Back when the Twilight: 2000 alpha rules landed in my inbox, one of my buddies offered to run a game for me and a couple of my friends. We all GM for our home groups, so it was a chance to put the new edition under a microscope… and to see what it had to offer as a play experience.
Like a lot of these things it was last minute and I didn’t have time to read the rules before we made characters. Still, I ended up digging the character I created: Zofia Sochi, a doctor turned Captain in the Polish Army.
Using the skill array on the character sheet as my guide, I realized I could get a useful synergy by investing in Medical Aid and Command since they both fall under Empathy. It turns out a doctor/leader build isn’t a bad way to go! When we started playing, though, I was surprised at how rarely the Command skill came up. Was I missing something? Was I just not playing to my character’s strengths?
Even though our campaign only lasted for a few sessions, the itch to dig deeper never left me. Eventually I gave in and went on a week-long close reading of the rules. I took a census of each circumstance in which the system required a character to roll for a skill. You can find the results in this spreadsheet. I was not surprised to see how often some skills like Recon, Survival, and Mobility popped up. But what about Command? It was almost, but not quite, missing in action.
There are only three instances where Command is invoked in the rules as written. Two require specialities to access (Tactician and Logistician). The other involves using Command to “rally” other characters in combat: “When incapacitated by stress, another PC or NPC in the same hex can help you regain your senses by making a Command roll.” (Players Manual, pg. 75). But that’s it. Look high and low, you’ll find nothing else.
That’s not the whole story, of course. As you may already know, Command contributes directly to a unit’s morale rating. Unit Morale, often paired with a team member’s individual CUF score, becomes the basis for the CUF roll… and that is invoked in the system in 8 different situations. When occurrences of CUF rolls and Command rolls are grouped together, the picture starts to make more sense.
Still, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that Command doesn’t quite live up to its name. Most skills capture their systemic function in a straightforward way. Persuade lets you talk other characters into doing things, Ranged Combat reflects how good a shot you are, and Survival helps you survive and thrive in myriad ways. Command is the odd man out; it doesn’t give you the ability to command anyone. Its role in Unit Morale can be decisive in combat, but that tends to fade into the background during actual play.
More and more I found myself yearning for a Command skill with an active aspect… for the mechanics to support leaders leading.
And then it hit me. Tweaking the system to do this wouldn’t be all that hard…
The Leader in Battle
Once per combat encounter as a Fast Action, the character with the highest Command skill (the Leader) can issue one order to each character under their command. The allied character then gets a +1 bonus for their next skill roll, provided they follow the order with their next available action, or with their next action after the triggering condition of the order is met. If the order is ignored, the opportunity for the bonus is lost. (The Leader can still issue that character orders, but they have no mechanical effect.)
A command not to do something is not considered an order for the purposes of this rule. The Leader gets no benefit from their own orders.
At the Referee’s discretion, orders may be given out of combat during the set up for an ambush, assault, etc., but the one bonus per character per combat rule still applies.
Group Orders. The Leader may issue the same order to any combination of allied characters as a single Action. Once that order is given, however, it counts as the one opportunity for a bonus for those characters in that combat.
Zofia (the Leader) notices the Marauders are setting up a machine gun to sweep her team’s position. She yells “Everybody into the tree line, now!,” and starts sprinting. On their respective turns Sgt. Morehouse and Dr. Brooks start running, and take a +1 bonus to their Mobility rolls. Bo decides he’d rather chuck a smoke grenade and drop prone. Not a terrible tactical decision, but he gets no bonus. Spotting a dry creek bed, Chava hops in and starts sneaking towards the tree line. She gets a +1 bonus to her Recon for following orders. Later Zofia shouts for Bo to join the rest of the squad… but he gets no bonus this time; he’ll have to wait until next combat.
Later that same day our heroes are still fleeing the band of Marauders. Zofia is down for the count and Sgt. Morehouse with his Command C has taken over as Leader. With the Marauders starting to circle the farmhouse they’re holed up in, Morehouse quickly assigns fields of fire to the squad. The Referee deals out initiative cards and the battle begins. With a lucky draw Morehouse goes first. He whispers, “Chava, the second their Commander gets out of the jeep, take him down.” Turning to the rest of the team he says, “You go off Chava. When you hear that shot, light up anyone in your field of fire.” Having issued two orders (two Fast Actions) Morehouse is done for the round. That’s +1 bonuses to Ranged Combat all around if the team can keep it together and follow Morehouse’s lead.
I love it that this rule is “all carrot, no stick.” As a player you are mathematically better off if you follow orders, but no worse off if you don’t. Either way, you don’t lose any agency. In fact, there will be plenty of situations where it’ll be cooler if you “disobey.” Imagine your character refusing an order to play towards their Big Dream. You loose a +1 bonus, but pick up an XP. Or, you might not want to rush into a hail of bullets to grab your in-game Buddy, but a timely order gives you the bonus you need to pull it off (and thereby score an extra XP). I think it opens up all kinds of rich story-telling possibilities around authority, and how we do and don’t give it to others.
It also opens up the possibility of telling stories about unreliable Leaders. The trope of the incompetent officer is a huge part of military lore and fiction. Having the chance to play that out at the table, with meaningful mechanics to back it up, strikes me as very cool. A deft player could give their hapless lieutenant a journey from officious bumbler to savvy tactician, provided they live long enough.
I can already see some of you sighing and shaking your heads. Naturally, this isn’t going to be right for everyone. My favorite gamer sometimes plays a Captain/Commander character, but hates telling people what to do. In any case, I suspect you already know if this variant is a good fit for your group. And, hey, if it’s not… don’t force it.
If you do give this a go please let me know how it plays out! I’m going to give my group a shot at this over the next few sessions, and I think they’ll love it. If I discover any useful tweaks, I’ll certainly let you know.
‘Til next time, keep your head down, your safeties on, and just follow orders… if you feel like it :-).
Acknowledgements: Military Consultant, GMZacharyPaul; Imperator Furiosa images copyright Warner Bros. Pictures/Village Roadshow Pictures; proofreading, as always, by Deanna.