Monday, February 22, 2016

Review: Mass Combat

Mass Combat!
War is a pretty common backdrop in fiction. It's got a ton of conflict that is ripe for the taking and just makes for good storytelling. And it's not just the actual battle either. I mean, M*A*S*H was a pretty popular show. GURPS battles are usually on a pretty micro-level person to person, or maybe something approaching up to 5 on 5, and anything two-digits or higher on either side turning GURPS: Mass Combat aims to remedy that. I understand I am a few years late to that party, but just in case you lived under the same rock I did, here's my take on the supplement that aims to enable full scale battles and warfare.
somewhat ridiculous.


Lotsa Stuff.
So Mass Combat is not a small book, it is about 50 pages, 35 pages being rules, 5 being examples and aids, and the rest going to intro, bibliography and index. Throughout the book we follow the story of an example battle between two fantasy armies; one lead by Sir Richard and one by Lord Strykland. These two forces are often used to illustrate the rules and to give something to break up the monotony of such a rule and catalog heavy piece.
First off, we start with a chapter on rules, then we have a chapter on lowish tech military units, then highesh tech military units, then another chapter on rules, and then some appendices giving some more help and some useful summary tables of the rules.
This brings me to a very important point. I think the mass combat mechanics are pretty solid even if some would say they are a bit overly abstract, but the organization of this book is a mess. Nothing feels like it is in the right order and I felt like I needed to jump back and forth reading sections ahead and behind just to wrap my head around it. The system kinda boils down to this simple formula:
  1. Account for logistics and raise an army
  2. At the beginning of a battle, roll for surprise or ambush
  3. Each turn, each commander chooses a strategy from a list with certain benefits and/or drawbacks
  4. Both parties roll, paying attention to important modifiers from the strategies chosen, and strategic momentum
  5. Calculate losses from step 3
  6. Go to step 2; repeat until the battle is over because someone is completely defeated, or surrenders.
This is, of course, a slight over-simplification because there are a ton of edge cases and cool extras that can happen, but I'd say this is almost an illustration of the 20:80 rule, or even the 5:95 rule: If you know those 5 (6ish?) steps, you can handle mass combat.
Now let's continue looking at each chapter in more detail.

Elements and Forces

This chapter covers the fundamental rules, things like vocabulary and the like, for understanding the mass combat system. The mechanics are pretty different from standard GURPS combat, but are also fairly simple. Mass Combat, as mentioned before is meant to be fairly abstract, so if it feels like it is simple, and you are worried that you don't understand why it is so simple, relax. It is that simple. This is an unfounded hypothesis, but I think, GURPS being about individual characters, Mass Combat aims to make huge battles faster so you can get back to role playing a character instead of role playing an army.
The chapter starts off explaining attributes of an element, the smallest unit of military might, usually between 1 hero and 10 common soldiers. It then gives some modifications one can give to an element (similar to advantages and disadvantages for a GURPS character). It then goes into costs of raising a force, and keeping it maintained, and then ends with explaining logistics.
This chapter is nearly all rules, save for the introduction to the story of Richard Versus Strykland. Like mentioned before, the content is good, but I just wish it was organized a bit better. I think information about customizing basic elements, for example, should come after the fundamental elements are described, and the rules on raising an army and managing the logistics seem like they belong with the rest of the rules later on in the book. The vocabulary lesson at the very beginning is helpful though.

Elements: TL0-5

This is a straight up catalog chapter, though we do start with a bit of advice on historically appropriate organization. We have a few boxes referencing information from chapter one again in case you forget what any of the attributes of an element might mean, and some text describing each unit summarily; it's not a full on data dumb like you'd find in Low-Tech or High-Tech, just enough to tell the difference between Light Infantry, Medium Infantry, and Heavy Infantry. Land and Naval units are described separately. The section ends, of course, with Fantastic Elements, giving us information like the typical salaries of sea monsters and dragons. I'll save my editorial for the end of the next section.

Elements: TL6-12

This chapter describers higher tech units, and begins with the same advice on historically appropriate military organization. The chapter is organized much like the previous, with an additional section on Aerospace elements instead of Fantastic elements.
So, these two chapters are a catalog of units right in the middle of the book. They are divided along the line of TL0-5 and TL6-12, which feels a bit weird since "Low-Tech" ends at TL4, which would be a more homogeneous division in my opinion. Fantastic elements are thrown in with Low Tech elements.
Now, I am not complaining that this book gives us a lot of elements to work with, and enough to hopefully make reasonable guesses to start statting out one's own setting appropriate elements. My beef is that this does not seem like the right place or way to introduce all the elements. Perhaps it would make more sense near the beginning of the book, or at the very end of the book. I also think the weird separation between the tech levels doesn't make a lot of sense. I think it could have been better presented as one reference with all elements, but maybe there is a secret method to this layout I don't understand?


And now we return you to our regularly scheduled rule deluge. We start off with some definitions on the type of campaigns [maybe this should have happened earlier?] It then goes into a bit about determining who's in charge which is mechanically important, and then a bit on determining military objectives [which seems to again belong to a different section.] Following that we get some rules on how fast an army might travel, circumstances that can modify these speeds, and different postures when encamping and the benefits and drawbacks of each. A thorough description of reconnaissance mechanics follows, which can secure an advantage when combat begins, and is very well organized.
The next section describes the preamble to battle, such as what information is available to each side, and what preconditions to the battle can secure advantageous modifiers for each side giving an early head-start. For example, having a big army with the right units for the terrain gives an advantage, while starting off tired or injured gives a disadvantage.
The next section describes the typical turn cycle of combat. Heroes and commanders choose a risk value which can help them achieve greater success at greater peril, or allow them to be more cautious and protective of their resources. This risk is used immediately to see if someone achieves a heroic success that can give an even bigger positive advantage to the overall resolution of combat. GMs are encouraged to allow players to actually play these heroic actions out instead of boiling it down to a single abstract roll. The commanders then choose the battle strategy they would like to take. This is similar to choosing between an attack, all-out-attack, defensive attack, etc. in regular combat, except both the attacker and defender's strategies are resolved simultaneously in a quick contest. Each strategy offers trade-offs between damage, protection, and creating or stopping momentum. I enjoyed the large list of options; although the combat is pretty abstract, the long list makes me feel less constrained.
After strategies are confirmed, and modifiers for advantage in battle and momentum are accounted for, we have a quick contest to determine losses per each side. Advantages are gained or lost and recalculated.
The risk modifier from the beginning of the combat turn comes into effect again, and we see if any of the characters suffer from taking reckless actions. The rules are laid out in a very straightforward and obvious way.
The next section describes the aftermath of a battle, what happens to casualties, defeated heroes, the winners, the losers, and what happens in a tie. It goes on to explain looting the battlefield and treatment of captives and survivors of the losing side. This part was especially interesting in my opinion.
The chapter ends with special edge cases that can affect the availability or ease of strategies. For example, it explains the difficulties of performing a retreat strategy when storming a beach, or how to facilitate combats between three mutual opponents. This section is laid out well, but I feel like there are a lot of other edge cases from early on in the book belong here.
Overall, this chapter starts off slightly unfocused but comes together early, it is probably the most sensible chapter in the whole book, and isn't as confusing as some of the other content. The rules are communicated fairly straightforward, and I can easily see them coming into play. I like how some of the asides describe how to make role playing more interesting with the abstract combat. Turns happen over tens of minutes in Mass Combat, so there is a lot of room for narrative description if that is your thing.

Sample Forces

This appendix gives an example of putting together an example Tech Level 3 army (from the on-going story that appeared throughout the book) and a much larger Tech Level 8 US Army force in a realistic setting. The examples are illuminating and helpful, but I kinda wish I could see some more.


This appendix is a very quick and much needed reference of the rest of the book, boiling down most of the mechanics to 3 pages with helpful page references for more detailed descriptions. As the rules and mechanics are spread all over the book, this reference is an absolute must for being able to remember everything all at once.

Summary and Closing

I like the concept of an abstract mass combat system. After reading the book twice and understanding what it was trying to say, I think it is really good. The organization of the book, however, is a crime. I felt like I had to constantly jump around just to understand the system, and this is something of a problem because the system isn't complicated at all.
I kinda feel reminded of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms war simulation game but in reverse. That game was more focused on large scale military conflicts, politics, and managing the army, but it abstracted duels behind a few possible commands like reckless attack, normal attack, and retreat. You choose a command, and watch it play out over a few attacks and taunts, and then get a chance to modify the strategy later.
And that's kinda the point, I think, like I said earlier. GURPS is about the characters and isn't a tabletop war simulator, so it isn't about agonizing over complicated troop formation and fog of war, and sophisticated trap setting, the same way that Romance of the Three Kingdoms isn't about executing sophisticated jousting maneuvers and expert dueling techniques. Wars, however, are an important part of a lot of stories, and this supplement enables telling those stories with the characters as commanders of the army or as on the ground troops, quickly resolving everything around them that doesn't matter, and quickly coming back to the main characters of the story.
I specifically wanted this book because I'm in a campaign situation where fighting hundreds of enemies is really dragging out, and it looks like it is exactly what I need. I just wish it were organized better.
I think maybe I'll want to stat up some elements in the near future for later posts, and maybe a few demonstrations just so that I can have some practice understanding the system.

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