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.
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.
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.
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.
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.