Category Archives: GMing and DMing

New 5E Class – Shugenja

About a week ago, I wrote a blog post about some custom Fighter Archetypes I had developed for use in my homebrew campaign setting, specifically in the land of Teikoku. As I continue to expand that nation, I will continue to release content for it. My most recent addition is a full-fledged custom class, the Shugenja.

The Shugenja is a divine spell-caster, and serves as the priest of Teikoku’s religion, based around worship of the kami, or divine spirits which they believe inhabit every aspect of the world around us. The idea of kami has its root in the Shinto religion, the ethnic religion of Japan. Kami are believed to be the spirits of everything in the natural world and beyond, from rocks and trees to thunder strikes and raindrops, from the fire of a torch or a blowing wind to an animal’s soul and the spirit of an ancestor; all things have kami spirits. For creating the class, I focused on the idea of kami being divided into the four basic elements that make up the universe: air, earth, fire, and water. Many things in ancient cultures believed these four elements were fundamental forces in nature, and Dungeons and Dragons has always held such. It made sense to me that when worshiping the kami, the people of Teikoku would divide them into elemental categories.

I initially set out to make the Shugenja a Cleric Domain, a simple subclass, but as I continued to work on it and think about Shugenja’s place in Teikoku, I realized that the Shugenja of different clans would be as different as I had made their Samurai. While I still proceeded with them as a single Domain, the idea that clans would be different continued to tug at me until I decided to make an entirely new class. The clans would be subclasses, titled Schools as they instructed the Shugenja of the clan in their own way. The Shugenja would not only pick a School to hail from, though, they would also pick to devote themselves to a single group of elemental Kami at 1st level. This would be the Shugenja’s form of picking a god to worship, with the added twist that picking an element would lock the Shugenja out of its opposing element: water and fire or earth and air.

As a caster class, one of the first steps was to think about the spell list for the class. Since they were initially a Cleric derivative, and since they served as the priests for Teikoku, the Cleric spell list was a good starting point. However, two main factors pushed me to expand it: first, most of the “elemental” or “nature” spells fell within the Druid spell list, and second, my ideas for elemental devotion to the Kami would necessarily cut down the spell list by approximately 25%. So, I went into the Druid spell list and pulled about half of the spells from there to put into the Shugenja spell list. The overall spell list is therefore larger than either the Cleric or the Druid spell lists, but the number of spells most Shugenja will have access to is 25% less than that, and the devotion mechanic further cuts down what is feasible to prepare with another feature: if the Shugenja takes at least 50% of their spells from the elemental list of the element they are devoted to, they gain a 1d4 increase to their maximum hit points. This bonus also scales every 4 levels, providing an incentive for the Shugenja to try to stay within their elemental discipline, while also limiting the spell list even further.

The second step was to come up with a major class feature that really drove home the role of the Shugenja as a conduit between mortals and the Kami. That came easily as the Summon Kami ability. At 2nd level, the Shugenja gained the ability to summon a Kami forth into the mortal world to request something of them. At first, it is merely the ability to ask the Kami questions, with guidelines given to the DM about how those interactions will go based on the attitude of the player and their elemental alignment compared to the Kami’s. As they increase in level, however, they gain additional abilities, namely the ability to change the damage type of one of their prepared spells, and the ability to summon a powerful Kami in the form of an elemental to fight with them. I felt this ability, available to all Shugenja, was flavorful and useful regardless of school.

With those taken care of, it was time to focus on the Schools. I had already determined what each Clan was known and responsible for, so now I merely needed to come up with Shugenja roles that would fit in neatly with those Clans’ identities. The first one I did was the Turtle Clan, as that was the clearest in my mind. As the Turtle Clan was responsible for fighting oni and undead, their Shugenja would be geared towards that role. I also decided that as extra flavor, the Shugenja would be tasked with hunting down those magic users who tried to consort with Oni, and therefore named them Inquisitors. While most of their abilities deal with making life difficult for fiends and undead and making them more able to deal massive damage to them, the fluff of them being Inquisitors is fun to me.

Next came the Bear Clan. As the standing army of Teikoku, the Bear Clan Shugenja needed to be able to hold their own on the front lines. History and lineage would likely be important to such a warrior culture, and so I made the Bear Clan Shugenja focus on ancestor worship. He is able to fight at the front with the best Samurai, wearing heavy armor and gaining the ability to lock down areas with an increased reach, but his most powerful ability comes when he calls upon an ancestor to possess him.

The Fox Clan was relatively easy to consider. The Foxes are the clever, cunning spies and informants of Teikoku, and so illusion magic, and the ability to counter those using it, seemed like the perfect niche for their Shugenja to fill. Fox Clan Shugenja gain the ability to ritual cast Disguise Self, and can see through any illusion or invisibility as they grow more powerful. Eventually, they get a form of magical sneak attack, able to deal massive damage when they attack from cover.

The Lion Clan was the fourth I worked on, and was somewhat challenging. As the head priests among a class full of priests, I struggled to think of what made them different than the others. Ultimately I decided that, as the religious heads in Teikoku, they would see less of a divide among the different elemental Kami than most, and would strive to revere all equally. Once that was figured out, the abilities fell into place. They suffer fewer restrictions to spell selection than other types of Shugenja, and gain the ability to use their Summon Kami ability as an action, rather than as a 1 minute casting time. At the end I was left with a School that I felt truly represented the head priests of the country.

Finally, the Owl Clan. I had the most difficulty with them, as I was not sure what I wanted them to be able to do, or what their role would be. The Owl Clan serves as the diplomats and bodyguards for the Imperial family, and the bodyguard role seemed to be well-covered by their Samurai class. I initially thought to go the route of diplomat or courtier, but could not come up with any abilities I was happy with. I ended up deciding that there was nothing preventing me from making the Owl Shugenja also specialize in protection, and so the Owl Clan Warden was born. They gain bonuses to initiative to help get the drop on enemies, and can absorb hostile spells directed at them or their charges. Most impressively, however, they can use reactions to prevent allies from falling unconscious or dying, making them excellent frontline medic characters.

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If these classes sound interesting to you, you can download them off of the Dungeon Master’s Guild. While there you can also check out the Samurai Clan Fighter Archetypes if you missed them and want to try them out in your games. Please leave a rating or a review, I’d love to hear what you think of them and how they are used in your game.

As always, good luck and happy gaming!

Miss Scarlet, Candlestick, Dining Room (or Running Mystery Adventures)

Everyone likes a good mystery. Whether it’s a murderer that needs catching, a traitor who needs exposing, or an underground cult that needs stopping, mysteries are irresistible for most people. The tension and drama that comes with investigating a case, and the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that comes with solving one, are lures that draw people to mysteries and thrillers. People enjoy solving cases, knowing that they outsmarted the villain or the puzzle. People love to boast about how they “figured it out before the big reveal” when they go and see a thriller movie or watch a crime TV show. It is understandable, therefore, that people want to replicate that experience in a roleplaying game, where the players are literally the ones making the decisions in the investigation to uncover the truth of whatever mystery is afoot. However, mystery and investigation adventures are some of the most-often mishandled adventures in roleplaying games, and can often lead to frustration, resentment, and resignation at the gaming table. How do we can avoid this as Dungeon Masters and Game Masters is the subject of today’s discussion. As a disclaimer, before we get started, I am not referring to grand mysteries which unfold over many sessions, as those are stock and trade of campaigns; I am going to cover mysteries which cover one, two, or three sessions and are focused around a specific event such as a murder, a traitor among the group, et cetera.

I have run mystery and/or investigation adventures across several different roleplaying game systems, including Age of Rebellion (FFG Star Wars), Dungeons and Dragons, and Dark Heresy. Most have been successful, but those successful ones were aided by things I learned and feedback I solicited from the unsuccessful adventures. When I say unsuccessful, I mean that I either had to strongly suggest a course of action to the players because they got stumped, or the players were visibly or verbally annoyed or off-put by the way the investigation was proceeding and felt that it was either too difficult, or they had been railroaded into having to use certain clues to reach a certain conclusion. I believe that across all mystery adventures, the former is more common: players will get frustrated and disinterested if the mystery is too hard, and most of this has to do with the dungeon master. That’s right, a lot of it is your fault, not your players.

Why is this the case? It certainly doesn’t come from any malicious intent. In fact, it usually comes from the opposite. DMs want to provide a challenging yet fun experience for their players. The ultimate goal of everyone at the table is to have a good time, and the DM is responsible for facilitating that. Throwing a group of four goblins at a 5th-level party of four players is not a fun combat encounter; the challenge is far below the players’ threshold, and it will leave them scratching their heads, yawning, and wondering why you’re wasting their time with such an easy encounter. When it comes to mysteries, DMs likewise don’t want their players to feel bored or like it was too easy. If they can figure it out without expending much effort, then what was the point? This is a pitfall which leads many DMs (and adventure writers) into making a mystery far too hard, even for a group of people putting their heads together and trying to solve it. A major contributing factor to this is that we have a skewed sense of what the players will think to ask and pursue in the course of the investigation.

Since we, the DMs and writers, are the ones planning the adventure, we have all of the answers. We already know who did it, how they did it, when they did it, and why they did it. We know how the perpetrator covered their tracks, and what clues will lead to them. When we try to take a step back and think about it, it is tempting to think that the solution is obvious, too obvious in fact. So then we go back and make it even harder to figure out the necessary clues, worried that the players will breeze through the adventure and solve the case after an hour, and be left feeling bored and unsatisfied. Sometimes this occurs several times, until the players are left with an unsolvable labyrinth of dead end clues and plot twists.

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So how can we avoid this? Firstly, give the players a good place to start. Often, the players will be given the investigation quest by an NPC, they won’t just decide to investigate on their own. While it may be tempting to have that NPC say, “start anywhere you want,” for smooth sailing, I highly recommend that the NPC suggest a place to the players for them to start. It could be a crime scene, a piece of evidence, or an eyewitness, but it should be something that is guaranteed to give them at least one clue, possibly more. Having a starting point does two things for your players. It gives them an initial sense of direction, rather than dropping them into unfamiliar territory and saying, “figure it out.” Also, it provides them with an early win; since we have guaranteed that they will receive at least one clue from this starting point, it gives the players a sense of accomplishment that they are chipping away at the mystery, and confidence that they can solve the case.

As the adventure goes on, multiple different people, locations, and items should and will come up through investigation and conversation. You do not need to gift any of these things to players, in fact I encourage you to lock many of them behind skill checks such as social checks when talking to NPCs or search checks to find a piece of evidence. However, every person, place, or thing that comes up during the course of the investigation should somehow advance the adventure. One of the most frustrating things for a player is to spend time pursuing a lead in a mystery adventure only to find out that it is a dead end. It is extremely frustrating if that occurs over and over. I know from personal experience in running the much-lauded adventure “Against the Cult of the Reptile God.” The adventure is well-reviewed and, to be honest, I am a fan of the plot and the amount of information that the booklet gives to the Dungeon Master. Some great things can happen in that adventure, but, on the flip side, there are a ton of dead ends. There are many locations in the village which provide little to no useful information to the players when visiting them, and many which provide useful information only if specific circumstances are met. When I ran ATCOTRG, my players chose five or six locations in a row that had no useful information for them, and I could see them grow visibly frustrated at the table as they struggled with what to do and their lack of progress.

An excellent example of an adventure in which every location or person mentioned has a clue or plot advancement to give the players is “Edge of Darkness,” the starting adventure for the Dark Heresy roleplaying game. I ran this adventure, which is essentially a murder mystery, earlier this week and was blown away by how well it was structured. There are 11 locations and numerous NPCs listed, and all of them are interconnected with the investigation in one way or another. Often, locations and NPCs have multiple clues to give, which will bear fruit at some point even if not immediately. For example, the dead man’s sister can give up the information about her brother’s favorite watering hole where he went that night, and the name of closest friend who has been avoiding her since the disappearance. Finding the friend can be difficult, but visiting the bar can assist in that regard, ensuring that a visit to the bar isn’t pointless even though no one at the bar knows anything about the man’s disappearance.

Making every NPC or location have some piece of information to offer ensures that the players will always have forward momentum, even if that momentum is a bit slow or tangential (such as simply helping to find another NPC who may have information). I am not saying to award players information without work, though. If the players can just go to a location or meet an NPC and get the clues they need without challenge, then we revert to the initial problem we were trying to avoid when we started: the mystery being too easy. Players should still need to make skill checks and ask the right questions of NPCs in order to be rewarded with the clues they seek. If they fail at these skill checks, then they will lose access to that particular piece of information, possibly permanently from that source. This has the possibility of causing another problem: the players hitting a dead end because of a failed skill check.

A failed skill check blocking forward progress in an adventure or campaign is a common problem which DMs and GMs struggle with constantly. Some systems have built-in mechanics which allow players to “fail forward,” but in others, success or failure is clear-cut, and this can lead to frustrations. My solution for this in mystery adventures is to ensure that there are always multiple ways for the players to either get the information they need to solve the mystery, or that there are multiple ways to solve the mystery with the correct conclusion. For example, if the murderer was an elf, you could have three different clues which point to him being an elf: a witness could have seen an elf commit the murder, the murder weapon could be a type of blade which is known to only be used by elves, and a pamphlet was found at the scene of the crime proclaiming elves to be superior to any other race. In Edge of Darkness, the local Alms House is the headquarters of the cult behind the murder; the players can be directed to the Alms House by the dead man’s drinking buddy who saw him enter the building before never being seen again, by the leader of the local police (who have been bought off by the cult) who in a fit of guilt will warn the players to steer clear of the Alms House, or from a local gang leader who sees the cult as competition for illicit business and wants the players to remove the problem for him. Each of the clues requires a skill check or skillful questioning by the players to be discovered, but redundancy in either the clue itself or the method of delivery ensures that even if your players fail a skill check and get locked out of one avenue, there are other ways for them to access the information needed to solve the case.

Mystery and investigation adventures can be some of the most fun experiences your players have, providing them with a sense of accomplishment and cleverness difficult to replicate with other adventures. However, because they are less common and more thought-provoking than normal adventures, they can be challenging to plan and run. By providing your players with a good starting point, making every person or place they visit and interact with have something of value to them if they pass a skill check or ask the right questions, and ensuring that the players have multiple avenues to access information and get to the solution, you can give your players a memorable investigative experience. Edge of Darkness was a huge hit with my group. It challenged them by making them ask the right questions and make the right skill checks, but there were many options available to them which they never visited. They solved the mystery and “won” the adventure, but it was very reassuring to me that had they not taken the route they had taken, there were still many options for them to reach the same conclusion. I challenge you to strive for the same redundancy and possibilities in your own adventures.

Good luck, and happy gaming!

*Edge of Darkness is a free adventure from Fantasy Flight Games, and you can download it here. It’s worth a read, even if you don’t play Dark Heresy, just to really appreciate the skill of adventure construction for an investigation module.

**As always, follow me on Instagram for more gaming goodness. Also, check out my D&D content on Dungeon Master’s Guild!

Samurai Clans – Fighter Archetypes

Since I was a kid, the Samurai culture has always intrigued me, as I’m sure it has many of you reading this. A warrior culture, bound by a code of honor, is a classic, idealistic trope that has permeated our modern psyche in many ways and permutations. We see the Samurai themselves presented in many forms of media, and Samurai-inspired cultures crop up in fantasy and science fiction on a regular basis. There is something about them, something I can’t quite put my finger on, that makes them fascinating. Perhaps it is that code of honor, bushido. Perhaps it is how they were expected to be more than just warriors, but poets and courtiers as well. Perhaps it was their elite status as warriors, akin to the knights of Europe but with their own twists on armor, and their legendary katanas.

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Whatever the reason, Samurai have a special corner of my brain sectioned off for them, and my interest in them extends to the world of roleplaying as well. The world of Rokugan, setting of the Legend of the Five Rings card game and roleplaying game, is a tremendously well-developed world, full of rich culture, deep backstory, and labyrinthine politics. I’ve run a two-session one-shot, participating in the L5R Fifth Edition playtest, and I had a blast with the mechanics, but sometimes starting an entirely new campaign, or asking players to learn an entirely new game system for a night of a one shot, can be a bit much to ask. Sometimes it is easier to take inspiration from other game settings and things you enjoy, and figure out a way to bring them into your own homebrew campaign setting for the enjoyment of you and your friends.

In my campaign setting, there has always been a land inspired by fantasy Japan. Teikoku, or “the Eastern Empire” as referred to by the ignorant and haughty western lands, is a place I built up in my Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition homebrew setting, heavily inspired by Japanese culture, Japanese folklore and mythology, and applying fantasy tropes and elements to it. However, I had never built up any of the specific Samurai families or what their purposes were, mainly focusing on the history of the nation and the external politics, how Teikoku interacted with the rest of my world. More recently, I wanted to bring the type of politics and ideas that fictional worlds like Rokugan conjured up in my head and make them fit within the geography, politics, and supernatural elements of my homebrew world. Mainly, that meant fleshing out the major Samurai families of Teikoku.Related image

I decided that there would be five major clans serving the Emperor of Teikoku, all taking an animal of significance as the central feature of their clan Mon, or heraldic symbol: the Bear Clan, Fox Clan, Lion Clan, Owl Clan, and Turtle Clan. The Bear Clan, with the bear representing strength and ferocity, would be the main military force of Teikoku, providing the bulk of the Imperial army and its lead strategists. The Fox Clan, foxes representing trickery, would serve as the Imperial spies and ninjas, operating outside the bounds of Bushido and accepting the dishonorable reputation that comes with it, but doing so for the good of the Emperor and the Empire. The Lion Clan, lions representing protection and devotion, serve as the clerics and and religious heads of the Empire, operating the various shrines and performing religious ceremonies. The Owl Clan, with the owl representing wisdom, knowledge, and good fortune, are Teikoku’s diplomats, the most widely-traveled of the clans and famous for their silver tongues and manipulation of the political wind of the Empire. Finally, the Turtle Clan, turtles serving as a representation of resilience and longevity, protect the shores of the Empire and, in particular, serve as the experts at killing and first line of defense against the horrible creatures sent forth by the foul sorcerers of the Empire of Maga Khan across the sea to the east.

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Starting with those central roles of each of the five clans, I then started building subclasses, focusing on the actual samurai serving each of the clans. I decided they would all be Fighter Archetypes. I wanted each to be distinct and really have the flavor stand out of what the clan’s purpose is. Wizards of the Coast published a Samurai archetype in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, but it is too narrow and generic to work with a nation where the Samurai families each have such different focuses. I developed the five archetypes, then tested and sent them out, asking for feedback, refining them and balancing them where I could. I focused on a specific theme or mechanical crux on which to set the archetype. The Bear Clan Striker becomes a combat beast, able to deal maximum damage and attack extra times each turn as they gain levels. The Fox Clan Deceiver is able to feint and trick their enemies, and turn feigned weakness into strength, able to turn the tables in a battle just when the enemy thinks they have the upper hand. The Lion Clan Keeper is a blessed defender of holy places, with a special penchant for dealing with unworthy creatures such as spirits, undead, fey, aberrations, and fiends. The Owl Clan Yojimbo is an unparalleled one-on-one duelist and bodyguard, able to lock down a single powerful enemy as well as protect those around them. Finally, the Turtle Clan Stalwart is specialized to fight against large monsters and hold the line when all else have fallen or fled.

There is still more to build out in Teikoku, and I’ve written up versions of the Shugenja (elementalist clerics who call upon the kami, or spirits, of the world) and Wu-jen (powerful wizards who seek to increase and improve specific spells through study). which I will be posting in the future. If these archetypes have piqued your interest and you want to use them in your own homebrew, feel free! You can download them from the Dungeon Master’s Guild. It’s pay what you want, so pay if you want to, or download for free to test out and leave any comments, critiques, or constructive criticism, I’ll appreciate it all! You can also follow me on Instagram for regular updates.

As always, happy gaming.

Travel Inspiration

As some of you may have seen on my Instagram , my wife and I recently took a 10-day trip to England and Scotland. We both love traveling and history, and take a trip each year to a different country where we spend a lot of our time exploring historical sites and museums. We spend plenty of time doing more modern things (theater, nightlife, restaurants, etc), but for me, the highlights have always been things to do with the history of the place we are visiting. Part of the reason for that is my love of history, but part of it is because of the inspiration that history and historical places give me. So today I’m going to highlight a few things we did or places we visited that really got my creative juices flowing, and maybe they will kickstart some inspiration of your own. As a heads up, most of this will concern Dungeons and Dragons, since the inspiration was mainly of a fantastical nature.

The first place we visited on our trip was London. A trip to London isn’t complete without a visit to the fantastic British Museum. The Museum is enormous, with beautiful architecture, and has been in operation since 1753, making it older than the United States, which blew my mind. We spent a full afternoon at the museum, from lunch until close, and we saw maybe 1/4 or at most 1/3 of everything in the place; even then, we were speeding up at the end to try to cover more ground, and did not peruse with the detail we had in the first exhibits. We moved through the Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and Rome, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese exhibits, and they all had interesting artifacts and stories to tell. From the moment we walked into the Egyptian section, my brain got rolling. In my homebrew Dungeons and Dragons world, I have a Roman Empire equivalent, the Vaaryan Empire, an empire 1000 years in the past which was able to conquer vast swathes of territory based on their organizational and engineering acumen (as well as advanced magic far beyond anyone else, since this is D&D), but eventually waned and collapsed due to overextension, aggressive younger nations, corruption, and internal strife. Wandering through the beautiful sarcophagi and incredibly well-preserved tomb doorways of the ancient Egyptians, however, I was struck with an idea for an Egyptian analog in the vast desert area of my campaign world which would rise and fall in a similar timeline to the Vaaryans.

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It worked out well since I had left the desert area untouched by the Vaaryan Empire during the timeline of their expansion, due to the difficulty of desert living for a more temperate people. As I continued to look through the exhibits, I started to formulate basic ideas for what these people were like. What type of god did they worship? In the desert, water would be the most important thing, but would be rare in the form of rainfall and only abundant at the single powerful river and large oasis lake. I decided they would likely worship a god of water as life-giver and supreme power, but one who was fickle and sometimes capricious, as well as dangerous in the form of thunderstorms. These people would likely be overt in their celebration of this god in an effort to appease him constantly and thus both gain his favor and avoid his wrath. For a people like that, building massive structures like pyramids in the desert made little sense, but along the river, or at an oasis, would grant them a shorter path to the afterlife with their supreme god, and so I decided on any sort of monolithic tombs being built right along the river or around oases.

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The rich mythology of the Egyptians, as well as their propensity for laying curses and protective spells around areas of importance and tombs formed an idea of my nascent desert civilization in my head regarding their magic use: it would be of a darker nature than the Vaaryans, who were primarily involved in divination, transmutation, and abjuration magic. I believe my desert-dwellers would seek to use necromancy to protect their tombs as well as aid in their search for immortality, conjuration to likewise aid in protection and deal with issues like droughts, and, of course, enchantment to ward sacred areas and tombs. Enchantment would be their greatest school of magic and the height of their power. The exploration in my mind of the types of schools of magic that were prominent among these people made me realize that I have done this with several civilizations in my world, making magic as much a cultural aspect as music, food, or history. The Vaaryans were masters of divination magic, seeking always to learn about and control the future, the Teikokans are powerful elementalists, seeking to connect to the power of the world around them, the Rodamans have explored the depths and reaches of necromancy on their quest for power, and the casters of the Empire of Maga Khan have done the same with conjuration. Of course, spellcasters of all schools of magic exist in these places, but I realized I have made different nations centers of knowledge and learning for particular types of magic, where people more often flock to a certain type. It was a cool discovery that I made and explored, all starting with the Egyptian area of the British museum.

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Another day in London, we visited Buckingham Palace, where we watched the Changing of the Guard between the Royal Ghurka Rifles and the Welsh Guards, followed by a visit to the Guards Museum. The pageantry of the ceremony, as well as the rich heritage of the Guards units, made me think about the future of my homebrew campaign setting. Providing nothing world-ending occurs in the current campaign, and the main player nation survives into the future, I have often thought about how the world would change with technological advances like gunpowder and basic industry. I’ve thought about campaigns set in a late Renaissance and early Enlightenment-inspired times in the world, and both the ceremony and the museum got me thinking about how the main player nation, Weissland, would evolve and what kind of Guard units it would have in its army. It was relatively minor things like organization and uniforms, but it was a fun series of thoughts to explore, as I enjoy worldbuilding and little details like uniforms and military organization are things that I think help build out a nation as believable.

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A third place which we visited that was full of inspiration was Stirling Castle. Perched on a rocky cliff overlooking what was, for centuries, the only fordable point of the River Forth, Stirling Castle guarded the entrance to much of Scotland, including the Highlands. It was easily-defensible due to its location on the volcanic cliffs, and was continually attacked by both English and Scots, changing hands in the many wars they fought in an effort to control the vital crossing point. The castle, its placement, and history reminded me of the Twins from Game of Thrones. While the castle was not literally a fortified bridge like in Game of Thrones, it was an incredibly tough fortress guarding the only crossing point between north and south for armies going in either direction. In my own homebrew setting, in the main player nation of Weissland, I already have two castles, Ledek’s Span and Urun Aquea, which serve similar purposes. Urun Aquea guards the only crossing of the major river running east to west out of a mountain range to the east coast of Weissland, while Ledek’s Span guards the only crossing of the Ledek River which runs east-west from another mountain range to Lake Ledek, as well as a crossroads of three major routes, all converging at the crossing site. I placed these fortresses on the map during world-building specifically because it makes military sense to guard such important sites, especially as both places are in the southern area of Weissland and Weissland’s major threat comes from Rodamah to the south.

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Visiting Stirling Castle, however, helped me better visualize these places in my head in terms of where they would be sited and how they would be constructed. While Ledek’s Span is in lowlands and would be constructed more like the twins, Urun Aquea is in coastal hill country, and now I view it being up on a rocky crag akin to Stirling Rock. The exhibits within the castle talking about the many sieges and battles fought there also gave me a better understanding of how difficult it would be to even attack a place like Stirling Rock. The attackers tried many different tactics, often simultaneously, to crack open the castle, some more successful than others. It reinforced that any war that occurred in southern Weissland, if the Rodamans cracked through the Great Wall, would see massive battles at both Urun Aquea and Ledek’s Span as the enemy tried to fight their way north. They could be the site of massive, cinematic set-piece battles in the campaign, where the players could participate in something truly epic, and perhaps even over the course of multiple adventures as they worked to protect the castle in a protracted siege.

Our trip to Britain provided me with many moments of inspiration for my Dungeons and Dragons campaign setting, from adventure ideas to entire civilizations, more than I could include in a blog post. I hope sharing some of my inspiration may inspire some of you as well to think about new ideas or refine things in your own campaigns.

As always, you can follow me at https://www.instagram.com/theramblinggm/ . Happy gaming!

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.

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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!