War is boring

19 March, 2009 at 9:22 pm (roleplaying) (, )

To be more precise, roleplaying in war situations tends to be boring unless the characters are specifically constructed for it.

This post is part of rpg blog carnival, hosted at The book of rev.

The problem

You are playing this fine character, all tangled up in whatever is happening in the game; politics, looting the local megadungeon or struggling between losing your humanity and having to drink blood to survive. Then there’s war. Maybe your character won’t get involved and everything will be fine as the war will be a background event and simply add pressure to whatever is already going on in the game. Maybe your character will get involved. That’s when trouble starts.

What is there to do in a war? Most characters will follow orders, wait a lot, occasionally fight a bit, rinse and repeat. This is only interesting if the combats are quite enthralling, even when repeated, or one wants to focus on the psychological problems of being a soldier. Neither of these are true of my gaming and, I dare say, most gaming.

Some characters will be in the luxurious position of giving orders. They will have limited information, make decisions based on that, and get back limited information of the effects of those decisions. I’d hazard this would get fairly boring fairly quickly unless one were playing a real war game, in which case, carry on.


One obvious solution is to draw attention away from the war, in whichever way one chooses to. Maybe an opportunity to take on a heroic quest that will resolve the entire conflict will conveniently manifest? Maybe one does not get too involved.

The characters taking on special missions is another popular solution. It works if the characters are fairly competent fighters and preferably have other relevant skill sets. Guerilla warfare, assassinations, destroying supply chains, poisoning wells, … By participating in such activity characters can, in interesting game systems, learn relevant skills and really start shining at the activity (or players are encouraged to make their characters competent if there are points, levels or feats to distribute).  This will reduce to cahracters being essentially constructed for warfare scenarios, assuming sufficient time, where sufficient depends on the speed and method of character advancement in the game.

Secondary characters: One easy option is to play other characters, ones built for the situation at hand, until the war ends or gets interesting for the primary characters. Or it could just be skipped in play: There’s war, roll on this chart to see if your character gets wounded or some other interesting thing happens.

Customised characters

Sometimes one wants to play in a wartime game. It pays to build a character who is interesting to play. Generally, at least moderately skilled characters are better than unskilled ones. One may want to have a mentally unstable character and follow its arc, or take a socially unstable group and see what happens to them under pressure. Everyone building specialists that can partake in guerilla warfare is one option, as it gives a degree of freedom and variety not offered by large scale battles.


Adding a war to an ongoing game is a drastic change and can make many interesting characters moot. Before killing a good game , consider what kinds of activities the characters might perform in the war. Talk to other participants, see if they are interested in playing those activities. If not, make sure there is a way out.

If you are playing in a game where there is a war brewing, it would be polite to inform the GM of this stuff and perhaps say that you’d like another character to play during wartime in case this one doesn’t end up being interesting. There’s no shame in saying that your character is no longer interesting to play, though transforming the character so that interest can be maintained is often an option, too.



  1. Donny_the_DM said,

    Gawd I hear you.

    War has always been a grind in my games. Even “special forces” scenarios were lame…

    Nowadays, I let the war itself be a background to the actual events unfolding before our clueless players.

  2. wickedmurph said,

    Another solution is to have the characters involved in the results of the war, as opposed to the war itself. Wars cause massive upheaval in civilian populations, political changes and such, all of which will have an effect on the game-world that the PC’s inhabit.

    I ran a campaign a while back where a major war was occurring, which had also sparked an internal rebellion in the aggressor country. The PC’s had an ally who ruled a small town on the disputed border. He was arrested (rebel sympathizer) by the priests and soldiers who served the king, and imprisoned in the fortified temple. The pc’s attacked the temple, rescued their ally, and in the process, sparked a general uprising in the town. That wasn’t really their plan, but it happened as a result of their actions.

    Then, a force was sent by the king to reclaim the town. It was too large to fight directly, so the ruler decided to take his loyal people and flee across the mountains. To give them time to evacuate, the PC’s slowed down the incoming army, then served as scouts for the refugees in the hostile mountain crossing. I got about 5 great adventures out of the whole thing, and did not require “customized” characters to play it.

    Stand-up battles are boring. The chaos and upheaval of war provides many opportunities to create adventures where the players feel much more involved than a static dungeon romp.

  3. Ravyn said,

    I agree; I just spent a good portion of this week and the week before trying to come up with ways to avoid the war bore (on the plus side, I managed to find ten activities that didn’t necessarily involve fighting, and I’ve seen very few characters who couldn’t fit with at least one of them.) Part of the problem, though, is that even if the players see the potential for keeping busy in a war scenario, the GM might not, and then you’re back to “are we done fighting yet?”

    Though I’m not sure if I’d relegate it to a roll on the chart skipping; war is a sufficiently society-encompassing event that it almost has to be played out just to figure out the emotional impact on the character in question. Blasted dramatic Catch-22s!

  4. Jack Crow said,

    I have always found that all the intrigue and planning before a war starts is awesome to play through or GM, but the war itself is always anticlimactic and tedious.

    I solved this problem by simply “not” playing the war part in my campaigns. I let the players do all the fun stuff and then I simply skip the war and read a few paragraphs of what happened and how the world was affected. This allows the PC’s to get right back into the swing of the campaign, rebuilding the world and creating new directions for their characters. It also saves role playing a months worth of tedious battle crapola (no offense if you like playing out the battles, I personally think its awful). This may seem like cheating to which I say, stuff it, I could care less, I want my games to be fun and nothing ruins pacing like a ginormous battle.

  5. Tommi said,

    I figured I’d be all alone with this opinion. Evidently not so. Good ideas all around.

    Blasted dramatic Catch-22s!

    Exactly. War has plenty of effects on both societies and individuals, so just ignoring it by handwaving seems unsatisfying; still, wars are not usually quick business, and playing thourhg one gets boring. There’s no correct solution.

    I have always found that all the intrigue and planning before a war starts is awesome to play through or GM, but the war itself is always anticlimactic and tedious.

    I completely agree.

  6. Bruce said,

    Hey! Why has everyone got such a negative perception of roleplaying in war situations? Isn’t conflict at the heart of roleplaying? Wars can provide an awesome backdrop to a game.

    I think the key is that the game itself can’t only be about the fighting. The war is the setting/environment, and the characters can be right in the thick of it, but the individual game session scenarios shouldn’t be any different from what you’d play normally; you can have small scale skirmishes, scouting/infiltration, rescues, assassination attempts, kidnappings… anything you like.

    If you want an idea of what I’m talking about, take a look at Sharpe (either the TV series or the novels). Sharpe’s in a war setting and rarely an episode goes by without a battle of some kind, but it’s never really about that. Each episode is really about personal trials or conflicts. To my mind that’s the way roleplaying in a war situation should be played.

    And if it is done that way, where’s the negative?

  7. Tommi said,

    Hello Bruce.

    My original point was that war situations are fairly limiting, unless characters either avoid the war or are built so as to allow several interesting activities in wartimes (random characters may or may not have several interesting activities during wartime). I have never heard of this Sharpe (and have no TV), so I can’t comment on that.

    Summary: Wartimes + characters built for it, or changed to fit in, is good. Wartime where the war is largely avoided can be as good as any other gaming. Most characters + war means plenty of battles or mindless following of orders, neither of which sound very fun to me.

  8. ksym said,

    I personally love killing npc’s, pillaging and destruction. A war situation can be made interesting by adding colossal escalation.

    Players stumble upon an enemy camp and decide to scout it. They find a weakpoint in their defense and try to sneak in.

    Dice are rolled as often as possible. If a player fails in something, they are given a change to “escalate!”: in order to succeed, they “take shit”. This means that they can accept that something negative happens to them, their party or to the environment in general, but their primary goal succeeds.

    For example: players decide to sneak to the weakpoint, and silently take out the guards there. They fail, the guards would point their guns at them, ready to blow em into oblivion. Instead, they take shit: GM dictates that the nearby barracks are alerted BUT they do manage to kill all the guards. Next, they may, for example, try to retreat and circle around the weakpoint or push forward and raise hell. But the situation is escalated nonetheless

    Regardless of how they get in the camp, at some point the whole camp will be alerted. Fighting ensues. GM have to describe the environment so, that players get ideas on how to use the environment to their advantage (GM: there’s a barrell with “explosive” sign on it near the sniper tower … hint hint). Using environmental advantages might wreak havoc and escalate the situation, of course. Players will fail very now and then, and if they want to succeed, the situation escalates even further. Image: first the guards at the weakpoint are shot full of holes, next the barracks need to be blasted into hell, this escalates into total chaos, camp is alerted, people running around shouting and shooting everybody, at some point a tank comes around, then helicopters, cannons, a player calls reinforcements, more shit flying around and FULL SCALE WAR!!!

    The scene ends when players have either fled, have taken so much shit thru escalation (wounds, “out of ammo”, lose equipment etc) that they can’t continue OR the entire camp is blown the hell.

    This is the way I like it. No bullshit, no frustratingly complex sideplots; just the GM giving players hints (or the players suggesting GM some ideas on how to enrich the experience), players driving their goals with furiious determination, failures escalating the situation further.

  9. Tommi said,

    Hi ksym.

    Your solution is fine if the characters are capable combatants and might work well as a start for a war-themed game.

    Right now I’m trying to figure out how to handle the upcoming crusades in the mage game.

  10. Bruce said,

    Hi Tommi,

    Sorry for the long delay in replying.

    Hmmm. I’m still not happy about this whole ‘roleplaying in war situations’ is boring :-) I can see what you’re saying about fighting big battles being repetative and mindlessly following orders being tedious but I don’t feel war in roleplaying games has to be like that. I agree you have to be creative if you want to keep wars interesting though.

    Seeing as you didn’t get my ‘Sharpe’ reference (Richard Sharpe is a British Army officer in the Napoleonic Wars, portrayed in the TV series by actor Sean Bean, based on numerous books by author Bernard Cornwell) I’ll try a different tack.

    At the risk of pimping my own post on Sepulchrave’s Tales of Wyre, if you can stand a lengthy read and make it through to parts 3 and 4 you’ll find this D&D game becomes an engrossing holy war that epotimises what I’m talking about.

    Which is, as I said before, that the key to wars remaining interesting is that the focus is on various moral dilemmas and decisions the characters must make as the war is waged. Hopefully if you have the time to read it you’ll see what I mean.

    Hope that’s helpful and let me know if you want to talk a bit more about it



  11. Links: story hour and theory « Cogito, ergo ludo. said,

    […] plenty of spells. Bruce recommended the story hour as a contrasting opinion on my piece regarding war being boring to roleplay through. About that: Most of the story focuses on characters that are, in some way, […]

  12. March RPG Bloggers Carnival Roundup! - The Dice Bag said,

    […] Cogito, ergo ludo War is Boring […]

  13. March RPG Bloggers Carnival Roundup! | The Apochrypha said,

    […] Cogito, ergo ludo War is Boring […]

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