Favorite Takes on Mass-Combat?

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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?


I have never found a Mass Combat mechanic in an RPG that wasn’t trash. Invariably the switch from individual focus on the characters and their narrative to a complex battle system is just jarring. As someone who also plays wargames, its also always hard to ignore that these mass battles system often make me long for Warhammer Fantasy, which is a game I hate.

What works for me is to break a large battle down into a series of scenes, smaller battles and conflicts, that put the focus on the character’s actions and allow the outcome of those scenes determine the outcome of the larger battle. For example, if the players are part of a larger force storming a castle so that they can take out an evil general, I might do a series of five combats:

Battle 1 – “We Approach At Dawn” - A combat in the forests outside the fortress against light skirmishers. The players need to defeat all of these guys, but they’ll break easy and run for the safety of the fort. Every one that escapes will result in a larger force meeting the players in…

Battle 2 – “Fields of Battle” – The players and a number of allied soldiers fight a number of enemy soldiers (partially determined by how well they did against the skirmishers) outside the castle walls. Here the key is ensure the survival of allies.

Battle 3 – “Engines of War” – The players must fight off waves of enemy soldiers bracketed by volleys of arrow fire as a siege engine is moved into position. Once its in place, they must lead their allies up and over the walls in a gatehouse. Again, the key here is ensuring the survival of allies.

Battle 4 – “The Gatehouse” – Here the players must fight their way through a horde of defenders to make it to the general’s throneroom, and every round they spend here the general has more time to prepare and grow more powerful. However, before the combat begins, every surviving allied soldier engages and ties up an enemy soldier – if enough allies survived battles 3 & 4, the PCs will cakewalk this part and skip right to…

Battle 5 – “The General” – Standard BBEG fight, outcome determines the war.

You just fill in the descriptions of scenes with more fighting happening off in every direction, but keep “camera focus” on what the PCs are doing. Tends to work out great.


Check out ‘Thousand Arrows’. I adapted it for the Warband moves in my Dark Age PbtA, Eotenweard.

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The Battle Moves in Apocalypse World are nice, I particularly like the Melee where you make one roll and that spins out into several discrete results.


I’ve come to a similar place, I think mass combat generally works best like the weather - an ambient condition that creates danger around the PCs and that they can be part of but when you’re actually on the ground in a battle, it’s pretty hard to know what is going on most of the time, so that’s quite fitting. Of course when you’re on the ground in a battle you also don’t have time for long anime-style philosophical conversations with your allies or opponents, but I’m 100% here for those…

I think if I was running it now, I would simply have clocks for each participating side and increase or decrease them depending as a consequence of player actions and rolls - that is enough to make it clear how things are going and present a degree of tension without having to go into a lot of detail.


If I’m going to be playing in a game where mass combat gets some sort of focus, I will almost always prefer that this focus be given through playing out the combat as a full combat. So, my answer is “break out the wargame, we’re doin’ this!”

Fiat responses, battle-as-backdrop, or the like are intensely frustrating for me. (No strike against games and styles that spotlight them, but they just don’t do it for me One Bit.)


You might find it difficult to find such an old RPG now, but the Bushido game had a really good mass battle system.

Essentially the battle ebbed and flowed according to the generals and their rolls and various factors, and each ‘turn’ (was it hour? Can’t remember) each of the player characters would roll for an encounter. The table that they rolled on depended upon whether their side had the upper hand, their side was losing, or both sides were evenly matched. There was more chance for honour and easy victories if you were winning, much worse if you were losing. At the end of the battle there could be a final encounter on the ‘winning’ column or ‘losing’ column to see what happens to you at the end.

Before each encounter roll you could decide whether you were being ‘cautious’, ‘bold’ or normal, which modified the roll for the kind of encounter. Too bold or too cautious could cause you problems :slight_smile:

It was a really good way of including personal stakes within mass battles. Your characters were not influencing the battles, but the overall flow of the battle was felt in how your encounters were going.

I’ve never come across a better system for it.



Apparently it is still available! https://www.fantasygamesunlimited.net/product/bushido/


there is this neat little one from a gauntlet user

Few Die Well for use with Dungeon World