View Full Version : [4e] How to Roll-play a War

2010-04-17, 11:06 PM
Hello gang! I am sort of new to this DMing stuff, and was wondering if any experts would have any suggestions on how I could make this as enjoyable as possible for my players.

For an upcoming paragon campaign I am planning a sort of 'sandbox' approach. It'll become quite clear that as soon as early summer rolls around and the roads are good enough that their home country is going to go to war. They'll be given a list of allies that they can recruit, with the general assumption being that the more they get, the better it will be when the epic battle comes around.

That brings me to how to actually represent said epic battle. Now, my players may think that they're all that, but my sense of realism demands that they can't wade through the entire opposing army. They'll take place in the battle, certainly, but I need some way of deciding what the ebb and flow of battle should be...

Would the best way be to just roll percentile dice? I have no idea how to even go about determining how it would be best accomplished - a break through the lines here, a position being hammered there.

I mean, I suppose in the end I could script out the entire thing, but my players have so far shown a tendency to get squirrelly and mess up my plots. Any suggestions?

2010-04-18, 12:15 AM
First, focus on the issue right in front of you. They have allies they can recruit, and throw in a few magical doodads they can adventure for that could assist in military-scale combat. Let them decide whether they want to go with a safe yet moderate support system, a chancy attempt to grab a whole bunch of allies, a risk at huge overwhelming power, or how they want to mix and match their attempts. It may not change much from a metagame perspective, but it's what's on the table now and it gives the impression that the PC's are masters of their fate.

Come spring, the PC's are too valuable to waste their talent on the front lines, and frankly they'd be overwhelmed if they tried to take on an army single-handedly. As usual when roll-playing a war, find other things for them to do. The ritualist might engage in a skill challenge to get some beneficial mojo going. Tactically-minded characters may be tasked with troop movements, while socially-based ones might have to keep morale up or maintain alliances. If all else fails, there's always the daring commando raid into the enemy camp to assassinate their leaders or disable some MacGuffin. The point being to either engage the PCs with skill challenges and large-scale things, or else to shift the focus to a small-scale mission behind enemy lines.

2010-04-18, 12:25 AM
I second the "give them a special mission" approach. PCs in line combat tend to die inconsequentially, but I offer this: if you can weave it into the campaign, let them be somehow dropped into the enemy camp and told to sabotage as much as they can, or some similar separation from the front. Let the opponents' magical help be based here, and of course the leader communicates by magical means with his lieutenants at the front.

This maximizes their effectiveness and lets you run it as an open-plan dungeon, rather than ten thousand charging enemies. It has also already been suggested above. Darn my slow typing speed.

As for how the rolling of the war works, i suggest you roll opposed checks for each wave, assuming they're attacking in the old fashion (two bricks of regimented lines of men being bashed together repeatedly), or for each section of each wave, and apply circumstance bonuses from there. If they have powerful allies out there you want to pick out, i suppose they could be rolled as normal combat.

2010-04-18, 12:35 AM
Yes, I have no plans whatsoever to throw them in the army lines, as I don't see it being much fun for them.

At this point I figure I'll mount them on griffins or something that can get them around the battlefield and they'll serve as mobile reinforcements as a flank buckles here, or as an attacking force as an opportunity attack presents itself.

Is having "war" in the background planned out as a sort of cinematic action a cop-out? Nothing is as random as war, as we know. And that way the NPCs have to react as well, sometimes foolishly.

2010-04-18, 12:43 AM
What do you mean by cop-out? Please clarify. Do you mean that having a setting built around an incipient war might be a cop-out? Or that running a war in which the PCs are not directly involved might be a cop-out? Or a war with a predetermined outcome?

If you mean the latter as I believe you do, i would point out that the kind of player who would complain if the war seems preplanned is likely also to object to you rolling enough dice to get a truly realistic random outcome and the time that would take. Really, as it only happens once it's going to look random either way.

2010-04-18, 01:13 AM
What do you mean by cop-out? Please clarify. Do you mean that having a setting built around an incipient war might be a cop-out? Or that running a war in which the PCs are not directly involved might be a cop-out? Or a war with a predetermined outcome?

The war having a predetermined outcome option. They're mid-heroic right now, and I've been dropping hints that a war is on the horizon, so I'm not too concerned at it being the setting.

I personally like the feeling that the PCs aren't the most powerful things on the planet. They can handle things on their on scale, sure, but I don't want them wading through hordes of mooks (the wizard would have fun with his AoE, but that would be pretty much it).

So, yes, a predetermined outcome. I mean, I can obviously change this based on how many of their allies they are able to gather... Maybe dice rolls to determine what encounter they should head off to next?

As an example:
1-33 - A fang dragon broke through our right flank!
34-66 - Stop that summoning ritual!
67-99 - Cover NPC as he makes a strafing run on their army!

2010-04-18, 05:56 AM
PCs out of game, or adventurers in-game, tend to be independent types. This doesn't make for the best soldiers. They tend to question orders, act heroicly, question their "need to know", and be bad at paperwork required for actual leadership. Unless it's a classic light vs dark I wouldn't immediately assume that they would even support the war. If they're deployed directly, I would expect the enemy to either have forces capable of overcoming them, or just swamp them with mooks; they're too individually dangerous to have running about on a battlefield.

What PCs are good at is special operations. Behind enemey lines, acting indepently, aiming to acquire the item/person/spell that will end the war tomorrow. Even if said item/person/spell doesn't exist or isn't required, it makes them the bad-guys problem rather than messing with discipline while the real army gets the job done.

Sources of inspiration include The Dirty Dozen (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061578/) and Inglourious Basterds (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0361748/). See OotS itself for another example. The PCs joined the fray in the big fight, and in the long run made very little difference, but when it came to getting Hinjo out and protecting him afterwards, even Elan could look competent.

Edit: add "IMO" to all of the above, sorry if it sounds a bit harsh.

2010-04-18, 03:37 PM
What OotS really highlights is that PCs can have an enormous effect on the battle, but in small ways (though I had an evil plan for a wizard with extended cloudkill and a horde of hobgoblins in 3.5e - I was looking at killing over a thousan with one spell in a narrow pass). So you need to offer them a way to do this without just giving them boring slugger combat. Covert ops and strike missions are one option, and should probably be a part of it. I'd:

1) Calculate what happens during each stage in the battle beforehand, using either one character to represent a regiment or a strategy game-style. You could even use a PC RTS to give you a rough idea of how things would flow. It doesn't have to be true to the DnD system, it just has to tell you how a battle might go.

2) Have the PCs busy for the boring bits - staving off a sneaky assassination attempt on the commander during the opening phases?

3) Work out when the army will really need the PCs help and send them in at an appropriate moment - maybe carving up a swarm of mooks, maybe forcing off a group of high-level enemy cavalry

4) Assuming they win the battle, have them fighting the enemy general/archvillain, rather than simply joining the mass charge after the routing enemy.

I did a small battle in 4e, a siege, so if you want to know what I did for that, message me :smallsmile:

2010-04-18, 03:46 PM
Get, I think, Heroes of Battle. Pretty sure that's the name. It's 3.5, but it applies since most of it isn't rule based but more focused on how to wage war with PCs.

2010-04-18, 04:01 PM
What I have read on the subject says to use how well the PC's are doing to determine the flow. So if they are winning their battles the their side is doing better but if they start losing then the battle starts turning against their side.

As other have said the type of encounters should be reinforcing a flank that is getting over run, behind the line sabotage, Activate some device that can help with the battle, anti-sabotage on their side.

I would also say maybe a Champion Challenge but not sure of a good idea of how to do that for a group unless you players would not mind waiting for each of them to get a turn at such a one on one challenge. I.E. The fighter types each call out a opposing champion, later the wizard types get in a magical duel, that night the rogue types have to counter the saboteurs, and the healer types have some form of skill challenge to counter a bio-weapon.

2010-04-18, 04:30 PM
I've been running a campaign since 4e came out that has had quite a few battles in it. I've been handling them via a skill challenge, with each PC running a different area of the army. Each PC effectively participates in thier own skill challenge, which affects all the others by adding modifiers to all checks with a particular skill. If a skill challenge is failed, then the PC involved has to fight through a fairly tough encounter (I tend to give the other PCs NPC bodyguards to play for these), if they win they canc ontinue the skill challenge, but each subsequent failure leads to another, harder, encounter. If you suceed on a skill challenge your subsequent successes count for the next skill challnege (failures still get ticked off on your own list in case they trigger encounters). This leads to a flowing battle were you can describe whats happening on the overall field, with some parts going well and others going badly, it can really give a nice flowing feel to the battle. If your interested in the system I'll type out my notes, just let me know.

It also comes with a built in method for calculating losses to both armies, how many of those were actually dead and how many taken out of battle for a while (bropken leges etc), how many just knocked unconcious, stunned, sprained their ankles, whatever other minor thing might have happened and would be ready to fight again soon.

We had one memorable battle were the entire cavalry regiment was wiped out by riding into a trap that the general had failed to spot, but the battle was won in the end as the infantry line, after a shaky start, held strong, oddly commanded by the leader of the sapper corps as the infantry commander died, and the archers performed beautifully.

2010-04-18, 05:08 PM
There's some good suggestions in the "Skill Challenges of War" series on the Core Mechanic here: http://www.thecoremechanic.com/2008/12/skill-challenges-of-war-in-4th-edition.html

Edit: I think part 5 is the last, and it has links to all the other parts, which part 1 does not: http://www.thecoremechanic.com/2008/12/skill-challenges-of-war-in-4th-edition_18.html

Edit 2: Nope, I'm an idiot; there's 13 of them. You can find them all here: http://www.thecoremechanic.com/search?q=skill+challenges+of+war

Mark Hall
2010-04-18, 05:18 PM
I've always been a fan of the "connected encounters" option. Terminology and such are from Palladium Fantasy, but it should convey the idea.

Cinematic Conflicts

Cinematic conflicts are very easy to run, because they take place essentially like normal adventuring sessions, with the players acting only for themselves. This works best when the players themselves are not in charge of the force, as dealing with their strategy on the fly would make things nearly impossible on all but the best improvisational Game Masters. Besides, generals rarely do the important actions in a battle… they order them.

To run a battle in cinematic style, a Game Master divides the battle into several scenes. In each scene, the players must accomplish a certain goal. Failure to accomplish that goal will lead to one scene, success to another, while a partial success might lead to yet another. Eventually, the battle is won or lost based on the actions of the characters.

Of course, these battles require several things from the Game Master. First of all, the Game Master needs a good plan of how likely it is that the player's army can actually win. After all, if they are facing 600 orcish raiders with a militia made up of 20 gnomes, their first failure will likely be their last, and any successes are going to be amazingly difficult. Secondly, they need to determine several scenes, covering a wide range of possibilities, or be able to improvise them quickly. Perhaps most importantly, they require a lot of stock characters, as any battle is going to result in a lot of dead on either side, possibly with many of them being killed by player characters.

As an example, let us look at the Battle of Gersidi Pass. This is a historic battle, in which the forces under Anton Gersidi denied this strategic pass to a massive army of humanoids sweeping down out of the Old Kingdom. The players are on the side of Anton Gersidi. They are sorely outnumbered, but the narrowness of the pass keeps the humanoids from attacking all at once, lightening their burden, somewhat. However, the Gersidi forces have no magic-users unless one of the players is one… these were simply garrison troops, not expecting combat.

Before the first scene ever happens, the Game Master decides that Anton Gersidi has planned to fall back to a certain bridge, collapse that bridge, then hold the humanoids from building a new one. Due to the numbers of the enemy, more than one failed scene will result in the annihilation of the Gersidi forces. Since the players are rear guard, the GM decides on the following order of scenes:

Scene 1: The players must fight several humanoids for at least 10 rounds, so the rest of the army can make it to the bridge, and not forget to retreat some themselves. If more than 5 of these humanoids make it through their line to the rest of the army, they have failed, and the Game Master takes them to scene 1a. If they manage to hold them off, he goes to scene 2.

1a) The players must now fight the same opponents, but twice as many of them, and the players themselves are surrounded. Failure is either death or failing to kill all of their opponents in 10 more rounds. If they succeed, they go to scene 2. If they fail (and survive) they are captured, and the army of humanoids pours out onto the plains of Timiro.

Scene 2: However the players got here, they now have to deny the bridge to the humanoids. The bridge is made of wood with metal fittings, and is 100 feet long by 15 feet wide (enough for one wagon to cross), and so requires 3 warriors to block it. Their job is to protect the 4 engineers working to collapse the bridge, who will be fired on by archers (10 of them), and stop the humanoids from crossing to their side. If any engineer is hit more than twice, he will die of his wounds. If more than two engineers are killed, the bridge must be collapsed some other way. It will take 5 rounds for them to finish the bridge, and they are -5 to dodge. The problem is, the winds are blowing towards the characters. This means that any fog or cloud spells will be blown back on the engineers, making their jobs impossible (if not putting them to sleep), and the range of missiles is cut in half. In addition, since the bridge is going to fall, the characters are likely going to be reluctant to engage the armies in melee (which would leave them trapped on the other side). If the characters fail, move them to scene 2a. If they succeed, move them on to scene 3.

2a) In this scene, the players must both hold off the monsters at the head of the bridge while simultaneously finding some way to destroy it. There are three supports (weighing 200 pounds each) on the character's side that would need to be destroyed for the bridge to collapse, unless one of the players has a better idea. Failure happens when more than 5 humanoids break through the player's line, or everyone is dead. If the humanoids break through, the characters will be overwhelmed, captured, and ransomed (or cooked). If they succeed, then they move to Scene 3.

Scene 3: This scene will likely blend into the background of the game. The Game Master determines that the humanoids will make try to cross that the players will be able to stop (they will make several more, but all off-stage, stopped by NPCs).

In the first, the players will have to find and destroy a rope that will allow the humanoids to cross. If the players miss two perception checks (one at difficulty 20 to notice that one of many arrows is trailing a line, the second at 15- 10 if they have nightvision of at least 50 feet- to notice someone crossing hand-over-hand), they will be faced with an increasing number of humanoids on their side… a new one every 3 rounds until they cut the rope. Success happens when they cut the rope. Failure happens when the PCs are outnumbered by humanoids, and results in the loss of the battle. If the players succeed, the humanoids will be held to the other side of the pass, and the battle is one.

As you can see, this plays much like a normal game. The players have goals to achieve, and do so using their own characters. A Game Master using this system needs to be fairly inventive, as a clever player can come up with all sorts of way to make this battle quiet easy, especially with magic (though the conflict is somewhat stacked against Air Warlocks), and a low-level Earth Warlock with the right spells could stop this combat quickly. The cinematic method is perhaps the easiest method to use with low-level characters, as they will rarely be leading the force and will face more danger with these sorts of combats than a higher-level party.

2010-04-18, 05:31 PM
I would say though, that you should plan out what will happen, for the short term anyway, as if the PCs weren't there, and then let their actions change things.

2010-04-18, 07:21 PM
Thank you everyone for all your help so far!

A lot to think about. Definitely will have to spend a lot of time making stock characters/drawing out the shape of the battle for this one.

I do like the idea of skill encounters, but I know at least half of the players will complain if they get into a war without any combat. Hopefully as time goes on I may stumble unto something that will be a happy medium.

2010-04-18, 07:24 PM
Yes, I have no plans whatsoever to throw them in the army lines, as I don't see it being much fun for them.

At this point I figure I'll mount them on griffins or something that can get them around the battlefield and they'll serve as mobile reinforcements as a flank buckles here, or as an attacking force as an opportunity attack presents itself.

Is having "war" in the background planned out as a sort of cinematic action a cop-out? Nothing is as random as war, as we know. And that way the NPCs have to react as well, sometimes foolishly.

The background war should be affected by the PCs' special missions. IMO that's the best way to do it. You could give them a couple of hack-and-slash encounters through a whole bunch of minions, but it's best to focus on things like "Assassinate the general," "Retrieve the Superweapon," or "Ambush the supply wagon train." These have real impact on the background battle, and as such, aren't really a cop-out.