Friday, May 4, 2012

To Arms: More Thoughts on War in Fantasy RPGs

Many fantasy epics rely on warfare as a device: a forge for young heroes, a crusade against darkness, a looming threat. Helm’s Deep, The Sack of King’s Landing, The Battle of Beruna- the most classic and most modern fantasy stories have mass combat set pieces. So it is not surprising that many table top fantasy RPGs have systems and mechanics for handling those. Monday I posted a list covering those games- By Sword, Spell and Spectre: Warfare in Fantasy RPGs - you can see a variety of approaches. Some focus on players, some take a bird’s eye view. You can see the same thing in fantasy VGRPGs- consider the difference in story and approach between the awesome Suikoden series, Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Heroes of Might and Magic (to name a few). War, used well can be an amazing tool for the GM, and I have a few more thoughts about that.

I think we can break down the RPG approaches to war into three broad categories. There’s some overlap between these, but generally these games have a focused approach.

Player's Scenes: Here the system focuses on figuring out the player’s places and “story” within the context of a battle. While there’s a mechanic for figuring out who won, what’s more important to the system is structuring results and scenes for individual characters. PCs often don’t control the shape of the battle, and the system may not allow for significant choices at the larger scale. Player results usually include wounds, glory and perhaps a chance to play out an event (like a duel). Bushido, Pendragon, and Legend of the Five Rings take this approach.

Battle Resolution within System: The focus is on the resolution of the battle. The scale shifts, but the basic mechanics and mechanisms remain the same. They may be a little more abstracted or distant but the scale can be shifted to play these out. Usually players have a more active role in these systems, and characters may as well. Exalted, Legends of Anglerre, and The Black Company take this approach.

New Systems for Resolution: The game either introduces an entirely new system for resolving battles or the game’s mechanics are changed so dramatically that it is difficult to see how this upper level translates down to the character level. Often these systems are intended to be played out as a game apart from the RPG itself. GURPS, Birthright, and Battlesystem take this approach.

The variables operating within these systems:
Player Results (Are their individual results and fallout for PCs?)
Player Control (Do players make choices for their side?)
Level of Detail (Unit Details and Strengths, Special Abilities, Formations)
Abstraction of Concepts (Space, Maneuver, Command, Damage, Victory)
Resolution Time

There’s also the question of the chrome on the rules- variations on the mass combat mechanics for situations (sieges, naval warfare) and additional systems (fog of war, campaign management, recruitment, plunder, camp life, attrition, strategic goals).

When I’ve run, I’ve usually concentrated on battles over wars. I’ve had exceptions, but generally battles serve as key incidents for campaigns. Several wrapped up with mighty conflicts, pitting players and their assembled forces against an enemy. We often end up with the last third or so of the campaign focusing on bringing together people and armies. Twice that’s meant holding a city against a siege (Tanelorn and Whitewall). My favorite variation had players in charge of a mobile position, protecting it against assault. That story- The Giant’s Cradle from the original Pavis boxed campaign set- remains one of my favorite adventures. A massive Giant’s Cradle begins to float downriver to announce a potent mystical change. The players board to protect it from enemies, including some former friends. It ended up an awesome conclusion to a game, with some players opting to go with the vessel into the Hero Plane through Magasta’s Whirlpool.

I also ran the "Scorpion Clan Coup" from the Legend of the Five Rings Otosan Uchi box set. That’s a amazing resource, but nearly too large an event to do justice to. The battle and siege serve as a backdrop, rather than something the players have control of. It was colorful and exciting and finished out a portion of the story, but didn’t require the player’s involvement with the mass combat rules.

Traditionally I’ve abstracted systems for these end battles, usually creating a separate game about management and resources. I try to break down the key elements the players need to have control over: strategic objectives (how the zones break down, what the battlefield looks like, what resources appear in each area); significant allied forces (who the troops are, what qualities do they have, what unique talents do they bring, are there tensions between groups?); and NPCs (leaders and also the important heroes they’ve brought with them). Then I try to break out the PCs so they each have authority over those zones. I let them divide their forces and heroes among themselves.

And then I move in to crush their hopes and dreams. How fast I go around depends on the scale of the battle (defending the decks of aeroship which is trying to launch a doomsday weapon at the enemy, securing the different walls of a desert city). We go to the rolls and I dish out damage. If I’ve done my job right, players won’t want to kill off their allied units, and they especially won’t want to allow their NPCs to die. Over the years I’ve managed to extract a couple of noble PC deaths by putting the pressure on. And I’ve seen great dramatic scenes and costly strategic choices with serious fallout later in the game. My BSG-inspired fantasy campaign began with the players in the middle of a losing battle- forcing them to immediately make choices and changing up the number and composition of the survivor’s fleet. In most cases we use the basic resolution mechanics of the game system, but heavily hacked. I don’t think I’ve ever used one of the systems I researched in any way like the rules set out.

Where I have done “campaigns” in my games, thinking back I’m surprised at how abstractly I handled that. In a Rolemaster campaign, I had the players figuring out the best approach to retaking one PCs kingdom from the hands of invaders. I didn’t use War Law, but instead a Matrix system to handle the strategic scale decisions- which cities to aid, how to move troops, how to keep pressure on the enemy. For the big battle in that, I developed what I thought was a decent card-game style system to handle battle choices. Most of the players liked it, but one of them told me in the middle of playing it that he hated it and I had absolutely destroyed the game for him. (That ranks up there on my top ten of GM soulcrushes). Other players said they had a good time, but getting that kind of feedback while we played really stung. After that I avoided trying anything quite like that again.

That may be why I handled the Planescape Mercenary game at such a distance. I had some strategic control, but it came down to a few oppositional rolls. The PCs actions, choices and strategic input shaped how that campaign operated. I focused on skirmishes and the resource management side of things (choosing troops, choosing ops, finding supplies, uncovering strategic intelligence).

Strangely what I’m most interested in isn’t what I’ve actually maned to bring to the table. Ideally wars and conflicts should be a serious and long term matter. It isn’t a single battle, but a series of conflicts with objectives and strategic shifts. Battles occur at a variety of scales and maneuvering happens on many fields- political, social, economic. In this case, I’m not even necessarily thinking of the players as involved with that war. Instead war is the backdrop changing the landscape. Armies are on the march, deserters form bandit groups, looters follow up on the battlefields, supplies get requisitioned, spies and infiltrators move and get hunted, villages get burnt- players groups carrying out unrelated missions find themselves caught in the midst of these stories. Perhaps they get caught in the midst of a siege, an awful situation based on everything I’ve read about them. Perhaps they head to a dungeon or castle to engage in some classic adventuring and find it occupied by an army (ala The Keep aka the strangest module I’ve ever read…).

I’ve adapted from published adventures- putting players in the path of oncoming armies and even having them press-ganged into one side or the other. A number of modules and adventures use these elements (Dwarf Wars for WHFRP, Barsaive at War for Earthdawn, Test of the Warlords & Master of the Desert Nomads for D&D). In some the threat of war, especially civil war looms in the background (the motivation behind Empire in Flames for example). In some the war’s about to begin with the players engaged in finding a way to avert it or to find a means of resolution. These can represent game/campaign changers- allowing the GM a means to change power structures, authority and control in their setting.


This gets me thinking about the aftermath of these kinds of wars, even battles. What happens to the losing side. Most victories involve the disruption of control and the shattering of morale. When do those forces go to? What happens on the battlefield afterwards? How does the victorious force capitalize on that win? Do the players have to make hard choices about that? Can then push their troops or do they themselves have to be pushed in pursuit, reconstruction or other activities?

On a larger scale, how do the armies, nations and forces react to the changing situation? Let’s assume that one side wins a decisive victory- can we use that as fodder for future adventures? Players could be involved in spreading the word, finishing off pockets of resistance, or figuring out what the new status quo will be. Ideally this wouldn’t diminish the group’s success, but instead deepen it by allowing them more input and a chance to see their victories close up. On the other hand it could also point out the cost of victory. Perhaps allies now turn with the key threat destroyed- Sauron’s defeated and Rohan takes advantage to bringing Gondor under its control. Or perhaps other threats waiting in the wings now appear- not on the same level, but seeds for future stories.

Alternately, the players lose. In which case they have to figure out how to escape the battle. Can they manage to keep the fleeing forces from being devastated? Can they reorder them to a rally point and perhaps mount another approach? Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow shows the kinds of devastation that can happen, a domino effect from bad planning. If the players’ side loses, what comes next? It doesn’t immediately switch over to a Midnight-style world (though that would be an interesting time lapse). Can they raise another army or will they have to fight the invaders guerilla-style? That suggests an entirely new campaign form.

Finally, one of the most interesting ideas to me is how magic and other fantastic elements change warfare. Obviously we have wizards lobbing fire balls, giants smashing down gates and lone heroes who can cut down more people than an entire unit.(In fact the ability of a single person/hero to do so much may be the biggest change from the real world). We can imagine the potent battlefield effects of Dwarven sappers and Elvish snipers. But how do these elements affect everything else about war?

How does a diversity of races, potentially including monsters affect the organization of an army? What kinds of means need to be kept in place to make sure fighting doesn’t break out (especially if you have racial animosities)? How do you secure large monsters so they don’t eat “their friends”? Even more importantly, how do you feed those things? It requires massive fodder and extra materials required to support simple cavalry troops.

Logistics is probably where the fantastic elements, especially magic can have the most impact. It turns, in part, on what the limiting factors are for such things: mana, skill, spells per day. But if healing magic’s present it offers a potential to reduce casualties, help fight off camp illnesses and generally keep morale up. But if more people survive, do they survive with more grievous and debilitating wounds? We’ve seen that happen in recent conflicts. Can magic assist with movement, marching and strategic intelligence? Most significantly can it affect command and control on the battlefield- speeding orders, reducing fog of war, and allowing units to respond more quickly?

I’m really curious about how other GMs have used wars and battle in their campaigns. Have you used particular resolution systems, war-gamed it, played with minis? Have events like these served as backdrops for your campaigns? Are there aspects you’ve found more fruitful in presenting them?


  1. I used the Battle System at the end of a long campaign I ran weekly over two years at university. I printed out a very large map (about 50 sheets of A4 taped together) of a town and surrounding sea and countryside. It was Orcus' demon arm come to reclaim his sceptre that the PCs had stolen. Some PCs were generals, others units and we also had some roleplaying going on between the rounds of fighting. The town got pretty trashed, the PCs triumphed and it was all jolly good fun (and over 20 years ago).

  2. There's nothing like being able to play out a big event like that. I know some people got a lot of mileage out of the system. Did you use minis or counters or both?

  3. We used minis for the PCs and counters for everything else. I can't remember all the details but it was a big battle. The map was about 5' sq.