Designer's Notes: GURPS World War II

by Gene Seabolt

After a considerable period of building tensions, the Second World War brewed up suddenly and quickly blossomed into the largest conflict in human history. Perhaps fittingly, GURPS WWII followed a similar course on its way to your local game store.

The idea of a GURPS sourcebook for WWII had been sitting on the back burner for years before I first reopened the topic in 1999. My proposal for a strictly historical sourcebook met with a wide variety of spirited feedback. This administered the first difficult lesson of this process, which was that different people have very different concepts for what a WWII sourcebook should be. Regardless of the details of those various visions, the consensus seemed to be that a sourcebook worthy of GURPS would not limit itself to a straight history lesson. With this and a few other sweeping revisions to ponder, as well as increasing duties in GURPS Traveller, I moved WWII to my back burner, as well.

Early this year, the opportunity presented itself to again revisit the idea of a WWII sourcebook, and a continuing line stemming from that. Steve gave the project a green light, and a short time later Creative Director Phil Reed asked for a Dec. 7 deadline, for obvious marketing reasons. That left a window of a little over six months to go from concept to finished product, a tall order but not an impossible one.

Laying the Groundwork

The first order of business was creating the modular vehicle-design system that former Managing Editor Alain Dawson and I had decided would be a good tool for increasing the book's cross-genre support. As editor on GURPS Traveller Ground Forces, I had found David Pulver's modular system in that book a vast improvement over flipping through GURPS Vehicles seeking those portions that specifically applied to the Traveller universe.

I held no illusions that a comparable WWII system could be as reader-friendly. To begin with, things get a lot more complicated when describing more than one mode of movement. (The Ground Forces grav vehicles fly. That's it.) More importantly, the WWII system had to provide results at least within hailing distance of a reality that isn't always defined in GURPS terms. For instance, many sources list the top speed for the infamous Tiger tank at 23 mph, but more detailed accounts explain that the tank actually could reach 28 mph although one didn't want to make a habit of driving at that speed. (Unless, of course, one really enjoys swapping out 1-ton powerpacks in the rear areas of a combat zone.) Thus, the "real" top speed usually given for a Tiger doesn't actually coincide with what GURPS considers top speed -- and never mind that no real-world statistic is going to give a very good idea of what the stability rating should be. Furthermore, real-world statistics aren't nearly as consistent as those derived from Vehicles -- the design system would have to be sufficiently fuzzy to allow for this.

Armed with a mountain of real-world data, I began building a modular system that recognized it couldn't be real simplistic when it came to determining final performance statistics, but tried to make up for it by being as simple to use as possible before then. In this vein, I unashamedly swiped the old Car Wars method of applying armor to vehicles, as well as its fixed menu of several predefined chassis. Boiling down and condensing the pertinent Vehicles content through the rest of the process, I ended up with a first-draft system that (as far as I could tell) was internally consistent but had only passed a few rough reality checks. Deadlines only know one mode of travel -- rushing forward remorselessly -- and mine certainly didn't lack for speed, so it was time to begin playtest and let fresh sets of eyes improve the process.

The Brouhaha Begins

As many Pyramid readers know, we originally intended to post the WWII playtest files as PDFs of the already laid-out pages ready to go to the printer. This wasn't because we couldn't post the extracted text, but because it's a lot easier to read content that's already been paginated. However, posting a preformatted and printable version of a product we had not yet brought to market struck us as pushing our luck a bit much -- not that we don't trust the vast majority of our audience, but the old saw about one bad apple certainly would apply here. So, we posted the content with the option to print disabled. It took many playtesters about 1.7 seconds to circumvent that precaution, but others who didn't like being forced to read the content on their screens voiced their displeasure.

That protest went hand in hand with the even larger controversy being generated by playtesters who didn't think that WWII should have a modular-design system. They had valid points, but the reality remained that the design rules took up 1% of the space that it would take to properly describe every WWII-era vehicle in which players might take an interest and provided the tools for GMs and players to stretch their imaginations in the time-honored GURPS tradition. The old saw that applies this time would be the one about giving a fish or teaching how to fish; even after weighing the dissenters' arguments, I had no doubt that the design system would be an asset for the book.

Others, meanwhile, were protesting that GURPS WWII should be more of a strictly historical book -- describing something very much along the lines of my 1999 outline. I had to turn down this opportunity to gloat, because I already had admitted to myself that the earlier feedback expanding WWII's vision had been correct, and that a sourcebook supporting a wider breadth of genres would be the better product, even if it did risk offending some purists.

Finally, we recognized that Pyramid playtests were starting to show a great deal of hard-to-digest, back-and-forth discussion, and that WWII was a topic with plenty of often opposing viewpoints to generate debate. So we asked playtesters to follow some new ground rules to minimize the noise-to-signal ratio. While most playtesters understood the needs expressed by these rules (for which I'm eternally grateful), a few voiced their displeasure with these new restrictions, as well.

Heaping these controversies atop one another, WWII certainly was gaining attention, though not of a sort of which I was particularly fond . . .

Apocalypse in 100 Words or Fewer

Meanwhile, I was madly at work on the rest of the book. As daunting as the vehicle system had been to that time, the historical passages in Chapter 1 proved no less challenging. A war that spans more than five years and scores of countries does not lend itself to brevity. Balancing theater against battle against anecdote, I assembled an overview that felt fairly complete, but still left plenty of room for additional books in the line to expand upon various topics.

Chapter 2 didn't give me a break, either. I wanted to compare the armed forces of the major combatants in a strictly organized, apples-to-apples fashion, beginning with a comprehensive review of the general Western military structure (for which I brazenly cribbed the concept from GDW's Striker). This should have been easier than it was, but I discovered that -- among the thousands of references on WWII -- very few actually approach the military mechanics without basing the discussion on an existing (and undescribed) body of knowledge for fellow military professionals. Neither being such a professional nor writing for them, I had to tackle the topic largely from scratch, but came away largely satisfied with the results.

The next step was creating the small-arms lists for the book, for which I turned to one of the GURPS community's resident experts, Hans-Christian Vortisch. While Hans-Christian and I can't always agree on the time of day (even allowing for the time-zone differential between Austin and Germany), I wasn't about to leave his vast storehouse of knowledge untapped. Based largely on his invaluable work, we put together a weapons list that passed through playtest with just a handful of modifications. Meanwhile, longtime WWII campaigner and indispensable resource Shawn Fisher provided the vast equipment list that begins the chapter.

Return of the Modular System

It was now time to return to the modular system and address the mountain of problems that playtesters had discovered. Vehicles expert Kenneth Peters did more than his share of work in this venue, and came up with a particularly elegant modification of the airplane-design system that worked wonders on the system's inconsistencies. A great deal of additional input was incorporated into the design system's final form. (The only major exception would be the suggestion that varying frame strengths be offered, because it would have opened a Pandora's box of wildly ahistorical design possibilities and added a good deal of complexity.) David Pulver was, of course, of immense aid in finalizing and tweaking the content, and in keeping an eye on the potential ramifications of applying the upcoming Vehicles Expansions to WWII.

With a tighter, better design system in hand, it was time to put it to the best test by designing the corebook's sample vehicles with it. The first handful of vehicles went surprisingly well in the design system, but proved that I had grossly underestimated the amount of space each vehicle would take up in print. Painfully, I had to cut some writeups, such as the legendary Japanese battleship Yamato, to make room for staple gear.

Overall, though, the samples validated the playtest-purified design system quite nicely -- until I got to looking at the long-established GURPS vehicle-combat system summarized in the book. Vehicles has always overvalued the penetrating power of TL6 weaponry vs. TL6 armor in comparison with the historical. I had previously joined Mr. Pulver in hand-waving this by explaining that, even if a shell did not technically pierce real-life armor, it still did real damage to the vehicle overall. (A radio bolted to a bulkhead when a 50mm round smacks the other side probably won't work too well afterward . . .) This after-the-fact justification worked just fine, until Mr. Vortisch insisted that the major combatants incorporated explosive charges in most of the armor-piercing rounds listed as strictly AP today. Modeling an APEX round as penetrating armor before going bang! isn't quite as justifiable as modeling a solid piece of shot penetrating armor that it shouldn't penetrate.

With this in mind, we reapproached the Vehicles benchmark of 1" of hard steel equaling DR 70. Previous vehicle designs have taken this to mean armor-quality steel, but taking the conversion at face value, could we model better grades of Vehicles armor as face-hardened varieties with better performance per inch than strictly "hard steel?" Our research indicated we could nicely fit that assumption into the design system, and with some tweaks to the cannon designs to make them more historical, we ended up with a system that finally allows a Panther to bounce off its nose the 75mm shells from a standard Sherman.

The Complete Package

At this point, things were moving along well. Steve had read the book and applied his own formidable knowledge of the topic to it. So had our resident WWII grognard Loren Wiseman -- it shames me to no end that I forgot to credit his informal aid to the process in the book -- and other SJ Games stalwarts had reviewed various passages. The December 7 release date that we had been trumpeting was fast arriving, and lots of people outside the usual GURPS sphere were expressing interest in the book.

This interest, coupled with the fact that a workable vehicle-combat system already was included in the book, led me to suggest that we expand the page count to include a WWII-specific version of the popular GURPS Lite condensed rules. Steve agreed to the change, and GURPS Line Editor Sean Punch did his usual exemplary job of crafting a succinct set of modern-combat rules in record time. Incorporating material scattered among various other GURPS supplements, this version of Lite will be handy to experienced GURPS players and newcomers alike, in my opinion. Regardless, it transforms GURPS WWII into a stand-alone game package, and hopefully one that will attract new players to an outstanding game system. Its last-minute inclusion transformed a smooth process into our usual last-minute scramble to get the book ready for the printer, but it was well worth it.

The Outcome

While reader feedback will be the ultimate jury, of course, a lot of talented people around here -- with myself as no more than ringleader among them -- have created what I think is an outstanding addition to the GURPS library and a promising start to what promises to be an exciting line. Certainly, the book's creative process generated more than its share of tension, but I'll ask forgiveness for any missteps there and ask Pyramid's audience to evaluate the book on its own merits. We'll get things smoothed out and look to improve as the line moves along.

Article publication date: December 7, 2001

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