RPG Blog Carnival: War! Is it really game-able in an RPG?

rpgblogcarnivallogocopyThe Book of Rev is hosting this month’s Blog Carnival.  As the title indicates War! is the subject.  I sat for the longest time and tried to think of how to write about war.  The more I got to thinking about it, the more I wondered if war was really game-able in an RPG.  “Sacrilege!” I hear the masses shout, “War is at the heart of most fantasy settings”.  Before you start composing your rebuttals, hear me out.  Also remember this is my own opinion and as always YMMV.

Let me start with Wikipedia‘s entry:
War is reciprocated armed conflict between nation-states or large political groups.  A group of combatants and their support is called an army on land, a navy at sea, and an air force in the air. Wars may be conducted simultaneously in one or more different theatres. Within each theatre, there may be one or more consecutive military campaigns. A military campaign includes not only fighting but also intelligence, troop movements, supplies, propaganda, and other components. A period of continuous conflict is traditionally called a battle, although this terminology is not always applied to conflicts involving aircraft, missiles or bombs alone, in the absence of ground troops or naval forces.

Is war even a viable part of your campaign?  That depends entirely on what you are playing.  If you’re playing a high-fantasy setting, yes war can be part of the overall campaign.  Super Heroes? you could game out a campaign of an internal struggle with the super hero community (Marvel’s Civil War) or stakes on a universe altering scale (DC’s Crisis).  In my own Stargate campaign the Gou’ald war is an ever present part of the background.  If you’re playing a game in a film noir setting then probably not.

By the definition of modern war, the combatants are large groups of forces sub-divided down to a unit level.  The armies, navies and air forces partake in a number of battles over a period of time.  Even taking war to mean the final epic confrontation in the Lord of the Rings, we’re still talking about masses and hordes of people.  In my experience, most RPG groups are limited to the parts played by the PCs and associated NPCs controlled by the players, not the actions of the vast armies.

But Mr. Vulcan, sir, as you stated earlier, our RPG group has an ongoing campaign set in the midst of a war.  Fine, are you gaming out the war? or the battles and skirmishes that your group participates in?  I’m not implying that war cannot be part of your RPG campaign. but you game out each skirmish not the complete war.  The sum total of those battles make up your war.

My all-time favorite game is Car Wars.  This name, although catchy, is somewhat of misnomer.  However, “Highway Battles” probably wouldn’t have sold quite so well.  In the beginning CW wasn’t even an RPG but you definitely were not gaming out a war.  Individual battles were the backbone of that game.  Conflicts between your adventuring group and whatever evil the DM throws in your way is still at the heart of D&D.

War-gaming is handled very nicely in games like Axis and Allies, Risk, and other games of that sort.  First person shooters such as Call of Duty and Medal of Honor do a great job of letting you participate in various battles.  My own personal take is that in your RPG campaign you are not gaming out the war but rather, how your character responds to war.

Gaming out a war is a game about tactics and strategy.  Fighting with your PC is gaming out a battle.  So is war game-able in an RPG setting?   Yes, but only as a larger overall campaign/story arch.


  1. I never really understood why the system had to remain for large scale “war-like” combat. If you have the right kind of players I think you can play out a war in any circumstance.

    Here’s what I do: You have a group of people who all participate in some aspect of keeping the unit running. You probably have a set of NPC infantry, a set of NPC engineers, A set of NPC medics techs, and a set of NPC commanders. Most of the time this just takes too long to be fun, but I tend to make a simplified system for skills(Skills Based on total performance of the job, ranging 1-10, add 2d6), difficulties(ranging from 3-22), and Hit Points(Damage is 3d6-deflection) and run it on a miniatures grid.

    Here’s the big difference, though. The PC’s do not participate directly in the battle. Instead, they assume the role of commanders, generals, et cetera and control the troops strategically. This way, after you resolve the system issues, the rest is roleplay between players and advisors, ambassadors, and enemies.

  2. @Arcane Read my last sentence. 😎 I agree with what you’ve said. I don’t think it’s impossible to game out a war. Let’s just be clear about what it is that we’re gaming.

    Are we playing PCs on the battlefield? then we’re not gaming out a war but rather individual battles at best. Playing the movers and shakers,(i.e. RISK but with RP elements)? Then we’re playing at the tactics and the motivations of the generals. This is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when a war game is suggested.

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