Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Front: Roleplaying in WW2

I'm not often inspired to write a review. I don't enjoy reading them. I don't know why anyone would. It's all so subjective, after all. It's just opinion. So take mine for what it's worth (which, I'm told, is about two cents). But I'd like to share my thoughts on The Front Field Manual, a $5 game you can get from Lulu right here. I found this game by accident, just doing random searches about WW2.

If you don't want to read this entire review, here's the short version: I like it.

The Front is the most exciting and refreshing product from the so-called "Old School Renaissance" that I've seen in a long, long time. Rather than just re-casting that old fantasy game as a WW2 game, author Mark A. Hunt has essentially redesigned the system from the ground up and jettisoned all the junk. It's not that I like this game because I approve of what Hunt did do - it's because I approve of what he didn't do. He could have easily drummed up a massive list of skills, researched a bunch of period weapons and vehicles and made complicated rules for 'em. He didn't. He cleanly sidesteps all that.

My gaming group suffers from what I call "d20 fatigue." We're also wary of what one of us calls "YARCs" - that is, "Yet Another Retro-Clone." The fact that we played - and enjoyed - The Front is a big deal, because the gang is a little sick of "business as usual" in the OSR world. My players are picky. If they don't like a set of rules, they'll tell me. This one got rave reviews from everyone who played, and all were some variation of "it's really simple!" We're not a rules-heavy group, of course, so again - subjective. If you're into, say, Burning Wheel or Mutants and Masterminds, there's probably not enough here for you. If you like simple games, The Front is about as simple as you can get and still be "complete."

What makes The Front different? Let's just throw out a few examples. For one, forget about Armor Class. When you attack in melee, you roll your Strength or less to hit. When you make a ranged attack, roll your Dexterity or less to hit. This extends to pretty much every other aspect of the game. Saving throws? Those went right out the window. Instead, most actions and reactions boil down to rolling the appropriate attribute or less on a d20. This "roll low, all the time" approach is what is so refreshing about it. It also un-clutters the character sheet, with no slots for base attack, saving throws, blah blah blah.

So basically, you've got six stats and that's it. They're the standard old-school stats, but Wisdom is re-named "Awareness," which makes sense to me. There are no skills, no feats, and there are no derived attributes (and to me, that's a good thing). Hit points are equal to your Constitution score, plus a d6 per level if you're doing a "cinematic" game. This streamlining makes for fast, simple, play. So many games that claim to be "fast and furious" or "rules lite" simply aren't. This one is. Just figure out which attribute applies, roll low to succeed, and you're good.

There are four "classes" - Combat, Intelligence, Leadership, Reconnaissance. Each of these classes comes with some simple special ability, but it's nothing as complex as a list of feats. A few bullet points suffice, and most use the rule for advantage/disadvantage (see below). It's here that most GMs who want to tinker with the game will have a field day - creating a "medic" or some other class really wouldn't be all that tough. Playing the game, however, these class differences really fade into the background. It's not like one player felt like "the fighter" and another one "the thief." They all felt like soldiers, which is what it's all about.

Another innovation is that "bad guys" don't roll to attack - the PCs just roll not to get hit or take damage. This speeds things up considerably. After playing it that way, I did tweak the rules and decide to have NPCs roll to attack just like PCs do. It just fits our personal style of play better and it's more fun for me. But Hunt's approach works, and works well, especially if you're trying to capture a cinematic tone. The "HD" of a foe doesn't refer to "hit dice," but "how difficult" they are to overcome. For the GM who likes to "take it easy" this is a godsend. Like I said, I sort of ignored it and made the NPCs more like PCs, but I've never played a game by-the-book.

Another nice mechanic is the Advantage/Disadvantage rule. When you'd be at an advantage or disadvantage, you roll two d20, not one. If you have an advantage, pick the lower of the two. If you're at a disadvantage, pick the higher. Simple, clean, easy. Elegant, in fact.

The "usage die" mechanic is a great way to track items that have limited resources - specifically ammunition, but also things like fuel for your jeep. Such items have a usage die type. When you use it, roll the usage die. If it comes up a 1 or a 2, you move to the next-smallest die type. Eventually, you're going to get down to a d4 and have a 50/50 chance of running out. This isn't "realistic" at all, but who cares? Do you really want to track every bullet that comes out of that submachine gun? Calculate how much gasoline you need to get from Aachen to Paris? I don't. I like Hunt's system. It pays lip service to the idea of diminishing resources without tedium. 

Of course, everything I just wrote about in the last four paragraphs - that is, things I like that depart from the typical OSR game - are exactly the sorts of things that I'd imagine OSR "purists" would not like. If you're looking for a game that "plays just like D&D but is set in WW2," this game probably isn't for you. But if you're interested in seeing an OSR product that takes a sort of "deconstruct then reconstruct" approach, keeping the basic spirit but stripping away all the B.S., then this will be right up your alley.

One of my players said it best during our first game: "This doesn't feel like D&D." I think that was probably Hunt's point, and he should take it as a compliment. What he's done is to take a system that has been massively bloated and spread too thin across the small market - I'm talking about all retroclones here - and make it clean and accessible.

Another plus is that Hunt doesn't seem interested in the nitty-gritty of historical detail. Which is weird, because most military-style gamers are obsessed with that sort of thing. The Front is more about replicating the kind of action you see in The Dirty Dozen, Kelly's Heroes, Where Eagles Dare, Force 10 From Navarone, and Inglourious Basterds. It really doesn't matter whether you're using a Thompson, an M3, or a ZK 383 - in this game, it's a "submachine gun," and that's fine with me.

Granted, some may feel this game is incomplete. But, as Hunt points out, half the fun of old-school gaming is coming up with rules on the fly. You either agree with that or you don't. I happen to. And let's face it - this book is $5. That's about as good as it gets, price-wise, and I think it's worth it. I might not have wanted to pay more than $10 for this slim volume - in fact, the price point was the deciding factor for me. This book is slim enough that my guess is Lulu wouldn't allow any printing on the spine. But that's OK. It's compact, light, and sturdy, and leaves plenty of room for my imagination.

Drawbacks: I am an editor for a living. Most days, I spend hours going over text with a red pen. So when I see a typo, it really leaps out at me. I hate it. This book has a lot of typos. More than it should, especially for a print-on-demand product. It wouldn't take someone long to clean it up and re-upload the file. But let's be honest - the RPG world is full of typos. More than any other type of book I read, I find typos in roleplaying books. So it's not like The Front is alone in this regard, and I'll forgive it and focus on what's important.

Design-wise, the book isn't exciting, but it's not offensive, either. In some places it reminds me a bit of the "little black books" from Classic Traveller - Hunt is focused on rules, not presentation. It's clean and readable and very easy to find things. 

I would also have liked to see a list of credits for the illustrations. I realize these are probably all from the public domain (in fact, The Front, like Colonial Gothic, proves that you can do a lot of really attractive things with public domain art). Still, I think it's appropriate to devote a page to show the sources of your images. But again, I'm nitpicking.

Overall, our group was very taken by The Front, and while we originally were just going to do a one-shot, we decided to extend it for another session, and interest is strong for coming back to it. Believe me, that's high praise, when it comes to my group. Hunt deserves a pat on the back for this well-thought-out take on the OSR phenomenon.


  1. FYI, the The Front's game mechanics are actually based on the ones from David Black's The Black Hack RPG

    1. which is based on a game made by Gary Gygax.

  2. And also the game Mark Hunt did called Swords of the Empire 2 years ago.