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Just Say No to Mass Combat Systems

Note: Since first publishing this page, I have come to realize that mass combat rules do serve a purpose. Specifically, if the PCs gather some forces together and launch an assault on another duchy, kingdom, etc., then a good set of mass combat rules is the best way to handle this. What I deplore is the use of mass combat systems to determine the fate of a PC who's merely a pawn in the war. So when reading below, note that all of this does not apply if the PCs are the ones who started the "war" in the first place.

Some gamers lament the lack of mass combat rules in GURPS Fourth Edition. "The rules in Compendium II were clunky and sometimes gave odd results, but they're better than nothing! How else can a GM figure out which side will win a war and how the PCs fair in it?"

While I want to make it clear that I respect the opinions of those who feel otherwise, I have to scoff at the question above.

Asking, "How can a GM figure out which army will win the war?" is no different than asking, "How can a GM figure out what the king will do in response to a party raiding his livestock?" or, "How can a GM figure out which board member will be voted to replace the disgraced CEO of this company?" Such decisions are exactly what a GM is there for! The answers to these questions are the GM's bread and butter, each piece composing one small part of a well-crafted campaign.

If I, as a GM, decide that a tournament is taking place to see who will become the next tribal chieftain, I am obviously inserting that tournament into the game to further tell the story of the campaign. I should have a pretty good idea of who's going to win if the PCs don't get involved in any way. And if the PCs do get involved (which is probably the idea), then the outcome of the tournament should be heavily dependent upon their actions.

How is a war or epic battle any different? As the GM, I'm the one inserting the war into the game. Why? Usually so that the PCs can struggle to turn the tide of a battle that would otherwise be lost. Given that, the outcome of the fight shouldn't be an entity of its own, handled by abstract die rolls! The game isn't about the battle itself -- it's about what the PCs do to affect its outcome.

"[This system] gives quick answers to the most important questions for a roleplaying campaign: Who won? and What happened to the PCs?" (GURPS Compendium II, p. 112)

"Who won?" -- As a GM, I have two choices. Either the party's actions are going to determine the outcome of the battle or they're not. If they are, then the answer is simple -- the side the PCs are on wins only if they succeed at whatever they do. If they aren't going to determine the outcome, then I'm a poor GM if I threw a battle into my game without having an idea of which side is supposed to win. While it's acceptable to say that the players don't have any say in who emerges victorious, it's ridiculous to say that the GM (who created the war in the first place) shouldn't know!

"What happened to the PCs?" -- Fellow GMs, have you ever tried rolling some dice, looking up, and telling your players that sorry, but one of them took a mortal wound from some unspecified source at some unspecified point in the battle? It doesn't fly well. Players want their PCs to defend themselves and to know for themselves what the circumstances and die-rolls were that put their character in the hospital or morgue. If the PCs are going to be in mortal danger, then place them there. Have the enemies attack and have them defend. Nothing less is fair when determining if they live or die. And please don't take this as an endorsement that one should play out the entire war! I merely suggest that there's nothing wrong with playing out one or two key skirmishes in the foreground, allowing the PCs' lives to be risked in the foreground, not in the background.

No matter how epic the story, a campaign is ultimately about the PCs and the players behind them. Even a war is nothing but a hook to hang adventures on -- ultimately, it is only a part of the background. Don't forget that by spending an entire gaming night giving the war center stage instead. Its only value is in the opportunities that it gives the gaming party to shine or fail.


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