Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Rules for Mass Combat: Fiddling Around

This week, I've been fiddling around with Frank Mentzer's War Machine rules from the BECMI Companion Set. I've always liked these rules. They can handle huge wars or small skirmishes with just a few calculations, a pair of die rolls, and some table look-ups. The only problem is that those calculations can be a bit clunky at times. 

For those that don't know, the War Machine has you first calculate a Basic Force Rating (BFR), depending on the leader's level and mental ability scores, the level/HD of the troops and their officers, and a few other things. This score determines the Troop Class (Poor through Elite). 

Once the BFR and Troop Class are determined, there are more calculations to get the Battle Rating based on things like training, arms and equipment, and force composition (how many archers, what percent of spellcasters, etc.). These bonuses are based on a percentage of the BFR, so different for each force. This produces the Battle Rating (BR).

Oh, and then when the army finally takes the field and meets the enemy, the BR of both forces gets modified by various factors of the encounter (relative force size, high ground, favorable/unfavorable terrain, defensive positions), and there are options to add on battle tactics with a 6x6 table reminiscent of the Chainmail Jousting table. 

Once the BR has been modified for each side due to the battle conditions, each side rolls a d100 and adds it to the modified BR. The higher total wins, and the difference in totals is referenced on a chart to show how many casualties each side takes, whether or not the forces are fatigued by the battle, and whether the loser has to retreat and whether the victor is allowed to hold the field or advance. 

Sounds complicated, but when we used to use it as kids, it worked really well for us. Most of the calculations get made when the force is created, with updates for training or for purchasing better equipment, or hiring a different cohort of troops (adding more cavalry, for example). And once a battle happened, it was kind of fun to go through the list of factors to see what we could add or subtract from our forces. Then then die roll! Sweet victory, or agonizing defeat all in one roll. It was pretty exciting. But it can be a bit time consuming.

So I've been looking to streamline the process. I've got a first draft of a simplified version of the rules, but they're not actually all that simplified looking over them again. Basically, I take out the Troop Class and separating BFR and BR. Just calculate a BR from the factors I've kept to consider. The factors that make BR based on a fraction of the BFR have just flat values now. Most of the things to consider in a battle I've kept the same (or nearly so, I did change around a few numbers, and incorporated many of the optional rules that we used to use). 

Now, the Companion Set does include a "quick BR" formula, which ignores a lot and is a lot faster to calculate. We would usually have full long-form BRs for our Name Level PCs' armies, but when a rampaging horde of orcs and trolls showed up, we'd use the quick BR to get their values (which often gave us a big advantage, as the quick BR ignores a lot of things that might give bonuses). 

This weekend, I plan to run a few war games with the boys to try out my current first draft. If it goes well, great! If it's a bit clunky still, I may modify it to be more like the Quick BR alternate system, as it is very fast and no fuss, no muss. I think that if all armies are made with the same system, it will be more fair.

The one thing I still need to set up before the weekend games would be "mercenary prices" for various monsters. I've included the mercenary tables from the Expert Set in TS&R, but that just covers humans, dwarves, elves, orcs, and goblins (plus halflings in my version). There are no prices for having ogres, manticores, ghouls, dragons, or giants in your forces, although the War Machine has rules to handle armies containing creatures like these. I never had a set price guide determined when we were kids, as the DM (usually but not always me) could just create opponent armies from scratch, and our PCs mostly stuck to standard mercenaries (and the occasional subdued dragon) in their forces. 

I think it's time to open up my Chainmail PDF and compare point costs for troop types with point costs for fantasy supplement creatures and get some ideas.


  1. Nice. The search for simple D&D mass combat goes on. Looking forward to what you come up with.

  2. What I end up with is probably still going to look a lot like the normal War Machine rules, but I will definitely share it.

    Also, looking at Chainmail, Swords & Spells, Battle System 1E and Battle System 2E, the 2E point values for normal troop types seem similar enough to mercenary upkeep costs that I can probably use the point values for various monsters from that for my system. So that's a plus!

  3. It's been years since I've used the War Machine rules, but while it's 'okay,' there was some dissatisfaction with it (I can't remember NOW just what exactly that "dissatisfaction" was) much so that when I wrote my own mass combat rules, I went back to Swords & Spells for a foundation.

    Right now, I'm fairly enamored of Chainmail; I'm currently tweaking those rules to use with AD&D (just need some chits or tokens to do testing). But, yeah...war gaming is on the mind a bit lately. I feel you, man.

  4. I was looking into Chainmail pretty heavily a couple of years ago, wondering if it would be worth it to switch up normal D&D combat for Chainmail man-to-man/fantasy combat, and then have the mass combat rules handy for big battles. But it proved to be a big job and I'm not sure how my players would react. :D

    My friends and I back in the day liked the War Machine, but we didn't have anything else to compare. No one had Chainmail or Swords & Spells, and no one bothered to pick up Battle System.

    I've heard some people say that they don't like how the whole battle hinges on one die roll, but for me that's a plus. If I'm in the middle of a normal D&D session, we can take ten minutes to half an hour or so to play out a War Machine conflict, then back to the game. With Chainmail, that's pretty much the session right there.

    1. There are other games where the outcome of a battle is managed by a single die roll (1st edition Stormbringer comes immediately to mind).

      There are things I really like about Chainmail, but it suffers as a system for D&D because of D&D's additional rules/changes. I've seen some variations (Compleat Chainmail, for example) that do some work to rectify this, but no one's yet done a complete overhaul.

  5. You might want to look at darkest dungeons which is a houseruled version of dark dungeons the RC retroclone. It has a modified version of war machine, I don't agree with most of the changes, but you might be inspired.

    I just use an excel spreadsheet for all the calculations, and have all the basic mercenary troop types already started out so if I want to make something new, I can copy paste and change a couple things for a new army.

  6. JB and Lance -- thanks for the suggestions. I think Darkest Dungeon should be fairly easy to track down. I may have to scrounge around a bit to find a copy of 1E Stormbringer. My friend Tedanhkhamen may be able to help with the latter, as he blogs about that game often.