Designer's Notes: GURPS SWAT

by Brian J. Underhill

It was a Tuesday. I was sitting at an Elmer's Pancake House on Hayden Island having lunch with Lieutenant Martin Rowley, former team leader of the Portland, Oregon Special Emergency Reaction Team (SERT). I'd started the interview with basic questions about tactics, weapons, room entry techniques, and was ignoring my omelet while hammering out notes on my laptop.

Lt. Rowley was telling me about recent SERT operations -- a barricaded suspect in a rural neighborhood that had built an "insulation nest" for himself in the attic to resist the 30+ tear gas grenades the team fired through his windows; the gunmen that took over the KOIN Tower in downtown Portland; a suicide-by-cop hostage situation at the Washington Mutual bank inside the Gateway Fred Meyer. The latter of the three had resulted in officers taking friendly fire as their teammates shot through the suspect and an intervening wall, putting one bullet in a teammate's hip, the others in body armor.

"So what happened here," I asked, pointing at the rough map he'd drawn on my legal pad, "after they spotted the suspect?" The suspect had been holding a woman hostage, and had her at gunpoint as two SERT officers rounded the corner next to him.

"Oh, they killed him," he said. He went on to explain how one SERT officer had grabbed the girl and yanked her to safety as the other continued to cover the critically wounded suspect, and how the officer with a friendly slug in his hip had vaulted over the teller's counter to get out of the way of his teammates.

He kept talking, but I wasn't really listening. I kept thinking about Rowley's words. Oh, they killed him. Just like that.

To me, GURPS SWAT had been nothing more than another GURPS book, a chance to create a roleplaying game to bridge the gap between Cops and Special Ops. A chance to run games loaded with tabletop tactics and big guns.

To Lieutenant Martin Rowley and the men of the Portland SERT, it was meant risking their lives -- and sometimes taking lives -- on every mission.

"Oh," he'd said. "They killed him."

From Sierra to Game Storm

I'd spent many years playing first-person shooter computer games, and both Ubisoft's Rainbow Six and Sierra's SWAT 3 had gotten me thinking about running them as GURPS games. I leafed through my copy of Special Ops and went out and bought Cops, looking for solid information on how to run a SWAT campaign.

Not much there.

After weeks of research, I fired off an email to Sean Punch, asking if SJ Games would like to see a proposal for GURPS SWAT. His reply was less than encouraging, but he gave me the go-ahead. I started work on an outline, and put together a playtest for Game Storm in the spring of 2002. The game was a hit.

After several more con playtests, a lengthy proposal, and hints of a SWAT movie due out in the summer of 2003, GURPS SWAT got the greenlight.

I called in all the favors I could, hitting up a local hostage negotiator friend to hook me up with the Longview, Washington Tactical Response Team entry team. I randomly approached police officers in restaurants with questions that must have inwardly frightened more than one:

Brian: "Excuse me, I don't mean to interrupt. Can I ask you a couple quick questions?"

Unsuspecting Cop: "Uh . . ."

Brian: "I'm writing a book about SWAT, and I wondered what kind of deployment vehicle the local team uses. Do you know?"

Bewildered Cop, now raising an eyebrow: "Uh, no, not really."

Brian: "Is that Glock on your hip department issue, or do you get to choose your own?"

Suspicious Cop, laying a hand on said Glock: "Can I see some ID?"

Oh, yeah. Life as a writer is fun.

Finishing Up

Despite the occasional misunderstanding, my "random cop questioning technique" proved very fruitful. Many patrol officers know a surprising amount about their SWAT teams, and most were more than happy to answer a dumb writer's questions, once I'd showed them some ID, my SWAT contract, and a copy of GURPS Cliffhangers or something.

It was, in fact, the "random cop questioning technique" that led me to Lt. Rowley of Portland SERT. I had spotted a female cop in the Gateway Quizno's, in northeast Portland, and approached to ask her if Portland had any female SWAT officers.

"My husband would be the one to ask," she said, handing me her card and writing their home phone number on the back. "He was the SERT team commander for 10 years."

As the book came together, I learned more about SWAT than I could fit into the book, even after it got expanded from 48 to 64 pages. I went to gun shows, police departments, and donut shops; I made friends with patrolmen, motorcycle cops, negotiators, and entry personnel; I played with guns and gear, read books, and watched The History Channel. At one point I was even asked if I wanted to be flash-banged, but Steve isn't paying me enough for that level of reality testing.

As I write this, the playtest is winding down and the book is nearly finished. For weeks I've thought about Lt. Rowley and his men. For me, GURPS SWAT started out as nothing more than a diversion, a game. But through the course of researching and writing it, that changed. The men and women of SWAT aren't pixels or character sheets. There's no restart button or a GM encouraging them to create another character. They don't shrug off bullets; the officer at the Gateway Fred Meyer shooting still carries a slug in his hip to this day.

I've got a new level of respect for men like that. As I mention on the credit page of GURPS SWAT, it is to the men and women of today's SWAT teams that the book is dedicated. I hope it lives up to that dedication.

Additional Material

Because the book got bumped from 48 to 64 pages between drafts, not a lot ended up being left out. But as has become the norm for Designer Notes articles, here's a sampling of what got left behind. Thanks to Kenneth Peters for the Uzbekistan SNB writeup.

Uzbekistan SNB Counter-Terrorism Department

The National Security Service (SNB; former KGB) is tasked with hostage rescue, direct action, and unconventional warfare missions against security threats. The agency formed a counter-terrorist (CT) brigade consisting of a command element in Tashkent and 12 assault teams spread throughout the country. They have the lead role in operations involving aircraft, the subway, and most government buildings (including nuclear sites). Each regional detachment consists of between 30 and 90 men, half of them actual field operators. The Tashkent headquarters group comprises over 350 personnel, including special explosive ordnance disposal teams and sniper/observer teams. SNB teams are not strictly police officers, but are often tasked with the same missions as U.S. SWAT teams. They are roughly analogous to the FBI HRT teams, but with more emphasis on direct action and support of military operations (including operations outside Uzbekistan).

SNB CT teams have priority access to military assets in the performance of their duties and can even request support from T-80 main battle tanks and Mi-24 attack helicopters. Individual teams have little in the way of organic transport and must request movement from other government services (use of city buses is common).

The SNB has acquired a significant amount of foreign gear for its personnel, including Level III body armor from a manufacturer in South Africa, Motorola radios (unencrypted) from the U.S., and EOD robots from Europe. Although not lacking in military hardware, the SNB does not have access to many items SWAT teams often take for granted, such as bomb suppression blankets, fiber optic devices, extendable ladders, and even door rams. Most door breaching is done using explosives, with an emphasis on tamped explosives and line charges.

SNB CT teams prefer the Izhmekh PM pistol (often fitted with suppressors, pp. MF15-17), TsNIITochMash SR-1 Vektor pistol (see TsNIITochMash P-9 Gyurza,  p. MF19), TsNIITochMash KS-23 Drozt shotgun (p. MF21), AK-74 assault rifle (p. HT114), AK-104 assault rifle, and SVD Dragunov sniper rifle (p. SO114).

Mini-Campaign: Murder, Incorporated

The following is a sample linked-mission SWAT campaign. GMs may wish to intersperse unrelated missions as he sees fit, though some scenes should be played back-to-back to maintain a sense of urgency. The campaign is largely cinematic and is designed for a full-time metropolitan SWAT team.

Business as Usual?

The SWAT team is called on to serve a warrant on a suspected clandestine drug lab. Upon entry, the team discovers that the lab is not turning out anything so mundane as methamphetamines, but rather has been used for biological research. In the aftermath of the raid, investigators report that sufficient material was on hand to produce two biological weapons, but most of it remains. It is likely, however, that a single biological weapon has already been created. Weapons and equipment found on-site point to black market weapons dealers around town. Police mobilize to bring all of them in for questioning.

It's Who You Know

A tip from a black market weapons dealer links the guns used at the bio lab with Tomik Jozka, a Czech national now living in the U.S. and working as an investment banker. He is rich, and his home is in a very nice neighborhood. He has a wife and four-year-old daughter. The SWAT team is tasked with bringing him in for questioning; the event should be uneventful, though Jozka will protest vociferously. He pleads diplomatic immunity, but seizure of his computer and cell phone records link him to a substantial banking deal with city councilman David Ballantine. The D.A. refuses to move on Ballantine without additional information. Research will turn up basic information on Ballantine; he is a native of New York, who relocated to the PCs' city in March 2002.

Search and Seizure

The team is sent to intercept a major weapons shipment (at the local docks, a rural airstrip, or a major truck-stop) based on information discovered in Jozka's computers, PDA, etc. The shipment is heavily guarded by experienced mercenary soldiers armed with some of the latest military gear. It will prove a tough fight for SWAT.

After the firefight, investigators discover a street address and GPS instructions to take part of the shipment to a warehouse owned by a Mexican import company. That company is, in turn, owned by a parent corporation -- Global Securities, Limited -- of which councilman David Ballantine is a majority shareholder. It is enough to convince the D.A. to make a move.

The Time for Vengeance

SWAT is called out to Ballantine's house (or penthouse downtown) and bring him in for questioning. He does not resist. Research (done now, or earlier) indicates that Ballantine lost his wife and children in the World Trade Center tragedy. He began calling for a full-scale war against Islam, but was belittled and soon found himself of the loop. He relocated in 2002 to start anew, and has been planning his revenge. The research reveals ties to anti-Muslim organizations, as well as emails to the various mercenaries around the region (including some the SWAT team encountered in the last mission). Extensive information about the upcoming International Peace and Goodwill Conference (to be held in two days) leads police to believe Ballantine was (is!) planning an attack on that conference. The delegates are already in town, most staying in a large hotel near the convention center where the event is to be held.

The Final Takedown

In an attempt to thwart Ballantine's plan, SWAT sweeps all surrounding airports, docks, train stations. The PCs' team is assigned to search a small commercial airstrip outside of town. What starts as a routine sweep turns deadly when they encounter heavily-armed mercenaries and the missing biological weapon. The bomb has been loaded onto a small plane that will attempt to take off when SWAT arrives. The weapon is equipped with an altimeter; once the mercs get it airborne, it will detonate if the plane drops below 200 feet (a safety measure in case the plane is shot down).

The mercs are going to bomb -- not the convention center -- but the nearby hotel containing the delegates. Notes and hotel information will clarify the details of the plan once SWAT has neutralized the mercs and the device.

Article publication date: November 28, 2003

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