Saturday, June 24, 2017

New Dawn Sessions 17-20: The Liberation of Hanist

Precis: Two new players are introduced as the PCs in my Fantasy Mass Combat game finally liberate their home nation by defeating two massive orc armies.

I've been running my GURPS Fantasy Mass Combat game New Dawn for the last six months. There's been some changes in the player roster, but we're mostly settled down again and having a good time.

The last four sessions have focused on the final elimination of the orc threat from Hanist, which has taken a surprisingly long time. I thought it would take two sessions, but it's been four and could go to five.

Cast of Characters

New Dawn is a troupe style game, with each player having two characters. One team primarily does military stuff; the other team has been doing delving and diplomacy but is branching out into military raids as the PCs become Mass Combat units in their own right.

The Army Team is usually
  • +Uhuk of the Guard's Attivi Valar - A budding sorcerer who's got tired of passive resistance.
  • +Eric Schmidt's Trahaern ab Owen - A war leader and brewer who has been waiting for his chance to kill orcs.
  • +Kevin Smyth's Aisling Mhic Muiris - A Sidhe war-leader and diplomat sent by the Fae Court to aid the Resistance.
    • Gharza Brokentooth - An orc sergeant and leader of some routed orcs
    • Rigar Gloomfang - An orc colonel and leader of other routed orcs
  • Kiara Schmidt's Greex "Wrongway" - Kobold spymaster and thief determined to lead his people to freedom.
    • Greex "Toadstool" and Brula "Bignose" - Two kobolds seeking justice
The army team only has 4 members because the new players haven't created their second set of characters.

The Covert Action/Delving/Diplomacy/Direct Action team is usually
Both teams were present in these sessions, switching in and out as we focused on various things.

In session 20, Ben Zittere joined us and played some of the NPCs. I was not certain that having someone else play some of my PCs was going to work, but it turned out to be really fun.

Resting Up, Making Plans

After the previous sessions, the players decided that they would take a break until the end of May in-game. This would allow them to give their tired armies a break, reorganize them, and let the first batch of new recruits finish training and report for duty. I warned them that the orcs would take the opportunity to do some movement of their own, but they said they were fine with that.

By this point in the game, I was beginning to feel that the PCs weren't being challenged enough fighting a couple of orc garrison companies at a time. My original notes for the game had a very vague plan of having the PCs fight partial companies, then lone companies, then groups of companies, then regiments, then legions as they worked their way up the Sorting Algorithm of Evil. For some reason, I decided that was a a bad plan and skipped past the regiments step to groups of regiments.

I started by creating a new map of the entire western theater of the war. The new map was at a large enough scale that individual villages and orc strongholds disappeared: all that mattered were counties and orc fortresses. Then I plotted out some movement for the orcs: about 2000 orcs in the northern half of the country moved to northern citadel of Landzby, while 3500 orcs in the south moved into the fortress of Rundbord. I generated commanders for the orcs - the northern orcs under Colonel Rolg were cursed with a Megalomaniac Lazy Bully with so-so strategic skills, while the southern orcs under Colonel Prulo had a mostly sane and defensive minded commander. The northern orcs had access to better roads and learned about the PCs' takeover of the capitol first, so even though their commander was lazy, they assembled first and were ready to move out on June 1st; the southern orcs weren't assembled until the 7th and didn't move out until the 11th.

The great thing about doing all this was that the orcs had plans that were established before I knew what the PCs were going to do. They weren't necessarily good plans, but they were plans. The northern orcs were going to make a leisurely march down to Ravenrock, which was still in orcish hands at the time, and cross the river on June 5th, besiege Elverum, and wipe out the Resistance. On the 11th, the southern orcs were going to leave Rundbord, besiege Grimstut on the 13th, and move up to Kristinsund by the 15th, with plans to hold there. If the northern orcs had wiped out the Resistance, the rebellion would be over, and if not, the southern orcs would hopefully be able to defend the Elverum-Kristinsund bridge, with heavy casualties. If the Resistance moved to fast and had forces in Grimstut, the orcs would fortify south of Grimstut and let the PCs attack them across that river instead.

My assumption was that the PCs would defeat the northern orcs at the Ravenrock bridge, and then get caught in a siege against superior forces at Grimstut. Looking for an out, they would use the flying boat and the covert action team (which at this point was roughly equal to an orc company by themselves, but with much better leadership) to raise Resistance forces in Mortilbaser, Buctun, and Rundbord, and cut the orc supply lines and starve them out. The orcs would counter and it would all be very exciting. Of course, the PCs didn't do that.

Establishing A Government

We started session 17 with a big role-playing scene: establishing the government. It has always been an ironclad rule of the game that it is very PC centric, and the PCs are the movers and shakers that everyone reacts to. The PCs are the de facto rulers of the Liberated Lands, whatever form of government there is, and they don't have to report to anyone. But it's also been a rule that NPCs are allowed to bitch, moan, and politic for their preferred positions, and at my prompting, the PCs finally decided to set down some rules.

There was a pretty interesting discussion about the pros and cons of monarchy versus a dictatorship versus some kind of junta, but apparently democracy was entirely off the table. It was all going back and forth when suddenly everyone agreed that Trahaern should be appointed Consul and made top dog. A ruling council was established, and various people were suggested for various roles before they arrived on this structure:
  • Consul Trahaern, absolute ruler for the duration of the Rebellion.
  • Ruling Council of Counts and other advisors, generally the heads of Resistance organizations in each county. Attivi got promoted to Count Duzen Iken. Ariana was made High Priestess. Hloomawl, as the most approachable of the main PCs who wasn't a general, became Tribune of the Army and representative of the enlisted soldier. Greex got the title of Speaker of Kobolds to represent kobold interests.
  • Aisling and Mikael were observers on the Ruling Council, as they were both representatives of allied nations.
  • Nesta and Nayla declined any promotions and continued to serve as individuals, but as the sister of the Consul and a suspected demi-god they probably still had a lot of clout.
After a couple of hours of this, we moved on to the orc menace.

The Orcs Move Out

On June 2nd, the PCs at Elverum received word that the orcs had moved south out of Landzby. They immediately made a forced march of the entire army to the Ravenrock bridge and began setting up fortifications. The covert operation team staged an aerial siege of Ravenrock Castle the next day, and mostly dispersed the orcs in a confused fight. Unfortunately for them, while they could beat 80 orcs in a castle, they would have gotten wiped out by 2000 orcs assaulting the same castle, so they did what damage they could to the Castle and retreated back over the river. The orcs, arriving at Ravenrock Castle that evening, were confused and spent an extra day sitting around doing nothing.

The Liberation Army waited on the east side of the bridge, recovering from their forced march and waiting for the orcs.

Army movement for Session 17: PCs in blue, orc gathering in orange, orc army movement in red.
White indicates the borders of liberated territory.

Ambush at Ravenrock Bridge

Colonel Rolg, who apparently was not very good at paying attention to current events, decided that despite the destruction of the Ravenrock garrison, his forces were undetected by the Resistance. He proceeded to have a parade across the bridge on June 5th. The Liberation Army was waiting on the other side, behind concealed fortifications.

In GURPS Mass Combat, assaulting across a bridge is hard: most troops lose half their effective strength for doing so. That was enough to put the orc army at close to parity in force strength with the Liberation Army, and Trahaern was a ridiculously better general with a ridiculously better intelligence chief. The orcs were badly slaughtered in the first round but managed to rally; they made a tentative attack on the second round and took another 40% casualties. At that point, Colonel Prulo would have need a critical success to Trahaern's critical failure to eke out enough of a victory to have his shattered forces retreat without being destroyed. He did not get one and 65% of the orcs were killed in the battle and the remaining 35% dispersed.

Of course, 35% of 2000 is still close to 800 troops. Most of the Orc survivors fled north, back to Landzby, but significant forces fled to Vartop and Avvinsee instead. The PCs decided to hold off on pursuit and shifted focus to their southern flank. They took the Flying Boat and did a long range scouting run on the orcs at Rundbord and discovered that army was even larger than the one they had just defeated. We ended the session with the PCs' army moving south to Elvby.

Changing Plans

The 18th session was the first one when we had Chris as a player. I made him play Himmel or Mikael, so if things didn't work out, he wouldn't disrupt the game by adding and then dropping a character. Fortunately, it worked out.

The PCs had originally planned to move their army south, hold the city of Grimstut, and face down the southern orc horde there. At the start of this session, they got a wild hair and decided to do clever and tricky stuff instead. The direct action team of Aisling, Himmel, Hloomawl, Nayla, and Nesta was certainly capable of conquering an orc held castle, and they figured they could use this to their advantage. The direct action team would raise a rebellion around Avvinsee and conquer the fortress but let some orcs escape to Rundbord. Then, in the PCs' minds, the orcs would march to deal with upstarts. Meanwhile, Trahaern's army would march southwest to Avvinsee and ambush the orcs from inside the castle.

What with one thing and another, this took longer to arrange than intended, and the PCs didn't make it to the area around Avvinsee until the 9th. They spent the day recruiting, and then marched their new army of 330 poorly armed peasants toward the castle on the 10th. They also spotted a group of orcs, routed at Ravenrock, getting lost in the hills around Avvinsee.

Aisling took Hloomawl and the flying boat to meet up with the orcs and convince them to switch sides. It was a bit difficult, even for her, but she succeeded and the PCs got a new army of disloyal and unequipped orcs. Militarily, they're not very useful, but they've set up a lot of role-playing fodder so that's worked out.

Meanwhile, Himmel made a forced march to reach Avvinsee, and the overconfident orcs came out to meet him. But without Hloomawl, the PCs weren't nearly as capable as they expected, and Himmel's habit of using high risk, high casualty All-Out Attacks didn't work out very well. The human army and the orc army took roughly equal casualties and Himmel failed both his Misfortunes of War checks in the first two rounds and was knocked unconscious. The leader of the Avvinsee Resistance stepped up to replace him and started using cautious, defensive tactics, but the situation was pretty bad and night had fallen. Fortunately for the PCs, the orc leader wasn't doing well on his Misfortunes of War rolls either, and he decided to break contact with 50% casualties on his force and 2 HP remaining. The human leader let the orcs flee and recovered their casualties.

Two days later, Trahaern showed up with 1200 troops and a masterful spy master. He rolled over the orcs in Avvinsee and got into a big argument with Aisling over her recruiting the orcs. There was a bunch of shouting but it was eventually resolved with the orcs not being immediately executed.
Army movement for Session 18: PC army in blue, flying boat movement in light blue, orc army movement in red.
White indicates the borders of liberated territory.

"Man, You Can't Trust Orcs For Anything!"

The PCs then tried to salvage the remnants of their clever plans. Trahaern's army started concealing themselves in Avvinsee and Aisling decided to use her secret identity as an orc collaborator to prod the Rundbord orcs into action.

At Rundbord, Aisling discovered that most of the orcs had left for Grimstut the day before. The remaining commander was about as lazy as an orc got, and although he was interested in the report that a bunch of rebels were besieging Avvinsee, he wasn't so interested as to actually do anything. Aisling eventually begged him for the loan of a wolf courier, and she took a terrifying overnight ride to meet up with the orcs.

On the way to Grimstut, Aisling encounter Colonel Prulo's forces of 3300 orcs. She told him of the siege of Avvinsee, but she couldn't convince him to turn his army around. Instead, he sent Colonels Rigar and Krag and their regiments (~1300 troops) back to clear the rebels out while his main force continued to Grimstut. Frustrated, Aisling slunk off . Then she realized that while she could magically broadcast her location to the Resistance and have them send the Flying Boat to pick her up, she couldn't encode the message or prevent the orc wizards from overhearing. She ended up spending the next day or two hiking to get away from the orcs and safely arrange a pickup.

The Brief Second Siege of Avvinsee

Colonels Rigar and Krag raced their forces up to Avvinsee, where they saw human rebels besieging the orc fortress. They immediately charged to the relief, at which point the hidden Resistance forces popped up from behind the walls and began letting loose on the orcs. Trahaern and Greex firmly had the battle in hand and the orcs failed to recover from the ambush on the first turn. Some 800 Orc troops survived to flee back to Rundbord, broken and abandoning their equipment. Trahaern elected not to pursue.

That was the end of the 18th session.

A Matter of Justice

We started the 19th session with a big role-playing scene. Another new player, Raven, had joined us and was playing Mikael while Chris was switching over to his permanent character of Sven.

A pair of kobolds timidly approached Mikael on the night of the 14th, after the Second Siege was over. They were new recruits to the logistics force after the Battle of Ravenrock Bridge, and had marched south with the orcs from Bergen. They had also recognized a pair of orcs from Aisling's new army as the orcs that had robbed and murdered their half-sister, and they wanted justice.

Mikael took the issue to Trahaern, Greex, and Hloomawl, and they collected Aisling and went to confront Sergeant Gharza. Sergeant Gharza was a new NPC, the highest ranking survivor of Ravenrock Bridge in this particular batch of orcs. Aisling wanted to make an example of how justice was going to be handled in her new army.

The kobolds identified Parz, Gharza's assistant, as the orc that had robbed their half-sister and Erigor, another orc, as the one who had actually done the murder. Aisling demanded Parz' punishment and Erigor's execution. Gharza attempted to defend the orcs in a fairly incompetent manner, at first disbelieving that anyone would care about kobolds and moving on to calling the kobolds liars and claiming there was no proof that anything had happened or that the kobolds had any claim to justice. Hloomawl and Trahaern got progressively angrier and eventually Gharza shut up. Aisling paid the kobolds out of her own pocket and Parz and Erigor got punished.

"How Was I Supposed to Know!"

The PCs were settling down to watch Erigor's execution when a herd of pegasii (Kevin swears this is the correct Greek plural of Pegasus) flew up to the castle and started circling around. Alarms were sounded, weapons were readied, and Greex had to defend himself against charges of being a bad spymaster. In his defense, the pegasii could fly 100+ miles a day, and it wasn't really reasonable to expect him to know about forces moving around behind orc lines.

In short, Sven was introduced: a brash rebel from the northern plains. He had rescued a bunch of pegasii from an Orc breeding farm, and was riding the biggest and most impressive of the studs. Magnus, the pegasus champion, was also introduced at this time, and I'm afraid I rather stole the show from Chris. As I played him, Magnus was vain, slightly dimwitted, indiscreet, and inadvertently hilarious. He insulted all the other PCs as a bunch of "piebald ragmuffins," though he acknowledged the red-haired nymph Aisling as "the good looking roan," called Sven a "sack of onions in the saddle" (rather unfairly, as Sven is an excellent rider), and was generally disdainful. He was gracious when he was invited to the Council of War, though.

Anyway, introductions were made and the PCs decided to use their new air support to keep track of the orcs. Trahaern reversed his army, heading back to Elvby with plans to move south to Grimstut. Himmel held Avvinsee with the militia against any orc movement to the north, and the direct action team loaded up the Flying Boat with plans to fly southeast and cut the orc supply lines by conquering Buctun, Mortilbaser, and the citadel of Soroverstine.

The Champion Meets the Smith

The morning of the 15th, the direct action team was armoring up and getting ready. Magnus ogled Hloomawl's expertly crafted armor, apologized to the prince of minotaurs for snubbing him the night before, and asked where he got it. On learning that Ariana had made it, Magnus dispatched Sven to acquire some for him, because it was beneath Magnus' dignity to talk to the "help". Sven protested the non-egalitarian attitude but decided to avoid a horsey snit-fit by talking to Ariana. She, in turn, was encouraged by her kobold assistants to turn out something in a hurry. Magnus was impressed by his new very fine chest barding, but whined that it would look better on him in black to properly set up the color contrast against his shining white hair. Ariana spontaneously learned how to cosmetically control metal and walked over and tapped the barding with her hammer, turning it black. Magnus was pleased and all the players were rolling on the floor with laughter.

Freedom for Cape Sood

The PCs put their plan to free southwest Hanist into motion by flying to Buctun and meeting up with an 80 strong army of Resistance fighters who had trained in the wood and were armed and armored with smuggled weapons. They spent a day marching their army to Buctun and then assaulted the fortress. Sven showed his chops as a command, forcing the orcs to retreat north (where, as it turned out, they got ambushed by the next bunch of Resistance fighters).

Army movement for Session 19: PC army in blue, flying boat movement in light blue, orc army movement in red.
Green indicates the arrival of Sven's forces and light green for the pegasii movements.
White indicates the borders of liberated territory.

The next day, the PCs made an effort to get started early. They assaulted Mortilbaser by themselves, dispersed the orcs, and hurried on to Soroverstine. They weren't as interested in taking control of this territory as they were in breaking the orc control; they were going to leave it to the local Resistance to secure the citadels. There was no chance that would come back to haunt them. At any rate, Sven was an amazing strategist and the orc commanders at the two fortresses were subpar; the direct action team easily defeated them.

The Failure of Cavalry

Colonel Prulo had conquered Grimstut and was moving toward Kristensund, sweeping the meager Liberation militia forces out of his way, when he learned about Colonel Rigar's and Krag's defeat at Avvinsee. Prulo immediately went back to Grimstut and began fortifying the castle there. He also began taxing everything in sight and started using the money to maintain his troops and start enslaving the militia survivors as living shields in his own army. Finally, he dispatched his last subordinate, Colonel Kilar, with all of their cavalry to take the unfortified city of Kristensund. Krilar also had orders to fall back if the Liberation army approached from the north, unless he could hold them at the Kristinsund-Elverum bridge.

When Trahaern's army showed up northwest of Kristinsud, with Sven's new light cavalry leading the scouting forces, I checked Krilar's abilities. He was another overconfident, offense minded, megalomaniac, and he failed his common sense roll to not tangle with Sven's cavalry. As Sven's cavalry was backed by Sven's skilled heavy cavalry, his Pegasii flying heavy cavalry, and eventually the entirety of Trahaern's infantry army, Krilar soon found outmatched, outnumbered, and surrounded. Krilar attempted a general retreat which turned into a rout, and of the 500 cavalry attacked Sven's forces, less than 200 survived to return to Grimstut. Krilar made it back but was immediately executed.

Balancing Act

The PCs noticed that there were 800 broken orcs at Rundbord, and after the direct action team finished conquering Groanridder castle to the west, they decided to do something about that. Aisling, Himmel, the Avvinsee militia, and the direct action team met up at Rundbord and started negotiating. The terms were generous: surrender and serve the Liberation with pay, or resist and be destroyed at Rundbord. After some hemming and hawing, Colonel Rigar surrendered. About half the orcs decided to join the army, and the rest are prisoners of war that the PCs don't know what to do with yet.

By this point, it was 9:10 my time. It was too late to run the battle with Prulo at Grimstut, but I didn't quite want to end the session. I quickly checked with the existing players if they liked Raven. The response was positive and I made sure that Raven wanted to continuing playing. That response was also positive. Raven had spent the week coming up with a new character, Zarathras the young dragon, so I decided to introduce him immediately.

Colonel Rigar took the PCs into his basement dungeon and showed them his most awesome prisoner: a baby dragon, muzzled and enchained. Hloomawl immediately freed Zarathras and there was a short introduction. That filled the remainder of the time, and we ended the 19th session there.

"Are you Monster, or a Man Eating Monster?"

The session started with more reaction to Zarathras. He was willing to join the Resistance, but the others PCs were wary of him. When Zarathras said that he wanted to kill and eat the orcs that had abused him, that didn't help matters. After a fair bit of discussion, Zarathras agreed that getting identified as a "man eating monster" would not do much for his desire to improve human-dragon relations. He then wanted to personally murder those orcs, but was talked down to just having them executed.

A Question of Conscience

On the morning of June 21, Zarathras and rest of the direct action team flew to meet up with the army that was marching on Grimstut. I had already told them via email between games that the Orcs were enslaving humans, arming them, and mixing them among their own troops. An all-out assault on the fortress would get those humans killed in large numbers, and since many of them were members of the Grimstut militia that had been overwhelmed by the massive Orc army, the PCs were reluctant to kill them.

True to form, my players had briefly debated what to do, failed to come to any decisions, and pretty much dropped the issue. So when it came up again in play, they still didn't have any plans. I said they could not use their archers against the Orcs, and that would reduce casualties, but it would also give the orcs a significant advantage in a siege that was only narrowly going for the PCs to start. The PCs didn't like that, and had a desultory conversation about what they could do. Short on ideas, they eventually decided to try to parley and get the orcs to surrender, or at least leave Hanist.
Army movement for Session 20: PC army in blue, flying boat movement in light blue, orc army movement in red.
White indicates the borders of liberated territory.

"Come, humans! Show me your strength again!"

Ben had asked to lurk on the game and offered to play some NPC parts if I thought that would help. I decided to let him play Colonel Prulo in the upcoming negotiations and gave him a quick sketch of the orc leader: convinced he was destined to win, certain of the strength of his defenses, and scared of Murzush, the fanatic orc commander of the garrison at Stinecrice who wanted revenge on the PCs. Ben happily stepped up to the task.

The negotiations didn't go well. The PCs didn't have much to offer Prulo except surrender on terms and exile from his country; Prulo wasn't interested. Aisling had been left been with the orcs at Rundbord, so the PCs didn't have a dedicated negotiator and their Intimidation skills weren't really all that high. Eventually the PCs turned away, but Nayla decided to break the parley and try to assassinate Prulo with a Guided arrow the eye.

Unfortunately, Prulo was expecting an attack and had two bodyguards; three shields snapped up and intercepted the arrow. Prulo immediately commanded all the orc crossbowmen on the walls to counterfire, and though the PCs ran for a couple of seconds, they were still well within range when 10 orcs fired at each of them. Ariana and Hloomawl managed to get their shields up, and Hloomawl even managed to block for Nayla, but Trahaern took a couple of bolts that penetrated armor and Zarathras, who had joined the negotiations in his human form (and without armor!) got perforated with three and almost forced into a death check. Hloomawl picked him up and the PCs fled as the orcs reloaded, and they managed to make it to a rough trenchline before the orcs reloaded, aimed, and fired.

Ben had Prulo taunt the PCs as they fled, which was a nice touch that I wouldn't have thought of and didn't have time to do anyway. Having Ben play Prulo really improved that entire scenario, as he was much more clever with his insults and bragging that I was, and it meant that I could spend more time with Murzush and his crazy rants. All that, and I didn't have to talk to myself when the NPCs argued!

Slow Learner

Trahaern decided to assault the castle at dawn the next day. Ariana took the time to summon a bunch of fellow worshipers of the Forge-God Volundr and have a big, long prayer to save the enslaved humans. With time and help, Ariana easily made the petition roll, and with the lives of many people depending on a miracle, she even managed to get a Good result on the reaction roll. Volundr assured her that the least of his works would not harm those pledged to his care, and (after recovering from her shock at unambiguously getting an answer, however cryptic it might have been) she went and told Trahaern that he could safely deploy his archers.

Zarathras had pretty good night vision, so he decided to overflow the castle and do some scouting at night. Of course, orcs and goblins have infravision, and could easily see the fiery hot dragon. I asked Raven how high Zarathras was flying, and he said 150 yards - beyond of half-damage range of most orc crossbows when fired at a high angle, but not beyond all of them. I had told him that were 300-400 orc crossbowmen, but he was confident in his armor and his speed.

Orc crossbowmen are pretty skilled, with accurate bows. 120 of them fired at an effective 300 yards after aiming for the maximum amount of time, and it worked out that about a third of them hit. Only 10 of them were in full damage range, and could potentially damage the dragon - but all of them were using bodkin heads. Half of the bolts penetrated his armor, nearly knocking him unconscious. Zarathras climbed 50 yards while they reloaded, and weathered the next volley easily, but he decided that scouting was for the birds and limped back to the Resistance lines.

A Short Sharp Shock

Murzush was one of the first player created NPCs in the game: Kevin had mentioned him as a particularly viscious orc with a magic weapon in an wiki article on example magic weapons for Enchantment Through Deeds, and I'd been meaning and forgetting to use him since then. He was originally the commander of the garrison at Duzen Iken, but I forget to use him and moved him to Stinecrice, where I forgot about him again. Then he was going to feature in the orcs in Session 17, but got busy and forgot again. So I decided to have a couple of rounds of personal scale combat at the start of the battle so Murzush could menace people properly. This maybe wasn't the best idea I've ever had, as it was already getting late and personal combat can be slow, but I figured I'd give it a try.

The scenario was that the PCs were leading the charge when the gates were breached, which was pretty reasonable given their Risk Modifiers and general tendencies. The orc commanders were on the other side, and a short range melee broke out (though orc sharpshooters on the walls were firing down intermittently on the PCs).
Murzush and his goons wrap around Ariana, while Sven and Hloomawl defeat Prulo.
Trahaern used his magic staff to jump over and behind the orc line and
Nayla stands well behind the PC line to provide fire support.

The combat was short, but not particularly quick. Blows were exchanged, people defended, and then Chris rolled double critical hits for his attacks on Colonel Prulo. Prulo burnt Destiny points to cancel one of the criticals, but the second caused a hit that rolled maximum damage on the dice (normal damage on the critical hit, go figure) and Sven managed to stab through Prulo's armor with a mighty blow. Sven's sword was also enchanted to explode for 1d cr ex as a follow-up, and Chris rolled maximum damage on that, too, x3 for an internal explosion. Prulo went from unwounded to nearly dead in a single blow, and fell unconscious immediately.

That was basically round two of the fight. I really wanted to resolve the Mass Combat and it was already 9:15 my time, so I ended the combat at the end of that round and moved back to the Mass Combat.

Trahaern the Ever Victorious

Trahaern launched an All-Out Assault on the castle walls into Prulo's defense. Prulo rolled well, and Trahaern didn't, but Prulo was Strategy-15 to Trahaern's Strategy-24 and Trahaern had a larger and better army. In the end, Trahaern edged out a victory at a high cost in casualties in the first round.
In the second round, Trahaern went for a Indirect Attack (ie, a feigned retreat to draw some of the orcs out) while Prulo defended again. This time, Trahaern won by 10, doubled to 20 for successful Indirect Attempt, and massacred the orcs to a total of 60% casualties at no losses. We didn't play out the last rounds, but Trahaern was at +11 over his starting point at this point and even the mixed result he got on the first round would have been an overwhelming massacre of the orcs with that much extra bonus. Trahaern put the surviving orcs to the sword, most of the human militia survived, and we ended the game.

After liberating Grimstut (again), I declared that Hanist was effectively liberated. There were still over a thousand orcs still in the country, but if they weren't capable of defeating a smaller PC army in with 2400 orcs, 12 fights against 100 orcs wouldn't be a problem against a much larger PC army (new recruits had been completing training and joining the army all through June). That was worth a lot of CP for each PC, so they'll hopefully even be more capable for the next set of challenges.

Review of Play

So this was a long four sessions, but each session was generally really good. There was a lot of role-playing and a fair bit of mass combat, and if the individual combat and dungeon delving was a little neglected, I consoled myself with the thought that Stinecrice had been three sessions in a row of that. My balance of gaming experiences on a per session basis is kind of wonky, but over the course of the campaign it's been pretty good.

The 17th session went pretty much how I expected, and the 18th session went off-script. Which is fine, because gaming is a collaborative experience and there's no reason to put the game on rails. The PCs did stuff that I didn't expect, and I rolled with it. It had the effect of splitting up Colonel Prulo's overwhelming force into three bite-sized chunks, which is what I expected in the end. They just took a different route.

The 19th session didn't advance the plot very much, but it was super enjoyable, and that's what's really important in a social and entertainment activity. I had pretty much written up Magnus on my own because Chris wasn't working fast enough for me, and I really got into the role of the slightly dim but very vain pegasus. Chris is an engaged and engaging role-player in his own right, and I felt bad for overshadowing him with his own horse, but he was a very good sport about it.

The 20th session was just a bit too much for four hours. I don't think it had to be that way: if the PCs had came in with a plan to deal with the humans enslaved at Grimstut, we could have done everything I tried to do in the session. Instead, there was a bit of dead time as they brainstormed. I was disappointed, but I can only provide opportunities for a great game: the players have to meet me part of the way. Sometimes they exceed that requirement and drive the game with little input from me, and sometimes they do a bit less and parts of the session are flabby. It's gaming. It will still a good session, just a little too packed and badly paced.

The 20th session was a good example of the emergent nature of the narrative in the game. In my planning for these sessions, I knew that Prulo was a defensive general, but I didn't know he was going to enslave the humans and cause problems by doing that. But after Aisling tricked him into sending half his army into defeat, he knew he wanted to fort up in a castle. And then he realized that he would need reinforcements, and since there was no reasonable source of Orc reinforcements at hand, he started enslaving humans. That, in turn, made the final battle for the Liberation of Hanist into a proper and challenging climax, as opposed to Trahaern just walking up with his army and knocking the place over. I was really pleased with how that worked out.

In four sessions, the group added two new players and a very active observer. Adding new players is always a challenge: even if they're the nicest people in the world, there's differences in expectations and social contract from their previous experiences. It worked out in the end, but there were a couple of rough patches.

"Is the character creation system ... as rigid as it seems?"

Both new players thought the character creation rules were restrictive. It was a difficult question to answer: on the one hand, PCs have to conform to a template, and there's only 6 major roles and maybe 7-8 minor roles that are any good, so there's only space for ~50 unique character combinations. And some people feel that working with any template on a freeform system like GURPS is too restrictive. On the other, I've edited the game world to support PC requests (Minotaurs were originally on the side of the Empire, while Tzavarim and the Fae weren't even on the map until the players requested them) and I'm pretty flexible about players going off template to achieve things that I hadn't thought of. So it was a combination of yes and no.

It worked out in the end. Chris got a rabble-rousing cavalryman on a flying steed (he dithered on riding bears for a while, which would have been differently awesome) and Raven got his dragon spellcaster. I am firmly of the opinion that if you're playing a generic fantasy game and the GM allows you to play a dragon, character creation isn't too rigid.

"Isn't Himmel supposed to be a good general?"

The other problem we had was that I started the new players on some old PCs. I did this because I wasn't sure the group would like them or that they would like the group. I think the group is fabulous but I get that we're not to everyone's tastes. I wanted new players to have a chance to test the waters and back out without changing the game world, so Chris played Himmel and Raven played Mikael.

The problem with Himmel is that while he has a big, easily defined personality of "lecherous braggart daredevil warleader," his character sheet was very unoptimized. Chris threw himself into the role with gusto, and everyone appreciated his role-playing, but his abilities as a general were subpar and he lost what should have been an easy fight. I apologized to Chris and optimized the character after the game, but the damage was done. At least I learned from my mistake, and I made sure Mikael was optimized.

Of course, Mikael had the opposite problem: even optimized, his personality was pretty undefined. "Secretive", "Snarky in combat", and "Soldier's Code of Honor" are not enough to role-play a new character. I'd asked Raven to go ahead and edit the character, but he didn't. So while Raven is a good role-player, he didn't have much to work with and his version of Mikael didn't contribute much to the game. That was one of the reasons I wanted to throw Zarathras in as soon as I could: I figured with a better character, Raven would make a better impression and enjoy the game more. That worked out okay.

Observer? Adversary?

Ben had seen the posting for new players and responded after we were full, but I mentioned we allowed observers and invited him to lurk. He responded by offering to play any minor or major NPCs. I've never had an Adversary player before, and I was dubious at first, but decided to give it a try. Which worked out really well, as Ben threw himself into his roles and really brought a lot to the game. I really appreciated having a second person who could speak as an NPC, because it meant two NPCs could have a conversation without it just being the GM talking to himself. I know I've mentioned that already, but it was really incredible from my side of the screen.

I've invited Ben to continue as an Adversary player, and possibly a co-GM if he wants it. I'm too used to having the final say in rule decisions to be really comfortable with a co-GM, but I am also very committed to letting the players have editorial control of the world and it would be unnatural to not let the Adversary in on the fun. Ben is mulling the offer, but at a minimum, he's going to continue playing minor NPCs. Which will require a little more work on my part, but the payout will justify the effort.

What's Next?

Next session is going to be some role-playing and some Mass Combat to chase the last of the orcs out of Hanist. I'm looking for a good next delve: one of the problems with the game, as I've set it up, is that most delve sites should have been looted by the enemy decades ago. I think I have a partial solution for that, but it's definitely a hole in the campaign set-up that I didn't realize until I got farther in.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

GURPS Mass Combat: Positional Warfare

Precis: Reducing casualties in GURPS Mass Combat should increase the value of Position Bonus, making for more interesting choices but slowing down battle resolution.

I've been running my GURPS Fantasy Mass Combat game for about six months, and although I generally like GURPS Mass Combat as a quick and simple way to resolve large scale battles and get on to the role-playing, there are some issues.

One that is particularly bothering me is Position Bonus and casualties. Position Bonus (PB) is an abstract value that a force using attack strategies can earn by winning a round of battle. PB improves Strategy rolls on subsequent rounds of battle. Casualties are losses to a force, inflicted in varying amounts to both the winner and loser of a battle round in varying amounts depending on the scope of the victory. Casualties penalize Strategy rolls on subsequent rounds of battle.

The way that the Mass Combat rules read, commanders are supposed to be paying attention to PB, attempting strategies to reduce the enemy PB and striking harder when they have the advantage. In practice, PB increases by 2-3 for a significant victory and by 4 for a decisive victory, while the relative shifts for casualties increase by 2-4 for a significant victory and 8 or more for a decisive victory. In practice, the bonus an attacking force gains from PB is rarely as much as, and often much less than, the bonus the victorious force gets from causing casualties.

It's a bit of a shame that PB doesn't play a larger roll in Mass Combat rules. The following is a house rule that attempts to make casualties less important and PB more important. As a side effect, it should reduce overall casualties for Mass Combat forces to closer to historical norms. More battles should end with a Fighting Withdrawal or Full Retreat after the enemy achieves a sustained (+6 or more) PB bonus, instead of ending when the losing side is wiped out.

Positional Warfare

Resolve the battle as normal on pages 32-38 of Mass Combat. The only change is calculating casualties (p 37). Take the casualty numbers from the Combat Results Table (p 36) and divide them by 5 if the inflicting force used an attack strategy or by 3 otherwise. Round down to the nearest whole number.

Casualties continue to cause a -1 to Basic Strategy Modifier for every full 5% casualties suffered.

Special casualty increases or decreases from battle strategy (winning all-out attack or deliberate defense, fighting a mobile defense or skirmish) are not changed. Nor is the bonus casualties inflicted or save by pursuing a retreating enemy or holding the field.

Example: Using the same base skills and die rolls as the Battle of Drake's Cross from the book, the situation changes. On the first round, Sir Richard's defensive victory inflicts 5% casualties on Strykland's force, while Strykland failed attack only inflicts 2% casualties on Sir Richard.
For the second round, Strykland is still suffering a net -1 skill due to casualties, and will again tie Sir Richard. As both sides are attacking and tied, casualties are minimal, with only 2% inflicted on each side, bringing the total to 7% for Strykland and 4% for Sir Richard.
On the third round, Sir Richard's attack is a win by 10-14. Strykland's loosing defense inflicts another 2% casualties, while Sir Richard's overwhelming attack only inflicts 10% casualties but nets him another +3 in PB.
At the start of the fourth round, Sir Richard is at -1 for casualties and +3 for PB, giving him an effective strategy skill of 15. Strykland is at -3 for casualties and +0 for PB, reducing his effective strategy from 12 to 9. (Though not stated in MC, the numbers for the start of the fourth round would have by -5 casualties, +3 PB for Sir Richard; and -11 casualties for Strykland, or 11 versus a 1). Sir Richard would get another +2 for an all-out attack, while Strykland would have been at a net 0 for a failed Parley (converted into a Defense at -1; Defense normally gives +1 to strategy). An average result on both die rolls would result in a margin 8 victory for Sir Richard. He would gain another +2 PB and inflict another 10% casualties on Strykland's force; Strykland's defense would only inflict 3% casualties (5% on the table, doubled for taking any casualties in all-out attack, and divided by 3 for Strykland's defense strategy).
In the book example, at this point, Strykland's force is supposed to have been wiped out but have actually only taken 80% casualties. Under Positional Warfare, Sir Richard has +5 PB and 9% casualties. Strykland has no PB and has taken 27% casualties. With his position untenable, Strykland attempts a Full Retreat while Sir Richard continues to ride him down with another All-Out Attack. Effective skills are 15 for Strykland and 19 for Sir Richard. Another average set of rolls see Strykland retreating with 0 additional casualties and no more losses for Sir Richard. The good knight now has to decide whether to hold the field (halving his casualties and reducing them by 5% will net him 0 overall for the battle) or pursue Strykland and inflict another 5% casualties for a total of 32% casualties but taking 5% casualties for his own force.


Positional Warfare changes Mass Combat a lot. Battles go on for longer and are more inconclusive: instead of being wiped out in the fourth round, Strykland successfully retreats with  more than two-thirds of his force intact. Attacks are also riskier: a minimal win results in few casualties and little PB gain, while a successful defense by the opponent results in higher casualties for the attacking side for no gain. Both sides have incentive to take Defense strategies, which convert to Skirmish if they both do, making battles even more inconclusive.

Strategically, the fact that most battles are resolved with the losing force retreating in good order, instead of being routed with 50% of the force permanently dead and the rest dispersed, means that the operational/campaign level struggle is also more inconclusive. Losing forces are not destroyed, but instead can retreat and regroup.

Overall, I think Positional Warfare improves Mass Combat, but it does slow at the cost of slowing down play and making battles less decisive. Standard Mass Combat has an advantage that if one force is clearly superior to the other, it can expect to destroy the enemy completely in 3 rounds of combat. Doing so takes a tolerable amount of time in play. Shifting that so that a superior force chases off an inferior force in 6 rounds, only to have to track them down and repeat the process two or three times until they're fully destroyed, might be intolerable in play.

I'd like to experiment more with Positional Warfare, but it's such a style change for my current game that I think the players would hate it. Everyone has gotten used to destroying the enemy in 2-3 rounds and resolving the struggle; switching rules to make combat less decisive would not be popular.

Monday, June 12, 2017

GURPS Mass Combat: Fragile Feature

Precis: In GURPS Mass Combat, Fragile troops are helpful as long as you're winning - but they cause problems when you start to lose.

This is a new unit feature for troops in GURPS Mass Combat. It's come up in my New Dawn game and I thought I would share it.

Fragile  GM-Assigned

The element is composed of troops who perform poorly under heavy stress. As long as they are part of a winning army, whether on the offense or defense, they act as their training and experience dictate. Should they find themselves losing, they behave much worse than their training and experience would suggest, refusing to move from safe positions on the offense and refusing to fall back from compromised positions on the defense.

If a force contains at least 20% fragile elements (by percentage of total elements or total TS), then the force commander has an additional -2 penalty to Battle Strategy rolls when choosing the Rally strategy or when rolling after losing the previous round of battle. The penalty is not cumulative.
This feature is characteristic of fatalistic warriors, braggarts, some monsters, and troops that have been reformed after being defeated. It is compatible with Impetuous, and many Impetuous elements should also have Fragile.

Fragile came up in play after the PCs started defeating large formations of orcs: even with 100% or more nominal battlefield losses, 30-50% of the enemy force would flee without their equipment (Mass Combat p38). That wasn't a big deal when the PCs were fighting 100-200 orcs at a time, but defeating 1600 orcs meant there were still upwards of 600 dispersed fighters. It seemed reasonable that people would want to gather those survivors up, refit and re-equip them, but it also seemed reasonable that those broken survivors would permanently be less capable. The Fragile trait is a way to mark such units of formerly defeated soldiers, but it's also useful for modeling the tendency of some historical armies to do well as long as they're winning and then fall apart very quickly at the first setback.