|The Revised Recon|
|...Role-playing game of contemporary
military jungle combat, adventure and espionage.
Palladium Books, 1986
Contributed to the Museum by Brian Rogers
Ask a gamer from the 1980s about Recon, and they'd usually respond something like this: "Oh, that Vietnam game?" Yes; that Vietnam game. Currently published by Palladium Books (now in a third edition, Deluxe Revised Recon; see http://www.palladiumbooks.com), Recon allows players to take the part of American soldiers or mercenaries fighting in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 70s. Or, with a bit of tweaking, it can be used for a military-based game set anywhere in the world, although the weapons and equipment lists might need to be modernized.
Recon raised some queasy feelings among gamers of our acquaintance. Vietnam was too recent, too raw, and too political a setting to make for comfortable playing. Older gamers may have been in the thick of the real war, some as veterans, others as protestors and resistors. The war with Vietnam created major fault lines in American society, and these splits still resonate today. Since we know veterans of that war, it seems insensitive to be playing a game about a place and time where people we know were getting shot at. Thus, a review of this game requires more than a discussion of the setting and the rules mechanics.
Recon presented itself as a generic game of modern small unit and jungle counterinsurgency warfare. To some degree this was true, but the skills and equipment lists firmly set this game in the 1970s. A referee (or Mission Director, MD) who had the time could update these to reflect nearly any kind of anti-insurgency warfare.
For those readers unfamiliar with the Vietnam conflict, we're not going to try to summarize it here. Histories and eyewitness accounts are relatively easy to find. The game included a bibliography to help players along.
Recon unabashedly chose sides in this war. We quote from the introduction (p. 5) "To put it simply, this is a war game where the good guys are the US troops and their allies. All the game players are good guys. The bad guys are Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army troopers (NVA)." After setting the game in a historical war, the authors backpedalled a bit, saying (with some justification), that it was really set in an alternate history version of Vietnam. They referred to the combatants as "People's Nam" and "Royal Nam," each backed by the superpowers "Big Red" and "Stateside." While the pseudonyms were both flimsy and inconsistently applied, the authors were correct in saying that Recon was a game, not a simulation of history. MDs had to have the freedom to create scenarios as they saw fit against the greater backdrop of the war, without worrying about the exact historical record.
From the introduction and the illustrations, we figured Recon would be a starkly drawn setting of kindly American G.I.s beset by the dastardly Commies. Instead, the book is more of a blank canvas for readers to project their own biases and beliefs. Given our own biases, we saw a complex war zone, where peasants were forced to choose sides, both sides were capable of committing atrocities, and the heavily armed Americans were obstructed as much by the politics and bureaucracy of their military as they were by the notorious abilities of their foes to disappear into the jungle. Others may see an "America Good, Commies Bad" setting, but that is as much a product of their biases as our interpretation is. It is clear, however, that the game was written for the American side, win or lose.
Creating a Character
Character generation was simple. As noted in a few places in the text, this is because death rates were expected to be high: new characters could be created quickly. There were three characteristics: Strength (ST), Alertness (AL), and Agility (AG). Percentile dice were rolled for each. Players could choose to discard a character whose totalled scores were under a hundred, or if any characteristic was below thirty. Height, weight, and age could be determined; these would have little bearing on game play.
Characters then needed to be trained. As soldiers, they began with basic training, where they gained skills in Basic Infantry, Assault Rifle (M-16), Grenade Throwing, and Climbing. For each of these, the player rolled percentile dice; the result was the skill level. Most skills had minimum scores; if the skill roll was below this, the score was simply adjusted up to the minimum.
After basic training, characters chose their MOS or Military Occupational Specialty. Players selected two, a primary and a secondary. Choices included Grenadier (use of grenade launcher), Intelligence, Medic, Pigman (light machine gunner), Point (the guy who walked in front of the rest of the unit), RTO (radio operator), and Sniper. All of these could be either primary or secondary MOS; additional secondary MOS skills included Demolitions and Heavy Weapons.
MOS determined character skills. Skills were provided on four lists: Small Arms, Heavy Arms, Hand to Hand, and Non-Weapon skills. Each MOS permitted players to choose a number of skills from each list. Skills could be broad (such as "assault rifle," which emcompassed a variety of weapons) or narrow (such as "knife fighting). Most weapon skills were broad. Players could select a specific weapon within the category. When players earned more skills through experience, they applied the bonus to the specific weapon, not to the whole skill category.
Oddly enough, Recon also had characters choose an alignment, unusual for games outside of Dungeons & Dragons and its imitators. There were three main alignments, with additional sub-alignments for characters that became extreme proponents of their main alignment. Idealists wished to fight for justice and avoided taking innocent lives. Extreme idealists became pacifists, who avoided all kinds of killing. Opportunists, the second main alignment, wanted to stay alive, but were willing to kill the enemy, especially to protect their buddies. Extreme opportunists became dedicated to the war. One kind of extremist was called Righteous, meaning they were ideologues who were dedicated to their cause. All behaviors were justified, because they advanced the American goals. (The authors pointed out there were ideologues on the other side, too.) The other kind of opportunistic extremist was called Karmic. Karmics became dedicated to war itself, irrelevant of the cause they were fighting for. Karmic characters were ultimate soldiers, where war was the ultimate challenge. They sought honorable foes to fight. The third alignment was called Malignant. The malignant was only concerned with personal profit, and cared nothing for the cause, the war, or buddies. These were the war-profiteers, the soldiers who sought personal advantage amidst the battles. Extreme malignants were Psychotic, those who simply enjoyed killing.
Combat required players to roll under a target number with percentile dice. If they succeeded in hitting, damage, based on weapon type, was deducted from the character's hit points, which were initially equal to the character's strength. But there were many modifiers to this simple system. First, target numbers were calculated differently depending on whether combat was hand to hand, small arms, or heavy arms.
Hand to hand combat was the most complex. Players chose one of six combat tactics (Slash, Stab, Parry, Riposte, Buttstroke or Grapple, or Evade), and rolled against their Agility score plus associated combat skills. Damage depended on the type of attack and the weapon used. The different attack types also had other effects: for example, parries simply blocked attacks, while riposte both blocked and permitted a counter attack; grapple held an enemy weapon.
Small arms combat was fairly simple. Players simply rolled against their weapon skill, with a host of modifiers based on who was prepared for whom: a Turkey Shoot had the player characters ambushing the enemy, an Ambush meant the player characters were on the receiving end, and a Shooting War had neither side in ambush. Within each battle situation, there were modifiers based on the cover situation of the other side, and whether the attacker was firing on full automatic or semi-automatic. Some of these modifiers made it extremely difficult to hit: for example, if ambushed, a soldier firing while seeking cover was at -80 to hit! The amount of damage done varied by gun, ranging from 2d10 for a .22 pistol up to 5d10 + 15 for a .50 caliber machine gun bullet.
Recon dealt with the perennial problem of automatic weapon fire by assuming only a small number of bullets would hit; these were rolled for individually. Most automatic weapons roll for five shots per round, with machine guns rolling for seven a round, and a "pigman" character (unit machine gunner) could roll for ten shots per round. Firing at full automatic meant another to hit penalty of -10.
The third form of combat was Heavy Arms: the massive firepower brought down by the US Army when the enemy was detected. In play, Heavy Arms were essentially of three types: artillery, tactical air strikes by jets, and fire support by helicopters. As these weapons were far more powerful than anything the characters could carry, they largely worked through Mission Director fiat. When enemy forces were located that required this kind of firepower, the radio operator character needed to call back to base. After a delay (three combat rounds for artillery; time for air support was specified in individual scenarios, as it had to take into account how far away the air base was), the first shells began to fall. The radio operator then used his Forward Observer skill to adjust the fire to the target. Then, everything in the target area was destroyed.
The middle third of the book was descriptive material for a military campaign. There were descriptions of the various reconnaissance teams fielded by the US military in the Vietnam war and the types of missions they might engage in. Information on running a mercenary campaign were provided, including the types of men who become mercenaries, their expected pay (and behavior after getting paid), and information on how to find and negotiate for jobs. But most of this section of the book was dedicated to military hardware. There were forty pages of details on varied weapons used on both sides of the Vietnam conflict, with frequent, but not comprehensive, illustrations. Weapons ranged from pistols to armored vehicles, aircraft, and booby traps.
Support for running a campaign included random encounter tables, a table of typical Vietnamese names, miltary radio jargon, the organization of units in the American military (battalions, brigades, divisions, etc.), a few handy characters for filling in gaps in the party, and a glossary of abbreviations and terms. The book included thirteen adventures set in Vietnam, along with a campaign of eight separate missions in the same area, lightly detailed with a map, a number of villages, and their allegiance to the various sides in the war.
In addition to playing missions in Vietnam, Recon included a number of mythical countries for further mercenary adventures of military vs. guerrillas. For adventures in Central America, Recon provided six countries with the serial numbers filed off: Delancort, San Isabel, San Marcos, Buntar, and Tragnar. These nations covered a mixture of hardline Communist troublemakers such as Cuba...we mean, Tragnar, and militaristic nations fully backed by the USA...we mean Stateside. Recon provided a mercenary campaign set in these countries where the player characters try to sort out what's going on in the nation of Sangria, with various guerrilla groups of various degrees of intent and effectiveness, while simultaneously doing the conflicting bidding of the CIA and the government of Sangria.
A third campaign setting was in a mixed up collection of nations that appeared to be mostly sub-saharan Africa. Boorland was clearly apartheid South Africa, while the remaining nations of Iswandah, Dakali, Grugashan, and Chandracia were harder to identify. Once more, we have a mixture of governments here, including Communist and Islamic dictatorships. No adventures or campaigns were set here, but there's enough fighting and intrigue in Africa to make creating a scenario a relatively easy job for a Mission Director who was so inclined.
In the midst of all this, the authors provided a conversion guide in case players wanted to combine Recon with other Palladium games, ranging from swords and sorcery fantasy to far future science fantasy. Also included in the book was a miniatures based combat system. As usual, we are not sufficiently experienced miniatures players to judge how good these rules were, but they seem workable, taking into account visibility, cover, terrain, and scatter of heavy weapons. These combat rules (apparently, the only combat resolution system of the 1st edition), add detail at the likely cost of slowing the game to a crawl.
The author, Erick Wujcik, said Recon was primarily about combat: characters die quickly and don't have to think. Advanced Recon had more complex adventures set not in Vietnam, but in the next door nation of Laos. Advanced Recon was essentially a campaign supplement, and a rather good one.
Some of the book was useful for general Recon games: a few pieces of electronic equipment that were available, but not commonly used in Vietnam; some advice on how to survive in combat (rule #1: don't forget your mission, which is usually to obtain information and get out, not to engage the enemy); some information on preparing your position for offensive or defensive combat, with a lengthy description of how to dig foxholes and other fortifications; and a quick combat resolution system for large numbers of troops. This brought Recon up to three separate combat systems: role playing, miniatures, and abstract.
For the campaign, Advanced Recon included basic information on the nations of Southeast Asia (population, type of government, size of military, the basis of the economy, and a touch of history) and of China and Stateside. Laos was more detailed. Wujcik said he simplified the complex political situation and fictionalized some names; even simplified, Laos was a complex and dangerous environment.
Running the Campaign
Player characters needed to be beefed up to survive longer. Wujcik did this by raising the minimum requirements for beginning characters (total of the three characteristics needed to be at least 180, with none of the three being below fifty), and more skills at start.
The book listed five campaigns. The default campaign had the characters in a rural village in Laos, attempting to raise villagers' living standards and hopefully train them to be effective anti-communist militia once they had something to fight for. As such, characters worked for a joint project of the US Dept of Agriculture and the Pentagon, and they had to work towards economic, social, and military objectives. While much of the campaign would be generated by random missions and encounters, it still had plenty of potential for all kinds of interesting games.
The second campaign had player characters sent into a rural village to encourage them to raise and harvest cardamom, a spice that had a high resale value. We don't want to give anything away, but this campaign looked like a lot of fun. There were two campaigns that revolved around opium, the primary cash crop of the region. One had the player characters in the middle of a major war between several armed groups fighting for control of an opium convoy, and the other had the player characters in a messy batch of American corruption involving heroin smuggling. The other campaign involved a "War of the Worlds" style radio propaganda broadcast that convinced villagers that the Americans were demons! Player characters needed to escape from formerly friendly villages, locate the communist radio station, put it out of operation, and find evidence or captives that could convince the villagers that the demon stories were a hoax.
Recon surprised us. We expected something like D&D in Vietnam, where heroic American boys slew massive numbers of evil Viet Cong. Reading it, we found it was more of a sourcebook for the Vietnam war. The extensive equipment and weapon list made this book a valuable resource for modern combat games, and the background information would be useful for any referee who wanted to set a game in Southeast Asia after WWII. Some of the campaigns in the Advanced Recon book look like fun, and go beyond the simple missions in the main book.