In Which We Attempt Mass Combat with Charisma

I think mass combat is one of those things everybody tries eventually. Large armies clashing, siege engines firing, monsters rampaging through ranks of soldiers, it all feels right in the context of medieval fantasy. But mass combat is also a huge pain. A hundred soldiers making a hundred attack rolls and forty damage rolls is a massive time sink, not to mention figuring out movement, damage, areas of effect, and the like. Plenty of attempts have come and gone trying to make armies viable, and none has been good enough to convince players it’s the best way to do it. Or, arguably, a good way to do it at all.

I’ve mostly avoided mass combat in my campaigns, treating pitched battles as a backdrop to a small-scale encounter where the party individually matters. But my DMs over the years have offered a few solutions. One designed his own system, full of math. Units had hit points that represented their soldiers, and they did proportionally less damage as soldiers died. Attack rolls compared to defense on a sliding scale, because when two armies meet it’s incredibly unlikely that nobody dies, and movement was strongly limited by facing and turning speeds. Unsurprisingly, we did this all via gaming software that ran the numbers for us; if you’ve ever had a player who can’t seem to add thirteen to eighteen quickly, you can imagine asking the same player to roll damage, cut it by a third because they missed AC but hit AC minus 4, and multiply that by 43% because the unit is heavily injured. It was pretty heavy.

I had another DM who wanted to run mass combats with an honest-to-goodness game of Warhammer. That never made it off the ground, not least because the players had no interest in learning a whole other system.

Regardless of these tales of caution, I’ve wanted to run a mass combat since I first learned Dynasty Warriors was a thing. The Hyrule campaign made it to a point where such a battle was appropriate, and Hyrule Warriors had brought the setting and style together, so I bit the bullet and set to work on my own mass combat system. From the beginning I had a few principles in mind:

  • It had to be simple. This was one battle, one session, in a two-year campaign. The less cognitive load it required, the better.
  • It had to be fast. An hour-long turn was unacceptable.
  • It had to let players matter. One character had to be as strong as an entire unit of enemies, not just because that’s awesome but because that’s how Hyrule Warriors works.
  • It had to give us room to describe things in the hilarious manner we were going to use anyway. The rules themselves couldn’t be more important than our narration.

I ended up with this:

Each group of units was represented by one mini with one set of stats. Hit points and damage were kept low; the highest damage was 3 and the highest hit point total was 14. Defenses ranged from 26 to 32, attack bonuses from +17 to +21. Everything was tightly constrained to keep it out of a situation where one unit rolls over another, mostly because the players couldn’t know if they were losing a rock-paper-scissors battle until they engaged an enemy, and losing two units at the beginning of an engagement is a pretty negative play experience.

Speaking of which, each player got to control themselves (a single unit with especially high hit points) and various friendly units. The intention was that players would always have something to do; they acted on their turn, and the spearguard’s turn, and the skirmisher’s turn, etc. We intentionally staggered friendly and enemy initiatives so nobody would take several turns in a row. Players could not use their normal powers but I tried to build some of their moves into their personal units.

Each unit got one action per turn, because I thought double-moving would make the map feel trivially small and I especially did not want to say “don’t forget, you still have another action” eleven times every round like I do in normal combat. There were no attacks of opportunity or off-turn actions of any kind. The only way to do two things at once was to charge, which still got the attack bonus because it made sense to me and we’d already internalized that rule.

That’s it for the core system. There were other interesting bits, like navigating terrain, searching for allies, and performing minor quests, but the fundamentals of the session fit on an index card. It was rules-light and abstract so we could fill in the gaps with narration. I thought I had hit all of the points I wanted, and once I explained the rules to the players I’d finally be able to run a set piece I’d been wanted to do for years.

It was kinda meh.

My players really, really didn’t like only taking one action per turn, and several rounds after they expressed this opinion they found a justification: charging was the only action worth doing. It allowed you to move and attack, it gave you a +1 to the attack, it increased the damage for certain units, and it never provoked attacks of opportunity so it made sense even in pitched melee. Since units had no action options besides moving and attacking (intentionally, to keep things simple), maximizing attack efficiency became the point, and charging was objectively the most efficient thing. If I let them take two actions, and thus double-move, they might have seen any advantage to leaving enemies and exploring the map instead of headbutting them for several rounds in a row. As it was, we only got to half of the map and a third of the side quests I had planned, so limiting their actions took a lot of the fun out of my end.

I also put too many units on the board. I expected the player to fan out and try doing several things at once because they had the manpower to do it, but they lumped in tight groups and largely steamrolled the enemies they outnumbered two to one. So I added reinforcements to shore up parts of the map and press the attack, and that’s when the party split up, which suddenly put them at the two-to-one disadvantage. I should have given the players fewer units but more opportunities to rescue or gain allies, letting them shed units to defend as they progressed and keeping the same active headcount, and had my units hang back on defense instead of swarming to stage an attack in the smallest place physically possible.

One player said the game needed more randomness, because with static damage certain actions become mathematically weaker than others. I’m not fully sold on it. Rolling for damage means more time per turn in an already long game, but I can understand the argument.

But besides those points the session wasn’t actually all that bad. Turns were fast; we just had a lot of them. The scary enemies were scary, the players got to do what they do, and the mundane units had both moments of great heroism and moment of hilarious failure. The terrain in the half of the map we did use was relevant. We didn’t have to go over the rules several times over the course of the night. The system hit every point I wanted and the session did what it needed to do in the context of the story. It just didn’t do either as well as I would have liked.

My players have since assured me that they were not as miserable as I thought they were. I’m not sure how much of that is my tendency to read the table as less happy than it actually is, or their tendency to remember good things better than bad, or something else. I’ll have to look at it a while longer and decide if this is something worth salvaging.

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