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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!



Ross's picture

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.

Greg's picture

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.  

Greg's picture

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!



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~

Ron Edwards's picture

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.

alanb's picture

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.

Ron Edwards's picture

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?

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.

Sean_RDP's picture

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. 

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