Ever since the days when I pitted my entire G.I. Joe collection against my brother’s Transformers in the Great Toy Wars of 1987, I’ve been a fan of army-scale combat. Also of LEGO third-party espionage efforts, but that’s a longer story and not relevant for today.
Unsurprisingly, I’ve brought that love to tabletop gaming, where I’ve been disappointed to find that, outside of classic wargaming, army-scale combat isn’t something I often find clear and consistent rules for. Most combat in tabletop RPGs happens at the squad combat level – a half-dozen or so heroes up against 1d20 baddies. Those mechanics and numbers don’t always scale cleanly when it’s suddenly hundreds versus thousands.
Whole new challenges get introduced, like the hold of command and fog of war. The individual qualities of a particular unit or weapon suddenly become less relevant than its type – a +1 cannon is still a cannon, an elite cavalryman is still up against the wall versus a dug-in line of spearmen. Tactical positioning becomes even more critical.
If you want to introduce all these changes to a standard tabletop game with the usual half-dozen heroes, you also want to make it personal. How can a small handful of people influence a fight on this scale and still feel involved in it without having to fight all thousand enemy soldiers individually? How do their skills and bonuses translate to commanding squads, sizing up enemy tactics and rallying fearful allies to stay in the fight?
Let’s answer the second question first: how do mechanics designed for squad combat translate to army-sized conflicts?
Naturally, some of this depends on your system, but let’s start with some fairly universal mechanics and how to scale them up. The core trio is very familiar: attack, defense, damage and hit points or wound track. Attack and defense you can model off the system’s more personal mechanics (D&D’s to-hit bonus and AC, for instance) and handle the clash of armies.
Damage and hit-points work a little differently with armies. HP is now more of a measure of force strength lost. At its simplest, you could give an army 1 HP per soldier, but it may be easier to track damage if HP serves as a multiplier (1 HP per 10 soldiers, for instance). You can either multiply damage (so that a 2d6 attack actually impacts a force 500 strong), or scale the HP down and leave the damage as-is, either way the math works out the same.
HP as a tracker for soldiers is one of the more valuable translations, because it should help you narrate the cost of the conflict and update players in terms of soldiers lost on either side. It will help maintain the sense of scale for the conflict so that it also feels army-sized.
To give your armies a bit of realistic flexibility, don’t give the whole army one set of stats. Instead, break it into a handful of sections (typically no more than 4, else it starts to weigh down the session) each with their own stat block. Divvy them up by purpose – archers, footmen, cavalry, healers – and you can more easily translate things like movement and ranged attacks to each section.
Now combat tactics from the squad level begin to translate. Flanking and gang-up bonuses translate to squads, archers who find themselves staring down charging cavalry may be up against new penalties, pikemen set against a charge get their double damage, and so forth.
If your system doesn’t have a mechanic that translates to a particularly clever move, you can always fall back on an action point system to the advantaged party. The squad with the advantage gets an action point they can cash in for a reroll or bonus die of damage or another similar advantage. In fact, if managing army combat begins to feel like a headache to track, use the action point system as your only advantage/penalty option on the battlefield to simplify things and speed up the ruling.
Once you have the core mechanics of surviving and killing for the different divisions of the armies at play, the next thing to consider are the less violent additives that make commanding an army different from commanding a squad.
First, there’s morale. PCs are presumably heroes or champions among the rank-and-file – even if they’re not officially in command, they have a charisma which can impact the battlefield. Skills like persuasion or perform can rally an army and give it a bonus for the battle ahead. Skills like intimidate can similarly help shatter the enemy’s confidence and give them a penalty on their attacks.
For PCs without charismatic skills, let particularly damaging attacks (like critical hits) automatically give their division a bonus on their next attack for the renewed confidence.
Skills like stealth and deception can let units move unnoticed on the battlefield and get solid surprise bonuses later in the fight, or force the enemy into bad positioning that may set them up for other units to finish off. Knowledges and perception can help spot enemy tactics or design a battleplan – all of them leading to bonuses/action points to help the PCs succeed against what is almost certainly a surperior enemy force.
Momentum (finishing off an enemy division) may lead to instant healing to keep a battered division in the fight longer. Fog of war is no different than splitting the party, as resources get divided and can no longer communicate and coordinate. Higher ground may halve a defending unit’s defense or rob them of the chance to attack back (or both).
Choke holds and positioning can become interesting. If only a portion of your division is exposed to the enemy, they aren’t likely to do as much damage, but there’s a sizable portion of the unit that won’t be able to take damage, either. A group in a bottleneck situation may only do half damage, but any damage that division takes this round cannot exceed a quarter of their HP.
So far, when talking army combat, we’ve been dealing with classic armies – ground-based infantry and cavalry. Expand that to naval or air battles and you can bring in vehicle rules, often as-is. Large vessels like carriers or battle cruisers functionally become a division unto themselves, but may also need stats to account for collisions and the like.
There’s plenty of room to build on, but I recommend starting simple and working your way up so you can gauge what works for your particular player group. If you’re not already playing Warhammer, there may be a reason for that, so stopping shy of that level of crunch is typically a good idea, but a brief foray into military tactics may be a delightful exercise for your PCs.
Speaking of your PCs: how do you may a battle on this scale still feel personable to the players, and how do you make the actions of four to six yahoos impact the success or failure of an entire army?
For making it personal, be sure to give your divisions personality en masse. Squadron names should suggest something about the people in them. If your cavalry divison calls itself the Silver Knights, it’s easy to think of nobility and shining examples of goodness. If your space marine shocktroopers call themselves The Hellhounds, you get a wholly different feel.
Name the squadrons within a division so that as the unit loses HP, you can say specifically which squads are getting lost. You don’t have to name every NPC in an army, just a handful of squads with enough flavor to make it easy for players to connect with them as people.
You can make it more personal by putting the PCs in the army as soldiers, either starting as the commander of a division or taking over when the first salvo knocks the real commander out (or sends the greenhorn lieutenant running for the hills).
This can also be a fun way to split up the PCs on the battlefield and enforce the fog of war. If they’re each commanding different divisions who have to move tactically around the battlefield, it gives them something other than their own division to worry about, and gives them each a moment to shine through their unit’s performance.
PCs who are in among the action should be exempted from the squad-level damage when squadrons clash – they take damage only when hit normally by individual soldiers. As a champion, they should be up against soldiers who are not nearly as powerful as they are so that they can take on several at once with a high chance of success. That will give them space to spend actions on command to rally their division, intimidate the enemy, or give orders to the unit to capitalize on.
PC commanders should also have an option to single out enemy commanders for single combat, although it should require several rounds for them to reach the commanders. Enemy commanders should be a decent challenge for a PC and are easy to plan as you would an opponent in a normal game. Felling an enemy commander should either impose massive penalties for the enemy division, or even cause them to surrender completely, giving the PC a major impact on the battle as a whole.
One big concern leading up to army-sized combat is that players are even more inclined to overplan. To avoid that, let players know they can essentially backfill the battleplan as it happens, allowing them to essentially pierce the fog of war a bit to talk across the table and coordinate once they really see how the battle is shaping up.
It won’t let them perfectly react to the situation, but it may help your less tactically minded players feel more reassured that they don’t actually have to be generals to survive the fight.
Fittingly, a lot can go into coordinating army-sized combat, but if you start from the core mechanics and give the PCs skin in the game with squads they recognize, you may find it remarkably easy to manage and incredibly fun to run.