War of the Worlds and Hellfire

I wanted to do something which gave a feel for ‘The War of the Worlds’ as depicted by H.G. Wells. I wanted to stick as closely as I could to the classic book. Because of this I am trying to avoid the film treatments and similar. This isn’t disapproval on my part. It’s just that things get complicated because the various interpretations can vary. Not only that, but inevitably somebody will come up with one I haven’t seen. If you’ve never read the book it’s free as an eBook from Project Gutenberg.  https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/36

One fascinating piece of work that I’m also not going to cover is ‘The Great Martian War’.


If you want a shorter clip as a taster

For this scenario I just want to cover the classic weapons, the tripod with the heat ray and the black smoke projector. Let’s be honest, they are enough to go on with.

Another thing to contemplate is the human reaction to them. H.G. Wells captures brilliantly the terror weapon and total war designed to utterly disrupt society. Society and the ‘military infrastructure’ break down, troops and naval personnel are described as deserting rather than face the monstrous foe. But let us look at the weapons in the author’s own words.

The tripod

“And this Thing I saw! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder. A flash, and it came out vividly, heeling over one way with two feet in the air, to vanish and reappear almost instantly as it seemed, with the next flash, a hundred yards nearer. Can you imagine a milking stool tilted and bowled violently along the ground? That was the impression those instant flashes gave. But instead of a milking stool imagine it a great body of machinery on a tripod stand.”

I think here the skill of the writer comes through. Whilst the tripod is obviously tall, he lets you know that without getting bogged down in details. Various illustrators have been forced by the constraints of their art to be more specific. In this example, if the paddle steamer is the same size as the Waverley, then the tripod has to be over 200ft high.

In 6mm scale that puts it at about 31cm or over a foot tall. (Pity the 28mm gamer, his tripods should stand between four feet tall and one and a half meters tall.) A few things to consider from the point of view of the rules writer. These things will be able to move quickly, if only because of the length of their stride. On the other hand, they are going to find it awfully difficult to hide on a wargames table. For the manufacturer and modeller, the size presents ‘problems’. For the rule writer, things are much simpler. I would suggest that they move a distance equal to their height in a move. When it comes to turning and similar, it might be that the top of the tripod containing the Martian could turn even when the legs don’t move. So each move is straight, but at the end of a move the tripod could ‘change facing’ without moving its feet and next move, it set off in an entirely different direction. 

The Heat Ray

“It is still a matter of wonder how the Martians are able to slay men so swiftly and so silently. Many think that in some way they are able to generate an intense heat in a chamber of practically absolute non-conductivity. This intense heat they project in a parallel beam against any object they choose, by means of a polished parabolic mirror of unknown composition, much as the parabolic mirror of a lighthouse projects a beam of light. But no one has absolutely proved these details. However it is done, it is certain that a beam of heat is the essence of the matter. Heat, and invisible, instead of visible, light. Whatever is combustible flashes into flame at its touch, lead runs like water, it softens iron, cracks and melts glass, and when it falls upon water, incontinently that explodes into steam.”

For the writer of science fiction rules the heat ray is easy. Science fiction wargames rules have been dealing with ‘death rays’, ‘heat rays’ or other unspecified ray guns ever since we had science fiction wargaming. H.G. Wells is just a very early adopter of the technology. In simple (and generic) Hellfire terminology, the heat ray is ‘merely’ a crew served energy weapon. Obviously we can tweak it to fit the books better.

The Black Smoke.

“Now at the time we could not understand these things, but later I was to learn the meaning of these ominous kopjes that gathered in the twilight. Each of the Martians, standing in the great crescent I have described, had discharged, by means of the gun-like tube he carried, a huge canister over whatever hill, copse, cluster of houses, or other possible cover for guns, chanced to be in front of him. Some fired only one of these, some two—as in the case of the one we had seen; the one at Ripley is said to have discharged no fewer than five at that time. These canisters smashed on striking the ground—they did not explode—and incontinently disengaged an enormous volume of heavy, inky vapour, coiling and pouring upward in a huge and ebony cumulus cloud, a gaseous hill that sank and spread itself slowly over the surrounding country. And the touch of that vapour, the inhaling of its pungent wisps, was death to all that breathes.

It was heavy, this vapour, heavier than the densest smoke, so that, after the first tumultuous uprush and outflow of its impact, it sank down through the air and poured over the ground in a manner rather liquid than gaseous, abandoning the hills, and streaming into the valleys and ditches and watercourses even as I have heard the carbonic-acid gas that pours from volcanic clefts is wont to do. And where it came upon water some chemical action occurred, and the surface would be instantly covered with a powdery scum that sank slowly and made way for more. The scum was absolutely insoluble, and it is a strange thing, seeing the instant effect of the gas, that one could drink without hurt the water from which it had been strained. The vapour did not diffuse as a true gas would do. It hung together in banks, flowing sluggishly down the slope of the land and driving reluctantly before the wind, and very slowly it combined with the mist and moisture of the air, and sank to the earth in the form of dust. Save that an unknown element giving a group of four lines in the blue of the spectrum is concerned, we are still entirely ignorant of the nature of this substance.

Once the tumultuous upheaval of its dispersion was over, the black smoke clung so closely to the ground, even before its precipitation, that fifty feet up in the air, on the roofs and upper stories of high houses and on great trees, there was a chance of escaping its poison altogether, as was proved even that night at Street Cobham and Ditton.

The man who escaped at the former place tells a wonderful story of the strangeness of its coiling flow, and how he looked down from the church spire and saw the houses of the village rising like ghosts out of its inky nothingness. For a day and a half he remained there, weary, starving and sun-scorched, the earth under the blue sky and against the prospect of the distant hills a velvet-black expanse, with red roofs, green trees, and, later, black-veiled shrubs and gates, barns, outhouses, and walls, rising here and there into the sunlight.

But that was at Street Cobham, where the black vapour was allowed to remain until it sank of its own accord into the ground. As a rule the Martians, when it had served its purpose, cleared the air of it again by wading into it and directing a jet of steam upon it.”

When dealing with gases and nerve agents in Hellfire the assumption is that they delivered in targeted quantities aimed at specific units. The Black Smoke is rather more like the gas attacks which happened in the First World War, eighteen years after the book was published. Here the aim was often to produce clouds of gas which would blanket an area. Initially troops merely opened gas cylinders along the front and let the wind take the gas to the enemy.

Winds are fickle. Artillery was tried and with some gasses, such as mustard gas, artillery is useful. But for most gasses artillery cannot achieve the necessary concentration. The most successful method the British found of achieving this was the use of the Livens Projector. A simple eight inch mortar with a range of about 1500 yards. It could fire a substantial gas cylinder. Banks of them would be dug in and fired simultaneously to get the blanketing effect. The ‘gun-like’ tubes of the Martians and their ability to fire them to hit targets behind cover do seem to put them in the Livens Projector class.

The next thing to consider is the ‘burst radius’ of the gas. You could just treat it as any other gas weapon, just hitting the target unit. This works perfectly well. But to get the feel of the Black Smoke, you could also use a marker. Rather than cotton wool smoke, I would suggest you use three pieces of black felt. The first piece, roughly two inches in diameter, is placed on the target in the move the smoke is fired. Because nobody has NBC protection, all bases under the felt are dead. Next move replace the felt with a piece four inches in diameter, and in the third more, place the final piece, six inches in diameter. So if you’re six inches away you can take a crack at the blighter before scuttling away. Also remember the smoke hugs the ground, so your forward observation officer in the church tower can continue to call down artillery.

When discussing the Black Smoke, H.G. Wells says, it “was death to all that breathes. On this slender evidence I’m going to rule it as to be inhaled, so a gas mask of some sort should help. If your scenario assumes the British forces have had some previous experience of this sort of combat, I’d allow them ‘Improvised NBC.’

Also the Martians seem to have cleaned up the Black Smoke after deploying it. The reason is never mentioned. It cannot be immediately toxic to Martians otherwise they’d not wade through it directing their jets of steam. I would suggest you could ensure the Martian player was keen to shift the smoke by saying that if a tripod was touched by Black Smoke without spending a turn deploying the steam jets to dispose of it, then the tripod had a two in six chance of damage to the legs meaning something seized up and the tripod could no longer move.

Man’s response. Artillery.

So what do you hit the tripods with? For H.G. Wells I think the inability of the soldiers and others to do anything to the tripods helped build the sense of terror and helplessness that the book depends on. We do know that artillery could damage them. We also know that if the tripods were foolish enough to go paddling, Thunder Child could take out three

but it’s unlikely you’re likely to lure tripods into the water twice in the presence of your scarce naval assets.

Still you have artillery and in Hellfire you can model them in two ways.

  • At one extreme you have weapons like the 37mm Maxim-Nordenfelt Pom-Pom. It could send a one pound shell up to three thousand yards. This falls nicely into the crew served projectile weapon category. I would include the machineguns of the period in this category as well.
  • Then you have the heavier (but still light) artillery. The standard field gun would be the Ordnance BL 15-pounder. It had been the 12-pounder but it was decided it could fire a heavier shell so it became the 15-pounder, firing a 6.4kg round up to 6000 yards. This weapon I would class as ‘vehicle mounted’ if it hits a tripod.
  • Under Hellfire, if you don’t get a direct hit then you get a ‘blast radius.’ I’m going to assume that for the 15pdr and similar, the blast radius is ineffective. You actually have to get a direct hit.
  • With heavier artillery I would upgrade the heavy naval guns to ‘static mounted’. There is some heavy artillery used on land that is bigger that the 15pdr but doesn’t really match the size of the naval guns. I’d class them as vehicle mounted but where vehicle mounted roll 3d10 points of damage, I’d give these 4d10 or perhaps even 5d10. (Static mounted get 6d10). This heavier artillery does get the blast radius if it doesn’t get a direct hit.

There is one advantage the gunners have. The 1896 Field Artillery manual assumed that the vast majority of artillery would engage the enemy over open sights, drawing up in full view of the target. So whilst the tripods would be a novelty, using direct fire wouldn’t be.

The Tripods as artillery targets.

Firstly hitting the tripod. Normally walkers (mecha) are easier to hit under Hellfire, because they’re just so damned big and there is so much to hit. But when you look at the tripod, there are spindly legs and a little body perched high up in the air. There isn’t all that much target. So just treat the Tripod as a moving vehicle when you come to shoot at it. If you hit it, treat it as having light armour. Frankly a direct hit from the 15pdr upwards will probably destroy the tripod. When caught in the blast radius of heavier artillery the tripod could well survive, but it could end up battered.

Infantry against tripods

With Hellfire, infantry small arms cannot penetrate light armour. Unless…..

People sometimes forget that when infantry fire at vehicles, “If they roll 10, 11, or 12 and are under half range they discard the d12 and roll a d10 as if the group was a crew served heavy weapon instead.

This means that an infantry group do have a 25% chance of ‘hitting’ the tripod when they fire at it. If they do get the 10, 11 or 12, and then roll the d10, they still have to beat a 4 to penetrate. Once they’ve penetrated they roll a d10 on the vehicle penetration table. The results here need interpreting with imagination. For example the ‘Vehicle burns’ results talk about the crew leaving. Obviously in the circumstances, the Martian burns with his tripod.

So far, Hellfire probably makes infantry too competent against tripods. If you want the pure H.G. Wells experience, just make them totally ineffective. But personally I’d prefer to give infantry some purpose other than dying pointlessly.

Close Combat against tripods

In Hellfire, if infantry get into close combat with tanks and other fighting vehicles, they have a potential advantage. The vehicles always roll a d8, the infantry can roll as high as a d12. This allows for infantry using shaped charges, grenade bundles, petrol bombs, pouring paint over periscopes, and similar unpleasantness. Whilst painting the vision ports of a tripod would need extendable ladders or at least a very long handled brush, a blasting charge jammed into a foot joint or similar is going to do damage. The tripod has the tentacles but armoured fighting vehicles can have firing ports and similar so I don’t think the tripod has any real advantage here.

Here again, Hellfire makes infantry just too competent against tripods compared to the original book. Certainly at first meeting. But for later actions, assuming that troops had time to assess the situation and react, it makes for a more interesting game.

Tripod Morale

Martians are aliens and as such could well have their own reaction tables. But having given it some thought I would treat them as vehicle crews using the reaction code  24pts

This means they act boldly but sensibly and can be cautious. I think this fits in with Well’s description of them.

“Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”

Weapon Details

The weapons used by the British Empire, I’ve covered. The Martian weapons need covering in more detail.

The Heat Ray

I would give this a 20 inch range. It will still warm things up at a longer range it’s no longer as dangerous. Also the Martians seem to sweep areas with the ray, rather than aiming at a point and hitting that.

So mark the point you’re targeting. Then sweep away from that in any direction (but it must be a straight line.) The sweep is a line, not a band, but any base that line falls on is a target.

If you sweep two inches, everybody in that sweep is dead.

If you sweep four inches, a targeted base will survive on a roll of 5 or 6 on a d6.

The Black Smoke

I’ve discussed the efficacy of this weapon above, but not really discussed range and quantity carried.
I would suggest a 20 inch range. If you fire and hit, then the canister lands where you want it to. If you miss roll a d6 and half the result. That’s how many inches you miss by. Roll randomly for the direction of deviation.

As for ammunition. One or two canisters seem to be the common load but one apparently carried five.

I suggest that you just give each tripod one canister, and when that canister is fired, toss a coin, on a heads you’ve still got at least one canister left.

So in conclusion, there you have it. Really there are two options here. The classic red coated infantry dying ineffectually without being able to achieve anything, or a more capable infantry who are dangerous enough to keep the tripods from over confidence. It will mean that the deployment of black smoke will be something to consider carefully. Similarly venturing too casually into a built up area or too close to terrain could lead to having the legs blown out from under you.

And all this without having to deploy post office boys on bicycles trailing long cables to entangle the legs of a tripod and bring it down.


If you’ve not come across Hellfire.

As a pdf from Wargame Vault


As a paperback or on kindle

And as an eBook from everybody else


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