Something I have long been frustrated by is the tendency that RPG battle rules have always been mass combat rules designed to determine the winner of a battle, rather than something player focusing – that tells us what our player characters did and experience in the battle.
IMO, the GM should determine the outcome of the battle. That can be based on the player character actions (“if you can’t hold this position, the battle is lost” or “you need to defeat the enemy hero or the battle is lost”) or not (frex, in Shakespeare’s Henry V, the English have no idea that they have won the battle until it is over). In the Grand Pendragon Campaign, the battles take the latter approach (even telling us what Arthur rolled on his Battle skill!). I personally prefer something a little more interactive with the players – give them a chance to have the spotlight on them (even if you have already decided the results of the battle, it is easy to say that the results are because of the players or despite the players).
What should be the center of the session’s activity is what the players characters do and experience during the battle. Do they spend most of the battle standing in a line dealing with missile weapons and spells? Do they engage in single combat with champions? Do they try to rush an enemy leader or hero? What goes on elsewhere in the battle is usually unknown to the players and they should only learn about it after the battle is over. A great source of inspiration is John Keegan’s “The Face of Battle” but there are plenty of other books that deal with the actual experience of combatants in battle.
So why are RPG battle rules usually little more than thinly disguised skirmish or mass combat rules? I think that is a result of the war gaming roots of the hobby and tie ins to skirmish miniature games. But a battle is much more than a skirmish – and mass combat rules focus on the overall battle rather than the player characters’ experience.
The problem is thinking that what is needed for a TTRPG is a mass combat system. What I think is needed is a Face of Battle system, and then guidelines to the GM.
If you want to play a mass combat system, there are plenty of great war games out there. But that is a different animal entirely.