GURPS WWII: Hand of Steel
GURPS WWII: Hand of Steel Capsule Review by Rev. Pee Kitty on 18/04/02
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
Well written, well layed-out, packed with everything you need to know to run a commando (special forces) game in a GURPS WWII campaign.
Product: GURPS WWII: Hand of Steel
Author: Shawn A. Fisher
Company/Publisher: Steve Jackson Games
Page count: 32
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Rev. Pee Kitty on 18/04/02
Genre tags: Modern day Historical Espionage Generic Other
As discussed in the introduction to GURPS WWII: Hand of Steel, commandos (the "special forces" of WWII) are perhaps the most gamable soldiers in the war. Unlike front-line soldiers, they see more variety in their missions and are given a freer hand in their execution. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Hand of Steel, the commando sourcebook for GURPS WWII, was the first supplement released for that line. It continues the "mini-book" tradition recently embraced by Steve Jackson Games. The GURPS WWII line is scheduled to release a new supplement every two months, alternating between "mini-book" (32 pages) and full-sized (128 pages) - the first of which will be the German sourcebook Iron Cross.
The first chapter details the evolution of "special operations", from the role of unconventional warfare in decades past, to the formation of the British OSS and American SOE, to the special forces groups formed in various nations around the world for WWII. The information presented is useful, though shallow (for example, nine of these groups are summed up in a single four-sentence paragraph). It then gives us three examples of unconventional warfare in action - the German assault on Eben Emael, the British sabotage of Port Saint-Nazaire, and the American rescue of POWs from Cabanatuan. I found the examples fairly detailed and very helpful for understanding the kind of missions commandos would likely be assigned to.
The second chapter is the meatiest. It first discusses recruitment, screening, and training. This strikes me as mainly useful for a game where the PCs are recruited from existing units to join the special forces unit, but it also gives an insight into the type of soldier who would be selected for commando training. As with most of the book, a great deal is said in a small amount of space. My compliments to the editor.
The "Weapons and Training" section explains the role of small arms (pistols, rifles, SMGs) in commando missions, focusing on ambushes and creating "kill zones". I felt that more detail could have been useful here - I can't quite visualize a "z-shaped ambush that provided for four different kill zones", for example, but the text doesn't elaborate on such things at all. After touching on heavy weapons and the fine art of sentry removal, demolition is covered, with Booby Traps, Breaching, and Destruction given a paragraph each, covering the types of things commandos would normally have to blow up. I would have liked to see more on this particular subject. I especially felt that the rules for blowing things up from GURPS High Tech could have been simplified down to a few paragraphs and inserted here instead of pointing to those rules. (Of course, I suppose that most people playing WWII will also own GURPS High-Tech, but by that logic, half the firearms in the main WWII book could have been left out as well.)
"Getting In and Out" discusses insertion and extraction from land, air, and sea approaches. Land is a basic overview of the hazards involved. Air goes into parachuting, gliding, No-Landing Extraction (with a simple rules summary of how it's done, even!), and sea-plane landings. Sea is another overview of methods that can be used. "Special Skills" offers the only real crunchy bit in the book: a new martial arts style called Fairbairn Close Combat Training. I was impressed with this realistic rendering of the sneak-and-kill tactics of the commando. The goals of scouting and beach surveying are then covered excellently (though I wasn't sure why they weren't discussed in the first Weapons and Training section, instead).
The next section, "Special Forces of WWII" covers the British, American, and German special forces. The special forces of other nations are summed up in a single paragraph at the end of the section. This brings up my sole major complaint with this book: This is going to be the guide to commandos in WWII. Thus, any special forces not covered here are extremely unlikely to be covered again. Perhaps the Russian special forces mentioned will have a chance in the 128-page Russian supplement due later, but the Italian frogmen are unlikely to surface in the mere 32-page Italian supplement to come. And what of the Fins, Greeks, et al? With no splatbooks coming, I guess we have to improvise. (I acknowledge that it's only a 32-page book, however, a few things could have been dropped (e.g., the sidebox about what the LRDG ate) or slimmed down to allow for at least a few "summary" paragraphs at the end with a little more information. In fact, dropping the huge sidebox at the end of the book would have given them a full extra page.)
Anyways, in the UK corner, the Commandos, SAS, Long Range Desert Group (Kiwi Scorpions), SBS, COPP, and SRU are covered. For the USA, the OSS Operational Groups, UDTs, Scouts and Raiders, Army Rangers, Alamo Scouts, and Marine Raiders are covered. And Germany weighs in with the Brandenburger, SS-Jagdverbande, SS-Fallschirmjager, and K-men. The descriptions of each are very well done and thorough (considering the space); after reading them, I felt comfortable running a game featuring any of these groups, and that impressed me quite a bit. The ubiquitious "Characters" section follows, opening with guidelines for building realistic characters. Instructions are then given for customizing the Commando template in GURPS WWII for the various (British, American, and German) special forces covered earlier.
Chapter Three (told you the last chapter was meaty), "Gizmos and Gadgets", first focuses on weapons. Knives are covered, then a few of the stranger "special firearms" created for the commandoes, before moving into normal firearms. The pistols, rifles, submachine guns, and machine guns most often used by the commandos are listed here. Many of the weapons are suppressed (or "silenced" as most people incorrectly say), and rules are here given for suppressed weapons, covering Hearing bonuses and modifiers. I was happy to see these rules, and agree that they belong squarely in this book, as such things matter far less on an open battlefield.
Equipment follows, with a page on demolitions gear, a few paragraphs on clothing and armor (and camouflage), a section on combat swimming gear, and a section on communication. The chapter then moves on to vehicles. First, the tactics (and game rules) for parachuting are covered, along with information on using gliders. Stats are provided for a German glider, a British mini-submarine, and the LRDG desert truck. No space is wasted; I only wish they could have included a picture of a mini-submarine, as I have never seen one and can't quite picture it.
Chapter Four covers mission planning. This is definitely the GM's chapter, with all the information s/he needs to properly plan out a good commando adventure. It covers the various types of missions (raid, assault, recon, "special"), planning, intelligence (covered at length here, touching on issues of support and supply, and getting the information back to the brass), execution, and debriefing. Suggestions to the GM on obtaining good props (maps, dossiers, etc.) are found here, along with suggestions for replacing dead characters and between-mission training. The final sidebox (a rather large one) discusses the creation of fictional special forces units, for games where no given unit seems to fit. At the very end of the book we are given suggested books and movies, along with a well-done index.
While I wish there had been some information on commandos from other countries, the amount of information (and the quality of its presentation) on commandos - especially the British, American, and German groups - is very satisfying. The layout and design of the book are well done; it doesn't come across as cramped or "overstuffed" - you'll find no 4-point type and page after page of artless text here. All in all, this supplement struck me as well designed and well written.
This book is (obviously) a must-have for anyone playing a British, American, or German commando game. However, I wouldn't label it any less vital for an Italian Frogmen or Finnish Ranger game. The wealth of information given on commandos in general makes this book an invaluable resource for any commando game, even if a template for your particular service is not listed. Hand of Steel is, of course, less useful for a normal, front-lines WWII game, but still worth picking up. Its discussions of parachuting, intelligence gathering, scouting, surveying, and firearms are worth the meager price of the book alone, and the equipment lists are useful in any game.