Wednesday, March 31, 2010

When The Caissons Go Rolling Along (PCs at war)

In my Friday Pathfinder game, my PCs are working with a group of priests and mercenaries to liberate a small island from the clutches of its evil and corrupted king. The culmination of this part of the campaign is going to be the battle for the main city on the island and hopefully the destruction of the Cannibal King, Admetus.

It certainly looks like it is going to be a great conclusion to the opening storyline in my new campaign. I am excited and I think the players are as well. Not only are they going to participate in a huge battle, but the outcome will determine the fate of an island kingdom and will have big repercussions on the game world.

For me though, episodes like this always bring up the same question: How do you deal with a party of PCs participating in the context of a larger battle?
In our Friday game, there will be hundreds of combatants fighting throughout an entire city. How do you capture the ebb and flow of such a battle? How do you make the PCs' actions central to the game, but maintain that feeling of being part of a larger conflict? Over the years, I have GMed lots of these "mass combat" sessions and I have tried many methods of bringing PCs into the midst of a large conflict. Let's talk about some of these.
Shutting Down the Generator -- I always call this the "Covert Op" or the "Special Forces Adventure". In this method, there is a huge battle raging near or around the PCs, but they are not really a part of it. Instead, they are a small group of specialists with a mission. The outcome of the battle hinges on the success of this mission, but is somehow separate from the bulk of the fighting.
So while the forces of good engage the orc menace, the PCs have to sneak through the front line and recover the Lost Sword from the Wizard's Tower. If the PCs can recover the sword, then the Orc Champion can be vanquished, otherwise the forces of good will surely lose.
The main advantage of this method is that you are just running another standard adventure. You don't need to consider the effects of the battle on the PCs' situation because the battle is merely a bit of flavor text designed to get the PCs to the real action -- the dungeon. This type of war-time scenario is easy to prepare and run and both the players and GM should be familiar with it. It's just that this time, instead of the old wizard in a tavern giving the PCs their marching orders, it is the General of the Armies of Man.
Of course, this familiarity is also the main disadvantage of this style of adventure as well. I don't know about you, but to me the whole, "trudging to Mordor to drop the One Ring into Mount Doom whilst being trailed by some homeless guy, and having my manservant cast longing glances my way" was the boring part of Lord of the Rings. Given a choice, I'd rather be at Helm's Deep fighting off hordes of orcs beside those bad-assed (and impeccably coiffed) elves.
There is something epic about a huge battle and so given the chance, I'd like to get the PCs involved directly in that battle. Avoiding the battle seems a tiny bit like a cop out, or at least a missed opportunity.
Leading the Charge (maybe) -- Another option is to put the players directly in charge of the battle by using some sort of mass combat system. You use a game like Warhammer, or Battlesystem, or you use mass combat rules tailored to your rpg of choice, or you write your own. The players split the forces of the good guys and the GM takes over the bad guys and you battle it out old-school-hex-and-counter-style.
The advantage here is that the entire battle unfolds in front of the players and their input affects the outcome directly. I've seen players get very invested in these battles, groaning when their last unit of spearmen gets routed and their carefully crafted lines begin to crumble... and cheering when their cavalry makes that decisive charge throwing the armies of the Dark Lord into disarray. These sessions can be a great change of pace from your normal, weekly rpg games.
Of course, that is also the problem. Presumably, if your players were into Warhammer, they would actually spend their evenings playing that game. Not everyone likes wargames, and in today's gaming climate, I would imagine most GMs have at least one player at their table that would be unhappy giving up their gaming night for a rousing evening of Advanced Squad Leader.
Another issue is the fact that unless your wargame of choice accounts for it, it might be hard to get the player characters involved in the battle. Few PCs in most campaigns have a lot of skills relating to the command of armies and few games account for the actions of a single individual among hundreds of soldiers. If this is the case, your players might feel cheated because their characters really aren't doing much to alter the fortunes of their allies.
And what if your players just plain suck at wargames...?
String of Encounters -- Many years ago, a British gaming mag published a set of light rpg rules and adventures for those rules. I remember that at least two of these adventures had some sort of mass combat aspect. To resolve these combats, they used something they called the "Quick and Dirty" method.
Essentially, the Q&D method consisted of drawing cards, or rolling dice and consulting a table of random encounters. In the course of the overall battle, PCs would come across these situations and play them out, one after the other. Based on the outcome of each scene, players would earn points moving them closer to that final, climactic outcome, or they would lose points, bringing them to the brink of defeat.
The beauty of this method is that it is as simple to prepare and run as the covert op, but it gives the players more of a feel of being part of a larger battle because in this method, the battle is the dungeon.
The key here is writing good, compelling encounters. Each encounter card not only has to give the PCs a task, but it also has to give them the feel for the conflict of which they are a part. Think of all the misery and chaos that would fill site of a battle. Your PCs would stumble onto ongoing battles between their forces and the enemy. They would save civilians from a burning house. They might come across looters, or injured soldiers, confused and looking for their unit.
In general, this is a nice method, because it is easy to prep, it stays firmly on the rpg side of gaming and keeps the PCs as the center of attention. However, you still aren't representing the battle in any interesting way. The battle is some blurry, abstract thing going on around the players and the individual encounters are just filler until you can get to the big bad guy at the end. There is no chance that a daring charge will break the line of orcs. There is no chance that one squad can hold a guard tower until help arrives. Unless, of course, these events are scripted into your encounter tables.
I use this method a lot to represent PCs in larger battles and it works fairly well. I recommend it. Still, there are times when I want a little clearer picture of the battlefield and the PCs' place in it.
Friday, I am going mix it up a little bit... my players don't seem interested in a wargaming night and I don't want to do the "you are on a special mission" route. So, I am going to mix a very, very light, risk-like wargame with a string of random encounters and see how that goes... I will try to publish the "rules" for this battle tomorrow.