Fighting back: guerrilla warfare and subversion in Legends

By Jim Kemeny


Large numbers of drop-out positions in PBM games are the bane of the hobby, unbalancing games, sometimes reducing the number of players to the point of making the game nonviable. It is understandable that players whose positions have been seriously damaged lose interest and drop out. But in some of the better games it is possible to drastically switch strategy to raiding, ambushing, guerrilla warfare, harassment, subversion, assassination, kidnapping, theft, and a host of other underdog activities. In this article I want to explore the possibilities of such a strategy in Legends, probably the most complex fantasy simulation around.

There are, of course, some situations in which a player's position is so badly damaged that little is left to retrieve. This can happen, for example, if your startup home location is conquered very early on. But this is exceptional except in some of the faster-moving games. Legends is organised in the form of modules, each module having its own world scenario. Early knockout is more likely in a module in which the focus is on warfare and in which large player armies are recruitable at the start. In this article I will assume that you have had at least a reasonable amount of time to build up your position, diversify it, and establish yourself in the game before disaster strikes...

Look at it from a role-playing perspective. You have been toppled from a position of power and influence by a stronger opponent and forced to flee with whatever resources you can salvage. This is a very common situation in the history of the real world, just as it is in PBM. History is replete with accounts of deposed rulers or nobles fleeing to the shelter of some foreign court and recruiting support to regain a lost crown or other title. In Legends this usually means being defeated in battle and losing locations (and hence prestige) and so neither being able to influence powerful NPCs to join your cause nor having the population to recruit a field army. Dropping out of the game is the equivalent of throwing in the towel. The deposed ruler makes no attempt to regain the lost position or territory, or even to adapt by going into exile, recruiting allies and building an alternative power base. Instead the character bellies up or fades away, or becomes a down-and-out, or waits passively to be kidnapped and executed. This is, of course, exactly what the player who did this hoped would happen. Coward! Wimp!

So what's the alternative? How does an ant fight an elephant? Isn't it a hopeless struggle with no reward for the player except endless frustration? Not at all. There is in fact a lot of enjoyment to be had becoming the comeback kid and games that are complex enough to allow this deserve better than a dropout. Ant bites, in large enough numbers, can make the elephant rue the day it trampled the ants nest. The solution is to adapt, to go underground, organise subversion, and make your name as a guerrilla leader to be feared. One day you may even be able to regain what you lost.

How does one go about doing this? The key dimension is stealth. You will do much better if the race of your position is small in size and has a low sighting value. It should preferably also have good movement capabilities (a high Movement Rate). It is even better if your race has combat advantages in low sighting value terrain such as forests. Elves score high on all these counts. It is difficult, though not impossible, for a race of slow-moving giants or trolls, who fight best in barren hills, to conduct subversion and guerrilla warfare. But most races have some advantages and can adopt these strategies.

Your enemy is likely to have a large position. Unless this is entirely nomadic, it is vulnerable because there are likely to be a number of fixed locations: towns and cities that can be sabotaged or raided by small forces of soldiers who can steal, kill or enslave. So the more powerful and successful your enemy is the more vulnerable he or she is likely to be! They can have their defences sabotaged, their productivity lowered by rumormongers spreading seething discontent, the morale of their garrison soldiers reduced by sabotaging their food, farmlands can be salted, roads destroyed. Enemy characters can be assassinated or kidnapped, bribed to change sides or their effectiveness reduced by being cursed. Magic can be used to take temporary control of enemy characters, reduce their loyalty, turn them insane or even kill them. These actions are all well-known adjuncts to normal power play. But taken together they can be combined and used as an extraordinarily powerful integrated strategy. Since all such types of orders are rarely thought of as comprising an inter-related whole that can be used as a strategy of its own, it may surprise even some Legends players just how many subversive orders there are and how devastating they can be when used in intelligent and systematic combination to comprise a single-minded strategy.

So what are the first steps to take? To start with you need to salvage and secure whatever remains of your position. Assuming you have had time to diversify and develop your position, it is highly unlikely you will lose absolutely everything in one attack. At worst you may be left with only some surviving characters, a small force of soldiers, perhaps even a small location or two somewhere your enemy has overlooked. Abandon your fortified locations and move everything, including any population, preferably in stealth mode, out of harm's way, by dispersing them in smaller forces to an area where the terrain favours hiding. Best are extensive areas of forest mountains or heavy forest. Choose a strategic area where appropriate terrain is available that can comprise a base of operations against your enemy.

You should also contact any potential enemy of your enemy and seek co-operation and aid. Best bet is an enemy faction but a racial enemy or a strong neighbour may be just as interested. You can co-ordinate your irregular warfare with your ally's more direct approach and use your ally's guilds and locations as safe havens, as bases and as places to train. You may even get some soldiers and other resources such as food and crowns from your ally. This is where your negotiation skills will come in handy.

While you are doing this, retrain your remaining characters. Drop one of the three skills of each, especially the martial skills like swordmaster or knight, and have each character learn a subversive or survival skill instead, like ranger, thief, spy, rumormonger, or assassin. Try to get one of each of these so your team covers all of them. In addition, each character should have the stealth skill. You should also consider retraining your soldiers. You won't have much use for those berserker axemen or heavily armoured fanatic knights. Go for training types that decrease sighting values, making them harder to detect, such as rangers, bandits, swashbucklers or the cheap stealth-trained soldiers, as all these troop-types are best for scouting, raiding and harassing. Rangers are good because in addition to stealth they have added movement capabilities and forage for food more effectively. Some of the soldier types that are expensive to train, such as mage knights, also have minuses on sighting values. Equip your stealth-skilled soldiers with weapons and armour that do not increase their sighting value, like bows and leather armour. In fact, for raiding, you don't need your soldiers equipped with anything at all! Don't try to build large armies, even if you have the resources to do so, at least until you are ready to take on the enemy in force. Keep your soldiers in small forces, as unencumbered as possible by bulky equipment and items.

Any well-developed position should have all of these character skills and at least some appropriately trained soldiers, but now your policy should be to concentrate on retraining and equipping to cover all of these.

When you are ready, deploy your resources to launch multiple attacks on your enemy. Each character should be given a specific task, kidnapping, assassinating, sabotaging, rumormongering, etc. Split your retrained soldiers into small forces of 5 to 10 soldiers and use the raiding orders against enemy-owned locations. Gradually increase the number of soldiers in your raiding forces to the game limit of 30, stopping once you see that they are being sighted by the enemy too often for comfort. Concentrate on one location at a time (village, castle, town, city etc), preferably in a province with terrain providing good cover, and launch several raids and sabotages simultaneously on it. Besides gaining you food, crowns and other resources, raiding lowers the productivity of the target location. Some raiding forces can just steal food and items, others can kill population as well. Yet others can enslave population, which can be moved to your base area and trained as farmers, as part of re-building a power base. Yet others can salt land and destroy roads of the province in which the location is situated. It is surprising how effective use of guerrilla warfare can be if one engages in it full-time and in earnest.

Good intelligence is essential. Your spies - and indeed your allies - should be collecting and pooling intelligence on the enemy locations and forces, and you should build a continuously updated dossier to plot its development (or, hopefully if you are successful, its decline!) You should have unarmed single soldier stealth-trained scouts ranging the area - always moving in stealth mode - to locate and identify mobile enemy forces: armies, supply columns, trade caravans, population movements, etc. Identify any routes that your enemy uses, for example between two enemy-owned locations, and place raiding groups on them with raid orders where the terrain favours this.

Remember, you have the initiative. Your enemy can't defend everywhere so will have to leave some weak spots. These are the ones to go for, following the golden rule of "hit 'em where they ain't". Keep the initiative by switching targets often, avoiding predictable and repetitive patterns of actions, in order to keep the enemy guessing.

In the early stages of this strategy you should concentrate on building up whatever population you have managed to salvage or whatever slave population you have raided by putting them in an area of heavy forest or forest mountain provinces, putting them to work producing food, earning crowns, mining, making weapons and armour etc.. Again, low sighting values are important. Keep population centres small, and invest in having several smaller locations rather than one big one, perhaps converted into underground locations, which reduce sighting values considerably. This way, by spreading risks, if you lose one it won't be a disaster. The illusionist spell "blend location", which is permanent, will help additionally. Stash away valuables and keep food dumps in underground locations. Be watchful for your locations being sighted by the enemy and be prepared to move them as soon as they are.

Eventually, if you are successful, your position will grow to the extent that your small locations and dumps become too numerous to manage or too large to hide easily. At that point you should seek out a player who agrees to formally ally to your position and who agrees for you to bring your population together in one well-defended force converted into a location in a province where your ally has a stronghold, such as the player's start-up location. This means that if your refugee location is attacked the garrison of your ally's stronghold automatically attacks the force attacking you. There are other ways of co-operating, and here there is plenty of scope for innovation and lateral thinking.

There are many other tricks to use to secure your position or to give your enemy grief. And because you are concentrating on the use of the sabotage and guerrilla orders as an integrated strategy you have the edge over the "fair weather guerrilla/saboteur" power player who just uses them sporadically and in an uncoordinated manner, for example, assassination to eliminate an enemy main character often with the sole aim of hoping that by eliminating someone's strongest piece the player will be discouraged and drop the game.

Above all you are in this for fun. It can be a satisfying strategy to hit back from a weak position, and thereby to take revenge on a player who made a mess of your own carefully-laid plans: far more satisfying than doing your enemy the favour of dropping out!

This article first appeared in Flagship magazine