PC's in a large-scale war

Hi OpenLegion,

Seeking the content of your collective melons on this one.

How do you go about handling your PC’s in a large-scale battle? What do you do to make fighting against a thousand enemies fun, challenging and rewarding?

First thing, don’t play it out like a normal combat. I’ve played in games like that, and it was both boring and made us feel like we didn’t have any impact in the course of the battle (because we killed 2-3 enemies each in a battle containing hundreds).

There are a couple of options I can think of off the top of my head, I’m sure there are more but these are how I would run it.

  1. Make it heavily narrative. Don’t get out the grid except possibly as a visual aid. Have the players pick a task their character is devoting themselves to in each phase of the battle and resolve it with a couple of rolls. Maybe they’re getting stuck in on the front lines, have them make a few attack rolls at no target in particular then their section pushes forward or retreats based on the outcome. Maybe they’re tending to the wounded and the results of their rolls won’t be felt until after the battle when the injured either pull through or pass away. Maybe they’re in the command tent, making Logic rolls to plan and Presence rolls to give orders, possibly Bolstering their allies in other areas if they roll well.

  2. Pull out the focus and increase the scale. Have a battle map with a much larger scale, 20+ feet per square rather than 5. Each model represents a whole unit of soldiers, a rank of archers or a full siege-weapon team. When models clash, give them advantage or disadvantage based on the size difference between the units. For a unit with the PCs in, have them take the lead with their rolls and the rest of the unit supports them. The vehicle rules could fit quite nicely here as a way to simulate the unit moving as one and absorbing damage (getting more disadvantage the more casualties they suffer). If all the PCs are in the same unit, have them move as one but split their actions through the initiative order. If a PC has invested in Multi-Targeting give them heavy advantage; they’re in their element so it should feel like it.


Thanks Sam!

Some great ideas to think about. I may even do a combination of the two.


I think this depends in part on the setting. A Republican era battle in the Roman legions is going to have a different scale to say contemporary urban conflict, and demand different solutions.

For the latter you can do some things through the regular combat system since the setting can be localized (a building, a base). Sure there might be a wider battle the PCs can learn about through comm chatter or the like, but their part can be separated out into a regular combat encounter with just a few enemies, just make sure they have something important to do (destroy the enemy comm tower preventing reinforcements, capture the enemies command and control, sabotage the bridge). They are the special forces in this scenario though and from the sounds of things you might want them in command or just in a larger battle.

First thing I’d ask is do you actually want the to blend into the larger battle. There is a reason ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is about a team with a very specific mission, and not just following a random bunch of soldiers around in Normandy. Typically characters in stories, especially RPG stories, tend to be special.

If there are thousands of people in the same location then I would really avoid the regular combat system. It was bad enough when I decided to go minion heavy with my players and throw 20 mook dogs at them, trying to do a medieval style pitched battle with 1000 people a side isn’t going to work. To make matters worse you and your dice rolls will likely decide the outcome, not your players, which is generally bad.

Of course Open Legend has a pretty abstract combat system, so it can be adapted for larger unit fights. I’d avoid house ruling this on too much. Give an artillery battery an ‘agility’ stat and a company of pikemen a ‘might’ stat and so on and treat them like individual characters. The problem you are going to have is unless your PCs are invested in the forces they are leading it is going to feel pretty stale. Your players have had hours to become invested in their characters, they aren’t going to give a crap about some random unit of musketeers you ask them to lead.

One option would be to say that each character gives a buff to each unit depending on their character. The charismatic leader adds 2xWill HP to the unit they lead because they enhance their morale. The multi-targetting specialist grants that feat to the unit they are with. The Protection Specialist lets their unit use their buffs for defence actions. The units they lead then become tactical pieces they can influence and make meaningful choices about, the charismatic leader will probably decide to go with that unit of front line shock troops you picked out so they can last a bit longer on the front lines. As Sam implies you should make sure if they are going with the units that your choices differentiate players, they should all feel useful, but the ones with characters specced the right way should probably be more useful since you are likely replacing a combat encounter here.

An alternative to using the size mechanics Sam suggests is to just rely on hit points. Video games have taught us that the way a typical large scale combat encounter should play out is that the two sides fight until one side is exterminated. In practice most historical battles have much lower casualties, with morale (which is part of what HP is designed to reflect) and supply playing a much more central role. The exceptions tend to be situations where combatants are surrounded, but in those cases the battles were won well before the slaughter started. Almost all of the Roman army was still intact when Hannibal’s cavalry crashed into the back of their lines at Cannae for instance (although the ‘intact’ part of the Roman cavalry was fleeing for their lives. Treat finishing blows on a unit as the trigger for them to break formation and run rather than the unit being exterminated, maybe with a chance to kill or capture any leading PC depending on how dead PC friendly your group is.

Another way to potentially make this more interesting is to have your merry band hired to recruit the army they will be leading. If you have four PCs then give them quests to recruit say four out of a set of six options for who they will fight with. The powerful but morally questionable Merc band, the haughty elves or techno-mages, the noble but rag tag group of rebels. If they are picking their force composition they are going to be far more invested in the outcome of the battle than if you just give them say 6 nondescript pieces to move around the board.

This can be as simple as picking them from a list, or as complicated as sending them out on quests to win the various potential combatants favour. You can also give yourself narrative options here, sure the Merc band has good weapons, but what happens when someone with more money comes along after the battle. Sure the rag tag band wants to save their people, but what if their Knight Templar style leader decides that his comrades need the under construction super weapon, for the greater good.

Another option if the battle is less central to the narrative is to resolve it through a few rolls like Sam suggested above. I’d caution that If you’ve had three play sessions building up to this fight then it needs to be resolved in a suitably epic way. On the other hand a surprise attack to introduce some new antagonist with only minimal foreshadowing might comfortably be resolved with a few rolls. If you just want to establish that ‘Bozar the Exterminator’ has an army, is willing to use it, and isn’t too particular on the whole combatant / non-combatant distinction, then a few mentions of refugees fleeing some terror from some NPC in one session followed by a battle resolved through attribute rolls in the manner Sam describes in the next will do the job.


So here is some feedback from the session.

I went with a trick I learned from GMing Risus RPG and made each section of the army an NPC. For example, the 1st Regiment of Jascallian Infantry were raw recruits and so had just one set of stats from the level 1 / 2 NPC table.

This allowed me to measure how the players and their allies were faring against them. Rounds of combat were extended to about 15-20 minutes each (in game). This meant that a successful attack roll against the enemy resulted in some great narrative of multiple soldiers falling to the PC’s blade.

What I did not plan for was my players deciding to use banes also (I was expecting hack and slash). It was great. They were using fear, demoralize and force move to change the way the enemy troops reacted on the battlefield.

I always kept to the golden rule of keeping the players as the star of the show and didn’t roll for the battles going on elsewhere (maybe a quick d20 here and there to check).

The session was a huge success and my players felt tremendous accomplishment stood in the calm of the post-battle landscape.