I get the impression that, in the gaming community, Grappling rules are the bane of many. I don’t disagree. I’ll say, though, that I find the recommendations in Swords & Wizardry Complete to be fairly serviceable. I’ll withhold ultimate judgment until I see how they run in my Beowulf campaign. (Hint: the SW grappling rules might be the only tool players might have to overcome a certain creature who is entirely immune to natural weapons!)
Another component of the rpg world that I often have problems with is Mass Combat. The foundations of the industry are fascinating in this respect, considering that, though roleplaying appears to have arisen out of the culture of large-scale wargaming, in most rpgs a truly serviceable mass combat rules set (at least for me) is difficult to come by. I myself have not read the Original Game, but I believe that, at that time, if combat were to break out during a session, the players were directed to refer to the Chain Mail rules also published by TSR.
Anyway, it’s no secret anymore why mass combat might feel out of alignment in a roleplaying game: roleplaying is about the small scale, the individual, the single against the one, or against the many, or against the room or wilderness. Roleplaying games are designed to tell stories about discrete characters; they’re less interested in platoons. What’s more, roleplaying games are supposed to be exciting. They’re supposed to be about the threats against the players’ single (or handfuls of) characters. They’re supposed to be about these individuals surviving, about consequences that matter, not about nameless troop numbers lost over a series of military engagements. Roleplaying games are about managing an individual’s resources, not about managing a war (and consequently a kingdom).
Aha, you say. Yes, I admit it. You have got me there. True, at high enough levels, the OSR is too about managing kingdoms. Unfortunately, however, my games have yet to reach those levels. My Pathfinder game died, I suppose, at the time when PCs were supposed to be thinking about settling down and raising their kingdoms. I hope that, in the future, I can experience kingdom building within a more manageable rules set. I understand that the Adventurer Conqueror King System has excellent rules for every stage of the hero’s journey (that journey, incidentally, is described right there in the game’s title), but I foolishly ignored an opportunity to get every PDF in that system during a Bundle of Holding drive, and now I’m stubbornly waiting for that sale to come around again. (Another important drive I missed was The One Ring — arggh!)
Old Norse Old School Roleplaying presents a challenge for a creator who does not appreciate nor particularly care for the minutiae of most Mass Combat rules. This is because, obviously, Norsepersons (yes, usually Norsemen, but I’m being inclusive here) went to war. Swords & Wizardry Complete again presents a pretty serviceable vehicle for mass combat resolution. Still, it’s a mite too finicky for me. The tracking of individual units seems cumbersome. My philosophy for roleplaying, I suppose, is that a mass combat situation is supposed to be a backdrop for the continuing adventures of the player characters. This does not mean that the mass combat situation is unimportant. It should be important, and it should be important enough that player actions should influence the outcome of the combat. But I also believe that, during a large scale battle, neither the players nor the Referee need to pay close attention to what is going on outside of the players actions.
The inspiration that came to me, then, was to allow the outcome of the battle — the backdrop for the PCs — to be determined by probabilities, probabilities that could be affected by PC actions. I decided on a 6-sided die as a suitable range of probabilities, this choice reinforced by the further inspiration of using a traditional Random Encounter roll (usually a 1 in 6) to add dynamism to a mechanic that could, quite quickly, become a few tedious minutes of rolling dice in pursuit of an inevitable conclusion. Here’s what I came up with:
Simplified Mass Combat
For mass combat rules, it can be assumed that the forces are equally matched (otherwise why would the lighter force even risk an engagement). For unequal conflicts, the Referee should rule whatever outcome is most probable. The outcome of roughly equal mass combat is resolved through a series of rolls of a single d6. Simple mass combat, as suggested in Swords & Wizardry Complete, is timed in Turns.
During the first Turn of mass combat, each side has a 3 in 6 chance to begin to gain the ascendency. The force opposing the PCs’ side wins a Turn on a roll of 1 to 3; the PCs’ side wins a Turn on a roll of 4 to 6. This probability is modified with terrain and the usual effects. Usually a single effect is a .5 modification with no group of modifications typically exceeding 1.5 on either side.
The die is rolled at the conclusion of a single Turn, after PCs have attempted their individual actions (see below) and after the Referee has rolled and resolved a Random Encounter.
If either side wins a Turn, its probability of winning the next Turn is increased by one.
PCs in Mass Combat
Each Turn the PCs decide with the Referee what they are going to do to turn the tide of battle to their side’s favor. Together they decide if these collective actions will be worth a modifier of .5-1.5 on the die roll. Once everyone is agreed, the PCs perform their actions. These actions could be engaging in melee combat with the opposing force’s leader, sniping the standard bearer from afar, leading a special force against the opposing force’s flank, etc. If the PCs succeed in these actions, using up as many Rounds in the Turn that these actions might require, the bonuses to the next die roll might be gained. Alternatively, depending on how drastic their failures were, the PCs might suffer a penalty to their side’s die roll.
The winner of the die roll raises the odds in that side’s favor by a whole point, and the process begins again with the beginning of the next Turn.
Moreover, near the end of each Turn, after the PCs have decided upon and begun their independent actions, the Referee makes a d6 roll per the typical Random Encounter check. On a roll of 1 (or more, depending on the situation), some unforeseen circumstance occurs to shift the battle away from the favor of the PCs. This might be surprise enemy reinforcements, a landslide, a sudden betrayal, etc., and should directly complicate the PCs’ actions. If the PCs are not able to deal with this development, or if it nullifies the PCs’ intended actions, that Turn’s die roll favors the other side by 1.
The side that wins is the side that eventually gains enough modifiers to remove the necessity of a die roll per Turn. This is below 1 for the PCs and above 6 for the opponents.