Wednesday, November 15, 2017


War is an interesting thing when it comes to table top RPGs. I mean, if you thought a 6v6 fight could take a long time per round, imagine what happens when you upscale to hundreds and thousands vs. like numbers. Fortunately numerous systems have different ways to handle the chaos of the battle field in different abstract ways. But there is more to selling a war than just mechanics for the big fights. Today I want to talk about that.

Where Is Your Focus?
The first thing you have to answer when bringing a war to your table top game is where do you want your focus to be? Obviously around the PCs, but are we going to go in close and see how this war - and the horrors within - impact this group? How they make friends, fight, triumph, lose, despair, and otherwise make it through - hopefully but not guaranteed to be - in one piece? Or are we going to pull back and look at the war as a more grand thing where glory is won, heroes roam the battlefield, and your PCs become the stuff of legend?

There's nothing wrong with either. Some games, and groups, will gravitate to one or the other. Even the most munchkiny of D&D games can have some drama thrown in for good measure, and even the most drama-filled game of horror and sanity can do with giving the players a chance to feel like badass heroes.

The Close In Approach
Doing the close in approach is, in my opinion, easier mechanically but harder otherwise. It's easier mechanically because you basically don't have to worry about big battles too much. You can script the major battles to be wins, or losses - or depend on player results - and otherwise just narrate. Meanwhile you can build encounters for the more close knit group of PCs you have, keeping the focus on the squad level as they go through things.

The challenge here is that you need to let the players feel like they're part of the war. You need to make the players feel like they're not just getting their butt kicked in even if the war is going badly. And you need to find a way to sell the NPCs around the players so they make emotional connections with them. You're going in close for the drama of the moment, and you don't have that drama without meaningful connections to the NPCs that are also in the fray - regardless of what side of the war they're on.

Pyrric victories can be good here, as can losses that are out of the PCs hand in some way if you need a way for the PCs to win the small scale. Remember, there is a reason we have a saying "you won the battle but not the war" around. That said, take care to not make the PCs feel like they have no impact on the war at hand. Nothing is worse than just being an observer when you're supposed to be a main character.

The Far Back Approach
The Far Back Approach doesn't actually pull as far back as the name implies, but doesn't go in close for the knitty gritty either. Here we are basically pulling away from the consequences of war. You don't see friends die (and if you do it is a big deal) as much, and you don't get all the stress and doom. What you do get are big fights, and some of those fights should be swung by our heroes the PCs.

Let the PCs be the tide turner and decider of major battles, and play it up. Have troops be bolstered in morale because the PCs are around. Have NPCs break and run if a PC goes down, only to rally when they get back up and strike down their foes. Let them hear the cheers, the weight of the expectation, and like they're larger than life. Make them earn it, but let them feel it.

Protect Your Enemies
War is an easy place to lose any villains you hope to have be recurring, but it also gives you a lot of room to fudge things in your favor. PC take a lucky shot at an NPC? Have a bodyguard save them. Just don't do it too often or it becomes obvious. Still, war is not the time to put enemies on the field against PCs unless you're willing for them to go down, so take care with that too.

Have Fun, Make it Epic
In the end, I often found that mechanics can get in the way of the fun in war. This doesn't mean you don't need them, but don't be enslaved by them. Keep the flow going, keep the action thrumming, and keep the game moving forward as much as you can. War is a time of franticness and energy (battle anyhow). It shouldn't feel like people can wait an hour between turns just because. So don't let that situation happen.


  1. (Apparently there's a limit of 4,096 characters, whoops)

    I've seen big scale wars handled in several different campaigns and suffice to say... most DM's suck at it. The key to handling this well came as a pretty big surprise to me. The first person I saw who handled this succesfully was a long-time MMO-player and guild officer. He knew how to manage both large and small groups, and his experience herding a 40-man group through Molten Core and Blackwing's Lair (yes, vanilla World of Warcraft, this goes back a long time) was very important to actually being able to correctly identify which problems could arise in a full scale war and focus the attention of the group where they could provide a pivotal role. This didn't mean the party didn't see the full war, on the contrary. The party was always there were they were needed, and in the thick of things. Even small-scale stuff felt like large-scale, because so much depended on the group getting it right. So the party was allowed to have the 'close in approach', but at the same time they were also aware of the bigger picture, thus the 'far back approach'.

    In mechanics, the GM used the setup of MMO-raiding. 40-man groups are large, and difficult to handle. That's also why WoW eventually turned away from 40-man groups and 10-20-25-man raids became the norm. Especially in a new fight, a lot of things can go wrong and one individual player can change the course of the whole fight. But in a raid group, the players were still divided up into smaller groups of 5 players, and each group had to work together. There's also the setup where everyone is divided by their roles (healer/tank/buffbots/ranged dps and melee dps) but I'll focus on the other setup here. That's where you have a core 5-man group of the main tank, two healers and two dps, and the rest of the groups have a similar setup. They were also the officers, the ones who directed the other groups, each focusing on their own role. The second group was the backup, with a secondary tank capable of jumping in if the main tank went down and the others able to take over the roles of the main group if something went wrong (or depending on the mechanics of the fight, with additional roles).

    This GM made the party the main group, and the NPC's were divided into their own groups. Each PC had the ability to direct one or two subgroups, changing the course of the battle if necessary. But at the same time, they had a key role in the whole battle. If they went down, they could lose the battle. But at the same time, they still had backup they could call in if necessary. This turned into an absolutely epic event, lasting three sessions if I remember correctly. There were ups and downs, and small successes early in the battle provided relief when it went badly for the party later on.

  2. Then there's also the variant where the party is the secondary group. Here, the main group is locked into battle and can't do anything else but keep the main boss/enemy troops occupied. This always was the group with the highest dps and highest healing. The secondary group are the elites: those who are better equipped and trained than the rest of the army, and who can change the tide of the battle. They don't have to keep the overview, but can rely on the main group to let them know where they are needed. They go everywhere they are needed, either helping out the main group or helping out each individual group after something went wrong. They are highly mobile and can adapt to every role in the group. So this is more a 'close in approach' than 'far back', but both elements are still present.

    But the most fun part was that the GM was able to treat the other NPC's as those additional groups, instead of faceless NPC's that fell into battle without anyone having a name. Each group had at least one NPC with a name and a background, and was known to the party. The party had contact with that NPC, either directing them or aiding them. That's where small-scale turned into large-scale: a small victory for one group turned into a huge advantage for the full raid, motivating them to keep going until they win the battle. And if you've never been in a raid like this: even after something goes horribly wrong this motivation is what can rally a group together and turn a loss into a huge victory. I can say there is nothing more epic than the main group going down and the secondary group takes over the fight so flawlessly you still turn out victorious.

    1. This sounds like a really awesome event to play through, and I'm probably going to have to read it two or three more times to fully parse out all the nuance the GM used.

      I've seen wars - for large groups of PCs - handled well with a more story focus. But the key point both ways is that it is a lot of work with a lot of GM time needing to be done to make sure that everything people are doing has some meaning or focus on what is going on.

      Being able to handle large groups of players, and large groups of characters, is a must if you want to sell things properly.