I’ve written another Hubpages article: How to Write an RPG Adventure. It reveals the methods of writing and the structure of a typical fantasy RPG adventure. However, those familiar with my past articles can skip the “RPG Structure Primer” section.
Imagine the earth shake as it stomps towards the enemy. The absolute pride and sureness of the mage-general behind it. And the utter terror of those poor sods standing in its way. They with only the steel in their hands to fend off the charging horde of giants shaped of clay, stone, and metal.
Though very difficult to procure even more so to create if not impossible, the Golem Army is an option in fantasy warfare worth exploring. It can provide an overwhelming force to overcome. As well as a goal of a campaign or long quest, or a powerful war machine that requires care in its assemblage and handling.
This military machine or collection thereof could run down most infantry and even Calvary units. The only unit that the golem army would have any disadvantages against would be flying units such as dragons. We will get to those later. A golem army is a collection of animated creatures, magical constructs, and generally golems, which are mostly semi-autonomous. That is when given an order they fulfill it without further instruction. The potential of such a force even a single unit of golems is too great to ignore.
Reasons to assemble or even make the attempt are numerous. However the main points being it can be a line-breaker, shield-breaker, or sap unit. It is an army of war-engines. They can be extremely effective against such battlefield tactics as the Shield Wall or the Tortuga. Golems can easily break skirmish lines or push the enemy line back allowing a clever general to maneuver the enemy into positions beneficial to them. They can also break sieges just as easily as forming them and smash through fortifications and walls like battlefield miners. In these situations, moats may only serve to delay them rather than completely stopping them or limiting the effectiveness of such barriers.
Golems can also lob boulders depending on their raw strength like true siege-engines. The only real question here is where to get the ammo if it is not already lying about on the field of battle. Essentially adding to the logistics of the golem force should the general want the projectile option open.
The golem army poses a few new interesting angles for the GM. From providing the McGuffin to providing the main threat used by the villain of a campaign. The creation of such an army by the PCs is often not a problem as the game system itself probably has many controls regulating the production of golems and animated objects often limiting the number that a single mage can create and/or control. This does complicate things but nothing a smart and resourceful group or organization of characters can accomplish. This allows for a set up that is its own series of adventures for the builder and those wanting to obstruct them. However, system specifics are beyond the scope of this discussion.
The ability to assemble such a magnificent and wondrous engine of destruction will vary from system to system and game-world to game-world therefore this essay will focus on the finer points of the Golem Army leaving the system and setting specifics to individual GM’s and Players.
In the terms of this work, a Golem is a magical construct. Essentially in RPG terms, a magical construct is a magical device that mimics the most basic features of a living being barring reproduction. An RPG golem is an animate, semi-autonomous magical construct created for the purpose of guardianship or protection, in this case as a military war-engine, accomplished through its shear might and durability. It is powerful wizards and those who are privy to powerful magical knowledge that create these creatures for such purposes. The constructs often lack the ability to speak and to think for themselves though they can understand, follow, and execute their master’s orders (More thoroughly discussed in Tabletop Meditations #15: The Golem).
Types of Golems
There are different types of golems based on the materials from which they are constructed. The most common being clay, stone, metal, and flesh among other less common materials. However, we will focus on the basic concept of the golem. The aspects of a different type of golem should be taken into account if they are used. An example would be a unit of flesh golems marching unarmored against a fortification that is hurling fire-pots, sling bullets, and arrows at them.
They would be much more vulnerable to damage than say if the same unit were of clay or stone golems. Why a general would settle for flesh golems instead might include such considerations as cost, time to create, or even availability, perhaps they are just easier to make ne masse. Of course, the general then has to assess their vulnerabilities and equip them to try to mitigate the weakness of animated flesh. In this case equipping the flesh golems with heavy weapons and plate armor would definitely be an option that should be considered.
Animated statues and armor can also be included in this discussion and are in basic terms magical constructs but are much less powerful though just as if not more durable than true golems. These lesser types however are most likely not semi-autonomous and require formal controllers for every move that they make. In this case the vulnerability that must be accounted for are the controllers whom need protection. The range that their control extends is a part of the logistics that cannot be forgotten. The enemy surely will try to exploit any obvious weaknesses, which would be glaring in juxtaposition to such a brutally strong force.
After assessing the essentials, cost, creation, and any profound weaknesses, the golem general needs to figure out where his golems fit into his overall military organization. The basics of a medieval military force formation are the Vanguard, the Core, the Flanks, Rear Guard, and the Skirmish line or Skirmishers. Each section of this overall battlefield organization is broken down to military units such as a certain number of archers counting as an archery unit, horsemen with light armor and lances as a cavalry unit etc. On top of that is the command structure to keep all of that under control and maneuver it on the field of battle.
The Vanguard is the forward force leading during the march to the battle and stays in the rear center ranks consisting of elite and command units where the lord of the army may be sitting to oversee the battle. The Core or middle ranks is the central body of the army its battlefield formation consisting of all of the regular army units and their officers. The Flanks are to the far right and left side of the Core or middle and consist of smaller but strong units in order to secure the flanks from attack limiting the vulnerability of the core of the army from unexpected attacks from different angles.
The Rear Guard is the units at the rear of the main force and behind the Vanguard securing the entire army from an attack from the rear. The Skirmishers are often irregulars that form a battle line in front of the main force a few lines deep and are sent ahead to test the enemy’s defenses and strengths. These troops are typically equipped to balance speed and attack power as they are also used to exhaust and harass the enemy prior to the engagement of any units from the main force. There are also Scouting Parties which are either formed from certain main units or are their own specialized light units which are more use on the march than on the actual battlefield. Scouts might be of more use to guard the camp during the battle. However, golems are pretty much useless as scouts.
In a typical medieval force, the controllers and masters of the golems would most likely hold the rank of sergeant over their own unit even if not ranked formally within the normal command hierarchy based on their functions. Golems and constructs are seemingly best as skirmishers or heavy units kept at the core of the army until used like war chariots. The ranks part and the tight ranks of these war machines are unleashed to ram through the lines of the enemy preceded by a charge of skirmishers and followed by the advance of several other core units. However, if the golem units are small they can be useful as flank guards.
The Battle Formations of a Golem Army
Golem units need controllers though those that are true golems would be semi-autonomous requiring a commander as a normal military unit but that still has control access. Of course, such a unit can simply be ordered to advance leaving their commander in the rear but if tight control is not maintained they could just continue in a straight line forever. They would roll over fields like a tank or full armored division ruining pastures, flattening crops, and carving ruts into the land that could last centuries.
Although, being a military unit forged by mages and being nearly unstoppable as it is the Golem army would have no need to use fancy formations but instead would be a solid wall or bludgeon of stony limbs and stamping iron shod feet. Instead, the Golem Army would be a core unit marching as one and would be of more strategic use as the spearhead of the regular military units. The most useful strategies when directing this force would be either to run down an enemy force thus breaking through its lines and wreaking untold havoc and devastation or to have it smash straight through a solid barrier. Either tactic would not have any use for advanced maneuvers aside from forming a line or a tight/loose rectangle or wedge.
A golem army would serve well as the advance force of a larger traditional army, as you cannot conquer territory without an occupying force only destroy or delay with a golem force. This advance force would fit into the standard military formation as a tight unit ahead of the skirmishers. This advance unit could work as the head of the spear or the horns of the ram in order to break through enemy lines or even pummel through walls.
The appearance of a golem army unit would be patchwork and improvised at best due to the range of types of golems; magic constructs, and/or animated statuary/armor not to mention a variance in quality and power from golem to golem. This considering that building a golem unit would be difficult at best and require the work of several different mages.
A prime arming strategy when dealing with such a patchwork unit being to arm as many as possible with magic or enhanced weapons to increase their effectiveness on the battlefield should they hold that capability this adding to the makeshift appearance of the army. Although equipping a unit in this manner would make the strengths and weaknesses of that unit a bit harder to pin down for the enemy. Though a golem army can move like a machine, it will have a sloppy, patchy appearance depending on the quality of craftmanship.
Building it In Game
Equipping and enhancing an already assembled force of constructs is one but building it in game is another. Actually having the PCs (or NPCs) assemble such an army within the game is another matter aside from questing to recover a lost army of golems and the ancient artifact to control it. The main problem is the mass of differences found within the multitude of available rule sets and game systems even settings. Therefore, in lieu of a strict list of directions let us discuss a few general points about the construction of the Golem Army.
It will probably require a central high-level mage, their apprentice, and several low to mid-level mages as allies to help create and perhaps control the different units of the army. It is a pressing issue for the would-be general of a golem army to recruit and befriend mages of all types and experience levels in the hopes of gaining allies that can collectively produce the needed number of constructs.
This brings us to the controllers/masters of the golems who may or may not be the aforementioned mages. The deaths of these controllers may not stop the golem part of the army who will continue to carry out their last instructions until actually stopped by force. Essentially, there is a certain responsibility in bringing such a weapon of perpetual destruction to the battlefield. This also forces the general to keep the logistics of defense in mind concerning potentially the most powerful part of their military forces.
Although it might not be an option for the PCs to forge such a war-machine in game, it holds quite a treasure trove of material for the wary Game Master. If it is a potential in-game build then it should be the first half of a larger campaign. There needs to be a reason for the PCs to either find it or build it. This would take up the first half of the overall campaign, the second dominated by the PCs learning to wield their newfound power to complete the campaigns main objective i.e. conquering an objective locale or confronting an enemy force and stopping it in its tracks.
A Tool of War and the GM
The golem army is absolutely a tool of war but it is also a tool for the GM to use to shape their campaign and the constituent adventures. Adventures can swirl around the construction, discovery, or operation of the golems. It could be the PCs trying to create it or it could the characters trying to thwart certain NPCs from achieving the same goal. Perhaps in a time of war it is both. Either way the golem army is a mythical level thing.
A golem army is certainly a thing of legends and after a big battle involving such a force there will be rumors, stories, and legends about it. If an army is built during one campaign, it can carry over to another afterwards as relics or artifacts to be discovered. In a discovery-quest, clues would come from histories, epic poems, and bard songs as well as local legends and stories as well as the scars on the land. Note that these legends and stories can also vilify the creator(s) of the army for all times especially if a disaster occurs due to mismanagement of such a weapon.
The golem army may be the Ultimate Weapon on a medieval fantasy battlefield and is definitely the equivalent of a heavy armored division in a modern army. However, it is not anywhere as fast and may actually be harder to stop. The weapons that could destroy them being the ammunition of alchemists, some sorts of spell fire (useless if golems/constructs are immune to magic), and other fantasy super-weapons such as dragon-riders which themselves are just as hard if not impossible to obtain as well as control.
The golem army is also useful as a major impediment to the PCs when facing their arch villain. They are faced with the ultimate enemy and have to use their wits as well as their shear brute strength in defeating the villain and his golem army. Golems are also great as an element in the final battle and make a great set piece especially when efforts to directly counteract or oppose them come into operation. Such a war-engine can ratchet the tension to near snapping when acting as an unstoppable force that must be stopped at all costs. In the opposite vein, the golem army can be a tool that requires epic management by the PCs to maintain, control, and direct.
The Final Word
A golem army can fulfill multiple purposes in an RPG campaign. It can give PCs wanting to carve out a piece of the campaign world for themselves a direction in the quest to build, assemble, or recover such a thing. The GM on the other hand, can use it as a treasure of legend with a story behind it including the discovery of an item that controls the full army, a single unit, or a single golem. The army can also be used as the ultimate (or penultimate) barrier between the PCs and their final goal. It is also an excuse to use Mass Combat and pull out the minis as well.
The clash of steel, the pulse of blood through arteries and onto the ground and snatching glory on the battlefield, the personal devastation realized when surveying the field of victory, roleplaying War. War can enhance a roleplaying game not just because of its opportunities for fantasy violence and power fantasies but because of its depth of emotion and intellectual involvement as well as the physical trials that characters must suffer. However, in the theater of the mind that is a roleplaying game, war becomes a mental landscape and its phases and components feature in that plane.
The metaphoric landscapes of war and war itself are best illustrated as actual and mental landscape, its phases as emotional fields overlapping, and the GM as landscaper of these fields when used in the context of fantasy roleplaying games. War serves as a challenge to Player Characters (PCs) as soldiers, champions, and/or even generals. Roleplaying angles include the question of the “right” side of the conflict, is there one? Moreover, the consequences of the PCs asking, or are forced to ask, those questions. The GM can also use war not only as a roleplaying opportunity or a reason for widespread violence but also as an impediment to PCs even on the level of a single battle.
In the context of RPG games, it is most useful to break War and battle into stages or phases of action. The phases of war, thus its geographical features, are the Face-Off, the Battle proper, the Aftermath, and the Consequences. These landscapes are rich and run deep with long-lasting effects, which can reach through ages via legends and songs demonstrated by the ruin left behind. The landscapes of war as played out on the stage in the theater of the mind can have great potential in roleplaying games as well as a useful device for Game-Masters.
War is an activity steeped in drama, strategy, tactics, and mortal risk often fraught with very high costs. RPG war and combat should retain some semblance of simulation to heighten personal drama and deepen immersion. That realistic or at least believable base will be able to support the addition of the fantastical elements on top. For full impact, some of the realistic effects of war should be retained as well as the competency of enemy generals. The psychological aspects should not be ignored either particularly when it can change the outcome of a battle between unequal forces in favor of the inferior.
When referring to war I am not just referring to a session of Mass Combat but a complete and widespread conflict between at least two powers over an extended length of time though battles themselves can move through identical landscape but on a much smaller scale. The consequences of smaller conflicts are more localized and the span of time would be much shorter probably counted in days maybe months. A War in this case will refer to a series of confrontations (military, personal, diplomatic, political, disruptions, insurgencies, espionage, etc.) all related to a common cause directed by the ultimate goals of the participants. Note that the results will never match exactly the desires of the powers involved.
War as Landscape
War as a landscape serves essentially the same purpose in RPGs as the actual imaginary landscapes traversed by the Player Characters (PCs). It can impede the progress of the PCs, it can serve as a journey in and of itself, and the goals met by the end of a war can serve as the ultimate goal for the entire tabletop campaign. As an Impediment to be overcome or circumvented, war can serve as the device that the Players need to avoid or prevent by achieving certain tasks. The battles and confrontations that compose the body of war can serve as their own smaller impediments. In this case, the GM can use war and battlefields as terrain and impediments to PC party progress and as barriers to be overcome through skill, diplomacy, or shear might.
As an example, a long-running campaign of mine, The Dragonslayers I, took a turn into a small-scale series of battles due to the conquesting force of Hyvalians that the two PCs had thrown in with because their leader had restored them from rabbit form (long story). In their quest to travel deep into a dangerous wilderness and lands under the control of the barbarian tribes of the West the PCs required the protection of the war group and thus one served as scout, his name Dead-Eye and the other Bers served as a wagon-guard due to her great strength. Deep in the wood on a narrow trail with berms that rose high on each side and covered in dense bush and tree cover the caravan was ambushed by a greater force of barbarians. The two characters found themselves having to rejoin each other with Bers trapped at the center of the battle next to a wagon and Dead-Eye having to circle back around and move through an active battle.
They passed into a low pass surrounded by a high root entangled ridge on both sides when they were ambushed. Dozens of roaring berserkers poured into the pass from all sides catching the crusaders unawares at first. Groups of half-naked warriors swarmed the wagons as the knights and Templars charged forward leaving the servants to protect the wagons. At the time that this happened Dead-Eye was in the lead and actually spotted a couple of berserkers ahead so he crept to a better vantage point in which to fire arrows at them while Bers was riding on one of the wagons. During the battle, they found themselves separated by heavily armored warhorses charging back and forth and hordes of berserkers attacking everything in their path. At one point Bers was under attack by two berserkers and Dead-Eye had to approach while dodging horses and avoiding berserkers trying to engage him in combat. He accidentally shot Bers once who was already horribly wounded even after killing her assailants, so she hid under the wagon. She had already drank a [healing] potion and made a recovery check during the fight with the two berserkers. A third berserker attacked just as Dead-Eye made it back to Bers and she found herself making Recovery checks for the first two of her actions that round, luckily Dead-Eye disarmed him and as soon as the second round in this fight started Bers power attacked him killing him in a single blow with [her] great sword[.] The battle was turning the berserkers were being beaten back mainly due to the superior equipment of the crusaders. Then the berserker leader whom also appeared to be a dark priest of some kind made his presence known by wading into the battle and transforming into a very large tentacled monstrosity, which began to turn the tide due to the horror effects on the crusaders. So of course, our heroic duo charged it. (Excerpt from The Dragonslayers I: Berserkers, Otkids, & Crusaders! Oh My!)
To the Bers character the battle nearly drowned her like a torrent from an overflowing dam and to her partner Dead-Eye it was a roaring river that had to be crossed. The battle and the resulting Mass Combat acted as a challenging feature in a landscape. However, as war can act as a landscape the characters progressing through it will experience a journey.
War as a journey can implement character progression either ending in death, transformation, and/or psychological scars deepening the character. As with a journey, there is a starting point and an ending though the destination may be very different depending on the character and their fortunes. This journey can be a short jaunt, think singular battles, or a long miserable slog, a long feud or large-scale war. However, the GM should have already set the ultimate goal for both in game and the meta-game.
In game, the GM should already know what must be accomplished to reach the end of the journey just as they would with a standard campaign or adventure. At the end what was accomplished as compared to what was supposed to happen or what was desired or expected? What are the victory conditions for either side and have they been met by the end?
Concerning the meta-game what does the GM hope to achieve having their players traversing or confronting it? Is it a self-contained adventure and/or does it progress the campaign moving it closer to the end? These questions should be answered as much a head of time as possible though the GM must remember to be flexible and able to improvise when necessary.
An emotional landscape belies it all as well like the air and weather over a living panorama. This can help to heighten the drama and characterize the scenery to great effect. These effects and feelings ranging from fear and anticipation of the oncoming battle to the chaos and blind fury of battle on to the bitter end, bitter even in victory. These landscapes include the psychological scars being impressed upon not only the participants but also onlookers and nearby communities that have to deal with the aftereffects sometimes for months after including deserters turning into bandits and mercs harassing their lands as well as troops sequestering their crops and housing. Not to mention the victimization that happens to the locals even when friendly forces occupy or move through their land.
Like thorny weeds, the villagers may be hostile or cold to all strangers and may hold certain prejudices left over from a former and sometimes long gone battle. These personal/regional attitudes can be emphasized with actual ruins and old battlefields left in the wake of a war still being places of reverence or isolation.
The Phases of War
In RPG War, there are four phases: the Face-Off, the Battle(s), the Aftermath, and the Consequences. The Face-Off phase includes political maneuvers with leaders facing off over tables and/or leading to armies facing off on the battlefield where anticipation is the name of the game sometimes to nerve shattering effect waiting for the other side to make the first move. This is the tensest phase and emotions should be high with everyone sitting on a hair trigger just waiting for what now looks inevitable.
The Battle stage is where all of the battlefield strategy lay along with most if not all of the combat exists. This phase can also be comprised of several battles and maneuvers that occupy an extended period. This is where the gory warrior versus warrior, bloody sieges, and fights occur. Here there is little time to process not only what is actually occurring but also the losses incurred and the potential for more in the near future. This also includes not being able to process what the characters may be forced to do to survive, to fulfill their missions, or both. This stage is all action and reaction. It is all about winning, outflanking, and outfighting the enemy.
The Aftermath is always bittersweet in victory, the ruined field of battle being the bitter with its loss and destruction, victory being the only sweet thing amongst the war dead. The aftermath also must take the cost of war into account both the monetary, infrastructural, and the human cost. The infrastructural cost illustrated in the form of ruins, loss of important buildings or archives (as the Library of Alexandria) which continue to hold a certain position in local or greater lore. The cost in lives can be illustrated with a description of the battlefield but also when the PCs seek out an NPC for whatever reason and find out that they were lost in the war, or are suffering horribly. However, this can be made more poignant when long running or beloved NPCs are a part of this cost.
Following the aftermath, the Consequence stage follows. This stage of war is similar to the previous but longer lasting. It can have both short and long-term effects but among these are the mental and social scars left behind on individuals and entire societies. Mental Scars can be illustrated through the reaction of the locals to strangers, certain symbols or heraldry, or the honors heaped upon names of certain individuals. Similarly, the shunned names of others can also help to illustrate the point. Not to mention what happens to those who have survived the war but are infirmed permanently or long term as well as those permanently mentally broken not to mention war orphans. Chaos, anguish, and pain can hover as a cloud for a very long time after the actual fighting has stopped.
The Fantasy Aspects
In a fantasy setting, the GM can take advantage of the fantasy aspects of not only the battles themselves and the indirect confrontations as in espionage but the impact of the magical atmosphere would have on the aftermath. These fantasy aspects can take the form of fantastic war engines, the literal ghosts of war, and sorcery salted and dragon scorched earth.
Fantasy war engines could include certain things commonly found in fantasy roleplaying games such as golems and magical constructs, dragons, monstrous or fantastical war-mounts. Alchemy and its products as well as wizards and their magic can all contribute to all of the phases of war altering trajectories, skewing favors, and obscuring projected outcomes.
The ghosts of war on the other hand fit more with the consequences stage of war where they haunt the ruins of once extravagant castles and lost fortresses. These would be restless spirits that manifest as haunts in specific locales (former battlefields or sites of struggle) or even haunt dreams Macbeth style. Another element to consider along these lines is the classic Ghost Town, which appears to remind the world it once existed and to remind the living what horrors destroyed it, not to mention to carry out some sort of supernatural revenge on the unwary passerby.
With fantastical and magical modes of destruction unleashed by the forces for war, there comes the desolation of salted and scorched Earth. These could be stretches of land that have been laid waste destroying even the fruitfulness of the earth and soil leaving behind a dead wasteland or a fetid infertile swamp. A magical Blight can have infected the land, scars on the land maybe curses left over from or because of war magic or frightful alchemical ammunition. This could also result from the simple use of an undead army. Even if destroyed, the remains would pollute the land with the residue of the energies used to animate the soldiers of such an army.
The Final Word
The landscape of war is vast, promising high adventure and heroic glory through combat and victory. However, this landscape is deceptively treacherous and if casually traversed it can leave the travelers in a desolate wasteland of tragedy and lingering horror. Even single battles can spring up like a hidden canyon that PCs must traverse in some manner and can have similar and long-lasting effects just on a smaller more local level than a full blown war. When it comes to war not all terrain needs to be tramped directly through, the consequences and the deeper scars may be avoided altogether with a little thought and planning. In a similar vein, participating in a great battle or far-reaching war can grow characters in unexpected directions and deepen their stories.
Whether small groups or full-on military units Non-Player Characters (NPCs) can benefit from better strategy. This so that they can present better challenges for players. Especially if Player Characters (PCs) tend to just barrel through their enemies with little trouble even when the challenges are supposedly on par. Typically, it seems Game Masters (GMs) just rely on assembling a bad-guy team based on individual role (not a bad strategy), plain raw power, and on the dice to prevent a PC massacre. In addition to this old mixed-results standby, there are four strategies for putting together a better battle. However, to conduct a better battle the Game-Master must first construct its framework.
First, You the GM must have a specific goal that will be met by the use of strategizing NPCs. Second, decide which of the 4 combat strategies to use and in which combo. Third, have an idea of or be able to improvise a twist before it’s over. You need to know which goals a battle will fulfill. The basic strategies that the NPCs will use to conduct the battle, and what twist (if any) that will occur in the course of the battle.
The Four Combat Strategies are Confrontation, Ambush, Herding, and Gauntleting. All four of these are simple and time-tested strategies. Strategy referring to a series of planned actions when carried out to the final action is assumed to achieve a specific result. In other words, strategy is plotting out a path to victory in reference to the field of battle. This brings us to what exactly the word battle is referring to in this article.
Battle refers not necessarily to a large war or even a combat between two large forces. It can be a simple struggle between two groups of characters with opposing goals. Both sides are using strategy to tilt the scales in their favor. This can occur on the field of battle, contest, or through manipulative means. However, this article is sticking to the simple idea of a physical confrontation where the deposition/elimination of the other will lead to the desired results.
At the end of a battle, there should be one last unexpected thing, a call to reinforcements initially held back etc., it does not necessarily have to be clever or even turn the tables. It can be as simple as a sniper trying to take out a valued NPC, commander, or PC in vengeance. It can even be a strategy that has already been implemented but not obvious or was hidden until the very end, revealed when it can be the most devastating. This is the twist. A twist in this context is simply another hurdle or one last blow dealt below the belt to engender drama.
GM Battle Goals
To conduct a better battle you have to decide what purpose the battle or confrontation serves in the game. Is it an action set piece, a challenge that breeds immersion, or a fight meant to force the players from their comfort zones? There must be a purpose. A desired outcome for implementing the battle in the first place so that you can best prepare.
A battle as an action set piece, which is just an action sequence, perhaps an action sequence bigger than those that had come before, could be the climax to a story arc or something that has been building up long before the battle. During gameplay the set piece can be built up through preparation (think preparation montage of an 80’s action flick) or a series of confrontations otherwise creating anticipation.
An example is an NPC villain that has gotten the best of the PCs on multiple situations that they now view as a rival and are chomping at the bit to get a piece of. However, when the battle rolls around they find out he’s an enemy commander, mercenary, or champion. They then realize that their chance will be on the battlefield. The action set piece serving to satisfy player anticipation especially at its climax.
Besides the action set piece, the GM can have other goals such as an important challenge for the PCs, to dislodge the Players from a current rut, but most of all they should have the goal of NOT killing off their players. As a challenge, a battle can bring a real threat to the PCs forcing strategizing and thus immersion for players. This is especially true if they are facing an enemy for which the typical direct confrontation strategy will not work. The players may have previously learned this lesson the hard way.
Challenging combat can also dislodge players from their comfort zones and breaking them from inactivity. This is especially necessary when such inactivity that diverts their energies from the campaign goal and that which has little to no character benefit. The emergence of an enemy that requires extra care and planning can motivate players and thus their characters to head towards a specific goal. However, the enemy should not be so overwhelming as to prematurely end the PCs careers unless they take an obviously stupid course of action.
In addition, remember not to kill off players. A TPK (total party killed) should not occur though a few PCs may be cut down in the course of the battle itself especially if it is a large set piece or the finale to a campaign. In the lead up to the battle they should not die. However, if one should fall, it should be played up to prey on the remaining characters’ thirst for vengeance. What makes tabletop sessions interesting is the evolution and building of characters through experience and trials. That story ends when they fall.
The Four Strategies
The four strategies most effective for NPC’s to carry out in search of victory are the time-tested Head Long Confrontation, the Ambush, Lemming Herding, and of course, Gauntleting. These are simple, easy to understand, and implement, and best of all they can be extremely effective when used properly and with a little luck.
The Headlong Confrontation is the most familiar and common of battle types some would say overused but when one or both sides believe they have the superior power it is the most direct and effective if that assumption is true. A headlong confrontation is an encounter where the NPCs come right at the PCs with little or no set up beforehand or use of simple tactics such as ambush or surprise attacks.
The NPCs can still try to conduct strategy during a straight up fight by either maneuvering their combat lines, attempting flanking, charging the PCs, or using individual combat skills or abilities to the service of their comrades. Typically, these types of confrontations should be among the first the PCs face when dealing with an enemy force that will escalate later in the game. This gives time and opportunity to build up animosity and grudges on both sides naturally.
An Ambush on the other hand is where the enemy takes position ahead of time often concealed in wait for their foes hoping to gain a certain advantage. The advantages of this strategy are gaining a surprise attack on the target, gaining a position of advantage, or the ability to target specific members of the enemy force right when the battle starts. A strike from afar with such things as a hidden war-engine and especially with magic can also be considered a form of ambush sometimes even when the PCs are expecting some form of attack. However, ambushes always run the risk of detection.
The detection of an ambush nullifies the advantage of the enemy group but may not reveal each individual enemy allowing them to still get sneak attacks on individual PCs. Even when the PCs are expecting attack, on guard, they may not expect the kind of attack or the angle it takes in its trajectory at them thus still catching them off guard. Therefore knowing the type of ambush is just as critical as knowing when and where it will happen.
Concerning mass-combat (a large-scale battle) units, ambushes are often perpetrated by smaller more maneuverable units whose purpose it is to disrupt the enemy supply lines or disrupt an advance. The smaller unit will ambush a vulnerable target that may be larger and then will pull back before the tide of battle turns on them. Ambush in the terms of mass-combat is typically a harassment tactic although it is not impossible that an entire army can ambush another. This happened once in recorded history (Hannibal ambushing the Romans at Trasimene) but in a fantasy world, other factors may make this a more frequent occurrence.
The third strategy, Lemming Herding concerns getting the players to wander into a trap or a blind alley. It is tricking or steering the PCs by the NPCs (not the GM) into a position of vulnerability and then striking immediately. This can involve baiting with a weaker force and getting the PCs to pursue, kidnapping a beloved NPC or weakest PC, or stealing a valued object and letting the PCs either chase them or leaving easy to follow clues to the chosen location for them to follow later.
The final strategy and the costliest is Gauntleting. This is having groups of weaker enemies hitting in waves and/or sniping out the player group in order to weaken them and use up their resources before the main brunt of the enemy makes its move. This strategy not only costs the NPCs in lives, albeit low level lives, but requires an in depth knowledge of their adversaries, the Player Characters. They need to know how strong they are, what the limits of their abilities and equipment are. This strategy is often the last in a series of maneuvers having the drained and battered PCs coming out of the other end of the gauntlet only to find themselves exactly where the enemy wants them: in a direct confrontation with a superior, fresh, and eager force.
After the PCs and NPCs have made their initial contact, the NPCs have tried all the strategies at their disposal, and the PCs believe they are at the end of the fight; it is time for the twist. The twist takes three major forms: Choosing the Field, the Betrayal, and Reserve Forces.
Choosing the Field involves the enemy deciding either directly or with some manipulation as to where to face the PCs which of course plays to the enemy’s strengths. This often involves a lot of sabotage, deliberate clues, political manipulation, and essentially implementing the Lemming Herding strategy in varying degrees just to allow the NPCs to select the field of confrontation. Sometimes the enemy can prey on the honor of the PCs by challenging them to show up at prescribed time and location for a duel. At this late point, this can allow the enemy to make use of a land feature or hidden cache unknown to the players allowing for a nasty surprise that stands the chance of turning the tide or stealing victory just when it was so close. It tightens the tension very fast and can turn the campaign path on a dime if successful.
The Betrayal occurs when the PCs discover a character within their inner circle to be a traitor working for the enemy. They can be working in the capacity of a thief, saboteur, spy, manipulator, or an assassin. This betrayer, there can be more than one, is usually an NPC especially a torchbearer or other hireling type. If they were a more trusted NPC such as a frequent ally or a supplier, the results can be more devastating in terms of combat and in emotional stress. At this late point a sudden betrayal can not only turn the battle but also it very likely will cost a PC their life if not creating a new foe to pursue after the initial one is defeated.
The Reserve Forces twist is when the enemy has a hidden reserve of warriors or soldiers hidden or camouflaged somewhere near the battlefield lying in wait for a specific signal to join the fight. This twist is a definite game changer during a battle and can if the PCs figure it out in time become a new goal within the greater battle to try to snuff out or stop the signal. Of course, this strategy can also apply to the PCs and their forces as well with the goal inverted with them trying to implement the signal and maybe the villains trying to stop them. Be careful to implement twists sparingly and believably.
Do not just tack it on. The twist can become cliché very quickly and seem like a case of railroading if it suddenly changes the tide of battle with absolutely no clue that it was coming. Note that a clue can consist of a demonstrably clever enemy commander and/or a strange uncalled for confidence on the battlefield.
GMs can heighten challenge by allowing their NPCs to make strategic decisions, having a clear goal that the battle will meet, and by implementing a twist at the end. To wage a better battle the GM must first have a specific purpose in waging that battle: challenging the PCs, stirring Players out of ruts, adding in an impressive set piece.
After you, the Game-Master has constructed your battle you need to decide on the strategies and methods that the NPCs will use and how the twist at the end will play out. This helps to create a challenge that can get inactive players acting and engage them in a very specific way thus helping immersion. Battles can also be very cool (or tragic) set pieces that put an exclamation point to the end of an adventure or a campaign.
Such battles make great tabletop tales to pass around and retell to receptive audiences.
This article explicitly goes through my process for when I write my actual play blog entries. The blog entry that the article refers to for examples is The Dragonslayers Pt. II: The Day the Music Died. The entry is an early one and so the writing quality is a little off but it illustrates my points of construction without them being too obvious. It also shows that the process described in my article is my process and that I have been using it and developed it over time. I consciously think about certain points when I transcribe from my notes.
Sometimes stories and incidents generated during a tabletop RPG session are worth putting out into the world for others to enjoy but how do you transform your session notes into an enjoyable read?
Another hubpages article from Robert A. Neri Jr. about constructing an effective Dark Lord in tabletop RPGs.
The article examines the ever ubiquitous Dark Lord and how a Game-Master can set them up to be more emotionally impactful to players. It gives pointers on what strategies to use in the meta-game as well as which they use in-game.
The archetypal Dark Lord is a cliché for a reason but Game Masters can improve on them bringing an emotional weight to every battle binding the Players to their foe using certain techniques.