Simple mass combat?

Zack over at RPG Blog II posted some thoughts on mass combat systems and RPGs. It should come as no surprise to anyone that I’m a huge fan of mass combat, and figuring out ways to integrate it into “regular” RPG play. I’m putting together a couple of 15mm Greyhawk armies for use with the Field of Glory miniatures rules, and am planning on putting out a supplement to my forthcoming Adventures Dark and Deep rules specifically for mass combat, which I am, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, referring to as “Platemail”.

Zack lists the following criteria for an RPG mass combat system, and I think it’s a pretty on-target assessment:

-Quick to learn, easy to remember.
-Related to the same base mechanics, at least nominally, as the rest of the game.
-Scale for company-size to full army-size combat with little issue.
-Allowing for a moderate level of complexity without either too little or too much abstraction.
-Allow the players to influence the outcome of a battle through their actions.

That second bullet set off a firestorm in my mind, and I came up with what, at least initially, seems like an ideal solution to the problem of mass combat in RPGs.

What if large formations of troops were treated just like really big individual monsters?

That is, what if there was a separate entry in the Bestiary for “Skeleton, Infantry Company”, with its own hit dice, hit points, damage, size, movement, morale, etc.? And another for “Dwarf, Crossbowmen Company”. And “Men, Knight, Company”, “Men, Peasant Mob”, and so forth.

The only change to the combat rules that I think would be necessary would be to change the scale. When that class of unit is involved, combat moves at the turn level, rather than the round level. So that’s even already built into the system.

Combat between such large units of troops would be simplicity itself. Roll to hit, take damage, roll morale if needed. Again, everything that’s already built into the system. You’d need a couple of special-case rules to deal with such units in combat against individual heroes; problems of frontage mean 100 orcs can’t all hit the same 10th-level fighter. But that’s easy enough to take care of with probably no more than a couple of lines of text. Maybe include a “minimum damage per turn” based on the “you always hit at least 5% of the time” rule.

I think this fulfills each of Zack’s criteria. Quick to learn? Hell, it’s just another monster. Related to the base mechanics? Ditto. Scalable? If you need an army at a size that companies make too awkward, just make up stats for “Skeleton, Infantry Regiment”. Voila! Complexity? You won’t need more than a handful of special rules to handle unit vs. individual cases. Just make sure the GM enforces the morale rules that are already in the game. Player influence? Heck, because it scales to the “regular” combat system, your 10th level fighter can take on those 100 orcs and see how he fares. Just multiply everything a single character does by 10, because it’s turns rather than rounds. Damage, movement, etc.

Am I just missing something, or is this a really elegant solution to the problem of RPG mass combat?

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.

19 thoughts on “Simple mass combat?

  1. As far as I'm concerned, you aren't missing anything. It's how I would resolve mass combat. Well, maybe not with specially written monster entries, but definitely I would assume that two equal-sized companies would fight as if they were individuals. If one companies outnumbers the other, either you can treat it as a two-against-one combat (or whatever,) or give the larger force a bonus to hit.

    Microlite20 had a mass combat system based on a similar idea: multiply damage done by a larger force, divide damage done by a smaller force.

  2. Sounds good to me. How will commanders and such fit in though? Will they simply be the ones that choose the moves and makes the rolls for whatever units they're commanding or will they be able to provide some minor bonuses as well? Perhaps something related to the skill system?

  3. We don't do mass combat often, but this is what we do for Gods & Monsters. It scales from 2 to however many we've wanted.

    The basic idea is that for each multiple of 2 in the "army", the "individual" gets +1 to attack, to defense, to combat range, and to number of attacks.

    So two orcs in a group effort fight as a single orc with +1 to hit, +1 to AC, +1 to combat range, and 2 attacks.

    20 orcs in a group effort fight as one orc with +4 to hit, +4 to AC, +4 to combat range, and 5 attacks.

    And situational bonuses apply just as they do for individuals.

    If we wanted it more gritty, we'd reduce the progression from doubling to something else, or maybe add the bonus to damage, too. But it works great for having a couple of heroic warriors wade into an army or orcs; and for allowing the army of orcs to actually hit the heavily armored heroic warrior.

    It covers everything from two people ganging up on another, through mobs, to armies.

  4. I like it. I'll have to think about it some.

    I think there might be a few flavorful things about mass combat I would want to squeeze in somehow: cavalry charges, morale under missile fire, commander effects as baronkohinar suggests.

    But, yeah, nice. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I guess I get to be the dissenter here, but something doesn't seem to quite gel with how you describe it. I could be missing something that you said, in fact, but I'm not convinced that everything would be quite so easily solved as is described, nor would it scale terribly well without an uncomfortable level of abstraction.

    It's certainly given me personally something to think about, but I don't believe it would be quite so cut and dried as a written rule system unless the players (DM) were already very, very intimate with the system and balancing thereof.

  6. As far as commanders go, I think this is a perfect way for charisma to really come into it's own, and gives a justification for paladins to need that 17 CHA.

    Most DMs ignore those morale rules, but especially in a mass combat situation, units failing morale and breaking is a critical element. Commanders in that situation become vital; I would probably adopt something from FoG and say that commanders not attached to a particular unit would be able to rally units that had failed a morale check.

    But I want to keep things very simple, and essentially turn mass combat into a large-scale melee combat. Try to keep the special rules to a minimum, but perhaps emphasize some of the rules that are already there, but largely ignored.

  7. Joseph: Oh, certainly! My perpetual theoretical doubts about things are why I spend so much of my time doing exactly that!

    I'm going to wander away though and have a think about it. You never know, I might come up with something interesting! Will let you know.

  8. As I said over at Zak's place, the Book of Battle for Pendragon 5 hit the nail on the head. However, it depends on what you want in your system. From the Pendragon system's point of view 1 (extremely experienced) person against 100 is ridiculous and would be a slaughter. So your example of one 10th level fighter taking on 100 orcs isn't going to work in the Book of Battle system.


  9. Eric: I'm not familiar enough with the math of Pendragon single combat to know the answer to this question. Just using the normal combat system, is it possible for a knight to get to a level of fighting prowess where he could conceivably take on such a large group of low-level enemies? In AD&D it's certainly possible (although the math, as I showed in that link, favors the orcs).

  10. I'd have to see your system in practice to get a better idea for it. One thing that popped in my head for this thread was if you were writing a supplement for mass combat, as opposed to integrating it into a rulebook directly, was to take a page out of 93 Games Studio's playbook (The guys who remade Twilight 2000). The rules as written are Stage II. They include sidebar notes to either reduce the complexity to Stage I or ad crunchy bits to make it Stage III for the wargamey grognards who loved the original Twilight 2000. The systems are all fundamentally the same, with different levels of speed and detail.

    Think Level I as Red Box D&D, II as AD&D, and III as Role Master.

  11. I think they used that idea in the book "quintessential fighter" for 3rd ed by mongoose. Maybe you could check that for ideas.

  12. It sounds like the approach taken by Battle System, but I am somewhat confused by what you are suggesting. Presumably we are not talking about taking a company of 100 dwarves, giving them 100 HD, 500 HP, and 100 Attacks (or 1,000 if everything is being done in turns), so the logistical problems are not changed by this [i.e. we still have to come up with a way to reduce many dice to few dice, such as by treating 10 dwarves as 1 dwarf, or whatever].

  13. @Joseph,

    No. It is not feasible for even a knight like Lancelot, reputedly the greatest knight in all Christendom, to take on 100 opponents at once.

    The Pendragon system is more about simulating combat closer to our mundane world (actually, the world of King Arthur legends.) In the literature, great knights take on many foes; but, usually no more than three at once. Even then, the great knights can usually just stay alive on the defensive when being triple-teamed. Its a very different approach than the swords & sorcery roots of D&D.

  14. There are some issues to be dealt with when it comes to mixed units — that is, units consisting of both PCs (or NPC heroes) and mooks. Do the heroes automatically gravitate to each other to slug it out, or do they each chainsaw their way through the opposing mooks? How does the presence of a heroic character or NPC affect unit morale? If a hero is fighting in the front rank, you might have to increase the unit's average damage, while if the unit is being driven from the rear they might be unable to run away as easily when being massacred.

    Then there's the issue of magic. A lightning bolt and fireball might do identical damage in d6, but they'll have very different effects on unit cohesion.

    The "unit as one big monster" is easy, but I think there are quite a few battlefield situations and issues that it won't deal with smoothly.

  15. I like the idea of making each unit, effectivly, a character/monster (stat wise). The Star Wars Saga edition did the same with space ships. Making each ship an individual effectivly.

    Following that model, how about making Player Characters/Leaders "Magic Items" then for the "character'eques" units. They add a +1 to Dmg, or +2 to ranged shots. Or a Fireball ability, so on and soforth.

    Basically they become addons, special gear for the unit. It's simple and follows the same model your already running on.

    I haven't thought it through very far, and I'm sure there would be lots of play balancing, but it stikes me as a simple/clean solution for integrating special characters onto the field of battle.

    On a Side note. I really like the Field of Glory rules as well. Have you come across any rules for adding elements of Magic to the rules? Maybe my Google-Fu is weak, but I haven't seen anything online yet by the fan community.

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