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RPG War Mastery #6: War Wizardry

The siege-lines stand expectantly the earthworks finished and the bulwarks fully manned. The walls of theChess wizard small stone fortress stand tall against them though surrounded by the enemy’s vastly superior force. For now all there is is time to wait, to wait for a breach in the walls or main gates should the enemy sappers be successful or for those within to starve if her constable were ill prepared. Suddenly without warning several fireballs streak from between the crenelations at the top of the curtain walls blasting the carefully built lines into a confused screaming mass of rubble and fire. The castle’s wizard has only just begun.

Wizards, or more generically mages, are another major issue on the fantasy battlefield to take into account when thinking about mass combat in RPGs. Since the early days of fantasy Wargaming, wizards have been included as valuable and powerful combat units though mainly as artillery pieces dressed in robes. As roleplaying-games advanced so did the magical powers of the wizard making them very powerful units on the battlefield and in support roles. They have always been a feature of the fantasy arena of war. However, the popular fantasy archetype has appeared the antithesis of this.

Popularly wizards (mages in general) in archetypal terms appear as very old men with long beards or young boys or girls that are as skilled as their rank of apprentice would imply. However, a mage at their peak of physical ability, say late teens to early 60’s maybe older depending on the setting, would actively seek out powers to align with often simply to advance their material needs. After all, magic is often an expensive endeavor even though you may be practicing it for purely personal reasons. In times of war, a mage might seek out or make overtures to a political power also out of selfish aims. In addition, serving a powerful leader may be the fast track for high ambitions.

Mages & Magic

In the most basic of terms, a wizard or mage is a magic user. That is they can cast spells and wield magic in the game. Depending on the game system you are using the details (especially the names) may vary wildly. However, for the purposes of this article Wizards are magic-users meaning that they are capable of casting spells.

Similarly, for the limits of this piece, magic is the wielding of supernatural power unexplainable via the natural world or science in any direct terms and is separate from religion. Any game related additions to this are simply not considered since the number of game rule systems out there is innumerable. So when it comes to magic and spells these will be discussed in general terms getting as specific as one can without relying on specific sets of rules or even direct abstract guidelines (i.e.: Power, Focus, Effect, etc.). The main concern is how the presence of a wizard alters the course of mass combat in a setting in a medieval type environment/world.

This essay will also assume certain points about wizards/mages to be true which are they can manipulate magic to a much higher degree than non-mages, they are generally physically more fragile than their fighter/soldier counterparts, and magic-users are generally reservoirs of esoteric or rare knowledge. The war wizard is also more of a Swiss army knife as compared to such super-weapons as dragon mounts or golems. They can fulfill more roles on the battlefield and in combat situations than just possessing greater firepower.

The Wizard at War

Deployed onto the battlefield, wizards can serve three basic military functions. These functions are as artillery, logistics operative, and battlefield intelligence.

As mystic artillery, a wizard hurls down spell fire onto the heads of the enemy. Spell fire being embodied by such effects and actions as hurling fireballs, calling down lightning and thunder, disintegrating specific targets as well as blasting enemy troops with wind, fire, water, ice, and light. Spell fire is the wizard’s specialty and possibly the most traditional role that they can play.

Once deployed into action however, a wizard serving as a living artillery piece is vulnerable to all of the dangers of the battlefield. Due to their frailness, this deployment strategy is unwise. Their low physicality is a definite liability on the field. The mage may even have protective spells or items on their person to make them more resistant in battle. However, if the enemy has any other supernatural weaponry or such technology as alchemy or clockwork (a la steampunk) available they may be able to take the mage out quite easily.

As magic-users are physically weaker than even a mundane peasant is, they may need fitting transportation such as a carriage or comfortable wagon. They will require spell components and possibly a lot of preparation time along with a sufficient salary to both prepare and for services rendered making them somewhat expensive for the war effort.

Nevertheless, Wizards may be at their most dangerous when behind walls and atop battlements and bulwarks. Here, they have the best protection from projectiles and opposing spell fire as well as gaining high ground advantages and a better view of the entire field. This is especially evident when a mage is at the top of a tower, a very archetypal place for them to be. The location most advantageous to a wizard is one protected and allowing for a wide range of view. This maximizes their potential, so having a wizard defending a fortress is the best default for a war mage.

Magical Logistics

Spell casters are also masters of military logistics due to their abilities of teleportation, weather control, summoning, and healing. Not all mages will have all of these abilities available at once but having even one of these at their disposal is a godsend to a military commander.

When it comes to teleportation, teleporting even small squads behind enemy lines or enemy fortifications are highly useful in making sabotage runs and night raids to weaken opposing positions. Even if this is limited to the teleportation of an individual, then teleporting messengers back and forth to improve the communications network is top priority. Having the superior communication network is a prime concern of any army and the wider and faster it can relay messages the better reaction time to any action the enemy takes.

Weather control is also indispensable since surprise fog banks can stall the enemy and grant cover to your forces for surprise attacks. Bad weather can stall out and even decimate enemy troops and encampments (think the Russian winter of 1812 and Napoleon). Even the manipulation of the weather in relatively small areas can have an immense impact such as clearing out a small patch of the battlefield for a special squad, for targeting, or causing a flashflood by concentrating rain in a small area further away thereby creating a nasty surprise disaster for the enemy. Clearing up bad weather can also speed an advance along even in the dead of winter.

Summoning monsters or additional forces even squads of mundane but vicious animals is of great use in surprise and harassment operations and on the immediate battlefield to help shore up the flanks, fortify weak spots in formations, or increase the momentum of a push against enemy lines.

Healing is not really an archetypal ability associated with wizards but they do have that potential. That is if they have access to healing magic then they can restore limbs, heal broken bones, or nearly fatal injuries thus helping to restore wounded soldiers to their units at a much faster pace than normal and reduce permanent casualties. In this capacity, they can also control disease, which can break out in battlefield triage facilities very easily as well as controlling infections that make wounds and battlefield surgeries so dangerous.

Again, this reduces casualties, increases turnaround, and prevents the breaking of the war machine by plague. The wizard in this capacity can also provide potions that can do much of this though on an individual basis helping to protect those of high rank and value without their presence being necessary allowing the mage to be active elsewhere.

Mystical Intelligence & Espionage Officer

The mystical abilities of scrying, sending out supernatural spies, and magical sabotage make the wizard at war even more valuable in the military intelligence role. Scrying, the visualization of actual events in a specific targeted area at a certain distance away, is invaluable for spying on the enemy and gathering intelligence as well as keeping an eye on your own troop movements. Witches of old were famed for using small vermin as spies, which allowed them to hear or see at a distance these usually being spiders, bats, or rats. Again, this is very useful for gaining intelligence.

Likewise, a mage can also try to limit what an enemy caster can see and hear as well as trying to manipulate their spies not to mention the intentional dispersion of false information and visions. This role can extend to espionage as well having the mage use magic to not only transmit or disguise (maybe even scramble) information for varying purposes but also to make direct attempts at sabotage against the enemy.

Mystical sabotage can take the forms of curses, inducing such things as falls or equipment failure, and sickening or killing beasts of burden as well as spoiling food supplies. This last fact alone should induce the enemy to hire on at least one wizard to help protect their forces and materiel against such long distance and devastating attacks versus which they may have no other effective defense.

Arcane Support

A role most mages fit into most naturally aside from intelligence and espionage when it comes to war is that of an active support unit. They can remain behind the lines or at least at camp and serve in a support role that still takes full advantage of their arcane skills and powers.

Along these lines, a mage can provide some of the best protection available, magical protection. Mages can cast lingering magic that protects against damage from siege engines, provide charms against enemy spells, and protect against such battlefield hazards as fire even acid or lightning bolts. This includes raising certain arcane defenses like magical force fields and triggered spells such as a lightning bolt firing off at an incoming dragon or griffin mounted air-cavalry from a tower spire.

This protective potential is probably most advantageous when used to protect or proof an important fortress. Encampments as well are potential wards of the protective wizard. A limited location that is typically fortified should be the focus of the protective role of the wizard. This includes mystical alarms and the ability to know when a perimeter, probably marked out by magic of course, is breached.

Esoteric Communications

The communications role of wizards is exceptionally vital. Communications is the nervous system of the whole war machine, its central control, how commanders steer it. Orders could be relayed in a matter of seconds over distances that would take days or even weeks using normal means of communication. This also means that forces could not be effectively cut-off without the intervention of an opposing magic user thus building in sensitivity to enemy magicians.

After all, if a part of your force suddenly goes dark and they possess arcane communication tools then an enemy wizard or other supernatural agent must be at work. Combining a wizard with mundane battlefield communications methods (trumpets, drums, flags, banners, etc.) can create a very advanced and reliable communication network almost rivaling the modern high tech versions maybe even surpassing them in some instances.

Not only the fantasy equivalent of a tactical radio set mages also serve as vast reservoirs of knowledge especially about other fantastical weapons of note. This may include the know how to build them, find them, or more importantly counter-act and destroy them. In this capacity, they may rely on their mystical communication abilities to link up to a special task force of adventurers trusted with gaining intelligence about, obtaining, destroying, or delaying a special weapon such as dragon riders or golems. In this respect, the mage essentially serves as the adventurers’ quest coordinator or in a military liaison/spy master capacity.

Necromancy

A certain type of mage bears discussion at this point, the necromancer. A necromancer is a magic user that can summon and speak to the spirits of the dead as well as manipulate and animate the dead sometimes able to even create undead creatures. They also occasionally have the wretched ability of manipulating and creating disease as well as the dark energies that provide this kind of power.

Necromancers can wage mystic bio-warfare, turn casualties into reinforcements, sap the will of the enemy to fight by weakening soldiers’ physical-ness or sickening them, and sending spirits to harass them at camp thereby denying them rest and peace of mind before a battle. Aside from being able to spread sickness and animate the dead necromancers can fulfill the intelligence aspect almost to a greater degree than most other wizards as traditionally they could summon and communicate with the spirits of the dead or at least speak with any corpses still capable of speech.

The known presence of such a spell caster on the field may lead the enemy to mutilate their dead to prevent the corpses from speaking and take drastic measures like trapping their souls in jars or gems (maybe using a legendary item) to prevent their spirits from being summoned. This action is extreme, can be construed as evil, and may have unintended consequences such as the rendering of your soldiers to soulessness and the potential for them to rise again as uncontrolled undead after being slain. Even releasing their soul may leave behind a confused ghost that eternally searches the old battlefield looking for their long lost corpse.

The bio-weapon aspect of necromancers, the spreading of disease even plague, is possibly the nastiest option in their dark armory. They could conceivably spread infection covertly amongst targets like cities and fortresses long before the conquering army gets there thereby weakening any resistance by vast degrees. It is a definite bonus if these diseases are magical and raise their victims from the dead as zombies or ghouls that the necromancer can control as well. However, that could get out of hand very quickly. In the same vein, the necromancer would need to provide their allies with an antigen to prevent their army from falling victim to the same sickness. Granted the allied army is not already an army of the dead that is.

The Lich and the Army of the Dead

In the same dark box as the necromancer, there is yet another even more dangerous and notorious magic user, the Lich. Liches, that traditional archenemy of fantasy adventurers, can turn out to be a valuable asset for the side employing them, cautiously mind you, if they themselves are not the core of the enemy leadership anyway. Liches can head an army, even if small, of undead creatures, useful in and of itself. This undead force may be resistant to most mundane attacks. Such undead wizards may also have the power to fulfill most of the roles that a war wizard could, maybe even have the power to take on roles that would take more than one average wizard at a time.

However, this legion of the undead may pose more of a hazard than an advantage and even may utterly devastate or contaminate the very lands you were hoping to conquer with dark energies. This is true whether the lich decides to stay loyal to any one side or not. They may very well turn on their allies in a heartbeat at the worst possible moment. Whenever a lich led army of the dead shows up on the battlefield, it is usually a very, very bad thing.

Counter Measures

Fret not, there are countermeasures to use against a wizard deployed onto the battlefield. The most obvious and easiest would be arrows and various missile weapons, which can target the mage from afar as well as those archers with exceptional skill that could act as snipers. Just like any soldier on the field an arrow can kill, maim, or at least disrupt a mage. However, note that a skilled wizard usually has some sort of defense already in place to defeat arrows and missile weapons. Of course, a good commander could try such things as leveling a ballista or catapult at them just to test their defenses. Barring arrow fire, protective magic and magic items can help to counter some of the enemy wizard’s spell fire and curses.

This applies to spells that a mage for hire may have cast, those items that comprise a quest’s MacGuffin, or something that only a specific mage NPC can provide. Again, a side quest for PCs appears where they must seek out a wizard in order to obtain some protective items or one really rare artifact. Note also that items to protect non-player individuals are important as well. An example being certain officers having protective fetishes to ward off disease, spirits, or certain magic spells.

However, the best option is to recruit (or conscript if possible) your own wizard who is hopefully just as if not more skilled and/or powerful than the opposition mage. Additionally, if you have the resources, hiring more than a single wizard is the best bet.

The only things that can counter spell-casters on the field besides archers, magic, and other casters are units that can get real close real fast such as assassins or ranger-types and other magic-users or just very mobile warriors. It is in the prudent general’s best interest to have at least two of the previous in their ranks. This is another reason to keep a wizard in a protected area such as at the top of a parapet.

Summary

Wizards have great potential despite their minimalist physicality on the fantasy battlefield. They are a powerful weapon, invaluable support unit, and indispensable intelligence provider. Their presence introduces complication into what can be a standard battle scenario. The opposition must respond in order to maintain the balance power (or terror in the case of necromancers and liches) on the field and even seek out mages as countermeasure against certain other ultimate weapons of the fantasy world.

Even though they are fragile and perhaps even sickly, wizards are the most flexible of the mystical super-weapons of fantasy warfare and often come equipped with more character than a phalanx of golems, a flight of dragon-mounts, or a legion of the undead (hopefully).

Rats of Tanglethorn Pt.5: The Ruthless Trio

Afheesh (played by me) yanked his bloodied weapon from the throat of the Bronze Boy at his feet. The ruthless trio had just made quick work of a small group of Bronze Boy gang members. Consequently they had looted some 40 bronze thorns (bt’s), 4 dirks, and 4 saps. Pabst (played by Jenn) collected their bronze badges, their gang colors. Wufcor (played by Isis) suggested they all take the badges to the Troll Boys’ hangout, the Bloody Tankard, to see if they could score some free drinks.

It was not long after the three found themselves before a rundown saloon front. It was of pale cracked wood built onto the ground level of one of the old orange stone buildings. A hot yellow light poured through the entryway as did a pungent stream of smoke. Hanging from the placard hitch was a broken tankard, brown stained or rusted they could not tell which. There was a large group of Troll Boys out front guarding the door. A few appeared to have troll blood oozing in their veins but most were human. Pabst was the first to approach.

Pabst (tossing the Bronze Boy badges to the dirt): “How many drinks are these worth?”

The Ugliest Troll Boy (spits on the badges): “Maybe a half jack! We do our own fightin’, we don’t pay others to fight fer us!”

Pabst (undeterred): “Well then, do you Troll Boys have any GOOD fighters among you?”

Isis: “Sis…”

The Ugliest Troll Boy laughed at her and poked his head into the bar from over the saloon doors. Consequently he shouted a name none of the trio could make out, it could have been in trollish for all they knew. However, to their relief a human stepped to the door. He walked slowly out to the creaking plank porch with an air of supreme arrogance about him. He had a scale-mail vest and gleaming bronze bracers on his forearms. Circling Pabst for a few seconds and smirking said, “You’re too wounded to fight me tonight. Come back when you’ve healed and meet your death at the edge of my blade”. With that he turned heel and walked nonchalantly back inside.

Jenn (checking her character sheet): “Crap! I am still wounded, BAD!”

The trio parted ways shortly thereafter. Pabst and Wufcor headed off to find a White Star Guild house of healing and then back to the Yellow Lotus Inn to rest. Afheesh headed to the livery for food and some simple companionship for the night.

Several hours and 1,500 bt’s later at dawn Afheesh arrived refreshed and impatient in front of the Bloody Tankard. The place was shuttered until noon. The other two arrived sometime after with Pabst appearing fully healed. When they had seen the place was shut tight for another few hours they decided to go to the nearest armorer. There Pabst purchased a high quality bronze medium shield for 1,400 bt’s.

On the way back to the Bloody Tankard the ruthless trio was assailed from an alley by three giant earwigs. They made quick work of the monsters with Afheesh slaughtering two of them and Wufcor and Pabst slaying the last.

It was not long after the three were again in front of the Troll Boys’ clubhouse. The fighter that Pabst had challenged the previous evening was sitting leisurely on a chair leaned against the doorframe, his booted feet up on a stool. At his side was a rapier-like weapon with a razor-sharp polished blade, a full brass knuckle-guard, and a pommel spike. He was a professional swordsman, a Quick Blade.

The Quick Blade (taking his pipe from his lips): “So, what is it that we are dueling for?”

The trio proposed that the prize be a shot from the green bottle at the Green Bottle Tavern. The Quick Blade agreed and then terms of the fighter were worked out, drawing first blood would make the winner. That last stipulation was Pabst’s idea by the way.

As the gathering crowd of Troll Boys and curious passerby marked out the ring, Afheesh slipped into the Bloody Tankard unseen. He found two locked doors of interest in the empty bar when he heard the crowd lament then the Quick Blade and the Troll Boys laughing in victory. He darted back outside.

The Quick Blade had drawn first blood on the very first strike of the fight.

Jenn: “Awww! But I’m a GREAT duelist!”

Cris (the GM): “Well, his back is turned to you and the Troll Boys are congratulating him.”

Jenn: “Umm…”

Isis: “Sis! We might be over our heads here!”

Cris: “So, do you do it or not?”

Jenn: *sigh* “No, I put my sword away.”

Later, that evening the trio, the Quick Blade and five Troll Boys sat at the bar in the Green Bottle. Afheesh had already put down the money for the shot from the titular green bottle. The Quick Blade held up the small glass with green swirling liquor in it.

The Quick Blade: “Whosoever would duel over this shot may have it as their prize!”

Hence, a Troll Boy stepped forward. Afheesh sighed in disgust and stepped forward drawing his paired weapons.

Afheesh (looking back at his companions and shrugging): “I paid for it, it’s mine.”

Suddenly, the troll-blood lunged and struck with his dirk missing the agile ratling. As a result Afheesh jabbed with both blades striking deep, wounding the troll-blood badly. In desperation, the Troll Boy slashed narrowly missing his target (by 1 pt.). So Afheesh retorted killing the Troll Boy instantly.

The Quick Blade (sliding the shot glass over to the ratling): “I guess this is yours.”

Without thinking, the ratling slung it down and when it hit the bottom, he began to feel dizzy. However, he did fight off the dizziness and as a slight drowsiness faded, he felt strangely invigorated. Meanwhile, the Troll Boys grumbled as the swordsman led them out of the tavern. Finally, Wufcor approached Afheesh and gave him a small sack of coins.

Wufcor: “I made a little side bet. Here’s your share.”

The purse contained 150 bt’s so feeling very refreshed by the strange green booze, Afheesh decided to take his leave and go back to his favorite place, the livery. A jaunt in his step he whistled as left the place.

To Be Continued…

 

Tabletop Meditations #21: Heraldry

Brilliant war banners, strikingly colored flags waving in the wind, and fascinatingly designed symbols on theheraldry from the blog surcoats of warriors, which sometimes strangely define the character of the individual. Heraldry is more than just a splash of color or the addition of intriguing art; it can serve a deeper purpose within a roleplaying game.

Heraldic devices and symbols can be a short hand for the nature and/or attitudes of groups and organizations, which can help with NPC characterization if an individual does not fit this mold or vice versa. Player Characters may strive to either earn or adopt imagery under which they can gain prestige and earn an easily recognized reputation. I use the basics of heraldry in my games to add some color. In addition, I take care to add in certain conventions and symbols native to the game world or region for which I am creating.

There is no doubt whatever that symbolism forms an integral part of armory; in fact there is no doubt that armory itself as a whole is nothing more or less than a kind of symbolism. [Fox-Davies. 1978. A Complete Guide to Heraldry. Bonanza Books, New York. p.5]

I use Heraldry in my games because it seems to stick in the players’ heads without much effort on their part. It also provides some preliminary characterization on occasion and can communicate the symbols important to the culture of those using it adding to the world building. When Game-Mastering I use coats of arms to mark out organizations, locations such as towns and cities (seals), and individuals of note. I also use simplified versions on wax and clay seals and on signet rings, not just the colorful incarnations found on flags, shields, and surcoats.

On maps and handouts, seals and flags can help to divide a map into political regions and distinguish the factions with an easily identified visual symbol that is easily digestible and easily confirmed.

Language of Color and Symbols

In the most basic of terms heraldry is the use of color, symbols, and decoration as distinguishment of identity. It is also an art and with that it carries with it tis own language which may be different for different cultures as in Armory (concerning the art and study of armorial bearings including its legalistic side). This symbolic art language is heraldry and the primary result is the coat of arms.

When heraldry came into existence it came in as an adjunct of decoration, and it necessarily followed that the whole of the positions which the craftsmen found the eagle or the lion depicted were appropriated with the animals for heraldry. That this appropriation for the exclusive purpose of armory has been silently acquiesced in by the decorative artists of later days is simply proof of the intense power and authority which accrued later to armory, and which was in fact attached to anything relating to privilege and prerogative. [Fox-Davies. Pgs.3-4]

Arms are emblazoned on Banners, Standards, Flags, Shields (shield emblems date at least from late roman times), Surcoats, Tabards, Pennants/Pennons, Sashimono, Nobori, Uma-jirushi, Hata-jirushi. The idea of heraldry may have evolved from the preferred designs or decoration conflated with certain individuals or militaries becoming their recognized insignia.

Quick & Dirty Heraldry Primer

There are some terms that used in this discussion, which are Shield, Field, and the names of the Partitions, Charge, Helm, and Motto.

Shield – The central shape bearing the coat, which is the shape of a shield typically an escutcheon but can be round or oval especially in those cultures whose warriors’ shields are of a particular shape. It seems likely this evolved from the painting of shields or identifying marks and decorations put on the front of shields. The shield “constituted the warrior’s ‘weapon’ par excellence, the symbol of his status and function. It was handed to him when he was admitted to the ranks of warriors for the first time; to abandon it henceforth was a disgrace. If he died in combat, the warrior was carried away on his shield. During assemblies, decisions were approved by warriors striking  […] their shields.” [Contamine, Phillippe. 1984. War in the Middle Ages. Basil Blackwell Publisher Limited (English Translation).Oxford, England. p.178]

Field – The Field is the background element of the arms that is usually a solid color but can be partitioned.

Partitions – The field partitioned in half, into quarters and diagonally (per bend). The line of the partition is usually not visible but designated by the difference in color between them. An example is where the right (Dexter) partition as a yellow field and the left (Sinister) as crimson.

Charge – Typically, a central emblem set at the center of the shield on the field, which can be an abstract symbol or the portrayal of an animal, human, monster, plant, fruit, flower, etc.

Helm – The position of helm is at the top center of the shield and is typically a helm with stylized and complex plumes draping from it. Like the shield, the helm is shaped and representative of its culture although instead of a helmet it can be the head of animal or beast as well as such objects as flowers or skulls.

Motto – This takes the form of a ribbon, banner, or plaque at the bottom of the shield or beneath it. This object bears a saying taken to be a core value to those the coat of arms represents i.e. a family motto.

Coat of Arms – A coat of arms is the central heraldry on the shield including the field(s) and central charge. This collection of heraldic symbols is also easy to transfer to other display formats such as banners, flags, or surcoats. The most simplistic form of a heraldic coat of arms is a charge on a field although there are examples in history of a simple single color field only.

The purpose of this system of design and bearings is essentially for identification usually associated with important individuals and families.

I.D.

Heraldry is a form of visual identification and encoded certain information so that observers could identify those bearing it and read certain specific meanings in its symbols. The most common of these would be Unit Identifiers, Origin, and Loyalties.

Unit Identifiers are heraldic marks that identify a military unit and its divisions. These can correlate to signal flags calling for and relaying simple orders to a specific unit on the field or to certain signifiers such as honoraria or special awards.

The tradition of each century in a legion having its own standard (signum) appears to have continued throughout the Principate. […]Signa appear to have been topped either by an ornamental spearhead or an upraised hand. Theiur shafts were heavily decorated with cross-pieces, wreaths, and from two to six large discs. The actual significance of any of these items is unknown, though it does seem probable that together they provided a system for identifying the particular century. [Goldsworthy, Adrian. 2003. The Complete Roman Army. Thames & Hudson Inc. New York, NY. p.134]

The central charge or another secondary charge or even specific color of field can denote from where the bearers have come. It can denote a specific region of an area all the way down to a household within that specific region using additional symbols or certain well-known components. This type of sign can also be unintentional such as when a certain color of dye is limited to a specific region so those nearest that area will make use of the color thus all those using that color are within the limits of a certain, although probably wider, area. This last idea may also give away an imposter to those with the proper knowledge and a keen eye for detail.

At the time of the third crusade (1188- 90), ‘it was agreed that all those coming from the lands of the king of France should wear red crosses, those from the lands of the king of England white, and those from the county of Flanders green crosses.’ […] In their turn the Burgundians chose an emblem – the cross of St. Andrew, either in saltire (en sautoir) or forked (fourchue), in white or red. [Contamine. p.190]

Heraldry can also exhibit loyalty to a specific individual, their administration, and/or their family by way of pictures or symbols. “When Pontius Pilate first visited Jerusalem […], an uproar was created because his escort had brought its standards, including the imagines [a series of images of the emperor and his close family which were mounted on poles and kept with the standards], with them, thus bringing graven images into the Temple and offending Jewish law.” [Goldsworthy. p.143]

On the Battlefield

Heraldry is of practical use on the battlefield in that certain types of flags and their symbols including color can carry meaning for desperate soldiers. They can also serve as signals sending complex messages long distances cutting through the noise and chaos with brightness. “[C]ommanders would have individual flags hoisted high that gave the troops something to follow across the battlefield, while signal flags gave instructions such as advance, retreat or adopt defensive positions.” [Haskew, Michael. 2008. Fighting Techniques of the Oriental World AD 1200 – 1860. St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY. p.32]

As a Rallying Point, the standard of a king or commander can serve as markers on the battlefield for their location. Back at camp flags, banners, and standards serve to mark a location for troops to rally around or a place to regroup. It can also help lead soldiers to battle especially when all else is eclipsed by the fog and clatter of war, they have the flag to follow into the fray.

Banner systems provided the most ready mechanism for giving some form of battlefield coherence. In the Japanese forces, not only did samurai carry the Nobori flag attached to the back of their armour – giving the attendant ashigaru some prominent form of bearing – but the ashigaru themselves would often transport various insignia around the battlefield. Some would carry the hata-jirushi (flag streamer), the base of the flagpole sitting in a holder fixed to the waistband. This flag would denote the nearby presence of a particular samurai. Some soldiers were esteemed enough to carry the uma-jirushi flag attached to the back of their armour, thus indicating that a general or daimyo was present. While these positions obviously carried a certain honour, they could dramatically shorten the life of the flag carrier – enemy soldiers were attracted to such insignia as they were obvious targets. [Haskew. p.32]

Signal flags can signal certain units to carry out their part of a battle plan on the field of war. They can convey simple messages such as move to the front, retreat, fire, or charge as well as slightly more complex signals such as break off and carry out a specific maneuver. This is discounting any kind of semaphore that is. Heraldic marks and partitions can be added to increase the limited vocabulary of signal flags and remain distinguishable from each other.

Traditionally a distinctive vexillum or flag, usually in red, marked out the commander’s position in camp before a battle and on the battlefield. Vexilla also provided the main standard for detachments of troops serving away from their parent unit, so that in time such detachments became known as vexillations (vexillationes). [Goldsworthy. p.134]

As a war trophy an opponent’s heraldry is unmatched, in effect the victor has stolen their identity. The seized coat of arms serves as a symbol of victory and the enemy’s defeat and remains on display as their shame. Pennants and flags displayed like trophies hung upside down, inverted, or in a certain location such as on a post are common as is the burning of captured flags, which is more an act of annihilation.

When displayed in the camp or at home base in any of the previously discussed manners this can serve to diminish the enemy to and improve morale among the troops. Displays of such trophies can also serve to increase the prestige of the one who possesses it especially if the defeated carried a reputation. When a captured flag marched in front of a unit on the field serves much the same purposes and could serve to direct the enemy’s ire at that unit as well.

Naturally the sequel to a battle entailed various religious ceremonies: the obsequies and burial of the dead according to the means dictated by circumstances or by the social status of the victims; masses for favours shown and the Te Deum celebrated by the victor, who might also offer trophies from the victory – flags, spurs, pieces of armour – to a sanctuary, found a rich abbey or a modest oratory. [Contamine. p.300]

In Game

Heraldry and its devices can be used to great advantage within a fantasy campaign. Coats of arms are cheap characterization tool (a la cliché representations of character), serve as mnemonic devices for places, people, and organizations, as well as all the previously mentioned conventional uses.

As symbolic short hand, heraldry can communicate heaps of random game info to Players and their characters. As a cheap characterization tool is relates to the old cliché of skulls and black for bad, and white and feathered wings for good or vice versa using the wolf’s in sheep’s clothing cliché. The more complex and showy a character’s coat of arms then the more powerful they are or the more of a blow-hard, perhaps both. However, heraldry can use its own language of symbols and colors to imply certain characteristics such as lineages with arcane power, necromancy, bad histories, disagreeable personalities or historically very agreeable ones unique to your game world. Heraldic symbols carry reputations with them as well as symbolizing power, heritage, or other such things within the culture and from history from which it takes its images and symbols.

Images are easier to remember especially brightly colored designs than just names even of individuals. Therefore, heraldic devices help to memorize reputations, lineages, organizations and the ranks in that organization. This is especially true in a region or world with limited literacy. In such societies, a family crest is indispensable in proving who you are by proving your relations. Heralds may keep rolls of diagramed records of coats tracking the evolution of the heraldry from person to person thus creating a sort of genealogical history of symbols.

Complimentary World Building Device

Heraldry can help a GM to build their world and link its internal elements together through association. As previously mentioned it also carries additional, honestly sometimes extraneous, information to the PCs.

Symbolic representations of a culture or group used in related individuals’ arms deepen the game world by displaying their relationship and even occasionally the nature and mood of that relationship.

[A]n additional type [of flag] had been adopted by some [Roman] cavalry units for use in parades and perhaps at other times. This was the dragon or draco, a bronze animal head with an open mouth and neck to which was attached a multi-colored tube or material. When the standard bearer moved quickly, the tube or material acted like a wind-sock, streaming behind the head and making a whistling sound.  These standards seem to have been copied from some of Rome’s opponents on the Danubian frontier, most notably the nomadic Sarmatians, and are depicted on Trajan’s Column flying over the enemy armies. [Goldsworthy. p.134]

Heraldry adds in bright colors and may even allude to a deeper connection with those it represents such as the previously mentioned origin of the bearer through intention or the use of rare dyes/pigments or unusual symbols. It can act as set dressing especially useful in emphasizing the scenery of such events as tournaments, duels, negotiations, encampments etc. the bonus being this set dressing hints to the greater world outside to those who can read their symbology.

The core of the Manchu military system at the time of the conquest consisted of the pa-ch’i, or ‘Eight Banners’. When the system was set up in 1601, there were four Banners – the Yellow, White, Red and Blue –distinguished by flags of the respective colours. In 1616 four more Manchu Banners were created, using flags of the same four colours but with contrasting borders. In addition, an army carried a black silk flag, which was used as a rallying point and seems to have been regarded as sacred [.] Each Banner was divided into five jalans, or regiments, each of five nirus, or ‘arrows’. A niru had a nominal strength of 300 men. [Peers, CJ. 2006. Soldiers of the Dragon: Chinese Armies 1500 BC – AD 1840. Osprey Publishing, Midland House. Oxford, UK. pgs.230-231]

The development of symbols unique to your group incorporated into the heraldic language is a definite option that you should use. This creates unique heraldic devices that carry special meanings found only on that world. In addition, you can encode PC actions in coats of arms either as a record of lineage or permanent symbols of that PC’s legendary victories commemorated within their family crest.

The standard and pennon of Joan of Arc were not the only flags embroidered with pious images or texts; such flags can be found in almost every army of the day, Burgundian, English, Lotharingian, etc. Certain standards even had a sacred character, like the banner of St James at Compostella, that of St Lambert at Liege and the Oriflamme of St Denis. […] It is remarkable that, prolonging a usage which doubtless arose during the first crusade, crosses made out of material of different colours and shapes served from the fourteenth century as the distinctive emblems for English, French, Breton, Burgundian and Lotharingian combatants. Just as some sacred decoration was in part military, so military decoration was in part religious. [Contamine. p.298]

Conclusion

When used in a game heraldic devices and symbology can convey vast amounts of information to players at a glance and deepen the psychology of the fictional world.  This is true whether that information is genealogy, reputation, origin, history, military rank, unit demarcation, or as a cliché characterization tactic. This is especially true when the GM and Players have created their own index of symbols and put thought into why someone would use these symbols as an emblem or collection thereof that serves to identify them personally and sometimes spiritually.

Using heraldry of any sort in your game adds a language of color and symbols allowing for greater communication with players through the game itself and adds a touch of realism as well as some arresting visual flair.

 

Rats of Tanglethorn Pt.4: The Duelist

The ratlings, Afheesh (played by me) and Wufcor (played by Isis) stood in the front ranks of the city guard ofWhite Rose Duelist the White Rose Well smart in their uniform green cloaks with obsidian leaf clasp. They were in formation to the northeast of the White Rose Well in the plaza before the White Rose Perfumery dozens of feet away from the well. Captain Fenom wearing an open helm with a bright green and gleaming black feather plume was over by the well talking with the human duelist, Pabst (played by Jenn).

The ratling quickling, Afheesh, strained to overhear them as the captain’s subordinate, wearing an open helm with a bright red feather plume, maintained the formation. As a result, the ratling could see that a shiny new great sword hung on Pabst’s back. “That’s new”, he thought.

The captain passed Pabst two potions, a Bull’s Strength Potion and a Cat’s Grace Potion to drink on the spot. Apparently they were had some sort of delay effect brewed in. It was not long before another company of Tanglethorn guardsmen marched in from the east cloaked in brown with a yellow lotus circled by black thorns on their backs. Their leader had on a bronze open helm similar to Capt. Fenom’s but with bright yellow feathers mixed with black.

The opposing captain’s second halted the incoming march only a dozen feet away from the well. For a split second, there was a strained silence as the dust settled. Bronze chest plates reflected the late morning sun as it glinted from the shining tips of steel pikes and polished bronze helmets.

The yellow lotus captain strutted over to captain Fenom removing his helmet as he neared. Their opens palms smacked together then they squeezed, their knuckles creaking. Then they began to speak as Fenom dismissed Pabst whom rejoined her comrades at the line.

Pabst: “I’m totally excited you guys! My first DUEL!”

Afheesh: “What!?”

Pabst: “Something about control of the White Rose Block. Whatever. I got this.”

Isis: “Sis! Watch it!”

Captain Fenom (his voice echoing his arms rose): “Terms have been agreed upon; a duel will determine the ministration of the White Rose Block hence forward! Our champions will meet here at the well! Both armed as they are! This duel is to the DEATH!”

Afheesh (to Pabst): “Still got this?”

Pabst: “Yeah, yeah, don’t worry I said I got this.”

Afheesh: “I’m not worried; if you die I’ll have to recruit another fighter. It’s a hassle.”

The yellow lotus captain raised his right arm and shouted, “Agreed!” He then motioned for his champion to come to the well. From behind the ranks of the yellow-lotus-guard emerged a short vicious looking human. He was wearing a bronze pectoral plate, bronze bracers on his forearms and a steel buckler on his right arm. He had paired dirks.

Capt. Fenom motioned for Pabst. She strutted over to him and the well. She pulled her scimitar and prepared her buckler.  Each captain seemed to give his respective fighter a painfully short pep talk and then both backed off. Fenom gave the signal, “Fight!”

The yellow lotus champion, obviously a knife-fighter, struck with a double dirk attack, Pabst tried to parry both thirsty blades with her buckler. However, she had opened herself up and both blades struck home (she rolled a Natural 1). Pabst backed off to recompose herself blood gushing from her side (recovery roll). Showing a razor-tooth grin, he let her take a breath. She moved back in and retorted with her sword but he parried with his right and struck again with his left opening another nasty wound in her belly. She struck out yet again but again he parried and slashed. This time she parried his retort and countered. He parried and stabbed but she parried the blow.

Pabst charged and hacked at his head, he parried the blow. He struck out at her she parried and countered. He parried that blow and stabbed at her throat, she parried, barely. The two opponents circled one another like hungry beasts searching for any opening. She attacked again but fumbled the strike accidentally tossing her weapon several dozen feet away. Without missing a beat, she immediately drew her back up weapon, her brand new two-handed great sword.

Pabst leapt back and struck hard with her great sword cracking through each of the knife-fighter’s ribs like a butcher against a rack of beef. A long ribbon of blood streaked his side and gushed onto the ground. He retorted with a masterful stroke that awed all onlookers (a natural 20). Pabst’s companions stood frozen with horror. Suddenly, she parried both blades with a single sweep of her buckler (natural 20 parry) then immediately struck at his bared ribs burying her blade to the hilt deep in his heart. His lifeless body flopped to the dirt. She withdrew her weapon from his mutilated chest. Both companies were struck with silent awe. Then captain Fenom and his men roared in victory.

Pabst (still bleeding, turned to her companions): “Drinks are on me!”

Later that afternoon the ruthless trio was having drinks in the Thirsty Thorn Tavern. Pabst was still was still worse for the wear but seemed not to care at all. Captain Fenom had paid her 10,000 bronze thorns (bt) for championing his cause. She had also told him where she was staying, at the Yellow Lotus Inn, in case he needed her again. Wufcor was a little annoyed with this as he was also staying with her and was nervous about the city guard knowing where they were sleeping.

Pabst ordered a bottle of Assassin Vine Wine and after paying the 1,000 bt bill, she stood up in the crowded bar and shouted, “Cheers to the greatest duelist in Tanglethorn!”

Isis: “Sis! Noooo.”

The three villains ate stew and bread and guzzled the bottle of expensive wine shortly thereafter. Pabst and Afheesh caught a nice narcotic buzz. Wufcor on the other hand, passed out felled by the powerful wine. The remaining pair drank until the early evening when they left with Wufcor piggyback on Pabst. They began walking back to the Yellow Lotus Inn when suddenly they heard warning bells ringing.

When they looked in the direction of the sound, they saw a massive insect swarm like a thundercloud descending on the city from above. The trio immediately beat it to Pabst’s room at the inn and made sure the door and window were shut and sealed. They tossed Wufcor into a corner.

Several hours later the all clear signal rung out and the trio, never ones to miss an opportunity, went out into the streets to see if they could loot anything from among the carnage. Wufcor was still a bit groggy. Of course, it was not long before they ran into a small cadre of gang members, Bronze Boys. The gangsters, like the trio, had found nothing on any of the bodies lying in the street.

Pabst: “He you Bronze-Boys! You need any help with the Troll Boys again!?”

Their leader shouted back, “We handle our OWN! Why you lookin’ fer TROUBLE!?”

Afheesh pulled his weapons in response, Wufcor did the same and Pabst began to laugh as she pulled the great sword from her back.

To Be Continued…

#actual_play, #arvan

RPG War Mastery #5: The Tactical Disaster

A group of dirty, battle-beaten warriors surveys the smoking battlefield and its human wreckage. A ruined tactical disaster in a chess landscapeplane-scape littered with the corpses of soldiers, horses, and other unfortunate beasts, the soil turning into black mud as it mixes and congeals with their spilled blood. The war engines are shattered and the wagons destroyed. The remnants burning blackening the sky with choking smoke. The few of their war banners still aflutter in the cold winds of failure are in tatters.

However, these warriors are not the villains’ but instead the Player Characters’ (PCs), the dead that litter the field are their soldiers. Their army is devastated and will never be whole again. The PCs dreams lie broken, their military power crushed. Now is the time for quiet contemplation, for introspection. How one endures victory and shares its spoils is less important than how one accepts failure, this speaks to one’s true character.

The tactical disaster on the battlefield can expose PCs to something they may not always experience, absolute loss and failure. The failure should be their own, it is through their decisions or the decisions of those that they have allowed to remain in charge have led to this military disaster. This utter failure not only impacts the Players but their characters as well. It can lead the Player to expose more of their character in the game in how they deal with it, through blame shifting, self-martyring, anger, emotional instability, explosion of energy, etc.

In game, this failure becomes the fork in the road and forces the PCs to take some action, any action. The victory of the enemy changes the atmosphere of the world if not its landscape. Doom and darkness hovers thick in the air clouding the future the PCs had envisioned. The enemy is now on top of the world and the PCs brought to earth. However, the Players and their characters need not lie down and call it a day. It is time to struggle down the road ahead. Failure is its own adventure where the PCs must find themselves before the end of that journey.

The effects on the Player and their characters bring us to ask what exactly constitutes a Tactical Disaster. A Tactical Disaster is an overwhelming loss of a combatant’s force to their enemy with overall strategic repercussions on the war effort with little to no chance of recovering the shattered force. This disaster has not only crippled the participatory force but also compromised its cause bringing total failure of that cause into vivid clarity. Essentially a tactical disaster is a lost battle that ruins the main military force and the repercussions threaten its primary cause. It begins with a single or series of fatal decisions.

Bad Decisions can be a fateful decision to attack, failure to call in reinforcements or the failure to know that the enemy had additional reserve forces as well as being outmaneuvered due to commander inflexibility or failure to answer that maneuvering effectively. A good historical example is Napoleon invading Russia suffering the devastation of his most experienced forces. He followed that up by a series of smaller mistakes in Waterloo. Of course, Waterloo was the beginning of his end as well as the end of the Napoleonic Empire. With PCs, their Waterloo may not be their end but a climax to some specific wants and plans.

An overwhelming loss on the field is also a defining characteristic of a tactical disaster. The losing force has been decimated suffering mass casualties including those that are crippled, those whose military careers are over, and those who have run away, deserters who will never rejoin the losing side and may in time become a problem by themselves. This is due by their surviving by raiding and robbing after all, there is no more military salary. The victor may not recruit Ex-soldiers, as their level of loyalty may be in question.

The resources that went into building, recruiting, and outfitting the Players’ force are essentially spent or were a one-time luck out. These resources are gone including the loss of life and that loss cannot be recouped limiting the PCs ability to not only reconstitute their lost force but any attempts to build a new one at least in time to win the current conflict if it isn’t already lost.

The term resource also applies to allies and any political favors or political cache spent in raising and deploying the PC army. Remember their defeat on the battlefield has changed the political landscape. Former allies may turn coat or themselves be defeated in a sooner rather than later “clean-up” campaign by the enemy. In fact, a mass of bloody assassinations may devastate the political landscape shortly after a massive defeat.

In the Scope of War’s Landscape

There will be a turning point during the battle when the disaster will become evident. This moment is critical and alters the course of warfare. It changes the path that the PCs traverse through the landscape of war dramatically. The landscape of war is what lays before all the characters during battle and it has its distinct phases that are altered when a Tactical Disaster is in the process of occurring. These phases are the Face-Off, the Battle proper, the Aftermath, and the Consequences. Note that the path that the characters “hopefully” will try to traverse is that of Strategy and that the GM should try to work in a Twist in the latter part of the Battle proper.

The turning point may come in the middle of the battle phase or at the twist wherever that falls. A Tactical Disaster deeply effects the final two phases (aftermath and long-term consequences) although it can already be evident that the PCs are going into a losing battle especially after a fateful decision either before or during the early stages of battle.

The aftermath phase of a battle will be the first major turning point after the incredible loss on the field. The PCs will most likely be forced into retreat and thus the struggle while on the run to escape capture (being highly valued targets) becomes the focus. With these practical game events, a good GM does not shirk the atmosphere to set the mood and bring the internal of the Players’ characters to the surface.

This setting of atmosphere should come during a brief lull after the battle where the Players are surveying the ruins on the field. Take the time to build an atmosphere of somber tragedy or energetic desperation while on the run. The cliché of hiding in a barn after a desperate dash for freedom is another prime time to go heavy on atmosphere and give the players some quiet time.

Hopefully the first lull should melt into a quiet time of self-reflection. It should give time for reflection. The PCs should get an assessment of the depth of their failure. If they cannot survey the field, the tragedy of their failure should become evident in other ways. After this reflection time, the GM should improvise something that will present as an opportunity for the PCs to leave behind their failure at least temporarily. Give the PCs a way out, a safe place where they can rebuild themselves. Even if it is a long diversion from what was the main thrust of the campaign assuming that the battle was a part of this focus. Reflection time may also guide the PCs attentions towards the consequences of their disaster.

The consequences can be a litany of negative situations/scenarios coming one after the other. These could be the retreating remnants of the smashed army becoming highwaymen or small bands of raiders with some working their way home leaving a trail of disaster. This consequence may carry with it a compulsion on the part of the PCs to fix it since it was unquestionably unleashed by their failure.

There is also the matter of angry relatives or communities from whence the lost fighters originated. This frustration and grief-based anger would be directed at the PCs for their folly, which cost them their sons, daughters, lively hoods, etc. The PCs may share the brunt of the blame for any misfortunes that may follow as well. These either as direct results of the Tactical Disaster or those that happen indirectly even those that are completely unrelated to the loss but are coincidental.

Character Building

A tactical failure and following battlefield disaster can not only tear down a character exposing their innermost workings but also help to build upon what is left. This demonstrating how they are recovering and what lasting lessons or effects they take with them. A tactical failure is an exercise in character building and players should not shrug this opportunity. More so than a victory, this allows Players a vast panorama to role-play through to a new horizon.

How the character reacts or deals with their failure helps to expose and build that character’s internal mechanisms deepening their personality thus engaging and endearing that character to their player. This can also help the other players and their characters to bond more closely to that character or at least relate better with that character and their reactions and motives.

This type of character building is dependent first on the GM. They must present opportunity after they have left the characters to wallow a bit in the aftermath of their failure. After this, the impetus is on the players to act on these opportunities or react to them as well as to their failure. Do the PCs leap to action, do they have a plan, or do they retreat abandoning their former aspirations or to seek them elsewhere? These are the types of questions the Players should be asking of their characters. They should actively be trying to answer these questions. Of course, they should also be asking after their followers and their own reputations, as should the Game-Master.

Failure may turn a PC’s followers against them dramatically affecting their ability to command. This forces the Player to role-play the situation to try to recover their influence or even to maintain their position as head of the army. They will carry the reputation for disastrous failure and any followers are sure to rethink their idolatry at least temporarily regardless of the gravity of the PCs personality.

Value to the GM

Savvy Game-Masters can make good use of a Tactical Disaster. It serves as a stumbling block that forces the Players into a mode of pure role-play, can motivate the players into pay-back mode, and/or cause the campaign to take a new byroad through exploration of what went wrong in the first place.

As an obstacle the failure can demoralize the Players however, this also allows for character growth based on their reactions to their loss. It may also force introspection, hopefully not just strategic either, on the whys of their failure and the consequences sure to follow. Another aspect to keep in mind is the manner in which they may grasp at an opportunity brought about by their failure or those that may lead away from it. How did a specific PC react to hitting this stumbling block, did they curl up in the fetal position, did they cry, did they stand back up and dust themselves off but still shed a single macho tear?

The Tactical Disaster can also spur the PCs to try harder or desire some well-earned payback against the victor or those they have come to view as primarily responsible. The PCs may even take any chance for petty revenge. They may try to track down some distant allies or retreat to a specified location in order to regroup, plan, and gather new resources. This will inevitably lead them to question their actions and the manner of their loss.

Player explorations of why it happened should be encouraged even in meta-gaming fashion and then guided to translate those thoughts to their characters. They can run scenarios that could have granted them victory or they may discover that they could never win or even that they were betrayed or find the element that defeated them. These exploration sessions will help the Players and thus their characters come to some conclusions and allow them to come to a point of action or at least decision so that the game can move on.

Last Words

Whereas victory can stoke the ego, a failure lays a soul bare. A victory has its own burdens to bear especially the inevitable fall from the elation of a win to that of normalcy. Failure on the field of battle is a much heavier thing. An utter failure will strip a character of any pretense forcing some sorts of introspection at the very least forcing them to ask what went wrong. The characters when given a chance by the GM will make the decision to react, act, or take the game in a different direction thus altering and building their in-game personae. A failure in some ways is more valuable than a victory and somewhat more useful to the GM. When PCs are first brought to their lowest point their ultimate victory is accentuated. Along the way they would have traveled a road that transformed their characters and deepened their understanding of them and the game world.

#ttrpg, #warmastery, #battle, #wargame