Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Retrospective: Red Arrow, Black Shield

One of my gaming white whales is a means to adjudicate large scale, strategic-level conflicts in a way that's simultaneously straightforward (if not necessarily easy) and meaningful. What I want is not a wargame, at least as generally understood, but rather a system of some sort that produces the right mix of randomness and plausibility. That's almost certainly too much to ask of any system intended for use with RPGs. Nevertheless, it's one I have long sought. 

That's why, back in 1985, when TSR released module X10, Red Arrow, Black Shield, I immediately sat up and took notice. Written by Michael S. Dobson, the module touts itself as a "strategic wargame" that allows players to fight a massive war against the Master of the Desert Nomads. It's more than that, though. The module also includes a diplomatic adventure, with the player characters being appointed Ambassadors Plenipotentiary and Extraordinary of the Republic of Darokin. Their mission is to travel across the length and breadth of the Known World in an attempt to sway its realms to the side of the Republic, as it squares off against the Master. 

Red Arrow, Black Shield includes a 48-page booklet, a full-color hex map of the Known World setting (or "D&D Expert Set game world, as it's called here), and 200 die-cut counters to represent the military forces of the various nations. Despite not being much of a wargamer, I adore counter sheets. Seeing them included in a RPG product always brings a smile to my face. Outside of The Fantasy Trip, I can't think of many contemporary RPG products that include counters of any sort, which is a shame. I'd love to see counters make a resurgence in contexts like this.

The adventure consists of a series of min-scenarios, each associated with a kingdom of the Known World. Depending on the characters' actions, they may positively or negatively influence the attitude of the kingdom's rulers toward the Republic of Darokin or the Master of the Desert Nomads. The outcome of each mini-scenario thus determines the final order of battle for the war that is brewing. If the characters are very successful, Darokin's alliance will be stronger, while the reverse is true if they fail. It's a simple approach but a solid one, since it keeps the diplomacy "adventuresome," which I think is a good call. 

The module also includes an overview of the war, with notes on how to use Battlesystem to adjudicate its battles. However, the expectation is that the the DM will make use of the War Machine rules presented in the D&D Companion Rules. War Machine is looser and less detailed than Battlesystem, placing an emphasis on speed and ease of use over precision. They're closer to the kind of thing I want in a mass combat system, even if there are some aspects of them I don't like. Regardless, they work well in this context, I think, and it's partly why I still think so well of this module. The other reason is that Dobson provides guidelines, albeit short ones, on how to handle the aftermath of the war. For me, that's vital and a big part of why I wanted a product like this in the first place.

Red Arrow, Black Shield isn't perfect, but I like it. If nothing else, it provides a possible foundation on which to build a system for handling macro-events in a RPG campaign. I'd love to see some enterprising fellow to take up this task. Otherwise, I might have to do it myself. My House of Worms campaign long ago reached the point where large scale events, including wars, became important. Thus far, I've been winging it without the help of any systems to supplement my own creativity. There's nothing wrong with that, of course – my players haven't complained – but there are many times when I would like events to happen independent of my choice. This is a matter that demands more attention.


  1. Wondering if you have looked into Kevin Crawford's systems for lightweight faction management in a campaign that are part of his general sandbox toolkit that has been evolving throughout his games, from _Red Tide_ onward?

    1. I have looked at it and like it. My main complaint about it is that it's still a little more referee-dependent for the adjudication of results than I'd like. I'm looking for something just a bit more mechanically robust, if that makes sense.

    2. Re SWN system: I like what's there. I just wish it would also add in a little more, uh, make the NPC factions "make decisions on their own" a bit more, via dice etc, rather than me as DM having to decide for them.

      BTW, thank you for letting us know that Red Arrow, Black Shields could use War Machine. I like War Machine better than fighting it out on a unit vs unit basis.

    3. Yes, exactly! That's precisely the issue I have with SWN and what I have been looking for.

  2. Replies
    1. Yes, it did and it was one of the things I remember most about it. Sadly, it was also last published decades ago.

  3. I enjoyed using things like Flashing Blades and Bushido that features an abstract battle system (using Troop Points and the leader's strategy skills) with the character playing within it. [Flashing Blades is very much like En Garde, but with extended events in the combat for the individual.]

    The old Barony/Swords of the Empire (now remarketed as Conrad's Fantasy) has a nice card draw series for events in battle (but lacks an overt battle system).

    If players are commanding units in battle then the new Pendragon Book of Battle is quite good as well. This is based around the players battle roll which determines what opponent the player faces in the next battle turn. Depending on the commander's orders there is a random selection of opponents selected (based on the number in the army), and if the player wins they get to choose who they face, otherwise the gamemaster does. Again it also includes special opportunities for the players to take to gain extra glory on the battlefield.

    1. I'd forgotten about Bushido. I've used Pendragon a lot over the years and, unfortunately, was never all that impressed with its battle systems. I don't know the Book of Battle version, though, so I may have to give it a look. Thanks for reminding me of it.

  4. I was always impressed with the mass battle system presented in the first edition of Legend of the Five Rings. I'm told a similar system exists in later editions but I have no experience of them.

    It's an abstract and dramatic system in which the battle goes on in the background and player-characters get to interact with it in a series of highlights; depending on how they get on in these individual moments, the players can influence the overall outcome of the battle.

    (For example, they may stumble across the enemy commander, or get a chance to attack an unguarded flank of the enemy army, or capture the enemy standard.)

    The larger scale of the battle can be influenced by various skill rolls, and these not only determine which army has the advantage, but what sort of highlights the players will encounter and how difficult they will be.

    What it doesn't cover is stuff like troop movements, individual unit casualties and specific things like that. That's where it differs from things like the War Machine rules.

    It's a very flexible system that captures the feel of a large battle without becoming an ersatz wargame, and also lets the individual characters contribute in meaningful ways. It's also quite easy to convert to other settings as the Lo5R-specific content is not essential to the functioning of the system.

  5. XSOLO Lathan's Gold has a very crude chart-driven combat system, but without any real random element to it. It's passable for the odd situation where a battle may be happening around the players rather than where the players are directing the battle. Often that's enough.

  6. X10 was the culmination of my first, long-running D&D campaign. The group started with B2 and we gamed consistently from 1982-1987. They completed B1-B4, and X1-X7 before hitting X10.

    It was epic. I made notes on how the war played out, and will be posting them on my blog, some day. The diplomatic missions in particular might have inspired the career path of one player...