The GM Awakens – Making Combat Massive – Part 1

This series follows the trials, tribulations, successes, and failures of a fairly inexperienced GM who has recently picked up the hobby after a long time away. It aims to assist new GM’s by examining what worked, didn’t work, and what failed miserably as he spins up new campaigns, modules, encounters, and adventures for his friends and family in Fantasy Flight Games’ Edge of the Empire/Age of Rebellion/Force and Destiny system.

The concept of a combat encounter is part of almost any RPG’s core.  It’s the encounters that most PCs build their characters around and the kind most players look forward to.  Nothing beats blasting a trooper as you escape the detention block, or slicing through a goblin with your sword to get the treasure.  For many this is a primary reason we play these games.  But there was something I had never considered in my years playing RPG’s until I opened up and read Fantasy Flight Games’ book, Lead by Example, for their Star Wars roleplaying game, Age of Rebellion.  In among the pages were rules for “mass combat.”  Mass Combat?  What?  It can be massive?  I had never heard of such rules, nor even considered such a thing in any game I’d ever played or run.

Back in my D&D days, a couple times I had set up a battle as part of a larger one.  But this was definitely in a vacuum and the larger battle was just background.  A friend in one of my regular Star Wars RPG gaming groups also has set up battles with a larger battle going on behind the scenes.  No one I know, however, had ever even attempted a huge combat encounter with hundreds of troops and fighters, maybe thousands, all doing their own thing while the PC’s fight their own battle in the middle of everything.  I know some other RPG lines have mass combat rules pop up once in a while, but none in any RPG I had ever run.  This was all new to me.

When you think “Star Wars” some of the images that come to mind are huge, sprawling battles in the sky and on the ground all at once.  So when I read these rules I immediately knew that this had to be included in one of my upcoming modules.  So I spent a couple weeks working out a huge mass combat adventure for one of my gaming groups.  I will be using this and the next few articles to explore how to run mass combat in your games by adapting the general idea and spirit of the rules laid out in the Star Wars RPG lines.  I will also examine how I structured the adventure, the things that worked, some things that didn’t work, how to keep everyone in your party involved, and how to make it feel cinematic and connected to the larger events.

The first idea is one that seems quite obvious but one I never put in practice.  That’s the idea of making sure the PC party affects the overall battle going on.  Seems obvious enough, right?  In previous attempts at a larger battle, the PC fight happened independent of the large battle action and basically made the mass combat become backdrop for the party.  Nothing that happened in the battle affected the party dynamically, and nothing the PCs did could affect the overall battle.  All that changed when I implemented the mass combat rules in FFG’s system.  The rules are very simple, intuitive, and narrative.

For those that don’t know, a mass combat adventure in FFG’s Star Wars system is based on phases.  The GM determines what he wants the battle to be and he cuts it into 3, 4, 5, or however many phases the GM needs.  It’s during the phases that the PC’s do their thing and between the phases where the system determines how those actions affect the overall battle.  In between each phase is a “Mass Combat Check.”  A number of dice are rolled determined by the size and type of the attacking forces, the size and type of the defending forces, the leaders of each force, and finally, the PC’s actions during each phase.  In each phase, I also had several objectives the PCs could choose to complete.  Each objective had a different affect on the mass combat roll.  Finally, the mass combat roll then determines who “won” or “lost” the larger battle of the phase, as well as having a mechanical affect on the following mass combat check.  So, not only do the PC’s affect each phase, but each phase affects the next.  The winner of the very last mass combat check is the winner of the battle.  I believe this type of concept can be used in almost any RPG system.

Let’s look at an example of how the first part of my mass combat adventure was constructed:

Overview

The PC’s arrived at the Defiant Core Rebel Base from Strongholds of Resistance in Age of Rebellion.  During their stay, the Empire invaded the planet and made an attempt to take the base.  The PC’s had to leap into action, along with the rest of the Rebels stationed at the base, and repel the attack long enough to evacuate later.

Pre-Combat

The PCs participated in several repairs and improvements of base systems after their arrival.  Depending on how well or poorly they accomplished these tasks, the mass combat rolls were positively or negatively affected.  For example, the team gunner was able to sight in and calibrate the turbolaser defenses of the base.  I made that success allow for boosts to any roll the turbolaser made during battle.  I also decided what other defenses the base had, what things the PC’s had at their disposal, and what the enemy forces comprised of.  This gave me the base mass combat check for the adventure.  All other things in the adventure would alter this check between phases.

Phase 1

Imperial cruisers enter orbit.  TIE Bombers with escorts begin bombing runs to soften base defenses before the ground forces arrive.  The Rebel forces inside the base begin to deploy forces and prepare for ground attack.  Fighters are launched to try and shoot down the incoming bombers.

Objective A

Take out as many TIE Bombers and TIE Interceptors as possible.  If PCs shoot down at least two Bombers and two Interceptors, add a boost die for the Rebels in the mass combat check.  If they fail, add a setback die to the check for the Rebels representing the fact that several bombers successfully bombed the base.

Objective B

Improve the base’s energy shield giving it a boost of power and extending its range.  If successful, add a boost die for the Rebels during the mass combat check.  If failed, the mass combat is not affected.

Objective C

Take a speeder and scout ahead to determine the size of the Imperial forces approaching.  If successful, add a boost die for the Rebels during the mass combat check.  If failed, the mass combat is not affected.

This constituted the first Phase of my adventure.  After Phase 1 is complete and the Objectives were met or failed, the mass combat check was rolled, we made adjustments to Phase 2 based on its result, and went on to play Phase 2.  Several things worked well for me that I would recommend doing when setting up a mass combat adventure.

For one, I had the individual objectives predetermined with their difficulties and how they would affect the mass combat check.  I also determined the narrative and mechanical outcomes if the PC’s won or lost each phase.  I also created enough objectives and catered them to my PC group.  The PC group’s pilot and gunner had ships to shoot down.  The group’s sniper and scout could head off to recon the battle, and the team’s mechanic had shields he could work on.  So, while splitting the party and working back and forth between them, everyone had things to do they were good at.

One thing didn’t sit too well with me when the first phase was over, however.  That was the PCs’ objectives were very segmented.  They didn’t tie together.  They were like a list of to-do’s that while they did affect the upcoming mass combat check, they didn’t affect each other.  The PC’s weren’t really working together.  Sure they were busy but their actions didn’t quite sync up.  We had to stop our first game session right after Phase 1 ended, and we picked it up the following week.  I used that week to improve the rest of the adventure, and inter-weave each smaller battle much more.

In Part 2 I will review the changes I made to the later phases of the adventure and how I improved them.  I will then examine ways in which FFG’s system might be adapted to fit other d20 RPG’s.

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Scott Alden

Scott Alden

Scott is a full-time IT Manager living in Lawrence, KS. (Rock Chalk, Jayhawk! Just outside Kansas City for those who don't know.) Scott is a veteran of several role playing, table top miniatures, video, and board games, starting with the Atari 2600 when he was 6, and the classic red box Dungeons and Dragons game when he was 12. After a long hiatus away from the hobby, Scott has recently picked up gaming once again, and is running two different campaigns in Fantasy Flight Games' Edge of the Empire/Age of Rebellion/Force and Destiny lines. He is an avid X-Wing miniatures player, as well as Armada, Imperial Assault, Space Hulk, and Rebellion. (His family is obviously a Star Wars family, right?) Scott is married to his high school sweetheart, and has 2 children in middle school, both Black Belts in Krav Maga martial arts.
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