Mass Combat as Sport, Mass Combat as War

D@WThe Kickstarter for Domains at War launched yesterday, and my fellow Autarch Greg Tito recommended it on Facebook by saying “Domains at War is probably the most versatile fantasy wargame I’ve played.”

Versatility is an important feature to have in something you’re going to use in a RPG campaign, because of what S. John Ross said

may be the most unique feature of RPGs: tactical infinity. In Chess, the White Queen can’t sweet-talk a Black Knight into leaving her be; in Squad Leader, a group of soldiers can’t sneak through an occupied village dressed as nuns. In an RPG, you really can try anything you can think of, and that’s a feature that thrives on anarchy.

Game systems cope better with this infinite possibility than stand-alone games. One of the first things the original D&D set tells you is that you should have several other games on hand before you start playing, which you’ll then glom together to make a Frankengame.

Dungeon! is a great game, deeply linked to D&D thematically and developmentally, but it’s not on the Recommended Equipment list. I think this is because it is the closest to what ordinary players would recognize as a game instead of a set of rules for making your own game: it’s immediately playable out of the box, no elaborate customization needed, which means that it can’t be easily incorporated into a RPG. It’s only useful for gaming out the outcome of dungeon-crawling this one dungeon represented on the board, with these specific heroes printed on these cards. As a result, Dungeon! manifests in OD&D not as itself but as an abstracted set of principles for dungeon-crawling activities like finding secret doors, gauging risk/reward by dungeon depth, and earning victory points by bringing treasure out of the dungeon.

Outdoor Survival fares little better. This one is more of a hobby game, and less of a mass-market ready-to-play boardgame: the rules provide for several different scenarios, each of which introduce variant rules. It makes the Recommended Equipment list mostly because its hex map is such a useful play aid for RPGs (which is why we’ve included a version of it an add-on reward for Domains at War). You’re not encouraged to actually play a game of Outdoor Survival to resolve your character’s wilderness travel, although doing so may help make sense of D&D procedures like getting lost that are abstracted from its rules.

Chainmail is the game that actually makes it whole into OD&D. With the exception of the “alternate combat system”, you are encouraged to set aside playing a RPG whenever your characters get into a fight, at which point you’ll translate the shared imaginative space from D&D into the setup conditions for a Chainmail battle. Not coincidentally, this is the one on the list that, to the uninitiated, looks least like a game and most like a self-help manual in some esoteric discipline.

Domains at War can be as versatile as Greg says because, like its inspiration Chainmail, it’s a game system rather than a game. This DIY element means you can use it to recreate ancient or medieval battles from real-world history as easily as you can use it to resolve mass combat situations from your favorite hit-point-and-armor-class RPG. Domains at War’s default scale is 1 unit = 120 foot soldiers, 60 cavalry, or 30 giants, but it’s simple to adjust this to play out engagements between a large adventuring party and its mercenaries vs. an orc lair, or titanic conflicts with thousands of troops on each side.

ACKS Afterschool

That said, the goal of Domains of War is to present a system that’s quick and easy to use to generate a game. It succeeds at this well enough that nine-year-olds all jumped up with having had to sit still all day can learn and play it in an afternoon, while still retaining enough complexity that their impulsive tactical decisions have consequences.

The kind of versatility that makes Domains at War most valuable when incorporated into a RPG is that you can use it for both combat as sport and combat as war. In the game at right, I set up the forces opposing the kids’ characters to give them a well-balanced challenge, because I wanted the process of playing out the battle to be enjoyable in its own right. It took a long time to get the system presented in Domains at War: Battles to the point where it can be used to set up a game that’s fun in itself rather than just an exercise in dice-based resolution. That’s what I wanted in that particular after-school class, and it made sense in the imaginary scenario of the campaign.

In this afternoon’s session, however, it’s entirely possible that the kids will choose to lead their surviving armies somewhere else on the hex map and run into a wilderness encounter that’s not at all balanced. In a game like D&D 4E that’s strongly designed for combat as sport, this would be a problem because every combat is a symphony of interlocking choices that takes a long time to play out even when the outcome is more or less pre-ordained. Using the detailed tactics in Domains at War: Battles to dice out the kids’ armies wiping out a tribe of goblins, or getting stomped by an entire ogre village, would be no fun for the same reason. Here’s where the abstract resolution system in Domains at War: Battles – or the Free Starter Edition which you can download at DTRPG right now – shines. It’s got just enough dice rolls to make squishing goblins feel satisfying without taking up the whole session, or to make having one’s troops exterminated by giants while the PCs run and hide feel like a misfortune instead of a lengthy ordeal. And the rules for armies attempting to avoid detection by enemy forces in Campaigns make even the attempt to run from enemies fun and gameable.

Even accepting that most players didn’t use both Chainmail (which itself encompasses three different resolution systems) and the “alternative” d20 system to handle OD&D combat, old-school games work well in sandbox play because they facilitate their own versions of this toggle between interesting, slow, and detailed and trivial, fast, and abstract. As a result, you can do sport and war with the same rules. When a major fight comes up in the White Sandbox, the pace of the game naturally goes into bullet time; I’m very careful with the initiative count, and each player’s turn takes a long time as they search their character sheet for the half-remembered magic item or special ability that might save the day. If it’s a random encounter with nothing more at stake than a few hit points here or there, everyone accepts that I drop the individual initiative count-down and ask everyone to roll to hit as one big volley; we all want to get back to the exploration or logistics or narrative-building which the combat is interrupting. To my mind, the way the overall Domains at War system can be used to mirror either of these modes is its single biggest asset to me in running a RPG campaign.

5 Responses to “Mass Combat as Sport, Mass Combat as War”

  1. April 17, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    You’re not encouraged to actually play a game of Outdoor Survival to resolve your character’s wilderness travel

    In a sense, though, you are. The map movement system in Underworld and Wilderness Adventures essentially absorbs the entire Outdoor Survival rules, without giving them credit. In Outdoor Survival, the sequence of actions each turn is (1) assign movement points, (2) spend points based on hex terrain, (3) roll a d6 to see if you’re lost, (4) roll a d6 to check for an encounter.

    So that’s exactly what OD&D does — and B/X, and BECMI/RC, and the various retroclones — for every day of movement on the overland map. The only portion of the OS rules that gets omitted is the (frustrating and/or amusing) mechanic of slowly getting weaker from lack of food/water… presumably because your party is packing that stuff along.

  2. April 18, 2013 at 12:23 am

    That’s a more direct appropriation of rules than Dungeon! My experience of Outdoor Survival was largely how very lost one got, and how odd it was to have so little control over one’s character. Do you think the interpretation of “lost” results is meant to be the same, just screened from the player by the referee?

  3. April 18, 2013 at 4:10 am

    I think most occasional players of Outdoor Survival are most familiar with the first scenario, in which players have virtually no control over their character and movement is selected by the scattergram. As I recall, there’s essentially a 4 in 6 chance of being totally lost and wandering randomly, and a 2 in 6 chance of getting to make some small adjustments to movement (like a single turn).

    In scenarios 3 and 4 (the search and rescue ones), there’s a lot more player freedom, and getting lost is closer to the familiar 1 in 6 odds. The implementation of being lost in OS varies between scenarios, but is usually either “you can only move in a straight line, but you get to choose it”, or “you get to change direction once, after initially rolling on the scattergram”. Some scenarios allow for both possibilities. But for some reason (heh!), everyone’s impression of the game is most strongly flavored by the brutally unfair experience of the totally random wandering in scenario 1.

    Here’s a direct quote from Vol III: Underworld and Wilderness Adventures: “A lost party must move in the direction indicated by the die roll (1-6, as shown on the OUTDOOR SURVIVAL rules on that board) and may make only one direction change from that direction. When exploring the referee should indicate which direction the player is lost in.” This is probably the “nicer” of the two results possible when getting lost in OS — but it’s a fairly direct duplication of it.

    Note also that, unlike some later versions, the original rules instruct the referee to explicitly reveal that the party is lost, rather than trying to conceal this fact.

  4. May 13, 2013 at 6:19 am

    Good post. Dungeon! may only have the option for competition, but it’s very much at the root of D&D.

    I think Outdoor Survival where the drawn map is hidden behind the screen, so the players never know their true position, is also close to the heart of all D&D. It’s not your placement on the OS board, but the DM’s map that matters. The board allows for rough visual limits of local terrain variations regardless of the actual Terrain Type and true map (so the board can be used for mountains, swamps, and deserts too). Not to mention food and water foraging, lost outposts, etc. (which can be dropped or altered depending on the current regional makeup)

    Also, in oD&D the ref is tracking character knowledge, so if the PCs become lost the ref alerts the players to the characters realizations. Any trailblazing game, which I account Outdoor Survival to be, should probably include most of the scenarios it does on the green cards.

    1. The characters become LOST and then also seek character reorientation.
    2. The characters seek to SURVIVE by finding life supporting resources in an area where they may become lost (the area too big to wholly sense).
    3. The characters SEARCH for a lost person, place, or thing in an area where they too may become lost and try and survive.
    4. The characters PURSUE an actively evading person, place,… ditto #3
    5. The characters are the EVADING party from pursuer persons, place,… ditto #3

    These wilderness dungeon scenarios are every bit as applicable to an underground dungeon, but those standard dungeon exploration rules take precedence due to close terrain. Allied and neutral cities, where getting lost has few consequences, can have extra travel times built into overland movement until characters gain proficiency with the area (particular city). Most cities provide next to no difficulty for getting Survival supplies and Searches, but typically contain their own unique challenges (especially wandering monsters). Urban long term (tracked) Pursuit & Evasion in a city is a different story. Following Outdoor Survival rules makes for an almost impossible challenge. The players will almost certainly go through local NPCs/knowledge maps to search or hide.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

April 2013

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