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So, my players threw me for a loop last weekend when they decided to go a little off-script at the end of our session. Normally I’m pretty good at rolling with changes, but this one has me a little flummoxed trying to prepare for next weekend’s session. Hoping some of the more experienced GMs here can throw me some pointers regarding how to mechanically run interesting “battle” encounters.

So here’s what’s going on:

The PCs have gotten themselves involved in a war (as PCs are wont to do), the climactic battle of which will begin with our session this coming weekend. No problem, I thought. I’ve run big battles before and usually run them as a series of decisive encounters, the result of which effect the next encounter and what’s going on “off stage” (so, for instance, the PC group may start the battle helping to hold the center of the infantry, and how well they do in their small encounter will be the tipping point on whether the center hold, which will in-turn affect what the next encounter will be and how the battle is faring in general).

And the PCs were all set to follow that kind of model…until a war council in the last minutes of our last session. During the discussion, the players (through solid roleplaying and some very lucky die rolls) convinced the NPC commanders of the army that rather than fighting together as a group, they should split up and help in different parts of the battle. So, the melee-focused knight character is helping defend a keep while the mage leads a group of soldiers to ambush the enemy and the wilderness scout is riding with the cavalry.

And that’s all well and good. The players are having fun and it was really gratifying to see them come up with a plan on their own and roleplay (and roll play) convincing these leaders to follow their plan. They feel like they have huge agency in the world and that’s great.

But from a MECHANICAL level, I’m just not sure how to smoothly run what will likely be a fairly lengthy battle with all the PCs in different places, with their own allies and followers, facing different opponents, on different timetables. Like, we’re not using minis so it’s not a TABLE SPACE issue. It’s just that I don’t know a fun, interesting way to keep everyone engaged and just constantly going back and forth after each round of combat seems like a very sub-optimal solution.

I’m hoping that one of you may have a better idea or a go-to system you use for running larger battles like this where the party isn’t really in a position where “normal” combat encounters would be much fun.

NOTE: I’m running a Rifts game using a heavily homebrewed mod of the Palladium system. But I’m not necessarily looking for a Palladium-specific solution. While I would of course welcome Palladium solutions, if you can describe the system you would suggest, I’m sure I can adapt it to my system.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is it important to run all the battles at the same time, or would handling them one-by-one work okay for the story as well? \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Sep 27 '17 at 17:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, please don't use comments to answer, or partially answer, or suggest potential leads for solutions, or anything like that. See Should users refrain from answers (or partial answers) in comments? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Sep 27 '17 at 18:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Erik While I can absolutely RUN the battles one-by-one, the characters are going to have to start the battle in different places. I figure I’m probably going to HAVE to run the encounters separately in some way. I’m just not sure mechanically how to do it. I’m worried about the amount of downtime that could cause as players wait for their next turn and aren’t really involved in what’s going on with the other players (at least at the start of the battle). \$\endgroup\$ – Jonathan Grant Sep 27 '17 at 18:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Did you consider using mass combat from the Complete Campaign book? Basically you zoom out and give your PC's small armies to work with. In that way, your players get what they want but they are still on the same battle grid - this makes for better player interaction. If you did consider it but didn't want it, this is not an answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Derk Jan Hulsinga Oct 12 '17 at 7:17
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What our group has done on some rare occasions where the PCs where split up for a while was to have the 'non-active' players taking over minor NPCs that accompany the PCs.

For example while playing out a lengthy scene with the Knight character holding the infantry center, the players of the Mage and the Scout could take over the role of some other infantrymen.

While playing out the Mages ambush, the Knight and Scout player will then take over a minor character involved in that engagement, etc.

  • As you already know about the party split in advance you can prepare well for this. I'd suggest creating some mini character sheets to hand out to the players, that contain just the most important (combat) stats for their NPCs, and maybe 2-3 sentences about their background.
  • In such a large battle this will help to highlight the fact that there are many many other people involved beside the PCs.
  • You can choose the minor NPCs in a way that complement or contrast the player character that they'll be accompanying. Or you could to the opposite, and have the PC and the new NPC quickly bond over common strengths/weaknesses.
  • If you're so inclined then the story arc (and the fate) of these NPCs (or rather side-PCs) can help to illustrate the woe and turmoil of battle:
    • Maybe a stable boy who was armed with spear and shield in the last minutes before the battle suddenly outgrows himself to perform a heroic deed?
    • Maybe a grizzled veteran on his last campaign before returning home to his family is tragically slain while covering the retreat of his squad?

The mechanics would basically boil down to this:

  • You have 3 different story lines/settings going on.
  • Each story line is lead by one PC.
  • Each story line has 2 side-characters also, played by the other PCs.
  • You can then run these in parallel or not pretty much as you'd like - or as dramatic storytelling would tell you to: as the other PCs will actually be involved in all the different stories there will be no down time or twiddling of thumbs.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Letting them play minor NPCs is also a great way to make war feel more real, as those you are just getting to know as people are brutally murdered because they only have 5 hp to your 60. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Oct 5 '17 at 8:08
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You can keep things simple by using high level rolls to abstract the progression of the battle in one direction or another for all sides involved. For the PCs army, they will either:

A: Want to achieve a certain target number or level of successes within a certain time frame

OR

B: Just continue to roll well while they're doing their part in battle so that when it comes to their individual moments (see below), they don't receive a setback that affects them achieving their separate objectives.

DO NOT have them handle side characters or anyone that doesn't matter to the plot. That be abstracted as above with a dice roll or two. These dice rolls SHOULD NOT be the end-all-and-be-all but they should have some felt consequence on the battlefield that makes moderately more difficult or easier (depending on what the roll was for).

When you focus on different PCs within a battle, don't think of it as "how will they ALL fight in parallel!". Bad idea -- you'll feel overwhelemd (which you've hinted to in your questions). Literally switch between each PC, one-after-the-other as the battle goes on, as they complete/overcome/fail their objectives. When the Scout manages to scramble up the stone wall from behind and then activate the wheel for the gate, immediately flip to the knight leading the charge into the garrison carving his way through the spearman and then immediately flip over to the Mage as she uses her magic to destroy the nearby structures blocking off the defenders from escape and from reinforcement. Each ones' actions aids the others somehow even in a disperate fashion. Spend no more than about five mins on each PC -- ensure you stick to what exactly it is they need to do in that moment in pursuit of their battlefield objective.

Keep NPCs health low. Should take a normal hit, maybe two, to take them down. They are not joined in pitched combat with an opponent, it is just men raining down blows on each other in swarm, that's it. If you attempt to simulate all the soldiers like normal NPCs, you will destroy any productivity you might have had for the evening.

Save dramatic moments for the PCs or for when the tide of battle turns or when plot relevant.

And just to make it absolutely clear, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO TREAT THE BATTLE AS A NORMAL COMBAT. It is not, it is simply more action-packed (and cinematic!) variant of your normal narrative-based RP. This is the one part where I think people can get themselves in a mess. Don't do this.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ All caps combined with some bold text makes for an unclear text. Consider using quotes and headers to add structure. Also, -1 for asking PC's to stick with what they should be doing. When do they ever? \$\endgroup\$ – Derk Jan Hulsinga Oct 12 '17 at 7:14

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