Roleplaying at different scales

I’ve been thinking about scale in RPGs. Players each have their PC and, usually, that’s the scale they operate on. People influencing other people. Lets call that “character scale”. I am trying to find ways to keep players engaged at other scales. How do we maintain player agency when the game is about wars. gods or interstellar politics?

Fantasy RPGs have been adding in mass battle rules for decades, although they have often struggled to find ways for PCs to stay relevant in these situations and these battles could easily feel like you were taking a break from the main game to play a wargame for an hour before getting back to the actual game.

(It is worth considering that D&D mostly came about as a reduction in scale from wargame level to individual level, but that’s an aside.)

Into The Odd introduced an alternative to brining in a second set of rules to handle battles with its “Detatchments”. These squads of troops are statted up just like PCs which means that two detatchments going at it can be played out just like a fight between two individual combatants. Even better, Into the Odd came with clear mechanics for what happens between these scales if a PC attacks a detachment or vise versa. Simply, the detachment is considered to do area effect damage to individuals and unless the individuals are inflicting area effect (or blast) damage, the effect of their action is impaired.

So now we have two scales, Character and Detachment. What’s the next scale up? What if I’m playing Star Trek or Mindjammer and I want to have the players intervein between warring city states or affect interplanetary politics. Fate (the system used in Mindjammer) would just have to stat up the different faction as an NPC and run the war or politics as a conflict the same as any other opposed interaction, which works to settle the conflict between the cities or planets, but it doesn’t tell us how the PCs fit in. I mean, we could just have the player describe a speech their PC makes and roll Diplomacy opposed by the planetary civilization’s Advanced Culture modified by Righteous Conviction, but it doesn’t make sense because they aren’t operating on the same scale.

I remember WEG Star Wars had a nice process for characters vs vehicles vs ships vs star destroyers. It was something like, “When attacking up a size class take +2 to hit and -2 to damage, when attacking down a size class take -2 to hit and +2 to damage”. It’s specific to combat, but I remember it working well.

OK, so I’ve got a bunch of different scales, which are roughly similarly spaced in effect:
Character
Detachment/Vehicle/Town
Army/Space Ship/City
Nation
Planet
Something like that. As with everything, it would need tweaked to fit specific settings.

What I’m trying to do is come up with a clear, repeatable set of rules for what happens when your players want to influence something, one, two, three scales above them.

At the risk of over-simplifying every RPG ever, this is what it’s all about. “Save the town from the bandits” is PCs (Character Scale) verses bandits (Detachment Scale). Usually this means that the PCs go to the bandit hideout and pick the bandits off one at a time at Character Scale, but they could also build the townsfolk into a militia and use them to fight the bandits at Detachment Scale next time they raid the town.

Either way it takes the PC a whole session, and that I think is the key to unlocking this. We break play and player effect by the time they have spent:
Actions
Scenes/Combats
Sessions
Scenarios
Campaigns

I figure that each time scale comprises between 3 and 10 of the scale below. A session might be five scenes. A campaign might be three Scenarios. So what happens when we bring these together?

A session of play at Character Scale is equivalent to a Scene at Detachment Scale. So PCs clearing out a bandit hideout over a session, will have a similar effect on the bandits as those bandits fighting another detachment over a combat scene.

A militia would solve the bandit problem with a straight fight, or maybe a scene of diplomacy and negotiation. An army punching down at the bandits could solve the problem with one successful skill check.

A more complicated set up could be a Scenario about a rebel fleet taking an imperial planet. The Scales are Individual – Star Fighter – Destroyer – Planet. The PCs are using fighters so they are operating at Star Fighter Scale which means that a Session of play, fighting Tie squadrons, taking out defences and shield generators is enough to board a Star Destroyer at the next scale up. The next session they are on board the Star Destroyer so it’s PCs (Individual Scale) vs crew (Detachment Scale). Finally, The PCs are in charge of the captured Star Destroyer and are operating at a Scale sufficient to affect the Planet.

So what’s the point of all this?

Using these scales lets us define everything from vehicles to political movements as a character, using the same mechanics we use for our PCs. Applying the different timescales then lets us consistently judge appropriate effects for characters acting across different scales. I see this as a way of bringing a mechanical connection to the interactions of my PCs and big-picture background stuff like factions and gods. Despite my campaigns being all about this stuff, It’s all things which I usually hand waive – or fairly and consistently apply my GM fiat to, whatever.

Actually, consistency is the goal here. I have no problem with GM fiat and hand waiving things, but if these are things which matter and will return to play over a months long campaign, then I want to know that I’m handling them the same or the game can end up feeling woolly and pointless. I’m going to try implementing this stuff in my games. I’ll let you know how I get on!

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