Mass Battles for RPGs

As you know, I’m DMing an RPG group at the moment. Recently, our intrepid band of adventurers ended up helping to defend a village against a small army. They organised a militia, collected allies and prepared for battle. And now I had to think of a way to play out this battle in the course of an RPG session.

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There is an old D&D supplement called Heroes of Battle which deals with just such questions; however it solely concentrates on the characters’ actions and treats the course of the battle as a narrative controlled by the DM. On the other hand, there are of course lots of fantasy mass battle rules out there, but those focus on the units and don’t leave much space for role-playing the actions of heroic individuals.

I wanted something that was very easy and quick – learning detailed wargames rules would interrupt the flow of the narrative and would be too much effort for one small game. I also wanted to have the players’ characters in the center, so their actions would have a crucial influence on the outcome of the fight, while still making it feel like a unit-based engagement.

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After some pondering, I decided to use Neil Thomas’ One Hour Wargames for this task. The rules are very simple and therefore easy to explain, but they also leave a lot of room for amendments.

What did I add? First, I allowed the players’ characters to take command of individual units. The activation was changed from IGO-UGO to an initiative-based sequence like in RPGs, the initiative of the character in command of a unit deciding when it would be activated. Also, characters could make an action each turn, such as attack or do magic, and the effect of their roll would give the unit a bonus for its attack roll (or, if the character made a healing spell, it would restore a couple of hit points).

Those effects were not overwhelming – a +1 or a +2 if the character made a successful attack action. For a critical hit, I decided that the unit would get a +2 and could roll two attack dice, chosing the best one. Successful healing would not restore more than 2 of a units hit points.

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After the players laid out their plans, I made a small sketch of the terrain. I’d already prepared small cardboard markers for the units, spontaneously adding some for the allies the players had made – they managed to convince a band of Orcs to fight in their side!

As far as I can tell, the game was a success. The rules were easy enough that they didn’t distract from role-playing, but the whole thing still made the players feel that their tactical decisions mattered. And, thanks to a well-planned ambush and their orcish allies, the villagers beat the numerically superior enemy!

Experimenting with One Hour Wargames has been great fun, and I can highly recommend to give it a try.

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