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.  

No comments:

Post a Comment