It happens on rare occasion that the characters I GM for end up in some bigger battle. Often this follows lots of preparation and planning of strategies and tactics. Sometimes it just happens that the charaters are pulled in, but almost always this is quite a climactic and importent moment. Being in a battle with scores/hundres/thousands of others is something that happens rarely to most characters and is an event they should not soon forget.
From a GM point of view however, I struggle a bit with the task of keeping these situations as interesting and as suspenseful as I think they should be. I feel this has several reasons:
For the sake of the argument I'm going to assume some sort of medieval battle scenario, but I guess most of it applies to more modern scenarios as well. Also please note that I'm not looking for rules or mechanics on how to simulate mass battles. The battle will turn out the way I want it too (within reason), and not the way some strategy rules tell me. :)
The stream of foes in a mass battle is essentially unlimited. - The players can defeat some foe, and will be facing the next one almost instantaneously, thus drawing out the single encounters can quickly make the entire battle seem very dull. If we cut corners however, then the magnitude of the battle, the carnage and the deaths will be cheapened and watered down.
- How can I strike a balance between endless dice rolling for the long fighting and a cheap feel to mass battles?
The PCs are not alone - During a mass battle scene the PCs will be constantly surrounded by friends and foes. Positioning and who you have at your side can often be a more deciding factor of whether you live or die, than pure swordsmanship. Thus allies could cheat PCs out of their kills, or save the PCs lives, or retreat and abandon them. A couple of foes too many could overrun and utterly kill the PCs.
- How can I keep up player agency, while the characters are thrown back and forth by the tide of battle? (Should I even be trying to do that?)
Some people feel this is not a system-agnostic question, here are some of the systems where the above problem arose to a lesser or higher degree: Rolemaster/MERP (low magic high fantasy), DSA (high magic high fantasy), Star Wars D6 (Sci Fi/Space Opera), Degenesis (post apocalyptic), HEX (pulpy adventure in a hollow earth). But then again, the rules do not really matter much to me here. I can bend or change the rules to make it work if I know how I want to handle a situation. I think my problem lies more with how such mass battle situations can be kept interesting for players.