GURPS WWII: Return to Honor
GURPS WWII: Return to Honor Capsule Review by Reverend Pee Kitty on 09/02/03
Style: 2 (Needs Work)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
An informative and readable sourcebook for the Battle of France, the French Resistance, the Free French, the French Foreign Legion... actually, anything involving France and WWII is covered here. Amazing, considering the small size and price tag...
Product: GURPS WWII: Return to Honor
Author: Brian J. Underhill
Company/Publisher: Steve Jackson Games
Page count: 48
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Reverend Pee Kitty on 09/02/03
Genre tags: Modern day Historical Espionage Generic
What Has Gone Before
(In case you're not aware of the existence of the GURPS WWII line. If you are, feel free to skip ahead.)
Last year, Steve Jackson Games launched a new product line... well, a sub-line, actually. The GURPS WWII line has been pretty well-received so far; the GURPS system's focus on realism seems a good fit for gritty war games. All of the books up to this point have been reviewed, including the GURPS WWII core book, the first supplement (detailing rules for commandos and special forces) Hand of Steel, and the Nazi Germany book, Iron Cross. This brings us to the newest release....
GURPS WWII: Return to Honor
Return to Honor is the French sourcebook for GURPS WWII, detailing the country's role in the war, the Free French forces, the Resistance, and so on. The romance of France's defeat and liberation, the cowardice of surrender and collaboration set against the bravery of the Frenchmen fighting the Nazis from within and without, and the opportunity to mix conventional warfare with espionage and guerrila tactics all make this one the most gameable locations to run a WWII campaign in. That makes this a rather important sourcebook, and I was unsurprised that they released it so early in the GURPS WWII line. I was a littlesurprised to see that they chose a smaller format for it, though.
Like the first supplement, Hand of Steel, Return to Honor is a mini-sourcebook; however, Steve Jackson Games has apparently realized the limitations of a mere 32 pages, as their GURPS WWII mini-sourcebooks now clock in at 48 pages. With half again as much room, Return to Honor doesn't feel quite as cramped as Hand of Steel did. Like its predecessor, they've done an good job of fitting a lot of information into a little space.
Chapter One, France at War, devotes a third of the book to France's specific involvement throughout WWI and WWII. We see France's role in WWI and how that shaped the mindset of the nation in the years to follow - the decline of the military, the distaste for combat, and the building and reliance upon the Maginot Line. A bit of info is given for French post-WWI hotspots Syria and Morocco, for GMs running "just before the war" games.
Of course, history now turns to Germany's conquest of the Rhineland, followed shortly by Germany's conquest of France. Case Yellow is covered here in greater detail than in the main book - not "battle by battle" detail, but I didn't particularly want that. It provides more insight into why certain strategies were chosen and why they worked, and devotes a sidebox to the "undefended" conquest of Paris. It then covers the division of France into Occupied France and Vichy France (with a map) and the highlights of the Franco-German Armistice. I found the Armistice sidebox very useful, and very disturbing. The soldiers that couldn't get out of France before its fall are covered here as well.
The book then goes into the hostilities between Britain and France. I was very glad this topic was covered, as I've always felt unclear about it. It explains the reasons why France, from its government to its citizens, saw Germany and Britain in a similar light, even to the point of tarnishing DeGaulle's image in France (because he was working out of England). DeGaulle himself is covered, both personally and as the creator of the Free French forces. The Free French and some of the notable battles they fought in are discussed next.
The idea of a French government that aided Germany willingly after being conquored is something people today have a hard time wrapping their heads around, myself included. The next section in the book, on the Vichy French Government and Petain, its Chief of State, helps explain this, while providing some information about Vichy France in general. I would have liked to see more information about Vichy France itself - how living there was different than living in Occupied France, and so on. If I'm running a game "behind the lines", I need to know more than just what motives the government had and what general actions they took. A little of the "high level" information could be better replaced with some "street level" stuff, to better effect.
Fortunately, the small section here on the Resistance (put here to mesh with the timeline - it's fully described in Chapter 3) provides the kind of information I want: Curfews, borderguards, and the gradually increasing restrictions and punishments over the years... the things that the man on the street sees and has to deal with. In its own way, the single page here is worth as much as the whole Resistance section further in the book.
The chapter wraps up with the liberation of France, a specific sidebox on the liberation of Paris, and post-WWII France (in which many people were lynched for real or imagined Nazi collaboration).
Chapter Two, The French Army. Return to Honor wouldn't be a national sourcebook without a chapter on the division of national forces. Of more interest to me, however, was the opening paragraphs of this chapter, which go into France's forced draft, the mindset of its recruits, and the conditions in the French Armed Forces. All short, but very informative. After listing the country's medals, the book discusses the categorization and differences between the types of infantry (regular, reserve, cavalry, and colonial - with names for infantry from different colonies). The actual composition of the French Army is then detailed in a clear and organized manner, from squad-level to division-level.
Some very basic information is then given on the Special Units (Chasseurs Alpins and Chasseurs Parachutistes), the Free French Forces (which probably should have been combined with the information in Chapter 1), and Vichy Forces. The section on French Operations and Tactics uses four paragraphs that could have been boiled down to one word: "worthless". Then, in contrast to the two pages on the Army, the Air Force and Navy get 1/6 page each (well, in fairness, they were pretty small).
Beyond France Itself touches on the forces of Africa, Indochina, and Scandinavia, before giving a decent-sized treatment to the French Foreign Legion. Some will say too little, some too much, but I felt it was a good amount of coverage (when combined with the Foreign Legion information found in the last chapter). The less commonly known Bat d'Af and similar companies are then covered in brief.
Chapter Three, France Underground first covers France's internal Resistance. It discusses the Maquis, then how Resistance cells are organized, then the Resistance networks that could be found in France (and where). It left me rather confused about the Maquis being listed separately, though - were they the first Resistance group? Not considered a "network"? Some info is given on Communist Resistance networks as well, before moving on to Resistance activities. It outlines how they communicated, how the Germans would catch their forged IDs, how they were supplied, what targets they would sabotage, and the methods they would use to sabotage them.
The second half of the chapter discusses the SOE-F and SOE-R/F, the British agency which put covert agents behind French lines. A large sidebox is given for two sample (real-life) female SOE operatives. Combined with the SOE template later in the book, the coverage here is enough to get you started on an SOE campaign, though you'd need to research a bit more yourself. The BCRA, the group that helped supply the Resistance, is then discussed... actually, Jean Moulin is discussed. For some reason, it isn't clearly stated whether Moulin worked directly for the BCRA or not, but I'd assume he did. Moulin is obviously provided as a plot element or hero for a Resistance campaign. The book then touches on the Jedburghs, but doesn't really give more information than can be found in the core book. It seems they are here because their template is in the next chapter; instead of taking up space here, the template could have just pointed back to the main book.
Chapter Four, Characters, is pretty standard stuff. The French National Advantages and Disadvantages are listed, followed by the Military Rank table, and then a list of certain Advantages, Disadvantages, and Skills, and how they apply to the soldiers and people of France. I was surprised at how much useful information was in that list - for example, it makes sense that Danger Sense could earn you a negative reputation as a possible double agent, but I might not have thought of that if it hadn't been mentioned. Three templates are provided to round out the chapter: Jedburgh, Legionnaire, and SOE-F Operative. I can think of some others that might've been useful, but if space was limited to three, I can't think of any better three. The only thing missing from Chapter Four that would have been nice are rules for customizing the standard templates found in the core book for French soldiers. (E.g., "Rifleman: French riflemen will rarely have Driving or Mechanic, focusing on Riding and Teamster instead...")
Chapter Five, The French Armory, starts with the personal gear that an SOE-F undercover operative might have, and why (rather useful information). Then your standard French small arms cover two pages, including the weapons table. We then get a few pages of vehicles: The M1935-S medium tank, the B1 large tank, the MS.406 fighter plane, the L1 motorcycle, and the Citroen Traction Avant auto. All in all, very good information for any game set in France.
Chapter Six, Campaigns, wraps up the book. It discusses running the different "power levels" (from gritty and deadly to high cinematic adventure) in a French campaign, before suggesting several campaign settings. A brief touch of campaign setting info is given on Pre-War France, the Battle of France, and Other Colonial Fronts; a good-sized writeup is given for a Foreign Legion setting (including a lot of non-campaign-setting stuff that really should have been back in Chapter 2); and a full page and a half given to a Resistance setting (again, either including or repeating a lot of information given in Chapters 1 and/or 3). The book closes with suggested References and an excellent Index (both sharing the last page).
Cons and Pros
"What do you want first, the good news or the bad? The bad? Okay..."
The biggest complaint (and the reason for the low Style rating) about this book is the organization. The author and editor split up too much of the information, something that always wastes space. For example, information on the Resistance is in Chapters 1, 3, and 6; all of the Chapter 1 info and 70% of the Chapter 6 info could have been put in Chapter 3, rewritten as a cohesive, single piece. Same for the Foreign Legion and the Free French. No space would be lost (some would be gained, actually), and it would make the book rather easier to read and far easier to reference. In addition, some information on Occupied/Vichy France itself from a "man on the street" point-of-view, would have been far more useful than just governmental policies.
Also, and this is a small and subjective little thing... I don't like the color of the cover. The previous supplements were gray or greenish-gray; this one is a light bluish-purple that just doesn't seem appropriate for a military book. You can't hold that against the book, of course, but I just had to say it.
Now, what did I like about it?
This book lives up to the standard set by its predecessors. That's saying quite a bit. The information, though split up at times, is useful and accurate while being easy to read and remember. In a setting with so much information to absorb, a supplement like this has to be one part game and one part history primer, without becoming dull or textbook-like. Return to Honor accomplishes this. You'll notice that, with one exception, I didn't complain about anything important being left out. I'm surprised at that, myself, given the small size of this sourcebook, but somehow they managed to fit everything necessary into a tiny package, without sacrificing readability. There's plenty of art and sideboxes to break up the text flow, and I couldn't describe any part of the book as uninteresting in any way. This book is very satisfying.
Return to Honor is obviously a must-have for anyone running a Resistance game, including Jedburghs, SOE ops, and OSS OGs. Anyone who wants to play a Free French soldier, French colonial, or Legionnaire definitely needs this book as well. This book will also be very useful for any standard game that crosses over into French territory. Espionage games set inside Nazi Germany or its conquests will benefit from the SOE rules, equipment, suggestions, and templates as well. A few bits, especially the vehicles and the expanded discussion (and map) of the Battle of France, will be useful in any GURPS WWII game, and that's reason enough to pick this book up, especially given its low price.
I'm glad I bought it.