There was definitely a reaction on the part of the roleplaying community to my recent HubPages article “Why Do Orc Lives Matter?” This is a stream-of-thought meditation on that reaction as a whole and on the most common positive and negative comments. The original reason for writing the article in the first place was in response to a spate of Orc-Posting and the counter-reactions to the reactions. I also stated this in my introductory post for the article.
I appreciate the positive reactions, which were not as common as the negative but far more thought out and valuable. The most interesting reactions included mentions of maintaining Orc Armies and the Sentience of Undead creatures. The latter is actually a subject I have on the backburner but that is a stream-of-consciousness piece that philosophizes more about the nature and sentience of undead creatures and ghosts than adhering to any tabletop specifics or sourcing. These are the reasons I’ve never published it or worked further on it after putting a page of it down. I might dust it off in the future though. Note that not all of the positive comments agreed with the main thrust of my article but were civil and thought out plus the respondents seemed to have actually read the piece in the first place.
“Fantasy Wargaming and the Influence of J.R.R. Tolkien”
This document, an article from a miniature war game fanzine circa 1974 authored by Gary Gygax, was sent to me and I was aware of this document as I was conducting my research. However, it seems not to have a clear pedigree. At least at the time I was doing my research so I could not really include it as a solid source. The main conclusion is that Gygax did not like Tolkien or his fiction. Although it doesn’t really matter how Gary Gygax felt about Tolkien when it comes to my article.
All that matters is that he was an influence on Dungeons & Dragons and the “proof is in the pudding” as it were. Tolkien is named in Appendix N as an influence and the Tolkien Estate did sue TSR over the use of Ents, Hobbits, and Balrogs to cite some obvious links. So, the influence of Tolkien on Dungeons & Dragons is very well known and pretty much indisputable. Even in Gygax’s article, it says that both Chain Mail and Dungeons & Dragons were influenced by Professor Tolkien who originated modern Orcs, though his influence might be weaker on one than the other, it is still influence and a solid connection.
Most of these types of responses were pretty much knee-jerk reactionary garbage most made before even reading the article itself or including a commitment to “never read it” thus making these posts utterly meaningless and ignored for the most part or responded to with “Read the Article” which elicited accusations of deflection. There were a couple of nasty responses, which I reported immediately. A few responses were puzzlingly long, that rambled about the article in such a way and I guess trying to summarize it and nitpicking details from varying game systems that just were so unorganized and confusing that I completely ignored them.
There was also a peculiar obsession on trying to shame me because of the title (all came off as a deliberate attempt to shame me into silence however). So let me be clear and reiterate – The article is asking a question that needs to be asked of our hobby because of the same forces that #BlackLivesMatter has risen to combat are tearing at our hobby, it is not gauche or insensitive and taste concerning this matter is irrelevant, the article and its title are relevant.
There were even those who claimed to have read the article then still used the same dismissals argued against in the article.
Overall, the types of reactions throughout the social media platforms I participate in split right down the middle. This lending evidence to my thought that the tabletop gaming landscape is split or splitting into two factions where concerning this issue which like all fantasy fiction is a stand-in symbol for attitudes in the community on certain real-life matters if I really had to spell that out (I guess I did, based on some of the reactions I got).
I had put off writing about Orcs as I have about Liches, Elves, Dwarves, and Trolls because to be frank, I always viewed them as cliché and over-used. Embarking on this trip, I had no idea how complex Orcs are. This article was less a tracing of the creation of the modern RPG concept of the Orc rather than the tracing of evidence as to why the concept of the Orc carries such emotional baggage as it does. This is especially so for certain demographics of the roleplaying community and the effects it is having on the community thus the subject should be seriously discussed. So, in my mind, the reactions and non-reaction in some quarters were very telling of the general roleplaying community. However, I do cherish the civil feedback and criticisms that I have received so far.
P.S. – I do understand those who did not want the article posted in their groups and on their boards due to the content being “too hot right now”.
I’ve written another article over at Hubpages. This one I started several months ago in response to a resurgence in the OrcLivesMatter hashtag then as that died down, small arguments here and there erupted about the sociopolitical aspect of Orcs and if they were okay to use in games. After that, Twitter blew up with the “Are Orcs Racist?” question. So, I expanded my research and tried to hone my response to a razor’s edge.
The article is an exploration into the evolution of the Orc as concept from inception to #OrcLivesMatter that strives to answer: are Orcs a racist trope? The answer is much more complicated than you think.
Excor (played by Cris) under the influence of the Ghost Form and Invisibility I spells trailed just behind the blue dragon-shaman as he in turn followed the blue lady into the caves from the dusty tunnel. The blue-lady was sniffing the air, apparently tracking the others via scent quite accurately.
Meanwhile, Fauna (played by Jenn), Szoo (played by Isis), Bumble, and Xanto the Wasp were picking themselves up from the wet gravel beach they had landed on after sliding through a slimy chute and over the edge of a 10 ft. cliff.
Szoo: “Hey! At least she can’t follow us through that chute!”
Jenn: “Yeah,” looking over to the GM (me), “right?”
The GM (me): “Um, you guys know she can transform back and forth from human form so…”
Isis: “Aww crap.”
The Wasp chanted a spell and giant wasps appeared under him and Bumble his apprentice. The pair rose above the heads of their former two companions and began flying over the reeking green body of water before them. It was at this moment that Szoo realized that the Wasp was cradling the case. Szoo had forgotten to pick it back up after sliding down the chute distracted by his concern over the dragon.
Cris: *disgusted sigh* “Damned Wasp.”
Suddenly a deafening roar shattered the quiet atmosphere of the cavern. The four mages could see the glowing eyes of the blue dragon in her full draconic form just 20 ft. southwest of them on another bank of gravel & sand.
Excor moved in range of the Dragon Shaman, both still in the passage coming out of the previous cavern (R5 on the map) into the water chamber (R8 on the map). He began to cast Force Ram but fumbled the casting. His invisibility spell dispersed. Fauna rushed to the water’s edge and shouted for Szoo. The Wasp and his apprentice flew their steeds further north turning just in time to avoid hitting the cavern wall.
The blue dragon’s throat swelled and glowed intensely blue before she unleashed a massive blast of lightning at the two wasp-riders. Bumble easily dodged but the bolt hit the Wasp and his mount blasting it to smithereens causing him to drop splashing into the water below. Szoo transformed into a large black sea turtle and began to slide into the water. The Dragon-Shaman spat a lightning bolt at the ghostly form of Excor but it passed harmlessly through.
Excor cast Slow on the Dragon-Shaman but the shaman resisted the spell. Fauna leaped onto the back of the turtle as it slid under the water. The Wasp meanwhile was swimming to the beach immediately to his west his white knuckles still clutching the case. The Blue Dragon jumped into the water plowing through it like a giant shark heading straight for Xanto. She snapped her jaws at the turtle and his unfortunate passenger but the turtle dodged by the slightest margin (by 1 point). The Dragon-Shaman charged Excor and swung his quarterstaff at the adventurer, the blow passing straight through. The Dragon-Shaman looked up possibly re-thinking his combat strategy.
Excor backed up and cast Force Ram again targeting the Dragon-Shaman. The Dragon-Shaman dodged to the side taking a glancing blow. Fauna jumped off the turtle and clawed her way onto the beach near the Wasp (R7 on the map). The Wasp checked the case; it was intact and still sealed. The dragon swam up near the beach on which the Wasp and Fauna were standing rising like a titan from the water. The Dragon-Shaman began casting a spell but a stitch in his bruised side caused him to falter and the spell fizzled.
Excor cast paralyze II on the shaman paralyzing him.
The Wasp took a stance meant to increase agility and focused his light-starved eyes on the dragon before him. The Blue Dragon surged forward to stomp on him but he easily evaded the blow. Szoo as he was right next to the Wasp forced to dodge as well wound up on the opposite side of the monster from that of the Wasp. Bumble flew her giant-wasp-mount over the dragon’s head in an effort to get near her master. Grinning maliciously, Excor canceled Ghost Form and pulled out a magic dagger (+5) and stabbed the paralyzed Dragon-Shaman in the throat but failed to kill him in a single blow. Fauna moved around next to the Wasp.
The Wasp took the same stance and readied. The Blue Dragon blew its breath at both the Wasp and Fauna. Both managed to avoid the lightning bolt completely. Szoo transformed back into his true form and withdrew his Fire Fang (see The Cabal of Eight II Pt.1: The Checkered Eye). Excor again buried his dagger in the Shaman’s throat this time mercifully finishing the job with that final blow. Fauna dissipated into a cloud of mist as she cast Gaseous Form on herself.
The Wasp again took a defensive stance but was also able to quickdraw a scroll from his sleeve. The Dragon snapped her razor-studded jaws at the Wasp missing by a hair. Szoo moved further around to the opposite side of the dragon from his companions and blasted the dragon with a cone of fire from the tooth, to no effect. Bumble flew down next to her master.
Cris: “Man! They’re gonna run! Somebody get on ‘em!”
Jenn: “I’m on it! I’m going to stick to them no matter what!”
Excor looted the still-warm corpse of the dragon shaman. Fauna, in gaseous form, floated up to the dragon’s face, flew up her nostrils, and immediately canceled her spell.
The Wasp leaped onto Bumble’s wasp-mount and read the scroll. A golden glow surrounded him and his apprentice as they began to fade away. Reflexively the dragon sneezed shooting the druidess from one of her nostrils directly into the area of the teleportation spell. In a flash, the Wasp, Bumble, and Fauna were gone.
Immediately, the Dragon swiveled around and grabbed at Szoo who was barely able to avoid the massive claw. Meanwhile, Excor after packing away the loot in his portable hole twisted his silver ring activating the ghost form spell as he rushed towards the commotion. Szoo activated the Temporal Jump ability on his phoenix feather cloak and took a step into nothing completely disappearing. The dragon sniffed around then as she turned to leave, she spotted the faintly glowing ghost form of Excor standing on the opposite shore.
The dragon charged him and stomped around snarling and proclaiming herself “the ocean of the desert” and “the great queen of the mountains, pale yellow forests, and desert sands”. After a few minutes, she lowered her face to his ghostly visage and growled, “I’ll track down that lowly wasp and crush him slowly beneath my feet and then when I reclaim my property, I’ll find all of you!” Excor just shrugged and waved goodbye. The dragon stomped off.
Isis (to Cris): “Wow, dude.”
Cris: “Pfft! She can’t do anything! The Ghost Form on my silver ring lasts for over an hour!”
After waiting a few minutes, Excor started on his way back up unexpectedly joined by Szoo. Together they decided to rent a room for the night in a place called the Shield & Helm Inn near the new amphitheater on the corner of Arena Circle and Tourney Way. They paid the 10 gp for the night and an additional 20 gp for a security detail. Not soon enough did they both collapse exhausted, bellies full of wine and food, onto their soft feather beds.
*And yes dear reader, Fauna the Druid did transform into mist and then went up the dragon’s nose in the game. It worked to stall out one of the dragon’s turns although she did have a chance of falling back into the throat and getting swallowed. I did roll for that.😁 *
The legendary Dichromata Fruit Tree, a pre-generated magic plant for Dice & Glory. It adds a different type of wonder to a campaign. This large tree produces a tasty and magic fruit with each half a different solid color. The tree also attracts flightless dragons and nature spirits that jealously protect it. The tree itself is not that physically formidable but it is highly valued for both its magic fruit and its bronze-hard wood. It is not uncommon for this tree to highly sought after lending another dimension to an adventure that includes one. Opposing adventuring parties, greedy villains, and evil mages may become competitors or enemies to adventurers that are seeking or have found one of these trees. Likewise, the magical properties of its fruit may intrigue the adventurous mage.
Brilliant Botanics is used at the discretion of Game-Masters to add variety to their game worlds easily and quickly. This tree is fleshed out enough for GM’s to drop it into game-sessions with little prep-work beyond reading the document. Finally, the Dichromata Fruit Tree is a great addition to any GM’s bag of tricks & treasure. Well, a treasure for those with an alchemical edge, a desire for spell components, and a sweet tooth.
Brilliant Botanics also includes a brief Magic Abstract. This describes how mages may use these supernal vegetables in their spells and potions as components.
Blog entries may slow down in the next few months. This as I am doing much more writing right now on the Storywise project. I am also preparing the Armatelorum for print through various outlets. Every other week I will try to post to the Actual Play Blog. I will also get the final entry for Corpse World published in about a month. Additionally, I am also starting a new Dice & Glory Arvan campaign. It is centered in the Eastern Frontier. I will be playtesting some of the new items from drafts of The Great Grimoire Vol. II and The Monster Magnus Vol.II during the campaign.
This campaign will take a little more time out of my schedule than normal. This is due to the ongoing quarantine here in Cali so I have to conduct it over the internet. So compiling my notes. learning the ropes, writing, and generated game items will take up more time than usual. Basically, I’ll have less time to transcribe the actual plays from my notebooks and writing them to the blog. I might also drop a few more Brilliant Botanics, Bizarre Beasties, and Genera into the Downloads section irregularly.
I may also have a full write-up and stats for Xanto the Wasp for the Nefarious NPC’s section. However, that one will definitely need some revision, so it may take a while. Plus, if the Cabal of Eight campaign starts back up after quarantine I have to keep some tidbits to myself.
Note I do have a Ko-Fi account and am currently running adverts. This is an effort to scrounge up more revenue for Ranger Games Publishing. This is mostly for editing help and artists so I can focus on the writing. I would be very appreciative if you could
or click on a banner not to mention maybe check out a book or two. This would help me out a lot.
The Grey Serpent Captain stood in the entranceway to the Red Helm Tavern’s barroom. Next to him were Jirek the cabal’s scribe and just behind him, the Grey Serpents’ mage who was scowling at Szoo. Gathered against the wall near the bar and the Grey Serpents were the blue lady (aka the Blue Dragon) and her four sword-bearing mercs.
Just past the bar was the publican Draega. Leaning against the bar Fauna (played by Jenn) was staring at the disguised Bumble. Before the bar at a table was Xanto the Wasp and his apprentice and member of the cabal, Bumble, both under the influence of a disguise spell. At a second table in front of the window opposite the bar was Excor (played by Cris) his lit pipe drooping from his lips. Szoo (played by Isis) was just behind him next to the window. Between the Wasp’s table and the bar were Direnda and the Black Eagle Pirates.
The very air itself was still, all the dust and smoke in the room seemed suspended in air as if time had stopped. Even the normal racket from the rest of the place had stopped and those not gazing wide-eyed with anticipation from the other room were filtering out the back way.
Isis: “Aw man, this is TENSE!”
Cris: “Just stay calm, be ready.”
Jenn: “Ready to do what? What’s the plan?”
Cris: “I dunno whatever, just be ready to do something.”
The grey captain began to pull his blade but as soon as the slightest shimmer of blade shone, the room filled with the sound of singing steel as both the Black Eagles and the Mercs pulled their weapons in unison. With a click, the captain pushed his sword back into the scabbard.
Direnda (pointing her magic blade at the Wasp): “THAT is our client’s property thief!”
The Blue Lady (motioning as if the case would just be handed over): “Hmm, Looks like you’ve lost your commission Draega. THAT is mine.”
The Grey Serpent Captain put his hand on Jirek’s chest and began backing out of the tavern with his two companions.
Cris: “Crap! I was hoping they’d do each other in. C’mon, fight!”
Draega, with a dumb grin pasted on his face, backed slowly out of the room before disappearing completely.
Suddenly, the Wasp stood up, his disguise spell shedding from his bright yellow and black striped form, and a black cloud of stinging-wasps poured from his sleeves flooding the room. The place was in chaos; the mercenaries and the pirates were screaming and flailing their swords wildly. Excor leapt up towards the window followed by Fauna. The shields of the druid and Excor shimmered as a charge was spent. Szoo suffered a few stings. The Blue Lady’s chest swelled immensely as her eyes began to crackle with electricity.
Cris (referring to the black cloud of wasps): “A death cloud huh? Damned Wasp!”
Jenn: “What? Death Cloud?”
Cris: “Yeah, he summoned a Death Cloud, it’s a wasp swarm gestalt.”
Jenn: “Oh yeah, I remember those.”
*I used the creature a few times in another campaign a long time ago.*
Excor (trying to signal to his companions): “Get by the window, cut him off!”
The Wasp and Bumble ran right into the three mages. Without warning, a thundering blast of blue-white electricity filled the room destroying the black cloud of wasps and shattering the lattice window. The three mages could see the blue lady right behind the Wasp and his apprentice. Xanto had just enough time to smile once at the trio and then unleashed a spell in desperation. However, the magic got out of his control and the last thing the Wasp, Bumble, and the three adventurers could remember was a flash of crimson light and the sensation of falling in complete silence for an interminable amount of time before they came crashing down.
As the dust settled the trio of mages, Xanto the Wasp, Bumble, and the Blue Lady gathered their senses. The Wasp had cast a teleportation spell that got out of his control the magic going wild. The Wasp had teleported away all those near him and the front part of the tavern including the floor, the lower part of the façade and the front door. They had landed wedged into the alleyway just in front of Fauna’s rented house.
Fauna and Szoo ran to the brand new front door of their home. Excor cast Invisible to Sight on himself. Bumble twisted a ring on her chubby fingers without hesitation teleporting away in an instant. The Blue Lady charged the druid and punched her hitting her shield with a powerful thud. Xanto spotted the lost case. It was almost 10 feet from where he was.
Fauna drew her dagger and stabbed the Blue Lady, a violet filed of energy emanated from her gold bracelet and zapped the druidess with negative energy. Fauna moved away from the house. Szoo opened the door and moved in. Excor cast Shadow Ribbons on the Blue Lady but she easily resisted its shadowy energies. The Blue Lady charged Fauna again, her small pale fist whistling by the druid’s head, missing the target by a hair. Xanto charged to the case and bent to pick it up.
Fauna grabbed a dose of yellow lotus from her cloak and readied to toss it into the eyes of the dragon. Szoo used his Ring of Fearsome Form to transform into a hideous winged shape and shot towards the case. Excor used his Silver Ring of Ghost Form. The Blue Lady moved swiftly next to Xanto. In a panic, Xanto cast a teleportation spell and disappeared leaving the case and its invaluable contents behind.
The Blue Lady blew a blast of her electrical dragon breath at Fauna dispelling her last shield for the day. The druid responded by deftly tossing the yellow lotus dust into the monster-lady’s eyes temporarily blinding her. It did not have any of the poisonous effects that Fauna had hoped for, however. Suddenly, a distant roar sounded.
Fauna cast Gaseous Form on herself and drifted towards the house. Excor hovered through the walls into the house and Szoo snatched up the case and then flew into the open doorway. They had the intention of hiding out in the secret tunnels below.
As they fled inside, Fauna saw the blue dragon retreat away around the corner still in her human form. Szoo the last in line to get into the house saw a gigantic shadow lift off from the top of the slavers’ castle and fly in their direction. They barred the door behind them and then stood there for a second listening. After a few minutes, they could hear a loud sniffing sound, as if two large nostrils were investigating the teleported tavern wreckage in the alley. Then they heard a loud blast, the air from the wings of a dragon taking off. It had been the resident dragon, Gristle-Talon. The mages let out a collective sigh and then Fauna and Szoo ran down into the cellar.
Excor canceled his ghost form spell and ran to his room to gather his stuff. He shut the door to his room and began gathering some “essential” items and spell components. After several minutes, he hears something like footsteps just on the other side of his bedroom door. He carefully moved to the door and cast Scry: Simple. The spell allowed him to see through the door. He saw the Blue Lady and her shaman walking away from his door and to the cellar door. A gem on her tiara was glowing stronger as she neared it. Suddenly, she reached down, wrenched the heavy wood trapdoor from it hinges, and tossed it across the room.
Meanwhile, Fauna and Szoo were moving as fast and quietly as they could down the long hallway and into the caves to try and “find a way out”. They both hear a pair of feet following them. Szoo turns and looks down the hall behind them, with his heat vision he could see the Wasp and Bumble following them. Fauna calls them out.
Xanto the Wasp: “Heh, heh. So, um, we find ourselves in a mutual rock-and-a-hard-place situation, eh, friends?”
The pair of adventurers debated only briefly about what to do about them. Szoo wanted to kill the Wasp but Fauna was dead against it.
Cris: “Pfft! Kill the Wasp!? Good luck. That guy is probably pretty powerful plus he’s higher level than all of us!”
Jenn: “Then why doesn’t he just fight the dragon?”
Cris: “Because she’s a DRAGON, she has high spell resistance. She shook off my spell like nothing.”
The companions in the mushroom caves moved into a chamber in the north (R6 on the map). The cavern was covered in mushrooms and there are uneven clumps of giant mushrooms that were glowing faintly blue and leaking a clear, slippery slime all over the cave floor. Foothold was precarious over the slimy uneven floor. Fauna inspected a pit that she found at the far north of the chamber. The other three as they moved past her slipped almost in unison and slid as they fell into a smooth chute like passage (the slime chute on the map). Fauna maneuvered her way to the mouth of the chute and yelled to make sure everyone was okay. They were fine so she jumped down to them.
Meanwhile above in the cellar, Excor watched as the Blue Lady and her mage descended. He quickly cast Invisibility I on himself and followed as quietly as he could as the pair found the secret door that had been left open, and they moved into the tunnel.
Excor (played by Cris) and Szoosha (played by Isis) found themselves escorted by the Grey Serpent pirate crew to the Western Cliffs District. The pair had surprisingly talked the pirates out of murdering Jirek right there, by selling out the Wasp. As they neared the gates to the northern half of that section of the city, they both could see Fauna (played by Jenn) waiting in a rickshaw across from the gate under the shade of an aqueduct arch. Excor had managed a Whisper spell to her during the long walk.
Essentially, the plan was to get the pirate captain to meet with Bumble who would hopefully turn on her master. It was a longshot but the mages had nothing else. Jirek and the captain walked to the gate while Excor, Szoo, and the other five pirates including the half-giant, waited a short distance away.
The two mages and the ill-tempered pirates waited in awkward silence. Fauna kept her eyes locked on the group. Suddenly, the Ferenoi cleric turned her head and locked eyes with the druid.
Ferenoi Cleric (pointing at Fauna): “YOU!
Isis: “Aw, crap.”
Jenn: “C’mon! We can take ‘em!”
Immediately, and as she approached, Fauna cast Wizard’s Trick on the Ferenoi Cleric. The cleric shrunk into a snail. Szoosha tossed an Alchemist’s Fire at the second Ferenoi, the swashbuckler, singeing her armor. The swashbuckler replied by throwing her javelin at Szoo whom parried the projectile. Excor cast Invisibility I on himself. The half-giant surged forward swinging his heavy claymore at Fauna barely missing her. The mage with the wolf-skin mantle cast Elemental Blast (water) at Szoo but the Naga’s shield protected him. The Feren pirate unslung his steel shield and ran up next to the Ferenoi swashbuckler.
Fauna stomped on the snail.
Jenn (addressing the shocked look on her sister’s face and Cris’ laughter): “Hey I was gonna let her go but she just had to keep it going!”
Szoo tossed another alchemist’s fire at the swashbuckler but the Feren pirate immediately blocked the flask with his shield. The swashbuckler pulled her falcata and slashed at the Naga but the blade was stopped by the Naga’s shield. Excor twisted his Ring of Verminous Might and grew large insect-like wings. The half-giant swung again at Fauna striking her shield. The mage waved his hands and a small ball of ice formed before him that suddenly shot at Szoo who dodged it. The shieldman readied to defend the swashbuckler with his steel shield.
Fauna cast Wind Rush forcing the Half-Giant to dodge as well as knocking down, and blowing away the mage. The swashbuckler drew her dirk, slashed with her sword, and stabbed at the same time with her dirk. Szoo parried both weapons with his flaming naginata that instantly appeared in his scaly hands. Excor cast Amber Husk on the Half-Giant instantly trapping him in a large iceberg of solid glistening amber. The shieldman continued to ready to defend the swashbuckler.
Fauna tried to cast a spell but it fizzled. Szoo used his magic bracers to use Armor Bane via touch on the shieldman’s shield. The shield immediately crumbled to dust. Excor activated his Jet Amulet of Shielding. The swashbuckler again took a double strike with dirk and sword against the Naga striking and dispelling his shield. The mage, on the ground almost 100 ft. away, melted into a flow of water that quickly disappeared down a gutter. The shieldman got a javelin from his back.
Fauna cast Wizard’s Trick on the swashbuckler transforming her into a snail. Szoo touched the swashbuckler’s leather armor, which rotted away and fell off.
Isis: “I LOVE THESE BRACERS!”
Excor used his Copper Spike and shot a bolt of electricity at the shieldless shieldman wounding him slightly. The shieldman in turn, tossed his javelin at Fauna missing badly. Fauna stomped on the snail and the shieldman cried out in grief. Szoo swung at the shieldman with his naginata but tripped over his own tail. Excor caught the grieving shieldman in an amber husk ending the skirmish.
The three mages were unable to savor their easy victory however as the alarm bell began ringing above the gates. Guards began streaming from the guardhouse surrounding the great monoliths of amber. The mages quickly realized that the guards were focused on carrying away the two large pieces of semi-precious amber. Excor, still invisible, flew over the gate and headed towards Bumble’s house. Fauna and Szoo slunk away and through the gates while the guards were distracted.
Excor made it to Bumble’s family property and dropped himself in front of the Wasp’s hovel. It was wide open and he could see both Jirek and the pirate captain tossing the place. Suddenly, Jirek shouted, “I found it!” The captain immediately ran over to him and they both pulled the iron sea chest into Excor’s view. The captain yelled, “No, no, no!” He flipped open the chest lid. “Someone opened it!?” It appeared to Excor that the chest had contained a case according to the lining, one that was narrow and long.
Excor (mumbling to disappointedly himself): “Of course the Wasp already opened it.”
Excor flew back to the front of the property in time to intercept his companions. He canceled his spells and filled them in on the news. They decided to go back to the White Prong for some food and ale and wait to see if Thorn the beggar would make an appearance.
Later that afternoon around a table in the bustling White Prong, the trio of mages sat around a table after finishing their meal and ordering a second round of dark ale.
Excor (to Fauna): “You did find Thorn right?”
Fauna: “Well, I was asking around for him.”
Excor: “Good enough. He’ll hear us.”
As if on cue, a young street urchin wandered into the tavern and walked up to the mages’ table. He introduced himself as Xete and told the mages that Thorn’s coin has been bought but he could help them granted they could buy his coin for the day. Excor promised him a platinum piece if he could locate Xanto the Wasp who was probably in disguise and traveling with his protégé Ilna of Nezorik aka “Bumble”. It was test to see if his coin was worth purchasing of course. The boy bowed and jaunted off.
For a few hours the mages sat and drank, Excor smoked his pipe. It was nearing evening when the street urchin seemingly appeared at their table. The Wasp and his apprentice were sitting in the barroom of the Red Helm. Excor flipped the boy the promised platinum piece with the promise to buy his coin tomorrow morning.
The three mages virtually ran to the Red Helm and as soon as they were inside of the door, Szoo spotted an old man sitting at a table nearest the bar and a young girl pacing back and forth next to a black leather case that leaned against the table. The pair looked nothing like the Wasp or his apprentice but the three mages surmised they were under a Disguise spell. Excor took up a position at table exactly opposite them. Szoo slithered up to a position next to the front window in case they made for the door. Fauna sauntered up to the bar; she caught the young girl eyeballing her from the corner of her eye.
The three mages were just starting to decide a plan of action when the Black Eagle pirates with Direnda in the lead filtered into the place. They crowded the space just in front of the bar their hands on their weapons.
Isis: “Oh no.”
Three warriors in blue followed by the blue dragon in her noblewoman form strode in. The warriors immediately took fighting stances at the sight of the pirates.
Jenn: “aw man.”
A few seconds later, Jirek, the Grey Serpent Captain and his Mage jogged in through the door and spotted Excor but as the captain’s hand met his weapon, he noticed the crowded room as did his companions.
At that moment, Draega fluttered in from behind the bar on his way towards the blue lady but then noticed the full and very tense room.
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!”
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!”
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.
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!”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.