How do you run a fantasy war roleplaying game campaign? How do you avoid getting bogged down in tedious battles with predetermined outcomes and few real choices? Regain focus on the characters and make sure every step of the way provide meaningful action.
Conflict is the heart of all stories, so war has a place at a roleplaying game table. Wars give an opportunity for heroism, but also to explore real darkness, depending on your ambitions for the story and comfort level.
There are many types of war, and each gives an opportunity to explore who the characters really are, and for the players to make choices. Obvious fantasy wars include:
- Conquest or defense
- Religious war
- War of independence
The aggressor can be:
- Orcs on the border
- A zombie horde
- Psionist sailors on the astral sea looking for loot and conquest
- A jealous and vengeful noble house
- A tyrant king
or anything you can imagine, but I always favor the basics.
Wars in Fantasy Roleplaying Games
“Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!”
― William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
There are at least three ways to run a roleplaying game mass battle: run the battle as a narrative, use an abstract mass combat system, or go full-on wargaming. The later is beyond the scope here, but let’s deal with the two first in turn.
Narrative Mass Combat
The easiest way to decide the outcome of a battle is of course to decide the outcome. Sometimes it is also the way that makes sense if there is only one possible outcome.
Other battles, on the other hand, may have an open outcome, and the skill and luck of the generals and champions on either side will decide the outcome.
One way to ensure character agency is split up the narrative of the battle in a series of events drawn up as a flowchart from start to finish, and the difficulty of the battle is measured in the number of events the characters must successfully deal with.
For example, the characters must deal with two easy events if they participate with the superior army, or for instance six difficult events if they side with the underdogs and really have to beat the odds to win.
Abstract Mass Combat Systems
An alternative way of running mass combat develop stats for the armies and run battle as if they were characters or monsters.
The old BECM-edition of D&D and the Pathfinder RPG (see Ultimate Campaigns) has systems for this, and both should be adaptable to other editions of D&D with minimal effort. There is also Skip Williams’ Cry Havoc from Malhavoc Press.
The advantage is that mass battles can be settled quickly. The downside is that it may be too quick, or too random.
My choice is a combination. Deciding important battles with just one dice roll have a certain charm, and the flowchart of events allows for true high-stakes heroics.
I try to focus on the narrative, then follow up with meaningful choices and boss fights. It works pretty well, with a bit of handwaving and generosity.
Make it About the Characters
The main characters of a roleplaying game campaign are the characters, and in the end, their actions and their story is the heart of the campaign, both on a personal level and the big picture.
The characters should be able to influence the outcome of the campaign. Otherwise, you may have a situation where everything is predetermined, and they are bystanders as the GM tells a story. This is a less satisfactory story than it otherwise could have been.
Involve the characters in critical moments of the war. Let them take out the first stronghold on enemy territory, send them after the head enemy general behind the lines, and spearhead the assault of the final enemy bastion. Let them have an opportunity to steal the glory and decide the fate of captured enemies. Victory or defeat is determined by character actions in the end.
Make sure the characters have a personal stake in the war as well. This may ensure a satisfactory ending even if the characters’ side is defeated. The kingdom was lost, but at least loved ones were saved, the homeland was spared of the ravages of war, and a rebellion is born. The characters’ side lives to fight another day.
Possible wartime adventures involving the characters and their unit includes:
- Raiding an enemy camp or stronghold.
- Assist a spy behind enemy lines.
- Find and release prisoners on enemy territory, possibly at an enemy stronghold.
- Track down and assassinate an enemy leader. The leader is likely to be with an elite unit.
- Establish an outpost and offer support to our advancing troops. This means dealing with enemy units, local monsters, and a possibly hostile local population.
- Move to the front and reinforce our troops.
- Move behind the front and sabotage of enemy positions.
- Large quantities of smuggler goods are transported through the front and into enemy territories. Is someone at the local outpost turned to the enemy?
- Our secrets and positions are known to the enemy, and we may have a spy in our midst. We need to find and shut down the leak.
- The enemy is gathering troops in a significant force, preparing for a decisive battle. Do we face them head on, or do we raid behind their lines, while leaving our own countryside exposed?
- Your First Dungeons and Dragons Game
- Your First Pathfinder Roleplaying Game
- Creating Roleplaying Game Campaigns
- Sword of the Crown
- Way of the Sellsword
The Reading List
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Dungeons and Dragons Heroes of Battle (2005) introduced me to the concept of mass battles as a flowchart. This D&D 3.5 book has aged pretty well and should give lots of ideas for running war campaigns for all editions, and possibly other fantasy RPGs as well. Well worth checking out.
The D&D Rules Cyclopedia (1991) for the BECM-edition of D&D has its own system for resolving mass combat.
The Pathfinder Ultimate Campaigns (2013) has a system for building armies and resolving mass combat on a grand scale. The rules are available for free online, or you should find a copy at the Paizo store or any other well-stocked game store.
A third option is Skip Williams‘ Cry Havoc (2003), an event book from Malhavoc Press, offering a detailed system for solving mass combat.