Monday, April 30, 2012

By Sword, Spell and Spectre: Warfare in Fantasy RPGs

War's long been a mainstay in fantasy literature, and it can be argued D&D itself came out of trying to simulate that. Lord of the Rings, Nine Princes in Amber, A Game of Thrones and many others feature the clash of armies. The question is how to bring that to the table? Do players control the armies? Are they caught in the middle of such battles? Do wars have repercussions across the campaign setting? Many fantasy RPGs have tackled these issues with vastly different approaches to scale, player role and focus.

The following list presents fantasy games or supplements which include rules for mass combat, warfare, military campaigns or the like. Some of these systems offer quick resolution, others the means to play out a full battle, a few detail strong player involvement, and small number cover secondary issues relating to war (life in an army, recruitment, fallout from campaigns). I've concentrated on classic fantasy games, though I know there are a few warfare supplements for other genres. I should note that I've lumped together a number of generic d20 "warfare" supplements into one entry on the list for convenience sake (#10 War). I’ve arranged this somewhat chronologically.

Of course D&D came out of Chainmail, a set of miniatures rules. It is interesting to see how role-playing evolved from miniatures and board/war gaming and how that affiliation has swung back and forth over the years. Some games lend themselves to more strategic thinking, some to more tactical. I think a real distinction can be drawn as to how much players consider what they're doing a "game" in the classic sense.

Swords & Spells is the last of the early D&D supplements (though not numbered in the series). It attempts to bring Chainmail up to date with the advancements in the RPG. So what you have is a set of rules for handling larger and mass scale engagements in D&D with miniatures and the like. The idea being that you need a streamlined system to handle that scale.

Bushido's one of the great and under-appreciated RPGs. The sheer density of the material- historical and fantastic remains incredible. The first rpg to treat a pseudo-historical Japan, it presented a ton of material. It has depth and wonderful details, blending together traditions to create verisimilitude. It still has some of the best treatments of Japanese religion for a fantasy setting. reading it you can see how it set the stage for Oriental Adventures and Legend of the Five Rings.

It is also the first RPG I'm aware of to include an abstract system for resolving mass battles, while at the same time allowing players to have a role in them. You have a battle table, where players can impact the battle, take wounds, or have a single combat with a named foe. A large section covers honors received after the battle as well. It holds together well- a system that doesn't require miniatures but allows PCs some interaction and control in the events.

Basic Dungeons & Dragons first offered abstract rules for handling kingdoms and warfare with this set. Called "War Machine," it would later be expanded by "Sea Machine" a set of naval warfare rules. Oddly when War machine was rewritten and clarified for the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia they expanded the Siege Machine rules, but left out the naval portion. War Machine offered a nice set of guidelines for detailing kingdoms and armies throughout the Gazetteer series. The rules abstract the forces, but have a surprisingly high level of detail for tracking forces and battles. Some issues like supplies are considered as well the impact of some D&D magic. Unlike Bushido's approach, while the players can have some impact through leadership and the like, there's no built in mechanism to zoom down to the PC level.

My reference for this is King Arthur Pendragon (4th Edition), but I assume some form of the battle rules presented here appeared in the earlier edition. Notably the battle mechanics are presented as part of a PC Knight's "Chivalric Duties." As with most of the earlier systems, Pendragon focuses on the battles as events (with less consideration given to campaigning and secondary issues). The rules do a nice job of breaking down and explaining the traditional levels and forms of mass combat for the setting. The rules look to resolving the outcome of the battle, but with a focus on describing the PC's roles within that. Random adversaries can be encountered and fought on the field. The rules actually have some detailed steps to work through, with significant record-keeping. Post-battle systems include ransoms, plunder and glory.

This was a huge product when it came out. I'd grown up running the line between wargaming and rpgs- we had a big group of old school miniatures people who had run kids-friendly events at local conventions. I had a decent supply of unpainted figs, so I bought this immediately. I had hopes of a nice system to add mass combat to our tabletop rpgs. The book completely overwhelmed me- dense with rules, complicated systems and clearly more a miniatures systems than something which played nice with AD&D. Wjhile it contained some campaign rules, those felt like an add on rather than the focus. It was really the first time I realized that AD&D and what TSR was doing wasn't what I was interested in.

Among the earliest supplements for GURPS, Horseclans was an odd duck. I'd read some of the novels which seemed really retro and more "Men's Adventure" than high fantasy. I picked it up as I did everything in the early days for GURPS. I liked the mass combat system which offered a really simple set of mechanics for resolving battles during a game, tracking forces, and allowing players to have some role in the action. It reminded my most of the Bushido approach. it still lacked details on campaigning and campaign life. The Mass Combat rules here would continue to get used and shaped in later GURPS books, notably GURPS Conan. Art Lyon ran a local campaign of that and used those rules a couple of time.

There was a point when I bought just about everything for Rolemaster. I used a lot of the options, but I still tried to maintain some simplicity to the system. This and Sea Law went too far. If you've played Rolemaster you can imagine what's here- a crazily detailed system for generating units, detailed army and maneuver systems, counters and hex maps, and page after page of charts. On its own it seems like an overly complicated battle simulation system, and it doesn't do much to integrate with tabletop rpg aspects. What's missing is how you actually make this an interesting part of play.

There's something of an irony for me that none of the classic TSR settings I really love (Mystara, Planescape, and Birthright) survived the transition to 3rd edition or beyond. Birthright remains a strikingly ambitious game concept- an entirely new world built; on fundamental changes to the structure of power and magic; PCs operating a larger scale of time & control with domain actions; and a built in detailed and distinct system for managing mass combat and warfare. Though other games have taken on rulership, I don't think any have reached as far as Birthright.

Campaigning and the issues associated with that have a central place in the setting. Of course things are approached top down- so the actual on the ground, nitty-gritty of what war might look like to PCs isn't as big an issue. Birthright contains its own pseudo-boardgame system for managing the clash of armies, with many supplements adding new forces (and display cards). A naval warfare system, Naval Battle Rules: The Seas of Cerilia, arrived late in the setting's life cycle.

The first edition of L5R's a model of economy. Messy in layout and presentation, it manages to get all of the essential tools players & GMs need to run a campaign in a single book. Later editions experienced a degree of bloat they combated with smaller fonts and tighter text design. The Battle system presented here focuses on resolving player roles in battles established by the GM. They serve as set pieces for the game. The mechanics allow players to choose their approach (in reserves, at the front lines, etc) and then roll based on that to see what happens. They can take wounds, gain glory, begin a duel, or meet a heroic opportunity. The list of opportunities presents an excellent resource for the GM. These rules take up four pages total.

There's little about campaigning, command or strategic issues, but I like the focus on player encounters in battle. It would be an easy mechanic to lift out for other games.

10. War
One of the interesting things to come out of the d20 movement were "topic" books, aimed at exploring certain aspects of a fantasy campaign. AEG put together may of these as did other companies. I'd point to Living Imagination, Inc's Charge!, Otherworld's Mercenaries: Born of Blood, Eden's Fields of Blood: The Book of War, and AEG's Mercenaries. These supplements have a tough goal in front of them- offer a compelling system for resolving mass combat while managing to integrate the ever-expanding concepts for the d20 system. How do you deal with magic- in the particular or in the specific? Many of them offer new prestige classes, new magic, new feats and even new base classes.

Some of the books do seem to cover other topics- beyond just new character options and systems for resolving battles. Some deal with campaigning, life in an army, recruitment and other details which add color to these issues at the table. However figuring out which one is right may be difficult. So many of these books came and went quickly. The difficulties more for non-d20 GMs- is the material presented adaptable or even interesting enough to warrant picking up?

As opposed to the generic d20 warfare sourcebooks mentioned above, The Black Company provides those concepts in the context of a unique setting. I've bought many licensed setting books over the years, and Green Ronin's treatment of the Glen Cook series remains one of the best. They manage to capture the character of the novels, adapt the mechanics to that, and provide new and interesting general options for d20. It is amazingly well put together.

The rules provide a framework for running a company-level mercenary campaign. The includes building the company. Management of that such as recruitment and finances are dealt with lightly. That material has potential, but could have easily been expanded. More usefully the book offers a sense of what life is like for these companies- and how that might be translated for the PCs. Combat rules are provided for handling different scales of conflict. The Company scale allows players to control units, which act as collective creatures pitted against one another. Beyond that players can even engage in battles at the Army scale. This uses a more abstract set of mechanics.

12. Exalted
The first edition of Exalted talked about the concept of war, but offered little in the way of tools for managing that. The second edition adds material the setting really needed. Twelve pages of rules cover this area. Interestingly the rules take the approach of simply raising the scale in some ways. Most of the standard mechanics now apply, but the battles focus on commanders operating on an abstract field. Units and forces act as bonuses to those commanders. The rules offer options for special maneuvers on the field, drilling troops, troop quality, exhaustion, and morale. Charms and magic of special characters apply in a generic way and duels can be initiated to zoom down to the individual level. I don't care for the core combat engine in Exalted 2e, but the interesting rules and options given here could be ported as a system to another game. There's isn't very much on the campaigning side of things, but the comprehensive mass combat rules offer strong player participation.

13. Reign
Reign can be used as it own fantasy setting or as a supplemental system for other rpgs. Greg Stolze has created several different Reign settings, each with distinct premises. The basic tools of the system play out very differently depending on those details. Reign focuses on larger scale groups: guilds, mercenary companies, armies or even nations. Somehow the rules manage to be abstract and detailed at the same time. Anything can interact with anything else, and warfare's one (albeit important) mode of conflict. Campaigns and wars can easily be modeled, and a battle's easy to resolve. While it is possible to zoom in to the individual level, the rules and approach favor the collective, god's eye view.

I've become a fan of FATE over the last year or so. Legends of Anglerre helped push me in that direction. It offers a toolkit for modeling many different concepts at vastly different levels- while maintaining a coherent set of mechanics across those scales. Anything can be modeled as a character, with its own skills, stunts and stress. It makes sense in the context and is simple to set up and adjudicate. The rules offer extensive material on building organizations, including armies, keeps, war machines and the like. New options are presented for each of those types. A solid abstract system considers specific conflicts bu breaking them into zones in which the forces battle. There's something of a mix of Reign's abstraction with Exalted's approach to playing out battles via the same method as standard combat. Campaigns can be played out as a set of obstacles or as management of plot stress issues. The interaction of the individual (usually the PCs) with those scales of conflict isn't a clear as it could be. Given that you'll usually want to be able to zone down to that, the GM will have to figure out some approaches which work for them.

For more on this see To Arms: More Thoughts on War in Fantasy RPGs


  1. I really like the abstract heroic mass combat system from L5R first edition, and have indeed swiped it for use in other games.

    1. It does do an excellent job of making battles an event the players "live in" and experience. It rewards choices and offers them some interesting options. It may be the most adaptable of the mechanisms I looked through.

  2. You're reignited my interest in Legends of Anglerre. Despite the wildly different mechanics philosophy, the ability to model anything as a character is one of the other things I loved about HERO -- so it's time to give this FATE flavor a try, I guess!

    I also liked the old Mass combat rules for the Fuzion open ruleset.

  3. There's some really interesting stuff in LoA- I think adaptable even for people not using FATE. I'm thinking about using it to do a quick Lord of the Rings game. It is adaptable enough it shouldn't be that hard to put something together with it. Interestingly we played Hero for years (from when it came out until right around 2000), but I never did much with building elements other than characters (vehicles, bases, mecha, etc). I can't recall- did Fantasy HERO have a mass combat resolution mechanic...I'll have to go look.

    I'll have to go back and check out Fuzion's Mass combat system. IIRC part of out group tried Fuzion, but ultimately rejected it in favor of HERO and Interlock. I don't think I ever had a chance to play it- though I did have a copy of Sengoku which I think was Fuzion.

    1. Thank you for this excellent overview! Battles in fantasy RPGs is a topic very dear to me.
      I have written a series of related blog articles and an AD&D combat encounter generator. However, I wrote it in German, I don't know if it is of any use to you: