On Saturday in an L5R game that my housemate runs - yes the one I talked about on Monday - we had a mass battle. In my own L5R game that runs this Friday, sometime in the next two to three sessions, there is going to be at least one mass battle. It's not a surprise that these battles are happening. They're abig enough staple of the genre L5R wants to be in that the rules for mass combat are in the core system, and they're as nuanced and varied as the core combat mechanic and the dueling mechanic. Narratively mass battles are huge moments of drama and tension, but they also bring out the feeling of "epic" when we're talking about Epic Fantasy. After all, how epic can your story be if at some point you don't have two armies duking it out, right? However, with all these there are some down sides to Mass Battle, and you need to be prepared for them. Today I want to talk about that.
Potentially Very Slow
The first thing you need to realize about Mass Battle is that they have the potential to be ridiculously slow. You thought running a normal combat for 6 people was slow, try running a war. Even with a system like L5R the mass battle itself goes slow because not only do you have to resolve the conflicts that are directly confronting the players, but you also need to resolve what is going on on the macro scale.
This isn't really a problem. Generally despite being slow mass battle is interesting enough to keep people hooked, but just be ready. If you only have an hour of session time left and the next thing is a Mass Battle you don't have time for the battle. Heck, if you don't have the better part of the session available I'd recommend not starting the battle then. Get all the prep work out of the way. Run the battle in the next session when you have all the time you should need (hopefully.)
Very Chaotic Places
You don't have to do much more than watch Braveheart, Lord of the Rings, or even the Last Samurai to see that the middle of a mass battle melee is a chaotic place. Troops from both sides surge and swarm around each other. After first contact lines are lost as the fighters at the front end up in pockets. It is more than possible to end up turned around and going the wrong direction due to the press of bodies.
These are the feelings you need to convey to your players while they are fighting. This is something you have to go above and beyond to communicate. A Mass Battle is very different from a normal skirmish and you want to convey that.
At the same time, the chaos adds danger. It is hard to tell friend from foe in the heat of the melee. It is also hard to defend against all comers. Even the best warrior can be taken by surprise and speared in the back during a large scale skirmish, and that too is a danger. With all the chaos, just remember that...
People Die In Battle
And this is where the crux comes in. Mass Battle is inherently deadly. They are inherently glorious and a great way for a character to make a name for themselves or otherwise stand out from the crowd, but all that glory comes from just how dangerous things are.
Bottom line is if you put your PCs in a mass battle you need to be prepared for one of them to die. That doesn't mean it necessarily is going to happen, but odds are someone's luck won't hold and that person may find themselves without a character on the far end of the fight.
There are ways to mitigate this, and with L5R most of those ways lie with the player. They can not take opportunities that come up, move down in engaged level, or even step out of the fight entirely, but all of these have consequences.
Your Players Should Know This
Mass Combats happen. In my experience, players often want them to happen because they are big and awesome and a great way to move things on. That said, they should also be aware of the pitfalls that can open up when in them.
Have fun with it. Let the dice roll. Let heroes rise, and let them fall. Make it something to be remembered and even those who come out the far end without a character should have a big grin on their face.