Keeping Their Heads Down

Trickles of sweat stung his eyes and slowly worked down his back. This jungle wasn’t anything like the New Jersey Pine Barrens he grew up in. He viewed the dark with the special night vision goggles that made everything look like some bizarre green seascape. Ten years as a city cop had not prepared him for humping through a tropical rain forest. “Pepsi, check, over…” He was supposed to observe radio silence but hearing a friendly voice helped take the edge off. ‘Pepsi’ Kohler was a lifelong friend and a former Marine, a comforting companion for his first night on patrol.

“Check, Woody, wait one…,” came the reply. There was an edge to the brief transmission. Woody Marks quickly turned and began scanning in the direction of his teammate. Still a novice with the NVGs, he suffered a temporary green out of his vision as he scanned right over the team’s campfire. With a muffled curse, he pushed the goggles onto his forehead and searched the night with his naked eyes. He spotted Kohler on one knee, 40 meters away, SMG at the ready. Woody followed Pepsi’s line of sight, trying to see what had spooked him. A hint of movement in his peripheral vision brought his attention back around behind Pepsi. The biggest, meanest looking Bengal tiger Woody had ever seen was stalking his friend!

“LOOK OUT!” he shouted as he brought his Remington 12-gauge into battery. Pumping and firing as fast as possible, he knew he had a better chance of scaring the beast away than hitting it. The tiger charged at the sound of the first shot, closing the last twenty meters to Pepsi with impossible speed. Kohler whirled to face the sound of an inbound train crashing through the brush. He struggled to bring his HK into action, suddenly confronted by the appearance of hundreds of pounds of fangs, claws, muscle and striped fur. Woody continued to pump and squeeze walking the powerful swaths of destruction towards the tiger… and his friend. Somewhere in the back of his mind he remembered a training lecture about the dangers of fratricide. Meanwhile Pepsi had finally managed to bring the SMG to bear on the threat, and let loose with a long ragged burst as he dove to one side.

The rest of the team rushed to the sound of the commotion. A fresh tiger corpse lay on the forest floor, and Corporal Marks was intermittently cursing and laughing as he treated Sergeant Kohler’s wounds nearby. Kohler was putting on a display of poetic invective as he berated Marks about procedure and safe firing zones in between pauses to catch his obviously pained breath. Kohler’s ballistic coveralls were torn by a combination of 12-gauge shot and long equally spaced rips…

You are on the outskirts of a largely abandoned town. The few remaining inhabitants take an occasional shot at you. More excitement comes from the seemingly random explosions caused by shells falling from the sky, or from objects equipped with time-delay fuses. Your only protection is to seek shelter in half-wrecked buildings or dig a hole in the rain-sodden ground. You have not had a hot meal or bath for five weeks and are living on cold food out of a can or a pouch. Your small group of ragged companions waits for instructions over a radio. You will be told to either move toward an area experiencing more explosions or in the other direction, where the mayhem level is a bit less. Your only escape from this nightmare is to be injured or killed. 

—James F. Dunnigan 1993: How to Make War: A Comprehensive Guide to Modern Warfare for the Post-Cold War Era. 3rd ed. New York: William Morrow: 29.

Combat is a terrifying experience. The grim possibility of instant death or grievous injury is unnervingly real; the deafening cracks of gunfire are disorienting as everything seems to erupt into pandemonium. It should come as no surprise that as few as 1 in 4 soldiers participate effectively in any given firefight. The overwhelming sensory overload of battle, combined with the prospect of sudden, seemingly arbitrary destruction causes the passage of time to take on very strange characteristics. At times, combatants will seem to move in slow motion, and their every action becomes painfully deliberate and time consuming. A natural sense of survival, pushing the soldier to crawl into a safe hole and hide, must be mentally battled and overcome to take each additional stride. This effect is known within Military Science circles as “friction” or the “fog of war.”

One of the largest challenges facing modern military organizations is to attempt to replicate this fog in peacetime training exercises. The stressful discipline associated with basic training is partially driven by the desire to expose trainees to some semblance of this friction early and often in their training. As a soldier progresses through the various tiers of military training and specialties, they will be exposed to far more difficult and stressful environments. Elite special operational unit training such as the United Kingdom’s Special Air Service or the United States’ Special Forces are infamous for the extraordinary lengths taken to expose candidates to overwhelmingly difficult challenges. The U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team candidate training includes an intensive solid week of training in which the prospective commandos are regularly subjected to “surf torture” and are not allowed to sleep! On a more conventional level, the outstanding success of NATO ground forces in the 1991 Gulf War has been attributed in large part to the realistic training environment created at specially prepared training centers in the United States and Germany.

The concept of a fog of battle is not a recent development. It has been documented in nearly every period of military history. On numerous Civil War battlefields the bodies of soldiers (both blue and gray) were routinely found accompanied by a musket that had been loaded many times over without being discharged. These muskets would sometimes contain twelve or more full loads of powder, patch and ball, rammed down on top of one another. The dead soldier apparently either just kept loading without realizing that his rifle was not discharging or he knew that by staying low and giving the appearance of fighting he would not be labeled a shirker. Rank and file military formations were valued as much to overcome this fog as they were to control and organize units. A soldier marching shoulder to shoulder with other soldiers is far more likely to continue to move forward under fire than in modern dispersed skirmish formations. It took the massive casualty rates experienced between 1860 and 1918 to convince the next generation of generals that the vulnerability of this approach outweighed its benefits.

Military theorists have long recognized that well trained, experienced troops have a distinct advantage on the battlefield. This advantage was usually described subjectively in numbers of troops. A veteran regiment might be described as having the effect of three times as many troops. Napoleon Bonaparte is known for having quantified the value of specific units or leaders in terms of hundreds or thousands of troops. In the last fifty years, professional military authors have begun to quantify this value as “combat effectiveness.” They typically measure it in terms of a percentage or other unit-less relative number. The process of estimating combat effectiveness is in reality a process of measuring a specific unit’s ability to overcome the friction of war.

Anecdotal accounts of combat on the tactical level tend to focus on those individuals who overcome friction rather than on the generally debilitating effects of the friction itself. Whether it’s Colonel Joshua Chamberlain leading the 20th Maine in 1863, Lieutenant Dean Hawkins leading Marine Raiders on Tarawa, or any number of Vietnam war hero accounts, the individuals recognized for heroism seem to rise to a superhuman level of coolness under fire. In some circles this talent has been called simply “the gift.”

To model this “gift,” I usually inject a new Combat pseudo-skill into my firearm genre games. Some names I have used for this skill include Morale, Friction, and Cool. This skill reflects a character’s ability to maintain his or her cool under fire—the higher the skill level, the more likely he or she will overcome friction and fight effectively. For the balance of this article I will call this skill ‘Cool.’

I have two approaches to model friction in a role-playing game that are two ways of expressing “the gift,” in order to satisfy both sides of the old “is the glass half full or half empty” debate. Combat is debilitating, but characters that have more Cool are less affected by these stresses than others. To simulate this, the Standard Friction rules below reduce the rate of everyone’s actions in combat—a character loses actions if they fail their Cool check. However, many gamers seem more comfortable with the idea of combat rounds in which everyone gets a “turn” to act. Since the real point is that a gifted warrior accomplishes more in a given period of time than his or her peers, the alternative Simple Friction approach sets a minimum baseline for activity and then increases the available actions for the high Cool characters.

Standard Friction:

My preferred approach uses a baseline of approximately 50% combat effectiveness. This is of course convenient for game application but it is also consistent with the relative evaluation of modern U.S. soldiers by many military authors and theorists. At the beginning of each “combat round” (or equivalent measure of tactical time in the game) each character must make a Friction test against their Cool skill. Characters who have a comparable level of training and skill to modern US soldiers should have a 50% chance of passing this action test. If your game system uses d20 action tests, roll a 10 or less; in a percentile system, roll a 50% or lower; in a 2d6 system where high rolls are good, roll an 8+, and so on. Less experienced characters would have a correspondingly lower chance to pass this Friction test and specially trained characters or very experienced combat veterans would have a higher chance. No one should either automatically pass or automatically fail the Friction test. Even Rambo should fail a Friction test from time to time!

So what happens if the test is failed? Simple, repeat the last action taken. If this is the first combat round, the character freezes or otherwise “reacts so slowly as to effectively do nothing.” In the gaming anecdote that opens this article, Pepsi Kohler failed his opening Friction Test and froze as the tiger charged. As a general rule, I always allow a character the option to fall prone even if they fail a Friction Test. If the character fired a weapon last round, they fire again at the same target even if the target is now gone or the weapon is out of ammunition. Hopefully the distinctive ‘click’ of dry firing will spur them to pass the next Friction Test! If the character reloaded last round, they keep reloading. In this instance, think of the repeat action more as inefficiency than repetition. The character’s hands are shaking with a mix of adrenaline and fear as he fumbles to eject a spent magazine, secure a loaded magazine, mate the mag to its proper position and recharge the weapon. Perhaps the character fumbled a bit pulling the new magazine from its pouch or struggled to get it inserted properly. Remember the “repeat” action is a game mechanic that represents both mental inertia and the difficulty of accomplishing tasks in a combat environment. Sometimes it will mean a character gets “buck fever” and just keeps spraying bursts until the weapon runs dry. In other circumstances it will mean the character is taking much longer to accomplish a task that can usually be accomplished in one action. A failed Friction test can also simply represent a soldier pausing to collect his wits and guts in the midst of incredible stress.

Interested in realism? Apply this Friction test strictly. If a character fails the test three rounds in a row, let them repeat the same action for three rounds. However, I recognize that most of us play role-playing games for fun and heroic imagery, not as a pure simulation of reality. Personally, I do not allow player characters to fail two Friction tests in a row. Call it a “get out of Friction free” pass. Non-player characters, on the other hand, tend to complain a lot less if mired in a run of poor die rolls. I let the dice fall as they may with them. When the NPCs freeze up and the player characters save the day, it adds to the fun of the game.

Simple Friction:

Some gamers are extremely disturbed by the concept that their characters could freeze up in a combat round or fail to accomplish their chosen tasks as planned. This is especially true if their character is a Navy SEAL or some other special operations trooper. These players have the perception that such troops never hesitate or perform an inappropriate action. This group is appalled by the “repeat” action in the Standard Friction method. If you desire to cater to this group, the Simple Method is for you. In this approach, the baseline soldier gets one action per combat round. The Friction Test becomes a chance to gain additional actions rather than lose some to inefficiency. In this method, each character rolls the standard system dice roll to pick up extra actions. If the player rolls under the character’s Cool, they gain an extra action, and if they roll under half their Cool they gain two extra actions. Assuming a modern U.S. soldier equivalent (with 50% combat effectiveness) and a d20 action test, the player would need to roll 10 or less to gain an extra action in the round and 5 or less to gain two extra actions. Any roll above 10 limits the character to one action. It’s simpler (hence the name) but still gives a distinct advantage to the characters with the higher Cool.

Modern Example (circa 2000) Combat Effectiveness GURPS Cool Skill (Average Value) Character Point Cost
Civilian — Default 5% IQ – 5 (5)
Law Enforcement Minimum, Poorly trained Eastern Bloc countries (Baltic States, most former states of Yugoslavia) 9% IQ – 4 (6) 1/2
Law Enforcement Average, South American and Serbian regulars 16% IQ – 3 (7) 1
Law Enforcement High, Former Soviet regulars, Arab regulars 26% IQ – 2 (8) 2
Law Enforcement Elite; Iraqi, Chinese, French, Canadian regulars 38% IQ – 1 (9) 4
United States, United Kingdom, Polish, Israeli, South Korean, New Zealand regulars 50% IQ (10) 8
Japanese, Australian, South African regulars 63% IQ + 1 (11) 12
German regulars 74% IQ + 2 (12) 16

editor’s note: This article was originally published in spring 2000. The world’s political landscape has changed significantly since then, and the example troops given may no longer represent the asserted training levels.

Okay, talk is cheap. Let’s inject this idea into a sample system. As I’ve done in previous articles, I will use GURPS as my demonstration gaming system. GURPS uses a 3d6 dice roll versus an Attribute or Skill. Low rolls are desirable. Our baseline modern U.S. soldier therefore receives a Cool skill value of 10. This equates to a 50% chance of success on a Friction Test. I’ll set the default Cool skill level to IQ-5, (mental/very hard). Note that very hard mental skills normally default to IQ-6 but I’m going to say that fight or flight instincts will raise the minimum default level a bit. So the average U.S. soldier, who’s been in the service for three or four years has ‘spent’ 8 character points to raise his or her Cool skill to 10. The above table demonstrates sample real-world combat effectiveness, GURPS skill levels and character point costs.

These examples all reflect regular army troops. These would be infantrymen with about four years of service. Noncombat specialties such as drivers, mechanics and other support troops would usually have a Cool skill one to two levels lower. Specially trained soldiers such as Rangers and Green Berets or infantrymen with extensive combat experience would usually have a Cool skill 1-2 levels higher than a regular soldier. These specific effectiveness examples are taken from James Dunnigan’s “How to Make War” (quoted earlier in this article). His Quality rating happens to be stated in percentage terms that are easily applied to our game. Other authors and theorists state their evaluations using different formats but the relative weights they estimate are approximately the same.

If you prefer using the Simple Friction method, a successful Cool check gains an extra action each round. If the check succeeds versus half the Cool Skill, two extra actions are gained. All extra actions should be resolved before regular actions. Modeling the fog and difficulty of acting in combat is somewhat lost in the simple method, but the end result is the same: advantage to the better trained more experienced troops.

In closing, let’s review the skirmish between our heroes Woody Marks (Cool 8) and Pepsi Kohler (Cool 11). This is an actual game story from the first play testing session of these Friction rules. The players viewed the potential of freezing or repeating during a combat round with some trepidation but agreed to give it a whirl. The game was a post-apocalyptic roleplaying game called The Morrow Project in which 20th century volunteers are placed in cryogenic sleep to rebuild after an expected nuclear war. Although I haven’t mentioned it to this point, I also sometimes use the Cool skill as a general military proficiency skill. The scene opens when Woody fails a Cool Test while scanning with his night vision goggles. I rule that he managed to cause a green out by looking at the bright flames of the encampment where the rest of the team sleeps. Woody did save the day by making a critical perception roll and spotting the tiger and, even more importantly, he passed the inaugural Friction Test of the session. This allowed him to blast away at the beast before it charged. Unfortunately, he rolled poorly on his shotgun skill test and failed to hit. Pepsi Kohler surprisingly failed his opening Friction Test and froze despite his 63% chance of success. I ruled that he could turn in place to face the sound of the attack but he was shocked with the surprise of the attack and instinctively cringed at the retort of the shotgun. He failed to bring his weapon around and into battery. In the next combat round, Woody’s player decided he would cease fire rather than endanger Pepsi. But, more bad news for Pepsi, Woody failed his Friction Test and had to repeat his previous action. Last round he was firing at the tiger so this round he must continue to fire at that target, even as it merged in his sight picture with his friend. Pepsi passed his Friction Test, and after a brief tongue in cheek discussion of the merits of firing at Woody, Pepsi decided to dive for cover and fire a long burst at the tiger. Pepsi and Woody each shot true that round and the tiger was killed by numerous hits from both a 9mm submachine gun and a 12-gauge shotgun. Pepsi also felt the business end of the 12-gauge, though his body armor saved him from permanent injury.

My players and I thought that the play test session was a complete success and these Friction rules have been a part of our firearms genre games ever since. Some strange things can happen using these rules, but that holds doubly true for real combat. My players are used to a heavy dose of Murphy’s Laws in my games and the Friction rules are par for the course. Sometimes in the heat of battle they roar in pain with a failed Friction test at a critical moment, but those same moments invariably lead to the kind of game stories that we are talking about ten years later.

Special thanks to Ernest Mueller and Bill Gant – I’ve discussed these rules in great detail with both of them and they’ve provided valuable input.


  1. This, along with Hitting Them Where It Hurts, was a very interesting article. I’m writing a modern combat rpg with these two ideas at their core, I’d welcome a conversation with the authour.

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