One of my favorite adventures from Dungeon Magazine was called the Pipes of Doom (issue 28) which involves an evil army composed of many types of creatures and lead by a Lich attacking human settlements. Now, there are problematic aspects of this adventure, namely that in some places it is more about set-pieces than giving the PCs interesting things to do, but since I’m usually a little more laid back about that than some other folk, it isn’t such a big deal.
What keeps drawing me back to this adventure is that it is a battle scenario (indeed, designed to use the Battlesystem Mass Combat Rules) that sets up the initial forays of an evil army into less-than-prepared human kingdoms. It’s the beginning of a war.
And I’ve always wanted to start a war in my games. It never seems to go well when I do. It’s almost my white whale, I’d say. I’ve run a lot of fun games. I’ve played in a lot of fun games. War just never seems to go well. And RPGs keep churning out ways to play out the war at the table. And I keep trying. I’m a sucker for Mass Combat Systems. Put one in an RPG book and I probably have to buy it just to see how “they did it differently.”
Recently, I was reading the Mass Combat rules for the Dragon Age RPG and they got me thinking about this topic again…
Games go to extremes with this stuff. GURPS has this crazy awesome mass combat system with tables, and percentages, and troop strengths built from a million different factors and involving multiple math operations for just about everything. As I said, it is both crazy and awesome. I can’t really get into it. It takes too much work to do just about everything for my tastes.
3.5 D&D had a very different take, with Heroes of War, where the value of “units” almost disappeared into an idea that allowed the PCs to determine the majority of the success or failure of battles based on their actions. This was clever and cool, but turning the battlefield into a “dungeon” sorta took all the grit and terror of battle away.
For a long time I was a big fan of the Birthright mass combat system. It was played out on a map and became almost a war game where the actions of the adventurers were felt through their inclusion in a unit… but mainly, the system was somewhat too random for me and only supported a fairly narrow range of troop types. That is to say, you could have knights and ogres, but Dragons and such were probably right out. But the concept of playing it out on a map, physically moving your units through flanking maneuvers, setting up charges, and seeing it laid out like a war game was a neat twist.
I really appreciate the Dragon Age system as it sits in a nice middle ground for me. Battles are broken up into three phases and the outcome of each phase hinges on some basic die rolling – but how the event plays out is entirely narrative/description based. During each phase, it is possible to have a “Crisis Point” which will focus and narrow the action to allow the PCs to shine and possibly have an overall effect on the outcome of that phase of the battle.
Creating the paperwork for an army takes a matter of seconds and is guided by the primary troop type as well as special troop types which affect the three phases of the battle. While not entirely “realistic” I find this system to really support the type of play I want. It has a clear, mechanical framework with some dice rolling to determine the outcome of the battle but things like strategy, leadership, and having the right troops still matter. There are also sub-systems for determining casualties, having sub-commanders, and a few other small flourishes. Reading it, it definitely appeals to me.
The Dragon Age RPG does not have any information on raising and maintaining your army. I also think the Focus system inherent in the game would be an interesting way to call out other things about your army that might not just be specialty troops. Things like veteran status or hardened wills or something which could provide small bonuses in specific situations. The title system inherent in the game might also be an interesting place to start.
If you are interested in tracking troops and upkeep and things like that, it’s easy enough to put together a simplified list for your campaign setting based on the kinds of troops you plan on having appear in battles and then pricing them in a campaign appropriate way.
At the end of the day, I know that what has been missing for me in many of the war scenarios I have run/played in is the sense that the stakes are so much larger and the horror or war so much worse than the PCs can imagine. They’re heroes after all, shining paragons, with access to healing, magic, and powers beyond the ken of mortal men. So, I like the Dragon Age system. And I like the idea of running war games, but for now, I think I’ll stick with the more personal game I’m running and just shake my harpoon at the great white whale of war.
As always, thanks for reading.