Running a military campaign in a medieval setting, fantasy or otherwise, can be pretty difficult. Mass combat rules in any given system stand a decent chance of being incredibly tedious or hastily slapped together as filler that was never really intended for use. Even if you take the mechanical issues aside, the life of your average footman is short, boring and generally thankless… which doesn’t make it a very interesting thing to base a game around. Luckily, there are a few things we can do to make things more interesting for your players and less miserable for you! Mosey on past the jump for a few general pointers and a fistful of of special tasks to set your band of intrepid warriors on.
Let’s get started with some general pointers for running a smooth and interesting campaign.
1. Who, What, Where, Why and When.
This classic tenant of literature is just as, if not more, important here than anywhere else. As much as I’m a fan of flying by the seat of my pants when it comes to GMing, doing some more detailed prep-work will go a long way towards making your life easier. It’s generally a good idea to have the following questions nailed down before the first session.
- Who is waging the war? Know who leads each of the respective armies, and know who the Generals answer to as well. The player’s commanding officer should probably be even more highly detailed than the Generals themselves. Do the inspire loyalty and confidence, or are the players being directed by some insipid brat of the nobility with a purchased commission? It’s important for the player characters to build a strong sense of rapport, or possibly antipathy, with their commanding officer, and a strongly detailed character will make this much easier.
- Who are the players? Are they common soldiers, hired mercenaries, hard-bitten veterans or patriotic adventurers? What skills do they possess? A party of stealth-specialists is going to be sent on some very different missions than a group of armored cavaliers or flashy battle-mages.
- What are the players going to face? This is an area where it can pay to be a little more outlandish. Hacking your way through waves of faceless, uniformed infantry can get boring after a while, so it’s important to mix up the encounters, especially as the opposing forces feel more and more threatened by their successes. Special Forces, exotic mercenaries, artillery, tamed monsters, enemy spellcasters and reanimated legions of slain foes can all make for interesting opponents.
- Where is the war going to be fought? Are the players repelling an invasion, or are they striking out into enemy territory for pay, glory or retribution? What’s the terrain like on the battlefield, and how can it be used to the advantage of one side or the other? Mixing up the locales can add a decent amount of variety to a campaign, and laying siege to an enemy fortress or defending one of your own are both fantastic opportunities for glory.
- Why are the parties involved engaged in open warfare? This examination should be applied on a the smaller scales as well as the broader ones. Have a clear idea of why your characters fight, and you’ll know how to make the story compelling for your players. This is also important because an army’s goals and philosophy will dictate their methods. A horde of religious zealots fighting to reclaim the Holy Land at any cost is going to use a whole different set of tactics than a contingent of hardened mercenaries hell-bent on living to spend their pay.
- “When?” is a small question, but it’s also an important one. Did the players have time to gird themselves for war, or has the conflict come without warning? Playing soldiers of a army with sufficient supplies, funding and preparation is going to be very different from playing as the members of a militia that was hastily assembled to help repel the invasion that nobody saw coming.
2. Treat Mass Combat as a backdrop.
A couple of systems my group plays in make this recommendation, and it can work fairly well. If you focus on the fight happening, it can allow you to run a battle as a series of encounters set in the middle of a raging battlefield. This allows you to spice up a mundane combat with incoming arrow volleys, artillery fire and anything else the enemy might be flinging at their lines. In most systems, a group of Adventurer-caliber players will mow through common soldiers like a bunch of hamburger-filled piñatas, so be sure to have something worthwhile for them to fight once they’ve gotten through the front lines.
3. Extend the duration of a combat round.
One way to speed up the process of hacking your way through large clumps of enemy soldiers is to increase the duration of a combat round to a large interval, anywhere from a minute to an hour could be appropriate, depending on the system. After the damage is rolled, let the players narrate a few of their more impressive kills and be sure to describe any damage they take in detail as well.
Mechanically speaking, you could treat the opposing force like a swarm, giving it a fixed attack value against every party member and a massive number of hitpoints for the players to whittle down. Alternatively, you could have a fixed number of enemy soldiers, and every point of damage the players roll represents a slain enemy combatant to the player’s credit. This is a great way to let competitive players keep score against eachother.
Pitched battles, however, are not all sunshine and staggering mounds of enemy dead. Players can and should get wounded during a fight. When not treating the opposing force as a Swarm, I personally suggest giving the opposing force one or two attack rolls a round with the stats of a common soldier against each player character and any important NPCs, representing the odd soldier who might be able to get in a lucky shot.
4. Speaking of which, kill people!
Regardless of the time period, wars are horrible, bloody messes that usually see a lot of both sides of the conflicts killed. While I’m not advocating the wholesale slaughter of slaughter of player characters, it is unlikely that the party and everyone they care about is going to make it out unscathed. Seeing friends, comrades and commanding officers cut down in the heat of battle will either reinforce their will to fight, or make them question the validity of this brutal conflict. As always, treat the death of an important figure as an important, dramatic event. It should never come across as arbitrary or the mere result of a bad roll… even if that’s how it usually happens in real life.
5. Party Overlap
A military campaign is an excellent opportunity to create a more homogeneous player party. While versatility is always good, many military units are comprised of individuals with similar talents and training. While each PC should have their own specialty, a more narrowly focused party can really shine in this time of game. A party of stealthy characters can make fantastic scouts, spies and assassins, whereas a group of heavily armored knights or crack war wizards are ideal for shattering an enemy line or dealing with the more powerful foes that crop up on the battlefield. Sharing a common skill will also make it easier for party members to form a stronger, more cohesive bond with one another.
6. Chain of Command
I’ve talked about this in one of my previous articles, and it applies even moreso here. There should only be one or two characters within the party that have any real authority, and the other players should follow their orders quickly and to the letter… Although an insurrection in the ranks due to an incompetent officer can make for an interesting, if not overly dramatic, story arc.
7. Let the Players Effect the Story.
This probably seems like a given in ANY tabletop game, but Military campaigns can have a bad tendency to become rigidly fixed on the rails. As storytellers, we have to reign in our impulses to tell our epic tales of war and heroism exactly as we envisioned them, and not as the smoldering wreckage that players frequently make of them. Regardless of how badly our original plans may have been derailed, it’s important to make sure that the actions the players take make a difference in the course of the story. If they successfully pull off an unexpected maneuver that kills an enemy general, breaks a crucial supply chain or topples a fortress that was supposed to hold out for a month, roll with it. It’s extremely frustrating to achieve a serious victory against all odds, only to have it count for nothing in the next battle. Feel free to have their actions countered or the damage from them somewhat mitigated, but have a logical, feasible reason for why this happens and use it to motivate them to further acts of daring and accomplishment.
Now that we’ve gotten those out of the way, let’s look at a few objectives befitting of a player party. Some of these will work better than others for the specific campaign that you’re running. An army of demons or undead probably isn’t going to have supply lines to sack, and attempting to plant a mole in the high command of an oncoming goblinoid army is just going to get the head of the would-be spy catapulted over the city walls.
Due to the average income disparity between adventurers and the common soldier in most fantasy settings, the cost of fielding a unit of experienced player characters is going to be astronomical, even within the parameters of a defense budget. Even if the players are donating their services out of a sense of duty or an obligation to help defend their homeland, any military commander worth their salt will apply them to special tasks instead of just wasting them on enemy infantry.
While enemy officers are always a target of high priority, some of them are more important than others. A commander with a strong reputation of skill, cunning or brutality among the opposing force will likely find themselves marked for death by enemy leadership. It’s up to the players to infiltrate enemy lines, either in the dead of night or during a pitched battle, and eliminate the chosen target in order to destabilize and demoralize the forces under them. If their victim is of sufficient strategic value, they may be able to requisition magical items or experimental weaponry for the task at hand.
Prisoners can serve all sorts of uses. A civilian consultant, foreign diplomat or military leader would be privilege to all sorts of useful information, as well as being an excellent bargaining chip to exchange for other prisoners. Different prisoners have different uses, and a normally fearless General might lose his taste for bloodshed if his errant daughter’s life is suddenly on the line.
There are an endless number of scenarios in which the player party will be forced to protect an important individual on the battlefield. They could have been elevated to the ranks of an elite personal guard, sent to escort a diplomat into enemy territory… or get press-ganged into protecting a member of nobility who decided that they wanted to play at war.
There’s a spy (or possibly several) among the ranks of the local forces, and with an important battle looming in the near future, the players are given full discretion in finding and eliminating the moles… or feeding them false information in order to turn the tides of war.
The characters are tasked with reinforcing the defenses of a specific location or project. It could be their home city, the laboratory housing a weapon that couldalter the course of the war, the family of a senior military commander, or the royal palace itself. The enemies assailing such a valuable asset should be unique, interesting, and dangerous.
One of the most sensible applications of a group of adventurers in a military campaign is taking out something that normal soldiers wouldn’t stand a chance against. Dragons, Giants, Ogres, Trolls and various other mythical beasts would make terrifying opponents on the battlefield when properly trained, and the soldiers who could stand against them are few and far between. Luckily, the player characters happen to be proud members of that little slice of the population.
A task better suited to civil wars or given to members of an opposing faction with an ax to grind, these scenarios involve getting close to important people in the opposing army and wreaking havoc from within. Providing intelligence from the inside is just one possibility. A plant win the enemy ranks can feed them false information, let other agents into secure areas, assassinate key figures and cause all sorts of trouble from the inside.
Keeping the Peace
Conquered territories are seldom cooperative, and it’s up to the characters to help stabilize an occupied region once the military has taken it by force. The nature of these missions will vary wildly depending on who’s giving the orders. A more compassionate leader will send the players on diplomatic missions or task them with bringing aid and supplies to troubled areas to curry favor with the locals. Whereas someone bereft of time or patience for such endeavors will have them violently dispersing mobs, making examples of rebel combatants, or sacking the houses of outspoken opponents. There are a number of parties who would greatly enjoy looting the home of a mouthy noble and summarily putting it to the torch. Machiavelli’s widely known and oft-maligned book The Prince would provide some excellent missions for a storyteller wanting his players to start doubting the morality of their faction… Or run a game featuring protagonists who fall more on the ambiguous side of morality.
Leading the Charge
Victory often comes at a steep price. A harried Military commander faced with overwhelming odds or an impossible task might put his coveted adventurers at the point of a mad rush into the enemy forces, or the players might take it upon themselves to reinforce a faltering line and then lead a daring-counter attack on the enemy. Either way, the players are at the forefront of the conflict with massed forces of their army behind them, and one of the most intense conflicts of your campaign is about to begin.
Bridges need burning, artillery needs annihilating, supply-chains should be shattered, and the fields feeding the enemy should be poisoned, scorched or salted. The players will likely have to break through enemy lines to accomplish these missions, but such decisive maneuvers can easily tilt the outcome of the war in favor of the party’s faction.
A particularly tough fortress is impeding the army’s forward progress. The party is dispatched to help crack into the fortress… whether it’s by leading a suicidal charge up the walls or burning it down around the defenders is up to them. Alternatively, they could be sent to reinforce a besieged castle, either sneaking past enemy lines to join the defenders or harrying the the flanks of the attackers until the siege crumbles.
Smash and Grab
Acquiring additional supplies for your army is good, but depriving them from the enemy at the same time is even better. Shipments of food, coin, weapons and munitions could be hijacked and dragged back to the player’s supply camp. Such shipments are likely to be well guarded, and most armies will be reluctant to bring in supplies on a route that can be easily intercepted.