Dear Rolling Boxcars: Thoughts on Modeling Mass Combat

Thank you, Dana, for your question regarding how we would best simulate Bronze Age warfare in a tabletop roleplaying game. This is a tough question to tackle, so please bear with us as we lay out our thoughts and explanations.

One of my (Modoc) first gaming passions is historical tabletop wargames of the hex and counter variety. I am moderately versed in the Bronze Age period from a military history and a general history standpoint, but I am by no means an expert in either regarding this time period.

The first thing we have to acknowledge is that all warfare, especially pre-gunpowder, is bloody and very personal in terms of the spatial relationship of the combatants. Next, we need to acknowledge that the scale of the battles during this time period were massive. Typically, thousands upon thousands of men, mounted and unmounted, faced off against each other in semi-organized chaos. Lastly, we must also acknowledge that except for exceedingly rare occurrences, individuals or small groups of individuals did not stand out as extraordinary.

Taking the above facts, how do we model them in terms of roleplaying? There are several things we can do, and many fantasy-based roleplaying games already do most of these in some form or fashion to varying degrees.

First and foremost, we do not need to model the inhumanity of mass combat in all its gory details. We can simply handwave that and use summary statements such as “The battle ensues on your formations left and right flanks. Soldiers on both flanks, from both sides of the battle, fall under the weight of swinging and thrusting steel.” This idea plays into my second point.

Taking a page from Book of Battle 2nd Edition supplement for King Arthur Pendragon RPG, we can bring the spotlight onto our heroes by continuing to let the action swirl around them, as if in a mist. By focusing on the heroes of the story, we keep the game experience relevant and the players involved; that’s of the utmost importance. Add to this, their “smaller” engagement is just a tiny piece of the larger battle and may or may not have an effect on that overall battle. That’s up to the Gamemaster to decide. I like to focus on small combats where the heroes of the story take center stage and engage with the enemy. Sometimes this combat is one-on-one, and other times the odds may be considerably different, but I try to never lose sight of the fact that it’s about keeping the focus on the players and their characters.

Lastly, when it comes to things such as ancient chariot, elephant, or calvary actions, some of the same principles mentioned above can be applied. The spotlight should always stay focused on the characters and not on the larger battle. Again, narrative summaries of what is happening around the heroes of the story should, I would like to think, provide enough context, and put their smaller engagement into some type of perspective. If you’ve ever watched any movie that featured war elephants or chariot warfare, then you’re familiar with how horrific the experience was; imagine being in the ranks and watching a herd of war elephants coming straight at you. Or what about the ensuing chaos and carnage if those elephants got spooked (by say, flaming war pigs) and began rampaging, possibly through their own ground troops. Now, think about your players at the table. While we want to convey a sense of tension, we don’t need to convey mental images with too much detail. Some players may be fine with more vivid details, but I would suggest keeping it to the barest minimum necessary to convey what is happening around them and to them. Another example could be “The formation of war elephants gains speed as their drivers spur them on in your direction. The ground begins to shake as thirty or more elephants thunder forward; dust kicks up in their wake. Those around you ready themselves for what they know will surely mean their deaths; hoping to wield a killing blow for their King and homeland!” Cue the hero’s actions.

As I mentioned above, there are a number of roleplaying games that have some type of mass combat rule system that could be adapted to Bronze Age warfare. Some admittedly better than others. The old Battlesystem rules based on Chainmail and Pacesetter’s Timemaster both feature rules for running large scale battles in an RPG game. In our opinion, The Book of Battle has lots of interesting ideas to make combat and narratives as detailed as you want without the baggage of miniatures games. I am not aware of a system that specifically addresses mass combat during the Bronze age, but here are a few you could look at for some ideas.

Regardless of what rules you use to govern the combat scenes, it all comes down to the narrative and keeping your players involved in the throng of war without overloading them with the inhumanity of warfare; while at the same time, not neglecting that warfare is inhumane and gruesome. Keep your players the central focus of all of the game’s scenes so that they stay involved and engrossed in the actions for which they can directly affect. Always remember, the story is about them and their deeds, both good and bad, and keep the chaos around them to summaries without too much detail.

If you’d like “The Boxcars” to answer your gaming-related question, please submit your questions through our Ask The Boxcars submission form.

~ The RB Team

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