Hunting The Griffins
Hunting Infiltrators In The Bulge And Elsewhere
by Michele Armellini
Every roleplayer having a taste for wartime adventures also tends to prefer special operations, where his character can be an independent-minded, highly skilled commando. This one-shot Adventure Pizza, however, will present players with an unusual flavor: the underdog hunting the Übermensch.
The Historical Recipe
The history of the battle of the Bulge is known, and Operation Greif (Griffin) received an extensive treatment in books and films1. This operation was carried out by small German units from SS-Ostubaf. (Lt.Col.) Otto Skorzeny's Panzerbrigade 150, outfitted with American uniforms, equipments, and dogtags, and capable of speaking passable English2. These units slipped beyond the lines right after the initial attacks, and made the American rear areas insecure. Some of them were just out to wreak general havoc, others had specific reconnaissance tasks or were to secure key objectives (like bridges over the Meuse). The commandos travelled on captured 2½-ton trucks or jeeps, while the actually armored part of the Brigade had ordinary German armor but also some captured Shermans, and even a few Panthers "disguised" as American M-10 TDs! A third element of the operation was a paradrop.
Apparently, Hitler had confidence in this plan, while German commanders in the field did not expect much, with the possible exception of the officer Skorzeny's task should have supported most, Jochen Peiper3. The commandos achieved little, from a practical point of view, even though at times whole regiments were misdirected by their tricks. Also, they were quite easily identified when challenged. It's easy to suspect that some of them just tried to stay out of harm's way, waiting for friendlies to catch up4, which is understandable when considering that by their disguise they forfeited the protection of the Geneva Convention.
However, they were successful in one thing: creating confusion, suspicion and chaos; as the word spread around that a G.I. uniform was no guarantee, American soldiers spent a great deal of time checking each other5. Everybody knows that, rather than relying on passwords and documents, M.P.s would ask questions dealing with baseball results, Presidents' names, and other background details that a true American would know.
Overall, Operation Greif wasn't a success. But for a few days, every smiling guy you met on those roads, wearing an uniform much like your own, and speaking your own language, could well be a treacherous enemy, either bent on his devilish plans if he fooled you, or ready to spray you with SMG fire if he didn't . . . a stimulating RPG setting.
The GM can take the ingredients for the starters straight out of the template chapter of GURPS WWII. One of the characters is a seasoned Military Police Corporal (see below), who should go to the most experienced player, while the GM (or players) may choose the others.
It's December 17th. All the PCs are withdrawing in a hurry over the snow-covered country roads, somewhere west of the Our river. A couple of them have been separated from their units, others are with their squad/platoon, on trucks or jeeps. For extra detail, the GM (or players) can concoct hard-luck stories for each of them; the common ingredient is that the Germans' surprise attacks either outflanked or overran the heroes' units. Most of them will be from the 28th "Keystone" (or "Bloody Bucket") Division, and of these, most will be from Pennsylvania.
As the ragbag column reaches a crossroads, they are stopped at a M.P. checkpoint. The M.P. watchdogs seem to be growing impatient with the men of the first 2½-ton truck in the makeshift convoy (see p. W107). Suddenly, the unmistakable noise of incoming rockets is heard. A single explosion throws up blackened snow, not far from the crossroads. Those who fail a roll against Soldier+2 might remain aboard . . . but the others will scramble to the muddy ditch or other cover. As they do so, the soldiers see that, inconceivably, the crew of the first truck at the checkpoint level their guns and fire at the M.P.s! There is a short outburst of fire at the crossroads as the truck sprints away; then, the deafening fire from a Nebelwerfer battery arrives.
When the debris settles, only the heroes are alive and well.
The PCs can now rally. The M.P. Corporal is the only survivor of his detachment, and he'll relay to the others that the captain in that truck had a strange accent. Since the players will know the background, they won't take long to understand what happened.
These survivors have to decide what to do. A roll against Tactics+2 should help them prioritize their choices:
- Warning the nearest HQ about these infiltrators is the top priority, and should be implemented in any case;
- Retreating further West is sensible;
- Pursuing those bloody Krauts is possible and truly gung-ho;
- Setting up an ambush or roadblock is unhealthy but, historically, a brave choice that was often made even by such small and makeshift outfits6.
It would be a good idea to get a functioning set of wheels. This can be made easy, difficult, or impossible (as most of the vehicles are now wrecks, and maybe the only repairable jeep is bumper-to-bumper with smoking hulks). If the survivors think of it, some of them might rummage through the less-damaged vehicles (and they might find something interesting such as a bazooka or demolition charges), while others take care of the jeep (changing tires and repairing minor problems, roll against Mechanic). For hard realism, the PCs should decide what to do with the wounded. A tough decision, as they can't treat them properly, nor transport them. For a softer version, there are no wounded!
Now the players will largely be in control of what the PCs will do. Given the situation (the military euphemism would be "fluid"), anything could happen. Starting with the options above, let them wander along muddy country roads and through gloomy forests, have small clashes with aggressive recon elements, meet panicked stragglers withdrawing West and sullenly determined soldiers ready to make a stand.
Every time they meet a small group of friendlies, the players should never be sure whether they really are friendlies. As the strain of combat and of an impending defeat takes its toll, men nervously fumble with their weapons, say strange things, or just look suspicious. Are they tired Americans or treacherous Germans?
For realism, the GM could devise a way to give the players a clue. Maybe they meet some G.I. that, when questioned, will recall that truck, and the directions those boys asked him for . . . about some bridge to the west. The presence of a M.P. will allow the heroes to set up their own checkpoint if they believe they managed to identify the road the Germans are moving along. This will increase the number of interesting encounters (see the Side Salads options below).
But always, there will be the nagging feeling that the disguised Germans are ahead of the heroes. At crossroads, the posts have no arrows. If the players decide to look for a HQ, the first they find is in shambles: the personnel slaughtered (some of them in cold blood), the radios destroyed. If they decide to set up an ambush, they should survive it and then reel back to the task of hunting the griffins. They'll have a trail of blood and chaos leading up to a key bridge, where the final showdown can take place.
Side SaladsTo complement the main course:
- Mortars Are The True Killers . . . -- The crossroads clearly came under observed fire (roll against Soldier+2 to realize that). If the PCs spend too much time there (failed roll against Tactics), or their activities are too obvious (failed roll against Stealth), the enemy forward observer could call down some more fire! Of course the soldiers could in turn hunt that FO . . . but if he's this close, so is the front line.
- . . . But Panzers Are Scarier -- For a truly frightening encounter, field German armor (p. W103-104 or Pyramid article "Heavy Metal: Four 20th Century Tanks for GURPS"). The PCs will hear them coming, and if they don't fail their rolls (Stealth and/or Camouflage and/or Tactics) they should be able to slip away unnoticed by the clanking monsters -- but on foot, rather than with a highly noticeable vehicle. On the other hand, if they are Overconfident, Impulsive, Fanatical, or just seething for a fight, they might try and use that bazooka.
- Did You Want To Live Forever? -- Officers wanting to make a stand will always have uses for more rifles. As the heroes reach yet another crossroads, a Captain orders them to join his delaying action. Time for using those social skills and Fast-Talk their way through. Unless, of course, the players want to join in. In this case, the first clash won't be against tanks, but against bunches of mud-covered, weary, wiry youngsters with little training but plenty of grenades.
- Question Time -- If the soldiers set up their own checkpoint, the players will probably remember the anecdotes and start asking questions about baseball players and American League results. This can be funny for some time. Then, as nobody trusts anybody, they will be asked questions by those they meet. If there are mistakes on both sides, quite a tense situation can arise -- between two all-American teams!
- Arresting the Colonel -- No less than Gen. Omar Bradley7 was detained for some time (having said that Springfield is the capital of Illinois -- the M.P.s said it was Chicago). Without getting this high, the heroes could be put into a position of trying to arrest some harried and bad-tempered Colonel . . .
- All Lines Are Busy -- Just as that Captain wanted to commandeer the party, the heroes might want to find some help. Unfortunately, HQs at first don't listen to them, then answer that there are too many reports like theirs. Similarly, they run into all kinds of SNAFU, while everybody is busy on their own errands. An artillery Lieutenant tries to requisition their vehicle, a M.P. Sergeant orders them to leave the road free while another wants to send them to Bastogne, nobody has fuel, food, or ammo for them, and so on. They'll need Savoir-Faire (Military), Scrounging, maybe Administration, Acting, Intimidation, Diplomacy.
- And Don't Forget The Weather -- Environmental conditions shouldn't be underestimated. Freezing temperatures at night, snow and drizzle, muddy, rutted roads, a confusing landscape glimpsed through the fog. Here the skills needed are Survival (Woodlands), Driving, Orienteering, and if the vehicle breaks down, Mechanic (or Hiking!).
- The Germans' task is to secure a bridge. When the heroes arrive there, not only have they removed the demolition charges prepared by engineers, they have also convinced a small garrison that the bridge must stand, because destroying it would cut off an entire division. So, unwary Americans are now ready to fight side by side with these scoundrels. The German officer speaks very fluent English with a Yankee accent, and he'll accuse the party of being disguised Germans!
- Every PC comes from a different unit. They don't know each other. Obviously this scenario has potential: who says one of the PCs isn't actually one of them? The slightest hint will let the GM develop that wonderful enemy-within paranoia. For a double bluff, a PC could have a German-American background, a family name like Schmidt, possibly something wrong in his papers, and yet be loyal -- but the others won't trust him a lot!
The showdown should feature the defeat of at least one infiltrator team. If the PCs catch up with them at the bridge, the GM can prepare a detailed setting beforehand and have all kinds of American ordnance ready (a retreating unit discarded a perfectly functioning [insert players' preferred toy here] ).
You could also have a final chase along one of those tortuous, muddy roads, littered with bomb craters, abandoned vehicles, slow-moving ambulances, fleeing civilians on foot and carts, unexploded bombs. See pp. VE143-152 (and the sidebar on p. VE151, in particular!), and/or pp. W150-156; also, the chase rules in GURPS Cops (p. 84).
Or, especially if the Germans are encamped near to unwary Americans (see the Extra Spice option #1), the PCs might use some of the commando tricks on the commandos! They might ambush, employ sudden, accurate sniper fire, or sneaking up on them at night for bayonet work. This last idea is risky if the commandos are worth their salt.
The heroes could also fail. Failure may mean death; these are one-shot characters, so don't be shy about it. Or, the PCs might blunder so badly they never see the commandos again. In this case, have them wander uselessly through the wilderness for a few days, shot up, half-starved and frost-bitten, pick them up by means of some stern M.P. detail, and return them to their units in shame and under allegations of desertion. The GM may then debrief the players and help them understand their mistakes!
While this adventure is designed for a specific setting, the GM can use these ingredients elsewhere, and elsewhen.
First sift out the basic ingredients:
- The situation: an overwhelming enemy attack against a force now on the verge of defeat, extreme environmental conditions, and an enemy that uses both conventional threats and a deceitful, mimetic approach
- The party: a haphazard bunch of strangers with one cop-like guy
- The main enemy: ruthless, treacherous scumbags who have your own uniforms and equipments, speak your own language more or less well, but lack the needed cultural background.
What other settings can the GM use this recipe in?
- Elsewhere in WWII. Mistakes and friendly fire (or no fire on foes) were common in the Desert War, where everyone used everyone else's vehicles. LRDG men tended to use Bedouin garb rather than enemy uniforms, but that's a disguise too, and at night their officers would try with language tricks. On the Eastern Front, there is another, less known Skorzeny stunt: a deep-penetration drop (by means of the Condors of KG 200) of four Jagdkommando Gruppen. The officers were ethnic Germans from the Baltic and the soldiers Russian volunteers (ex-POWs and deserters). The mission was a failure, and details are vague -- but that's a plus from a certain point of view! Plus most players have never played the role of NKVD officers.
- At Lower TLs. Uniforms are less formalized or non-existent, identification systems primitive, and treachery a favored tradition. Common cultural background isn't necessarily a touchstone, because armies often are actually made up of semi-independent tribal or feudal entities: barons will change sides, and one can't expect a Legionary in the Teutoburger Forest to be able to distinguish between allied and enemy tribes. In a Fantasy setting you may have the ultimate infiltrators: Doppelgängers, weres, shapeshifters, or wizards! In a Martial Arts campaign, Skorzeny is (of course) a master ninja.
- At TL7 or 8. GMs should take a look at GURPS Special Ops; when there is a high Acting skill level in the templates, and a mention of foreign language courses on pp. SO56-57, that's the opposition (that would be, for instance, the Delta Force or the KGB Special Troops -- bad news for PCs!). The KGB, in particular, was rumored to have standing plans for high-level infiltrations and assassinations at the very core of NATO HQs, hours before the war that never was. These would have required perfect documents and flawless acting; if the PCs are the guards on duty, they'll have a tough task. There are also have a lot of minor, dirty wars to choose from at these TLs.
- At higher TLs. Uniforms (including company dress for Cyberpunk settings) are common and identification systems sophisticated -- but so are countermeasures, hacking and forgeries. Chips and interfaces solve both the linguistic and the cultural problems. Android robots, brainwashed drones and trained clones all make for extremely dangerous infiltrators. For an alternate history/time travel campaign (for GURPS Time Travel), the commandos might be under a double disguise: they aren't Germans, they're Centrum or Stopwatch agents! And their mission is to kill Ike (so he won't be a President!). The PCs can either be uninformed local inhabitants (such as M.P.s on duty with SHAEF, and their task will be daunting), or I-Cops or Timepiece agents. Note that in this setting, that battered 2½-ton truck can be a wondrous vehicle and a mobile parachronic conveyor too!
There should be a good mix of characters: at least a grunt rifleman, maybe a rookie Lieutenant, and an engineer would be useful. As to the selection of advantages and disadvantages, bear in mind that, in keeping with the hallowed war film traditions, this should be a smorgasbord -- let the PCs have different motives and contrasting traits. Typically, there could be an idealistic hero wannabe (maybe the Lieutenant), a cautious good-for-nothing, a "kill-the-Krauts" hot head, and some ordinary workmanlike soldiers. Or there could be different, but less clichéd characters. Regardless, having variety will encourage active roleplaying within the group.
If the group does have a Lieutenant or Sergeant, there may be the command issue. The GM should try exploiting it as an additional roleplaying tool, rather than being bound by it; the GM should give the Lieutenant character to the right player. If, nevertheless, he wants to order the other players around, the GM may create a situation where the Lieutenant's inexperience becomes embarrassingly evident, and encourage the Corporal to offer "suggestions."
If it seems the players will need added motivation, one or more of the heroes should have a buddy (all soldiers tended to have a foxhole buddy who'd be exactly a GURPS Ally) . . . and he gets killed in the opening scene.
Don't forget the players are likely to grasp what's happening faster than their real counterparts, because of their own "intelligence officer" General Hindsight. While it's possible to enforce rolls against IQ or specific skills if the GM wants to limit that effect, it could also be considered as part of the fun. The GM shouldn't be afraid if one of the players has read all the books about this battle. The ingredients above are designed to be typical in flavor but generic enough to avoid too many details (and the inevitably attached problems). But above all, this is the GM's show; if the history buff says "this isn't realistic!", the GM can counter with, "It's uncommon, but it happened . . . this time." (Or " . . . on this planet." The players can really be thrown off-balance with that! How do they know this isn't an alternate Earth?). And since the players (and characters) are likely to never know exactly where they are, the GM doesn't need to worry about accurate geographic details: It's "a crossroads somewhere near St. Vith" or "a hamlet, with no traffic signs, and the grunts garrisoning it can't agree on the name," or "the platoon's jester called it Frozen Meat Ridge, and the name stuck."
The GM should keep things moving. If the heroes are slacking or the players are getting less interested, have everyone make a Hearing roll. Engines and tank tracks in the distance!
A Ready-Made Military Police Corporal
[Total Points: 100]
ST 12 ; DX 12 ; IQ 11 ; HT 12 .
Advantages: Acute Vision +1 ; Fit ; Legal Enforcement Powers 10 ; Military Rank 1 ; Strong Will +2 . [Total: 30].
Disadvantages: Bad Temper [-10]; Duty (on 15 or less) [-15]; Honesty [-10]; Reputation -2 (rear-echelon man and M.P. watchdog, from frontline soldiers) [-5]. [Total: -40].
Skills: Administration-9 [½]; Armoury (small arms)-10 ; Brawling-14 ; Camouflage-11 ; Climbing-11 ; Driving (automobile)-12 ; First-Aid-10 [½]; Gambling-10 ; Guns (pistol)-13* ; Guns (rifle)-13* ; Hiking-10 ; Intimidation-12 ; Knife-12 ; Law (military law/regulations)-9 ; Leadership-9 [½]; Motorcycle-11 [½]; Orienteering-10 ; Savoir-Faire (military)-10 [½]; Shortsword/Club-14 ; Soldier-12 ; Spear-10 [½]; Stealth-11 ; Streetwise-11 ; Survival (woodlands)-9 [½]; Tactics (M.P.)-9 .
Languages: English-11 ; French-9 [½].
* +1 Bonus due to IQ.
The Legal Enforcement Powers are worth 10 points because they are (in practice) less clearly defined and limited than those of an ordinary policeman. M.P.s did not enjoy a good reputation with front troops. Duty is exacting but not "Extremely Hazardous," as a rule (in this adventure it will be!).
The Corporal still remembers something from his basic training and may have had some combat experience. Note how he's geared towards breaking up an unarmed brawl, and to prevent troubles by sheer intimidation. He's got a smattering of police-like skills, and those suitable for his rank. The character creation chapters of GURPS WWII and GURPS Cops were used.
1 Classic fictional treatment in the film The Battle of the Bulge, by Ken Annakin (1965).
2 Stephen E. Ambrose, Citizen Soldiers.
3 SS-ObersturmbannfÜhrer (Lieutenant-Colonel) Peiper commanded the most famous attacking unit, the SS-Pz.Regt. 1.
4 Alex King, Operation 'Greif' 1945, in Wargames Illustrated #120.
6 John Eisenhower, The Bitter Woods.
Other Sources Not Listed Above
- Hasso von Manteuffel's essay, in Entscheidungsschlachten des Zweiten Weltkrieges, ed. by Jacobsen & Rohwer (for the strategic outlook from the German point of view)
- GURPS WWII: Hand of Steel (of course)
- http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/article.cfm?ld=413 (for a reasonably comprehensive bibliography)
- http://www.ospreypublishing.com/titles/0850457408 (for the list of Osprey titles about this battle)
- http://sites.state.pa.us/PA_Exec/Military_Affairs/excel.htm (for a brief history of the 28th Infantry Division)
- http://rhino.shef.ac.uk:3001/mr-home/bulge/7-8_cont.html (for a very detailed, on-line history of the battle)
- http://www.wssob.com/150bripzr.html (for an OoB of PzBde. 150 -- warning: you might find this site unsavory)
- http://www.go2war2.nl/landmacht/_voertuigen-gepantserd/dui_pzkfw-5_panter/varianten.htm (for a look at the "Ersatz M10")
Article publication date: May 17, 2002
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