The third act of Andy Slack's gaming blog

Big Battles

“The big one is mine!” – Alihulk the Fighter’s response to seeing a group of 50+ lizardmen charging the party

This one’s for SJB, who asked for a post on the big Savage Worlds battle of 20-30 characters per side…

Previously, on Halfway Station…

I’ve actually done three battles that were relevant, and checking my notes, all of those were in the Shadows of Keron campaign for Beasts & Barbarians, on the previous blog:

  • Death of a Tyrant, Part 2, featured a group of 8 PCs (including the above-mentioned Alihulk) with a couple of supporting NPCs against over 50 lizardmen.
  • A Prince’s Life is the one I always think of, as it involved three Amazon Hawk Ships with catapults, one of which had six PCs with 15-20 NPC allies, and the other two of which had about 20 river pirates each.
  • The Enemy Revealed had a half-a-dozen PCs, two platoon-sized Valk forces, and a group of enraged war ponies. It was quite hard to tell who was on which side.

Rereading those posts, I see that I didn’t go into any detail at all about how those combats actually worked, though; let’s see if I can do better this time.

Under the Hood

Pinnacle have a party piece they do at conventions which is a big battle with lots of troops and vehicles, but I didn’t find any actual play reports or videos of them doing it. They quite likely have better techniques than I; but this is how I approach the topic…

The limiting factors are the players’ OODA loops and how many dice you have. For the former, however experienced your group is, you can’t get the time per combat round much below two minutes per player, as it takes them that long to Observe what’s going on, Orient themselves, Decide what to do and Act on that decision; after a while, the implementation of their decision, say by rolling dice and moving minis, only takes a few seconds. Most fights finish within a few combat rounds; to finish a combat within an hour you need each round to be no more than 10 minutes, and therefore your group size needs to be no more than 4-5 players.

The issue then becomes how to maintain that pace.

First, the players should control all the NPCs on their side, even if the characters don’t. Give them a couple of NPCs each to run as well as their PC; now you’re up to 12-15 on their side, and my usual rule of thumb is to face the PCs with 2:1 odds and a Wild Card boss or two, so say 25-30 opponents.

Second, the basic mooks on each side should be simple and identical as far as possible, and operate in fair-sized groups – I normally have no more than two groups and give them all a d6 in relevant traits and identical equipment. You can run them from a statblock, but trust me, rolling 1d6 for everything is all you need. That means you can roll a fistful of dice simultaneously – “OK these eight pirates here are shooting their bows at Nessime…” (The Shadows of Keron crew all played either Shadowrun or Warhammer 40,000, so there was no shortage of d6 at that table.) Savage Worlds mooks have no hit points, so you don’t have to track those, which is a huge help; they are “up, down, or off the table”, i.e. able to act, shaken and not able to act, or wounded (incapacitated or dead, sort out which after the fight’s over).

Third, Wild Card NPCs slow things down, so use them sparingly. My Big Bad Evil Guys know full well that they can be one-shot killed by a lucky PC – it happened a couple of times, and word soon gets around in the BBEG community – so they tend to hide at the back and send in another wave of expendable minions rather than getting stuck in personally. This also reinforces the players’ perceptions of them as callous, evil and cowardly, which is no bad thing.

Fourth, PCs have cunning plans and area effect attacks which they use to whittle down the enemy hordes. Against the river pirates, they used flaming catapult ammunition and the blast power to great effect. In the battle against the lizardmen, they used a flying wedge to take out the enemy commander, then retreated to a stone tower so the enemy could only attack piecemeal through narrow kill zones. (Admittedly they then fell to arguing amongst themselves and neglected to keep watch, so the lizardmen gained entry unopposed and it got very messy, but the original plan was sound.) In the Valk skirmish, they used magic to gain control of a herd of war ponies and stampede them into the fight between the opposing Valk tribes, before indiscriminately hosing down the battlefield with more magic from behind cover on high ground (the wizard hated all Valk, and didn’t care whether he killed friend or foe). The mere sight of several dozen enemy figures approaching prompts tactical creativity.

Fifth, don’t forget morale. Most enemies will break off if they’re taking serious casualties; in the real world, it’s not clear what proportion of casualties will cause a unit to flee or surrender, but I usually give them a group Spirit roll at 25% losses and again at 50%, the second time at -2. Failure represents the point when they decide the BBEG is not paying them enough for this, and they retreat or rout depending on their competence.

You’ll notice my focus on figures. If I’m going to do a big battle using the combat rules, I want the spectacle of figures and terrain – if I”m running the battle in the abstract, or on VTT, I tend to use either the Quick Combat or the Mass Battle rules.

You’ll also note that all these examples are from a fantasy campaign; you don’t really get battles that big in modern or science fiction games, you’re more likely to have a squad-level skirmish. According to my increasingly dog-eared copy of James F Dunnigan’s How to Make War, squads are 9-15 people, depending on tactical doctrine and how many you can fit in an APC, advance on a 50-100 yard front, and defend an area a couple of hundred yards across; so a realistic number of modern figures on a regulation 6′ x 4′ wargaming table (call it 150 x 100 scale yards) is a squad attacking a fire team, maybe 15-20 figures all told, regardless of what Games Workshop would like to sell you. But I digress.


Try a big battle in your Savage Worlds game. They’re not hard, and they create some epic memories for the group.

Alihulk’s stand against the lizardman platoon was over five years ago at the time of writing, and the members of that group still talk about it…


Comments on: "Big Battles" (1)

  1. Thanks. That was both entertaining and enlightening. I hope Pinnacle have you on retainer. It’s funny that for all the role-playing theory of the past forty-four years we tend to remember dice-powered heroics in a big fight.

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