I’ve been playing a lot of Navy Field 2 lately, and it got me thinking. It’s a fun, light naval simulation game that focuses on short battles. The game itself pits two teams one against the other, and the goal is to sink all the enemy ships. The controls are easy to learn and very arcade-style, meaning that faithful recreation is trumped by speed and ease of play.
Playing the game means controlling a single ship during a battle. You begin play with a small destroyer, but as you progress, you can unlock other ships, such as cruisers, battleships, aircraft carriers and submarines. So far, I’ve been mostly concentrating on destroyers, and I’ve been having quite a bit of success. Once you figure out how to play a particular ship, it can stand up against just about any other. In fact, many a powerful dreadnought has met its end thanks to one of my torpedo volleys.
The fact that each ship has its own role to play during the battle makes comparisons to table-top RPGs quite interesting. Destroyers are fast and sleek, but can cause massive damage thanks to torpedoes. Submarines are physically weak, but can become invisible and invulnerable for short periods. Battleships are limited in what they can do, but can give and take a pounding. Aircraft carriers are useful for reconnaissance and long-range attack.
If you read back that paragraph, but replace the ship names by RPG classes, you’ll realize that I’ve just described the rogue, wizard, fighter, and ranger. That’s right: a naval battle arcade game plays just like a traditional D&D combat encounter.
This realization made me wonder if there’s anything from Navy Field 2 or other video games that I could use as inspiration for table-top RPG games in order to shake up my DMing.
The other game that I’ve played lately that has gotten me thinking about challenging some of the sacred tenets of table-top RPGs is Heroes & Generals. I’ve written about the game before, but here I want to concentrate on the way it uses different scales to enhance the overall combat experience.
Intriguing to me is the way in which Heroes & Generals manages to meld tactical and strategic combat into one coherent game. Usually, players get to experience one level of warfare while the other is controlled by the game itself.
This got me thinking: how often do table-top RPGs take scale into account when it comes to combat?
It’s a truism that in table-top RPGs, you don’t split the party. However, it’s a truism that I’ve always found limiting and, frankly, unnecessary. Often, I’ve played in games where the party was split not only during encounters, but also at times party members found themselves in different cities that are several days travel from one another. Overall, splitting the party has enriched my gaming experience more than keeping the party together.
If Navy Field 2 plays like a table-top RPG encounter, then how does it handle splitting the party? As you’d expect, some players forcefully advocate sticking together in the same way a good RPG party should. However, once play begins, it’s quite difficult to execute simply because the action can be quite chaotic at times. More often that not, the game devolves into small duels or mini-melees simply because ships tend to drift as you fight; standing still during combat is a death sentence.
So Navy Field 2 tells us to split the party, and Heroes & Generals tells us to take advantage of scale. How can these two lessons be incorporated into table-top RPGs? How are they usually already handled?
To answer the second question first: usually not very well. Most table-top RPGs have some form of mass combat rules, but these often necessitate a large level of abstraction. After all, if one wants to play large scale combats, one can play wargames, right? Part of what mass combat rules create is a sense that players belong to a wider world, but if these rules are too abstract, then the sense of belonging can be abstracted, too.
Splitting the party, on the other hand, is almost taboo, especially in D&D. If you take a look at the way the Dungeon Master’s Guide talks about encounter building, monster creation, and XP awarding, the entire mechanics revolve around the notion of the party. Individual party members are subsumed under this category and individual acts of heroism are rewarded on the DMs whim rather than in any methodical way.
If we take seriously the lessons of Navy Field 2 and Heroes & Generals, what do we potentially gain? A systematized attention to both individual and party stories, while at the same time the ability to systematically measure the effects of a single combat encounter on the global geopolitical landscape of the game. And that, as a DM, makes me very excited.
What would such a campaign look like? Here’s a very quick example of what I imagine a short adventure could be like.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s set the game during World War 2. Also, let’s say we have four characters. The first one, John, is a squadron leader with the RAF. The second, Linda, is a squad sergeant in the British Army. The third, Gerry, usually flies a large Lancaster Bomber. Finally, Sandy is a British paratrooper.
The first part of the game focuses on John’s fighter squadron, where his or her player plays the character and the other players act as the squad NPCs. The encounter goes well and the team gains air superiority.
Next, we switch to Linda’s infantry squad, where his or her player plays the character and the other players act as the squad NPCs. Because air superiority was gained, the squad gets air cover to accomplish their mission (it would have been the other way around had the first team failed). This encounter also goes well (thanks to the air superiority), and the squad gains a foothold across a bridge.
We now switch to Gerry, whose job is to fly Sandy’s paratroops to reinforce Linda’s squad. Gerry’s player plays his or her character and the other players act as the flight crew NPCs. Linda’s paratroops manage to jump, but the overall war isn’t going well for you, so the bomber has to escape heavy AAA fire and a few fighter aircraft.
We end this scenario with Linda’s paratroops, where his or her player plays the character and the other players act as the squad NPCs. Because of the heavy flak, the squad had to jump in a hurry and are scattered all over the landscape. They need to regroup and head for Linda’s squad to help them fend us an upcoming assault.
The final set piece of the adventure would be an assault by the German army against which the party must defend. Reminiscent of The Longest Day, they must “hold until relieved.” Linda and Sandy’s squads dig in and suffer the brunt of the assault. John flies air cover and helps keep fight planes off them while occasionally strafing the enemy. Finally, Gerry bombs the enemy supply lines, thereby reducing the viciousness of the assault that Sandy and Linda are facing.
This format could make the combat part of games quite interesting and unique. To work well, it’d need some level of integration with the way the overall war is going, but I don’t think that’s too much of an obstacle.
It can also potentially make for very personal games. For example, Sandy’s troops might have been decimated, and now she has to deal emotionally with the losses. Or, Gerry’s plane might have been shot down, and now the team has to lead a rescue mission deep behind enemy lines to extract him.
I think that many such moments could come from taking scale into account more explicitly and intentionally building a game around a split party.
I really want to DM this game, but I don’t think it’ll happen anytime soon. First, there would be a lot of world building that would need to happen for such a campaign, probably more than I’ve ever done for any game that I’ve run. Second, you need to find a game system and setting that 1) support multiple scales of engagement, and 2) supports a split party.
Right now, I’m mostly thinking of a World War 2 campaign, but the idea could be transplanted into many different kind of settings, as long as the two characteristics are present. I’ve played around with a few systems, and I think that Savage Worlds and its Weird War II setting (minus the Weird) would likely be a good starting point.
Now, I just need to find people who’d want to play this monstrosity.