Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Battles Vs. Brawls

Role-play games are full of fights; it’s kind of expected. Every passing stranger is a potentially hostile encounter and heroes and villains almost invariably choose to settle their differences by beating the hit-points out of each other.

There are of course – many different scales of fight and the way you, as an agile and forward thinking GM, handle these differences of scale, is a key to keeping the excitement level high and the players interested in what’s going on.

Imagine the scene: Two beer scarred veterans of the Goblin Wars are having a disagreement about the rules of Blind Man’s Thumb – one man leaps to his feet, swiping the cards and the little monkey shaped playing pieces from the table and calls the other fellow a cheat. They’re squaring up for a scrap that might turn dangerous, but at this point neither man has drawn a weapon. In this situation the details are important. Not just the relative positions of the two antagonists, but also the location of any handy implements (bottles, chairs, wenches) that they might use to attack or defend. When the accuser goes to punch his nemesis in the face, we want to know each swing, each counter. The fight may, in the end, come to very little. Neither man may be prepared to take the fight very far. There may just be a few sckuffled punches and then a lot of “That showed you” kind of talk. However, if one of the men is a bit more aggressive¹ and weapons get drawn then each swing and parry becomes life threatening and all the witnesses in the bar are dashing for safety.

Compare this situation to the one where a battle is raging in the fields outside Verminholt. Forty thousand goblins have been engaged in vicious hand to hand fighting with the seven thousand men (and five women²) that make up the army of Lord Vermin all afternoon and both sides are getting tired and bored. Flights of arrows fly overhead occasionally striking down some poor unfortunate, who, according to the rules of probability, is more likely to be a member of the goblin horde. Everyone left standing is caked in three inches of dried blood and no one can tell what’s going on anymore.

The Battle Of Garrison Rock is the only battle in recorded history where both sides ran away.The Battle of Garison Rock

It’s clear that we can’t apply the same rules mechanic to both of these conflicts. If we use the standard fighting system that works well for two drunks going mano-a-mano in the Dog and Trumpet to the crusty sea of violence in Lord Verminholt’s cabbage field we would be there all day rolling hit dice and damage modifiers – we’d spend weeks jotting down hit point totals and adjusting dexterity for mud-splatter such like. On the other hand, if we simplify the system to allow us to handle the rabid butchery of the field then the scrap in the bar would be over in a single roll. This wouldn’t allow for all the complex posturing and tension that makes the brawl exciting.

The answer, as you already know, is to use different rules systems. Because that makes sense, right? Well. Maybe. The trouble is that pretty much any rules system for dealing with large scale battles is going to be boring. Why? Because each battle is very different and so make a rule system that works smoothly and handles that elegantly is very difficult. Also much of the outcome of battles is down to woolly factors such as moral, discipline and the communications between the troops rather than just the mechanical bashing of heads. Large groups of people behave very differently to individual people³. A fine example is that if you pitted one Gaul warrior against a one Roman Legionary in single combat the Gaul would use the Roman as a toothpick then throw him away. However, when you put five thousand Roman toothpicks together they can fight and defeat twenty thousand Gaul warriors. Why? Because the Romans are organised soldiers that work as a team while the Gauls are warriors who fight as individuals.
Any system that takes into account these kinds of factors, although it might be useful for working out the outcome of the battle, will most likely be too high level to produce an exciting narrative.

So a new answer? Let’s think about what we really need to know. The heroes want to know how the battle is going – but they don’t need to know (and probably won’t be able to tell) the numbers of actual casualties on either side. What’s interesting for the heroes (and hence the players) is what’s happening to them and what effect that has on the outcome of the battle.
To be honest – in most cases I’m pretty arbitrary about the outcomes of battles. This is because the effect the heroes can have is usually pretty well known beforehand. If you have a hero who is a wizard that can raise mountains and flatten a thousand men with a wiggle of his eyebrow, then you pretty much assume the heroes are going to win. If the heroes are more limited, you can tell roughly how effective they’ll be and what difference it’ll make to the outcome. You can then decide how the battle is going to go (depending on the details and what best suits your heroic narrative). Of course – if the heroes do something expectedly fantastic or moronic, you may have to adjust the result accordingly. If you’re not happy making the decision or you feel your players might think you’re rigging it then you can assign a probability of the heroes forces winning the battle (say 60%) and then add or subtract percentage points depending on actions they make. You can define a series of set-piece action events and assign a modifier to the result of the battle based on how well the heroes deal with each one.

For example: Taking down the goblin with the flaming ball of doom – success gives the heroes a +10% while failure means -10%. When each event has been played through – roll the result and see who’s going to win.

The trick is to ensure that the battle as a whole seems realistic and, most importantly, fair⁴. Then concentrate on the details. The interesting bits of the battle are the snapshots of action that sum up the fight from the heroes’ perspective. Think of a film – huge battles are shown first in wide-shot – where you get a good idea of the number of troops and the scale of the carnage. And then a few shots of particular bits of the action. If the film showed the whole battle, from any perspective, it’d be repetitive and dull. Do the same. Pick a few bits of the battle to describe in detail – make the rolls, swing the swords, describe the blood, the shouts and screams. Then – once you’ve got a feel for it – summarize the rest of the afternoon’s carnage in a few sentences.
“The battle continues for what seems like hours – you hack a few goblins here, a few there, all the while the yelling and wailing and clash of metal continues relentlessly”

Roll a few dice to see if anyone gets in trouble – I usually roll a handful of D10 – any rolls of 1 result in a hero or important NPC getting struck by an arrow or something. It’s an arbitrary risk check kind of thing. It’s usually very much in the heroes’ favour compared to actually working out the chances of getting hit – but it’s quick, easy and serves the purpose. Remember, you can’t have a hero struck down just on a whim without rolling some dice to make it look fair. I usually randomly assign a “hit” in these situations by counting the number of important people present and rolling an appropriate die.

Then just sum up:

“As the light fades – the remaining goblins have pretty much all fled from the scene – Lord Vermin has rallied a group of some eight hundred foot soldiers in the middle of the field and they are now going about the business of finding survivors in the piles of limbs.”

Of course – in those weird systems where a hero gets XP in direct proportion to the number of lives extinguished the players may feel that it’s important to know the number of goblins each hero has personally slain in the fighting. I’d be tempted to fix it at an arbitrary “3d6” or something and say that’s the ones worth XP⁵.

In siege situations where the fighting can go on, day in, day out for weeks – whole days can be skimmed over quite easily with sentiments like:

“Over the next few days the goblin horde throws itself against the walls of Verminholt. The casualties on both sides are horrific and the defenders are beginning to tire from the relentless diet of cabbages (oh, and the fighting).”

Roll a few dice

“The defenders have lost over 200 men so far – while the goblins…”

Roll a larger number of dice

“… don’t seem to have been thinned a great deal, although the bodies piled up by the walls are probably in the thousands.”

In short, battles are only interesting in concept. Too much repetition and die rolling can kill the mood of a game quicker than a munchkin with a dice disability. This is one of those times where a GM must become a storyteller more than a number cruncher. In big battles it’s the feel of the battle, the excitement and danger that’s important. Rules can, for the most part, go hang.

So, as a quick recap, when faced with at large scale battle, have a ponder on this:

  1. Get a good feel beforehand of how the thing is likely to go down and decide how you’ll determine the outcome.
  2. Pick a few dramatic moments in the fight to describe in and play out in gory detail (just as though you were having a smaller scale fight)
  3. String these dramatic moments together with simple “and there was a great gnashing of teeth” type phrases.
  4. Throw in a few risk-checks and so it doesn’t appear like you’re making it all up arbitrarily. (Even if you are)
  5. Sum up with a description of the carnage as the fighting comes to an end.

And there you have it – one exciting battle. What could possibly go wrong?

¹ It’s my experience that ‘heroes’ in general have very little sense of appropriate/reasonable force. Many are the times that a simple shove from an angry citizen has resulted in half a village being wiped out as the affronted hero whips out his +7 spatula of righteous vengeance and pan-handles the man –everyone else reels in shock at the murder leading to an inevitable escalation of violence as the local militia try to defend the peasants from the mad psychotic hero.

² Every army must include a few beautiful and dangerous looking female warriors for use in plot hooks and dramatic scenes, regardless of the setting or social context. However, even in settings of perfect sexual equality, there will still be no females in the faceless rank and file.

³ The classic quote to use here is: “The intelligence of a crowd is equal to the intelligence of the most intelligent member, divided by the number of people”. This goes a long way to explaining the appeal of nightclubs.

⁴ All is fair in Love & War unless you’re simulating in a role-play game, in which case it’s the perception of fair that counts. If players think the battle is rigged they’ll be very upset and demoralized. (Unless of course, it’s rigged in their favour – but even this can cause issue because if the heroes start to think they can win no matter what they do – they’ll get bored)

⁵ If the players don’t like this and complain, just kill them and get some players who aren’t so anal.

Artwork for this blog post by Chris Watson

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