Monday Morning DM: Mass Combat!

One of my favorite adventures from Dungeon Magazine was called the Pipes of Doom (issue 28) which involves an evil army composed of many types of creatures and lead by a Lich attacking human settlements. Now, there are problematic aspects of this adventure, namely that in some places it is more about set-pieces than giving the PCs interesting things to do, but since I’m usually a little more laid back about that than some other folk, it isn’t such a big deal.

What keeps drawing me back to this adventure is that it is a battle scenario (indeed, designed to use the Battlesystem Mass Combat Rules) that sets up the initial forays of an evil army into less-than-prepared human kingdoms. It’s the beginning of a war.

And I’ve always wanted to start a war in my games. It never seems to go well when I do. It’s almost my white whale, I’d say. I’ve run a lot of fun games. I’ve played in a lot of fun games. War just never seems to go well. And RPGs keep churning out ways to play out the war at the table. And I keep trying. I’m a sucker for Mass Combat Systems. Put one in an RPG book and I probably have to buy it just to see how “they did it differently.”

Recently, I was reading the Mass Combat rules for the Dragon Age RPG and they got me thinking about this topic again…

Games go to extremes with this stuff. GURPS has this crazy awesome mass combat system with tables, and percentages, and troop strengths built from a million different factors and involving multiple math operations for just about everything. As I said, it is both crazy and awesome. I can’t really get into it. It takes too much work to do just about everything for my tastes.

3.5 D&D had a very different take, with Heroes of War, where the value of “units” almost disappeared into an idea that allowed the PCs to determine the majority of the success or failure of battles based on their actions. This was clever and cool, but turning the battlefield into a “dungeon” sorta took all the grit and terror of battle away.

For a long time I was a big fan of the Birthright mass combat system. It was played out on a map and became almost a war game where the actions of the adventurers were felt through their inclusion in a unit… but mainly, the system was somewhat too random for me and only supported a fairly narrow range of troop types. That is to say, you could have knights and ogres, but Dragons and such were probably right out. But the concept of playing it out on a map, physically moving your units through flanking maneuvers, setting up charges, and seeing it laid out like a war game was a neat twist.

I really appreciate the Dragon Age system as it sits in a nice middle ground for me. Battles are broken up into three phases and the outcome of each phase hinges on some basic die rolling – but how the event plays out is entirely narrative/description based. During each phase, it is possible to have a “Crisis Point” which will focus and narrow the action to allow the PCs to shine and possibly have an overall effect on the outcome of that phase of the battle.

Creating the paperwork for an army takes a matter of seconds and is guided by the primary troop type as well as special troop types which affect the three phases of the battle. While not entirely “realistic” I find this system to really support the type of play I want. It has a clear, mechanical framework with some dice rolling to determine the outcome of the battle but things like strategy, leadership, and having the right troops still matter. There are also sub-systems for determining casualties, having sub-commanders, and a few other small flourishes. Reading it, it definitely appeals to me.

The Dragon Age RPG does not have any information on raising and maintaining your army. I also think the Focus system inherent in the game would be an interesting way to call out other things about your army that might not just be specialty troops. Things like veteran status or hardened wills or something which could provide small bonuses in specific situations. The title system inherent in the game might also be an interesting place to start.

If you are interested in tracking troops and upkeep and things like that, it’s easy enough to put together a simplified list for your campaign setting based on the kinds of troops you plan on having appear in battles and then pricing them in a campaign appropriate way.

At the end of the day, I know that what has been missing for me in many of the war scenarios I have run/played in is the sense that the stakes are so much larger and the horror or war so much worse than the PCs can imagine. They’re heroes after all, shining paragons, with access to healing, magic, and powers beyond the ken of mortal men. So, I like the Dragon Age system. And I like the idea of running war games, but for now, I think I’ll stick with the more personal game I’m running and just shake my harpoon at the great white whale of war.

As always, thanks for reading.


5 responses

  1. How hackable/stealable are the stats/critical moments – sounds like a system that I stole from one of the L5R editions and have slowly adapted for my needs for mass combat:

    Briefly, the generals make an opposed roll, with modifiers for number/quality of troops, terrain etc. If one general wins by a sufficient margin, their side is winning for that round of the battle and the other is losing.

    The PCs then chose a level of engagement (reserves, disengaged, engaged, heavily engaged). The roll on a table to see what Battle Opportunity they get – with level of engagement, overall success of their side, and the PCs Battle skill all factoring in. The more engaged you are, the more glorious & dangerous a battle opportunity you get; if your side is losing you generally get more dangerous outcomes; if your PC is bad at Battle, you’ll tend to get dangerous and unglorious opportunities. The opportunities themselves vary from ‘Seize the enemy banner’ to ‘Rescue a wounded opponent’, and if the PCs do well, their general gets a bonus to the next round.

    The net effect is that the general’s side of thing is heavily abstracted (there are 3 battle rounds on average) but the PCs actions are heavily focused on, and give them a chance to earn glory and help their side.

    Mostly, my goal is to have mass combat success/failure independent of the player’s actions, but influenced by. I still want the players to be able to do everything right, but lose anyways – the curse of mass combat.

    1. The system you mention sounds a little like the way GURPS uses Glory and Survival as opposing modifiers to the Battle roll for each PC. The more Glory you strive for in the battle, the lower your Survival chance (meaning, getting out without injury/death). I assume that’s what the amount of Engagement your PC has somewhat equates to? Which is an idea I really like.

      In general, the DA system is more about the three phases of the battle, Opening Moves, the heavy fighting of the Main Engagement, and then Closing Moves. The Crisis Points are encounters set up to provide some aspect of the PCs doing something pivotal to affect each phase of the battle. You don’t need them or need to run one in each phase. They are there to use as appropriate.

      I think this system can do what you want – but it is very abstract. I recommend looking into it.

      1. Yeah, I mostly use it as a random generator to let them know what sort of encounter/opportunity they have the opportunity to play out – because I want the players to always have the option to not pursue.

        Thanks for the recommendation – definitely something that I’ll take a look at and see what I want to crib – I’m not running d20 much anymore, but I’m trying to do something that’s more about the process and then attaching game system to that.

  2. I think WOTC put out a free mass combat system for 5th edition called “Battlesystem”, have you checked those out?

  3. I did. It seemed very rough – as I’d expect since it wasn’t really a complete system, just some spitballing from the desk of a designer. It was neat, but I think the DA system may get closest to what I want a mass combat system to do for me.

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