Sunday, November 01, 2009

Daisy Chains of Death and Destruction

I regularly read Roleplaying Tips Weekly, and while it's not chock full of gold every week, there's usually one or two bright nuggets in most issues. This in spite of the fact that the styles of play assumed by the authors and contributors tend to be a bit removed from my own.

This week, there was a question to the readership that caught my eye:

Dear Johnn,

Just wondering if you have any tips on large-scale battles
where the PCs can influence the outcome. My entire campaign
has been to get to the point where my players can be part of
a battle that they could possibly do different things where
the outcome is not pre-scripted. It's theirs to win or lose.

I GM a Star Wars Saga game, so it's likely to contain big
starships and starfighters, as well as ground forces with
blasters and Jedi. What's the best way I can manage this
without going insane? Splitting the party is bad enough.

- Melissa

I'm answering this question in my blog, instead of emailing it in, because this poor corner of the 'net has been languishing and needs some love.

Actually, while that's true, I also think the answer I have isn't one Melissa or her group would enjoy. It will probably feel like cheating. But it's perfect for folks who play in a style more similar to mine.

First, don't even think about fighting the battle with dice. That way does, indeed, lie madness, or at least the risk of a few failed SAN checks. Don't think of the battle as a giant combat. Think of it, instead, as a puzzle. A nasty puzzle with a timer that kills more people the longer the PCs take to solve it.

Duking it Out

The Battle of Endor at the end of “Return of the Jedi” is probably the best example from all six movies. It includes both ground and space forces, as well as a clash between jedi, all happening simultaneously, and interacting in interesting ways.

On the planet, Han, Leia, Chewbacca and company need to knock out the shield generator. They are not there to kill stormtroopers, to blow up war machines, or assassinate the commander of the imperial ground troops.

They have one mission, and that is to take out the shield generator so the rebel fleet can destroy Death Star 2.0.

What ends up happening is a disaster of epic proportions. They stumble right into the trap that's laid for them, without any indication they're even aware of it. Luckily, because they befriended the Ewoks, they get a second chance.

Here's where things get interesting for us as gamers. Yes, they're in the middle of a battle. Yes, people are shooting all around them, and yes, people are getting shot and killed, equipment is getting destroyed, and all of that. But the goal remains taking out the shield generator. The combat is a complication to the goal, not the primary focus of our heroes. The troops they have with them are basically told, “Hey, hold these guys off long enough for us to get inside this bunker.” Bodycount is hardly a consideration; the only thing that matters is getting into the bunker before the rebel fleet gets destroyed.

No Plan Survives Contact with the Enemy

Because of the utter lack of success on the parts of Han, Leia, and Chewie, Ackbar and Lando have to improvise a new plan. Their original strategy was to smash through any defending fleet, get to the Death Star 2.0 as quickly as possible, destroy it, and then get the hell out. Because the deflector shield is still up, they have to quickly change tactics. The new plan: stay alive long enough for the folks on Endor to destroy the shield generator.

Again, as a GM, there's no need for much dice rolling here. The battle is huge and you have exact specifics on every piece of hardware in the sky. You know how many rebel ships the imperial fleet can destroy in a round, and vice versa. The trick is to find ways to minimize the damage done to the rebel fleet at all costs. “Accelerate to attack speed,” says the general. “Draw their fire away from the cruisers.” At this level of abstraction, it's more like chess then traditional RPG combat. The pieces (squadrons, attack groups, capital ships) maneuver to support one another, deny movement to the enemy, or move to threaten enemy resources. (Lando's solution to the “fully armed and operational battle station” is, I think, an especially gamist one; the Death Star 2.0 will destroy one rebel capital ship a round, but the star destroyers take four rounds to destroy a ship. Therefore, fight the star destroyers where the Death Star can't safely attack.)

Dice Rolls and Lateral Thinking

How long the fleet must endure the punishment of the trap is largely up to the folks on the ground. R2-D2 and Han both horribly botch their “pick locks” rolls. The most important fight on the ground involves Chewie and some Ewoks taking over an AT-ST. (Notice that the poor guys piloting the thing can hardly fight back. The fight is horribly one-sided, with the imperial drivers trapped without weapons in an enclosed space with flesh-eating, midget hunter-gatherers who are brutally adept at butchering far tougher game with their stone-age weapons). Since the bulk of the imperial troops have been led off into the forest, Han is able to use subterfuge to get into the bunker and destroy the shield generator. This finally allows the rebel fleet to execute their original plan of attack.

Daisy Chains of Death and Destruction

The key to making this work is the cascade of consequences in each part of the battle. The effectiveness of Han and Leia and Chewie on Endor has immediate consequences for the fleet action (which affects Luke's confrontation with Vader and the Emperor). This means that, even though the party might be split up all over the place, the players still have a vital interest in what the others are doing. It also gives the GM clues on when to cut between groups.

Han's Player: Oh, crap! It's a trap.

GM: And the shield generator is still up when the fleet arrives. Lando, when the fleet drops out of hyperspace, you're ambushed from behind by a bunch of enemy fighters, and you're not getting any reading on those shields.

Lando's Player: Ok, we'll use our fighters to screen our capital ships. We get right into their teeth and give them something more important to worry about than destroying our big ships.

(Maybe some dice rolls to take out enemy leaders or some such here, but only things that will have a direct impact on the tactical situation as a whole.)

GM: Ok, the TIE fighters are stuck in swirling furballs with the rebel fighters. Meanwhile, back on the moon, as you're marched out of the bunker by the stormtroopers, the Ewoks attack!

Han's Player: Ok, I try to get back into the bunker. We'll have R2 pick the lock.

(He rolls some dice.)

Han's Player: Crap! My dice are cursed. (He scowls at Chewie's player.) Did you touch my dice while I was ordering the pizza?

Chewie's Player: Hey, don't look at me. Uh, I try to find the leaders of the Ewoks and see if we can't get them to draw the stormtroopers away from the bunker. That should give you more time and breathing space to find another way in.

GM: Ok, while the Ewoks battle the stormtroopers, in orbit over the planet, Lando, you can see the imperial capital ships are not driving home the attack, but spreading out to keep you from escaping. Why becomes abundantly clear when the Death Star 2.0 fires it's giant, planet-killing gun to destroy your cruiser Escargot.

All Players: CRAP!

As one group finishes an action that will have an effect (or lack of an effect) on the chances the other, you switch. When one group says, “Ok, change of plans...” or needs a minute to react to a change in the situation, you switch to the other group.

Note that this is why the combined space-and-ground battle in “Phantom Menace” doesn't work as well as the Battle at Endor. In “Phantom Menace,” what happens on the ground has very little bearing on the success of the overall mission. The only thing that really matters is destroying the ship that controls the 'droids. Once that's done, the battle is over. And there's nothing the ground forces can do to make that easier or harder for the ships in the fleet action. If you're playing a battle like that, try to avoid having any PCs involved in the unimportant ground battle. If players have to be there, try to make it interesting by giving them a chance to face a hated nemesis or achieve some ancillary goal that's important to the group as a whole. Otherwise, the folks in the fleet battle are going to tune out and get bored when you cut back to ground battle.

UPDATE (11/17/2017): Variations on this theme by Chris Lindsay and Satine Phoenix:

UPDATE 2 (08/07/18): Variations on this theme that gets into more detail on how to make this happen at the table from Emmy "Cavegirl" Allen.


Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

> cruiser Escargot

That is freaking hilarious! Great giant battle resolution method too.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant explanation and advice.

Adam Dickstein said...

Pure genius and the style of mass combat I've personally adopted over the last 20 years or so.

The PCs are the heroes and stars of the 'show'. While its cool to know if their side is winning or loosing, no one wants or needs to know how many mooks died or toys broke.

Stick to the main players on the field.

Unknown said...

The PCs are the heroes and stars of the 'show'. While its cool to know if their side is winning or loosing, no one wants or needs to know how many mooks died or toys broke.

To be fair, it only does not matter if it does not matter. That is to say, in the D&D "end game" the players do become far more interested in how many troops are lost because they are a resource for their ongoing political machinations.

A tool for every job, and a job for every tool.

Anonymous said...

Good thoughts here, especially the gameplay account "at the table". The huge battle shouldn't be concerned with 5' squares, and only with 1-mile hexes and 30-mile hexes because Chewie has to move some distance which means time spent. You don't move minis, except to arrange characters according to where they are (Chewie moves his mini over to the Ewoks, Han and the rest are still at the shield generator).

And the part about making sure every place where the PCs are is a place where interesting decisions with big impacts can be made.

Unknown said...


keeping it.

i thinkt he whole "consequences" thing can be productively extended in both directions--that is--the battle depends on how you prepared for it AND after the battle depends on how well you fought.

verification word: "astro"