Crossing A War Torn Land

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0217

Crossing A War Torn Land

This issue was inspired by a thread on the GMMastery Yahoo! Group. With permission, I’ve formatted and posted the contributors’ great ideas and advice here. For the full thread, visit:

Here is the initial post from Chris Heismann that started the thread:

“Leave it to players to be unpredictable…

For the sake of adventure, I’ve “stranded” my players’ PCs on a section of deserted coastline of the country that is currently the “bad guy”. This is the country whose leaders are in a pact with evil forces and are attempting to take over the world, beginning with an invasion of their neighbors.

While the PCs’ ship was undergoing repairs, the group went adventuring and managed to capture a convey carrying war loot. Now it appears that, instead of going back to the ship, they are going to try and go by land so they can keep even more of the stuff they plundered rather than having to pick and choose what to take with them as I originally intended. This means crossing a couple hundred miles of war torn countries and then “the front” to get to friendly territory. Their “convoy” won’t be too inconspicuous, either: 5 mounted PCs, 2 fully loaded wagons with four horse teams, and a dozen extra horses.

Obviously, it will be difficult for them to succeed in getting to safety should they choose to go overland. My first impulse is to make it impossible and give them increasingly difficult encounters until they are finally caught or killed. However, they are a resourceful bunch and deserve a fair chance of making it. I have some ideas, but I’m having trouble seeing things clearly. I need to get all my ducks in a row and try and view this from different perspectives.

Chris H.”

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Bluffing And Enemy Organization

From Acolyte

Well, a lot of the issue depends on two big things:

  1. How well can the characters lie?
  2. How organized is this “enemy”?

If a country was attacking all the other ones around it, several things could be happening:

  • Far from the front, there would be very few men/boys, since they would be in the army.
  • The economy would be as centralized as possible (this happened in both WWI and WWII in the US, and in Britain I think).
  • All blacksmiths would be making weapons.
  • People would be eating less (food and rare things like metal would be rationed).
  • Farms would not be growing sugar but wheat.
  • Storehouses would be empty and any available food would be sent to the front.

The kicker is this: the government could take the stance that, as long as the “trains were running on time” (to borrow Mussolini’s expression), they don’t care what was going on. Crime could increase therefore, and the characters would have to deal with increased banditry, government corruption, and resource shortages.

Alternatively, the government could take a high regulation stance, police-state esque, like Nazi Germany, which would make it very hard for a non-government group to travel through various checkpoints and such. The PCs would need lots of info about how the government works, what papers to forge, and what passwords to give.

Also, don’t forget displaced persons from the war fronts. Conflicts between refugees and locals over dwindling resources could also be happening.

Closer to the front, the party might have to deal with small incursion groups from the “good” side. They might assume from the party’s disguises that they are with the “bad” people, or saboteurs, or cowards avoiding the pitched battles. In fact, the closer the PCs get to the front, the more they’ll encounter units of the “bad” army, and the chance of them being exposed goes up.

Crossing the front could be as easy as walking past the army besieging a castle held by the “good” people, or it could be as difficult as crossing a magically-blasted no man’s land vaguely reminiscent of WWI’s western front.

Remember that the average military guy on both sides doesn’t really care either way, and that even some of the higher ups in the “bad” organization might be sympathetic to the enemy.

On the other side of the front, the characters will have to deal with refugees, people fleeing the army advance, suspicion from the “good” people, and all out chaos, especially if the “bad” guys are winning.

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Sign The PCs Up

From Travis

I would be looking at this from the point of view of the evil force aligned with the rulers. Firstly, a bunch of characters are normally very resourceful, and an evil power would more than likely try to persuade them to his side. If they like plunder (as they obviously do) then offer them some booty for performing more and more wrong deeds that effectively help the “Baddies”.

How would each character feel about blood money (essentially, that is what loot is)? Paladins and clerics should almost immediately start having a bad feeling about the whole idea.

What about a magical item to bend their will, placed into some loot for them to find? A curse that will only be released should they work with the evil powers. Another path might be providing misleading information planted in the PCs’ way to guide them to do the wrong things.

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Identification, Confiscation, Starvation

From Bill

Neat situation.

Is anyone going to notice the missing convoy the PCs captured? Is there anything key in it that will be missed? If so, what/who gets sent to retrieve it?

Do they have something to identify them? In a medieval society, the landed (i.e. armored) nobility more or less knew who each other were. During a war, they might actually receive those from the other side, under the right circumstances, as guests. However, people skulking about in disguise, once caught, are going to raise the alarm.

Any chance of confiscations? Historically, press gangs sought out recruits for the navy or army. No reason why, in a world with magical weapons, there wouldn’t be teams out confiscating those “for the war”.

Do they have food? What are the starving commoners that they are traveling near going to do if they see that?

Good luck with this! Bet it’s fun.

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Consider The Civilians

From Aki

Bribing the PCs to stay hooks the evil ones. Moral dilemmas could work nicely for the good guys.

A war-torn land would not only be PCs vs. homefront patrols, the latter of which would, for the most part, be far from the elite.

The civilian population could prove much more of a problem than actual efforts to stop the PCs from trespassing:

  • Units and individuals resting after a time on the frontlines
  • Wounded soldiers in convalescence
  • Elderly
  • Militia
  • Retired soldiers
  • Spies

A war-torn land is likely to have martial law in at least some areas. Curfews, civil rights even more limited than usual, xenophobia. Add a grueling taxation paid to keep the soldiers able to fight, storages confiscated, combat able people widely missing. Those most suited for labour are largely absent, while those that remain could be oppressed, poor, defenseless, worried sick, heart-broken with sorrow and loss, terrified, lonely, exhausted, hungry, ill, or all of the above. And certainly hungry for news.

And of course, there is propaganda. With the general level of ignorance, it could take rather ugly forms. As a slight sample, here’s the text of a pub sign that refers to a (genuine? fictive?) naval recruitment ad of King George III, who reigned from 1760-1820.

“Let us, who are Englishmen, protect and defend our good King and Country against the attempts of all Republicans and Levellers, and against the designs of our natural enemies, who intend in this year to invade old England, our happy country, to murder our gracious King as they have done their own;…to rob us of our Property, and teach us nothing but the damn’d art of murdering one another. If you love your country, and your liberty, now is the time to show your love. Repair all who have good hearts, who love their King, their country, and religion, who hate the French, and damn the Pope.”


In an evil nation, the town criers might give an even more hate-fostering message.

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Chase The PCs

From SoulLord

Unless the bad guy mistreats his people (and assuming they don’t know about him consorting with evil forces) the populace probably sees their war efforts as needed and just.

While at war, people will usually notice armored people who don’t wear the colors of the kingdom and will notify the proper authorities.

Based on this premise, and if what you want to motivate the PCs to flee, here are a few ideas:

  • Have the PCs encounter a small, armed militia (after being tipped off by the populace) who demands they surrender.
  • Once the fight starts have a couple of the militia flee to warn the army.
  • Send a regiment after the PCs. Make the soldiers advance slowly and loudly, blowing their battle horns and beating their drums, while they approach the PCs.
  • Have the PCs face a party of NPCs who defend the kingdom (i.e. an anti-party).
  • Have them face villagers armed with pitchforks and other crude weapons who are just trying to protect their country.
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From Mark

I would expect your PCs to run into other roving bands of opportunists. In fact, their group of five would probably be on the small side… Outlaws would grow bolder in the absence of the local lords, and mercenary companies whose contracts were up might be scrounging for food/plunder, traveling to a more active front, or even crossing over to fight for the enemy. The mercs in particular would be plausibly difficult opponents for your PCs.

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Spawn A New Plot: Revenge Of The Enemy Commander

From Andy

Here’s how I would play it. They PCs are conspicuous, sure, but in relative terms they’re a small group and should easily be able to avoid concentrated forces. “The Front” won’t be a solid line of forces, but large groups of soldiers holding major cities and crossroads. If the party sticks off-road, the only problem would be the occasional patrol. (Note that sticking off-road has its own set of not insignificant problems.)

The real kicker to me is that they’ve stolen war prizes. These, historically, were very important. They served to fuel the ongoing war and to prop up leaders. Field commanders who could generate a steady supply of loot often were able to fight the war on their own terms with less government interference, and this would often provide a great deal of prestige (even leading to the military commander overthrowing the current government).

With this in mind, the party’s main challenge could be an irate, evil army commander who has taken this theft very personally.

Instead of looking at this as how party has waylaid your adventure, you now have a chance to create an interesting new, powerful NPC with a personal grudge against the PCs. He comes after them, maybe personally, trying to track them down.

Maybe the party comes upon a village that has been ravaged and the villagers tortured by evil monsters, all in an effort to find info about the party.

On the flip side, maybe the current ruler fears this officer is growing too powerful and wants to see his humiliation succeed! Evil royal envoys are sent to assist the party’s escape! Will they accept the help? What would the party’s reaction be if the evil King wants them to succeed? Will the envoys betray their master and try to acquire the treasures for themselves?

Frankly, this sounds kind of cool to me…good luck, have fun!

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Thanks goes to all the thread contributors whose advice, directly or indirectly, formed this Tips issue:

Aki T Halme
Andy Cowell
Benkoe Pal
Chris Heismann
Chris J. Whitcomb
Garry Stahl
Mark Peterson
Paul Cardwell
Ross Tony Shingledecker
Shandy P. Smith
Travis B.

(I hope I didn’t forget anyone! If so, my apologies and send me a private email so I can add you to the list.)


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Campaign Quest Tips

From Kenneth Gauck

When beginning a campaign, there are several kinds of quests that can be part of the campaign backdrop.

Object Quests

One familiar kind of quest is the presence of some great object, such as the Holy Grail, that the players might begin to collect information on with the intent of one day obtaining it.

This is a familiar kind of quest. Players will take to it immediately, and it requires little in the way of trust or understanding between players and the referee. It’s only real drawback is that it may be so familiar to experienced players that it’s no longer as exiting as it once was.

This kind of quest can be varied so that the object sought is not a thing, but a secret word, such as the true name of a dragon, or it could be an idea, such as the secret to eternal happiness.

Make the object meaningful to the players. It’s easy to make an object powerful, but sometimes the best objects are those that have their own storied history, seem tailored to the character, or are especially interesting. Ideally, not every campaign hook will be a quest, and not every quest will be the same type.

Revenge Quests

A second kind of quest is the revenge campaign. Here, the party, or one or more PCs, quickly acquire a deep desire for revenge against someone who will be the main villain. There are some advantages to this kind of quest, namely that it instantly creates a rival for the party in the form of the villain. The Iliad is based on this kind of quest.

A quest of this kind requires some cooperation from the players, since at least one of them must roleplay a commitment to revenge, else one of the motivations for this campaign is lost. Such a quest will appeal more to role- playing players.

Romantic Quests

A third kind of quest is the romantic quest. Here, a PC has been separated from one he loves, either because his duty takes him away or because she is under the control of hostile forces. The PC seeks to overcome the obstacles that stand between them.

This kind of quest can be hard to arrange because the players must agree to several conditions. First, the player who is supposed to be in love must roleplay the affection that is the mainspring of the quest. Players normally like to be in control of their characters’ inner states, so referees can’t really use this kind of quest without cooperation.

Second, players must be willing to pursue unsuccessfully as long as the campaign’s needs demand. Of course, the campaign can move on to other goals, and it’s always possible that a PC might be reunited with his love only to be separated by new obstacles.

The romantic quests of literature are just as long and complicated as quests for revenge and objects. One can read the Odyssey as this kind of quest in which the hero is seeking not only his home, but his wife as well. Tristan and Isolde have a long and difficult quest, even though they are in close proximity.

This kind of quest requires a great deal of trust by the players in the referee’s judgement. They need to know that the campaign won’t just be failure and disappointment, but that even if their quest remains distant, they are either making progress or getting other kinds of rewards, perhaps acquiring allies or abilities that will make the solution to their quest easier. Another drawback is that this kind of quest tends to focus on one character.

Epic literature generally involves combinations of these three kinds of quests with a handsome dose of adventure. The Arthurian legends have the object quests for the Grail as well as Excalibur. They also have the revenge quests of Mordred and Morgan as well as other aggrieved figures who either pursue or are pursued by Arthur and his knights.

Then there is the romantic quest involving Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere. Specific knights sometimes have their own romantic or revenge quests. Likewise, the Iliad can be seen as all three in which Helen figures as the object as well as the romantic figure, and Paris as the revenge figure of the story.

Different characters can be given different motivations and separate quests that happen to overlap. This handily provides a pretext for the existence of the adventuring party. Imagine a villain, Jormungand, who killed the father of PC #1, stole the beloved of PC #2, and possesses some object desired by PC #3. Everyone has their own motivation and separate quests to fulfil, but everyone also has a common enemy and a reason to cooperate against him.

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Great NPC Deception Story

From I.C. Erickson

RT#216 – Traps Are People Too

In issue 216, Ian wrote that you could use NPCs as traps. This brought to mind an adventure I ran about 7 years ago with two NPCs in the party. The first was a greasy haired, shifty eyed, rat faced fighter. The other was an alluring and exotic female thief.

Neither of their professions was known to the party and they assumed the fighter to be a warrior and never guessed the female to be a thief. The warrior had been assigned to watch and observe by his employer, but not to interfere with the progress of the party. While he disobeyed and did help the party more then his orders would have allowed, his initial reluctance was always seen in a negative light.

The thief, whose motivations were always to hurt and steal from the group, always helped without question and quickly won the group over. The warrior and her never got along (further convincing the group he was not to be trusted). The thief played it up to this and continued to manipulate events until she convinced the group that the warrior was out to get them, and they sent him away.

Once her opposition was removed, she stabbed them all in the back (by leading them into an ambush with sabotaged gear), nearly got them all killed, and took off with a large chunk of loot.

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Magic Coin Debugged

From Mark C.

RT#216 – Traps Are People Too

Johnn, upon reading about the magic coin, I realized that this could be a seriously unbalancing magic item if the owner of the coin were clever enough.

It’s a basic binary logic puzzle.

  1. Start with the magic coin in an otherwise empty coin purse.
  2. Check it daily until there are two coins.
  3. Put one of the two coins in a different (empty) purse.
  4. Repeat step #2 on both purses.
  5. As soon as an additional coin appears in one of the coin purses, remove the single coin from the *other* purse (you can spend it now) and split up the 2 coins in the first purse. You’re back to step #3 now.
  6. Repeat steps 3 through 5 indefinitely, until you become sufficiently wealthy.

Even innocuous magic items can be used to exceptional effect by the sufficiently clever PC.

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Free Photoshop Substitute

From James Houston

Traps Are People Too

In issue #216, Jared Dyche submitted a tip for using Photoshop for game maps. I wanted to let him (and your readers) know about the “GIMP” (Gnu Image Manipulation Program). The GIMP is an open source image editor that supports most common image formats (including Photoshop psd files), utilizes layers, filters, and many of the other tools that make Photoshop so great. The GIMP runs on most linuxes/bsd/unixes, Windows, and Mac OS X (Yeah, I know it’s just another BSD!)

The official website provides more complete information than I can, so here are a couple links:

While not a complete Photoshop replacement for the hardcore graphic designer, the GIMP shines as a free alternative to Adobe’s $500 image editor. [Johnn: thanks also to Elena of Valhalla, Robert Uhl, Juanjo Aparicio, Bartlett, and Paul A who wrote in with the same great advice!]