Gaming Ballistic’s Firing Squad welcomes Hans-Christian Vortisch

Earlier this week I sat down with +Hans-Christian Vortisch , who has made a solid game writing presence being the go-to guy about firearms, especially makes, models, and usage.

We talk about his history in gaming and how he came to write about games, as well as an awful lot about firearms, both using them and modeling their use in RPGs.

Hans’ name has come up in many of the interviews I’ve done on the Firing Squad, and always in a way that gives a nod to his vast erudition regarding the subject.

I have been personally involved in playtesting two of his works, as Lead Playtester for High Tech (with +Shawn Fisher ) and Tactical Shooting.  Both experiences were positive and a heck of a lot of fun.

We speak for about 75 minutes and could easily have gone longer (I woke up at 5am to interview him – he’s 7 hours ahead of Minneapolis time). If the video looks a bit jerky at times, we experienced some communications lag, so I chopped out some weird silences.

So if you have a bit more than an hour to spare on this Thanksgiving Day, in between football and a tryptophan coma, give a listen!

MP3 File Audio Only (click to download)

Text Transcript

Douglas Cole (Gaming Ballistic): Good morning and welcome to Gaming Ballistic’s Firing Squad. I am joined today by Hans-Christian Vortisch. Author of GURPS High-Tech and GURPS Tactical Shooting, as well as several supplements for Call of Cthulhu.

The interesting thing about this particular interview except for maybe my recent interview with Steve Jackson himself, your name came actually came up in every single interview that I’ve done. Especially with the Steve Jackson Games staff. You’re kind of legendary so to speak for your breadth and depth of experience and knowledge writing about firearms in role-playing games.

Before we get really into it, I’d like to ask you a couple of questions about how you got into both role-playing games, and your personal interest in firearms.

Hans-Christian Vortisch (RPG Author, Epic Bearder, and General Badass): I really started playing in the early 1980s with a German game called Das Schwarze Auge. It’s pretty much like Dungeons & Dragons. Standard fantasy, pretty simple mechanics and all that.

Then we played everything that was available: Dungeons and Dragons, Traveller, Shadowrun, Star Frontiers, The Morrow Project, Twilight: 2000, Ninjas & Superspies, Rolemaster, MERP . . . everything. Star Wars; the original, the first edition.

And somehow I always gravitated to those games that featured firearms – they were more fun to me. Call of Cthulhu, Traveller, Star Frontiers, stuff like that.

It was just more fun to me, because I liked the fantasy genre and we played a lot of Middle-Earth Role Playing game . . . but somehow the modern or sci-fi settings were more interesting to me.

Well, I liked those most and started reading up on stuff. Somehow, I’ve got a vast collections of books. [both laugh] It just happened that way.

I didn’t really shoot when I was young – that was interesting. I had an air rifle and toy guns and stuff like that, of course, but I didn’t really get into the practical side of it until I was much, much older actually.

I always applied this sort of academic process to the whole thing. I always researched everything diligently without actually having … I hadn’t shot a machinegun or anything like that when I started working on this. But I read up on it. How it’s done. How people do things like that. It’s not just the technical specs, but everything.

Doug: Cool. So you’d say you started into your interest in firearms from a academic perspective and then graduated into … I know you do three-gun matches in Germany.

Hans: Yes. At some point I thought “Yeah, well, why not.”

It’s a bit problematic over here, because you can’t really – unlike in the US, most people don’t really have first-hand experience with firearms if they’re not in the army or whatever. Because they are not easy to get. You have to have special permits and stuff, and I didn’t really feel like applying for the whole process. It’s not that difficult, but it’s still a process. You have to go through the whole thing. You have to find out about the rules. You have to apply with the administration. It’s pretty expensive as well, so I didn’t really do that until seven years ago, I think. I got a permit and I’ve built up a small collection. I’m shooting regularly – a lot actually right now.

Doug: Excellent. It’s been a while since I’ve actually been to the range. That last time was to sight in a new 6.8 SPC upper receiver that had been causing me more problems than … [Hans laughs] than something that expensive should be … I finally figured it out. It was my stock, it was loose. So when I was shooting the whole thing would tilt. But when I was bore-sighting it – I put a laser down the bore – it is entirely accurate. It was only going wrong when I was pulling the trigger. It took me three trips to the range to figure that … there is a clamp on the extendible stock and if you didn’t engage that clamp the whole gun would rock. It was a very frustrating experience, but eventually I succeeded my IQ-based Guns skill and figured that out [both laugh].

Hans: See, that’s why I prefer guns that work all the time like Glocks or pump-action shotguns and stuff like that, where you don’t have to fiddle. I don’t like to build stuff – I just want to shoot them. I get guns that always work.

Doug: I’m only 175 cm, so a lot of the weapons that are designed around people who are six-feet tall [180 cm] … that’s what helps with that.

So one of the things that’s true is you seem to have a comprehensive knowledge of who has what firearms all over the world. How did you get into that and how difficult is it to pick that up?

Hans: It’s sort of a result of all my other research. If you’re not just interested in the technical specifications of the stuff, you also want to know who’s using what and who’s buying what and how much they buy. How much did they pay for it, and all the other things that are often more interesting to the players in the game than the mere stats.

Because you have to know can I actually get it? How much do I have to pay for it? Will the men in black from the government … what kind of gun will they have? If I break into the library of the Holy See, what kind of gun will the Swiss guards have and stuff like that.

It’s more interesting to find out who’s getting what and I’ve done a lot of research, and there are tons of books, actually, where you can find that, and then there are specialized online sites that are collecting stuff like that. It’s almost like train spotters – there’s gun spotters – searching the pictures from online sources to find out who’s using what, and stuff like that. It’s huge…it’s actually a huge industry as well. Jane’s [Information Group], the company, they are making all their money, really, with this kind of information.

Doug: I certainly remember; I never owned a copy because the Jane’s books were always so expensive. When I was building a lot of vehicles using GURPS Vehicle Design, I would hit the northwestern library in order to look at Jane’s [Fighting] Ships. Or my favorite book to look at was Aircraft Weapons [Jane’s Air-Launched Weapons]. I remember Jane’s Infantry Weapons as well.

You would have … I still remember … at least my fascination with gun catalogs so to speak, I think, started with Twilight: 2000. It was the first gun catalog I had – although I think it was the second edition infantry weapons book [Infantry Weapons Handbook]. It had some pictures and stats and some of the entries were wrong. Even then I remember myself looking at, I think there was like this advanced infantry rifle which they said fired an 18mm round, and I was like “What?!” An advanced infantry weapon firing shotgun slugs. That can’t be right!

Hans: The funny thing is that book for Twilight: 2000 is actually basically copied from Jane’s. You can really tell from the pictures, and from the entries, that many of these things never appeared in the real world. They just were published in some Jane’s Infantry Weapons issue and then they used them for Twilight: 2000 book. But in the real world, they never played any role. It’s actually quite funny.

Doug: I do remember that. But I also remember modifying it when it came to my own monster hunters campaign and such. Because some of them were not quite right.

To that point, in a way, one of the interesting things I think you brought up, and I differently remember reading or writing about it on my blog: Firearms set a backdrop to a scene the same way a Model T Ford or a Ferrari F50 – it provides a context to the environment, in a roleplaying game, that’s pretty interesting, and I think helps with immersion. So getting it right is part of set dressing.

One of the things that you’ve done – I think you did something for a while called the “Armorer’s Archive”  . . . was that your own blog-entry or…

Hans: That started when I started writing this [holds up The Armourer]. My fanzine which I published in the late 1990s – it’s only GURPS stuff – basically its all the things I did later are already in there. You’ve got rules, you’ve got guns, vehicles, you’ve got all the inventories and stuff like that.

It’s really all my interests are in that fanzine. I published two issues I think – I had stuff for some more – but I didn’t really pursue it, because at that point I started writing for Steve Jackson Games and obviously that was more fun than just doing a fanzine. Right about the same time when I was publishing those things I was writing articles on the GURPSNet – the old email thingee.

Doug: I remember it.

Hans: That was the “Armourer Archives” basically. It was thirty entries I think.

Doug: The reason I ask, is to tie it into the previous conversation, I remember some entries called “Armourer’s Archive at the Movies.” And you would write about “and here’s a movie and it featured these weapons, and here’s a movie and it featured these weapons,” and here is what was right and wrong about them.

As a fan of both firearms, and I believe movies as well, what are your favorite movies with guns in them, and your least favorite ones that set your teeth on edge …  and why is that in both cases.

Hans: There’re tons, really, of favorite movies. I like both realistic movies, the cinema version of GURPS Tactical Shooting, and the really over the top ones, which is the cinema version of GURPS Gun Fu, of course. There are a huge number of films that I like.

Probably one of my favorites is Heat, definitely – also because everybody loves Robert De Niro, but that’s just perfect. All the characters are so great, and the music and the story, and the shooting. Everything is just perfect.

Doug: My understanding is its one of the few movies that gets the sound of guns right.

Hans: Yes. Absolutely. That’s one of the things that I had to learn myself when I started shooting, is how fucking loud those things are.

I had read about it before that obviously, but I had only shot .22 rifles before that, so I didn’t really know firsthand how loud those things are. I started shooting at an indoor range and it was just brutal. You really can’t imagine it if you haven’t experienced it yourself. That was an eye-opener. In Heat they’ve done it right. It’s really overwhelming.

Doug: Right. I remember two experiences that I had with a girlfriend and I at the time were thinking about taking a trip to Alaska, or working there over the summer. So her father, who owned a farm in Kansas, took us out. He ran a pheasant-hunting operation and he was a big hunter, and as is often the case for people in the Central/Midwest United States he had a very large firearms collection. He had a 3,000-acre range and took us out and taught us how to shoot.

I didn’t have earplugs or anything and one of the first weapons I ever shot was a .22-250 varmint rifle. Probably putting a .22 caliber bullet out at 900 m/sec or something like that [Edit: it’s actually more like 1,150m/s!] and my right ear was ringing for a week [laughs].

Then another time, I was shooting at a indoor range in Texas, and I’d gotten a “battlepack” they call it – probably just to sell it to people like me – of Guatemalan 5.56×45mm NATO. Guatemalan M16 ammunition. And I was shooting it out of a short-barreled (16-inch barrel) AR-15 and every time I’d pull the trigger about a 3-foot dirty thing of flame would come out the front. It was okay for me, but all the people in the lanes next to me were like running in fear. They had ear protection and everything and it was still so loud it was like flexing the window that allowed the range masters to watch people doing their thing. The whole thing was bowing inwards, and eventually they said “you need to change your ammo or just stop.”

The concussion is really amazing. It’s one of those things where I remember seeing an outtake of Alias where they were warning everybody that Jennifer Garner – the lead actress was going to fire three shots, but they were full power blanks. So everyone had to go up [and cover their ears]. That seemed to be actually unusual for that.

So in general, what do you think cinema and movies gets the most right about firearms, and what do you think they get the most wrong? And the reason I’m asking all these questions about movies, is really to set the stage for how they’re modeled in games.

Because I think the movies and the TV establish thecultural awareness of firearms, both in how to get them, how to use them, how they’re used and not used, legal and illegal things you can do with them. How injurious they are when you get shot.

So I am curious to your opinion as to what the cultural record gets right and what the cultural record gets wrong.

Hans: There are several things they usually don’t really get. The first one which we already talked about is the sound. I actually read that they are required to turn down the volume, because people would get ear damage from just watching a movie. So they can’t really use a proper volume.

You can do it right, like in Heat and usually they don’t. Usually the sounds you hear in movies and television are not the sounds they actually generate, but they’re from some computer program. That’s also a problem: you can’t really recognize what it’s actually like.

The sound is a problem; recoil is a problem because the blanks don’t generate proper recoil, so you don’t really see when they’re going with a machine gun or something. They don’t really generate the proper recoil and you can tell from the actor’s movements.

One problem is differently is definitely the one-shot death. Which is a cinematic meme. I’ve actually read that they’ve had problems with that in the military, because even young soldiers on being trained on real weapons expect their opponents to drop dead with one shot like in the movies, like they had learned all their life, by watching movies and television – and it just doesn’t happen – usually. Not like that anyway.

Of course you can die from one shot, but not like it’s usually portrayed in the movies.

Doug: Mark Bowden wrote about it in Black Hawk Down. If you’ve read the book – I’m sure you’ve read the book, if you haven’t you should. It’s 1991, obviously, so it’s pushing 20 years old.

Hans: It was 1993, wasn’t it?

Doug: You’re right – ’93, sorry – it’s a fascinating read, and one of the things it talks about is that the Rangers just couldn’t believe when they pulled the trigger, that the Somalis that they were fighting didn’t just drop, or explode, or whatever it was they were supposed to do. One shot.

They would absorb … some of that was blamed on the ammo, and some of that was blamed on “it’s not the range silly,” – you’re not going to hit eight out of ten at 100 meters in combat the way you do in a nice little quiet range.

So turning to games, what do you think – so we asked the question about movies – what they get wrong and right. One of the things that they often get right is firearms handling.

I want to give a shout out to Denzel Washington in this. The reason I say this, is I have never – unless the plot calls for it – I’ve never seen him make a mistake handling a gun. I’ve never seen him point a weapon at somebody with his finger on the trigger. Whenever he’s holding the firearm his finger is always [alongside the trigger guard]. I’ve never seen an actor with better firearms discipline than him.

Hans: I can’t remember a film off hand where he’s actually with a gun. Can you name a movie?

Doug: Training Day. In Training Day even when he’s being this guy who’s trying to be imposing on his partner, Ethan Hawke. When he’s kind of point his gun at him, he’s always got his finger next to the trigger rather than on it and stuff like that. Mistakes in gun handling, or good news in gun handling…so what is it in roleplaying games obviously have a long and storied history featuring violence as conflict resolution above almost everything else.

So what do you think that games get the most right and get the most wrong in representing firearms? Or instead of simulating, since that’s such a leading question, how about representing firearms?

Hans: Well the biggest issue in all games really is exactly the same as in the movies. That’s how damage works. That’s linked how the games represent health or hit points.

Most games obviously use hit points in some way, and that’s rather misleading if you compare how actual injuries on the human body work.

Obviously you always have to…you need some way of actually quantifying what is done to the body. But still, a lot of games just don’t get it right.

Usually that’s also a question of scale. GURPS has the huge advantage that it actually scales to muzzle energy and stuff like that. There is actually a formula to generate that. Most games don’t, really, and you can tell.

You have stuff like GUMSHOE which is terrible in this regard. Everything’s the same. A 9mm is the same damage as a 6.5mm rifle, or a baseball bat, or stuff like that. It’s completely ridiculous to compare actually. So damage is a huge problem, and most games really don’t work that way in that regard. That’s why I like GURPS, because GURPS is pretty good in that.

Doug: Certainly it has the mathematical advantage as both you and I have both independently come up with – slightly different – it works out that the only thing that’s really different is how – because I wrote an article a long time ago, and I know you got the background that you did for High-Tech and Tactical Shooting.

The only thing that’s really different is how we scale for caliber, and even then its, honestly in my particular case, the thing that swayed my mathematical model the most was the 406mm battleship cannon. Because it was so far out on the energy and caliber scale, that really, probably, an entirely different physics applies

But within the range of basically 5mm to 15mm personal weapon and light anti-vehicular weapon the scale is pretty irrelevant in caliber anyway because there is not that much different in overall cross section.

So that’s getting a little bit deep in the weeds of mathematical modelling – but it is interesting, because when you put a line through the actual penetration values it isn’t exactly as neat as one would think.

Hans: Yeah. That’s also the problem…it’s a problem in the game because it’s a problem in real life.

You can’t really … that’s why we have the “caliber wars” and all those bigger-dick or longer-dick comparisons. Which is better and which is worse and whatever.

Because you can’t really say it that simply. It’s difficult to quantify, and therefore … but still, once you have some parameters along which you can actually say “Yeah, this is a 9mm and this is whatever,” then you can work on a scale that works.

But if you just assign damage like many games actually do, they’re not really looking into how guns work, but also how the body works, and how combat works, and how the mind works in combat and stuff like that.

Doug: That’s something that I think that Tactical Shooting at least – and we’ll talk about Tactical Shooting, because I obviously have fond memories of that, both in usage and in playtesting …

But the mental stress of combat is something that I think Tactical Shooting does as well as I’ve seen, and is yet still very difficult to get right. I think largely because gamers are used to have total control over everything that they ever do.

And this is actually an area where the scaling of GURPS in time, with one-second combat action works a little bit against the real simulationism of how much you can actually get done in a firefight, and how much time you’re spent ducking behind a box.

Hans: Yes. Yes. I just recently did an article for Pyramid where I chronicled real gunfights and fictional gunfights in the old west, using the transcripts. The interesting thing is that a lot of the time people would just Do Nothing.

Doug: Yeah, they’d just sit there . . .

Hans: And you can’t really say that, in a game. The players, they want to do something every turn, or every round, or whatever. They don’t really appreciate that sometimes you just don’t want to do something.

It’s the same thing not only with guns, but with martial arts as well. I’ve done loads of martial arts and you’ve done even more – sometimes in a fight you just stand around a bit, and look for better position or whatever, you don’t punch every second.

That’s definitely a problem.

It’s perhaps a good idea that some games have a longer combat round than just one second. Not too long – the D&D I think is 30 seconds – that’s ridiculous. But a bit longer than one second would certainly work.

Doug: In a recent game that I have been running that I call “Alien Menace,” which is basically sort of Aliens: Colonial Marines meets Dungeon Fantasy, in a way. [Hans laughs] Gear up in your modern tactical gear, a little bit in the future, because the future is cool. GURPS X-Com if you are familiar with that. Except the players are going to other star systems and killing aliens and taking their stuff.

One of the things we wound up doing was we did a five-second combat turn, not for the actual shooting itself, but for the maneuver phases before the fire-fight action actually starts.

Because frequently what you’re really…what I wanted to model was a group of troops would walk at a combat walk, scanning for targets, and then pause letting the next guy go – kind of bounding/overwatch type movement.

Doing that on a one-second time scale was ridiculously frustrasting. Because you’d be cycling between four to six players, moving one to two yards per second, because one thing that is true about GURPS is that…I love it to death, but some of the playable abstractions make every Joe Average into a world record sprinter.

That kind of stuff – easily fixed, but on the one second time scale a two to four miles an hour is a reasonably brisk walk. That’s two yards per second; it’s really not moving anywhere. To clear a cave complex, or something like that, when the bugs are coming would take nine years of real time. “Okay, Peter you move your two. Nate you move your two. Hans you move your two. Okay.” Now we’re going back to Peter again . . . at some point people are going to reach through the screen and kill the gamemaster for that.

What we would up doing was say “Take a full move and evaluate and a Wait” and you do that as a five-second action, and it appropriately gets things moving while allowing . . . first of all, it didn’t allow someone to get way ahead and then you say “Oh, now combat starts.” And you have some poor schlep who’slost in the middle of a fire fight because they moved their icon on the screen. But it also broke that up.

I think that a three to five second round probably works best for – even D&D eventually did that – the six-second segment or whatever.That range of a couple of seconds seems to work well.

Except . . . when you’re dealing with something like fully-automatic weapons.

Hans: Even if you got semi-automatics, or even if you got punches – a real martial artist doesn’t throw just one punch. I don’t know … when I shoot I shoot like four shots per second. Those are aimed shots, not just in the sand.

You have to have to do things pretty differently. If you have a three or five second turn you have to realize that in that time frame you can empty an entire magazine of an assault rifle or something like that. That doesn’t sit too well with many gamemasters or many game designers, actually. They usually want things to be a bit slower [laughs].

Doug: I think it’s a real tension in trying to create dramatic action without devolving into the only thing you’re doing is managing inventory. Even though if you look at one of the big issues in patrol reports. Read especially…we got a long time of deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, and you read the patrol reports. Most of these guys, when they get into a serious scrap, they’re not paid to bring ammo back, but I tell you what: no one has ever wished that they had less.

Hans: That’s the thing – again – I’ve studied loads of real shootouts. For the game, usually, because you can always learn something. You can get statistics from the FBI from the NYPD. They’ve got hundreds of shootouts documented and the same with many of the old west gunfights – extremely well-documented – comparatively.

For example, there is a famous fight that had four dead in five seconds. You can’t be really sure it was “just” five seconds, and we know those four guys didn’t die in those five seconds, because three of them died later.

You’ve got enough information to deduce that most real shootouts, they’re over in a very, very short time. Still people manage to shoot a lot. Not just two shots. They spent their entire ammunition.

So we have to find a way to have that condensed time and still allow the characters to do so much.

I don’t know … it’s difficult in both the one-second turns and the longer turns, because both have issues in that way.

Doug: So if you were to take a step back. You and I’ve written rules for GURPS, and you’ve done the Investigator Weapons series for the Call of Cthulhu system as you mentioned early in the interview.

If you could start from scratch on a blank piece of paper, and design firearms combat for roleplaying games as envisioned by Hans-Christian Vortisch. What would that look like to you?

Hans: [laughs] I don’t know … I actually never really thought about writing my own system, because I like the systems I work with – obviously.

But one thing is definitely an issue, is the time issue, as we just talked about, and I think I would go for slightly longer turn than GURPS. Probably about three seconds … but I would allow much more actions to happen.

Because in Call of Cthulhu, which is about three seconds … Call of Cthulhu is very badly edited – it’s 30 years now, I think and they never really paid attention to all the books that came out. And so some books say a combat turn is as long as you like, some say three seconds, some say … you know. Nothing really you could work with I think.

If you take three seconds, you got the problem that the rules allow only one or two shots, or punches or whatever – actions anyway, in that time frame. And then you got the same problem we already discussed: in truth you should be able to do much, much more in that time.

But then, if you allow them to take twelve shots or whatever in that time frame, you’d be back at GURPS, because you’d have to detail every single one of those.

Perhaps you need a way to … for example: I recently playtested the Beta of the Delta Green RPG, which is a completely new game, but works on the old Call of Cthulhu Basic RolePlaying game system. They did a lot of things differently, but … [chuckles] basically it’s the same.

But they sort of said … one attack, with a fist for example, isn’t just one punch, or doesn’t need to be just one punch. It can represent a whole bunch of them – it’s an abstraction. You don’t really need to have to play every single punch, but you can say … it’s a whole flurry of them.

Perhaps you can do the same with shots, then you’ve got the problem that every shot is potentially deadly, so you have to account for that in some way. You also have to account for the fact that you have to count every shot from the magazine. You can’t say “I do 10 shots” and have a revolver which takes only six and stuff like that.

It would be neat … it’s a bit less simulationist than I usually like, I like every shot to count and every little bit to matter. But I think it probably works.

Doug: Right. And you have mentioned GUMSHOE earlier, and I think GUMSHOE, and especially Night’s Black Agents – which tends to take a step closer to that modern, frantic pace – rationalizes that to an extreme and says “Any shot is a shot and whether it’s a .50-caliber rifle or a pistol the important thing is the drama of it.”

As you noted you find that unsatisfying, but from a representation of both good and bad gun cinema . . . all guns do kind of do the same damage. A .22 will knock somebody on their butt or a shotgun blows them down the room.

So you got this it’s either you shoot and the hero hits and the bad guy drops, or something happens and it misses. It’s really about the drama of the moment.

And you’ve got GURPS where you can tick off one bullet at a time if you want.

Hans: The thing is if you take that too far – and I think GUMSHOE did that – you don’t have … you no longer have any reason to pick any particular gun. I’m not just talking about guns, if you’re using swords or axes or spears or whatever, there has to be a difference, or otherwise why bother.

Doug: It becomes pure flavor, you’re right.

Hans: And I think the players, at least, want the flavor. Or many of them do. Obviously not all of them, otherwise those games wouldn’t thrive. Many players like to give character to their characters. Color and flavor, and not all knights are the same, because one of them picks a sword, and one an axe.

It’s the same with guns, you have to have some way of differentiating, and if all the things do the same damage, or even work the same, if they are automatic or not, why bother.

Doug: One thing you struck in my mind in terms of way to cover, not just the fact that “Okay, you’ve got a five-second turn and in five seconds you can fire 50 rounds from a M16” and you can virtually fire as many in five seconds (maybe not quite, but close) simply by pulling the trigger really fast. Even in something like a revolver with a long, heavy trigger pull you can blaze off a lot of rounds in a short amount of time.

I wonder if the right … an interesting mechanic for that: make an attack of some arbitrary declaration, and then you roll randomly for the number of bullets or shots that you fire in making that attack in five seconds.

The interesting thing about that to me – and I’ve have to think about it more – is that it would be … players would get caught out of ammunition by surprise.

Hans: I know what you mean, but I don’t like random. I don’t like throwing the dice and then you’re out or not.

What I like – and I actually applied this rule that I wrote that rule in my books in the Investigators Weapons series for Call of Cthulhu, that people who aren’t – normal people who aren’t seasoned gunfighters, and most people aren’t – even if they are cops or ordinary grunts or whatever.

They would always fire at their maximum rate of fire. So they would be out of ammunition pretty fast, which is both dramatic and pretty realistic.

I shoot a lot of IPSC competitions, and very often I see people being out, and being totally surprised by the slide locking open, even though they actually knew how the stage was set, and how many shots they were supposed to shoot. And they didn’t hit that one plate, so they had to spend extra ammunition, and the whole plan fell apart. And on the next station they are out, suddenly and surprisingly.

And that’s not combat, but you’re still totally … you can imagine how that works if you are in combat and fighting for your life. I actually force the player characters as fast as possible, and that’s one of the results that I’ve seen in analyzing all those shootouts and gunfights and so on. People shoot much, much faster than they usually would.

And they shoot, and they don’t really know how much they’ve shot. You can see in all the firefights, especially with the policemen, is that they shoot and shoot and shoot and they don’t even remember shooting that much. And the witnesses … I always hear “I thought it was two shoots” in reality they emptied two magazines.

I think that works pretty well. You can give the characters some agency by having them roll to overcome that. There able to step down and take a breath and calm down and shoot slower. Which is actually pretty realistic, I think, because that’s exactly what you do.

Doug: You have to exert discipline to control your rate of fire. That’s an interesting point. Yep.

Back to your comment about the police stuff, is it true and it’s interesting, and always very tragic in retrospect – and it gets into the tactical mind and some of the concepts you introduced in your writing.

Not only do you shoot at maximum rate, but once somebody decides to start shooting, everybody gets in on the game. The psychological pressure in a potentially lethal situation to not be the one standing there with the fully loaded gun in their hand at the end [laughs]. Or potentially wounded or dead on both sides.

Once the shooting starts the psychological pressure is way more than anyone that hasn’t experienced it gives it credit for. Even the people who research it academically don’t understand. I certainly don’t understand.

But you read these after-action reports of “You know there was someone in the doorway …” – and I know this is a fairly famous case in New York City – there was someone in the doorway and there were several police officers, and something happened, and one officer started shooting and pretty soon forty-five rounds are expended, because every single one of them went through 15 rounds in their Beretta (or whatever) before they even thought about it. The bullets are going all over the doorway. And someone is dead, and …

Hans: Of course, most of them didn’t hit [both laugh].

Doug: That’s right. The hit rates seem to be less than 25%.

Hans: 10 to 20[%] is about the rate.

Doug: That was actually … I had a whole series of both blog posts, and we even snuck in a reference to this in Pyramid #3/57, which was the wonderful “Gunplay” issue. Obviously, with my interests and yours, that was a good one. I wonder if we could lean on Steven to do a sequel.

I won’t lie: I’ve got an article that’s just already on his desk for that one. I think it’s actually some of my best work. I referenced it on my blog at one point as a different way to look at aiming in GURPS.

Because as you know some times you draw, and you’ve got the perfect sight picture and you shoot, and itsbang-on instantly. And sometimes it’s like “Ahhh….[wobbles arms about in gun pose and then imitates a gun firing].” You know.

It’s very literally hit or miss when you get a good picture and sometimes you don’t. And GURPS is very formulaic: “I draw, I do an All-Out Attack, I Aim, I Aim again, and I shoot.” And then the player has some mental calculus of “I’m going to do this after I get to this score.” [both laugh]

It’s usually not quite…Quite so metronomic. Metronome. Aim. Aim. Aim. Shoot. Aim. Aim. Aim. Shoot.

Anyways, so that’s really one of the hardest things to model – getting back to the same thing – the uncertainty that happens in a real fire fight. Because of course, you’re not doing it one second at a time, or even five seconds at a time.

Putting your head down for five seconds in GURPS is a freaking afternoon, right?

But ducking to take a deep breath or something in a real situation is not just common, but encouraged – especially in more military-style firefights, where you don’t have people standing in the middle of the street in what becomes a brief flurry of violence.

So going from some real life shooting and stuff to talking a little bit more about your writing – at least in GURPS you’ve written at the very least what Special Ops, Covert Ops, Modern Firepower, Tactical Shooting, Gun Fu, High-Tech, missing any, off the top of my head?

Hans: My first real project was Modern Firepower, what else did I do? SEALs in Vietnam, which I really liked – one of my favorites actually. It was such a interesting thing to write, because it doesn’t really fit with all the other books strangely. It’s such a weird setting, and I don’t know it’s so specialized. It’s about U.S. Navy SEALS in Vietnam.

But it really works, and it’s got some nice alternate history scenarios in the back, and it’s got loads of mechanics that I used later.

That’s one of the things that you can’t really plan. You just write something and you notice, oh, it could use some more development, and I really should have thought about that in another book – an early book usually.

But that really…that’s really cool. It’s got great historical photos, and one of the better illustrated books of the lot. That’s just great.

The fun thing about it is I’ve actually had people tell me “My father was in the war, and he actually felt like that.” People actually came to me, and told me that it hit the spot, and that’s great because it’s so historical. And obviously I wasn’t there, and I have no real issue in the whole thing, but it’s just if you’re doing a historical setting like that with people who have actually been there say “Okay, that’s how it was.” Perhaps not exactly like that, but it captures the feeling anyway. You’ve done your job, and that’s just great. I did a couple other books in the World War II series.

Doug: I was wondering, did you have a hand in Hand of Steel [GURPS WWII: Hand of Steel, written by Shawn Fisher]?

Hans: I worked with Gene [Seabolt, line editor of the GURPS WWII series] before he actually wrote the main volume before it was actually published. I worked with him on the vehicle design system because he had this abbreviated design system. The Modular Vehicle Design System. I worked with him on that, and obviously, I worked with him more on the small arms, and I consulted on all the volumes and I wrote, actually most of the small arms sections in many books.

And well, I also consulted on foreign language terms in many of the books. I wrote Motor Pool [GURPS WWII: Motor Pool], which is basically just vehicles, which I’ve always loved. Because I used to play a lot of Car Wars in the 80s. I just loved designing them. I must have done hundreds of Car Wars vehicles that I never used. It’s like LEGO – you’re always tinkering with something, and building, and you can’t really do something with them.

Anyway, I did the Motor Pool then I did two PDFs with Michele Armellini: the books on Poland and Romania.

Doug: And Covert Ops is an interesting story, because there was a playtest “GURPS Assassins” or something, and you and Bill Stoddard pieced all that together to make Covert Ops.

What have your experiences been, both positive and negative, with Steve Jackson Games? I find it a tough company to write for, but the results are usually pretty good.

Hans: Yes. They’ve got fucking excellent editors, which is their main selling point really. Aside from the game system.

I’ve worked with a couple different publishers as well, and they’re just the best. The feedback that you get from the editors and the oversight – you need oversight in a game, because otherwise it’s like Call of Cthulhu – there are a thousand different options, and none of them work with each other.

In GURPS you actually have people who committed to get everything integrated in somewhere. Well, not everything, but as a universal system not everything works with everything. Most of it …

Doug: It’s amazing how non-obvious that can be … [both laugh].

Hans: I totally know what you mean!

They’re actually working on that, to get things right, and they’re positive toward the writers. They’re very accommodating.

Also, to topics, most of the books – but not all of them – were my ideas, and I pitched them. That’s great if you can go to them and tell them “I have this idea, what can we do with it. Are you interested?” They want to develop, you know.

Doug: That was how the grappling book started. I was like: A long time I was like “Grappling is just odd. It’s very detailed. The same way guns can be detailed, but it’s all just one effect. It’s very off/on, you’re either grappled or you are not. What would happen if you get either a good grip or a bad grip?” And I pitched that too Steven and he was like “Eh, I don’t know…” Sean was like “This is something that needs to be thought about…”

And then I submitted my first draft, and I think the feedback at the time was longer than the original draft. I think I submitted a 21,000-word initial draft and he gave me 24,000 words of feedback. It almost doubled the length of the final product, but it was also immensely valuable in crafting what it would look like.

Hans: That’s really cool with working with them.

On the other hand you have issues with production, and at some time, they always wanted to have two writers, two authors for every book. Usually … I prefer to do everything on my own.

Sometimes, when I actually chose my co-author it’s a different thing, because I actually want to work with somebody. These days I usually want to do it alone, and I prefer that. At some point – I don’t really know why, actually – they had this idea that every book had to be written by two people.

Doug: More eyes on it? The peer review process of going back and forth certainly helps.

Hans: Yes, but you don’t need several authors to get peer review … that’s another good thing with Steve Jackson Games. They don’t do that or in that way. Totally playtest everything, and have a detailed peer review, and you actually have to work with it, and have to explain yourself … that’s very important actually for the stuff to work because you can tell which games don’t use that, because they usually have issues. They’ve been ironed out much earlier.

Doug: In a game like GURPS, and I obviously found this in my grappling book, and I refer to that largely because it represented to me some of the best and worst parts of all that.

When you’re doing a lot of playtest around “Hans Grappling with Doug” okay, that’s one setting, and then you need to say “if Giant Hans is picking up Hobbit Doug,” and you’re like “… DAMN IT.” All your assumptions go out the window, and you have to really think about that.

What I’m finding least is we did a couple of weeks worth of … weeks … months? Of playtest of that, and it could have used another year of people messing around with it and see where it squeaks around the edges.

Peter Dell’Orto and I wrote thousands and thousands of words of how to tweak it out, and he uses and writes about in his Felltower Dungeon Fantasy campaign just to specialize a little bit. It’s amazing how valuable that was.

In the Tactical Shooting playtest we had some really dedicated, interested people that really helped. And I’ve heard since then and I don’t know if you’ve received the same feedback, but that playtest was legendary in its value. In terms of how it really validated the book.

If there’s anything in retrospect that you’ve published in GURPS or anything else, and we’ll talk about some of your works here in a minute. What would you do over again if you could? Looking back over the body of work that’s been published.

Hans: The thing is, you always want to do things over. That’s the problem with books: at some point you have to let go, and let the editors and the layouters and the production – you have to let them do their job, and get the book actually out.

Of course that cuts you off from the possibility to fiddle with it. And I fiddle with all my books for ages, many of them started years ago, and you’ve seen most of mine, or most of my drafts, actually, and usually takes two to five years for the books to actually see the light.

At some point, you have to let go, and there is always something that you would have done differently.

Especially since I found a lot of my – not all of them – but some of my books deal with the same issues again and again. For example, I did the GURPS Martial Arts: Fairbairn Close Combat Systems, which was also a labor of love, and just a fun little thing and totally specialized.

I mean, it works with loads of different settings really which is the fun and cool thing. You can use it in WWII, you can use it in the 1920s in Shanghai. You can use it for all sorts of things, but still it is a bit specialized.

A lot of stuff in there later evolved into Tactical Shooting. Obviously, if I had done Tactical Shooting first, I wouldn’t have done the Fairbairn book in the way I did it.

The same with some details in High-Tech that I would do differently now, or I just know better. You grow as an author, and your knowledge grows, and at some point you just realize “That’s not really I would want it now.”

Really I have no issues with most of my books. Some of them have not the production values that I would have liked. There’s author problems where I wrote things I really didn’t want to write, and editor mistakes, and layout mistakes and little issues.

Really I’m pretty content overall with the things I did.

Doug: Yes. You mention Fairbairn, it was funny that was one of the books or parts of that book, in terms of a lot of the self-defense moves of “grab the guy and throw them” or whatever, and there were certain combinations of moves that have caused me no small degree of angst. [Hans laughs]

It’s the comment you made earlier was “Oh, well all of these books aren’t meant to work together all the time.” It’s different times and different periods and different rules.

The things that has got – trouble is the wrong word because it’s too strong, but able to parry and then do an Arm Lock and throw – all within one second – has been held up with “Well, Hans wrote this in Fairbairn, so clearly it must be right.” [Hans laughs] Which is a testament to your skills as a researcher, but it was also one of those things where it was like: “Well, yeah, some things can happen quickly, but it doesn’t always happen that way and it should be the GM option.”

The big one was I actually went to the martial arts studio with a friend and timed how long it took to do what GURPS would call a Judo Throw, or a throw from a lock. And people on the forums would say “Why do you have to wait to apply damage or throw on your next turn.” Which is the official rule: You can do a lock, but you have to do it on your next turn.

Well …you can do it faster, but it takes a full second for someone’s ass to hit the ground. [both chuckle]

There are other ways to do it that are a lot faster, but they’re usually not so acrobatic.

It was one of those funny things where you take 3 or 4 books from different people – or to your point 4 books from one person written over the course of a decade and say “How come these things don’t all work together perfectly.” They work together basically, but why don’t they work together perfectly? Well, it’s 10 years…

Hans: TEN YEARS. IT’S TEN YEARS.

Doug: Right.

So stepping away from GURPS a little bit, you’ve done a lot of writing, and a lot of content for Call of Cthulhu. Talk a little bit about that: and do you do writing for other game systems as well?

Hans: I started writing for Call of Cthulhu at some point in the late 90s I think. Originally I wanted to translate the 3rd edition of GURPS High-Tech, and the German licensee of GURPS at that point was also the German licensee of Call of Cthulhu.

They lost interest in GURPS at that point, but then I did a couple of translations of Call of Cthulhu products for them from English to German

And then I started writing for them, a couple of things, which were fun because I really like Call of Cthulhu. I’ve played it for 25 years or something, it’s one of my absolute favorite games, and Lovecraft is one of my favorite authors, so that’s just perfect for me.

I also like the periods – the 1920s, very interesting setting. The Gaslight setting, the 1890s, so it was all perfect for me, but the players of that game, at least in Germany, are very particular.

They are generally what they call “purists,” which means they don’t like fighting. Which is obviously antagonistic to my whole outlook on gaming [laughs] and on life, really. Which is a bit of problem, but the publisher actually wanted a big weapon books for Call of Cthulhu. Which I didn’t really want to do, because I knew how people felt about that. Or many people that I met.There are always the vocal ones, there are always people who are louder than others and you don’t really want to hear what they are saying, but anyway.

I did that book anyway, and it turned out pretty well. That was the Cthulhu Waffen-Handbuch. The funny thing about that was there was nothing equivalent in the original. It was an originally-German book, because most of the other things were obviously translations from the American Call of Cthulhu.

Then I talked with Adam Crossingham from Sixtystone Press, one of the English licensee’s of Call of Cthulhu, and I worked with him on a couple of articles in various magazines, and he asked me to do a book about weapons in Call of Cthulhu, but in English. Obviously I didn’t want to translate the book I did for Pegasus, and so we developed a new book, and the basic idea was to take just – not a huge catalog, but a selected sampling of things that a investigators would actually like. Would have access to, and would actually use against all those Cthulhu beasties.

The most important thing for me was to give a very detailed description of how they actually work, and how you actually use them. Because that’s one of the things most of the games really gloss over. If you don’t really know anything about how a weapon works, and how you chamber it, and how reload and all that. You have no real compass for that.

You see some of the stuff in the movies, but often they omit details, and often it’s just wrong, and I felt that was a important thing for the players to actually immerse in the setting.

Especially the reloading thing in Call of Cthulhu, you have to reload your shotgun before the ghoul comes through the door, and your frantically reloading two shot shells and stuff like that. You have to actually know how that works. I describe that in detailed steps. We have pretty good production values in all of those. There’s a picture for all of them, which is important, but most of the games can’t really afford illustration of all the things in there.

Anyway, that was the idea of the Investigator Weapons books. First we did the 1920s book to see how it works, and how people liked them, but it sold pretty good.

I wrote another three now. The second volume is set in the modern day and is mainly to support Delta Green and The Laundry. There’s one set in World War II, which is … actually, there are a couple of publishers producing entire series of books like this. There’s Achtung! Cthulhu, which is English, and also World War Cthulhu, which is also English, they’re producing tons of books for that setting or for that era. The third Investigator Weapons book is for that, and the fourth is for the Gaslight and Old West period.

Those have been really fun to write, because I tried out loads of stuff, and you know … the research is always fun for me, because I’m not just reading up on the technical specs. I’m also reading up on the users. I’m watching movies. I’m also trying out a lot. I’ve got my own collection, but I’m always walking up to people and “Can I try out that?” I’ve tried out hundreds of different firearms for those books, just to know how they work and how they feel.

Doug: It is interesting, because even in GURPS you have something like…I’ll take my two pistols a Springfield XDM and the Walther PPQ.

Notionally, identical stats – really. Maybe a couple shots different, but from GURPS perspective they are identical. But they shoot so differently.

They really are two different pieces of hardware. The Springfield has a long slow steady trigger pull – very accurate but you have to work it. Whereas the PPQ has this trigger reset that’s on a … you can fire follow-up shots before the muzzle has even climbed at all. If you’re firing multiple follow-up shots it the most accurate and fast gun I’ve ever had the pleasure of pointing downrange [Hans chuckles]. It’s amazing, but it’s also … you’d never get that from a statblock.

Hans: Yes. Yes.

Doug: Especially one with – relatively speaking – even though GURPS has a lot of stats –it’s still fairly coarse resolution. A +1 or -1 in GURPS is basically a +50% increment in range. If you’re doing something worth a +1 you can hit something at 15 yards where you used to hit it in 10. Or a 150 yards, where you used to hit it at a 100. With that range resolution, a lot gets swept under the rug, probably more should be swept under than rug than is given its mechanical benefit, but you want things to be different.

Hans: It’s even worse in most of the other game engines which have even lower resolution, and you can’t really tell them apart, as I moaned about earlier.

Doug: For a game, in many cases without heavy modification, like the d20 system – guns are going to have a hard time. The abstraction of Armor Class, and some of the pieces like that, don’t play as well. They can be made to. I’ve seen some modifications. But in the end it becomes “How close to GURPS can you actually get without actually playing it.” [Hans laughs]

In a way, that’s kind of nice, because when you have a system where I’m going to write something for GURPS, and then you can back it off to see how it would work in D&D.

I wrote a fairly interesting … with Peter’s help … everything doesn’t always come back to grappling, but it’s the book I have, and where I have the most mechanical experience writing rules, maybe, other than firearms.

Starting with something like GURPS and say “How would I D&D-ify that?” It’s interesting because you say “I’m going to abstract this. I’m not going to abstract that.” And you can start to walk through the balance of simulationism and super details vs. quick play, which is required to fit with the systems.

Before we go I always like to give my guest the last word, but I do sort of want to weave a question in there. What’s next for you, in terms of authorship or publication? I know you just published Adventure Guns, which is a labor of love, in a period that you enjoy. What next for you, and what parting shots do you have before we sign off?

Hans: GURPS High-Tech: Adventures Guns just came out, which is basically a gun catalog for the late 19th century, for all the Wild West movies, and all the Gaslight things, and Sherlock Holmes, and everything that’s happening between 1850 and 1910 roughly. That just came out.

The Investigator Weapons, Volume Two for the Modern Day is now in the final production stage and should also be out – hopefully this year even.

I’m hoping that the third volume about World War II is going to follow pretty soon.

I’m also working on a new GURPS book. As I said earlier I need a lot of time to fiddle with it. It’s actually planned as a follow-up to Tactical Shooting – it ties into that. Yes. I have no idea if that will ever see the light – but I hope so.

Doug: Okay. Excellent. I want to thank you for your time and I’ve love to do this again in the future.

Hans: Okay. Yes. I thank you.

7 thoughts on “Gaming Ballistic’s Firing Squad welcomes Hans-Christian Vortisch

    1. Thanks – despite collaborating for over a decade, I'd never spoken or seen him either. He was easy to talk to, and I can see many fruitful articles coming in the future from this conversation!

  1. While watching this interview, I had an epiphany regarding the "ammo tracking problem": have the player before you in the initiative order track your ammo usage—it's secret, but the GM isn't loaded down with having to track everyone's himself.

  2. Good interview, I do have some comments on the thread of different ways of handling guns and GURPS like systems versus Gumeshoe.

    I have an amount of disdain for the Systems where players describe 'I backflip and spin pumping two shots into him' and the GM says 'ok -1 to hit and +1 damage' with no regard to how much those modifiers are unfair, untested and against the spirit of the game. I have an almost equal amount of concern for some of the threads on SJ Games forums where someone asks a question and gets ever more complex answers by people obsessed with enhancments etc when a simple answer will do.

    I like GURPS because it generally handles the space between reality and cinema pretty well.

    That said if you are trying to emulate a particular cinematic reality from scratch then you dont have to start with a system with much relation to reality. The system just needs to let you do the things that you see on screen.

    So a system like that for the Dr Who rpg privileges running and talking over fighting because thats what the PCs should be doing.

    Nights Black Agents also has a lot of rules for doing things that you see on screen.

    Now I can make GURPS like those systems, and I prefer that too, but if you are almost making a system from scratch then its kind of more sensible to start with what gun play does in cinema rather than starting from muzzle velocity.

    One extreme example is near four colour supers. Even something like the big battle in Avengers is a nightmare in GURPS (among other things) you have Black Widow using (special?) Pistols against foes that are supposed to be a credible threat to take over the world.

    Now I can and would use existing GURPS rules about mooks, and etc but if I was describing a system just for using in that big fight scene I might just start with saying that most of her opponents are mooks and taking down armies of mooks is the baseline reality of my system so her pistol attacks become things like 'cut down x foes' regardless of if two small pistols could ever do that.

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