Saturday, September 9, 2017

To Battle in Hell - L'Mercenaire!

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Mercenaries have been a subject of fascination for me for ages. As a kid, I devoured books about the Flying Tigers and other merc pilot outfits, but also fell in love with Arthur Conan Doyle's The White Company and Corwin raising his army of Earth mercs to take Amber. Later, Glen Cook's legendary Black Company books and Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen continue to loom large for me, as do Iain M Banks's Use of Weapons and Drake's Hammer's Slammers.
NC Wyeth's "The White Company"

Driving back home just now, I listened to a great interview on why Erik Price's plan for Afghanistan is terrible. Price, the founder of Blackwater/Xe/Academi/Constellis, was described by the guests as (among other things) "Gyro Gearloose" and "[a guy who] thinks he's Tony Stark but is really Lex Luthor." Hell of a listen. (See also this 2007 piece, by Paul Tullis and one of the folks on the interview, Robert Young Pelton.)

Grizzly APC.jpg
Blackwater's Grizzly AFV
By Dominguez2 - Own workCC BY-SA 3.0Link
Prince's outlook, combining a strong religious fervor (and profit-motive driven amorality) with wildly ambitious ideas (both sensible and awful) rang a few bells of recognition in my mind from a gaming perspective. Price certainly fits the mold of a recurring NPC, if not a PC himself. His peripatetic post-Iraq schemes for BlackXeCademi (an abortive attempt to foment a war with Iran, creating an anti-piracy force in Somalia before abandoning his forces in the field to go rogue, creating an oil refinery scheme in South Sudan before being kicked out for trying to skim off the top) sound like the sort of harebrained ideas that, well, a bunch of PCs would come up with. And when I hear about Blackwater creating its own COIN planes and AFVs, visions of folks geeking out over how to minmax and optimize their own vehicles in GURPS or Traveller flash before my eyes.

Even while I listened with horror to the Blackwater podcast, a treacherous 13-year-old who lurks in my brain was going "that's so cooooool" at some of the Blackwater shenanigans. To be clear, the cool bits were more the homegrown vehicles and wild antipiracy plans than the civilian massacres, heedless destruction, and disregard for human life. (Those last bits are...kind of not so hot, to say the least).

Joel DuQue, for HareBrained Schemes's Battletech
This train of thought got me wondering why we don't see more discussion of PCs-as-mercenaries in RPGs. While there are certainly several games that do support this (Traveller and Battletech both pop primarily to mind, but also several games from this list - interesting to note the strong presence in all three lists of the Keith brothers), I don't know that there's too much support for the mercenary company in fantasy games. Certainly you have games like ACKS that integrate a wargame/economy system into the core rules, but given the presence of computer games like Mount & Blade and Battle Brothers, not to mention all the literary sources I've mentioned above, I'd have expected a bit more support and/or exploration of the idea.

So. What makes playing a merc campaign interesting? One of the settings I would have expected to cover this in more detail doesn't; Green Ronin's Black Company Campaign Setting fails to engage with what playing through a merc perspective ought to entail, instead treating the issue as simply "fielding a small army." (This isn't intended to slag the BCCS, which is one of like two d20 books that I have actually sought out and really like, but just noting what it doesn't cover.) Even worse is the AD&D 2e "For Gold and Glory," which lists a slew of uninspiring and incoherent Forgotten Realms mercenary groups and their Battlesystem statistics - perhaps expandable with work into something useful, but it would be hard going.

Instead, a better place to start is something like the Mercenary's Handbook for Battletech. This book (1st ed by J Andrew Keith - see above) lays out a few principles that help clarify what makes a merc campaign interesting:
Niclas Meldeman - "A Landsknecht Brandmeister"

  •  It's about logistics, economics, and survival as much as it is about strategy and tactics.
    A merc unit isn't just about warfare and fighting - it's also about doing so at a profit (or else you wouldn't be mercs in the first place). While this can (if taken to extremes) lead to excessive spreadsheet management taking over play, it also helps focus the players on long-term decisions. While it's possible for PCs to take extraordinary measures to heal (or even resurrect) a single companion, it's harder to do so for whole units. Players have to conserve their forces and ensure that they're spending their money wisely. (As forces increase, player overhead does as well - perhaps a refreshing change for GMs who are all too familiar with player power creep combining with money meaning less and less throughout play.) This point seems like it might interact interestingly with the traditional "1 GP = 1 XP" rule for classic D&D.
  • The merc has two concerns to keep track of - the actions of their enemy and the actions of their employer. Corollary: the employer feels the same way about the mercs.
    Hiring a mercenary unit means that a state actor has delegated one of the state's core functions (the monopoly and control of violence) over to an actor that is operating from financial gain. This sets up a slew and a half of dangerous incentives for both patron and mercenary. Shadowrun is infamous for including a stereotypical "Mr. Johnson" patron who generally intends to screw the players over upon completion of the job (either because they Know Too Much or to avoid paying the contract.) Battletech takes a more subtle approach, with constant struggles between patron and merc regarding both payment and the amount of control that the patron will ultimately be able to exert over the mercenary unit. Long-term, the mercs have to worry about being hung out to dry, sacrificed for either financial gain or simplifying the playing board. In turn, the patron has to worry about the mercs being unreliable (failing to fight or turning their coat) or even staging a coup once they're in a commanding position. 
  • It's not all about the fighting.

    As I mentioned, many discussions of mercenaries in RPGs (primarily fantasy gaming) seem to abstract mercenary play to merely mass combat. However, this undersells several of the strange and outre mission types that lend themselves exceedingly well to RPGs in particular - the ones that require out-of-the-box thinking and unusual actions to supplement maneuver and force. In the Mercenary's Handbook, Keith identifies a few contract types that fit this bill: cadre duty, security/riot duty, siege warfare, recon and objective raids, and guerrilla warfare.

    These contracts place the players in situations where they either have interesting responsibilities not usually present in PC groups (shepherding and training green troops, conducting security rather than breaching it), or situations ideally suited to PC organization and scheming (infiltration to shorten a siege, guerrilla warfare). These are frameworks which offer social interaction, sneaky tricks, and lateral thought a chance to shine alongside direct application of force, while giving players increased resources (and responsibilities) to manage.
  • A mercenary campaign is a shortcut to domain game play.

    Classic D&D has the domain game - rulership, land management, and building a kingdom/dynasty - as a traditional endgame. The mercenary campaign lets players engage with a section of those widgets earlier than they might otherwise (and in novel ways that don't quite match up to standard domain game play). It also places PCs in a situation where they have to engage with the broader setting, interacting with movers and shakers in a situation where the PCs have got an inherent value and potential leverage for the bigwigs. 

Rievers' raid on Gilknockie Tower, G. Cattermole
The most difficult component of a satisfying mercenary RPG campaign will be economic balance and a satisfying campaign economic system. Normally I'm not too fussed about game balance, but since the merc campaign revolves around keeping the company in the black and not the red, this component will need to be robust enough to keep a core gameplay experience satisfying.

The next component is a good, quick, and easy-to-integrate/translate mass combat system. (It is a merc campaign after all. Even though force on force conflicts may not be the core gameplay from session to session, you'll want to have a robust enough system to allow players to take on force engagements in a fun and engaging manner. (You'll also need players who are interested in mercenary gaming, but that's not really something I can provide assistance with here, beyond noting that such players are objectively smarter and more attractive than others.)

It's a tricky thing to put together and organize. I've tried before and had it either peter out or crash and burn very rapidly. But I'm convinced that there's a core gameplay loop here that's immensely satisfying, and I want to explore this space further.

...or maybe I just want to field some homegrown AFVs along with some landsknechts.

How have you worked war and mercenaries into your campaign? What's worked and what hasn't?