Most gamers tend to think of fantasy warfare as a clash that centers on heroes of outlandish skill, immense power, and blistering charisma. Wading through common soldiers to find other champions is equally pervasive in literature and cinema (Lord of the Rings, Troy, etc.). To that extent, DMs reserve massive warfare for characters of mid to high level. This article intends to look at a few ways of showcasing low level PCs in large scale warfare and the inherent advantages to taking your game in a warfare based direction.
Hired Scouts: Imagine that the drums of war are beating: armies are mustering, conscription is beginning, and the great game of thrones is reaching its zenith. However, military units take time to move and march. So, an enterprising Kingdom/ General/ Officer decides to do something unusual: hire adventurers. When you think about it, the versatility of a group of 1st -3rd level PCs make them an ideal group to throw into the wilderness and nose around. You can easily take things on an exploratory angle, or it can evolve in to one of the adventure ideas that follow.
Got There First: Military history is filled with examples of soldiers changing the course of a battle through intelligent decisions rather than military might. One of the easiest decisions to portray is holding a key piece of terrain. A PC’s skill role can very easily inform the party that a hilltop (or whatever) provides a critical vantage point (or supply point, etc.) and that losing it would doom the kingdom’s forward forces. This leaves the PCs to hold the hill against more traditional forwards scouts, whether they be kobolds, goblins, or a more traditional military unit. Success means that they gain a degree of renown, not for their godly combat prowess, but for tactical acumen.
Guerrilla With A Cause: Another thing that PCs can manage to do is nip at the heels of a major military force. The enemy makes efforts to guard its men and material, but a well run team of adventurers are an ideal group to destroy wagons, steal valuable equipment, and kill hapless sleeping soldiers. In a way, this is the more active alternative from the “Got There First” idea. There, they react to a situation and defend. Here, they are told to plan on their own means of being general nuisances. This kind of task can easily evolve into a full scale guerrilla warfare series of adventures where the PCs spend their time causing trouble for an occupying force. When word of their success spreads, the PCs could find themselves as beacons of hope for subjugated peoples or propaganda pieces to spur on the main military force.
War with Low Level Benefits: Having the PCs operate as a group of military troubleshooters gives the campaign a definitive direction and bond. You can run the game brutally and kill off characters if you want to emphasize the “War is Hell” aspect. Moreover, at low levels you can have them graze against the REAL powerful entities that populate their world. Sure, they might be being dealt with by others, but if you play long enough it will inevitably be the PCs that has to figure out how to deal with the high level Wizard. Moreover, once the PCs do reach those mid to high levels they’ll get the chance to turn the tide of battles single-handedly, but they’ll be doing it having had endured the terror of being a scrub during the early days of the war. And that will make the epic battle all the more satisfying.