Welcome to the first of an exciting series of interviews with Fantasy Flight Games developers. Today we do a deep dive into the Mass Combat Rules from Lead by Example. Watch d20radio.com in the coming months for more of these in-depth interviews.
Christopher Hunt (CH): Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get into the RPG industry?
Tim Flanders (TF): I’ve been actively playing roleplaying games since I first cracked open the Player’s Handbook for 2nd edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons when I was ten years old. It was my number one hobby until I started playing the Warhammer 40,000 miniatures game in college. At that point, building and painting miniatures for wargames and writing characters and campaigns for roleplaying games combined to devour all of my free time. Then, in 2009, I landed my dream gig when I picked up a freelance contract with Fantasy Flight Games to do a short bit of writing for the Rogue Trader game line in Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay. That project went well, and over the next two years I took on more writing and editing, in each of the 40k Roleplay game lines Fantasy Flight was doing at the time. Eventually the stars aligned and the RPG department at FFG expanded, and I applied for a full-time producer job. And the rest, as they say, is history, here I am five years later. I’ve had the pleasure in that time to work on more 40k Roleplay products (this time from the other side of things), several Star Wars RPG products, the End of the World game line, and to meet many RPG fans and work with dozens of excellent writers, editors, artists, and other people who make all of these games possible.
TF: I first really sat down with the Mass Combat system when I ran the first chapter of Onslaught at Arda I at GenCon 2013. I was intrigued by the way it simplified these huge set-piece battles into a handful of rolls, while giving players a chance to really influence the course of the battle, even though they only control a relatively small number of actual combatants. Onslaught at Arda I did a great job balancing that sense of scale and without diminishing player character contribution to the outcome of the battle.
While preparing to dive into Lead by Example, the first Age of Rebellion supplement I took the lead on, I knew I had to bring the Mass Combat system out of Onslaught at Arda I and into the wider Age of Rebellion experience, since this was our exploration of the Star Wars universe from the military perspective. Since Lead by Example was the Commander sourcebook, this seemed like the perfect opportunity. The ultimate goal was to expand the system presented in Onslaught at Arda I to give Game Masters a bigger toolbox with which to tell their stories and to give Players more specific ways to interact with that system.
Finally, when working on the upcoming adventure, Friends Like These, we had another chance to feature the Mass Combat system a climactic battle and I relished the opportunity to bring it full circle, from module-specific rule system, to game-wide system, and back to showcase the full system in another adventure module.
CH: How do you see Mass Combat fitting into most campaigns and sessions?
TF: Obviously, Mass Combat isn’t the sort of thing you want to pull out every session. It would be a pretty unique campaign experience to have the sorts of battle that warrant using the Mass Combat system in every session. That being said, it’s hard to imagine Star Wars without the huge climactic battles like the Battles of Yavin, Hoth, and Endor. If you’re a GM preparing a Star Wars RPG campaign, especially an Age of Rebellion campaign, it’s not unlikely that you’ve got those sorts of battle in mind as climax events for your campaign arc.
CH: How did the Mass Combat rules evolve between Onslaught at Arda I and Lead by Example? Why do they work the way they do now?
TF: As I stated before, the main goal of presenting the Mass Combat rules in Lead by Example was to make them more accessible and more broadly applied to circumstances outside the narrative of Onslaught at Arda I. We wanted to put the rules in a non-module supplement to get them into the hands of Players as well as GMs and we wanted to give everyone more ways to use the rules and examples of their use outside of a single adventure. And, let’s be honest, when we were making a supplement about military leaders, how could we not put rules in there for taking on the role of a general in the sorts of battles that will get your name penned in the history books alongside Generals Solo and Calrissian?
CH: When should a GM simply narrate a battle in the background and when should they use these more formal rules?
TF: This can be a bit of a grey area, but ultimately, I think this decision comes down to whether or not the outcome of the battle itself is predetermined. How much influence are the Player Characters going to have on the outcome of the battle? If the PC’s can affect meaningful change on the outcome, or even just the circumstances of the battle, then running it as a Mass Combat provides the means for that interaction and influence. Ultimately, the GM has to ask themselves if the battle serves as a setting for the action of the PCs or if the PCs are actively taking part in it. If the outcome of the battle is pre-scripted by the GM, then there is no need for the variable outcome that is offered by the Mass Combat system. Although, it should be noted that even in a battle with a pre-determined outcome, the system still functions as a means to make the battle itself more dynamic and to offer concrete stakes and consequences to the PCs actions on the fly.
CH: You mentioned these rules allow huge battles to be resolved elegantly. If a GM wants to represent a more non-standard force, say Trandoshan mercenaries armed with close combat weapons, how would you recommend they give that force a unique flavor without bogging down the game with too much complexity?
TF: The first thing I would recommend is that the GM take some time to craft specific encounters between the PCs and the Trandoshans to really reinforce the sort of threat they represent. Weaving such encounters into the narrative of the Mass Combat and applying their outcome to the Mass Combat check in the form of boost and setback dice will let the players know that their actions had an effect on the progress of the battle, while also letting the players get all too familiar with the force they are facing. In addition, I would suggest that the GM apply specific modifiers to the Mass Combat check depending on the circumstance of the phase of the battle. So, using your example above, if the phase takes place in a locale or in a situation in which they can bring their ranged superiority to bear, the GM should provide them with a bonus, either with boost dice, or perhaps something more interesting, like decreasing the difficulty of the check, as the Trandoshans are a much weaker force under such circumstances. Conversely, once the Trandoshans actually get to grips with their foes, they become a much more dangerous enemy, so their Force Rating could go up, thereby increasing the difficulty of the Mass Combat check.
CH: Do you have any guidance for Mass Combat with vehicles and starships?
TF: One of the strengths of the Mass Combat system is representing a cohesive force of many smaller elements taking on a titanic single foe. This means that Mass Combat can be a very good way to portray a battle between, say, a massed rebel fleet and a single planet-destroying super-weapon. You can have the PCs take part in important scenes of the battle and still have their actions remain relevant to the overall outcome. This sort of setup also works for a large number of non-vehicle equipped soldiers facing a small number of heavy vehicles (see the Battle of Hoth) and so forth.
More than anything, the Mass Combat system is particularly good at giving the GM and Players options for how their actions on a personal scale consequences and purpose in a battle that takes place only at the largest scale. What better setting to represent this disparity of scale than kilometers-long starships crewed by individual heroes and defended by fighters and other small-scale craft?
CH: How does Battle Meditation from Force and Destiny apply to Mass Combat?
TF: Since Mass Combat doesn’t replace or even supersede the standard combat rules, Battle Meditation doesn’t apply to the Mass Combat check or other particulars to the Mass Combat system. However, since Mass Combat should be influenced by the actions of the PCs and their skirmishes and the outcomes of their own deeds, Battle Meditation can have a huge effect on a Mass Combat, simply by giving the PCs more of an edge on the small-scale.
CH: How do talents that affect Leadership, such as Commanding Presence, apply to Mass Combat?
TF: While the Mass Combat check isn’t technically a Leadership skill check, the command aptitudes of both the acting and enemy force commanders play a huge part. For this reason, the GM is encouraged to incorporate talents that influence such checks into the Mass Combat when appropriate.
CH: How would you recommend GMs adjust how they run Mass Combat if there is no player leading the acting force?
TF: In such cases, the system works best if the PCs choose a Non-Player Character to perform the duties of the acting force commander. In fact, they should still roll the Mass Combat check for that NPC. In this way the GM can give the players the responsibility of leading without their characters having to be physically present in the command center. This frees them up to take action out on the front lines, behind enemy lines, or on other special missions while the battle rages around them without making it feel like the outcome of the battle was predetermined by the GM.
CH: If a player is the commander, would you recommend “splitting the party” while the commander has their Thrawn moment?
TF: This is certainly one way to handle such a circumstance. If a player wishes to take full tactical command of a battle (and we’ve certainly given them the tools to do so), they could “take part” in the PC’s actions by guiding them and acting as Command and Control, making skill checks to provide them tactical support while they are on the battlefield, then when the phase comes to a close, the Commander can gather the Mass Combat check pool and roll the outcome.
Another option could be running operations from the front line. If a Commander PC is more of a “lead from the front” kind of character, their ability to stay in communication with their troops may suffer (perhaps downgrading the ability of the Mass Combat check), but the inspiration they provide to their soldiers might outweigh that loss (providing multiple boost dice).
CH: Turning points are a unique way to players to have a dramatic impact on the Mass Combat. Can you give us some more guidance on using turning points?
TF: Turning points really give players the chance to completely change the course of the battle, so GM’s should be careful with doling these out. In Lead by Example we only really provide one vector for using them in your game, and that’s if the Mass Combat check generates two Triumphs. Two. That’s a hard thing to pull off! But, as with everything in an RPG, something like a Turning Point doesn’t have to be limited to dice rolls. Players with truly inspired battlefield plans, or PCs who really put it all on the line for their cause should be rewarded for their genius or their courage. I’m always happy to encourage players to think outside the box, or to think big, so if you’ve got a player with an idea that you think could really turn into an awesome scene your campaign, I say go for it! It’s in moments like that that the game really comes into its own as a cooperative storytelling experience. Also, as a GM it can be great to have your expectations and plans shaken up, just to keep you on your toes and to make the game as much a surprise for you as it is for the Players.
Using Turning Points in these instances can really make the players feel like their characters are making an impact of the battle as a whole. When Han, Leia, and Chewbacca destroy the shield generator on Endor, even though that was always the plan, their actions changed the entire course of the battle, allowing Lando and Nien Nunb to destroy the second Death Star, an epic Turning Point in its own right!
CH: Suppose a GM is still skeptical about Mass Combat, what would you say to them?
TF: Some GMs are going to be excited by Mass Combat, and some aren’t. Perhaps your game doesn’t include those big set-piece battles that I talked about. If you are running an espionage- or diplomacy-themed Age of Rebellion game, it’s unlikely that you’ll find place to make use of the Mass Combat system. But if you can see your campaign heading towards a big, epic battle, then I’d say, at least give them a read. Check out the system, let your mind run wild with the possibilities and the opportunities it gives you for getting your players involved in such events.
CH: Thanks so much, Tim!