Mass Combat Ramble

My other insight from Burning Airships tonight was that RNC is wholly inappropriate for what we were trying to do with it.

Our flying ship, captained by Lunir, gets attacked by a squadron of manta-like creatures, and we used RNC. The mantas are a large group, attacking with their magical songs, while we fought back with a rank of archers and two ship-mounted ballistae. In hindsight, I realized a few things:

  1. Sponginess - any uncertainty in the applicability of skills to particular actions - is death to a tactical system like Fight/RNC/DoW. First of all, every action prompts at least a passing comment on whether you can Withdraw with Piloting (it’s a skill, so can you use it to Fall Back?) Skill-to-action applicability must be really crisp, or the gravity of the choice of action is replaced by OOC rule chatter.

  2. Sponginess in mass actions around helping dice is equally problematic. When I shoot, do all my archers shoot with me? Who rolls for the ballistae? How important it is that it takes out one manta out of fifteen. Should they have been using tons of helping dice, like we did? Blah blah blah. I find this happens in party-sized Bloody Versus, too, where one character’s skill overshadows all the others in terms of mechanical significance.

  3. Because some characters are more adapted to mass combat than others (one character is basically a politician/spymaster), the choice to use an extended mechanic has a big impact on spotlight time. How can we include him without making it seem like Oratory and Piloting are equally useful?

Right now I’m thinking a hack of Conflict is the way to go - partly because it’s simpler, but I think it will work well when backed by a few principles:

A. Push all the ‘balance of battle’ factors into disposition, like BE Firefight does. Outnumbered? Better troops? Better armor, weapons, rations, etc. All that goes into disposition. Thereafter, these things never provide mechanical help. (An important factor is the relative ambition of intent - if all you want to do is survive the day, that’s a lot easier than killing every last enemy dead. MG Conflict differentiates between these two types of intent - victory vs. killing, but they’re both the same difficulty.)

B. Focus on the characters’ actions alone. They might get help from other PCs, or possibly from a very important allied NPC, but never from ranks of soldiers. The character may order a volley of arrows, for example - but if so, focus entirely on the effectiveness of the command, not on the arrows. The ranks of archers were built into disposition, and they will presumably shoot with or without the player - the dice focus on the specific difference made by the PCs.

Narratively, I this works only in battles large enough that players can largely avoid harm if they want to (e.g. by staying near the rear and using Strategy), and where their deaths don’t meaningfully reduce the forces (because there’s still 20 soldiers or whatever). On the plus side, this makes it possible for players to take injuries during the battle. (We found the problem with Conflict + injuries is that it makes Attack the best action by far, because you can cripple the enemy team even though they still have dispo.)

C. Develop a strict mapping of skills to actions. At the moment I think there’d be two sets, depending on whether the intent is primarily maneuver-oriented, or harm-oriented. (If you’re trying to flee, then you ‘Attack’ by moving - combat shows up as rear-guard actions and would be Maneuvers.) Each side can use a different characterization. (So, the general whose army trying to crush you might lead a charge, Attacking with his Sword skill, while your side simultaneously Attacks with Speed or whatever.)


I think you nailed the big problems with using RnC to model this kind of fight. No disposition is a BIG one… it’s very difficult to bring an intent into that kind of fight, and this is a problem we’ve run into twice now. Both times, there was a lot of inconclusive jockeying for position and ineffective shooting, and this is with characters who are fairly well built for ranged combat. I can see it being really tense as two or three characters stalk each other through tall grass or a forest, but it’s not appropriate for what we’re trying to do.

And I know the argument against having a mass combat system - large battles should play out in whatever way is most dramatically effective, but when we’ve built characters with Command and Tactics, it would be nice to have a conflict system that used them. So I agree that either hacking Mouse Guard’s Conflict system or BE’s firefight system (the latter I think is probably not a good choice for medieval warfare, but has a lot of really cool moving parts that could be re-purposed) is probably the way to go.

Either that, or treat it as a series of linked tests. Both sides test tactics to come up with a plan, both sides test maneuver skill or command to get into position, then test steel or something to see which general’s nerve breaks first, or something.

I’ll admit I still hear the siren song of wargaming, and want to build armies using lifepaths, but I recognize this is a sickness. Still, we need something.

For the record, I think this is a fine way to do things. I’ve started adjudicating some combats this way - just making my own decision about what’s happening and calling for it.

I get to post my two favorite links tonight!!

I’ve played using it upwards of a half-dozen times and it works fine, though it needs to be updated to Gold.

Doesn’t completely solve the problem of someone not built for combat, but clever of application of Wises and such can really

Those Battle! rules were very neat, and a good read - thanks for the tip! Don’t know when I’ll get a chance to use them in my current campaign, but I sure would love to at some point…

Just one point, the link is broken but that seems to be because the last ! is not included. Just do a search for “Battle!” on the Wiki and you’ll find it.

Ugh, don’t know why that happened. Thanks!

Please post if you do wind up using them.