Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Now Taking Odds For The Assault on The Fortress of Crows

The Set Up
After several days of dungeoncrawling through vampires, wererats, flail snails and the laboratories of a mad alchemist (which I may detail later at some point--things got very complicated once Frankie decided she wanted to get bit by a vampire), the PCs find a lightwell. They crawl up and crawl out and find themselves in the back alleys of an unfamiliar urban maze.

This is the city built inside the Fortress of Crows.

I figured it was sort of like a modern military town--a fort that essentially, over time, becomes a city in itself. Like Carcassone but moreso.

Naturally, its main export is plot hooks:

First, it's surrounded by an army of the undead. This is part of the same army of the undead left over from when Mandy ran Death Frost Doom. It's been slowly moving south.

The fortress has been surrounded by skeletons on hungry horses for about a month and is running low on supplies. Being a fortress, it's well-stocked, so it's still acting kind of like a city.

Defending the city are clerics and paladins of two separate gods, I imagine them, in their cloaks and dented armor, as being basically like these guys. (Thanks, Palmer.)

Grimly they gaze downward into the impassive faces of the unmoving, silent, patient, skeletons--who seem to simply be waiting for the defenders to starve to death.

Meanwhile: seemingly unconcerned by the siege, bearded, be-ringed, Fat Balto walks the streets, eager to wheel and to deal, Brother Thrown and his parade of zealots rails against any and all outsiders every night, and lots of other NPCs wait around ready to do stuff at the first sign that the party gives a shit about them.

What They Did With It

Having spent most of the last session bumping around in the dark basically just trying to figure out what was going on in the dungeon, the players, upon finding themselves in the fortress, yearned for clarity and simplicity.

So: fight the skeletons. After a lot of preliminaries and marshalling of forces (and KK acidentally drinking a kleptomania potion thinking it'd give her the strength of 10,000 bats) the party ended last session by sketching out a battle plan for the beginning of next session.

When putting together the fortress, it was hard to know where to concentrate my efforts, since you never know which direction will catch the PCs fancy or, indeed whether they wouldn't just rather abandon the fortress and its doomed inhabitants and head back into the dungeon. Next session will be a lot easier since I know what's coming: a big fight with lots of skeletons.

Running The Siege

A lot of ink has been spilled trying to figure out how to do mass battles in DnD, however, I think maybe attempts to do so are built on the fallacy that there should be a way to do mass battles--that is, that there should be a system. I mean, a mass battle happens only maybe every dozen sessions at most so why not treat each one as its own thing? The idea that dungeons should always work the same way or that there should be a system for creating puzzles makes no sense, so perhaps one way to do mass battles is to treat each one like it's its own separate mini-game with all new rules.

Specifically--I'm thinking I'll run this one a bit like video games I've played:

Star Wars Battlefront, Samurai Warriors 2 Empires, and a lot of other strategy games use the concept of "command points" or "bases"--key positions. Take all the key positions and you usually win.

They also use the idea that the player controls one individual and uses that person to hack stuff up and mostly the idea is the player's character is pivotal if for no other reason that it's the only thing on the board not being run by an AI. Depending on the game, the actual player has varying degrees of control over friendly NPCs' strategy (take that base, retreat, etc).

Depending on what kind of command and control networks the PCs set up, it seems like I could run the invasion of the Fortress of Crows like this kind of strategy/first person-chopper mashup game. The PCs go and fight--as usual--whatever bony foes are in front of them and, once in a while, they will get alerts from messengers telling them that this or that key position has been taken and that they might wanna do something about it.

The Fortress of Crows is composed of a series of towers linked by bridges and causeways. The skeletons have already overtaken one of the towers and stand in overwhelming odds at the foot of all the others.

I'm going to assume that the mazey streets, alleys and bridges are narrow enough that the PCs (five to eight humanoids) and their foes take up enough space that anyone wanting to take territory which they occupy will have to get though them. That is, if the skeletons are trying to cross bridge B and the PCs are on bridge B then how well the PCs do pretty much determines who gets bridge B (this is not to say that the enemy only has to send five to eight soldiers to fight the PCs, they can send as many as they want).

As for the battles for "off-screen" command points, I think I can rig it like this:

-decide that getting from the ground (where the invading army starts) to any given command point takes a certain number of steps--say five

-each round I roll dice to see if the enemy forces have managed to advance one of those steps. i.e.: if all the dice rolls went their way and the PCs did nothing to interfere, the enemy will have swamped all the outer perimeter command points in five rounds.

The next trick is to figure out how to weight the die roll. Since there are four hundred defenders (five hundred if you count some of the citizens as soldiers) and a thousand attackers, you could weight the odds just based on those numbers, 2 to 1 against the defenders.

However, everybody knows that defending is easier than attacking, especially if what you are defending is a big-ass multi-tiered stone fortress. I'm not sure what the final odds will be (and I don't want to give them away because I'm dictating this to Mandy and she's typing it up for me) but I suspect--in most cases--I'll end up weighing it close to 50-50.

So far, here's how it'd work:

-The PCs have an ordinary combat round, then I roll dice to see the skeletal armies progress toward each tower/command point, and mark it in a little box (one of five per command point).

-If at any point all five boxes for any tower get filled, someone will run down the line telling everybody that position has fallen and the battle lines will move.

The first complicating factor is that neither I nor the esteemed death knights leading the skeleton army are idiots, so the skeletons, rather than applying equal pressure all the way up the line, will probably want to concentrate different amounts of force in different areas. This means that the odds for taking any given position will have to change depending on how many skeletons I send.

Since 1,000 is a nice round number and I'm going to assume casualties will be roughly equal--percentagewise--on both sides, I don't think this will be too hard. They get a +2 here, they get a -2 there, whatever. I can write up the battle plan in advance.

The second complicating factor is figuring out what to do when the PCs move or if they split up or if they use any sort of clever tactic that should by rights produce a mass effect. This will take some on-the-spot house-ruling, but I'm reasonably sure that keeping everything in multiples of ten should keep it fairly clean.

Overall, the idea is that the two armies are just two big monsters, they each have a certain number of hit dice and the damage of their attacks is proportional to these hit dice. If the PCs manage to do something (like say, catapult a boulder into the enemy forces) then this will weaken the enemy offensively and defensively in proportion to how effective the tactic is.

Place Your Bets

I want to do this with the gloves completely off. I want to act as though I am the skeleton army's commander and have all the wisdom of the dead and am trying earnestly and with every resource at my disposal to take the fortress.

The rub is: I've read Clausewitz, I've read Napoleon, I've read Sun Tzu, I've read Shelby Foote's three volumes on the Civil War. My players haven't. More to the point: I've played a lot more Warhammer 40K than they have (though Mandy has almost beat me a couple times). I'm not entirely certain if there's any genuine reason to suspect they've got half a chance.

However, they do have concrete advantages: They have the fortress--a fine defensive position-- they have the initiative (the skeletons were just planning to hang out and wait for the city to starve), and they have all the resources (both obvious and hidden) of a whole city at their disposal, whereas the skeletons have only what they are carrying--all of which is plain to see.

So the PCs have some of the advantages of both the defender and the prepared attacker and, of course, the PCs--being PCs--always have the option to cut and run.

If anyone cares to lay odds, post them in the comments.


  1. Firstly, props to you for reading Clausewitz!

    I'd bet on the PCs. Skeletons with a 2:1 advantage over soldiers (or 5:2, depending on your decisions), but assaulting a large fortified city, sounds like an even matchup.

    So the forces themselves are a wash. So comparing the commands - while you've got more experience, I have learned to never underestimate player cunning, except when you're rooting for them to win because that's the time that they muck it all up. Since you're not doing that...my money's on the players.

    Eager to see how this turns out.

  2. players win. why?

    you might know more about military strategy. so what?

    your opponents have a pool of imaginative minds at their disposal. they will think of some exciting/hilarious/dumb things to do that will make you want them to succeed.(cause the outcome of their actions will be much more fun than you outsmarting them on a battlefield)

    daring suicide-charges or setting zombiepants on fire... beats sun tzu every time! ;)

  3. Some questions:
    -What siege engines do the attackers/defenders have?
    - What are the numbers of the attackers/defenders?
    - Do the attackers/defenders have "special forces"(supernatural stuff or specialty troops that would give a severe advantage) at their disposal?
    - Can the attackers use magic to waste/spoil/plague the supplies and/or the inhabitants of the fortress? (Is it a fortress or a true walled city? I didn't get that clearly tbh...)

    The question is: Do you rather want to narrate the siege? Or is there a possibility for the PCs to end the session with a well-executed TPK?

    Best regards
    p.s.: 40k skills is not an indicator to good wargaming as 40k is more a game of "who spends the most money wins always" instead of who has the best strategy that counts. Even if you've read Napoleon, von Clausewitz (He was Freiherr, mind you!) and Sun Tzu you could still be a lousy tactician after all or just botch all your rolls.

  4. Naturally, its main export is plot hooks:
    KK accidentally drinking a kleptomania potion thinking it'd give her the strength of 10,000 bats

    All the good sense imparted in this post aside, these made me laugh.

    I'm placing my money on the relentless tide of Harryhausen homages, simply because they don't feel fear, pain or tiredness in the way the living do. And coz I'm a Tomb Kings fanboy.

    The living will enjoy local successes, but unless an army of dogs appears on the horizon, they'll end up beating a hasty retreat after a hard-fought battle (mainly because comebacks from behind are inherently cooler as a fight format).

    I'm presuming the styrofoam city blocks will be getting another workout, and you'll eventually have pics for us?

  5. I bet on the players. They have a fortress, an army of paladins and clerics and even if they loose, they can escape and keep all the xp and loot they want.

    The only objection to this whole thing is - you are both the designer of the fortress and the leader of the undead army. To play this fair, you have to act, as if your knowledge of the scene is limited to what the undead knights know. And that is very difficult.

  6. While I am a FIRM believer in, and vocal advocate of, the concept of "a pool of imaginative minds," if I read it right, the skellingtons has to win. Looks like the setup is they win, they advance one, they lose, no penalty. By definition, given enough rolls, they win. Now, if the command points can be taken back...

    BTW, the force multiplyer for any castle is a lot more than 2.

  7. Always bet on the PCs!

    Anyhow, a fun "mass combat" system that you might consider sometime is just to use higher number dice for "tougher" opponents & roll one die of that type per unit-- so many skeletons roll d4 but there are 10 of them, maybe paladins roll d8 but there are 5 of them. Then just sort of get a feel from the numbers that turn up.

  8. This sounds like fun. Cool artwork for the castle and I particularly like the vertical text block label.

    My prognostications are that some of the PCs and some of the NPCs will escape via the dungeon, but the castle will ultimately fall.

  9. The odds do look pretty much even. The best way to conquer a fortress is having someone open the gates from inside, but since the enemy army consists of skeletons... uh huh... I somehow doubt that'll work.
    Besides, they're the PCs, they can do anything! As proved by the epic story of Joe the Gorth-Slayer.

  10. 2 to 1 odds for the attackers isn't enough. 3 to 1 is the rule of thumb for normal attacks. Put the defenders in a castle/fort and 10 to 1 is much more likely to be even. Medieval history is full of examples of castles being defended by a ridiculously small number of soldiers.

    That's why sieges were the preferred method of taking strongholds. Letting all those refugees, useless women (I'm going to hear from Mandy, aren't I?) and children eat all food was way better than trying to take it.

    So you need more undead. Besides 1000 skeletons doesn't really constitute a "Horde".

  11. Sounds like a great system - i'm very curious to find out how it goes. i'd bet on the pc's, because i like to believe that a bunch of crazy people can defeat one smart one.

    Also, "the strength of 10,000 bats"?!? Awesome, simply awesome.

  12. I think you'll want to factor in defender morale into your equations somehow - especially as casualties start to mount and towers fall. The huge advantage that undead have here is that they don't panic, don't retreat, don't get tired.

    They also aren't effected by wounds and don't get thirst or hungry - all things that make a huge difference to the morale of an army.

    On the flipside - they're pretty stupid, don't really know when to retreat, and can't take advantage of sudden opportunities or think laterally. All in all, it's a really cool match-up of ingenuity versus inevitability.

    The way I'd run it is that the undead start by applying roughly equal pressure everywhere - they have the numbers. Once they start to make headway somewhere, they'll draw off pressure elsewhere and increase pressure there.

    Since they are undead, they'll keep some pressure up everywhere, to prevent the defenders from shifting too many men around - they don't really care about casualties taken, only inflicted. Once they take a tower, the split all their forces around the remaining ones, or head everyone to another place they are making headway.

  13. So, wait, what do the skeletons want?

  14. I would agree with Stuart, to successfully seize a fortress you need about 10:1 historically. Typically sieges didn't work because they'd have to break when the army besieging starved or had to go home (for various reasons). The undead have no pressure to end this quickly (unless there's something in the fort that's time sensitive).

    If the players do want to fight with the undead, they'd probably have to sally out into the horde (which, if intelligently commanded, has built its own earthworks and fortifications). Obviously a fight in the city would be cooler, but if that's the case the odds would seem with the PCs.

  15. Psst! Over to the right! Siege rules at the RPG Corner! (Ok, for the Pendragon system, but doesn't look that hard to convert.)

  16. To play this fair, you have to act, as if your knowledge of the scene is limited to what the undead knights know.

    Unless, of course, in life, some of the undead came from the city...

    I will bet on the players winning out, if only because there are more of them, and crazy game-winning ideas come more easily from a collection of minds than they do from a single thinker.

    Interesting system, by the way, and I agree with the idea of doing something different each time. A few weeks ago in my game, the players got themselves into a large-scale combat, and for that I came up with this system. It worked well enough, but I'm going to do something a bit different for the next big fight.

    For what it's worth, the first edition of Legend of the Five Rings had a very neat mass combat system, one that I've converted for use in other games with much success. It emphasised individual player actions, with these actions influencing the wider combat, but without having to worry about the statistics of the involved armies.

  17. @Stuart

    They're not the whole horde, they're just the part of it that's bothering to attack this particular fortress.

  18. Unless there's something I don't know, it seems like mass low-level clerics against mass ordinary skeletons should be a big plus for the defenders. On the other hand, presumably the death knights know of turning attempts and have guarded aginst it somehow. Either by taking point themselves or procuring some kind of turning resistance effect.

    So I guess I don't have a firm prediction. If I were a player, I'd try to plan either for maximizing npc turn undead attempts against groups of skeleons, or for targeting and eliminating death knights one at a time.

    I'm another fan of the L5R combat system, tho from what I remember it's optimized for armies drawn up on an open field. The tower-centric battle here might require rolling for each tower rather than one whole battle.

  19. Just to focus on the most important part of the whole post:

    "I'm not sure what the final odds will be (and I don't want to give them away because I'm dictating this to Mandy and she's typing it up for me)..."

    Dude...you dictate your blog posts to your GF? And she types the shit out for ya?

    *Bows out of respect*

    Now, to the meat of it...my take is that the GF/Players will win. Why? Because unlike most groups, you have to go to bed that night just a few feet from where you just killed your GF's character. Now, Mandy seems like a cool woman, but knowing that her side of the bed is gonna feel pretty damn cold to you for some indeifinite period of time would, I suspect, help you out in deciding which way to fudge the rolls.

    To say nothing of all further dictation services being cut off...

  20. Do the skeletons have artillery? Or sappers or something? If not, I think my money would be on the defenders.

    However, gambling is against my religion, so not really.

  21. I like the idea of making mass combats more abstract. Really just an interesting backdrop for what the PCs are doing. I like the idea of having a bunch of set combat encounters that depending on what the PCs do affect the overall flow of the combat. Such as with your guard the bridge senario: If the PCs hold the bridge completely, good outcome A. If they hold it for at least X number of turns, neutral outcome B. If the only hold it for less than X number of turns, bad outcome C and so on.

    A DM of a 2nd edition AD&D campaign I played in off and on for a couple years used a similar system and it worked pretty well. We'd tried a couple of other mixed PC/Mass Combat rules kludges and they generally made it either too deadly for the PCs or over powered them.

  22. Release the WARPIGS!

  23. I'm loving the multi-level fortress and bridges, walkways, etc.

    I always thought it would be cool to have the undead making their own siege ramps, ladders, bridges, etc., out of their own bodies... so when the army of skeletons come to a ditch, the first 100 throw themselves in and the rest march right over them. When the army has passed, any survivors that were not ground into fertilizer rejoin the rear ranks. To pass over a wall, they could form a ramp of skeletons right up against it and the rest march up. (like 1/2 of a human pyramid against the wall).
    They also have no fear, don't need food or water, never sleep, etc.