Coincidentally, as I'm reading posts about mass combat (Chgowiz, Delta), I'm gearing up in my campaign for a mass combat. In fact, the numbers are not yet determined, which is part of the fun, as my offline party has to wait two weeks to find out what happens next.
The party amounts to a group of level sevens and eights, who only recently found themselves pressed against the wall by 105 goblins (95 archers, 10 goblins mounted on worgs) and one fifth level ftr/mage drow elf, fighting from a fortified position consisting of two towers and a wall. The archers and mage did a nice job of tearing holes in the party while they cleaned up the worgs. Fun was had all around. Total participants: 19 party members and henchmen vs. 126 opponents (counting the worgs).
Turns out, behind the front fortification, placed between two mountains, is a valley dominated by wooden fortification (treated with pitch, so firing it won't be easy), containing some 200 goblins, 50 hobgoblins and at least five drow (this is the reconnoitoring knowledge the party has). The party isn't the least concerned with the lower-level fodder (except that there are ballista on the tower), but having the drow decimate them with magic as they wade through the fodder doesn't fill them with glee. So they've taken steps to gather some fodder of their own.
(Incidentally, I pay no attention to rules involving the drow and sunlight. Never have)
I want to keep the background down to a minimum. The party's mage is the nominal head of the fiefdom, but he's been gone for a year on party business, and he has come back to find the population of the fief cut from 1800 to 1400, most of the outer towns decimated or abandoned, and this mass of creatures on the doorstep. It could have been dealt with before it grew into this problem ... but the party didn't think it was that important.
So ... the mage is beating the drum to raise up a force from within the fief (mostly women and children), and asking the Lord next door for aid - I'll probably throw the Lord himself into the mix, plus 150 men ... which will look like overkill.
In the meantime, the drow will send out for aid also. I'm thinking trolls, or ogres, plus more hobgoblins or whatever. My guess is that the party force will number 230-250. I'm thinking the opposition will top out at 325-375, depending on how many more goblins I add. Estimated number: 600.
Now, I know this would make many DMs sweat - I can't say I'm looking forward to it. The combat won't be accomplished in one session, something the party knows and are totally cool with. The pre-combat, the one they finished last night, took two sessions to run. I'm told no one was bored.
As I see it, I have three choices:
Option 1. I can spend the next two weeks throwing together a jury-rigged mass combat system, based on previous incarnations of mass combat that I have attempted. My experience is that, while this will work to determine who the winners and losers are, it will pretty much solve the problem from my perspective only.
Mass combat is stale and dull for parties, who don't relate to their character suddenly being associated with a 'unit', or being damaged by average hit point distributions. I've played out these things, and except for the player who actually likes war games like this, no one else feels invested in the slightest.
Plus, killing a character this way, when the character is part of a mass of men, is anathema to a campaign. No one feels right about it.
Option 2. I can ignore the battle, and concentrate on only the player's involvement in it. In other words, divide the participants into those the party cares about and 'everyone else'. Sure, the party fights on this side, but over there the Lord and his men do this, or that, or get blasted, or break into the fort conveniently at just the right time ... in short, reduce their involvement to a story line. To hell with the actual details regarding NPCs. This is about the party!
Naturally, the party winds up feeling, usually, that the whole thing has been handed to them on a silver platter, or that it has been made unreasonably difficult for them. And let's admit it ... the DM is almost certainly going to have the Lord half-succeed (most of the enemy killed, the fort breached) while also half-failing (the Lord dies valiantly, thus not getting in the way of the party plundering the treasure).
I've tried this also; it's all right, it works. The party usually doesn't care as long as they get treasure. But you're sort of forced to make the party win. If the party doesn't win, it's the DMs fault - he didn't give enough credence to the NPC force - might as well have never had the NPC force, and just had the party fight less creatures. Why make it a mass combat at all?
Option 3. Let me say, this is the one I'm leaning towards, because it is the one I've never tried. Roll every die. Yes, that's right. You heard me.
I can almost hear the moans as I write this. But hear me out. This isn't 1982.
Mass combat is based on the impracticality of doing what I suggest - it takes too long to throw 1200+ attack dice and damage dice per round, not to mention saving throws and so on. We will all be here until Hell hath passed from Winter to Spring - and boredom will reign. Now and then a longtime DM will try it out for themself - stage a mock combat, populate both sides with a hundred fighters, and go at it. I doubt most such combats are ever fought to the last man.
But I have been thinking ... I am easily able to roll hundreds of dice at the click of a mouse, IF I program the random numbers, and their results, into a very simple Excel spreadsheet. With a little programming, I can produce automatically not only the die rolls, but the AC hit, the damage done and even the targets hit. Depending on how much programming I do.
The trick would be to REDUCE the amount of programming ... to not try to cover every detail. To make one line which selects the target, rolls a die, determines the AC the die hits (by imputing the creature's THACO), roll damage if it hits, and then cut and paste.
I honestly don't know how many people out there understand Excel - but this is almost painfully simple to do.
What it allows is to divide the party and its henchmen up into the various groups assaulting the castle from all sides, or against flanking attacks, so that every force has a party member or members involved. I have three characters that fly (mage, shape-changing druid and thief with wings of flying), so it enables them to flit from assault to assault as needed. The battle will be a grind - nothing can be done about that - but hopefully, a grind where everyone is invested, where characters are literally brave or terrified, depending on how it goes (out of my hands, regarding 'storytelling'), and the party can, ultimately, LOSE.
Am I crazy?