This is a further development of the ideas from this post, with a lot of inspiration from the Assassin’s Creed 2: Brotherhood assassin trainee mini-game. It’s about letting players manage a much larger force of heroes to set the context around a game of D&D. It’s intended for warfare epics, or just situations where there’s an awful lot going on in the world and the PCs are part of a larger organization all splitting up to deal with it (rather than just a small band of adventurers).

Offscreen Heroism

In this system, players accumulate ally heroes. Some of these can come from the normal campaign sources like Leadership cohorts. Most should be story rewards for hard-won challenges, and many of them should require extra effort to acquire. The more ally heroes the players collect, the more capable they’ll be in the offscreen challenges. For the most part, you’ll only need the hero’s ability scores, class, level, and name. Ideally, you’ll print them out on cards that the players can handle (like this or this). The goal is to give them something tactile to arrange visually around the table.

During play, the players will send these heroes on missions: generally things the PCs don’t have the time, inclination, or talents to take care of themselves. These missions have six factors:

  • Often, a mission will have a distant Destination that will take the group time to reach before they can work on the mission proper and to return from when the mission is complete. This travel time is tracked toward when the heroes become available again (or when other events happen while they’re unavailable), and can be circumvented normally by access to different travel methods and spells.
  • All missions have a Frequency, which indicates how fast the heroes can make progress. Generally, this is on a similar scale for all the current missions (a series of diplomatic and information-gathering missions may take days, while spreading out to prepare a city on the eve of battle may be in hours).
  • The mission’s Goal Number is a total that the heroes are trying to meet to make the mission a success.
  • A mission’s Ability Score indicates which of the hero’s scores is added to her level to generate progress toward the goal number (e.g., if Valeros and Seoni were both assigned to a Dex-based mission, they’d add 19 toward the goal number once per Frequency, due to adding their Dex bonuses of +2 and +3 to their level 7).
  • A mission might have a Threshold of another ability score and a number that must be met to begin the mission. This totals only the heroes’ ability score bonuses, not their levels. For example, an attempt to sneak into a walled city and gather information is a Charisma mission, but might have a Dexterity Threshold. In that case, Seoni might take Valeros along mostly for his high Dex, even though he’s not very charismatic. If the mission had a Threshold of Dexterity 7, they’d need at least one more hero with a Dex bonus (and someone with a Dex penalty would set the Threshold back).
  • Finally, a mission might have a Danger Rating, which means that combat is likely to occur in the mission, and someone could die. For each hero whose level is lower than the Danger Rating, roll a d20 once per frequency; if the result is equal or lower than the difference in level and Danger Rating, the hero is killed on the mission (and doesn’t contribute further to the Goal Number past that point). If Seoni and Valeros went on a mission with Danger Rating 9, they’d each have a 2 in 20 chance of dying each time they checked the Frequency. Sometimes, it’s better to let a mission wait than to spread one’s heroes too thin.

If the GM wants to track it, record the Danger Ratings of all successful missions on the hero’s card, and level the hero up after the total equals five times the NPC’s level (i.e., five equal-level missions, more lower-level missions, or fewer missions with a risk of death).

Structuring Missions

When setting up missions, there are a few major points to keep in mind:

  • All missions should give some useful reward for completing them. That may be in the form of treasure that the heroes share with the party, information that provides a real benefit, another heroic ally, or an asset for the battle system (see next week’s post).
  • There should generally be enough going on that the players can’t accomplish everything unless they’re very good at matching their allies to missions and/or have worked hard to have a lot of spare allies. Just make sure that a lot of the missions are optional, simply making things easier rather than screwing the players if they can’t accomplish them.
  • Missions should often have a window of time in which they’re available; careful planning can let a hero do two missions before the second one’s window closes, but taking a mission’s availability for granted makes it go away.

Ability Scores for missions can break down according to the following:

  • Strength missions might be heavy labor, training troops, or physical competition.
  • Dexterity missions generally involve stealth, acrobatics, or other roguish activities.
  • Constitution missions might be ordeals or anything else where simply enduring leads to victory.
  • Intelligence missions involve research, puzzle-solving, or intellectual competition.
  • Wisdom missions are often about scouting, discerning truth from falsehood, or religious activities.
  • Charisma missions cover any kind of social information gathering, diplomatic envoys, or distractions.
  • For missions with a Danger Rating, the GM may choose to allow the mission’s Ability Score to just be “Prime Requisite;” the hero uses the ability score bonus most appropriate to his or her class.

A Game of Generals

The typical way to use this system is to allow the player characters to send allies to take care of stuff that’s useful but not something you’d want to run all the way through. Another option is that all of the heroes in play are potential PCs, and when the players are assigning the heroes to different missions, they’re effectively portraying whatever non-adventuring leaders organize the group.

In this style, the players can pick up and play any of the heroes when the GM decides the situation calls for it. This might be a single, largely-descriptive scene to conclude a mission, or may be a full series of encounters (particularly in a mission with a Danger Rating; this moves the chance of death from a die roll to the results of the actual encounters). The players may not know which missions will lead to opportunities to zoom in on the action, so may take to splitting up characters they enjoy playing onto any missions that are remotely appropriate rather than what’s most tactically sound, so this style probably works best if your players enjoy the roleplaying challenge of spontaneous playing different characters. It also means that you’ll need full stats for most of the heroes, rather than just the ones on the card.