Mass Combat

Okay, here’s where my head is at with Mass Combat.

This is different than other systems out there in the sense that it attempts to model - not the army - but the influence the players have on a battle that would otherwise be a foregone conclusion.

Despite its length, it’s a hop skip and a jump from the GM calling for tests free-form, with the goal of imposing making a consistent statement about what factors cause battles to be won or lost. This shows up at a very methodical disposition calculation.

The goal here is (if the players are in a military-themed game, which they probably ought to be if you’re using these rules) to direct the players’ attention to addressing these factors before the battle.

It’s not playtested (and not even quite finished!), but I’d love to hear some feedback.

I’m reading it, and looks great so far. I’m making a PDF version with a more Burning Wheel vive. I hope you don’t mine. (I stole the art from the Mount Burner.) Tell me what do you think.

Here is what I have done.

Neat. It’s more detailed than I expected! Next time I run a battle, I’ll try them out. Players LOVE untested rules that weigh on life and death!

Woah! I’m a little surprised, I’m going to do the same thing, but using my own art. It will be letter-sized, simply because people will be printing it on their own printers.

Now I’m scared. :slight_smile:

Good start!

My comments:

  1. I think that pcs should definitely be responsible for the success of their unit, but you need to leave narrative room for heroic pcs in a losing battle. Perhaps if they are rank-and-file or small-unit commanders, you can roll the strategy of the opposing overall commanders as a versus test, instead of just losing 2 to disposition each turn? I can see how this is dis-satisfying, but I also like the idea of pcs sucessfully fighting a heroic rear-guard action in a line that is crumbling. cf. The Song of Roland

  2. Battles are going to have really low dispositions in these rules, and are likely not to make it through a whole exchange in many cases. Assuming pretty average conditions (B4 Tactics, hundreds of combatants, moderate exposure makes 6, for example) we are looking at dispositions that will only start in single-digits and go down by 2 at the end of the exchange, it seems like no battle will likely last multiple exchanges (most of the disposition modifiers mean one side has a significant advantage, not that both have more disposition).

  3. I think you need to explicitly think about how this works with naval combat, especially given the battle which prompted it. What skills do characters use for speed (Rigging? Pilot?). What adds to disposition? Characters are trapped on a ship, and some of them may not have clear actions that they can take. (Lunir has Tactics and Command and Oratory, Derelion has Bow and Command, but if we are in a ranged battle, what action can we pass to Culhir?) Does a ship or its armament count as advantage in disposition?

  4. Perhaps there should be a rescue mission individual action which has the harm or lull flag? (thinking of what we used the system for)

  5. Need to add wonderment under Faith and Sorcery, I think.

  1. I think that’s covered by intent and compromises. If your intent is to cover the retreat of your army, and your enemy’s goal is total annihilation, and you win but have to offer a serious compromise (which is likely), then you could offer that the bulk of the army gets away, but the rear guard is eviscerated.

  2. I don’t think that’s true… each side going to have superiority in a few areas, which will lead to significantly higher dispositions, and once fortifications come into play, battles could take quite a while. The disposition ticking down may take some time to calibrate properly, but I think it works. Assuming you have a mixed force of 500 light cavalry and infantry, split evenly between archers and spearmen, and you’re facing a unit of, say, 200 knights, and both sides have an applicable skill of 4 with 2 or three wises and forks each, you could easily start with dispositions of 13 or 14 on each side.

  3. Culhir can test beginner’s luck, or use Song of Soothing on the injured. And I’d probably rule that the ship gives us Artillery Superiority and a palisade or keep.

There’s precedent for the automatic loss of dispo: BE Close Combat action has similar rules.

I shall have to borrow BE and have a look through it.

Michael, I added a note about wonderment, above.

I still think on the low end, perhaps two rival street gangs, it will generate so few disposition that the first volley will almost certainly decide the fight–in which case it might as well be a bloody versus (2 gang leaders with Brawl of 4 and three helping dice each, with no advantage would be 3-4 disposition on average). Perhaps put a stat (I was thinking perception, for positioning) or another skill (Tactics + Command) in the original disposition roll? Mouse guard adds to base, as does Dow–I think it needs to be more analogous.

I am a little concerned that having limited goals without corresponding bonuses penalizes the characters with the more limited goals. If you are trying to accomplish something smaller, perhaps you should get a dispo bonus? (Perhaps that can be the base to use for starting dispo: 2 for limited, 4 for moderat, 6 for broad). Otherwise, the larger goal trumps, and you get into the mouse guard problem of being penalized by not being ambitious enough in your goals.

If you have two street gangs, one’s still going to likely have superior numbers, superior ranged weapons, superior equipment, or position, or something that will give a dispo bonus. Also, you can take Defend actions to boost your disposition. I think we should playtest it before we worry too much about it, and I’d tend to err on the side of small dispositions rather than large ones.

Your idea for the scope of intent is already in the rules. You get a bonus if your opponent is trying something big. So an army trying to annihilate a smaller force will be giving the smaller army a +3 disposition bonus if the smaller army is just trying to get away.

So the 7th St. Wiseguys are trying to wipe out the Poor Boys. The Poor boys, who are outnumbered, fort up in an abandoned warehouse, and plink at the Wiseguys with slings and thrown objects. The Wiseguys, who are all wearing some sort of armour, carrying clubs, and have a makeshift battering ram, are trying to obliterate the Poor boys, who are just trying to hold on until the Guard shows up to break up the fight.

Wiseguys get superior numbers, heavier troops, there are dozens of them, and they beat the Poor Boys in their last fight. All in all, they get +5 dispo before rolling
The Poor Boys have a fort, ranged weapon superiority, and are going up against a broad intent. They get +6 or 7 before rolling.

There are lots of bonuses available… I think Fueseboy’s intent with this is to make players actually generate them in the fiction before the fight.

I had missed the way Exposure was being used in that table, and see that this is already included.

I still think the examples assume lots of advantages for both groups, and think that a battle should be just as interesting to script for groups out in the open and evenly matched. Giving them lots of different superiorities to inflate disposition confuses the issue in my opinion.

I look forward to testing it out–I think it is looking like we will have both naval and ground combat next session.

I’ll map some skills for airship combat so we can try it out next session if it comes up.

Phew, lotsa comments! Thanks.

Our naval battle isn’t entirely appropriate for these rules, because the principals on either side really can end the battle decisively. Heroic rear-guard actions can show up in these, definitely. High-skill players in badly outnumbered armies will tend to win all their individual tests, but still lose to the disposition countdown. (This is the intention, anyways, the numbers may need adjusting.)

I’m inclined to agree the dispositions will be slightly low. I think rather than advantages + skill roll, it should be advantages + skill exponent + skill roll.

I haven’t adapted this for sky ship combat, I’ll leave that to Tim (who seems inclined), but I think in our battle the dispositions might be around 10. The spider and night beasties won engagement, are better rested, have higher mobility, and have the heavy troops advantage. There are dozens of them. That adds up to +6s.

Giant monsters are a bit of a stretch,but perhaps truly vast, nigh unkillable monsters might roll Forte for disposition. G5 Forte might produce 3s, so dispo 14.

Our side is better supplied (we’re all well fed, while the other animals are hunting and therefore presumably hungry), we outnumber them (I think), we have both ranged (bows) and artillery (ballistae) advantage, training (perhaps), there are dozens of us and the enemy has a moderate-exposure objective (eat us). We may also get 1 for the ship and/or ship’s castle as fortifications.

That’s a total of +8s. If it’s Lunir rolling tactics (no idea, B3?) then it would be a dispo of perhaps 12-13 for us.

Culhir was fighting ably with a sword, which was the Fight individual action. There’s all sorts of things he could do, doing things with the rigging, Observing the battlefield, rousing speeches, to say nothing of BL tests he could make. About the only thing that doesn’t really fit in is his little escapade with the spider - if you were using these rules, you wouldn’t normally introduce a non-combat aside (much as you wouldn’t do it in RNC), although it fit in our call-for-tests-as-GM-sees-fit approach we were taking.

Ship armament counts as artillery advantage, yes.

This could be a Move with Haste individual action (Lunir flying the ship), under either an Attack (given that our battle intent was merely to escape harm) or Maneuver.

For naval combat generally, I think there should be a ‘Pilot’ action that would take Tactics or Piloting and could be used for all four battle actions. It basically corresponds to the ‘Direct Troops’ action - except rather than telling them where to go, you steer the ship and take them there yourself.

That’s very interesting. I could see treating relevant Spell Songs the same way (resolve with +2 Ob, +2s). I guess wonderment can easily do as much damage as swinging a sword, if a half-dozen enemy soldiers hesitate. That would definitely be an ‘In Harm’s Way’ effect.

Can you explain further? As I see it, scripting is just a thin veneer over the narrative of what the players choose to do during the battle. It’s closer to Infection than it is to Fight.

The decision to have disposition inflated by numerous advantages is deliberate to try to get players to prepare for battle. Now that I think of it, this is perhaps more relevant to Struggle-type campaigns like Grunweld than it is for Quest-type games like Burning Airships. In a Quest, you’re entering the unknown all the time - in a Struggle, on the other hand, you have a chance to invest in understanding the enemy and preparing to meet it.

Although if skyship combat became regularized through a public disposition calculation, we would prepare for it - we might have different dispo mods for different emotional layers, for the high ground, for how much of the human crew is awake, for how hard we’re driving them, etc.

I commented on this, above, but I think the main changes would need to be:

a) a different disposition to get us to focus on things we can control that are important for our campaign (e.g. the state of repair of the ship, how hard we’re driving the crew, what emotional layer we’re on, etc.), and

b) a Pilot action, which is the analogue of Direct Troops, but takes either Tactics or Piloting (and is also ADFM). Instead of telling troops what to do, you just take them there!

This is great. Probably much better for most regular BW campaigns than my and gooderguy’s own Battle! rules, as much as I love them.

I think the dispo countdown should be 1 per, not 2 per.

Please keep us posted as you work more on the doc!


We playtested tonight during Burning Airships. Much to say, which I’ll report later, but overall it was extremely satisfying. I like the balance between the free-form nature of getting to choose your individual actions right in the heat of the moment, and scripting as a team.

The scripting was tense. Tense! Our battle went three exchanges and had some surprising turns. We were out-dispoed slightly, but more importantly we were badly outclassed by the enemy night hunters and yet, somehow, we turned it around. In the second exchange we started bailing water madly, trying to dig our way out of a major compromise.

That only partly succeeded, we wound up 6 to 1 at the start of exchange 3. What was Tim going to script? We badly wanted more Defends, but was he going to Feint us out? The downtick would claim him if he did. Or would he try to dig his way out also? This led to a very heated out-of-character debate about what to script. I wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or not, but in hindsight it was a blast.

There are a few things to get crisper about, wounds and PC help in particular. I’ll say more soon.

I was so right, and Larkvi was so wrong =)

And I’m explicitly allowed to gloat for two more sessions based on the OOC failure consequence we decided.

That was the second exchange! In the third exchange, we all came to the realization that his only option was to Defend, so we matched.

I really liked it. I would like to see a Lull be side-specific, and negate disposition loss after that round for the side that had it–that would really add some depth to the scripting.

Also: what happens if a You! is spent to have the commanders face off in battle, and one dies? Assuming one commander/side, is it over?

No, these mechanics are explicitly not for situations where any single action the players or principals might do could win the battle, nor do they assume that the players are even in control of the army. It doesn’t simulate battle between opposing generals. I should make the rules clearer on this point - it will show up most in terms of how the GM narrates the enemy army actions. If players Attack, cutting down enemy observers, the enemy Defend might be driving the players back with a hail of arrows, not whatever the enemy general is doing.

If a player-commander is slain, the army will fight on: someone else could perhaps use Strategize, Oratory or Direct Troops actions to represent taking the place of the fallen commander, but only if anyone cares.

If NPC commanders on either side are slain, there’s no mechanical effect at all. (Though, the GM might be narrating this to explain the effect of a successful Attack or Feint, or even the volley’s tickdown.)

That’s a good idea!

Before I erase the scripting sheets, I wanted to record the playtest and share it here (I think Fuseboy has it written down as well):

For the following L: = Lunir; C: = Culhir; D: = Derelion; N: Night-Terrors (the enemy)
I was acting as the caller for the players, and had the scripting sheet for our side.

We lost the Engagement Roll (which was based upon Derelion’s Observation versus the Night-Terrors’ Stealth). In terms of Narrative, Derelion was on deck addressing his Marines when surprised by a great pack of Night-Terrors. Culhir was also on deck, and Lunir was in the Captain’s Quarters tending to his sick wife. He was explicitly not allowed to act in the first Volley and needed to be notified.

Disposition: Lunir (Ship’s Captain) 18 [Limited Exposure: Escape with minimal harm] versus Night Terrors 20 [Moderate Exposure: inflict heavy casualties].

Modifiers for Players: 1s enemy exposure (raiding), 1s better supplied, 1s artillery, 1s training, 1s dozens, 5s keep
Skill Exponent (Tactics) B4, +2 help rolled 5s + 9s = 18s.
Modifiers for Enemies: 2s winning engagement, 2s vastly outnumbering, 2s hundreds, 1s mobility advantage
Their skill exponent was 8, +7s and rolled 5s = 20s.

Exchange 1
V1: D: Attack N: Feint
Derelion Attacks with Archery (no effect)
[Clock Ticks] 16 v. 18
V2: C: Defend N: Attack
Culhir Sings, raising the alarm, but the horde is successful in doing damage -4 to Disposition
[Clock Ticks] 10 v. 16
V3: L: Maneuver N: Maneuver
Lunir comes on deck and takes control of the ship’s navigation and motive force, working for a better position. The horde heads for the bottom of the Ship, punching a hole into Belowdecks. L: buys Impede, Advantage, Lull–has to discard extra successes. N: buy Advantage, Lull, You! to open up Belowdecks
[Clock Ticks] 8 v. 14

Exchange 2
V1: L: Defend N: Feint (?)
Lunir manages to pull out a staggering number of successes from Threnodic Harmony (a Piloting Spell-Song) using the advantages from the maneuver, fate, and his Driven C-O. +6s! This also wastes the N: You!
[Clock Ticks] 12 v 12
V2: D: Defend N: Attack
Derelion uses Command to get his Marines in good order and lead a more coordinated defence. +3s!
[Clock Ticks] 13 v. 10
V3: C: Defend N: Attack
Culhir Sings the Lament of Stars to dazzle the enemies with Wonderment. It negates the attack, but does not gain any ground.
[Clock Ticks] 11 v. 8

Exchange 3
The Tim has established narratively that the N: are enraged and in disarray. After we turned it around in the last Exchange, I argue with Countercheck that this means they will attack, not Feint, and that we should Defend. Countercheck is right, they Feint, and the OOC Compromise is he gets to use this against me for the next two sessions.
V1: L: Defend N: Feint
Lunir makes a rousing speech, using Oratory to encourage his crew to fight in the ship’s defence. Uses Fate and a C-O, manages to hold the Feinting N: to a standstill.
[Clock Ticks] 9 v. 6
V2: D: Attack N: Feint
Derelion uses his knowledge of Tactics to successfully anticipate the shifting of the swarm of hunters, and is there to meet them and gain the upper-hand. +1s
[Clock Ticks] 7 v. 3
V3: C: Defend N: Attack
Culhir leads the crew in song, rousing their spirits and putting them in better stead to fend off the attack and regroup. +1s
[Clock Ticks] 6 v. 1

Exchange 4
The N: are badly on the ropes, bu the engagement is still not as favorable as the players want. We discuss it, and realize that the clock determines that the N: must defend for the first action, if they want any chance to stay in, therefor it is safe to Defend. I want to Defend all three actions to rebuild or disposition above half, but Fuseboy, playing Derelion’s eagerness for battle, insists on leading an attack to finish them, not wanting to risk that they will Feint in the second volley, so it becomes a matter of whether Lunir can build enough disposition in V1 to reduce the severity of the compromise, and whether Derelion can end it in Volley 2. Countercheck’s character stands ready to defend in Volley 3, if the N: survive that long.
V1: L: Defend N: Defend
Lunir uses Command to restore shipboard order and functioning. +4s. N: regroup away from the ship. +2s.
[Clock Ticks] 8 v. 1
V2: D: Attack N: Maneuver
Derelion, putting himself In Harm’s Way, takes his Sword to the foes, making an example for the crew, but fails to drive them off, and takes a Midi wound.
[Clock Ticks] 6 v. -1

The ship comes out victorious, though it has lost two-thirds of the Disposition. The Compromise is based off od the Moderate Exposure goal of the N: to inflict massive casualties, so it is decided that this ship is lightly damaged, but that the crew are very injured. All Relationships survived, but any Circles roll to contact a crew member or Marine is at +2 Ob until the ship has time to rest, recuperate, and rebuild the crew. If the circles test fails, the crew member is dead.

The first test of this happens immediately after the battle, as the sails were narratively shredded during its course. Lunir had to circle up the Sailmaster to get the repaired–failure would have meant that he was dead and the ship was not able to sail as fast or be as maneuverable until they were replaced.

Also, Counterceck was right about the argument being in the third Exchange–I suppose I will hear of that for two sessions, too!