View Full Version : A dynamic resolution system for mass battles

2015-10-08, 11:34 AM
Large battle scenes are a staple in classic fantasy. But often they are not that easy to run for a GM. There are several methods to handle a mass battle in the context of a role playing game. Which method to use depends much on the PC's role in the battle and the players preferences.

A common method is to treat the battle as a backround and desinging an adventure using this backround. The player characters are confronted with situations and events suitable to the context of the battle. If they are expected to take an active part in the fighting, they can do so by predefined set pieces constructed very similar to usual combat encounters. If they are to affect the outcome of the battle, the encounter set pieces are constructed to represent important parts of the battle (like holding a bridge, taking out enemy artillery, assassinating leadership etc.).
This system can be expanded to provide multiple choices for the PCs to go, implementing some kind of "victory point" system and many other ideas.

This system is attractive because it provides the means to feature a large battle without actually modelling the battle with the game rules. Thus, it scales increddibly well.

Using this system is not without constrains, however:
- it works best if the PCs are not in leadership roles
- because the battle is in effect an adventure the GM needs to prepare for it; it is quite difficult to improvise a battle with this system
- the battle does not offer a different "gameplay" (if that's a detriment or not is, of course, a matter or preference)

On the other hand are methods that, somehow, try to model the battle using game rules. There are two extreme which follow the axis of abstract - concrete.

The abstract model would not bother itself with small tactical decisions, individual "units" or somesuch, but instead map factors like army strength and composition, leadership, terrain etc. to modifiers and resolve the battle with just a couple of die rolls.
This is a easy and fast system applicable to PCs of all roles. Battles like this can also be easily improvised.
The flippside is that it may not be satisfactory for the players (or the GM!) to resolve a battle like this for many reasons: it does not really support actual stratigic and tactical decisions, it doesn't allow for some special abilities (most likely spells) to shine, or its just to abstract for the liking of someone.
Savage Worlds falls pretty much on this end of the spectrum.

The concrete model would be to devise a full blown tabletop wargame from the systems rules. While it does allow for actual tactical decisions and provides a setting for indiviual abilties to shine there is nothing fast or easy about this approach. First you would need and actual usable system and then modle the battles participants in this system. How easy it is to improvise a battle would depend on how much works has been done beforehand.
There is also the question if the players (or the GM) are actually interested in wargaming or stratigic/tactical decisions.
Few roleplaying system provide such rules (for obvious reasons), but there are some. I know that AD&D had a fairly expansive Battlesystem (thats how it was called).

The system I want to describe in the following leans more towards the abstract side of things, while incorporating some ideas from the "narrative" approach I touched upon first. It relies on general themes and randomized events while accounting for player actions, and the GMs ability to forged all of the above into a coherent narrative. Its goals are, first and foremost, to create a satisfying battle experience.
The idea I'm pitching here is system agnostic, but the implementation needs to be tailored to the specific system. The context in which I divised this system is GURPS Fantasy but that shouldn't matter. So, lets delve right into it:

- the PCs do not have leadership roles or only a high as cohort level (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cohort_%28military_unit%29)
- the PCs do not necessarily act as a group. Its possible, but the system kind of assumes that each PC is on his/her own. But more on that later.
- there is no hard distinction between fluff and crunch. "Fluff", or rather "descriptive elements" can be (and the GM is encouraged to do so) interpreted in a "crunchy" way, and crunch event should be given descriptions by the players and the GM to form a narrative.
- the battle is fought between two opposing sides. The sides can be composed off many factions, of course.
- the PCs have, in some way or the other, abilities to affect the battle; the system focusses on the PCs actions and even up-plays their importance
- the PCs abilities are not on a superhuman level; for high-level D&D this may not be the ideal system. Maybe it can be modified to support such high powered charakters, but in the following I will assume that the PCs are not vastly more powerfull then everyone else

The battle is structured into turns. There is no set time interevall the turns are representing. They are just for structuring. Any time intervalls would depend on the context anyways.
Each army has a base strength which represents for the most part bulk and resilience. An armies strength acts as its hit points. An army reduced to strength < 1 is effectivly broken, unable to fight and win the battle anymore. How this translates into actual casualties depends on the context: maybe it means the army is cut down to the last man; or maybe it means the army has take 10% casualties and is now mass routing. It is important to note that an armies strength does not correlate directly into its ability to reduce the opposing army's strength. In this sense it is quite similar to D&D's hit points. There are effects of having a reduced strength in relation to your enemies strength coming in form of advantages.

Besides its strength, each army has another pool of points which I like to call advantages. The nature of advantages is very open but should focus on "one-time" effects. A small band of skirmishrs hiding in a wood does not improve an armys strength since they don't reall add to its bulk, but a well timed attack on the unsuspecting enemies flank can decisive, thus its and advantage. Outnumbering your opponent is also an advantage. Thus, if the strenghts of both armies reach certain ratios the army with the higher strength gets an advantage. Each point of advantage is mechanically indifferent but players and the GM are encouraged to note and remember where the advanteges come from and what the represent so their use can be incorporated into the narrative more easily. Now, how do you use an advantage? That figured into the next (and last) stat an army has and into the core resolution mechanic.

Battles are decided by a clash of leadership, that is by the resourceful use of ones resources to counteract and defeat the enemies resources. Thus each army has a leadership score which represents its leaders ability to use the army to defeat the opponent. Ideally this score should corelate to something from the game system. If your system has a "battle tactics" skill or something similar, you can use just that.

Each turn concludes in a such a contest of leadership. Again, this should be done in the same manner that checks are done in your game system. If possible, make it some form of "opposing check".
Interpreting the result of the check is somewhat open for debate since I have not used this battlesystem in practice yet. It depends on the game system you use and also on how escalating you want this check to be. Personally I would go for something simple: the loosing side of the check looses on point of army strength.
Before the rolls are made, each side declares, at the same time, if an advantage will be used. The process repeats until both sides decline to use an advantage. Maybe there should be some limit on how many advantages can be used per turn, I'm not sure.
Each point of advantage should provide some significant bonus. For GURPS 3d6 I would go for a +3 or even +4 bonus, for d20 I would use at least +5. But that is a question for the specific implementation and some testing. Also, I would incorperate some kind of method to reduce more then 1 point of the enemies strenght with the use of advantages. Maybe something like: "if the leadership check is successful even without the bonus provided by the advantage(s), reduce the enemies army strength by two instead of one".

Up until now, the system is not terribly different to other abstract battle systems, like the one used by Savage Worlds. It is the way how the players actions are incorporated into the battle that make my idea compelling (in my view, it least).

a. Pre-battle
The GM is encouraged to provide possibilities for the players to affect a future battle by their actions, maybe even up to the point if the battle actually happens or not. Now, this suggestion is not new at all and is true for pretty much all other battle systems. But I want to discuss how such possibilities translate into the system described so far.
First we should distinguish between long-term effect and short-term preperations.
Long-term effects are the consequences of the PCs actions earlier in the campaign, maybe even before they (or the GM) knew that there would be a battle. Example: Maybe the PCs save a rich noble sometimes earlier. Now he shows up to the battle with his household retinue, thus increasing the armies strength. Or maybe the PCs missed to destroy a number of enemy siege weapons, thus the enemy army can make use of the in the battle (providing one or more points to its initial pool of advantages).
Short-term preperations include everything that the PCs do in the wake of the battle to affect its outcome. The possibilities are endless and it could take entire sessions to play out the pre-battle preperations. I would encourage GMs to be open for ideas, but not to reward any half-backen idea with an advantage. But this is a point where each GM is on his/her own. You know your players best and how hard they want to be challange with such a scenario.

b. During battle
This is the big one. This chapter is divided into Player Actions, Events, Sequence and Using Advantage.

Player actions:
Each turn (recall the base structure) each player can perform one action. All actions are performed and resolved before the leadership check for the turn. The list of possible actions is not set in stone but personally I thought about the following:

-Fight: the PCs puts himself into a position where contact with the enemy is likely. It does not necessarily results in a melee or any danger at all, but it puts the PC at a high risk that something dangerous will happen to him/her. Fighting is also necessary to strike at Opportunities (see Scout). Without striking at opportunities, fighting by itself will likely not affect the battle at large (tieing into the base assumption that the PCs are not incredibly high-powered). So, if not for Opportunities, why fight then? Well, sometime you have to fight because you have to. Maybe the choices someone made prebattle require him/her to fight. Say one of the PCs is a beloved personality. Fighting side-by-side with the soldiers will certainly boost the morale. But for this to take effect the PCs actually has to put himself into the front line.

- Lead: while the PCs are not expected to have higher leadership roles, acting on unit-level is certainly possible and relevant enough to provide an advantage. This can be handled with a check in a relevant skill. If the result is "good enough" award 1 advantage for the side. This option assumes the PC leads from a relatively safe postion. Nothing is really safe on the battlefield, but it does not put the PC in the same danger the Fight action would.
This action can only be taken if the PC has something of a relevant strength to lead. Often it is clear from the start of the battle who can lead.

- Lead and fight: Combines Lead and Fight (duh'). Again, sometimes a PC has to fight even while leading. Some units may only accept a PCs leadership if he/she leads the charge, so to speak.

- Scout: Scouting can create Opportunities. This can be something like locating an enemy spellcaster or artillery. Any target that would provide an advantage if sucessfully attacked. In some cases scouting itself may provide an advantage (link finding an undefended flank) but doing so should be hard. Scouting should be resolve by referencing and using the PCs abilities. Of course, like with leading (and fighting, I guess), the PC actually need to have relevant abilities to successfully scout. Stealth, invisibility, divination magic, mind reading are all abilities that can help scouting. Scouting can be dangerous, especially if you are detected.
Scouting actions are resolved before other actions. PCs that have chosen the Fight action can then strike at opportunities that the scouting has opened.

- Lay low: you keep your head down. Doing so will prevent the PC from affecting the battle in this turn, but it does provide a relatively safe spot. Abilities and items to heal and power up can be used, but nothing to directly affect the battle.


Events are what keeps the battle raging and what spices things up. The GM is free to create different types of events that all have their own trigger condition. Since I like things a bit randomized I would do the following (and the selection of action types somewhat assumes this system in place):
First, create an event deck for each type of event. Each card details an event (I like printing cards in Magic format and then putting them together with an actual Magic card into a sleeve). Shuffle the decks at the start of the battle.
For the type of events I have:
Fight-event: each player who chooses the Fight (or Lead and Fight) action draws a card from this deck. Personally I would put actual combat encounters, being subject to a ranged attack, being subject to a single melee attack (representing a random strike in the thick of battle; of course this is only interesting if even a single attack can be threatening, like it is in GURPS), and even blank events in this deck.
Battlefield-event: events that represent the danger of a battlefield in general and the ebb and flow of the battle. After the player declared their actions for the turn, but before resolving those action, one crad from this event deck is drawn. Events could include: an Opportunity presenting itself, a random PC is subject to a ranged attack, the enemy getting a bonus on their leadership role, etc. This is a deck I have yet to create, but you can get pretty creative with this. I would probably not include any blanks.
Maybe a Scout event: I haven't really thought about it contents or when to trigger it.

Considering all of the above, a turn would have the following sequence:
1. Players declare their action for their PCs, that is if they Fight, Lead, Lead&Fight, Scout or Law Low.
2. Battlefield event is drawn and resolved
3. Scouting actions are resolved
4. All other actions are resolved:

for Lead actions, the PC makes the check
for Lead & Fight actions, the PC makes the check and draws a Fight event and resolves that
for Fight actions, the PC chooses at which Opportunity to strike (if any) or not; if yes, cards are drawn from the Fight event deck until an actual combat encounter is revealed, or the PC has to face a combat encounter by the GMs choice (GMs call); if no Opportunity, the PC draws a Fight event and resolves that
for Lay Low events, the PC performs all actions that are appropriate (if any)

5. Each side of the battle decides to use an advantage or not. The players decide for their side, because why not. Repeat until both side have declined to use an advantage or the limit is reached.
6. The opposing leadership check is made and resolved.
7. The GM, ideally with the help of the players, summarizes the events and results from the turn to create a coherent battle narrative.
8. Check if the battle is over, otherwise go to 1.

Using advantages
Until now, advantages could be used to improve the leadeship roll. There are other possibilities to "spend" advantages, though. Mechanics like this arent essential to this system and their exact nature is up to debate, but I like the following mechanic:
Save my hide: a player can spend an advantage to get out of a tough spot. Whenever something is about to happen to their PC that they would rather not see, they can spend an advantage to negate the effect and safe the PC form the situation. This can be use to negate a devestating ranged attack or to safe a PC from a tough combat encounter.
The nature of the advantage should somehow makes sense to rescue the PC in the specific situation. If no such advantage is available, the GM is free to decline this option.

This concludes the description of my framework to create a exicting and dynamic battle experience within a role playing game.
Like any framework it needs to be implemented and it can be expanded in multiple ways.

What do you think?
Would you use something like this? Have you any addition and ideas for the system?

If there is interest (and if my time permits...) I could describe a sample battle using this framwork.