Tuesday 6 October 2015

Running an Ancients / Fantasy Campaign

This week I started running a pseudo-Ancients / Fantasy Play-by-Email Campaign.

If you are a regular reader of this blog you may be surprised to hear me mention Ancients. You may have noticed me dismissing anything pre-1790s as being too linear, limited and dull to be worth wargaming. Well: it depends.

From http://worldstudies43.weebly.com/greek-wars.html

In years gone by I dabbled more widely. Classical hoplite warfare appealed enough at one time that I painted up all the 6mm hoplites I needed to fight Plataea. Then I realised that hoplite battles really are linear and limited affairs with very few interesting decisions for a player to make, and that often what makes an ancient battle distinctive is the one-off stratagem or ruse or unique campaign situation. So I thought the answer was to run a campaign to generate interesting tabletop ancient battles.

Back then I had two overlapping circles of friends, one of wargamers, the other of fantasy roleplaying gamers. I set up a campaign that both groups could participate in. The wargamers could get as involved as they liked in detailed army orders and military aspects. The RPGers could devote themselves to being megalomaniac despots and focus on issuing edicts and devising colourful and characterful actions.

Guide to Glorantha Volume 1 
Learn about Glorantha here

Rather than set my campaign in the real historical ancient world, I decided to give it a fantasy setting. I chose the land of Ralios from the RuneQuest world of Glorantha. This had several advantages. It allowed for a rich variety of troop types. Including fantasy races (the usual suspects, elves, dwarves, trolls and so on) introduced suitable prejudices and rivalries. Background information was rich in detail and readily accessible. Many of the players were very familiar with the world and its cultures and gods, which would not have been so true had I chosen, say, an ancient Mediterranean setting. Although Glorantha has plenty of magic and monsters, the combat is still essentially ancient warfare.

I made the campaign rules deliberately simple and left a lot of space for me to arbitrate things. A game turn was a year. The game map was divided into 72 provinces, each about 50 miles across and with population in the 10s of 1000s. A simple formula for population and loyalty generated revenue for the rulers.

The Ralios PBM campaign involved 12 to 16 players, lasted for four real-world years, and completed 23 game turn years. It was truly epic, and 20 years on the players still reminisce fondly about the Road of Skulls, 'Zombie Toilet Terror', and how the Mad Shaman sold his own head to his arch-enemy.

"But what about the battles?", I hear you ask. Well. Indeed, initially I wargamed these. But after fighting just two or three I realised they really weren't that important. It wasn't so much a case of the tail wagging the dog as realising that the campaign itself was what mattered, and trying to fight the battles just delayed the real fun. (And they were still linear, limited and dull ...) I resorted to Kriegsspieling them solo in a very crude and simple way, just a dice contest in fact, and then inventing an elaborate write-up of the result in the campaign newspaper.

Ralios was hugely successful and hugely popular. For years players asked when I would do the next one. So I ran a second one, again set in Glorantha, this time in the Redlands. I had learned from the first one and added a couple of features. One was Heroes - basically powerful military units, but each with some unique capability. Also, where Ralios had just been an open-ended struggle for conquest, the Redlands had a story arc. Over the course of the campaign, a series of significant events would occur - prophecies being fulfilled and such - leading eventually to the creation of a New God. The players' actions would influence the nature of the New God and whose side the New God would be on, i.e., which player or faction of players could claim to have 'won'.

The Redlands PBEM campaign, like Ralios, was glorious. Like Ralios, it ran for over 4 years and about 25 game turns, with 12 or so players.

And still they want more! Almost since the moment the Redlands finished, players have been asking for another. And so, this week, the Kralorela Kampaign has begun, set in Glorantha's version of China. The background is that the Dragon-Emperor has disappeared leaving a power vacuum, and the players represent various colonial powers trying to get a slice of the action (apart from one who is the local underground resistance movement). Think Boxer Rebellion meets Conquistador.

Further lessons have been learned from previous campaigns. I have streamlined the campaign mechanisms still further to make my own job easier and to make game turns quicker to resolve. I have set up the geography so that players can get around by sea easily and can interact with lots of other players, nobody really having a cosy 'corner position'. I am giving players fuller information (Ralios and Redlands had a lot of fog of war). I have stated explicit victory conditions up front, as several players wanted to know what 'winning' actually entailed. I have given each player a 'Secret Agenda', their own unique victory condition. These are deliberately not in direct conflict, so it is actually possible for all of them to achieve their individual goal, even if only one can end up with most victory points.

So the Kralorela Kampaign is up and running, and should keep me and a dozen others entertained until circa 2020.

Belated update 28 August 2022:

The Kralorela campaign ran for two years. It was even better than the previous campaigns, benefiting from the experience I gained from those. Again it had memorable episodes (e.g., doomed trolls besieged in a volcano fortress triggering an eruption that annihilated the besiegers as well) and the players were thoroughly engaged. Sadly, I then got involved in serious academic translation. Clausewitz elbowed Kralorela aside and I had to wrap up the campaign prematurely, to the players' great disappointment. Fun while it lasted, though!


  1. Chris, the linearity of your ancient battles might had more to do with the rules for ancient warfare, rather than the reality.

    Try these rules developed by that great game developers The Perfect Captain. They built them on purpose because of the same issues like you had.

    Rules are free and they include a campaign system.


  2. Thanks, Konstantinos, but don't you know people want their prejudices reinforced, not corrected? ;-)
    But seriously: I think it is about technology and geometry, not about rules. The absence of significant mobile ranged firepower necessarily makes ancient warfare linear and limits the complexity of the game and the number of interesting decisions that there are for a player to make.


Comments welcome!