It’s been a long time coming! Years ago, Firelock teased that they would be dipping their toes into the world of Role-Playing Games with their title ‘War Stories’, and now we’re finally seeing the fruits of that labor (wet, toe-fruits? don’t think about it)
Of course, in typical Firelock fashion, they also teased the release by putting it up for prerelease on their site – right before the cargo ship full of product got shanghaied somewhere between Miami and China. The ship is finally off the Florida coast now, and barring any unseasonable hurricanes or roving plastic pirates – we should be seeing those preorders fulfilled some time next month (March, at time of writing).
So in this article, let’s take a dive at just what the heck this game is.
Basic Training: The Year Zero Engine
Core mechanics is always my first point of interest when looking at a new RPG. How difficult will the rules be to learn, how much “crunch” is there, and how does the game play?
‘War Stories’ was written using the ‘Year Zero Engine’ popularized by ‘Mutant: Year Zero’ and ‘Tales From the Loop’. This is the first time that the engine has been applied to a historical setting. There are no fascist zombies or superpowered protagonists here: a bullet to the gut is just as deadly to you, as it is to the NPCs you’ll encounter. The game does offer 3 differing levels of “realism” – which are mainly differentiated by how likely a hit is to kill your character outright.
The YZE is a streamlined d6 system where you roll a handful of dice, looking for at least a single 6. Initiative is handled with playing cards. The combat and “rolling” rules take up a scant 40 pages.
The number of dice you roll for a test is determined by a combination of Attribute + Skill + Gear + Modifiers. The game has 4 main Attributes (Strength, Agility, Intelligence, Empathy) rated from 1-5. Each Attribute then has a suite of 4 attendant Skills, rated from 0-5. Gear (like your trusty Colt 1911) will also add a number of dice to the roll. Finally, other decisions from character-creation and the moment-to-moment gameplay can impose modifiers.
Character creation is handled over 36 pages, providing 2 different methods to arrive at your final arrangement of Skills, Talents, and Specializations. The simpler of the 2 options is to use the ‘Archetype’, where you choose an Archetype (Class) and then a Nationality and Service Branch.
‘War Stories’ does make room for vehicles. One of the possible service branches in Armor, and its possible for your players to run through a campaign as a single tank-crew. Vehicles are handled in a quick 16-page section. Tests for things like maneuvering and accurate gunnery are handled just like any other test in ‘War Stories’: a combination of Attribute + Skill + Gear + Mods.
Future expansions will cover new theaters, as well as other facets of the war. One discussion is to attempt tackling the air war. The idea of playing as a bomber crew both excites and terrifies me. I don’t know why, but the scenes of bomber crews in action, such as Hulu’s recent ‘Catch-22’ adaptation, always scare the hell out of me.
Hedgerows & Hetzers:
The Rest of the Book
The remainder of the 259 book is given over to a 10 page introduction, 24 pages detailing equipment, and a 32 page section for Game Masters on how to run the game and some quick ideas for campaigns. Finally, we get a 13 page section on history, including a brief timeline, a 13 page ‘bestiary’ of NPCs and enemy combatants, a 7 page intro scenario, a glossary, historical references, and some handy charts and quick references.
Scattered throughout the book are illustrations in a unique style – a mix of comic-book style art and historical photographs. I enjoyed the style. Even more, I enjoyed that every chapter of the book is prefaced by the story of one group of players taking their characters through the airborne assault portion of Operation Overlord. I found myself going back and just reading these introductions, as a sort of “game report” of play.
Boots On The Ground
The PDF rulebook for ‘War Stories’ has been out for a while now, and people are starting to put together groups and get games in. The Firelock’s Discord server has been great, with players seeking to put together groups on popular digital platforms like Roll20.
I got hands-on with the game by playing the intro scenario ‘The Tank’ with some friends. We found the game to be a ripping good time, and it moves along at a brisk pace after a few rounds of gameplay. The only bit that slowed us down was the “Protection” system for handling cover and hard armor (like helmets). I understand the inclusion of this mechanic, because players are often targeted but rarely actually hit, and this is mechanic is why. Still, it can be aggravating that every German shot has to be answered with a defensive roll of the dice, and players are constantly asking how much protection is gained by a fence or a stone wall, or a shrubbery. It’s a minor gripe.
As usual, no written scenario survives contact with the players. In my case, the players snuck up to the objective (the alleged tank) without being seen, but upon hearing German voices, decided to use their demo-kit as a breaching charge to blast the Germans. This deprived them of one of the best tools for dealing with the tank. At that point, it became a very difficult fight indeed, and we ended the session with the squad almost wiped-out. 2 dead, 1 seriously wounded, and the remaining 2 each lightly wounded.
It should be noted that the intro scenario is meant to be difficult, as it’s just a 1-off. In talking to the players afterward, something really stuck out to me: War Stories would make an excellent Convention Game, as long as the GM has a very solid understanding of the rules. The quick character creation lets the GM set up the squad in advance, and the terrain for the game can be very small. Plus, the options to include things like War Correspondents, and Partisan/Resistance Fighters can make for very interesting scenarios that wouldn’t usually be considered within the scope of a Skirmish Game. Getting 6 players around a table playing something like ‘Bolt Action’ would be a large game, requiring a lot of space, loads of terrain, and hundreds of minis. Getting 6 players around a table for War Stories requires a few dozen figures at most, and a very small gaming area.
If you’re looking to grab a copy of ‘War Stories’, it’s still in the preorder section of Firelock’s site. Grabbing the PDF rules or a bundle which includes the PDF rules will get you an immediate download of those materials – which is how I wrote this review. The hardcovers should be available for shipping in March/April, and I expect them to go quickly.
‘War Stories’ is a very unique play experience, bringing Historicals to the RPG crowd. Firelock’s community is unique, because it seems to be a lot of younger players (compared to the usual Historicals demographic) and I think that many of us are probably familiar with quite a few RPG titles. The crossover here could be a boon for all of us. Oh, and this is a great way to familiarize yourself with YZE, in case Firelock ever decides to publish their other YZE title, set in the golden age of piracy…