Sunday, 12 January 2014

Wargames in fantasy RPG campaigns

If The Lord of the Rings was the ultimate RPG campaign, how would you run the battle of Helm's Deep? Could an epic battle on the scale be seamlessly integrated into a campaign without being pre-scripted or abstracted? Interesting questions. Many GMs of RPGs either shy away from such epic conflicts, have them happen off-stage, or cast the party as a small unit doing its best to survive as part of a bigger conflict (e.g. Starship Troopers or Weird Wars - Blood on the Rhine). Efforts have been made in the past to integrate roleplaying with wargaming on the tabletop, but can this be achieved properly without a vast amount of number crunching?

Readers of this blog have asked me for my thoughts on this topic and I'm more than happy to oblige. Many moons ago, I picked up a copy of Warhammer, the very first edition of the game. It was in a grey box with three black and white soft cover books inside. It was authored by Rick Priestley and Richard Haliwell, IIRC. It was marketed as a 'mass combat fantasy roleplaying game.'

In a subsequent article, Priestley said one of the reasons Warhammer was written in the first place was to properly represent battles between different fantasy races, something a historical rules set might not necessarily do justice to. However, it was also interesting that the third volume in the original Warhammer box presented the option to run the game as an RPG. You could create individual adventurers who could then take part in conventional fantasy adventures or alternatively fight in battles, or both.

Come the second edition of Warhammer, and this option had been put to one side. Games Workshop then trotted out the roleplaying game as a stand alone game in its own right as Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. But in a way, the two were already going their own separate ways by 1987, with GW increasingly throwing its energy behind the development of the wargame, with the RPG gradually falling into decline.

At the same time, TSR also tried to jump on the miniatures bandwagon with its Battlesystem for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I never got around to buying this when it first appeared as a boxed set, with follow up modules for high level characters. However, I did grab a copy of the second edition of the rules when they appeared in the early 1990s as part of 2e. Here we had a wargame that was published to support an RPG. It allowed players to take command of an army and lead it into battle on the tabletop. Player characters, of whatever level, could be seamlessly integrated into the military sphere without messy conversion, along with their magic items and followers.

When I was about 14 or 15 I spent a long time trying to write conversion rules that would allow high level Dungeons and Dragons characters to be integrated into a Warhammer army without unbalancing the game. I should not have wasted my time. I should have just bought Battlesystem. I also owned hardly any miniatures, which made the whole exercise somewhat academic!

Moving on two decades, and we now have Fields of Battle. These rules were published by Troll Lord Games to support Castles and Crusades, the latter is very much a halfway house, IMHO, between 2e and 3e. FoB is also sold as a stand alone battle system but don't be deceived - they are very much an extension of the RPG and you really need to understand and have played the RPG to be able to play FoB. Someone coming to the game from Pathfinder should be able to understand what they're looking at, and FoB may even be able to support a Pathfinder campaign, but Warhammer it is not. The spirit of the game is very much miniatures battles as part of an RPG campaign.

FoB is also not spectacularly clearly written, which is a bit of a disappointment. That's not to say it is unplayable, but there is much that is defined early on in most wargames that is simply left out or not made very clear in FoB. For example, FoB can be used for small or large battles by just changing the figure ratio. A band of 20 kobold miniatures on the table can be 20 kobolds, or it can be 200 kobolds, depending on the level of game you want. But the author spends the best part of two pages explaining what he could have achieved in one paragraph.

There is quite a bit on formations, but very little on basing. Again, this is not a big problem, especially if the author explains that basing is not an issue. But he doesn't. I assume it is not a factor, which is good (counters included in the game are 1" squared, which might give some indication).

Interestingly, the author does explain that on the fantasy battlefield, troops prefer keeping loose formations until just before they make contact, which makes sense given the impact of area effect spells. Warriors in a high magic environment would be silly to adopt the same battle formations as medieval troops who did not have to worry about sleep spells or fireballs.

FoB does, however, try to act as the miniatures rules for an RPG campaign, particularly an old school fantasy one. It seems to be flexible enough to be used with Labyrinth Lord or Pathfinder or any other game that uses the same class-based, d20 mechanics. For example, there are cool rules that allow specific classes embedded with a unit to benefit that unit in different ways, rather than simply give them bonuses on morale rolls. A druid can support differently from a bard.

FoB looks to have left out enough detail - see basing above - to make itself as open as possible to fiddling by GMs. This would be good. We shall see if it can successfully port player characters from an RPG onto the battlefield in a future playtest, and I shall let you know the outcome.


  1. You may want to have a look at the Legendary games supplement for $10 Ultimate Battles which complements the Ultimate Campaign pdf in our dropbox

    a review is on their site - so it possibly is what you want.

    One major issue we have is time - sometimes completing a campaign is hard enough as it is.... but moving to a more sandbox style game, where there is less time pressure... and also rotating GMs may help in this regard (less likely to get GM fatigue by being in the Hot Seat too long) more intelligent use of your gaming hut for wargaming.

    Certainly I would like to use some battle scenes for some of the up and coming sandboxes I want to run: Razor Coast - ship to ship battles - and also skirmish warfare on land.

    A problem can be with high level pcs is that they can take on and beat armies on their own!! Witness the madness of Kingmaker Level 13 ;)

    BUT I would certainly be prepared/ interested to see if Ultimate battle and Ultimate Campaign are enough.... or whether we need a more skirmish style of running combat in PF

    If it is running combat in PF I would prefer we used systems for PF and not try and bolt on other games systems.... it would get stupidly complex!

    PLUS - with leadership feats later on, one could employ a general as a follower/ recruit one as an NPC retainer - and make sure their design has appropriate feats for commanding battles etc etc...

    There are several PF sandbox campaigns that interest me:
    - carving out a kingdom in the Frozen North - battling fey, giants, trolls, evil dwarves, dragons...and ancient evils
    - the Iron Gawds AP coming out from Paizo (steampunk, sentient machines 0 set in Numeria)
    - urban sandboxing - with a gothic feel.
    - Razor Coast and piracy.

    Out of those, the first has options to have mass combat. Certainly I like the idea of keeping you on your toes, using good use of random tables, throwing the sink at you as far as enemies are concerned - but with plenty of options for you to strike back, to strike first, seek out potential targets before they find you etc etc... to have a flexible and fluid encounter zone. :)

  2. I'm keen to give Fields of Battle a go!

    The first edition of WFRP had guidelines on how to convert between it and Warhammer Fantasy Battle -- as it was back then -- but those notes are missing from the second edition. I can't imagine they would be too difficult to transfer over, not that I'm planning on any mass combat in The Enemy Within of course.

    Legend of the Five Rings had an excellent mass combat system in its first edition but it was more of an abstract approach than what you're looking at here; although player-character abilities were reflected in the battle, the battle itself was handled via a chart rather than an actual tabletop battle.

  3. I think the best thing would be to give FoB a go - either by creating a custom built scenario or by giving folks a point buy (if such a thing exists) and getting them to bash it out.....realistically I think we will have to bow to your wargaming zen mastery to create a custom made effort to which we turn up! ;)

  4. Sadly there is no points system in Fields of Battle, which goes further to support its use primarily as an extension to C and C rather than as a stand alone miniatures rules system. I have also found Fields of Blood - the Book of War by Eden Studios (2003) which is both domain management and mass combat for very high level characters. Originally written for 3e.

  5. Nothing in my 1986 edition of WFRP on converting characters to WFB. Do you have a page ref?

    1. Page 213 in mine, the beginning of the bestiary section.