Your Players in Battles (or War, Part 2)

Ezra Taft Benson said, “Great battles can make great heroes and heroines.” In roleplaying games, where we all strive to either be or have our players be great heroines and heroes, battles offer us a chance to do so in a very classic sense. Battles, large battles, not just small skirmishes in a dungeon raid against a handful of monsters, but true battles, with dozens or hundreds or thousands of troops on each side fighting for great stakes, create scenarios for players to explore right out of an epic novel, TV series, movie, or even history.
Welcome to Part 2 of my series on adding War into your roleplaying campaign. Today, I’ll be delving into the individual battles of your war, specifically how to integrate your players in large battles in such a way that neither the scope of the battle nor your character’s feelings of being heroes are lost. While I discussed several topics last time that focused on war’s general effects on your campaign world whether or not characters are getting involved in the war, this post will assume your characters are involved in enough of a sense that they will end up on a battlefield, fighting for one of the sides engaged in the struggle. A second assumption is that this battle is larger than normal combat in your campaign, enough so that all of the participants may not feasibly fit on the table if you were using miniatures. The battles we are discussing are between armies, or fleets, with hundreds or thousands of participants. With those two things in mind, let’s jump in to battles.
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The first thing I’d recommend, and I cannot stress this highly enough as a GM or DM, is to find a good Mass Combat system that works quickly, smoothly, and integrates with your game’s system. One of the big reason people avoid large battles in RPGs is because of the large number of participants, which can feel overwhelming for a GM, even if they are grouped into units. There are plenty of Mass Combat rules out there, or you may want to homebrew your own, but ensure that they can be run quickly, smoothly, and within the same mechanical framework of whatever system you are running. Rules being quick means that the number of dice rolls required to resolve combat between two units or two armies is kept to a minimum, perhaps one or two rolls for each (like a to-hit and a casualty roll, or something similar). Rules being smooth means that the flash-to-bang from rolling dice to being able to narratively describe what has just happened in the combat is, again, kept to a minimum. Having to reference multiple different charts to determine the exact number of casualties taken, complicated strength-versus-wound tables, and the like are straying into the land of wargaming (which we will discuss shortly), and, just like any extensive rules checking, detract from immersion. The rules should enable you to roll the dice, describe the result, and move on to what really matters: the players’ actions. Finally, rules being able to integrate with your game’s system means that the rules operate along the same lines as resolving other checks in the system. If you are running a D20 system, rolls for units to hit and to wound each other should utilize a D20. If you are running Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars or Genesys RPGs, their mass combat system is simply another check utilizing the same dice you use for everything else, with upgrades and downgrades for different things and different sized units which match what the players expect from that system. Don’t make your players learn a completely different set of rules for something which is, at the end of the day, a sideshow.
Once you have a set of Mass Combat rules that you like and are comfortable with, consider who will be performing these Mass Combat checks during the game. There are lots of GMs and DMs out there who came from a wargaming background or wargame as another hobby, as do I. We enjoy pushing entire units of soldiers around on the battlefield, rolling dice, and seeing what happens. However, we are not playing a wargame here; we are roleplaying, and not everyone wants to wargame. Talk to your players either before the game or right when combat pops up and ask them if they’d like to control any of the units in the fight. Have small index cards or notes ready with stats for units if they’d like to control them, that you can easily hand out and the players can easily understand. In my experience, many players do actually enjoy participating in Mass Combat by moving units around, even if just because it’s another thing to do, but do not pressure anyone into participating if they don’t want to. Some players will just be content to sit back and enjoy the show. That’s fine because, again, this is not a wargame, and the Mass Combat checks should not be the central aspect of what is occurring. When the Mass Combat rolls occur, describe the actions as impressively as you like, but do not allow the game to get bogged down in that portion of each turn; bring the focus back quickly to what they are doing.
So what are the players doing? That is the third thing you should consider when planning for a battle. Most roleplaying games are designed for “small-unit actions,” in the parlance of war, combat between small groups of heroes and enemies in relatively close quarters. While you need not exclusively stick to this, it is an important thing to remember when thinking about what task to point your players towards. Battles in your roleplaying game should never just throw the players onto a battlefield with hundreds or thousands of participants and say, “fight!” The players should have an objective, whether they come up with it themselves or are given it by some higher commander. The players could want to seek out the enemy commander on the battlefield and slay him or her, reasoning that the death of the leader will demoralize the enemy and cause them to flee. You could structure the encounter as a linear combat with the players fighting through numerous weaker enemies and perhaps a lieutenant as they cut their way to the commander, ending with the fight against that boss, while the mass combat goes on around them. In a defensive battle, the players could be a quick reaction force, being dispatched or being forced to react to the weak points in the line to shore up defenses. If the players are defending a walled city, they could have to respond to breaches in the wall, ladders being thrown up, or a siege tower reaching the city and unloading troops. In an offensive battle, the players could be tasked with sneaking or dropping behind enemy lines and taking out some sort of high-value target, like artillery or air defenses, or capturing a bridge so a flanking force can outmaneuver the enemy. By focusing the players’ attention into a specific facet of the battle, while still having their action be an important part of the overall fight, you can achieve both making the battle feel particularly epic and having the players feel like their actions really made a difference.
Making the players’ actions matter is the last thing to consider when planning for battles. No matter what else is going on at the table, ensure that the battle is influenced by what the players and their characters are doing and accomplishing. Killing the enemy commander, capturing an enemy bridge, destroying enemy artillery, or plugging holes in the line should all provide boosts to friendly Mass Combat rolls, and you should make a point of noting that aloud to everyone every time one of these rolls takes place. “The enemy gets a -5 to this next roll because you all just killed the commander and they’re panicking.” Likewise, failing to achieve their objectives or taking a long time to do so should have clear negative consequences, as the battle will not wait for them. If the players have particular trouble in plugging the line on the defense and another breach opens up, for example, make a verbal note of it. “Friendly units get -3 to their roll as they now have to deal with another breach before the first one is sealed, and they’re stretched thin.” Showing the negative consequences can convey the desperation of a battle, increase the tension, and again, make the players feel like they are making a difference one way or another. Despite the fact that there is a battle raging around them, the players should still be the focal point.
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One final comment I will make about battles is that you may have a player whose character, either by background, build, or roleplaying, is some sort of officer or commander. That player may want to have more of a role in the Mass Combat portion of the battle as a commander giving orders and directing troops, reasoning that that is where their character is best suited, rather than the front lines (FFG’s Star Wars game has two subclasses which are strongly built around being a commander rather than a front line leader for example). In that case, I recommend allowing them to do so, and giving them a large amount of control over where units go and what they do, even if it means they do not participate in the “small unit action” the other players do. Players who build a leader-type character rarely have opportunities for such large control in line with their character, and battles are one of them. Allow the player the chance to do so, they will love it.
I hope this post is helpful for you in planning your battles, and good luck with your campaigns!

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