Review: Heroes of Battle

Copyright Robert J Defendi © 2005

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

I have been waiting for this book most of my roleplaying career.

I didn't know it. I've substituted improvisation, miniatures rules, everything in its place. I didn't know this gap existed in my gaming repertoire before this book showed up on my doorstep. It was only when I opened it and skimmed the table of contents for concepts that I suddenly realized that this was it. The book I was waiting for. I almost didn't want to read it. I have no particular history with David Noonan, Will McDermott or Stephen Schubert. Maybe I've read books by them before, but they've never appeared on my radar. Wizards can put out some uneven stuff, so I wasn't sure if I even dared read it. I mean, here's a book I didn't even know I waited for and when it shows up, Bruce Cordell had nothing to do with it.

I skimmed it once very quickly. I'm a bad speed reader, but I can get the general gist of a book fast. What I found prodded me to go onward, so I started snatching at random bits that seemed to solve long standing problems in my games. I read more carefully now, probing, sussing out potential problems, trying not to get my hopes up.

So what was the answer? Did I like it? Well, to know that you'll have to skip to the end. I'm not sacrificing my own sense of drama for someone I haven't even met.

You know, even though this is a review, that last line begs for an emoticon.

Ah, well, you'll just have to take my sly humor as read and push on. You really have no choice. Go ahead. Keep reading. I dare you.

So the book starts with your standard chapter one fare. This is a book about adventures on a battlefield. What does that mean? Well, you know. Adventures. On a battlefield. We're in chapter one, so we'll go slow, but try to keep up. (My sarcasm).

So we talk about pacing, planning a campaign, general advice. Nothing here is earthshattering. Most of it is guidance in subjects like how to handle downtime in the middle of Agincourt. How militaries are organized. What a Frenchman originally meant when he called someone a "lieutenant."

From there, we move on to chapter two, and the book begins to pick up. Here they teach you how to design a battlefield (they start with remedial studies) then move on to flow charts. Now the flowchart idea for an adventure isn't exactly earthshattering, but just glancing at their two example flowcharts is enough to set straight any confusion you have about what a battle might look like from the POV of a few confused characters. Personally, this was the single biggest advantage of the book for me. Suddenly I can see clearly why so many of my past battlefields lacked luster.

The chapter doesn't end there, however. Next it teaches you how to build the enemy army in 60 minutes. Then it talks about encounter maps. Then it introduces the concept of victory points and explains how to use them to influence the battle.

Basically, you predetermine the battle outcome. This is what will happen if the PC were never even there. Then you base a best and worse case scenario on how much you think the PCs can matter in the battle. Then you use their victory points the PC's earn on the field to determine where in that spectrum of possible outcomes the battle eventually falls. It's simple and it's elegant and there's nothing about the system that is tied to the D&D rules. That's the biggest beauty of the book. So much of it could be used with any game system.

Next we have chapter three. Here we explore specific battlefield encounters with examples. Then we have specific example units. Then we discuss experience. So this chapter is only useful to you if you play D&D, but honestly, you got almost everything you needed in chapter two. We're into bonus material now, and we're only up to page 62.

The next chapter is a mix of D&D specific info. You could adapt some of it to other games of course. It has rules like how to handle siege engines and aerial bombardment and arrow volleys. We also deal with morale checks and commander ratings and radii, but after that we're into non-game-specific materials again.

The chapter introduces a way to abstract strategic advantages to help determine who has the upper hand on the battlefield in the big view. We get into specific victory point allotments , how many points to assign to cutting a supply line, for instance. Then we wrap up with a method of handling battlefield recognition such as promotion and medals.

Chapter five deals with the military character. Now, if you've read any of my reviews, you probably know I'm going to be upset by all the prestige classes. You're right. WotC is out of control. We need to have an intervention.

The rest of the chapter is various D&D specific rules. We treat with skill applications and new feats. The best section of this chapter are the teamwork rules. In too many games, you send your characters to some sort of training unless you want to force the players to multiclass into a level of fighter, assuming they have the xp. You really gain nothing from the experience. I've always hated that. The teamwork rules, however, fix that. These are specific tasks and abilities that require no allocation of precious character advancement resources like feats or skills. Do you want the benefits of training as heavy cavalry? Well assuming your team leader meets his prerequisites (some handle animal, some more ride, mounted combat and trample) and the team members all meet their minimum requirements as well (A single rank in ride), the characters need only train together for a time. After that, they can act as a unit and gain benefits such as stopping opponents from avoiding your overruns. One of the nice bits in here is that each teamwork benefit has a list of tips at the end. These alert the DM to potential rules he might want to brush up on or things he might want to consider. Some of it is obvious, but it's nice nevertheless.

Next we have the obligatory chapter on magic, which was fine (spell glut is almost as bad as prestige class glut, though). The book then wraps up with sample armies, sample soldiers and battlefield steeds.

You skipped to the end, didn't you? Well that's all right. I loved this book. At least a third of it is useful in any campaign and much of the rest can be converted with a little work. This book might not have as big an impact on your campaigns. Maybe you've been doing fantastic battlefield adventures for years. But if you haven't, this book can help remake your game. I'd recommend it for anyone whose game, even now, has the dark and fervent whisperings of war.

Now go back and read the rest of this review.