Pirates of the Vistula (GDW, 1985), part 3 of The Polish Campaign for Twilight: 2000
This is Part II of a detailed review of The Polish Campaign, a 6-part adventure sequence published by GDW in 1985 for their Twilight 2000 role playing game. The campaign covers Escape from Kalisz, The Free City of Krakow, Pirates of the Vistula, The Ruins of Warsaw, The Black Madonna, and Going Home. Part I, which looks at The Free City of Krakow and touches upon Escape from Kalisz, is here.
As I re-read Twilight: 2000‘s Polish Campaign, the set of adventure supplements that take place in the immediate aftermath of what starts the players on their adventures in the desolated landscape of World War III and Poland, I’m struck by how much world-building and detail the writers put into the world. For the Polish campaign is a rich sandbox for players and game masters (GM) to play around in. Encounters, towns, villages, NPCs, and mysteries galore fill the pages of Pirates of Vistula and The Ruins of Warsaw, parts 3 and 4 of the Polish Campaign.
The players, surviving US soldiers of the US 5th Mechanized Infantry Division, will have fought their way to safety, escaping the Soviet armies that crushed them. If they made their way from Kalisz to Krakow in the core rulebook’s opening scenario, Escape from Kalisz, they probably found some respite and have managed to resupply to a degree. They may have even made some friends. The overall, presumed player motive in Twilight: 2000 is that they want to return home, that Poland is but a stop over. Now, this could change, and it may not even be the case initially depending on the players. Nonetheless, the players need to find a way to survive in this aftermath of a world collapsing from the creeping nuclear holocaust.
Once in Krakow or its vicinity, Pirates of the Vistula provides a way for the players to earn some needed supplies. In this supplement, Adam Rataj, captain of the Wisla Krolowa, needs an onboard escort for a trip to Warsaw on the Vistula (or Wisla in Polish). How the players meet Adam and what will be enticing for them to join the crew depends much on what has happened to them to date. If they made enemies in Krakow (not hard to do), a trip downriver away from the city with a payment of ammunition and medicine is likely good enough reason. Or Adam may appeal to them with the heart. Adam has a several family members in Warsaw. He had presumed them dead when Warsaw was hit with three tactical nuclear weapons. He has just learned they are alive, and he’s intent on getting to them and bringing them to the relative calm of Krakow.
Adam has a crew, but he needs some guards capable of using weapons. The Wisla Krolowa has a couple of heavy machine guns set up on the pilot house deck. Adam can ensure they have food and ammunition for the task at hand. That is basically the set up. Like The Free City of Krakow, Pirates of the Vistula does not delve into great depth on how the plot unfolds. This is left in the players’ hands. Presuming they take Adam’s offer up (it is enticing, and the GM can nudge players to accepting by offering additional inducements or having some bad guys appear in Krakow), how they go about accomplishing their mission is up to them.
They must first determine how to arm and best protect the ship and its crew. The Wisla Krolowa is a 35-meter long river tug whose engine has been converted from diesel to steam). Peeling paint, two heavy winches, twin heavy machine guns, and sandbags along the gunwales present a sight to the players. The crew consists of Karl Uller, a mate on the tug; Jozef Gryzech, the engineer; Tadeuz Roszkowski, winch operator; and Walter Matusiak, a deck hand.
The supplement provides each of the crew enough background to allow the GM to give them a role in the story as desired. Uller, while seemingly loyal to Adam, is a former secret police operative and is planning to mutiny and take over the Wisla Krolowa for his own purposes — i.e., using it as a base of operations and tool to raid and plunder river villages. Uller may attempt to recruit the players in his efforts.
Jozef is a misanthrope and wants to be left alone with the Wisla Krolowa’s engines, but he is a treasure of information. If the players have ideas on modifying the tug for defensive or other purposes, Jozef must be convinced (Adam trusts him implicitly) — not a easy task but a doable one. And if they gain his trust, they may learn some valuable techniques about engines that could prove useful in the future.
Tadeuz’s weakness is drink, and he operates a small still, making a potent moonshine. He speaks little English, but his supply of moonshine could be a valuable item for bartering with civilians along the river.
Walter was engaged to Adam’s daughter, Lisa, but this ended bitterly and Walter left Warsaw before the nukes landed. Adam felt sorry for the man without knowing the full story. More importantly, Adam does not know that Walter is intent on exacting revenge on Lisa’s now husband, Frederick Eisner.
The trip on the Vistula is divided into a number of segments:
- From Novy Huta to the Wisloka River
- From the Wisloka to the San River
- From the San to Deblin
- From Deblin to Warsaw
Each of the sections receives extensive treatment along with random encounters appropriate to that section of the journey. Destroyed cities, people struggling to survive, competing marauders, and warlord wannabes provide both obstacles and opportunities to the players — along with navigating challenges on the river itself. The supplement provides a number of rule updates for river travel and combat.
The GM has countless ways to engage the players — who may or may not take up those opportunities and challenges and that have subsequent consequences. As part of the journey, they will encounter the town of Baranow Sandmierski. Now abandoned after repeated raids by bandits. The players will find a grim scene. Corpses in many locations. The town did not put up a significant fight (evidence suggests so), but the players may stumble or find a location just outside of town where they will find evidence of a determined resistance. Why outside of town? Further investigation will uncover a cave where the townspeople had stockpiled a large quantity of ammunition, food, and other supplies. Encounters in the area could include survivors who know of the stash and are attempting to find it.
Farther downriver, the players will encounter the town of Tarnobrzeg, the source of the raiders who attacked and destroyed Baranow Sandmierski. Ruled by a cruel man who has styled himself Krol (king in Polish). His gang ransacks and terrorizes the surrounding area. Citizens who attempt to escape his rule are hunted down and killed for sport in the town arena. They players may be engaged to help the civilians of Tarnobrzeg, which would help many others. Or they may choose to let be — Twilight: 2000 is a cruel world, after all — but the consequence of doing nothing will result in the Krol attacking on the Wisla Krolowa.
This level of depth continues through each section. Importantly, the villain of The Ruins of Warsaw, Baron Czarny, makes his first appearance. The Baron has created an “army” of deserters and bandits that he uses to control a substantial amount of territory and resources. The culmination of Pirates of the Vistula is a river battle where the Baron’s marauders attack a floating city made of old tugs and boats in various stages of functioning.
The Ruins of Warsaw has always struck me as where the catastrophe of WWIII cements. While certainly the desolate landscape of the Polish countryside, devastated villages, and desperate people leave little room for interpretation — this is civilization collapsing — Warsaw is one of the supplements that details the remnants of civilization with descriptions of rubble and ruin.
Descriptions like this litter the supplement:
…it has suffered much more extensive damage, as it is much nearer ground-zero of one of the warheads which hit the downtown area. Only the skeletal remains of the larger buildings rise above the rubble.
On its face, The Ruins of Warsaw is a continuation of Pirates of the Vistula: Adam has taken his tug to this city to retrieve his family. However, they have found a home in Sielce. Adam’s younger brother Andrzej serves as second-in-command to Filip Kizysztof, the leader of the community of 1100. A tangential encounter can play out with Walter’s finally meeting Frederick.
The setup for the supplement is straightforward. The Baron Czarny has not been accumulating food stores in preparation for winter. Filip and the citizens of Sielce have. The Baron is intent to get those stores for fear of watching his “army” — and therefore his power — abandon him. While the Baron has access to a 122mm howitzer, he has only a few rounds of ammunition for it. He has negotiated a deal for 25 chemical rounds. A convoy is en route to Warsaw with the delivery. Regardless, the Baron will attack Sielce, resulting in a pitched, desperate battle.
As usual with these supplements, what the players do is entirely up to them. They could join the Baron’s cause, join Filip and the village of Sielce, or attempt to stay neutral. Regardless, Warsaw is described in all its bleak ruins along with a number of settlements in the area. Numerous factions exist, which the players can attempt to recruit, some are already allied with the Baron; others are willing to switch allegiances, with the right support or offer.
The convoy presents an opportunity for stealthy action to destroy bridges and force the Baron’s convoy on a certain route that they can then ambush — perhaps denying the Baron is chemical rounds. However, the players are free to develop their own method based on their strengths, interests, and creativity.
The Ruins of Warsaw provides numerous additional rules for mass combat, primarily in the service of the battle of Sielce. In addition, the supplement provides rules for clearing rubble and preparing fortifications. This will also be key in the battle of Sielce, but in both cases, they can be used in other encounters in Twilight: 2000.
Reading all the extensive background, the thumbnail portraits of the characters, and the build up to the final battle, it is hard to not feel the excitement one gets from many war films. While never budging from the grimness of battle and nuclear devastation, if the players choose to side with Filip and Sielce, they are engaged in a grander cause by fighting a mundane evil. Amidst the ruins of a once beautiful city, a shred of hope appears, a reason to see a bit of positive in the apocalypse of WWIII.
You can get all of the content for the 1st and 2nd Edition Twilight: 2000 games as PDFs for an incredible price at Far Future Enterprises.
Patrick Kanouse encountered Traveller and Star Frontiers in the early 1980s, which he then subjected his brother to many games of. Outside of RPGs, he is a fiction writer, avid tabletop roleplaying game master, and new convert to war gaming. His last post for Black Gate was Twilight: 2000’s Polish Campaign: Part I. You can follow him and his brother at Two Brothers Gaming as they play any number of RPGs. Twitter: @twobrothersgam8. Facebook: Two Brothers Gaming and Solo Twilight: 2000 game.