Friday, January 20, 2017

New Dawn Session 2

Precis: In the second session of the New Dawn campaign, the PCs reorganize their army and strike north, until to discover the orcs are on the move. The group as a whole discovers some issues with the Mass Combat rules, and some fixes and retcons are performed after the game.

Cast of Characters
We're doing troupe style play, with each player controlling two characters. So half the cast from last time wasn't here. +Uhuk of the Guard was entirely absent due to some life concerns but she'll be back next week.
  • +Eric Schmidt's Trahaern ab Owen, a human master strategist.
  • +Eilmyn Davidson's Skyler Therris, a human reprobate, warrior, and general.
  • +Kevin Smyth's Aisling Mhic Muiris, a Nymph ambassador from the Fae court.
  • Kiara Schmidt's Greex "Wrongway", a cowardly kobold spymaster. 
Kevin recapped this session, too, for a view from a player's side.

The GM Makes Plans

I'd sent out some email to my players last Sunday, asking for some plans from them so I could prepare for the game. I didn't get much response, which rather annoyed me, but I rolled with it and came up with some plans.

Orcish movement: couriers in orange,
infantry in red, cavalry in brown.
Some of the orc survivors from the battle at the end of last session had managed to make it to the orcish fortress of Swartun, and I tried to figure out what the orcs would do. Their typical response would have been to have six to eight full companies garrisoning Swartun, and that force would sally out and eliminate the Resistance uprising. Unfortunately for the orcs, those companies had left the country, and there was only one company left at Swartun and another three within a few days march. So couriers were dispatched with orders, detachments were left at strongholds, and orcish infantry and cavalry marched back to Swartun and on to the town of Harbuck. At Harbuck, the infantry took up positions guarding the bridge, while the cavalry went south to perform a reconnaissance in force.

The PCs marched north on the same day the orcs arrived in Swartun, and ran into the cavalry force on the next day.

The Skirmish near Harbuck

As there were three PC commanders (Trahaern, Skyler, and Aisling), the PCs divided their forces into three groups according to my house rules. Aisling got most of the archery and artillery, while the other two had most of the infantry on the flanks. They faced off against 8 elements of orcish heavy cavalry (the lead elements of the four nearest orc companies) and 3 elements of goblin wolf riders (horse archers) acting as scouts.

The first round of combat was a little confusing: Trahaern on the left flank held his ground with his Gifted Commander: Stonewall advantage, while Aisling attempted to use her Gifted Commander: Cunning advantage to get some bonuses from an Indirect Attack. Skyler had the Gifted Commander: Death or Glory, which gives bonuses for Desperate and All-Out strategies, so he All-Out Attacked on the right flank: that's right, the pikemen charged the heavy cavalry. The orcs skirmished or raided, and soundly lost the round, taking some casualties.

The PCs pushed on the orcs on the second round, hoping to finish them off, but the orcs had done enough recon and realized they were outmatched and went into Full Retreat. The PCs caused some more casualties on the orcs, but not much more, and the orcs fled back to Harbuck.

The PCs could have pursued them, but infantry pursuing cavalry is a losing game, and decided to hold the field instead which reduced their casualties to 0%. There had been some bruising and a few of the troops disabled, but no deaths and nothing that effected the strength of the Resistance army. They spent the rest of the day resting and looting the battlefield.

The Battle of Harbuck

The next day, the Resistance army advanced to Harbuck, which was on the other side of a narrow bridge and guarded by two or three hundred orcs: cavalry, infantry, archers, and most noticeably, battle wizards. The PCs had a quick conference and decided they didn't want to force the bridge, but fortunately, there was a nearby ford that would let them safely to the other side of the river and hit the orcs from the side.

Trahaern got left with a token force to pin the orcs down while Skyler and Aisling took most of the army to the ford. Goblin wolfrider scouts spotted the PC army in motion, and the orcish cavalry sallied forth to block the ford.

I started to set up the battle at the ford, and while I was doing that, I noticed that remaining orc forces noticeably outnumbered Trahaern's blocking force. I figured that he was superior commander to the orc leader, especially on defense, but the orcs wouldn't know that, so having the orcs attack him would make sense from the orcs' perspective and keep a player in the game. It was a win-win, or so I thought.

Aisling and Skyler won the recon contest at the ford, and managed to make it an encounter battle, which prevented the orc cavalry from making an effective defense of the ford - basically, the Resistance army crossed significant forces before the orcs arrived. Aisling mixed it up with raids and indirect attacks, grinding the orcs down without taking any casualties, while Skyler charged all in again. Skyler's tactics triumphed, again, but his margin of victory was pretty low and he ended up taking nearly as many losses as he caused. Regardless, in three rounds, the remaining orcs were fleeing with the Resistance in hot pursuit.

The battle at the bridge did not go nearly so well. Four elements of Battle Mages gave the orcs overwhelming Fire, Artillery, and Command and Control advantage, to a degree I didn't really expect, and Trahaern got trounced on the first round, losing position and taking heavy casualties. He also rolled poorly in Misfortunes of War, not helped by the habitual high Risk modifier the PCs had adopted, and took enough injury to nearly knock him out. The orcs charged into his feigned retreat on the second round, but their massive position and class superiority bonuses and Trahaern's casualties meant that Trahaern took it on the chin, again. And another botched Misfortune of War caused even more injury to him, leaving him at almost -1xHP and a death check and certainly out of command. The captain of the artillery unit took over command and staged a credible retreat, but Trahaern's command took 60% casualties and failed to dislodge the orcs.

Overall, it was a dark day for the Resistance. Attriting the orcish cavalry wasn't worth splitting their army, taking substantial losses, and almost losing their best commander.

The Battle of Fiddler's Ridge

Skyler, Aisling, and Greex proceeded to move away from Harbuck and recruit some new resistance forces. The orcs pounced on them later that day. Thanks to some lucky rolls and destiny point spending by Greex, the PCs managed to ambush the orcs again. But once again, the massive class superiority bonuses provided by the orcish battle mages put the PCs into a losing situation: the PCs didn't do overwhelmingly well on the first round of the ambush, when they had the most advantages, and on the second round they were defeated and took much more casualties than the orcs. I stopped the game for lack of time before playing out the third round.

What Went Wrong

The Triumph of the Battle Mages

Mass Combat makes battle mages really potent: an element of battle wizards has the same base troop strength as an element of heavy cavalry, but the battle wizards also provide a host of class superiority bonuses. For structural reasons in the game background, the orcs have a limited number of wizards, but at this point, the PCs have none. Which results in the orcs having overwhelming class superiority in a couple of classes when the wizards are present at a battle, and the PCs having a hard time to defeat them.

Arguably, this is what supposed to happen in a fantasy world if you don't have wizards and the other side does: you lose, badly. But although I want wizards to be part of the game and not somewhat common, I don't want them to be so dominant that a single squad of wizards cancels a five to one advantage in numbers. I don't think the actual mechanics of GURPS make wizards that valuable, and I especially don't think the magic systems I'm using in the game (low point cost Divine Favor and Sorcery) make wizards that valuable. And just from a game balance perspective, there's no other unit where the absence or presence makes such a huge difference. If you don't any cavalry or pikemen and your opponent has cavalry, you're at a disadvantage, but you're not guaranteed to lose absent overwhelming advantages in troop numbers, strategy, and circumstances. But if you don't have wizards and your opponent does, you'll lose even if you're the better general with more troops.

Too Many Battles

This was more a question of pacing, and something of a minor issue, but there was too many battles and not enough other stuff in the game. Three battles in a session took up all the time and turned the game into more of a wargame with cumbersome mechanics than a role-playing game with the occasional battle.

I'm less upset about this problem. I mean, it was a problem, but we're learning the rules of Mass Combat and I've never ran a game anything like this before. I'll have to figure out how to address it in the future, but I think it's just a question of pacing and plotting that will get resolved with more experience. I just want to point it out for other GMs that are planing Mass Combat games: think about how you're going to pace the battles so they're an occasional climax of a session, not the dominating factor in every game.

What Went Right

A lot of things went wrong this session, but nevertheless, some things went well. The multifront battle rules worked really well, and kept all the PC commanders engaged throughout the game. The Gifted Commander advantage worked very well for my purposes: each of the PC commanders has preferred strategies and a different approach to command, and will sometimes do possibly subpar things in pursuit of those bonuses. And the Misfortunes of War rules demonstrated that there is some risk to acting aggressively heroic all the time.

Another thing that went well but didn't show up in the write-up was having the different orc commanders have different skills. Captain Erigash had Strategy-9, while Captain Krauk had Strategy-13, so when the PCs knew they were fighting Erigash again, they were willing to try riskier strategies because the odds were in their favor. As the PCs start fighting even better enemy commanders, ones with Gifted Commander and command perks of their own, I think the game will become even more interesting.
The Battle of Harbuck, in crude pictures. Margin of success in bright red,
positional bonuses in green, casualties in dark red.
You can see Trahaern's force on the left get ground down on successive rounds.

Finally, for this session, I started drawing rough little maps of each battle. The maps were really crude, but I could write down each side's margin of victory, casualties, and positional bonus gain each round. They were a helpful reminder in play and very useful (along with the chat log of die rolls) in reconstructing the battles afterward.

Righting What Was Wrong

Kevin and I had a brief chat after the game about the power of mages. We batted around some ideas, but the general feeling was that battle mages had too much Troop Strength and way too many class specials. It's possible that mages, as a group, could usefully contribute to artillery support, general ranged attacks, long distance communication and intelligence, and local reconnaissance operations, but our experience was that any given wizard couldn't do all of those things. We also felt that the Resistance needed at least some wizards to help level the playing field.

The eventual house rule was to split wizards into two troop types: Battle Wizards with TS 3, Artillery, and Fire, and Support Wizards with TS 3, C3I, and Recon. The reduced TS would make wizards less critical, and splitting the roles meant a single wizard unit couldn't provide superiority in four classes. Instead, wizards were more like horse archers or rifle skirmishers: they provided a couple of class superiorities in a compact package, but they weren't game changers that everyone had to have.

I also reviewed my notes, and realized that the orcs were only supposed to have 2 elements of wizards at Harbuck, not 4. I don't know much difference that would have made, but it certainly contributed to the problem. I also assigned an element of support wizards to Trahaern's force.

I then reran the Trahaern's portion of the Battle of Harbuck, using the rough maps and the chat logs to recreate the decisions and die rolls from the original. With fewer and weaker wizards and a little arcane backup of his own, Trahaern went from losing the first round to barely winning it. With less casualties and no loss of position from the first round, he went from decisively losing the second round to decisively winning it. Ironically, the change in fortunes didn't change his Misfortunes of War, and he still fell unconscious after the second round, allowing the orcs to flee. But this time, the orcs were dislodged from Harbuck with 80% casualties, not sitting pretty with 20% casualties.

So I retconned the battle, and left the situation with some dispirited orcish troops huddled in the woods north of Harbuck, while the PCs controlled Harbuck and had a plethora of possible targets.

What Next

Next week, we're going to do a micro-dungeon delve with the other characters. It's not the most elegant way to break up the pacing, but it will be a change of pace and give everyone an opportunity to do some stuff with their other characters. It should be interesting, and since I'm much more experienced with running dungeon delves, hopefully I won't bolix it up the way I did this session.


  1. "But if you don't have wizards and your opponent does, you'll lose even if you're the better general with more troops."

    I find that to be true in tactical fights in GURPS, using GURPS Magic - there are too many "I can do this to you, and you can't stop me and can't recover from it" effects to magic. It doesn't take a lot of magic on one side to make it a decisive advantage, especially if the other side has none. That might not fit your game, but it does sound about right - one side has magic, one side does not, so the latter side loses the vast majority of the time. It's why, in my Felltower game, I made sure to spread magic around freely. Orcs and gnolls and so on don't have 1-2 spellcasters per 30-300 tribe members, they have dozens of minor workers so the PCs wizards need to counter them.

    1. Like I mentioned in the text, we're using Sorcery and Divine Favor. 70-80 points of spellcasting advantages and skills with Standard Magic makes you a pretty potent spell caster, with an array of varied and powerful tricks. 70-80 points of Divine Favor or Sorcery gives you about 4 tricks, maybe, that aren't that powerful.

      It was actually your notes from the Felltower game that made me add a detachment of Battlemages to the orc companies - the orcs do have 5 spellcasters for every 105 orcs, so it's likely the PCs will have to deal with them a lot. It's just that the PCs don't have many wizards yet of their own, especially not in relation to their total forces.

  2. I'm watching this campaign with interest. This session report was fun, and the reflections you offer at the end are very useful - I'll certainly be keeping them in mind if I end up rolling some Mass Combat into my current game, which is not beyond the bounds of plausibility. I very much like the "Battle Wizard" vs "Support Wizard" distinction: that seems to solve the problem in a simple and reasonable way.

    One query. At the end, you say "With fewer and weaker wizards and a little arcane backup of his own, Trahaern went from losing the first round to barely winning it. With less casualties and no loss of position from the first round, he went from decisively losing the second round to decisively losing it."

    Should those last two words be "winning it"? If not, I think I must have misunderstood something...

    In any case, sounds like a fun session!

    1. That was a typo; thanks for pointing it out and thanks for the kind words.