Designer's Notes: GURPS WWII: Iron Cross

by Gene Seabolt

First things first: I promise I won't bore you with a "Making of Iron Cross" documentary as I did with the GURPS WWII designer's notes. As the first full-sized supplement in the WWII line, Iron Cross shares the corebook's development backstory, with nary a thing to add to it. (For those who are interested in the development of this line, see "Designer's Notes: GURPS World War II" in the archives. It has an official 3.43 approval rating and an unofficial 9.8 snooze rating. We're reserving the 10.0 rating for the long-anticipated Quarterly Royalty Report Designer's Notes article.)

I can even get the obligatory "thank yous" out of the way in good time: Hans-Christian Vortisch, thank you. It is a little bit alarming when Hans dredges up firearms overlooked by every other historian of men putting holes in other men. But I cannot overly advertise the value he added to Iron Cross with his research. The playtesters caught many a serious error and added many an appreciated insight, of course. Steve paid the bills and paved the way, as always. But Hans . . . well, there aren't all that many people in this world who can school me on the technical merits of the Nebelwerfer.

Oh, and one last thing to get said and done up front: Nazism was all an immense shame that plunged well below the level of crying. Iron Cross does its job as a roleplaying resource. It treats the Nazis and their soldiers as the human beings they were, and it even provides enough background to step into the skin of a Nazi who gets up in the morning and feels good about himself. Don't anyone confuse that with approval, please.

Hey, You're Boring Us Again!

So I probably am. As we all know, we're here for the outtakes, the good stuff that didn't quite fit into the printed product. I never actually have outtakes, but I thought I'd take this opportunity to address two frequent concerns with the WWII line in general and Iron Cross in particular. Those are:

  1. Combat-based roleplaying rapidly becomes boring.
  2. The Germans are only really suitable as bad guys.

To which I would respond:

  1. Yes, it certainly can.
  2. Do they sell more Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader masks when Halloween rolls around?

As I've discussed before, a key to military campaigns is to stress the between-the-bullets moments. It's essential to provide actual roleplaying opportunities for which the intense battle sequences serve as mere punctuation. After a while, gun-bunny roleplayers discover what real combat veterans discover: It's all a roll of the dice. (In this case, literally.) There's only so much adventure to be mined from determining who shoots whom first, particularly if the situation is handled realistically, such that the PCs should paraphrase one of Bill Mauldin's characters in observing that, "I feel like a fugitive from the law of averages." I don't know whether Joe or Willie said it -- I don't know that Mauldin ever pointed out which one was Joe and which one was Willie -- but it applies as much to the guy with Rifle-15 attempting to roll an 8 or less as it did to the real troops of the era.

As for the taint associated with WWII Germany, an open-minded GM can turn that into fuel for good drama. Whether his players want to portray unwilling draftees expressing horror at the war, or even devout Nazis, it should be easy to provide them a moral landscape as littered with mines as any battlefield. The GM doesn't have to bludgeon his players with a scenario based upon, "You're obviously serving an evil regime and should rebel immediately no matter how suicidal that is." From the most extreme perspective, we all perform little evils to continue existing -- even vegetarians eat formerly living things -- and the inventive GM can began worming his way through the relativism inherent in survival scenarios . . . such as being a little fish in a Nazi pond. This will, of course, require some suspension of belief on the part of the players, who know what the final verdict on Nazi Germany will be where their characters did not.

The following sketch of a campaign arc illustrates one approach to working with these elements.

Gene's Uber German Campaign

I would start the players out as ordinary grunts in the Wehrmacht, polling them secretly as to their preference in arm of service (paratroops, line infantry, engineers, armor, cavalry, etc.). The majority would rule, though I wouldn't bother telling those who wanted something different how the conclusion was reached. A lot of guys wanted to be clerks and ended up clearing mine, instead. It's in genre not to explain why things didn't work out.

I'd allow, even encourage, civilian dependents at a frequency of 6 or less. As the GM, I'll be able to use them.

Certainly, the characters do not have to be enthusiastic about their lot in their feldgrau life. Secret Communist sympathizers, discreet traces of Gypsy blood, other Secrets . . . it's all good. But I wouldn't blink if one or more players wanted to try their hand at a good Nazi, either, as long as I was comfortable that we weren't brushing into fetish territory.

I might begin with just one session set at boot camp, during which an NPC would be killed during a particularly realistic exercise, simply as a bit of foreshadowing.


The campaign proper would begin with the hustle and bustle of Poland: gray trucks jammed bumper to bumper on dust-choked lanes, infantry marching as fast as they can in the adjacent fields, supplies not always keeping up with the advance. No actual fighting, other than the verbal sort if I decide the PCs have to hunt down lunch.

The overall mood would be of overwhelming victory -- with reports of the panzers at the front of the line tearing through the Polish ranks, but if my PCs are infantry, a few days into the campaign I would assign them to knock out a Polish strongpoint that the tanks had bypassed days earlier. Then I would turn this into an unexpectedly bloody affair. It would help illustrate some of the costs of blitzkrieg that Hitler concealed -- the panzers got all the publicity, but the infantry had to come up behind them and finish the job. It also would allow for some early PC promotions as their corporals and sergeants fall in action.

Afterward, the Germans entered a classic "hurry up and wait" period of frenzy, as they tried to rapidly move troops from Poland to the French border. Officers would be screaming at the PCs to get their gear stowed, to catch this train, to be here or there, but often the trains sat in railway traffic jams. An enterprising PC or two might sneak off for a little unofficial R&R, if willing to run the huge risks of missing one's train with a late return . . .


Taking on France was a terrifying prospect for the Wehrmacht. As GM, I would try to sweep away the players' foreknowledge of the campaign by having them scout the Maginot Line for themselves, having superiors speak nervously about the upcoming fight, and assigning the PCs to a crucial mission where "if we break through, all the men behind us will have an open road." In other words, the PCs get the privilege of being among the potential casualties.

GURPS WWII: Return to Honor would be most useful here, of course. Generally, though, some sharp initial fighting should be followed by rapid advance through spotty resistance. The fun part here is that the advance takes place through a French civilian population that not so long ago were neighbors, if not particularly friendly ones. Many of them will have fled, but others will have remained and need dealing with as their homes are passed through. Those who fled also left behind an apparent wealth of coveted goods -- wine, perfume, whatnot. Those PCs with an appetite for looting should have a field day, here.

After the armistice, the PCs could get in a little skirt-chasing, and perhaps even bump up against some early Resistance attacks. (Or they might run up against some desperate British refugees who didn't make the boats at Dunkirk.)

Africa, or Not

At this point, the Wehrmacht's troop concentrations splintered. A few units went to the high-profile theater of Africa, and many GMs and players will be interested in that campaign, as well. But intriguing alternatives exist. Many troops were instead assembling on the French channel coast, practicing for Operation Sealion. This would have provided more time for carousing while off-duty, but the exercises were not without risk -- toward the end of the Battle of Britain the British bombers came upon a full-scale landing exercise and inflicted immense casualties. The PCs might suddenly find their Swimming skill meaning the difference between life or death. Other units ended up in the Balkans campaigns, advancing through colorful locales against poorly organized opposition.

PCs should get some leave here, too. Those with Dependents will need to bring some goods back to Germany -- if they don't think to do so, their wife or whomever will be most upset with them. As GM, I would also establish some other threat to the Dependent relationship. Perhaps early British bombing raids threaten a mother's home, or a particularly handsome French POW has been assigned to help the PC's wife out on his farm . . .


In time, of course, most Wehrmacht units ended up assigned to the massive Operation Barbarossa. As GM, I would emphasize that the immense distances marched stressed Wehrmacht resources before any fighting actually took place. PCs should have to deal with their boots wearing out, their supplies falling behind, and long-term exhaustion. The fighting wasn't all that easy, either -- the Germans took serious casualties as they took on whole Soviet armies at once. Perhaps worst of all, if the PCs haven't come across Nazi cruelties by now, they will in this campaign. Few soldiers in Russia didn't witness an atrocity, and how the PCs react to this might make the campaign wildly diverge. The GM should be prepared for any eventuality.

Early in the Russian campaign, leaves home were still available, even plentiful by some standards. After a bit more marching and fighting, I would send the PCs back home again, to find the previously mentioned situations getting worse; i.e., the mother has lost her flat to a bomb and is sharing a crowded apartment in an increasingly ruined city, or the wife has written a "Dear John" letter, etc. There should be some hook to the leave tearing the PCs between their domestic and military obligations.

Of course, things will not have improved at the front when the PCs return. They'll find themselves in an increasingly grim struggle, and a really nasty GM might even place them at Stalingrad. The trick there would be getting them back out. One viable option would be to have them report to the airfield to pick up some supplies, only to find that the supplies have not arrived, but in the process they would stumble upon some medical evacuees who have frozen to death with their evacuation tags still fluttering on their coats. The PCs can choose between swallowing their pride and stealing the tags, or staying until the bitter end. This isn't a particularly heroic scenario for the GM to set up, but no one should have entered a German-based campaign expecting a particularly heroic experience . . .

Back to France

After D-Day, the GM might move the PCs back to France. He should do everything possible to distinguish the differences in the theaters. In Russia, the PCs would have been fighting other armed men such as themselves on classic GURPS terms, rifle against rifle, small group against small group. In France, they should instead have to endure an unending barrage of bombs and cannon shells -- it might days into intense combat before they actually see an Anglo-American soldier. It may irritate the players to have to roll umpteen times to avoid a fragmentation effect without having anything to shoot back at, but historically it irritated the German troops pretty thoroughly, too . . .

The Rubble

After the collapse at the Falaise Gap in France, the Wehrmacht entered a scrambling, chaotic end game. The General Staff tried to patch together units to counter the 101 crises facing it, while transportation and civil order eroded within Germany.

The PCs would have more room for initiative here than they might think. Everyone knew the war was almost over, and most everyone concerned himself with staying alive that long, preferably in the west under Anglo-American control. The PCs might slip away from their assigned unit heading east to join a unit in the west as "collected stragglers," or they might even desert entirely to help out their Dependents, who would now be in dire straits. Desertion carried the risk of summary execution if caught, but many troops still took that risk -- in the east, not deserting was even more fatal. Regardless, the perils during this period would be immense, and depending on campaign tone and the GM's adherence to classical dramatic rules, the PCs might have to die at some point during this climax.

Other Options

The above arc illustrates a typical Wehrmacht experience, and thus ignores a lot of potential side trips. The PCs might end up fighting partisans in the Balkans, dealing with a simmeringly hostile populace in Norway, or even entering the strange new world of the POW camps in the United States. GMs may want to consider steering their campaigns in these directions, or at least keep them in mind as options should the PCs be captured or suffer severe wounds that would realistically keep them from returning to the front lines.

Article publication date: August 2, 2002

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