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In the later chapters of a future campaign I'm thinking of having a section where the players take charge of parts of an army and fight a larger battle. I don't want to hand-wave the strategy, I want success or failure to be in the hands of the players. Are there any good rules for handling this in 3.5 or Pathfinder, either house rules or in supplements?


Clarification

Not that any of the answers are wrong, but I felt I should clarify that we don't generally use miniatures in our group (mostly because the table is too full of coffee, tea, sugar, milk, sweets, biscuits, pencils, dice and other randomness).

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8 Answers 8

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Kingmaker #5 War of the River Kings by Paizo has mass combat rules. Kingmaker #2 has domain rules for running a realm and building settlements.

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2  
The rules introduced in Kingmaker have now been straightened out and formalised in Ultimate Campaign. Since I mostly play Pathfinder nowadays, that's the closest thing to an accepted answer. –  Marcus Downing Feb 2 at 22:50

Risk, the board game.

Seriously.

Everyone knows how it works and it's very quick to play. My players turned up at an ancient dwarven city that had just recently been resettled by dwarven refugees. Little did they know an alliance of several orcish tribes was on its way. I drew up a cutaway diagram of the mountain and the surrounding terrain divided into zones and laid out the Dwarves forces and got the players to place their characters.

I discarded the Risk rules on reinforcements and counting up the areas you control as that wasn't relevant. I also flipped the Risk rules so that attacking forces used the normal Risk rules for defenders, and vice versa. This is because otherwise nobody would ever attack. The game was set in Middle Earth so the Orcs had a few Troll slaves. I gave these a special attack ability, they attack separately and if they roll 4+ on 1D6 they inflict 1D3 casualties - nasty. Players could control Dwarf forces in their own area and adjacent areas.

I ran the player's actions in a fairly freeform way. If they came up with a dramatic tactic I just made them make a skill roll and made up a suitably dramatic effect.

Some areas deep inside the mountain were things like a bottomless chasm and ruined mines. Orc sneak attacks came in from here half way through the battle. It worked fine.

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Well that's nice and all, but what if you have unequal qualities of armies? Say, peasant militia vs gnolls? How would we balance that?. Fyi, giving the attackers d8's instead of d6's give them a kill ratio of about 3:1. –  Philip Jun 26 '13 at 22:07
    
Played a game with this. It turned out alright. It went fast, for one. But rule-tweaks are required: Territories don't have to have unit occupying them, a limit for troop movement per round, and getting rid of endless rolling conquest. I also added routing and some rules for defensive fortifications. I'd stress that, since the players don't get to use their characters, this portion of the game be kept to a minimum. Quick army-sized combat is the name of the game. –  Philip Aug 22 '13 at 21:21
    
-1 Risk is a (by modern standars) horrible boardgame, and it has nothing to do with how such a battle be modeled. –  Lohoris May 13 at 15:05

In the same way that Swarms or Mobs abstract away many creatures you could treat each Squad, Unit or even large groups as one Mob. Once the Hit Points of the Mob has been used up then the Mob rout etc.

The Mob rules in the DMGII allow ~60 medium or 12 large creatures to become a "Mob" with 30 HD. It functions like a swarm, doing 5d6 damage and causing distrataction to any creature that occupies its area (20x20) Each mob is a CR 8.

Give each Player several Mob and let them move them around. Each round a Mod does damage on all its facings to anything touching it.

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I was a player during a large battle, and we used the rules found under Mongoose's Open Mass Combat System.

http://www.scribd.com/doc/7851118/d20-Open-Mass-Combat-System-

I found mass combat interesting under DnD rules. However, I would say that DnD is centred around the character. And when armies were added, it took away from that. I found other games, more suited to commanding armies, to be better at it than DnD.

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There are a couple of systems that are designed for large scale battle, but for my money, the Reign rules by Greg Stolz are tops. These rules follow a "deep enough" mentality with the ability to introduce attributes of the forces and a broad range of tactics to describe what the players are actually doing (I recommend the Enchiridion version of the rules which are kind of like the "Explorer's Guide" version - condensed with no theme).

Others that might be worth looking at:

  • The old D&D Cyclopedia had rules called the "war machine" that were fairly popular at the time and should be fairly adaptable
  • One Bad Egg's Hardboiled Armies supplement is supposed to bring large scale conflict rules to D&D 4E (given that this is a Fred Hicks product, it's on my "to read" list :) )
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I have to add that when we played the session with Reign rules it worked very well, and went far more smoothly than I expected. –  C. Ross Sep 11 '10 at 14:41

The 3.5 book Heroes of Battle (Amazon) specifically covers large scale battles. It covers GMing strategy for players who are in the middle of the combat with no control over their side as well as players controlling their side of the large battle.

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The first time I had to solve this was running a large battle in 2e Dark Sun.

Much of the success was determined before the battle, the players actions in the run up to the battle dictated how many forces were under their control and their relationships with unit commanders.

Then before the battle there was a period where the players got to plan ahead, they set traps, built walls and trenches and the like. This was also dependent on what engineers and resources they had gathered in the first half of the adventure.

The rules for mass combat I made up myself, just gave each unit an AC, hitpoints and attack types. The players then played out more important one on one battles with enemy leaders which gave bonuses to other units.

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Warpath from Adamant Entertainment is very comprehensive and works well (both in 3.5 and Pathfinder), though it is a bit more work than the Kingmaker rules.

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