War by Other Means (or War, Part 4)

The military strategist and theorist Carl von Clausewitz said, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Certainly, war is what nations resort to to achieve their diplomatic and political aims when peaceful methods have failed. I think it is interesting, though, to look at the reverse and how it applies once war has already started: that politics, diplomacy, trade, and subterfuge can all be considered ways to wage war by other means. Last post, Tactics vs Strategy (or War, Part 3), we discussed the reasons nations will fight wars and how that interacts with how they prosecute those wars at the strategic, operational, and tactical level. We also discussed how to use those things to get your players involved in the war and make them feel like what they are doing is making a difference.

But what if your players are not soldiers, or military leaders, and they have no interest in waging war on the battlefields. They may still want to participate in the war, helping their side, but may feel uncomfortable or out of place with big military moments and the chaos and blood of a warzone. That is no reason to refrain from introducing war into your campaign; instead, I say it is an opportunity to show your players a different side of war, and let them have major impacts in very different ways.

The concept of “total war,” where an entire country is mobilized as a part of the war effort and there are no holds barred in the prosecution of targets, is a relatively modern concept, yet that does not mean that states waged war solely on the battlefields, even going as far back as Ancient times. Once a nation has engaged in warfare, it is in their best interest to apply all of the tools they have available to them as a state to achieving whatever strategic goals they have set forth. Three of the main tools which a nation can use in warfare, away from the battlefield, are broadly trade, diplomacy, and subterfuge.

Trade is often the lifeblood of many nations, particularly in medieval fantasy settings. There is very little chance that a nation has all of the natural resources and goods it needs in order to survive, let alone all of the goods that its citizens want in order to enjoy their lives. Metals and ores for weapons, wood for ships and siege engines, spices, sugar, silks, all of these things were historically-traded commodities and it is likely that there is some sort of interplay between nations for these goods in your setting. An island nation who relies on a strong navy needs timber, which they most likely lack in sufficient quantity to build and maintain their ships, so they must trade for it in order to survive; they could send fish to a mostly-landlocked country in exchange. A country of steppe-dwelling horsemen has need of good metal to forge their weapons, but they have no areas to mine metal, nor even the ability to do so, so they trade for it, perhaps sending livestock to a mountainous country which has an abundance of ores but little land for growing crops or maintaining flocks. This works in science fiction equally well, as it is easy to have planets have exotic or unique resources that enable specific technologies, forcing planets to trade for it. Trade can even become central to a nation’s identity, being the main source of its income and allowing them to spread their influence around the world, as Britain did in the 18th century.

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How does this factor into war? When two nations clash, it is easy to get wrapped up in the maneuvers of armies and navies and the battles they fight, but war is expensive business. As many wars have been ended because one side or both sides ran out of money as have been ended by decisive battles. Nations need to be able to fund their military ventures, since soldiers require more food due to their activity than normal, plus spending on things like transportation, ammunition, and repairs can add up quickly. Given the importance of money to the continued waging of war, many nations will choose to target the enemy economy as a way of limiting their opponent’s options or even trying to force them to sue for peace early. Attacking trade is a timeless strategy, and one which provides ample opportunities for quests for your players. Attacking trade convoys, whether on land, on sea, or in space, enables the players to still participate in combat and fight interesting battles with varied objectives (destroy cargo, steal cargo, swap cargo with other cargo), without forcing them onto a battlefield with all of the scale and chaos that battlefields bring. It also can present the players with difficult decisions, as, depending on your characterization, the caravan or convoy may simply be full of civilian merchants with some hired guards who are only trying to make a living, and the available job was to transport the goods for the enemy country; do the players kill them? Do they even go through with destroying or stealing the goods if they find this information out? Convoy raiding may also appeal to players motivated by money, as it is a surefire way to earn coin, both from being paid by the nation that hired them, as well as reaping rewards from the plundered convoy.

One particularly fun way to institute trade raiding is by making your players privateers. Privateers were private citizens of a country who received a “letter of marque” from the government, enabling them to essentially conduct piracy in the name of their country and their country’s ruler, as long as the ships were of a certain country. I did this in the Edge of the Empire game I ran, with the Empire giving the party a letter of marque to attack the ships of another group. Letters of marque normally entitle the bearer to keep any goods aboard the ships they attack and even be paid for ships they bring back to friendly ports. If you are running a sci fi or a nautical campaign, or want to put your players to sea, privateering in a war can be a fun campaign arc. Privateering can also assuage any moral qualms players may have who think being a pirate may be fun, but immoral; since the piracy is sanctioned and only against certain targets who are enemies in a war, players should easily be able to get behind it, regardless of alignment. A lawful good character may even see it as being in line with his or her ideals! Also, letters of marque can be awesome prop pieces to hand out to your players, as I did in my EOTE game; an example of one is below.

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It is logical to think that diplomacy takes a pause when war breaks out, but that simply isn’t true. Nations were often more active in diplomacy during war than before or after war, and for good reason. Right off the bat, the concept of “recalling ambassadors” is mainly for show, since countries would usually continue to send representatives either to each others’ capitals or to neutral meeting locations throughout the conduct of the war to discuss where their respective governments were at in terms of desire for peace and what they wanted out of any peace. Additionally, nations would utilize their ambassadors to other nations to actively attempt to alter the scales of war, usually through three ways. The first was to try to convince another nation to join the war on their side. The second was to try to convince another nation who was not currently in the war to stay out of the war, usually if it seemed like that nation was being courted by the enemy to join. The third was, if there was an alliance of enemy nations, to try to convince one of those nations to drop out of the war or even switch sides.

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Diplomatic missions can offer an interesting and fun change of pace for players, especially if they are usually involved in physical combat. It also enables players who are less combat-inclined, or players who enjoy complex roleplaying encounters, to take the lead and shine, and really enjoy themselves. Diplomatic quest arcs can be rife with intrigue, competing factions within a government that players can play against each other, and danger no less real than that of a battlefield, but with a separate set of guidelines and customs that must be observed given the status of their mission. They can be intense and stressful (in a good way!), even if there is never a risk of anyone losing a single hit point. If you send your players on a diplomatic mission in a war, I encourage you to make the encounters with the diplomats or politicians of the other nation just as in-depth as any combat encounter. Some systems even have full rules for “social combat,” such as Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars Roleplaying and Legend of the Five Rings systems, and I encourage you to check them out even if you are running a different system. Diplomatic missions will often have huge implications for the war overall; bringing a new nation into the war, with all of their military and economic resources, or causing a nation to drop out of the war and thus removing their military and resources from the enemy, can be a turning point. If your players succeed, they will see how massive an impact their mission has had on the war, and the success of their mission might even cause the enemy to reevaluate their position enough to sue for peace. For players who may not feel inclined to use violence to solve their issues, but still want to defend their nation or help in the war effort, diplomatic missions can be high-stakes, high-pressure encounters with fantastic roleplaying.

Subterfuge is a broad name for the activities a nation will use to secretly undermine its enemies’ abilities to continue to fight the war. Subterfuge missions are likely to feel familiar to most player groups since they will mostly involve sneaking around and trying not to get caught by guards. Subterfuge missions can run the gamut of all sorts of different quests for the players, some involving combat and others not, if the players get things right. Nations were not above doing nefarious things to try to throw an enemy off-balance, even if others would see it as reprehensible if they found out.

The classic example of a subterfuge quest is an assassination: the players’ nation gives them a mission to sneak into an enemy camp and kill an enemy general on the night before the battle. Or, the players must sneak into the enemy capital and try to kill the enemy king to throw the country into chaos and hopefully end the war.  Another is sabotage, and this can include many different types of goals the players must accomplish without being detected, or eliminating anyone who does. Players can be given a mission to sneak into an enemy base and upload a virus onto their computer system, paralyzing their ability to use their technology to its utmost capability. Or, they can be tasked to sneak into an enemy fort and poison the well, depriving the enemy a clean water source and forcing the defenders to give up. The players might have to rig a bridge to explode, either with enemy troops on it or even just to deny the enemy the ability to cross a river or chasm and thus forcing them to go in a different direction.

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A more complicated example of subterfuge that could easily turn into a long campaign arc is fomenting unrest in enemy lands. Throughout history, this was a common tactic employed by nations during war. Unless your nation is a utopia (and therefore unrealistic), there exists within its borders some sort of group that feels disenfranchised or unhappy with the current leadership. Normally, any sort of attempt by these people to break away or rise up in rebellion is doomed to failure without support, and nations were loathe to support rebellions in other nations during peacetime for fear that others would do the same to them in retaliation. In war, all bets were off. The players could be sent to another nation to make contact with this disenfranchised group, find out their goals and motivations, and then help get them to a position where they can strike a blow at the enemy, such as training them, helping them organize, and getting weapons and materiel. Once the rebels can fight, their attacks draw off forces, attention, and resources from the enemy nation, who must about-face and deal with a threat within their own borders. A great series of historical examples of this are the French-funded and supported Jacobite uprisings in 17th and 18th-century Britain, where France, at war with Britain many times, funded, armed, and sent troops to support Catholic supporters of alternative (and Catholic) claimants to the Protestant British throne. While unsuccessful, they did divert attention and resources of the British back to their home isles, rather than the continent. In our Age of Rebellion game, we have done many missions and campaign arcs like this, as it is one of the ways the Rebel Alliance is able to grow and continue to fight the Empire.

As you can hopefully see, there are many ways to get and keep your players involved in the juggernaut that is a major war affecting their homes without them necessarily needing to fight on the battlefield. Depending on group and player makeup, there is a quest or campaign arc to make everyone happy, and with high stakes which make the players feel like their actions are really having an impact on the world at large.

If you want more RPG and tabletop gaming goodness, check out my Instagram, @TheRamblingGM.

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Tactics vs Strategy (or War, Part 3)

In 1758, at the height of the Seven Years War, the British prepared to launch yet another expedition to attempt to capture or destroy the significant French forts in the Ohio territory. The primary objective was Fort Duquesne, built at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers; the Fort’s location essentially allowed its owner to control nearly all movement, trade, and settlement in the Ohio country, and controlling the Ohio country was a major British objective and one of the primary causus belli. Previous expeditions had all failed, despite the British being victorious in some battles and them losing some which were not disastrous defeats; a common theme in these failed expeditions was British commanders’ frustration with the slow pace of their army’s movement and the subsequent decisions to leave baggage and artillery behind and continue ahead with the infantry.  The French and allied Native Americans would then ambush these isolated infantry and, the British cut off from their artillery and supply trains, could not remain pushing forward. Travel overland through the thick Ohio country was difficult, but leaving supplies and heavy guns behind would always lead to inevitable failure in terrain owned by the enemy. So, in 1758, General John Forbes set off with his expedition. He made the decision to move deliberately, slowly, with pioneers cutting a new road through the forests and over the Allegheny Mountains. At periodic intervals, he stopped and built fortified stockades and supply depots which he could store more supplies at and have a fall-back point to defend if things turned poor for his troops. It took months, and many of his junior officers and some of his superiors were frustrated with the slow progress. At many points along the way, the British infantry were ambushed by French and Native forces, as they had been in previous expeditions, but this time, the British troops could fall back to the safety of their heavy guns or the new forts, and resupply and receive medical attention.

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During Forbes’ expedition, he lost every battle he fought, yet he did not change course. He continued his methodical advance. With fall-back points, artillery, and his supply train always close by, Forbes could continue to advance. The French and their Native allies had no answer for this slow-moving juggernaut, for as long as the British had their supply lines open and protected, the French could not stop them. Forbes continued his advance, and the French were forced to systematically destroy each one of the forts in the Ohio valley as the British neared each one in turn. On November 24, 1758, as the British neared within about five miles, the French commander of Fort Dusquesne evacuated his troops and set fire to the fort. The British occupied the smoking remains the next day and began construction on their own fort, Fort Pitt, present day Pittsburgh. General Forbes had lost every tactical encounter with the French, and achieved his strategic objective.

I use that story often in my profession as an Army officer to illustrate the separation between tactics and strategy, and the nebulous middle ground known as “operations.” In simple terms, tactics are the application of maneuver and combat power against an enemy at a set place and time to achieve local success or victory; tactics deals strictly with military units. Strategy, on the other hand, is the plan by which a nation strives to achieve victory over an enemy nation, and encompasses all assets at that nation’s disposal to achieve it; there may be several strategic “objectives” that the nation sets forth in order to bring about their enemy’s defeat. Operations are groupings of many tactical actions which are linked to achieving or helping to achieve a specific strategic objective. If commanders at different levels do not fully understand or communicate the objectives of whatever they are setting out on are, or do not act in accordance with the higher objective, tactical success can be meaningless; “winning the battle, but losing the war.” At the tactical level, the French dominated the British in the Ohio Country during the Seven Years War. They were strategically defeated there. In a more recent example, American forces dominated North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong forces tactically during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968; the NVA was virtually destroyed as an entity and could not mount major combat operations for years afterwards. However, the Tet Offensive was a public relations disaster for the United States government, who had been assuring the world that the war was well in hand. Despite the overwhelming victory American troops had achieved on the battlefield, the Tet Offensive was a strategic victory for the Vietnamese Communists, who stirred so much unrest in the United States that the US would never be able to recover in their conduct of the war; Tet was the beginning of the end of the US war effort in Vietnam.

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I know you didn’t come here for a history lesson, but if you plan on incorporating war into your campaigns, I believe it is important that you, as a GM or DM, understand the way countries and their armies intend to wage that war. While battles are exciting (as we discussed in Part 2, the next step up is to make sure that the effect of these battles is tied to something in the overall war effort. Battles occur when two armies come together on a battlefield. It’s your job to decide why those two armies came together. What did each country send those armies to do? How does each army fit into its country’s strategic objectives? What are those strategic objectives?

The first thing you should figure out is the strategy of each nation involved in the war. Why did these two countries go to war in the first place? Was it a border or territorial dispute? A trade dispute? A diplomatic insult? Decide the reason for war first, and that may help you determine the strategic goals, but they do not need to be inexorably tied; a causus belli can simply be the way to start a war, with goals that far outweigh the initial offense or objective.  Since I introduced the Seven Years War with my anecdote about John Forbes’ expedition, I will continue with that example. The Seven Years War started as a territorial dispute over the Ohio Country between France and Great Britain. However, William Pitt, the British Prime Minister, made British strategy the complete humiliation and weakening of France, particularly through taking away France’s colonial empire.

Once you figure out the strategy of the nations, decide if there are any sub-tasks that would need to be accomplished to achieve this. There does not have to be, but there may be. For example, since France had overseas colonies in many locations, Britain had many strategic objectives: control the Ohio country, control the Saint Lawrence River and thereby French Canada, control French trading cities and outposts in India, control French trading outposts in Africa. If there are several strategic-level objectives, they can start to inform and determine where the nation will allocate its resources. Some may require more troops than others. Some may require a different approach entirely. For today, to keep things manageable, we will focus only on military assets, though trade, diplomacy, and subterfuge are all additional assets at a nation’s disposal in warfare.

If strategic objectives are identified, you can then have nations send armies on campaigns. These are operational-level maneuvers with a specific strategic goal in mind that they are trying to accomplish. General Forbes’ expedition to capture Fort Dusquesne would grant the British virtual control over the entire Ohio country, achieving a strategic objective. General Amherst led another army in a separate series of campaigns over several years to the north along the Saint Lawrence River which resulted in the capture of Montreal, solidifying British control over the River, and thereby French Canada, and achieving another strategic objective. British troops made amphibious assaults in Africa, capturing Senegal, Goiree, and Gambia from the French. And in India, yet another army under Sir Eyre Coote captured Wandiwash, Pondicherry, Karikal, and Mahe, eliminating French power on the subcontinent. These were all separate armies, with separate commanders, pursuing different strategic objectives. Yet they were all tied to the overall strategic goal of eliminating France’s colonial empire and humiliating them.

Once an army sets out on campaigns, the battles it fights should then be in service to achieving that campaign’s strategic goals. A good commander would not fight the enemy merely for the sake of fighting; he or she would only fight if the battle would further the objective. That is not always going to be the case, but armies, especially in pre-modern settings, are slow and ponderous things to maneuver, and battles were rarer than we probably think. Generals spent a long time maneuvering their armies around the countryside, trying to get them into an advantageous position where they could achieve their objective. When a battle is fought, it should have a purpose for each side, even if that purpose for one side is simply the preservation of the army. The French forced battle on General Forbes many times, to try to force him to withdraw from Ohio and preserve their control; Forbes’s only goal was to preserve his army long enough to reach Dusquesne, and so he conducted his campaign and his battles mostly defensively.

If you are able to have the battles that your players participate in on the tabletop link back to higher-level objectives at the national level, and communicate those effects to them, they will not only understand better what they are fighting for, they will also be more immersed in your world, in the war you’ve introduced, and may even want to get involved in helping to shape the goals and direction of the war.

As always, good luck with your campaigns.

Your Players in Battles (or War, Part 2)

Ezra Taft Benson said, “Great battles can make great heroes and heroines.” In roleplaying games, where we all strive to either be or have our players be great heroines and heroes, battles offer us a chance to do so in a very classic sense. Battles, large battles, not just small skirmishes in a dungeon raid against a handful of monsters, but true battles, with dozens or hundreds or thousands of troops on each side fighting for great stakes, create scenarios for players to explore right out of an epic novel, TV series, movie, or even history.
Welcome to Part 2 of my series on adding War into your roleplaying campaign. Today, I’ll be delving into the individual battles of your war, specifically how to integrate your players in large battles in such a way that neither the scope of the battle nor your character’s feelings of being heroes are lost. While I discussed several topics last time that focused on war’s general effects on your campaign world whether or not characters are getting involved in the war, this post will assume your characters are involved in enough of a sense that they will end up on a battlefield, fighting for one of the sides engaged in the struggle. A second assumption is that this battle is larger than normal combat in your campaign, enough so that all of the participants may not feasibly fit on the table if you were using miniatures. The battles we are discussing are between armies, or fleets, with hundreds or thousands of participants. With those two things in mind, let’s jump in to battles.
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The first thing I’d recommend, and I cannot stress this highly enough as a GM or DM, is to find a good Mass Combat system that works quickly, smoothly, and integrates with your game’s system. One of the big reason people avoid large battles in RPGs is because of the large number of participants, which can feel overwhelming for a GM, even if they are grouped into units. There are plenty of Mass Combat rules out there, or you may want to homebrew your own, but ensure that they can be run quickly, smoothly, and within the same mechanical framework of whatever system you are running. Rules being quick means that the number of dice rolls required to resolve combat between two units or two armies is kept to a minimum, perhaps one or two rolls for each (like a to-hit and a casualty roll, or something similar). Rules being smooth means that the flash-to-bang from rolling dice to being able to narratively describe what has just happened in the combat is, again, kept to a minimum. Having to reference multiple different charts to determine the exact number of casualties taken, complicated strength-versus-wound tables, and the like are straying into the land of wargaming (which we will discuss shortly), and, just like any extensive rules checking, detract from immersion. The rules should enable you to roll the dice, describe the result, and move on to what really matters: the players’ actions. Finally, rules being able to integrate with your game’s system means that the rules operate along the same lines as resolving other checks in the system. If you are running a D20 system, rolls for units to hit and to wound each other should utilize a D20. If you are running Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars or Genesys RPGs, their mass combat system is simply another check utilizing the same dice you use for everything else, with upgrades and downgrades for different things and different sized units which match what the players expect from that system. Don’t make your players learn a completely different set of rules for something which is, at the end of the day, a sideshow.
Once you have a set of Mass Combat rules that you like and are comfortable with, consider who will be performing these Mass Combat checks during the game. There are lots of GMs and DMs out there who came from a wargaming background or wargame as another hobby, as do I. We enjoy pushing entire units of soldiers around on the battlefield, rolling dice, and seeing what happens. However, we are not playing a wargame here; we are roleplaying, and not everyone wants to wargame. Talk to your players either before the game or right when combat pops up and ask them if they’d like to control any of the units in the fight. Have small index cards or notes ready with stats for units if they’d like to control them, that you can easily hand out and the players can easily understand. In my experience, many players do actually enjoy participating in Mass Combat by moving units around, even if just because it’s another thing to do, but do not pressure anyone into participating if they don’t want to. Some players will just be content to sit back and enjoy the show. That’s fine because, again, this is not a wargame, and the Mass Combat checks should not be the central aspect of what is occurring. When the Mass Combat rolls occur, describe the actions as impressively as you like, but do not allow the game to get bogged down in that portion of each turn; bring the focus back quickly to what they are doing.
So what are the players doing? That is the third thing you should consider when planning for a battle. Most roleplaying games are designed for “small-unit actions,” in the parlance of war, combat between small groups of heroes and enemies in relatively close quarters. While you need not exclusively stick to this, it is an important thing to remember when thinking about what task to point your players towards. Battles in your roleplaying game should never just throw the players onto a battlefield with hundreds or thousands of participants and say, “fight!” The players should have an objective, whether they come up with it themselves or are given it by some higher commander. The players could want to seek out the enemy commander on the battlefield and slay him or her, reasoning that the death of the leader will demoralize the enemy and cause them to flee. You could structure the encounter as a linear combat with the players fighting through numerous weaker enemies and perhaps a lieutenant as they cut their way to the commander, ending with the fight against that boss, while the mass combat goes on around them. In a defensive battle, the players could be a quick reaction force, being dispatched or being forced to react to the weak points in the line to shore up defenses. If the players are defending a walled city, they could have to respond to breaches in the wall, ladders being thrown up, or a siege tower reaching the city and unloading troops. In an offensive battle, the players could be tasked with sneaking or dropping behind enemy lines and taking out some sort of high-value target, like artillery or air defenses, or capturing a bridge so a flanking force can outmaneuver the enemy. By focusing the players’ attention into a specific facet of the battle, while still having their action be an important part of the overall fight, you can achieve both making the battle feel particularly epic and having the players feel like their actions really made a difference.
Making the players’ actions matter is the last thing to consider when planning for battles. No matter what else is going on at the table, ensure that the battle is influenced by what the players and their characters are doing and accomplishing. Killing the enemy commander, capturing an enemy bridge, destroying enemy artillery, or plugging holes in the line should all provide boosts to friendly Mass Combat rolls, and you should make a point of noting that aloud to everyone every time one of these rolls takes place. “The enemy gets a -5 to this next roll because you all just killed the commander and they’re panicking.” Likewise, failing to achieve their objectives or taking a long time to do so should have clear negative consequences, as the battle will not wait for them. If the players have particular trouble in plugging the line on the defense and another breach opens up, for example, make a verbal note of it. “Friendly units get -3 to their roll as they now have to deal with another breach before the first one is sealed, and they’re stretched thin.” Showing the negative consequences can convey the desperation of a battle, increase the tension, and again, make the players feel like they are making a difference one way or another. Despite the fact that there is a battle raging around them, the players should still be the focal point.
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One final comment I will make about battles is that you may have a player whose character, either by background, build, or roleplaying, is some sort of officer or commander. That player may want to have more of a role in the Mass Combat portion of the battle as a commander giving orders and directing troops, reasoning that that is where their character is best suited, rather than the front lines (FFG’s Star Wars game has two subclasses which are strongly built around being a commander rather than a front line leader for example). In that case, I recommend allowing them to do so, and giving them a large amount of control over where units go and what they do, even if it means they do not participate in the “small unit action” the other players do. Players who build a leader-type character rarely have opportunities for such large control in line with their character, and battles are one of them. Allow the player the chance to do so, they will love it.
I hope this post is helpful for you in planning your battles, and good luck with your campaigns!

War, what is it good for?

“So long as there are men, there will be wars.” Albert Einstein said that, and it is equally applicable to any roleplaying game you intend to run. Unless you can brainwash people, conflict of some sort is inevitable, for any number of reasons, and sometimes those conflicts can spiral out of control into full-fledged wars. Without delving too far into different political science theories, it suffices to say that war is even more likely to occur in fantasy settings, where political systems are often based on medieval structures such as feudalism and monarchies, and the needs of these countries and their moral systems can vary even more dramatically than in our own world.
I am a big proponent of including warfare in roleplaying games, even if it is not the primary action of the characters. For example, I am running three weekly games currently: Star Wars Age of Rebellion, Star Wars Edge of the Empire, and a homebrew DnD setting. In Age of Rebellion, war is not just center stage, it is the primary plot point for our characters, an Alliance Special Forces unit. Nearly every mission has something to do with the overall war effort against the Empire. In Edge of the Empire, the characters are unaligned with either the Empire or the Rebellion, but the war is occurring in the background and they have had several tangential run-ins with members of the two factions pursuing their goals. In our DnD game, the characters are servants of the crown in Weissland. A war recently broke out (when the characters were about Level 4-5, they’re now at Level 6) with a formerly-friendly nation across a small sea, and the majority of the kingdom’s resources are heading to fight that war. The characters are given a major task to deal with on a different border, in regards to a possible Orc incursion, but the war’s effects keep rearing their heads in different ways. I recommend including war in your roleplaying game because no matter how involved your players are or get in it, it will always providing interesting narrative payoff or bring something to your game.
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The first reason I suggest introducing war is that it helps build out your world. I always believe that RPGs should immerse their players and make them feel like the world they’re playing in could be a real place, not just something that only exists where their characters are at that moment. It can be exciting for your players to have a major hand in the beginning of a war, but that is more fare for higher-level parties. Instead, it can be a big eye-opening moment if the players find out that people are going to war and they are not quite sure where or why. In our DnD game, the players had to travel three weeks across the kingdom to the capital for an NPC they had allied with to make their case before the King about a dispute between this NPC and their uncle (both nobles, and noble disputes can only be resolved by the King). Upon arriving, they were promptly shuttled off to the side by one of the King’s advisors and told that the King would be unable to hear the case, since he was in the middle of preparations for war with Itela. The advisor had permission to resolve the dispute, and did so quickly before shuttling the players out of the palace. The players learned more information over time, but all they knew in the moment was that the kingdom had been at peace when the set off on their journey to the capital, and upon arriving they were now at war with their oldest ally. Clearly, significant events far outside the players’ control, influence, or even knowledge had occurred that were changing things on a worldwide scale, making it clear that the world was moving on and many other people were pursuing agendas other than their party.
The second benefit of introducing war into your campaign is that it changes your world. War has far-reaching consequences, which can give you simple yet effective story moments in your players’ and their characters’ lives. I firmly believe that players require constant interesting stimuli in order to remain engaged in the world. Most GMs and DMs are familiar with accomplishing this through combat, introducing more varied and interesting enemies, but it is equally, or perhaps more, important to do so with the setting. At a certain point, players will become comfortable with their surroundings: the city to which they always return to buy supplies, the shopkeeper or bartender who always gives them a discount, the powerful quest givers who have come to rely on them. War gives you an easy way to change some of the landscape or dynamics of what has become familiar to them. This can be done in drastic ways, or in subtle clues, but the effect will be felt: war has come to the land, and it is changing things.
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Drastic events could include the death of a favorite NPC, the destruction of a familiar location, or even massive events in which the players become involved (more on that in a moment). Subtle things could be the players noticing an influx in refugees or transient visitors, all of the rooms in their favorite tavern taken up by traveling soldiers, or a reduction in the amount or quality of food they have access to around the city because the crown is requisitioning it for the war effort. There are so many possible effects, since war will touch almost every facet of society, that it gives you a great reason to change almost anything in your world under very believable circumstances.
The third reason I encourage you to introduce war into your campaign setting is that it provides you with a wealth of interesting quests that can have very clear and logical, structured goals for the players. Inevitably in campaigns, players will get to a point where they finish off a quest line or story arc, or have just been pittering around for a while doing odd jobs, and then they all huddle up and ask, “what next?” It is the GM’s job to get the campaign going again, to provide fun situations for the players, and while war is certainly far from the only option, it is one you should consider. Threatening the players’ homes and friends with the threat of invasion should be a good motivator to spur them to action, but even if they are more motivated by coin and treasure, it is simple enough to have the government or king offer to pay. Armies, especially in fantasy settings, are often supplemented by mercenaries or contractors of some form or another, so war could at least offer an easy, if life-threatening, way to earn some money for the players.
War as a story arc has the benefit of being logical and with a clear goal in mind: defeat the enemy. There are dozens of different quests and quest lines that you can send the players on that support the war effort, but in the end, success or failure will have a clearly-visible impact on the course of the war, and victory or defeat is simply seen. War quests also have the opportunity for you to put on some of the biggest set pieces you will ever put on as a GM. Battles are integral parts of war, and if your players have any interest in becoming involved as active participants, I highly recommend throwing them into at least one major battle. Battles have their own complexities which deserve a post on their own, but I can say this: major battles in the RPG campaigns I have run have been amongst the most intense, hectic, and memorable moments in the campaigns.
War provides so many choices for narrative, world building, and quests that I cannot recommend introducing it into your campaign at some point highly enough. War can be the centerpoint for an entire, or most of, a campaign, but even if it exists in the background, a country or solar system away, it still has impacts which will change the face of your world. In my next post, I will go into more detail on one of the above topics, probably battles, but until then, just remember: war is good for a lot of things in your RPG world, so make use of it.
Also, thank you to Starship Troopers for all of these perfect GIFs.

Creating Factions: 3 Basic Questions

Most people like to feel like they belong to part of a group. These groups take on all sorts of sizes and compositions. Some of them offer very little as a part of membership, and do very little in the way of influencing the world around them. Some aim to be movers and shakers, pursuing world-shattering goals. In tabletop roleplaying games, we often refer to groups as “Factions,” and setting up Factions is an important step you can take in making your world feel more alive and realistic as a GM.

At their core, Factions can be described along the same lines as characters. The first three things that you need to decide when creating a Faction are: 1) Who are they? 2) What do they want? 3) Why can’t they have it? These three basic questions will form the core of the Faction, and are things that you should constantly revisit and reassess as the campaign continues and your world evolves. I’ll explore these three questions in more depth, and answer them by creating a Faction from scratch as an example as a part of this post.

1) Who are they? This is your basic description of the Faction. When sitting down to create your Faction, it is important to think about who joins this Faction and who runs it. This is where you create the character and feel of your Faction. You should think about the Faction’s origins, when and where it began, since this will have a significant impact on who the members are. Define who is likely to join this Faction and why, as well as why other types of people may decide not to join, or don’t have the opportunity to join. As with all of these questions, the answer to “Who are they?” is tightly interwoven with the other two, and you will likely find yourself bouncing back and forth between the questions to flesh things out. However, try to keep the answers segregated into three different sets, since as the campaign continues, things are likely to change. The group’s goal may change, but they will still have the same membership, for example. This section should also describe the capabilities of the group: are they able to affect significant portions of the world around them with their power, or are they small-timers, unable to cause much of a stir outside their neighborhood?

For our example Faction, I’m going to say that the Faction is a small revolutionary band in the Kingdom of Weissland called The Voice. They are led by students of the universities of the kingdom, and the majority of their members are well-educated members of the gentry; in fact, most of the members are students or former students who studied together. Their membership spreads across races but is primarily made up of Humans, Elves, and Half-Elves, since Dwarves do not often travel to the city universities for studies. The members of the Voice are rather naïve in their assessment of their own importance and their own ability to rally members of the general population to support them once they make their revolutionary move. They spend little of their time actually strategizing for a significant act, and much of it drinking and philosophizing. They have stockpiled a small amount of weapons, bought over time by members from local blacksmithies and stored in an unused cellar room below the library at the University of Ordail.

2) What do they want? This speaks to the central reason that the Faction exists. The larger a Faction is, the more goals they are likely to have, but you should initially identify one primary goal that unites the members of the Faction, the reason that they have all come together. What the Faction wants will be the thing that helps unite members who may be from disparate or even opposing backgrounds, and they will work best when pursuing this central goal. When the Faction or its members begin to pursue other goals, it has the possibility lead to discord and even fragmentation, depending on how radical the divergence. This is probably the most important question to answer and keep in mind over the course of developing the Faction and planning their actions in your campaign and world; what the Faction wants should be the primary driver of their activities. This can and should affect actions all the way down to the choices they make during combat. A cult devoted to trying to bring back an ancient god should not focus on killing the players if they discover the players have an artifact which will help them in their ritual. In a combat encounter, they should instead focus on securing the artifact from the players, and then fleeing and covering their tracks; after all, if they stay and fight they may all die, and then how can they summon their god? You should also examine why the group wants to pursue this specific goal. What event or status in the world has driven different people to want to band together and pool their resources to try to achieve a united goal?

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The Voice wants to overthrow the King of Weissland and replace him and the system of nobility with a representative-style government, with themselves as the first elected leaders, of course. They believe that over the last thousand years, the nobility and the kings have not done the best that they can for the people of Weissland. Sure, the country has remained relatively safe and the economy has grown, but much of the wealth is still concentrated in a small number of people at the top. The students are actually from well-to-do, though not noble, families, but they believe that their positions of privilege should be used for the betterment of the common people. Some of them are particularly appalled at the callous actions and attitudes of certain nobles they have come into contact with. The group is divided on what should be done with the nobility and the king once their revolution is inevitably successful; should they be killed? Exiled? Be made simple, poor citizens? No one has been able to decide.

3) Why can’t they have it? This is the last question for you to answer, and where you set up the primary conflict that the Faction is involved in. Every Faction in your world has not achieved its goal, otherwise there would be no reason for the faction to exist. Even if a Faction achieves its goal over the course of the game, or has done so in the past, the Faction must evolve and change, redirecting its efforts towards a new goal. Without that focus, the Faction will lose cohesion. If a group wants to rule the world as its goal, and it takes over the world, its goal must change to something like “keep control of the world,” as it redirects its efforts to stamping out any revolutions or resistance groups that pop up. So, since the Faction’s current goal has not been achieved, what is the reason that it has not been achieved? What factors have thus far prevented their successful accomplishment of their goal? This could be a single, massive obstacle to overcome, or many different ones which together frustrate overall progress. These frustrations are important, because they will become the primary ways through which the players come into contact, and possibly conflict, with the Faction. The players may serve as agents of the Faction, helping them deal with their issues, or as participants in events which will further frustrate their plans.

The reasons that the Voice have not achieved their goal of overthrowing the King and the nobility are many. For starters, they feel that they do not yet have enough manpower to fight the Weissland Royal Army, as well as the various personal guards of the nobles scattered across the country. They think that some of the Army and the guards will turn on their rulers and join the revolution, but they need to first infiltrate those organizations and find out what kind of help they can expect. They have not yet gone about infiltrating those groups, since they don’t actually have anyone skilled in infiltration or spywork. They place a large amount of stock in their ability to turn the common folk into a “people’s army,” but they do not yet have anywhere near enough weapons to arm as many people as they think they need to fight the King’s forces. As you can see, the Voice has quite a long way to go to achieving their goal, and the issues they have above can easily be spun into quests for the players.

I hope this post has been helpful in creating the initial groundwork for Factions in your roleplaying world. I plan on delving further into factions in future posts, so if there is something specific you want to see my discuss, don’t hesitate to let me know.

What do you mean, ‘THEY cut the power’? (or, Running realistic enemies in combat)

Combat is an essential, probably integral, part of most roleplaying games. It accounts for anywhere from about 1/3 to 3/4 of all encounters in any given session of the most popular games such as Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder, and other games such as the Star Wars Roleplaying Game. With combat being such a large part of most games, there is surprisingly little official writing on how to run enemies realistically, or plausibly, in combat. Some adventures do a very good job of detailing specific “if-then” scenarios for groups of enemies, but those are generally for certain instances and not applicable on a large scale. In the absence of a good idea on how enemies will act and react in combat, enemy actions in combat generally tend towards two extremes: chaos, with the enemies making no coordinated efforts and each enemy acting on his own, or confrontational GMing, with the enemies focus-firing the healer, then the damage dealers, etc, regardless of enemy type. While those two extremes certainly exist amongst enemies on a realistic scale, I think it is important to make different enemies act differently, differently enough that your players can tell and appreciate the plausibility of those differences. A major goal of any of my games is to make things plausible, and this helps. Remember, this post details only with tactics used by enemies, regardless of their stats. I should also make a note here that for today’s post, I will only be dealing with generic humanoid adversaries, specifically humans.

The first thing I want to do before explaining how to run realistic combat is to break enemies into broad categories. Most of these are applicable to a lot of humanoid races, but I will delve into racial-specific things you can bring in in a future post.

So, back to categories. I’m a wargamer by upbringing, and an Army officer by trade, so when I think of categories of enemies, I primarily break them down based on “professionalism,” or “level of training.” While we could apply any number of different names to these levels, I’m going to go with names pulled from one of my favorite wargames, Horse and Musket: Untrained, Green, Regular, Veteran, and Elite.

Untrained

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Untrained enemies are those enemies who have received no formal training in combat. They may have picked up a spear or pitchfork in defense of their home, or gotten handed a pistol by a senior member of their new gang, and they may have even figured some things out about fighting by watching others, experimenting with their weapon, or even being in some fights themselves. They are not, however, a trained, cohesive fighting force, and it shows on the battlefield. Untrained enemies are essentially the chaotic, uncoordinated combat encounters that I described above as one extreme. They may very well be deadly individual combatants, but they do not fight as a group. They will usually attack the nearest visible enemy, or the nearest unengaged enemy, depending on their motivations, but they will rarely, if ever, coordinate their efforts above that. Any leaders amongst this group will be the deadliest fighters, and will not spend much of their time giving orders. If a fight goes badly for them quickly, self-preservation may start to take over and individuals may begin to run.

Green

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Green enemies are those who have received rudimentary training as part of an organized force and have a basic understanding that they are better when they coordinate their efforts. These can be local law enforcement officers, a village militia, or a unit of fresh conscripts out of their initial training. Some horde-type enemies can also fall into this category if they have some semblance of organization. They will fight with the most basic tactics, never executing more than one or two simple “maneuvers” against the players. Fantasy or medieval enemies in this category will be able to form up into a simple rectangular formation and walk at the enemy, or hold them off. Firearm-armed enemies can concentrate their fire on a single target if it’s the closest thing, or if given an order to. These enemies are normally accompanied by a more experienced leader whose main job it is to corral the Green enemies and keep them going in the right direction. Expect a leader in this group to be giving a lot of orders, not all of which are obeyed immediately or correctly. The death of the leader of that group can be a panic-inducing event, and can cause a significant portion of those Green troops to flee the battle.

Regulars

Regular enemies are trained members of a (normally) permanent, professional fighting organization. These are your regular army squads and most mercenaries. I would hesitate to ever classify anything below professional armies as Regular (so town guards would fall into the Green category). These enemies have the deadly combination of being formally trained, being competently-led, and having had previous fighting experience. Grouping enemies under this category has the potential to turn even average enemies, stat-wise, into a danger to the party. Regulars know the components of their unit as well as their strengths and weaknesses; they will attempt to cover their weaknesses and maximize their strengths. If they are ranged combatants dealing with melee enemies, they will focus on those melee enemies to try to wear them down or kill them before they are reached, and they will fall back while firing to maintain distance. If they have an armored component, such as an armored vehicle, supporting them, they will treat any anti-armor or high damage-dealing enemy as priority threat #1, and will immediately focus fire that target to eliminate its threat. They understand and have been trained in tactical maneuvers. Ranged enemies will utilize cover to hide behind and fire from, and they will actively utilize suppressive fire or melee attacks to pin players down while other enemies move into a single flanking position to deny the players’ use of cover or put them in a disadvantageous position. However, they will generally still each individually fire at the closest threat to them. These enemies are led by some sort of professional officers or sergeants whose main job is to make tactical assessments and give orders. These leaders should be support classes who can buff their subordinates and possibly give them free movements or actions. Killing these leaders may have a morale impact, but it will not be as significant as with Green troops; Regulars have a chain of command, and leadership will devolve to the next highest-ranking enemy. Regulars may not fight to the death if they don’t need to, and they still have the potential to be broken by poor morale if the fight turns quickly against them.

Veterans

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Veteran enemies are essentially upgraded Regulars. They are Regulars who have been hardened and honed through months or years of combat into a crack unit. They have not necessarily received any specialized training, but instead have become more lethal and proficient through experiencing many battles and surviving, learning on the job. They may have unique equipment or quirks that they have picked up along the way, like being particularly good at killing magic-using enemies or at fighting certain races. Veterans will use more advanced tactics to deal with player characters. For example, Veterans will not conduct simple fire-and-flank tactics from a single angle. They may establish a base of fire to pin the players down and then begin moving two separate flanking units to try to hit the players from two different sides. Veterans will fall back and regroup to try to draw the players closer and into a more advantageous position. Veterans should be experts at reading the terrain of the battlefield and using it to their advantage. Veterans have also served together for a long time, and so will coordinate well with other nearby enemies; Veterans should be able to make assessments about greatest threats and occasionally choose those targets to “focus fire” on in small groups, though not the entire unit. Veteran leaders are generally a mix of half support-half combat, as they buff their nearby allies like a Regular leader, but have deadly combat skills to match; they will stick to their strengths, however, and will not put themselves unnecessarily at risk since their main job is to lead. The death of the leader, however, will have only a minimal impact, if any, on Veterans. They are well-trained and battle-hardened enough to accept their leader’s death and simply move on to the next person in the chain of command and continue fighting.

Elites

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Elite enemies are the top tier of groups, and should be used sparingly. They are Veterans who have been selected and given specialized training to be the best of the best in their organization. These are your royal guards and your special forces. This is where you pull out all the stops in the enemies’ tactics and throw everything you have at the players. Elite enemies will understand the terrain instinctively and use it to their utmost advantage while trying to turn it against the players. Elite enemies will prioritize the players in order of threat and will pick out a target that they need to focus on. They will either all focus fire that individual target, or will each have a target that is their primary focus, regardless of almost all other circumstances. Elite enemies have a mission and they understand it, and they will not stray from it except in the most extreme situations. Elite leaders are deadly combatants with buffing as a secondary trait, and their deaths will have no impact on the morale of the Elite troops. Elites will make constant assessments about whether or not they are winning or losing the fight, and will attempt to withdraw and regroup for another day if they think they have reached the point where victory is impossible.

Those are my five categories for enemies: Untrained, Green, Regular, Veteran, and Elite. I hope some of the things I’ve included here are helpful in running enemies in combat. In a future post I’ll probably expand on this, addressing racial-specific abilities and more extensive groupings of types of enemies into the five categories.

Shoutout and special thanks to D&D Duet (Instagram) for the idea to write this post. Check them out for great content on D&D and running 2-person roleplaying games.

…Now We’re Here (or: Reversals, Part 2)

In Part 1, we discussed throwing Reversals at your players, knocking them off their “high horse” as it were and regressing their power level or resources in order to provide a new challenge or to change things up. Reversals are not an endgame, however.

Captain Marvel GIF by Marvel Studios

 So, congratulations, you’ve beat up your players. You stole their gear, blew up their stronghold, got them arrested, or some other relatively major setback which threw them into an uncomfortable situation where they no longer have an advantage in power level over most things they encounter. Now what? You can’t just leave them there to fend for themselves (well, you shouldn’t in my opinion); you need to provide them an avenue by which they can turn the tables back on their enemies.

 (Side note: here is where I know some of you may differ with me; “the players should have to figure it out on their own!” you’ll say, “it’s their own fault for getting into that situation in the first place!” Yes, while a lot of times, as we discussed in Part 1, the players are responsible for their own fate by their action or inaction in the face of warning signs or direct knowledge of an upcoming reversal, I firmly believe that our job as GMs is to facilitate the fun of the players at the table. No one comes to an RPG looking to get punished repeatedly for bad decision-making; there’s enough of that going on in the real world. Players are there to have fun, and if people aren’t having fun because of things you as the GM are doing, then you’re just being a bad GM.)

 How do we go about setting the players on the road to their own Reversal against their enemies? I think it’s important to work backwards, as you would do in a lot of story plotting. By this point in the campaign, you should have a pretty good idea of what your players and their characters want, as well as a good idea of how they are likely going to respond to their latest reversal. Brainstorm what you think their desired end state is in regards to this reversal: in the example of my wife’s Age of Rebellion character (example 1), I knew she would ultimately want to break her brainwashing, and in Edge of the Empire (example 2), I knew the players would want to steal back the item and hopefully take down the pirate group at the same time.

 Once you have the players’ likely desired end state in mind, work back to how the players would be able to accomplish said goal, if there were no restrictions at all. In example 1, I knew that my wife would need to get access to the same or a similar chemical formula used to help condition her, and essentially “reprogram” her brain to “overwrite” the brainwashing. In example 2, I knew the players would need to have a large fight, both on the pirate ship on which they were currently being held, and in space amongst the various ships of the pirate fleet. In both instances, the ability to carry out either one of those plans was far outside the capability of the players. That is normal, after all, the players just suffered some pretty serious setbacks. So now you have identified the gap that the players need to be able to cross to go from their current situation, to be able to achieve the desired end state.

 The next step in the backwards plan is to try to figure out what you can credit the players with in order to try to bridge the gap you just identified. Some players come up with elaborate plans and put in a fair amount of legwork to try to enable their success, only to have the dice rolls work against them. This was the case with the Edge group I run for. They acquired a Letter of Marque from the Empire to go after the pirate group, they acquired allies from two different pirate groups that also had an interest in seeing these pirates go down, and they conducted a fair amount of research and prep work, including double checking information to ensure it was accurate. When rolls went against them, they were never able to get to the stage of the plan where they called in all of their allies. They were captured, but they had also put some work in that would help, though I don’t think any of them realized it.

 Near the beginning of the campaign, they had liberated a Wookiee slave named Gracuck. Gracuck was an agricultural engineer by trade before he had been enslaved, an intellectual, not a fighter. The players could have simply left him as such, but over the year or so that I’ve been running for them, they have made a deliberate effort to make Gracuck a useful member of the crew, including teaching him how to pilot their ship, and how to fight with vibrosword, blaster, and bowcaster (fairly well, actually, they rolled well on these checks). They never asked Gracuck to come along on any missions, but they had, over time, turned him into a fairly formidable Wookiee who was not going to sit by and watch as his friends, to whom he owed a life debt, were spirited away by pirates. Gracuck had dropped the players off prior to their assault, and was waiting for certain signs that things had gone according to plan. When it became obvious that things had not gone according to plan, and the players were captured and taken away by the pirates, I had Gracuck do several things behind the scenes, and made several rolls. He activated a tracking beacon and followed the pirates. He then contacted the Empire and the two pirate groups with him the party had made arrangements and told them of the situation. One pirate group backed out, but the other group and the Empire both agreed to stand by their agreement with the party and join the fight. They followed Gracuck’s tracking beacon to the pirates’ location. Finally, Gracuck allowed himself to be captured, placing the tracking beacon aboard the pirates’ flagship as well as giving the players an escape route by the ship being onboard the pirates’ ship in the hanger bay.

 It may seem like I “gave” the players a lot by having all of this occur, but in reality, I simply gave them credit for all the hard work they had put in prior to the reversal. I believe Gracuck acted entirely within his character based on the time they had invested in him as a member of their crew, and the rolls fell the way they were going to fall in terms of which groups would come to the players’ aid. When you put the players in a helpless situation, they will often focus on what they can do currently to alleviate it, but it’s important to not let their previous work go to waste just because an encounter went sideways on them. Make your gaming world a living, breathing place where events keep on going without them, where their allies will make moves to try to rescue them or help them out of their bad situation. When Gracuck arrived aboard the ship and they were all brought before the pirate leader, they were still bound and without weapons. When the Empire and other pirates jumped in and started firing, it caused chaos on the ship, but the players still had to fight to break out of their restraints, grab weapons, and overpower the pirate crew in a close-quarters battle that was by no means certain. Giving the players credit for their preparation and hard work does not mean they get a free pass out of a bad situation.

 Sometimes, though, players won’t have preparations or hard work that is directly applicable to the situation they find themselves in. Does that mean these players are SOL? Absolutely not. Remember, our job as GMs is to facilitate the players’ fun. Sometimes, players will be able to figure their way out of the situation on their own; they will be able to ask the right questions, attempt the right rolls, and deduce information they need to without the GM having to intervene. My wife was able to cleverly subvert her character’s conditioning and work around the system to start figuring out the information she needed to eventually break free of it. That may not always be the case. You put the players in this situation, so you owe them a way out. If the players can’t get to the solution on their own, be prepared to guide them down the path. Have an idea in your mind of how they can get out of the situation, and then reward them with scraps of information that lead them down that path when they make rolls. Don’t be tied to giving certain information only for certain types of rolls; instead, try to give out information regardless of what type of questions they ask or what types of rolls they make. For example, if the players are lost in the woods and trying to find their way out, and you intend them to have to make a Survival check to notice some tracks, don’t be tied to that check as being the solution. If one player makes a Survival check and fails, but another wants to roll Perception to notice something else and they roll well, I encourage you to give them the information from the Survival roll as well. Tell them they not only notice what they were looking for, but they notice the tracks as well. Don’t punish them for asking the wrong questions or making the wrong skill check. Remember, we as GMs have all the information, and it’s too easy to forget that the players often have little or none.

 Once the players are on the right path, they should be heading for success. Your ultimate goal is for them to have fun, and hopefully for their attempt at recovering from the reversal to succeed. This is a time to probably pump the brakes on some of the more difficult encounters. Don’t make it easy, but don’t absolutely crush them; it’s no fun for players to go from one gut punch to the next. In the end, everyone comes to the table to have fun, and it’s our job to ensure that no matter the ups or downs of the games, that they do so.

Runner of games, teller of stories. Follow me at www.instagram.com/theramblinggm/

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