Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mass Combat: You Guys Are Gonna' Hate Me

From the D&D Expert Rulebook (Cook/Marsh):

MASS LAND COMBAT: Although large-scale battles are beyond the scope of these rules, miniature rules such as SWORDS & SPELLS can be used.

From Labyrinth Lord (Proctor):


And so we come to the mass combat section of B/X Companion, specifically Part 9: Special Adventures...for what is warfare in a fantasy world but a "special" type of adventure.

I don't play many wargames myself...Warhammer 40,000 and Blood Bowl (if that latter counts as a "wargame;" I'm not sure it does). In figuring out how to work up a mass combat system, I reviewed my Stormbringer 1st edition (section 3.10, of course), Ars Magica's Ordo Nobilis ("lance" units), Pendragon, Albedo PC, the AD&D DMG (guess what...found nothing), and of course Mentzer's War Machine rules from his Companion set.

I also reviewed Jason Vey's Supplement VI, Forbidden Lore with his notes on Chain Mail. And of course, Gary Gygax's much maligned Swords and Spells.

"Much maligned?" Well, wikipedia says:

Swords & Spells proved unpopular, and its rules were discarded in later editions of D&D.

Considering S&S was published in 1976 and Mentzer's War Machine (a precursor to AD&D's Battle System) wasn't published till 1984...well, that a long time to go with all mass combat rules discarded. Even Cook is referring to them in his 1981 Expert set.

I reviewed S& is an ugly hodge-podge of rules and scribblings. The jam-packed notes of a fevered wargamer trying to make a modicum of sense bending the existing D&D rules to the regulations of a mass combat drill on the table-top. I can see everything Gygax wants to do. I can see why it is unpopular ("impenetrable" my be a better word). To a non-wargamer, like myself (playing a few editions of WH40K doesn't count), trying to read S&S is like trying to learn how to work "Magick" by reading Crowley's Book of Law without the context (truly, a decent comparison as I attempted this myself, once upon a time).

And yet, and yet...

Oh, there is some greatness lurking around the edges of S&S. Well, "greatness" is a bit of an exaggeration. But "decent kernel of an idea" or "diamond in the rough" may be an apter phrase. Here's the main issue, as I see it:

Old Schoolers (like myself) aren't looking for a fantasy wargame. If we wanted that, we'd play Warhammer. I want an RPG, and an RPG exists in the Shared Imaginary Space of its participants (all apologies to players of D20 and 4th edition with your 5' steps and such).

So for a mass combat system in my B/X Companion, I don't want to be mounting trolls and ogres, or mounted knights...even if they ARE on a 20:1 scale. I certainly don't care whether or not they form a "mass," a "column mass," a "column," or a "line." These wargame terms mean nothing to me, neat as they might be to read about in historic non-fiction.

Here are my considerations for a mass combat system:

- luck (dice) matter
- the commander's Int, Wis, and Cha matter (brains and personality)
- numbers (troop size) matter
- Armor class matters
- mounts (or lack thereof) matter
- Morale matters
- ALL mercenary soldiers from the B/X Expert set matter!
- Tactics matter

I also wanted these things to be of importance and defined:

- Morale
- PC (heroic) action

Here's what I did NOT want:

- anything that required miniatures of any kind any more than a normal B/X game
- any system that was far removed from normal B/X encounters
- lists and lists of bonuses and penalties a la the War Machine

And regarding the latter, here's the reason why: I want to cut down on the search and handling time. Period. I don't mind math (part of what I do for a living is heavily math-oriented). In fact, math is a bit (if not absolutely) necessary to keep the combat abstract. But I do NOT want to be having to flip through pages in a book to see WHAT I need to add and subtract, get me? I don't want to have to reference pages of tables in order to do the math.

And so I have come up with a mass combat system for my Companion. There are only a couple details to work out (and I have to write it up in a way that both makes sense AND doesn't take up more than 2 or so pages). But it meets all my other requirements. I ran a sample combat today using the Battle of Hastings as a scenario (except the 2000 English Housecarls were gnolls in chain and shield and the 5500 levies were orcs) and I was able to bring about the same results as the real life battle. I'll play-test a couple famous fantasy battles next (I'm thinking the Battle of the Pelennor Fields; it seems to me Tolkien included troop numbers in his books).

Lo and behold the system has many similarities to Swords & Spells. Not just a few, but many. Some of the inspiration for systems (like the PCs' roles) come directly from the text of S&S, even though S&S itself skips rules to go with the text.

Yes, there is math involved: multiplication, division, addition, and subtracting (plus the rounding of fractions). But it's nothing that can't be done easily on a calculator, Excel spread sheet, or piece of graph paper.

It's either put a system in place or leave everything in the hands of DM fiat. I'm not against DM fiat as a general rule, but then why bother hiring a dwarf crossbowman from a human heavy footmen? Let's use the rules handed down to us from Gygax, Arneson, Cook/Marsh, and the rest!

Coming soon to a supplement near you....


  1. While I agree that the three non-physical stats should matter, I think it's important that you figure out how to make a high level fighter better at commanding massed troops than a high level wizard, mechanically.