How to army in tabletop RPGs

So the scene is set. The curtains go up and we lay eyes on a large-scale battle! Oh the options! The dice potential! The enemy has spell casters, healers, archers and all sorts of troops! This is the scene your local gaming shop has been waiting for! The amount of dice needed to resolve this conflict will be glorious! But what if you don’t have 6,422 D6 and another few hundred D20?

To start, let’s get our thoughts around what the goals of the battle are. When looking at the battle we want to match how we run it with the overall feel that we are going for. Is this a chance for you and your players to get some epic miniature wargaming action going? Are you looking for the feeling of changing tides during battle that the players can interact with at a macro level? Did your players move inexorably to put themselves in the middle of a battle between two or more kingdoms?

For this example, let’s run with the idea that players have found themselves in the middle of a battle and aren’t expected or looking to command troops around. We can explore other options later.

We’ll be breaking the battle down into a few parts here and going through how that will drive the narrative you deliver to your players; the hook, the brute squad and the wrap up.


So the first question is what is the goal for the players to be there? Think of the highest level goal first. Are your players expected to play a delaying action where they hold a bridge or doorway, like Harald Hadrada at Stamford Bridge? Are they expected to take out the enemy captain causing the one side or the other to fall into disarray? Is this a heist where the players need to steal the artifact bolstering one side or the other? Are they there to be a thorn in the side for the “bad” guys creating a two front battle?

Once you have the goal the players are going for we need to construct a narrative surrounding that. Give the players something they can sink their swords and spells into!

Perhaps have a clandestine group of spies let the players know there is going to be a battle and how they can best help.

“Oy there! It’s us, the group you met when you first dropped ashore on this miserable island! Captain Franlik has asked for your help. There is going to be a battle at the port town of Haslebland and it’s looking too one sided for Franlik’s taste. The town will be full of troops and we’ll be attacking from the sea side. You’re not being asked to win this but to distract as much attention off of the seaside as you can. There are siege engines and military installations that would look much better on fire if you get what I mean. Pull some troops off if you can!”

Now your players have something to engage with that doesn’t lose them in the sea of soldiers, but the fun is just beginning. Let them go wild. See how they want to approach the town. Listen to how they want to interact. Do they want to blow out the land side walls? Awesome! Are they itching to use fireballs on the siege engines? Fire away! Is it a group of bards that want to sit outside of town and pontificate in song on what the troops lovers are doing while their waging war? Have ‘em sing their hearts out!

Give the players a bit to use some powers and cause a ruckus but don’t let it go on too long. If your players feel like you waited for them to be dry on powers, or they don’t have enough resources left, an inspiring ending might be difficult to pull off.


Now we make it spicy. After making an absolute menace of themselves, someone higher up in the chain, Battle Lord Hern for example, takes notice that the players are causing enough problems that they can’t be ignored.

Allowing the players to hear, let your Hern deliver an order along the lines of:

“Who in the depths of Um’lar are these people!?! You there! Go get the brute squad! Sigh. Yes, them. No! I don’t care, just get them! That group down there needs to be dealt with and the brutes aren’t going to do any more collateral damage than is already happening!”

Now it’s time to put the brute squad and the players in an awesome place. Is the top of the walls where the players can see everything that’s going on sound great? Or maybe the hellscape the players created becomes their arena, dodging 250 lb stones and the flaming rubble of buildings? Whatever you can think of to make the battle memorable and takes the players into account. 

Make adjustments for the groups’ skills. If you have a well rounded group then make the area have hidy spots, some distance and danger areas. All wizards? Have spell materials pouring out of some of the shops. Got a group of swift fingered rogues? Oh there are so many sight line blockers the bad guys won’t know what hit them!

Now this brute squad isn’t any brute squad. It’s the players brute squad, so fill it out with enemies your players can really sink their teeth, and other weapons into! Put in some rabble (really low level guards or monsters) to spice things up. Then for the icing have a few point enemies. Put in a tank with really high defenses and lower damage output to let the melee players beat on. Put that spell caster or cleric at the back which is just asking for an arrow to the face or a dagger in the back from out of nowhere. Give each of the players something to interact with.

Now that you’ve got the location and parties ready it’s time to spice it up. For this let’s come up with some elements to add that chaotic feel of large scale war.

Choose something to change the players’ fighting style up a bit. Have the wizard at the back teleport on top of a building. One of the low level guards gets smooshed by a stray trebuchet projectile. One of the brute squad destroys a building which splits the battle a bit and in that oh-so-evil way is giddy at the fact they get to run wild.

It’s important to continue to give the players perspective that they are helping turn the tides of the battle. Give ‘em some updates through the battle. Old Battle Lord Hern is yelling loud enough the players can hear them:

Hurry up and finish that group up! If you brutes don’t get to the front lines this battle may be lost!

Describe some troops being blasted off the walls by friendly lightning bolts. Friendly troops can be seen in pitched battle making progress. The brute squad notices the bigger battle and is pissed as hell they can’t be on the front lines. Just work to have these updates make the players feel they are in the best spot to make a difference. If the descriptions feel like the good guys are losing the players might lose focus on your designed enemies and run off to help out in other areas. As always players will be players and do some crazy stuff, so have fun and let them run around and test the scenario. The brute squad can always appear with new names somewhere else.


As the players finish with the brute squad it’s time to wrap this whole thing up. Based on the campaign narrative, maybe the army holding the town retreats or maybe they are captured. It could also be something more sinister. Perhaps the players have been lied to this whole time and who they thought were the “good guys” conned them into helping with their world domination plans by retrieving the ultimate artifact! Plant the seed for your next story arch!

Again, this is just one way of running a battle in a tabletop rpg. Other high level ideas include breaking down the armies into groups so you can run each group independently or even extrapolate it down to a series of stories and skill checks.

This was also written to be rules generic so feel free to flavor this however you like. Replace the port town with a spaceport or maybe a wild west town. Your leader could be Galaxy Commander Yargdo, Sheriff Floyed or super villain The Mammoth Haunt!

Have questions or thoughts? Put them below.

Thanks for reading and play on!