Including Roleplaying Characters in Large Battles


Art by Symatt

Consider the following scenario:

GM: You are standing among a great body of fellow soldiers, weapons at the ready. The atmosphere is tense. Through the haze of the cold early morning you can just make out row after row of the foe on the opposite ridge. Their howls of rage echo through the valley- perhaps they don’t feel the crippling dread currently haunting the pit of your stomach. Looking around you can see several of your fellows feel the same. One young warrior – downy fur on his chin only just signalling the approach of manhood – is even weeping. For a brief instant you can hear his sobs before they are drowned out by a great war-cry. The general, sitting resplendent in his armour, has just gestured toward the foe. And then there is a rushing, a hurtling down the hill. Across the field the foe is doing the same. With an almighty crash and thunder of battle the two armies meet in the valley. What do you do?

PC: I hit them

GM: OK, roll to hit.

(PC Rolls) I roll a 17. Does that hit?

What follows will then be a tedious back-and-forth of hits and misses, the GM totalling up points and narrating the outcome at the end of quite a forgettable session. Surely there’s a better way to get the characters involved in larger scale conflicts without losing an entertaining narrative…

In this article I am going to explore a couple of possibilities of how you might run an epic conflict or battle with your players and maintain the interest of being personally involved in the success (or otherwise) of the effort.

The first method you might use is to realise the complexity of large scale conflicts. As this option has recently been discussed over at Fear the Boot I will only treat this option lightly. Often, in a battle, there will be several smaller objectives that a small team might be dispatched to accomplish that are vital to the success of the overall battle. Your players could be part of a small group of men sent to attack and destroy the siege engines and their crew while the main force distracts the majority of the army. Maybe your team is sent to attack a shield generator allowing the main body of the army to land via drop-ship. Cutting up a larger battle into smaller, squad achievable objectives, allows you to maintain the interest of a squad based narrative arc while allowing the experience of an epic conflict. It is important to remember to bring home to the players the significance of their actions. They should be able to judge the effects of their success or failure.

Although this is a good option for maintaining the integrity and interest of your game it doesn’t really allow for encompassing the experience of the battle en masse. You will only ever get small slices of combat, traditional adventuring but in a different context. To experience the push and shove found in the centre of a clash of armies might require the followings little idea: modify the level of abstraction in your game. Consider the nature of roleplaying game rules. They are all an abstraction to one degree or another. Instead of describing the arc and turn of your blade as you strike your enemy instead you have a list of numbers on a character sheet describing the probabilities of various actions succeeding. The roll of a dice interacting with those numbers describes the action. Now, for a larger conflict, there is no reason why you might not just scale up the abstraction to reflect the nature of the conflict better. Instead of your numbers reflecting personal aptitudes you might use the same types of numbers and the same conflict mechanics to reflect the operation of individual units. In this frame of reference you would require your players to control the different units – perhaps engineering your main player characters into leadership roles to tie the individual narrative into the broader conflict.

Let us look at an example. Based on 2nd edition AD&D (ignoring the widely lampooned tabletop war game for 2nd ed…) you might create a unit like this:

Inexperienced Light Infantry:

  • THAC0: 20 (inexperienced troops similar to level 1 characters)
  • Damage: 1d6 (reflecting the unit’s ability to deal damage)
  • Attacks per round: 1
  • AC: 7 (Lightly armoured)
  • HP: 8 (reflecting the unit’s ability to sustain damage before the survivors lose their nerve, break and run.)

Veteran Heavy Infantry:

  • THAC0: 17
  • Damage: 1d8+1
  • Attacks per round: 3/2
  • AC: 3
  • HP: 16

[In translating the above numbers, remember lower AC and THAC0 are better.]

Note that systems which employ special actions or skills for basic actions, such as the different abilities present in 4th edition D&D, would require a bit more invention. Specific ‘heroic’ abilities usually attached to individual actors are unlikely to translate well to a larger scale. Fantasy themed combat units, though, might have all sorts of different abilities.

You might also want to add a value for initiative, and somehow take into account the effects of battlefield situations such as getting hit in the flank or fighting uphill. The system you’re using might already have some rules for these situations – fighting uphill frequently imposes a negative on your roll for example – but at other times these rules might need modifying or a complete rewrite.

Note that in a conflict of a larger scale, hit points are used not just as a measure of health, but also of morale. Morale then reflects the unit’s ability to function and perform attacks, manoeuvres, etc. As such it might be appropriate to modify hit points based on battlefield situations. Getting hit in the flank might immediately reduce the hit points by a quarter, for example. Seeing fresh troops arrive in support might bolster the unit’s morale, increasing their hit points by a few points.

Armed with these rules the game doesn’t have to degenerate into a 2 hour long tabletop war-game if you don’t want it to. Instead, you can run the game like any other RPG combat, with the units acting as separate characters.

To continue our example above, now we have to come up with some rules for flanking and uphill combat. Let’s keep it simple and merely impose a -2 penalty on the to-hit roll for anyone fighting uphill, and impose a penalty of a quarter of a unit’s hit points if hit in the flank.

Using these rules it is now possible for a roleplaying game session to describe a set-piece battle without devolving into a tedious hit-for-hit grind of a combat.

An Example Battle

Let’s take our rules out for a spin. One crisp autumn morning two armies find themselves lining up against each other on either side of the banks of a babbling stream. Our party’s side is in an advantageous position on a rise overlooking the ford. The enemy are trying to force passage across, hoping to sweep down on the usually sleepy little community just down the road, the smoke from its hearth fires rising gently into the clear blue sky.

Each of the players commands a unit within the army as a whole. They have worked their way into military good graces and have been awarded command. The first fighter commands a unit of heavy cavalry, the second fighter a unit of heavy infantry. The wizard is in command of a unit of archers positioned overlooking and within range of the ford. The thief commands the light infantry skirmishers. A second unit of heavy infantry – holy warriors of the Temple – are commanded by the cleric. A battle plan has been quickly discussed – the light infantry will hold the centre and oppose the crossing. Before suffering too much damage they will give ground, drawing the enemy forward and exposing their flanks. The heavy infantry will then charge in from both sides. The heavy cavalry will be kept in reserve. Should a friendly unit break they will try to close the gap. Otherwise, they may hunt any enemy units that manage to break the containment of the trap in the center.

The GM has determined how many units and of what sort the enemy possesses, but he is not divulging that information to start with, only describing that a stream of men can be seen arriving across the far hills. The first units are lining up ready for their crossing.

The enemy general has decided to send his peasants across the water first to soak up the worst of the archery. The GM announces “A disordered horde of poorly equipped peasants clutching farmyard equipment in their trembling hands has started to cross the ford.”

We’ll call these peasants Inferior Quality Light Infantry. They can have the following stats:

Inferior Light Infantry

  • THAC0: 20
  • Damage: 1d4
  • Attacks per round: 1
  • AC: 10
  • HP: 5 (They’re not very confident and will likely break quickly)

The wizard announces that his archers will loose their first volley. At this stage, combat has begun and both sides roll initiative in the normal way. We’ll give our players the advantage in the first round.

Stats for the archers are as follows:


  • THAC0: 18
  • Damage: 1d6
  • Attacks per round: 1
  • AC: 7
  • HP: 12

Mr Wizard rolls his dice – a 15. That’s a hit. Rolling damage of 4. The peasants are still in the fight, but only just!

The GM determines that every attacking unit will take 1 round to cross the stream, so they spend their turn getting their feet wet. All other units spend the turn ordering themselves and preparing for battle.

After rolling for initiative in the second round it turns out GM’s army is going first. The peasants come storming across the water and crash into the waiting arms of the light infantry. A second unit, the heavy infantry, begins to cross the ford. The GM rolls a 10 to hit with his peasants – not enough to get past the light armour.

Now it is the player’s turn. The archers rain fire into the heavy infantry crossing the ford. Rolling to hit they get a 5! Alas, the volley has been largely ineffective. On the other hand, the light infantry manage to roll an 18, solidly thumping the peasants and sending the survivors running in terror through the ranks of their comrades. The GM rules that this will cause some disorder, reducing the combat effectiveness of the heavy infantry. They will suffer a 2 HP loss and why don’t we throw in a -1 to AC and THAC0 as well.

The next round the GM has initiative. The enemy heavy infantry crashes into the waiting light infantry of the players. They roll a 17! Damage is rolled – a 7. The light infantry have been hit hard. At this point, another unit of men starts crossing the ford. Things are starting to look a little bad for the players.

The thief’s player announces that his light infantry are giving ground as per the original plan. This will be their action for the turn. We might like to impose a morale test here to maintain the unit’s integrity as they retreat. The rogue rolls and fails! Pushed hard by the attacking force the orderly manoeuvre becomes a disorganised rout as panic sets in. First one soldier runs and then another and soon they are all fleeing, pursued by their armoured foe.

The fighter and cleric both announce their charges into the flanks of the assaulting infantry. Using our rules above, the heavy infantry suffer a quarter of their hit points in morale loss before any dice are rolled. Then both defending units roll. Alas! A dreaded 1 from the clerics! The others don’t fare much better. They score a hit, but only manage 2 points of damage.

The GM has initiative again next round. He announces that, over the hill behind the defending archers comes the sound of approaching horses. A body of cavalry comes into view – and they’re flying the banners of the enemy!

So let’s draw a curtain on the battle here. As you can see, changing the frame of reference for the action can turn what might be an otherwise stale combat session in a roleplaying session into a compelling narrative and provide a refreshing change of pace that contributes a significant event in the campaign. The above battle scene would only take 30 to 60 minutes of your game time, leaving you plenty of time to roleplay the fallout of the battle and its aftermath.

About Paul

Cuchulain (otherwise known as Paul) has been playing roleplaying games since he was 10 years old. Although he'll play any game under the sun, he prefers characterisation and plot over tactics and mechanics. He is never happier than when playing in or mastering a horror campaign - preferably with heavy Cthulhu Mythos overtones or theme.
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  • MKG35

    A great article I have only been involved in role playing a large combat once (using the Legend rule set) and whilst it worked out okay it did lack the epic feel that it maybe should have had. It ended up with our General just issuing challenges to their champions but that might have been more to do with our group than the rules.

    But it seemed that the GM and us as players had a real hard time controlling and more importantly visualizing large combats so it was easier to fall back on fudging things just to move on it was interesting to try but not something I would rush to do again.

    • RupertG

      I have to say I have played in some shocking games that attempted to simulate large battles too. When I first read this post to edit it, it immediately struck me how simple and obvious it was. I wondered why we hadn’t be doing this all the time!

    • Cuchulain

      Yeah, I’ve had that experience too, which is kind of why I thought it might be worth thinking about it a bit and seeing if I could come up with another solution. I’m sure there’s other options as well – I think I may have to write another post about it when I’ve dedicated some more “thinking time” to it.

  • Ellisthion

    I like that this deals with the harsh reality of large-scale combat in small-scale games like D&D: it just doesn’t work. You can try to use the regular rules and they just break. This is a very practical solution.

    • RupertG

      It immediately struck me as a very nice abstraction when I first read it. I felt immediately inspired to try and incorporate it into my next game…

    • Cuchulain

      It just seemed natural – you already have rules for how one side tries to kill the other, why not just have those same rules apply in a different context?