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Wednesday, 23 August 2017

RPGPundit Reviews: Operation Whitebox

I've seen a lot of OSR products out there. Clones, creative new rulesets, sci-fi, horror, dark fantasy, non-European D&D settings, gonzo, medieval-authentic, and more.  This is the first time I've seen the OSR rules adapted into a World War II game.

WWII:Operation Whitebox is an OSR RPG, written by Pete Spahn, published by Small Niche Games.  The version I'm reviewing is the print edition (as always), and it comes in a lovely smaller-than-average height hardcover.  It features a full-color cover of a typical WWII scene, with the interior in black and white featuring appropriate art (plus a color map of occupied Europe in 1944). It's 166 pages long, not counting the ads at the back.

The book starts out with a brief "what is roleplaying" type of deal, which I would normally consider a waste of time in an OSR game, but in this case I guess it might be appropriate; I could envision someone who otherwise never plays OSR games picking this up because of the setting.

The game is set up to be "Swords & Wizardry" compatible.  I mean, being OSR it's basically compatible with any OSR product, but it's specifically made to fit the S&W ruleset.  Not that you need those separately to play, all the rules are included in this book.

After rolling attributes in the basic way, you roll next for nationality.  The options are American, British, Canadian, German, French or Russian.  It's a bit odd to me that German is included (the assumption is that it's Germans who were living abroad or the "Uberlaufer" (the turncoats who defected to serve the allies).  I think this is a weird inclusion when the Polish Free Army was excluded, in spite of being the 4th largest Allied force in the war, after the USSR, USA, and Britain. There were more of them than there were French, for crap's sake!

Your nationality affects which languages you speak. Then you roll for social class ("blue collar" or "white collar" are the only two options), and your former profession on a table appropriate to your social background. This grants you some basic skills.
Then you roll for Military Rank, which has a 4/6 chance of being enlisted (with ranks ranging from PFC to Sgt) or Officer (ranging from 2nd lt. to Major).  Prior background does not affect the roll.

In any case, the assumption is that the PCs are playing a "special forces unit", so the highest ranking character might not necessarily be the one actually in charge, and in any case it will be assumed that lower-ranked PCs will at least get a bit more say than in the normal military unit.

So, what are the character classes here? You've got the "Charmer" who are basically charisma-guys (some of their abilities actually involve targets making saving-throws to believe them; so some OSR gamers might have a problem with that, even though it's basically charm-person, only non-magical). Then there's the "Combat Engineer" who knows stuff like mechanics and demolitions. There's the "Grunt" who's your basic soldier and good at fighting. There's the Maquis (the French resistance) who have some stealthy talents and contacts. Snipers, who are pretty self-explanatory; and Tacticians, who are great at making plans and rallying troops. That latter class also jumps into the meta-game; one of his abilities is to come up with great plans, and the GM is encouraged to basically suggest changes or improvements to whatever his player comes up with. So again, something that might not sit well with extremely traditionalist OSR guys.
There's also the Wheelman, who are crack drivers; and the Uberlaufers, who are the aforementioned 5th column/deserters from Germany who are fighting with the allies.

The classes only go to level 5, avoiding jumping into highly unrealistic levels of play.  But there's also optional rules for making more heroic or "inglorious" levels of play; the former replaces the standard hit die with a d10; the latter with a d20.

The equipment chapter has all the kit you might need for WWII action. Weapon damage is fairly uniform (in the S&W style) with most hits doing either 1d6-1, 1d6 or 1d6+1. Of course, that's enough for a bullet to kill someone at 1st level, so that's OK.  Amusingly, ancient armor is included in the equipment, even though no one wore it, and its armor bonus isn't better than standard heavy clothes against bullets and modern weapons. Helmets don't add to AC, but they grant a +1 bonus to saving throws.
Armor Class is given in both descending and ascending values. PCs, being special forces units, start with a base AC7 (or 12 ascending), to reflect their higher level of training. DEX optionally modifies AC; I suspect it's optional because of S&W/0D&D rules, even though obviously in a WWII game you want Dex to modify armor class, since no one is going to be otherwise wearing armor.

The rules follow with mainly the basic rules found in S&W's version of the OSR format.  One important change is experience: you don't gain any XP for treasure.  Instead xp is gained for beating opponents, using class abilities to complete the mission, completing side missions, and completing assigned missions. In any case, the rate of XP gain is likely to be slower than regular, but that's in following with a game that only goes to level 5.
Optional rules are provided for a "gut check", a kind of exceptional luck check in a hail-mary situation. Also for "trial by fire", which is this rulebook's version of a DCC Funnel (make various PCs, put them through a highly deadly scenario, the ones who survive are the final characters).

In combat rules, the basic to-hit roll doesn't seem to scale with level (unless I misread it), though some classes get certain bonuses. That's OK too, given that without D&D style armor PCs will be far more vulnerable. The way the rules are set up for cover and concealment makes taking these options much more important than in standard D&D play, because they're a big help to making it harder for people to hit you (considering that by default, on average, PCs will be hit on a 12+ on a D20, and a bullet is quite likely to kill you).  By default, a PC dies at reaching 0hp, though there are some optional rules that can be used to mitigate that. Healing is slow (1d3 per day to start out).

Rules are provided for burst fire and suppressive fire. Also explosives.  There's also vehicle combat rules, though these are mainly done from the perspective of characters, don't expect a tank-fight mini-game out of it. Likewise, although a couple of planes get stats, and there's rules for a strafing run, the game rules don't really cover material for detailed aerial combats.

There's a chapter with a sample play scenario script, which could be useful for total beginners. It's 11 pages long.
After this, a chapter on NPCs and animals, which gives templates of various types of NPCs (civilians, soldiers and officers of both sides) and a few animals one might just run into in the European/North-african front. There's  also a section on Special Forces equipment, stuff like matchbox cameras, gun sleeves, and disguise kits.

Then we get into the section on running a WWII campaign. It writes almost from an assumption that the reader might know nothing about the war, explaining the basic situation ("who is at war?") and the various areas of conflict. Fortunately, that section is not very long. It goes on to explain the different types of campaigns you could be running. There's also advice on things to make srue to do in your campaign (stuff like how to use vehicles, background scenery, and atmosphere. There's sidebar about the holocaust, again explaining it in brief as though the reader might never have heard anything about it. But it omits mentioning that in fact most people DURING the war had no idea the holocaust was happening (though in fact, some special forces operatives might discover just such a horror).

There's a section breaking down the different types of real-life special forces units that operated during the war, on both sides. This section is detailed and actually quite useful, as it is certainly material that people who don't have a highly detailed knowledge of WWII history won't already know.  There's also a section mentioning other types of adventures that can be had besides the list of typical special-forces missions. This includes stuff like 'shore leave' adventures, games where the PCs are all crewmen of a tank or other vehicle, games where the PCs are Red Army, or German Commandos if you want to play the other side; as well as alt-history scenarios. It's also noted that the game is compatible with S&W and White Star, so you can add fantasy or sci-fi elements quite easily to create an alternate-world version of WWII.

There's a short but sufficiently useful timeline of the period, ranging from 1933 to 1945, mostly focusing on military and war events.  Curiously, the Spanish Civil War is completely left out of the timeline, which I think is quite the omission as it was a very important pre-war event for both the Nazis and the Soviets.
Then you get a very detailed chronological list of the major special forces operations, ranging from Operation Collar (1940, the first mission of British Commandos), to Operation Varsity in March 1945.
This list is gold, since it basically presents a chronological set of events for a special forces campaign.

There follows a 14 page introductory scenario "Resistance at the Ponteville Bridge".  It is a decent enough introductory scenario, but my main complaint, which may not actually bother some people at all while bothering others quite a bit more than me, is that the scenario (and even the town it takes place in) is entirely fictitious. This when there would have been tons of actually historical scenarios that could have been used.

After this, in what I might consider the last normal section of the book, there's a very short (couple of pages long) set of Mass Combat rules. They're made to be very abstract, reminiscent to me of (in terms of complexity level, not in any way suggesting copying) the mass combat system I used in Dark Albion; and I think they're just fine for someone who wants to have easy and general rules to handle large battles that happen during a session.  That said, I think GMs who might want more detailed battles could probably do so by pausing the game and using their favorite wargame rules to play out the big battle (assuming they didn't just want to railroad-in the historical results).  If you went the wargaming route, I couldn't sufficiently recommend the excellent Memoir '44, which I think is a great complement to this game (and the battles only take 25-45 minutes to play out a battle, so you don't have to pause the game for six hours to run the wargame).

This is not the end of the book, however what follows I think is more along the lines of 'appendix' material. It consist of alternate-scenarios, each various pages long. The first is all about WWII with Nazi Superscience. It's short and basically presents some weird-science nazi supermonsters.

Second, is Nazi Occult. It's OK, but I feel a bit hobbled by sticking to D&D-imitation; the monsters are Monster Manual stuff and the magic is just slightly-modified D&D spells.  I find this less satisfying than going the Cthulhu route, and way less satisfying than having gone some kind of authentic-occult route.

The third is "Space War 1939", and is based on the premise that space-flight was developed in the 1920s. It's got some interesting sci-fi ideas, including weird technology (including 'space rails') and bio-engineered alien creatures.

So, on the whole I have to say that I am fairly impressed.  I had come in with serious doubts as to whether the OSR, much less the specific S&W rules-structure, could credibly manage to handle WWII as a setting.  But at this point, I'm convinced. The system, with the careful alterations made by the author, should work nicely. Particularly for a grittier and realistic sort of WWII special forces campaign. Any mis-steps or omissions are really quite minimal. The material in the book is ample enough to give the GM what they need to set up the campaign and run it effectively.

You might never have expected to use OSR rules to run a WWII commando campaign, but with Operation Whitebox, you definitely have that option now.


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  1. Can you mash this in some way into the DDC campaign, please :)

  2. Nice review of what sounds like a nifty game.

  3. Thanks! It's always fun to see how people adapt games to new modalities and directions. Honestly, it never really occurred to me that "1e D&D" could be used for something like WWII, so it's great to see someone turned a mad passion into a workable idea, and then went and published it.

  4. Honestly, until I saw White Star, I didn't think the OSR was suited for anything other than fantasy. I was always going to make a WWII RPG, just hadn't decided on the system until then. Thanks for the review!