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Howling Tower: Marching Down to War

Howling Tower: Marching Down to War

War!I just returned from an event that’s always one of the highlights of the year for me—Enfilade, the annual convention run by NHMGS (Northwest Historical Miniatures Gaming Society). Not only is it a solid weekend of playing with toy soldiers, it’s also one of the best-run conventions I’ve had the pleasure to attend.

As usual, wargaming gets me thinking about fantasy warfare and why we don’t see more of it in RPG adventures. War plays a big role in sword & sorcery novels both old and new. You need look no further than The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones for great examples. Clearly, roleplayers consider war an exciting topic. Why does it keep to the shadows in our games?

I’ll leave the subject of how fantasy warfare would differ from historical warfare for a different time. Let’s look instead at what I see as the three reasons why war gets ignored or pushed into the background in RPG campaigns.

1. DMs aren’t comfortable dropping characters into a war because they themselves aren’t sure why a war is necessary or what it would be about.

This one’s easy. Just look to history for an answer. Wars are fought to bring more people and territory under a kingdom’s or empire’s rule; to shut down a troublesome, violent, or larcenous neighbor; to spread your religion; for natural resources, richer trade routes, or plunder; to throw down an oppressive ruler; to settle the question of who’s really in charge; and to defend yourself against any of the above. All of those reasons work in a fantasy setting.

2. DMs might be reluctant to go down the road to war because they don’t understand how wars are fought and they don’t want to make a hash of it.

If you find yourself in this position, my first recommendation is to close this gap in your education. You can study war without admiring it, and it’s a fascinating subject. An awful lot of human effort and ingenuity has been devoted to war. Understanding it is not a bad thing.

But for a quick solution, steal from the pros. Grab a real war off the shelf and use it as a blueprint. A few that stand out as excellent models for an RPG campaign are the campaigns of Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great for the forging of an empire and rise of a great conqueror; the Roman Civil War of 50 B.C. for an empire in chaos; any of the Gallic Wars or Roman wars in Britain for an Imperial campaign against barbarians; the Fall of Rome for a barbarian invasion of the empire (or the later Mongol invasion to pit the barbarians against a feuding cluster of distrustful kingdoms); the 1st and 3rd Crusades for a clash of religions and cultures; the Baron’s War for an internal revolt against the throne; the ravages of the Vikings, Saracen pirates, or Scots for harrying (or defending) a kingdom’s borders against raiders; the War of the Roses for a dynastic struggle; and any of the countless dustups in Italy during the 15th Century for short, jealous, pointless wars involving mercenaries with no loyalty to anyone but their paymasters.

Find a good, simple history of your favorite war, change the names of countries and kings, stretch and squeeze the map into the shape of your continent, and the work is 90 percent done. In this regard, The Encyclopedia of Military History by R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy (Harper & Row, 1970) is a great starting point. If you can’t find a worthwhile war in there, you’re not seriously looking.

Counter-and-hexmap wargames are another great resource in this regard. They set up all the forces but then let events follow their own course. Transfer the armies to your own map and you can follow their maneuvers, victories, and defeats in clear detail, even if you completely ignore the game’s combat rules and substitute your own narrative events.

3. Players and DMs fear that characters won’t seem special if they’re reduced to cogs in a great military machine.

One often-suggested solution to this question of specialness is to make PCs the fantasy equivalent of commandos and send them on special missions to recover artifacts of power, assassinate enemy generals, and blow up supply depots (no, wait, I’m thinking of Rock Hudson in “Tobruk”).

Nothing’s wrong with that approach, but it’s not the only solution. Player characters can be cogs and still remain special. Great warriors and slayers belong in the forefront of battle. Adventurers need to be good at many things, but where they really excel is in the slaughter business. When is the last time your characters waded into a literal army of foes and hewed great swaths of death until they were ringed by corpses like heroes in a Frazetta painting, and the enemy was still coming on in waves? That’s a scene that will get any fantasy fan’s blood pumping.

War is the ideal theater for indulging players’ bloodlust. Open all the valves and let the steam boil out in great, screaming billows. Adventurers thrive in times of social upheaval, and nothing heaves up society like war.

If you’ve run thrown characters into a war, or played a character through the course of a war, how did it go? What tricks did you use, and what lessons did you learn? What’s your “favorite war” to use as inspiration?


11 thoughts on “Howling Tower: Marching Down to War”

  1. I only have encountered one warlike siege in one of the campaigns i have played in, and it really was a great experience. we had been adventuring for a city and when we came back, we had an urgent meeting with the king. he stated that war was coming our way. we had to help lead some troops into battle, one way or another. We had only 2 (ingame)days to prepare for it and with the tasks at hand we trained the men under our command. I myself, as an archer, got control over a group of archers, we trained in shooting targetted volleys since we would later man the walls shooting volley after volley onto the enemy. that way we all got our parts in defending the city. everyone got to do something important, and in the closing encounter our barbarian could really let he axe go wild, like he should be able to. he jumped a giant that was using himself as a battering ram against the walls, which was being very effective. our healer ran on the battlefield, healing and dragging wounded men around. and another fighter of ours was leading a group of well trained soldiers.

    We didn’t do a whole lot of rolling, it was more decision-making and throwing some funny oneliners back and forth, but it was a great experience in the end.

    I felt so important with my particular part, I still know the details of my own role during the siege, but almost none of the others. the other player have the same feeling.

    So DM, if you’re reading this, THANKS for the great encounter!

  2. Being mostly DM I look at the same historical battles as does Steve, depending on the setting though. Other great sources for inspiration are – Warhammer Fantasy Battle reports or reports or similar TableTob Fantasy Games as Cry Havoc or Confrontation. For Game Mechanics I found Pendragon one of the easiest systems to handle, especially when it concerns the fate of the players themselves.

    When I engage my players, depending on how they like warfare and what career they have, they might as well be commander of a line, regiment or responsible for the logistics in supply or how to handle the wounded and captives. Each gets his hand full this I can assure you. Only backdraw in this sort of play is, that the PCs are seldom together during the battle itself – except when they find themselves in a situation similar to the 7 Samurais and all the films who followed. Which brings me to the next inspiration – movies and tv-series. Next to my alltime favorite (the 7 Samurais) are Apocalypse Now, 300, The Last Samurai, Braveheart, Big Red One and many others.

    Last but not least are also novels great inspirations. Not only ‘The Lord of the Rings’ but also Robert Sheas ‘The Last of the Zinjas’ and ‘The Saracen’ from the same author.

    So lets sound the trumpets, lets the drums roll – we march to war!

  3. Charles Carrier

    I generally don’t get my players *directly* involved in large scale wars because I don’t want them to feel railroaded. However, I frequently let/encourage/prod/trick them into being on the edges of war.

    For the last couple of years they have chosen to headquarter themselves in Gristlock, a city that was once part of a grand (and evil) empire. That empire was toppled about twenty-five years ago by another player character (no longer in the campaign – her job required her to move out of state). Like Europe right after the fall of Rome, the land they live in has devolved from a unified nation into a collection of violently competing city-states run by petty nobility.

    Also, there is a major church schism just getting started. In the real world Renaissance it was Protestants vs. Catholics, but in my game the conflict is over the proper names of the gods: Is it Zeus or Jupiter? Ares or Mars? ..and so on. The players only recently chose a side in this conflict.

  4. My DM once had the party get involved in a large battle, but when we kept in going around and helping people on our side that looked like they were in trouble he kinda admitted that it was mostly just supposed to be a backdrop and that he didn’t think he could handle actually keeping track of all those different people, so we just needed to focus on the ones specifically already involved that were on the other side.
    I suspect that that might be one of the reasons most DMs don’t have wars, simply because of the scale involved and the number of people in any decent-sized battle, even one with two very small armies.

  5. My go to module for running a game about war is X10 Red Arrow, Black Shield. I ran a hex based battle recently utilizing the War Machine rules from the companion set. The War Machine ruleset is the sweet spot for complexity for me when running massive battles.

    However, after running the battle and defeating the player’s forces, I felt the rules had “too much” randomness in them. The player’s made all the right moves and still lost. I suppose you could make the case that is how war is, but it felt a bit like snatching away the victory.

  6. I would highly recommend the books of the sadly departed Richard Holmes for excellent narratives of military campaigns and individual battles.

    I agree with Dalton that it may be best to use massed battles as a backdrop to PCs individual heroism. Vivid descriptions of the battle raging around them would help as would making their task within the conflict one of vital importance to the outcome. They may have to hold the forward command post or the battle is lost or perhaps they must find and deploy the magic item that will change the course of the war. As a DM you can predetermine the rest of the battle/war that rages around them, creating a timeline of events that they may be able to influence.

    You could insert your players into the battles of Agincourt, Naseby or Bosworth using the work of Richard Holmes as a guide. Elven Archers instead of English bowmen at Agincourt could be pitted against Satyrs playing the role of the French Cavalry.

    PC Knights could decide the outcome of a battle and maybe a war like Sir William Stanley at Bosworth Field. If high level PCs are on the losing side their lands and possessions may be seized prompting further adventure as they attempt to regain their status.

  7. X10 is great, as is Red Hand of Doom.

    I may come around again to discuss methods for resolving battles and wars, just because the subject is fascinating to me. Savage Worlds has a very simple system, but it’s highly random; astounding upsets are common. War Machine is pretty good. FGU’s Bushido had a system similar to War Machine, but more complex.

    One of my favorite approaches is to use a dirt-simple wargame such as Bill Banks’s Ancients to stage the battle, with allowances for PCs to affect the outcome at their location.

    As for losing a major battle — My feeling is that the DM should not have a preferred outcome. It’s the old theological argument about predestination. Win or lose, the point is to set up further adventures. How many Conan stories begin along the lines of, “having thrown in his lot with the Zamoran raiders who were crushed at the Kothan border, Conan was once again a fugitive.”

  8. First, let us assume the characters will only funciton at the tactical level, and not on the operational or strategic. This is perhaps the easiest for DMs and characters to grasp, as the other levels may require knowledge, insight, or education that a character or player simply lacks. At the tactical level, most characters end up either being some sort of SOF team (kill the enemy leader, raid their camp, etc.) or leading an element of the force as a commander or heroe on the field. Both of these are fun and gratifying, but I would also suggest that putting the characters in the ranks can be fun as well.
    Most of war is made up of endless boredome. Even today, most of the time deployed is spend cleaning equipment, training, digging ditches, eating lousy food, and complaining about everything. While this is not overwhelmingly heroic, is does create a lot of roleplaying possibilities for the characters, as they get to know either each other or their comrades in arms. Moreover, not every warfare campaign has to be filled with large set-piece battles. Irregular warfare has existed for millenia, and the character’s squad could be chasing insurgents… or they could be the insurgents. Also, most actions, even today, occur between patrols. The characters might just be on another security patrol when they blunder onto either an enemy patrol, an enemy column, or something else, and must race back with information instead of fighting it out. Adventures can also focus on the day-to-day tediumm of camp life. Perhaps the characters are gambling with fighting cocks or other animals (we had Goliath the centipede at our FOB), or have to protect the water wagon at various times.
    Overall, I would say that their are a lot of ways characters can be involved in warfare as something more than super-commandos or heroes.

  9. Steve, I’ve done a lot of war stuff with my players over the years. Perhaps it’s because I love The Black Company, Birthright, and A Song of Ice and Fire so much or perhaps it’s because wargaming is the fundamental basis of roleplaying games; I don’t know!

    I have found what I think might be the crowning achievement in medieval wargames. It’s free, it has no miniatures range of its own, and it focuses on the Clausewitzian effect of having soldiers you can’t directly control. It’s called Knights and Knaves (I talked a little about it today) and I think it hasn’t gotten anywhere near enough press.

    The idea that you can’t involve your players in military conflicts due to “railroading” is silly. There are hundreds of choices to be made every day even at the lowest levels of command and the first and most obvious choice is whether to join the war at all. Indeed, unless you’re talking about the Conflict of All Good and Evil, every single day you are presented with the choice of simply slipping away in the night.

    A good war can drive a campaign, it simply depends on the DM to know how to handle situations with limited freedom. High-level AD&D characters, for example, can be warlords in and of themselves, capable of raising hundreds of men from their domains. Anyone who’s played a game of Birthright can attest that the battlefield is simply an extension of normal policy… and anyone who’s played D&D should be familiar with politics as a source of adventure.

  10. Furthermore, as an addendum, I think it behooves DMs everywhere to do as much research as they can. I’m not ashamed to say that I have a Master’s in Medieval Studies as an outgrowth of research I used to do in high school to make my D&D games more “accurate” and “realistic.”

  11. Nice link to Knights & Knaves. I’ve never seen that before, but I’ll give it a look. My favorite fantasy skirmish ruleset these days is Warrior Heroes from Two-Hour Wargames. That and Chainmail, which has astounding staying power.

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