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My question stems from this post by p.marino, as it raised my curiosity. I do not wish to spend the time and money to acquire and read Silhouette Core. Furthermore, I lack the knowledge of piles of game systems, so I would not be able to extract the essential characteristics. But some of the more hardy folks here might be!

What are the essential characteristics of a game system that can represent from one-on-one duels (tracking every wound), scaling through skirmish-level engagements (say, scores of combatants in a multi-hour firefight), to large-scale battles with multiple thousands of combatants?

What are some systems that were designed with this in mind, where it wasn't added on as an afterthought (like D&D)? (Preferably, I'm looking for systems available free in PDF.)

I realize at least one of the answers is going to be "use GURPS." Even then, the information I seek is, "What makes it so versatile?"

Related:
Combat rules for large battles
Ways to quicken / sum up larger (but not army-scale) combat in DnD3.x

(Any and all help is appreciated in improving this question to better match its single tag.)

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5 Answers

What are the essential characteristics of a game system that can represent from one-on-one duels...to large-scale battles with multiple thousands of combatants?

Two features I've found work for games that do this well.

First, the conflict mechanics are identical in procedure for anything - a knife fight is handled the same as negotiating a treatise is the same as surviving a blizzard. HeroQuest, The Pool, Primetime Adventures, Universalis, Fate (for example, Diaspora specifically), all pretty much do this.

Second, the "attributes"/Traits being used are open for redefinition. Because they all work the same way, an attribute/trait is defined by it's sense of scale. My character happened to have "Expert Swordsman", "Fast", "Sharp eyes" as traits that gave bonuses. Our Army has "Well trained", "Patriotic to the Motherland", "Heavy Armor"... etc.

Because the mechanics are the same, it's really about swapping in appropriate descriptors which means you can resolve thousands of soldiers fighting in the same way you resolve any other conflict.

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you forgot 3 features. Abstraction, abstraction, abstraction :) Even though you did cover that. –  GMNoob Dec 26 '13 at 9:19
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@GMNoob Though "abstraction" may be true, it's not a word that explains itself or its application here well (unsurprisingly!), so it's an insufficient description of a game feature. The phrase "conflict mechanics are identical in procedure for anything" is, I think, the essence of the actual designable feature that makes a game's abstractions work at any scale. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 27 '13 at 0:03
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I think you're asking for an answer that doesn't exist. The history of RPGs is the history of gamer interest moving from larger scale to smaller and the systems they developed to model those interactions at an entertaining and manageable level.

Here's what I mean:

Wargames focus on mass actions. Each piece in a wargame could represent dozens or hundreds of individual combatants, or large vehicles manned by the same. Game mechanics and interactions answered questions about those units:

  • Does the unit have the ability to receive and follow orders?
  • Does the unit have the wherewithal to inflict damage on the enemy?

Gamers interested in more detail reduced the scale of the combats. Pieces represented squads, so the game answered questions about them:

  • How many members of the squad are still functional?
  • What can the squad see and fire upon?

Gamers interested more in the members of the squads than the squads themselves formed the basis of the first RPG designers and players. They created mechanics that answered questions about individuals:

  • What injuries has this individual sustained?
  • How much damage can this individual inflict?
  • Will this individual continue to operate effectively or break?
  • How much equipment is this individual carrying?

So these different games systems evolved to address questions that were interesting and manageable at the level of detail that the gamers were concerned with. Those different systems evolved precisely because the questions the system is asked to answer are different and therefore the mechanics of the system to answer those questions must be different.

For instance, I think it's pretty obvious that if you have a good simulationist system for individuals in combat that you could scale it up to simulate combats between thousands of individuals. I think it's similarly pretty obvious that you couldn't run that combat manually at the table at a pace that would allow you to complete even a single round of action in the amount of time most people have to play. It's also possible (and even likely) that a bottom-up simulation like that would require additional layers of rules to answer the questions that you would be interested in at that larger scale.

This is why systems (GURPS included, but I think you'll find that Savage Worlds and others have similar systems available) have been created for mass combats within RPGs where you are interested in questions on both extremes of the scale. Questions like:

  • Who won?
  • What did the PCs do during the battle?
  • How did the actions of the PCs impact the course of the battle?
  • What is the condition of each side's forces after the battle?
  • Were any PCs injured? Killed?

I guess this is a long way of saying that the questions you want the system to answer for each of the scales you've provided are different and that no single set of mechanics can provide the answers to all of those questions.

EDIT: The comments are clamoring for me to address the "elephant in the room" - the apparent existence of such a system already. I tried to continue this conversation in the comments, but my reply wouldn't fit.

@SevenSidedDie - Are you talking about the part of this answer where it states, "...mechanics have been designed to slide easily from personal to vehicle/unit scale..."? Because it doesn't cover the range he asks for and so is not an "elephant". Many RPGs can handle vehicular combat - and handle it exactly like regular combat with bigger guns and faster movements, because you're talking about combat between individuals - individual vehicles. And many handle small-unit actions by iterating the individual combat rules as I mentioned above. I stand by my assertion that the essentials of each are different enough that when distilled, you find yourself with different systems. Unless you go to a completely abstract system, where combat itself is considered just another skill contest, so two fighters would contest using melee skills, two squad leaders using tactics, and two generals using strategy or something. That didn't seem to be the spirit in which the question was asked, though.

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The link in the OP is about such a "non-existent" system. Could you speak to that in this answer? (FWIW I haven't read the game in question, so I don't know how well it does as p.marino claims.) –  SevenSidedDie Sep 21 '12 at 16:46
    
@SevenSidedDie - And what I'm saying is, he's asking for something that cannot exist. If someone asked you, "What scientific theory unifies general relativity and quantum mechanics?" People can talk about a Theory of Everything, but nobody can tell you how to make one. –  gomad Sep 21 '12 at 16:55
    
I'm just saying that there's an elephant in the room, and the answer is incomplete while it doesn't explicitly address the elephant. Saying elephants are impossible without somehow explaining the discrepancy doesn't make for a very readable answer. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 21 '12 at 17:05
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I have to say I'm a little confused by your claim too, @gomad. Is the Deathwatch example given by Skeith (which models combat between 2-100s of people) not a direct disproof of your theory? Unless you are arguing that large-scale conflict requires abstractions (e.g. Hordes) which are not present in small-scale conflicts, which prevents unification. –  ioanwigmore Sep 21 '12 at 18:35
    
@ioanwigmore, I think gomad is trying to say that you're not going to find a single system to represent both mass and single combat (and everything in-between) without going so far into the simulationist side of things that games could be played in a reasonable amount of time. (Note that while many games have rules for both mass and small-group/single combat, they're rarely the exact same rules.) –  Brian S Dec 26 '13 at 18:51
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I think a generic system, one that uses the same mechanic to solve every kind of opposition at the table, is what you're looking for.

You need to roll something that can be a success or a failure or somewhere in between and then you describe the unit or the army's success, failure or else in any way the one who's in charge of narrative authority deems realistic.

If your system uses different mechanics for different elements of a fight it becomes specific to the tabled elements and is gonna fail to represent almost everything else.

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The Deathwatch RPG has Horde rules (where each Horde is a single unit that represents an abstract number of individuals) to represent fighting a large number of enemies and rules for Horde on Horde fighting (large-scale conflict). The examples in the book scale up to 90 member Hordes, that should cover ex2.

The main combat system in Deathwatch focuses on individuals (small-scale conflict), and uses a 'critical damage system': once you have run out of wounds, being hit in certain locations will cause various affects from bleeding out slowly to breaking arms/legs/etc. That may be of interest to ex1

An intro booklet outlining these rules can be found on there website here called Final Sanction.

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Maybe I wasn't clear in my original post.

Silhouette scales well from individual to squad/vehicle battles and everything in between. Which is ok for RPG, usually. But keep in mind that the wargame version of the same rules are squad-level, not designed to tackle larger scales like battalion level or strategic.

It allows your party to man a WWII bomber and fight against 6 Luftwaffe fighters as easily as it allow your PC to fight vs. 3 NPCs or one AT-AT walker to fight vs. 4 landspeeders and 1 Jedi. And it is pretty efficient in handling 5 PC vs. 12 NPCs, too. But it is not designed to scale up to "large-scale battles with multiple thousands of combatants".

Note that in my original post I mentioned squad based. I.e. Silhouette allows you to model interaction (fighting) among individuals or "units", where a unit is either a squad of infantry (6-10 people, I believe) or a vehicle.

Silhouette has two "scales": "individual" and "vehicle" - if you have to mix those, you have easy adjustments to move from one scale to another (for example damage at the vehicle level is multiplied by 10 when applied at individual level targets, because vehicles mount bigger and more powerful weapons, at the same time, you can perhaps disable a truck with a single well-placed rifle shot, but you must roll pretty well because your damage will be divided by 10 to find out if it affected the truck).

This won't allow you to easily replay the Battle of the Bulge, for example, because instead of modelling 250000 NPCs (just for the Allies) you'd have to deal with 25000 "squads" which is not a big improvement.

There may be extra rules for larger battles, not sure. But it's not part of the core, and it's not very different from other "mass battle systems" that have been designed for years.

Please understand that the "sweet spot" for a RPG is, at most, squad level, because in an RPG we care about our own PCs, as individuals. And for that, Silhouette (IMHO) shines.

If you move too far on the size scale, you end up with dry tables that reduce the whole battle to a couple of dice rolls, plus an "consequence roll" to see if one specific man was killed, wounded or suffered no damage after his brigade has been obliterated by enemy forces.

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