Realistic Modern Combat RPGs

Here I am again looking through obscure RPG books that cover a specific criteria. Last time I was looking for WW2 RPGs, and before that I was after RPG systems that featured realistic medieval combat. So this time I’m going for something a little similar to both, and that is realistic modern combat. What differs these games from the WW2 ones I found will be that they are either a more general rules system without being too tied into the historical setting, and if not, they have some particularly good ideas I like that can easily be adapted to whatever setting the GM likes.


So what am I looking for in a modern combat game? Well for a start they need to have rules that fit the weapons. I don’t want to see anything where you can take multiple, or really any shots and not have to worry. This means that most things with a simple HP pool and quick healing are out. Obviously combat is about much more than just being able to shoot enemies while avoiding being shot, so on top of this I need to see some rules based around psychology and the mental state of the characters in play. This needs to go further than a simple deteriorating pool as well, because there are multiple factors at work which affect the use of many real world tactics, suppressing fire for example, that I would love to see take place in a game.

One important factor in combat psychology is the principle of ‘friction’, which would probably most closely translate to a more encompassing version of initiative in RPGs. Friction is basically the mass of uncertainty that keeps most folks huddled under cover instead of running around like Call of Duty. It’s partially fear of death but a host of other factors that make the RPG paradigm of doing something every 6 seconds pretty unrealistic. Some games have an initiative system that somewhat simulates part of this effect by having you lose one or both of your actions in a round if you roll poorly enough. You can also add bits of uncertainty to rules to simulate friction, addressing one problem with many games is that movement rate, unlike every other part of a character, is a fixed value, allowing confident exact maneuver. Instead you could use a “Move check” and if you roll badly you may be exposed an extra round while trying to cross that alley under fire. Another important factor is ‘fog of war’, which could be related to perception in games. Fog of war describes the uncertainty in combat that is fed into by obstructions, loud noises, and the level of adrenaline a normal person would have in their system. Fog of war would definitely feed into the uncertainty aspect of friction. In most RPGs you see all opponents at all times, apart from the occasional perception check when someone is actively hiding. But in reality you can become surprisingly unaware of your surroundings, where the enemy is, and where our allies are at any given time. Perhaps one of the best ways of simulating this might be to play using a program such as Roll20 where things can be hidden or revealed automatically on a battle map based on line of sight. Otherwise you could just trust the GM to keep it in their head where enemy positions are. You’d get a hugely different combat dynamic with this, seeing as much of the shots fired in real combat are essentially blind fire and have less than even the usual 1 in 20 RPG chance of hitting.

The whole point of mechanics that try to simulate these aspects of combat would be to move away from a game that feels like the player characters are unfeeling killing machines that can soak up all sorts of punishment. The psychological aspects could certainly be overdone however, and it wouldn’t be fun to have combat last forever because everyone is too scared to move and can’t shoot straight. This would be balanced out however with having guns actually be deadly, resulting in firefights that could be over in a flash if things go right, or horribly wrong. This heightened level of risk would result in tactics and planning being highly necessary in order to stack the deck in your favour. Setting up positions, bringing the right equipment, and ambushing enemies would be the way to go, but if you find yourself ambushed by the enemy in return then you may have to call a retreat. This all comes together to potentially more closely resemble realistic combat situations.

So now we’ve more or less decided what we’d want from a game like this, let’s finish off by taking a look at a few that might fit the bill.

Recon & Advanced Recon
The first game we have here is a fairly old one called ‘Recon’, first published in 1981 and based on wargaming rules. The game was revised in 1986 to turn it into more of an RPG.  I have the 1999 deluxe version of it which bundled it with the ‘Advanced Recon’ supplement. The game is mostly based around the Vietnam War, but there’s nothing stopping you from easily adapting it to any modern setting. The character creation seems fairly extensive, with a lot of options for backgrounds and military branch specializations, as well as a large list of skills. As for combat mechanics, the rules cover pretty much every military engagement you can imagine, but are still fairly concise and manageable. There’s a lot of detail on melee combat, which is nice, where it lists out the various moves and attacks that can be taken with each type of weapon, many of which can be used in combination. Firefights are set into 3 categories which set the scene based on is either side has advantage, or is evenly matched. From there the bulk of the number crunching is based on modifiers that are applied to any given situation or action you take, and they will then affect your roll to hit. The combat system can be played as simply as that, or you can use a battle map, in which case some of the wargame rules apply. You then would start to used modifiers based on range in more detail, as well as modifiers for both the player’s and target’s current positioning and stance. Unfortunately the game is fairly lacking in terms of damage and psychology. There is an optional hit location table, but other than that it uses standard hit points. Apart from that there are a few small rules which are nice touches, such as the weapon check roll, where the GM will randomly call for a roll to see how everyone’s weapons are doing. On a fail you have expended all your ammo or caused a malfunction. I like this as a way of taking care of reloads rather than having to meticulously track ammo, especially because the game doesn’t really have many detailed rules for shooting in full auto or single shot. 

Millennium’s End
The next game we’ll look at is one from 1991 with a second edition published in 2001. The setting is based around playing as part of a merc company at the turn of the millennium in a world gone mad with crime and terrorism. At first glance it appears to be one of those games that loves tables. There is an extensive skill list as seems usual in these modern settings, as well as a long list of backgrounds and character options. The combat seems to have a good amount of depth, but could get complex with a lot of numbers to bring together. Shots you make not only use your weapon skill but also take into account the weapon’s inherent accuracy, which is a nice detail. On top of this you also have plus and minus modifiers similar to recon based on various conditions. There are rules for movement that take into account the effects it has on fighting and other actions, and you can adjust your speed according to what you need to do. Damage is where this game has most of its detail. There are multiple levels of trauma for each wound taken, along with very detailed hit, locations and differentiation between as many types of damage as you can think of. There is a lot to think about when taking damage here, and each wound will affect you in specific ways such as blood loss, shock and becoming stunned, as well as making certain actions harder or impossible. The psychological aspects are here but fairly simple, with a willpower attribute determining your rolls to resist panic in certain situations. There is a basic suppression mechanic that effects initiative in combat rounds. Overall I’d say this is a good start for a more realistic modern combat game, but I may require some more in terms of psychological elements and tactical options.

Twilight 2000 & Twilight 2013
The final game is another older one, with the first edition of Twilight 2000 being published in 1984. I have the 2.2 edition published in 1993, as well as the 3rd edition titled ‘Twilight 2013’ that was released in 2008. The setting for the game is in the aftermath of a potential World War 3, I guess that being a real possibility at the time of the first publishing. Looking at version 3, there is a ton of detail here, in character creation and equipment, with multiple supplements as well. The actual rules for how weapons and damage work are a bit better. For example there are extensive rules on various forms of cover and the importance of using it. The game differentiates between hip fire, snap shots, and aimed shooting. The rules for burst fire are better here than recon. In recon it was only a disadvantage to hit, whereas here shooting multiple rounds makes you more likely to hit with at least one shot, but you then roll to see how many shots land on target, which makes more sense to me. There’s rules for weapon recoil based on each weapon’s power, modified by the character’s strength and positioning. Damage is more than mere hit points here too. There are incremental wound thresholds based on a damage location table. There is a modifier to damage based on recurring injuries, and the damage won’t simply make you a bit closer to death, but will actually have corresponding effects based on location and severity. Furthermore there are rules for the effects of shock based on the damage taken, as well as the effects of different sources of damage such as fire and suffocation. Thankfully there are also rules here for some psychological aspects. There are extensive rules for morale based on the threat level of a given situation, and then checked against a character’s threshold to withstand it. The situation can be worsened by a character’s particular fears, or made better by morale boosts such as spraying a lot of blindfire, or encouragement from an ally with a high enough command roll. If it all fails then your character will break, making them more passive and unable to attack or advance. This all plays into some more particular rules such as the push and hold mechanic which dictates the flow of battle. There are a lot of other interesting details in here, and it’s looking like this is my pick out of the bunch.

2 thoughts on “Realistic Modern Combat RPGs

  1. Have you considered Phoenix Command from Leading Edge Games? Pretty much ultra-realistic, back in the day. It was never my cup of coffee as I found it was so far into realism that the entertainment got left behind. As a compromise the Commando supplement for Top Secret/S. I. gave an “80s action movie” level of realism which while being more cinematic, struck me as a playable compromise.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did come across Phoenix Command but didn’t do enough digging to find a rule book. And yeah I should say I generally like these complex systems in theory, but I’d probably simplify most of them if I actually played.


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