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The Cabal of Eight II Pt.16: Dragon Chase

The wheels of the rickshaw were clattering on the wet cobblestones as it zoomed through the dark streets. Intermittent drizzles had glazed the city deepening the shadows and causing even the smallest candlelight to glare off the wet stone and plaster. Great clouds of steam rose all around from sewer grates helping the mages’ rickshaw to stay hidden in their pursuit of the dragon’s coach. Szoo (played by Isis) slithered at top speed next to his companions ridding in said rickshaw. The rickshaw-puller was pumping his legs furiously and panting heavily.

Eventually, the carriage slowed after arriving at the far northeast sector of the city. The rickshaw in turn kept at a two-block distance. The coach turned onto Slavers’ Circle and into the Slavers’ Quarter. It stopped in front of a slave mart flying the flag of the Golden Devil Company the gravel of the auction yard crunching under the iron-shod wheels as it pulled alongside a colonnade.

The rickshaw stopped around the corner from the coach on North Avenue, a drift of sewer-fog helped to hide the three mages from the coachman’s view. As Fauna (played by Jenn) and Excor (played by Cris) leaped from the rickshaw, Excor dropped another 2 silver pieces into the puller’s sweaty palm who then immediately took off in the opposite direction.

Excor and Fauna cast Invisible to Sight on themselves and Szoo with little trouble. They waited and watched. The carriage departed shortly after a footman from the mart appeared and guided the lady dragon inside the yard. As far as the mages could tell the mercenaries in blue left with the carriage.

Isis: “What’s she doing here!? Looking for slaves?”

Cris: “Maybe, we did put her guys on ice er, in amber. Ha, ha, ha!”

Jenn: “She’s in league with the slavers?”

Cris: “Naw! Yes she is! We know who made those collars!”

                The mages hurried, invisible, to the iron gates. The lock was built into the gate and very solid. The gates themselves were set in a whitewashed adobe wall, twelve feet high, behind a gallery its roof supported by a colonnade. The gallery roof was tiled in copper rather than the typical red terracotta or blue slate so common in the city. Szoo easily slithered over the wall next to the gallery and helped Fauna over. They kept hold of each other’s hands in order to stay together. Excor used his gold Ring of Verminous Might (The Cabal of Eight Pt.44: Betrayed At Last!) growing insect wings and flying over the fence.

They were now in the gravel yard within the bleach-white walls of the slave mart. The yard, bounded by the 12 ft. tall adobe wall, was large and of packed gravel. To their immediate right was the locked iron-gate and to the left was a longhouse, with whitewashed plaster walls and terracotta roof. It had small barred square windows and a large barn door on the front and back. From it oozed the hideous stench of rotting corpses. Further away at the center of the yard, was a large round stone-lined pit surrounded by a collapsed wooden structure, probably a fighting pit and collapsed bleachers.

Immediately to the right of the pit sat another longhouse that boasted three smokestacks, a kitchen the mages surmised. Further north of that was a smaller longhouse, yellow firelight shone from the two square windows that the mages could see. The footman and the blue lady were just entering this building. Fauna and Szoo hustled towards it. At around 100 ft. above them, hovered Excor.

He saw that a larger building took up the rear of the yard built right up against the rear wall. Its tiny windows were barred and the arched front entrance appeared as the caged face of a prison. From this building, the reek of human misery drifted. This was the slave barracks. Excor sneered and realized that the rear wall abutted against the crenulated wall of the Slavers’ Castle. He gazed up at the massive stone structure only a few windows lit in the pitch black of night. Then he saw the thing that froze his blood solid in his veins.

Resting atop the large keep was the shadowy outline of a full-grown dragon. It was the resident brown-fang dragon paid by the slavers to guard their castle and service the city when required. This dragon’s name was Gristle-Talon. Its great shadow limned head swung, the eyes gleamed white for a second reflecting the scant light of the city. Excor froze in mid-air and waited to make sure that that great beast had not detected him. The pair of white pinpoints passed over him without reaction. When he was satisfied that he was indeed safe, he floated gently down to the gravel.

Meanwhile, Szoo and Fauna were peeking through one of the small square windows of the only lit longhouse in the yard. The pair realized that this building housed the guards, footmen, and a few servants. The footman who had guided the dragon into the house pointed to a guard sitting at a table, his dice game apparently cut short. Szoo could overhear the dragon demanding her “dinner” as she was “hungry”. The guard looked reticent as he rose and fumbled with a key ring on his belt. He gestured her to follow as he led her from that building. They were heading southeast at a rapid pace.

Szoo and Fauna maneuvered around taking shelter behind the corners of the few buildings trying to follow their quarry at a distance. In their excitement, they had let go of each other’s hands and thus had no idea where the other was. Excor immediately flew back up into the air trying to keep out of the dragon’s sensory range.

Jenn: “Okay, so she’s headed to the kitchen right?”

Isis (looking at the crude ad-hoc map): “I don’t think so, that would be here, so…”

Cris: “Kitchen yeah, pfft, that kitchen doesn’t have enough food for that dragon!”

The blue lady slowed her pace and in the blink of an eye, her humanoid form rolled out and elongated into that of a very large adult blue dragon. The tiara, necklace, and rings all still adorned her true form; they had changed as well to fit the creature. All three mages felt a twinge of fear but were able to maintain their wits. Meanwhile, the guard had jaunted to the building that sat at the far southern corner and left of the gate. He unlocked and threw open the barn door and ran away back to the guardhouse at full speed not once looking in the blue dragon’s direction.

The dragon stuck its head into the open door and began pulling out the corpses of dozens of humanoids, most were Meren frog and lizard men but others were human. The mages were meanwhile trying to maneuver as close as they dared. Then bones began to crunch. Fauna could barely contain herself.

Jenn: “Ugh! That’s DISGUSTING! I wanna kill this b!#%h right now!”

Isis: “YES! Let’s do THIS!”

Cris: “Whoa! What about that other dragon, the brown-fang!”

Jenn: “Damn.”

Isis: “Oh yeah, I forgot about him.”

                The mages maneuvered themselves to the iron-gate and decided against attacking the dragon outright, especially since the current circumstances were against them. They did argue for a little about if they should just “get her now” but ultimately they decided to flee and look for a better chance to face her down.

                Fauna cast Gaseous Form on Szoo and herself and they floated away towards the street. Excor flew to the copper roof of the gallery, carefully looked around for any watchers, and then flew straight home.

By the time they had arrived home, the door and the floor were fixed. The first to arrive was Excor, one of the carpenter’s apprentices was there waiting to hand him the key. He sat down after taking the key and dismissing the boy then lit his pipe. The other two walked in a short time later. A few minutes after that, they had formulated their plans for the next day. Fauna would scour the streets for and hire Thorn. Excor and Szoo would show up at Jirek’s warehouse to “check up on the rats”. Actually, they were using that as an excuse to see what he was up to and if that had anything to do with the dragon.

The next day – the 25th of Monsoon, the shouts and ringing bell of a town crier woke the three mages at the crack of dawn.

The Crier: “Marshaling in the South Market District Plaza! Rebels must be quelled in the far west at Serpent’s Back Ridge! All healers, men-at-arms, warriors, and mercenaries welcome, good pay!”

After breakfast, the trio split up to carry out their plans and investigate some leads. Excor and Szoo headed towards the harbor and Fauna decided to head back to the Slave Mart. After paying for a rickshaw ride, she soon found herself standing before the gallery of the mart she had burglarized the previous night. The slavers were hanging up colorful strings of pennants and installing chains to iron loops between the columns. She approached a fancy looking gentleman who seemed to be in charge. He immediately swung around and yelled, “get lost wh@!e, I’m not interested!”

She balled her fists and started walking away but spotted Vor Jetl in a trademark green silk jacket with gold dragonfly clasps. He was filing towards the gravel auction yard with a small group of other merchants. The chubby merchant was there to purchase some more servants. He would speak to her later, over lunch at the White Prong.

Vor Jetl (to Fauna): “Frankly, I cannot be seen with you little sister, er, priestess.”

He whispered the last word so only she could hear. With that, he wandered away from her and she similarly began to walk away. She had no idea how she was going to find Thorn.

Meanwhile, Szoo and Excor had spotted the pair of ratlings trailing them. Szoo spotted some sort of insignia on them but did not recognize it. It was a pair of black daggers crossing over a red scorpion. Excor cast spook and frightened one away. His companion followed, unwilling to confront the pair of mages alone. Not long after that mild inconvenience, the pair arrived at the warehouse. It was locked tight. Szoo used his cabal medallion to Whisper to Jirek. They consigned themselves to waiting.

Meanwhile, Fauna was at the bank depositing 5 emeralds and 5 sapphires. She also cashed out 3 emeralds (with a 10% surcharge). She figured she would use that to pay Thorn if she could find him. However, she was still unsure of how she would find him or where.

At the warehouse, after about an hour of waiting, the cabal scribe finally arrived. Jirek apologized to Excor and Szoo but as he had a working warehouse now it had to be secured when he was not there. The pair shrugged and followed him inside after he unlocked the door. The place was only about a quarter full stacked with several crates and barrels in one corner. A large sea trunk made of iron sat by the stairs to the basement.

The place was well lit the light beaming in from the small glazed windows above. When they were last here, the windows had been filthy and muddied the scant light they did let in. The crates and barrels had several different marks on them including a few with a big black eagle painted on them. What really caught their eyes though was the trunk by the stairs. It not only had a large black eagle painted on it but also had several runes on it, it was magically sealed.

Isis: “Aw man! He’s got Direnda’s stuff!”

Cris: “Relax, play it cool. I’ll talk to him while we’re checking the rats.”

                The two adventurers began checking their rats in their cages they were in great shape. There was also a makeshift bed in the corner that had been slept in recently. Excor surmised that Gornix might have been hiding out here. Excor then turned to Jirek and began to ask him about his pirate friends when the crash of breaking glass from the floor above interrupted. The three dashed upstairs in time to see the large iron trunk whisked out of a broken window by four giant wasps.

Excor: “The WASP! Dammit! I knew it! I knew he was gonna show up!”

Isis: “Oh gawd, the Wasp! Of course he would show up!”

                The warehouse door flew open. Standing there were Jirek’s pirate friends, the Grey Serpents. Their captain in the lead they shuffled into the warehouse. Following the captain were the Ferenoi swashbuckler, the mage in soft leather, and a man in full scale-mail and horsetail-tasseled helmet. Following him was another tall amazon Ferenoi. She appeared to be a priestess or maybe cleric of some type her grey cape adorned with a large white lightning bolt billowing behind her. Outside was yet another member of their crew, a Hill-Lander Half-Giant in scale-mail and leather gauntlets armed with a heavy claymore.

Grey Serpent Captain: “A-Ha! Jirek my friend! We have found our buyer and we are here to pick up the *ahem* cargo. We have your coin! Congratulations! We are out of your hair ha ha!”

Cris & Isis (simultaneously): “Aw crap.”

Jirek was at a loss for words.

To Be Continued…

The Cabal of Eight II Pt.15: Something On the Table

The evening of the 24th of Monsoon – The wet tops of hardtop carriages passed rapidly by, the clatter of hooves, and the patter of uncountable hordes of boot heels as endless flows of pedestrians moved on either side of traffic through a street ripe with a layer of horse manure accented by a foreseeable but occasional splash in a filthy puddle. Sometimes, a rickshaw would glide over the muddy paving stones of Silver Circle Street. Szoosha sighed as he continued to gaze out through the window at the traffic roughly 20 ft. below in the dimming light. It was the black-scale naga’s habit to wait by the window for the boring cabal meetings to finish. The others sat around the old mahogany table in the cluttered, dirty, little clubroom.

Grey Serpent Sign on the table

The only thing that had been exciting so far had been just before the meeting. As Szoo followed, Excor had passed the bar into the rear hallway looking for Draega, the publican. There the pair saw Draega finishing a screed aimed at three rough looking customers over some “rowdiness”. All three were definitely pirates. The leader was a tall, very heavily muscled human; his skin was fair as was his hair, likely a Fuglotian from the far north. A rapier slung from his thick belt. He was wearing bear hide armor with a wolf skin mantle about his shoulders, over his breast hung a leather bib with the image of a grey serpent sown into it.

The second was another fair-skinned human, another Fuglotian, however this man was much more slight with soft leather armor, a grey serpent sown on the breast, and a wolf skin mantle on his shoulders. He appeared to be some sort of mage possibly a specialist. The last was a Feren swashbuckler. She possessed a beauty like a polished piece of obsidian, attractive and cold with a hard, sharp, and perfect symmetry. Again, a wolf skin mantle hung from her broad shoulders and a pale serpent adorned the leather bib that hung over her chain mail shirt. The horsetail tassel that hung from her polished helmet was bright white even in the candlelit murkiness of the tavern. A dirk and a falcata hung at her round hips.

Consequently, the pirates walked away snarling under their breaths at the chubby publican. Of course, Excor and Szoo were welcomed with open arms. Apparently, Excor was cutting a deal with Draega to sell him a hogshead of fine mead for a very good price. As a gesture of goodwill, Excor passed him a jug of the stuff as a free sample. Soon after, the pair of mages joined their company upstairs in the clubroom. As they took their seats, Szoo noted that Jirek had a fine new cloak and a pair of very shiny gem-adorned rings. Szoo awoke from his reverie with a snort as Excor piped up at the table.

Excor: “So! I guess I should warn everyone here that a group of pirates, the… the Black Eagles, are looking for someone at this very table!” He leaned back with his pipe, “Just a warning.”

Subsequently, Excor, Fauna, and Szoo all noticed that Jirek nearly choked on the smoke newly drawn from a shiny new carved bone long-stem pipe. He then took a hearty gulp of the good complimentary red wine that Draega Skullshine habitually sent up to keep from coughing up a lung.

Isis: “Aw, no Jirek, what have you gotten yourself into now?”

Cris: “Yeah, well, we’ll have to talk to him about it when we get a chance after the meeting.”

After all the standard motions of the meeting were concluded, the adventurers related the story of the mushroom king (see The Cabal of Eight II Pt.9: Fungus Force Five) to the rest of the cabal. Subsequently, Jirek spoke up saying that he recognized the necklace. He had seen an illustration of it somewhere in the library. It had belonged to an ancient wizard that came with the Westlanders when the city fell the first time 600 years ago. There was something else about it, but he just could not remember what it was at the moment.

When Excor and Fauna questioned Jirek about his new “bling”, the scribe responded that his warehouse business was doing “quite well”. He even has had to “lock it up”. Soon after, Belrae, the apparent self-appointed leader of the cabal, dismissed the meeting. Rhiam sat quietly by his friend the entire meeting, unusual for a bard. Bumble likewise, remained tight-lipped, never making eye contact with Fauna even as the druid tried to get her to talk. The others quickly left the room, the trio of adventurers lagged behind.

After deciding to grab some dinner in the tavern below, the trio walked down the stairs. They noticed Jirek was still in the place and sitting at a table by himself. So, they decided to join him. Bumble was also still in the tavern though the three mages were unaware as to why. Shortly, after the food was laid on the table, a steaming platter of heavily spiced sliced beef and small bowls of a thick broth with small pieces of chopped vegetables in it, the three Grey Serpent Pirates walked by, the leader tweaking his head to the scribe motioning him to follow. Jirek jumped up from the table and joined them at a table in a dark corner of the theater. Suddenly, Bumble swished by following Jirek and the pirates.

Szoo: “I don’t like this.”

Excor: “She’s doing her master’s bidding probably keeping an eye on Jirek… for some reason.”

Fauna: “Aw man! Maybe we should rescue her.”

Isis: “Geez sis! Why don’t you marry HER!”

Jenn: “Shut-up!”

Cris: “Pfft! The Wasp is her master, that’s how she’s learning her magic! Rescue her, right. Pff!”

The three adventurers were considering their options while trying to keep the pirates, Jirek, and Bumble in view. Suddenly, a small group of warriors draped in powder blue Actons, stomped into the tavern. Following them, a fair noble woman with pitch-black hair and stern of expression glided in. Black fragrant oiled curls dangled on the sides of her delicately featured but stone hard face as her bright blue eyes scanned the barroom.

She had on a long blue and silver silk dress cut in the Hyvalian style. Also she had a diamond-studded silver tiara in her hair with a large central blue-sapphire and a diamond necklace that hung over her upper breast from which five silver acorn charms dangled. On her right wrist, she had a silver bracelet and on her left a gold one.

Fauna: “Holy crap! That’s the dragon. Aw, man! I ran into her in a jewelry store!” (see The Cabal of Eight II Pt.3 Blue Cloaks & Bankers)

Szoo: “Oh no, Oh no, Oh no…”

Excor (after taking a deep breath): “Just take it easy, let’s just sit here and see what’s going on.”

Cris (to me, the GM): “I prepare to activate my ring of invisibility; I want an initiative roll against her if she spots us to go invisible.”

Immediately, Draega fluttered up to her, did a courtly half-bow, and kissed her hand. He motioned, probably to guide to her to the back or basement to converse in privacy but she was not having it. Her face was stone, her stance was solid with confidence but her hands were fumbling with the expensive lace and bone fan she was holding. The trio did their best to read lips in the chaos and noise of the bustling tavern but all they got was that she was upset about a delivery. Apparently, whatever it was it was late. They also recognized a couple of words on Draega’s lips as “Black Eagles”. The blue dragon’s entourage turned and began to leave without noticing the three mages.

Fauna: *Gasp* “Draega’s involved with her!?”

Excor: “Of course he is! He’s a scumbag, criminal connect!”

The blue-clad warriors, probably mercenaries, filtered out into the street, meanwhile Jirek and the Grey Serpent Pirates rushed passed the mages’ table and out the door. Bumble rushed past shortly thereafter.

Excor: “Okay let’s go.”

Szoo: “Wait, who’re we following?”

Excor (in an unsure tone): “All of ‘em right now.”

As soon as they were out the door, the three mages caught a glimpse of Bumble twisting a gold ring on her finger instantly transforming into a small bumblebee that buzzed off after Jirek and the pirates. That group was already disappearing from sight conceivably heading towards the harbor and Jirek’s warehouse. Alternately, the trio spotted the blue company who were mounting a carriage that appeared to be preparing to leave in the opposite direction.

The three mages were completely unsure of which party to follow as both began to disappear from view in the distance.

Isis: “Crap, crap, crap…”

Jenn: “Um, hmmm, jeesh, I dunno, I kinda wanna follow Bumble even though she’s kind of a b!#ch to me now.”

Cris: “No.” *sigh* “Let’s flip a coin.”

To Be Continued…

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RPG War Mastery #8: War as Set-Piece

Chess War Set-Piece

The vista of human-drama and blood-spectacle of a battle-scene enthrall audiences with fury and fire. War operates as a high point of action and emotion in many a heroic epic and countless works of fiction. Battles and war in general often function as the scissor ending character-threads. These of Player Characters (PCs) and Non-Player Characters (NPCs) alike. Sometimes also putting a cap on or violent ending to certain ongoing conflicts. This is war as Set-Piece.

Large-scale battles and war are beyond the scope of most roleplaying games (RPGs), the small more personally focused heroic adventures. In these adventures, battles occur between small groups of adventurers and villains. The typical scope that most RPGs are designed to handle is intimate duels between heroes and monsters. Anything larger in scope is Mass Combat.

Mass Combat

When it comes to roleplaying games, the Game-Master (GM) can employ Mass Combat rules. This as a means to create a Set-Piece, which can add action, drama, and structure to a campaign. Set-piece battles can widen the scope of the campaign, especially as a grand finale. A battle is an action and dramatic high point that should come between two lulls in the action. All the while adding to player immersion especially those with inclinations towards strategy. Such set pieces can lend structure to a portion of the campaign as a battle set-piece has a basic structure.

Mass Combat as a term describes a large-scale battle between military units. Military Units being warriors or soldiers gathered into formations and part of a command structure. Whereas a Set-Piece is essentially a spectacle that is also an escalation in danger which serves as an exclamation point in the timeline of a campaign. In common parlance, a Set-Piece describes a “big” scene in a movie. This big scene meant to incur awe in the audience and to escalate and carry along the narrative.

Time Dilation & Contraction

In tabletop roleplaying games (ttRPGs), however, a Set-Piece Battle does not have to inspire awe so much as emphasize danger and define the stakes to the players. Concerning tabletop RPGs, the mechanics of battle are of high importance. For simplicity, I will use the general terms Melee Round and Time Scale in reference to this. Melee Round refers to a slice of time or gameplay where the players’ turns are taken and actions occur. These are typically limited per character and define a discrete slice of in-game time.

Time Scale is a little more general than that. It refers to the scope of time and its dilation between a Melee Round and a round of Mass Combat or its contraction in the other direction. As the scope of Mass Combat is larger as opposed to an individual character’s turn in a melee round. The amount of time a military unit/hero unit takes in a turn is of greater scope. Note that Hero Units refer to units comprised of the PCs and followers if any.

Of course, PCs and other individuals can act quicker than a full unit that is acting in unison. Therefore, PCs’ turns and actions would move more in individual or human scope within the larger action of the battle. This provides more opportunities for the players and the GM to conduct a more exciting game.

The purpose of this article is not to suss out the cause of war or to philosophize about its nature. I will not expound upon its real-life consequences or the immorality of it all. The purpose is to describe how story-tellers and thus Game-Masters can use a battle-scene to improve their game. This increasing enjoyment for all while playing the game. War in the context of this article is not to be construed to be anything more than what is represented in fantasy fiction and miniature wargames.

Shifting Perspective

A Battle shifts perspectives from the epic scale of the full battle using Mass Combat rules to the PCs. PCs are “hero units” on a personal/human scale where normal melee combat rules take over. This allowing the PCs to act in hero mode. An example of this is where a round of mass combat represents 1-minute in time as opposed to 15 seconds per melee round. It is between these two perspectives that the GM must shift to make the most of a battle set-piece.

Shifting back and forth is simple enough. Start with a Mass Combat Round and then move to a single normal Melee Round. Then just alternate until the larger scope is finished and then go back to the normal heroic type game. This works perfectly when the Mass Combat and Melee Round mechanics you use can essentially fit into one another. Like Russian nesting dolls based on their time measurements.

Player characters can act on the mass-combat scale as a military unit moving with it referred to as Hero Units. The GM can allow the hero unit to move as a combat unit during the Mass Combat phase. After that, during the standard melee round then the GM may allow the PCs their full movements on the field as individual heroes. This depending on the mechanics of the game system being used of course.

The reason for this is that even though at the heroic level time moves quicker they get only 1 melee round in between the larger units of game time. Note also whenever the GM deems it fit they can shift focus. Often choosing to focus on the smaller scale of the player characters.

The Influence of “Heroes”

The GM should have a good idea as to how the PCs can alter or otherwise influence the battle. PCs should be able to influence the outcome. The only questions about the battle that matter becomes how much the PCs will influence the battle and how tied to the PC’s personal victories is the outcome of the battle? The GM should already know the answer to that last one; the players are responsible for the first. More questions that definitely matter to the GM are: What are the consequences of victory, of loss?

A GM should come up either with opposing authorities that will attract the ire of the players. This can be done by creating easily identifiable enemy commanders. Or by inserting recurring villains that the players are already familiar with into the upper ranks of the enemy forces. These act as beacons or rather targets for the PCs. This giving them a direction almost immediately or at least as soon as they suss out the enemy commanders.

The GM needs to already have the personal foes of the PCs in places of power. This is even if it is only an honorary or champion position. But it is where the foe holds a strategic position or their loss will cause a fault in opposing morale. Essentially the NPC commanders and champions (and possibly shock troops) are the true main foils to the PCs. Previously introduced foils are valuable in battle set-pieces. As the PCs have some animosity already built towards them they become prominent targets within the enemy force.

The PCs need to not only be able to change the course of history but should be willing to do so in the course of the battle. Perhaps the course of a wider conflict. War, in the context of this article, refers to a series of battles fought strategically. The outcome of each battle has some sort of political, economic, cultural, or raw power value. Any lesser confrontations within this wider war that lacks any of these things are skirmishes. Or are maneuvering for advantage prior to the actual strategic strike. Note that each can be a set-piece unto itself if large and complex enough.

With a full-on war, the GM needs to have an idea of what the impact will be. Whether on the history of the setting/world or the resultant mythology spun around those events later on. Hopefully, this mythology includes tales of the PCs exploits and conduct on the field of battle as well as victories. Much less the mundane spoils of their ventures, however.

Immersive Action Sequences

Battles are in RPGs as they are in novels and movies. That is a major action sequence that can help to focus the attention of the audience. In this case, players, but they are nothing without some buildup and anticipation on the part of the PCs. The GM needs to build up to such set-piece battles and keep the attention of the players focused. The players should have a clear idea as to where their character stands on the field of battle. Not just regarding loyalties (political, cultural, etc.) but also their personal goals and wherein the command hierarchy they’ll fall.

There should be some “downtime” before the action of the battle. This including some preparation or travel as needed to build some tension using the players’ anticipation to add suspense. They should not be too confident of winning especially when they finally lay eyes on the enemy force. This goes for the reputation, rumors, and personal experiences with the enemy commanders and champions as well.

Using the technique of perspective-shifting as discussed previously the GM can immerse the players in the fight. Especially if they’re responsible for a military unit as commanders. Do not be afraid to throw in an extraneous NPC. This NPC having some backstory and a personality but otherwise the same as the rest of the nameless troop. However, one that the players can interact with and possibly to which assign some emotional value.

The structure of the battle set piece itself allows the battle to rage around the PCs. The melee scope allowing personal level fights on the battlefield. Hopefully against those targets that will make a difference to the outcome using Perspective Dilation. The description given by the GM after a Mass-Combat round is finished should be brief and clear as to the result before going into the Melee Round. This being essentially a PC-eye-level survey of the battlefield around them. Fixing in the mind’s eye the idea that the battle is raging around them as they fight.

The Structure of a Battle

Each battle as a set-piece has a certain simple structure that easily translates to game events in a tabletop campaign. As a result, set-piece battles lend their structure to the portion of the game where they occur. This structure consists of three major parts.

  • The Lead-Up – The part leading up to the battle but before the forces are fielded.
  • The Action – Starts as the opponents take the field and the battle proper occurring almost entirely on the battlefield. The GM should give a clear description of the battlefield around the PCs when moving from a Mass Combat round into a Melee Round.
  • The Aftermath – This occurs after the fighting has stopped or with sieges when the siege ends. Clear winners and losers are not required just a definite end to the current struggle and its action.

The Lead-Up consists of the time when the battle is known to be imminent but has yet to take place. It involves the preparations for the battle, the time used to travel to the battlefield. Also, the time spent trying to track down or corner the enemy. Or even when avoiding them depending on the tactics at play.

This is also the phase where the stakes are made clear if they are not already. To clarify the stakes the GM should ask themselves what will happen if the PCs’ side loses. What will they gain if they win or even does victory or defeat hinge entirely on the PCs’ actions? Is the purpose to win or stall for time or other such goals. The players need to be clued into the answers to these questions.

The Action phase is the battle proper. Conduct this phase as previously described allowing time to dilate and constrict alternatingly for the length of the incident. During this phase, the players have the most influence beside any preparations during the lead-up. All of the major action of and the battle itself occur in this phase. This is the phase that plays most heavily into the mechanics of the system. The end of this phase of a set-piece battle is harder to judge than the end of the lead-up phase though.

The end of the action phase generally happens when the military units are no longer engaged in combat. However, this does not count the lulls in the combat. During lulls in the fighting, GMs may want to revert to the standard Melee Round to better engage the players. Note that a major lull occurs when both sides withdraw to set up camp. Thus allowing them to start up again the next day. This does count as a lull in the action rather than an end of the action phase.

These sorts of actions are counted as extended lulls in the action of the overall set-piece. Not the end of the battle. This even though certain throwbacks to the previous phase can occur here. Especially the pouring over of maps, scouting/spying, and planning for the next day. Though this is all of a smaller scale. It is on the scale of the battlefield. When the action does reach its end the game enters the aftermath stage.

The Aftermath is the result of the battle including all of the dramatic elements. These elements being the loss of friends (remember the extraneous NPC with a backstory?) or companions if a PC should fall. Hardcore roleplaying elements such as questions of morality versus emotion and practicality can arrive into the game narrative. Examples being what to do about the prisoners, what about the wounded both theirs and ours. Are there any refugees to deal with?

How many fighters were routed and from what sides/units? Did they flee into the countryside to become another albeit smaller but more dispersed threat later on? Did the PC’s side win or lose and if either where are the PCs and what actions do they take? Is this just the start of a larger war or the finale of a campaign? What about the families of the dead and wounded? How are the PCs treated after their victory or failure, after a costly victory or an awful slaughter? How terrible was the cost to both or either side and will it lead to diplomatic talks or intricacies as a result?

Whatever the results, both long term and short, the immediate scene should sear itself onto the minds of the players. The scene would be that of the war dead spread across the field and the destruction of the landscape. This vital piece of narrative description can be used as a capper to the action immediately after the fighting. Among this rack and ruin is where the PCs have some breathing room to survey their surroundings. The GM should give players time to react afterward before the storm of questions and logistics fall on their heads.

Some Miscellaneous Fodder

A battle or for that matter, war, tends to expose the politics at work and/or those that have failed. It also allows all sides to display their military pageantry, their colors, and heraldry. How the generals and commanders conduct battle. Even how the armies are structured exposes a lot about the cultures engaged in the fighting. Particularly when compared/contrasted with each other. War can reveal the true cultural values of a people through raw violent action. This action often contrary to what its representatives may tout. Here the GM can tailor each battle to their campaign world and put more of their imagined cultures on display.

Along with the pomp and politics of war as well as its reflection of the true inner workings of a culture engaged in it war can also have far-reaching consequences. Even a small battle will have some far-reaching and long-lasting effects. The most common of these are stray soldiers including mercenaries. Those who have decided to stick around and survive by pillaging the countryside. Perhaps after deserting their respective outfits or fleeing battle.

Another major and the most visible consequence is the displacement of the locals. Especially true of battles fought in or around a settlement, town, or city. The PCs can be caught up in these peoples’ struggles to just survive. While trying to find another place to settle or just picking up the pieces of their former lives.

Most if not all, would also bear the burden of war forced upon them. This by powers that they have no part or parcel in as well. They would also suffer the loss of material wealth regardless of how meager and some severe permanent physical injury. Refugees and survivors would also bear the mental scars of the war that they had suffered through. Perhaps along with some of the combatants.

The trauma of war can cause a permanent mark on the minds of NPCs and PCs. However, it can also allow them to evolve dramatically such as a rethinking of their alignment (if such a thing exists in the system used). Possibly even causing symptoms of mental illness. Again, if included in the rule-set or even used within the play of the group.

War trauma can be used as a catalyst allowing the player to make sudden modifications to their character. These represent their involvement letting the in-game events dramatically shape the character. Note that small or singular battles often should not go this far. Although characters are free to rethink their stances on fighting on larger scales. Also possibly suffering personal trauma such as the loss of a friend in smaller battles.

Summation

A set-piece battle in its very structure involves tension, action, and aftermath providing plenty of roleplaying and roll-playing opportunities. It creates an incident with strategic, dramatic, and consequential levels. It is also a great value to immersion dragging the players along by their characters from anticipation to high-action to realizations or character awakenings in the aftermath.

Battles are also incredibly flexible not only acting as a finale to a campaign but also kick-off a wider conflict. This wider conflict composed of many more such set-pieces. Battles and war will have long-lasting results and consequences that can be explored in an ongoing campaign. This is especially true in a Living Campaign.

Making use of a Mass Combat system within a campaign allows GMs to add spectacle, drama, and exhibit a larger conflict that can work out to an epic scale. Essentially create a big and valuable set-piece. However, a single battle can serve as the finale of an adventure-filled campaign in PC Group centric campaigns. Hopefully resolving most if not all active storylines, snipping loose threads, and ending character arcs in one explosive action sequence.

Battles allow the PCs to accrue reputations and trauma letting the players’ actions to actively sculpt and scar their characters. Using battles as set-pieces is a valuable tool for the well-rounded Gamesmaster. It can help to spice up the game for their group engaging their players on multiple levels at once.