Running War and Battles in roleplaying

As I decided to run a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying campaign 8 years ago centered around the Storm of Chaos (a great invasion into the lands of men), I naturally had to introduce war and battles as key elements of the fiction. I’ve describe 3 methods to include battles below.
Battles have since then worked as backdrop, motivation and important story and character development opportunities. Urs_Graf_Schrecken_des_Kriegs_1521

In general, in my roleplaying campaigns I do put a significant emphasis on the ‘game’ part of ‘roleplaying games’. We have to roll some dice, follow some rules and let part of the tension and drama emerge from the randomness of letting the dice fall where they may. Therefore it is important that we also have a ‘game’ around some of the battles and major skirmishes of the game, and that they outcome of each battle came into question. The characters influence on the outcome was in the beginning very limited, but as they grew in power, the influence has become more significant.

I thought my experience with it could be helpful to others who want to include that element in their campaign.

The Story mode:
When the characters were weak and socially and politically unimportant, I let the mood, action and drama evolve around the build-up, march to the battlefield and the aftermath of the battle. This includes solving supply problems, scouting, recovering lost messages, surviving assaults on their supply lines and so on. I used the pushing paper method (below) for a minor skirmish. The battle itself can be entirely narrated, particularly when they are very weak, or you can add an event element. In my first use of this method they lost, and the whole retreat (read, fleeing in panic), was a central element of the story, and the events around that gave a lot of mood and depth to the story, and both a feeling for the characters that they were unimportant, and at the same time had an impact by rescuing some and creating some order in the chaotic aftermath.

Pushing Paper:
To have a battle that involves dice, but without using 300 minis, I’ve used a Warhammer Fantasy Battle Light game using paper and card board. I make a map on our white board battle map, and create a card board counter for each unit. We roll D6 for their weapon skill (3+, 4+ etc. to hit), and D6 for armor saves, but I cut toughness rolls to reduce the number of dice rolls. Casualties were simply counted off the unit’s strength, either at a 1:1 ratio, or using whatever ratio that seemed appropriate for the size of the battle. I also have some rudimentary rules for movement, cover etc.

In a battle where the characters were leading their town militia and a contingent of knights, the characters were their own unit, and I reverted to regular role-playing rules, when they entered into combat with the opposing champion.

This worked quite well for large skirmishes and minor battles. It has gotten the characters really involved, it is a fun break away from the regular roleplaying combat, and it creates its own narratives about the heroic squires who routed a group of beastmen taking only one casualty and so on. It also has the group invested in getting more troops to defend their town, as it has an actual game impact.

Event-based battle:
I’ve run two versions of these types of battles:

Type 1:Alexanderschlacht_(Soldaten)
You can have a battle where the characters have no impact on the outcome of the battle, but each experience events during the battle. This could be individual opportunities for heroics, or the opposite – to skulk away or flee a challenge. The key element in my view is that there are significant choices to be made. In one instance, as they were part of a company, they had the chance to rescue or help other members of the company before they got killed or maimed (or not). I also enjoy keeping the events partly random, as it adds to the ‘game’ element and prevents me from designing challenges that were specific meant to be just the right difficulty for any character.

Type 2:
A second type is a battle where the characters are powerful and can, as a team, significantly influence the final outcome. I introduced a victory point system for this type of battle. In essence, each event can lead to various numbers of victory points, and the battle will have different outcomes depending on how many victory points they score. The victory conditions obviously have to be predetermined. Again I think a key point is having hard choices for them to make, as the Warhammer universe is very grim. Thus sacrifice and bitter choices are central parts of the game. For example, they had to indirectly select which commander they wanted to lead the human forces. There were three choices, and all three had benefits and drawbacks, but they couldn’t get an “optimal” commander.

By introducing victory points I also force the direction of the campaign into the hands of the characters, and prevent myself from fudging it into the result I prefer. I think it is very satisfying to play, and reinforces that we are playing a game.

All in all, I find the battles to be very fun and dramatic elements in the campaign, and as a theme for a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign, it has worked extremely well.

One a side note, the format was initially inspired by Bernard Cornwell’s excellent Sharpe series of novels, about an English soldier fighting all the way through the Peninsular Campaign of the Napoleonic War.

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