In Short

I just spent 11 hours rewriting an RPG adventure. That’s on top of the four hours I spent on it yesterday. It’s nearly midnight, my eyes are bleary, and I still have to design all the stat blocks tomorrow. I think I can most easily sum up how I feel with one word: Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

That is all.

Speaking of Grim

I’ve been meaning to update my blog for the last week with some posts about the holiday season and a bit of work-related stuff. All that seems trivial though, with Mother Nature having roused herself from beneath mountains of garbage to say, “Hey, motherfuckers, remember me?!” The death and destruction of the earthquake and tsunami in Asia are just beyond comprehension. Yesterday morning, the death toll was reported at 12,000. “Damn, I thought, that’s already four times the casualties of 9/11.” And then it just kept going up— 20,000, 30,000, 40,000, and on. As of a couple of hours ago, it was up to 55,000 and the count is still incomplete. With thousands of unburied bodies rotting away, a wave of disease is going to follow all this that’ll kill thousands more. When all is said and done, I wouldn’t be surprised if the death toll tops 100,000. That is a just a staggering loss of life and it happened without warning. Despite our spaceships, our internet, and our global economy, humanity really is just another virus running around the Earth’s surface. We may have 24 hour shopping and 600 cable channels, but we’re all just one bitch slap from oblivion.

A Grim World of Delicious Adventure

I believe I have written the final 167 words for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 2nd Edition. Hal, hating empty space in a book layout as he does, wanted something to fill the one little corner of the book that didn’t have text, illustrations, or other graphic elements. With that written, I believe I am done with the core book. Every rule, example, fiction vignette, monster, scrap of legalese, caption, and credit is…done. And man am I tired.

I’m also, however, hungry. Nik’s feeling a bit under the weather today and game night was cancelled because of the holiday. I could not eat crap though, knowing there was a pork tenderloin sitting the fridge. So I took over cooking duties tonight and the tenderloin and some sweet potatoes are in the oven as I type. It should be done in about 15 minutes. Then I just need to whip up a quick pan sauce and it’ll be dinnertime.

And after dinner, it’s on to the next book!

This Day in Butchery

Today is a 60th anniversary of the Malmedy Massacre, which took place during the Battle of the Bulge. As it happens, I just finished a book called the Longest Winter by Alex Kershaw about the important role played by a single platoon during that battle.

The Battle of the Bulge was Hitler’s last gasp, a desperate attempt to cut the Allied armies in two and retake the port of Antwerp. In perhaps the biggest American intelligence failure of the war, the huge buildup went undetected and the launch of the attack took Eisenhower and his generals completely by surprise. The Ardennes in Belgium was thinly held by either green or worn out American units, because it was supposed to be a quiet sector. When the full might of the German offensive hit the American lines, many units just melted away. The Germans took thousands of prisoners, sometimes accepting the surrender of entire units. At Malmedy a group of 150 prisoners was summarily executed by SS men. While perhaps not that unusual an event by the standards of the Russian front, it caused a huge uproar in the American press. After the war 43 surviving SS men, including the commander of the Kampfgruppe, Jochen Peiper, were tried by the Allies. They were at first sentenced to death, but with the Cold War heating up their sentences were commuted. Most got out of prison in the 50s, including Peiper (who wasn’t on the scene at the time of the massacre in any case). Peiper ended up living in France and was murdered in the 70s after a Communist who sold him chickenwire IDed him.

The Longest Winter focuses an Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon from the 99th Infantry Division. They had been ordered to “temporarily” occupy an advanced position until another unit could take over. This was not the normal work of I&R; platoons, who were trained for mobile intelligence gathering, not static defense. Nonetheless, they found themselves facing one of the major thrusts of the German advance with just their 18-man platoon and 4 artillery spotters who joined them that day. They had one heavy machine gun, no anti-tank guns, and no mortars. They had, however, dug in very effectively in an excellent position, the men were well trained, and well lead.

These 22 guys ended up taking on an entire regiment of German paratroopers. They fought off three attacks, killing dozens of Germans for a loss of only two of their own. Eventually, they ran out of ammo and the Germans flanked their position and got amongst the dugouts. At that point, they surrendered, but they had held up the advance all day long. Since Hitler’s plan relied on surprise (achieved) and speed (not achieved), the action of this one platoon ended up having a significant impact on the Battle of the Bulge. And interestingly, it was nearly unknown for thirty years.

The survivors were sent to various German POW camps around the Reich. Kurt Vonnegut, captured that day as well, was on the same train away from the battlezone. Quotes from Vonnegut are used to provide some details of the story, though he isn’t the focus of the book. He faced the same imprisonment and privation as the members of the platoon.

The rest of the book details the POW experience of the survivors. Amazingly, none of them died in captivity, despite the terrible conditions, the lack of food and water, and the endless array of diseases. All sorts of interesting stories intersect those of the platoon. At one point, for instance, they were in the same camp as Patton’s son-in-law. In an incident that was quickly covered up, Patton sent a small advance taskforce to liberate the camp and bring his son-in-law to safety. It was a complete debacle. The entire task force was crushed, the few prisoners liberated were recaptured, and several hundred more Americans were captured as well.

A couple of months later, the survivors were liberated for real. The platoon’s lieutenant, however, had hepatitis and was on the verge of death. Though he made it, he never filed a proper report on the actions of his unit on December 16. This meant none of the men received any recognition of their heroism and the incident remained unknown until the 70s. At that point their story came out in an article in Parade Magazine that focused on the platoon’s Greek-American member, who had been shot in the face with a submachinegun and ultimately had 36 operations because of it. His relatives and some others were pushing for him to get the Medal of Honor. Others disagreed, thinking that the whole unit should be awarded, since he didn’t do anything above what the rest of the platoon had. Ultimately, President Carter gave them a unit citation and a bunch of individual medals and they became the WWII American platoon most decorated for a single action.

The book was quick and interesting read. Since all the guys survived the war, there was much first-person testimony, which was good. It also has some interesting details about the latter part of the European war, which many books gloss over. All in all, pretty decent.

Bigger, Redder, but Still the One

When I was 11, I went to see the Big Red One, a WWII film starring Lee Marvin and Mark Hamill (and yes, as a young Star Wars fan, “Luke’s” new movie was a draw). This may have been the first war movie I saw in the theater, but I’m not 100% sure about that. Anyway, while critics were pretty lukewarm about it (saying it was too “episodic”, amongst other things), I dug the hell out of it. Over the years, I’ve watched it dozens of times on cable and though I later saw better war films, I always liked the Big Red One.

What I didn’t know as a young lad was that director and writer Samuel Fuller was actually a veteran of the 1st Infantry Division and had himself fought through the North African, Sicilian, and European campaigns. Indeed, much of the movie is autobiographical. I also didn’t know that the original cut of the movie was nearly 4 hours long but the studio made Fuller cut it down to half that. Rumor has it that the original 4-hour version still exists in some studio vault. I can only hope this is true and that it someday sees the light of day. In the interim, I’ll have to settle for the Big Red One: the Reconstruction. Some spoilers follow.

This new version of the film restores 45 minutes or so of lost footage. It’s playing here in Seattle this week at the Northwest Film Forum and I made time yesterday to check it out before the run ended. I’m glad I did. While the new scenes are not always edited in seamlessly, all of the additions are worthwhile. You can really see what Fuller was trying to do in this film. He wanted to portray the GI experience, from the comic to the tragic to the absurd. I have read many memoirs of WWII vets and so many of the scenes ring true. There are some fundamental parts of being a soldier that more patriotic movies (Saving Private Ryan, for example) underplay of simply miss out on. Part of the reason, I think, is that the “folks back home”, even 50 years later, don’t want to hear about some of the less heroic things soldiers did. For example, one restored scene shows the squad fighting alongside some Goumiers (they were French-led Moroccan troops that fought hard for the French and then go screwed; see my V for Victory RPG for some details). Afterwards, the Goumiers cut the ears off the German dead and traded them to the Americans for cigarettes. This seems ghoulish to us, but it’s not that unusual. Many marines in the Pacific, for instance, cut ears off Japanese soldiers as well.

Many of the restored scenes have to do with the troops’ sexuality. Again, not something the public is so keen on hearing about. If you’ve seen the original movie, you may remember the scene where the squad helps a French woman deliver a baby inside a Tiger tank. One line that was cut from the original has the guy delivering the baby saying to the Sergeant, “This makes me horny.” Not what you’d expect from someone confronted with a woman on the verge of giving birth, but these were young guys away from woman for months and sometimes years. The original also featured a part where wounded Lee Marvin is stuck in a German hospital in Tunis. It did not show the beginning of that scene, however, in which a tattooed Nazi starts kissing Lee Marvin on the mouth. Marvin, ever the cool guy, grabs the Nazi by the throat and says, “I understand that you’re horny, Fritz, but you’ve got bad breath.” Another scene that plays differently in the restored version shows a replacement who triggers a castrator mine. He loses a ball, but shouts joyously when he sticks his hand down his pants, “I still have my cock!”

Other scenes epitomize events from the European campaign. One squad member is killed a sniper, for instance, who turns out to be a 10 year old Hitler Youth (an interesting prelude to Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, which does something similar with a young Vietnamese woman). They also run into a group of Volksturm, the “People’s Army” Hitler tried to use to staunch the Allies as they plowed into Germany. In Fuller’s film, these old men don’t even have weapons, just placards with Hitler’s face on it. Nonetheless, they try to block the American advance.

In scene after scene, you can see Fuller trying to fit it all on screen, trying to document his experience emotionally if not always factually (the movie opens with the line “This is a fictional life based on factual death”). So yes, it is episodic but so was the war. Also, the added scenes add more narrative threads that tie the film together. The fact that Fuller lived through all these campaigns makes it that much more potent. Someday, I hope I can watch the full 4-hour version. I do recommend this new version for the historically minded and those who like war movies.

The B-Day Present Mafia

So I was working on stat blocks for a WFRP adventure last night when Kate came into the room and started telling me how she had been hoping for some family fun for her birthday (which is Dec. 13) and Christmas but that she had been disappointed so far. I said, “But Kate, today is neither your birthday, nor Xmas.” She knows, she says, but still, sigh. She then starts talking about presents because Kate loves presents. Several people have given her wrapped up birthday gifts already but she had not failed to notice that I had not.

“I know it’s not my birthday yet,” she says, “but if you don’t get me a gift, then grrrrrrrrr.”

“Are you threatening me?” I asked, amused.

“No, no, I’m not threatening you,” she says. “I’m just saying I haven’t gotten a gift from you yet and if I don’t, then grrrrrrrrr.”

I said, “Well, Kate, it isn’t your birthday yet. And anyway, have you forgotten I gave you that cool Superman shirt earlier this week when I got home from GenCon?” [BTW, thanks again, Hyrum.]

“I didn’t forget, but that wasn’t wrapped up or anything. That wasn’t a present, more like a souvenir.”

“Oh, I see,” I said. “I didn’t realize there were special rules. Well, it’s still three days until your birthday, so you needn’t worry.”

“I’m just saying, this close to my birthday, you should have a gift for me and know where it is. Can you show me where it is?”

“No, Kate, I can’t. You’ll get a gift on your actual birthday.”

She eyes me suspiciously. “OK. But if you don’t–grrrrrrr!”

Back Again

Well I’m back from GenCon SoCal. The show went pretty well for us so it’s likely we’ll be back next year. My flights down and back were at 8 am, which meant getting up at 5 in morning both days. Fun. This did at least get me on an early rise schedule, which meant I actually had time for breakfast each day before the exhibit hall opened. Unprecedented.

Thursday and Friday were pretty light days. I think most folks were working or in school. It could be that the four-day con is just not a good idea (at least for exhibitors) in the winter. Friday night I tried to play a miniatures game, as by this point I had already spent several nights hanging out in the bar and bullshitting with my industry friends. As soon as the exhibit hall closed I went and got a ticket for a DBA War of the Roses game that was supposed to start at 7. Perfect, I thought. Naturally enough, the frickin’ GM flaked on the whole con but didn’t tell GenCon beforehand. Hence no game for me. I did go to the auction for a while and picked up a copy of the old Avalon Hill Afrika Korps game while there.

Saturday was nice and busy. We got in some advanced copies of our Black Company book and those sold madly. That night I did at least get to play something: Jeff Tidball’s Cthulhu 500 card game. With none other than Jeff himself, as well as other industry reprobates. The game was fun and the Cthulhu puns amusing. Paul from Z-Man was in the lead for most of the game but had to leave before we finished. Hal thought we should remove his car but I argued that we should keep it in play. Sure enough, Paul’s car won. I thought that the car with no driver winning the game was appropriately Lovecraftian.

I had done a good job estimating our product needs, so breakdown at the end of the show was a breeze. The trip home seemed to take forever, but finally Shuttle Express dropped me off. Nik had gotten a Xmas tree while I was away and Kate was awaiting my return so it could be decorated. Our house is now fully tricked out and the 40 odd eggs in the fridge tell me that holiday baking is in the offing. But before there can be holiday cheer I must heed the call of my Dark Masters. Blood and Chaos call and I must once again delve into the Warhammer World. The next couple of weeks are going to be hard, but will hopefully lead to a very merry Xmas.