War and How to Wage It

March 29th, 2009

rpgblogcarnivallogoMarch’s RPG Blog Carnival on War, hosted by The Book of Rev, will soon be drawing to a close. Before it does, here’s that post I promised about war within a fantasy setting.  The typical D&D campaign is set in a fantastic version of late-medieval to early-Renaissance Europe, so that’s the setting I’m considering.  Gunpowder isn’t a factor, but magic and mythological creatures are.  This is bound to change the way a war is conducted.

For instance, let’s take castles and fortifications.  These are, essentially, walls.  Walls can prove very effective at protecting one army from another, helping to defend a strategic point even against larger forces.  They’re cover for allies and an obstacle to enemies.  Confronted with a strong castle full of defenders, many armies of the middle ages were forced to respond with besiegement — what could be a long process of waiting for the defenders’ supplies to run out, or for their commanders to make a mistake.  The other major option, if the enemy could not be drawn out, was the use of siege engines, devices intended to breach or circumvent the walls.

But in a game like Dungeons & Dragons, a siege might not make sense.  If the army has a complement of flying creatures, for instance, walls become much less of an obstacle.  Similarly, there are many creatures that can teleport or tunnel.  What impact would this have on the game world?

Well, if such creatures are common, then castle walls will be built to a lesser scale.  They might even be nonexistent in areas where such beings are ubiquitous; an eladrin nation with a history of warring against another eladrin nation might find very little use for defensive walls, since Fey Step so easily circumvents them.  If nothing else, that nation is likely to “double up” on walls, building two spaced-apart walls in places where other races might use a single one.  This turns the area in between into a killing field for the unwary attacker who teleports past the outer wall.  (It also means that eladrin fortresses in this area are more expansive than those of other races, at least until those other races take note of the trick.)

What about flight, then?  Well, that might explain the ubiquity of the dungeon in D&D settings:  When attacked by griffon-riders or a harpy horde, the defenders, instead of remaining exposed on their now-useless walls, could retreat underground, forcing the attackers to come down to earth to give chase.  Traps might be placed in these dungeons to whittle down attackers’ numbers before the fight.  Supplies could be stocked to allow the defenders to hold out for months, even years.  Treasures would be moved down there to keep them out of enemy hands.  Why would the attackers give chase?  There could be numerous secret exits from the dungeon, which the defending forces could use to harry the attackers with guerrilla strikes, making the occupiers unsafe so long as they remained.

Going subterranean doesn’t help much against tunnelers, but that’s another reason to plant some traps, especially in areas the defenders wouldn’t be using much.  Short of staying off the ground entirely, or on another plane, there’s not much to protect against tunnelers, but it’s hard to account for every possibility.  (Building a floating fortress, for instance, just puts you back in reach of those flying enemies, so you’ve traded one problem for another.)

Speaking of possibilities, magic is a big potential spoiler in war.  You might be able to breach a wall, conceal a unit, divine the opponent’s battle plans, conjure up an assassin to kill the enemy general, grant teleportation or flight to an army that otherwise wouldn’t have it, turn the enemy soldiers against each other, raise your dead to fight for you as zombies, heal wounded soldiers to full health, create food and water to sustain yourself in a siege, or any number of other things.  In fact, it’s pretty hard to plan defenses against magic in general — unless you have access to some means of generating a large anti-magic field, there’s really nothing that works against magic in the broad sense.  There are only counters for specific paths of magical attack.

What does this mean for a fantasy army?  Well, first of all, each side is going to want spellcasters to, at minimum, counter what the other side’s got.  Ideally, they get a spellcaster who knows a trick the other side can’t counter, which will tilt the battle in their favor.  Of course, since spellcasters are so valuable, they’re generally priority targets — a really powerful wizard or cleric might even become the top priority, above even the enemy commander!  (That is, assuming that spellcaster isn’t the enemy commander in the first place, whether behind the scenes or overtly…)  It might be hard to get a shot at them in open combat, but the deployment of assassins and elite strike squads (such as the PCs, maybe?) is doubtless something a canny commander will consider.

Magic, as well as the abilities of some monsters, also leads to another problem:  massed formations are a bad idea against them.  A tight-packed hedge of pikemen is a daunting defense against melee attackers in medieval reality; in D&D, it’s a juicy target for fireballs, sleep spells, or a dragon’s breath.  On the other hand, spreading out to minimize magical casualties creates openings for melee attackers.  The best bet may be small group-units:  big enough to not easily be overwhelmed by a couple of enemies working in concert, but small enough that the annihiliation of one such unit by area-effect wouldn’t spell defeat for its side.  Something similar to an adventuring party, perhaps.  Of course, as long as the casters are more or less evenly matched, a more traditional massed force might be employed to good results, but there would be value in training smaller squads of men to act together.  Did the dungeon delvers pattern their parties after such groups, or did the armies copy the adventurers?

Given the use of dungeons as a refuge against flying creatures and a last line of defense, we’ve now come full circle, which is kind of cool.

Has war in your campaign changed to accomodate all of the fantasy tropes flying around?

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Related posts:

  1. A Harvest of Men (II)
  2. War Week: A Harvest of Men
  3. Hacking Skill Challenges
  4. Narration in Combat
  5. Renaissance Unfair

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1 Comments

  1. The Chatty DM, Mar. 31, 2009, 6:19 pm:

    Hey there Scott.

    I can’t seem to find your email anywhere so I’m going through your blog.

    You’re hosting the next Blog carnival that starts tomorrow. However, you haven’t posted the subject yet. Are you still interested in doing it and if so, what will the subject be?

    Please let us know on the RPGbloggers Network’s Google Group page.

    The Chatty DM´s last blog post: Comment on Of Healthy Bodies and Minds by Mad Brew

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