On the Importance of Large-Scale Warfare

Battles between armies were a staple of Medieval Europe, and any fantasy roleplaying setting that doesn’t have such things better have a really good explanation for why that’s the case.

Whether it’s Hastings, or Bosworth Field, or Agincourt, or the Siege of Acre, warfare between armies was an enormously important part of Medieval life. Peace was the exception, not the norm, and the raising of armies, the recruiting of troops, and the subsequent return of those veterans (the survivors, anyway) had an enormous impact on the culture of the time. Any fantasy campaign that is pseudo-medieval in flavor should have the same sort of background; lots of short, furious wars, a few very long, drawn-out conflicts, and lots of serfs drafted into the armies only to be returned in relatively short order to their farms and masters, with tales of far-off places and perhaps some scars (and certainly some stories) to show off.

The World of Greyhawk embraced this view of Europe, doubtless because of Gygax’s background as a wargamer and amateur military historian. The original Folio is replete with wars and battles, including the Battle of a Fortnight’s Length and of course the Battle of Emridy Meadows, at which the Temple of Elemental Evil was thrown down by the combined forces of Furyondy and Veluna.

Subsequent embellishments of the setting continued the trend. The wonderful “Greyhawk’s World” series of articles in Gygax’s “From the Sorcerer’s Scroll” column detailed army movements, broke down forces by troop type, and generally contributed to the notion that the Flanaess was alive with armies marching across its lands, often maneuvering, sometimes directly clashing, forever raising troops and disbanding armies. Just like Medieval Europe.

I think having such a state of affairs adds immensely to the feel of a setting as being alive. Having some rules system in place to handle such battles, hopefully with the PCs having some meaningful role, is a plus. But even if the PCs are never involved in a single battle themselves, the mere fact that they hear of such things happening in the background, while they are involved in delving into some lost tomb or investigating conspiracies in some decadent city, the fact that such things are happening around them can only add to the perceived vitality of the milieu.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

11 thoughts on “On the Importance of Large-Scale Warfare

  1. The were a staple of how the entire Medieval economy functioned as well.

    All taxation and banking were geared towards financing wars. Especially since there were no other social niceties to worry about, like roads, schools, and Obamacare.

    The Hundred Years War took that long because of intermittent financing, which lead to civil strife, civil wars,revolts, etc.

    Very nice post.

  2. I have deeply mixed feelings about the Greyhawk's World "Events in the Flanaess" articles. On the one hand, I do love the descriptions of troop movements and events. The portrayal of the Flanaess as a living world was wonderful and helpful.

    On the other hand, though, this introduced a metaplot to the World of Greyhawk, which ultimately resulted in the From The Ashes boxed set and the Living Greyhawk thing. All of that would be fine, in theory, except that much of it invalidated the folio and the original boxed set. Invalidating those things should be, in my opinion, left to the individual DM.

    I have decided, though, to set any future Greyhawk campaign I do in 579 instead of 576 as a starting year.

  3. War is an important element to a world, but as Mystic Scholar implies, it may serve better as a background element. Unless fighting wars is what the players want to do of course . . .

  4. actually all the recent scholarship on medieval military history emphasizes how rare battles were. "warfare" usually meant pillaging, plundering, and conducting sieges.

  5. Europe isn't a D&D world. Battle would be much different with even a smattering of adventurers there. A mid-level fighter can cut through lots of ordinary troops – a high level fighter could stride through an army. Flying mounts, fireballs, healing magic, wall of stone. Each of those individually would change the shape of warfare. When you add all of them and much more, then you end up changing warfare on a scale that Harry Turtledove would be hard pressed to figure out.

  6. Philo Pharynx: You might be surprised at how effective, or not, even a high-level adventurer can be in a large-scale battle. Check out Delta's Book of War, which is based on computer simulation of large D&D battles with the probabilities distilled into playable mechanics. Or look at the first Battlesystem, which is not a perfect simulation of probabilities, but comes close enough to accurately depict it.

    To be sure, high-level characters are very effective, but large numbers of normal men can overwhelm them more effectively than you might think.

  7. Oh, there is more to it that to-hit potentials and average damage. I can think of dozens of changes that would each have their effects on the battlefield. When you look at them in total, it makes it really difficult to evaluate the total effect on mass combat. We saw this in later wars as technology changed. It took people time to adapt to rifles or machine guns or tanks or air support or grenades. In D&D, you're adding dozens of them at once.

    I've played a few games with PC's involved in mass battles. It's had major effects in the games I've played.

    For one, imagine the morale effect of a hero five or more levels above the average soldier with magic gear. They would easily kill most foes around them. If you are on the edge of their killing zone and not directly being ordered, are you going to approach him?

    The existence of fireball means that tactics based on tight formations become very risky. Even if they only have a few fireballs a day, it's a good way to lose a lot of men at once.

    Clerics affect a battle a lot by providing healing as well as many spells that boost many people at once.

    Most other races see better at night than humans. Because of this, these races would almost always attack at night and have a significant advantage.

    PC's as special ops. Send a party behind enemy lines to take out the enemy's wizard before the fight.

    Monstrous troops. If you have an ogre on your side, that's a major advantage. Hell hounds, trolls, blink dogs, nightmares, dragons. Each of them would change a battlefield.

  8. Philo Pharynx: Sure, and all of those issues are dealt with in both of the rule sets I mentioned. What you are mostly talking about is the old warfare question: quality or quantity? As has been discovered over and over again, quantity wins (speaking generally) in the long run. That is borne out in games that use D&D-type rules.

    As for fireballs and the like, that's just a tactical problem, not a fundamental change in warfare (it might be different if fireballs could be provided to a majority of troops; as it stands, a magic-user with fireballs is not much different than a piece of artillery, such as a catapult, as in fact the design was from D&D's beginnings). Battlesystem, particularly, deals with it by providing a standard formation change that develops in worlds with such tactical devices.

    In your games including mass combats, did you use the morale rules, or make decisions for the NPC troops?

  9. I've done it different ways in the past. You also cannot simply refer to a game supplement to prove your point when the game supplements were written to support a specific type of play. If you are writing a supplement devoted to mass combat, you are going to make assumptions that favor it and downplay those that don't.

    It also depends on your level of magic. In a low-fantasy D&D game it wouldn't have as much of an effect. The higher you raise the sliders the more effect they'd have. I've played in games where the entire party had the ability to fly, games where the PC's had area effects usable at will, and other element that woudl significantly affect the tactical setup.

    Medieval assumptions on fortifications and sieges are especially affected. Wall of stone, stone shape, create food and water are excellent for defense. Disintegrate, rock to mud, and fly are good for offense.

  10. OK, but the games I'm talking about (Book of War and Battlesystem) take great pains to simply scale up (A)D&D's system. So, since we're talking about (A)D&D assumptions ("high level characters" and the specific selection of spells available, for example), it would seem to me that this is legitimate line of argument.

    However, if you are talking about the broader point that quantity trumps quality, all you have to do to move beyond particular game rules is look to WWII, particularly the Eastern Front (though, of course, the arrival of American troops also amply proves the point). Or the American Civil War. Or pretty much any conflict ever (for that matter, considering why wrestling, boxing, and MMA have weight categories), but those ones throw the situation into particularly sharp relief.

    My question about how you handled morale issues goes to your statement about the effects of high level characters on melee combat. Since those effects are dealt with in the morale rules of (A)D&D and the miniatures systems developed therefrom, I was coming to the point that, since those effects are already simulated, it still comes to the way that these things play out in those systems that attempt to scale up D&D-style combat. This could be changed if, as a DM, you choose to alter the more generic morale rules of those games to suit your own notions of what should happen on the battlefield, of course, and that is perfectly fair.

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