Monday 2 January 2017

Hints & Tips - MASS COMBAT

On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

Dealing with Large Scale Battles in roleplaying games
“Commander! Spotters report three Storm-class warships touching down at reference three by seven, one kilometre out.” There was a pause as the man listened to his headphones intently. “They’re unloading Striker tanks,” he added.
Eric Davids looked down at his second officer and nodded. “Understood. Tell the group to stand by.”
As the eight tanks under Eric’s command and the legion of soldiers behind them crested the hill they saw the warships taking to the air again – leaving nine squat Striker tanks waiting for them. Behind the enemy tanks was a legion of soldiers, also.
Eric swallowed hard. The sides were almost evenly matched – the battle for this sector of the planet was going to be fierce.
“Lock on,” he instructed. “Let’s go!”

The heart of adventure roleplaying is just that – adventure. Explosions and blasters, diving headlong into trouble, saving the day and coming out smiling.
The nature of a roleplay session is what happens to the group of characters being portrayed by the players. They thwart plots and interact with personalities on a regular basis, but surely doing things on a ‘toned down’ scale becomes a little repetitive after a while? Surely these conflicts would escalate at some point, if not because of the player’s actions but because the game calls for it?

All around the player characters there are things happening – battles are fought and wars are lost and won. But you’ve been playing the characters as personalities for a long time – how can you integrate them into a war? How can they play important parts in a huge battle that rages about them? How do you even run that huge battle as it is fought?

This article is designed to give the GM a few ideas on how to run a large scale battle within their games but at the same time not lose the pace of a roleplaying session.


It may be dramatically appropriate that a certain side actually wins the battle automatically. Depending on the design of the campaign in question, it might not serve the GM to have a certain side win or lose. If that is the case then don’t worry about dice rolls or anything like that – just have the players zap about doing what they do best. Maybe throw in a couple of moments where the battle looks like it’s going in favour of the wrong side, then pull it back from the brink at the last moment. It might be a good idea to fudge a couple of rolls to make out that the battle really is in the balance. This may seem like cheating – and you’re right, it is, but if it’s at the end of the campaign and the players have fought hard and well it would be unfair to deny them a victory.


So then you come to the next method – making rolls to decide which side wins certain fights. The easiest way would be to just roll a D6 for each side and say ‘right, you/they lost’ for the highest roll, but this wouldn’t work at all, dramatically or practically. Battles are long drawn-out affairs where even minor victories in the lines can judge the outcome.

The better way to do it is to split up each side into groups – maybe a certain number of men/machines against their opposite number. Then roll for each side. Highest number wins and the enemy are defeated. Then the victorious group goes and helps another group and they get to roll 2D6 against the enemy’s 1D6, or take on another group. This isn’t entirely accurate, of course, but it does the job. You can decide what the characters are doing at this point – either commanding groups or just taking part, and deal with their scenes separately. Rolls for the opposing sides can be made every two to three rounds of character conflict. This will not only add an effective time scale but also suit the size of the battle being raged.


Now we come to a more detailed but more practical method. If you want the battle to be decided by chance but also have that speed of play then the following method is advisable. You may need a lot of D6’s for this, or at least be prepared to do a lot of bookkeeping.

The sides are given D6 scores depending on numbers. The totals are recorded and each side matched against the other. Of course, the sides will be numbered in multiples of six but this is the only requirement so that the dice rolls are kept easier. Then all you do is roll the amount of dice within a group and then deduct it from the enemy’s total. The enemy does this also, all in the same round.

If the numbers fall below the multiples of six then reduce the dice rolled accordingly. If you have between 12 and 18 troops left, roll 3D6. If it falls below 12 but is still higher than 6, roll 2D6. Anything lower than 6, then roll 1D6. It’s not entirely accurate, that much is obvious, but it gives a higher element of chance and even gives opportunities for sides to ‘turn the tide’ of the battle.

For example, Side A has a 2D6 side (eight troops) and side B has a 2D6 (nine troops) side. Each side rolls their 2D6. A rolls six, which is subtracted from B’s total of Nine, and B rolls five, which is subtracted from A’s total of eight. A now has 3 troops left (which drops his total dice to 1D6) and B has 3 troops (again, the total dice he can roll next round is 1D6) They roll again next round, or after two rounds depending on how long the GM wants the conflict to last. Using this method, it is possible for each side to ‘wipe each other out’ so that there is none left standing. Such is the price of war.

Fast and brutal – although this system is still flawed it gives an illusion of conflict that will serve the pace of the game. It can be used for characters and vehicles but does not take scales into account. This is for simple conflict that the GM wants to deal with at the same pace as the game, depending on how large the opposing side are.


There are separate games for miniature battles but, as I do not own or have ever played these games, this article does not take it into account. Again, it is GM preference. The battles systems are games in themselves and if the GM wants tactical accuracy then this is the thing to use. I can imagine it slows down play somewhat and requires the players to know the rules also, so in some respects it may not be advisable.


Large-scale battles play a large part in adventure games and should also be added for effect within a roleplaying campaign. Depending on how you play you should find the advice in this article helpful but at the end of the day it’ll be up to you, the GM, to portray that battle.

Details of explosions, blaster fire, screaming men, exploding equipment, confusion, fear, regret and shock. Don’t just roll the dice and say ‘group 3 are wiped out’ – describe their last stand, running for the hills or being cut down where they fight. Remember to get the players into the thick of it and have them thrown by the events. War is a terrible thing and is maybe treated with a little too much levity within the realms of the game, but, depending on how you run your game, it doesn’t hurt to remind the players of the futility of it all.