Into the Jungle (2019)
by Christian Plogfors
“The Vietcong dug too deep.” This is one of the games whose core idea can be summed up in one brief sentence. It will probably be sufficient to establish your reaction to it – it could sound fascinating, stupid, or absolutely tasteless. It is certainly original, even if it combines two well-known genres in the form of old-school D&D and Vietnam War combat. As the background goes, the Vietcong inadvertently broke an ancient seal while digging tunnels, and “pigmen, skeletons and other fantasy monsters are spreading out into the jungle around the area.” CIA-sponsored patrols have been sent in to disappear without a trace. Whatever the source, both the Americans and the Communists want it gone.
To reiterate, this is NOT primarily a Vietnam War game with fantasy elements; it is a fantasy dungeon crawl set in the Vietnam War, featuring modern combatants in what are presumably fairly D&Dish dungeon crawls and wilderness expeditions. “Dragons and helicopters”, so to speak – a setting which thrives on the juxtaposition of fantasy and recognisable modern technology. Would a squad of Vietnam-era conscripts fare well against gnolls, jungle vampires and dungeon bigfoot? Here is the time to find out.
It would be a lie not to admit this bonkers concept was sold to me through the game’s presentation. It looks and feels like a half-declassified military file (at least a civilian’s idea thereof), with a typewriter font, “classified” sections where the text can benefit from ambiguity, and stark black-and-white stencil illustrations of mostly guns and helicopters. It is even called an “Operation Manual”. The game comes in the form of several modular, landscape-oriented pages which could be arranged in any order after printing, or laminated and split up during play between the players and the GM (since the precise order does not matter that much). It is compact and logically laid out. For a minimal system, it is very well presented.
The game rules are based on Into the Odd, one of the worthwhile old-school systems which take a step beyond “here be my favourite edition of D&D with some house rules or extra streamlining on the top”. ItO is not a variant, but an in-depth rethinking of the D&D concept, with its own play dynamic, strong implied setting, and support material (which establishes the game more firmly than just a set of mechanics). Like pre-supplement OD&D, ItO is a small, mean, fairly deadly game that has more going on than initially meets the eye. It is far superior to its essentially interchangable rules-ultralight rivals. Consequently, ItO has always seemed to serve as a fertile ground for good spinoffs – like D&D itself, it is a good baseline to build on.
It is all very simple. Your characters are defined by three ability scores (Strength, Dexterity and Wisdom) rolled with 2d6+3, and also the basis of an ability test mechanic used for “saves” and more general actions. Characters get 1d6 Hp per level. Characters are also defined by a random class skill (PCs with low ability scores gain a second one as compensation), 2 weapon skills, a few disposable squad members (these flunkies have 1 Hp and 1 weapon skill each), and gear – some standard, some rolled on extensive random tables. Characters are further rounded out through a series of random background/personality tables.
Your average player character might look something like this:
Doug “Taco” Cavezza, Strength 7, Dexterity 7, Wisdom 2 (he sucks!), Hp 5. He has two class skills due to low stats, First aid and Leadership (he can remove stress points from comrades, a valuable skill). He can handle Submachine guns and Infantry rifles.
Doug has two companions, Dwayne “Doc” Ferguson (1 Hp, pistols), and Howell “BooKoo” Hendrix (1 Hp, pistols).
He gets two combat weapons (M16, Ingram MAC-10), one melee weapon he is not good at (utility/combat knife), misc. gear (jungle fatigues, combat boots, M1 helmet, belts and pouches, a rucksack, and a canteen). He can pick 2 standard items (a flashlight and maps), roll 1d4 more (a 4! He gets sunburn preventive cream/foot powder, a camouflage helmet cover with mosquito net, a poncho and 2 frag grenades), and roll for one special item (a fragmentation vest!).
As miscellaneous details, Doug is attached to friends, he is courageous, and he was an electrician before the War. He has a secret he is not telling.
|Character Sheet (front)|
The character generation process and the power level are a strong suit of Into the Jungle – your guys are fragile enough to make expeditions risky, just simple enough to make to render their inevitable loss okay, yet just detailed enough to get invested in. The high randomness of the system drives home that these are essentially everymen who got drafted and shipped out after basic training, and like old-school D&D’s murderhobos, their survival hinges more on a combination of guile, opportunism and luck than any innate ability. Doug up there is certainly a random loser swept up first by world events, and then by Dungeons Fucking Dragons manifesting in the centre of the Nam jungle. However, like in Dungeons Fucking Dragons, thinking laterally and exploiting your equipment can save your bacon, and characters do gain a good supply of random mundane gear to use in various mcgyveresque ways.
Nevertheless, and even taking into account a fairly generous dying mechanic, this is a swingy, low-powered, high-risk game. Like ItO, there are no attack rolls, only damage, reduced by an armour score that tends to be zero for PCs, and up to 3 for monsters (a rifle does 1d8 points of damage). Consequently, going into battle without an advantage is always a coin toss in Into the Jungle, and fighting dirty reigns supreme. A slot-based encumbrance system is in effect (you can carry as many extra items beyond the basics as your Strength score). You also accumulate “stress point” for basically everything (including mosquitoes, leeches, heavy rain and walking in the thick jungle where you might get ambushed), and characters who get 4 SPs start experiencing Traumatic Stress Disorder, which gives a 5e-style “disadvantage” on your rolls (roll twice, take worse result). Stress can be eliminated via rest, socialising, your friendly drugsssssss, and rolling while under the effects of disadvantage (which also burns away stress points).
Into the Jungle’s character generation is great, and it has one of the better lightweight modern-era systems I have seen. In that respect, it is fairly close to Into the Odd’s simple but robust original rules (as a caveat, the upcoming revised system seems to be taking a slightly different approach). The “GM section”, the background information for running adventures, is less well realised. It still shines where it employs random generation. There are great tables here for generating fast missions, including a hilarious codename table – e.g. “Operation Tunnel Ninja” may be a reconnaissance mission in some tunnels, to eradicate a vampire spawn pit in the Mekong Delta, ending with a party; “Operation Bay of Eagles” would be to infiltrate a crash site as a search-and-destroy operation against two giant spiders in Phuoc Tuy province, ending with 5 days R&R in Hong Kong. It also has guidelines for random encounters and locations (“a small waterfall with a blue lake and submerged ruins”, “someone is having a BBQ”, “rice paddies with mortar craters”, “mountain plateaus”), and a good selection of wildlife, monsters and rival NPCs (from “Lesser false vampire bats” to “Pigmen”, “Dungeon toads” and “Dryads”, and from Spetnatz teams to Viet Cong commandos). This is a superb kaleidoscope of “Vietnam Movie” imagery and fantasy stuff to combine and extrapolate from.
|Guns and Guns and More Guns|
And this is where it stops and runs out of steam. A well-realised GM section, complete with support material for running Vietnam-style dungeons and perhaps other types of adventures are missing; as are useful exploration procedures. This may be quibbling about a mini-game, but what makes a game more than a ruleset is the surrounding galaxy of information – the stuff which helps the players get their characters’ bearings in the milieu, and the GM’s guidelines for creating and managing the same. This is what makes a game like traditional D&D (in its various incarnations) great, the stripped-down ultralight systems so dissatisfying, Into the Odd pretty cool, and Into the Jungle an “almost there” game. It separates the wheat from the chaff. This is a game that needed a great intro adventure (this is of course hard – even ItO slipped on this particular banana peel), maybe a condensed Keep on Hill 330. It would also have benefited from a more in-depth treatment of GMing, including specific procedures for organising play in the scope of an adventure or a mini-campaign. But that kind of information is not there, and the game feels unfinished. Unfortunately, the two minuscule and frankly underwhelming supplements released so far aren’t helping. I mean, Dinosaurs in the Jungle. Sure. But it doesn’t fill out the gaps which should have been filled out.
In conclusion, this is midway between a well-developed thought experiment and a potentially great full RPG – it has a strong premise, and parts of it are nicely rounded out and admirably well presented. It almost manages to embed its rules in support material which make the game worth playing in a sustained manner. Yet it also has gaps which deserve to be filled in, and in the end, it does not feel like a game that fully grasps its own potential. It would need further elaboration for that. This does not mean additional mechanical detail – those parts, in fact, are just about right – rather, a developed and complex vision of a game that has gone through a rigorous testing phase, and which presents a rich framework to build on. Perhaps one day.
The publication includes a special thanks section to people who may be playtesters. It is, also, completely free!
Rating: *** / *****