The discussion and examples in my New Look at Combat posts have focused on one-on-one combat, for the purpose of allowing the reader to understand the basic ideas. The rules for a duel between two enemies can also be applied to one against many or to one group fighting another (the typical situation in role-playing games) with only one more consideration – how many opponents can effectively be fought by a character at once.
The number of opponents that a character will fight at once is mainly influenced by the character’s use of the environment during a fight. In a melee, keeping your back to a wall or staying in a corner limits the number of opponents that can get to you, but it also makes it difficult or impossible to keep your distance and control the range; a longer weapon reach can help, but you run the risk of being crowded if an opponent gets past your effective reach. Conversely, being in an open field requires near constant movement in order to limit the enemies that can harm you and to avoid being surrounded. A tree, wall, car, or phone booth could also be used to keep an opponent from reaching. An alley or narrow street allows movement while still limiting enemy engagement, but prevents the effective use of weapons that need room to be swung. Alternatively, a character could forsake the safety of cover and attempt to hold his own against enemies on all sides, hoping to do more injury to them than he sustains, especially with a long weapon that can be swung around. Longer reach with a thrusting weapon allows one to safely attack past cover or fellow combatants, bypassing some limitations, as well as longer weapons that can be swung over short obstacles, such as low walls or railings.
With projectile attacks, reach isn’t a factor, but cover, ammunition, and other combatants are the limiting factors. Engaging more opponents means sacrificing more cover and going through more ammunition, which can be a problem when you run out of things to throw or shoot. Using cover to engage only one at a time is safe, but can be a problem if time is a factor. Other combatants (especially those engaged in melee combat with the target) or even bystanders can interrupt a line of fire and make it impossible to engage the enemy without possibly harming both.
Generally, one attack roll per combatant, along with one choice of tactics, is sufficient. Each roll is compared, with tactical bonuses applied, to determine the nature of the interaction between those combatants, in the same way that the system is applied in one-on-one combat. Note that it’s possible for a character to be in a different range relative to different opponents; due to that, the rate at which each combatant is able to change tactics and roll again is not the same for all involved. Melee combat in the Engaged range changes much more rapidly than Disengaged melee combat (which is roughly the same pace as projectile combat, where the notions of Engaged and Disengaged don’t apply). Grappling changes much more slowly, and increasing the distance and amount of cover in projectile weapon combat slows the pace as well.
In a game with realistic or gritty combat, to reflect the overwhelming nature of dividing your attention between opponents, a combatant needs to prioritize his concern over each attacker – the enemy that receives his primary attention resolves his roll normally, and each subsequent enemy gains an increasing bonus to their attack roll, reflecting the fact that their target isn’t watching them as closely. Against an unseen enemy, the target might receive no defense at all. In a heroic or cinematic game where the protagonist is attacked by mobs of faceless mooks, one roll can be made on behalf of the whole group, along with other ideas presented in “It Takes an Army” written by Dr. Nemesis.
In a combat between groups where each combatant is handled individually, first each must decide on their own goal and tactic, which will determine which other combatants they will interact with. After those are chosen, everyone makes the appropriate roll, and compares results with each combatant they can interact with to determine range (if appropriate), interaction of tactics, and finally the outcome of the interaction. When that’s completed, characters who are in the Engaged range of melee combat (and the opponents that are engaging them) are given the opportunity to change tactics or continue, and must roll again. After that, characters in Disengaged melee combat or in projectile combat are also given the opportunity to roll again, changing tactics if they wish. Engaged melee characters might have another opportunity at this time, or just after. The ratio of times that Engaged/Disengaged (or projectile) combatants are given opportunities to roll again is variable, and determined by the GM. It could be a 2:1 ratio, or 3:2, or whatever the circumstances dictate (as determined by the GM). Grappling characters, or projectile fights at long distances, will have the most infrequent opportunities.
This may seem like a lot of interactions to compare and cycle through for each set of rolls, but in practice, it’s really not. Generally, a combatant will engage only two or three others at once. Often, a fight between two groups breaks down into sets of one-on-one or many-on-one fights. Once you get the hang of it, it’s very easy to handle, and more time is spent on descriptions of the combat than on cycling through rounds and turns, so that the combat itself doesn’t take any more real time (and often takes less). It also offers the GM much more control over the pacing of the fight and the focus on the action, which is especially important in cinematic games.
This combat system does not preclude the use of maps and miniatures, for those who prefer a visual reference for the environment and relative position of combatants. Avoid using a grid if possible, and be sure to stress that the position of the combatants is very general. All combatants are moving at the same time, so this is not a snapshot of absolute positioning that holds still while you take your turn, it’s only a visual reminder of who and what is near or far from you.