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Spend the weekend with an 80s firefight simulation rule set, Phoenix Command

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    Spend the weekend with an 80s firefight simulation rule set, Phoenix Command

    Recently, I acquired a copy of Phoenix Command, which was written in the 80s and was an attempt to present a set of rules that could be used to simulate a firefight. On the whole I think it kicks ass and I wish that the RPGs coming out nowadays were simulationistic and statistically complex instead of "streamlined", and that if people played more games like Phoenix Command the IQ of our collective society would go up.

    On the whole when you consider that Phoenix Command pre-dated all the "tactical" FPS video games we take for granted today I think you have to consider it very realistic indeed for the pencil-and paper era, but it is also not perfect. On Dumpshock Forums I wrote a couple of posts outlining some thoughts on it that I had before and after spending the weekend running scenarios, and I figured I'd repost them here, since it fundamentally has to do with efforts to statistically simulate firefights in a realistic manner.

    Post on initial reading, before playtesting:

    1.) I *love* how your incapacitation is never totally a sure thing after you've been shot in most cases. There is a certain random chance you will be incapacitated which is modified by your overall level of trauma. However, keeping in mind that I don't have the sourcebook that contains the optional permanent crippling injury rules, I'd say rehab and healing after stabilization is a little too easy. But that is strictly speaking not relevant to the strengths or weaknesses of Phoenix Command as a firefight, rather than a medical, simulator.

    2.) It is back-flippingly hardcore that the graphic of the HK G11 is of what we now consider an early prototype of that rifle. It totally recalls how at that time we all thought that we'd all go caseless in the future, but now the G11 we all recognize and love as a historical footnote is even a different incarnation than the one pictured in Phoenix Command. And seriously, you can tell that even the Phoenix Command people were all irrationally cheesing their pants over caseless delivery systems, because of how the G11 4.7mm caseless cartridge apparently has a penetration value better than that of a 7.62 NATO cartridge fired from a HK G3. The 7.62 NATO FMJ bullet fired out of a G3 at close range has a penetration value of 17, whereas the 4.7mm caseless has 18. WTF, lol. If I had unlimited money, I'd go on the internet and order myself a G11 right now and have it shipped to my friendly local federally licensed firearms dealer. :P

    3.) It is so hardcore and epic that there are actually suppression fire rules tied to how close someone comes to hitting you where you're forced to duck unless you make a mental dice roll. So...awesome, especially given the time these rules were written.

    4.) It lets you aim and fire while walking, but it limits the total number of aim actions you may take while walking. So sweet and so cool.

    5.) Before the days of Ghost Recon, they actually went and implemented fields of fire and fields of pen and paper format. You can even burn action points to glance around perodically instead of just focus on one point.

    6.) One of my issues or disagreements with the game: there doesn't seem to be anything dealing with the use of tactical aids, and yet there is a scenario in the rulebook where a 10 man SWAT team storms a building filled with drug producers. They don't have any tactical aids and are even obliged to break in using sledgehammers. How can you have a modern firefight simulation without use of tactical aids? Now apparently there is another sourcebook with hand to hand combat but I am not seeing anything that claims to be the sourcebook with information on tactical aids.

    7.) Another complaint. Firing a revolver in double action mode, or firing a semi-automatic pistol with the hammer down that is designed to be decocked and fired in this manner, penalizes your accuracy. I don't think this rule is really necessary for someone who practices a lot with revolver or with double-action trigger pulls. Maybe if someone is used to single action and goes double action he should be penalized or vice versa. But I feel like Raygun actually did one better here by not applying an accuracy penalty, but by allowing someone with a revolver to fire faster by "fanning" in exchange for not being as accurate. Apparently Phoenix Command doesn't let you fan your double action revolver, really. It just lets you cock it which isn't exactly the same thing.

    Here are my thoughts after spending the weekend running scenarios:

    So, I spent many many gruelling hours studying and reading the Phoenix Command rules, and running the two sample scenarios contained in the rulebook, "The Bridge at Oppenheim", that dealt with several concealed and dug-in NATO soldiers and their M249 opening up on some hapless Russians and a jeep who were walking down a road while invading Germany, and "Police Raid", which dealt with 10 SWAT officers storming a one-story building with five suspects armed with pistols and rifles.

    (It goes without saying that since it took me so many hours to run those situations that the game is really designed for players around a table who can handle bits of the crunch more easily than just one guy with dice and pencils running all the characters.)

    One the whole I absolutely loved the system, and if I had to compare the style of play created by the system to a video game, I'd actually compare it to the early Ghost Recon or Rainbow Six games, that were very meticulous and difficult. I'll bet that the people involved with those early tactical FPS games had played Phoenix Command back in the day.

    There were a couple issues with the system that became apparent as I played, though, which I'll touch on below.


    The first big thing about the system I had to struggle to understand was initiative. I think I eventually figured out that there is no initiative. Everyone acts at the same time in half-second chunks. The good or realistic thing about this is that every action, including assuming a firing position, changing posture, peeking around cover, takes time measured in half-second impulses, and you basically don't have any heroic characters who are magically able to always get the first shot off in combat. The bad thing is that, well, there's basically no way to have a Wild West duel where the man with the faster draw Pheonix Command basically everyone will simultaneously shoot each other in the first half second of combat.

    In Phoenix command, if I come up behind you wadling along in my firing stance to shoot you, I will probably shoot you before you shoot me even if you're much more athletic and skilled than me, because it takes time-in game to turn around, assume a firing stance (or you could shoot from the hip and probably miss), to ready a slung weapon, and so on and so forth. If I'm ready to go it only takes me 1 impulse to make a semi auto or full auto attack, whereas if you're so much as facing over 60 degrees in the wrong direction it will take you 1 impulse just to bring your field of fire to cover me, so there's almost nothing you can do in that situation to not get blown away by me. There are lots of basic actions that are timed in impulses, even shifting over 60 degrees in your foxhole (1 impulse) and peering over the lip in a new direction (2 impulses). It really forces tactical play and again plays very much like the old Rainbow Six game where planning and covering the right directions were the name of the game.

    On the other hand you could not get a situation where someone practices his fast draw a lot and all things equal manages to shoot someone first, because the amount of time it takes to perform each action in impulses is global rather than character-based. There are some advanced optional initiative rules which deal with forming a plan in your mind before acting, and how long thinking takes versus how many actions you're allowed to plan, but that gets increasingly complex and proscribed while not really addressing the basic issue that based on training and athleticism different people could complete combat actions such as assuming a firing stance at different rates of speed.

    I think that on the whole this is good for tactical rather than heroic play, but it's not 100% realistic either. I suppose that if you wanted to amend the rules to be more realistic you could allow a character to somehow train a certain specific action extensively (eg. draw service 1911 from hip holster and assume firing stance) and have that action take slightly less time due to that very specific training.

    Vietnam War style full auto

    Full auto fire, under both the basic and advanced rules, is really, really powerful in Pheonix Command. Seeing as the book came out in the 80s I'm wondering if this is merely reflecting Vietnam War style military doctrine, emphasizing the power of full auto sweeps over semi-auto tactics, which seem to be more emphasized today.

    In Phoenix Command whenever you shoot at someone, the time you spend aiming increases your odds of hitting. In a total emergency you can shoot immediately without using a proper firing stance, which has the worst possible accuracy and is penalized by a "firing from the hip" penalty, whereas in an ambush situation you could spend up to 2 seconds (8 half-second impulses) aiming with most weapons from a prone position and have the very best accuracy.

    However, any time you use automatic fire instead of semi-auto, it is always more accurate, because automatic fire statistically upgrades your accuracy by 1 impulse (half a second) worth of aiming, no matter how long you actually aimed before shooting.

    Under the basic rules, automatic fire has the ability to hit *everyone* in a 2x2 yard hex with a successful attack. Under the advanced rules you calculate the arc of fire, roll for the elevation that the rounds hit at, and then if the elevation is correct the rounds not only hit everyone in the arc of fire at that elevation, but any extra rounds threaten targets that are either behind or in front of whatever you were shooting at.

    All that is with just one half-second squeeze of your trigger in full auto mode. Automatic fire in Phoenix Command is like the wrath of god.

    Not only are semi-auto shots less accurate than full auto attacks in Phoenix Command, but you also do *not* recover faster from them than from full auto attacks. Basically, the only situation in which using semi-auto you might theoretically be able to make more discrete attacks, or fire on more widely-spaced targets, than if you were using full auto, would be if you were a very speedy character who was allowed to make more than one attack per half-second impulse of time. You are only allowed to make one full auto attack per impulse, so if you could make two attacks, you might choose to make 2 semi-auto attacks or something instead of one full auto attack with a one extra aim action.

    That just seems very Vietnam-war-ey to me, when everyone seemed to be about the spray and pray. It kind of gets me pumped up to listen to Rooster; walkin' tall machine gun man, and all that.

    1980s 9mm trauma and wounding

    Another thing is that in Phoenix Command people get incapacitated so easily that I begin to wonder if it's starting to get unrealistic in the direction of incapacitation happening too easily. It made me think how in the 80s the military and a lot of police departments started to use 9mm sidearms thinking at the time how great they would be, only to start switching to other sidearms today as they realized that 9mm rounds in a sidearm don't have satisfactory stopping power.

    Basically, while I was running the sample scenarios, I found that a single round to the foot, be it 9mm or 5.56, almost always had a literal 98% chance of incapacitating the person being hit.

    On the whole the way that Phoenix Command deals with trauma and wounding is excellent because incapacitation is usually not a totally predictable thing. Each character has a Knockout Value (usually a value of under 50), and every time he is shot, the Knockout Value is compared to a numerical value representing his systemic trauma called Physical Damage (this value can range from 1 or 2, to 5000 or so under the basic rule set, and values literally into the millions under the advanced rule set). This comparison gives a % value that the character will be incapacitated, which could mean loss of consciousness, debilitating fear, descent into shock, or anything that makes the person unable to continue fighting. The most traumatic injuries, where the Physical Damage is greater than four times your Knockout Value, leave you with a 2% chance that you will not be incapacitated.

    But all the .50 cal weaponry in the game and the hits to the mouth with trauma values in the millions were kind of academic, considering that a single 9mm round to the foot would give you enough Physical Damage to incapacitate you 98% of the time.

    In this way the firefights I played were kind of predictable. The shots would probably hit, they'd probably hit a foot, the torso, or an arm, and then all the same there'd be a 98% chance of incapacitation.

    Basically, anything that hits the bone in this game has a 98% chance of incapacitating you, meaning it takes you out of the fight and you can't return fire.

    But if that were true, you couldn't explain the events described in, for example, the book Black Hawk Down ( ), where Somali militamen were taking lots of 5.56 hits and not being incapacitated. You couldn't explain the Florida FBI shootout ( ) ; in Phoenix Command Platt would have dropped dead almost right away. I think Phoenix Command definitely errs on the side of people going down more readily than they would in real life from being shot in the foot or arm with a pistol.

    The thing is that Phoenix Command boasts how their advanced wounding and trauma tables are derived from the very best and most advanced ballistics software available. I suppose that this could be true; a lot of time in medicine things tend to be described as more deadly and threatening than they really are because medicine is concerned with averting worst case scenarios. I mean, if someone did get shot in the foot with a 9mm round, I wouldn't be shocked or anything if he did lose consciousness from trauma. But just because that could happen it doesn't mean it typically will.

    One Last Thing

    One last thing. The rules actually state that if you attempt to shoot and move at the same time you must take the Firing From The Hip penalty. I call bullshit on that because it's not true; there are techniques where you can walk and shoot at the same time while still being in a modified firing stance. I do agree with the authors that if you're moving you should be severely limited in the amount of aim you can take.

    On the whole I really love Phoenix Command and wish that I had the time/ability/friends to run some games using that system. I feel like with more familiarity with the system and just a little bit of tweaking and house rules it could become the best firefight system EVAR. Alternately, leave it like it is and run the most kickass Vietnam War game EVAR with automatic fire being king. It really hearkens back to an earlier era with simulationistic gaming and people like myself who wanted to spend all hours in the evening hunched over papers crunching numbers pertaining to Russians getting shot in the foot and dropping dead.

    If anyone wants to buy themselves a copy of Phoenix Command to play around with it, you can get it from here: Phoenix Command: Barry Nakazono: Books


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