This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
Problem: Managing Epic Battles
I'm not quite in full understanding as to how I can manage the sheer numbers of characters and NPCs in a battle scene. How would I control this?
War is a great theme for fantasy, and one with which we are all familiar, both from our own knowledge of history (and current events) and from the abundant examples of warfare in fantasy fiction, most famously in Lord of the Rings. Given how prominent a place combat holds in the D&D game, it is also a natural extension of the usual dungeon-crashing and monster-bashing that we see every night around the gaming table, just on a larger scale and with some goal or objective at hand besides personal enrichment or fulfillment of a quest.
The problem, of course, is how to translate the up close and personal point of view of standard D&D combat scenarios into something that works on a massive scale without needing to roll 500 attack rolls per side. D&D has struggled with the problem of mass combat for ages, which is ironic since its very roots were as a fantasy supplement to a miniatures battle game called Chainmail. In fact, in 1st Edition AD&D, spell ranges and movement rates were still expressed in terms of inches, representing how far they would go on a scaled mapboard or 3D tabletop using miniatures. Since then, mass battle rules have ranged from massive miniatures rules where you moved every piece on the board (BattleSystem and two of the original Dragonlance adventure series) to abstracted numbers-based systems where tactics were simple and resolved on a relative table (the War Machine system from the D&D Companion rules boxed set) to things halfway in between (the battle cards in the Birthright campaign system). There are rules for everything from dealing with movement to terrain and elevation and weather and the effects of spells, and you can be as simple or as complex as you like.
The latest attempts at covering this complex issue are in Complete Warrior (dealing with the role of warrior-types in the campaign), Power of Faerun (detailing becoming a military leader or conquering a frontier), and especially Heroes of Battle. You could also adapt the rules on guilds in Dungeon Master's Guide II and on affiliations in Player's Handbook II to specifically military organizations, but that is more of a behind-the-scenes and campaign flow aid, not really something that helps you much in running the battle scene. For a more exhaustive review of dealing with battle both as a concept and as a mechanical issue, I would refer you to these references. What follows are several tips that can help you make things work.
Average It Out
D&D is a numbers game, but along with numbers comes probability. In a mass combat situation, don't worry about rolling attacks or saving throws or things of that nature. Figure out what numbers are needed, and assume an average spread of results. If someone casts a fear spell on a platoon of 40 orcs, and they need a 17 to save, you can figure out that the average result will be that eight will save and 32 will fail (every result comes up on average one time in 20, so 40 orcs would yield two 17s, two 18s, two 19s, and two 20s, with the rest all falling below the 17 threshold). Unfortunately, this works best for saving throws with binary results; it is more complicated when dealing with individual rolls to hit (who is attacking, whom can they attack by reach, who takes the damage, etc.), so it's not a perfect system. Still, it can save some time.
A Representative Nmber
Instead of dealing with every creature on the battlefield, pretend for a moment that the battle is much smaller. Reduce numbers by a factor of 10 and pretend that each figure on the battlefield simply represents 10 creatures of that type. Run the battle as you would normally, assuming that the results of a 10-on-10 fight would be much the same as a 1-on-1 fight. This works fine as long as you are talking about your wimpy, grunt troops fighting each other, but it breaks down whenever individual heroes (like the PCs) or boss monsters get into the act. You probably won't see 10 adult blue dragons at once (unless you're playing Dragonlance), so what happens when one dragon tackles a single unit of 10 soldiers? Hmmm … not the best model in that case. This system also undervalues abilities that are most effective against large numbers of smaller attacks (rather than single high-value attacks), such as DR, energy resistance, regeneration, fast healing, trample, and feats such as Great Cleave or Whirlwind Attack.
A simpler tack would be, rather than just substituting 10-for-1, to combine masses of individual creatures into mobs using the rules in Dungeon Master's Guide II. The rules for interactions between mobs of creatures and individuals are already spelled out, but it does tend to minimize the differences between kinds of creatures. Using the mob rules as written, a mob of unarmed kobolds is not that much different from a mob of plate-armored dwarven mercenaries -- a little different, but not as much as logic would suggest.
The Battle Within the Battle
Make it simple on yourself. Forget having any formal rules at all to deal with the mass of the battle. Focus on the PCs and what they do. Establish in your mind some benchmark that the PCs (and possibly some key NPCs) need to meet in order to turn the tide and have their side win the battle. If they succeed, their army wins; if they fail, their army loses. This might be capturing the enemy commander through stealthy infiltration, defeating certain boss monsters that would otherwise let the bad guys overpower your forces, or even just hacking their way through a certain number of enemy grunts. If the party, through spells and mighty feats of arms, wipes out at least 100 ogres from the Sunarga Horde, their army takes care of the rest. You could dramatize it by having complications arise elsewhere on the battlefield that suddenly add new 'victory conditions' to what the PCs need to do -- they see the ogre warlord Goulart breaking through on the army's left flank, and they need to intercept him and wipe out at least 20 of his elite guards to prevent their army's line from being broken, all while still having to take care of their initial 100-ogre allotment. You don't have to lay this all out for them; you know what they need to do to win, and they will either do it or not. Don't be obnoxious about it, though. If they come up with some other plan that is just as good as your original condition and can pull it off, then be flexible. The point is to make the PCs the focus of the battle, and if they contribute sufficiently, the battle is won.
Show Some Leadership
Finally, you can use Leadership to provide an abstract method of dealing with a battle. You could have the commander of each army (or of each major section) make a d20 check plus their Leadership score. Feel free to add or subtract modifiers for advantageous or disadvantageous terrain or weather, for defending homeland versus fighting for gold, for health or starvation during a siege or a plague, or for any other conditions you feel should apply. Maybe you could add additional bonuses for allied NPCs with the Leadership feat, or if the commander has a certain number of ranks of Profession (soldier, sailor, or siege engineer, as appropriate). Then choose your strategy. Keep it general. You don't need a detailed battle plan that would make Napoleon envious, just the general character of your action, whether you are trying to overrun, to envelop, to stage a fighting retreat, or whatever it may be. Then roll the dice and let the chips fall where they may. If the rolls are close, the battle is a draw. If one beats the other by 5 or by 10, a victory. By 20, a decisive, crushing victory. By 30, complete annihilation of the enemy.
Overall, the best advice is to keep it simple. Play up the battlefield as much as your players want to deal with it. If they want to see some action on the field of battle, go for it. In terms of dealing with all of the rest of the battlefield combatants, the best advice is -- don't. Unless you and your players really like playing a battlefield miniatures game (and if you do, great), find an abstracted system, the simpler the better, and let the battle begin!
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About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.