The Fundamental Patterns Of War
  • The Fundamental Patterns Of War


    If you run a big RPG campaign, with a lot happening other than the adventures of the characters, often there will be a war on. I had to create a list of fundamental patterns of warfare for an online class I'm teaching, and thought the list might benefit GMs.


    • One side is destined to win the battle or the war because they have such overall superiority, but they have time constraints
    • Different forms of military superiority
      • sea/land/air
      • technology (or magic)
      • manpower

    • Economic superiority versus military superiority
    • Defense of a place
    • Rough Equality (often seen in battle games)

    The first fundamental form is that one side is destined to win the battle or the war because they have such overall superiority, but they have to do it within a certain amount of time. The constraint is sometimes real-world, sometimes a constraint for the purposes of making a game of it. One side will win the fighting but can they win soon enough to "win" the RPG campaign (save the nation?)? For example,


    • In the American Civil War, if the South had held out long enough, the North might have given up.
    • A siege must be successful before lack of supplies, and disease, defeat the besiegers.
    • Consider the Pacific War in World War II. Once America was "all in" because of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, it was inevitable that the Japanese were going to be defeated, so this is where a game constraint (time limit) is added

    The second and perhaps most interesting form derives from different forms of military superiority. For example one side is powerful on the sea, the other side is powerful on land. Athens and Sparta is a classic. Sparta finally won because the Persians subsidized Spartan fleets long enough for the Spartans to defeat the Athenians. Of course the plague didn't help the Athenians at all, they lost their (sane) leadership.

    Another example is England versus France. Most people would think of this in Napoleonic terms but it had actually been going on for more than a century. England needed help but they could provide subsidies to allies, because England could make lots of money with overseas trade.

    In a fantasy world, the obvious possibility is superiority in magical capabilities, versus superiority in physical capabilities.

    The next form is economic superiority versus military superiority. This would have to be an entire war, not a single battle, because wars are usually economic and battles are not. One side starts with economic superiority and the other side has military superiority, the question is can the latter use their military forces to eliminate the economic gap before the superior economy provides an overwhelming military force? This is the form that World War II took once the USA joined.

    Manpower can provide a form of military superiority. My graduate school prof Theodore Ropp used to say there were so damn many Romans that they triumphed, and their available manpower was certainly vast. You can say the same about the Han Chinese and their fertile North China Plain, in many respects.

    Another kind of superiority that could be suggested here is technological superiority. For example, British versus Zulus, yet the Zulus actually wiped out a substantial British force at Isandlwana (while outnumbering it around 15 to 1). The allies versus the Iraqis, cowboys versus American Indians, Spanish vs Aztecs, British versus Indians from the Asian subcontinent, Europeans versus Africans, in so many situations technological superiority won the day.

    In fantasy RPGs this is likely to be superiority in magic rather than real world technology.

    Technology is most likely to rear up in science fiction games involving different species, as in many "4X" games (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate).

    Another fundamental form is defense of a place. It can be a city, supply dumps, supply lines, etc. This includes sieges. I think the game result can feel unreal because armies rarely fight to the last man, especially an attacking army.

    The last form, and I think the least desirable from a standalone game point of view, but perhaps fruitful for a party of mercenary adventurers, is that the forces have rough equality. This is often seen in games about battles of a brief duration, one day to three days or so. You can ask yourself, if there isn't at least a perception of rough equality will the battle happen at all? Each side needs to feel that they have a good chance to win or they won't fight a set-piece battle.

    Any of these forms, other than the first, can end in stalemate.

    I hope this gives you enough ideas to make the overall flow of warfare in your campaign distinctive and "real."

    ​contributed by Lewis Pulsipher
    Comments 14 Comments
    1. MarkB's Avatar
      MarkB -
      Tying into your "have to win within a certain time limit" concept, one major constraint upon warfare in medieval times that would still apply in a D&D setting is seasons. In northern Europe it simply wasn't practical to try to move large armies around during winter, and that will be a constraint for most armies in D&D too, though there are exceptions and options.

      I'm not sure I'd draw such a strong parallel between magic and technology, simply because magic in D&D doesn't tend to benefit from economies of scale. You can't pump out wands of fireball by the thousands, and even if you could you'd be hard pressed to find the magically-sensitive troops to wield them.

      High-level magic users (and adventurer classes in general) are more the equivalent of ace pilots or special forces - assets that can do a lot to deal with specific issues, but generally too valuable to deploy on the battlefield in open combat.
    1. DerekSTheRed -
      Quote Originally Posted by MarkB View Post
      Tying into your "have to win within a certain time limit" concept, one major constraint upon warfare in medieval times that would still apply in a D&D setting is seasons. In northern Europe it simply wasn't practical to try to move large armies around during winter, and that will be a constraint for most armies in D&D too, though there are exceptions and options.

      I'm not sure I'd draw such a strong parallel between magic and technology, simply because magic in D&D doesn't tend to benefit from economies of scale. You can't pump out wands of fireball by the thousands, and even if you could you'd be hard pressed to find the magically-sensitive troops to wield them.

      High-level magic users (and adventurer classes in general) are more the equivalent of ace pilots or special forces - assets that can do a lot to deal with specific issues, but generally too valuable to deploy on the battlefield in open combat.
      I would say Magic and Technology could have parallels but we shouldn't assume that's always the case. For example, pumping out wands was part of the Eberron's Last War. The Last War was kind of a Magic equivalent to WWI and included lightning rails to move troops to the front lines similar to railroads used in WWI.
    1. Von Ether's Avatar
      Von Ether -
      Quote Originally Posted by MarkB View Post
      Tying into your "have to win within a certain time limit" concept, one major constraint upon warfare in medieval times that would still apply in a D&D setting is seasons. In northern Europe it simply wasn't practical to try to move large armies around during winter, and that will be a constraint for most armies in D&D too, though there are exceptions and options.
      Pendragon did exactly this for just regular adventuring, never mind mass combat. A game that always seemed to do with more with less.
    1. Eltab's Avatar
      Eltab -
      Information: does each side's leadership REALLY know what is going on?

      - US Civil War, Ft. Sumter: US commander tells rebel forces that he will run out of food and surrender in two days. Rebel artillery starts shooting the next day because of rumors that a supply ship will arrive "soon".
      - WW2: Hitler was convinced that "racially and culturally superior Aryans" could take on everybody else at once and win in the end.
      - WW1: Lawrence of Arabia uses misdirection and rumor to keep the Turks jumping at shadows instead of tracking his personal self down to slay.
      - US Revolutionary War: British generals will not concentrate on Washington and his Continental Army for a knock-down-drag-out battle because they fear a Pyrrhic victory.
      - Vietnam War: US takes forever to figure out that corrupt S Vietnamese Government is alienating civilians faster than combat operations can create 'safe areas' for them to live.
      - Iraq War: "There are no American tanks in Baghdad; that is just silly talk !" spoken as US tanks drive across bridge in background of camera shot.

      Bad information can cause two near-equal forces to believe that the other force is in fact the inferior.
    1. epithet's Avatar
      epithet -
      Quote Originally Posted by MarkB View Post
      Tying into your "have to win within a certain time limit" concept, one major constraint upon warfare in medieval times that would still apply in a D&D setting is seasons. In northern Europe it simply wasn't practical to try to move large armies around during winter, and that will be a constraint for most armies in D&D too, though there are exceptions and options.
      ...
      A fantasy setting offers the possibility of reversing this theme, to fun and thematic effect. For example, the frost giants only raid where there is snow on the ground--if your hill fort can hold out 'til spring, the frost giants will give up and head back up the mountain with the snow line. The winter isolates you, you're trapped in the fortified town, cut off from the forces of the high king. Without the huskarls and the greater fyrd, you're stuck defending the townsfolk with only the yeomen. Your bailey is strong, and your larder is full, and you're lord of the bloody march, but they're each a siege engine. It's longbows vs hurled boulders until the first snowdrops emerge to herald the end of winter.
    1. lewpuls's Avatar
      lewpuls -
      As pointed out by DerekSTheRed, there's nothing inherent in magic that doesn't allow mass production. It's just not the norm, because we want and expect magic in stories and games to be Mysterious, not mundane.


      Eltab:
      Yes, war (as opposed to many wargames) is dominated by uncertainty:


      "War is the province of uncertainty; three-fourths of the things on which action in war is based lie hidden in the fog of uncertainty." Carl von Clausewitz


      "Hence that general is skillful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend; and he is skillful in defense whose opponent does not know what to attack." Sun Tzu


      What hardcore game players want (control of their own fate) is an opposite of warfare (uncertainty). It's one of the "Great Dichotomies" of Wargames. Real war is unsuited to commercial-style games! At best we get something about generalship.
    1. Ovinomancer's Avatar
      Ovinomancer -
      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      As pointed out by DerekSTheRed, there's nothing inherent in magic that doesn't allow mass production. It's just not the norm, because we want and expect magic in stories and games to be Mysterious, not mundane.


      Eltab:
      Yes, war (as opposed to many wargames) is dominated by uncertainty:


      "War is the province of uncertainty; three-fourths of the things on which action in war is based lie hidden in the fog of uncertainty." Carl von Clausewitz


      "Hence that general is skillful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend; and he is skillful in defense whose opponent does not know what to attack." Sun Tzu


      What hardcore game players want (control of their own fate) is an opposite of warfare (uncertainty). It's one of the "Great Dichotomies" of Wargames. Real war is unsuited to commercial-style games! At best we get something about generalship.
      Stratego, Battleship, any CCG, variable timing reinforcement rules I many war games, lots and lots of commercial embracing of uncertainty and incomplete information out there.
    1. MarkB's Avatar
      MarkB -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ovinomancer View Post
      Stratego, Battleship, any CCG, variable timing reinforcement rules I many war games, lots and lots of commercial embracing of uncertainty and incomplete information out there.
      Not to mention the large number of real-time-strategy computer games which employ literal fog-of-war along with other techniques to let players keep their opponents guessing.
    1. Michael Linke's Avatar
      Michael Linke -
      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      As pointed out by DerekSTheRed, there's nothing inherent in magic that doesn't allow mass production. It's just not the norm, because we want and expect magic in stories and games to be Mysterious, not mundane.


      Eltab:
      Yes, war (as opposed to many wargames) is dominated by uncertainty:


      "War is the province of uncertainty; three-fourths of the things on which action in war is based lie hidden in the fog of uncertainty." Carl von Clausewitz


      "Hence that general is skillful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend; and he is skillful in defense whose opponent does not know what to attack." Sun Tzu


      What hardcore game players want (control of their own fate) is an opposite of warfare (uncertainty). It's one of the "Great Dichotomies" of Wargames. Real war is unsuited to commercial-style games! At best we get something about generalship.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R.U.S.E.

      As well as any game with a non public card mechanic. Most computer war games have a fog of war that makes for quite a bit of uncertainty. Perfect information only exists in tabletop and board strategy games, and even then doesn't exist if certain very common mechanics exist.
    1. lewpuls's Avatar
      lewpuls -
      Yes, there are many ways to introduce uncertainty in games. I've had a Stratego-like game published, and a block game on preorder at Worthington Publishing, for example. I didn't say you cannot introduce uncertainty into commercial games, I said that many hard-core gamers want to feel that they're in control of their fate, and dislike uncertainty. Many video gamers dislike any kind of "dice roll" in their games. I myself used to say, 40-some years ago, "I hate dice games." (My favorite was Diplomacy.) Then I encountered D&D . . .
    1. Ovinomancer's Avatar
      Ovinomancer -
      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      Yes, there are many ways to introduce uncertainty in games. I've had a Stratego-like game published, and a block game on preorder at Worthington Publishing, for example. I didn't say you cannot introduce uncertainty into commercial games, I said that many hard-core gamers want to feel that they're in control of their fate, and dislike uncertainty. Many video gamers dislike any kind of "dice roll" in their games. I myself used to say, 40-some years ago, "I hate dice games." (My favorite was Diplomacy.) Then I encountered D&D . . .
      Hi, hard core wargamer here. I love uncertainty in games. They're what make the game about playing your opponent and not just their pawns. And, given how prevalent uncertainty mechanics are in many strategy games, I'm certainly not alone.
    1. Michael Linke's Avatar
      Michael Linke -
      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      Yes, there are many ways to introduce uncertainty in games. I've had a Stratego-like game published, and a block game on preorder at Worthington Publishing, for example. I didn't say you cannot introduce uncertainty into commercial games, I said that many hard-core gamers want to feel that they're in control of their fate, and dislike uncertainty. Many video gamers dislike any kind of "dice roll" in their games. I myself used to say, 40-some years ago, "I hate dice games." (My favorite was Diplomacy.) Then I encountered D&D . . .
      E-sports gamers donít like ďrngĒ in their games, as they prefer them to be contests of skill and teamwork, but those games tend to be MOBA these days, rather than traditional RTS.

      Outside of esports, every strategy and war game iíve played has incorporated uncertainty, either the minimal mutual uncertainty of a dice roll, or the more substantial uncertainty of abilities, units, maps or objectives which are not public information.

      Even in games like chess or go, where the entire game state is public information, player intentions, and how a move will be followed up later, are still uncertain, and leveraging uncertainty is necessary for winning.
    1. Ovinomancer's Avatar
      Ovinomancer -
      Quote Originally Posted by Michael Linke View Post
      E-sports gamers donít like ďrngĒ in their games, as they prefer them to be contests of skill and teamwork, but those games tend to be MOBA these days, rather than traditional RTS.

      Outside of esports, every strategy and war game iíve played has incorporated uncertainty, either the minimal mutual uncertainty of a dice roll, or the more substantial uncertainty of abilities, units, maps or objectives which are not public information.

      Even in games like chess or go, where the entire game state is public information, player intentions, and how a move will be followed up later, are still uncertain, and leveraging uncertainty is necessary for winning.
      To follow-up on the chess bit, part of a well played game is obfuscating your play successfully.

      And, to clarify, when I sponge of uncertainty I meant incomplete our unreliable information, not uncertain resolution mechanics. Uncertainty in what's currently happening, not uncertainty in how a resolution mechanic will resolve.
    1. Michael Linke's Avatar
      Michael Linke -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ovinomancer View Post
      To follow-up on the chess bit, part of a well played game is obfuscating your play successfully.

      And, to clarify, when I sponge of uncertainty I meant incomplete our unreliable information, not uncertain resolution mechanics. Uncertainty in what's currently happening, not uncertainty in how a resolution mechanic will resolve.

      And to your point, incomplete information, and therefor uncertainty, is a MAJOR factor in esports games where resolution isnít uncertain.

      I think the author is pretty well accurate for every point except this mischaracterization of uncertainty in Gaming. Itís a fundamental part of good game design. Itís even a fundamental part of mediocre game design.
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