Large-scale combat in narrativist RPGs
In our local Burning Wheel game, I’ve been playing Gerd, the leader of a band of merceneries trying to defend the town from Duke Wilhelm. At GenCon, we played in Luke’s Burning Empires demo, where I was the leader of the Kerrn guerillas fighting for the freedom of his people on the icy moon.
In other words, in both games, I was playing “military leader-types”. In both games, I feel that Burning Wheel’s mechanics dealt with this poorly.
As far as I can tell, there are two basic frameworks for these kinds of games: mostly story and mostly tactics. I think, in general, I prefer the former, but set that aside for now. Examples of “mostly story” would be The Pool, Capes, maybe Dogs in the Vineyard: You don’t have an explicit “lead armies” stat, you don’t have a rules chapter dealing with “large army combat”; you just have some kind of “leadership” stat, and that’s all the matters. Set stakes like, “Defeat my opponent in battle”, roll dice, and maybe you’re done. You can even solve this more creatively – maybe you hire an assassin to take out the other general covertly; you still don’t roll combat for the assassin, hiring him is as good as using him, is as good as victory.
“Mostly tactics” games tend to have stats for armies, chapter headings like “Large Army Quick Combat”, and other things that, while simplifying the procedure somewhat, tend to produce tactical decisions, and lots of die-rolling. These frequently fall back on the hobby’s miniature/war-gaming roots (Chainmail), for better or for worse.
The problem I have with Burning Wheel/Burning Empires, then, is that it is, at its core, a tactical war-game, despite all the narrativist stuff on the fringes. However, despite this, it has no explicit “leadership” mechanics, or large-army mechanics, and thereby no tactical decision-making can be applied to large-scale combat. This is particularly frustrating, as the major role-playing momentum is often rather “story-oriented”, leading blindly down a mechanic-free alley.
Let me give an example: We all know the fight is coming, our armies will clash on the battlefield in a few rounds. As a player, all I know is that this will ultimately come down to a few die rolls, so I want as big a bonus as I can get. I’ve got a Strategy stat, let’s figure out some strategy. (Again, in a more strictly nar game, this might be the only roll: the better strategy will win the battle. Here, I’m pushing for advantage dice, at best.) Or, maybe I pull a Resources roll to drum up some more mercenaries. Or maybe a Circles roll to invent an NPC smuggler to steal their supplies. Or maybe an Oratory roll to give my troops the Big Rousing Speech before battle.
In Burning Wheel, this doesn’t really matter. The details are all story: I can Circles in that smuggler, steal “the supplies”, but that doesn’t win the battle – most likely, it’s +1 die on the big roll at the end. (Actually, in most cases I’ve seen, it’s a +1 die on one of the big rolls at the end.) This isn’t, by itself so terrible, the problem I have, is that the tactics and/or details don’t really matter. The “what” of what I’m narrating doesn’t make a specific difference in the outcome – drumming up more troops isn’t any better or different than strategically better terrain, smuggling supplies isn’t better or different than a big rousing speech.
And the GM doesn’t have to grant you the bonus at all. In our Burning Empires game, Liz went to some effort to steal supplies from the opposing army. What bonus did we get? None: If Liz hadn’t done that, Luke declared, we wouldn’t have had weapons at all. (I suppose if we’d narrated that in explicity, beforehand, I’d be okay with that, but all ex-post-facto like that rubs me the wrong way.) I realize there’s always an element of this in any “please the GM” game, but this is explicitly why we have game rules, yes? The old “I have a force-field!” “I have force-field penetrating bullets!” schoolyard games kinda, uh, suck?
Even when the outcome works in my favor, I’m left feeling as though the details were pointless. And regardless of whether the ultimate goal is tactics or story, as a player, I want to feel that my choices matter: win or lose, I want to be able to say “I should’ve tried… I’m really glad I… that (would’ve) made the difference.”
I suspect there are two solutions: add tactics or ignore tactics. For the “color” bits to have tactical weight, there would need to be explicit (and explicitly different) bonus for certain kinds of narration, or story “facts”. Some kind of guide, at the very least: Who has the larger army? +2, or +4 if the difference is greater than X. Who has more knowledge of the terrain? +1, or +2 if they’ve been here more than X.
I suspect I’d be happier all around with the “ignore tactics” game, pushing things further into the narrativist milieu (set stakes, roll appropriate stats – Strategy, Circles, Resources, whatever – and just “win” right away), but this threatens a system does matter rant: If I have to tweak Burning Wheel to make it The Pool, why aren’t I just playing The Pool anyway?