Friday, July 9, 2021

Brave Design Notes 4: Cohorts

Brave is a hack of Ben Milton's Knave, an old-school adventure game toolkit without classes and a lot more emphasis on equipment. The earliest changes I made were miscellaneous tweaks and houserules I added as I would run Knave, but at this point I've bolted on several advanced play procedures. While Knave is optimized for a DIY "rulings over rules" style of play, I still felt it was valuable to write down many of those rulings that I've made over the years and codify them. One of the best parts of the original Knave were the designer's notes, but I've taken them out because I needed to make room for new stuff and I assume that anyone playing my game would already be familiar with the original version anyway. Instead, you get my blog.

These notes are written for version 1.9, which you can find on the sidebar of this blog or by clicking here.


Like the rules say, this is actually just a preview of the sort of content that'll be in the second core rulebook, and will not be in the final version of this rulebook. The idea for that book is inspired by good ol' BECMI D&D, which divided its content roughly by level range. The idea is that the first book should be just enough to get you started, run a fun one-shot, and maybe even play enough to get to around level 3 without anything getting stale. But then the second book focuses more on mid-level content, like long-term traveling, downtime, domain play, participating in warfare, crafting, and so on. The third and final core rulebook will provide end-level content, such as running kingdoms, leading armies, interacting with the powers of the cosmos, attaining immortality, and all that fun stuff.

As for "cohorts," these are to serve as one type of domain asset a PC can gain command of if they (and maybe a friend of two) have high enough Charisma. You may begin the campaign as Robin Hood, Little John, Friar Tuck, and Will Scarlet, but at some point you'll need some Merry Men under your command. You could start the game as Beric Dondarrion the Paladin and Thoros of Myr the Cleric, but most of your decisions are based around acting as the "Brotherhood Without Banners," simply a cohort or two of low-level warriors.

While I do explain that I fully intend these to be used for purposes other than combat as well (such as if you command a cohort of laborers or a cohort of thieves or something), the meat and potatoes of this is the combat function. This was largely inspired by Gundobad's excellent series adapting the detachment and enterprise rules from Chris McDowell's Into the Odd. Of course, Brave's combat is pretty different from ItO, so I had to do a fair amount of adaptation myself.

The Non-Combat Stuff First

I tried to ensure that a cohort can function like an individual NPC as often as possible. While they have greater utility overall, they're equally complicated to one follower. I'm not very interested in dealing with a complex and detailed stat block though. I would argue the main benefit that should come with a cohort is sheer numbers, allowing everything else to be streamlined. I make mention of the possibility that you can grant them a simple tag, such as "knows siege tactics" or "can staff a ship" or "equipped with fire" so you can be a bit more specific in how to use them. But the point is not to get bogged down. Command them like they're just one follower, but use your imagination for what kinds of actions 15 people or 60 people can collectively perform that 1 person can't.

There's a level floor to command a cohort, but it can be reduced by combining your levels with an ally. Thus, you aren't actually going to have to wait until level 6 to play with this. If you have two level 3 PCs with high enough charisma, that'll get you there. In fact, it's (hypothetically) the only way to command a large cohort, since the level cap is 10 and they require a level 12 commander.

So being flexible on the level requirement is interesting because that means the real limit is, "how charismatic is your party?" If nobody invests into CHA then you'll never get to play with this, but if everybody does then you can potentially start a campaign with one or two cohorts already in use. It also creates an interesting tension where the party nominally has a cohort under their command, but if push came to shove then the cohort would be loyal to their leader PC over anyone else.

The one thing I'm most unsure about is having a cohort occupy all of your follower slots. It seems a shame that a high-level character can't both command a cohort and have a personal lieutenant or squire or something. My tentative plan to address this is that, with the rest of the domain-play rules in the next rulebook, there'll be the possibility of attaching a cohort to an institution rather than your individual person. Like, if the party agrees to found a mercenary company together, or, like, a merchant company or a gang or a political party or something, then essentially they've created an abstract "character" which can have follower slots and inventory and stuff of its own. Yes, I'm gamifying "corporate personhood" because it's a convenient idea here. So in an instance like that, they might have a cohort whose "commander" is the faction itself rather than any one PC. And thus, individual PCs can still have their own followers (or even their own cohorts!), but the faction's cohorts are more loyal to the idea of the institution than to the PCs running it. That's the idea so far, anyway.

The Combat Stuff

There are two main dynamics in play when using cohorts in combat. The first is when two units of the same size class are fighting. The second is when two units of different size classes are fighting.

If two or more units are fighting and they're the same size, then it's simple. You do it all the time in normal play when you have individuals fighting individuals. Each unit gets a move, an action, does 1dX damage, has an AC roughly up to 20, and has Xd8 HP. If the units are special, they get to use the Death and Injury chart after they hit 0 HP. I've tried to design cohorts to work the same way.

Playing combat between 5 small cohorts of spearmen and archers vs 7 small cohorts of skirmishers on an open field should play almost identically to a combat of 5 knaves vs 7 goblins in a dungeon chamber. If a single member of the spearmen cohort has max 6 HP then the cohort as a whole has 6 HP. If a single member does 1d8 damage on an attack then the cohort as a whole does 1d8 damage on an attack. The only major differences in this dynamic are that you use a different Death and Injury chart, which is much more likely to result in routing and capturing a handful of survivors than it is a total bloodbath.

The complicated one is when two or more units of different size classes are fighting. While each unit still controls like an individual, there are modifiers in place to balance things, such that the larger unit has a huge advantage. The modifiers are the same no matter the sizes being compared. Medium has +4 AC and +5 damage against Small and Large has +4 AC and +5 damage against Medium, not to mention +8 AC and +10 damage against Small and +12 AC and +15 damage against individuals. And so on.

The whole point of this system is to substitute the complicated alternative of running every member of the cohort individually. Hypothetically, it is entirely possible within the rules for the referee to run 10+ dark elves in one battle, it's just cumbersome. So the goal of these balancing modifiers is to achieve the same results as if you ran the members individually, but without as many steps or decisions.

I've done a fair amount of math for this, almost like a real game designer. Let me show you a comparison of how 15 individual mooks would perform against a party of PCs versus how 1 small cohort would perform against a party of PCs.

Variable 15 Individual Mooks 1 Small Cohort
Attacks/round 15 attacks, assume 2/3 hit 1 attack against every adjacent
enemy (say about 5) but with +4
on each roll
Damage output/round Up to 15 damage dice
(about 1d4 to 1d12, no modifier)
1 damage die for each target (say
about 5) but +5 to each
HP buffer 15 separate pools of low HP (say
5 each), i.e., even with 5 HP each,
the PCs will still need to make 15
attacks to wipe the group
1 pool of low (5) HP, but with -5 to
all damage received. Thus, each attack
that hits must roll a minimum of 6
damage to have any effect. And even
then, it'll be kinda pitiful
Death Probably each dead at 0 HP for
Life prolonged after 0 HP by Death and
Injury chart
Overall durability 5 HP each × 15 people = 75 total
HP to burn through
5 HP total + (+4 AC per attack) + (-5
damage each hit) + Death and Injury
longevity = ?? I don't know how to
calculate the "functional HP" but it's
a lot
"If they were attacking
5 PCs, they could..."
Commit 3 mooks per PC, attacking
each PC 3 times. Assuming 2/3 are
hits, each PC suffers 2d8 damage
Make 5 attacks at most, but at +4 to hit
and +5 damage each. Assuming each one
is a hit, each PC suffers 1d8+5 damage

Both on paper and with the small amount of playtesting I've done, it seems about equal. And here's the crucial part: individual PCs are not meant to fight cohorts. If they see one, just one small cohort, then they should piss themselves. Hell, PCs should be scared to get into a fair fight. This is a game about outsmarting your opponents and avoiding a situation where you're ever in a fair fight. A cohort should be properly scary, and only defeatable with either another cohort or some clever application of a "area attack" like a fireball or collapsing a roof onto them.

This should scale up when you have a bunch of small cohorts fighting a medium, and only gets worse if they're fighting a large cohort. Sometimes you're so outnumbered that no individual attacks you make can ever have a meaningful effect on the whole. That's why a cohort uses the HP of an individual member. Each lost hit point represents a significant number of casualties. Two equal cohorts can reduce each others' HP easily because each attack they make against each other represents, like, dozens of dudes swinging at each other. But when poor, little, individual you finally manage to beat their AC and land a hit but your damage is reduced to 0, it's meant to represent, "yeah, you successfully stabbed a couple of their members, but it hasn't yet added up to anything. It probably won't be enough to reduce them by a hit point until you've done that a bunch more times."

After playtesting, a few things I added were the rules about, "an individual can benefit from the cohort's AC bonus while in their area" so that a commander could blend into their squad easily, plus the "if the cohort resists, breaking into their space requires a STR contest" (with an appropriate STR modifier matching the attack +4/-4 they get for different size classes), so that you can have the classic phalanx wall push.

The last and weirdest thing about cohorts in combat has to do with their area. This is more important for people using minis and a grid, so that's who I had in mind. Basically, I'm trying to allow for you to take your blob of NPCs and shape them how you want. I researched historical fighting formations and realized that there's a ton going on there. The list of formations used and their purposes was too long for me to realistically catalogue and try to mechanize, so instead I decided to just leave it up to player and referee discretion to use their imaginations. Be creative, just like the real great minds of military science had to be.

Assuming that an individual takes up a 5 foot square, the area dimension constraints tell you a little bit about how to picture things. A small cohort has a minimum dimension of 10 feet, meaning that the smallest square they can fit into is 10 by 10 feet. These guys would be fighting shoulder to shoulder, you can imagine. But the maximum dimension is 25 feet, so you could spread 15 guys out over a 25 by 25 foot area. Or you could do a line of 10 by 25, or 15 by 15, or a chevron shape or a circle or blablabla. Like I said, get creative.

Enchiridion Tie-Ins

I haven't focused these design essays on the content in the Enchiridion of Fates and Fortunes so much because it's a supplement book that's strictly optional, and the design of anything in the core rulebooks is such that you don't need the content in the other book. That said, since this post is about a more experimental, in-development topic for nonstandard play anyway, maybe you'd be interested. If you don't know anything about this ruleset, you can find a link to the latest draft here. Expect updates.

A large part of the class design in the Enchiridion comes from looking at systems already in the base rules and coming up with ways to modify a character to them. For example, many of the Warrior skills just come from taking things already in the combat system (AC, critical hits, mounted combat, etc.) and then improving them for the player (bonus to AC, wider crit range, bonuses while mounted, etc.). For Rangers I want things to be tied into the wilderness exploration rules, for Wizards it's largely spellcasting, and for Thieves I've already made a few skills that tie into both the settlement rules and the dungeon rules (their two favorite things).

Well, it only seemed natural to make a couple Warrior features that tie into cohorts as well. There are two skills and one piece of equipment:
1. Authority: Add R+1 for CHA to command a cohort.
2. One Man Army: Add R+1 to attacks and damage against cohorts and take -R damage from cohorts.

A war horn or drums that, when played, grants +2 on attacks and AC for a cohort under your command.
Skills are randomly rolled when you level up, so "R" is the number of times you've rolled that result before (since re-rolls are frequent). Thus, the authority skill grants a minimum of +2 to CHA for the purposes of commanding a cohort. The one man army skill grants a minimum of +2 to hit and +2 damage to cohorts and decreases damage taken from cohorts by a minimum of 1. That first one is pretty good, especially if you want to be a tough and grizzled Warrior who barks orders at soldiers but you don't want to invest in Charisma since it would seem at odds with your character. The second one is kinda weak but that's because I don't want it to be too practical an option for a PC to ever take a cohort on by themselves. Yes, to a degree you can specialize in group fighting, but on the whole it'll almost always be a bad idea unless you've rolled this result, like, 4 times.

The equipment was an early idea when I first came up with cohorts, and I went further with it. Here's a piece of equipment from the Knight class:
(5th level) Banner: 3 slots, 2 hands, 3Q. Count level as +2 for commanding a lawful cohort. Allies subtract 1d4 from morale rolls while in your presence.
You have to have a minimum of 5 knight levels to acquire it, but once you do you can start commanding cohorts solo much easier. In fact, at level 10 your functional level with this banner is 12, meaning you can hypothetically command a large cohort by yourself!

I can see more of these sorts of things finding their way into the class design, and I might need to think of more cohort-related equipment that doesn't tie into warfare directly. But these are the kinds of ways I have in mind in which you can play with the core system to make it a bit more interesting.


This is the basics of a simple mass combat system, like if you took D&D's existing combat rules and tried to make as few changes as possible to turn it into a skirmish wargame. As for warfare ambitions, I'm afraid that even with large cohorts you probably can't run battles of any greater scale than, say, Viking age raids.

Battles involving the Roman Empire often had thousands of soldiers on each side, but in the "dark ages" (the migration period) they started looking more like dozens against dozens or maybe hundreds against hundreds. For those of you who like a nice, gritty, low-fantasy, game where you feel like Gothic tribes pillaging each other then this should serve all your needs. But if you were looking to achieve Agincourt numbers then you'd need around 30 large cohorts just to represent the English side alone. Probably not a great idea.

I'll come up with a system for true warfare later and it'll abstract things a bit more. But for low-scale, tactical combat in a small area, this system can allow you 1) a cool scene now and then of the PCs getting swarmed by a horde of orcs in the dungeon and needing to figure out how to deal with it, and 2) an early taste of warfare gameplay on the rare occasion they gain command over a small army. But even without combat being involved, PCs may gain command of a cohort of spies, an excavation team, religious followers, etc.

And like I said at the beginning of the post, get comfortable with the idea that starting around level 4, the PCs will have around 15 NPCs under their collective command to start doing more complicated tasks. They have more power to influence politics, more power to deal with their problems with violence, more power to gain a reputation, more power to try ambitious plans that would normally take a lot of man hours, and more power to "be in many places at once," so to speak.


Go to part 5: Dungeons


  1. My suggestion re cohorts, having read the rules over and fresh off reading Adrian Goldsworthy's Vindolandia series. I think you need to make the cohort rules a little bit more of a natural outgrowth of the existing hireling rules. This assumes you're still working on Brave, of course.

    I 100% think you DO need a rule that PCs can't command a total level of followers higher than their own level. Otherwise silliness could ensue. The suggestions below assume you do do that. I also think "your followers must be lower than your own level" might be a good idea, but that bit's more up to you.

    I would also set a small cohort as being roughly the size of an infantry squad: 8-12 men. First, because that lets you go "squad, platoon, company." Second, because it's shockingly common throughout history, suggesting it's one of those weird things humanity does without really thinking about it, and so a good way to structure rules that are trying to feel real. Third, because it lets you make that squad take up two follower slots - one for the sergeant and one for the corporal, and the scaling still stays relatively straightforward - you end up with 40 men instead of 60, then 160 men instead of 250, both of which feel slightly more reasonable.

    I'd also consider adding that you get +1 follower slots per level (though that one's more for "if you definitely want people doing followery stuff").

    Anyway, have a small cohort take up the follower slots for its officers (who are not abstracted). Between them, they have levels and charisma appropriate to commanding [whatever size]. The commander and XO are both level 1 (to command the 0 level followers). The PCs can distribute that between them, or keep it all focused on one. Replacing the leaders can be tricky (presumably follow the usual recruitment rules), and if not done the cohort may end up dispersing (though some could stay as individual followers). Two slots for the small cohort. I'd suggest having the sergeant be level 2, if possible, but level 1 could also work.

    A medium cohort should be one follower slot bigger than the smaller cohort (the whole point is that the PCs aren't dealing with the cohort directly, after all). Between them, those three followers need to be able to command eight level 1 commanders (or four level 1 and four level 2). That does mean they're all level 2 (or 3), and I'd definitely have the overall commander of this be level 4.

    A large cohort takes four slots, has level 5 deputies with a level 6 commander.

    Obviously, high-level officers are hard to replace and it's best not to let your high level cohort get too battered. Also gives PCs a motivation to keep things as low level cohorts - more flexible, easier to recover, etc. You'd also need to rethink damage in combat a little bit, but I don't think very much.

    If you want to work factions into it, I'd suggest having factions make cohorts that lose officers and can't replace them not melt away due to desertion - instead, the members hang around or go back to the HQ or whatever and it is easier to rebuild. So a bandit gang will often disappear if you kill its officers, an army regiment will probably hang in longer. Hell, give them +1 on the rolls when they reach 0 HP.

    Anyway. Hope these ideas are useful to you.

    1. Thank you for this weirdly in-depth comment! I admit I have set Brave down for a couple years now but I fully intend to revisit it eventually. I know that whatever form it takes next is going to learn into domain-level play more as a core pillar, meaning that I need to give a lot more consideration to this cohort rules than I originally had (including some serious playtesting). I'll probably make the changes you suggest, at a minimum.

    2. Weirdly in=depth is the source of all joy. Fact.

      Brave's nice, and worth going back to in time. :)