Thursday, December 13, 2012

Perils of D&D War

There are few die well that die in battle.
--Henry V

Just as many D&D campaigns avoid domain management, and stay in the "sweet spot" of dungeon crawling and fighting monsters, war and mass combat is also avoided.   Mass combat significantly alters the table top experience and role of character - in other words, agency.  As I ruminate over naval combat and the pirate sandbox, I see the problems are the same.

We may protest that old school D&D characters are not special, unique snowflakes, but who would be satisfied if their character dies from a random artillery shell (or cannon fire) while walking to the battlefield?  But if you rule that player characters don't get affected by the vicissitudes of war, you're effectively granting them a degree of plot immunity - bullets fly, lightning bolts zing around, shells explode, but no PC will ever get scratched off camera.  Blech.

I'm not a fan of granting player character plot immunity, so here are some ideas to handle the player role when the characters are in a mass combat action.

Shared Fate
When the player characters are part of a mass combat without individual actions, one way to share the fate of the larger army is to reduce their resources proportionally to the larger army.

Nautical Example:  Two ships trade cannon fire and break it off, and 50% of the crew is killed; it seems fair to reduce player character hit points by 50% (and potentially spells, too, if magic was assumed to be part of the battle).

The players still have a degree of plot immunity - you're not killing 50% of them, like the standard crew - but they feel a portion of the pain when their side takes casualties and damage.  Would you give players a saving throw for their characters to avoid the same fate as their unit?

I seem to recall BECMI War Machine might have worked like this as well.

Individual Combats
While the larger battle rages, the DM apportions some of the enemy forces to attack the player characters directly, running a standard combat  for this side event.  It may not have a material effect on the larger combat, other than stressing player resources.

Nautical Example: Boarding and grappling, or even close range small arms fire, where players are confronted by a subset of the opponents, can be handled by letting the players resolve the action using the standard rules.

Heroic Action
Instead of engaging in the main fight, the PC's are able to conduct a parallel action that could influence (decisively) the main action. In traditional D&D mass combat systems, this usually involves "hero figures" on both sides (ie, the players take on the squad of ogre stormtroopers or the dragon, while the regular army fights the orc footsoldiers).

Nautical Examples:  I don’t see that there always will be opportunities for heroic action - but you could imagine the following scenarios during a ship-to-ship combat:  Singling out the opposing captain for a duel; jamming the rudder; destroying the sails and rigging; going below decks to ignite the powder.

More often than not, player "missions" would involve intelligence gathering, ruses, land sieges, or maybe even solo efforts against an enemy ship, and the player's side gains a material advantage during the mass combat due to their successful side missions.

It looks like I'll be doing a basic home brew system for naval combat for the pirate game.  I really like Flashing Blades: High Seas, it's a fairly abstract system that looks like it would move quickly to the player action.  Player characters would lose resources (the shared fate approach) during the early stages, as ships engage in cannon fire and then firing swivel guns and muskets during the boarding actions.  Once the initial boarding turn is resolved, player characters would have the chance to look for individual targets.

The picture is Henry Every, by Angus Macbride from the Osprey book Pirates 1660-1730.  His work is frequently in the Osprey books, a great reason for checking them out.


  1. Your problem is inherent in all naval combat or in modern armored combat, the point isn't to fight the other crew, it's to defeat the other ship. Which leads me to my opinion about the USN issuing digi-cam blue and gray uniforms, which I won't rant on. But no one is aiming at an individual in ship to ship combat.

    As a suggestion, you might look at Traveller Book 4 Mercenaries, as I recall it had an abstract battle system that gave a PC a percentage chance to be injured based on the size of forces involved and the casualty rate.

    One of the best missions for a small group in the Age of Sail is a cutting out action, where they have to board and capture another ship from small boats. Forester as an excellent description of one in Midshipman Hornblower,

    1. Yep, my vision for the campaign would be to give the players a lot of weird fantasy plot hooks across the Spanish Main, and use the ships and buccaneers as their vehicle for getting around - and then have those small group missions you mention(whether on open water, in a port, or on land).

      But I'd hope they'd be opportunistic about high seas encounters, and there's also enough pirate-hunting going on that they could find themselves prey as well. Good to have some naval rules in the back pocket for such eventualities.

  2. Beedo,

    I know you are aware of Book of War, but did you look at the high seas D&D pirate convention games he ran with it? (Corsairs of Medero) Maybe some ideas for you there.

    1. I didn't know those existed - thanks for the links, that is amazing! It's always humbling to see someone else has already been there, and done it better.

      Also - it's good to know that OD&D had better naval rules than what was carried over into the later editions. I need to check it out.

  3. GURPS has had a variety of mass combat systems that all feature variations on the same mechanic for granting player agency (and, germaine to this post, I first saw it in GURPS Swashbucklers): before the battle, the PCs state outright how much they're going to risk their necks, which in turn affects their post-battle survival roll. (The system involves a couple rolls on tables for each PC to see what fate befell them.) In other words, the more heroic you act in battle, the greater the odds of injury, and vice versa.

    I've always liked Pendragon's mass combat system approach of assembling a sort of "montage" of individual combats, where each battle round represents an hour of fighting and each round you fight a different foe (generated on a random table), representing your unit's movements across the battlefield. It makes for a satisfyingly attritional battle where (especially in the more epic fights) by the end (assuming you're still on your feet) you're covered in a panoply of bleeding wounds. I could see using a similar approach for boarding actions.

  4. GURPS Horseclans: Bili the Axe had an interesting system for resolving this sort of thing. The outcome of the battle is decided using the Mass Combat system, but then focus switches to the actions of the PCs in some scenario, influenced by both the overall performance of the armies in battle and random die roll (as well as other things, like terrain and what unit the PCs were attached to). If they performed exceptionally well or exceptionally poorly, they could even change the rolled outcome of the battle to some degree. (They wouldn't turn a rout into a victory, but they might turn an indecisive defeat into an indecisive victory, for example.) This could put the PCs in a crushingly difficult position, but it preserves player agency in the exact fate of the characters without abstracting it to modifiers on a die roll.

    This was aimed at low-tech land combat, but you might be able to do something similar for Age of Sail naval actions - decide the fate of the fleet at large, and then figure out at the tactical level what the PCs do.

  5. I have just posted my version of D&D mass combat rule here:
    I also have an earlier post with my navel combat rules here:
    Perhaps they will be of some value.
    I would appreceate any comments you may have on eather of them.