Monday Lab: Battle Play

Part of hobby mythology concerns role-playing’s origins as bringing tighter focus into table-top wargaming, such that within this or that battalion, or aboard this or that vehicle, the group can look closer and see Sergeant Bob or whoever running around, being a character, having opinions, and doing things.

If that’s so, then one would think role-playing as we know it would have a good vocabulary concerning many well-developed procedures for zooming “in” and “out” among scales of action during some kind of massive confrontation. Imagine a battle or complicated, violent situation with many different groups across locations, with incomplete information of different profiles scattered around in different places, and with some kind of understandable range of potential outcomes at that scale. Imagine within it, in one or more places, people with names and opinions and fates we are about, doing things in that context.

My problem? I know some role-playing games that have rules for such play, but I don’t have a sense of order concerning the range of such rules across the hobby, or a strong sense of which sets or types of rules work best relative to other procedures and priorities of play.

It’s immediately relevant to me because I’d hit upon the design questions regarding my game in development, Dreams of Fire. I knew why I hadn’t included battle rules in Circle of Hands, but they do fit into this sister design. I’d been combing through the rules I had and realized I didn’t have a good conceptual framework even to decide my angle of attack. However, that’s not why we hit upon this topic for the Lab; that arose from two current games of Sorcerer (& Sword), neither including me, which apparently feature many a gaudy gory battlefield.

Some of the issues we talked about include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Resolving battles, especially whether “you’re in it” contributes to resolving the bigger conflict (indeed, whether you “matter” at that level at all)
  • Sequential vs. nested resolution, e.g., whether you play “big” and see what happens, then play “small” for events that set up the next “big;”or you play the “big” as an environment for the “small” events and experiences within it

I learned a lot from this discussion, and I think I’m much better oriented to work on Dreams of Fire.

Many thanks to Aleksandra for bringing much research during the session!


12 responses to “Monday Lab: Battle Play”

  1. Did someone mention legendary Lives?

    In case you want a further look at the Mass BAttle rules in Legendary Lives and  how I used them in our game there videos as well as some discussion, are here: The battle is in session 3 part 2 I think.

    Also some other games that might be worth looking at in this space are:

    Duty and Honour by Neil Gow – Napoleonic Wars set RPG. I'm not very familar with it but maybe the Battle rules are similar to Pendragon or Burning Wheel? 

    The King is Dead by D. VIncent Baker. I played this at a convention but can't recall exactly how the big final Battle worked, lots of picking from lists I think.

    • True, there is a scene to

      True, there is a scene to pick in The King is Dead, "War". You dchoose your ennemy in the field and decide together why the war happened, then you and both draw cards that constitute a hand for your army. Depending on your higher card in your actual hand, you draw X cards. Then you take turns, you name "a company, site or stronghold" which is the "thing being at risks". Alliances can be made with other players that gives a mechanical advantage.

      Then, you take bidding turns.

      The two ennemies choose a card in their respective hand and reveal it simultaneously. The highest card wins and the winner chose what happens to the thing being at risks. Then you discard the bids. If you don't have card anymore when you are bidding, you just lose. You can also "cede the field" – with your allies staying to fight if they want to (an ally join the bid by discarding the highest card of its hand then bidding a card in the bidding turn). This is for you to preserve cards. 

      The war is over when :

      • one of the combatant is reduced to one card without ceding the field
      • the one conducting the war (meaning, the one who called for a "War" scene) demand the end
      • or, one of the combattant and all his allies has ceded the field, leaving their ennemy unopposed.

      In the two first cases, "terms of peace" are chosen to be the thing at risk, and there is last bidding turns. Whoever wins choose the terms of peace.

      In the third case, the unopposed side chose anything they want to be the "thing at risk" and choose its fate.  

  2. Battles and Kane

    Really great seminar! Hope we'll talk more about that.

    Here is one way I dealt with my Sorcerer group. The situation: the "High Priestess of the Golden Owl", a cult/people of birds wanting to take human form, found the lair (cliffs full of gold vein) transformed in a gold mine, watched by dozens of soldiers and her people enslaved. She waits until half of the army leaves to come back at their home city, with those bird peoples wearing the gold. She decides to attack them guerilla-style, during the night, with her demon-shadow-that-can-strangle-you-in-the-dark and the giant Golden Owl with whom she pacted – a beast that she worship. She specify that she wants to attack by isolating them, during the marches, during the night, using deceptions, shadows, etc.

    I solved it with only one conflict roll, her past vs my imagined mean of the soldiers scores (3), with a +1 bonus for the tactical stance (tactict is mentioned as present in the source litterature in the combat rules of Sorcerer & Sword). I didn't think about "everybody involved take the penalties" and it's a good idea … We really opened ways of thinking those situations in the discussion, really useful!

    Now she killed/terrified this half-brigade (+-25 soldiers), she's going back where the last half is and she's thinking about how to attack, but she's thinking about the same guerilla style. She's not a warrior, tough! I didn't think about putting scores of a army commander and roll with it, I wasn't sure about a "mean" score in this case.

    Another thing, to complete Rod's detailed account of my experience (thank you for that!). I think I'm specifically inspired by the Conan and Kane's stories where, as Rod said, betrayal is a way of winning war, but also sorcery. The three Kanes's novels present those type of situations (Spoilers), but Darkness Weaves and Dark Crusade specifically comes into my mind for that :

    – In Dark Crusade, the Dark Prophet launches masses of beggars against cities and rolls over everything. But he rolls over everything because he uses those stranges shadow demons that possess or bully a girl for opening the doors. At some time, those masses of beggard are slaughered by a professional army, to the point that is not even a war or battle, just an everlasting butchery deshumanizing those soldiers. In this case, those beggars win only with specific conditions.

    – In Darkness Weaves, Efreil destroys the imperial navy by summoning a hughe lovecraftian sea demon that crushes everything.

    So on the moment, when I had to deal with the situations in pure improvisation, I thought about the litterature, those moments came in my mind, and I decided "ok, if you come with your brutal sorcery, you have a chance to turn the tide, also if we see a vicious betrayal".

    Not sure if it's the best thing to do, but that's how I solved this particular situation at that moment!



  3. One particularly robust yet

    One particularly robust yet simple set of rules for this is found in Star Wars Roleplaying (FFG). I have not seen the lab yet, so I don't know if it came up. I did not see it listed in the tags. Once I have watched, if it doesn't get discussed in the video and if the rules in Star Wars have something different to contribute than the examples from the lab, I will post about it~

    • We didn’t talk about it in

      We didn't talk about it in the seminar, so please hold forth when you have the time & desire.

      However, I hope you can also provide thoughts on the overall pattern or available range of design choices about this kind of resolution.

  4. The disappearance of Empire Building from RPGs

    Back in the day, my personal characters tended to rather consistently start building empires. That is, they started to make alliances, gain followers and mark off territory as their own. Surprise! I come from a wargaming background.

    I sometimes encountered pushback from other players, most notably in AD&D games, where group of players tended to split between those who were interested in such activities, and those who just wanted to bash dungeons and be murder hoboes.

    That leads me to think that part of the absence of a vocabulary related to such matters is a result of the emergence of "dungeon adventuring" as the dominant activity in early RPGs. Things became focused on the activities of small groups of individuals with little attention paid to their effects on their social context.

    Now, back in the 70s, it was very common for RPGs to be associated with various board games and miniatures rules. Perhaps the most memorable of these was White Bear and Red Moon (later renamed Dragon Pass), which was the first real presentation of big picture Glorantha. Unfortunately, this didn't really mesh well with Runequest, since there wasn't really any way for even the most powerful/successful RQ characters to interact with and join the ranks of the characters presented in WB&RM. Perhaps if Chaosium had gotten around to expanding RQ into an exploration of Hero Questing, that gap might have been filled. Without that, PCs are just nameless mooks, below the resolution of the board game.

    An interesting absence from the list of games discussed were those published by GDW, most specifically Traveller and En Garde. That's understandable in that the focus was on fantasy games, but Traveller in particular lends itself to empire building, and its (often politically dubious) cousin, military SF. This isn't a coincidence, GDW was more than most RPG publishers, a wargaming publisher first and foremost. (Later editions of Traveller would be almost entirely consumed by the military SF stuff, to its detriment, IMHO.)

    Now, generally speaking, empire building is just an extension of the normal social interactions involved in a campaign. The characters make friends, win followers and recruit allies in a common cause. That's not possible in all games, and irrelevant to others, but it's no big deal on a conceptual level. Eventually the PCs call in all their favours and get everyone they can together to engage in a common enterprise, which in this case is fighting someone. At that point it becomes a relatively simple matter of how to wrangle the established relationships between characters, as well as the mechanical outcomes. It doesn't require stopping roleplaying and starting playing a wargame.

    Of course that assumes that the PCs have a substantial degree of influence on the outcome. If that is not the case, then it becomes a matter of them applying influence at whatever level they can, or simply trying to survive in the least compromised manner possible.

    I mentioned En Garde above – characters do sometimes go to war, but the results are abstracted and ultimately only relevant in terms of their consequences for the PCs. It doesn't actually matter what it was about or what the outcome was. That's actually fair enough within the setting of the game.

    Trying to summarise, and as usual, failing…

    To me, it seems that the key issues are an application of the normal rules for social interaction, as well as, at most, a slight expansion of normal combat rules or some other, more abstract system.

    The degree to which this influences the overall situation is potentially highly variable, but there should be a scope within which the PCs actions are significant, if only in terms of consequences to themselves.

    Beyond that scope… well, that's actually pretty much a matter of GM fiat, however it is dressed up. That seems undesirable.

    • I appreciate your reflections

      I appreciate your reflections, but I'm not seeing the relevance. Sure, "playing within a battle" is not unrelated to the player-characters becoming socially powerful and dealing with large-scale goals or problems, but neither of these two concepts requires the other.

      The topic at hand is how to play when a character is situated in the thick of some complex conflict above their own scale of operation, so we have to resolve both the bigger situation as well as their actions within it. Whether the character has instigated the situation, whether they care about the larger outcome, whether they have any capacity to affect the outcome – all those are dials within that picture, which in design terms may either be left circumstantial or be considered defaults.

      [I’m focusing on "battle" only because it’s easy to conceive as something which is environmentally not under a character’s easy or direct influence, but which also resolves, and also as something that we might care about at the table.]

      Can you direct your analysis to that topic or asssociated points?

  5. Battle System from older games

    Here's some comments I posted to the Discord channel after the discussion in the video:

    I reviewed the battle rules in Bushido (1981). Only a PC in command has any influence over the outcome. Battles are resolved in turns, using commander skill and troop points. Each turn results in the current status of each side. PCs fighting individually then roll, based on the current status of their side, on incidental damage and possible one on one fights with opponents using the standard individual combat rules.

    En Guard uses a similar model of top down, with the added nuance that a PC can be in command of a sub unit and his particular success roll is influenced by the rolls of his superior. PC's individual fate is abstract, with no reference to the personal combat system.

    Flashing Blades has a system that looks a lot like En Guard. A PC in command can influence battle outcome, but otherwise, PC's consequences are determined by a table based on the overall outcome. This includes the possibility of playing out an individual fight with the personal combat system.

    Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium (Last Unicorn Games) has no battle system but sketches out "house ventures" which are sessions where player characters engage in individual action on a mission. The rules are sketchy, but it seems that, depending on events of the adventure, a player character may be put in a position to make a "venture task roll" that determines the outcome for their House. Ventures earn Asset Rewards for the House, which are spent to increase House attributes (status, influence, wealth, and security, each of which have subspecialties). House attributes in turn can be used in "Narrative Interludes" where the House makes a task roll to achieve something.

  6. A Song of Ice & Fire / Sword Chronicles RPG

    I thought I remembered a bit from this game, the former ASoIaF rpg, now called Sword Chronicles. Warfare is part of a larger House system and tied into the politics of the game as well. Warfare has a lot of rules and battles are very structured, with commanders and moving units. They handle PCs' part of the battle by zooming in/out to different scales. The battle rules use the same basic mechanics as personal combat (from what I can see on a quick glance) and a character with skills appropriate to war or battle can make rolls. Resources are important to the battle and to war and all of it ties into the greater story of your house. 

    In terms of scale, they note that a battle of 20 people or less should stay in the normal scale, but anything more than that should move to the battle level. 

    I dare say this style of play would have to be your kink for it to be worth it. However, I can see where the structure could be made useful for a more narrative approach perhaps, with a little hand waving and skill rolls. I also think, again just a short read through, that the fate of the PCs' is not tied into who wins or loses the battle. And vice versa unless one of the PCs or their imemdiate foes are commanders. Loss of commanders affects the battle. 

  7. Catching up …

    I certainly found RPGs via war games (Diplomacy plus SPI/Avalon Hill chit & hex, not miniatures – a distinction that maybe-used-to matter). On a personal/experiential level, the appeal of the character kinda overwhelmed the appeal of the battle, so "losing" battle systems didn't seem like a big deal. Still, there was a lingerng and occasionally-reborn relationship with that battle-stuff.

    My earliest example is pure potential. My first exposure to Glorantha was the "White Bear and Red Moon" board game, and obviously (ha!) you could roleplay up to the Battle of Dragon Pass and then just replace the board game heroes with your PCs. I never even tried that, though – I just remember talking about what we COULD do. A limited opportunity that would only work by channeling towards an "inevitable" final conflict, but theoretically, there was a framework that you could plug your Rune Lord/Priest into for "the big battle" climax.

    There was also Greg Costikyan's Sword & Sorcery, with both Army (hex battle) game scenarios and Quest (more RPGish) game scenarios that could be played together…ish. I'd have to dig out my copy for the details – my recollection is the RPG-rules just didn't appeal to us, but the Army game was about the only wargame we kept playing after getting into D&D/etc.

    One of the last AD&D products I bought, already partway into a '83-'91ish "I can't find anyone who plays like I want" span, was the TSR Battlesystem. I've still never used it, and overall it's a complicated play-the-battle endeavor. But looking at the rules specifically for insights about mixing characters and battle …

    "During set-up, each player must identify the initial role that each PC/NPC individual will play in the battle. These roles are: member of unit, Unit/Brigade/Army Commander, or Hero. A character can also be designated as a Deputy Commander […] PC/NPC individuals can change roles during a battle. All changes of roles must be declared at the beginning of the Movement Phase of the current Game Round, and take effect immediately." That's interesting – options for how the character engages. And then there's the "Fate of PC/NPC in Eliminated Unit" table: 1 Character is killed and body is lost, 2-3 Character is killed and body lies on the field, 4-7 Character is badly wounded (1-6 hp remaining), 8-0 Character is unwounded but unconscious for 1-10 AD&D® or D&D® game turns.

    Probably the biggest place my play dealt with big battle/character interaction was Mekton, where war and mecha-armies were often the backdrop. There's some system-built context support to make this interesting (e.g, lifepath gives you a lover on the other side of the conflict), and in theory a large-scale combat system. But it was always ignored and GMs would use some hand-wavy ad-hoc system when the need arose. Sometimes I liked it, sometimes not, but none of it stuck with me as lessons-learned. Makes me wonder if other mech-games (Battletech?) have anything to offer?

    There is also apparently an AD&D 2e Battlesystem, but I've never even heard of folks using it. Not that that means much. Probably there's a thriving community who thinks it's just what their game needs …

    So in terms of identifying historical features of PCs in big battle: most of what I know from back-in-the day is very much tied to some variety of separate/parallel board/miniature game. I've experienced a decent amount of ad hoc handling, but it does NOT feel like a methodolgy was learned/absorbed (like some other non-directly/formally systematized aspects of play do). To some extent, by picking roleplaying as my main hobby rather than boardgaming, I've accepted that less-battle is OK (often, actually preferrable), but good methods for involving PCs in war/battle does seem potentially fun & useful.

    I do like the idea of decisions made upon entering (or changed during) war/battle for each character about HOW they'll engage, and personal consequences that are somewhat driven by that. And from your discussion, I think my ideal system would NOT link battle-outcome and character-outcome (a battle-win may not be or spring from a character-win, a battle loss could have charcter-positive results even if they're on the losing side, etc.)

    Lastly – a quick google tells me that some people like a L5R chart for generating "what happens to me/others as a result of my involvement in this battle?" results. I'll try and track that down.

    • Hi Gordon! I didn’t or only

      Hi Gordon! I didn't or only barely encountered most of what you're posting about – I certainly didn't know the extent that TSR held onto the idea, and titles like the TSR Battlesystem press the "I think that sounds famiiliar" button at most. The topic is certainly calling for someone to play through a lot of these, probably to discover a hundred directions of potential design.

      Your comment is also good timing for me as I've just returned to Circle of Hands additions and revisions, as well as moving into play and writing for its in-development sister game, Dreams of Fire. The latter features more organized, goals-directed combat, so I went to the books and have diagrammed out a bunch of battle systems, not all by any means, but a good healthy sample throughout the history and across a range of well-known to obscure titles. Play would be better, but so far, it's been at least fascinating and (I hope) insightful. Obviously Pendragon sets a gold standard, but as with all of them, it's founded on a specific answer to the starting question, "what is a person relative to a battle?" – as well as the question of "what is battle" relative to the culture, society, and setting as a play-experience.

      Probably no surprise to anyone: Circle of Hands essentially rejects all fictional tropes for either of those things. From my notes for the new rules section:

      Organized mass violence in the Crescent Land is all about butchering or stealing from people who cannot fight back effectively; battles happen when that plan goes wrong, not because anyone planned for it and wanted it to happen. Imagine: no "cut off the head of the snake," no essential chain of command, no one going berserk and saving the day, no dramatic surprises or game-changing trickery, nothing to do with holding ground, breaking a position, rallying to a leader, swaying morale with a symbolic act, or representing for a cause. The only things you can try to do in a battle are staying in it without dying or getting out of it without dying.

      Dreams of Fire is a little different in that characters may have, for lack of a better word, actual jobs to do inside a battle situation, and the purpose of the organized effort is straightforward and brutal, if less entirely chaotic. It includes a bit more about how the events may be proceeding from time-unit to time-unit. However, it's not very much different, as the notion of battles "deciding things" in social terms is still at issue (and possibly rejected outright), and the point of the mechanics is to provide context for scenes which are conducted as ordinary play.

    • The attractive/annoyance

      The attractive/annoyance balance on playing one of these "parallel wargame" RPGs is … probably tilted too much towards annoyance for me at the moment. But with the right group (probably, the right "someone else" as GM/organizer), I could see learning a lot. If/when your diagram of large-battle games is ready for a look, maybe some less burdensome system will grab my attention.

      Your plans in Circle of Hands make sense to me. I mean, it's depressing, and the idea that I might decide to get a character involved in that rare "chance to oppose slaughter and exploitation" conflict but all that decision means is a survival check is … arguably accurate, but still disturbing. To be brutal (hope that's OK – I'm pretty sure your design-push doesn't get derailed easily), I also expect it'd contribute to the "why would I want to play THAT?" reaction I already get when trying to talk about CoH. I'm not sure whether to say "ignore that" or "maybe include advice around that in the text." But certainly, I can see a "why", so changing the idea because people don't like "no battle heroes" is NOT desireable.

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