Thursday, 1 September 2011

Mass Samurai Battles in BECMI

What do you say we lighten things up and talk about the mass slaughter of the flower of youth?

The Rules Cyclopedia is (I think) the only iteration of DnD which makes a stab at a flavourful, quick and comprehensive mass battle system in its core rules. This has always been relevant to my interests, because I was always as much into Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Warhammer 40,000 as much as I was a role player, and I am to this day something of a wargame geek (incidentally, if any of the readers of this blog play Steel Panthers: World at War, I'm always available for a PBEM game).

The War Machine, as it is known, is a noble attempt, and ultimately a success - because, although the rules are simplistic, efficiency is art, and it clearly strikes the right balance between simplicity and flexibility. Let's run ourselves through a battle and find out why. Because almost nobody commented on it and it sank into the murky waters of the blogosphere with nary a trace, I'll randomly generate two samurai armies from my random feudal Japanese army generator to duke it out.

To be fair, we'll keep both armies roughly the same size [Force Size C on my generator, for those following along], but keep composition different. And, through the wonderful mystery of dice rolling, here's what we come up with:

Lord Bakayaro's Army (490 men)

49 light cavalry (0-level keikihei; unit contains 2 1st level warriors)
49 medium cavalry (1-level chukihei; unit contains 2 2nd level warriors)
122 heavy infantry (1-level foot samurai; unit contains 4 2nd level warriors)
74 archers (0-level medium archers; unit contains 2 1st level warriors)
196 light infantry (1-level foot samurai; unit contains 4 2nd level warriors)

Lord Bakayaro is level 5. He is a paladin.

The BFR for this force is 63, assuming 20 weeks of training with their general, and including bonus for having an average AC of 5 or better. This means their Troop Class is 'fair'. Their BR is 77 (63, +7 for having 20% mounted troops, +7 for speed).

Lord Do-Aho-s Army (390 men)

39 light cavalry (1-level keikihei; unit contains 1 2nd level warrior)
39 heavy cavalry (1-level mounted samurai; unit contains 1 2nd level warrior)
39 heavy infantry (1-level foot samurai; unit contains 1 2nd level warrior)
195 light infantry (1-level foot samurai; unit contains 5 2nd level warriors)
39 archers (0-level light archers; unit contains 1 1st level warrior)
39 no-dachi samurai (1-level foot samurai; unit contains 1 2nd level warrior)

Lord Do-Aho is level 9. He is a magic-user.

The BFR for this force is also, interestingly, 63, applying the same bonuses as above - giving a BR of 70 (+7 for speed).

Let's also assume that no other bonuses apply - the troops are meeting on an open field in neutral territory on a bright autumnal evening.

Now, combat results: both armies advance forwards, fanning out across the plain - a standard meeting engagement. Both players roll a d100 and add their BR: Lord Bakayaro gets 68 + 77, resulting in 145. Lord Do-Aho gets 37 + 70, resulting in 107. Lord Bakayaro's force drives Lord Do-Aho's backwards, winning by 38; examining the results table to find out what this means, we discover there is great slaughter on both sides - 20% of Bakayaro's men are casualties, compared to 40% of Do-Aho's, and after the day is done both forces are understandably fatigued (Bakayaro's moderately, Do-Aho's seriously) and retreat from the field.

Casualties are spread equally across all units, with a 50/50 split between dead and wounded, leaving Bakayaro with 402 men able to fight the next day if necessary, and Do-Aho with a mere 234. Bakayaro has 49 wounded men on his hands; Do-Aho, 78 - both sides were able to retreat in good order and save their injured.

I was able to complete the above battle in about half an hour while I was making dinner, including generating both sides. It would be a bit more complicated in other scenarios - if I was taking into account terrain, who was defending and who was attacking, that sort of thing - and magical or special monstrous troops through additional factors into the mix. But still, most battles can be worked out in 45 minutes or less. This makes it a robust and sexy little system for generating battle results.

There are two key complaints I suppose could be made:

  • Figures for dead and wounded. In most medieval battles, indeed in the entire history of human conflict, the wounded always far, far outweigh the dead. However, by the same token, the injured in pre-20th century battles would frequently die afterwards from their wounds and often from disease, and arguably therefore the 50/50 split makes sense (the "50% killed" figure could refer to the total number of dead during the fighting and after).
  • Bonuses are applied to the entire force - either the whole army is defending or attacking, the whole army is on higher ground, the entire army is in the woods, etc. This is a fairer criticism, although it is difficult to imagine how it can be resolved without recourse to counters and maps; and the beauty of the system is that you don't need either of those things.
A great innovation is the optional rule for tactics. Both players choose a tactic for their turn (attack strongly, attack, envelop, trap, hold, withdraw) and conceal a dice, face up with the corresponding number (1 for attack strongly, 2 for attack, 3 for envelop, etc.). Then they reveal their dice at the start of the turn and see what happens (if both sides attack strongly there are lots of casualties; if one side attacks strongly and the other holds, the attacking side suffers more casualties; if one attacks and the other withdraws, the withdrawing side suffers more casualties, etc.). Kind of a glorified version of Rock, Paper, Scissors, but also fun and easy to use.

The great tragedy, of course, is that you don't often get the chance to see the rules in action because high-level play is so rare. Playing once a month is not a recipe for success in this regard. NOISMS NEEDS A WEEKLY GAME.


  1. So, (very) loosely translated, we have Lord Dumb Bastard and Lord Total Asshole? Tough choices.

  2. -I feel like there's an imbalance between the complexity of assembling/describing the force and the simplicity of resolving the battle and the results thereby generated. Like a relatively lotta detail goes into making the force but it doesn't seem to matter (could be missing something).

    Love the rock, paper, scissors part, though.

    -Maybe if the casualties referred to what units took casualties?

    -Weekly game? You know what I'm going to say, right? It begins with G and ends with + and has oogle in the middle and is waiting for you with dowuble sets of dripping jaws.

  3. Blizack: It's more like 'Lord Dumb Bastard' and 'Lord Even Bigger Bastard' really. ;)

    Zak: Well, the complexity of assembling the force is just because I was using that pretty complex random generator I invented. Ordinarily the forces will already be determined in advance, presumably because it's the host of hirelings/mercenaries/elven allies/ogres/warboar riders or whatever that the PCs have at their disposal, plus whatever the DM thinks the baddies should have.

    I could have predicted you'd bring up ConstantCon... And it's a Wednesday too...

  4. Iguess what I'm saying is maybe you could append a "casualty disaggregator" to your "force generator". Maybe via some automatic mechanic that comes into play during generation?

    Like: you generate your force in a certain order, that's the order they go into battle and therefore the order that they take casualties according to Zipf's law? Just brainstorming a way to add the mechanic without adding time.

  5. Different tactics might expose the different divisions of the unit to harm - casualties (for the attacker) occurring more/mostly/all in cavalry if the tactic was cavalry charge, etc..

  6. I think it works great for finding out what happened between NPC forces, but for PCs it's pretty unsatisfying. IIRC Birthright had a mass battle system that was a little more crunchy, but i got the sense that it was kind of unwieldy. One of the best ideas i've seen was in Malhavoc's Cry Havoc. (

    It was a D20 product, but the basic idea is easy to abstract out. Run a battle like a regular combat but multiply everything by some scaling factor according to the size of the conflict. A border skirmish might be 10, a minor battle 100, a major offensive 1000, etc. Space, movement and time are expanded according to that factor (within reason). Draw up a map of the battlefield using the new scale and put some figures on it to represent the units, then fight! Characters can take special actions to improve their units' results, but on the whole it's very similar to a normal combat and it's easy to put work in spells and monsters.

  7. Love the War Machine - had fond memories of War Machine from my youth, and have been using it extensively in my current campaign (while the players fritter their time in the mountains, and army of ghouls and zombies wanders the settled lands).

    Thinking out loud here - there was a supplement called Red Arrow/Black Shield for Mystara that presented a "Known World" world war - it introduced stacking - force splitting might have been addressed there, allowing different sections different tactics. (Will check it later).

    Zak's right there's no mechanical benefit to complicated forces; that's a bit of a feature, keeps it on the beer and pretzels plane. The other thing I've noticed is maxing the training bonuses - who wouldn't? Even Lord Dumb Bastard trains.

    War Machine preceded the Cyclopedia in the Companion rules.

  8. My first thought was remembering how fun those rules are (including all the twinky things that PCs can do for their armies such as train them endlessly). The system was indeed light weight but still satisfied by providing reliable crunch rather than just hand waving everything.

    My second thought was that you can't have a 5th level Paladin in Rules Cyclopedia. You needed to be 9th level (and Lawful) to petition a church to train you. :)

    I love(d) those rules.

  9. Zak: When the War Machine comes into play the forces are usually set. Maybe a better way is having the players nominate which of their units is in the "front line" and the casualties are weighted towards them?

    Matthew: That's workable. The problem is then you get into the whole maps and minis thing - which defeats the original purpose of the War Machine somewhat.

    Paul: Yeah, I forgot that about Paladins. That's what you get for playing too many different versions of D&D.

  10. My complaint would be - what about lord Do-Aho's Ice Storm and Fireball spells. Shouldn't they turn the tide of battle, basically?

  11. i shall have to get off my ass (figuratively speaking, of course) and actually look at the cyclopedia and actually figure out what i'm talking about and then decide whether I need to get all hacky on this or just go "yeah, you're right

  12. faustusnotes: You get a bonus for having 1% of your army being able to cast spells. Annoyingly, the rules don't specify whether this means 1% or more, or one part of 1%. Logically it should probably be the latter, I agree.

    Zak: Do you have it? If you don't, get it. It may not be to everybody's taste but I don't think there's a better organised or more complete version of D&D.

  13. War Machine FTW! The only successful RPG mass combat system ever published, IMO. I particularly love the way it scales infinitely; I've used it for battles with half a million men on the field.

    Re Wounded - per RAW the loser only recovers Wounded if the winner lets them. Otherwise the winner holds the field and can massacre the enemy wounded.

    Wounded are the recoverable wounded, 1-4 months it says. 'Killed' includes permanently incapacitated, slowly dying etc.

  14. A simple way to get the Basic Force Rating for a force is to decide in advance if they are eg 'Average' or 'Good' quality, look that number up on the BFR table, then roll 1d20+(minimum-1) for that quality, eg roll 124+1d20 for an Elite force. Then you add on any 10% BR bonuses for missiles, magic, cavalry etc for your final BR.

  15. @faustusnotes - for artillery spells, if it's a small enemy force I let the PCs use their spells in advance of the battle & deduct losses from the enemy, the PCs likely get the 'heroic act' bonus to the d% roll too. For larger battles I might say "You can expend your artillery spells for a +5 to the d% roll" - size of bonus will depend on level of PC vs size of enemy army; a force of 100,000 won't notice a couple of fireballs unless they incinerate the general.