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[Discussion] When to have a large-scale battle... And when not to.

Every Monday evening I get together with a few of my friends, and we play a role-playing game. Usually we gravitate towards the FFG Star Wars pen-and-paper system for its emphasis on narrative rather than 'crunchy' systems. However, with the current GM away on vacation, we took a different route and I ran a one-shot for The One Ring role-playing game.

Unfortunately, The One Ring isn't particular suited for a one-shot. The game is set in the familiar world of Middle Earth, and the game mechanics revolve around the nature of such a slow-moving world. Changes aren't massive or rapid. They take time. If the players succeed, it's incremental. If the players see that the world is doomed, it's 'not with a bang, but with a whisper', as the saying goes. Thus, the players death is not seen as the main consequence of failure. What is failure is the gradually destruction of the players' relationships, livelihoods, and the darkening of all that they love. If the players die protecting that which they appreciate, then they've started on the path to victory. With their death, they simply create another character, an heir to the prior individual, and keep playing.

So when I played the adventure Words of the Wise (you can check this out for free), my players had a hard time grasping the slowness of the game. And while it might have been the fault of GM-ing (I had only ran this particular game three other times), one thing we all agreed upon was the last encounter - the Battle of Woodland Hall sucked.

Two players nearly died. The battle itself was taking longer than necessary as few of the victory conditions were being completed. I ended up having to cheese the rules to allow the players to protect their companions' unconscious bodies and allowing Radaghast, the brown wizard, to save them. Towards the end, we all gave a sigh of relief as the battle came to an abrupt end. The group had fun during the the rest of the game. I even included some additional modules from other adventures to pad the game with treasure hunting, exploration, etc. But the last battle left a sour note in everybody's mouth.

Since that session I've been wondering why that battle was so bad, and I think i came up with a reason. A large-scale battle needs greater stakes that the players can relate with. The One Ring had other examples of battles that were almost the exact same as the battle for woodland hall. However, all of them are expected to result in player death. Large battles in the system are deadly. So if the players are fighting a large, long-drawn out battle, they need to feel like they're protecting something important to them. The player needs to feel like death is a risk that should be taken to protect those they love. So, for a one-shot, having a large-scale battle is out of place since the players have not and will not immerse themselves as they would in a longer campaign.

So, in conclusion, from this experience I feel that large-scale battles are a great opportunity to give players a chance to actively protect their home. Death should absolutely be a factor in the players decision-making. Players should also make that decision to fight large armies. However, to treat a large battle as 'just an encounter' doesn't do the battle or the players justice. Players will get bored easily, and feel punished as the realities of war (being that death comes and comes quick) become clear.

What do you guys think about large-scale battles? Do you enjoy them? How would you run them or have them run for you?

3 years ago by RoastedRareByte with 5 comments

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  • redalastor

    A good large scale battle system works with a zoom-in / zoom-out principle.

    You zoom out to the commanders, make their tactical rolls and find who has the advantage. You describe a bit the troop movements and then zoom in. Make the player play their part in the battle and change the difficulty based on which side as an advantage. Then zoom out, and in.

    Legend of the five ring adds adds Heroic Opportunities you can roll which means you can opt to do a riskier task that will benefit your side.

    This is the way to make you feel that you are part of something big.

    • RoastedRareByte

      I absolutely agree with you. I would have done something like that if I had more time to set it up. In a one-shot, however, in a one-shot it's difficult to do something like that without dedicating a large amount of time to it. In this case, I really only had about 30 to 45 minutes to really set up the battle.

      I think the point I was making in this post was that I think there's a time and place to have large-scale battles, and it's not in the beginning of a campaign or during a one-shot. It's when the players truly feel like they're trying to protect something or someone they feel special kinship towards, and it takes time to develop those identities.

      • redalastor (edited 3 years ago)

        I can imagine a large scale battle at the very start of a campaign but in few scenarios. For instance, if my groups are war veterans, I would give them a slice of a large scale battle. Put them in the middle of the battle, cut to black before the end.

        Then I would make the impact of that battle be felt on the world the players see. And they could feel it when they say "yeah, we were there" and it wouldn't be just colourful background.

        Lots of tools can be used if you do it with purpose.

        • RoastedRareByte

          That's a cool premise. I like the idea of uniting the party through a flashback.

          • redalastor

            You can even end it on a cliffhanger (the defenders are overrun for instance) and later ask them how they managed to survive.

            Then use what they say to guide the game. Someone sacrificed himself so they could live? Cool, they'll meet his widow.