massive battles

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i imagine that most campaigns would have a war event occur within it but how can PCs actively participate in the battle? apart from preparing forces, getting allies and other odd jobs that may help one side, if i wanted the PCs to actually fight on the battlefield amongst hundreds and thousands of troops how do i do it?  
This is something I have a few ideas for and have been looking for other ideas on for a while now. My current campaign places the PC's incharge of leading a rebelion against tyranical dragon over lords and their armies of all manner of dragon kin. So I have thought of a couple ideas.

1. The players can play the role of generals each leading their own section of the army. The battle would play out like a war game such as Warhammer.
The pros and cons of this system is that the players are incharge of making real tactical decisions that will effect the flow of battle. The problem is that it is hard to factor in their charaters them selves and the players may not feel like they really made much of differance personally because they are just telling their troops what to do and the troops are really doing all the heavy lifting. 

2. The players are on the battle field hunting down key targets as a special forces unit while the battle is going on around them. For example the enemy forces have a number of trolls or maybe a necromancer that is raising the dead troops to fight for their side and it is up to the players to them down to turn the tide of battle. This is really cool because the players really get to feel powerful as the smash their way through waves of enemies and take down the big threats that would desimate the average foot soldier. The problem is that it doesn't give the players a real sence of fear that they could actually lose the battle and tends to feel a bit cut scene-ish. 

3. The players could each lead a single unit of troops moving them into formation with eachother and the rest of the army. This might be my favorite one expecially if you let the players have owner ship of it and they really feel like it is THEIR unit rather than a group of lesser soldiers that are just fallowing oders. Give each of their units a handful of meaningful NPC's that the players get attacted too and allow the players to give the unit some special training that will let them function the way the player wants. I really like this because it is sort of a middle ground between the other two options. The players have to work together by positioning their units stratigicly in realation to eachother and it gives them the sence that they are on the battlefield with their men (or women) and feel like they are really powerful. 

I am sure you could find ways to combine these three options to suit the way you and your players want to play the battle.   
I remember asystem from some game that run army battles thus: each character fighting in the battle would have a personal engagement in midst of the battle. The characters personal performance then foreshadows the overall performance of the army the character is supporting.
I like to treat major battles as a skill challenge, but instead of skill checks, individual encounters generate successes or failures (those encounters can be combat, RP, skill challenges, whatever). Basically, have the PCs play out key parts of the fight that will influence the tide of the battle (killing a leader or champion, plugging a hole in the line, rallying the troops, etc) while the main fight just serves as descriptive backdrop for the encounter.
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I'm actually going to have a war in my game.  I've thought about how to do it for a long time, but I figured out the best way for myself.

I do something like the quote below.  I will have the players on the battle field, and their job will be to hunt down targets(commanders, siege, elite squads).  I will have a dwarf tally and an enemy tally.  They will go down by a specific number each round.  This number is influenced on how the party prepares before battle(finding allies, finding lost class options for npcs, research, and negotiations with surrounding territories).  When the target is slain, the number for both forces change, or reinforcements prevented.
In order to give them a sense of fear though, the enemy will have the bigger number and will reduce slower at first.  While the party will not be this force that slays everything single handed, they will have a definite impact.  In fact, I've made it so hard, that I've had to create a sort of helper system in the form of old allies(players who left the game due to schedule changes and the like).  The longer that player was in my game, the more impact (s)he will have in assistance(which can be anything from a +1 to defenses to outright healing or tanking).  Bringing everything together is a massive undertaking, but it will be worth it. 

2. The players are on the battle field hunting down key targets as a special forces unit while the battle is going on around them. For example the enemy forces have a number of trolls or maybe a necromancer that is raising the dead troops to fight for their side and it is up to the players to them down to turn the tide of battle. This is really cool because the players really get to feel powerful as the smash their way through waves of enemies and take down the big threats that would desimate the average foot soldier. The problem is that it doesn't give the players a real sence of fear that they could actually lose the battle and tends to feel a bit cut scene-ish.

In the mass battles of my Eberron campaign I just made up stats for most of the PC allies being minions with minor effects. To minimize dice rolling I just made it so that the minions auto hit things that the PC's have already hit that turn and enemies auto hit PC's that the enemy generals have hit this turn.

It made for some pretty fun and exciting combats. 

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i imagine that most campaigns would have a war event occur within it but how can PCs actively participate in the battle? apart from preparing forces, getting allies and other odd jobs that may help one side, if i wanted the PCs to actually fight on the battlefield amongst hundreds and thousands of troops how do i do it?  



I would just focus on the activities of the PCs and have the rest of the battle taking place in the background.
i imagine that most campaigns would have a war event occur within it but how can PCs actively participate in the battle? apart from preparing forces, getting allies and other odd jobs that may help one side, if i wanted the PCs to actually fight on the battlefield amongst hundreds and thousands of troops how do i do it?  



I would just focus on the activities of the PCs and have the rest of the battle taking place in the background.


Agreed.

Actually the best way to approach it I think is dependent on a couple of factors:


  • what are you trying to accomplish?


    • What is the feel that you want to provide to the players?


  • what are the players trying to accomplish? 


    • What are the objectives that the players need to meet?



If the idea is to have the players experience the ferocious nature of war, and the objective is basically beat the opposing side, I highly recommend the use of mooks**/minions or swarms (that have a sort of break away trait that lets them spawn minions): either low HP, static damage (if you want), low maintenance creatures that players simply wade through and sweep away, or a whole mob where everyone works in unison with members of the same platoon or contingent.  For a more realistic war setting, divide the battlefield into war zones where only those who are in that area would see each other, breaking the battlefield from a huge map that's run like an actual wargame, to a series of smaller maps (ala-fog of war); it's going to be more realistic because

  1. you don't get to see everything going on in the battle

  2. your NPCs/monsters would be spilling into view in waves from the most sensible direction(s) [usually everywhere except from the back]


Since this is the only time that an archer's 40-square/200' max range is going to be put to the test, feel free to simultaneously run two adjacent mini-maps if the archer decides to snipe at very distant opponents.


If the idea is that the war is more of a distraction or something that isn't the highlight of the campaign, or you want less emphasis on the war effort, then it's better to run it as a skill challenge broken up into a series of scenes, each one portraying a specific aspect of the battlefield.

** 13th Age's mooks kinda work both as minions and swarms in that just like minions they have low HP and static damage (but their HP is higher than 1 and they do take damage on a miss), and just like swarms, all excess damage dealt to one member of the swarm is carried over to the next.  Unlike 4E's swarms though, mooks are more flexible in that you're not forced to keep them in the same spot -- you can split the contingent into smaller mobs without having to introduce new creatures or new math.  Unlike 4E's minions though, mooks have a bit more bookkeeping to them (though not by much).
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I played in a Pathfinder game where there was a major war-like battle.  Basically the DM focused on what the players could see and do and react to and completely abstracted the rest.  He arranged the battle with all the ally and enemy NPCs.  Each round the players and the NPCs they could reasonably interact with were dealt with in standard combat format.  Then at the end of each round he would roll some dice and simply remove ally and enemy NPCs that were beyond the scope of the player characters.

 

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I ran something similar to what you described...I suggest using Victory Points. Have a total number possible, and then they are awarded points for completing tasks. Then the outcome is based on their results...ex. say you have 20 possible points
19-20 supreme victory
17-18 victory
15-16 narrow victory
14 armistace
13 and below failure

How we used it:
From level 1-9, the party investigated strange reports and pieced together clues that an attack was immineant on a capital city. During this time, certain encounters were worth 1 victory point...either they got it or they didn't. The party didn't know this, but it was hinted to them that they 'helped disrupt' or 'rallied the opposition'...they caught on that their actions affect some future engagement, and were thus, super excited about doing good. For the end of Heroic, there was a final assault on the capital city and they were there to help defend. At this point they got to choose how they defended the city...I presented them with a lot of options of things they could do and they presented some of their own...examples:

One quick note, I tied this all together by making it so each encounter/skill challenge toughness based on previous Victory Points, those VPs determined if their next challenge was easy, normal or hard. Thus as you are losing a battle, things are harder and if you are winning things are easier. 


Pre Battle
1) Recon - skill challenge/RP... sneak into an encapment, find out troop strength, tactics, etc. Bonus points if they sabotaged the camp as well.
2) Rally the defenses...skill challenge/RP...basically help shore up the defenses, train troops, etc
3) Sabotage - encounter...our guys like to kill things, had an option for them to sneak out and disrupt supply lines, cause mayham.

Battle Begins
1) Rapid Response...encounter...enemy starts 'breaking' through certain lines, they are sent to seal the lines...this didn't always mean slaughtering everyone, I had some of the mobs tactics to be to break through and make it to the other side of the map, if they did the party lost the engagement...
2) Rally the troops...skill challenge/RP...bascially move around and improve moral, help out where needed.

Battle Ends
1) The high council is attacked, they must come to the aid of the council and protect them, each council member lost was 1 less victory point.

They had a lot of fun with it and in the end they ended up doing really well. They all loved the concept and loved that what they did had an impact on the overall fight. 
I had this happen in one of my campaigns.

The PC wanted to join the army for the war effort, so I put him in as a scout to keep him away from the mass combat.  This led to a lot of good roleplay and battles.  The encounters and missions practically wrote themself.

Eventually he wanted to be part of the big fight.  I explained that it would be the army and not him fighting, and if his unit lost he would be caputured or die.  He accepted the risk and his unit lost.  The campaign was over.