Spoilers if you aren’t all caught up on Game of Thrones.
On the August 6th episode of Game of Thrones, Spoils of War (S07: E04), the Lannister army is transporting food and supplies from Highgarden to King’s Landing when they hear thundering off in the distance. At first appearing to be a Dothraki attack, everything changes when Daenarys appears on dragon-back, toasting the army alive. I’d like to look at this whole scene from an RPG perspective, and see if we can glean any tips for running an interesting game from it. I won’t be following it beat by beat, but instead, by topic.
Evoking Emotion: Fear sets into the army the minute they hear the thundering hoofbeats in the distance. Putting aside that fear, they get themselves organized into ranks, but you can still see them quaking in their boots. It gets worse when the Dothraki appear, and explodes into full blown panic when the dragon arrives. This is absolutely something to invoke in your game. Why are those goblins so damn brave when a wall of fully-armed heroes descends on them? I don’t think you need to have every monster the heroes fight get spooked, but you need to have some logical emotional reactions.
Of course, the same goes for the players. When a horde of orcs crest the hill, roaring and rampaging, and the heroes feel overwhelmed, definitely have them make saves to overcome their fear and keep from a round or two of disadvantage. Once they shake off that fear, they’ll feel even more energized.
This scene also shows you the impact of a dragon’s Frightful Presence. Use that. Show the terror it invokes in the PC’s allies around them. This can be a really powerful scene, especially if it’s the first dragon they’ve encountered in this campaign, or is the biggest dragon they’ve seen so far.
Utilizing the battlefield: All around the Lannister army, carts are exploding or on fire, troops are running around on fire, the nearby lake creates a natural edge to the battlefield. Even though the battle takes place on an open plain, all of these elements give you a lot to work with. Nothing is more boring than a battle on a completely empty battlemat. With all this fire, let your players shove monsters and NPCs into the flames. Let them hide behind burning wagons. Give disadvantage on ranged attacks due to haze and smoke. With the noise of battle, surprise attacks should be a frequent occurrence. Really utilize everything you have at your disposal as far as battlefield conditions go. The scene was very visceral, so let your players feel that.
Battles within battles: While there is a big battle going around them, the characters split off a bit into their own mini-battles. Bronn battles a Dothraki warrior one-on-one, largely ignored by the larger battle. Jamie has to battle against a few Dothraki on horseback. Bronn finally makes it to the ballista and has a one-on-one duel against Drogon, attempting to make the shot while the dragon advances, hoping to light the siege weapon on fire. You don’t have to play out a massive battle as a confusing mess of miniatures and 40 minutes per turn. Break it down into moments.
The opening encounters of Horde of the Dragon Queen do this well. You’ve got a bunch of encounters across a city under siege. While the players work their way through the city, show the massive battle going on around them. The streets aren’t empty, they’re clogged with battle.
Dramatic Damage: An Adult Red Dragon has 256 Hit Points. Yes, Drogon is black, but he’s breathing fire, so he’s definitely an Adult Red Dragon. There are no official ballista rules, but let’s just say it does 10D10 damage (which seems very high. It would likely be more like 5D8). You’re still only dealing, at most, 100 damage. If you DOUBLED that, it still wouldn’t be enough to kill a dragon. But the show wants you to think, “this thing could brain Drogon and instantly kill him.” So what do you do? Just because the weapon can’t legitimately deal that much damage doesn’t mean it can’t have an impact. Let’s say that that massive ballista really does do 10D10. He scores a critical hit. 100 damage, and the bolt sinks into Drogon’s shoulder. This is where you, as DM, have the dragon spiral down, looking like it’s going to crash. It recovers from the fall and settles down, but won’t rise again until the bolt is out of its shoulder. You’ve now neutralized the threat of a flying dragon. Even when a monster can’t be killed by the players in one fell swoop, the players should feel like they’re making an impact at dramatically appropriate times.
With this one scene, we’re able to see a bunch of different tips to really improve your game. I’m definitely going to fit in a massive and dynamic battle into my next campaign. Do you have any other tips we can glean from the Loot Train Attack? Lemme know.
Keep rolling 20’s!