A group of dirty, battle-beaten warriors surveys the smoking battlefield and its human wreckage. A ruined plane-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.
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.
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.