Due to the situation unfolding in Europe, I couldn’t help but think of the complex nature of war. Though we, as human beings, prefer a simple narrative of “us good, them bad” in such matters, reality doesn’t permit such clear-cut narratives. Many films on war show a broad view on the issue, from patriotic boosting fare that riles up the populace to fight the good fight, to the horrid nightmare that is warfare and the complex issues that ultimately lead to human beings to kill other human beings because what they wear or say leads us to believe they are a threat to us and our way of life because our side says so.
By the way, in absolutely no way am I making light of war, or the damage and devastation it creates as a result. I have my opinions on the real world issues, which are not favorable for a particular small bald autocrat, but I am not going to go into depth about that here. Also, to be honest, wargaming is the field that spawned roleplaying games, so addressing this topic is apropos to the medium, regardless of the current state of world affairs.
A fictional franchise that does touch on and depict these issues well is the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars. It shows the details of the event that the prequel Star Wars films only hint at and bookend, and for events that get pretty serious, it does a great job. The clear-cut good guy/bad guy narrative can’t be trusted, especially for the audience who knows that it’s all an elaborate scheme orchestrated by Darth Sidious/Chancellor Palpatine. We see heroic and noble Separatists and vile Republic members. We see neutral parties that get pulled into the fight despite their best efforts, all due to their own past issues and opportunists who exploit the conflict. We are given a way to reconcile how the clone troopers execute Order 66 without negating the likable qualities they displayed throughout the series.
On the other hand, we also have Star Wars: Rebels and Star Wars: The Bad Batch to show us how things are during the Dark Times, when the war has ended but the struggle has begun, and how the seeds of rebellion were initially planted during the Clone Wars. That, along with the film Rogue One, provides a great view of the steps that needed to be taken to carry on the insurgency, and how different personalities and attitudes led to factions and conflict, as well as the measures taken to ensure the Empire’s dominance. We can also see what led to the “downgrade” of troopers from the Clone Wars era to the original trilogy era.
I mention this because, as usual, this is all great fodder for a game or campaign idea. Though the source material genre may vary from the examples I referred to, it doesn’t take much to sort out the core elements and apply them to the design of an adventure or a campaign setting for TTRPGs. There have been plenty of instances and elements where conflict has occurred in our own history that it’s not unreasonable to apply them to an adventure or campaign. But, there are some key points that you need to address if you choose to employ this element. I’m going to provide examples using a generic fantasy/D&D-style as I explore and elaborate on these questions.
Who is involved in the conflict?
Who are the belligerents involved in the conflict? Are they two powerful nations? Two large tribes? A massive free-for-all conflict in a region in order to secure power and resources? Is there anyone abstaining from joining the conflict for various reasons, such as neutrality, trade, stability, or the like? Are there any alliances or old rivalries that come into play?
For example, let’s say our conflict is between two large factions: an alliance between humans, goblins, and orcs (the Auburn Armies: AA), and another alliance between humans, elves, and dwarves (the Cerulean Concord: CC). The giants, gnomes, halflings, and one other human nation in the region refrains from joining the conflict, and have allied to maintain their neutrality (the Detached Dominions: DD). Furthermore, a neighboring human nation outside the immediate region is watching from the sidelines, trying to determine what side to back if their sovereignty is ever threatened by the conflict (the Beryl Barony: BB).
What is the conflict over?
Why are the belligerents fighting? Is it over a long-standing issue? Issues of sovereignty? A misunderstanding gone horribly wrong? A belief or prejudice? Predicated by a disaster? A mixture of the above?
The AA consists of expansionist and power-hungry groups that want to gain territory and conquer more lands. The human nation in the AA also stoked the long-held grudges of its goblin and orc allies against the dwarves and elves, and those humans who support them. Furthermore, a succession of droughts and natural disasters have pushed the goblins and orcs to the brink, and they are desperate for survival.
The CC, on the other hand, has tried diplomacy and other avenues to avert conflict, but the AA has been intent on causing conflict. The DD hopes that by staying out of the conflict they may keep their independence regardless if the AA conquered their neighbors or if the CC drove the invaders back. The BB simply is waiting to see how the situation develops.
What led up to the conflict?
Is this conflict a result of long-standing tensions that finally boiled over? Is it a sudden change of the state of affairs, brought about by a power shift in the region? Is it an attempt (or another attempt) at one group’s aspirations of empire? Has there been growing unrest in the region over the past years or decades?
As noted before, the goblins and orcs of the AA suffered years of drought and natural disasters, disrupting their normal means of subsistence. While they tended to raid each other as well as any neighbors before in times of scarcity, the widespread scarcity in their region means that they have to look beyond their lands for a solution.
Meanwhile, the human nation of the AA has an aging despotic ruler who seized power after the death of the last legitimate sovereign. This leader wants to establish a strong legacy for himself, and wants to be in a position of dominance in order to enable his groomed successor to effortlessly ascend to the throne, while ensuring the public accepts this change and rejects the underlying rebellion trying to restore the heir of the legitimate sovereign back to the throne.
In the regions of the CC, the elves were facing inner conflict due to a faction of isolationists urging them to withdraw from the world in order to protect themselves. The dwarves are eager for conflict since they are tired of the raids on their trade caravans and aggressive actions by the AA. The humans of the CC are responding to raids by the AA on their border settlements, and news of atrocities committed in these attacks.
How do those outside the conflict view it?
Are they nervous that the conflict will spill over into their lands? Are they waiting for the right moment to join the fight themselves? Do they want to remain neutral, but are being pressured by one or more sides to join a particular side of the conflict?
With our example, the DD are nervous about invasion by the AA, but they are also nervous about being punished by the CC if the DD determines to side with the AA. Therefore, they are purposefully acting as neutral parties, focusing on fair and even trade between both sides. As a result, a lot of agents of both sides are in the DD, trying to either perform espionage on the enemy or persuade the leadership of various factions in the DD to get them to join the conflict on their side.
The BB, on the other hand, officially is uninvolved in the conflict, but sees it as an opportunity for improved relations with the CC. Their leader plans to potentially join the conflict on the side of the CC when it is in danger of succumbing to the AA forces. First off, the BB hopes to be seen as saviors of the CC, and secondly, they hope such a good reputation may enable stronger alliances between the two and even potential unification of their respective lands (all under the crown of the BB, of course).
Who’s winning the conflict? Who’s losing the conflict? What does “win” and “loss” mean?
Is one side clearly dominant over the other? Is it a stalemate? Will it be a quick conquest, or take several seasons or years for the conflict to resolve itself? Is it a multigenerational conflict, akin to the Hundred Years’ War? What does victory and defeat look like for each side involved?
Currently, the AA and CC are in a stalemate, stuck at key points along the frontline at critical junctions. The most notable area along the frontline is a major river crossing and trading hub that provides access to the interior of both nations. The once independent city-state that straddles that river is now a no-man’s land, with sorties frequently being made to gain or regain ground by each side. Said city-state was also once a member of the DD, but before it could establish itself as neutral ground it was attacked by the AA in an effort to seize control of this critical juncture.
What could turn the tables of the conflict at the point you’re starting at?
Could more forces joining the fight tip the scales of the conflict? Would a sudden game-changer, like a natural disaster or the surprising outcome of a key battle, disrupt the projected outcome of the conflict? Is such a game-changer possible or highly unlikely? Could such a game-changer be fulfilled by a small group, such as the players in your game?
The BB joining the battle could radically change the outcome of the conflict. As it stands, they are predisposed to align with the CC, though they are not directly threatened by the AA and see involvement in the conflict purely as a self-enrichment strategy at the moment. However, little do they know that the AA is near completion on its plans to gain the allegiance of the giants from the DD, and that the AA plans to have their giant allies attack the CC on their distant border with the BB. Furthermore, the BB has been “granted” as a gift to the giants by the AA as part of this deal. The revelation of this plot may cause the BB to enter the conflict earlier than planned, and even have the CC consider the lands of the DD as a future threat if they are not dealt with quickly. As such, the CC is seeking freelance operatives to go to the DD and find out what the AA is planning, and thwart it if they can.
What will the status quo be after the conflict ends?
Will things go back to normal, or will a new normal be established? Will there be any retaliation? Could the seeds for a future conflict be planted by the outcome of this current conflict?
Supposing that the players are successful in their task, they are able to relate to the CC the secret plans of the AA to gain an alliance with the giants of the DD, and the plans to allow the giants to take over the BB in the process. Upon discovering this, the BB enters the conflict on the side of the CC. Furthermore, the players also discover that the giants are not all behind the betrayal, but a growing faction within them was plotting to seize power and lead the giants into war. The players help the giants expose this plot, deal with the faction, and then get the giants, as well as the rest of the DD, to fully back and support the CC.
Continued action leads to the driving motivations of the goblins and orcs in the conflict, and a concerted effort to provide aid and treat prisoners of war and conquered territory kindly and fairly helps establish a movement among the goblins and orcs to switch sides. Now, the human nation of the AA is outmatched, and is driven to extreme measures to grab at victory. The end result is the ultimate conquest of the human nation of the AA by the allied forces of the BB and CC. As part of the peace process, lands taken from the goblins and orcs decades ago by the AA are given back to them, and a new ruler, legitimate by rules of succession but more inclined to peaceful relations with the CC and BB, takes the throne.
However, the grassroots movement present in the AA who was trying to install a more direct in line candidate to the throne does not approve of the “puppet ruler” installed under the “guidance” of the BB and CC. This force, along with bitter belligerents still angry at the loss of the war plot to seize power, and then get revenge against the orcs and goblins who betrayed them, the giants who lied to them, and the allied forces who defeated them.
The relations between the BB and CC are formalized, and the union between the human nations is strengthened by the marriage of the crown prince of CC to the crown princess of BB, since the unfortunate death of the crown prince of BB during the war. The conflict reminded the elves why staying involved in the affairs of the world is important, and the dwarves gained new trade partners in the orcs and goblins.
However, there is unrest in the lands of the victors as well. Old prejudices are exploited by scheming folk in an effort to empower themselves. Some speak of the unwillingness of the halflings and gnomes of the DD to enter the conflict, and suspicion of them grows. The human nation of the DD tries to rehabilitate its image, though growing pressure to join the young human empire evolving out of the BB and CC is present, especially as a way to show loyalty after the conflict.
All of these questions are meant to provide guidance for using this idea for narrative purposes. It can be rather simple or extremely complex, based on how much you want to delve into the theme or topic.