Mass Combat in Adventurer Conqueror King
Of the many challenges of developing a mass combat system for Adventurer Conqueror King, the greatest challenge is the one that Valamir points out on the Story Games forums: Namely that the military tactics of a society where wizards can hurl fireballs would be very different from those of the ancient or medieval world. It is easy to imagine a world where 20th century tactics developed, with magic as the equivalent of air strikes, rangers moving in loose squad-based formations, and so on. D&D as Vietnam. Such a setting, however, would deny the opportunity for the pitched battles of history and legend. Part of what first attracted me to fantasy gaming was my love for military history, with battles such as Cannae, Gaugamela, and Hastings, where lines of men clashed and died. Nevertheless, one cannot ignore the fireballs.
To create the Adventurer Conqueror King mass combat rules, Domains at War, I turned to Napoleonic Warfare as the model. Napoleonic warfare was characterized by several tactical dilemmas for commanders. The main weapons for infantry were the musket and bayonet, and for the cavalry the saber. Muskets were slow-firing, hard to aim, and confined to ranges of 50 to 100 yards. Only a massed volley could have real effect, with lines of infantry delivering rolling volleys. However, despite musket fire, charges into melee with the bayonet were a decisive tactic, as the slow rates of fire meant at most 1 or 2 volleys before the enemy could be struck, if a sufficient pace of advance to contact could be sustained.
All other things being equal, the wider an infantry formation, the slower it moves, because of the necessity to 'dress the lines' and maintain shoulder-to-shoulder stance with the man to your left and right. Linear formations of highly trained troops, such as those employed by the Prussians, could move at 75 paces per minute. French conscripts in "columns of attack" could move at 120 paces per minute. The essential argument of the day was 'column v. line' or 'firepower v. shock' - could the column advance with bayonets, or would it be turned back the fire of the musket? [Note to Napoleonic experts out there: Yes, I am oversimplifying and ignoring the argument as to whether or not the columns were intended to form line at the point of contact.] Adding to the complexity was the existence of cavalry and artillery. Fast moving saber-armed cavalry could overrun loose formations of infantry; their only chance to survive was to 'form square', a dense formation like a bayonet hedgehog. But dense formations, such as column and square, were highly susceptible to artillery, which had long range and area of effect.
This seemed to me an excellent model for a world of pitched battles that included fireball-throwing mages. I imagined the mages to be roughly the equivalent of artillery batteries in the Napoleonic era, both in terms of their numbers and their effect. Archers are the equivalent of linear 'musket' infantry, heavy foot are akin to columnar 'bayonet' infantry, and cavalry is, of course, cavalry. Mages can be kept massed (as "grand batteries") or parceled out to individual units as battalion guns. Interestingly enough, the Roman Legion is often compared to the Napoleonic armies of 1,500 years later for its tactical versatility and formations, so the tactical formations that appear in ACKS are not too dissimilar to those of the Roman maniple, either. What they do not resemble are the packed masses of phalanxes or spearmen that dominated warfare for long centuries.
Now, on to some game mechanics:
- Mass combat is fought using miniatures on a tactical battlefield.
- The basic unit is a "stand" measuring 1" x 3/4", with a ground scale of 1"=20 yards. A stand occupies a 60' x 40' area.
- A Stand is generally 100 infantry or 25 cavalry. 100 infantry in a stand have a width of 12 files and a depth of 8 ranks. 25 cavalry in formation have a width of 6 files and a depth of 4 ranks. (A Stand might also be 25 ogres, or 12 fire giants, etc.)
- Combat is resolved using the standard ACKS mechanics (hit points, attack throws, armor class, saving throws) with some math built-in to the stand's statistics to reflect troop density. An "area of effect multiplier" scales damage up where necessary to reflect the killing power of fireballs.
- Charging, flanking, and morale are integrated into the game. Morale checks can cascade, resulting in entire portions of the battle line fleeing.
- Characters and creatures of 4HD or higher can serve as "supporting heroes" for Stands of weaker troops. Supporting heroes fight other supporting heroes, or failing that, cleave into lesser troops. A Stand of 100 goblins might be led by an Ogre as a supporting here.
- Characters and creatures of 8HD or higher can serve as "independent heroes". Independent heroes move around the battlefield without a Stand, fighting other independent heroes, joining the fight against supporting heroes, or cleaving into lesser troops.
- Every spell and magic item in ACKS is supported in the mass combat system.
In understanding how ACKS mass combat plays out, the Demographics of Heroism (discussed in my earlier blog posts) are very relevant here. According to the Demographics of Heroism, 5th level characters are roughly 1 in 500. Of these, 40% will be fighters, and only 10% will be mages. Thus the number of mages capable of casting a fireball numbers only about 1 in 5,000, or 1 per 50 stands. Presumably wealthy nations would increase their "fireball power" by having their powerful mages create fireball scrolls for the lesser mages to deploy as artillery. A single fireball scroll in ACKS costs 750gp in coin plus another 750gp in rare components, or 1,500gp. 1,500gp is enough to field a force of 500 militia for a month. A single fireball can wipe out around 50 militia (20' x 20' x 3.14 area of effect / 5' x 5' troop density = 1256 / 25 ~~ 50). Thus if the Elite Mage Army fields 1 fireball and 500 militia, and the Stupid Peasants show up with 1,000 militia, the Elite Mage Army will destroy 50 militia, and then be outnumbered 950 to 500. Obviously no actual battle plays out like that, but it's useful to dumb down the math to its most basic level to illustrate what shape fantasy armies might take. In actual campaign play, the armies that evolved were a mix of heavy infantry and archers, screened by light infantry at an approximately 2:1 ratio, with investment in fireballs and other magic approximately equal to the investment in light infantry.
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