Big Fights Make For Long Nights: Marching Armies in RPGs

Typically speaking, when we think of Dungeons and Dragons (or Pathfinder, Hackmaster, Munchkin, etc), we think of a scenario that greatly resembles the title of the worlds most popular RPG. A group of guys go into a dungeon, fight monsters (maybe a Dragon) and get themselves some loot. It’s the formula that the rules were designed around, but good fantasy adventure stories are so much more varied than that and I would like to talk about a scenario that is iconic to epic fantasy but that rarely makes it into RPG adventures. This scenario I will refer to as the “big fight.”

So what do I mean when I say “big fight”? Well first let me clarify that it is different from a boss fight, though the two may overlap. In short, a big fight is a combat scenario with a very large number of participants, for the sake of being scientific we’ll say that if the total number of combatants is four times the number of player characters then it qualifies. Another reasonable term would be any combat with more than 20 participants, but depending on the size of your group that might be fairly common. Examples of big fights include bar brawls, gangs of enemy fodder, and perhaps the most popular in media, the giant army battle.

Battles between massive armies are common in fantasy stories, such as the battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers and the battle of the five armies in The Hobbit. And yes, I’m just saying The Hobbit and not honoring the films with their individual titles. Unless you count me talking about the battle of five armies, but I’m using lowercase letters to spite you. Anyway, why is it that the image of two armies marching toward each other is so common in fantasy stories but rather rare at the gaming table? Well, there are a few reasons.

Reason 1. Narrative Justification

In The Lord of the Rings an army of Dwarves marching in a phalanx would strike fear into the heart of any foe. A horde of Orcs would terrify even the bravest of men. And truly, what could stop an iron phalanx of death on the battlefield? Well, a fireball spell, for one. See, in The Lord of the Rings and other fantasy novels, spells that blow up wide areas (40 square feet) are actually pretty rare. Even with Gandalf hanging around, the Orcs could be fairly certain they weren’t going to have the center of their ranks blown to hell. So now when an army marches, you have to take into account all of the little things like why the wizard can’t just end it all with a few fireballs and any other questions the players might ask. This is important because the players will ask every question, and there will be a few that you missed. This means you’re going to have to make up responses on the fly. I once had a massive invasion scenario planned, where my players were going to have to fight off key monsters in an invading horde of marauders. The idea was that they would defeat the big guns which would demoralize the rest of the enemies. The reality was that it took all of three spells before I could not justify the enemy army (who I had built up as being fierce warriors but with very little to no magical support), still being on the battlefield when they were losing so much more than they gained. That was early in my gaming life, and I could do it much better now, but it’s a lot of work and it’s not always worth the payoff.

Reason 2. Mechanical Finagling

Big fights are just tedious and difficult mechanically. In a game designed for dungeon delving, there’s not a lot mechanical support for armies. The barbarian may be able to deal enough damage in a single hit to put down a storm giant, but he’s only going to be hitting one guys with that strike. Short of feats like whirlwind attack, which requires a lot of feat investment and is rarely worth it in other scenarios, there aren’t actually a lot of ways for heroes to clear out a bunch of enemies in a single go (well, besides the aforementioned spells anyway).

Also, games like D&D and Pathfinder were meant to be played on a battle map. Two armies marching means a much larger scale which means either abstracting things out a lot, or narrowing your focus. To combat this, most settings have created entirely new mechanics to make these battles a reality, with varying degrees of success. Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 had rules for treating a battle like a flowchart, which were actually fairly decent; and Pathfinder had its mass combat rules, a set of rules so bad that I think the person responsible should probably be punished.

Regardless of how they do it, running a scenario like this is going to require a lot of figuring things out and finagling the rules to do what you want them to do if you’re playing a d20 game.

Reason 3. The Wheels of War are Slow… Very Slow…

So let’s assume you’ve got a table of five players. They’re all very sharp it takes an average of three minutes for each of them to decide their actions, declare their actions, and resolve their actions. This, in itself, is of course a magical scenario that is not likely to ever happen, but that only makes this point worse.

Let’s also assume that you’re some sort of prodigy game master and you only take three minutes per monster. So… now you’re controlling anywhere from 15 to 100 monsters. If it’s 15, that means that it’s taking you something close to 45 minutes a turn. If it’s 100 or more, then gods help you. So the natural solution you come up with is to say “Well, I’ll just divide the monsters into groups.” That makes a lot of sense, but it also ends up being very weird when entire platoons are coming out of fireballs unscathed. You can find a way to justify it, of course (See Reason 1), but it can create some dissonance. Beyond that, even grouping enemies can be wonky as you still usually move every piece on the board. Assuming you’ve managed to use a board.

That isn’t even counting the fact that when complicated situations come up, players like to spend a long time discussing their options. This is reasonable to an extent, as their characters are likely to be much more prepared for any given adventure situation than the player is. However, the more complicated a situation is, the more likely you are to find yourself waiting while the players figure out who should go where. Sometimes this happens multiple times in an encounter and sometimes it takes an hour.

The end result is almost always something that takes the entire night. This is fine if you’re ready for it, but if your gaming group plays at night you might want to brew coffee or RedBull for everyone. And I hear you there saying “You can’t brew RedBull!” To which I reply “Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do! You’re not the boss of me!” However, if you can’t brew RedBull because you’re a quitter or a coward then you can also buy it at the store.

The best way that I’ve found to do this is to group enemies up for movement, and divide them into smaller groups for rolls. So you might have a whole platoon of like sixty guys moving at once (which makes sense if they’re in formation) but you would divide them into smaller groups of say, five, for purposes of a reflex save. They would probably attack in fives as well, which would require some more rules finagling. This allows you to hasten a lot of things while still maintaining some level of detail.

Reason 4. Player Reactions are Unpredictable

I talk a lot about the importance of being flexible, but there are certain situations where you have to really ramp it up. In an army battle, there are tons of variables and you have to make decisions that make sense for each of the characters that you control based on what the players are doing. And you have no way to predict what the players will be doing.
RPG players, by their very nature, are an unpredictable lot. If they’re in a room with a door in it and nothing else, they are likely to at least consider tunneling through the wall. In fact, there’s a story about a group of people who beat the Tomb of Horrors by simply mining their way around the dungeon. When players are faced with something as multifaceted as a huge battle, they’re going to have a ton of options, and some of those options will be things you haven’t considered as even possible. In fact, with a big fight, there’s a chance that none of the specific ideas you had in mind will end up being pursued by the players.

So, when you come to the table ready to have the players take part in a big fight, don’t be surprised if they only look at third options that you haven’t presented. There’s no really fair way to keep them from doing this either. Whatever they try should have a legitimate chance (however slim) to succeed, and if it is relevant to the combat then their success should have some effect. Now, if the idea they have is something that couldn’t reasonably affect the battle then that’s on them for burning their time. Just remember that your players will find a logic and operate on it, and if it’s something that makes some level of sense you should give it a chance to result in victory.

With all of this, it’s no surprise that massive army combat rarely sees play in systems like Pathfinder or Dungeons and Dragons. There are a lot of reasons why it’s VERY difficult to do well, but ever so often it works out. In my next entry, I’ll be discussing a session from a friend of mine’s campaign that involved a massive combat that was put together and run very well. Until then, stay tuned.

And again, it’s good to be back.

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  1. vishalicious · · Reply

    I’ve heard that the Savage Worlds system handles mass combat like this pretty fluidly. I’ve read through the core book, but haven’t run an RPG session in about 18 years, so I can’t say from experience.

    1. I haven’t played a lot of Savage Worlds, to be honest, it didn’t really resonate with me. Plus not a lot of people I know want to play it. I’d be interested in giving it a shot though.

      Also, you should get back into gaming. It’s still fun, I promise.

  2. Charles Lominec · · Reply

    Mass battles can quickly bog down a game. That’s why I keep the dice rolling only to what’s going on with the players, and I’ll determine how well the armies did based on how well the players did.

  3. Yeah, generally speaking only things that affect the players need to be resolved by dice. Otherwise I may still roll the dice but it’s really just to hear the sound they make.

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