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Tempus Fugit: History for Games

It's War. Scream "Vietnam!"

by Mithras
October 9, 2001
edited by Drew Meger  
When you're wounded and left,
On Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out,
To cut up your remains,
Just roll on your rifle,
And blow out your brains,
And go to your Gawd,
Like a soldier.

Rudyard Kipling

I've tried so hard to resist mentioning the 11th of September attack in this article, I really have. I got stuck into my planned article and was close to completion, but I just couldn't seem to wind it up without some mention of the attack. And then I didn't want to just throw in some asinine comment.

So I began again. This column is about history in roleplaying. You might think that because of this, Tempus Fugit isn't very topical. Well, you couldn't be more wrong. When you stood there watching the planes hit the towers and saw smoke pouring out of the Pentagon, you knew that history was being made as well as I did. Right?

But this article is not going to be some left wing/ right wing/ capitalist/ militaristic/ conspiracy-theorist rant about the attacks and their aftershocks. That's not my style. That doesn't interest me. What does interest me (in relation to this column) is the impact that the events of the 11th of September had on my gaming experience. Since I deal almost exclusively in historical gaming, there seemed to be a strange interaction of ideas and feelings.

Straight away I was forced to question the work I had begun on my latest historical roleplaying venture. Called GRUNT it is a game of horror in warfare, set more specifically against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Players take the roles of infantrymen new in-country, unexposed as yet to the physical and psychological terrors of the war they have joined. It is a 'closed system' RPG focusing on certain characters, certain situations and elements to the exclusion of others - it does this to maximize the impact of the war on the emotions of the player character soldiers. It is a hard, brutal and uncompromising game that tips a bonnie hat in the direction of Call of Cthulhu with its 'going down!' Sanity Loss system, as well as Unknown Armies (which is able to boast the innovative 'Madness Meter').

Already I'd corresponded with other designers on certain aspects of the game. I'd received plenty of encouragement, ideas and mechanics that would mirror the realities of combat stress, I'd also received some writing support and a load of alternative mechanics. Things were going well.

After the 11th of September terrorist attacks and with large scale warfare involving US and UK troops imminent, I lost a good deal of my motivation for working on GRUNT. Talk of a US invasion of Afghanistan filled me with apprehension, especially because I've had an interest in the region for years. I've researched ancient Persia and Parthia, the campaigns of Alexander the Great and the empire of the Seleucids that followed him. I'm not about to give out doom-laden warnings about any intended US invasion of Afghanistan, however. The army of George W. Bush is not the army of Alexander (and, it need not be noted, is George W. Bush any Alexander!). I'd read about the terrain, the weather, the people and I knew a little about the Russian involvement. There was a phrase echoing in the back of my brain, bouncing closer into my consciousness and it reached my lips: 'oh shit...'.

For a brief moment I thought of Vietnam, of a bloody ten-year war in a foreign country, a war for national pride and not for any true military objective. But that thought passed, because I remembered vividly the words of Bush senior when he said "no more Vietnams" prior to the 1991 Gulf War. It has been a rallying cry of US presidents from Gerald Ford to George Bush junior. I feared that the United States might forget the lessons of Vietnam, as politicians seem to make the same mistakes generation after generation - does anyone learn from history besides the history major?

Happily, this generation of Americans has not forgotten the lessons of Vietnam. The Gulf War proved that. It was a text-book police action in the mold of Grenada and Panama, 'get in quick and then get out,' a practical demonstration of Ronald Reagan's famous sentiment that he would never send American soldiers into battle overseas unless (in his words) "we are prepared to win."

The Gulf War assured me that there would "be no more Vietnams." The next military conflict of note would be the 1992 peacekeeping duties in Somalia. Like everyone else (including I suppose, US planners) the eventual outcome of the Somalian intervention proved to be a shock. It had turned from a UN peacekeeping mission into a counter-insurgency war in a built-up area. The mission ended in a snafu, punctuated with the TV image of a dead US serviceman being dragged behind a pick-up through the streets of Mogadishu. Clinton got out fast, I think the orders to pull out were given with 24 hours of those notorious TV images being transmitted (although I'm not certain of this).

When Clinton began to involve US forces in the Bosnia-Hercegovina conflict, the 'Vietnam-radars' of an awful lot of people went up fast (mine included). This wasn't just because of the Somalia debacle a couple of years previous, but mainly because Clinton's strategy seemed to mirror the same approach used by Lyndon B. Johnson thirty-years earlier. You couldn't help but compare the two conflicts, and the responses of the respective presidents.

When a Congressional Hearing sat on June 7 1995 to discuss Clinton's policy, Senator James Exxon said "Vietnam still haunts and confronts us still." Referring to a US air strike on a Serbian ammo dump a few days before, Senator John McCain voiced his worry that it "smacks so much of the failed strategy of Vietnam." They were talking specifically about the policy of air strikes alone, without the use of ground forces. But in 1965 Johnson was eventually forced to send in US Marines to secure the airbases in-country. And so the commitment began...

Perhaps I'm getting too involved in the subject here. The point I want to make is that history doesn't just exist in text-books, it exists out there in the Panshjir valley, in the minds of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the beaches of Normandy, the engineers at Lockheed and in the Egyptian souks.

Like layers of encrusted paint, history is often covered over with something new and vibrant, and consequently it seems to be forgotten about. Thick geological layers of history covering landscapes, buildings, people, ideas - camouflaged with an innocuous patina that is easy on the eye. But conflict (and especially armed conflict) seems to break this outer-shell and cut through the layers. Sometimes the cut draws blood, at other times it draws pure history.

I think it was Unheilig who asked me if I was going to continue work on GRUNT. I said that I might leave it for a while. I am disconnected enough to be able to start work on the game again, but I knew that I couldn't really ask American designers to lend a hand. To be honest, trawling through the very darkest aspects of the USA's darkest conflict just didn't have the same appeal while we waited (and still wait) to see what form of military action the coalition leaders will take.

Like a lot of RPGnet posters, I've had to re-examine my gaming mission to translate unadulterated violence into the medium of an entertaining game. When faced with images of mass murder on an unbelievable scale, it sometimes seems difficult to imagine roleplaying guns, death and slaughter.

And GRUNT seems a bit like morbid wish-fulfillment.

So while the idea cools a little, I'll be turning more of my attention to a sourcebook that I'm in the midst of putting together for a recently released RPG. There's no getting away from the 11th of September incident, though. No. This supplement is set in ancient Iran and Afghanistan...damn!

Hope you can join me next month!

Mithras TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

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Tempus Fugit by Mithras