We all like a big fight, don’t we? Those bits in things like Game of Thrones where we’d have a lot of drama and tension, then a massive cathartic battle and the fallout. Or in Lord of the Rings, or any of those kinds of games.
The problem I have with these sorts of moments is it all scales out a bit too much. People become dots on the map or it ends up a bit board gamey. It becomes a tricky balance of making sure everything feels epic but personal at the same time.
I’ve had players take on whole units before, but that meant people were all split up and controlling multiple characters with NPCs serving as a kind of plot armour.
Here are a few aspects from my Fallen Kingdoms campaign, which had moved from D&D 4E to Fate Core.
First of all I did a bit of a Mass Effect 3. The group were a resistance force building up armies for their big battle against the draconic forces which had through spin doctoring and outright murder become the rulers of the land. They went to places they’d allied with previously, fought and impressed rivals and found new people to help out. Each one became a card which was part of their forces. They even kept a record of how many people were offered up by each area. I loved Mass Effect 3 (don’t @ me) because it got all the doors you opened in the first games and closed them. There were conclusions to so many stories and rewards were more people on your side for the big final fight. If you failed in a mission there would be less (or no) people donated to the cause.
I kept things zoomed in at a player level. The group had their own missions, even though there were generals taking their orders and units doing all kind of things. They were able to issue some orders, but they had personal goals during the battle and some would split off to do diplomatic missions, emergency aid or carrying out assassinations. Personally as the GM, their good or bad decisions and the fallout from them impacted the overall level of success or failure which would happen. There were some rough schedules of things which would happen and some plans were just doomed (when the fire dragons weren’t distracted and could attack the giant wooden dwarf war mechs.
Even though I kept things personal for the group, I also let them see the overall view. The players aren’t characters and they needed to know that big things are happening. They worked for all those units, they’re invested in the big battle, so why not give them the big picture?
Finally, a system’s actually been released which handles big unit battle really well. Minerva McJanda created Harder They Fall as a way of using dominoes to run big combats. It’s something I’ve done before in Dungeon World and will probably do again. Each unit (or person, if they’re a big or powerful person) has traits and actions they can try to do which aren’t just ‘I do a fight’. You can reposition around people, carry out underhanded tactics, draw folks in and so on. If you think you’re near enough you can try knocking the chain of dominoes over to see if you hit your foe. Or you could get archers to shoot enemies, plucking out individual dominoes making an attack useless. It’s high stakes, but you can run it and still have the heroes survive. No one’s getting taken out by a stray arrow unless they really want to be. I wrote a review on Who Dares Rolls and really recommend this as a way of playing mass combats.