As I continue to tinker away on my science-fantasy PbtA game, I’m wrestling with the idea of mass-combat rules (i.e. rules for simulating big set piece battles between groups, rather than PC-level individual fights). Are they necessary, or do you just abstract these things out? If you incorporate them, how deep should the special mechanics be, etc.? I get the feeling this is almost one of those recurring joke topics for any sort of fantasy action game (up there with people expecting rules for dual-wielding, maybe?). I’ve also seen a number of games that have said something like “we’ll get around to adding a rule for this in a later module!” and then never seem to… I wonder what’s so fundamentally difficult about incorporating them?
Off the top of my head, here are the options I can think of or I remember seeing:
Abstract/No Mechanic: How I feel like a lot of games/players actually do it. If you’re playing any modern-ish D&D or D&D-alike, this is probably it, right? Maybe it’s part of your story that you’ve ended up involved in some big epic fantasy war, but mechanically that’s probably going to look like your regular character-level combat against a small group of enemies. Pretty much no extra cognitive load since there’s no new rules to play with, but also nothing determining the outcome of the battle other than DM-fiat.
Incorporate into basic rules/moves: the classic Apocalypse World model. Gangs essentially fold into the PC’s and provide some small numerical bonuses, but are mostly fictional positioning. This feels smooth and simple but somehow I’ve never been totally satisfied with it. I’m not sure why? I guess it feels a little close to option 1, where the ‘armies’ are essentially background for the PC’s actions. If that’s the case, I might prefer to even not have the gangs and just fight on that character-level anyway, but that’s just me.
Create special moves/mechanics: Upcoming PbtA game Thousand Arrows does this, AW: Fallen Empires does a little bit? I’m sure non-PbtA games do too, but I’m not super familiar with any of those. Basically, create a special move or mechanic that’s specifically meant to simulate a battle, the ‘battalion’ or whatever unit probably has its own health, tags, abilities, etc. Obviously goes the longest way towards trying to mechanically simulate a battle, but also has the highest cognitive load with introducing new mechanics, stats to keep track of, etc. Maybe takes some of the narrative focus off the actions and capabilities of the PC’s, which I guess can be good or bad depending on your intended effect.
Anyway, how do people feel about these sorts of mechanics? Has anyone played RPG’s that aren’t specifically about mass-combat but has used sub-systems for it, or come up with their own? Do you like seeing mechanics for it, or would you prefer to leave it abstract and focus on PC-level action?