Throughout the history of Dungeons & Dragons, the primary focus has been on the exploits of bands of adventurers, typically exploring dungeons, killing monsters and gaining treasure. However, every so often, there’s a glimpse of an older style of play: one where the characters hold positions of responsibility and command large armies on the field, often to protect nations they’ve carved out of the wilderness.
It has also been one of the worst-supported forms of play.
Throughout the early forms of the game, the reward for becoming a high-level fighter was to gain a small army upon building a stronghold. If you carved out a realm from the wilderness, you also gained money through taxes. The first few editions didn’t say very much about what happened then. The most extensive version of the realm-building rules was released in the Companion Rules, but they weren’t integrated into the main strand of the game.
I’m not a big fan of abstract ways of resolving mass battles. I prefer to use miniatures or counters to do it. Most of the abstract methods tend to lack drama and boil down to rolling dice. I despise the system that Paizo came up with for their Kingmaker series – one of the biggest piles of untested shit I’d seen, with a set of “tactical choices” that failed to provide valid choices. There was one tactic to use, and the rest were just a way of losing battles.
For, if you rule territory, you’re going to get into battles.
The DM has been left almost entirely on their own when it comes to the other side of ruling: diplomacy. To be fair, this is an area that requires a lot of DM inventiveness, as they need to come up with situations that allow the role-players in the group to have an interesting time working out how to deal with competing demands. There’s likely to be a brilliant campaign there, and, with war the penalty for failure, you can build up the stakes.
One of the unfortunate aspects of most official D&D world design is that it seems the designers have forgotten that you can have a war between two nations. When I think of wars in the D&D settings, they’re all World Wars. The Greyhawk Wars. The Last War of Eberron. The War of the Lance. How does the game change when you’re in a warzone between two nations, one of which you consider home, but it isn’t this world-consuming war?
I believe that one of the unfortunate effects of alignment is that people get caught up on the Good vs. Evil axis. If a nation is considered “Good”, it won’t attack another “Good” nation. It gets boiled down to Good vs. Evil. However, you can easily have two nations, both following the precepts of “Good”, that go to war with each other. It’s happened enough times in our own history!
The trouble with battles is then working out what the players do. A fighter is a great warrior, but their impact is much less on a battlefield of 50,000 or more soldiers. I enjoyed the method in Heroes of Battle for engaging the players, but it didn’t do much for resolving the outcome. Do you need a method? Can the DM just decide? Well, if the PCs are just acting as elite soldiers or forces, you can. It works less well when they’re the rulers!
What I need to work out here is the form of story you tell that uses battles. The story then informs the detail you need when resolving them. Something to think about!