RECON: Retrospective

Palladium’s “Revised RECON” originally written by Eric Wujick) is a roleplaying game about personal combat in the Vietnam War. Based very loosely on the 1982 tabletop wargame by Joe F. Martin (also called “Recon”), Wujick’s adaptation is a traditional roleplaying game that takes place in the “theatre of the mind” rather than on a hex-grid with miniatures. Hereafter, for the sake of brevity, I’ll refer to “Revised RECON” as just “RECON”.

Unlike most Palladium games, it uses its own unique rule system that reflects the deadliness and unpredictability of modern guerilla warfare. Characters are quick to create (i.e. easy to replace due to their mortality) and combat is realistically one-sided in most cases (being ambushed is no laughing matter).

The 1986 Revised RECON rulebook

I discovered RECON in high school. My friends and I had been playing Palladium’s “TMNT and Other Strangeness”  and “Robotech” roleplaying games, when I stumbled across a copy of Recon at my not-so-local city games store. I had developed quite an interest in the Vietnam War at that time, thanks in part to studying it at school and in equal part to the resurgent popularity of classic movies like Platoon, Hamburger Hill and Apocalypse Now. I would also imagine that the Vietnam-era-inspired Colonial Marines of the then-recent release of Aliens: The Special Edition that captured the hearts of my friends and I big time, had something to do with this interest, too.

I bought the book and ran several adventures for our game group. The game was a hit with most players, even though – unlike our other games like Star Wars D6 (which ran for years using the same characters) – there was a very high mortality rate for Recon characters, not to mention a much higher predisposition for players to play less-than-heroic people.

One of the best things about playing RECON for me was that last point; characters weren’t “big damn heroes”, but rather just trying to stay alive. There was no chance of “take out the enemy leader and win the war” final missions; heck, in most adventures, the objectives seemed pointless to a lot of players who felt (I am satisfied to say) like they were being put in harm’s way for little reward. The more we played, the more some players decided that doing the “right thing” wasn’t worth the risk. Some kept their characters out of direct combat even at risk to their mission (and fellow soldiers). Some retreated into substance abuse and prostitution (using custom rules I’d created for such things, since these perhaps understandably weren’t covered in the rules). One became something of a “monster” in the eyes of other players as he shot first on every occasion, even against possible civilians, eventually killing one of his own side and ending up in jail! Another gleefully decided to become a black marketeer, profiting off others; his character was one of the few who made it through all our games unscathed! One player’s character was an abject coward, who often annoyed everyone else by staying in cover rather than taking part in most heavy firefights; that character also survived to go home, though, albeit with one less leg.

Of all the games we played as a group, RECON was one of the ones people “got into the spirit of” the most.

I’ll never forget one player who actually threw a die across the room in anger when his fictional “back in the world” fiancee broke up with him in a letter just before a patrol. This was a person who never existed, not even as an NPC in the game, but the player was so angry that his character’s one goal – to get back home and marry her – had been suddenly snatched away. He charged an enemy position later that day (despite my repeated friendly-GM questions of “are you really sure you want to do that?”) and died. The player’s reasoning was that his character no longer had anything to live for, so he’d rather roll up a new one.

I was usually the gamemaster, but occasionally got to play as a player. On one such occasion, another player calmly shot a female NPC dead when she threatened him with a knife. The problem was, our stand-in GM had the whole adventure planned around us capturing this woman and being led deeper into the storyline, and had expected nobody to use lethal force. However, the startled player had surmised that “this was the ‘Nam” and as such, civilians were just as likely to be Vietcong, so better safe than sorry! The poor GM had to adapt the whole adventure around this unexpected twist.

Another memory I have was that (as per roleplaying tradition) we’d have drinks and snacks at the table, and often the drinks were served in styrofoam cups. I don’t know who started it, but by the end of our first RECON adventure, all the players had decorated their individual cups with slogans, comments, kill tallies and crude drawings in the way Vietnam-era soldiers would often decorate their helmet covers. I think i still have one of my cups somewhere!

Palladium only released one supplement for RECON: “Advanced Recon”. Both books were eventually combined into a single reprint called “Deluxe Revised RECON”. I read later that there were plans at some point to release a version of the game featuring modern desert insurgent warfare, inspired by real-world conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but this never happened. Although RECON contained tips for playing mercenaries in other conflicts, it remained focused on the Vietnam War, a subject very few roleplaying games have dared tackle.

Because of the lack of supplements, I made my own extra material for RECON. Much of it was while gaming in high school, while some came about much later after the wonders of the internet revealed one of the few RECON fansites: Eric Growen’s now-defunct GeoCities site which contained a handful of homebrew rules and ideas.

I’ve gone through all my old notes, additions and material that has survived the years and will be posting some of it here in the hopes that anyone else who plays or discovers this great RPG will find it useful.

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