Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Best Laid Schemes of Mice and Men or Why you need to know what the loser wanted

In my game world there was a major war, about 25 years ago game time. During this war, the military powerhouse of the continent tried to conquer the rest of the continent. In retrospect, I’ve had difficulty explaining why they failed. I can tell you some of the reasons: I was using a bad game that treated adventurers as gods and “regular guys” (including soldiers) as wheat to be mowed. I was young and wanted the player characters to be so important that they dominated everything. One fireball (and they had plenty) could kill huge numbers of “bad guys”.

OK, well, I’ve retconned a lot of what happened in that pivotal battle, including adding some unknown actions from competing global secret societies (see my earlier post). But part of what I now have to think about is, “What did they think they were going to do anyway?” I mean, they went trudging off to war, expecting to conquer the continent. OK, by my own descriptions, they had ten years to plan the whole thing. Ten years to study the targets, their logistics, and every other aspect of what was going to happen. Admittedly, no plan ever survives contact with the enemy, but they would have known that too. Just because I was an ignorant child, doesn’t mean that they should have been.

So now I find myself thinking through what they planned to accomplish. I think it matters, because it should speak to how they prepared and some of the actions they took while doing it. I had always said that they were attempting to take their targets as whole as possible. There was no burning of the crops or salting of the fields. They knew they were going to need those crops to feed their soldiers through the winter. But now I need to elaborate on that a bit more. Now I need to determine how far and how fast they planned to go.

This might seem silly, trying at this point to figure out what they would have accomplished if things had gone their way, but I think it’s important. First, it needs to be logical that they would have taken the actions that they did. Otherwise the entire city is run by morons. Also, by knowing what they thought would work, and what actions they took to get there, I will better know exactly how they were as they retreated. One of those things is that I have frequently gone back and forth on whether or not they had provisions on their way home. If they planned to hunker down in their newly conquered territory and then reap the harvested crops of that region, they may not have had ample stores. If they planned to keep moving, that go-go-go attitude would have needed to have been fueled by even more supplies. This matters because as I write the recent history of the small towns and villages they would have encountered on their retreat, I need to know how desperate the soldiers were. If they were starving, they would have attacked villages, whether or not they could easily win. If they were properly outfitted, discipline would have been better.

It also matters for those cities that would have been attacked. They now owe a debt of gratitude to the small city that held off the huge army. Politics and attitudes would be completely different if it became know that a particular city was next on the list and would have fallen shortly after. That does affect the game world.

It also matters because the folks back home would have been expecting certain things from the attacking forces. Would they have already been lining up replacement horses for cavalry units, expecting to deliver them in the spring? Would they have been manufacturing arrows? Which cities were they going after and what preparations were being made? One of the cities they did take is on a river, and is upriver from another major city. Were they planning on going after the huge coastal trade port that same year? the next year? Were they building barges? I think these are pretty important things to know, because they can have ramifications. And why do I care about ramifications? Because ramifications lead to missions!

What missions? If they had built barges (they didn’t, but if they had), then they would have tapped the lumber from that area for that season as well as leaving barges lying around. That might have led to any old guy getting his hands on a military barge and becoming a river merchant, or maybe a river pirate. If they were starving on the way home (and clearly some would have been), they would have raided villages. So now personal treasures and perhaps slaves are back at the home city and there are villagers who will want them back. (Think Nazis stealing art treasures.) A less disciplined retreat also means an army stretched across miles and miles of terrain, an army where pockets can be defeated by clever ambushes. That means fewer soldiers returned home and the home army needed to work quickly to build back up, especially if they were expecting a retaliatory strike. More, it means that ambushed squads would have been looted and those weapons and armor are now available in black markets across the entire region, instead of just in the attacked city. Maybe some of the soldiers traded their equipment for food. What happened to the deserters? If the aggressors never intended to attack a particular city, then the deserters might be more welcome there, or at least not outright attacked. If it is known that a particular city was the next target, they would treat any deserters as enemies of the state.

This is just one example of how knowing what the plans were will help you see how it affected the world. I wish I had been smart enough thirty years ago to have thought through all of this, but I didn’t. Older and wiser now. Maybe you can learn from my mistakes instead of making your own.


  1. As I was reading this article, it occurred to me that I could combine a real life example of a similar attack and retreat and translate it into a game history for the continent that I am working on.
    I thought of Afghanistan; well, what little I know of the recent conflict there. Canadian troops were brought in to help out and got to use Yankee hardware, so it was a big mission for us here. Our entire armed forces; Navy, Air Force and Infantry is smaller than the LAPD in numbers...though we have very well trained soldiers and manufacture world class small arms, as well as having trained often with Yankee exercises. Canadian soldiers blend seamlessly with Marines. So, to sum up, a lot of anecdotes and a bit of the reasons why we were at war got dribbled down to the public. Our guys also got some good tough commands, like Kandahar and Helmund, and saw a lot of action.
    The effort seems like a long, difficult conflict right from the beginning; the target a half a world away in very tough mountainous terrain, with supply lines difficult to safeguard and infrastructure next to negligible. An air campaign of tactical and surgical strikes seemed like it would do the trick. However, ten years later the war was still uncertain...local warlords were handed control as long as they towed the line, and Canada, for one, lost a lot of money on infrastructure that just got lost to corruption and laundering. Like Irag, their was a lot of hardware that got into the hands of the enemy. The only things allegedly gained were maybe control of opium trade and a strategic few airbases in central Asia. Now, after the war, it seems like things maybe aren't much different there, and Al Qaeda easily moved it's base of operations elsewhere. Turns out that they were not so much landowning barons, but unlanded mercenaries, and this caused a bit of a strategic problem during the conclusion of such a war fought abroad by both sides.
    <in setting terms, I like this as a template; A powerful nation with heavy airpower (say, griffinriders) is attacked by forces from a far away province in the far away mountains across the sea. Victims send holy hellfire to the place, but the enemy seems to dissipate into the background, like elves almost. The victim nation becomes an aggressor on this new soil and fights hard to win hearts and minds, but ultimately the culture clash is unbridgeable. They leave, after expending heavy losses, but do find a valuable cashcrop, and so keep relations with their once-enemy nation. Meanwhile, the original baddies take up residence in deserts and among desperate people who are swayed by religious rhetoric into funding them and keeping their whereabouts a secret. They become like a secret society; eventually flaring up more conflicts against the embassies of the powerful nation that the damaged years earlier. So, the big nation tries to spread out and cover every little donkey corral in every desert, as well as instituting martial law at home and tearing up their own constitution. This leaves the regular people pretty PO'd. It also doesn't help that this big nation experiences a depression, social unrest, and unregulated in-migration of unskilled poor folks.
    There's so much here, and so many points along the way to set up bad guys who profit from both sides. The failure of a war campaign never looked so rich in possibilities!!


  2. Also, after reading The Royalty lately, I figure that a guy like Volasar (Vosalar?) who runs the mercenary company/poor barony, descended from the Maer Hendricks, could be a great example of say, like a Canadian Forces leader cum politicial that, while the mission technically failed, could use his excellent track record as a boost to his reputation. Interesting character, that guy.
    What I like most about the templates in The Royalty is that you did all of the psychological motive/side motive/ and ambition capacity, as well as little details that could mean a lot more if one wanted. It's an excellent piece of work. Thinking even about the Edward/ Caitlyn /Roberto dynamic is this such a great place to start with a small kingdom.
    It's the kind of detail that we don't get with GoT; the characters are a bit too predictable and uni-directional. The are playing their roles as expected, almost in a Tolkein-mythic fashion. The humanity is not there, with all it's fork-in-the-road anomolies and changing principles that make the way you create NPCs so much more realistic.
    Caitlyn of Forsbury would not have been half as dumb as Caitlyn Stark, nor Edward as Eddard Stark. Volasar (sorry, spelling) would make a greatly more dynamic Jamie Lannister.
    Anyway, just wanted to point these out. These latest posts have been great sparks, as I have made a lot of my initial setting designs but have had trouble coming up with the proper dynamic relationships to populate the setting with.
    Thanks, as always.

  3. Love the comparisons! What you’ve reminded me of is something I read about the late Middle Ages: If you give the feudal knights land - they are established and extremely difficult to remove. If you hire mercenaries, you can cut off their funding at a moment’s notice and they have nothing. Landed feudalism gives the king officers who can run a coup, but paid military (call them mercs or not) is far easier to remove. I’m not 100% sure how that all figures in, but it sure seems to fit your modern day example of when you have land taking issues (local warlords) vs. military strength issues.

  4. This article reminded me of the Black Company, by Glen Cook. He mentions a number of the issues you bring up, especially in the first of the Books of the South.

    I would recommend that book as a good read before attempting large scale campaigns...

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