Characters begin to loot the dusty old room after slaying their foe, some monstrous undead thing. They find the typical loot, some coins, a few gems, and a couple of items. Their first impulse is to appraise the monetary value of the loot and calculate what the split will be. Then they find an old sword hanging on the cobweb-tangled rear wall of the room. When they reach it the Gamesmaster does something that they only half expected. The GM gives the item details that distinguish it from the rest of the loot piquing their collective curiosity.
Giving items a level of detail and a backstory much like a non-player character (NPC) increases that item’s role. The storied item will have a higher position as opposed to other items in the gaming narrative. This technique takes items beyond the role of simple spoils of adventure or a material reward. Note that gaming narrative is different from narratives in the traditional sense. The ‘beats’ of the game tend to follow a perpetual Sine-wave type pattern. High points on the wave being action/drama then dropping back to normalcy. Alternately, they can sink to a low point before the next rise.
Adding details and a history to any item meant for a PC to acquire helps keep certain players on track. This is especially true if the GM hints at the right clues and incidents relating to the item regularly. This can add flavor and detail to the game setting and add some complication to fairly straight forward campaigns. These specially designed items are not just treasure they double as tiny bits of the game world custom packaged for the players to explore.
More than a MacGuffin
To be clear, these are not exclusively MacGuffins. These specially designed items better serve to enrich a campaign. Storied items are not meant to serve as the central focus of a campaign. Nor are they to provide motivation for the group to go on a specific quest. However, they are meant to run the length of the campaign alongside their owners hopefully adding a richness of detail. In a way, storied items ornament a long-term campaign and provide the GM with adventure fodder.
Specially detailed items with a backstory can lead to more adventure hooks. These hooks occurring at the low points of the curve leading to the highs. These items possibly leading to an adventure within an adventure. Similarly, they can lead to side-quests galore branching off or intertwining with the primary campaign focus. It is another thread to weave into the fabric of the game-world. For instance, take a quite common but also much-desired item found in any fantasy campaign, a sword.
A Sword, Any Sword
Any sword, after a morbid fashion, can give (or rather carve) somebody a red smile. However, the true value of unique items with compelling histories and as-of-yet unfulfilled destiny is to Gamesmasters. It is a boon. GMs should try to write up specially designed items. These the players can discover, quest for, win, or loot in the normal course of a campaign. It does not have to be magical or have special powers. However, if that is the carrot onto which your players will bite then by all means.
However, the item needs to be immediately visually (meaning descriptively) interesting. At least to one of the players. This serving as the initial hook. It also does not hurt to try and tailor the item to specific characters. However, always remember to try to attract the players’ attention to it. For an example, let us use a Chinese Dao. It has a long tassel at the pommel and broad, heavy machete-like blade.
There is a sword hanging on the far wall all covered in the same dusty sheet of cobwebs. It appears to be a Dao of a particularly high quality. You can make out the glint of gold, silver, and the glitter of gems. As you look closer, there is a strange faint flickering as of flame. Even from underneath the webs and centuries of sedimentary filth you can see its strange light.
A Hook by Any Other Name
There are a few methods to snag the players using these characterized items. They are very much like those used in writing adventure hooks. You must ask yourself two questions. What type of weapon/item is it and what have the characters been looking for? Additionally, is it something they can pick up and use? However, can the characters also explore its uses (immediate bait). A brief example being a weapon with special features. However, those abilities only make it a more formidable weapon when one learns how to use those features. Of course, this last aspect would rest almost entirely on the system within which you are working.
This brings us to the “Bling.” Bling being the visual details that mark the item as one-of-a-kind. The flashy part of the description. The sole purpose of bling is in attracting the attention of the player(s). Basically, the visual details that tempt them. Start with the main details such as what material(s) make it up. Is this material out-of-the-ordinary or exotic in some way? Are there gems and what kinds, and how are they cut? Are there engravings or inlays? Is the engraving a message of some sort? Can the players read it, or do they need an interpreter? What language is it in? Is it magical script or Elvish? What is the handle wrapping made of? Do the materials, design, or make give hints as to its regional/historical origin?
The Dao blade is of silver and the guard and pommel gold with the engraving of patterns resembling flames. There are characters along the blade inlaid with platinum. They appear to be in an archaic northern dialect. Alternating jade gems, rubies, and deep blue sapphires all cut en cabochon along the guard’s edge sparkle. The tassel that extends from the golden pommel is fire silk and there is a large dark red carbuncle at the base of the blade. This glows with its own flickering flame light. The grip is wrapped in the smooth skin of a metallic blue sea serpent.
Details, Details, Details!
Details construct this special item within the minds of your players. As with the initial appearance of an NPC, the initial description of the item’s general shape and condition affects its perception. Its appearance provides fuel for any perceived or applied “personality”. When in doubt use an engraving bearing a name or saying for an easy addition and telling detail.
The details you use can be battle scars, personal/familial heraldry, makers’ marks, or decorations. These can have attached stories and may play to a certain theme. Visible imperfections will mark the item as unique and may contribute to the backstory. These can be from the original artisan’s hand or even a defect in the base material itself.
The important thing to remember is that these details should mark it out from the rest of the swag. It should be unique compared to that the characters may have come upon up to this point of the game. It should remain at least somewhat unique throughout the campaign. After adding details with at least one marking it unique, a brief history or backstory is necessary to finish it. Certain details should be invented exclusively for the item based on its history.
The blade of the sword shows a deep nick. Apparently, an old battle-wound from an especially powerful blow. Additionally, there is a patch of very pale scales among soft deep-blue scales on the grip. The angler you have asked about the skin on the handle mentions off-handedly an old fisherman’s yarn. It is about a vicious sea-serpent nicknamed ‘Old Scar’ due to the patches here and there on its hide earned from the harpoons of defending sailors.
Backstory is Essential
When writing the backstory keep in mind the group resources. You should know what abilities or resources the group possesses to let them probe the backstory of the item. Psychics and spell-casters with certain augury or ESP-effect spells/powers can help by catching tempting glimpses. They can even catch bits of dialogue and other certain clues. Like about who made it, owned it, where it has been, and its unique history. Alternately, if you are trying to hold back certain details these types of abilities may ruin the clue chasing. They may even spill the whole story out all at once. This is when it pays to be subtle. Hone the GM fudging skills using the rules governing these powers to your advantage.
Investigative abilities are certainly suited to engage this type of GM-device. Using science and/or lab skills to gather information in a CSI-like mode is yet another dimension to keep abreast of. In fantasy settings such skills as alchemy would qualify for this mode. However, this is especially so in a modern setting. Do not discount library research either. This allows the GM to create accessories to the item like works that collect lore or document legends. Even antiquarian guides not to mention antiquarian-type characters become more important. These character archetypes are probably the most equipped (besides certain psychics) to delve into such campaign aspects. These types of characters and skills are already, or should be anyway, motivated to participate. They will make it easier for the players to dig into the backstory.
The backstory will consist of a few basic points. Where was it made, who made it, and who was the last owner? Alternately to the latter, who was the most significant character in the item’s history? Pick out the individuals in the backstory that matter the most in-game terms. This can be the craftsman, the original owner, the last owner, or the one who stole it. Only one to two points are necessary to create a rough character outline. Other details can be filled in on the fly. NPCs in the backstory do not require full game stats but need only to communicate impressions to the players. Note that the main characters from the backstory will have names and those names may be recognizable as connected to other legends and stories etc.
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Games-Masters (GM’s) are already like mad scientists modifying their current gaming system often on the fly. This is through either in-play rulings (e.g. building precedence) or directly fabricating rules or guidelines. This is sometimes to patch deficiencies or fill in gaps discovered during play regardless of the potential for unforeseen consequences. Often, GM’s tinker with their current system adding in rules or new additions. However, they are often hesitant to rebuild or mess with the engine of the system.
However, GM’s can achieve some amazing results by doing just such a thing. GM’s can completely rebuild the machinery of a game with only some basic knowledge. Games-Masters can go further than simple modifications stepping into the shoes of a game designer. That is without stepping blindly onto the unsteady ground of game creation from scratch but still achieving something very similar.
Modifying existing systems is the gateway to creating one’s own full-on tabletop rules-system. However, like Frankenstein’s monster, missteps and using the wrong parts can lead to disaster. All GM’s who have ever run a few games know of the vicious cycle of modifying the modifications. All in service of keeping a campaign limping along.
The Frankengame exists in the realm between the patchwork game and game-creation as a sort of gateway. Here, like Doctor Frankenstein in the graveyard, a Games-Master can get closer to being the creator of their own system. They are starting not from scratch but from the constituent parts dug-up and snatched from sundry and various places. They will know the resulting system more intimately allowing them to avoid the vicious cycle mentioned above. In addition, this process sharpens the mechanical skill of GM’s allowing them to be better able to patch any flaws on the fly.
A Frankengame, like its namesake, is created by taking the operative portions of a game-system referred to here as Modules. Then taking these from multiple other games and slamming them together creating a functional homebrew mash-up. This, in an effort to maximize your enjoyment around the table. This is regardless of whether you or your group are more interested in a more Simulationist or Storytelling gaming mode. Alternately, also useful if you and they enjoy a simplified set of rules or rules-heavy systems.
The newly assembled game should function reasonably well enough to be used as its own standalone tabletop RPG system. Metaphorically similar to the human corpses that contributed to Frankenstein’s monster, you stitch a Frankengame together from the working organs of other games. This is given that all tabletop RPG systems have functional organs that allow them to tick. They share a common anatomy.
Basic RPG Anatomy
A roleplaying game system as a unit is a collection of interacting rules that help to determine the in-game actions of characters. This at least according to Wikipedia. It is also a system of interacting modules, a package of rules and details, each module-package being a subsystem. Modules allow for the construction of in-game items and resolution subsystems. Sometimes they even add to a core resolution system modifying it to some extent based on circumstance.
The common Base Modules of any RPG System are the Combat System, Skill System, the Mystical Engine, and the Object Subsystems. The Mystical Engine being the governing mechanic of the magic & psionic systems as well as any similar such ideas. Object subsystems being the component governing such in-game objects as weapons and armor. The Character Creation system/mechanic can also be included in these modules. This is especially so if there are several different methods presented for players to create characters in the materials.
Base modules are subsystems that handle a specific portion of the game but still have a wide enough reach as to be able to have further subsystems within them depending on their complexity. Note that the more complex the longer it takes to make a rule-call or task-determination. As stated before, these Base Modules handle a limited but still broad aspect of the game. This includes such things as Combat. For example, subdividing combat into such aspects as Vehicular, Barehanded, or even Armed combat although generally it still encompasses these. Similarly, expanding combat with smaller sets of rules or increasing complexity by adding a subsystem to handle one of the different and more specific aspects/scales of combat. At the center of all of these modules and subsystems lay the heart of the RPG, the Core Mechanic.
At the heart of the game system from which these modules branch is the Core Mechanic. The Core Mechanic is the principle that all the rest of the system works on. A Core Mechanic is in the simplest terms a formula for conflict resolution. Conflict in this context being an in-game occurrence where an impartial decision is required. Core Mechanics usually rely on a single die roll with certain modifiers added and may even rely on looking up that result on a table or even the number of dice rolled as in a Dice Pool. Most systems wear this on their sleeves so it is easy to get right in there and cut it out so it can share its beat with your homebrewed monstrosity.
Core Mechanic Examples:
- D20 (d20 roll + modifiers vs. a target number)
- Talislanta (d20 roll + Skill or Attribute Rating – Degree of Difficulty; check result to Table)
- World of Darkness (character attributes and skill “pips” together determine the Dice Pool of D10’s vs. a target number)
- Fudge (uses 6-sided plus/minus dice and elevates character attributes rated in an adjective scale (terrible, poor, good, etc.) and lowered or elevated based on the number of pluses and minuses rolled)
A Games-Master/potential Doctor Frankenstein can simply add in or swap certain Base Modules or subsystems with those from another. Although as compared with assembling a completely new system, this counts more as transplantation. However, even mad doctors need some practice. True Frankengames are an actual fusion of at least two other games (hopefully more) and recognizable as apart/different from either of them.
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Non-player characters (NPCs) populate Gamesmasters’ game worlds providing a life source alongside the vitality injected by the player characters (PCs). Unlike PCs, however NPCs do not need to be complete characters. The level of completeness of an NPC is directly related to their level of intended interaction with the players. And to a lesser extent their role in the campaign or in a given scenario.
Those constructed to have some individuality identifiable by the players and even a modicum of believability can make the difference between a bland, artificial environment and a vibrant, exciting, living world. Applying layers of detail is a proven technique in NPC design that can payoff in spades during play.
The Five Layers
A believable NPC can be described as an interesting, engaging, and memorable character. This is in addition to the fact that they are likely to exist in the campaign world in the first place. To create a believable NPC the GM can employ five layers in their construction. These five layers are:
- Physical features
- Gear (clothing & equipment)
- Skillset (skills of note & combat style)
How Much Detail?
The first concern when constructing an NPC is the level of detail needed. This is preliminary and aside from a quick rundown of each of the five layers. Simply inserting a single generic item in each layer can quickly generate mooks (nameless fodder) or a background NPC. However, these will be suited only to limited contact with the PCs. The level of contact an NPC has with the PCs is important. This as you do not want to waste time adding minute detail to a character that shows up once, says next to nothing then has no other significant/repeating contact.
The Interaction Hierarchy
Game masters should have a basic hierarchy for their NPCs besides the main antagonist(s). These would be (in ascending order): background, foreground or limited interactors with limited appearances, those with limited interaction but the potential for multiple appearances, frequent interactors even if their appearances are limited, and those who interact regularly with the PCs.
The higher up you move along the NPC interactor hierarchy the more detail needed. NPCs can move up the hierarchy or become elevated by ongoing interactions even if not designed for long-term existence. These gaining added detail either acquired from play (shear improvisation) or details and minutiae added by the GM. Often this occurs as a response to player inquiries or in an effort to give the NPC extra story weight. After determining the interaction level of an NPC, the very next concern is Archetype.
Archetypes & Stereotypes
Archetypes, stereotypes, and tropes are useful tools in the hands of a talented GM. The latter pair are often considered cheap tricks (especially stereotypes). Stereotypes can if the GM is not careful or sufficiently creative, become cliché. And if the GM is not mindful, offensive. Archetypes carry the connotations of role, skillset, and ability. Stereotypes convey assumptions and preconceptions about behavior, motivating factors, and “genetic traits.”
Common stereotypes found in fantasy tabletop roleplaying include Evil-Murderous-Orcs, Suicide-Attack-Goblins, Bad-Guy-in-Black-Adorned-in-Batwings-and-Skulls, the Common-Thug, etc. These are trenchant and brief descriptions with an attached assumption.
An archetype on the other hand is a sort of blueprint. It is often built into or associated with various settings and works of fiction. It gathers together certain attributes. These presenting a general sketch of a character and possible patterns of behavior packaged together with general appearance. The archetype should be selected with the NPC’s role in mind. Stereotyping, on the other hand, is shallow shorthand communicating specific character traits to players. based on a large social/economic/regional/ethnic group. An especially useful tool when there is limited playtime, while in a pinch, or in a faster-paced part of the game.
Certain classic archetypes found in roleplaying include the Do-Gooder-Paladin, Prefers-the-Wilderness-Ranger, the Might-Makes-Right-Barbarian, and the Sticky-Handed-Backstabbing-Rogue among others.
Tropes, another tool in the box, allow the use of a shorthand statement to easily communicate certain aspects of NPCs. These can be as short as a name for a fantasy race or profession. Perhaps a short description not containing a value judgment or opinion in and of itself but carried by familiarity. GMs can use tropes to influence the players’ in-game actions dependent on their reactions. If the group groans at the mention of specific tropes, the GM probably shouldn’t use it. Unless, of course, trying to raise the ire of their players. This actually holds true for stereotypes as well.
Examples of common fantasy tropes include the Knight and variations on, the Archer, the Spell-Slinger, Half-Dragons, the Scholar, etc.
The second NPC layer, distinguishing physical features and build, begins to grant the archetypal NPC more individuality. Race, in roleplaying terms, is a way of communicating the most general physical features and behavioral patterns to the players simply by attaching a label to the NPC. Race is a combination of stat templates and stereotypes promoting a general idea, right or wrong, about personality and role. Again, a simple mook character does not need much more than that. Maybe some equipment. But a well-rounded NPC would need a few more visual cues to deliver some additional information to the players. This information can include a verbal exchange. This is good to use with a simple encounter as well to drive home the NPC’s intentions.
An NPC’s face is a roadmap of experience particularly if they have had an especially brutal life. Acquiring scars, tattoos (which can carry their own symbolic meaning) or losing teeth, eyes, noses, etc. adds character. Prototypical pigmentation that carries meaning in the game that the players can clue into, is also useful. Even a deep suntan and very visible tan-lines can reveal occupation before the GM names it. Alternately, regional racial features can distinguish an NPC from the racial norm. For example, a lighter shade of green or very tall points on the ears. These hinting at a different origin than the racial norm can communicate some ethnopolitical information expanding the game world. Physical disability can also add layers to the character. This due to birth defects, the mutilation of war wounds, or more specific instances of physical trauma; abuse, ritual mutilation/scarification, accidents, or draconian punishment.
Gear & Clothing
Costume and equipment, the next layer, can be used to express the character forthrightly. Alternately, it can hide their true nature or intentions, heighten the anxiety of players. Or it can feed them hints/clues as to the wider world, the NPC’s fighting ability, skillset. Or reveal otherwise unexpressed aspects of the NPC’s personality as well as connections to other individuals or organizations. Mooks and background NPCs need only the gear to carry out their brief and likely, temporary purpose with perhaps some token details.
NPCs should have an equipment list comparable to their interaction level. As well as a role and an appearance that distinguishes them more as individuals from the lesser interactors. The players should take one look and know that these are more than just nameless minions. Personal items should be on this list, which can give clues to their religious beliefs, sentimentalities, and pastimes. Their costume can also reveal that the face they are presenting to the players may be a façade. Details such as neatness, quality, and the relevance of clothing style or equipment used to hide their true nature.
Here, certain visual tools, particularly heraldry, are very useful. An NPC warrior with a family crest or striking heraldic image across their chest is set apart from the crowd.
Another very important point when building an NPC is what skills they have at their disposal; their skillset, not necessarily their whole skill-list just the ones they are likely to use in-game. This including their combat ability and fighting style. They should have the tools required to make use of these skills and implements cogent to their combat style. Variation in combat style can demonstrate personality during a fight even without any verbal communication.
NPCs can also have customized gear identifying the piece as their personal property. Also, keep in mind the symbolic significance that the weaponry you equip your NPCs with can convey. For example, a spiked club indicating a real brute and probably a powerhouse.
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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.
Note the article itself can be read here: “Why Do Orc Lives Matter?”
Range of Reactions
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.
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.
Read it Here.
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.
Both armies are at a standoff across the field of battle, bright banners flap in the slight breeze, the noon sun glints from the gleaming razor tips of spears and the blades of swords and axes. The dread war-engines vibrate the ground as they’re wheeled into position. Catapults, ballistae, and scorpions are readied. The shouts of the sergeants echo up and down the opposing lines and the frontlines begin advancing towards each other.
Suddenly, choruses of hideous roars tear the skies as a group of dragon-riders surge from the horizon swooping over one side and laying waste to the other. Soldiers desperately try to protect themselves with their tower shields and spears in small bristling testudoes. The earth begins to shake beneath the soldiers’ feet frightening the flanks on both sides loosening their formations. The opposing side, victims of the dragon-riders, opens its middle and a tight cluster of stone golems thunder towards the armored heart of their foe.
As the golems crush their way into the enemy’s ranks, the dragons peel off and strafe the stone monsters with fire barely slowing them down. The warriors of each army crash together in a wave of blood and iron their champions leading. A small squad from the dragon-riders’ side engages the golems with a barrage of acid grenades forged by a mercenary alchemist. Both charging sides meet and the momentum breaks like a wave of blood with the deafening clash of steel and shrieks of dying men. From this blood tide, the champions emerge finally meeting in the middle of the chaos and duel to the death for their respective side and causes.
Fireballs and lightning called down from the heavens by war-wizards at the rear ranks of both armies add to the deafening cacophony. Just then, another smaller cadre of dragons darts into the fray above to engage the enemy dragons. The new comers are less in number but with them comes an enormous blue-black dragon complete with a small crew of riders on his back armed with crossbows, lances, alchemical grenades, and other nasty droppers. The sky darkens with smoke, fire blasts, arrows, and large projectiles as the battlefield spreads from horizon to horizon.
It is total chaos, this battle will be devastating and lay waste the battlefield and most of the surrounding territory which may lay fallow for at least a century after. It’s also cool looking and really gives the Player Characters (PCs) and the Game-Master (GM) multiple opportunities to shine.
The Fantasy Battlefield is a spectacle to behold and its aftermath a tragedy to mourn. It provides the opportunity for the full exercise of strategic thinking, high drama, and innovation. As well as providing potentially spectacular set pieces for the GM. In a fantasy setting, when war occurs it is probable a scene very much like that described above will play out with only the scale varying.
That is because if one side is able to obtain a special and powerful weapon the other side, if it has a competent intelligence network, will find out about it before the fighting. Thus, they will rush to enact countermeasures and try to get their hands on either the same type of weapon or anything else of a similar power level. Of course, this will cause an arms race if the other side is equal in espionage. In addition, if actual world history is any evidence when a weapon or strategic advantage becomes available, it will be used even if just once. In the very least, all the contemporary powers will seek it out vigorously.
There are many reasons to implement large battles and carry out war in a fantasy roleplaying game despite the complications to the Game-Master and the possibility of loss on the Player-Characters’ side of things.
War in game terms is a storyline drawn from a series of confrontations including from the political and not just the combat side involving at least two opposing powers. Within this blob of mass confrontations and tangle of story lines is Mass Combat. Mass Combat is more a technical term to describe mechanics that come into play during instances of combat between at least two large masses of characters. During Mass Combat military units (groups of individuals, typically faceless mook type NPCs) engage in combat where the PCs act as champions or sometimes as complete units unto themselves.
Note that Mass Combat mechanics may not be included in some game systems and those that do will vary greatly in how they function. Therefore, any direct or specific mechanical references will be avoided and more general terms and ideas will be favored in this article.
With the basic mechanical ideas of Mass Combat and Combat Units GMs can begin to construct the spectacle of fantasy warfare. As stated before a battlefield, especially if the battle is a big one, is a remarkable sight when gleaming armies face off not to mention when the fantasy elements come into play adding even more spectacle to the fray. These elements are the true fireworks that really make the set piece unique often involving any one of the Big Four by themselves or in combination.
The Big Four
The Big Four refers to the four major weapons on the field of fantasy warfare: dragons/dragon-riders, golems/constructs, wizards/magic-users, and the undead. Dragons/Dragon-Riders are the super weapon on the field whether they themselves are conscripts, generals, or mounts with a rider or crew. They are a game changer on the field and prompt all sorts of countermeasures and strategies. Golems/Constructs are another super-weapon but one that is most useful against enemy ranks and walls. They are very difficult to obtain and may actually be harder than dragons to get. Golems are more equipment or war-machine than soldier and used thus.
On the other hand, Spell-casters on the field can implement any number of weird and highly powerful strategies using a wide array of magical abilities. These are the easiest of the four to obtain typically serving a mercenary or allied role though they may have their own reasons for joining an army on the march. Spell slinging against the opposite side and summoning forth new and terrible foes for the enemy is their primary battlefield strategy. They can also double as espionage and information gathering agents through their magical abilities. Secondary roles depend on the spell caster’s repertoire such as any healing abilities allowing the mage to run battlefield triage.
The last of the big four are the undead. These often being a part of certain forces popularly considered evil or the full ranks of certain villain types like dark lords, liches, and powerful necromancers. Undead forces typically consist of reanimated corpses or skeletons that can function on the battlefield as warriors and with the ability to take at least simple commands. However, they are often of a weaker type of undead and thus are somewhat weaker than the average soldier is.
The primary strategy of such units is always to overwhelm with numbers and rely on the relentlessness of the undead as they never fatigue or tire. The average leader of one of these units is usually a stronger type of undead though often not of an exceptional level. However, Priests or Paladins (holy warriors) that have certain powers that directly counter undead creatures are a common element that opposes these types of units. They are usually also a part of worlds where these types of creatures run common as a form of universal balance.
Logistics for an undead force are somewhat simplified as they do not get fatigued, they will not starve or die of thirst, and inclement weather has to be severe in order to stall or endanger them. However, in a snowstorm they can freeze solid if they have flesh. Under a hot sun or in dank humid weather, their flesh can rot from their bones. These concerns can make certain types of undead such as zombies less of a threat under specific weather conditions.
Local resistance may be easily directed against a force of undead moving through specific areas. This includes certain religious forces that may have no real interest in the ongoing struggle other than to vanquish the walking blasphemy of the undead. Disease is also a concern when dealing with a diverse army that consists of living and dead forces, as is the predation of the dead upon the living. In addition, those unfortunate enough to be in the way of that force’s path whether allied or not might suffer or die without necessarily being a direct target.
The Big Four are by no means the only exceptional things on the fantasy battlefield. There are also the humanoid powerhouses, which seem on the surface to be more appropriate as powerful soldiery or heavy infantry. This would include such creatures as orcs, trolls, ogres, giants, among others. These may be easier to recruit and maybe to maintain than the Big Four but they would primarily be soldiers and may have certain restrictions imposed on them depending on the setting. Aside from the usual Dark Lord, they may be completely unavailable due to the darkness of their monstrous hearts and even blacker souls (again depending on the setting).
These are not included in the Big Four as they are definitely a remarkable sight but they function much as standard soldiery with perhaps ballistic capability like a hybrid field piece (i.e. giants). Along with the powerhouse-humanoids on the fields of fantasy combat are the unconventional technology and strategies inspired by actual history and that produced by alchemy.
Alchemy is the formulation and creation of certain meta-magical substances through a means that is a mix between modern chemistry and ancient mysticism, a lesser form of magic. The products that alchemy can produce aside from its historical focus on converting lead to gold can be useful on the battlefield though they would be expensive and in short supply. Alchemical substances such as napalm, phosphorous, fumes (gases), acids, naphtha, and black powder are especially of note. If an army is using even one of these as ammunition, they would require the alchemist(s) to tag along and replace spent ammo and to consult on countermeasures against enemy alchemical warfare. Note that alchemical ammunition could be jars, pots, or glass bulbs filled with chemicals launched from catapults even small clay-vessel grenades.
Alchemy only requires an alchemist and raw materials to produce the items and substances required by the commander. The alchemists themselves may or may not be mages depending on the system although typically mages will also have the ability to create these substances as well. These alchemists cannot only create gases, acids, napalm, and alchemical grenades but may also produce chemicals and drugs that could conceivably create alchemical super-soldiers by enhancing the common soldiery. However, this sort of strategy always comes with inherent risk and severe costs.
These costs inherent to alchemically enhanced soldiers being such things as drastically shortened lives, the risk of berserk units going on uncontrollable rampages, and even weirder effects such as soldiers just spontaneously combusting. Magical mutation and random transformations are also a possible side effect. Alchemists may also produce drugs that have very similar effects to those found in the real world and whose side effects only become noticeable in the long term sometimes long after the combat is over (for example: the German Military in WWII). This brings us to black powder.
Black powder in a medieval context would most likely be in the forms of low yield bombs or grenades. Explosives would be the domain of sappers and those seeking to undermine enemy fortifications. More advanced approaches to gunpowder would be the use of primitive match-lit guns (probably hand-cannons and fire-lances) and cannons but these would be impossible to aim and run the risk of explosion. Not to mention they would be very expensive even if there were a skilled enough engineer/armorer that could forge an effective and safe artillery piece. However, monster-sized cannonry could be a shocking set piece for an epic siege; a historical example being the Dardanelles Gun.
After massive bombards, rockets seem to be the next phase in technical superiority but again in a medieval setting if they exist then they will be expensive to produce and impossible to aim once fired. The main task would be to find the metalworker skilled enough to make the tube. These would be a fine counter to enemy dragons but the risk of explosion at ignition might balance that advantage to a certain extent. The forms of these rockets would range from fire arrows to the top technical achievement of iron-cased rockets. Given the ability to carry an alchemical payload, they could be more effective than those found in actual ancient history.
Heavy reliance on alchemical munitions and/or potions adds an alchemist and his entourage plus mobile equipment and laboratory to the logistics. Their wagon and any additional supply vehicles would become targets and the expense to maintain the alchemist’s mobile lab and supplies would be significant. However, do not discount the inventiveness of ancient unconventional warfare. Poisoned arrows, scorpions & poisonous snakes in large clay vessels or diseased corpses launched by catapult, warbeasts like elephants, and psychological attacks (severed heads of prisoners catapulted over city walls) increase battlefield options and are inspired by history. Just note that these tactics are a supplement to conventional warfare and tactics, not replacements.
Steam Punkery & Clockwork
With alchemists featuring on the field of fantasy warfare, clockwork and steam power warrant some discussion. Clockwork technology requires a power source (springs are possible for smaller clockwork), which could be magical but would also require advanced math for the engineering, tools, and skills to construct the parts. Similarly, steam technology would require a heat source and the storage capacity of the water required and the steam as well as well as the plumbing and knowledge of the pressures involved. Again, expensive, accidental explosions are possible, and an advanced knowledge of engineering is required for large enough engines, jets, etc. to be viable engines of war.
These limits do make it a rarity in medieval settings and more fit for Victorian era or even renaissance set campaigns but this type of technology can be possible with magic-users just not on an industrial level. The power source is probably magic or draconic in nature so still magic or at least relying on a magical power source to produce steam or electricity in order to make the machinery parts function. Making steam and larger clockwork weapons and vehicles the purview of hybrid spell casters, those that somehow have a solid knowledge of certain sciences like physics, math, and engineering as well as arcane ability. This fact alone probably makes them a rarity in any world where science and magic do not exist together in equal portion.
Steam-tech and clockwork make lower tech versions of modern weapons and vehicles possible such as tanks, cannons, and rockets – maybe even robot-like constructs but below the level of the Golem Army; steam powered war chariots, steam cannons, steam jets or even certain aircraft such as blimps or hot air balloons. All even in limited or singular quantity would be invaluable to a battlefield commander. Note that hot air balloons may be more in reach than the other examples.
This type of magical technology is not only out of place in a medieval battlefield but would be a massive surge forward in technology even if the source may be magical/alchemical. The apparatus and machinery operating on the steam from the source requires expert engineering and a high level of metalworking and forging. Essentially, the friendly neighborhood blacksmith and even armorer will not have the skill, knowledge, nor tools available to craft the highly engineered parts required not to mention the skills to design them. Powers acquiring such war-tech will make those with the skills and ability to create such things of extremely high value both as targets and as assets even if they are unwilling.
Once this type of technology rolls out onto the battlefield the culture itself would go into violent convulsions and types of confrontations not possible before may become commonplace such as rebellions among the peasantry and merchant classes, religious organizations that may hold vast wealth obtaining such technology, nobility being supplanted by technocracy, etc. What is sure is that if the technology is not “lost” in some fashion it will propagate and irreversibly alter your world in a few decades.
The other drawback is that a lone engineer, wizard, or alchemist probably will not have the skills, power, and resources to create more than a single clockwork or steam-powered type weapon which even though very valuable as a secret weapon or weapon of terror is very little use as a true weapon of war. This would also make them extremely expensive as well as requiring the development of certain resources to occur before they are even a possibility.
The reasons to include war in your worlds and campaigns is manifold, the few mentioned previously in other parts of this series are the main benefits that apply to the GM and the PCs. There are diegetic reasons however; these are the reasons war might spring up organically due to conditions and elements in the fantasy world itself. The first is Good vs. Evil (GvE) of course true battles between to the two forces means that the campaign world exists in a Manichean universe. However, this GvE struggle does not have to be actual just the participants have to believe that they are the good guys and their opponents the bad.
Another prime motive for war is piratical. War solely for the purpose of the plunder and glory it will yield regardless of the price. Unscrupulous warriors, commanders, and politicians may want to participate just for the shear thrill and fun. This reason for war is reliant mostly on the greed of the participants but includes other more emotional motives not laser focused on one goal but harnessed in order to fuel the war effort.
War for profit and land is similar to the piratical reasons though with intentions to settle, occupy, or otherwise take ownership of them against the indigenous peoples’ will transforms piratical aims into Conquest. Another goal in this vein may be to secure a stream of revenue or eliminate a penalty (i.e. tax/tariff) on your goods exported to the targeted lands this being known as Imperialism. These last two, Conquest and Imperialism, can get a little dicey when roleplaying through them especially when sorting through the justifications for such but the role-play drama potential is also very high.
In addition, in medieval settings war for the securing of power and/or eliminating the competition may erupt frequently. Similarly, civil wars or wars of ascension may occur in large scale within or between certain countries. Smaller wars could breakout between nobility as well for any of the previously stated reasons including wars of pure ego and even ritualistic war. Religiously motivated war is also a factor especially where there is an entrenched religious power.
Religion can add an ugly side to any war regardless of the reasons and motivations behind it but certain religious powers may also ignite wars for purely religious reasons. These may be to convert nonbelievers or eliminate them or to combat a rival religious power. This is especially true when it comes to Crusades. All of these, if not initially, tend to feature or evolve to include strong profit motives very similar to piratical warfare but this cause can rapidly evolve into something even more insidious when philosophy becomes ideology in order to justify it.
Aside from the opportunity for strategy and high drama, there are other values to the GM of Fantasy Warfare in their campaigns. Set piece battles can give the events a sense of increasing scale and put the PCs through a trial by fire. They can also allow the PCs to be innovative and allow them to think strategically.
To bring in a sense of scale a GM should begin with standard medieval style battles and gradually move towards the high fantasy by gradually adding the fantasy elements as they increase in scope. This elevates a standard battle scene making each new fight a bigger spectacle especially if there have been previous battle scenes, it gives the GM a place to go that still elevates the action. It also grounds the action before it starts to become fantastical. To do this a GM needs to start gritty and small making the ruin of the post-battle field evident early on. Then escalate with increasing numbers and ever more present and inventive war engines and have known and beloved NPCs die in the fighting to heighten drama and the sense of risk.
Bring in the surprise elements of high fantasy (the Big Four) as the twist in the bigger battles and build the suspense of what will appear on the field for the next. By this time, the risk to valued NPCs should be evident, the stakes should be high to match the massive spectacle, and the Players by now should be able to fill in the devastation built on the vivid pictures of the comparatively smaller tragedies.
The larger battles including the final one can as set pieces widen the scope of the game world. They can deepen the souls of its characters through trial by fire with those burnt suffering the deepest test of their characters. This intensity should come in the later/last battles. However, all battles should inspire some sort of innovation on the part of the PCs. They could use their skills and character knowledge/powers to invent new modes of war or defense. The PCs should at least try to strategize and think about their resources. They may need to seek out new resources or gather their existent monies to finance invention maybe built on plans that they have cultivated.
What about the Adventurers?
Speaking of Players and their characters, why wouldn’t a warring faction have need of them? Are not reputed adventurers themselves a sort of weapon, though often unpredictable, on the battlefield that can swing the fortunes of war on a whim? PCs should be assumed to be heading an army or allied much like individual magic-users. They may be a part of the army because they have similar interests or other secret motives. A small unit of famous adventurers is probably more valuable as a scouting unit, recruiters, espionage unit, and/or flank guards for important command units in the rear or middle ranks.
Adventurers that are not valued or are being mishandled can find themselves in the front ranks as skirmishers. Nevertheless, if the PCs are not in any command positions then wide scale battle simply turns into a nerve-racking bore with a mindless hackfest to follow. Granted the group can maneuver on the field to hit what they see as relevant targets in the course of the battle possibly bringing some attention to themselves. This proving themselves on the field may warrant a promotion to better positions later.
When implementing fantasy warfare in your games keep in mind the implications of fantastical munitions, weapons, warbeasts, and the arms race it can spark. Do not forget historical ancient unconventional warfare either. Also, learn the major strategies and logistics involved in the Big Four or any special units that will be involved and give the PCs plenty of opportunity to be affected by and to affect the outcome including when they are on the losing side. Though the in-game political climate and economic reasons may contribute to the cause of war, the primary motivations for powers to engage in it are often limited to fighting “evil”, for plunder, or conquest/imperialism.
The fantasy tropes of the battlefield (the Big Four) have their strengths and weaknesses though their advantages may outweigh their burdens vastly. It seems the best countermeasure against an enemy with even one of these heavy hitters at their disposal is to get one of your own. Essentially if one side has a good enough intelligence network or if they suffer a single defeat at the feet of one to these super-weapons then they will desperately seek to not only sabotage and undermine their enemy’s efforts but begin their own to match force for force. This can be interesting in that it will set off a magic medieval arms race; a very interesting prospect indeed.
The GM can use war to enhance their fantasy campaign by using it in escalating portions, induce player innovation, and as a set piece in the campaign to put exclamation marks at the desired points. According to my brief and shallow research on the subject, just about half of campaigns incorporate Mass Combat and warfare at least some of the time. Maybe it is time for more GMs and their groups to explore the gaming potential of fantasy warfare.
The siege-lines stand expectantly the earthworks finished and the bulwarks fully manned. The walls of the small stone fortress stand tall against them though surrounded by the enemy’s vastly superior force. For now all there is is time to wait, to wait for a breach in the walls or main gates should the enemy sappers be successful or for those within to starve if her constable were ill prepared. Suddenly without warning several fireballs streak from between the crenelations at the top of the curtain walls blasting the carefully built lines into a confused screaming mass of rubble and fire. The castle’s wizard has only just begun.
Wizards, or more generically mages, are another major issue on the fantasy battlefield to take into account when thinking about mass combat in RPGs. Since the early days of fantasy Wargaming, wizards have been included as valuable and powerful combat units though mainly as artillery pieces dressed in robes. As roleplaying-games advanced so did the magical powers of the wizard making them very powerful units on the battlefield and in support roles. They have always been a feature of the fantasy arena of war. However, the popular fantasy archetype has appeared the antithesis of this.
Popularly wizards (mages in general) in archetypal terms appear as very old men with long beards or young boys or girls that are as skilled as their rank of apprentice would imply. However, a mage at their peak of physical ability, say late teens to early 60’s maybe older depending on the setting, would actively seek out powers to align with often simply to advance their material needs. After all, magic is often an expensive endeavor even though you may be practicing it for purely personal reasons. In times of war, a mage might seek out or make overtures to a political power also out of selfish aims. In addition, serving a powerful leader may be the fast track for high ambitions.
Mages & Magic
In the most basic of terms, a wizard or mage is a magic user. That is they can cast spells and wield magic in the game. Depending on the game system you are using the details (especially the names) may vary wildly. However, for the purposes of this article Wizards are magic-users meaning that they are capable of casting spells.
Similarly, for the limits of this piece, magic is the wielding of supernatural power unexplainable via the natural world or science in any direct terms and is separate from religion. Any game related additions to this are simply not considered since the number of game rule systems out there is innumerable. So when it comes to magic and spells these will be discussed in general terms getting as specific as one can without relying on specific sets of rules or even direct abstract guidelines (i.e.: Power, Focus, Effect, etc.). The main concern is how the presence of a wizard alters the course of mass combat in a setting in a medieval type environment/world.
This essay will also assume certain points about wizards/mages to be true which are they can manipulate magic to a much higher degree than non-mages, they are generally physically more fragile than their fighter/soldier counterparts, and magic-users are generally reservoirs of esoteric or rare knowledge. The war wizard is also more of a Swiss army knife as compared to such super-weapons as dragon mounts or golems. They can fulfill more roles on the battlefield and in combat situations than just possessing greater firepower.
The Wizard at War
Deployed onto the battlefield, wizards can serve three basic military functions. These functions are as artillery, logistics operative, and battlefield intelligence.
As mystic artillery, a wizard hurls down spell fire onto the heads of the enemy. Spell fire being embodied by such effects and actions as hurling fireballs, calling down lightning and thunder, disintegrating specific targets as well as blasting enemy troops with wind, fire, water, ice, and light. Spell fire is the wizard’s specialty and possibly the most traditional role that they can play.
Once deployed into action however, a wizard serving as a living artillery piece is vulnerable to all of the dangers of the battlefield. Due to their frailness, this deployment strategy is unwise. Their low physicality is a definite liability on the field. The mage may even have protective spells or items on their person to make them more resistant in battle. However, if the enemy has any other supernatural weaponry or such technology as alchemy or clockwork (a la steampunk) available they may be able to take the mage out quite easily.
As magic-users are physically weaker than even a mundane peasant is, they may need fitting transportation such as a carriage or comfortable wagon. They will require spell components and possibly a lot of preparation time along with a sufficient salary to both prepare and for services rendered making them somewhat expensive for the war effort.
Nevertheless, Wizards may be at their most dangerous when behind walls and atop battlements and bulwarks. Here, they have the best protection from projectiles and opposing spell fire as well as gaining high ground advantages and a better view of the entire field. This is especially evident when a mage is at the top of a tower, a very archetypal place for them to be. The location most advantageous to a wizard is one protected and allowing for a wide range of view. This maximizes their potential, so having a wizard defending a fortress is the best default for a war mage.
Spell casters are also masters of military logistics due to their abilities of teleportation, weather control, summoning, and healing. Not all mages will have all of these abilities available at once but having even one of these at their disposal is a godsend to a military commander.
When it comes to teleportation, teleporting even small squads behind enemy lines or enemy fortifications are highly useful in making sabotage runs and night raids to weaken opposing positions. Even if this is limited to the teleportation of an individual, then teleporting messengers back and forth to improve the communications network is top priority. Having the superior communication network is a prime concern of any army and the wider and faster it can relay messages the better reaction time to any action the enemy takes.
Weather control is also indispensable since surprise fog banks can stall the enemy and grant cover to your forces for surprise attacks. Bad weather can stall out and even decimate enemy troops and encampments (think the Russian winter of 1812 and Napoleon). Even the manipulation of the weather in relatively small areas can have an immense impact such as clearing out a small patch of the battlefield for a special squad, for targeting, or causing a flashflood by concentrating rain in a small area further away thereby creating a nasty surprise disaster for the enemy. Clearing up bad weather can also speed an advance along even in the dead of winter.
Summoning monsters or additional forces even squads of mundane but vicious animals is of great use in surprise and harassment operations and on the immediate battlefield to help shore up the flanks, fortify weak spots in formations, or increase the momentum of a push against enemy lines.
Healing is not really an archetypal ability associated with wizards but they do have that potential. That is if they have access to healing magic then they can restore limbs, heal broken bones, or nearly fatal injuries thus helping to restore wounded soldiers to their units at a much faster pace than normal and reduce permanent casualties. In this capacity, they can also control disease, which can break out in battlefield triage facilities very easily as well as controlling infections that make wounds and battlefield surgeries so dangerous.
Again, this reduces casualties, increases turnaround, and prevents the breaking of the war machine by plague. The wizard in this capacity can also provide potions that can do much of this though on an individual basis helping to protect those of high rank and value without their presence being necessary allowing the mage to be active elsewhere.
Mystical Intelligence & Espionage Officer
The mystical abilities of scrying, sending out supernatural spies, and magical sabotage make the wizard at war even more valuable in the military intelligence role. Scrying, the visualization of actual events in a specific targeted area at a certain distance away, is invaluable for spying on the enemy and gathering intelligence as well as keeping an eye on your own troop movements. Witches of old were famed for using small vermin as spies, which allowed them to hear or see at a distance these usually being spiders, bats, or rats. Again, this is very useful for gaining intelligence.
Likewise, a mage can also try to limit what an enemy caster can see and hear as well as trying to manipulate their spies not to mention the intentional dispersion of false information and visions. This role can extend to espionage as well having the mage use magic to not only transmit or disguise (maybe even scramble) information for varying purposes but also to make direct attempts at sabotage against the enemy.
Mystical sabotage can take the forms of curses, inducing such things as falls or equipment failure, and sickening or killing beasts of burden as well as spoiling food supplies. This last fact alone should induce the enemy to hire on at least one wizard to help protect their forces and materiel against such long distance and devastating attacks versus which they may have no other effective defense.
A role most mages fit into most naturally aside from intelligence and espionage when it comes to war is that of an active support unit. They can remain behind the lines or at least at camp and serve in a support role that still takes full advantage of their arcane skills and powers.
Along these lines, a mage can provide some of the best protection available, magical protection. Mages can cast lingering magic that protects against damage from siege engines, provide charms against enemy spells, and protect against such battlefield hazards as fire even acid or lightning bolts. This includes raising certain arcane defenses like magical force fields and triggered spells such as a lightning bolt firing off at an incoming dragon or griffin mounted air-cavalry from a tower spire.
This protective potential is probably most advantageous when used to protect or proof an important fortress. Encampments as well are potential wards of the protective wizard. A limited location that is typically fortified should be the focus of the protective role of the wizard. This includes mystical alarms and the ability to know when a perimeter, probably marked out by magic of course, is breached.
The communications role of wizards is exceptionally vital. Communications is the nervous system of the whole war machine, its central control, how commanders steer it. Orders could be relayed in a matter of seconds over distances that would take days or even weeks using normal means of communication. This also means that forces could not be effectively cut-off without the intervention of an opposing magic user thus building in sensitivity to enemy magicians.
After all, if a part of your force suddenly goes dark and they possess arcane communication tools then an enemy wizard or other supernatural agent must be at work. Combining a wizard with mundane battlefield communications methods (trumpets, drums, flags, banners, etc.) can create a very advanced and reliable communication network almost rivaling the modern high tech versions maybe even surpassing them in some instances.
Not only the fantasy equivalent of a tactical radio set mages also serve as vast reservoirs of knowledge especially about other fantastical weapons of note. This may include the know how to build them, find them, or more importantly counter-act and destroy them. In this capacity, they may rely on their mystical communication abilities to link up to a special task force of adventurers trusted with gaining intelligence about, obtaining, destroying, or delaying a special weapon such as dragon riders or golems. In this respect, the mage essentially serves as the adventurers’ quest coordinator or in a military liaison/spy master capacity.
A certain type of mage bears discussion at this point, the necromancer. A necromancer is a magic user that can summon and speak to the spirits of the dead as well as manipulate and animate the dead sometimes able to even create undead creatures. They also occasionally have the wretched ability of manipulating and creating disease as well as the dark energies that provide this kind of power.
Necromancers can wage mystic bio-warfare, turn casualties into reinforcements, sap the will of the enemy to fight by weakening soldiers’ physical-ness or sickening them, and sending spirits to harass them at camp thereby denying them rest and peace of mind before a battle. Aside from being able to spread sickness and animate the dead necromancers can fulfill the intelligence aspect almost to a greater degree than most other wizards as traditionally they could summon and communicate with the spirits of the dead or at least speak with any corpses still capable of speech.
The known presence of such a spell caster on the field may lead the enemy to mutilate their dead to prevent the corpses from speaking and take drastic measures like trapping their souls in jars or gems (maybe using a legendary item) to prevent their spirits from being summoned. This action is extreme, can be construed as evil, and may have unintended consequences such as the rendering of your soldiers to soulessness and the potential for them to rise again as uncontrolled undead after being slain. Even releasing their soul may leave behind a confused ghost that eternally searches the old battlefield looking for their long lost corpse.
The bio-weapon aspect of necromancers, the spreading of disease even plague, is possibly the nastiest option in their dark armory. They could conceivably spread infection covertly amongst targets like cities and fortresses long before the conquering army gets there thereby weakening any resistance by vast degrees. It is a definite bonus if these diseases are magical and raise their victims from the dead as zombies or ghouls that the necromancer can control as well. However, that could get out of hand very quickly. In the same vein, the necromancer would need to provide their allies with an antigen to prevent their army from falling victim to the same sickness. Granted the allied army is not already an army of the dead that is.
The Lich and the Army of the Dead
In the same dark box as the necromancer, there is yet another even more dangerous and notorious magic user, the Lich. Liches, that traditional archenemy of fantasy adventurers, can turn out to be a valuable asset for the side employing them, cautiously mind you, if they themselves are not the core of the enemy leadership anyway. Liches can head an army, even if small, of undead creatures, useful in and of itself. This undead force may be resistant to most mundane attacks. Such undead wizards may also have the power to fulfill most of the roles that a war wizard could, maybe even have the power to take on roles that would take more than one average wizard at a time.
However, this legion of the undead may pose more of a hazard than an advantage and even may utterly devastate or contaminate the very lands you were hoping to conquer with dark energies. This is true whether the lich decides to stay loyal to any one side or not. They may very well turn on their allies in a heartbeat at the worst possible moment. Whenever a lich led army of the dead shows up on the battlefield, it is usually a very, very bad thing.
Fret not, there are countermeasures to use against a wizard deployed onto the battlefield. The most obvious and easiest would be arrows and various missile weapons, which can target the mage from afar as well as those archers with exceptional skill that could act as snipers. Just like any soldier on the field an arrow can kill, maim, or at least disrupt a mage. However, note that a skilled wizard usually has some sort of defense already in place to defeat arrows and missile weapons. Of course, a good commander could try such things as leveling a ballista or catapult at them just to test their defenses. Barring arrow fire, protective magic and magic items can help to counter some of the enemy wizard’s spell fire and curses.
This applies to spells that a mage for hire may have cast, those items that comprise a quest’s MacGuffin, or something that only a specific mage NPC can provide. Again, a side quest for PCs appears where they must seek out a wizard in order to obtain some protective items or one really rare artifact. Note also that items to protect non-player individuals are important as well. An example being certain officers having protective fetishes to ward off disease, spirits, or certain magic spells.
However, the best option is to recruit (or conscript if possible) your own wizard who is hopefully just as if not more skilled and/or powerful than the opposition mage. Additionally, if you have the resources, hiring more than a single wizard is the best bet.
The only things that can counter spell-casters on the field besides archers, magic, and other casters are units that can get real close real fast such as assassins or ranger-types and other magic-users or just very mobile warriors. It is in the prudent general’s best interest to have at least two of the previous in their ranks. This is another reason to keep a wizard in a protected area such as at the top of a parapet.
Wizards have great potential despite their minimalist physicality on the fantasy battlefield. They are a powerful weapon, invaluable support unit, and indispensable intelligence provider. Their presence introduces complication into what can be a standard battle scenario. The opposition must respond in order to maintain the balance power (or terror in the case of necromancers and liches) on the field and even seek out mages as countermeasure against certain other ultimate weapons of the fantasy world.
Even though they are fragile and perhaps even sickly, wizards are the most flexible of the mystical super-weapons of fantasy warfare and often come equipped with more character than a phalanx of golems, a flight of dragon-mounts, or a legion of the undead (hopefully).
A group of dirty, battle-beaten warriors surveys the smoking battlefield and its human wreckage. A ruined plane-scape littered with the corpses of soldiers, horses, and other unfortunate beasts, the soil turning into black mud as it mixes and congeals with their spilled blood. The war engines are shattered and the wagons destroyed. The remnants burning blackening the sky with choking smoke. The few of their war banners still aflutter in the cold winds of failure are in tatters.
However, these warriors are not the villains’ but instead the Player Characters’ (PCs), the dead that litter the field are their soldiers. Their army is devastated and will never be whole again. The PCs dreams lie broken, their military power crushed. Now is the time for quiet contemplation, for introspection. How one endures victory and shares its spoils is less important than how one accepts failure, this speaks to one’s true character.
The tactical disaster on the battlefield can expose PCs to something they may not always experience, absolute loss and failure. The failure should be their own, it is through their decisions or the decisions of those that they have allowed to remain in charge have led to this military disaster. This utter failure not only impacts the Players but their characters as well. It can lead the Player to expose more of their character in the game in how they deal with it, through blame shifting, self-martyring, anger, emotional instability, explosion of energy, etc.
In game, this failure becomes the fork in the road and forces the PCs to take some action, any action. The victory of the enemy changes the atmosphere of the world if not its landscape. Doom and darkness hovers thick in the air clouding the future the PCs had envisioned. The enemy is now on top of the world and the PCs brought to earth. However, the Players and their characters need not lie down and call it a day. It is time to struggle down the road ahead. Failure is its own adventure where the PCs must find themselves before the end of that journey.
The effects on the Player and their characters bring us to ask what exactly constitutes a Tactical Disaster. A Tactical Disaster is an overwhelming loss of a combatant’s force to their enemy with overall strategic repercussions on the war effort with little to no chance of recovering the shattered force. This disaster has not only crippled the participatory force but also compromised its cause bringing total failure of that cause into vivid clarity. Essentially a tactical disaster is a lost battle that ruins the main military force and the repercussions threaten its primary cause. It begins with a single or series of fatal decisions.
Bad Decisions can be a fateful decision to attack, failure to call in reinforcements or the failure to know that the enemy had additional reserve forces as well as being outmaneuvered due to commander inflexibility or failure to answer that maneuvering effectively. A good historical example is Napoleon invading Russia suffering the devastation of his most experienced forces. He followed that up by a series of smaller mistakes in Waterloo. Of course, Waterloo was the beginning of his end as well as the end of the Napoleonic Empire. With PCs, their Waterloo may not be their end but a climax to some specific wants and plans.
An overwhelming loss on the field is also a defining characteristic of a tactical disaster. The losing force has been decimated suffering mass casualties including those that are crippled, those whose military careers are over, and those who have run away, deserters who will never rejoin the losing side and may in time become a problem by themselves. This is due by their surviving by raiding and robbing after all, there is no more military salary. The victor may not recruit Ex-soldiers, as their level of loyalty may be in question.
The resources that went into building, recruiting, and outfitting the Players’ force are essentially spent or were a one-time luck out. These resources are gone including the loss of life and that loss cannot be recouped limiting the PCs ability to not only reconstitute their lost force but any attempts to build a new one at least in time to win the current conflict if it isn’t already lost.
The term resource also applies to allies and any political favors or political cache spent in raising and deploying the PC army. Remember their defeat on the battlefield has changed the political landscape. Former allies may turn coat or themselves be defeated in a sooner rather than later “clean-up” campaign by the enemy. In fact, a mass of bloody assassinations may devastate the political landscape shortly after a massive defeat.
In the Scope of War’s Landscape
There will be a turning point during the battle when the disaster will become evident. This moment is critical and alters the course of warfare. It changes the path that the PCs traverse through the landscape of war dramatically. The landscape of war is what lays before all the characters during battle and it has its distinct phases that are altered when a Tactical Disaster is in the process of occurring. These phases are the Face-Off, the Battle proper, the Aftermath, and the Consequences. Note that the path that the characters “hopefully” will try to traverse is that of Strategy and that the GM should try to work in a Twist in the latter part of the Battle proper.
The turning point may come in the middle of the battle phase or at the twist wherever that falls. A Tactical Disaster deeply effects the final two phases (aftermath and long-term consequences) although it can already be evident that the PCs are going into a losing battle especially after a fateful decision either before or during the early stages of battle.
The aftermath phase of a battle will be the first major turning point after the incredible loss on the field. The PCs will most likely be forced into retreat and thus the struggle while on the run to escape capture (being highly valued targets) becomes the focus. With these practical game events, a good GM does not shirk the atmosphere to set the mood and bring the internal of the Players’ characters to the surface.
This setting of atmosphere should come during a brief lull after the battle where the Players are surveying the ruins on the field. Take the time to build an atmosphere of somber tragedy or energetic desperation while on the run. The cliché of hiding in a barn after a desperate dash for freedom is another prime time to go heavy on atmosphere and give the players some quiet time.
Hopefully the first lull should melt into a quiet time of self-reflection. It should give time for reflection. The PCs should get an assessment of the depth of their failure. If they cannot survey the field, the tragedy of their failure should become evident in other ways. After this reflection time, the GM should improvise something that will present as an opportunity for the PCs to leave behind their failure at least temporarily. Give the PCs a way out, a safe place where they can rebuild themselves. Even if it is a long diversion from what was the main thrust of the campaign assuming that the battle was a part of this focus. Reflection time may also guide the PCs attentions towards the consequences of their disaster.
The consequences can be a litany of negative situations/scenarios coming one after the other. These could be the retreating remnants of the smashed army becoming highwaymen or small bands of raiders with some working their way home leaving a trail of disaster. This consequence may carry with it a compulsion on the part of the PCs to fix it since it was unquestionably unleashed by their failure.
There is also the matter of angry relatives or communities from whence the lost fighters originated. This frustration and grief-based anger would be directed at the PCs for their folly, which cost them their sons, daughters, lively hoods, etc. The PCs may share the brunt of the blame for any misfortunes that may follow as well. These either as direct results of the Tactical Disaster or those that happen indirectly even those that are completely unrelated to the loss but are coincidental.
A tactical failure and following battlefield disaster can not only tear down a character exposing their innermost workings but also help to build upon what is left. This demonstrating how they are recovering and what lasting lessons or effects they take with them. A tactical failure is an exercise in character building and players should not shrug this opportunity. More so than a victory, this allows Players a vast panorama to role-play through to a new horizon.
How the character reacts or deals with their failure helps to expose and build that character’s internal mechanisms deepening their personality thus engaging and endearing that character to their player. This can also help the other players and their characters to bond more closely to that character or at least relate better with that character and their reactions and motives.
This type of character building is dependent first on the GM. They must present opportunity after they have left the characters to wallow a bit in the aftermath of their failure. After this, the impetus is on the players to act on these opportunities or react to them as well as to their failure. Do the PCs leap to action, do they have a plan, or do they retreat abandoning their former aspirations or to seek them elsewhere? These are the types of questions the Players should be asking of their characters. They should actively be trying to answer these questions. Of course, they should also be asking after their followers and their own reputations, as should the Game-Master.
Failure may turn a PC’s followers against them dramatically affecting their ability to command. This forces the Player to role-play the situation to try to recover their influence or even to maintain their position as head of the army. They will carry the reputation for disastrous failure and any followers are sure to rethink their idolatry at least temporarily regardless of the gravity of the PCs personality.
Value to the GM
Savvy Game-Masters can make good use of a Tactical Disaster. It serves as a stumbling block that forces the Players into a mode of pure role-play, can motivate the players into pay-back mode, and/or cause the campaign to take a new byroad through exploration of what went wrong in the first place.
As an obstacle the failure can demoralize the Players however, this also allows for character growth based on their reactions to their loss. It may also force introspection, hopefully not just strategic either, on the whys of their failure and the consequences sure to follow. Another aspect to keep in mind is the manner in which they may grasp at an opportunity brought about by their failure or those that may lead away from it. How did a specific PC react to hitting this stumbling block, did they curl up in the fetal position, did they cry, did they stand back up and dust themselves off but still shed a single macho tear?
The Tactical Disaster can also spur the PCs to try harder or desire some well-earned payback against the victor or those they have come to view as primarily responsible. The PCs may even take any chance for petty revenge. They may try to track down some distant allies or retreat to a specified location in order to regroup, plan, and gather new resources. This will inevitably lead them to question their actions and the manner of their loss.
Player explorations of why it happened should be encouraged even in meta-gaming fashion and then guided to translate those thoughts to their characters. They can run scenarios that could have granted them victory or they may discover that they could never win or even that they were betrayed or find the element that defeated them. These exploration sessions will help the Players and thus their characters come to some conclusions and allow them to come to a point of action or at least decision so that the game can move on.
Whereas victory can stoke the ego, a failure lays a soul bare. A victory has its own burdens to bear especially the inevitable fall from the elation of a win to that of normalcy. Failure on the field of battle is a much heavier thing. An utter failure will strip a character of any pretense forcing some sorts of introspection at the very least forcing them to ask what went wrong. The characters when given a chance by the GM will make the decision to react, act, or take the game in a different direction thus altering and building their in-game personae. A failure in some ways is more valuable than a victory and somewhat more useful to the GM. When PCs are first brought to their lowest point their ultimate victory is accentuated. Along the way they would have traveled a road that transformed their characters and deepened their understanding of them and the game world.
Two armies face off across open grassland. The sun is high and the spearheads and polished helms of both sides glitter and glare brilliantly in the intense sunlight. The air taught with anticipation, every sweating man is on edge and a combination of fear and anxiousness causes the soldiers in their formations to sway out of sync slightly. Regardless the colorful and varied war banners of both sides writhe in the slight breeze.
The shouts of the sergeants beat the nervous air like a drum skin thrumming into the soldiers’ ears. Feet begin to march in step thumping along the ground, stomping grasses, sending a continuing pulse through the earth. The front ranks of skirmishers move towards a similar oncoming line under the fire of slingers and the arrows of archers. As both lines reach a certain distance from one another, they charge screaming their battle cry at each other tearing sod until they crash together. Suddenly a mind-shattering roar blasts the air drowning out the battle cries and death moans of hundreds of men. Bloodied faces turn to the sky in terror.
The few sergeants still able to keep themselves together on one side call for archers to take formation and the ballistae to ready. Soldiers in the rear ranks raise their scuta in a semi-Tortuga formation for the archers to take shelter between. Then the shadows of the roaring beasts become visible as they make their attack descending from their typical flight pattern parallel to the sun. Dragons and on their backs their riders wielding the beasts themselves as both war-mount and weapon. Immediately they strafe the front lines of the enemy unleashing gouts of flesh and steel melting flames.
Fusillades of arrows and bolts fly but most are flung away by the massive beats of the monsters’ wings. A few lucky shots bring one beast down and another loses its rider as he flew too far into the center of the enemy force risking snatching up a general. However, in the end, the side without the dragons eventually breaks formation and a majority of its men flees for their lives. The veteran core surrenders, as they stood too long to run away. The enemy’s counter-measures had made the victory expensive but the victor’s massive investment in a handful of dragonriders ultimately won them the battle and perhaps the war.
What fantasy battlefield is complete without a dragon or two? In particular, what fantasy army would not try to take advantage of such a powerful and fearsome animal in the form of trained beast or better yet, as the mount of a rider? A dragonrider is the ultimate weapon when talking medieval fantasy battles. It is the equivalent of an air force and its fiery breath the equal of hellfire missiles against armored men, horses, and wooden engines of war. These beasts of legend could be the ultimate advantage on the field against any enemy that lacks aerial capability even rendering the defensive value of fortresses and even castles ineffective.
Dragons on the Field
The dragon is a creature that is very common to fantasy RPGs and which has deep mythological roots but for the purposes of war, we need only know of its offensive potential. The intelligence and trainability of dragons may vary radically depending on the world or setting of your game. In fact, in certain settings dragons may be the powers behind the fielded armies in the first place. However, we are concerned with the general definition of the dragon around which we will build the tactics, logistics, and counter-strategies required for operation on the battlefield. This definition will also allow the dragon to be ridden by a single rider or a crew either as a beast or as companion.
Dragons are physically powerful reptile-like creatures with claws and teeth and the ability to fly. They possess a breath weapon of some kind but it is typically fire. They can range in size from horse-size to the size of elephants or even whales. This definition answers the standard fantasy trope and will assume that the dragon can be used as a mount as mentioned previously. The only things left to answer are the famous penchant of dragons for hoarding treasure and their level of intelligence.
The dragon hoarding behavior may be retained and even manipulated by its crew or rider by rewarding or awarding medals for battlefield performance (this behavior more directly addressed and thoroughly discussed in Tabletop Meditations #6: Dragons) as positive reinforcement. If they are actual recruits instead of just battle beasts then pay in gold coin or gems is also a motivator as well as providing satisfaction for an ingrained behavior of the dragon. However, this behavior can get out of control such as when spotting a gleaming object on the ground or dropping to the ground in mid-flight to snatch up a shiny but useless piece of trash. A knowledgeable enemy could use this quirk to bait the dragon into a trap while en route to the field. The dragon regardless of how intelligent it is might remain a slave to its animal instincts.
Conceivably training a dragon is similar to that of a mundane animal though using somewhat different methods. If they are close in intelligence to humans then training requires other tricks and modes of training to coerce or lull them into servitude. However, if more than or just as intelligent as humans then dragons could head armies as elite troops, officers, or perhaps even its overlord. It is safe to say that if a dragon is a mount with a rider or aerial platform with a crew then dragons, at least of that type, are of one of the first two orders of intelligence. This is not to say that there is not a variety of different dragon species in the given setting however.
Advantages of an Air Force
Though the advantages of a battle dragon are numerous, the primary one and the one that is most obvious is the use of dragons as a sort of air force, which could easily dominate a medieval battlefield even over other non-draconic flying creatures. They have the supreme advantages of pure intimidation factor, the choice of taking a single action that could turn the tide of battle, and the option of making targeted attacks from the air.
The pure intimidation factor of these types of creatures would definitely have a negative effect on the morale of the enemy. This is especially true if the other side lacks a dragon-force of any type. This may lead to some weaker enemies and just competent enough generals into surrendering immediately. However, the rider may need their dragon to encourage the enemy retreat by roaring, blowing flame into the air, or sending a windblast via a wing beat towards the enemy’s front lines.
Wing Beats from such a large and powerful animal would have the potential to blow over light wagons (especially covered wagons, they would catch the wind), knock back a few troops, or raise a blast of obscuring dust. Such a tactic might also halt the advance of a small unit either to buy time or to set them up for an offensive action.
Of course, this action will probably not deal any damage but is a delay tactic coupled with the intimidation factor of the dragon. However, the main reason to recruit dragons to your side in the first place is to win and dragons are capable of making battle-turning actions. A battle-turning/winning action is a single action that can alter the tide of battle. These types of actions can tilt the favor to the dragonriders’ side. In the very least, these types of actions can devastate the enemy opening a chance for the opposition to take up a winning position or enact a victorious strategy. Of course, all of these winning strategies involve strafing the slower grounded targets.
Dragons can strafe using their breath weapon or their natural weapons such as claws, tail, or bite. If the dragon has horns then those as well. A flyby using those natural weapons can devastate individual soldiers, wagons, smaller war-engines, and even small squads of warriors while allowing the dragon to get out of harm’s way simultaneously. Using the breath weapon in a strafing attack is always effective and especially deadly to naval vessels due to the rigging, sails, and tarring.
War dragons can also use targeted attacks in order to contribute or enact specific strategies. Targeted attacks are those strategically aimed at specific goals. This includes attacking such high value targets as supply wagons, war machines, and disrupting individual units especially command units or even commanders. This type of attack often has the dragon fly in and snatch up an individual or group of individuals then fly straight up and drop them.
Now, if the point of the attack is to take out a specific individual or group then all the beast has to do is let them go. However, if it is to disrupt a unit then using those in the dragon’s grip as a drop-projectile is the main strategy by swooping around and then diving in at full speed just before releasing the unfortunates at top speed. Another targeted attack is to go after wagons and war engines which can be as simple as overturning them damaging them and causing the enemy crew to occupy themselves righting/repairing the engines or wagons as well as picking up the spillage. The dragon’s natural powers are the ‘A’ strategies but the tactical ability of the rider and dragon mount can always be enhanced.
Riders and Weapons
A smart commander would of course want to try to enhance the offensive capabilities of their war dragons and their riders, conventionally achieved by arming and armoring them. However, which weapons are the most effective from the back of a dragon and what are best suited to the dragon itself? The most obvious possibilities are the archery skills of the rider, lances and spears, and flechettes or weighted darts. The previous are also probably the best options unless alchemical grenades are available.
Archery is no good if the dragon has strong instincts to snatch or snap at arrows flying around their faces or within reach (used to snatch birds from the air as food on the go). However, this instinct may help with defense against incoming arrows and other small projectiles. Another question to answer is about stability. Is the dragon a stable enough platform for average skilled archers to fire from, if not, then archery is not a good option. This is true even if it is no problem for elite archers, those are expensive and take time to train and/or gain experience.
In any case, the dragon can still be a bombardier. The rider can drop weapons and/or explosives on the enemy from above, hopefully from heights too high for them to retaliate with arrows. Also, do not forget that baskets of rocks, iron balls, or sling bullets can be used in a similar fashion. When it comes to forged weaponry, it is probably best to rely on the dragon’s natural assets for direct attack and then use the rider’s ability to drop things as a precision attack unless the situation calls for a bombing run.
Dragons and Weapons
Dragon Barding (armor) and blade spurs (like a fighting-cock); tail blades/weights are all possibilities to arm the creature. However, the dragon’s natural weapons are probably more effective than any manufactured device of the medieval level. Barding may increase the creature’s defenses but may be more of a burden as it stands to slow the dragon down and interfere with its flight ability. A chest plate to protect the creature from heart shots is conceivable but its slight defense value might still be outweighed by the weight burden or any restrictions to dexterity.
Where lances and similar weapons would be most useful is in Dragon-to-Dragon duels. However, lances and spears may not be very practical in that the forces involved may overwhelm the lancer. A large dragon hauling a crew on its back may employ long spears to fend off attacking dragons as well as possibly using crossbows all in defense of their dragon instead of for use on grounded enemy. However, in these fights the dragon’s own fighting ability and its natural weapons would play the most vital part in the confrontation.
Logistics & Dragons
With beasts as mighty and as large as dragons, the logistics are a nightmare. Dragons as war beasts require control, they demand vast resources, and of course, they need to eat. The most pressing concern is a constant food supply. Foraging or farm pillage may not satisfy this. Overstretched supply lines and scorched earth can make it an impossibility.
Assuming that like a Red-Tailed Hawk a dragon must eat 1/20th of its own body weight in food per day with maybe a day or two of fasting each week, a single 1,000lb dragon would require 50lbs of food per day; 250lbs per seven-day minimum. Note that this amount is not just to stave off starvation but also to prevent succumbing to their predatory instincts. They require enough food to prevent them from preying on the beasts of burden on whose backs the army supply train moves or cavalry mounts thus reducing the army’s military might. They might even snatch up their own troops as a meal if they are starving. This is where control over the mighty winged beasts comes in.
By training the beast as in training a war mount or soldier, the latter if the creature is intelligent, can achieve the control an army can make use of although the dragons’ instincts might still be an issue. However, training can make them a bit more predictable and safety assured as long as personnel practice respect for the creatures. In certain cases, mystical bonding might be an avenue of control. Nevertheless, this narrow avenue is reserved for specific individuals like the bonding of a hatchling bird with the first creature it sees upon hatching. This would limit this avenue by setting and to specific individuals who could have any motive in serving.
Commanders would probably prefer this type of control on the battlefield but it depends highly on the rider. The last option is drugs if possible, most settings set up dragons to be immune to most drugs or toxins though. This does not discount a very special type of narcotic that dragons may be vulnerable to at least to render them passive enough for training. The type or species of the dragon may limit this.
The flight speed of dragons is an awesome advantage but also contributes to the logistical nightmare that they pose. Riders need to be careful as to not out run their main forces and careful not to stretch the supply lines too thin too quickly. However, it is a strategic advantage to use dragonriders as an advance scouting/assault party. Of course, dragon combat-units require some sort of lodging at rest in fact any encampment especially in inclement weather would require some sort of cover for the dragons. Dragon units when following an army would have to have some space between them and the main force in order to keep an element of surprise and to allow far ranging forage. The range of the dragonrider units in an army would have to have constant reliable communication lines and would have to vary their distance and speed based on immediate needs.
Sheer cost is the last concern when dealing with dragonriders when not only to acquire, train, and maybe drug them but also to equip and feed them along with the infrastructure needed. A good commander might also want to invest in a good Draco-veterinarian and several dragon-grooms as waste management would be an issue though alchemists might make use of the draconic excretions.
The Weak Spot
For all of their strengths dragons do have a few exploitable weaknesses on the battlefield. Their obvious weaknesses, which are few, rest with their willfulness and greedy nature, their vulnerability to projectiles as flying creatures, but their primary weakness lay with their riders. The ability to take out singular riders could be enough to neutralize a dragon-unit. This is especially true if bonded with their rider and/or of an animalistic nature. The rider or captain of the crew will always have a target on their back for enemy sharpshooters.
Infiltrators could exploit the dragon units’ willfulness particularly in mating season if a female in heat could be wrangled and flown into the middle of a battle formation on the move. Setting up an obvious food source in places like box canyons and similar obvious ambush sites could also have the effect of forcing the rider and their dragon to have a struggle of wills. Likewise, their greed leaves them open to baiting with shiny and/or valuable objects. Rumors of treasure if they are intelligent may also be an effective exploit of both their greed and natural steadfastness.
Although dragons may be vulnerable to projectiles in flight, they still have some natural defenses. If they have the bird-snatch instinct, they will swat at all projectiles coming towards them. In addition, their wings can interfere due to sheer size causing air turbulence deflecting most arrows. The threat level of projectile weapons is reliant on the speed and height in the air of the dragon. This is especially true if a combatant is targeting the rider instead of the dragon.
This lack of any single great weakness leads many a mediocre commander to rest their entire war strategy on their dragons. For the most part these commanders are justified in doing so especially if they have a few dragon-born victories under their belts. However, this means that if the opposition can find a way to disable or otherwise neutralize the enemy dragons they can win the day on the field.
Countering the Dragon
There are countermeasures a clever opposition commander might take to defend or disable enemy dragonriders. The most practical would be units bearing long spears, lances, or arranged in phalanxes bristling with sarissas. They could take the Tortuga formation and use their spears to present spines to an attacking dragon. Of course, this only counters a dragon’s strafe with claws, horns, teeth, and tail. Archer regiments are another countermeasure letting vast volleys of arrows fly when a dragon comes into range mostly hoping to hit the rider/crew. Among them may be sharpshooters that aim for the rider or a vital point on the dragon like eyes or nostrils. War engines such as Ballistae, Scorpions, and/or Mangonels are essentially anti-aircraft artillery though ammunition might need modification.
Just as well, catapults can launch the dragon’s favorite food either to divert them or to poison them if possible. It is possible to stuff a large animal carcass with gunpowder as well hoping the dragon will explode when it swallows. In a similar vein, the use of poisoned bait and fouling or poisoning water holes in the path of the traveling dragon units could also work at least to delay them.
Note that if dragons are immune to the poison then this tactic is still useful as the riders may still fall victim. In the case of fortresses, outposts, and castles, roofs tiled with metal sheets and/or studded with spikes and nails as well as chain curtains/canopies with barbs and hooks could keep dragons from settling on top and blasting the inhabitants through windows and from the tops of walls and towers. Similarly, sharp iron spikes jutting from the tops and edges of walls and fortifications could do the same.
Value to the Game Master
In game terms, dragonriders on the battlefield are of great value to the Game-Master. They can pose an immediate danger and superior threat to any battle plans the Player Characters (PCs) may have in action. Dragonriders also act as a spectacular Set Piece. Moreover, they can become a new and sudden goal for the PCs to shoot for. As a set piece, a dragon attack can put some punctuation in the course of a battle as well turning the focus.
Maybe the PCs have to take out a dragon or two before the big battle if they are on the side without dragonriders or help in the countermeasures to combat them. If the PCs allies have dragonriders then perhaps the dragons require protection from enemy hit squads and countermeasures such as going behind lines to eliminate a war engine capable of downing their beasts or eliminating enemy saboteurs.
The Final Word
Of course, allied dragon riders will be an elite and highly valued force on the battlefield and in sieges and assaults against fortified positions and enemy fortresses. Dragon riders on the opposing side are a terror and it will be the responsibility of the commanders to have the proper countermeasures in place and hope for the greatest of luck on the bloody fields of war against the enemy’s dragon fire. Dragons on the battlefield are a combined Set Piece, ultimate threat/weapon, and the root of any number of potential plot points. The PCs can protect, combat, or master them and Game Masters can up the ante of any fantasy battle between the Player Characters, their allies, and their enemies. In any fantasy world where dragons exist, why wouldn’t they participate?