[RPG] How to handle the PCs within a large military


On some level, this might actually be getting closer to RPGs’ roots: I want to try a campaign where the PCs are members of a larger military. There may be need for them to coordinate with other units on a larger campaign, or bail allies out, and so on, but I want to avoid some problems I see with this:

  1. The players should still (at least eventually) feel like the stars of the story, despite the important things that may also be going on around them.

  2. They should come to be leaders/champions of this army, but I don’t think my players are necessarily interested in really doing much in the way of general-ing (and I’m not particularly interested in it either). Basically, I don’t want it to turn into a war game (though ultimately if that’s what the players want, that’s what the players want).

  3. I think there should be some level of unpredictability in what other units are able to accomplish, both because it’s more interesting and because it eliminates any possibility of their successes/failures being perceived as railroading.

  4. I’m envisioning a fairly-epic quest from low levels to high. The players will start as fresh graduates from a military academy, and by the end of the campaign may be fighting off demons for the sake of the world. I need suggestions on how to handle their allies’ growth or lack thereof alongside them.

This is not necessarily a system recommendation question, but I am quite interested in systems and books which have established rules for handling this kind of thing, if only for comparison/consideration. Basically, I need extremely streamlined ways of determining what these other units are doing and also how to communicate what they’re doing to the players.

And while this may or may not involve a system recommendation, all “shopping” questions like this go under the usual guidelines for Good Subjective, Bad Subjective, and I think the usual blurb about should be applied here:

As this is a system-recommendation question, please adhere to both the FAQ and the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and on our Meta. In particular, all responses should be based on actual experience and contain references and examples whenever possible.

It may (or may not) be relevant to your answer that the intended setting is fairly typical fantasy, with reasonably high magic. Mages might be fairly rare among the common folk, but then so are knights, and your local priest probably can manage a little. The army, of course, has mages as a major component of most units, as support and artillery behind the warriors.

This need not actually change your answer though. If you have useful information for a more sci-fi setting or modern setting, I can certainly use that.

Best Answer

I'm restarting a campaign right now that is almost identical to this. It used and will be using Savage Worlds, with PCs being members of a fantasy frontier law enforcement paramilitary group.

Savage Worlds was designed from the ground up to do all four of your points. Have you looked at it? There's a free Test Drive PDF on the publisher's site. It's not everyone's cup of tea because not everyone likes the exact trade-offs made in order to achieve streamlined combat with dozens-to-hundreds of combatants, but it does do the job for those who like the tradeoffs.


  1. There is a certain amount of "PC glow" built into the system, via the distinction between full characters ("Wild Cards") and "Extras". The ease of commanding/managing NPC followers in combat (see below) also factors into this.

  2. PCs will quickly become examples which their fellow NPCs will look up to, simply because of how the advancement mechanics put them into the heroic spotlight and let them take on more interesting missions. Individually, they may also choose advancement options that make them leaders in battle, or they may not – this is a dial they can personally set, so you don't have to worry about it. Even if they choose not to become amazing trooper leaders, they can still command allies in a squad effectively, giving you flexibility there. You can lean toward Spec-Ops type missions with no or small NPC squads, or toward big battles, depending on whether your players overall build toward leadership Edges or not.

  3. There is a lot of unpredictability built into the dice mechanic. Even a top-level (well, there isn't a top level, but you stop getting new fancy names for the levels) character can be taken out by one very lucky Extra. It's extremely unlikely (on the order of fractions of 1%) at that level, but no enemy is ever beneath notice. Players have to take their opponents seriously, even when they can expect to tromp all over them. Wading into battle like you're invulnerable is just begging to be KO'd in one lucky roll, so players are wise to act like sensible people and respect dangers and take precautions, even when they're confident they can take them.

  4. The advancement system and dice mechanic are designed to deliver gameplay that starts with Competent But Modest characters and proceed to Epic Legends.

It also has a very streamlined system for battles between very, very large forces, so that your PCs can concentrate on their local challenges and war objectives and influence the larger conflict, without taking hours to figure out what happens.

The gotcha with moving from d20 experience to Savage Worlds is that epic fights are about the size of the opposing force, not about the buff-ness of the stats on one Big Bad. Because of the swinginess of the dice mechanic, a single tough Big Bad will be either one-shotted, or be a source of much frustrating whiff and ping and make the combat feel slow and boring. "Boss" fights should involve lost of support Extras of variable toughness, units with different attack strategies, and one or two Wild Card Big Bads. Essentially, because there are no hit points, all the Extras are the hit points of the boss fight – then when the Big Bad goes down to a good roll it will be the climax of a bit fight rather than an anticlimax.