D&D Miniatures10/30/2003

Mass Battles!

Although it's really not possible for anyone to get tired of the D&D Miniatures skirmish rules, it is possible, in your quest for the ultimate rare figures, to build up quite a collection of common and uncommon figures. You might think that you have little use for forty goblin sneaks -- but you're wrong.

Chapter Six of the Miniatures Handbook contains the mass battle rules that let you fight out epic combats involving hundreds of figures. Where the skirmish rules focus on desperate melees within the close confines of a ruined castle courtyard or a single hill, the mass battle rules deal with desperate clashes between organized groups of soldiers maneuvering in formation across a wider battlefield -- about 4 feet by 6 feet, specifically, although 4 by 4 works for smaller engagements.

Don't be scared off by the size of the game. You don't need hundreds of figures to stage a good mass battle. You'll want at least 50 per player to get the full use and flavor out of the unique mass battle rules.

A lot of what happens in mass battles is lifted straight from the skirmish game. You can start by thinking of units as really big figures that have multiple attacks and that use smaller figures to keep track of their hit points. The figures' individual statistics don't change: armor class, hit points, attack bonuses, movement, and other characteristics on the stat cards are used as printed.

The big change from skirmishes to mass battles is that most of the figures in mass battles operate in units. Commanders and certain types of creatures can operate alone, but you'll find that most figures do a lot better and live a lot longer on the battlefield when they're formed into units.

Units come in two types -- formed and unformed.

Before we talk about their differences, let's look at their similarities. First, all units must contain only one type of figure. That is, a unit of Halfling Veterans can contain only Halfling Veterans and nothing else (except a commander). Second, every unit regardless of type has a maximum size on the tabletop of five inches by five inches. A unit always is five inches wide, regardless of how many figures it contains and what size those figures are. You can't, for example, make a unit that is four inches wide and three inches deep. A maximum-size unit of medium figures, then, is five figures by five figures, or 25 figures. If the figures are small, the unit's maximum size is six figures by six figures, and if the figures are large, the unit's maximum size is three figures by three figures. If you want a phalanx, place three units side-by-side.

Formed and unformed units also have two key differences. First, the figures in an unformed unit are much looser, because you must keep empty space between the figures of an unformed unit. An unformed unit of large figures can contain no more than four figures, medium-size figures have a maximum of 9, and small figures have a maximum of 16. Second, a formed unit has a clearly defined front, sides, and back that affect both combat and movement. An unformed unit has no facing. It moves and fights equally well in any direction. It doesn't fight nearly as well as a formed unit fighting to its front, however.

Generally, only those figures at the outside edge (usually the front) of a unit can fight. You might wonder, then, why you would want a unit to be five ranks deep when only the front rank can attack or defend? Isn't that a waste of 20 figures?

The reason lies in the morale rules. As in the skirmish game, morale checks with their DC of 20 can be real killers. Unlike in the skirmish game, you can get significant bonuses on your morale checks by having deep units; that is, units with lots of ranks. Each rank behind the first adds +2 to the save. A full-size unit of medium creatures (five ranks) gets +8 on its morale save, before commander effects. Without that bonus, thin units can be swept right off the field by an enemy charge before they even get to attack.

It's the special rules regarding units that make mass battles so different from skirmishes. Aside from morale bonuses, the biggest difference is in movement.

Unformed unit movement is simple. Because the units have no facing, they can move in any direction. In real-world terms, they function as both skirmishers (for harassing the enemy and protecting your flanks) and missile units, whose use is obvious.

Formed units have some interesting restrictions on movement. If you're familiar with other fantasy or pre-gunpowder mass battle games such as Warhammer, Hordes of the Things, Tactica, or De Bellis Multitudinus, then moving units in formation will be old hat. If you're new to this type of game, formation movement might seem odd or even frustrating at first, but you'll get the hang of it quickly.

Basically, units can move in only two directions -- straight ahead and straight back. Turning requires a pivot, which slows you down considerably. Fancy maneuvers are difficult and time consuming.

The payoff for all that apparent lumbering is increased combat power. A formed unit attacking to its front gets a +2 attack bonus. If attacked from the front, it gets a +2 AC bonus.

A real key to success is how you use your commanders. They can operate independently, in which case they exert maximum command but have little direct effect on combat; or they can be attached directly to a unit. Attached commanders can lead from the front, where their heroic example gives the maximum morale and combat boost to the unit; or from the rear, where their effectiveness is reduced but they are safe from being singled out for attack.

How does all this play out? It's fast and exciting, that's how. Armies set up just out of missile range, so the bow fire usually starts on turn 1. Units can be hacking each other apart by turn 2. If the battle hasn't wrapped up with a clear victor in an hour, you're doing something wrong -- reread the rules.

You might not be ready to stage a mass battle yet, but once your collection of figures (or yours and all your friends') can handle it, don't miss out on this great way to play. It's a whole different game.

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