Military Tips

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0318

A Brief Word From Isaac

A while back we asked you about a couple of items, and the response was impressive. Even with a readership of 13,000 and more, I’m always surprised to see how many of you take the initiative to write in to us. Your efforts are always appreciated, and I hope the rest of you get as much out of our large scale battle and campaign-maintaining tips as I did from this week’s issue.

Two DMs running in the same world? Who would’ve thunk?

Also, Happy Canada Day and Happy Independence Day to our North American readers! I celebrated by perpetrating a near- TPK by a kapoacinth.

Thanks once again to all our contributors.

Isaac Calon
[email protected]

Military Tips

In issue #314 we put out a request for military oriented tips. Following are some great ideas and bits of advice from your fellow Roleplaying Tips readers.

Rank And Hierarchy

From Max Dodge

Private – Private comes from new recruits joining in defense of their land. Otherwise known as private soldiers.

Corporal – The word corporal comes from the Spanish term “capo de’squadra” or “head of the squad.” Corporals often lead squads.

Sergeant – In medieval times, a sergeant was the servant of a knight. The sergeant often became an experienced warrior and was often tasked with leading groups of peasants. He would teach them how to fight, lead them into battle, and keep them from running away. In modern times the sergeant is still responsible for making sure his soldiers are trained and effective.

Note: In most armies there are degrees of each rank. For example, a private first-class, or a master sergeant; these denote seniority and responsibility.

Petty Officer – The term petty officer comes from the French word “petit,” meaning small. In medieval times, villages often had petty officers who assisted officers, such as the sheriff.

Warrant Officer – This term originated in the 9th century in the British navy. The crew charged with the care and maintenance of the ship were warranted officers. There would be a captain aboard to command the soldiers, but they wouldn’t have anything to do with running the ship. In today’s armies, warrant officers are experts in their profession.

Ensign – On the medieval battlefield, the man who carried his lord’s banner into battle was called the ensign bearer. Eventually, this became the lowest commissioned rank in the military.

Lieutenant – A combination of the words “Lieu” and “Tennant,” this literally means placeholder in the absence of the next higher rank.

Captain – A captain usually commands a unit of 200-300 troops called a company.

Colonel – Colonels lead groups of companies called a column.

General – Generals usually have command over entire armies.

Insignia: Enlisted insignia are often represented by chevrons and hash marks. Sometimes these insignias are combined with an emblem to signify the wearer’s profession. (Example: a caduceus for medical personnel.) Usually, the more chevrons, the higher the rank, pay, and responsibility.

Officer insignia are often represented by various rare metals, the most common being gold and silver. Officer rank is usually designed to be easily distinguished from that of enlisted rank.

Traditions: Officers vs. Enlisted – Enlisted men are usually the “manpower” of any army, whereas the officers give guidance and direction to the troops. Officers are usually paid more than the enlisted men, but forgo many of the benefits that are given to the men, like free food and uniforms.

Try a military field manual for much more information.

[Also, check the Wikipedia: ]
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Large-Scale Battles Overview

From Jon Thompson

Large battles between savage hordes clashing with innumerable shining soldiers is the standard epic battle, and is what many GMs want to replicate. But how?

One of the keys to running good, large-scale battles is to take a look at what makes these battles interesting in other media. That is, what is cool about the battle scenes in Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or any war film? It’s easy to get caught up in the sheer size of the battles and miss what truly makes them epic; the outcome is decided by the actions of heroes. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli defended Helm’s Deep. Achilles and Hector (and their gods) fought for Troy. Luke, Han, and Wedge defeated the death star. The PCs are those heroes.

With that basic principle in mind, here are some specific tips.

  1. The players are heroes, not grunts. Depending on how powerful they are their actions may influence the outcome of small battles or whole wars.
  2. Don’t level the playing field between the players and soldiers. If the PCs are assigned to common soldier duty, let them shine in battle–maybe have a few war stories come out of it. With that said, there are probably better things for skilled PCs to be doing than killing innumerable enemy grunts.
  3. A staple in epic battles is single combat between powerful warriors on either side. The PCs should end up facing the enemy commander or the enemy’s secret weapon. That confrontation could be ordered by an officer, or could be sought by heroes from either side. Instead of the PCs just slaughtering enemy grunts for hours on end, they should be stopping the powerful enemies from slaughtering their men.
  4. In some ways the PCs are like special ops (especially if they are rogues or spellcasters). No intelligent general would put his spec ops on the front lines; they should be sent on special missions. Examples could be destroying an enemy siege engine, protecting or blowing up a bridge, rescuing important prisoners, obtaining vital information, or sneaking into the enemy camp to assassinate the leader. They might be involved in the larger battle before, after, or on the way, but their skills transcend basic combat. Besides being logical this is also a fantasy staple. The rebels can’t stand up to the death star, but if only they had a pilot with the talent and guts to hit a small thermal exhaust port…
  5. Play to the PCs’ strengths. If a character has the ability to shoot with great accuracy over long distances, set them up as a sniper. If they are sneaky, send them to spy or assassinate. If they are a tank, have them call out the enemy’s giant.
  6. Let the grunts be in awe of the PCs. Let stories of their exploits spread (especially as the characters become increasingly powerful). If possible, let their victories (or defeats) have immediate and noticeable effects on the battle. In a recent adventure I ran, the enemy general was using a spell to boom out encouragement to her troops from atop the hand of a colossal statue. The PCs scaled the statue, and everyone looked on breathlessly at the sonically magnified battle. When the enemy general went hurtling to the street below, the effect was immediate. Friendly troops charged and pushed back the enemy before the characters’ very eyes.
  7. Set up a flowchart of missions and objectives the PCs can have and the effects of success: Fight through the first wave of enemy soldiers with the rest of the army, scale the cliffs, battle the elite guards, destroy the trebuchets. Map out the area and where certain forces are.
    Try to give the players several choices of what to do and how to do it. If you have any players who like making plans, leave as much strategy to them as possible. This might require some quick thinking, but when their plans pay off it will be very rewarding for the players.
  8. Have a continuum of outcomes based on the players’ actions. The results will change depending on how successful they are (did they get there fast enough, did they kill enough enemies). It doesn’t have to be as simple as utter defeat or complete victory. Maybe the PCs turn a hopeless battle into a win, but at a great price? Perhaps their allies would have won without them, but would have suffered heavy losses? If they only partially complete their objectives, then the loss of life is somewhere in between.
  9. Watch movies with battle scenes. Try to decide what makes them cool. Look beyond the sheer size of the armies. What do the heroes do, not just during, but before and after the battle, to change the outcome?
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Make PC Actions Special

From Mark L. Chance

The PCs’ actions should be special. The PCs are more akin to a Navy SEAL team than average soldiers, but even more so. (I’ve worked with special forces folks before, and none of them could lob fireballs or turn invisible.) The main action of the war is beyond the scope of game play. It makes great background information, but that’s about it.

Instead of worrying about how the PCs impact the main action, give them special missions of importance to the war effort. For example, the enemy nation might have a well- fortified stronghold guarding a critical piece of geography. (Even in a fantasy game, geography’s effects on war cannot be entirely ignored.) It would require too much time and too many lives for a conventional siege, and so military commanders send the PCs to deal with the problem.

Put a timeline on things. For example, the PCs must break the stronghold within 3 days, or else a major push into enemy territory cannot be accomplished, thus giving the enemy armies time to resupply and reinforce, et cetera.

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Large-Scale Battle Tips By Level


Low Level

You can usually assume with low level characters that they’re either alongside the regular troops, or they’re some sort of special forces. If the latter, they won’t be directly involved in the large scale battle, but you can have them perform special operations. The easiest way to handle the former is to figure out what the enemy force is composed of, work out the relative size of both forces, and face the PCs with an encounter that reflects this disparity.

For example, let’s say that the PCs are part of a human army of about 400 1st level and 100 2nd level warriors. Their foes are 1000 1st level orc warriors straight out of the MM. This is not to imply there are no higher level creatures on either side, but rather that this is a manageable simplification. Since the good guys are outnumbered 2 to 1, you face the PCs with a number of orcs equal to twice the number of PCs in the party.

To reflect the chaos of battle, a number of optional rules can be used. For example, make rounds 1 minute rather than 6 seconds, but spell durations are normal (and “rounded down”). The effect of this is to greatly reduce the power of low level spells such as Sleep, which in the chaos of a battle is justifiable (the victims would probably be jostled around and the spell might break).

Another optional rule is to make a Knowledge(Tactics) roll for the commander (probably an NPC) and based on the result, the PCs face a harder or easier encounter to reflect the inferior or superior strategy.

In the above example, you might decide that if the Knowledge(Tactics) roll is 10 or less, the PCs face 3 orcs per PC; if it is 11-20, they face 2 orcs per PC; if it is 21 or higher, then they face 3 orcs for every 2 PCs. Commanders could make opposed rolls, as well.

Note that low-level PC mortality in large battles can be high, so you might want to treat a loss as being either captured or left unconscious on the battlefield.

Mid Level

Mid-level special operations might be a little more dangerous. However, assassinations and striking deep behind enemy lines arguably work better at this level. Try pitting the PCs against equal numbers of similarly outfitted or experienced bad guys, interspersed with sorties through larger groups of the lower level main forces. This will be a blast for the PCs without making it too easy on them. Also, try giving mid-level PCs command of small groups of lower-level NPCs. If they take the opportunity, it can be immensely satisfying to plan a battle that ends with a routed enemy force.

High Level

The main enemy force will not be challenging for the average high-level PC. Traditionally, high-level PCs might be in command of entire armies, but the problem is that in many cases, they could achieve the goals of their army without the army’s assistance, which causes concerns for good- aligned characters (why put your troops lives at risk needlessly?).

If you want a large-scale battle that can threaten high- level PCs, then I recommend the three Ds- dragons, devils, or demons. An army composed of any of the three is a threat that no normal army is equipped to deal with. Maybe the PCs want to recruit powerful allies–angels, maybe–to help with the threat.

If all else fails, there’s always undead. Any monster that has the ability to create spawned versions of themselves is a potential threat even to epic level characters.

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Battle Design

From John Eikenberry

When I design wars, I start with geography. From my maps I can tell who fights whom, how many forces there are, plot troop movements, and more.

My war had three distinct phases: Army A had the advantage; Army A and B were even; Army B and C allied against Army A.

By poring over my maps I plotted the battles as troop movements intersected (I marked these with “battle markers”). A general rule of thumb is 4-7 named (important) battles per year of war.

Realize that different forces will have different names for the same battles. Different names can inspire interest from the players and help paint the real picture of what happened at the “Slaughter of Kwon” vs. “Victory at Kwon Ridge.” If you want help naming battles, please check out my website.

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Military Rituals And Decoration

From Da Pit Fiend

Arcadian Guild Games Master

If your game is mechanical in nature, with the players focusing on creatures killed and treasures gained, then going into the great details of military rituals and rites will seem an immense waste of time. If that is your game, you won’t have much use for my tips.

In a classical situation, military rites of passage might start out at lower levels, like training on Mars field near Rome, combined with simple hazing’s and minor beatings. Training would be with wooden and wicker weapons and shields used with full force. Those unable to keep up are likely to be beaten to a pulp, or even killed by their fellows. No one wants a weak link when the fighting starts.

More progressed classical rewards usually came after battle with a banquet or feasting on or near the field. Overindulgences of all kinds pair with award ceremonies for common soldiers on up.

For Dark Age or low Middle Ages, rewards were simpler and often taken from the battlefield, from farm animals to weapons. A great battle might see the ‘knights’ fighting over the spoils, even though they were allies during the battle. Opposing families might have a different version of who was to get what.

In the Middle Ages, the wanton looting had been toned down by the church’s influence, and rewards became ritualized. Most often these rituals were a swearing of oaths with the hands placed on a box of holy relics. To the devout, these oaths had a physical reality, and sometimes caused problems later on, like swearing never to retreat from an engaged foe, even if that foe is larger or better. Sometimes the need to ‘enforce’ the oaths came about, and an individual might be sent on a quest in retribution for refusing to follow a dictate.

In fantasy these rituals can be, well, fantastic. Walking on water or pulling a sword from the stone to fulfill a ritual is well within the reach of many PCs.

Simple historical hierarchy:
The Numberless Hordes: Keeping Your Fantasy Armies a Little Less Fantastic

More about knights:
Knight Infoplease

Some myth-busting:

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Politics And Warfare

From Will


With war, make sure you have a clear image of what each side wants to achieve. For example, a civil war is an internal clashing of ideologies that are profound enough to be worth bloodshed.

Next, decide how many details the PCs are going to learn, which depends on the sophistication of their society and which side they are on. If the PCs are advisers to the King and they are getting wind of insurrection, then the roleplaying will be centered around (initially) spy reports, insider information, meetings with rebel factions, or just hanging around, incognito, in taverns or other gathering places for the rebel forces.

Later, adviser PCs may become captains or generals, or they may informally be part of the court and have their own schemes or plans. With the rebels, which may also have elements in the court, planning the coup, or organizing the troops and supplies. At the start this is all top-secret sort of stuff, with everyone looking over their shoulders. There could be magical rites or rituals designed to ferret out spies.

The film Braveheart is excellent inspiration for political maneuverings.


If your players love complex combat, get some minis and roll it all out in minute detail. Expect battles to last entire sessions. Having a pre-rolled list of d20 rolls can save time.

As a small part of a whole army, try the GURPS ‘mass-combat’ section, which appears in the 3rd edition CONAN supplement book.

As long as the PCs are not commanding the battle, you just plug in the numbers, roll a few d6, and voila! You know the battle outcome. All you need now is to figure out what the PCs are doing during the battle. Describe the action tactilely and you’re in business.

Use minis to represent troop formations. There are a number of good rule sets out there for handling mass combat, like Hordes of the Things. This system lets you get an overall view of the battlefield and use it to provide better battle descriptions to the PCs. Another advantage is the flexibility in being able to ‘grow’ with the PCs, for if your foot soldier becomes a troop leader and then a commander you get to describe the action from a more complete point of view each time.

Each of the following systems are great for mass combat. Hordes of the Things Fantasy Miniatures Game.

Each gives a means to determine the outcome of battle, including casualties. This is good for dealing with issues outside of combat, for if you note, Tolkien did not really write many battle sequences; his details were mostly about what led to the battle. This way the drudgery of mass combat is narrowed down to the important part(s) that the PCs can play in the overall war.

Another method is to play in great detail the few battles the PCs do take part in. Their outcome could mirror the outcome for the entire army, which makes a challenging victory or a crushing defeat and retreat so much more salient.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Real Life & Gaming – Readers Respond to Issue #315

Two DMs On A Regular Schedule

From François B.

Our five-person group has two DMs. Having more than one DM in our group prevents stale campaigns, and we reuse the same world and NPCs in both campaigns. This makes it easier for the players to follow, and helps to maintain verisimilitude.

For scheduling, we made a house rule: if one player is missing, we play, and someone takes care of the “missing” PC. If more than one player is missing, we cancel the session.

The easiest thing we have found is to have a regular schedule. We play every Monday night. If something changes one week, we inform the DM, and the DM handles all the scheduling.

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Priority, Planning, And Players

From Jim Sales

Decide if gaming is your main hobby. If so, get the calendar out and plot your sessions, and do it as early as possible. Use a website, a wiki, and email. I create the schedule in August for the next nine months with games happening every two weeks. Everybody gets the schedule so there are no surprises.

Also, I found that using Sunday afternoon/evenings between 3:30 and 8:30 works out very well. Most everyone is home and ready for one last thing before work on Monday. By not having the session go too late into the evening everyone can get back home to their families or just chill after the game without having to hurry home to bed.

I maintain campaign interest by keeping myself sharp and avoiding DM burnout. I take three months off in the summer to regroup and enjoy the weather. Everyone is hungry to game come late August and early September.

Get rid of inconsistent players. If you are going to put this much work into this hobby, expect a modicum of effort from the players. Be sure to let your players know in advance what kind of attendance you expect, (don’t schedule games on holidays!) and talk with a player if his attendance is breaking the story line. If he has good reasons, work with him. If it is just an “I don’t care,” attitude, drop him. Your game will be better for it and it will be more fun for the rest of the players rather than constantly having a “Mark-the-red” standing in the corner.

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Wise Gaming

From Phil Vecchione

I am part of a gaming group who has been together for ten years now. In those years we have had huge lifestyle changes, and our gaming habits have had to change as well. We still play weekly, but our Tuesday night (5pm-12am) and Saturday night (5pm to whenever) sessions have changed to Sunday evenings (6pm-10pm). I no longer run something weekly; rather I run one of three campaigns, which each run every three weeks, in rotation.

The three-week rotation is perfect for GM prep in my current lifestyle (married with an 18-month old son). I brainstorm for a week, write my session for a week, run my session, and then take a week off. On the two weeks when my session is not running, two other campaigns, run by two other GMs, give me my gaming fix.

To keep interest up in our games, we have adopted a number of metagaming activities. These activities allow us to keep discussing and playing the game, even when we are not at the table.

The most common thing I do is plan NPC-PC conversations to be held by email on the weeks we are not playing my game. The conversations are short, and I give the players a week to finish them up.

I also employ a few other email metagaming activities for my current campaign. One of the characters has a tome of information that his Grandfather (the former King) had left him. From time to time I will write a passage from the tome and post it by email to the group. The key is to have my players thinking about the game when they aren’t at the table.

I also try to stage my table sessions to end just when the players start to come up with some kind of plan on what to do next (e.g. how to assault the castle or rob the bank). I then have the players do their planning as an online discussion. This works out great, because they have ample time to discuss, allowing them to come up with a better plan, and I don’t have to sit behind the screen, bored, as they plan. Finally, I am privy to their plans and can adjust my session notes and strategies.

The other GMs in our group use similar exercises online. One GM uses a discussion forum where rumors from the PCs’ Inn are posted, allowing players to get some foreshadowing of what the upcoming adventure will hold.

As for making gaming a priority, it’s all about balance. I try to give myself a half-hour to an hour a night to work on gaming materials. That may not sound like a lot, but it really adds up over three weeks.

As for inconsistent players, ten years of gaming together has made us a pretty tight group. Most of us are pretty die-hard gamers. All of our wives came into this group knowing that gaming was something that we would not give up. As a compromise, we have all adapted our gaming to make family come first, but come Sunday evening, we are all gathered around the table, rolling dice, quoting movies, and adventuring.

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Casual Play

From Bento

I GM an ongoing campaign at a local college campus where we constantly deal with the comings and goings of players. We have some players who have a strong commitment to the group and show up every two weeks, while others make it when they can.

Taking this into account, in January I launched what I call a “generic” campaign. Players are limited to core classes and races, and adventures last two to three sessions in a generic fantasy setting. When people drop out or can’t make it, we play as if their characters are there and they don’t fight or get any XP. The only character who goes on active NPC status is the cleric, for healing duties.

We have several players who are budding GMs, so when I want to take a break, I let them run the game for an adventure arc. When we do this, I play the cleric. So far it’s worked out well. We typically have six players and, on average, lose or gain a player every two sessions or so.

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Verisimilitude With Inconsistent Players

From Dan Howard

For inconsistent players, I recommend that GMs become good at quickly easing PCs in and out of the action. Don’t let it become hokey; always try to think of a new but believable way to get a PC into or out of gameplay. PCs can oversleep, break legs, take a different route, be sent back for supplies, have a vision that persuades them to stay behind, whatever. Don’t try to fix the player; just deal with his PC.