Runequest Thursday #34 - Battle, and the Warfare Skill!

Clint Staples

What follows is a new Skill for Runequest, or its spiritual derivatives, Like Legend. In RQ, it is a Knowledge Skill.  IN Legend, or similar, it is added to the list of Advanced Skills available to soldiers, warriors, nobles, knights, etc. in character creation. In either system, it is modified by 1% per 10 full percentiles of the highest combat skill the Character possesses, to reflect the fact that trained fighters do have an inherent 'edge' in such situations.

The key, if you are a GM wanting to include this skill, is to come up with a consistent determination of when it will apply. If you are a player, consult your GM about whether she is using this skill and, if so, when it will come into effect.


Warfare [Knowledge (Trained Skill) in old Runequest, or (Advanced Skill) INT+POW in Legend; +1/10th of your highest combat skill percentage]

Many good fighters are able to stand their ground against superior numbers in an underground corridor, or fight a duel against a single opponent. But to survive, and excel, in battle is more than just a measure of sword skill or toughness. Maintaining an awareness of one’s immediate, and greater, surroundings is crucial, as are reading terrain, morale and troop dispositions. Warfare is a skill integral to the art of generalship, and ultimately more important to a commander of warriors than the ability to wield a weapon.

Most uses of Warfare refer to battle or significant combat situations. The definition of battle is left intentionally vague and should be interpreted by the GM depending on how often she wants Warfare to come into play. One GM might decide that it is reasonable to allow Warfare to affect one’s situational awareness and tactical thinking when the heroes are ambushed by half a dozen trolls in the ruins of Old Pavis. That is perfectly valid. Another GM requires that the scale of the engagement must be larger than a handful of PCs delving where they do not belong. He thinks of Warfare as the skill that only seasoned soldiers, generals, and similar acquire and hone. Thus he decides that Warfare is only applicable in large-scale engagements. Use the approach that appeals to you as GM.

Warfare may be used as follows:

1. Battle Outcome: GMs may use Warfare as a way to abstract a battle situation or outcome, especially when NPCs are in command. Make a Warfare check for the opposing commanders. Whoever succeeds, or succeeds by more, wins the engagement. Casualties are determined by the margins by which generals succeed or fail on their rolls. The victorious general may choose which margin he will assign to each side. If both rolls are failures, the battle is a stalemate and ends in a draw, killing men [equal to 1% x the margin of the general’s failure upon the army], but accomplishing little else. See Battle Adjudication Using the Warfare Skill, below, for a more detailed approach.


The young Imperial Strategos Pontius, with a Warfare skill of 58%, leads his army against the grizzled barbarian King Atli, whose warfare is 71%. Pontius rolls 48, and Atli rolls 56. Both generals succeed, but Atli succeeds by 15%, whereas Pontius succeeded by only 10%. So the cunning king is victorious, choosing to lose 10% of his army as casualties and assigning the margin of 15 to his foe. Pontius lost the battle and 15% of his force.

            Later in the campaign season, Pontius forces Atli into another engagement. He rolls 26 on his Warfare of 58 [for a margin of 32], But Atli, fails his roll with an 88 against his 71% in Warfare [for a failed margin of 17]. The Imperial army drives the barbarian horde from the field, choosing to suffer 17% casualties, while inflicting 32% on the hapless hordesmen.

2. Player Character Action: Warfare may be used to determine the general performance, luck and success of PCs in the same way as that od generals and armies. You can apply the modifiers above, just as you would for the battle in its entirety, to reflect the degree of peril in which the heroes find themselves.

            A success on the Warfare roll signifies that the hero has acquitted himself well, possibly gaining a scar, a point of Glory [if you are using a Glory or Reknown system] and a good story. A special success [one-fifth of the total of the Warfare skill, means 2-3 Glory, and a harrowing or heroic tale [scar optional]. A Critical on Warfare [one-twentieth of Warfare] signifies a truly heroic event that might well be told around many campfires, immediately after the battle and possibly for years to come. It is the sort of even that a character will forever be known for in certain circles. A critical is worth 3-5 Glory, and the story should be suitably epic, as defined by your game.          

            Failures are a different sort of reward. A fail does not mean that a character fought poorly, although if that is what the player wants, so be it. A failure might mean that the character suffered a debilitating wound early [an arrow in the knee perhaps], or that they were stuck where there was no possibility of real action. It may be a peach of a position to be in the general’s retinue, but if the battle goes your way, the general is hardly likely to commit his personal guard to the fray. A Fumble means that something went badly wrong for the character. Work with the GM to determine what that could be, but if you are using the Battle Severity Table below, this might automatically inflict damage on your character, possibly other effects as well, which you can help determine.

3. Skill Checks in Battle: When rolling Spot, Listen, Knowledge -Tactics, a magical skill check regarding the battle, or some other skill that could reasonably be expected to be modified by battlefield awareness, gain a % bonus equal to the tens number of your Warfare skill, in a battle or combat situation of significant scale [so, a 63% in Warfare would grant a +6% bonus to a qualifying skill, in those circumstances].


Hero Points and Heroic Actions

Player Characters have Hero Points, which players may spend to alter their Warfare, as below:

  • Spend Hero Points to avoid or mitigate the effects of the Battle Severity Table, as shown under the different categories of battle.
  • Spend a Hero Point to reduce the severity of a wound by one level. So if you suffered a Major Wound, you can spend a Hero Point, or two, to make it a Serious Wound, or a Minor Wound.  Minor Wounds can essentially be ‘healed’ this way, regaining any hit points lost.
  • Spend a Hero Point on a Success, to make it a Special Success. Or on a Special Success to make it a Critical Success.
  • Spend a Hero Point to Narrate your Success according to its degree. Essentially, you get to take greater control over the circumstances of your success, but within the degree of it.
  • Combine the effects of the above.


Battle Adjudication Using Warfare as a Skill

You can use Warfare and the following system to determine the general course of events, and the outcome of a battle in your campaign if you wish. This is intended to provide something of a narrative framework on which to base the battle or your description of it to your PCs. It does not get into the minutiae of an engagement, allowing you or your players to improvise as you like. The process is as follows:

  1. Assess the sides and assign modifiers according to the Tactical Considerations below.
  2. Roll on the battle Severity Table for conditions, further modifiers, and effects on army casualties, Player Characters [or significant NPCs, for that matter].
  3. Roll modified Warfare checks for those involved – Commanders, Player Characters, anyone you want to determine the fate of. Commander’s rolls determine the fate of the army [you can roll again for their personal fate if you like]. PC rolls determine their fate, but one or more of the PCs might also be a commander, in which case roll for their generalship and use that roll to assess the army’s success or failure.


Tactical Considerations

You can use the following chart to determine the situational modifiers for your commanders Warfare Skill Check. Each point below that applies inflicts a 10% modifier, positive or negative as noted, to the side to which it applies:

  • Outnumbered by 20% or more [-]
  • Out-maneuvered in some way. You may assign this narratively, or by rolling rolling Warfare for sub-commanders in charge of scouting, engineering  [-]
  • Good Ground: this might mean having one flank anchored by a marsh or river, arraying your battle line on hilltops or behind fences or walls. [+]
  • High Morale: If your side is itching for the fight. [+]
  • Potent Magical Support: If you have powerful sorcery or a cadre of priests that can affect the battle with fireballs, weather effects, large scale healing, or other major magical aid. [+]
  • Quality: This modifier is applied to the side that has poorer troops overall, in terms of training, equipment or ability. If the sides are evenly matched, there is no modifier. If one side has markedly lower quality they are affected. [-]
  • Superhero Activity: Not capes and webshooters [OK, probably not] but individuals powerful enough to affect the course of the battle with their actions. Examples include characters like Gandalf, Beowulf or Herakles, but could also reflect a dragon, angels, demons, or another potent figure. Note: Since Magical Support is a separate category, a powerful witch or wizard should not qualify for this category on her own. I include Gandalf here for his battlefield effects on morale, leadership and his fighting ability [all of which are high]. If the character is a potent magical force AND a valuable leader and fighter, then he can qualify for both categories. This is also the likely spot where a lot of player characters would fit into the mix. But don’t give in to the temptation to allow them to qualify for this spot if they really don’t. After all, in a battle of thousands, a shift of 10% in casualties could mean that the Heroes [if they are the ‘Superhero Activity’ mentioned] could take, or save, hundreds of lives. 


Once you have assigned the categories above and modified Warfare skills appropriately, you may roll on the table below for Severity of Engagement [You may also select a result if you know what you are looking for].

Battle Severity Table - Roll d100:

1-20 The battle is of brief duration or severity. Perhaps the opposing forces are interrupted by weather, nightfall [if that matters], or they were merely skirmishing for position. Rolled casualties are halved. Player Characters that fumble take a wound [roll 1d8 for damage, ignoring armor, and hit location normally].

21-50 The Battle lasts for several hours, with occasional ‘breaks’ in the action, where casualties may be reclaimed, the wounded treated, and fighters may regain their endurance for the fight. This does not mean that the action is not intense when it is ‘on’, merely that it is interrupted. This may be because of terrain [armies or units ‘missing’ each other in woodland, or a stream or bridge that acts as a major ‘choke point’ for contact] or because both sides arrive at a sort of rhythm [this was not uncommon in ancient battles, and occurs even in modern warfare] brought on by a combination of availability of troops and supply and the effects of exhaustion. GMs may especially like this sort of engagement, because it gives the PCs a chance of recovery if needed, and a ‘bonus mission’ if not, possibly both. You can run a combat encounter in the middle of the battle, which could affect the battle as a whole if you like.

Casualties are as rolled. Player Characters are wounded on a fail [1d10, ignoring armor, and 1d20 for location. On a Fumble the character may spend a Hero Point or be removed as a casualty, life hanging in the balance [she might be lost and bleeding out, covered by corpses, carried off by looters, or floating downstream unconscious and possibly drowning]. The character may spend a Hero Point to save herself thusly, and another to re-enter the fray or escape if she wishes.  

51-80 The battle is a hard and steadily fought slog to the exhaustion of men and supply. Men are dragged down by their armor, horses heart’s burst with the strain, archer’s quivers are emptied, and still the battle continues.

When it finally ends, rolled casualties are doubled, and Players Characters are wounded regardless of their roll [1d6 damage, ignoring armor, to 2 random locations]. On a failure or Fumble, the results are as under 51-70, but the cost to save oneself is ALL the PC’s Hero Points!

81-00 The battle is short but extremely savage, possibly because of unexpected reinforcements or developments. The losing side retreats after an initial bloody engagement, having suffered whatever the rolled effects are. The Commander must roll POW x5 to survive as is personal guard came under attack. If he does, he may manage an orderly retreat. Otherwise, the losers fall back in disarray, losing the rolled number of casualties again in the retreat or rout.

Casualty rolls are unmodified, but nearly all of that number are dead or made prisoner. Player Characters roll as above und 51-80, but may elect to be taken prisoner instead of suffering any other rolled fate. In addition, on a 00, the PC is killed unless he spends all his Hero Points to survive!



You may modify the above tables to suit your campaign’s lethality level for your PCs. The current ‘setting’ is low-‘ish’ lethality. But note that 1d10 damage to the head, ignoring armor, in Runequest, could be a death wound in battle if left untreated [the affected person will be unconscious if a Zero or less in the head, so they cannot help themselves]. The same wound to the chest or head could be as deadly if the character cannot find healing or first aid. Overall, the rules are intended to give the GM a set of guidelines to hang a cool battle description on, and the PCs a chance to shine in it.