Mass Combat Playtest – Swords & Wizardry / Roll Me A 6

As a follow-up to my Mass Combat Post, I wanted to go ahead and test two of the best-looking systems in Actual Play.

So here comes:

Getting the Guns out

Swords & Wizardry is the system I liked best among the ones I saw, particularly because of its neat fit with ODnD and S&W type, maybe including B/X or LotFP, RPG games; and ideally even 5e games, as they are so common that a viable mass combat system would have to be at least somewhat applicable to a 5e game as well.

As a test situation, let us take the one that started my quest for a mass combat system: The bandit attack on the monastery.

What happened in the game: There were two bridges and the attackers tried to sneak over, with no idea that they were expected. Attackers came in the north and were beaten back by surprise fire from prepared positions that took out a quarter of their force in the first volley, and sniped off survivors after that.
In the southeast, half the main force was in the building on the bridge, half behind a barricade. The fight took longer, the attackers took heavy damage, then managed to drive back the barricade people with a spell, but the bridge held and after heavy losses they retreated. A sniper unit in the tower harassed them the whole time, even though hampered by poor visibility.

Swords & Wizardry

In Swords & Wizardry, you can make units of 5 or of 10 soldiers, depending on scale. I decide for 5 guys.

In S&W, the groups of five fight pretty much like single characters, with movement, as far as possible, and melee, and two shots a round for bows — but we will skip that in this instance, as both parties were relying more on black powder weapons and crossbows, not bows.

Units are 1 HD fighters, their damage is multiplied by number of men in the unit; however, the first successful hit against a unit does not damage it – which is an interesting rule that I will not adhere to in this case for the first combat round, as the ambush attack and inflicting damage quickly out of the blue was central to the defenders’ battle plan.

North:

15 defenders in cover. They become three guys with 12 HP each and damage x 5

20 vanguard approaching. They become four guys with 12 HP each and damage x 5.

The first volley hits the vanguard unexpected. But misses! The vanguard returns fire – one of them hits with a crit, doing max damage of 8, times 5. They obliterate one defender unit. In the second round, the two surviving defender units score much better, both hit. One of them with a crit, the other with 7×5 damage — they obliterate two of the attacking units. Return fire of the two surviving vanguard fails to score damage. The battle is indecisive so far. The next round demands another init roll. The defenders gain initiative. They hit one unit, but do only 5 damage. The vanguard returns fire and hits, doing 25 damage. Only one unit is left. Initiative time. The defenders gain initiative again, and fire. And miss. The enemy vanguard attacks and obliterates the line.

Now they can storm the gate house, and their reinforcements follow up.

Catastrophe for the party: The two player characters would have to take one superior numbers alone, or fall back and mobilize more troops.

South:

Two units of 10 are hidden in the mill, two units of ten support them from the barricade beside it. A sniper unit is present farther back. A vanguard of 10 comes forward to win the bridge, 50 more are prepared to follow them, plus a command unit with magic users. Units of 10 men are 1 HD creatures with 45 HP who do damage x 10.

As the vanguard creeps closer, it gets peppered with shots. It loses 40 of their 45 HP, but the morale holds, and they stay.

Defenders win initiative, and take on the foes in the back. Two of four units hit, and slaughter their targets. The sniper hits and takes down the rest of the vanguard. The survivors return fire, and the command unit employs magic. At the barricade, half of the men are killed, the other half fails their magic save and must retreat. The barricade is neutralized. Of the men on the bridge, one unit is taken down more than half of their HP and must roll morale. They make it and are fine, remaining in combat.

The attackers win initiative and hit the bridge again. Marginal losses. Of the two units one is down to 15 HP, the other to 35 HP. Magic is employed again to open the door and allow forward movement. The defenders shoot back: All miss. The next init is simultaneous: The attackers storm to join melee, the defenders fire. One of the storming units is obliterated. The river runs red with blood. Then melee is joined. But no damage is done. Then the defenders win initiative, and hack the attackers to pieces. The command unit must flee. The sniper thins them out a bit.

Full victory in the South, and so decisive that not 19 dead stay on the field, as it happened in the game, but no less than 95! A bloody massacre. And that is only the beginning, if we remember that the north fell, and the enemy is in the monastery. The combat will rage on through the inner halls, blood will keep flowing, and with many of the defenders helpless monks, it looks like it will be go long and horrible.

Drama, baby! Bloody drama.

Roll Me A 6

The easy simple system of Roll Me A 6 looks very much like something that can be dropped into most OSR games and maybe even most other system that are not derived from D&D, as a backdrop to the PC’s adventure. Let us see how it holds up in the very same situation: Bandits, monks, back to your starting positions!

Units have no AC or to-hit roll, they just roll more or fewer d6 and look for 6es.
While in Chainmail a unit can survive a hit based on armor, in Roll Me A 6 armor or cover of a target just reduce the number of dice, and therefore the probability of getting sixes.

A unit sneaks up on the defenders in the north who are waiting in good cover. Two units sneak up on the bridge in the southeast, where they are also awaited. So ambush time, with extra dice for cover and surprise, but the ambush does not do relevant damage (no sixes)

South: The other side reacts with fire that takes out half the defenders at the barricade. The sniper does not do much.
North: The attackers do not take any damage from the first go, they react with counterfire. On the second round they finally do lose half their force.

In the third round, things get shaken up. The house defenders roll 3 sixes, routing attacker unit 2. The sniper also takes out one base. In the north, the attackers lose 3/4 of their force and get routed.

Round 4, the battle is mostly over, both defender units in the south and the sniper concentrate on the one unit. With two more sixes, they rout the last unit, only the command unit remains, and retreats in good order.

Result: With Roll Me A 6 the battle turned out very, very similar to the actual in-game result, with the only difference being that it took more turns because the initial surprise volley failed to hurt the attackers in any legitimate manner.

Holding up very well!

Lessons learned

How did it go?

Roll Me A 6 was quite a good lot more abstract and removed from the actual soldier, more chess-like, or more similar to tabletop wargames, while S&W still felt like fighting among individuals, basically more like we are still inside an RPG; more exciting, engaging, personal.

Result-wise the simpler version turned out like the free-form improvised combat I was running in the game. The S&W style battle was much bloodier and ended less beautifully, from a PC point of view: It was only the beginning of a hard struggle, room to room.

With this result, the whole adventure would have taken a very different turn. How did it turn out so differently? The northern theatre saw three critical successes and several great damage rolls that were multiplied by the number of soldiers. Roll Me A 6 does not know crits, at all. My freeform-game does know crits, but they come up for individual soldiers, not for the whole bunch. In other words: S&W mass combat can be more excessive than normal RPG results, and much more excessive than Roll Me A 6. Roll Me A 6 calms the whole battle down and reduces it to general outcomes. S&W ramps them up to full action.

So I would say that in fact, the cooler, level-headed abstract approach is less entertaining, but more believable than the wild, howling Swords & Wizardry.

  • Roll Me A 6 is superior in reliable results.
  • Swords & Wizardry is superior in action, mayhem, and entertainment.

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