Monday, August 16, 2010

Thoughts on Pendragon's Battle System

So as I mentioned in my last campaign update, I've reached some conclusions about how I'm going to handle mass combat in Pendragon. At least for the duration of this particular campaign.

First, a little history for those unfamiliar with the system. To the best of my knowledge, Pendragon has always had a mass battle system for handling conflicts for anything on a scale larger than a skirmish of a couple dozen combatants or so. Up to and including the latest edition, the mass battle system has comprised a chapter in the back of the rulebook constituting a little system-within-a-system that, although it builds upon the core mechanics, is kind of its own thing.

That "thing," unfortunately, was somewhat clunky and unwieldy and fairly deprotagonizing for PCs. My first extended Pendragon campaign started shortly before the advent of the Conquest Period, so we ended up playing through the entirety of the Roman War; trust me whe I say we all got our fill of the old battle system and its faults.

Last year, in what would prove to be the last home-published Pendragon supplement before the line's purchase/resuscitation by Nocturnal, Greg Stafford produced the twin volumes entitled Book of Battle and Book of Armies. The BoB presented a new battle system that was both streamlined and richer in detail than the old, one that attempted to (and succeeded in) making the battle system more engaging for players and adding tactical elements to the process of participating in battle, as well as defining many of the subsidiary battle events that were hand-waved or left up to GM fiat in the older system.

Needless to say, I was pretty jazzed about this release. Finally, Pendragon would have a decent battle system! And you know what? Having run nearly a dozen battles with the new system, I stand by that assessment. However, I've also come to the conclusion that the new system is not working in this particular campaign. Sometime in the future I intend to run the GPC for a group, and I will trot out the Book of Battles again and see how it goes over, but for now I'm retiring the system.

The first reason is that one of the BoB's greatest strengths, its increased focus on tactical decision-making, is so not Des's style. To use Robin Laws's terminology, she is simply not a Tactician-type player in the least, and not much of a Power Gamer either. I've addressed Des's attitudes towards tactical play and number crunching as it applies to D&D in a previous post, and the same hang-ups apply to Pendragon gameplay. In fact, as Sir Herringdale has risen in power and come into command of his own body of troops, she's become increasingly disconnected from the battle system and the decision-making it requires of unit commanders.

The other factor in my decision was that in a single-player game the new system actually puts extra work in the GM's hands. This is because the BoB, in its admirable attempt to make the battle system more player-focused, is designed with the assumption that at least three player-characters will be participating in the battle. This forms a rather critical element of the new system, actually, so in a single-player game I'm obliged to run two GMPCs to obtain a quorum, on top of my usual workload. Which is higher than normal since, as I mentioned, Des is fairly disconnected from the battle process so I've taken up the slack with the paperwork, which the system assumes will be shared among a group of at least four players (three PCs and a GM).

So clearly we need a new approach, and I've settled on a compromise between old and new. The key was remembering that an old 4th edition supplement had a nifty, streamlined version of the old battle system, complete with a handy flowchart. After scratching my chin a bit, I remembered that it was in the back of the excellent Beyond the Wall supplement, and voila:

I really like this tweaked version of the old system. For one thing, it gives the Army Commander a roll every round, and a fairly essential roll at that (figuring overall casualties for the round!), finally giving Arthur some measure of influence over battle outcomes, for example. Yet it retains something I liked about the old system: it focuses on the characters' individual experience and their fortune from round to round. Plus: no paperwork. It's just a series of dice rolls. Also, players can use Battle rolls to affect the Foe Table result (and if they Fumble they might get a worse opponent than originally rolled, heh) regardless of whether they're a unit commander. So there's a lot to like there.

However, I am not abandoning the new system altogether. There's lots to like about it, after all. I'll be taking the Opportunity and Surprise tables, for one thing (I think they can fit in nicely with Step 4; if a player is a unit commander and rolls a crit or fumble, respectively, in that Step, the tables come out). I will also be using the deliciously excellent Foe Tables from the Book of Armies, you'd better believe it. And probably a couple other elements cherry-picked here and there (the rules for being disengaged in the rear area, for example, are great).

As we head into the Boy King period, which kicks off with a regular ol' Battle Fest of Epic Proportions and eventually culminates in the Götterdämmerung of Badon Hill, I'm looking forward to seeing how this new compromise system works out. Hopefully it'll mean less work for me, and more engagement/enjoyment for my player. I'll post an update once we have a couple battles under our belts.

As for the BoB system, as I mentioned above, I've far from written it off entirely. I'd be quite interested to see how it played out with a group of three or more players, particularly if we had a tactician or two in our midst.
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