One of the great pleasures, probably the greatest pleasure, of writing my blog is shining a light on an obscure design. Hell on Treads may be the most obscure yet. While the game may be unheralded, the designer isn’t. Erika Chappell has carved out a niche for herself with RPGs that include old-school grognard concepts blended with indie game mechanics. I stumbled across Hell on Treads, her unusual and intriguing Tanks and Feelings game, and realized it was a great fit for my current group.
One of my buddies, Brian, learned about WWII sitting at his grandfather’s knee. He’s been holding our group together with his tireless Roll20 GMing since the COVID era started, bringing us a fresh installment of his Sword Coast game every week. I thought it would only be fair to let him play for a change. Also, I thought he’d make an excellent technical consult, since a lot of the world-building aspects of Hell on Treads are collaborative.
What’s This Game I’ve Never Heard Of?
Hell on Treads is a cooperative roleplaying game for 3+ players, set inside an armoured vehicle during wartime. Each player takes the role of a member of the crew, tasked with operating their portion of the vehicle, and together they take on a dangerous mission that will test vehicle and crew to the limits. — Introduction, Hell on Treads
The text, with only 6 pages of rules, delivers on this concept.
One player takes on the job of Commander, and has the role most like a traditional GM/facilitator. The Commander works with the other players to determine what era or setting they’d like to explore, sets up a “mission,” and during play determines the difficulty of the Obstacles they’ll encounter. The Commander acts as the “eyes” of the tank telling the rest of the players what they see. During the session the Commander shifts back and forth between embodied play, and their facilitator function.
Uncle Sam Needs You!
Each character has a specific function in the tank. Other than Commander the core roles are Driver, Gunner, and Loader. As the rules state, “The various roles on the crew determine the areas of responsibility the character has, as well as what elements of the story they control.”
Each player gives their crew member a name, and a defining characteristic. It’s up to the table how deep they go into the roleplaying; this defining characteristic could just be a signifier for a stock war movie type, or a rich mine for interpersonal drama.
Here’s what we ended with for our game. (Special nod to the producers of the 2014 film Fury.)
From the outset I pitched the game for WWII. Once it looked like we might actually play, it occurred to me that we had to start on D-Day. I reasoned that if things went well, we could game the high points of the Allied invasion of Europe over the course of a few months. (Brian had already dug up all kinds of resources for me, including several historical campaign maps.)
Not only was the invasion of Normandy a historically brutal engagement for tank crews, it also provided the opportunity to bring the odd Sherman Duplex Drive tank to the table. (Probably the only time that’ll ever happen!) The Sherman DD was an amphibious tank, with two tiny propellers to nudge it along in the water. The tank also featured a bizarre cowling around the top to keep it from swamping.
On D-Day each tank was released from its own transport vehicle and it should have all worked brilliantly; unfortunately at Omaha Beach the DDs were launched 3 miles away from their objective in six foot seas. 27 of the 29 tanks sank before they ever made it to the beach.
Would our crew fare any better?
Forward Staging Area
Hell on Treads is very much a collaborative game. In addition to picking a tank position and personality, the players each come up with an Obstacle the crew will face along the way. The guidance is for them to pick something based on their fears for the mission. Of course this is excellent. They’re guaranteed to run full speed into what they fear most. Along with these publicly declared Obstacles, the Commander creates one in secret.
Here are the Obstacles we ended up with: Charlie, the Gunner, German Air Support; Don, the Loader, Getting Stuck; and Alex, the Driver, “Something I missed.” I particularly loved this last. I suspected something great, or at least good, would come to mind in the flow of the game.
Each crew member also gets to pick a a Feature for the tank. Something special about their ride that gives them a little advantage if they can bring it to bear. They chose: a “rhino horn” ramming attachment, a recent tune-up, and a drag chute arrangement to pull off the unwieldy cowling at a moment’s notice.
So, within maybe half an hour of getting started we were all on the same page, and ready to roll.
Hit the Beach!
It’s up to the Commander to put the Obstacles in a logical order for the mission, and to decide how challenging they are. (This is the one area where I wished for more guidance from the rules.) If you remember my research, then you know most of the DDs never made it to the beach. So I decided to hit them with my Commander’s Obstacle right off the bat: Sinking.
In Hell on Treads each Obstacle has two dimensions: Intensity and Persistence. Persistence is a measure of how long the Obstacle will last. I conceptualize Persistence as an Obstacle’s hit points. Characters must roll enough successes to remove all the Persistence to get past the Obstacle. Intensity is how bad an obstacle is. It’s a number that ranges from 1-3. An Intensity of 1 is trivial and merely grinding, and 3 is running into a Tiger II tank on open ground. If the players roll against an Obstacle, but don’t get enough successes to equal the Intensity, then Bad Things Happen.
The rules recommend creating either high Intensity/low Persistence Obstacles, or low Intensity/high Persistence ones. That’s not how I decided to start. Nope, this is Omaha Beach, in all its high Intensity/high Persistence glory. They were going to have to sink or swim right out of the gate.
Here’s how Obstacles look to the players. They know what the Obstacle is, but can only use narrative clues to guess its Intensity/Persistence. (Of course they eventually suss out an Obstacle’s Intensity once they start rolling against it, but those first couple of rolls can be tense.) Each character gets a pool of dice to start with based on the overall number of players. In our run each player started with 8 dice. This pool reflects each character’s ability to go on fighting.
Players can “wager” any amount of their dice pool each time they roll against an Obstacle. They have a 50-50 chance of generating a success on a regular roll, with slightly better odds if they’re using one of the tank’s Features. Any dice that aren’t successes are lost; a character with no dice left is dead, or otherwise knocked out of the game. (They can win dice back, but only slowly.) Also, remember that each character can only affect the Obstacle from within the context of their crew position. If a player can’t come up with a rationale for how, say, their Driver can protect the tank from Air Support, then they can’t be of any help.
In our run, since I’d started them with a high Intensity/high Persistence Obstacle, it looked like the little DD might never make it to the beach. Despite some really clever fictional positioning, dice pools started to evaporate quickly. (From my seat, I knew I’d throw lower Intensity Obstacles at them during the rest of their mission, but they didn’t know that.) The lowest point in the game came when they pulled the cowling’s emergency release, and even with the advantage of their special Feature, they got almost no successes.
In the end they got over the hump; getting sand under their treads was a huge relief, even though their mission had only just begun.
The Grind, The Role-playing
Each trn, that is to say each time a new Obstacles is encountered, the Commander lays out the physical reality of what they’re up against. Once all questions about the new hazard have been answered, Hell on Treads asks you to explore what’s going on with each character…
Once players have an idea of what is going on, each crew member takes a moment to discuss what they are doing at the moment, what they are thinking, and voice any concerns or plans they might have. Go around the table and have each player speak in turn.
This gives us a little window into each character’s soul, briefly opened, then closed as the tank rumbles on.
In our game the crew of the DD managed to pull free of a tank trap and hide from strafing German fighters in the shell of a smoking pillbox. Heading through a coastal resort town on the way to their final objective, I found a fun way to implement the “something I missed” Obstacle. The crew are zipping along waving at all the liberated French, when en masse they drop their white flags and pull out Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons! My players loved to hate this dirty trick (F***king NAZIs!) and proceeded to plow through a band shell where the bad guys were trying to take cover.
Hell on Treads is quite a light game… neither the story-telling prompts, nor the procedural wargamey bits requiring much lifting. As we discovered you can get in a totally satisfying run in 60 to 90 minutes.
And for such a tiny set of rules, it creates taut play. Even if things are going relatively well for the crew, they feel the need to wager more and more of their dice not to fall under the Intensity rating of an Obstacle. By mid-game they’re constantly putting all of their shrinking dice pools on the line. Even if it’s unlikely that they’ll crap out and get no successes when they go all in… the threat is there, ever present.
As I was working on this piece, I realized that Hell on Treads teaches you the ugly truth of battle: that being good at your job only marginally improves your chance of survival.
Another cool thing about Hell on Treads is that it’s era and setting agnostic; you can use it for any situation where a bunch of people are crammed together in a heavily armed vehicle. Rich Rogers over at the Gauntlet ran Hell on Legs, using HoT to facilitate a game about the crew of an AT-ST of all things! The simplicity of Hell on Treads makes it extremely adaptable.
If there’s anything I missed with Hell on Treads, it’s the opportunity for more cross talk in the tank. The compartmentalization of the roles lends itself to the feeling that each character is in their own private hell. Even the narrative prompt for the turn reinforces this. Each player talks about their own character’s thoughts, plans, and concerns. Looking back, I suspect this is a feature, but it’s a little internal for our group’s play-style.
If we play again, I might add some leading “campaign questions” to sweeten the narrative pot…
- Remember that shitty thing that happened last time? Who do you hold responsible for it?
- You’ve become convinced someone in the crew is going to die. Who is it? How do you treat them now?
- Who sneaks off with your sweetheart’s letters when they think you’re asleep? Why haven’t you stopped them?
- You’re always clumsy and awkward around someone in the tank. Why?
This might not really add the dimension I’m looking for, but it would fun to give it a try.
A thing I need to work on as the Commander is switching back and forth between embodied play, “Alright, boys, it’s up to that ridgeline or bust,” and the facilitator role, “Okay, so, you knocked 3 Persistence off this tank destroyer obstacle, it’s smoking, but it’s not out of the fight yet…” It shouldn’t be that much different from switching back and forth between playing an NPC and being the GM in a more traditional game, and yet it is. Perhaps it’s because the game doesn’t have a lot of character interaction in the first place. Or maybe it’s because there’s no designated moment in the game for the Commander to just talk to everyone else. Or, it could just be as simple as adjusting my mindset.
I suspect I’ll get another crack at it down the road. If we get it back to the table, it’ll be time for a Hedgerow Hell scenario…
Either way, I’m looking forward to exploring other Erika Chappell designs like Patrol, and her most recent effort, Flying Circus. And if I get those to the table, I’ll be sure to write about them, too!
Fury images from Columbia Pictures/QED International/LStar Capital
Sherman Tank and D-Day images from various WWII archives