World Building 101 - War (What is it good for?)

War is a staple of fantasy film and literature. It creates conflict and turmoil and an environment in which heroic figures can thrive and prosper. Roleplaying games came about originally as an offshoot of war games, so it’s no surprise that they show signs of their heritage. However, most RPGs don’t include in-depth systems for adjudicating full-scale wars, since the focus is on a small group of individual heroes, not large armies. This can lead to difficulties in portraying a war in your game, but with certain techniques the task is not impossible, even without a dedicated system.

The Battle of Epping Forest, by feuilllu from Flickr

The most important thing to remember when you decide to run a war is that the player characters are the focus of the campaign, and their involvement and enjoyment of the game is of primary importance. If everyone enjoys working out large-scale battles and logistics of supply train raids and siege tactics, then by all means your campaign should include such things. If the group signed on expecting an action-filled heroic romp and gets a gritty, trench-eye view of the horrors of war as low-ranking grunts, though, the experience may not be as satisfying or rewarding as you might hope, no matter how much work you put into the details.

Keeping the focus on the characters should be the primary concern, then. You might do this by abstracting the majority of a given battle in which the player characters participate, but allowing them to play out a particularly key bit of the battle. Perhaps the keep’s wall is breached and the player characters must repel the invaders for long enough that other defenders can reach the gap and hold the line. Alternately, your players might execute a daring strike on the enemy’s command, hoping to demoralize the enemies and turn the tide of battle. A climactic duel between champions is a common theme in both fantasy and legend—Eowyn’s battle against the Witch-King of Angmar, for example, or Hector versus Achilles, among other examples.

Of course, no battle is won without preparation. Allowing the player characters to play a role in formulating the battle plans and setting up the defenses keeps them at the center of the action throughout. Perhaps they prepare cunning traps or ambushes for the foe, or improve morale with stirring speeches. Maybe—time permitting—they can bring allies from nearby cities or nations through diplomacy, or hire mercenaries. They might conduct raids on the enemy supply lines to deprive them of shipments of ammunition, or stealthily sabotage the siege engines before they can be brought to bear on the city walls. Any and all of these can contribute to victory, and in combination with the above techniques, can be used to do so without needing to worry about mechanical representations of the large scale battle itself.

One method you might consider if you’re going to run a large battle is to think up as many ways for the player characters to contribute along the lines of the above suggestions, and give each option a point value from 1-3, depending on how vital or effective it is in the overall scheme. Then, imagine several outcomes, ranging from worst-case to best-case, that might emerge from the battle, and using the total points available as a guideline determine the number of “victory points” required for each outcome. This way the tide of the battle hinges exclusively on the player characters’ deeds and not on arbitrary dice rolls where they have minimal involvement, or worse, a wargame simulation that not everyone at the table is interested or involved in playing out.

Of course, if everyone present does enjoy wargames and a mechanical system for the large scale battle can be agreed on, then that may be the ideal solution for your group. As with everything else, the important thing to remember is that everyone should have fun, and everything else is just window dressing.

Comments (1)

Matthew (January 3rd, 2011)

Gabe over at Penny Arcade combines the war game with the rpg flawlessly. Or so it seems. From what I can tell his version of the witchfire trilogy would be amazing to play:

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