[Traveller] Ref Advice: Including Everyone in a Mass Combat

I’ve decided to post every other week or so some advice for GMing Traveller. For the first few posts, there will be alot of skipping around to various areas that I am thinking about (or writing about) during that period of time. In the future I will probably do more serial advice on longer topics. But we’ll cross that bridge more when we come to it.

First up: How to include everyone in a mass combat. I’ve never been a minis gamer so I never did large scale Chainmail or Warhammer games. But I fell in love with mass combat right after I read the rules in the 2nd Edition of Exalted. Since then, I have held that no RPG can truly feel epic without proper mass combat rules. Traveller is no exception, and with Mech Tech ‘n’ bot: Mech Squadrons containing mass combat stats for 19 different mech units, it seems appropriate to start here.

The mass combat can put a group optimized for combat at the forefront of any major operation. Whether it is two armies colliding, tank on tank battles, street gangs vs riot police, or orbital battle station vs a small band of snub fighters, mass combats can make your combat-focused group feel alive and excited. The downside is that if your group is more well rounded, some players will be ready for some action while other players will feel left out. If your game revolves around a combination of sneaking around, gathering information, pulling heists, fighting when you have to and running all the other times, than mass combat might not be in your group’s main interests, but that does not mean you have to ignore those rules.

Say your campaign is on the war-torn planet Blanc and your players are independents that help out the underdog side. They get their side information, supplies, and other things players are notorious for getting their hands on. But then all that usefulness gets a quick wave of the Referee’s hand when the actual battle comes around. This is where your opportunity comes in. Let the players take command of units in the battle, even if their characters sit on the sidelines. If you have four players, give the underdog side Blanc’s civil war four units in any particular battle, assign each player a unit to command and let the chips fall where they may. It is okay to heavily skew the battle to one side or the other some of the time. Not every battle in history was fought on an equal playing field, and not every battle your players play in should be a hard struggle to win. There are, however, times when the battle is so lopsided against the armies commanded by the players that they are not going to win. Just make sure they understand that how the battle goes is important to how the story focused on their characters will proceed. Make new complications for the players based on the way the battle went. Let them see how the work they accomplished off the battlefield helped the armies on the battlefield.

What are your experiences with mass combat?

4 thoughts on “[Traveller] Ref Advice: Including Everyone in a Mass Combat

  1. I’m only thinking here about ways of involving all player characters in a fight. The composition of an NPC force is something I’d have to think about in another comment or elsewhere.

    Instead of having each character fight as part of a single unit led by the team’s leader, put each player in charge of their own unit, each with a specific task to perform. This would necessitate everyone having Leadership and/or Tactics skills, or really good J-o-T or Social DM to offset the -3 untrained penalty.

    Units would have to be small – platoon size, Company size at most depending on the player character’s Leadership skill and the highest Rank held before mustering out. But they would be loyal to the player characters. No dissension in the ranks. No question of morale – unless the player character was a brute to them, they’d fight as long as the character fights, quit when the character quits.

    The nature of the unit under each player’s charge depends upon the player characters’ strongest combat skills – a team trained in Zero G combat would be highly mobile flyers wearing grav belts; a team trained in Stealth and Recon would be used to infiltrate enemy emplacements and gather intelligence for the main force. A team specialising in Heavy Weapons and Gunnery would be in charge of the big guns; MPAR, artillery and Ortillery units.

    To each unit, according to the players’ needs – and each unit of NPCs would be geared to maximise the potential of the player character’s own skills set.

    On top of this, the team’s leader commanding his own C&C squad, using the intelligence obtained from the Stealth and Recon units supplied by the player character in charge of those units, as well as other information gathered remotely through probe drones, satellites and so on.

    Armed with knowledge of the battlefield, the leader would be responsible for deployment of the units beneath him, commanding each player character into battle as needed. The units would be as loyal to the commanding officer as the players would be to the team leader IRL.

    Make sure each player’s orders are clear, and that the team leader is aware of exactly what the objective of each player’s order is – e.g. “secure Hill 252,” “destroy the rail bridge over the Kaplan River” etc – as well as the overall objective, namely to secure the battlefield and prevail over the enemy forces.

  2. Something like that is great. I’ve done games where the players led small group and battled large forces. The problem (as you observed) is that either all the players have to focus on a few, combat oriented skills or have rather high Jack of All Trades/Soc to be even slightly effective in such a situation.

    My post was more about if you had a group like the crew of Serenity. Sure Mal, Zoey and Jayne would be fine in mass combat, the preacher would be good in a leadership role, but Wash, Simon and Kaylee would be sitting on the sidelines. And no one would be sane enough to follow River. So that is half your group sitting out. But even the, would Zoey really leave Mal’s side? Would the preacher give Mal advice on how to kill others? And would Mal trust Jayne enough to leave let him lead his own group and not betray him?

    Ignoring those character specific examples for a moment, I’d say the best use of mass combat rules for a well rounded group is to put the players in the drivers seat of NPC activity and let the combat go as it may.

  3. Not every character needs to be in the thick of combat.

    Medical personnel could man units of air ambulances or grav ambulances, maintain a triage centre off the battlefield and roam about the battlefield to collect friendly casualties for treatment.

    Reporters and Entertainers could work as part of an embedded media task force, riding with military convoys and on patrol, recording events with their cameras or implanted cybernetics.

    Diplomats, people with Languages and Steward, perhaps Persuade, definitely Diplomat, particularly those with experience of living among the natives, could be deployed to the front lines, so that they can work on the hearts & minds of the locals and convince them to grant them safe passage, report on insurgent activities and so on.

    Perhaps diplomatic and merchant units could secure trade with the locals – information, food and so on – in exchange for medicines for local children and families, and safe passage to ensure that the locals’ normal daily lives are disrupted as little as possible for as long as they remain under the protection of the characters’ force.

    And then there is the merchant marine, working to secure the supply lines to and from the base, the psion unit scanning the area outside the green zone perimeter or interrogating prisoners non-invasively, and so on.

    If you think hard enough, even non-combatants’ skills can be used effectively in a mass combat situation.

  4. The mass combat rules do not use most skills. Infact, the rules only really take into account one skill, depending on your unit type. If your an Infantry unit they use a non-pistol gun combat skill. If you’re a Close Air Support unit it is Flyer(any). All other skills are not used by the mass combat rules. And units that use any skill but that one that pertains to their unit type are considered to be out of combat. The description on page 73 of Mercenary states, “While this does not mean that the Player Characters will be ignored during the action, it does mean that most of their individual skills and talents will not come into play, there is only so much a small team of adventurers can do on a battlefield where thousands of troops clash.”

    And yes, a reporter can report on the battle as it is happening. But the actions of one unarmed person in a battle that size is going to make little difference. In my experience, I see mostly a Referee focus on a very small portion of the troops going on around the players allowing them to make a difference in a few of the individuals in the battle, but he has already determined the outcome of the larger battle in him mind before it even began. Allowing the players to have a hand in how the battle goes (when does one unit retreat, does a unit get wiped out, are there captives) is something that the Ref can give to the players, putting them in them in the driver’s seat in determining the outcome of the battle.

    And this definitely is not the only way to do things. Merely an option that many Referees may not have considered before.

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