The fourth and fifth centuries AD were ones of widespread violence in Western Europe as the old Roman imperial structure buckled down under internal tensions and external barbarian pressure. Whether as a result of raids, or as a product of direct military confrontations between rival powers, there will be a lot of battles in Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain, and we are now going to have a look at how these work.
Late Roman Britain saw a variety of warriors and soldiers spar, from the half-trained and ill-equipped Militia of the Romano-British cities and tribes, to the superb professional comitatenses (usually cavalry) introduced by the military reforms of the 3rd and 4th centuries. As Roman order whittled away, more and more of the fighting devolved to warbands, most of them Barbarians either in Roman employ (Foederati) or striking out on their own, but also progressively local Britons gathered by emerging warlords. Finally, various raiders plagued the island, themselves a mixed bag of seasoned warriors and aspiring looters, typically lightly armed and not interested in making a stand unless the prize was worth it.
The COIN series focuses squarely on the big picture, and so typically approaches combat with a high degree of abstraction. However, it was necessary in Pendragon to capture something of the different ways in which these very different types of units were employed and measured to each other, without bogging down the game in minutiae. Also, where modern-era COIN games used a fairly deterministic approach to combat, ancient battles, as shown in the more recent entries, were less predictable. Early play testing showed that COIN players were not ready for the use of heavy die-rolling in the series, leading to the adoption of the current system where the core mechanics are deterministic but can be modified by player decisions and possibly one or two die rolls for the battle circumstances. Let’s look at this in some detail:
When a battle takes place in a space between enemy factions, it can possibly unfold in two stages: first, a field battle (if enemy units are in the field simultaneously), then one or two assaults (if the defenders have a stronghold (or two), and the attacker desires to attack it (them)).
The basic sequence of a field battle is as follows:
- Defending units may elect to Withdraw within friendly Strongholds in the Battle space, within the Holding Capacity of these; units that withdrew do not take part in the field battle;
- Cavalry (Dux) units Strike and losses are applied [Step 1];
- All other surviving Troops (not Raiders) Strike and losses are applied [Step 2];
- Surviving Raiders Strike and losses are applied [Step 3].
Every unit inflicts 1 loss then it Strikes, and is removed by 1 loss, however Militia units and Raiders are halved during field battles, to reflect their inferior equipment and discipline. This reflects the basic reality of the period that, in a straight up battle, the better troops, foremost the professional Roman or post-Roman cavalry, would dominate the battlefield, but that they could be overwhelmed by the weight of enemy numbers.
However, straight up battles are not necessarily the norm, as the barbarians especially can find ways to mitigate their relative military inferiority. This is where terrain and unit types intervene: the Scotti are particularly at home in the hilly and wooded regions of Western and Northern Britain, and the Saxons in the marshy fenlands of the Eastern seaboard. In these often underdeveloped regions, difficult terrain, lack of infrastructure, and mixed loyalties conspire to make military operations more difficult for the regular forces.
In game terms, whenever Raiders are involved in a field battle, they have the option, prior to the start of the battle, to attempt either to Evade enemy forces (3 chances out of 6 in their Home terrain, 2 out of 6 in other Rough terrain, 1 out of 6 in Clear terrain), or to Ambush them (2 chances out of 6 only in Home terrain). Barbarian Warbands have, in Home terrain only, 2 chances out of 6 of Evading, and a whopping 4 out of 6 of Ambushing! The Civitates may gain the ability to be in Home terrain in Hills through their Pivotal Event “Cymbrogi”. It should be noted at this point that these terrain abilities are tied to the nationality and type of units, not to the Faction that controls them, which means that Foederati Saxon Warbands are at home in Fens, and Foederati Scotti ones in Hills…
Evading units are no longer involved in the ongoing Battle, whether the field battle or any subsequent assault, and survive with any plunder they may be carrying… Ambushing units get to turn the tables on their enemies, as they Strike during Step 1, simultaneously with any Cavalry, and before all other unit types! This means that, while Briton forces can often operate with relative impunity – as long as they can whip up the numbers – in Clear terrain, they must be much more wary in rough terrain as there is no guarantee they will catch their prey, or that the said prey may not turn and savage them… Obviously, Raiders will typically try to Evade, especially if they are loaded with plunder, but sometimes it can be very interesting to seriously bloody the Dux, especially as he cannot replace his losses as easily as the barbarians or, to a lesser extent, the Civitates…
This basic sequence can be also modified by events, such as, for instance, reducing the ability of enemy units to Evade or Ambush, removing or imposing penalties on unit’s combat values, even allowing some units to Strike first, before the Withdrawal step! Of particular note are four capability events named after battles of the famous “Arthur Battle List” by Nennius, focusing each on one specific faction: Cair Legion, Mons Badonicus, Dubglas River and Celyddon Coed.
At the conclusion of the field battle, if no defending unit remains in the field (having either Evaded, Withdrawn within a stronghold, or been destroyed), the attacker may attempt to destroy strongholds of the defending faction by assault. Again, there is a basic sequence for assaults:
- Each defending stronghold’s intrinsic garrison, plus any defending unit that withdrew within that particular stronghold, Strikes, inflicting a number of losses equal to the Defense Factor of the assaulted stronghold (from 1 for crude barbarian settlements, to 2 for Roman-type fortresses)
- Surviving attacking units Strike at the defenders.
If the attackers eliminate all defenders, including the intrinsic garrison, the stronghold is destroyed.
If the battle arises from a barbarian Command (either a Raid or a Battle) which was paired with a Surprise Feat, then all attempted assaults are considered Coups de Main: in this case, prior to the assault itself, a d6 is rolled under the difference between the Holding Capacity of the stronghold and the number of units withdrawn within it, plus 1. This represents the difficulty of properly manning long circuits of walls such as those of Roman towns: fully defended, Towns are extremely tough nuts to crack with their Defense Factor of 2, their intrinsic garrison of 2 units, and their ability to shelter 4 units within their walls, but under-garrisoned Towns can be extremely vulnerable to surprise attacks… And the Britons never have enough troops to garrison everything, so must make tough choices, including possibly to rely more on easier to defend hillforts to hold the land…
If the Coup de Main is successful, there is only one step of assault combat, where all defending and attacking units Strike simultaneously, ignoring the Defense Factor; if not, the assault proceeds normally with the defenders Striking first with the Defense Factor.
Once the Assault phase is complete, or has been skipped, the factions involved in the battle may receive – or lose – Prestige or Renown, or collect Plunder from destroyed strongholds or retrieved from enemy units.
Finally, if no defending unit is in the field, the attackers may opt to besiege a stronghold that was not assaulted: as long as they have at least as many Troops (not Raiders) as the stronghold’s Holding Capacity, they can force the defender to remove one unit that withdrew within the walls (never the intrinsic garrison), wearing down the defenders for future attacks.
This concludes our look at the Battles Sequence. It may seem complex but is actually very systematic and, in most cases, only involves possibly one decision and die roll related to terrain effects or a Coup de Main attempt, and then very simple and straightforward removals of pieces. It is thus very easy for players to get a feel for likely outcomes, even though there is often an element of risk, especially when involving barbarians in rough terrain…
Now that we have rounded up our tryptic on raids, counter-raider warfare and battles, we are going to turn to Foederati, a very unique feature of this period which adds tremendous spice to the game!