Monday, August 23, 2010

The Trouble With Mass Combat Systems

I have read a lot of mass combat rules in RPGs, and very few seem to hit the right balance. For d20, I tried titles from AEG’s War to Green Ronin’s The Black Company to Eden’s Fields of Blood, and nothing seemed to really work that well (for the record, I finally ended up using the homebrew system from Farland World [which has since passed into 4e] , which did the job at least adequately).

For Rolemaster, I ended up creating my own system (after a poor experience with War Law), imperfect and now-buried in a stack of notes somewhere. Honestly, I got frustrated and abstracted a lot of combat, which I think was a downer for those of my players looking to flex some of their new found authority on the battlefield.

What I want in a combat system is what I think a lot of gamers want:

-Quick to learn, easy to remember.
-Related to the same base mechanics, at least nominally, as the rest of the game.
-Scale for company-size to full army-size combat with little issue.
-Allowing for a moderate level of complexity without either too little or too much abstraction.
-Allow the players to influence the outcome of a battle through their actions.

Not a lot of systems for games hit all the check marks on that list. A lot of times, Mass Combat rules seem thrown in as an afterthought, if indeed thrown in at all.

Epic Role Playing is one of the few systems I credit with getting their Mass Combat rules at a place where I liked them out of the box, but by and large, getting Mass Combat rules right seems to be an obscure art. Sooner or later in my games, players are going to want that stronghold, are going to want/need an army, and there’s going to be a battle, be it a company of mercenaries or the Ducal Armies. It’d be nice if more RPGs did a better job providing the means to that end.

Is this an issue for anyone else? I’d love to hear other viewpoints and thoughts on the topic.

20 comments:

Joseph said...

You just made such a light bulb go on over my head, I'm amazed they can't see it in Norway. I shall be posting on this over at my blog presently...

Zachary The First said...

I'll look forward to seeing it!

Snarls-at-Fleas said...

In the coming war (in my campaign) I intend to use Cry Havoc converted to 4E. Seems good for me.

Tenkar said...

when i was in college i tried to work on a simple yet workable mass combat system... i failed... go figure.

i still have Battlesytem nightmares... all those damn chits...

Anonymous said...

Just play your RPG's combat out normally, but consider each character or monster to be a group. Like reversing the process in which D&D was derived from wargames. Losing HP (or whatever) means individuals in the group are dying.

Craig Maloney said...

I'm a fan of the GURPS Mass Combat rules (http://e23.sjgames.com/item.html?id=SJG37-0131). They seem to be light enough to not bog down too much, and still allows for the players to influence the outcome.

Eric Wilde said...

Book of Battle for Pendragon is right on the money. It satisfies nicely all the criteria you have. Its just not D&D or d20 or anything quite like it.

Rob Conley said...

GURPS Mass Combat is the best I ever seen as far as a "lite" system goes. It manages to be grounded in realism, account for individual heroism but not drown you in details.

AD&D Battlesystem is the king of integrated mass combat system in that they allowed you to use any AD&D monster or character as part of the fight. But it disadvantage that it is a full game in it's own right thus for some taking them out of the roleplaying moment.

Sari said...

Have you tried the Legend of the Five Rings(L5R) battle system? It's pretty good. Maybe with a little tweak to reflect other genres.

Jarrah said...

I have a system I use myself where one only needs to roll 1d6 for each attack a creature has, and which maintains statistical likelyhoods on par with a "proper" D&D combat... but the front-end work is kinda complex, so you can't really use it for a spur-of-the-moment epic battle.

Bonemaster said...

Not that they can be ported but I always liked the mass combat rules that were in FGU's Bushido. It was a combination of abstract mass combat with mini-encounters that each player in the mass combat had to deal with. I always thought that it was an excellent way to get the end result of the conflict while giving each player something to do.

Fabio Milito Pagliara said...

it was a problem... then I understood that what I wanted was not a wargame but war scene for my character and so I moved the battle in the background of the action and the character in the center of it (be it the scene in the command tent or the front line)

greywulf said...

I think that best mass combat system for a role-playing game is still the one in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia.

It's quick enough to play through a battle or entire war as a part of a role-playing session without bogging the whole thing down. PC actions can have a direct impact on the outcome (through granting modifiers to the battle roll) so the players really feel like their actions matter in the think of battle.

I've used the system with all editions of D&D up to and including Fourth Edition, and it's worked brilliantly every time.

Leonardo said...

I think the mass combat system in The Riddle of Steel's supplement "The Flower of Battle" satisfy your four bulleted points. But it's a system built around the specificity of that game and I'm not sure that it would be very easy to extract and adapt to another one.

Zachary The First said...

Man, there's a lot of recommendations in this commentary, in addition to what Joseph is doing over at his site:

http://greyhawkgrognard.blogspot.com/2010/08/simple-mass-combat.html

adamdray said...

Check out Hardboiled Armies from One Bad Egg. It explains how to scale the normal combat rules for mass combat. You really don't have to learn a new system for this. It's really cool.

Gleichman said...

I created a mass combat system for Age of Heroes that was based upon condensed results of the original game system. Worked quite well for a number of campaigns.

There are a couple of things however to keep in mind.

1. Mass Combat isn't the same as individual combat. As numbers scale up so does (to use the military term) friction- and simple things become difficult. Just try getting a hundred people to move from point A to point B sometime and you're see it in action.

This was represented in the Golden Age of game design (the 70s) by (on purpose) disconnecting the time scale- i.e. allowing one do something that might take 5 seconds but setting the scale to something like 10 minutes.

Upon its face, it looks silly- but if you pick the right numbers you start to actually be able to recreated historical reality.


2. Factors generally unimportant or assumed at the individual scale become critical and front and center for large battles. Command and control, morale, etc. Thus a mass combat system will have rules for stuff that an individual scale game doesn't (or rather leaves up to the players to Role-play).

3. If it's easy to learn and simple to play- it's not worth playing. Just hand wave it and get on with the important stuff in your campaign and stop trying to fake it :)

Jay said...

I literally JUST read an post by Dr. Rowtang on Mass Combat.

The internet hivemind is in high gear this week!

Zachary The First said...

Hooray for the good Doctor!

Bif said...

Am I really the first to flog Savage Worlds this time? Savage Worlds has a decent Mass Combat system that meets all your criteria, and you can even tweak the level of abstraction with a little work.