When it comes to tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs), wars are one of those things that are fun to play in despite the fact that they’re actually awful to live through (see also: earthquakes, tsunamis, revolutions, and apocalypses of varying intensity). It’s understandable enough: when you’re not actually down in the mud watching the Martians Heat-Ray Woking, reading about, hearing about, or participating in that scenario can be entertaining. ‘Vicarious enjoyment,’ and all that.
But there are useful implications about wars from a gamemaster’s (GM’s) perspective. Things that can be used on the table. Note that I am not going to talk about Using A War As A Metaphor For Whatever; you can get that perspective anywhere, and sometimes the people offering that perspective don’t actually wait for you to ask for it. This is going to be more practical.
- Money troubles + palpable worries for physical survival = instant plot. “Wars are expensive.” So goeth the cliche, which is (as is typical for cliches) fairly accurate. Countries that start wars usually start with a bit of a surplus, which then gets used up, and then the countries start cannibalizing their domestic production (this is just as true for a decent country that is fighting a righteous war against, say, the Nazis). The system can keep going for quite a long time, but only if people keep working at it. And the longer things go on, the thinner the margins get. All of which means that a GM can easily justify running a plot where people are shooting each other in alleyways over a hijacked shipment of uniforms or survival gear. Or a plot where the government has a policy of coming down like a hammer on small-time chiselers. Because small problems can become big problems very quickly in wartime.
- War makes for strange allies. Then again, there’s the interesting question of what governments do when a small problem comes and volunteers to stay being a small problem for the duration. One of the more infamous examples, to stay with the World War II examples, was when American organized crime ended up working with the federal government on both the domestic and foreign fronts. There’s some debate over how effective that partnership actually was in real life, but gaming is full of all sorts of things that work well in the setting, if not necessarily in reality. What’s one more? — And, of course, it’s a great complication or excuse. Why is that bizarre little pocket-tyranny sitting right in the middle of an empire that would otherwise never tolerate it? Because the empire is off fighting a war, and the pocket-tyranny is being too ostentatiously helpful to justify the empire doing any squashing. Having the players try to navigate that minefield can make for a fun adventure.
- Travel and communications times go to the dogs. If only because small trained courier animals have become the only reliable way of getting a message through the countryside. If a nation in your campaign has any kind of communications or transportation network — and this includes magical ones — then it is absolutely in the best interests of that nation’s enemies to disrupt those networks in wartime. And not just the military ones; the civilian ones make almost as good targets, and are usually far less protected. And even if there isn’t any sabotage going on, military communications and transport will trump the civilian versions in pretty much any conflict situation. Which can make things difficult when the party members are the civilians.
- Lastly, necessity is the mother of poorly-documented, untested, wild schemes. It’s only invention when it works. When it doesn’t work, it often becomes a lot of people suddenly in deep, immediate I need hardly explain the adventuring potential in that? … Particularly if there’s still going to be any kind of pressure to make a desperate scheme that didn’t work out retroactively become a desperate scheme that did. That can be more dangerous to players than originally testing out Wizard Firelaw’s Perfect Inferno Storm on the invading orc hordes was. At least, if the GM is doing it right.
To sum it all up: your average war is a collection of chaos and inefficient application of resources to problematic situations. That sort of thing is nasty to live through, but when you’re talking about a game then that perception can change. Besides, there are plenty of opportunities for adding useful complications to your party’s lives, and you can never have too much of that.