Mass combat has never been handled very well in any incarnation of the d20 System, and Pathfinder is no exception. From large and intricate systems that are practically a separate game in-and-of themselves to highly abstract rules-light methods, mass combat has been presented in many different varieties. Unfortunately, all of them are imperfect, tending to be either too complex or too simplistic. Ultimately, a fresh approach to the entire idea is what’s needed.
That fresh approach is found in EN Publishing’s Warfare for Beginners.
A four-page PDF (one page of which is the OGL), Warfare for Beginners throws out the underlying assumption of all other mass battle systems: that you need stats for armies. Instead, it puts the focus squarely on the PCs as individuals and makes them the linchpin for how a mass battle resolves. As the book’s product page says: the underlying assumption is that unless the PCs do something, their side will eventually lose.
It’s certainly possible to take issue with the aforementioned assumption. After all, some may not like the idea that the PCs are ALWAYS on the losing side of a battle unless they go out of their way to turn it around – while the book doesn’t address this, I think it’s important to understand that this underlying default is a purely meta-game construct. It’s designed to set up the system that Warfare for Beginners presents, rather than create an in-character scenario of “why is it our side is always composed of bunglers except for us?”
Warfare for Beginners was originally a 3.5 product that has been converted over to Pathfinder. This is fairly easy to see, since its main mechanic is an original one. The battle is decided by the accumulation of Victory Points. Gather enough VPs and the PCs’ side wins; lose all their VPs and their side loses, plain and simple.
The kicker is that VPs are naturally lost over time…as in, every day of the battle. The PCs must accumulate enough VPs by undertaking missions to bolster their troops and undermine the enemy to be able to win. A d20-based table is presented with various mission ideas, as well as how many VPs they’re worth if completed, and the penalty to VPs if failed. An accompanying table determines events that take place with the rest of the armies, and the resulting changes to the VP totals.
What all of this means in a practical context – and what the book spends about half of its pages talking about – is that Warfare for Beginners doesn’t so much present a system for resolving mass battles as it gives you a series of ideas for encounters that the PCs face over the course of the battles. In other words, if you use this system to determine that the can PCs go out on an assassination mission, you’ll still need to use a battle map, have NPC stats for foes, etc. You’re essentially running short adventures for the PCs, and keeping a tally of how they do.
There are some guidelines given on how challenging missions should be based on how many Victory Points they’re worth, as well as discussion of scaling various aspects of the system (e.g. having things occur over months instead of days). Roughly the last quarter of the book presents some examples of how this would work in actual play around the game table.
Needless to say, how much you get out of this system will depend on what you had in mind for your Pathfinder mass battles. If you want your PCs commanding armies and using large-scale military tactics, then this book isn’t for you. If you want your PCs to be pulling off daring commando raids whose effects change the whole dynamic of the battle, then this product gives you an excellent system for designing short (or even not-so-short) adventures to do just that.
What really makes the difference here is the book’s presentation. While it may be obvious to a lot of GM’s, I give this book kudos for saying “don’t just dryly read off the table results! Present what get from these rolls as natural consequences of the battle! Here’s an example.” This is the sort of advice that’s often overlooked simply because a lot of people just assume this sort of presentation is understood. That’s not the case, however, and dressing up what the mechanics give you is a big part of role-playing, particularly for this book, which is giving you outlines for adventuring during a war.
If you want your PCs to be the ones who make the difference, pick up Warfare for Beginners. It makes them the real heroes of battle.
[5 of 5 Stars!]