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.
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.
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.