Skirmish style guide
War is the continuation of plot by other meansCarl von Clausewitz
Skirmishes - which includes battles, quests, and encounters - are an essential part of Empire. Although most fights take place away from the safety of Anvil, the consequences of conflict and war are critical for the economics and politics that takes place on the field. As they are a key part of the game for many of our players, we need to aim to deliver the best possible experience for those players, in a style consistent with the remainder of the game. This page is an adjunct to the more general guide, describing additional elements pertinent to skirmishes.
Skirmishes should be viewed as scenarios in a wargame campaign. We will provide information on what may or may not happen as a result of player interaction. It is by choosing a conjunction, venturing to the battle location, and achieving objectives that players will achieve their preferred outcomes.
Skirmishes are ultimately just an extension of plot. As such they adhere to the same vision laid out for the rest of the game.
The plots and encounters we run are not about telling stories, rather they should create opportunities for players to take advantage of new developments to tell stories of their own. Our plots should be moments where the actions the players take will create stories that perpetuate in the game world, and be remembered in the community for years to come. Our plots are a crucible for character stories to emerge from, they are not a story in and of themselves.
We want all the encounters we run through the Sentinel Gate to be about roleplaying, the game world, the plot, and the action. Regardless of the size, they should be a chance for a player to roleplay as their character going into battle, on mysterious journeys, or on a daring missions. They are there to provide epic roleplaying moments, whether characters are alone or part of a large force of heroes fighting against the odds.
Battles mustn't be just an opportunity for fighting and engaging in combat. That is not compatible with the approach above. Because the actions of the players are what our game is about, we have to deliver a setting where the choices the characters make trump all other considerations, we can't have those choices constrained or overridden by our writers or our referees. At no point should we be stopping players from influencing the game. Skills, combat and roleplay need to be the critical elements that determine what happens in a battle, because they are the levers with which players, and their characters, can alter the game world. That experience - of altering the game world through your actions - is what our game is about.
The encounters and roleplaying that takes place on the field on the skirmish field are every bit as valid as the roleplaying and encounters that take place in Anvil. Everything that happens in Empire is a canvas for player choices - everywhere that players are in-character, roleplaying and making decisions is equally important - no one part of the game exists to support another. That means that skirmishes must be seen as an important field of roleplaying in their own right, they must not be subordinated to other plots for the Anvil field or anywhere else.
This means that we must not use skirmishes purely as set-up for other plots. Writing a plot which starts with the assumption that players retrieve an item from a quest is problematic - because it precludes the possibility that the players will fail. It also runs the risk of putting too much emphasis on the writing for the field plot and not enough for the quest. A quest to retrieve an item should exist because the writer has a good idea for a good quest - not as set-up to start a plot about the item in the field.
Creating skirmishes is a significant logistical challenge - the writing that supports them should reflect that challenge and the pay-offs it produces - it should not be done simply to lead-in to other plots.
Skirmishes should motivate players to engage with it - not by forcing them - but rather by creating opportunities for their characters to prosper and advance their own objectives by getting involved. This is true of all plot, but is particularly important for skirmishes because of the immense logistical exercise in arranging them and the player expectation that accompanies them.
If the players work away from a plot - that is a perfectly reasonable outcome. We can't prevent the players from opting out of battles altogether - they control what their characters do. But if they walk away from a skirmish or battle and as a result they of that choice they don't fight at all - that is a massive waste of resources and will lead to a lot of player disappointment. In a setting where we should be ready to run with any legitimate choice the characters make - this is one we never want them to make.
Consequently we absolutely must avoid plots and scenarios that encourage inaction. We must not offer levers that allow players to remove a battle, or render their own actions pointless. Players can alter battle outcomes, but we must avoid giving them a skirmish or battle in which the most favourable outcome is achieved through not fighting.
Easy victories undermine the challenge involved in playing Empire. We're striving to present a game in which the choices the characters make have real meaning - they affect who lives and dies, who prospers and who suffers. Easy victories - for any reason - fundamentally undermine that approach.
One consequence of this is that we must not creative narrative safety nets for the players. If the players fail to complete their objectives in a battle or skirmish then we must not write another opportunity for them to rest that experience by having another try. Likewise, we will not provide ‘gimmies’ to the players by forcing a story or objective on them, resetting an experience they have missed, or contriving a solution to resolve player misaction. Quite apart from the fact that this does not create appealing narratives - it diminishes the impact of failure and reduces their motivation to try.
Failure often makes the players keen to immediately request a chance for another attempt. We must resist that siren lure and instead force the characters to live with the consequences of their failure. The possibility of failure should be part of the design of any skirmish we run - and it should lead to new opportunities that present the characters with different options for where they go next. Where we can we should plan contingencies for the unexpected, or accept that players will redirect events through their actions. That is the right way to handle failure on a skirmish in Empire.
Impossible victories are just as bad. We must do everything possible to avoid a skirmish where it is not possible to succeed. Quite apart from the metaphysics of the Sentinel Gate ?(which literally prohibit opening a gate to a skirmish that the players cannot succeed) - it damages the fabric of the game to give players battles they cannot win.
Like any plot, combat should force the characters to make hard choices. Rather than a Hollywood style environment where the point of the fight is to give the character the opportunity to demonstrate their heroism, our fights should be awkward bloody affairs where the players face difficult choices. When to fight, when to give ground, when to retreat, when to talk, should all be valid choices that the characters can make.
To ensure that those decisions remain meaningful we must have the courage of our convictions and follow through on our own plot briefs. If the players have thrown extra resources and people at an encounter, then they should find that those resources allow them to win that fight more easily. If we re-balance a fight to compensate for their efforts, then we nullify the impact of those efforts, effectively rendering their choices moot. Likewise, if the players have not provided the skill, strength, or resources to win a battle, then they must suffer the consequences accordingly.
Running a game with hard choices for characters is not easy. Sometimes that will mean that players will experience an unusually easy battle - because of their own character actions. Sometimes it will be exceptionally difficult. Neither is popular with players at the moment it happens - nobody likes to lose or to win easily for that matter. Nobody should be writing a battle or a quest that aims to produce high casualties or a total wipe but it is critical to the style of the game we want that if the players mess up then they should suffer the natural consequences of their actions.
Different Sides, Same Setting
The monsters categorically do not have to follow the same rules as the players. That idea is already inherent in the definition of monstrous creatures, something the players cannot field. More critically, the monsters simply do not need to operate using the exact same skills and abilities that the players have. They can have unusual abilities, or use existing abilities in unique ways. They may even be able to do things the players cannot.
That said, there are two major caveats. The monsters must use the same call system and rules framework as the players. For instance, it is a fundamental design consideration that in Empire there are no resists, no character who would normally be affected by something can "resist" it. The bestiary might contain a unit of monsters that gains more than 3 hits from wearing medium armour - but it will never allow them to use medium armour to "resist" the Impale call.
The other issue is that the abilities of the monsters must reflect the setting. Casting a high level ritual is expensive and difficult in Empire, so it should be expensive and difficult for their orc opponents. Monsters on a battlefield should be the peers of the Imperials and their abilities, skills and powers should reflect that.
If a writer wants to create a new bestiary entry that departs from the rules then it should be designed to capture the flavour of the creature, not to circumvent the limitations that the rules impose and they should make sure they check it carefully with the ref team first.
Peer vs Peer
The ideal style of combat is one that feels structurally similar to a PvP fight. The players should feel like their opponents are characters who are operating on a similar set of rules (albeit not identical) to themselves. While we can't control the numbers of volunteers that we have we should aim to minimize respawning and instead use healing magic, herbs and potions, to make a fight last longer.
Individual battle briefs will of course vary, but most opponents that players face should feel like capable opponents, they should not be mooks to be waded through, but nor should they be death knights who can wade through the players. Mooks make poor opponents for PCs; expensive abilities like venom, weakness, impale, strikedown and shatter are useless against an opponent that is quickly dispatched by normal blows, so generally speaking mooks rob the players of a worthy opponent they can feel like a hero when they fight and they rob them of difficult choices to make (like should I use this heroic attack now?).
On the other hand a Death Knight makes the players feel like mooks. As they fall like chaff before the Death Knight's mighty blows, the characters significance in the setting is reduced. Most of their special abilities are inherently useless against a monstrous opponent and by definition a Death Knight requires hundreds of blows to drop, if it can be dropped at all. Like fighting mooks, this makes the actions of the players meaningless as they lack decisions to make and their actions become insignificant.
The ideal opponents are the players peers on the other side. Elite combatants with abilities and skills similar to the player base and with attitudes and approaches to match. They should make use of intelligent plans, strategies and tactics. When the players make a mistake they should look to exploit it. We don't want to try our hardest to outwit the players, we will always be armed with more intelligence than them, but we do want to give them a fight that challenges their abilities as commanders as well as warriors.
Fun For Everyone
It is blatantly obvious that battles, skirmishes, and quests should be fun for the players. Writers and skirmish organizers should keep in mind however that as with any plot we create, skirmishes should be just as much fun for those who are monstering. There are a great many reasons for this:
- Crew retention: - if crew are enjoying what they are doing they will come back.
- Player retention: - if good crew are enjoying themselves, then players will find it more fun to interact with them.
- Part of the game: - players have to come and monster the big battle if they want to play the other one. We want that experience to be as cool as possible because it is part of their event.
Monstering is not a chore to be endured, it should be part of the game they have paid to enjoy. It's our job to make it fun.
It is important to appreciate that "fun" means being able to roleplay a cool, interesting, enjoyable role, one with some basic characterisation and purpose. It means feeling like you are a challenge for the players and giving roleplayers something that they can get their teeth into to portray. It categorically does not mean lording it over the PCs or PC body counts. There are some roleplayers who enjoy one or both of these activities, but that isn't the fun we are interested in offering.
In practical terms this means trying as far as possible to avoid roles such as playing dead bodies, monsters that cannot speak, not having any background or 'charge the enemy for no reason' briefs. Roles don't have to demand an Oscar winning performance but should give those who want to roleplay as they fight something to work with. The battlefield should feel like an environment filled with characters.