View Full Version : How to run a Cold War?

Dr. Roboto
2012-02-04, 12:55 PM
Hello Playgrounders,

So, I've finally gotten together a new group IRL, and I'll be DMing. (3.5, if it matters) I want the plot to feature plenty of political intrigue, but also allow for some hack-and-slash action, and maybe some all-out war if necessary. It suddenly came to me that a fine way to achieve this would be through a Cold War. Think about it; two superpowers on the brink of war provides for dramatic tension and a need for diplomacy and espionage, while proxy wars allow for some good old combat.

Now, there are a few problems with this I'm trying to work out, and a few DMing questions about my group in general.

Cold War (If this gets too in-depth, I'll make a new thread in World-Building)

1. I'm thinking of making the two superpowers roughly analogous to the standard, medieval D&D nation and some sort of Middle-Eastern nation. I'm trying to be wary of accidental racism; are there any pitfalls relating to this (especially with the current conflicts in the Middle East) that I should be aware of?

2. Related, I have a somewhat big choice; should I make one superpower the obvious Good Guys, and the other the Bad Guys? It would certainly take away any moral qualms, but I think it would also feel a bit cheap. I want the players to have to choose a side fairly early in the campaign, and Good vs. Evil seems like the only way to do it; right now, I'm thinking that I'll make one side "Fairly Good" and the other "Kinda Evil." Or is there a way to give the players a Third Option? Any thoughts?

3. Also, if they're not Good vs. Evil, what reason would they have to be fighting an incredibly destructive war?

4. If my players act like most players do, it's almost certain that, at some point, they're going to kill an ambassador from the enemies nation, destroy their castle, or engage in other shenanigans that would almost certainly provoke war. How can I "reset," so to speak, besides having their allies tell them, "Don't do that again, that was a close call"?

5. I want the game to be fairly low-magic. How can I reconcile the ease with which the player's spellcasters gain power against the lack of magic in the world around them?


6. Talking to my players, even the most experienced of them don't have much optimization experience. (The most veteran, at one point, said "Druids are so underpowered!") I don't think that they'll be able to use the higher-powered classes (e.g. Wizards) to their full effect. For those that have experience gaming with non-optimizers, should I institute any house rules, or just play with RAW?

7. These guys don't know squat about roleplaying. I don't think any of them even consider their character beyond their character sheet. I think they might enjoy that aspect of the game, though; should I talk to them about it, or just set an example as DM with fairly fleshed-out NPCs?

I think that's it. The setting stuff, I think, is general enough to go here; if it gets any more specific, I'll make a new thread in World-Building. Thanks for your help!

2012-02-04, 01:27 PM
As for the good vs. evil question, I would go with a more interesting divide.

For example, theocracy vs. laissez-faire capitalist empire (to steer away from the racism angle, make the Middle Eastern-y country the capitalist one).

Alternatively, you could make one of the countries a magocracy or oligarchy. If one of your sides seems morally superior to the other, throw in corruption into their government.

Good vs. evil in this type of scenario will just feel shallow and boring.

2012-02-04, 01:47 PM
One important thing you'll need are several vassal states for the superpowers to be fighting over (see the wars fought due to the "Domino Theory", Cuba, Afghanistan etc).
Direct areas of contact will either be tense or on the verge of total destruction (see Berlin).

The two superpowers would try to exert influence over the smaller neighbouring states either economically, politically or militarily to gain allies / buffers / pawns to use against their foe.

Regards to 2 and 3 - why do any self sufficient powers go to war against each other? Power, resources, idealogical differences. Neither requires 'good' or 'evil' if the impetus is strong enough.

Re: 4 - if they're going to be doing that a lot, this honestly isn't the campaign for them.

2012-02-04, 01:56 PM
The reason we had a cold war in our real history is largely due to the mutually assured destruction provided by nukes. I don't know how much of that we can talk about on here without getting into the realms of political discourse - which is banned for being divisive - so I'll just stop there.

What you could do is set up your two antagonists to be closely balanced in terms of mass destructive power: both have the capacity to wipe out the other nation, but not before the other nation could launch an all out retaliation that destroys the aggressor.
No-one wants to be the aggressor, but at the same time, no-one wants to be seen as weak.

Imagine that the two opposing sides fought against each other in the past, a long war of attrition, which stopped because the site they were fighting over was reduced to slag by their war - but that now both of them have gained a new power of this level of destruction. (What destructive force you use in your game is down to your flavour: maybe one side can open hell-gates in the other's territory, while the other side can unleash an undead apocalypse. Up to you.)

This lets the two nations glare at each other, want to learn about each other's capabilities, and ultimately NOT want to start the war that might destroy both nations.
If anyone annoys the enemy, then they may get disavowed as rogues, rather than risk open war.

As for Good vs Evil, and what can fill in for it: I'd recommend you make both antagonists Neutral. All they're fighting over is access to resources - magical stuff, unobtanium, slaves, whatever. Neutral people (humans are neutral by default) will fight over all sorts of things - but you can up the stakes by making the resource of choice in your game really rare and important: or making the propaganda say it's so. Without, your compatriots will die. If the hated Enemy get the resources, that will be bad.

Sorry to stay vague, but it's hard to talk about this while avoiding current events and political discussion. Broad terms are good though: you can fit whatever you like in there.

2012-02-04, 02:10 PM
Remove the alignment system.
I love it for heroic games, but for something like this, it really needs to go.
Part of the beauty of a Cold War scenario is the ambiguity. You can have guys who are utter scum, whose acts, deeds and creed are at a total 180 to your own. But darn it, they are your utter scum. You may not like working with them, but unless you want the Others to win, you have to. And you don't want that do you?
Instead, use an allegiance alignment system as described here (http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/columns/checkfortraps/8436-All-About-Alignment-Part-II).
It also works for civil wars in my opinion.

2012-02-04, 02:17 PM
Well you have to come up with a reason why this war has stayed Cold, nuclear deterrence/M.A.D. may have played the largest role in keeping NATO and Warsaw Pact from engaging in a conventional(but still very bloody) war. I actually had a True Neutral antagonist in one of my settings create a “Magic Nuke” essentially, and then planned to give both sides in a cold war the means to mass produce them; therefore making a permanent stalemate.

Morally gray is probably best for these things and there are plenty of reasons that aren’t good vs. evil that nations fight over.

Resources: all nations need resources and superpowers with large populations need even more. Ideology comes a distant second when a people are worried about food, work, and the standard of living they are accustomed to.

World Order: Maybe the dust has settled after a long and bloody war against a truly evil nation, with the two nations were allies in defeating (this could tie into the why the two superpowers are apprehensive of starting another one), and now it has to be decided what to do with the lands, trade routes, and general power hierarchy of the surviving nations. If your nation has the opportunity to be the undisputed top dog, with nothing to fear in the centuries to come and ushering in a golden age for your civilization and people, will you really just sit back and let another nation take it?

Also I ran into a similar problem as you with a Middle Eastern culture. My elves are for more Arabic in features and culture, and are decadent, slave holding, religious fanatics. I am not racist at all against Middle Eastern people:smallfrown:…just elves:smalltongue:.

2012-02-04, 02:40 PM
Well, what is the currant military state? Anything powerful or importent the sides have that the other does not? What about rare-and-maigcal creatures? What would it mean if one side has dragonic air assistance while the other has Roc airborn weapon platforms? What about the varying powerful magical weapons that the sides would have? Necromantic-infused magical nukes and mass-illusion spells are both powerful options.

Dr. Roboto
2012-02-04, 04:38 PM
Hmm. Getting rid of alignment... I wouldn't want to replace it with an allegiance system, at least not for the purposes of magic. Has anyone used the D20 Modern system of listing 3 groups/ideas that are important to you? How does that play out?

Edit: Would "that other nation has a really strong military" be a sufficient deterrant, or would I need some sort of magical MacGuffin?

Also, I'm stumped on #5. Any advice for that?

2012-02-04, 05:03 PM
3. Also, if they're not Good vs. Evil, what reason would they have to be fighting an incredibly destructive war?

Ancient Greece vs Persia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greco-Persian_Wars)

USA vs USSR (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold_war)

England vs France (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/100_years_war)

Three different war scenarios that don't involve religion.


For your point #5, you could play a houserule where characters cannot have more than half their class levels in a full caster class.

2012-02-04, 05:09 PM
I'm fleshing out a major, multi-sided Cold War in my main setting right now. Basically, there are three sides: the Victans are militaristic imperialists, but they fall short of being an Evil Empire. Their people have a decent standard of living and personal freedoms, and their expansionism is based more on a form of Manifest Destiny, not simply hunger for power. The Sancteans are a theocracy based on a splinter group from a mainstream religion; it was originally persecuted, but it has since grown to eclipse the group that it split from. Again, they fall short of being complete monsters; they have a strict code of conduct, but they take excellent care of their subjects (among other things, when you have loads of clerics and paladins, hardly anyone dies of disease or injury). Finally, there's an alliance between two smaller powers, Waystone (the largest single city in the world) and Arcis Novis (a technologically advanced nation). Waystone is close to Victas, and Arcis Novis borders on Sanctis, and they wound up allied after a series of technology transfers during the previous war.

Now, the reasons that this hasn't broken into an actual war: First, MAD. The last war, which involved more than just these three sides, saw a lot of superweapons developed, and every nation has hung on to at least some of their arsenal. Besides the threat of use in the field, a lot of these weapons are pretty concealable, so nobody knows whether, if they declare war, their capital city will be hit by a perpetual thunderstorm or be beset by a host of angels.

Second, there are a lot of neutrals who could come down on either side, or neither. The elves, the dwarves, the Northern Duchies, the Horselands, and dozens of minor powers haven't declared themselves, and at least the elves are opposed to open war of any sort. To draw an analogy, it's as if you had just the USA and USSR in the Cold War, and the rest of NATO and the Warsaw Pact would throw their lot in against the aggressor.

And third, there are mutual threats. There are orcs and goblins who, historically, have taken advantage of wars to attack weakened nations. There are also demonic cults, restless dragons, dozens of petty warlords with delusions of grandeur, mad scientists, and at least one powerful, well-organized necromancer poised to cause some major damage in the chaos of an all-out war.

As to how this cold war progresses: the major powers are jockeying for position. They're making alliances with minor nations, trying to sway the enemy's allies, and occasionally using their allies to fight wars by proxy. There are also a lot of border skirmishes: a Victan patrol strays too close to a Waystone outpost, there's some fighting, maybe one side claims a little bit of territory, and in the end everyone calls it a "tragic misunderstanding." There's also an arms race going on, and occasionally there'll be a struggle over some ancient weapon (a la Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark) or the work of a mad genius.

2012-02-04, 05:16 PM
I just introduced a cold war scenario in my game.
The world is a post-apocalyptic fantasy world where demons and devils have invaded everything.

The cold war scenario is humans against dwarves. Dwarves have actually come into existence because the players altered time and saved the dwarves from extinction, but anyway.

Humans have "materia". Special energy derived from the earth, and sacred to the church, that allows everyone to be a potent spellcaster just by carrying it.

Dwarves are the only ones capable of crafting magic items, a secret that has been lost for millennia, making the world very low-magic.

Both sides want both things. But humans don't want to share their materia, because it is the energy of the world (see Final fantasy 7) and the dwarves can't comprehend what it means to be in touch with nature. (and because the church is corrupt).

Dwarves don't want to give up their magic items, because the craft of the dwarves is one of hard labor and prayer to the ancestors, and humans don't have respect for the stone and the forge.

Were one side able to take control of both powers, it could completely crush the other one. That's why trade is forbidden and the races are so hostile.

All-out war is not wanted from any side. The human city has a force-field that is almost impenetrable to anything the dwarves could do, and the dwarven city is too well protected for a frontal assault so that the humans advantage would be moot. War would means a lot of lives lost, and no significant advantage from either party.

As an added reference to the cold war, both sides have been building airships with the intend to try and reach for the outer planes with a planar engine, and whoever gets there first will probably discover the secret to the other's power.

The point here, no side is Good or Evil. Both want to survive, and war is futile. Both have their reasons, as diverse as they may be. They just have different life styles and want to protect themselves. No one can see that they are both being stupid by fighting each other, when there are hordes of demons and devils ready to destroy them all.

Dr. Roboto
2012-02-04, 06:19 PM
I think I've settled on having the Middle Eastern nation being an Aristocracy/Meritocracy, and having the roughly European one be a Constitutional Monarchy.

Game-wise, are there any good resources that contain ready-made stat blocks for NPCs? I can make my own NPCs, it's just that I don't want to take the time to stat them out individually.

2012-02-04, 06:46 PM
How do you have a Aristocracy/Meritocracy? It seems like a rather incompatible mix.

Captain Six
2012-02-04, 06:55 PM
While I wish I had some more in depth suggestions a lot of what I wanted to say has been said (much better than I could) by posters above me. That said E6 might be worth a thought. In a game with an emphasis on nations instead of individual villains you're probably going to want a system were one man cannot outmatch an entire army, or else no one would bother with armies. While the power of characters in vanilla D&D usually works fine when suspending disbelief, any game with a focus on politics or warfare is going to bring the inherit flaws into the forefront. It also makes NPCs much easier to stat or alter from a template on the fly.

Second, if I were to do a cold-war game I would start the PCs as citizens of a city-state where both of the major nations are trying to take control. This will force them to examine both sides and chose one early game without forcing a bias on them. Or profit from both sides. Or try to forge peace. Or muster their own army and take over BOTH nations. Or any number of actions they wouldn't be able to if they were already starting as citizens of one of them. It also means that they can start the game with less setting information (read: not overwhelming), have a place to muck around early game, burn to the ground and then run away from any ensuing consequences without breaking the game itself.

Dr. Roboto
2012-02-04, 06:58 PM
How do you have a Aristocracy/Meritocracy? It seems like a rather incompatible mix.

I doubt that it would work with real people, but they're NPCs, so the government essentially runs on DM Fiat. Essentially, the officials would be appointed by their superiors. However, the superior officials look for both merit and noble birth.

This would allow for highly competent officials from lower classes, as well as officials who were incompetent. I was somewhat inspired by the stereotypical officers in WWI movies, which seem to have a 50/50 split between high-born men given officer-ship as a favor and soldiers who gained the position through merit.

2012-02-04, 07:37 PM
How do you have a Aristocracy/Meritocracy? It seems like a rather incompatible mix.

Sort of like the (modern) British system: while there are still old, hereditary titles, new titles are granted only for life, and they're granted for meritorious service.

2012-02-04, 11:32 PM
Also, I'm stumped on #5. Any advice for that?

Since we've established the only really viable source for a cold war is a MAD situation where both sides have the potential to destroy eachother, low magic seems like a hard one. You can be sure of wiping the enemy out if he strikes by just having a strong military, or a ton of balistae or something like that. In a fantasy setting is going to require the demon gates and undead apocalypse and all that. I guess you could go with a pair of ancient McGuffins or some chemical concoction that the one side will use to make their own people into unstoppable undead if the other strikes, but otherwise you may be looking at magic having a big role.

2012-02-05, 06:29 AM
How do you have a Aristocracy/Meritocracy? It seems like a rather incompatible mix.

It's a mix that's shown up historically. The easiest way to do it, given the constraints.
1) Establish existing tribes that are still relevant in the new, more cohesive structure. Assume strong tribal unity.
2) Note that some tribes are better able to provide for themselves than others, and as such people growing up in those tribes tend to have advantages. Maybe the Qyriash tribe had a visionary a few generations back, maybe the Ba Hadrah tribe ended up on the wrong side of a civil war.
3) Note that the highly trained individuals most likely to progress due to merit are disproportionately common in tribes like the Qyriash.

This would actually be much easier to demonstrate with ancient China. The Qin Legalist Reforms are an absolutely fascinating study of social restructuring that show exactly how this works - the aristocracy survived the end of the nobility, and given that things like "public education" weren't going to show up in any real form for a very long time a disproportionate number of administrators came from the rich. I can't really get further into that without actually delving into the political (as opposed to the social and cultural angles), though religion is much easier to avoid with it than with any of the caliphates.

2012-02-05, 06:35 AM
5. I want the game to be fairly low-magic. How can I reconcile the ease with which the player's spellcasters gain power against the lack of magic in the world around them?

Level cap. See: E6 (http://www.enworld.org/forum/general-rpg-discussion/206323-e6-game-inside-d-d.html). To be honest, E6 probably fits more in line with this kind of goal anyway, unless you wanted to take things to the point of being almost tippyverse.

2012-02-05, 11:58 AM
Another thing to consider is how to stop one power launching a surgical strike at the other guy's macguffin and thus gaining complete domination.

white rider
2012-02-05, 01:46 PM
I think you could run it almost the same way that the us vs ussr happened. Maybe the two nations united to fight those goblins/monsters when they invaded civilized land. The war was going badly until one of the two nations invented the ultimate destructive spell- apocalypse from the sky! The goblins were pushed back, and now both sides stockpile scrolls of the darkest spell.

2012-02-05, 02:35 PM
In a lot of wars there aren't clearly defined good guys and bad guys. Most of the time each side thinks they are right about something and they are both willing to go to war for it. So what I'm saying is you could make both of the superpowers think that they are the good guys and the other side are the bad guys.

2012-02-06, 09:51 PM
Prior to WW1, there was a cold war too (I think it was called a "dry war" at the time). So, a cold war doesn't have to involve two superpowers, but could involve several, forming alliances in an attempt to maintain a "balance of power".

This allows tons of intrigue, attempting to get neutral nations to join an alliance, or to switch sides, etc. Geography will have an effect, trying to get a nation to join one alliance just to isolate or surround an enemy state, or states.

The larger nations can stir up trouble among minor states to influence the balance of power in their favor, but would keep themselves out of the direct fighting (i.e. the Balkan Wars prior to WW1). They might fight through proxies (Russia supporting China and North Korea, during the Korean War). When Italy conquered Ottoman Libya in 1911-12, they probably secured assurances that other powers wouldn't get involved.

Dr. Roboto
2012-02-07, 09:57 PM
Thanks for the replies everyone, and I have a good idea of where to go with this now. One more question, though; if I wanted to have the players start with characters above level 1, keeping in mind that I have new players, what guidelines should I follow? Nothing above a certain level? Or should I just avoid it altogether and start at level 1?

2012-02-07, 10:01 PM
Thanks for the replies everyone, and I have a good idea of where to go with this now. One more question, though; if I wanted to have the players start with characters above level 1, keeping in mind that I have new players, what guidelines should I follow? Nothing above a certain level? Or should I just avoid it altogether and start at level 1?

Just use the standard procedures, outlined in the DMG.

Surfing HalfOrc
2012-02-07, 10:35 PM
Start at level 3-5. High enough to have some perks and hitpoints, low enough not to be Death Machines.

Allies and enemies are not always that close with each other. Two or three "allies" on "your" side might be opposed to each other, or are waiting for their frienemies to overextend themselves. Same with the "Enemy" forces.

Staying WELL away from current politics or the recent past, I suggest you look into David Weber's Safehold series. Three kingdoms face off against the fourth. Prince Hektor (Corisande) is the Church's champion, and forces/bullies Prince Nahrman (Emerald) and Queen Sharlyan (Chisolm) into attacking King Haarold (Charis). Nahrman is only so-so with Prince Hektor, while Queen Sharlyan absolutely despises Hektor (she knows Hektor will come after her kingdom once he has sewn up Charis). The three countries are being pressured by the Church into attacking Charis because the Church (or more accurately Archbishop Clynton) feels that Charis is becoming too technologically advanced.

I probably misremembered some of the details, as the books are quite long and detailed, but essentially pit 14th century armies, navies and Marines against 17th century forces.

Following the philosophy of "Any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic" David Weber includes the main character Merlin as an android with the memories of a 30th Century starship tactical officer. Merlin shows the Charisians bits of technology from slightly ahead of their current tech base, as well as his own tech advantage. The books are technically zero-magic, but Merlin's bugs (listening devices, routed through an AI to filter general chatter from important information) definitely give the Charisians a "magical" edge. And of course his katana, made from battleship steel, has its own +5 value.

If you have access to the "Desert of Desolation" adventure from the early days of D&D, you also get a mixed bag of Middle Eastern cultures: City dwellers, nomads, merchants, warriors, princes, and slavers. Good, evil, lawful, chaotic. Ultimately, people will do what they think is best for their own situation.