A Simple And Fun Way To Run Army Battles
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0982
Today, RPT game master Scott Brown shares with us a cool and simple system for running epic army battles as stories in your campaigns.
Many fantasy tales include large battles with armies, but most RPGs don’t work well telling this kind of story. Looking for the best way to do climactic battles in my game, I came across tons of different ways GMs have done it. And the one I settled on was the simplest and most fun of all the approaches I’ve tried.
The 5RD Method To Mass Battles
The way I run army battles is similar to a 5 Room Dungeon. There are a bunch of events that take place during a battle, not just one mass melee.
You have the various events linked together with a loose narrative. You then run each event of the battle as an individual encounter.
For each event there is an objective. So there is both a positive outcome and a negative outcome.
And here is where you throw in the first difference from the 5RD model: you throw the PCs two or three encounters at once.
Do they split up and try to accomplish all three objectives, or stick together and attempt just one?
You can tailor these to your group’s play style. If your group hates splitting up, offer only two options. If they have a lot of players or might go for the split, offer them three or more.
Positive & Negative Outcomes
For each objective the PCs fail to achieve, the negative outcome happens. If they don’t attempt an objective, it gets the negative outcome, as well.
Negative outcomes affect the events that follow, giving the enemy advantages.
Positive outcomes stymie the enemy’s plans and the PCs’ side gains advantages instead.
This all culminates in a final encounter, a final climactic fight that might decide victory or defeat for the PCs’ side.
And each previous event contributes some advantages to one side or the other, so PC actions matter.
Here’s An Example
Event 1: Meeting engagement
1a. The enemy brings up their artillery. Can the PCs damage or destroy some of them?
Success results in no enemy artillery support in a later event.
Failure results in a valued ally being pinned down and unable to help in following battles or the climax.
1b. Infiltration to gather intel. This can be done by NPCs trying to gain intel on the PC army, or vice versa.
The key ingredient is stealth. If the enemy realizes you’ve seen their battle plan, secret weapon, or force composition, they’ll change it to compensate. This could mean a significant part to play for primarily sneaky glass-cannon types and social characters focused on diplomacy or con artistry.
Success means the PCs get a more favorable position for a subsequent battle.
Failure means the enemy gets the better position.
1c. Scouting patrol. This encounter is to capture prisoners for interrogation, intentionally try to draw fire to determine where the enemy lines are, sabotage a bridge leading to the battlefield, or some other martial mission.
Success might mean the PCs get to information to set an ambush for enemy reinforcements, or they delay enemy reinforcements thus reducing enemy numbers in subsequent battles.
Failure gives the enemy the opportunity to launch a surprise attack, gain additional or better troops for a later battle, or have troops with better equipment.
Event 2: Main Battle
2a. Enemy at the gates. The attacking side tries to break down the defending side’s gate, wall, tower, trench, or some such defensive position by force. Maybe they brought a troll?
Success means the PCs protect the position, preventing a breach in the lines.
Failure results in additional troops for the enemy, fewer troops for the PCs, or a worse starting position for the PCs in the final battle.
2b. Flanking maneuver. One side tries to flank the other.
This could be a classic flanking maneuver, undermining the walls causing an undefended section of wall to crumble and allow enemy troops through, scaling a wall using ladders or magic, or even air dropped troops.
This encounter has the PCs rushing to get to the flanking position and restore the situation before it’s too late, by carrying the magical bomb away before it explodes, fighting off the dragon carrying hobgoblin paratroopers, or pushing heavy ladders off the walls while under fire.
Success means the PCs get extra healing from the clerics stationed at the defended point or they get extra potions or buffs from the grateful troops.
Failure results in friendly troops sacrificing themselves so the PCs can escape. The friendly troops could be captured, surrendering rather than being massacred, requiring an additional choice on whether to mount a rescue effort.
Event 3: Climax
The final battle between the enemy commander and the PCs, where the positions, gear, friendly troops, morale, and more has been predetermined by the outcome of previous events.
This is just one example. You could adapt this for the PCs being on the offensive instead of defending, being the commanders instead of elite troops (by asking them what strategy they want to use before hand) and so on.