In a week or two I'll be wrapping up my Sunday group's current arc of Achtung! Cthulhu. I'm not quite ready to write up a campaign retrospective, though. For one thing, I intend to come back to this particular group of characters, hopefully sometime next year, and so it doesn't really feel like I'm done with the campaign, if that makes sense.
But I did feel moved to write a few words about realizing my long-held ambition of running games set in and around the Second World War. My Achtung! campaign actually marks the second time in the last few months that I've done so; over the winter, I ran a short campaign of Night Witches.
Despite Mr. Oswald's trenchant observation above, I've actually been seriously interested in WWII since I was about 18 years old or so. A friend wanted to get into historical miniatures wargaming set in that period, and I took it upon myself to start doing some research. (I suddenly recall reading the entry on "The Second World War" on Microsoft's Encarta '95 CD-ROM encyclopedia. Wow.) As I soon realized, that proved to be quite the rabbit hole--one I'm still going down, to be honest.
Since those days of callow youth, I've played plenty of WWII wargames (both miniatures- and board-related), but it was some years before I started to seriously contemplate the possibilities of setting an RPG campaign in the time period.
I can remember chancing across Gary Gygax's write-up of a D&D/WWII mashup game he ran back in the 70s ("Sturmgeschutz and Sorcery" The Strategic Review #5) which kind of blew my mind. But the possibilities really didn't open up until the GURPS WWII line began rolling out in the late 90s.
Unfortunately for me, the line sort of took the approach of: "Here's WWII. Run some games in it." I found myself drowning in the possibilities. I tried a couple of times to fire something up, but nothing came of the attempts.
Turns out I needed games with a bit more focus, games like Night Witches and Achtung! Cthulhu. Both games present you with a rigid framework (bomber pilots and espionage agents, respectively) to take you through the greater conflict.
"So now that you've realized a long-held ambition, how do you feel?"
Thanks for asking, Rhetorical-Bot!
I have to say that the games I've run so far have gone more or less as I expected them to. Maybe it's because I'm older and a bit more world-weary, but the monumental tragedy of the war weighs pretty heavily on me while I'm prepping and running the games, particularly in the case of Night Witches, which is damn unrelenting.
At the same time, I've thoroughly enjoyed myself. Yes there is tragedy, but there is also heroism and drama on a grand scale. It scratches my itch for "horror" gaming even without supernatural elements.
(Indeed, I think the most horrifying moment in the entire Achtung! campaign to date came in last session, when the party's combat engineer lit up a small room full of Nazis with his flamethrower and rolled an "01" on his Heavy Weapons skill, allowing me to really indulge in some gruesome descriptions of the effects of flamethrowers on the human body in a closed environment...)
As that anecdote perhaps illustrates, the games have also given me the opportunity to draw upon 20 years of reading about WWII on both a macro and micro level. In a lot of ways, this period is my "Forgotten Realms" or "Golarion"--it's a deep and richly-developed campaign setting that I've spent a lot of years immersing myself in and learning about. But unlike a fantasy world, it's something that actually happened to real people, and, at the risk of understatement, continues to have resounding reverberations on the state of the world today. So there's an odd sort of ambivalence about the whole thing, because every time you get excited about some detail of the period you end up running across photos from the Holocaust or descriptions of horrific combat conditions. It's relentlessly sobering.
One unexpected element that arose in both games, and one that I've heard from other GMs running games set during the war (such as Roger Bell_West of the always excellent Improvised Radio Theatre with Dice podcast) is that you really gain an appreciation for the sheer scale of the thing. Even with some generous time jumps, we're just barely out of 1939 after three months of weekly sessions. Most of what people would consider "classic" WWII hasn't even happened yet! I keep finding myself having to say, "Oh wait, that [weapon/organization/technology] doesn't exist yet." Even with a game like Night Witchesm, which explicitly jumps the action forward by months at a time in between "chapters," after just three sessions we were feeling the slog. It really lends some further appreciation of the times. I'm a huge proponent of gaming as a vehicle to gaining perspective on the world, and this period delivers in spades.
So all in all, I'd call my little experiments with WWII RPG gaming a success, and I look forward to running more games set in this milieu--but it's not an easy genre to get into if you're not really motivated. I can definitely appreciate that it's not for everyone.