Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Big Battles

The adventurers enter a dungeon, a ruins, sewers, or abandon temple and find themselves in a series of personal battles. A group of goblins pepper them with small black arrows before they repel down to the floor and engage in hand-to-hand combat. Skeleton warriors emerge from their earthen graves, exploding debris throughout the crypt, rusted and jagged weapons slicing at their moral opponents as they charge in a silent rage. The floor collapses under the party's weight, the rotten boards shower down on them and that's when they notice the soft, sticky floor moves. A family of green slimes quickly move up the hands and slip beneath armor and clothing.

All scenes from close battles. Something we all have some skill in. However, what happens during large battles? There are many different systems out there to manage large battles. No GM wants to roll for each individual participant. But the personal touch is lost in these systems. It becomes more of a practice in accounting. Calculating numbers of troop strengths and giving various advantages in battle a score to be considered in the column of numbers.

I don't have an answer, but I've been involved with many of the sub-systems during play. What should be a climatic battle came down to number crunching. It detaches the personal heroics from the game.

From Total War Rise of Mordor

Like I mentioned, I don't have a clear answer. However, I have run a handful of big battles over the past year and I found my non-system works fairly well. This works for me, your mileage my vary.
  • I keep the battle as personal focused on the adventurers as much as possible. 
  • The massive battle that happens around them is part of the setting. Assign a few rolls with advantages worked in and have the players roll these.
  • Allow for heroics that you wouldn't normally allow in a regular game. For example, say a fight is surrounded by goblins and he does 15 points of damage. Each goblin has 3hp each. Fighter killed 5 goblins in a single swing. 
  • In addition, if the players come up with crazy ideas let them attempt them. Give it a roll, if they succeed fantastic, if they fail fantastic. Even in success and failure, results are not always what the players expect. 
  • Use tactics for the enemy to make it interesting to keep the players on their toes because they will have been scheming what to do. I know mine will.
  • Always have one or two twists ready for the battle. Good or bad. 
  • Make sure you keep the pressure on the party.
  • Allow death to occur. If one of the party goes down, allow one last heroic act.
  • Then after the battle is over, consider the repercussions of it. It will have a ripple effect. 
While this is not a comprehensive list, nor an organized system, it is a loose philosophy to enter into larger battles to keep them personal. 


  1. This has been a passion of mine since 2009! Since then, I've managed to find that holy grail in several ways.

    My friend, if you ever want additional ideas, I've blogged and podcasted about including mass combat in my D&D games. It's something I love to do! In fact, my Hommlet game at GaryCon is going to be mass combat and 1x1 at the same time, using OD&D/Chainmail.

    1. Nice Michael. I'll need to check it out. I have to plan for a big battle for next Monday.

  2. I built a automated spread sheet in excel for a recent big battle to roll all the NPC v NPC action. It worked fairly well. The close to the PC action was handled normally anything far away was done by hitting the randomizer removing casualties from both sides simultaneously from the board and the excellent sheet.

    1. You scare me with the word spreadsheet. Heh. The one gm I play in his game has an elaborate system that he manages well. I couldn't do it.

  3. I'm working off of a random event table. When the forces clash and the PCs are thrown into the washing machine of death I roll on the table (trying to get to 100, have 50) and this becomes the event the PC/PCs have to confront. If the battle is raging for a long time I will roll another random encounter. The battle itself I adjudicate like a weather event. Weighted to a predetermined result with a chance it all goes tits up for the perceived victor.

    1. A random take isn't something I consider for big battles. I like that idea.

  4. Personally I've always been a fan of the Bushido (and Flashing Blades) method where the main battle is treated abstractly, but characters encounter opponents in each battle turn according to encounter charts based on how the battle is going and how courageous they are willing to be. Being more courageous is more likely to win you recognition, prizes, and the ability to accomplish special acts (such as capturing the enemy flag/standard), but is more dangerous. It's also more likely to cause problems if your side is losing the battle.

    The Bushido system is particularly nice for offering the collection of mook's heads as well as discrete encounters with worthy opponents. I find that random unblockable damage is an important part of this sort of resolution system too - the curse of bards the world over - representing the chaotic nature of the battlefield. One assumption with this system is that leveled characters are not exceptional and will be found on both sides of the battlefield and in Homeric/Indian/Chinese/Japanese tradition will seek each other out on the battlefield whilst the common soldiers fight around them. If your party is exceptional then you probably want a different system - perhaps one that is more tactical.

    The Flashing Blades system works well for commanders and officers in the battle since they tend to suffer less risk once you get beyond field grade. Again their is a strong emphasis on gaining recognition from your feats of valour on the battlefield rather than affecting the progress of the battlefield.

    In either case if you are a general you probably won't be taking part in the actual battle itself.

    The Book of Battle for Pendragon is also quite interesting since it gives greater command of your "unit" in a battle (since knights are often assumed to be commanders on the battlefield. You usually get a choice from a couple of options of what to do, which can also affect the battle progress. Encounters in each battle turn are automatic here (based on your choices and actions), but who gets to choose the encounter depends on whether or not the player succeeded in their Battle skill, and are based on the enemy force mix. [Remember that the primary impulse of a knight on the battlefield is to win personal glory in combat heavily affects the choices made by players. Attacking peasants, whilst simple and possibly advantageous in terms of the overall battle resolution, is not as glorious as taking on the opposing general's elite bodyguard...] This also works for the players if they are exceptional characters because they can simply act as a single unit and affect the course of the overall battle as a result.

    All three offer special event/encounters on the battlefield that may affect the course of battle if players want to take any special risks.

    Finally if you want a one roll resolution I do recommend the legacy Ironclaw Warfare Test, which basically throws in every die that might be useful in the battle and then resolves it as a single roll. You can even choose how brave you want to be by adding extra dice to the opposing difficulty for Survival, but these dice add to the character's recognition for survival. But that works because of the fundamental mechanics of the game.

    1. Thanks for the input. I'll check your suggestions out.


  5. I do the same with the focus on the players. Where the players are is under a big magnifying glass while beyond their combat area the view is from above and the surges and flow of combat like the movement of waves crashing on the beach. Sometimes this flow pushes in the focus of the magnifying glass and sometimes the players move the focus along to enlarge and reveal the details of the combat mass. The greater flow of the battle i can narrate or wargame depending on the taste of the players, but their role in the battle is the reach of a sword or spell or arrow.

    I like the suggestions you made but I use them for all combat situations big and small. Not just use swings and spells but twists and pressure, heroics and tactics and death ever at their shoulder.

  6. I like your metaphor of the waves. That describes it very well. Thanks.

  7. The old 3e GURPS Mass Combat system - and the 4e version as well - might be inspirational.

    I personally loved and played the living hell out of Battlesystem for AD&D, especially 1st but also some 2nd edition.

    And GURPS Zombies has good rules for abstracting many individuals into groups for quicker combat resolution.

    1. I've been in several Mass Combat games. I didn't know the zombie book had rules. That sounds very cool. Thanks Peter.