might love this kind of thing.  I also think that the average group won't, though, not for more than a couple of sessions.


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  1. The WWI flying ace game is really fun. What was it called again?

  2. Thank you, Pundit! Great review! As always, well written and in depth. Much appreciated!

    I've run three campaigns of this game, with two separate groups, and had some tremendous gaming. I think if you have the right crew, you can really rock this game.

    Matt Celis - that game was IHW: Aces In Spades. The WWII Aces game was called IHW: Aces And Angels.

    1. Clash, when is your rock'n'roll game coming out?

    2. The modern air combat game is good, too. was that Wild Blue?

    3. I'm sure that with the right group you definitely could. Either big fans of war movies or (I'd assume) people with military background maybe..

    4. Matt - High Strung was released in pdf in December. The print version is being re-laid out and published by another publisher. Tommy Brownell reviewed it recently -

      And yes, the modern air combat game was IHW: Wild Blue.

    5. Actually, my groups were neither, Pundit. My face to face group watched a couple submarine movies to get the idea, and we were all set to go. My IRC group just started out.

    6. Well, I'm sure that if you run it, you'd know just how to make it awesome.

  3. Sounds a lot like Star Trek (esp. the original series) in many respects. The way my group plays it, this would probably fit right in, in fact. If it's a success, will you add an Atlantic expansion? :)

    1. Hi Werekoala!

      I have been thinking of doing one based on British subs in the Atlantic. American subs did little there, but the Brits were very busy.

      I am of two minds about making a German Uboat game. It would be exciting, but is ultimately doomed.

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  5. There is a pdf of the Actual Play reports I did for my first Pigboats campaign while playtesting the game located on the Pigboats page. Here's a link to the pdf. This can give you all a flavor of what can be done with the game: