Sunday, 25 January 2015

Dungeon Master: Large Scale Battles

Somehow, in some way, large scale battles have a way of sneaking themselves into campaigns. Maybe the battle is just a backdrop for the events the party takes part in. Maybe winning the battle is actually the main goal of the adventure. Regardless, one way or another, they have a way of arising in my games. I hope to devote a little bit of time to talk about the different ways that they do and my humble opinion on how to handle them. As usual, this will have a slight focus to D&D, but it can apply to any tabletop role-playing game system.

Battles as Backdrops

I've already mentioned this in my introduction, but battles make good backdrops. In such a case, the party themselves probably won't be able to have much influence over the battle directly. They won't be commanding. They won't be managing. At best, maybe they will be merely trying to access a dungeon while by pure chance, a battle is occurring close by. Obviously, in this case, there won't be any large scale battle rules in this case, though special tables to decide if a scout is close by may be needed. The important part is that the players don't have much influence over the battle at all. The flow of events that make up the battle are fixed, but the players have their own little story that is running at the same time.

Players as Key Players

It is also possible that the players will be taking part in the battle as soldiers who will have an influence on the battle. They could be part of an attempt on a generals life. The players' influence won't be at the level of a commander, but their actions will affect the course of events. If they manage to hold when everyone else on their line routes, they may find themselves surrounded. The key here is that the characters have influence over the course of events in the battle (which means that multiple different courses of events are possible and have to be written in advance), but their influence isn't at the level of a commander. If the battle was a backdrop, the battle would always unfold the same way. Here, the players influence how the skirmish goes and perhaps even influence what objectives are accomplished, which may play a role down the line. They, however, have no influence over how the fighting goes for the flanking force, for example.

In such a case, there are no extra rules being applied to the game (the effect that the players' actions will have on the larger battle will need to be considered, however). The players will be fighting as normal (maybe with some low level soldiers to help buff out their ranks, allowing you to put more enemy soldiers) and talking to commanding NPC's as normal (trying to convince them against something foolish, or to let them go about their business if captured if they have no alignment with the other side, etc.).

Players as Commanders

This is when the players have full reign over the events of the battle. This is where tons of new rules are needed to decide the flow of battle, since the players decide on the strategies.

Pre-made Combat Rules

You have a favourite system for large scale battles? Great, that was easy. Just use it the same way. I do this quite often myself. This will most likely come from a tabletop war game or from an older version of D&D, if you are playing D&D. This is also probably the easiest way to find a good, deep system that will keep players' attention (it is possible to make a brand new system but more effort is required).

Making Your Own System

For me, there are a few things I like to look for in a large scale battle system. Having the player characters having noticeable affects such as bonuses is usually a big plus (though if players are used to war gaming, this may not be needed). There also needs to be a way to determine how many forces from the other side get wounded and or killed. I will provide an extremely simple system below to use as a starting point.

Simple Large Scale Battle System

  1. Decide on prices for troops (good basis for D&D 5th edition would be the skilled and unskilled labourers).
  2. Decide on a dice for each type of troops (d4 to d20). Decide on movement speed to be used on a map (could be squares, grids, hex, inches, centimetres, etc.). Decide on a type of round system (the usual D&D system with movement and attack as a turn or is it a two part turn system. The first turn is moving the troops and the second is when both sides attack at the same time). This should be done as part of the adventure setup. Note: Not all dice may be used. 
  3. Based on tactical advantages, a troop can move up a dice type. Multiple advantages stack until the dice reaches a d20. Alternatively, used advantage like D&D 5th edition and just roll twice (in this case, no stacking).
  4. For every bunch of 20 of the same troop, roll their troop dice. This determines how many of the enemy group that was in contact was wounded and or killed. If a group is less than 15 but more than 10, divide the roll by 2 (rounding down). If less than 10 and more than 5, divide by 3 (rounding down). If less than 5, divide by 4 (rounding down). For bigger battles, assign multipliers as needed to speed up play or use electronic tools. In the table below, I also give alternate multipliers.
    Number of Troops Multiplier to Dice
    More than 15 1
    Less than 15 but more than 10 1/2 (3/4)
    Less than 10 but more than 5 1/3 (1/2)
    Less than 5 but more than 0 1/4
  5. Resolve the wounded for both attacker and defender at once. This means both sides roll at the same time and then casualties are counted. If using the D&D style turn, movement after an attack is stopped until your next turn (this takes away some of the advantage of having the first turn). 
  6. Go until a side dies, retreats or a condition is met. If the defender retreats, the attacker gains the location. If the attacker retreats, the defender keeps the location. 
Problem: Above rules mean at least one person will always be wounded or killed. If a one is rolled, roll a dice and if it's in the bottom half, no one was hurt and if it's in the top half, one person was hurt.

Problem 2: Above rules don't distinguish between wounded or dead. To fix this, round the number wounded or killed down to the nearest dice (d4 minimum). Roll the dice (if it is more than rolled previously, just use the same number as originally rolled). That is how many were killed. Alternatively, pairs of dice up to d10's can be used (one for wounding, one for killing).

Note: Technically, the above can be run as a free form system where both sides can act at the same time. In this case, the one reacting gets to decide actions unless they relinquish their right or the other side reacts in response. When all movement and attacks are used up or both sides have no actions left they wish to use but still wish to continue the fight, a new turn begins. The Dungeon Master can decide that the attacker failed at any time (to prevent simply standing in the same place), leaving all troops in the same position. 

Morale Rules

As part of determining events of a backdrop battle, or retreating of an enemy skirmish group when players are soldiers, or routing of entire sections of army, morale rules can be used. If you already have a favourite system for large scale battles but it lacks a morale system, great, you can use this one.

The rules I would use in such a situation would probably be the exact same as my other morale article, but instead a much larger group will end up routing. As the Dungeon Master, it will need to be decided if the entire group routes or only a portion. For portions, a d100 with modifiers can easily give us the percent routed after a success. If it is higher than a certain level, the entire group will route. To determine success or failure, look at the morale article.


I hope the above discussion and notes at least got the creative juices flowing. In general, having to have players command a battle does not come up often in my games, but when it does having a system in place really adds to the fun (though they also love war games). Even if that isn't the case, battles come up as backdrops or parts of the adventure and in such cases, I hope the above discussion helped. If there is a system you like to use, feel free to note it below.  

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Dungeon Master: Low Value Item Lists

When I look at the item tables for D&D, I notice that there really aren't many items that are worth less than a gold coin. However, we know that in context (the lifestyle tables in particular), a gold coin is a significant amount of money. Over the course of this piece, I will be going over ways to add miscellaneous items not in the table that would help give silver and copper coins some use. Some of these may only pertain to Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, but most of them should be more universal.


In Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, there is the trinkets table that can be used for extra items. The issue is that some of the items are extremely strange and it would make sense that not every shop would have all of them. For this reason I tend to roll a couple of time for some obscure items the shop might have after using the items to construct a table (this table will vary based on campaign).

Souvenirs/Special Items

Depending on the location or region in a campaign, it would make sense for them to have certain goods that other areas might not. This can be something as simple as renaming the ales or slightly changing the prices for the same product in a region (importing costs). Depending on the characters that make up the party (maybe you have a party member who collects eating utensils from all the regions they visit) you may need to come up with specific items just for the party.

Impromptu Items

Sometimes you may have to think of the price for a mundane and cheap item on the spot. When it is something not covered in the usual table and not a weapon, the only real consideration needed is to decide on the price. Either a logical one can be decided on the spot (a fork of that quality would cost 3 silver), or rolling can be used to determine prices. Since the items I'm talking about here are rather cheap (a few silver or copper), using a quick roll to determine prices is an option as the players won't feel the variation too much (prices may reasonably shift with demand as well). The steps to do so would be:
  1. Player asks for a miscellaneous item.
  2. Choose a coin type (silver or copper usually for the kinds of items I'm talking about here, but it can be used for some more expensive items requiring gold or platinum as well) based on the item.
  3. Choose a die type (I usually use a d4-d10, though a d12 or d100 could be used as well) based on the item. Optionally, you can choose to use just multiples of d4's instead (for less randomness).
  4. Roll and calculate.
Of course, other ways can be used as well but the above is what I usually use as a guideline. The advantage of this is you don't have to worry about miscellaneous item tables for stores, since the players will ask for something in particular. If you feel inclined, you can make a note and use the same prices for the same items later (often a good idea for more expensive items, even if you add or subtract a couple of silver later) or re-roll prices (chalking up the difference to the economy).


I hope the above helps make copper and silver coins more useful in games. Since they are such small denominations (usually players deal with gold coins), these kinds of small items can be a great way to add specific characteristics to a character (a special pin, for example). The small price also helps encourage players to buy unique items, since they cost so little. In general, the system can also be expanded for more expensive items, but I felt it necessary to specificity address silver and copper coins.  

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Dungeon Master: Battle Map vs Theatre of Mind

Well, since D&D 5th edition allows both theatre of mind and battle map based combat right out of the book, I thought it was about time that I talked about the strengths and weaknesses of the two approaches. I will assume the game is being done in person, as virtual tabletops can take away quite a few of the setup disadvantages of battle maps. I personally employ both in my games, and will also talk about how you can combine the two methods. This piece is aimed for newer Dungeon Masters, but I hope the more experienced ones can participate in the conversation.

Theatre of Mind

Theatre of mind means the Dungeon Master will be describing everything. When run by a great story teller, this can be an absolutely wonderful experience and since it requires no physical materials, it is extremely versatile and light weight.


  • It's extremely versatile.
  • It requires no physical resources, meaning it is highly portable and has very little setup overhead.
  • It flows naturally from the rest of the game.
  • Can easily be done online through VOIP programs.


  • When dealing with complex situations (lots of players or monsters, 3 dimensional environments, etc.), positioning is easy to lose track of.
  • Amount of choice given to player can seem less (since they don't have very precise control over movement).
  • It can be difficult for players to know how far they can actually move in a turn, causing lost time when the Dungeon Master corrects them, and the player reconsiders their turn.


  • Whiteboards sketches or paper sketches to set the scene can help with positioning (at this point, it may be not much more effort to just use battle maps).

Battle Map

For the purpose of this article, this involves using a ruler and miniatures. Using battle maps means the Dungeon Master will have the battle setup with miniatures and maps, clearly showing the situation. They can also be used to describe a scene where there is no fighting, but the physical representation makes the layout far less confusing for players choosing which way to go.


  • Positions are shown for players, so they know exactly where they are.
  • Seeing the scale of their characters compared to something can really fill them with a sense of dread or make them feel confident.
  • Exact positions are seen, so complex tactics can be employed quite easily.
  • Easily translates to virtual tabletops, allowing new features (such as field of view, showing only details the characters can see).


  • Physical resources are needed for the map and miniatures (depending on the budget and fidelity, it can range from printed maps and coins to plastic 3d tiles and painted miniatures).
  • Setting up the map and positioning takes time away from play if you pause to do so.
  • Finding/replicating or creating maps takes more effort from the Dungeon Master.
  • If the chunks of the map are present on the table at once, meta-gaming is made possible (player can see the dead end up ahead). If you instead only show maps once the players enter line of sight, we are back to the issue of taking time to set everything up.


  • Putting together the maps ahead of time can save time during play (this is more easily done with paper tiles, as major chunks can be filed away and quickly brought out and connected). When using paper tiles, the Dungeon Master can prepare pieces in advance (while waiting for perception rolls, etc.).
  • The location can be described (using the theatre of mind technique) to set the scene and describe details that cannot be represented by a battle map (room smell, for example) while the Dungeon Master sets up the battle map or adds tiles to it. Note: This is true when players enter a new room and are ambushed or attacked.
  • If combat cannot be avoided or if your players initiated combat themselves, the time while everyone is rolling initiative can be used to set up the battle map. Note: Only saves time if you already rolled initiative for creatures in advance.

Using Both Together Without Virtual TableTops

For me, the dead time while setting up maps is an important detail to handle. Practice in setting up the battle map can become a factor, as it can minimize dead time. The actual act of laying the tiles down isn't the hard part, it's getting the right tile to the right spot so preparation (knowing which tiles go where to form the battle map) can make a huge difference in keeping the game rolling. I've found that players tend to like to look at the battle map when it has interesting features, and seeing it being put together isn't as damaging as it may seem. If done reasonably quickly, they see the details as they come up and get to see details you may have had described, making it more real.

Sometimes, one method cannot or should not be used. If your players just saw a single guard and are trying to kill him before he can react, setting up the battle map could be overkill (especially if you can't bring it onto the table in one piece). If he succeeds in raising an alarm, more will come and at that point the battle map could be very handy (handling 10 guards vs 5 player characters using complex tactics can be a real headache). Finding this balance is tough. However, if you are putting your battle map onto the table in a reasonable time, the players probably won't care (depending on players, they may appreciate the visual aids).

Using a Virtual TableTop

Using technology to assist can be a great help. In particular, if you can't get people to a table a virtual tabletop can become an incredible tool. Personally, I found my players prefer having real physical objects in front of them to a flat screen, even with the delays that come with the setup of physical objects. The line of sight feature is nice, but you can also build the map as players move using tiles (when doing so, having the right pieces ready to go cuts down on time).


Enhancing games through visual aids is a common way to help make games more enjoyable, and using tiles is the most basic of these strategies. Still, if used incorrectly (taking too long to set up, at the wrong time, etc.), it can be less effective than the good old theatre of mind. I hope this discussion was thought provoking or helpful. If there is something you feel needs attention or any other reason, feel free to comment.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Dungeon Master: Audio Enhancements

A little while ago I wrote about a few of the different enhancements that can be made to a role-playing game to make it more immersive. In that piece I mentioned that props and audio enhancements can be used, and I wanted to further expand on that. The below assumes you have some kind of computer or audio player close by (for search reasons, I tend to prefer using a computer). It also works best if you already have the session planned and just want to increase its impact through a small amount of carefully chosen sounds. If you are unsure if you should use these kinds of enhancements, then you should probably just focus on the adventure itself.

Why Bother and Finding a Balance

I have used specially created sounds and props in my games before and they really do help add to the immersive qualities of the game. Instead of trying to describe a sound, they can actually hear it for themselves. Using it too much, however, means that time is pulled away from the game itself. It also takes some time to create this kind of thing and despite how great it can be, enhancements cannot save a bad session. I can't remember the last time I prepared more than 2 such sounds.

When I do use this method, I find using it sparingly really helps improve its impact. The sound that you choose to use is also important as it should be important enough to warrant the extra effort. You, as the Dungeon Master, also still have your natural abilities and if you are good at voices, you can still do them at the table. This kind of preparation should be done for sounds that you cannot reasonably perform at the table. It generally helps to save time a well if you have them play while you do your Dungeon Master describing of events.

Types of Sounds


You can have one or two spoken lines recorded for when they first interact with the character to make the impression you want. I would not record every line for a villain, but having one line prepared to give the impression can work wonders as players can imagine that voice saying what you say. This is even more effective if you can do a voice that is fairly similar to the prepared line but missing the special effects.

One Time

Sometimes there will be one sound that you will need to use only in one specific situation for one adventure, but using that sound adds a lot to the game. Maybe your characters are fighting in the middle of a lake and you want to have an ice cracking sound. As rounds go by, you increase the volume. It is important that this sound actually add something big to the game (footsteps may be a bit much) and is meant to be at a memorable spot.


Sometimes the sound you want isn't meant to be used in one specific situation, but a general track meant to set the atmosphere of a location. If you are going into a cave, maybe you want to make sure the players know how the echoing water dripping sounds like. In this case, the sound clip should be long enough to give them the impression of the area. In theory, you should be able to loop this track and use it as atmosphere (be careful about doing this as it can get annoying for a 2 hour session).

Harder to Get Started

It's also important to remember that as time goes on, you will have a collection of sounds you can use. As such, it will get easier since you no longer have to create them and can just use them as needed. Still, I'd suggest not going overboard here and using at most 3 (the focus should be the players).

How to Do it

  1. Get an audio editor. Audacity is free and fairly good for this kind of thing.
  2. Record the sound you want or get it from a sound library such as this one.
  3. Apply the effects you want. If you are recording your own, you probably want to record just the background noise so you can use the noise removal tool.


I hope the above was helpful. When using these kinds of enhancements it can be difficult to find a good balance but when used for something important like the introduction of a villain or to drive home the number of followers in a secret cult meeting (complete with chanting), it can help make a game memorable and help engage the senses, especially when used sparingly.