Mass Combat in RPGs

Ah, the thunder of the massed chivalry of Nyrond as it charges across a grassy plain towards the leveled pole-arms of the orc and hobgoblin troops of the Old One, Iuz…
Unfortunately, it almost never happens.

As a wargamer from way back, and a miniatures gamer as well, I yearn for a way to integrate some sort of mass combat into my D&D games. There was Battlesystem in 1985, which was probably better described as a skirmish rule set rather than a mass combat rules set, and a fairly mediocre one at that. Judges Guild had City State Warfare, which was more of a traditional hex-and-counter wargame (and a pretty nifty one, as I recall), but there were no rules that I remember for integrating such combats into an already-existing campaign, or roles for individual PCs.

I know that Grendelwulf has been putting together information for Field of Glory armies based on Gary Gygax’s 1980’s articles in Dragon magazine, detailing armies and political/military maneuvering in the World of Greyhawk. But the FoG rules are strictly historical, and there are no provisions for either magic or individual “heroic” PCs other than leader-types. It would require some sort of conversion or add-on to work with D&D.

But the real question is, am I alone? Would GW and I be the only ones interested in this? I’m working on mass combat rules for Adventures Dark and Deep™, but my question to you is, would you be interested in something like this in your own campaign? Would you use it? Would you rather see something very abstract, that could handle mass combat with just a few die rolls? Did you use Battlesystem, City State Warfare, Swords & Spells, or something else back in the day? Why or why not? Would it depend on how the PCs themselves were handled? Please feel free to share your thoughts.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

38 thoughts on “Mass Combat in RPGs

  1. Great googally moogally, yes.

    I don't know what Battlesystem was like; I never saw it. But I've always wanted to be able to have a bunch of goblin spider cavalry attacking that little ol' Keep on the Borderlands, and having the players charge in with their own forces to help…and be able to affect the situation using their player abilities (like fireballs and so forth)…and not have to run the combat in D&D scale.

    And I'd like a pony.

    The best integration of armies into D&D terms that I've seen has been Green Ronin's Black Company book for d20. I remember that the basic premise is that units are statted up as characters (modified by various things such as PC leadership and so forth) and the basic combat system is used to resolve the battle.

    I may be garbling something in the retelling, since my copy is across the Atlantic Ocean right now, unfortunately.

  2. You may look to the Legend of the Five Rings RPG (1st edition if you can get it; not sure whether this conituned in later editions). They provide a very good, simple, quick and PC-focused way of determining what is going on in a given battle and what role the PC's have in it.

  3. I would love a mass combat system that could work on a couple scales: Tactical (perhaps where you control individual units in a single battle) and strategic (where you move entire armies around).

    About the nicest system like this that I've seen is the mass combat rules found in the 'Companion' rules of the BECMI D&D set. It allowed for some basic tactical flexibility (i.e. you can pick from a set of five or six general tactics), but doesn't require playing out every aspect of the combat. The module X10 Red Arrow, Black Shield is a showcase for this battle system. The only real place where I see this system falling down is that it doesn't make a whole lot of consideration for PC actions (unless the GM works up his own rules).

    And I also would like a Pony.

  4. The two gold standards for me are AD&D's Battlessystem and GURPS Mass Combat.

    Both are not overly complicated. Both integrate the PCs well, both work with their accompanying rulesets well. With Battlesystem you could plug in any AD&D monster.

    The nod for me will have to goto GURPS Mass Combat simply because unlike Battlesystem it doesn't require the use of counters or figures. ALthough I could turn Battlesystem into a figureless system easily enough.

  5. I would definitely welcome this! I used Battlesystem once, many years ago. I didn't really care for it and wrote my own rules for my campaign's second round of Mass Warfare. I lost those rules, long ago. I'd probably cringe, if I did find them.

    My own preference is for something which allows PC's to act independently, upon the battle-field. I hate the idea of a high level PC biting it, while being lumped in with unit of some sort.

    But, yeah. I'm optimistic that one day, I'll have another campaign reach the point where mass combat rules are needed.

  6. I'd love to see (another) one with both some strategic and tactical aspects as well as a way to integrate higher-level Heroes into the fray (either controlling elements or influencing the strategic level by assisting armies and the like). I use a version of the system in the MERP Kinstrife module for example (having puttered a little with War Law and Bladestorm in the past).

  7. I'm running an Age of Conan game with OD&D at present, and using Chainmail as my combat system. I fully intend to use Chainmail for mass combat when (not if, but when) that arises. I think it'll work out spectacularly.

  8. The rules I used for my campaign were basically taken from Greywulf's M20
    Mass Combat Made Easy
    . I chose it over Cyplopedia's War Machine because I wanted to include the option of a high level fighter attacking twenty lizardmen at once etc. I'd use it again!

    Most of my players liked it. One player complained that it wasn't good enough at simulating how the fight would have gone and suggested writing a some Excel macros. That's not what I would do, however.

    Therefore: Yes, I like mass combat!

  9. Roger the GS, yes, all edition of L5R RPG keep the mass battle rules (which I think are adapted from Bushido) which are quite excellent. Which is quite useful.

    Heroes of Battle (for 3rd ed) has some good suggestions for incorporating mass battle into a campaign. GURPS Mass Battle system is good if you have the time for it.

  10. I believe my old AD&D group used a modified version of the BECMI War Machine, but because of its…um…lacking in certain areas we generally avoided mass combat all together.

    For my B/X Companion, I've included mass combat rules based on the Swords & Spells rules. They've been cleaned up a bit and still leave some things to DM adjudication (like bonuses based on tactics and formations), but otherwise they run about the same.

  11. Depending on your goals, there are numerous systems available. Some folks have touched upon a handful of them above. For my money, far and away the best system I've tried is Pendragon's Book of Battle. It gives a very PC-eyes view of the battle and it moves very quickly. We've done 10,000+ troop combat that took 8 hours in game time (sun up, first clash and through to capture of the last Saxon king) but only took about 1.5 hours at the table.

  12. Just to clarify– I wasn't really looking for ideas on how to implement a mass combat system (although thanks for those who did point me to things I had never heard of before!), but rather was trying to gauge how much interest, if any, there would be in such a thing.

    Seems like the interest is there, sure enough! Does anyone have any examples (like lg's) of how they used it in a campaign setting?

  13. I encountered 3 mass combat system in my gaming experience. These were the War Machine rules in the Mentzer Companion set, the Battlesystem rules and the mass combat rules in the Advanced Fighting Fantasy Allansia book. Of these, I liked the Advanced Fighting Fantasy rules best, followed by the Companion set rules. They were abstract rules but the Companion sets rules worked more as force calculations wherein most of the work was in the preparation to battle. The players busied themselves with getting the right force and equipment mix to maximize their Battle ratings. The Allansia rules had more of an in-battle metagame going on which allowed players to roleplay the actual battle. I liked that idea. I didn't want to invest in miniatures so I didn't take the Battlesystem rules too kindly.

  14. Mass combat rules kick in when your players acquire enough gold to hire lots of people to fight for them. In my game what happened was that my paladin player at level 20+, after establishing a dominion and pacifying it, decided that it was time to wage a crusade and other players had to decide whether they were with him or not. It ended up being a 2 vs 3 punch-up with the 3 players going off and raising their own army to defend themselves against the paladin. By then all the surrounding NPC dominions had been subjugated by paladin. The 3 PCs had to quickly raise an army and where ill-prepared against the paladin who had built up quite a respectable force mix. They resorted to using undead and making pacts with all sort of unsavory characters and it played into the paladin's propaganda. The last 10 levels of XP for the players were acquired in this war so I think mass combat rules are pretty important.

  15. I am very interested! I've looked at Battlesystem, Heroes of Battle, Sword and Sorcery's Cry Havoc, d20 Open Mass Combat System, and the Conan mass combat rules. I wanted something that could quickly and fairly resolve battles between forces where no PCs were involved, as well as being interesting for PCs to take an active role in the battle by commanding multiple units about the field. Nothing quite has scratched the itch.

  16. +1 more for being interested in that. Long been a wargamer that loved combining enormous brawls with role-play.

    I did a little as a DM for 2nd edition for my brother and some friends based in the Underdark. And many years later it came up again in a WFRP game I ran for colleagues. In the first instance, they basically just stumbled on a small-ish fortified settlement and chose to aid it rather than the Duergar attackers, though I just did a somewhat abstract custom bodge-job of rating the various troops and running combat and the ebb of it with a few D6 and handful of bonuses at a time. It really ended up more as a slightly random timelimit for how long troops would hold for before they broke or retreated, while giving the PCs center stage.

    The second instance was a lot easier, given that WFRP basically copies (and, originally, had conversion tables for) the Mordheim/Warhammer system. It was fun to run a small village assault by ravening bands of frothy evildoers using something based on slightly enlarged hybrid wargame-skirmish rules.

    Biggest problem I generally see is where to draw the line between RPG standard combat, skirmish or full-blown battle line wargame and thus make extra work to modify things to fit and flow right. Quite often a wargame doesn't work well when it's five on five, and a skirmish system can get bogged down when it's a hundred per side.

  17. Oh yes, interested.

    I agree with Rob about the GURPS implementation of mass combat rules being the best from a role playing perspective (although I have not read the Pendragon system). You could fairly easily adapt the GURPS rules to any D&D game, I think.

    The wargamer in me prefers Hordes of the Things (HOTT), which lets you run a miniatures based battle in an hour or so, and over at "The Stronghold", a HOTT fan site, there are very good guidelines for involving PCs in HOTT battles (it is geared toward d20/3.x D&D though). (Doh, just checked and the Stronhold is temporarily offline!)

    I guess if you are running OD&D, Chainmail or Swords & Spells are the most logical to use; if B/X, Warmachine; & if AD&D, Battlesystem, since they are the systems most closely tied to them mechanically.

    I tried to calculate how many D&D monsters would be required to equal the standard units in HOTT/DBA (De Bellis Antiquitas, the sister historical rules to HOTT which spells out how many men are in an "element" or unit) but that did not really lead anywhere.

    As "Delta" at "Delta's D&D Hotspot" has pointed out, it is very hard to make lower level PCs last on a battlefield if you use the D&D combat rules as written, so I'm not sure I'd bother trying to make a wargame where the PCs "in battle" are exactly analogous to their "RPG scale" abilities. Either you abstract what happens to the cannon fodder and let the PCs duel the enemy heroes and monsters (the GURPS option), or run it as a minis wargame were your character acts like a "regular" hero or wizard by the rules (HOTT/Chainmail). IMO.

  18. I've got an idea of how to make PCs relevant in mass combat, without having to make them a "scout unit" or going after enemy leaders and monsters. I've tested it once in play on a skirmish level and it went flawlessly, but I want a few more tests before I roll it out.

    I do like the scalability of the Microlite system, though. Very neat.

  19. One of the interesting problems you run into with a mass combat system for D&D is that it immediately results in a clash between (a) our expectations of fantasy warfare and (b) the reality of optimal tactics using the resources of the D&D game world.

    So you want "the thunder of the massed chivalry of Nyrond"… but then they're decimated by a couple of wizards hurling fireballs.

    This was a problem I ran into again and again while playtesting for The Art of War supplement that got cancelled/lost during the 3.0 to 3.5 conversion. (We eventually opted to simply model the battlefield as accurately as possible, while being fully aware that it was going to require mass experimentation/playtesting by a diverse group of people to begin figuring out the ideal warfare tactics in a D&D world.)

    The other problem, when it came to integrating PCs into the battlefield, was the issue of balance: The classes are pretty well balanced against each other when it comes to typical adventuring and dungeon-crawling, but the battlefield skews things pretty heavily.

    This becomes triply true for monsters.

  20. Seems like the interest is there, sure enough! Does anyone have any examples (like lg's) of how they used it in a campaign setting?

    In the Pendragon system, the standard approach to a campaign consists of regular (say, every 3-4 game sessions) mass combats. So its quite common in this system. Beginning characters fit just as well as experienced characters since there isn't any assumption that the player characters are commanders in any way (though being a commander works well, too.)

    If you want to read game journals that include mass combat I'll happily link to my own.

  21. I don’t know. Whenever mass combat has come up in games I’ve run, I’ve been happy to just decide the overall outcome by fiat while playing out any portion of the battle involving the PCs with the standard combat system. (What the PCs do may affect my decision for the overall battle. Taking out a key resource, for instance, can affect the outcome of a larger battle.)

    I like the idea of the War Machine, but I didn’t care for that particular implementation. (It’s been long enough, though, that I don’t remember the specifics.) I could see using that if I ever get some players to the D&D “endgame”. Or I might just go with a simple SPI-ish system, though I’m unsure about integrating some of D&D’s special types into such a thing.

    So, I think I might like either an alternative to the War Machine or a D&D version of an SPI-style game, but so far I haven’t really felt the need for it.

  22. Primitive combat wasn't really "massed", but rather, involved the heros going out to fight individual combat between the battle lines. So for my Dawn of Civ style campaign, I don't have much need for massed battle.

    Even in a High- or Late-Civ context, massed combat does not make sense in a world of magic. Magic has the strategic/tactical effect of modern era weapons.

    Due to the devastating effect of high level magic, mass tactics would be suicidal, armies would have to spread out, if not avoid the field altogether.

    Fireballs are just the tip of the iceberg, what about control weather, flame strikes, fire storms, earthquakes, insect plagues, transmute rock to mud, fire walls, meteor storms, poison clouds, mass hallucinations, mass charm, monster summoning, prismatic sphere/spray/wall…

  23. Good topic. Being both a wargamer and a roleplayer, this hasn't been a problem. I've done it several ways.
    When running a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game it was easy enough to convert characters to their tabletop versions by simply dividing the stats by 10. The only problems were the ones mentioned. Lower level PCs are going to get creamed. That, and I'm not crazy about Warhammer Fantasy.
    More recently I ran an OD&D. We used a Fantasy Wargame the PCs were familiar with and ran the game as usual, maneuvering around the table, etc. But, when the unit the PCS were in was involved, we switched to a regular OD&D round. It didn't slow things down much, and gave them the feeling they could influence events close by, but felt out of control with the greater battle.

  24. For those that don't want to invest in a lot of minis: when we tried Battlesystem when it came out in the 80s, we purchased blank cardboard chits.

    We were wargamers as well as DnD players, so we just used the tools to which we were accustomed.

    These days there are various cardboard token sets to purchase – a number on pdf so you can print them as you like, color or not, on card stock or not, laminated or not.

    A bit over a year of play in our Greyhawk/Yggsburgh/Zagyg/MadArchmage campaign (thanks Joe!) and our highest character is only 5th level. Only a few of the players have interest in the world outside dungeons, so I don't have much idea of whether we'll get to mass combat.

    Using Yggsburgh by the book, we do have the possibilities and have tried to integrate the machinations of the other nobles into the setting on occasion – so far to little player interest. It's their game, so there you go.

  25. Justin: I'm not so sure that magic is as devastating to mass combat as you seem to think.

    Take the fearsome fireball, for example. An 8th-10th level magic-user is going to have 3 of those puppies to toss around. They will pretty much take out anyone in a 40' circle. 13 yards, give or take.

    If aimed at a unit of medium infantry, that fireball is going to take out 40 men, orcs, etc.

    So one relatively high-level mage will take out 120 enemies before he's spent for the day. I'm not sure I'd call that a "suicidal" tactic for troops. Especially with counter-magics available.

    To be certain, it changes the tactics. But makes them obsolete? I think I'd argue the point.

  26. Joe, here's what my players did with magic.

    Set up a high-level PC MU in a juggernaut wagon and have him do nothing except cast magic missile and permanence for weeks before a major assault. Then, set him loose on the biggest mofo on the battlefield. Unless that fella has anti-magic, he's a gonner.

    Create huge crystal obelisks and fill them with flaming pitch. Then cast levitate and permanence on them and have them dragged to the enemy city by flying troops. Then light the fuse and dispel the levitation.

    That's just two examples. Even if you nerf Permanence, the question that comes up (quite innocently at first of course) is how do magical items stay magical.

  27. It's not just the spellcasters you have to worry about (although their ability to transform the battlefield on the fly is formidable), it's also the wand-wielders and scroll-readers.

  28. I'm lucky in that the current campaign doesn't have any player character magic use in it – period. Magic is a rare and subtle art.

    Although there was magic in the Battle of Lindsey link posted above, it was quite subtle. Merlin (yes, that Merlin) simply made a muddy field dry and firm. The side of King Uther had lots of cavalry and the Saxons had practically no cavalry. So Merlin's magic did actually make a huge difference in the battle even though it didn't fry anybody to crispy bacon.

  29. Has anyone checked out "Fields of Battle" by Troll Lord Games? I just noticed that it's available on their website.

  30. Icarus, have you read the description for permanancy lately? It doesn't work the way you seem to think it does…

  31. Way back in the Eighties I tried writing a conversion system for Expert level D&D that would allow battles to be fought on the tabletop using Warhammer 1st edition. It ended up being waaaay too clunky. Since then I've kept wargaming and RPGing separate, although I'm now playing in the Pathfinder Kingmaker campaign which has a sophisticated domain management system. No doubt the combat system will come into play at some point. I can report back on that when it does – from a player's perspective mind you.

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