Making Mass Combats Better with “Battlefronts”

The thundering of a focused, mounted charge down a stone keep, sweeping away a multitude of invaders as they ride toward the heart of some alien warriors is the thing that everyone wants to see at their table.  The image inspires feelings of grand battles and defying the odds against an opposing (and presumably oppressing) force.

Unfortunately, for players and GMs alike, it can also inspire a terrible dread.

Players want these grand battles, because they want to feel like they’re in a cinematic universe.  They want to feel empowered by a story where they can have epic conflicts; where their heroes are more than interacting on a inter-personal, focused level, but also on a grand scale, changing the course of nations in heated battle.

GMs want it for much the same reasons!  They think, “How amazing would it be to recreate some of the battles we’ve seen in movies?  To actually be at Helm’s Deep, fighting off Saruman’s hordes?”

But then they sit down at the table and… “Ugh.”  Between the planning for this combat and actually playing it out, even managing a modest battle between two armies can become a herculean task.

Mass Combat has too many Moving Parts.

There’s the archers in their little group, the left flank, the right, the vanguard, the cavalry waiting for their charge, and commanders to control it all.  Oh, and let’s double that, since we’ve got two sides to worry about.

You’ve also got all these new mechanics that you’ve probably not used before in your game.  Morale, Battle Rating, Commander Orders, Retreating, Regrouping, Elevation bonuses, Siege Weaponry, Panic, Risk, Survival, Glory, etc.  There may also be some modification of normal game elements, such as speed of the army and its centuries (sneaking some roman-specific war terms in here), flanking bonuses, max distance ranged weapons may cover, and so on.

Now, managing this for small conflicts may not be too troublesome.  It may be that there’s a sufficient amount trade-off between crunch and time that you’re willing to compromise on so that you can get a more involved, tactical combat between say, a lance (the modern name for a cavalry squad consisting of a handful of soldiers), riding against two skirmishing forces.

Anything larger than that is gonna be time-consuming and painful.  Painful for the GM because he has so much to manage and painful for the players because it’s time-consuming; while the GM manages, players have to wait for their actions.  This tends to make the game crawl to glacial speeds… and then come the smartphones, with players checking out of the game to browse Reddit.

If you want to manage all these moving pieces, then go for it, but be aware that we already have something that manages this type of “game” for us, and that’s a real-time strategy video game.  Their hallmark is taking care of all this administration for you.

The Players are who Matter!

Often, when using mass combat, the players at the table are forgotten.  The GM (and players, too) justifies this by saying it’s necessary to see how the full battle plays out.  But do you really need to roll morale, risk, attack, defense, etc. to manage every unit?  Again, if not engaged, players are probably spending this “management time” pondering over the mysteries of life and why they even use this system.

What you Really Need

Trying to stay system-agnostic here, I think these focused, mass combat management systems are awful for exactly what they’re supposed to be used for!  They rest on the faulty premise that everything needs a way to manage every piece of the battlefield.

I say that’s crap.  You don’t need the fine-grained control these systems provide (it’s there if you want it, but you don’t need it).  What you need is some way to give the players an engaging, cinematic combat puzzle with interesting choices to make.  In my opinion, that’s what roleplaying combats should be about.

Better Mass Combat: Battlefronts

So, you’ve read this far and want to know how to give the players interesting choices for the mass combat?  Just how should they be run?  I’m not out to tell you this way is the best way, but I think it’s something to try.

Interesting Choices and Concrete Outcomes

Describe the battle.  Describe the forces, the landscape, interesting features and things of note, just as you would any setting where the players are expected to interact with the world.  Give them specific things they can affect change in and frame these things as “actions” to potentially take.

This is a thought that arises out of Dungeon World’s GM advice and “Fronts.”  Without going into too much detail, Fronts represent “problems” in the world (I’ve modified things a bit):

  • Sides – Sides are the opposing forces of the battle.  (Good and bad need not apply.)  A simple example might be “Northen Barbarian Tribes” and “Imperial Troops.”
  • Cast Members – These are the forces in the battle.  An example could be “Direwolf Cavalry” or maybe “Bloodraging Berserkers.”
  • Impulse – An overarching impulse that drives the different sides of the conflict. This could be something like “restore the land to the rightful heir” or “resurrect the great evil.”  Just have it make sense for the battle at-hand.
  • Result – This is what happens when the approach of a cast member succeeds.  Examples are things like “Tyranny reigns in this land” or “the young duke is captured.”
  • Approach – A series of things (try for at least 3) that – when all are fulfilled – make that cast member’s impending result occur.  For a squad trying to open the main gate, this could be “Scale the Castle Walls”, “Defeat the forces protecting the gate”, and “Open the Main Gate.”
  • Stakes – (Optional) These are interesting questions you want to find out as part of the battle.  Things that have meaning for the world or the PCs.  Dungeon World gives the following suggestion for creating Stakes:  “A good stakes question is one that, when it’s resolved, means that things will never be the same again.”  For a battle, this might relate to interesting NPCs and relationships the players are aware of.  E.g. “Will the assassin inside the walls betray the promise made to the barbarians?”

Example Battlefront:
The Wild North vs. The Republic


  • If the Republic’s Consul dies, the second Consul will create an Empire.
  • Should the barbarians fail, the gods will punish the world.
  • If the Republic spy survives, he will reveal he is the long-lost father of a player.
  • If the Republic fails, its boundaries shift and peace is disrupted.

SIDE: Northern Barbarian Tribes
Impulse: Invade the Republic and bring it down.

(Cast Member) Direwolf Cavalry
Approach: Survey the battle, press through the rear entrance, scatter the enemy
Result: The Republic’s forces are scattered

(Cast Member) Bloodraging Berserkers
Approach: Crash through the gate, destroy the consul’s guard, murder the consul in single combat.
Result: The morale of the entire Republic is shattered.

(Cast Member) Druidic Masters
Approach: Gather blood for the ritual, Perform the ritual, summon the ancient guardian.
Result: The guardian arises from the forests, bringing magical destruction and changing the landscape.

SIDE: Republic Troops
Maintain the Borders of the Republic

(Cast Member) Centuries of the Republic
Approach: Stand ground against the horde, defend the flanks surrounding the heart of the republic forces, the barbarians are weakened.
Result: The Barbarians are severely weakened.

(Cast Member) Consul’s Guard
Approach: Put the consul in conflict, have the consul gain glory on the battlefield, ensure the consul’s survival.
Result: The consul’s survival means the men will continue to fight.

(Cast Member) Auxiliary Militia
Approach: Locate the richest looking barbarians, take them out, and loot the bodies
Result: The druids are disrupted and fail to summon the guardian.

How does One Interact with the Battlefront?

  1. The GM will share one or more stakes in the battle (players don’t need to know all of them).  He might pose these stakes as questions rather than statements.  Whatever feels right for your group and game.
  2. Players choose a side that they’re going to assist.
  3. The GM then presents the different challenges available, describing the first Approach of each cast member.
  4. The players choose one or more cast members whose actions they will attempt to thwart (with or without help from the side they’ve chosen to assist).
  5. The GM then constructs these scene(s) for players to act out; players may succeed or fail depending on the scene.  Let’s call these scenes conflicts.

    Conflicts should be like mini-combats.  Failure does not always mean death, but maybe the players could not stop the cavalry from advancing, could not disguise the duke they were trying safely extract from the battle, did not stop soldiers that scaled walls from dropping the gate for the main force.

  6. Determine the success/failure of those cast members that were “off-screen” during the role-played conflicts.  You can do this however you’d like, but I might just say any cast members of the side the players are not assisting simply succeed.  (You could roll to determine this outcome, but that’s up to you.)
  7. Then look at the approaches remaining, and describe how the battle unfolds.  If an approach changes the environment or generates a new Cast Member, generate approaches and results for it, too.
  8. Repeat steps 4-7, continuing on with conflicts against remaining cast members.  If a cast member succeeds (i.e. the druids are able to summon the guardian).
  9. When one or more cast members have succeeded in achieving their approach against the other (remember, this may not always be the complete destruction of any side), the mass combat is over and the battlefront may be dissolved.

Some Notes for the GM

  • Building Cast Members and Approaches. When building cast members, build them together across the different sides so that they oppose one another directly.  For example, the Bloodraging Berserkers and Consul’s Guard.
  • Location on the battlefield isn’t everything.  If your players want to go from one part of the battle to another, unless it’s really far away or incredibly difficult to get there, just say they fight their way through.  Unless they are trying to reinforce groups that will fall soon, There’s rarely a need to count out the rounds it takes to get across the field.
  • Your players should not be able to handle everything.  This is a large conflict, and the players can only affect so much.  They will feel all the cast members need to be stopped, and your job is to help them determine which they should go after.  But no matter what, allies will die, the gates will come tumbling down, and the battle will shift in ways they can’t control.  War is hell.  Make that clear.
  • Add in named NPCs.  Adding in important NPCs into the battle will help players determine who they want to stop or assist.  It also adds more risk, because these important NPCs may die, gain honor, or learn about how the players conduct warfare.
  • Run multiple scenes at once.  During the conflict, shift back-and-forth between the scenes the players are involved in and what is happening in the other conflicts.  Every 2 or so rounds, give them a view of how the battle is fairing.  Are they winning?  Did the druid masters finish the ritual?  Have the walls been demolished by siege weapons?  Throw that in there!
  • Split Party?  If the party splits up, just run the conflicts as normal, but at the end of every round in one conflict with players, shift to another with other players in it.  Go back-and-forth until the conflicts are resolved.  (Remember – and let your players know – that splitting the party will make it harder to succeed in any single conflict.  Less people usually means lower chance of success.)
  • What does success look like?  Remember, a conflict may not succeed if everyone dies.  Success might simply be crossing a certain border, putting down a bridge, or gaining access to an area.  Let the players know what success looks like in each of the conflicts.

The Battle is Over.  Now What?

Now the GM looks at the stakes and decides which ones occur and which don’t.  These should make sense based on what happened in the conflict.  Then continue on with your game by describing the aftermath of the conflict and the world the players now find themselves in.  What’s changed?  When will they become aware of that?

If there’s an immediate result in the stakes that players can see in the world, give it to them.  For example, let’s look at two stakes in this battle:

  • If the Republic’s Consul dies, the second Consul will create an Empire.

    How to Show:
    Run a scene where the remaining consul gives a funeral speech about his fallen comrades and how devastated he is by their loss.  But out of the corner of his eyes, the players see a glimmer of ambition, leading them to believe that he will do something now that his political rival is gone.
  • Should the barbarians fail, the gods will punish the world.

    How to Show: As soon as the battle ends, the sun grows dark and skies turn blood-red.  The players don’t know exactly what that means, but it can’t be good.

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