Waging War with Pen and Paper

They asked for it; they got it.

They asked for it; they got it.

A couple years ago, whilst I was still hashing out a novel set in Alandar, I decided to run an RPG set in the world. I adapted Wick’s Roll-and-Keep system, got a bunch of my friends to play, and so on (the focus of this post isn’t really on those particulars). Before the game began, I had my players vote on what kind of storyline wanted to deal with most in the campaign. The categories were ‘Exploration’, ‘Intrigue’, ‘Romance’, and ‘Military’ and each player had 100 points to distribute. When the dust settled, the party had voted overwhelmingly for Intrigue and Military while Romance came in third. Almost nobody wanted to explore.

Now, one of the things I knew was going to be essential if I was to run a campaign with a significant military element: I needed a way to adjudicate large battles that would both allow for the players to have control (more or less) over the actions of their army while simultaneously allowing for individual acts of heroism. Now, as it happens, the 7th Sea core rules (Roll and Keep system, Wick) had a system for running mass combat, but it didn’t work too well for me. Accordingly, I do what I almost always do with the games I run: I fiddled with it to no end.

The basic premise of the old 7th Sea system was that each player would pick their level of engagement in the battle (whether they were in the thick of things or way back in the reserves) and they would roll on a table that would determine if they had heroic opportunities or not. These opportunities were various things like ‘claim the enemy banner’ or ‘duel the enemy general’ or some such and they could add to your reputation, get you wounded, and help tip the battle this way and that. The battle itself was essentially decided by a dice off between generals. If you won three rolls in a row, you won the battle.

Now, I’m a fan of strategy games, military history, and military strategy in general, and this system left me a bit flat. The battles themselves were just window-dressing for heroic derring-do and little more. Now, this works great in a swashbuckling game like 7th Sea, where the nitty-gritty of strategy isn’t really part of the game. It wasn’t going to work in my Alandar campaign, where I had two and later three characters who were heavily involved in military campaigns. So, here’s what I changed:

Armies Are Characters

I made the armies themselves (or, more specifically, the divisions or regiments of those armies) into ‘characters,’ much like ships or vehicles. They had a set of characteristics to adjudicate their armaments, morale, mobility, discipline, and training. This changed the battle from something abstract to something more concrete and, since the system lent itself to duels, battles simply became duels between ‘characters’ comprised of tons of NPCs. I gave everybody sets of maneuvers they could use (advance, charge, flank, shoot, envelop, hold, withdraw, etc.), crafted specific advantages armies would have over each other, and established a rudimentary system for game balance. I will not claim it is perfect, but it worked well enough.

Battles Are Session-long Events

A major battle in a war is not a simple affair. Before the armies even take the field, there is weeks of skirmishing, supply lines to maintain, ground to scout out, enemy movements to spy on, and (in the case of Alandar) ritual magic to decide upon. I could get every player more-or-less involved with the planning and execution of these battles, even if they weren’t warriors, per se. The battles themselves would go on for a long time and, within them, there would be multiple different opportunities for individual heroism, periods of dialogue, and even skullduggery that could be committed against each other.

It’s All About Morale

In war, and particularly in pre-modern war, the plan isn’t really to kill all the enemy combatants, as that rarely is achievable or happens. The plan is to break the enemy army’s morale; if they no longer wish to fight, the war is over. Morale was sapped by casualties; the longer a battle went on, the more morale was sapped on both sides. There were occasions during the campaign when one side or the other would sound a retreat long before their forces broke, knowing that having a cohesive army was better than risking losing the whole thing on a gamble. Winning battles and engagements enhanced morale, but not by so much that you could willy-nilly charge your guys at that fortified position and expect to come out scott free (unless you were a particularly inspirational leader, that is). The PCs who were the generals of the armies in use had to be very careful keeping their army together, which in and of itself was a campaign element and recurring challenge.

The Outcome

The result of this system was, to my eyes, quite successful. My friends in the campaign still talk about the Charge of Atrisia against the 4th Kalsaari Heavy Legion, they still grin at the Sack of Tasis and shudder over the bloody fields of Calassa. Their characters became legendary figures in the history of the world and the war they fought in – The Illini Wars – I’ve made an integral part of Alandarian modern history. The Treaty they negotiated to end the war with the Kalsaaris was a two-session long arc in which there was more back-stabbing, political plotting, and nerve-wracking negotiations than at almost any other time in the campaign. I showed my players a map – a map they had bled and worked and even died over for the past 5-6 months of gaming – and told them to list their demands. I countered, we haggled, and in the end they negotiated a treaty they hated but that was the best they could do. They’d won against all odds, and I like to think I gave them the closest thing to being a Napoleon I could.

In the end, what I learned was that running a military campaign requires players who want to be in a military campaign, just like anything else. If you have players who want that kind of game and you work hard to give it to them, some pretty crazy stuff can happen.

About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on December 17, 2012, in Gaming and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I’m just imagining an alternate Alandar campaign game where Romance scored in the upper 90s… 😉

    One of my greatest disappointments was not being able to play in that game. When I discovered I was too late on the sign up, I spent the next week or so feeling like I had just been dumped by my girlfriend.

    I still hold out hope for an eventual Alandar mini-campaign somewhere down the line, complete with Roll & Keep. I know you’re tired of that system, but it’s still one of the most fun and compelling mechanics I’ve ever played. Exploding dice make every roll a possible miracle.

    • I do think about it from time to time; I, also, was disappointed you weren’t in that game. If I were to run it again, I would (surprise, surprise) change a bunch of stuff. I might keep Roll and Keep, but I’d make it a bit more deadly. One of my primary problems with the damned thing was that every time you got to a fight with a big baddie, the damned thing would take like four hours. If everybody were a bit more mortal, I’d be happier.

      • The biggest issue on combat length using R&K seems to be the ‘Double Resolve’ issue. Late in a campaign, two times your Resolve in Dramatic Wounds is a LOT to have to get through to knock someone out.

        So I wonder if the problem could easiestly be solved by either 1) not run a campaign so long that PCs get enough experience to get their Resolve up to 4 or 5 (or god forbid 6), or 2) make getting knocked out equal to *just* your Resolve, rather than twice it. And make Crippled equal half your Resolve (rounded up).

      • Crippled at half your Resolve would SUCK.

      • Well, half-resolve would make combat go faster, and that’s mostly what I’d want. Weapons become more deadly, spells become downright fatal, and so on. R2 characters would *hate* it, of course. There might be some middle ground to be had, though. Perhaps when you hit Resolve, you are KO’d unless you spend a drama die, at which point you remain crippled until you hit double Resolve. Of course, that would mean folks would just sit on a drama die all the time, which is against the spirit of drama dice.


  2. We’ve had two large battles in Serp’s Alandar game. The first did not go well on a number of levels–one, I don’t think we as players had a good understanding of mass combat in Alandar (and reading this, I feel Serp may have used the 7th Seas rules instead of yours), we ultimately lost, and it was also a battle we kind of just ended up getting pulled into without our characters being all that invested in it. My character actually actively did not want to be there and saw the whole thing as a waste of our time (not me trying to pooh-pooh the idea, but again, it wasn’t really our fight, so she wasn’t invested). And due to not really understanding the mechanics, characters who had military backgrounds and were supposedly built for this kind of thing, in reality weren’t that well built for it after all.

    By the time we got to huge battle No. 2, we had a better sense of it and were much more personally involved in the battle. As a result, hey, we won that one! But with some key differences–only some characters were actually in the battle itself and rolling for the armies, and they were the ones who SHOULD have been doing so. (My non-military character was doing something else that was MUCH more important…or, y’know, that’s how she’d put it. 🙂 )

    So I don’t recall if the second battle had the updated battle rules, but overall, I do like your breakdown of how to make it more interesting here overall. Granted, this comes from non-strategy player, so…there’s that.

    • I wouldn’t put players through the mass combat rules if they weren’t in charge or didn’t want to participate. I’ve done that in the past and it never works. You can quite simply settle the battle on a single die roll, if you want, and then just use the battle as window-dressing, just like 7th Sea does.

  3. Crippled at half Resolve would be too punishing. R&K is for heroes who are dashing and larger than life, and by the time your Resolve is high enough to make those fights last a long time, you’re often carrying around a few dramatics all the time as a matter of course anyways. No one likes not being able to have their dice explode, and having that being an almost constant thing would take out some of the fun of the system.

    Personally, I prefer that if a fight is just taking too damn long, encourage the PCs to mix it up–their strategy at the moment isn’t getting the job done fast enough. Or have your bad guy mix it up and try something unexpected to do the same. They’ve got all these nifty skills, put ’em to good use. (Of course, if the fights are fun & high drama & interesting, I’m all for those taking however long they need to anyways, it’s a good time!)

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