Epic Battle: Mass Combat in Role Playing Games

Dungeons and Dragons was originally designed as a departure from traditional wargames, to allow the control of individuals instead of large military units. This created a whole different type of gaming, but generally the two modes of play aren’t terribly compatible with each other. So what can you do if your players get involved in a war, commanding other soldiers into battle?

There are generally two ways to do this. You can either use the rules a game system has provided for you, or make modifications to that ruleset in order to make bookkeeping easier. Considering most role playing combat systems are designed to easily accommodate tens of units as opposed to hundreds, the second route seems easier, but the first route is still doable in certain scenarios.

Among games I’ve played, there is one system with easy rules for large combats and for command of others, and that is Savage Worlds. The Savage Worlds ruleset has very easy and accessible rules for very large combats, as well as for having player characters issue orders to their followers. The mass combat system is as fast and loose as the rest of the system, which also makes sketching up 50-75 NPCs or more relatively easy. Additionally, rules-light systems such as Risus tend to take to these sorts of encounters well, as the command of others is abstracted just as much as any other skill challenge in the game. However, some may want a more detail oriented system, and subsequently a more involved combat.

If you want to make things very involved, I say go for it. There will be a lot of prep work necessary, but most heavyweight systems like Dungeons and Dragons, GURPS, or Exalted have all the necessary rules to work out a situation with many, many combatants. If you can abstract it to, say, a few hundred NPCs, and can either resolve their actions quickly or with a computer, it’s feasible. However, this would certainly be an entire session worth of material, and not something to be done regularly. If you wish to run massive battles with any frequency, it may be a better investment of your time to play a game designed for it, like Warhammer.

The second way to run a combat like this is by modifying rules. The key here is trying to balance two things: the impact the players have over the outcome of the battle, and the amount of actual combat you want to model. If you were to run a 100 person battle as I described above, you’d need to make some assumptions as to given character’s actions in a given space, which is actually fairly straightforward in combat: attack, or retreat. Even if you have more actions than that you’ll generally have fewer actions than the player characters, making it easy to simplify. Instead of running the NPCs, track a few key things: where there is combat taking place, how many combatants are there, modifiers that give either side an edge, and who is winning. Most game systems will already have environmental modifiers in place, so you can use those wholesale. In addition to that, some basic modifiers for how well-rested an army is, how well equipped they are, and any sort of bonuses for morale will probably provide as much detail as you’d need while still using an abstracted system. Each turn, sides will take casualties based on who is “winning” (this can be a player’s leadership roll, it can be an abstracted version of a combat turn, or even two opposed rolls with some of the modifiers listed above), and the “commander” can decide whether to press forward, retreat, or some other action if that’s available to him. The ultimate level of detail is up to you, but the most important thing is that whoever plays the “commander” sees some effect of his actions: if you’re just going to look for an outcome, it doesn’t really matter how many dice you roll.

Role Playing Games are not typically designed to run large combats, in fact their design was intentionally turning away from just that sort of game. However, there’s still enough wargaming pedigree in most games to keep the occasional climactic mass battle reasonable. Though some systems are simple enough to handle it, most games can have their rules adapted to maintain the drama of a huge battle without the headache of bookkeeping for a huge army.

[tags]role playing games, game mastering, dungeons and dragons[/tags]

2 thoughts on “Epic Battle: Mass Combat in Role Playing Games

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  1. WHFRP to WHFB is a very easy way to handle mass combat when an “epic” battle is needed to further a campaign.


  2. I played WFRP for about 7 years, before that I played WHFB. I never got the rest of the group to handle mass-combat in our campaigns by converting to WHFB… as only 2 of our 7-man band were WHFB players (me and my brother), the rest didn’t bother… In fact, we used MedievalII:total war for our last WFRP war-plot! (unsatisfying for half the group).

    My brother and I did do a WHFB skirmish one time after we had painted a bunch of models to represent our party’s homebase militia force though. This skirmish featured 5 of our WFRP pc’s and a score of militiamen against some empire troops. It was an excellent small battle and worked rather well. The PC’s did as good as they would have in a RP combat, we managed to work in some of the RP skills and work out a balanced opposing army that provided a challenge (some PC’s characteristics were quite beyond the max normal whfb value for their races).
    The conversion is rather easy, maybe the greatest challenge is working out the points value of your PC’s so you can balance the enemy’s army against them- which is not so difficult- and how certain WFRP skills translate to the battle game. We had all this worked out within an hour. I’d recommend it for groups where most players have WHFB experience or people interested in the battle system.


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