Advice Needed: Running Massive Battles (Army vs. Army)

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How to Run Large Battle Scenes (Army vs. Army) - Need Advice!

So we're coming up to the climax of my story, which is an assault on the capitol city of the realm by a massive army (think the Battle of Pelennor Fields, when Mordor was assaulting Minas Tirith in Lord of the Rings, or Helm's Deep).

There's two elements to this part of the story.

  • The individual encounters of the party, as they defend the city.  One encounter is them defending the gate, another few are them making sorties into the battle-field, another is taking out the battle-ram, etc.  These are pretty straight-forward "normal" encounters (which happen to include an endless stream of minions) where the individual characters have a task to do among a massive battle, but is focused on their little area.  I don't need much help on this (though suggestions are welcome), it's the next bullet I need advice on...

  • The other element is how to manage the overall battle, and the armies fighting each other... this is what I need help with.

How do I manage the overall battle?  
Some of the characters are in a position to command portions of the army, and I want them to be included in how the forces move, how the army as a whole defends, etc.  But I have no clue what system to use to manage combat of an army of thousands against another army of thousands.

How abstract do you want the battle to be? For example, Legend of the 5 Rings includes a mass battle system in which the generals make opposing skill checks, potentially modified by circumstances. Depending on the size of the armor more or less checks are needed to eventually result in victory of one side or another. Meanwhile players can choose a specific approach (reserve, hold back, attack, frontal assault) and roll on a table to see what events they face or how much damage they take. It is really abstract though and there is no manouvering of troops. In 4e this would be treated as a skill challenge. Even if the PCs are not the general themselves you could have them influence the rolls through their own skill challenges and ideas. You could design this overall skill challenge in different scenes with the scenes taking place in between each regular encounter.
Of course, you could add a few more details by making a quick sketch and letting the PCs actually manouver troops. You might even design a normal fight with each figure representing a unit ;)

If you want something really detailed, you probably need to get yourself some kind of mass battle system and run an actual battle. I have done so a few times, but that is because my players at the time also liked wargames. It should be noted though that those games are designed around a balanced fight and usually pay little attention to strategy leading up to the battle. They might not be particularly well suited to simulating the fantasy battle. Who is going to win is also a lot less in your control, which at times can be good, but not if you know in advance the battle is going to be won by one side and the whole fight is about the condition the victor is by the end of the battle.
Madfox: good ideas!

I was definitely going to incorporate the individual encounters of the PCs as highly affecting to rolls of the armies.  They're level 16's, so they're certainly heroes with the ability to influence the battle.  Whether they succeed or fail in their individual encounters will gives additions or penalties to the "Good Guy Army" (did they successfully destroy the battering ram? Did they successfully kill the lieutenant on the front lines? Did they successfully defend the breach of the wall, and give their allies time to block it with something? etc etc)
Here are some links that are relevant to the topic. I happened to be looking up mass combat rules yesterday, killing time, and found these. Nice coincidence, eh?

I personally prefer "Formations as Swarms", with the PCs acting as leader units. Dividing each army up into groups of 50 men could streamline the combat immensely and not force you or your players to learn new rules.

Though from what you're asking for, you may also want to look up rules for morale.
Gunmage, a homebrew arcane striker. (Heroic Tier playtest ready.) GDocs link. (More up to date.)
My advice would be to worry about the PCs and let the hordes of nameless ones be more of a background element.  If the PCs succeed in their missions, their side wins.  If not, their side loses.
Another day, another three or four entries to my Ignore List.
Here are some links that are relevant to the topic. I happened to be looking up mass combat rules yesterday, killing time, and found these. Nice coincidence, eh?

I personally prefer "Formations as Swarms", with the PCs acting as leader units. Dividing each army up into groups of 50 men could streamline the combat immensely and not force you or your players to learn new rules.

Though from what you're asking for, you may also want to look up rules for morale.

Nice! Thanks!
Fair warning, I've never tried any of this, but I have done some planning and here are a few ideas I've come up with.

If the PCs will be doing a fair amount of the on-the-ground planning and commanding of troops, I've thought about having a second, smaller map in addition to the battle map that shows the siege location/battlefield.  Every few turns, as the PCs saw where the lines were holding, where they were making inroads, etc. they could direct their resources as necessary, while completing their own objective -- defending the gate in the OPs example.  

I also think I'd just be rolling d20s with modifiers per turn and per area to decide casualties on both sides.  

If the PCs are tasked with a specific objective but will not be making any strategic choices, I would still make use of the dice to see how the battle was going, but I might also have a couple different areas for the PCs to move and defend as they completed their goals.  In my mind, this would help keeping the combat encounters dynamic and would allow the PCs to try various tactics as the environment changed.  

@KCollette, thanks for the links.  Good read. 
To expand on what madfox11 said about L5R (and 7Sea) besides the general making a roll that is compared with the enemy general's roll all heroic PCs make individual rolls representing where they are in the middle of it all. The PCs may get into one on one duels or small group skirmishes to represent what they are doing with success or failure giving bounuses or penalties to their general.

Adapting this to 4E would probably be a seiries of short skill challenges (tactics, scouting, sabotauge, moral) followed by a combat with difficulty determined by how the skill challenge went. With the next skill challenge being affected by how well the comat went. 
The sea looks at the stabillity of the mountian and sighs. The mountian watches the freedom of the sea and cries.
I have some rules for a fairly simple 4E army system that I wrote sometime last year. I play tested it a little bit, and it seemed to work well. This system was made for an army that the PCs would be fighting with long term, but the "leveling up" rules can easily be dropped.  Let me know if you want them and I'll give them to you in a PM, or email them to you in PDF form (more likely)

The basic idea is, you use a battlemat, and the battle is treated almost exactly like a regular encounter.
There are 7 unit types, each that take a specific role in mass combat; infantry, cavalry, archery, etc.
Each unit is treated like a very simple PC class. They have attriputes that alter thie stats, and they have hitpoints.
Combat actions are simple and limited, so multiple units can be easily and quickly controlled my each player.
There is only one defense, and they use a small number of HP, so you can easily keep track of many units.

regardless, perhaps you can use a format of;
Army battle; Attack on the city
PC encounter; city defense
PC encounter; city defense
Army battle; repelling enemy force

If you want to make it feel like during the encounter they are defending a larger area, tape together a bunch of graph paper and map out a section of the city (perhaps near the gate?). Then use smaller markers for everything. I used those cheap big plastic beads you get in the craft section of the supermarket, and pushed a small blob of poster putty in them. Then the PC's can run around a really large area, fighting off tons of minons.
A couple questions you need to ask yourself is how does the encounter effect the overall story.

There could be:

War Encounter => Victory or Defeat inevitable, I already know how I want the story to go
War Encounter => Victory or Defeat leads to two different branching paths I already have planned

You also need to know who the players are in the story, Warlords, Paladins, and Fighters tend to lend themselves very well to a hero taking the frontline, but a Wizard's build might not be well suited for a map teaming with Garganutan swarms that do aura damage, and a rogue might be skewered before he can make a pitiful nova at half his damge due to the swarm function.

So while the swarm idea above is great, be sure you put targets and terrain for all your heroes. (A general for the rogue to assasinate, a ledge for your wizard to hide out on). Or very clear tactical objectives (blow up the dam, open the gate, lower the bridge, to allow some drama for unoptimized swarm combatants to use their skills)

Also securing the perfect magic item prior to the battle might make everyone enjoy it a little more, a melee weapon that has a close burst attack or a consummable item that lets one regain an expended power (to use that close burst fighter power twice) or even a freebie training session with the castle's man at arms that allows the heroes to retrain their powers right before the chain of encounters the battle.

I steal a lot of good ideas for my home campaign from things done by Living Forgotten Realms. For defending a large city, I highly recommend looking over IMPI 2-4 Goblins Strike Back, by Mickey Tan and Bruce Higa. You can freely download it at In it, you'll find the following:


A skill challenge showing how the PC's prepare the city for battle.
A skill challenge in which the PC's actively contribute to the cities defense.
A combat encounter in which elements of the enemy breach the cities defenses at the docks.
A final combat encounter with a balor general.

The two skill challenges are probably just what you are looking for. Make sure you set the DC's appropriately for your party's level though.
If you're playing 4e, you might try Piecework Armies.
I try doing what they suggested above. Making army type monsters and etc. Didn't work well. 
So I thought about this and what I came up with.

Since they lv 16, you should make this more story like. We got this badass heroes in a Lord of the
Rings Deep Helm type of scenario. You as the DM knows how this battle is going to end. So you give
the heorics 3 choices to worsen or improve the story or the result of the battle.

Poor: The gate is destroyed. A lot of casualites in the castle. Party retreat from battle. 
Only way to achieve this if things went bad from unlucky rolls or poor choices. 

Average: The gate still stands. A few casualites within the castle. The party successfully hold off
the invasion or however your story went. 

Hard: Think of this like a bonus mission. It can be like Killing The General or Destroying The Catapults.
Pretty much anything that would change the story for a better result.

Your players are lv 16 which means they are going to play this like Dynasty Warriors style.
 Players got objectives which are killing their most destructive weapons like Gaints or Dragons.
Ingore the minions, there not much a lv 1 enemy can do to a 16lv player. Although the minions are helpless against the 16lv fighter, they still can be useful when the player is too busy fighting one of the big guns on the battlefield.

I'll give an example.

DM: The goblins are charging up the ramp. They are trying to get through you.
Fighter: I cut them down.
DM: As the pile of dead goblins start to increase around you, a battle troll walks up the ramp as he tries to destroy the gate.
*server rounds later of fighting the troll*
DM: The troll looks like he's in trouble. the goblins that got passed you are now trying to save the troll by grappling your legs, your shield, and one is even trying to climb your back to block your view.
Fighter(OOC): Oh no. Guys, I need a little help over here. 
Wizard: Archers! Fire your volleys on general's position at the gate.!
Wizard(OOC): Our arrows will block out the sun.
Fighter(OOC): Then I shall fight in the shade.  
hard boiled armies  Its only 2.75!  its a great suppliment and has rules for armies at any scale and how to use PCs with them.

Or savage worlds mass battles work good for some more abstract stuff 

Play whatever the **** you want. Never Point a loaded party at a plot you are not willing to shoot. Arcane Rhetoric. My Blog.

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