Random Musings. War in RPG’s, Rolemaster and Shadow World.

Twice now I’ve run an introductory SW adventure in Emer that injected the players into the invasion of Miir by the Katra of Stroane (c. 6041 TE). The group, along with some interesting NPC’s (Bashar the Merchant and Livian a Cleric of the Festival) are tasked with uncovering the lapse in trade and communications along the northern coast of the Sea of Votania. Ostensibly this is a war scenario but the PC’s are still acting on an individual tactical level as scouts/spies. On the second run of this adventure the PC’s actually got involved in a full scale battle; a situation I wasn’t really prepared for, nor did I handle well. Rolemaster does have War Law and there are numerous other rule sets that would have allowed for battle resolution but I don’t have any familiarity with them. (I did play Squad Leader back in the 80’s!).

Since then I’ve thought about the issues of introducing mass combat and war into the RPG narrative. There are three basic aspects to this: integrating war generally into RPG’s, mass combat and Spell Law and the issues of Shadow World itself.

RPG’s. Again, most fantasy RPG’s have designed war/mass combat rules for conflict resolution and for use with miniatures. Rules aside, as a GM with specific goals in gameplay, I see role-playing and wargaming as two distinct “stories”. The former being personal/individual while the latter is more abstract and strategic. I’m not sure they co-exist peaceably in my setting, but curious on others views.

War and Spell Law. Before Rolemaster there was the “Village of Hommlet”. Reading that module was the first time I thought about the impact of fireballs on warfare and combat. In the module is a burned out foundation of a moat house—a structure clearly destroyed by a fireball at some point. That really got me thinking about how the accepted medieval tropes we use in RPG’s are really inappropriate once magic is introduced. What use is a castle when an attacking army has a mage with Earth Law? Many of the design standards of keeps, forts and castles are really pointless once you have powerful elemental spells. Other spells like Passing make entering an enemy installation fairly easy. Once you accept that historical fortification reasoning is out the door you can embrace truly interesting architectural designs. Form becomes more important than function. Some of my favorite SW buildings are those that eschew the traditional medieval elements of moat/keep/battlements: Tharg Jironak in the Iron Wind, Jinteni cities, the Secrets, the Dragon Lord citadel etc.

Two writers of note tackled magic and war in a fantasy setting: Cook with his Black Company series and Erickson with the Malazan books. Erickson was admittedly heavily influenced by Cook but his setting was driven by an actual RPG campaign. Both treat magic as pervasive, though users vary greatly in power and abilities. Combat in both series are very evocative of WWI trench warfare; magic is mustard gas and battle is gruesome, deadly and confusing. I think the ubiquity and disposability of magic users is the key here: a single powerful magic user could easily tip the balance of an army v. army battle. More interesting is the range in between: a few magic wielders on either side. Certainly tactics would dictate that an opposing magic user would be targeted first, making them vulnerable to assassination or counter measures. These “battles within battles” might fit well into a RPG narrative—it’s really two distinct battles where the magic-users fight each other while mundane combat goes on around them.

War in the Shadow World. SW has had many battles: Wars of Dominion, invasions by Ulor, the Raven Queen wars in Gaalt. But…in a setting where basic travel may require a Navigator due to unpredictable Essaence Flows and many regions are demised by physical Essaence barriers how do you move large armies or groups of soldiers PLUS the logistical supply lines needed for war and invasion? For me it’s simple: wars and invasions are rare in SW for these very reasons. Few nations have large standing armies and conflict is smaller and more personal. This puts the emphasis on player groups and the personal narratives of role playing. Wars are more a series of skirmishes and scattered actions than large fields of battle. The large wars are historic for a reason—they are notable for their scarcity.

Do you incorporate large scale combat and battles into your gaming?

14 Replies to “Random Musings. War in RPG’s, Rolemaster and Shadow World.”

  1. The last time I used warfare did was with the H1-4 series, which had some Battlesytem battles built in.

    In the SW forums I mentioned about the impact that magic would have on society. After all, one 20th level spellcaster can make a right mess of many traditional defences, no matter what system you use. A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe (I have the second edition, but it’s probably in other as well) discusses, in a D&D context, the impact of various magical items and spells in building, and reducing, fortifications.

  2. I am truly terrible at war games and strategy. Consequently these situations never arise in my games where other players may see the tactics being used.

    I have certainly seen 4 mid to high level (10th or there abouts) PCs cracking castles wide open both figuratively and literally.

  3. I forgot, I also ran Red Arrow, Black Shield and Greyhawk Wars, and a couple of variants on them (if you give one side in Greyhawk Wars a few spelljammers for troop transport, the strategic mobility they gain means that they win; I liked Spelljammer, but it had a few problems). They were battles between armies rather than miniature battles though.

  4. more random musings…

    The introduction of magic into war should follow the same progression as technology: measure vs counter-measure. (I think Castles & Ruins had some spell lists for enchanting walls and structures but I didn’t think they were that well written).

    SW has quite a few enchanted materials in some of the ancient structures –hard to fireball a door made of laen.

    In Cooks’ Black Company, the group had to develop “Fire Sticks” (basically wands of fireballs) and flying carpets to counter the mage enemies they were battling. That’s certainly a solution in Rolemaster given the alchemy/item rules.

  5. When you start to compare ranges of fireballs and long bows the good old massed archers approach still has some merit. It is easier to train and assemble a few hundred archers than it is mages as well.

    Another factor we have touched on before, how many mages of greater than 10th level does any one society produce? How many of that population are prepared to put themselves in the middle of a battle?

    1. ” how many mages of greater than 10th level does any one society produce? ”

      I know this was discussed on the Forums and really is dependent on the GM/setting, but the fewer high level magic users there are the more unbalancing it becomes. Yes, you could argue that a single high level MU (for example Pug/Macros the Black in the early Midkemia series) would isolate themselves from society and be non-interventionist, but that’s probably not realistic for a fantasy RPG and certainly not FR or SW. So on the continuum you would have just one M-U on one extreme and everyone has magical powers on the other extreme. Most games are somewhere between those two. Of course in a game that only has 18 professions (RM) of which 14 are spell-casters you are probably going to end up with lots of magic-users which also means there will be quite a few powerful ones.

      1. As I think I mentioned both here and on the forums, it’s the lower level casters, if there are enough of them, who could make a significant difference. If it’s possible for a noticeable proportion of the population who can cast low level magics, even at the cantrip or equivalent level, that is bound to have an effect in every day life. Possibly on the level of technology, to a certain extent.

        1. I agree that low level casters will make a huge difference to daily life. There is a 1st level Lay Healer spell that gives a complete diagnosis of what is wrong with a person. With that alone hundreds of lives will be saved. Mending every day items rather than having to replace them would magnify the wealth of almost everyone.

          In war though their use is diminished somewhat. Massed archers can will low level casters as easily as they can the peasant levy and at a range that the caster can do nothing about.

          If I could take one spell caster with me on a military campaign then it would have to be an illusionist.

          1. Although, they might not be much direct use in battle, they might be enormously useful in war (drawing a distinction). From what I’ve read, illness tending to kill or render incapable of fighting more soldiers than the enemy ever did. So low level magic that keeps soldiers healthier means more will be able to fight.

            1. I don’t think that works as illness and disease would not be such a significant factor in every walk of life. In war both sides would have the same healers and same benefit. If anything it would make war more lethal for the peasants caught up in them. If you just wounded the man facing you you will have to fight him again tomorrow, kill him now and it is over.

              If you have channellers who can stop food spoiling or even create food then seiges would be completely non viable.

                1. I am not sure that would work as each GM would have a slightly different take on both Rolemaster (which options are in place etc.) and style of play. If you are playing high fantasy then squadrons of mages may be your thing with colleges of magic to raise them up to that level away from the privations of every day life.

                  If you only have a small number of higher level casters then an alchemist is the go to profession as it is easier to teach people to read runes or even just drink potions than it is to cast spells. An alchemist can stock pile magic long before the war starts and never had to be anywhere near the front lines.

                  1. Yes, high fantasy does make a differe4nce, and MMS: WE does follow the standard D&D trope of high magic (heck, in early D&D, magic items just seemed to spontaneously grow in dungeons!). However, many low level spells make an enormous difference in everyday life. Create water (from D&D) tends to make growing crops a heck of a lot easier for example.

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