Friday Night Book of War

Special night, special time -- this is actually a game we played here on Christmas Day. What could be better to get in the holiday mood than a desperate tooth-and-nail struggle against a seemingly endless horde of hellish undead from beyond the grave? I guess that's how we roll here. (And also hopefully lots of 6's.)

Start -- 300 points, Advanced Game with Expansion Units. At top, my opponent has picked a small group of pricey units -- a 10th-level wizard with a fireball wand, 10 figures of pikemen bodyguards, and also 3 figures of war elephants carrying archers (representing 100 pikes and 30 war elephants). And at the bottom, of course, you can see my legion of 75 figures of skeleton warriors (i.e., 750 skeletons). The only terrain are the two section of Woods placed by my opponent to slow down my already-meager movement.

Turn 3 -- The opponent made one move forward, and then opted to hold her ground and make use of missile fire against my advance. I've pushed my skeletons forward as quickly as possible (it would be nice to move forward in a unified line, but as long as I'm in the open on the right, it's best to be as aggressive as possible). Here you see combined elephant-back archery and fireball missiles wiping out half of my middle unit (7 figures, or 70 skeletons, going down on this turn).

Turn 5 -- My skeletons make first melee contact and achieve 1 hit on the elephants (remember that they have 6HD). In response, the elephants turn and start stomping all over my skeletons in melee combat (in fact, they automatically hit!). Also, the wizard fireballs one figure of skeletons in the unit in front of him.

Turn 6 -- The pikes go into hedgehog formation (so as to defend all sides), and I decide to charge them. Pikes are always going to lay out hideous damage when you do this, but I figure it's going to happen at some point anyway, and with lots of skeletons and immunity from morale, maybe I'll get some through; you can see the result of that clash below. Also on this turn (outside the picture) I've wrapped units all around the war elephants, and so with lots of attacks and rear attack bonus, managed to knock out one of the three elephant figures.

Turn 8 -- On the prior turn, I actually routed the pikes, but pinned in between multiple units, they had nowhere to flee. Not so for the wizard, however, who has broken off and run for freedom alone! Here you see me finishing off the last of the pikes, and I've also eliminated a second figure of elephants, although I've taken a lot of casualties in return.

Turn 11 -- The wizard commences a run-and-gun strategy. My skeletons are trying to chase him, but he fires off some fireballs and then runs back past them. I do, however, manage to finish off the last elephant figure.

Turn 14 -- I tried to trap the wizard in the top-right corner of the board, but he's too fast for me. Here he turns around and lights up my remaining skeletons again with more fireballs.

Turn 16 -- There goes the wizard past my encirclement again, dammit! At this point it's clear that my slow skeletons can't catch him, so I concede the game. Victory for the wizard, standing alone on the smoking field of battle!!

Commentary -- This was partly a test of the skeleton units for a game that would come later. One of the extremely important results of the test is that they quasi-break the overall structure of a Book of War game.

The important realization is this: Perhaps the greatest part of the pacing and tension in BOW flows out of the Morale checks; based on a single dice roll, a player may or may not lose an entire unit of figures. Thus, both players are eagerly watching for those rolls, and the game usually tips one way or another in response to them. But with the undead having no morale checks, the game frankly turns into a fairly predictable "grind" of attack-dice and a few figures lost each turn. You might say that a good part of the "fun" was lost. (And the game went long in turns, if not in actual time played.) Not something I realized before this game.

The secondary issue here was the bit at the end with the solitary wizard being able to hold off all my remaining skeletons. That's a weird corner case in that (a) skeletons have the slowest move of any basic footman, (b) the wizard has the highest, (c) the hero-type can make turns without any move penalty, and (d) the wizard can make wand-missile attacks with presumably no limit on charges. If you'd taken out any one of those items, this would not have worked out this way; or if my opponent had made any mistake in the endgame, I might have still caught her (but: no such mistake). Looked at another way, in D&D, this would probably be an opportunity for a wizard to start flying and blasting fireballs freely from the air. But in reality, you probably wouldn't really want to come to the table with absolutely nothing but basic skeletons, anyway.

So about the undead: if you're a DM and you want to use them in your game, then you should be cognizant that using them very much changes the flavor and flow of the game. Option #1 would be to accept that flavor, and commit to a drawn-out war of attrition against a rampaging wave of mindless bodies, something like you'd see in a Dawn of the Dead movie or whatever. Option #2 would be to make sure and add some other spice for interest, like necromancer wizards, other high-level monsters, interesting terrain features, or the like. That's what we decided to do in the later follow-up game, and I was very glad that we did so (more on that later).


  1. Maybe undead should have some random factor special to themselves to replace morale. For example perhaps ghouls are liable to lose moves munching on dead enemies, or skeletons have a chance of mindlessly attacking each other.

  2. Does OD&D mention anything about skeletons taking half damage from piercing damage? It seems like more of an AD&D rule. Still, it just feels like skeletons being dropped by arrows is rather odd.

  3. This Friday I'm having 1110 Zombies, 280 Warrior Zombies (2HD) and 230 Ghouls descend upon my player's Keep that is only sparsely defended.

    Taking into account your comment about fearless, I may switch my ghouls back to what I was going to use before your post. They had the same stats (I was using cost 12) but capabilities are:

    Light-weakness: -1 morale check (they are semi-intelligent undead)

    Paralysis: 3+ that doesn't kill paralyses a figure for one turn, it cannot attack next turn. Consider it as killed for morale checks. If unit is routed, paralysed figures are considered immediately killed.

    Climb: can scale fortress walls as if they have a ladder

    Or I may make them slightly weaker and make paralysis not have them lose one turn but still affect morale.

  4. This session is reminiscent of the development of Ogre. They never thought to test an force made up entirely of G.E.V.'s-- and even after the fix, there was still something of a fuzzy-wuzzy fallacy there.

    Note: still can't post here from Firefox/Linux with a Wordpress account. Argh!

  5. Mike -- Indeed, nothing in OD&D or B/X about the skeletons-versus-piercing rule, it's only in AD&D. In OD&D even if you did institute that, it would only counteract their low 1/2HD, so I don't worry about it. But maybe I should crunch numbers for AD&D 1HD skeletons with that feature.

    Rob -- Those sound like totally good ideas! OD&D technically only waives morale checks for skeletons & zombies (although AD&D ghouls are said to be "without fear"), so I think your rulings are very legitimate. (P.S. If you want to write up how your game went, send me a link or I'll even post the whole thing here if you like.)

    Jeffro -- Interesting! (And sorry about the technical glitch, sounds aggravating.)

  6. A couple of suggestions for the amulatory post-deceased:

    I know you don't have clerics in your OD&D game, but if you added high-level clerics to BoW, their turning power could balance out the undead's lack of fear.

    Or you could require a force of undead to be led by a spell caster, and if the spell caster gets destroyed or chased off, the undead just keep doing whatever they were at the time the necromancer died--so they would fight until their current melee ends, or if they were moving, just keep going in the same direction.

  7. You could make undead check morale against particularly 'holy' Lawful units (eg angels, if you have them).

  8. One PC is a cleric and one is a Paladin, so I've given them:

    Turn Undead: One undead figure is killed on a successful turn. 1" Range

    Heal: Once in the battle a just killed figure in the same unit can be brought back to life.

    They're a little powerful considering they're only one person (not 10), but its thematic.

  9. It's interesting how a number of people have suggested using clerical turning as a replacement for undead morale checks. Part of me really likes the idea of re-using the morale mechanic for elegance purposes, but when it has come up I've crunched numbers to recreate the exact turning stats themselves (see Friday's post, in fact).

    By D&D, a single cleric should only affect one figure or less, not routing hundreds of undead at once (which is similar to my problem with the dragon fear ability).

  10. > It's interesting how a number of people have suggested using clerical turning as a replacement for undead morale checks.

    You could have undead check morale when fighting clerics (isn't there a Chainmail rule along those lines?)

  11. ^ Clerics don't exist in Chainmail.

  12. Hmm...just read this post. Did you ever rectify this?

    Having watched the whole Game of Thrones series at this point, I can see how an undead army (even a slow, fragile one like skeletons) could still prove to be a scary prospect. However, this battle didn't take into consideration a couple factors: resource expenditure (charges to the wand) and human fatigue (skeletons don't get tired, wizards do).

    That being said, I don't think I'd necessarily presume skeletons can operate independently of the caster that animates them...though I suppose the necromancer could have said "kill everything on the battlefield" and let them at it; I'd probably require the presence of a "leader type" to change orders mid-battle, and allow the living side's victory to hinge on taking out that leader.

    Sorry...I realize this post is six years old. I still find it fascinating.

    1. Thanks for thinking about this! I actually never made any official rule changes about this. I think my broad approach is like the doctor who says, "Stop doing that".

      Probably your "require a high-level caster to control" is very good, and totally in line wuth the D&D rulebooks. OD&D explicitly says they, 'act only under the instructions of their motivator", and AD&D says they can follow a command of around a dozen (or two) words.

      I wonder: How much strategic/tactical information can one pack into 12 or 24 words? And what would it look like after the caster gets eliminated: just stop, or keep following the last command? The former seems too abrupt for game balance, but the latter seems possibly difficult to adjudicate.