Tabletop Highlight: Slogging Through Open War

I’ve always been interested in the idea of a D&D campaign focused around participation in a war. A lot of “classic” D&D campaigns usually include participating in a war, but that’s often tangentially. In version 3.5, the recommended method for including players in a war setting campaign is to give them specialized missions. Stuff like being a strike team sent to seize an important asset, protecting important figures, or capturing important enemy figures. There’s a feat that can be applied to building an army, called “Leadership,” but it is one of the feats that can be most easily abused by an unscrupulous player and all it really does is provide a character with a small army of a few hundred people.

What I’m looking for is to make the players participate in the actual war itself. Giant, sprawling battlefields filled with magic and mighty heroes like something out of an anime. Great battles with terrible consequences for all the poor souls who survived the battle. Rules of conquest, for conquerors and the conquered. The important moments and decisions that are the only things that separate success from failure. Diplomacy to end wars and failure diplomacy to start them. I want something enormous in scale that dice alone don’t really support all that well.

I’ve tried making my own rules. Role-playing through plan making sessions, mixing in a few strike missions to give them something immediate and impactful to do before sending them off to roll a bunch of dice to emulate a day’s worth of combat. Trying to send them into large encounters to have them act as a rallying force to either break through enemy lines or patch up their own lines. Showing how much difference a bard can make by letting them affect as many allies as can hear them over the din of battle and then watching as the relatively minor boost literally turns the tide. Watching the bloody hell that is a wizard or sorcerer unleashed on a battlefield of basic soldiers. The problem has always been that it inevitably breaks down into some rather boring math. There’s no real tension or suspense since the end is pretty much decided from the outset.

For instance, the tank in my current campaign has over 100 HP (the “average” human warrior has 8) and his armor class (how hard it is to hurt him in combat) is 27. Most average human warriors who appear on the battlefield are going to have a spear and a +2 bonus to hitting things and will do 2-9 damage per hit. Which means that, when they roll their die to attack, they will never get a high enough number to hit. If you’re using “natural 20’s” as “critical hits,” then that hit automatically beats whatever AC it’s up against. Statistically, my current campaign’s tank will get hit once out of ever twenty attackers. On the flip side, the same character has a +20 to hit, can hit more than once, and does a minimum of 8 damage per hit. He’ll hit the average warrior every time and kill them every time. If we assume the tank never gets healed, gets hit once every twenty attacks, and is in a position where he can only get attacked once per round of combat (which lasts six seconds), then he’ll get hit once every two minutes for an average of 5 damage, which he’ll be able to do for about an hour before he needs to stop or dies. If he has any kind of protection from damage, which he’d be sensible enough to get in this scenario, he can easily get it down to an average of 2 damage a hit, which means he could keep going about two and a half hours without a break before being overwhelmed. With the healing he can do on his own, he could get himself another hour, at least. With a little pre-planning and the right allocation of magic, he could double all of that, for six hours of fighting and killing. During all this time, he’s killed almost 2,200 enemy soldiers.

The numbers sound nice, but that’s just a talk through of what happened. I could tell him that he did those things, but they wouldn’t really mean much to him because there was no real risk to him and he did nothing terribly exciting. He just slaughtered a bunch of mooks. The same is true of archers. They can stand behind the tank and, with the right boosts, kill a target for every arrow they get to fire. Right now, if the tank’s ally did that, he’d kill almost 5,000 people and that’s without taking a single hit point of damage. After he did that, he could take the tank’s place and then fight for about four hours, bringing his total up to just over 6,000. Throw in a wizard of the right kind and he could probably double that number, over the same ten-hour period. Only the rogue wouldn’t have that level of combat efficacy, but you could easy send him to go kill officers because not even luck will save them from his sneaking abilities. He could easily kill one or more officers or important figures every five minutes. In ten hours, that’s 120 officers or leaders. That’s most of the army’s command.

Throw it all together and you’ve got a pretty typical D&D party taking out an entire army on their own. But it’s boring as hell and there’s no real tension. It’s just numbers on paper. I want more than that. I want to give them a reason to be excited about victories, rather than have them be a foregone conclusion. I want them to feel real fear as they figure out if their character will live or die. Unfortunately, as you can see here, having to chop your way through a bunch of mooks even when you’re already beat up isn’t a big deal. The only tension comes later when you have to fight the guys giving the orders.

Matthew Colville is producing a book for the fifth edition of D&D that’s supposed to include rules for warfare. He apparently uses them in his own games and, after seeing the internet’s response to some of his home rules, he’s now going to share them with us. Having not actually watched any of Colville’s games, I don’t know much about his rules. I’d really like it if they had solutions for the problems I’m facing because I sure as hell don’t. All I’ve got is math and one-off missions that miss the true scope of a war.

In the mean time, I’m going to just stick to large, unwieldy encounters segregated by rooms in towers or castles in lieu of effective warfare rules. It makes it a lot easier when it’s just a bunch of waves for the players to beat down.