Western front 1914-18, while humans unleash the full horror of modern, industrialised and total war for the first time, other ancient and utterly inhuman horrors cast off their shackles within the No Man’s Land between the fronts.
Hope and duty to defeat these monsters rests on those, who also overcame the manmade monstrosity of the war, when they celebrated Christmas between the trenches and played football with the enemy during Christmas truce 1914.
Prologue –morals at the gaming table
Mixing (real) war and roleplaying more often than not elicits a strong negative response, at least from the German gaming community. When we chose Weihnachtswunder as our first Christmas article for d6ideas, we thus thought it a good idea to add a short disclaimer at the beginning of the piece. Under the influence of a German bloggers’ campaign called the RPG-Carnival to talk about morals in roleplaying“ across multiple blogs, this disclaimer began to take on a life of its own. Now, it marches not only in front of Weihnachtswunder but also to the rear of the carnival.
Before talking about Weihnachtswunder itself, I have to digress a little. A British acquaintance once said that to him SLA Industries (with its morally pretty reprehensible setting content) was the most moral game he knew. He argued that the immoral setting was the key to this. While other games legitimized certain actions and sanctioned others, SLA Industries according to him did nothing to enforce moral behavior. Instead of having characters act moral out of a fear of repercussions, SLA Industries made the decision to act decently the player’s alone.
I can of course try to portray a character whose moral bearings are radically different from my own. It is difficult, though, (and I for one do not really want it in the first place) to truly abandon my own beliefs.
Morals in the game mean morals at the gaming table.
A few years ago I presented the precursor idea to Weihnachtswunder I for the first time (it can’t have been more than a line or two back then). The reaction to it was immediate and quite negative.
To my great surprise this wasn’t due to any objections against mixing roleplaying and world war. The case was different altogether: It was explicitly WWI that came under fire even more so in the context I had used it in. WWI was portrayed as a no-go because – in contrast to WWII where there is an endless supply of Nazi thugs to overcome – WWI lacked a commonly accepted “evil” enemy. In other words, people objected to a lack of foes they wouldn’t feel bad about killing with their characters. Such a thing was unthinkable to them in the context of a weird war setting.
We cannot abandon our personal morals and we do not want to feel a constant “moral itch” because of what we have our character’s do in our imaginations. Genre and setting are thus tasked with helping us overcome (or rather ignore) this problem. Orcs and zombified Nazis have to replace foes registering as “people” and who really wants to deal with questions of medical bioethics, just because of an afternoon of cyberpunky fun with clones, chrome and combat drugs.
Morals in the game mean morals with a handy off-switch.
The version of Weihnachtswunder I you will now read readily swims with that stream – maybe that is a bit dishonest and cowardly. It still refuses to present one of the warring sides as “evil” and its soldiers as the “bad guys” to be slaughtered without second thought. It does present another enemy, though, who in the form of the creatures of No Man’s Land can and should be destroyed at will and with the accustomed feeling of righteousness.
Weihnachtswunder I is a weird war concept. It thus combines history with the fantastic. Despite this, the course of the Great War as presented in Weihnachtswunder is not markedly different from reality.
A good history book, a wikipedia article or trying to remember history lessons from school should thus be an adequate and even superior substitute for any write-up of events on a gaming blog (because of which I bow out of even trying to provide such a write-up).
So, if the weirdness of Weihnachtswunder cannot be found in death ray-toting land battleships, nuclear war zeppelins, zombie corps or vampiric flying aces, which change the overt face of war forever, where is it to be found then?
It’s hidden, obviously. The characters in Weihnachtswunder belong to the very few, who are able to perceive, much less directly interact with it.
The weirdness is concentrated in a secret conflict against monsters from beyond. A conflict waged by the characters, who probably will not be able to change the course of the visible war by their actions. They none the less carry with them the hope of victory against the inhuman and the hope for peace in their time as well. Hope is thus the watchword for Weihnachtswunder.
The No Man’s Land
The No Man’s Land is the central supernatural element in Weihnachtswunder. It is both the place where everything is happening and the enemy whom the characters need to defeat.
No Man’s Land.
No human‘s land.
No human‘s Land. Thus land, where the inhuman holds free reign. It is a place where the barriers between the beyond and the world of man lie shattered. Here, between the trenches, the world of man ends and monsters claim the abandoned nothingness.
The creatures of No Man’s Land grow stronger with every dead or maimed soldier. Their hold on the earth gets tighter with every gallon of blood running into the poisoned ground.
Unwittingly, the generals on both sides of the war feed them with every ordered assault. And as the soldiers go over the top, leaving behind the protection of the trench and the border to their own world, the creatures wade among them, further gorging themselves on the blood and fear of man.
The beasts‘ murderous fury is only kept in check by an icy deliberation. For if an attack reaches the opposing trench, the creatures of No Man’s Land may enter the normally safe haven of the trench as well. With soldiers struggling in close combat against one another, the trench becomes a part of the contested ground – No Man’s Land itself.
The creatures, though, stay unnoticed through all their terrible deeds. They are not so much invisible, as unseen. They hide their true forms in clouds of poison gas and tangles of barbed wire, in sucking mud pits, blood and fire. Only to the dead and dying and to those, who they drive insane by their revelations, do they show their terrible visages.
The Spirit of Christmas
The Christmas Truce 1914, when British, French and German soldiers on the western front spontaneously stopped fighting to celebrate Christmas together, stands as a powerful symbol of humanity. A real miracle, still holding us in awe today.
In Weihnachtswunder it gains further significance in regards to No Man’s Land.
This last act of humanity was the antithesis to the negation of human reality that lies at the core of the No Man’s Land. Thus, the celebrants themselves became the living breathing antitheses to the creatures of the No Man’s Land.
Those who on Christmas 1914 laid down their arms and climbed out of their trenches to sing, celebrate and play football with yesterday’s (and tomorrow’s) enemy, became able to see the monsters prowling the No Man’s Land – and not only see them, but fight them as well.
Whether it is the literal spirit of Christmas or a more general spirit of humanity that empowers these men (the characters among them) is debatable. What is certain, though, is that the signal to attack for them is also the call to arms against the inhuman between the trenches. As they go over the top, they turn sideways to protect themselves, their comrades and their enemies against the hidden horrors, more terrible and insidious than machine guns and shells.
Here and There, Above and Below
Probably the easiest way to actually play Weihnachtswunder ist to simply create a group of British, French or German soldiers, then go monster hunting on the western front – while also trying to survive the mundane horrors of the war.
Personally, I am fond of using another approach, by combining characters from different sides of the war into one group. This can be logistically more demanding and creates additional layers of problems, especially if the game is to run more than a single session. It nicely underlines the central theme of hope, though..
In both variants (especially the latter) a splash of conspiracy can be added to the mix, to spice up the survival and monster hunting fare.
On the lower ranks stand the characters (probably hailing from all nations) – united in their fight against the monsters of the No Man’s Land. Over them the mighty and powerful, emperors, kings and their generals, conspire – unleashing this hell on earth for their own sinister purposes. Perhaps they try to use the No Man’s Land as a new weapon to win the war, perhaps they want the war to drag on like this into eternity, satisfying dark pacts or unnaturally prolonging their lives (or perhaps they simply want to destroy the world).
The sketched concept can be adapted to various rules‘ sets of course. In my opinion, pulp systems are a good fit, because those tend to cover the right time period, complete with equipment and technology and also often offer rules for horror and the supernatural.
My own money is on the German version of Chaosium’s Cthulhu, though, which comes with a handy supplement called “Niemandsland” (No Man’s Land) covering the Great War (and offering for example good rules for poison gas).
(The book is not without fail, though, wavering as it does between warnings that roleplaying war shouldn’t be about overused clichés of heroism and rules for doing the very same.)
Wraith: The Great War also gets an honorary mention, especially as a great source of visuals.
Two special areas of Weihnachtswunder may necessitate some rules tweaking (depending of course on your rules of choice): The creatures and the characters.
For the creatures of the No Man’s Land anything goes – from old reliables from existing books, over cosmetically updated villains (changing ghouls to trench ghouls or breath stealing nightmares to gas elementals), to purpose built monstrosities, they all can find their place in Weihnachtswunder. If the rules offer a mechanism for it, all the monsters should be able to make themselves unseen. My own monsters from the No Man’s Land often resemble the mundane horrors of war even in their true forms (and in their abilities – sporting wire appendages instead of tentacles or breathing poison instead of fire – to give just two examples).
The “spirit of Christmas” possessing the characters should lend them some advantage in battling the monsters. They should be able to easily see through the monsters “camouflage” and gain some form of other, more direct advantage such as a better chance to hit or increased damage (or the ability to damage creatures normally immune to normal weapons).