Saturday, November 12, 2016

Gathering Intelligence in GURPS Mass Combat

The role of intelligence chief in GURPS Mass Combat is pretty boring: you roll the dice in the reconnaissance contest, which can have meaningful effects in the battle, but you don't make any decisions. It would be better if the intelligence chief could actually go out and gather intelligence: who is the enemy commander? what are his goals? how many troops does he have? what strategies does he favor in battle? how good a commander is he? There are the kinds of questions that influence strategy.

Fortunately, GURPS already has a fairly robust system for gathering clues and making deductions from them: it's the Investigation system in Monster Hunters: the Mission. It's not a 100% match for a fantasy mass combat game like New Dawn, but I think the concept can be modified to fit. And the concept of having the intelligence chief gather intelligence in a fantasy game can be generalized for all Mass Combat games.

Gathering Intelligence

An intelligence chief creates intelligence by making deductions from data. Deductions answer questions like the size of the enemy force, the skill of the enemy commander, the objective of the enemy operations, and the like. Deductions are earned by successful skill rolls against Intelligence Analysis, usually heavily penalized. Those penalties can be minimized by gathering data. Data is gathered through investigating sources, such as reading history or interrogating prisoners. When the intelligence chief feels he has enough data, he can attempt a deduction. Repeated attempts are possible, but are penalized, so it helps to gather more data between attempts.

Data and Sources

Each piece of data removes a -1 penalty on the deduction roll. Data can be gathered from a variety of sources, usually through a skill roll. Repeated attempts at the same source are at a cumulative -4. The intelligence chief doesn't have to gather all the data himself: he can use data gathered by other people at no bonus or penalty.


Military history can provide information about a famous commander's abilities, preferred strategies, and skills. Roll Research or History with a bonus or penalty for the fame or obscurity of the commander. Gain a bonus for a better library. Earn one piece of data for success and another piece for every two points of MoS.

If the enemy commander or any of his known troops are supernatural, then Hidden Lore, Occultism, Theology, and Thaumotology can be used to gather data about the abilities of the commander or the qualities of the troops. Gain a bonus or penalty for the fame or obscurity of the subject, but Occultism halves bonuses and doubles penalties. Earn one piece of data for success and another piece for every two points of MoS.

In a high-tech game, Computer Operation and Computer Hacking can be used as complementary skills on any research attempt. Success on Computer Operation gives a +1 on the research roll. Computer Hacking can be used to access secure data bases for better information: for every -2 penalty taken on the Computer Hacking roll, gain a +1 bonus of the research roll.


Interrogating witnesses and enemy prisoners is the best way to gain data, but it can be very difficult.

Interrogating a friendly or neutral witness can give data about type and number of enemy troops that the witness has seen. Roll versus Interrogation, with Detect Lies and Diplomacy as complementary skills. Earn one piece of data for success and another piece for every two points of MoS. Repeated interrogations of eyewitnesses of the same force are at a non-cumulative -4.

Interrogating a prisoner is more difficult but more valuable. Rank 0-2 prisoners can provide data about the type and number of enemy troops and the enemy commander's goals. Higher rank prisoners also provide that data but can also provide data about any other topic. Roll contest of Interrogation versus the prisoner's Will, with Detect Lies, Intimidation, and Psychology (Applied) as complementary skills. Earn one piece of data for success, a bonus piece for the prisoner's rank, and another piece for every point of MoS. Interrogating multiple members of the same unit are at a non-cumulative -4.

Special Abilities

Various advantages, spells, prayers can be used to gather data. The possibilities are pretty wide. Successful use of any any provides one appropriate piece of data per 5 points of ability cost. Unresisted abilities that have a success roll gain another piece of data on success and another piece per two points of MoS. Contest abilities gather another piece of data on success and another per point of MoS. The types of data depend on the ability used, but are generally pretty far-ranging.

Examples: Mina uses her Channeling ability to contact the spirit of a general defeated by the enemy commander. She rolls Will, at +2 for her auto-trance ability, and gets complementary bonuses for Detect Lies and Diplomacy. She'll earn three pieces of data on success (2 for Channeling being worth 10 points and one for the success) and another for every two points of MoS, and can gather data on the enemy leader's abilities and preferred strategies. If she'd used her Mind Probe ability instead, it would have been a contest of Interrogation versus Will and she'd have earned 5 pieces of data on success and one more per point of MoS.

Anyone who has data can think about it to gather further inferences. This is a Meditation roll at -5, with a +1 bonus per piece of data already available. Gain one additional piece of data on success. This can only be done once per question.

Intelligence Coups

Intelligence coups are unpredictable events that provide significant data, such as capturing an enemy courier with orders from the capital or stealing a paymaster's logbook. Coups are always reconnaissance adventures (Mass Combat 30) and produce 10 pieces of data to answer an appropriate question. Coups provide a lot of data, but are still subject to analysis and can be misinterpreted.

Questions and Deductions

At any time, the intelligence chief can analyze the data and attempt a deduction to answer one of the following questions. Each question is penalized, and each piece of data relevant to the question removes a point of penalty. On success, the GM answers the question exactly. On failure, the GM provides an incorrect answer as determined by the question. Repeated deductions are at -2, and failures always give the previous result, except critical failures give a new result.

Complementary Skills
Answer on Success
Range on Failure
What are commander's personal special abilities?-5Occultism, Psychology (Applied)Any Gifted Commander advantages, any advantages or disadvantages with a power modifier, any racial template advantages or disadvantages1d random Gifted Commander or racial templates, capped by MoF
How skilled is the enemy commander?-10StrategyEnemy commander's strategy skillEnemy commander's strategy skill +/- 2d capped by MoF
What is the enemy commander's preferred battle strategy?-10StrategyEnemy commander's preferred strategyA similar strategy is MoF if 5 or less, or a random strategy
What is the enemy commander's objective?-10Psychology (Applied), StrategyEnemy commander's objectiveA similar objective if MoF is 5 or less, or a random objective
How skilled is the enemy commander?-10Psychology (Applied), StrategyEnemy commander's strategy skillEnemy commander's strategy skill +/- 2d capped by MoF
How many troops and of what types are in the enemy force?-6AdministrationList of element types and countList of element types and counts, with each count +/- 2d*10%, capped by MoF
What is the quality of the enemy force?-8AdministrationList of enemy elements and their equipment and troop qualityList of enemy elements, with gear and troop quality increased or decreased by up to one level per 3 MoF

Critical success on any deduction generates 3 pieces of data that can be applied to answer any one question as the intelligence chief manages to deduce additional information from the answer.


My initial inspiration for this was Glen Cook's Black Company books. At the start of the books, the Black Company is hired on by an evil empire and finds themselves engaged in feuds among the mysterious sorcerers known as the Taken. The Company doesn't even know the names, much less the abilities of the Taken or their armies at the start of the story, and that air of intrigue is something I want to reproduce in New Dawn.

As I thought about it more, I realized that the intelligence chief is a boring role. The solution is to let the intelligence chief actually gather intelligence, using the traditional methods of research and interrogation. I should probably add a section for high-tech signals intelligence, but honestly that's both complicated and outside my immediate needs so I'm not going to.

As I said, I started with the Investigation framework for Monster Hunters. One significant change I made was turning deductions from something that happened every time someone found a clue (as happens in Monster Hunters) to something that only happened when the intelligence chief decided to attempt a deduction. My limited experience with Monsters Hunters was that a deduction per PC per clue meant that the power of iterative rolling allowed the PCs to deduce even very complicated puzzles through the sheer luck of someone critically succeeded. With 6 PCs, it only took 4-5 clues for someone to critically succeed, which meant puzzles could be solved during the first investigative scene. Shifting that deduction - with penalties for retrying, which means repeated attempts rarely give better results - to a decision on the PC's part should hopefully improve play.

The assumption is that the intelligence chief will generally fail his analysis, but hopefully with a small margin of failure and nearly correct results. I think this is an easier approach than Monster Hunter's requiring large margins of success to fully deduce information.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Multifront Battles in GURPS Mass Combat

My experience in running games is that if you have some kind of battle mini-game in which multiple people are on the same side but only one player gets to make significant choices, then the players who don't get to make choices are going to find it very boring. The example that sticks in my mind is a Star Wars game I ran when multiple PCs jumped into a single large starfighter: one PC was the pilot, and got to maneuver the ship and fire weapons, and other PCs were secondary gunners, the damage control engineer, and the the guy who ran the shields. The pilot had a reasonably degree of fun maneuvering the ship, dodging enemy fire, and shooting enemy fighters. The secondary gunner had some fun shooting enemy fighters. The engineer and the shield operator, even though they nominally had decisions to make and got to roll the dice every turn, became bored very quickly.

I bring this up because I'm thinking about running a GURPS game about Mass Combat. In GURPS Mass Combat, there's normally one commander who decides the strategy and rolls the dice, and any other PCs can choose the amount of risk they want to take for significant action that might affect the battle but otherwise aren't making big decisions. My expectation is that for the players who are interested in Mass Combat at all, that the only fun position will be the commander and choosing risk and attempting significant actions will be at best a sad consolation prize. The way to keep everyone interested is to split a single battle with a single commander on each size into multiple fronts, one per PC commander. That way, everyone gets to make important decisions.

Mass Combat has some rules for running three-sided battles and subordinate commands (Mass Combat p40-41). Ironically, they advise merging multiple allied sides into a single unified command, so I'm going to disregard that advice and come up with my own house rules.
It's the historical solution, really.

Multifront Commands

These rules apply when multiple PC commanders are attached to the same force that is campaigning as one unit. These rules obviously don't apply if the PCs are each commander a force that is campaigning separately, as obviously those forces are going to encounter different enemy forces at different times with different reconnaissance contests.

A force with multiple PC commanders has to have a single overall commander and intelligence chief during reconnaissance operations. It only splits into multiple fronts when the battle is joined. After that, each front is a separate battle for purposes of calculating troop strength and class superiority, defense bonuses, positional bonuses, casualties, and the like.

Dividing Forces at the Start

Before the first round of combat, the PCs need to split their forces into individual fronts and assign a commander PC to each front. They can do this however they want: equal split of all forces, assign one player all the cavalry and split the rest, give one player all the units of the same race in a multi-racial force, whatever. The only restrictions are that each PC needs to have enough units to be interesting: preferably at least 10 units. Players need to work out the details among themselves, with the overall commander having final say aside from a GM veto in the unlikely event that people are being jerks.

The GM also needs to divide the enemy force as he sees fit, based on the personality of the overall enemy commander. One enemy commander can be assigned to multiple fronts, or subordinate commanders can be created and assigned, as appropriate. In general, each front should have a proportional share of the total enemy force relative to the share of the PCs' forces in the front, but the GM can make decisions as he sees fit: he can assign all the Marine troops to the river crossing in one front and all the cavalry to another front, if that's an appropriate decision for the NPC commander.

The side that lost the reconnaissance contest divides their troops first, and the side that won responds to that division based on the initial intelligence for the battle type (Mass Combat 30). In the case of a tie, the players split their forces first but can reassign entire fronts after the GM has split his forces.

Fighting the Battles

Each front is its own separate battle, and the decisions in one front have no effect in another front. It's possible for a PC commander to win an overwhelming victory and wrack up +8 in PB on one front while an allied commander is slowly losing ground in another front.

One exception to this rule is the length of the battle round, which is determined by the total size of the smaller force involved, not the smallest force in any given front. So if the smaller force is 1500 elements, then each battle round is 2 hours, even if the smallest force in a front is only 5 elements.

Transferring Troops and Collapsed Fronts

After any round of battle, troops can be transferred between fronts freely. Troops get the PB of the front they move into and calculate casualties as the worse of the front they left and the front they're moving into. Calculate TS and class superiority normally based on the new troops in the front.

A front is collapsed if it has taken 100% casualties, or has won or tied after choosing the Fighting Retreat strategy, or has completed a Full Retreat strategy. An enemy with a collapsed front MUST reinforce with fresh troops, since there's still a PC that needs to fight. The reinforcing troops calculate casualties and PB normally, to a maximum of -50% casualties for the reinforcements and +5 PB for the other side. A PC with a collapsed front can either get reinforcements, using the above rules, or sit out the rest of the battle in which case any enemy troops in his former front can be moved to other fronts. This doesn't apply if all fronts on a side are in collapse at the end of the same round: the battle is over and the pursuit can possibly begin.

Note that it is legitimate to have multiple fronts Retreat while one front remains fighting a rear guard action to hold up pursuit. This is generally pretty rough on the troops fighting the rear guard.


Any commander on any front may start a Parley, but the Parley only occurs if all commanders on all fronts agree to it. If a Parley attempt fails, only the commander who started the Parley takes the penalized Defense strategy, not all commanders on his side.


In a multifront siege, some fronts may be involved in Deliberate Attacks against Deliberate Defenses (called "siegework") while other fronts may choose different strategies (called "activity"). Split each siegework battle round into 6 segmented battle rounds during which activity can take place. Only roll for the siegework battle strategies at the end of the 6 segmented rounds, and only if the forces involved in the front performed siegework for at least 4 of the 6 segments. If a front did activity for three or more segments, treat any segments that were intended to be siegework as though the attacker had chosen the Attack strategy and the defender the Defense strategy and resolve them all at once after the six battle round.

Example: Rachel, Derick, and Will are PC commanders besieging the Ebon Citadel. Rachel and her opponent choose Deliberate Attack and Deliberate Defense, each, for all 6 segments. Derick starts by performing an Indirect Attack into his opponent's Deliberate Defense on the first segment, then tries a Deliberate Attack against his opponent's Mobile Defense on the second segment, and then both switch to Deliberate Attacks and Defenses for the last four segments. Will chooses Deliberate Attack for all six segments, and his opponents chooses Deliberate Defense for the first three segments, but then chooses to Raid for the last three segments. Derick's Indirect Attack versus a Deliberate Defense is resolved immediately, followed by his Deliberate Attack versus his opponent's Mobile Defense, followed by a single Deliberate Attack versus a Deliberate Defense at the same time that Rachel's Deliberate Attack versus a Deliberate Defense is resolved. Will separately resolves three Attacks against three Defenses and then three Deliberate Attacks against three Raids because his troops were not able to spend enough time making Deliberate Attacks.

Friday, November 4, 2016

New Dawn: A Mass Battles Campaign Concept

I'm not dead. I just haven't managed to write anything for a while.

I'm still running Nu World. I'll write up the many sessions that I've run sooner or later. It's been a fun game, though sometimes frustrating.

Today, I want to jot down some thoughts about the next campaign I'd like to run. I don't know if I will run it, but I'd like to.

New Dawn

Some time in the early noughts, there was a D&D setting (called the Midnight) that was basically Middle Earth, but only if Sauron had won. The concept was that the PCs would be the resistance, striking back against the orcish oppressors. It was a neat concept, but it didn't mesh very well with D&D3e mechanics and never really went anywhere. It's something that could work pretty well in GURPS, I think.

Another thing that's been on my mind recently is GURPS Mass Combat. It's one of the neater yet more useless supplements for GURPS: a reasonably playable system for conducting large scale battles in GURPS, determining the outcomes, and finding out how they affect the PCs. It's mechanically interesting, well researched, and probably pretty playable, but I've never had a GURPS campaign where it would be useful. I'd like to justify my purchase of that book, so obviously I need to come up with a campaign concept that centers around mass battles.

The Pitch

Centuries ago, valiant heroes strove to defeat the Dark Lord. They failed, and his dread empire conquered the civilized lands. Hundreds of uprisings and rebellions have been launched against the Dark Lord, but he and his minions have triumphed over them and launched savage reprisals. These days, the Resistance consists of little more than scattered cells, training in secret and hoarding their last few weapons of war.

Rumors speak of great events: turmoil in the capitol, including the death of the Dark Lord himself at the hands of his lieutenants. It is said that brave souls in the Isenmarch have successfully slain the governor there, and once again free men administer their own lands. If the Resistance has succeeded once, it may succeed again. You and your comrades are brave, cunning, and determined. Can you overthrow the Shadow and make a new dawn for freedom?

Character Roles

New Dawn supports 5 niches:
  • The General: High levels of Leadership, Strategy, and Tactics, probably some Luck and Charisma, and stuff like that. The overall battlefield commander of the Resistance forces and the PC that has to understand the Mass Combat rules the most.
  • The Spymaster: High levels of Intelligence Analysis. Does Intelligence Analysis stuff in the Mass Combat minigame and is probably some kind of Face, Assassin, or Archer in personal combat.
  • The Spellcaster: Every adventuring party needs someone who does magic. Probably doesn't directly contribute to the Mass Combat minigame.
  • The Champion: The best melee fighter of the adventuring band. Contributes to Mass Combat through individual heroic action.
  • The Scout: The best ranged fighter and sneaky observer of the adventuring band. Contributes to Mass Combat through individual heroic action during the Reconnaissance phase.
There's another specialty, the Quartermaster, which could be picked up by anyone because it's pretty boring.

Depending on people's preferences, the Scout and the Spymaster could be consolidated together, as could the General and the Champion. It might also be possible to have two Spellcasters with different specialties.

The Funnel

I'm considering starting with a funnel: each players creates 4 or so characters worth 60-150 points (exact level to be determined), equips them with leather armor and wooden farming implements, and then goes and ambushes a half dozen orcs in heavy mail with battle axes. The most memorable survivors get promoted to one of the above niches. I think it could be fun, but it could be really grim.

Even if I don't do the funnel, starting characters are going to have pretty minimal equipment: no metal items, all weapons converted from farming equipment, stuff like that.


I don't know if this is how I'd like to handle magic in the game, but this is how I'd like to do it:
There's a distinction between arcane magic and divine magic, but not it terms of what they can do. Arcane mages can heal, divine mages can blast people with fireballs. The difference is in how they learn and how often they can do stuff: arcane casters learn from books and reliably cast many small effects each day, while divine casters simply pray and unreliably do a few large effects each day.

Basically, arcane casters use College Ritual Book magic or something like it, while divine casters use Divine Favor (but probably can't get Learned Prayers. Maybe. Still thinking about it).

There are two gotchas in the magic scheme. First, the Resistance doesn't know the names, rituals, or theology of any friendly deities, so there aren't any Divine casters in the Resistance until people quest for that information. Obviously, Team Evil has its own deities that provide Divine Favor. Second, using arcane magic to directly or indirectly harm someone* causes corruption, so Resistance Wizards either need to be buffers and supporters or accept that they're going to slowly go crazy. I think it's a neat idea, and something I've tried in other games, but my experience is that players hate that.

* I'd probably expand that to violations of any of the 7 laws of magic from the Dresden Books: No harming people, shapechanging, reading or control minds, necromancy, time travel, or demon summoning.

Basic Plot

This is a rough outline for the first few sessions:
  1. Ambush the patrol orc: The Resistance kills some orcs to get some steel weapons
  2. Defeat the Local Garrison: The Resistance recruits farmers from the nearby villages, and then fights 100 or so orcs. This is the first Mass Combat.
  3. Expansion: The Resistance improves its troops, suborns villages that are farther away, etc. At some point a larger orc army shows up and has to be defeated.
From then on, the game shifts between individual action around diplomacy to get new allies, quests to find rare artifacts, and that kind of stuff; and mass battles when orc armies attack or are attacked. At some point, someone in the Dark Lord's capitol is going to get their act together enough to send a large, prepared army out to destroy the Resistance.

Open Issues

This is still a work in progress. Things I need to figure out below.
  • Multiple commanders and multiple fights? Having one guy, the General, make all the decisions in Mass Combat might be annoying for the other players. On the other hand, maybe only one or two people even want to deal with the Mass Combat system, so that might be a virtue. If several people want to make Mass Combat decisions, the best thing to do might be to split up the forces into one front per player and then split up the enemy forces. Mass Combat assumes fixed forces through the length of a battle, so I'd have to make up some rules for reassigning forces between fronts and stuff like that. 
  • Point levels and templates. This is another one of those situations when Dungeon Fantasy is a good inspiration, but can't be used without modifications. I'm thinking 125-150 point base templates plus a 75-50 point lens to make the Resistance leaders 200 points to start, but more or less might be appropriate.
  • Magic: I like rare magic, but people might feel otherwise. On the other hand, in the Castle of Horrors game, there was overwhelming support for rare but interesting magic instead of common magic.
  • Races: My vague thought is to limit the initial Resistance members of humans, halflings, half-orcs, and half-elves, and then make everything else unlockable through quests. I'm not sure how useful that is in an RPG - you can't exactly decide to stop being the human General and switch to an Elf Spymaster halfway through the campaign.
  • 5 Niches, four of which doesn't really do much in Mass Combat, is maybe not so good for a game focused on Mass Combat. This goes back to the question of how many people actually want to be picking Strategies and calculating Troop Strength? It'd be great if there was a good way to distinguish two Generals, for instance. Maybe something could be done with Higher Purpose? "Higher Purpose: Hold the Line" would give a +1 on Defense Strategies, while "Higher Purpose: Cavalry Commander: gives the bonus for Mobile Defense, Raid, Skirmish, and Indirect Attack. That might work.
  • A map. Usually I kind of fudge the map details, figuring they can be developed in play, but if you're part of an expanding empire that stuff needs to be known in advance.

Campaign Wiki

I've started a campaign wiki for Empire Of Night: New Dawn. I don't know if I'll run this game but it doesn't hurt to be prepared.