As always, things are more complicated when it comes to roleplaying games. We have stats and rules to worry about. Most systems have a combat mechanic, but how many can resolve the massive battles we see in war? For that matter, are massive battles even what you want to focus on? War affects a good deal more than just the soldiers doing the fighting. But stories set in war can be rewarding, so they’re worth putting in the work. Here are a few ways you can get your game to go over the top.
PCs as Soldiers
If player characters are on the front lines, participating personally in the fighting, then they are soldiers. They might have a few others under their command, but most of the action turns on their personal skill, be it in swordplay or space ship dogfighting.
At first this doesn’t seem different than a normal campaign, as most roleplaying games feature a lot of combat. What sets a war story apart is that the PCs are part of a much larger organization. Individuals do not go to war, groups do. Those groups can be nation states, feudal families, or mega corps, but they must be big enough for fighting to happen on a large scale.
In this scenario, it’s easy for players to feel like their choices don’t matter. How important are the actions of one squad in comparison to the entire Eastern Front? To make matters worse, foot soldiers have very little control of their mission. They obey orders and do the job, which isn’t a recipe for PC engagement.
To combat this, make your party a special forces unit. They should have rare skills or abilities that set them apart and give them more latitude than the average grunt. They might be a special wizard strike team or the pilots of powerful combat robots. Whatever the conceit, when given missions, the players should have discretion in accomplishing them. HQ will say “retrieve the critical protype from Station Alpha,” and then let the PCs decide how.
If your players want to roll up rank and file foot soldiers, isolate them from reinforcements and communication with command. Now they’re in a situation they weren’t prepared for and have to decide what to do based on their own intuition. That’s a good recipe for storytelling if ever there was one.
Whatever role the PCs take, give them some context of the greater war. They aren’t just trying to destroy the enemy artillery; they’re doing it so another squad can advance to rescue fleeing civilians. If they don’t hold this bridge, the entire city behind them will be overwhelmed.
This brings us to the question of how realistic you want your war to be. In reality, war consists largely of soldiers killing each other for grand ideals that have little bearing on what’s actually happening. We don’t want to falsely glorify fighting, but that kind of realism can be emotionally exhausting as players spend session after session committing acts of violence to no benefit. While total subversion of war movie tropes can be fun for a short time, longer campaigns will need some level of validation. Let your PCs rescue civilians or liberate prison camps once in a while. You can show that the enemy is evil and must be stopped, but use reasoning other than what species they are.
PCs as Generals
If the PCs spend their time commanding other people to do things, they are generals, even if they don’t technically have that rank. This style of game will have little to no actual combat. It would be foolish to send important officers on dangerous missions into the field.
Instead, the action is in directing the overall war effort. Important decisions must be made, and it’s the PC’s job to make them. If your group is interested, many hours can be spent planning every detail of specific military actions. Describe the terrain, the disposition of the enemy, the forces at their disposal. Give the PCs options to shore up their chances by scouting the enemy or diverting reinforcements. Show them how incredibly complicated even a relatively small war is.
If that kind of minutia doesn’t appeal, then the story can take a political turn. Running a war means the PCs have to deal with a never-ending stream of military and civilian leaders who get in their way. Sure, they might need that armored battalion to spearhead an attack that’s been planned for months, but General Hardhead would really like it for his homecoming parade. What’s worse, a senator back home has just proposed a measure to cut training time for new troops, a disaster waiting to happen!
In fact, the war itself can be the political problem. The PCs could easily feel the conflict is wrong or unnecessary, even as they are fighting it. Who doesn’t love the story of generals caught between loyalty to their country and the knowledge that a conflict isn’t just? Because this type of play is further removed than when the PCs play soldiers, it’s better suited to explore the morality of war. Generals see the big picture. They know the full consequences of ordering people to kill each other. Even if the conflict is necessary, the PCs might deal with abuses by their own soldiers against civilians or with an ally’s plan that breaks all the rules of war.
Because the PCs have so much authority, invite a smaller number of players. Six high ranking generals constantly hanging out gets silly after a while. If you decide to go with a big group, make them specialized members of the same command staff. One PC focuses on logistics, another on airship tactics, etc. In that situation, one character may outrank the others, so be careful who you give that authority to. It has to be someone reasonably charismatic who won’t abuse the privilege and ruin other players’ fun.
Adding more politics also increases the chance of PVP. If the PCs are soldiers in the field, there isn’t a lot for them to disagree on. But raise the issue of bombing civilian industrial targets, and you might find your players on different sides. That can be a lot of fun, but as with any PVP, there needs to be a high level of maturity. Be sure your group can handle it first.
Finally, even though high ranking officers logically shouldn’t get into fights, many systems are designed specifically for combat. If you’re playing one of them, your PCs may be disappointed if they never use the abilities on their character sheets. In this case, you can bend the narrative to include a little combat. Perhaps a well timed assassination or attempted coup?
PCs as Civilians
By far the most underrepresented view in war fiction, especially war movies, is of civilians caught in the middle. Their position isn’t glorious or action-packed, but it does have one thing in spades: conflict. What non-combatants experience in war is ripe for storytelling, but it’s also the most difficult game type to run.
For one thing, you can’t gloss over the horrific ugliness of war when looking at it from a civilian point of view. As bad as things can get for soldiers, they’re always worse for those who don’t have weapons for protection. They face threats from both the enemy and their own side. Supplies are co-opted, young people are drafted, the list goes on.
So, how do you tell a story about that? Make it about survival. This can be the survival of the PCs as individuals or the survival of their entire community. If it’s about the PCs as individuals, they’ll be scrounging for supplies amid bombed ruins and avoiding the renegade battle monsters summoned by military wizards. They’ll need shelter from the elements, and a good campaign goal might be getting out of the war zone entirely. Such a journey would be as trying as any quest to throw the One Ring into Mount Doom, with PCs dodging harassment and violence by the professional killers on both sides.
If the characters are trying to preserve their community, then they need to be community leaders. A group of important citizens whose village or space station has been chosen as a military base would serve quite well. This will not be a combat heavy game, as the military will always be better armed than civilians. Instead, it’ll be about PCs dealing with damage done to their home by enemy bombing raids, seeking justice when a friendly soldier assaults someone, and making sure the town’s children have enough to eat.
You can go further, if your group is up to it. How well does the military treat refugees from the other side? Will your group try to find these newcomers a home, even if some of them might be spies?
You have endless stories to explore; just make sure your PCs can influence the outcome. In a situation as complex as war, it’s easy for player agency to get lost in the shuffle. Whenever you plan a scenario, spend some time considering if the characters can meaningfully change what’s happening. If the answer is no, then it’s time for some revision.
Which Systems to Use
No matter which approach you use, your chosen system will have a drastic effect on the game. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but each system on it has strengths and weaknesses for you to consider.
Set in the Iron Empires universe, Burning Empires is a science fiction game about fighting off body snatching alien worms. It has a conflict system called the Firefight, which is specifically designed to resolve large scale battles. There’s also a much larger conflict management system designed to mechanically determine who wins the entire war, if that’s something you find helpful.*
While there’s plenty of room for warfare in the Iron Empires setting, Burning Empires is general enough to adapt for your own universe. It works particularly well for non-utopian settings like Star Wars and Firefly. If you’re more fantasy oriented, Burning Wheel is a similar system designed for Tolkien-style sword and sorcery. With only a little work, the Firefight can easily be retooled to Burning Wheel, and your group can battle orcs to their hearts’ content.
Both systems tend heavily towards realism and will work well if you plan to show the full horrors of war. In fact, with their punishing wound system, they may not work for anything else. A high octane action movie game will be severely taxed by a PC who must spend six months recovering from a shrapnel wound.
Is there anything I won’t recommend Mouse Guard for?* Like Burning Empires, Mouse Guard has a system for resolving large battles, but it has the advantage of being much simpler and more forgiving. You don’t have to be worried that your PCs will die from a stray arrow, and the system is easy to learn. If your group isn’t interested in playing mice, then change the name to Human Guard and replace the foxes and wolves with Attack on Titan style giants.
If personal resource management is a big theme in your game, I suggest Mouse Guard’s younger cousin, Torchbearer. With an excellent mechanic for tracking food, light, and other supplies, Torchbearer is your friend when the PCs are refugees trying to scrounge enough to survive the winter.
A Song of Ice and Fire
George RR Martin’s book series has war, war, and a bit more war. The roleplaying game does a decent job simulating it, particularly with the house building mechanics. These rules set the stage for a conflict by mechanically representing the strengths and weaknesses of the factions involved. House Coolguys has a strong population and food supply but weak fortifications. House Jerkface is well armed and packs a load of political favors but doesn’t have much arable land.
The rules for resolving battles are more complicated than either Mouse Guard or Burning Empires. In fact, they’re essentially a board game. Your mileage may vary, but I’ve found it too cumbersome to use effectively. On the bright side, the game’s personal combat system is robust, with a good balance between realism and keeping characters alive.*
Legend of the Five Rings
Like a Song of Ice and Fire, Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) has a setting that’s ripe for war. Feuding samurai clans raise massive armies, even during times of peace, just waiting for a chance to use them. The social rules are so strictly enforced that a single insult can spiral into open warfare.
L5R’s mass battle system is different than the others, because it doesn’t focus on how the battle turns out. Instead, it simulates the experience of each character participating in the melee. Characters roll to determine how much damage they receive, how much fame they earn, and if they have an opportunity for some thrilling heroics. These rolls are influenced by who’s winning the battle, how much armor the character wears, how deep into the fray they’re willing to go, plus a number of other factors. It’s particularly effective if you want to create a feeling that war is bigger than any one person. That said, some players find it frustrating because it leaves so much to chance.
No matter which system you choose, remember that war means different things to different people. If your group is after a careful examination of the effects of war, and you try to run Inglourious Basterds the Game, there’s gonna be trouble. Keep in mind what your players want, then choose a system and method that fits.