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Game Mastery: War as Set Piece

Updated on September 10, 2016

The human-drama and blood-spectacle of a battle-scene and war enthralls audiences. War often operates as a high point of action and emotion in many a heroic epic and countless works of fiction. Battles and war in general often function as the scissor ending character threads Player Characters (PCs) and NPCs (Non-Player Characters) alike as well as maybe putting a cap on or violent end to certain ongoing conflicts.

In roleplaying games (RPGs) large scale battles and war are beyond the scope of the small more personally focused heroic adventures where the battles are often between small groups of adventurers and villains. These intimate duels between heroes and monsters are the typical scope that most RPGs are designed to handle. Anything larger in scope is Mass Combat.

Mass Combat rules can add action, drama, and structure to a campaign and Set piece battles can widen the scope of the campaign especially as a grand finale.

Mass Combat

When it comes to roleplaying games the Game-Master (GM) can employ Mass Combat rules to create a Set Piece which can add action, drama, and structure to a campaign. Set piece battles can widen the scope of the campaign especially as a grand finale. A battle is an action and dramatic high point (should come between two lulls in action) adding to player immersion especially those with inclinations towards strategy. Such set pieces can lend structure to a portion of the campaign as a battle set piece has its own basic structure.

Mass Combat is a term used to describe a large scale battle between military units (warriors or soldiers gathered into formations and part of a command structure). Whereas a Set Piece is essentially a spectacle that is also an escalation in danger which serves as an exclamation point in the timeline of a campaign. In common parlance a Set Piece is a “big” scene in a movie meant to incur awe in the audience and to escalate and carry along the narrative.

Time Dilation & Contraction

In tabletop roleplaying games however, a Set Piece Battle does not have to inspire awe so much as emphasize danger and the stakes to the players. Concerning tabletop RPGs the mechanics of battle are of high importance. For simplicity I’ll use the general terms Melee Round and Time Scale in reference to this. Melee Round refers to a slice of time or gameplay where the players’ turns are taken and actions occur. Often these are limited per character and define a discrete slice of in-game time.

Time Scale is a little more general than that, as it refers to the scope of time or its dilation between a Melee Round and a round of Mass Combat or its contraction going in the other direction. As the scope of Mass Combat is larger, the amount of time a military unit including hero units to take its turn(s) is of a greater scope than an individual. Note that Hero Units refer to units comprised of the PCs and followers if any.

Of course, PCs and other individuals can act quicker than a full unit that is acting in unison therefore the PCs turns and actions would move more on an individual or human scope within the larger action of the battle. This provides more opportunities for the players and the GM to conduct a more exciting game.

The purpose of this article is not to suss out the cause of war or to philosophize about its nature or even expound upon its real-life consequences or the immorality of it all but to describe how story-tellers and thus Game-Masters can use a battle-scene to improve their game and increase enjoyment for all while playing the game. War in the context of this article is not be construed to be anything more than what is represented in fantasy fiction and miniature war-games.

Shifting Perspective

A Battle shifts perspectives from the epic scale of the full battle using Mass Combat rules where the PCs are “hero units” to a personal/human scale where normal melee combat rules take over allowing the PCs to act in hero mode. An example of this is where a round of mass combat represents 1-minute in time as opposed to 15 seconds per melee round. It is between these two perspectives that the GM must shift between to make the most of a battle set piece.

Shifting back and forth is simple enough, start with a Mass Combat Round and then move to a single normal Melee Round and just alternate until the larger scope is finished and then go back to the normal heroic type game. This works perfectly when the Mass Combat and Melee Round mechanics you use can essentially fit into on another like Russian nesting dolls based on their time measurements.

Player characters typically can act on the mass combat scale as a military unit moving with it referred to as Hero Units. This is the reason that even though at the heroic level time moves quicker they get only 1 melee round in between the larger units of game time. Note also whenever the GM deems it fit they can choose to focus on the smaller scale of the player characters.


The Influence of "Heroes"

The GM should have a good idea as to how the PCs can alter or otherwise influence the battle. The PCs should be able to influence the outcome. The only questions become how much the PC’s will influence the battle and how tied to the PC’s personal victories is the outcome of the battle? The GM should already know the answer to that last one; the players are responsible for the first.

A GM should either come up with opposing commanders that will attract the ire of the players or inserting recurring villains that the players are already familiar with into the upper ranks of the enemy forces. These act as beacons (or rather targets) for the PCs giving them a direction almost immediately or at least as soon as they suss out the enemy commanders.

The GM needs to already have the personal foes of the PCs in places of power even if it is only a champion position where the foe is holding a strategic position or their loss will cause a fault in the enemy’s morale before the battle. Basically the NPC commanders and champions (and possibly shock-troops) are the true main foils to the PCs. Previously introduced foils where the PCs have some built animosity towards them are valuable as prominent targets within the enemy force.

Basically, the PCs need to not only be able to change the course of history but should be willing to do so in the course of the battle or perhaps wider war. War, as used within the context of this article, is a series of battles fought strategically that have some sort of political, economic, cultural or raw power value. Any lesser confrontations within this wider war that lacks any of these things are skirmishes or maneuvering for advantage.

With a full-on war the GM needs to have an idea of what the impact will be on the history of the setting/world and the resultant mythology spun around those events. Hopefully, this mythology will include tales of the PCs exploits and conduct on the field of battle as well as their victories much less the mundane spoils of their ventures however.

Using the technique of perspective shifting as discussed previously the GM can immerse the players in the fight especially if they’re responsible for a military unit as commanders themselves.

Immersive Action Sequences

Battles are in RPGs as they are in novels and movies, a major action sequence that can help to focus the attentions of the audience, in this case players, but they are nothing without some buildup and anticipation on the part of the PC’s. The GM needs to build up to such set piece battles and keep the attentions of the players focused. The players should have a clear idea as to where their character stands on the field of battle not just regarding loyalties (political, cultural, etc.) but their personal goals and where in the command hierarchy they’ll fall.

There should be some “down time” before the action of the battle including some preparation or travel as needed in order to build some tension using the players’ anticipation to add suspense. They shouldn’t be too confident of winning especially when they finally lay eyes on the enemy force. This goes for the reputation, rumors, and personal experiences with the enemy commanders as well.

Using the technique of perspective shifting as discussed previously the GM can immerse the players in the fight especially if they’re responsible for a military unit as commanders. Don’t be afraid to throw in an extraneous NPC that has at least some backstory and a personality but otherwise the same as the rest of the nameless troop but that the players can interact with and possibly assign to some emotional value.

The structure of the battle set piece itself allows the battle to rage around the PC’s allowing personal level fights on the battlefield basically against those targets that will make a difference to the outcome using Perspective Dilation. The description after a Mass Combat round is finished should be brief and clear as to the result before going into the Melee Round. This fixes in the mind’s eye the idea that the battle is raging around the PCs as they fight their personal battles.

Battles lend their structure to their portion of the game. This structure consists of 3 major parts consisting of the Lead-Up, the Action, and the Aftermath.

The Structure of a Battle

Each battle as a set piece has a certain simple structure that easily translates to game events in a tabletop campaign. As a result battles lend their structure to the portion of the game where they occur. This structure consists of 3 major parts.

  • The Lead-Up: The part leading up to the battle but before the forces are fielded.
  • The Action: Starts as the opponents take the field and is the battle proper occurring almost entirely on the battlefield.
  • The Aftermath: This occurs after the fighting has stopped or with sieges when the siege ends. Clear winners and losers are not required just a definite end to the current struggle and its action.

The Lead-Up consists of the time when the battle is known to be imminent but has yet to take place. It involves the preparations for the battle, the time used to travel to the battle field; the time spent trying to track down or corner the enemy or even avoid them depending on the tactics at play.

This is also the phase where the stakes are made clear if they’re not already. To clarify the stakes the GM should ask themselves what will happen if the PCs’ side loses and what will they gain if they win or even does victory or defeat hinge entirely on the PCs’ actions? The players need to be clued into the answers to these questions.

The Action phase is the battle proper and should be conducted as previously described allowing time to dilate and constrict alternatingly for the length of the incident. During this phase the players have the most influence besides any preparations during the lead-up. All of the major action of and the battle itself occur in this phase and this is the phase that plays most heavily into the mechanics of the system. The end of this phase of a set piece battle is harder to judge than the end of the lead-up phase though.

The end of the action phase generally happens when the military units are no longer engaged in combat but this does not count lulls in the combat. During lulls in the fighting however GMs may want to revert to the standard Melee Round for the system they’re using to better engage the players. When both sides withdraw and set up camp so they can start up again the next day this counts as a lull in the action rather than an end of the action phase.

These sorts of actions are counted as extended lulls in the action and not the end of the battle even though certain throw backs to the previous phase can occur here especially the pouring over of maps, scouting/spying, and planning for the next day though it is all of the smaller scale. When the action does reach its end the game enters the aftermath stage.

The Aftermath is the results of the battle including all of the dramatic elements such as the loss of friends (remember the extraneous NPC with a backstory?) or companions if a PC should fall. Hardcore roleplaying elements such as questions of morality versus emotion and practicality such as what to do about the prisoners, what about the wounded both ours and theirs.

How many fighters were routed and from what sides, did they flee into the country side to become another although smaller but more dispersed threat later on? Did the PC’s side win or lose and if either where are the PC’s and what actions do they take? Is this just the start of a larger war or the finale of a campaign? What about the families of the dead and wounded? How are the PC’s treated after the victory or failure, after a costly victory or an awful slaughter? How terrible was the cost to both or either side and will it lead to diplomatic talks as a result?

Whatever the result the immediate scene would be that of the war dead spread across the field and the immediate destruction of the landscape. This vital description can be used as a capper to the action immediately after the results of the battle are known where the PCs have some breathing room to survey their surroundings. The GM should give players time to react afterwards before the storm of questions and logistics fall on their heads.

Battle set pieces are also incredibly flexible and can not only act as a finale to a campaign, but can act to kick-off a wider conflict composed of many more such set pieces.

Some Miscellaneous Fodder

A battle or for that matter, war, can expose the politics at work and/or that have failed, allows all sides to display their military pageantry, their colors and heraldry as well how the generals and commanders conduct battle even how the armies are structured can expose a lot about the cultures engaged in the fighting particularly when compared or contrasted with each other. War can reveal the true cultural values of a people through raw violent action often contrary to what its representatives may tout. This allows the GM to tailor each battle to their own campaign world and put more of their imagined cultures on display.

Along with the pomp and politics of war as well as its reflection of the true inner workings of a culture engaged in it war can also have far reaching consequences. Even a small battle will have some far reaching and long-lasting effects. The most common of these are stray soldiers including mercenaries who have decided to stick around and survive by pillaging the countryside after deserting their respective outfits or fleeing battle.

Another major and most visible consequence is the displacement of the locals especially when a battle is fought in or around a settlement or town or city. The PCs can get caught up in these peoples’ struggles just to survive while trying to find another place to settle or just pick up the pieces of their former lives.

Most if not all would also bear the burden of war forced upon them by powers they have no part or parcel in as well. Not only the loss of material wealth no matter how meager, or severe permanent physical injury, but the refugees and survivors would also bear the mental scars of the war that they had suffered through along with some of the soldiers.

The trauma of war can cause a permanent mark on the minds of NPCs and PCs and allow them to evolve dramatically such as a rethinking of their alignment (if such a thing exists in the system being used) and even causing symptoms of mental illness (again if that’s included in the rule-set or even used within the play of the group).

The trauma from the war (small or singular battles often shouldn’t go this far though characters are free to rethink their stances on fighting on such a large scale as well as possibly suffering more personal trauma such as the loss of a friend) can be used as a catalyst allowing the player to make modifications to their character to represent their involvement letting the in-game events to dramatically shape the character.



A set piece battle in its very structure involves tension, action, and an aftermath providing plenty of roleplaying and roll-playing opportunities. It grants an incident with strategic, dramatic, and consequential levels. It is also a great value to immersion dragging the players along by their characters from anticipation to high-action and to realizations or character awakenings in the aftermath.

Battle set pieces are also incredibly flexible and can not only act as a finale to a campaign, but can act to kick-off a wider conflict composed of many more such set pieces. Battles and war will have long-lasting results and consequences that can be explored in an ongoing campaign.

Making use of a Mass Combat system within a campaign allows GMs to add spectacle, drama, and exhibit a larger conflict that can work out to an epic scale. However, for most campaigns that are PC group focused to a more personal and human level a single battle can serve as the finale of an adventure-filled campaign hopefully resolving most if not all active storylines, snipping loose threads, and ending character arcs in one explosive action sequence.

Battles also allow the PC’s to accrue reputations and trauma letting the players’ actions to actively build and scar their characters. Basically, the use of a battle set piece is a valuable tool for the well-rounded Game-Master and can help to spice up the game for their group engaging their players on multiple levels at once.

Commonality of Fantasy Warfare

How often do you run or play in games that include battles and/or wars (Mass Combat) in them?

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