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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Leadership in RPGs-

Leadership in RPGs (Tactical and Storytelling) is generally relegated to either a Player's speech (if they are 'roleplayers') or a Player's plan, both of which almost invariably involve a die-roll.

The particular rules-set may or may not have a Leadership skill or trait, but few have a deeper treatment of the same sort that wargames and game-friendly militaria possess, and many are perfectly content with that for the obvious reason that if they wanted it they'd craft their own set of rules for their fave RPG, or play a wargame instead.

Indeed, the circumstance of raising or commanding a band of warriors who number more than the fellow PCs and a few hires or henchmen seem few, and perhaps this has been the case throughout the history of the RP Hobby. That could have continued, were it not for the OSR's interest in the origins which greatly expanded and transmitted the core of the Chainmail rules-set (and related) to the plethora of gamers not overly aware of the nuances and peculiarities of that booklet. This was done by some of the stellar notables such as (Aaron of A Paladin in Citadel, and Evan from Swords of Minaria, as two examples).

A Google+ friend and I were recently discussing my games, and the topic of the VANGUARD Squad Control Record and its influences arose. I'm not sure if I got to tell him about Victory Games' AMBUSH!, but that was my first experience with a formalised 'run a squad from 1 sheet' game, although I'd certainly played more than one PC at a time (especially RPing Car Wars with the pedestrian rules from the ADJ), what with Tunnels & Trolls admonition to run a 'stable of characters'.

What I took away from them (esp. A!) was that each player needed to have that level of game-centric investment in the battle for it to have a real impact at the level I wanted in the games I run. At the Strategic scale, I want the Players to be Leaders, you know, 'REMFs', as it were.

How to build that sort of 'zoomable' action into the essential chassis of the game? became the basis of the previous two years of the regular Friday F2F game wherein the PCs were Primary and 2ndary leaders of an island, with considerable might at their disposal.

Interdimensional/extraplanar allies and the telegraphed effects of the PCs' actions untimately resulted in the Players' writing their characters out of history, undoing their considerable achievements, and missing numerous opportunities to advance the timeline's technological base towards the Quest for Ascension -- pursuing petty schemes, failing to think big, and generally futzing around week after week. Their actions and my total sandboxing of the game illustrated that a hands-off approach would benefit neither party of agents: GM or Players. No. I needed something intrinsic to the Vrun experience to resonate with the gamers...

Recently, running a series of short expeditions into entirely unknown territory has proved most effective in getting the players to 'grok' the importance of the scaled-up thought/prep, and as a consequence, better prepared the PCs to act individually as leaders, as well as the party as a military/scout body.

The Urutsk: World of Mystery Boxed Set's basic premise is that the Player is a colony or expedition leader. The primary role for a player in VANGUARD is that of a Squad Leader. The foundational and interconnecting aspect of the Vrun experience is the compulsory military service and the ties of Starship Crew Caste Clans. In sum, the Vrun RP experience is one of regimentation, redundancy, and careful resource management with a proud, Ancient martial history. That seems to create ad hoc Leaders when needed, and it is happening, organically, in game play.

Now, I'd like to ask you, the readers, of instances in your games in which the happy balance between PC actions and Battle Events was or wasn't successfully struck, and your thoughts on how best to integrate PC autonomy with their role as war-fighters (and preferably in a leadership role). Would you please share them with us?


  1. One of my first rpgs was Dragonquest 2nd ed. where there was a Military Scientist skill that gave a chance to perceive enemy tactics, effectively lead and rally men (around 100 at 1st rank/level) and best of all - gave the player more time (measured in seconds!) between actions to make decisions. Unfortunately the game doesn't spell out how to do mass combat so I had to use individuals as units which didn't work. A pity, as DQ was interesting in that the Player was given an advantage rather than just the character.

    I've tried mass combat where the PCS do the decisive action (storm the gate, hold the wall) and there success/failure modifies the battle.
    Also the opposite, where the aucess/failure of the battle puts modifiers on the pcs individual combats. Both were OK but a little unsatisfying.

    Sorry, no help at all. Will think on this further.

  2. Sean: Thank you for commenting. I didn't remember that feature in Dragonquest, but I'll look at my copy for further inspiration.

    What, if you can define it, left you feeling dissatisfied with the two types of the 'feedback-loop' where different scales of action influenced each other?

    Thanks again.

  3. In my old school games I frequently (as a player) hired mercenary hirelings. I have to admit that I felt the morale bonus and loyalty bonus from a high charisma were a good indication of the effects a high charisma leader had on battlefield performance.

    After all, leadership, at it's most basic level, is about getting people to do something they ordinarily wouldnt want to do. And making sure their reasonably happy to do it. I thought the whole loyalty test mechanic worked well in that regard.

    In Pendragon, the Battle and seige skills represent not just a command of period tactics, but also the ability to lead men on the battlefield. I always liked the Pendragon system in that regard and enjoy Pendragon battles very much.

    First edition WFRP included rules for convering PC's into hero figures for games of Warhammer, an approach I've always favoured. Games that integragated PC's at the wargaming level have always appealed to me in that regard. Which is probably why I incorporated AD&D Skirmish system and Battle system rules so much into my early AD&D campaigns.

    But I agree, the number of RPGS' games that facilitate, let alone encourage, play on anything greater than the section or squad level is very limited. Something which has always struck me as particularly odd given the origins of the hobby.

  4. Striker had rules for limiting how many orders they could give based on the initiative of the stand. People would complain when they played that they could not make all the individual soldiers do exactly as they wanted as they did in previous game. A big part of the game was experienced mercenaries trying to lead inexperienced locals on useful missions. Not much of the game dealt with campaign design-- it was basically a tool kit for science fiction miniatures battles.

    With Labyrinth Lord... the high death rates almost required that players have hirelings or henchmen. In my games... they served as "red shirts" to take the death blows... extra combat potential... and as far as leadership goes... players mainly needed to dole them out enough treasure and not making them walk point or do dangerous things unnecessarily. Moral rolls were mainly for the monsters... and provided a way to speed up game play by not forcing every fight to be played to the last hit point. The stuff in AD&D and D&D about high level characters building castles and raising troops never made sense to me as a kid, but I'd probably try to deal with that now if players would humor me-- but this isn't what people normally expect from D&D type campaigns.

    With CAR WARS... it worked rather well to have one player run a troupe of PC's. I was impressed at how the continuity of the story emerged even though I largely would run stock scenarios and canned adventures. (Running Pack Attack after Convoy... then following that up with the Midville raid.) It all made sense and the game practically ran itself.

    Traveller does not provide a lot of help for leading a crew on a starship-- mechanistically you might tend toward a Firefly type game with a small group of PC's doing the entire crew thing. However... the incredibly compact UPP means that the entire crew could be statted out for the Kinunir frontier cruiser and other ships like that. It's pretty impressive seeing that done in such a small book.

    Running a team in CAR WARS in an actual arena event is possible... but with four cars to a team, you're looking at a 6 hour combat. Strip out handweapons and pedestrians and simplify the designs down to Killer Karts and you can cut that down to three hours and have quite an interesting brawl. But obviously... the more intricate your rules, the less *campaign* you're going to have. CAR WARS struck an unusually good balance between miniatures battles, role playing, and ongoing campaigns though. The Corporate campaign model let you play any type of fight you wanted in a more-or-less fair and flavorful arena... while tracking characters from duel to duel. (The fact that autodueling was a sport made it *much* easier to manage than any sort of military campaign.)

    In Gamma World we had a player that played a mutant bear that had gas generation, military genius, and could fly. He was naturally called Napoleon Bonafart. The military genius rules pretty much gave a +1 result shift in 3rd edition... which mostly just mean you always hit except for critical failures. I was never satisfied with this. GURPS of course breaks out "leadership" into a dozen component skills and advantages, but I've never run a game where that came up. In game... the guy with combat reflexes pretty much owned the battlefield when compared to the less experienced naval ratings in a trek game. It was nice to have something solid in the game system to differentiate between the marines and everyone else.... Players don't tend to try to use their tactics and leadership skills. They like to just describe what they want to do... so as a GM... if I cared... I'd have to implement that stuff in the black box if it was ever going to be taken into account.

  5. I only wish I could give you more feedback. My own thoughts on how to integrate player characters into a mass combat system is represented in my B/X Companion, and that is based on the information found in Swords and Spells, simply using "units" as an extension of "individual" with some typical "hero tasks" for PCs.

    I've used the War Machine rules in Mentzer's Companion, but always with unsatisfactory results. I've known players who used the old Battle System for AD&D but they did not enjoy it.

    There is a very great divide (in my mind) between role-playing and individual character and the great mass of bodies one considers an army or military much that they seem diametrically opposed (you can either think as a unit, as when playing an actual wargame (for example Warhammer) or think as an individual with personal goals as opposed to strategic ones).

    Personally the best "balance" I've found in play is the rules for mass combat from 1st edition Stormbringer (Ken St. Andre): section 3.10, page 48. Unfortunately, it gives no option for player tactics to swing the day ("war-leader decision") which is something you seem to be looking for.

    The closest thing that I've played to a war game with focus on the individual soldier is Battle Tech, and I've adopted many rules for supply and resource management for this particular game. Unfortunately, the game itself is one of small unit tactics (both on and off the field of battle) and I've yet to find a group who regularly wants to run an RPG/War game on a grand scale.

    Sorry...if you can find a way to strike this balance in a playable fashion for the table-top, I'll be highly interested.
    : )

  6. 'What, if you can define it, left you feeling dissatisfied with the two types of the 'feedback-loop' where different scales of action influenced each other?'

    Because I felt dislocated from the rank-and-file. After an initial discussion of strategy (if there is time) I would prefer each player to have a separate unit and all make tactical decisions (with little communication for the fog of war effect once they're in the thick of it), without the luxury of too-much time to think. If I was the overall commander of an army I would zoom out further - but it would be less of a wargame - more a game of cards, to model the abstraction.

  7. @Dangerous Brian: I like the idea of the RPG PC to Hero figure conversion. Fortunately that's built into Vanguard.
    --Also your mention of the Loyalty base as a suitable modifier in the D&Ds. Thanks. :)

    @Jeffro: Thanks for reminding me about Striker. I'll have to try and find my copy.
    --Agreed re: Car Wars. It is an under-rated system IMO. :)

    @JB: Thanks for mentioning the 1st Ed. Stormbringer section. I'll read it after this reply.
    --Your B/X Companion has been squirrelled-away since I last looked at it. I'll re-read your rules. The product is truly one of my favourite items from the whole of OSRdom. :D

    @Sean: The fog of war is difficult to maintain in a casual game, I've found, and works best for competitive games of oppsed forces, but if it could be well regulated with minimal moving parts, I think it would greatly enhance much of the Exploration aspect of most RPGs.

    This bit: "If I was the overall commander of an army I would zoom out further - but it would be less of a wargame - more a game of cards, to model the abstraction."
    --I'm very interested to hear more on this when you are able. :D

    @All: Thanks! Keep 'em coming. :D