I’ll begin with a seeming digression – one of the things that I find fun and helpful in Fate is the “Fate fractal.” Officially called the Bronze rule, the idea is this: Fate has a small set of very simple components for a character – aspects, skills or approaches, stress, and consequences. These components represent all the mechanics of the game, and therefore anything that needs mechanical support is necessarily able to be modeled as a character (or part of one).

Thieves’ Guild? Obviously it has aspects. Will the guild be acting against characters or the interests of another guild? Now it has skills to model its ability to act. Will someone else be acting against them in turn? Stress and consequences.

Is the building on fire? Sure, there’s an aspect for that, but if the fire is so deadly that it “attacks” the characters, it has a skill for that, too. If the fire can be put out, it might also have a stress track.

This approach makes it both quick and easy to give something the mechanics it needs, when it needs them.

Politicians by other means

D&D came out of wargaming, and fantasy wars are either backdrop or foreground in so much of fantasy literature. Naturally, gaming will imitate art. Original D&D sent its players right back to the Chainmail rules for miniatures for a lot of the game. The First Edition DMG has a section on rules for sieges. 2nd Edition gave fighters a small army at 9th level. Adventurer, Conqueror, King is designed to have the game move to the actions of realms and armies past a certain level. Exalted put rules for mass combat in the core rules of its second edition, since “glorious Solar general” is meant to be a supported starting character. This list is probably both more and less incoherent than I make it seem, but I’m not attempting a full literature review.

Supposing that I want to join the long tradition and put wars and wargaming in my game system, how should I go about it?

Levels of involvement

This is something that I think that Fate models well, or at least to my taste. The first question to ask is: at what level will the players be engaging with the war effort?

  • Backdrop – Players each control their own character. Massed armies and pitched battles occur in narration, or as environmental hazards as the PCs do whatever they’re doing – deliver important commands to the flank, hold or destroy a key bridge, slip past enemy lines to steal all their battle standards as well as the enemy’s maps and written commands.
  • Tactical – At least one player directs the actions of a unit. This tier gets tricky to handle because it has so many potential pitfalls – the actions of units and of individual characters work at different scales (or do they?), so the mechanics have to somehow adjudicate between those scales. Players who don’t have their own unit need some way of being engaged.
  • Strategic – Players direct the… I don’t know, intentions of a unit? The point here is that resolution isn’t taking place round-by-round in “mass combat” scaled up to treat armies as giant monsters or suits of armor (cough Exalted cough) or what have you, but instead generate a single outcome – “At the end of the day, the army was routed/stood battered but victorious.” At this level it may be fair to examine concerns like supply lines and resupply, long-term morale, and so on.

In addition, I don’t want to exceed my complexity budget and I want to avoid getting into odd situations where the mechanics drive to outcomes other than the ones I think make sense narratively.

War as backdrop is just a narrative spin on normal play, so while it may be a good topic for GM advice, I don’t think it merits any extra design consideration.

Mass Combat

Mass combat, the interesting phrase describing the clashing of collections of soldiers and/or monsters and the like, has had a variety of presentations in games. In older D&D (like BECMI, or its retroclone Dark Dungeons), clashes of armies involve lots of situational modifiers that culminate in a single roll that decides the outcome of the battle. There’s no ebb and flow within the battle modeled, unlike with normal (tactical) combat, or with mass combat styles like those available in Exalted or Fate.

Assuming that you want that level of tactical detail, there are a lot of choices to consider. Rules systems have attempted to model all kinds of minutia (though if it’s the level of detail you are interested in, it’s arguably important rather than minutia…), such as close or loose formation versus cavalry or archers, setting of pikes to receive a charge, pincer or enveloping attacks, and so on. Stats and attributes have been invented to model the relative experience, discipline, morale, and equipment of the soldiers. The exact ratio of combatants killed versus fled has been more or less precisely modeled by any given system. The extent to which the commander of a unit matters ranges from none (Dark Dungeons) to near absolute (Exalted).

If I were to try fitting a mass combat system into the game, where would I begin? As much as possible, I would rather not invent new systems or stats to describe an army. Taking Fate as inspiration, why not try to make it look as much as possible like a character? Perhaps Level could become Magnitude, indicating the size of the unit. Perhaps HP becomes Morale. The various class dice could be decided according to experience level – d6 levies and conscripts, d8 mercenaries and experienced soldiers, d10 knights and cavalry. Arts could be borrowed or invented to represent the special characteristics of the unit – archers, mounted, sappers, scouts, and so on. Tactics – setting spears, shield walls, feints, and so on – all fit within tactical combat’s use of stunts and maneuvers.

A drawback to this approach is the issue of scale. I don’t see an immediately obvious way to have the actions of a character apply to an army. A magician’s Magic Missile would obviously not impact an army of a hundred men, but what happens when that same magician works an Evocation ritual to drop magical artillery on that army? The rules would need some answer for that. In the vein of not privileging magic, what special capability should Talents and Warriors bring? If this is an optional rules module (and I can’t see it being core to every gaming experience the way, say, a Journey might be), to what extent should additional Arts be created, or existing Arts adapted, to interface with it?

The clash of armies

This is the abstraction available in Dark Dungeons, or one of the Domains at War supplements to Adventurer, Conqueror, King, where the outcome is decided for the battle without modeling each turn-by-turn exchange. Again, a host of situational modifiers to opposed rolls abound.


As an aside:

Something I have noticed about myself, when I watch baseball, is that “my team” is the side that has any consequences for its actions, that bears responsibility for its success or failure. The opponents aren’t active players in my mental model, they’re just the opposition that loses when “we” play well, and wins if “we” play poorly or make mistakes.

This is probably a very odd way of thinking in the real world, but it does also describe the way I model in-game opposition – I haven’t put any opposed rolls in the game, instead active opposition sets the difficulty of the action the characters take. Statistically, going from a uniform die roll to a very rough bell curve doesn’t add any useful expressive quality, and instead complicates the mental model for how the outcomes emerge from mechanics, so I’m happy to eschew them.


At this level, my inclination is to look at modeling a whole campaign as a martial Journey of some sort. Within a campaign, moving and supplying armies is a major component of success or failure, and I feel like this is a place where a Journey’s navigation and rations obviously lend themselves to the effort. Even scouting, with pickets and cavalry and the like, would fit well, attempting to find or avoid enemy armies, spies, and traps. The only piece missing would be the resolution of a direct conflict between two colliding armies. This would be the place where force size, quality, composition, and circumstance matter, or where (just as with non-war adventuring) action devolves to tactical resolution.

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2 thoughts on “Armies and Dragons

  1. I like the idea of modeling a campaign as a Journey, with zoomed-in events handled with the military action as “backdrop.” While armies-as-characters sounds cool, in practice it’s going to be considerably clunkier than Fate, because Arts are such tightly bound flavor-mechanics packages. You’d need to invent whole new sets of Arts for armies, whose word count will vastly outweigh their frequency of use.

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    1. It occurred to me as I was in the middle of writing that mass combat as a system would probably be of limited use. I think the problem of conflicting scales is really limiting, mechanically, and for a reason that relates to the player-interest component as well. I don’t think the game works when one person is running mass combat and the rest are playing characters. My own experience in Exalted certainly bears that out. One of the comments I saw a couple times when reading about Domains at War mirrored that too, that the “strategic” set saw lots of use, but the tactical battles book did not.

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