Designer Notes: GURPS WWII: All the King's Men

by Brian J. Underhill

Generally speaking, writing a book for Steve Jackson Games takes anywhere from a few months to a year. But now and then a book comes along that just hangs on and demands attention above and beyond the norm.

From the time I signed the All the King's Men contract in December 2001, until the release of the book in early 2004, more than two years elapsed. The initial writing took place during most of 2002, during which I also finished Cliffhangers 2/e and wrote GURPS Traveller: Bounty Hunters and GURPS WWII: Return to Honor. The following year was no easier; All the King's Men went through playtest and subsequent drafts, while I cranked out GURPS SWAT, GURPS WWII: Blitzkrieg, and part of GURPS All-Star Jam 2004. Factor in five other, non-GURPS writing projects I was involved in from 2001-2004, and it's more than a mild surprise that All the King's Men ever saw the light of day.

But despite the lengthy process (and the occasionally heated discussions about Britain in WWII), the final version ended up a fine product, due in very large part to the patience and work of the WWII line editor, Gene Seabolt.

All Me? No Way!

I've often shared the spotlight with other writers, and producing All the King's Men was no exception. Because I was strapped for time from the beginning of the project, I relied heavily on fellow writers and historian friends to provide several pieces of the book during the initial draft.

A tremendous amount of technical material came from tech-savvy GURPS authors and playtesters. The small arms section is almost entirely the creation of GURPS weapon wiz, Hans-Christian Vortisch; and vehicle virtuosos like Brandon Cope and Kenneth Peters designed every vehicle in the book. The "additional material" credits in the front of the book attest to the number and quality of contributors to the project; without their help I could never have completed the book and still met the deadlines such a project incurs.

Unfortunately, these additional contributions took place in mid- and late-2002, a full year before the book reached playtest, making it difficult to wade through the playtest comments and deal with them quickly and easily. A substantial amount of my playtest time was spent checking dates, places, regimental designations, and other historical facts; occasionally I had few (if any!) references to check the information, and had to email my contributors to find out which of them might have the answer.

The Playtest: Crucial, but Time Consuming

As with other SJ Games projects, the playtest provided no end of criticisms, complaints, suggestions, fact corrections, and general opinions. It has been my experience, however, that playtests for WWII books seem to generate far more "fact checking" problems than most books. The problem is compounded by the disparity of historical information available in print; one source regularly contradicts others, and revisionist historical accounts abound.

Dealing with issues that arose during playtest was, perhaps, more difficult than writing the original manuscript to begin with. At times, with sufficient research, a reasonably solid fact could be established and confirmed. Other alleged factual errors simply couldn't be verified one way or another, and the manuscript had to either 1) be changed to address the equivocal nature of the data, 2) be changed to reflect the opinion of the majority of reliable sources, or 3) simply take a neutral stand on the issue based on the information that was available. All three techniques were used, depending on the topic being discussed. For example, determining the caliber of bullet used in a Sten Mk V submachine gun was easy; trying to sum up small unit tactics used by the British Army across a five-year-span was not!

A Book at Last

The British war experience was unlike any other, and certainly far removed from what my family experienced here in the United States. It shaped men and women at home and abroad, and the Commonwealth almost single-handedly stemmed the Nazi tide for more than two years. After several years of Allied effort, WWII came to an end.

Likewise, after two years of collaborative effort, the work of creating All the King's Men ended as well. With what result?

The final draft is richer, more detailed, and more accurate, thanks to the hard work of friends and colleagues. I also came away from the project with a greater appreciation for the Britons and their contribution to the war, as well as the trials they endured on the home front. My own research turned up stories of triumph and tragedy, but the personal experiences of those who lived through it, or whose families did, carried even greater impact.

Taking two years from start to finish, All the King's Men is certainly the most time-consuming project I've worked on. But despite the trials along the way, the finished product is also one I'm proud of. My hat's off to those that contributed along the way, as well as the men and women around that world that gave their time, energy, loved ones, and lives more than 50 years ago. It is no exaggeration to say that the world today owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to all the king's men.

The Highly Anticipated Director's Cut

As has become the custom, the following information is provided as an adjunct to All the King's Men. As it turns out, very little additional material was cut from the draft, and much of what was cut was sporadic and diffuse, making it unusable to most gamers. The only section that was cut intact -- The Graf Spee -- was originally included due to my own personal fascination with the German raider and the personal integrity of her captain, Hans Langsdorff. The section was cut for space, primarily because it did not directly relate to the British war effort.

The Graf Spee

The German raider KMS Graf Spee was dispatched to the Atlantic in September 1939 and quickly became a thorn in the side of the British Admiralty. Stationed in the South Atlantic, the "pocket battleship" waited quietly near the sea-lanes until activated by radio from OKM (German HQ) in Berlin (see W:IC33). On September 26, 1939, Graf Spee received word to begin raider operations against merchant ships. Four days later she recorded her first success by sinking the merchant ship S.S. Clement. This was only the first of many.

Over the next two and a half months the Graf Spee (commanded by Captain Hans Langsdorff) sank nine merchantmen totaling over 50,000 tons of shipping. Langsdorff warned merchant ships by radio before he opened fire, giving the British merchantmen plenty of time to abandon ship before the Graf Spee sank their vessel.

The Graf Spee soon caught the attention of the British Admiralty. It responded by forming 10 different hunting groups comprising nearly two dozen of the latest French and British warships. The squadrons were given letter designations (e.g., Force K, Force H, Force L), and many later went on to participate in other famous naval actions (see The Bismarck, p. W20). Eventually the German raider's time ran out. While attempting to disrupt the rich merchant traffic off the coast of South America, she was surprised by three British cruisers: HMS Exeter, HMS Achilles, and HMS Ajax. The cruisers attacked Graf Spee aggressively, and for an hour and a half a fierce battle raged.

The Exeter was severely damaged; nearly every man aboard was killed or wounded during the attack. Exeter eventually lost her guns, caught fire, and began listing badly. She soon withdrew from the fight. HMS Ajax was also heavily damaged, with two turrets knocked out and radio communications destroyed.

Eventually, Graf Spee herself broke off the action. Although she was not critically damaged, Langsdorff was certain his ship could not continue without repairs, and sought refuge in neutral Uruguay. With British cruisers waiting off the coast, and reinforcements no doubt en route, Langsdorff opted to scuttle the Graf Spee rather than allow her to fall into British hands. Unable to cope with the loss of his ship, Langsdorff shot himself that night.

Article publication date: February 20, 2004

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