my heretical notion for a mass battle system
Inspired, like others, by Zak’s battle of the styrofoam cup bridge, and in only slightly ironic response to Tao of D&D’s plea for a non-system-dependent mass battle system (it’s a system without a system! It needs to be a fun game AND not shortchange the players’ expectations of my own idiosyncratic system AND plug into all rule systems!), I hereby proffer the following one-size-fits-all solution for fantasy battles:
Cheat. Watch your players. Make sure everyone’s having fun. Know how long you want it to run before you begin. Roll some dice behind your shield from time to time and nobody will ever guess.
1. Describe the whole battle situation as it forms up, when units are getting into place and the players are trying to figure out their strategy. Get the players to say how they’re arranging forces. Think at that moment how hard a time they should have in fighting, depending on how smart they’ve been.
2. Then you’re in combat. All hell breaks loose and everyone’s too busy with their own troll to think much about how the breach as a whole is doing. So you watch how the players are doing, and their units do pretty much as well as they do. If they dispatch their trolls fast enough that they’re looking to help out other people, give them more trolls. That means they’re beating the enemy at their bit of the line. If they’re struggling, so is their unit.
3. Gauge the mood of the room at half time. Everyone engaged? If not, why not? Get the players to take a look up: now is when the enemy pulls out their surprise, or when successful units get to go help others or when failing units have to decide how they’re going to avoid dying. If they’re doing great, offer them a chance to blast through the trolls in a crazy charge. React to their moves.
4. Back to melee. characters should be either triumphing or dropping, and that’s how your battle works out. If it’s looking like a stalemate decide now: either have night fall and the enemy melts into the woods, or tell the players disaster threatens unless they do something clever (sappers have got under the walls, gate’s going to break, Ghost Troll Chief is rolling up from the valley). Any half decent cleverness saves them, but blank looks had better be followed by running.
5. Do not end the session in battle. If the enemy melted away then the session ends with them still out there. Players must do something clever next session or be ambushed/sapped/have a poisoned well/whatever else your sneaky trolls could manage that would spring the players out of their current standoff. New battle should be obviously different from previous one: fought on the run, flying enemies, war engines… or if you’re feeling kind, reinforcements who have been surprised and are now fighting the trolls themselves. You have to go rescue them, attack the trolls in the rear.
That’s it. Finished early? Good: you can spend that time dealing with the aftermath and mop up, rescuing plot hook prisoners and discovering mysterious Dwarf gold clockwerks in the Troll King’s necklace, or figuring out where you’re going to run to and hole up, since you’re already 40 miles deep in the Trollridge Mountains.