View Full Version : Heroes in War: How to make War fun for Players?

Mr. Mask
2015-11-12, 10:54 PM
There have occasionally been discussions on how to run wars in game, namely related to the world wars. But it got me thinking, you know what can be a lot of fun in a fantasy setting? Heroes who can kill two hundred men, who can do impossible things like scale the wall like a ninja, then use those powers for a strategy to turn the tide of battle. To lead your men and cut through the enemy, and face the enemy commanders who are also heroes.

The question is... how to do this? In video games, we have Dynasty Warriors......:smallfrown: .... And Mount and Blade, perhaps? Many videogames are more on the scale of Advanced Wars or Final Fantasy Tactics or RTS than they are about mooks and heroes working together. Tabletop RPGs have made more attempts at this, but they tend to be rather uninvolved--large numbers get decreased, and you can add a d6 to the numbers. Teamwork!

So this brings us to the question, of how to make combat with mooks and heroes interesting. I guess we should look at the different aspects involved:

1 vs 1,000: How do you make killing 1,000 guys interesting? HOW? It's just like killing ten guys, except you do it one hundred times over! Even if you made it into one hundred or just ten interesting encounters, ain't no one have that kind of time.

One neat idea, would be to have a real-time combat component, where you can kill them in swathes as quickly as you can roll the dice. They'd want to work fast so they're not overwhelmed by some timed mechanic, and you'd want a secondary mechanic like the enemies advancing from multiple lanes or such to give the player something to consider. That could be a fun gimmick, though not the most enticing combat system.

Perhaps the focus should be internal? Rather than worrying about the AC of each mook, or any individual mook, you're concerned about your character. Their endurance, if they've taken any hits, if they need to rest and wherher you should use risky abilities like berserk. There might also be time limits, where you might want to fight your way through the enemy to save someone, and so you want to kill X enemies in Y turns--but that would mean putting your character at risk. Make it more about monitoring your character, making use of their abilities, and trying to reach an overarching goal like maintaining enough endurance for the next part of the battle or to break the enemy's morale. And if you get too cocky, you can get yourself killed fairly quickly--whereas fighting carefully might allow you to kill three thousand men--if your endurance lasted that long.

There was also an idea I had a while back, for a system all about forming large combos based off combining your abilities. You had a few regenerating HP in that system, which you could spend to use abilities. You could try to use that system for this, where it's about forming large combos without leaving yourselves too vulnerable. The only problem with that is that without positioning, it'd be too easy to find a couple of optimal combos, unless you give the enemy army their own abilities to keep you on your toes and changing.

If the gameplay with controlling mooks and formations is substantial enough, you could just have the heroes apply d6 extra casualties in combat. Though you'd want to make sure commanding and maintaining the troops was interesting enough.

Morale and Leadership: There is also the question of leading the troops. In XCOM, you could control up to 14 guys. It was horrible and I need therapy (XCOM is good, but controlling 14 guys was a headache). You'll presumably be controlling your soldiers as units of X men each, as different fronts of a pitched battle, or maybe as one homogeneous army group with abilities based off what you put in it. Now, for multiple players, there's the question of how you divide command, and what they can do to keep troops fighting or help them fight better or such.

I like systems that split up command, so each player is in charge of one flank or so many units. The number can be based off a command stat. This gives all the players something to do and think about, and allows for more complex unit mechanics. It's quite possible players can't go out and fight while commanding (as effectively). You might set it up so that coordinating between players is challenged by certain mechanics, so there are difficulties in making the perfect plan come together. Can be fun, or it can be annoying, depending on the adventure and how the mechanics are done precisely.

You could try something a little tacky like having each player able to grant a unit a certain special ability, possibly encouraging the players to move to reinforce different units who are having trouble. That wouldn't be too bad, actually. Make them an interesting resource. This could also work with their combat prowess and command bonuses, or such. Where it gets really tacky is if you have a command-points bar shared between all players, where the whole game is using special abilities divorced from the battle altogether. I have just summed up Nobunaga's Ambition: Sphere of Influence's combat system.

There is the question of how to make handling morale and such interesting. If you can just spend a turn attacking or raising morale, that'll make it like attacking or healing. And for that matter, attacking the enemy yourself is a good way to raise morale. You could make it a bit like gambling, where taking risky heroic actions can raise morale if you succeed, or fail and hurt morale slightly/greatly. That could be interesting. A safer action might be to make a speech roll where success helps morale but failure does nothing, but it won't help morale as much.

Heroic Duels: Not much to say with this. You just need a good combat system for two or more heroes clashing. Maybe before a battle starts, maybe within the midst of one. Some mooks might get involved.

Powers: One of your guys is super strong, and another can fly, and another can summon lightning. So obviously, the strong guy should wear a lot of wet, steel armour, then be dropped in the midst of the enemy by the flying guy, then be hit with lightning bolts by the lightning guy so that the enemy can't get near the strong guy as he rips them apart.

I think powers would mostly be special abilities and roleplaying. If your guy can fly, maybe he can get into the castle and try to assassinate the enemy commander. Or maybe the strong guy can batter down the wall.

And I didn't mention this, but the makeup of what equipment and experience your mooks have should make a difference, along with if you have any second-grade heroes to help out and give unit bonuses.

So, anyone have ideas to this light? Anything to add, or thoughts on the subject? Seen any systems that had a worthwhile take on this concept? Experience with attempting heroes in war?

2015-11-13, 03:11 AM
I wouldn't try too hard to make a hero-vs-mook-horde fight challenging - at least once, I think it could be cool to just say 'tell us what it looks like as you easily carve through dozens of their soldiers and the rest realize they're completely outmatched and run screaming, causing a rout and sending a wave of frightened soldiers over the enemy camp'.

After all, how often do you get to just say 'my awesome badass cuts one guy in half, then jumps off of this other guy, does a flip and cuts them both down [...]'? Obviously system-dependent, but I think it could be a cool change of pace. And it can serve as a great theme-setting scene early in the game, where you establish that the characters can turn the tide of battles entirely on their own (and then you can add the 'but they have something far more dangerous to contend with, so they can't be bothered most of the time' which gives a nice sense of scale to the 'must stop ultra-powerful thing' type of plot).

If the characters don't have the personal power to just curbstomp their way to total victory, going into a command system can be a good idea - I'd just be wary about going too in depth without probing first. If you're playing a TTRPG about your band of heroes, do you want to spend twenty minutes learning the rules for commanding your wing of 3,000 spearmen?


What I've seen commonly used, in part to maintain the 'huge armies face off' look, is to have heroes and mages fight each other first. You fight for air hero superiority and then once you have that you bomb use your heroes and mages to smash the remaining enemy force. So it's entirely possibly to have a few battles where the players can see just how much havoc they can unleash...then let them hear about someone else unleashing that havoc on their side. Obviously, they'll want to prevent this, so they go out to confront said counterparts.

This way you get something more like what DnD and similar systems are made for - small group combats.

2015-11-13, 04:54 AM
What I've seen commonly used, in part to maintain the 'huge armies face off' look, is to have heroes and mages fight each other first. You fight for air hero superiority and then once you have that you bomb use your heroes and mages to smash the remaining enemy force. So it's entirely possibly to have a few battles where the players can see just how much havoc they can unleash...then let them hear about someone else unleashing that havoc on their side. Obviously, they'll want to prevent this, so they go out to confront said counterparts.

This way you get something more like what DnD and similar systems are made for - small group combats.

Whoa. I've often played games where the players are superpowered heroes in a bigger war filled with normal combatants, but I've never thought it that way. It's an interesting idea! Equivalencing hero superiority with air superiority and all that.

Firest Kathon
2015-11-13, 07:44 AM
After all, how often do you get to just say 'my awesome badass cuts one guy in half, then jumps off of this other guy, does a flip and cuts them both down [...]'?

If you play New Hong Kong Story (http://newhongkongstory.de/) (page is German only, sorry, Google translate here (https://translate.google.com/translate?hl=de&sl=de&tl=en&u=http%3A%2F%2Fnewhongkongstory.de%2F)) you can do that once or twice per round :smallcool:.

Mr. Mask
2015-11-13, 07:52 AM
Person: Well, it may be the premise of the whole campaign, to be heroes in war.

Good post. Clever ideas for making a war-based adventure interesting in the game.

2015-11-13, 08:11 AM
Branching flow chart dungeon.

On a battlefield the player characters probably aren't going to be responsible for every orc kill. Set up large battles like you would a dungeon, but form the walls out of shields and spears, make the traps into incoming artillery fire, archer volleys, and cavalry charges.

Give the players loose goals that advance the battle and change the field. Take the hill, break up the catapults, disrupt the spellcasters, and get that dragon off our sappers so we can blow the wall.

Put skill challenges and class ability affirming enounters in. Let the wizard pop a fireball that creates a shortcut by blowing open the enemy lines. Have the Battlemaster fighter offer a rallying cry that reshapes the battlefield in an advantageous manner. Have the Cleric's prayers answered when a seemingly random event is divinely inspired to help snatch victory from defeat. Let the rogue slip through the lines and sneak attack a commander to demoralize enemies in the area.

Give every objective a point value. Require X points to win the battle, with a time limit on how long it lasts. When the battle ends, have prewritten casualty reports for each possible point value the fight could end with.

In this way you get the classic feel with the battle raging around. Super cinematic.

2015-11-13, 09:35 AM
An army or regiment or other serious formation of soldiers is not an opponent your adventuring party combats, it is an elemental force that your adventuring party tries to not run afoul of, much like a storm or starvation.

Make allies and enemies of characters from the same side of the war, the enemy side, and neutral parties.

Make sure your adventuring party has motivations that go beyond "win the war."

Make the war personal.

2015-11-14, 09:03 PM
There are games with good rules for all of these things, so I'd look into those instead of using D&D or a similar game that's all about small fights if you want a campaign based around war. That solves all the problems you're having.

Mr. Mask
2015-11-14, 09:17 PM
Which systems? I've looked at a few, like Riddle of Steel and Song of Ice and Fire's, along with looking a bit in to the Adventurer Conqueror King system (can't remember quite how it handled it any more). I found they had some good ideas, but some problems in making the heroes feel like a congruent part of the war mechanics.

2015-11-14, 11:25 PM
Pathfinder and 3e D&D both have mass combat systems that could be lifted into almost any system with a bit of work.

Of course, the same could be said of any military warfare game tacked on to another system.

2015-11-14, 11:55 PM
In the past I've had players trying to complete objectives during war scenes, with the war being like something of a terrain type more than an actual set of enemies that you fight until they are all dead. So, spell effects are popping up all over, rains of arrows are falling, siege weapons are bombarding the castle... all while you try to do something that will tip the scales for one side or the other (slay the enemy general, break Hoth's shield generators, whatever).

2015-11-17, 01:39 PM
One option I have had some positive experience with is the use of "squad as monster."

You don't stat up each individual enemy soldier, instead stating up a squad of 10, 20, or however many, and have them act as a single creature. Thus a 1000 soldiers may actually only be 4 units with stats that need tracking.

For maximum effect, have the space, and stats of the unit decay as they are cut down, tack on some squad specific formation and moral mechanics.

2015-11-18, 02:56 AM
I have a good deal of experiences of successfully (I believe) GMing mass warfare in high-level DnD.

A few highlights:

-I won't say that all mass combat systems known to man are bad. Merely every one I've ever encountered. The most common problems seems to be design aimed only at reducing PCs' ability to influence events, and general lack of, well, anything interesting to do.

-Why armies even exist if high-level characters can trivially massacre enough common soldiers to break an army's morale (even if the latter have a theoretical chance of harming them - which is not a given in DnD - players' desire to play would be reduced to zero much sooner than HPs of their characters), or bypass them entirely? Well, the practical answer is, while your average soldier can't do anything to a level 11+ hero, there usually are enough captains, elites and lesser heroes in a sufficiently big army, who can do something to you, and also something helpful to the high-level enemy general while you are fighting him. But these elites can in turn be killed by average soldiers. So even if you cannot recruit some sort of powerful troops who are way above normal humans, you unless you are a master of raids and ambushes, you still want to drag an army around, so it can mop up the field and give you a relatively clear shot at the boss.

-However, the wealth rules in DnD past 2E are simply not compatible with existence of large armies. Expenses of just feeding a significant mass of soldiers quickly pass the point where it is much cheaper and more expedient to buy or craft a bunch of consumables for summoning minions that can keep trash foes off your back while you kill a general. The only solution without reworking the whole wealth system is to treat the army-building part not as a logistical, but as a diplomatic exercise - PCs do not hire but recruit allies to their cause.

-Regarding actual battles, the best results seem to be produced when I present large-scale battles as puzzles, where players select which role every part of their force will play and what they can do themselves. This is particularly relevant because armies in DnD often end up consisting of wildly different troops - why, our current campaign has an army with giant, harpy and centaur units, in addition to several sorts of "normal" infantry.

-The morale and training of enemy forces is primarily reflected through their willingness to tackle PCs. Only the most elite troops will stand and die on their positions just to slow down a group of two-digit level characters. Poor troops break and rout as soon as they understand whom they are dealing with. Average troops can pelt PCs with missiles and maybe even withstand a couple of magical explosions, but will rout if PCs break into their ranks and there are no officers and heroes to oppose them.

2015-11-18, 03:04 AM
An army or regiment or other serious formation of soldiers is not an opponent your adventuring party combats, it is an elemental force that your adventuring party tries to not run afoul of, much like a storm or starvation.

I find your comparison unintentionally apt, because storms and starvation are merely mild annoyances to my adventuring parties as well.

Make sure your adventuring party has motivations that go beyond "win the war."

Why? If your adventuring party needs motivations beyond winning the war, you have simply failed to establish proper stakes in that war.

2015-11-18, 06:19 AM
It's usually motivations to win the war...

2015-12-01, 06:15 AM
I think the key is not to have the PCs operate as regular run of the mill soldiers. They don't need to be foot soldiers (except for in the most high stakes battles). There are a lot of opportunities to excel and operate outside the norm, and to have varied encounters even in a large scale military campaign. I've actually been thinking about this quite a bit recently.

At low level, while you could notionally have the players simply act as regular grunts at this level, it would take a lot of the focus away from them, and it would involve lots of lengthy combats that the players are not able to contribute to in any significant way. So we need to separate them from the rest of the force. Since they're low level, it isn't likely that they'd be involved in any kind of SF-type actions. So it's best to have them separated out doing something else, scouting for example, running messages, going for supplies. There's a lot of options to have them ambushed or involved in various actions at this point. Alternatively, somebody could have given a 2nd Lt. a map and a compass, leaving the players completely lost when the Lt winds up getting sniped (or otherwise incapacitated), or you could have the players as the only surviving members of an ambush, trying to fight their way back to friendly lines.

At higher levels of power, you can start having them given specific missions. Recovering specific items (if it's a fantasy world, magical items are in short supply), cutting enemy supply lines, infiltrating the enemy encampment and gathering intelligence (from areas that may be blocked from magical or technological interference). Additionally the low level options are still available, although the lost second Lieutenant might be cut in favor of getting lost in bad weather, the messages they'd be running would be more critical, the supplies they would be going for would be rare and exotic. Another exciting thing to have them do might be assassinating enemy leaders, or the heads of units, destroying weapons caches. At higher levels of power in most games, the players would probably be used as special operations units.

At both levels, when mass combat is essential, I would recommend having the battle more as a backdrop than trying to run the entirety of it. Instead of having your players cut down 1,000 mooks, have them go and destroy the enemy artillery before it rips your own troops to shreds. Have them stop enemy wizards who are doing something unpleasant. Have them running messages, or gathering intelligence. And you certainly can still place them against large groups of enemies, just to vary things up. Also assuming that both sides are fairly evenly matched, the enemy will either have some sort of large terrain advantage, high level operators of their own, or large monsters or what-have-you. It is unlikely that in a world where high level adventurers are present that there would not be such on BOTH sides, which gives the players some variety to fight.

Another thing to remember, is that very little of what happens in war is actually combat. There are large periods of time where intelligence gathering, logistics, and movement become more important. Which means that you have opportunities for the players to do all sorts of varied things, train (with a DI McNasty, or the equivalent), "acquire" equipment that their unit needs, regardless of the method of acquisition, get into bar fights, experience tension with the locals, argue with command.

Also, in most conflicts there tends to be a rotation, you don't keep a unit at the front for the entirety of the war, you cycle them back and forth. So the players may wind up traveling home, on the way home they can see the ravages of the war, and what they're fighting for, as well as have some more standard adventures to break up the monotony.

2015-12-01, 07:09 AM
L5R uses a heroic opportunities system for involving players with large mass battles. It's like, you see something important or an opening, now try to exploit it and we'll see how that affects to main combat.

2015-12-01, 03:47 PM
There are lots of ways for an individual, or small group, to wreak havoc against much larger scale units in war, without invoking any special powers or even special rules. Just watch, ooh, approximately any war movie made between 1960 and 1990. Mechanics include:

bomb a fuel depot - without fuel, tanks can't move and are sitting ducks for our side
bomb a bridge while an enemy unit is crossing it (most likely, on a train) - easiest way for 1 person to kill 1,000 without using NCB weapons
bomb a factory, scientific research installation, repair facility, etc.
intercept a dispatch rider and substitute bogus orders, sending an enemy column off in the wrong direction. ("Better to be on hand with 10 men than absent with 10,000".)
feed false information to enemy spies (same principle. Remember you have no idea who the spies actually are, so you have to mislead everyone.)
capture a strategic point with very narrow access, so a small unit can hold it against a much larger force until the latter can bring up some heavy support, which may be hours or even days away.

2015-12-15, 12:00 PM
In the dawn of time (1e era) there was a system called Bushido that included rules for battle. From memory it had tables like this:
1: Encounter 2-3 samurai (level 1/2 of your own?)
2: take n heads (may be connected to level, but Bushido only had 6 levels) Taking heads was important to a samurais status.
3: Encounter 1 Samurai of similar level

I don't think it bothered to balance anything for the players, but that is probably required now. I think it also assumed individual players acting alone, as that was pretty much assumed in "proper" Bushido actions (less sure about actual fighting). A more interesting issue would be in keeping the party together. It shouldn't be nearly as critical as long as you are holding shieldwall with the mooks on your side, but you should do all you can to reform the party.