Tag Archives: battle

One of These Things is not Like the Other (or Differentiating Horde Enemies)

The party is under attack! Orcs, or goblins, or hobgoblins, or skeletons, or zombies, or any other permutation of horde-style enemies are surrounding the party, or defending their lair, or…you get the point.

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These encounters pop up many times in most campaigns, sometimes as major set-piece battles, sometimes as random encounters, or even just to give the players a dose of combat to break up some long periods of roleplaying and exploration. While these battles can be fun, they run the risk of being bland in terms of the enemy types players face, particularly if the Dungeon Master or GM only has access to a basic bestiary like the Monster Manual and not advanced books with more diverse enemy types. Perhaps even those advanced books don’t have enough differentiated enemy types. For example, while there are eight different flavors of Orc across three different rulebooks, there are only five types of Hobgoblins you can throw at your players, and two of them (Warlord and Captain), are essentially the same, with the Warlord just having three times as many hit points and a higher AC. Even worse, there are only two types of Goblins! Such narrow options can not only bore your players, it also can rob them of that element of uncertainty when facing interesting monsters; they will get so accustomed to what these creatures’ abilities are that it can lead to even more boring encounters since they know exactly what to do. Today’s post will be an overview on how to homebrew some interesting and simple variations on enemies to bring more variety to your encounters and keep your players on your toes.

The first and simplest way to do modify enemies is to change up their equipment. In the D&D basic rules, an Orc wears hide armor and carries a greatsword and javelin. In my homebrew game, Orcs are more akin to Lord of the Rings Orcs than to D&D Orcs, and I use LOTR wargame miniatures on the tabletop. Those orcs wear mostly chain and half-plate armor, and are armed with a great variety of weapons: swords and shields, two-handed axes, spears, and bows. Since I try to adhere to the principle of WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get, essentially meaning, for example, if a miniature has a shield and half-plate, his stats will reflect that added AC; I want my players to be able to look at the mins on the battlefield and make their decisions off of the information they glean from it, as their characters would be able to), when I throw 40 Orcs on the battlefield for  a major set-piece battle, most of those Orcs have different stats based on the equipment they have. Already, we have broken our basic Orc into at least four different varieties. It requires a bit more bookkeeping since you need to have the stats for the different weapons at hand, but it does make things more interesting for both you and your players. If you are going to change up weapons and equipment, however, I would highly recommend having appropriate miniatures so that the players (and you) can easily tell the difference. It is way easier to glance over and see that a mini has a shield and add +2 to its AC rather than trying to think, “Hmm, wait, was that the guy with a shield or was it this one over here?”

The second way to add some variety is to add some enemies that I will refer to as Specialists. These are enemies that are tougher than your average minion, but not yet tough enough to be something like a leader or miniboss. In D&D terms, they would probably sit around CR1, possibly 2 depending on the level of your party and the encounter, and in something like Star Wars RPG or Gensys they would be Rivals as opposed to Minions, or even just Minions with a higher Wound Threshold. Specialists are simple twists on basic enemies, having a single special ability or schtick that sets them apart and gives them a more defined purpose on the battlefield. In a science fiction or modern RPG, an easy Specialist could be a machinegunner; increase the hit points or armor to make him more survivable and give him an appropriate weapon that can spit out a high volume of shots or target multiple enemies. The key, though, is to give them a special ability. For our machinegunner, we can give him an ability that if he targets an enemy with his weapon on his turn, that enemy gets some sort of debuff as they go scrambling for cover. In Star Wars, this can be represented by adding a black die to that character’s next check, and in a D20 system it could be a -2 to their next check or even Disadvantage. In any system, you can have a Spotter, who uses their action to grant a buff to all allies who target a specific enemy; in D&D you could even make this an enemy cleric who is able to cast Guiding Bolt every turn, though that is the only spell they know. A good option is to create some sort of defensive specialist, who buffs their allies’ Armor Class or Defense, or even can provide some sort of cover for them to hide behind, making it harder to kill the enemies. Feel free to invent new spells and abilities, such as a Concentration spell that enables a Wizard to add +1 to the AC of three different creatures other than itself, for example.

The important thing to remember when creating Specialists is to create them with a very specific role in mind, and make them fit solely within that role. A damage-dealing Specialist like a machinegunner should be attacking every turn and doing nothing else; perhaps even make them a turret character, who can’t attack or gets disadvantages to attacking when they move. A support Specialist like our spotter or a defensive Specialist like our AC-buffing Wizard should not be able to do much damage, and should rarely be attacking anyways. Perhaps they only attack in self defense, when an enemy is directly threatening them. But again, these are supposed to be only one step up from your average enemy, not a full miniboss.

The third way to add variety to your combat encounters with many similar enemies is to create new abilities to add to some or all of your enemies. This is the most complex and requires the most work on the part of the DM/GM, but can really spice up encounters. I recommend, in particular, creating abilities which synergize with each other. You can even combine the above Specialists with these new abilities and create some really interesting combos which force the players to sit up and pay attention. Let’s take the Spotter from above, for example, make him an Orc, and let’s say his ability is to fire a flaming marking arrow which adds +5 to all attack rolls against the target until his next turn. Now let’s give a third of our Orcs compound bows (count as longbows, but longbows don’t seem very Orcish), changing up the weaponry they’re carrying. Finally, let’s give all of our bow-wielding Orcs a new ability: when firing at an enemy marked by the Spotter, add an extra D4 piercing damage to their damage if they hit. Notice that the extra damage only applies to bow-wielding Orcs, not all Orcs, so we are further differentiating our enemies and how they interact with some of the special abilities.

If you want an ability to apply to all of your enemies, ensure that it will change how the players approach the encounter in a fundamental way once you reveal it. Following the Orc example, half-Orcs get an ability where, once per long rest, when they drop to 0 HP, they can drop to 1 instead. This is obviously supposed to be because of their Orcish heritage, but Orcs have no such ability. Why not give this ability to Orcs as well, to surprise your players the next time they face a group of Orcs and think they know exactly how things will go. Maybe make it even nastier; when they pop back up with 1 HP, they go into a bloodthirsty rage where they get advantage on all attacks until they are killed.

By doing a little prep work and having the appropriate miniatures or representations, you can take what might be a tedious encounter and turn it into one your players will remember, and keep them on their toes for future combats you might run. Some players love to read the Monster Manual or other such books to try to brush up on enemies they will face, and this is a good way to discourage that sort of metagaming, even if it is mostly harmless. It can bring a sense of mystery and slight trepidation to each combat encounter, making your players guess, “what is going to be going on with these enemies today?”

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As always, good luck and happy gaming!

War by Other Means (or War, Part 4)

The military strategist and theorist Carl von Clausewitz said, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Certainly, war is what nations resort to to achieve their diplomatic and political aims when peaceful methods have failed. I think it is interesting, though, to look at the reverse and how it applies once war has already started: that politics, diplomacy, trade, and subterfuge can all be considered ways to wage war by other means. Last post, Tactics vs Strategy (or War, Part 3), we discussed the reasons nations will fight wars and how that interacts with how they prosecute those wars at the strategic, operational, and tactical level. We also discussed how to use those things to get your players involved in the war and make them feel like what they are doing is making a difference.

But what if your players are not soldiers, or military leaders, and they have no interest in waging war on the battlefields. They may still want to participate in the war, helping their side, but may feel uncomfortable or out of place with big military moments and the chaos and blood of a warzone. That is no reason to refrain from introducing war into your campaign; instead, I say it is an opportunity to show your players a different side of war, and let them have major impacts in very different ways.

The concept of “total war,” where an entire country is mobilized as a part of the war effort and there are no holds barred in the prosecution of targets, is a relatively modern concept, yet that does not mean that states waged war solely on the battlefields, even going as far back as Ancient times. Once a nation has engaged in warfare, it is in their best interest to apply all of the tools they have available to them as a state to achieving whatever strategic goals they have set forth. Three of the main tools which a nation can use in warfare, away from the battlefield, are broadly trade, diplomacy, and subterfuge.

Trade is often the lifeblood of many nations, particularly in medieval fantasy settings. There is very little chance that a nation has all of the natural resources and goods it needs in order to survive, let alone all of the goods that its citizens want in order to enjoy their lives. Metals and ores for weapons, wood for ships and siege engines, spices, sugar, silks, all of these things were historically-traded commodities and it is likely that there is some sort of interplay between nations for these goods in your setting. An island nation who relies on a strong navy needs timber, which they most likely lack in sufficient quantity to build and maintain their ships, so they must trade for it in order to survive; they could send fish to a mostly-landlocked country in exchange. A country of steppe-dwelling horsemen has need of good metal to forge their weapons, but they have no areas to mine metal, nor even the ability to do so, so they trade for it, perhaps sending livestock to a mountainous country which has an abundance of ores but little land for growing crops or maintaining flocks. This works in science fiction equally well, as it is easy to have planets have exotic or unique resources that enable specific technologies, forcing planets to trade for it. Trade can even become central to a nation’s identity, being the main source of its income and allowing them to spread their influence around the world, as Britain did in the 18th century.

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How does this factor into war? When two nations clash, it is easy to get wrapped up in the maneuvers of armies and navies and the battles they fight, but war is expensive business. As many wars have been ended because one side or both sides ran out of money as have been ended by decisive battles. Nations need to be able to fund their military ventures, since soldiers require more food due to their activity than normal, plus spending on things like transportation, ammunition, and repairs can add up quickly. Given the importance of money to the continued waging of war, many nations will choose to target the enemy economy as a way of limiting their opponent’s options or even trying to force them to sue for peace early. Attacking trade is a timeless strategy, and one which provides ample opportunities for quests for your players. Attacking trade convoys, whether on land, on sea, or in space, enables the players to still participate in combat and fight interesting battles with varied objectives (destroy cargo, steal cargo, swap cargo with other cargo), without forcing them onto a battlefield with all of the scale and chaos that battlefields bring. It also can present the players with difficult decisions, as, depending on your characterization, the caravan or convoy may simply be full of civilian merchants with some hired guards who are only trying to make a living, and the available job was to transport the goods for the enemy country; do the players kill them? Do they even go through with destroying or stealing the goods if they find this information out? Convoy raiding may also appeal to players motivated by money, as it is a surefire way to earn coin, both from being paid by the nation that hired them, as well as reaping rewards from the plundered convoy.

One particularly fun way to institute trade raiding is by making your players privateers. Privateers were private citizens of a country who received a “letter of marque” from the government, enabling them to essentially conduct piracy in the name of their country and their country’s ruler, as long as the ships were of a certain country. I did this in the Edge of the Empire game I ran, with the Empire giving the party a letter of marque to attack the ships of another group. Letters of marque normally entitle the bearer to keep any goods aboard the ships they attack and even be paid for ships they bring back to friendly ports. If you are running a sci fi or a nautical campaign, or want to put your players to sea, privateering in a war can be a fun campaign arc. Privateering can also assuage any moral qualms players may have who think being a pirate may be fun, but immoral; since the piracy is sanctioned and only against certain targets who are enemies in a war, players should easily be able to get behind it, regardless of alignment. A lawful good character may even see it as being in line with his or her ideals! Also, letters of marque can be awesome prop pieces to hand out to your players, as I did in my EOTE game; an example of one is below.

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It is logical to think that diplomacy takes a pause when war breaks out, but that simply isn’t true. Nations were often more active in diplomacy during war than before or after war, and for good reason. Right off the bat, the concept of “recalling ambassadors” is mainly for show, since countries would usually continue to send representatives either to each others’ capitals or to neutral meeting locations throughout the conduct of the war to discuss where their respective governments were at in terms of desire for peace and what they wanted out of any peace. Additionally, nations would utilize their ambassadors to other nations to actively attempt to alter the scales of war, usually through three ways. The first was to try to convince another nation to join the war on their side. The second was to try to convince another nation who was not currently in the war to stay out of the war, usually if it seemed like that nation was being courted by the enemy to join. The third was, if there was an alliance of enemy nations, to try to convince one of those nations to drop out of the war or even switch sides.

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Diplomatic missions can offer an interesting and fun change of pace for players, especially if they are usually involved in physical combat. It also enables players who are less combat-inclined, or players who enjoy complex roleplaying encounters, to take the lead and shine, and really enjoy themselves. Diplomatic quest arcs can be rife with intrigue, competing factions within a government that players can play against each other, and danger no less real than that of a battlefield, but with a separate set of guidelines and customs that must be observed given the status of their mission. They can be intense and stressful (in a good way!), even if there is never a risk of anyone losing a single hit point. If you send your players on a diplomatic mission in a war, I encourage you to make the encounters with the diplomats or politicians of the other nation just as in-depth as any combat encounter. Some systems even have full rules for “social combat,” such as Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars Roleplaying and Legend of the Five Rings systems, and I encourage you to check them out even if you are running a different system. Diplomatic missions will often have huge implications for the war overall; bringing a new nation into the war, with all of their military and economic resources, or causing a nation to drop out of the war and thus removing their military and resources from the enemy, can be a turning point. If your players succeed, they will see how massive an impact their mission has had on the war, and the success of their mission might even cause the enemy to reevaluate their position enough to sue for peace. For players who may not feel inclined to use violence to solve their issues, but still want to defend their nation or help in the war effort, diplomatic missions can be high-stakes, high-pressure encounters with fantastic roleplaying.

Subterfuge is a broad name for the activities a nation will use to secretly undermine its enemies’ abilities to continue to fight the war. Subterfuge missions are likely to feel familiar to most player groups since they will mostly involve sneaking around and trying not to get caught by guards. Subterfuge missions can run the gamut of all sorts of different quests for the players, some involving combat and others not, if the players get things right. Nations were not above doing nefarious things to try to throw an enemy off-balance, even if others would see it as reprehensible if they found out.

The classic example of a subterfuge quest is an assassination: the players’ nation gives them a mission to sneak into an enemy camp and kill an enemy general on the night before the battle. Or, the players must sneak into the enemy capital and try to kill the enemy king to throw the country into chaos and hopefully end the war.  Another is sabotage, and this can include many different types of goals the players must accomplish without being detected, or eliminating anyone who does. Players can be given a mission to sneak into an enemy base and upload a virus onto their computer system, paralyzing their ability to use their technology to its utmost capability. Or, they can be tasked to sneak into an enemy fort and poison the well, depriving the enemy a clean water source and forcing the defenders to give up. The players might have to rig a bridge to explode, either with enemy troops on it or even just to deny the enemy the ability to cross a river or chasm and thus forcing them to go in a different direction.

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A more complicated example of subterfuge that could easily turn into a long campaign arc is fomenting unrest in enemy lands. Throughout history, this was a common tactic employed by nations during war. Unless your nation is a utopia (and therefore unrealistic), there exists within its borders some sort of group that feels disenfranchised or unhappy with the current leadership. Normally, any sort of attempt by these people to break away or rise up in rebellion is doomed to failure without support, and nations were loathe to support rebellions in other nations during peacetime for fear that others would do the same to them in retaliation. In war, all bets were off. The players could be sent to another nation to make contact with this disenfranchised group, find out their goals and motivations, and then help get them to a position where they can strike a blow at the enemy, such as training them, helping them organize, and getting weapons and materiel. Once the rebels can fight, their attacks draw off forces, attention, and resources from the enemy nation, who must about-face and deal with a threat within their own borders. A great series of historical examples of this are the French-funded and supported Jacobite uprisings in 17th and 18th-century Britain, where France, at war with Britain many times, funded, armed, and sent troops to support Catholic supporters of alternative (and Catholic) claimants to the Protestant British throne. While unsuccessful, they did divert attention and resources of the British back to their home isles, rather than the continent. In our Age of Rebellion game, we have done many missions and campaign arcs like this, as it is one of the ways the Rebel Alliance is able to grow and continue to fight the Empire.

As you can hopefully see, there are many ways to get and keep your players involved in the juggernaut that is a major war affecting their homes without them necessarily needing to fight on the battlefield. Depending on group and player makeup, there is a quest or campaign arc to make everyone happy, and with high stakes which make the players feel like their actions are really having an impact on the world at large.

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Tactics vs Strategy (or War, Part 3)

In 1758, at the height of the Seven Years War, the British prepared to launch yet another expedition to attempt to capture or destroy the significant French forts in the Ohio territory. The primary objective was Fort Duquesne, built at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers; the Fort’s location essentially allowed its owner to control nearly all movement, trade, and settlement in the Ohio country, and controlling the Ohio country was a major British objective and one of the primary causus belli. Previous expeditions had all failed, despite the British being victorious in some battles and them losing some which were not disastrous defeats; a common theme in these failed expeditions was British commanders’ frustration with the slow pace of their army’s movement and the subsequent decisions to leave baggage and artillery behind and continue ahead with the infantry.  The French and allied Native Americans would then ambush these isolated infantry and, the British cut off from their artillery and supply trains, could not remain pushing forward. Travel overland through the thick Ohio country was difficult, but leaving supplies and heavy guns behind would always lead to inevitable failure in terrain owned by the enemy. So, in 1758, General John Forbes set off with his expedition. He made the decision to move deliberately, slowly, with pioneers cutting a new road through the forests and over the Allegheny Mountains. At periodic intervals, he stopped and built fortified stockades and supply depots which he could store more supplies at and have a fall-back point to defend if things turned poor for his troops. It took months, and many of his junior officers and some of his superiors were frustrated with the slow progress. At many points along the way, the British infantry were ambushed by French and Native forces, as they had been in previous expeditions, but this time, the British troops could fall back to the safety of their heavy guns or the new forts, and resupply and receive medical attention.

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During Forbes’ expedition, he lost every battle he fought, yet he did not change course. He continued his methodical advance. With fall-back points, artillery, and his supply train always close by, Forbes could continue to advance. The French and their Native allies had no answer for this slow-moving juggernaut, for as long as the British had their supply lines open and protected, the French could not stop them. Forbes continued his advance, and the French were forced to systematically destroy each one of the forts in the Ohio valley as the British neared each one in turn. On November 24, 1758, as the British neared within about five miles, the French commander of Fort Dusquesne evacuated his troops and set fire to the fort. The British occupied the smoking remains the next day and began construction on their own fort, Fort Pitt, present day Pittsburgh. General Forbes had lost every tactical encounter with the French, and achieved his strategic objective.

I use that story often in my profession as an Army officer to illustrate the separation between tactics and strategy, and the nebulous middle ground known as “operations.” In simple terms, tactics are the application of maneuver and combat power against an enemy at a set place and time to achieve local success or victory; tactics deals strictly with military units. Strategy, on the other hand, is the plan by which a nation strives to achieve victory over an enemy nation, and encompasses all assets at that nation’s disposal to achieve it; there may be several strategic “objectives” that the nation sets forth in order to bring about their enemy’s defeat. Operations are groupings of many tactical actions which are linked to achieving or helping to achieve a specific strategic objective. If commanders at different levels do not fully understand or communicate the objectives of whatever they are setting out on are, or do not act in accordance with the higher objective, tactical success can be meaningless; “winning the battle, but losing the war.” At the tactical level, the French dominated the British in the Ohio Country during the Seven Years War. They were strategically defeated there. In a more recent example, American forces dominated North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong forces tactically during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968; the NVA was virtually destroyed as an entity and could not mount major combat operations for years afterwards. However, the Tet Offensive was a public relations disaster for the United States government, who had been assuring the world that the war was well in hand. Despite the overwhelming victory American troops had achieved on the battlefield, the Tet Offensive was a strategic victory for the Vietnamese Communists, who stirred so much unrest in the United States that the US would never be able to recover in their conduct of the war; Tet was the beginning of the end of the US war effort in Vietnam.

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I know you didn’t come here for a history lesson, but if you plan on incorporating war into your campaigns, I believe it is important that you, as a GM or DM, understand the way countries and their armies intend to wage that war. While battles are exciting (as we discussed in Part 2, the next step up is to make sure that the effect of these battles is tied to something in the overall war effort. Battles occur when two armies come together on a battlefield. It’s your job to decide why those two armies came together. What did each country send those armies to do? How does each army fit into its country’s strategic objectives? What are those strategic objectives?

The first thing you should figure out is the strategy of each nation involved in the war. Why did these two countries go to war in the first place? Was it a border or territorial dispute? A trade dispute? A diplomatic insult? Decide the reason for war first, and that may help you determine the strategic goals, but they do not need to be inexorably tied; a causus belli can simply be the way to start a war, with goals that far outweigh the initial offense or objective.  Since I introduced the Seven Years War with my anecdote about John Forbes’ expedition, I will continue with that example. The Seven Years War started as a territorial dispute over the Ohio Country between France and Great Britain. However, William Pitt, the British Prime Minister, made British strategy the complete humiliation and weakening of France, particularly through taking away France’s colonial empire.

Once you figure out the strategy of the nations, decide if there are any sub-tasks that would need to be accomplished to achieve this. There does not have to be, but there may be. For example, since France had overseas colonies in many locations, Britain had many strategic objectives: control the Ohio country, control the Saint Lawrence River and thereby French Canada, control French trading cities and outposts in India, control French trading outposts in Africa. If there are several strategic-level objectives, they can start to inform and determine where the nation will allocate its resources. Some may require more troops than others. Some may require a different approach entirely. For today, to keep things manageable, we will focus only on military assets, though trade, diplomacy, and subterfuge are all additional assets at a nation’s disposal in warfare.

If strategic objectives are identified, you can then have nations send armies on campaigns. These are operational-level maneuvers with a specific strategic goal in mind that they are trying to accomplish. General Forbes’ expedition to capture Fort Dusquesne would grant the British virtual control over the entire Ohio country, achieving a strategic objective. General Amherst led another army in a separate series of campaigns over several years to the north along the Saint Lawrence River which resulted in the capture of Montreal, solidifying British control over the River, and thereby French Canada, and achieving another strategic objective. British troops made amphibious assaults in Africa, capturing Senegal, Goiree, and Gambia from the French. And in India, yet another army under Sir Eyre Coote captured Wandiwash, Pondicherry, Karikal, and Mahe, eliminating French power on the subcontinent. These were all separate armies, with separate commanders, pursuing different strategic objectives. Yet they were all tied to the overall strategic goal of eliminating France’s colonial empire and humiliating them.

Once an army sets out on campaigns, the battles it fights should then be in service to achieving that campaign’s strategic goals. A good commander would not fight the enemy merely for the sake of fighting; he or she would only fight if the battle would further the objective. That is not always going to be the case, but armies, especially in pre-modern settings, are slow and ponderous things to maneuver, and battles were rarer than we probably think. Generals spent a long time maneuvering their armies around the countryside, trying to get them into an advantageous position where they could achieve their objective. When a battle is fought, it should have a purpose for each side, even if that purpose for one side is simply the preservation of the army. The French forced battle on General Forbes many times, to try to force him to withdraw from Ohio and preserve their control; Forbes’s only goal was to preserve his army long enough to reach Dusquesne, and so he conducted his campaign and his battles mostly defensively.

If you are able to have the battles that your players participate in on the tabletop link back to higher-level objectives at the national level, and communicate those effects to them, they will not only understand better what they are fighting for, they will also be more immersed in your world, in the war you’ve introduced, and may even want to get involved in helping to shape the goals and direction of the war.

As always, good luck with your campaigns.

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!