You Can't Always Get What You Want
For a long time through previous editions of D&D (especially 2nd) I conducted a casual, off-and-on search for an acceptable mass combat system that would mesh with D&D. I had Battlesystem, the Castle Guide, the High Level Campaigns book and more. None of the systems or information really gave me what I wanted, which was the same sort of combat conducted by the PC's, just on a much larger scale. Ultimately I came to the startling realization that I really didn't need one. Even if I did need one I would never find a system to meet the demands I had. Here's how I arrived at that.
Much of the difficulty I was having in finding an acceptable system (to me anyway) stemmed from the way D&D handled the game in general: the "high fantasy" approach. This revolves around the idea of a small group of characters slowly gaining the ability to conquer armies. In 2nd Edition AD&D numerical odds of 100:1 against the PC's were not at all unreasonable. Even in a one-on-one situation typical adventurers could easily take on creatures that would otherwise be many, many times their size and power. In a high fantasy environment being horribly outnumbered or outsized isn't often cause for more than casual concern. In fact it is a staple of the genre that the characters are heroes whose abilities are way beyond the pale, and their exploits are similarly larger than life (often quite literally so).
The addition of spells and magic into the mix only widens the disparity between gritty reality and the fantasy environment. In a battle where there are two otherwise equal armies, each numbering say a few thousand warriors, a single 9th level wizard would easily assure victory. The spells such a character would have access to are the same that PC's have access to - spells designed to kill enemies en masse and destroy single, incredibly powerful creatures at a stroke. If a large scale war is to take place in a typical D&D fantasy campaign there are possibly going to be many such spellcasters on both sides as well as fantastic creatures of all sorts with powers that are similarly disproportional to the bulk of the foot soldiers.
It rapidly becomes futile to even try to calculate a clear advantage much less predict a winner in warfare of this kind, and this is only looking at base statistics of the forces and not the incalculable aspects such as using strategic and tactical capabilities to their full advantage. Even the encounter design advantages provided by 3rd Edition that would enable much more balanced forces to be arranged don't help. The system can't calculate odds when applied on a mass-warfare scale - it is something for which it still is not designed just as past editions were not. For large scale applications of the D&D system, as army sizes and the possibilities and complexities increase a DM can only make heavy-handed adjustments of the forces to achieve some measure of control over who wins. Balancing combats for 4 PC's is a far cry from balancing combats for an army of 4000.
And let there be no mistake that winning or losing should be squarely in the DM's control. If the forces or the application of their skills cannot be readily adjusted by the DM to achieve a reasonably predictable outcome what point is there in playing out such massive battles, if only to find the results aren't acceptable for his campaign? But the DM doesn't want to simply dictate the specifics of the outcome either any more than he wants to dictate which PC's will live or die after a dungeon encounter. Part of the fun of the game is the randomness in the process where the outcome is alterable by the actions of the PC's as well as by the DM's design.
The problem then was how any mass-combat system for D&D could take into account the abilities of both powerful, single individuals and companies of 100 or 1000 much weaker men while being easy to use, quick, comprehensive, true to the quasi-medieval spirit of D&D and so forth. Prior to 3E the D&D system was so quirky it could make you sick. It was a 20 year spit-and-baling-wire hodge-podge that took in many elements of traditional fantasy and only through experience could a DM predictably adjust large encounters to provide a high challenge without sliding over into a PC slaughter. Though 3E is mechanically much simpler and more stable it is still a system which simplifies combat tremendously and is imbalanced in favor of heroic individuals. This variable applied on a larger scale reverses the gains of simplification and complicates combat resolution enormously.
After some deep thought I concluded that presence of heroic characters like PC's in D&D massed combat must radically change the nature of massed combat in ways which had seldom been previously considered. If they had been considered, they hadn't been presented anywhere I'd seen (like Battlesystem). I came up with several crucial points and have taken to calling them Duane's Laws of D&D Warfare, mostly because I thought it would be cool to have Laws named after me.
One: Spread out.
Use of tight, well-ordered formations cannot work except in isolated instances. I realized that this was why the Battlesystem rules were so unsatisfying for me. It relied solidly on regular formations of units which was a concept directly negated by even a passing familiarity with PC's in combat. In normal D&D play any group or unit that maintains a close-knit formation is just asking to get stomped with area-effect spells. This is such a patently obvious maxim that any system that proposes to ignore it is immediately invalidated for consideration. Magic is just too commonplace - even in those campaigns where it is supposed to be fairly sparse - and spells and character combat abilities in D&D have been designed specifically for enabling one individual to kill oversized or large numbers of opponents, particularly when they are foolishly too close together. It isn't a problem when this kind of magic is mostly in the hands of the player characters because it simply reinforces that high-fantasy feel. But on the mass-combat scale the individual PC/NPC capabilities make large scale military conflicts a problem to reason out.
In normal D&D there is an ever increasing amount of power in the hands of few individuals (PC's) and balancing this is everything else in the world! Even though the system is heavily weighted towards the characters it is still possible for a DM to reasonably predict the outcome of adventuring skirmishes against just a small group of PC's and make adjustments. Individual characters, no matter whose side they're on, simply cannot take as much as they give out when it comes to combat. Excessive power and excessive numbers of opponents will wear them down in a relatively predictable fashion. Certainly PC tactics are changed to reflect this when they are facing down NPC's as opposed to monsters because they understand how deadly they themselves are and thus how great a threat an NPC with similar capabilities is to them.
Therefore, in fantasy armies where there is any possibility of facing off against classed spellcasters, formations will be very open so as to minimize the number of troops that can be hit by spells with wide areas of effect. I suppose that units could still be regular and well-ordered while in more open formations, but there would be very little reason to attempt to maintain a highly regimented formation.
The only time a tight formation could be an advantage is when it is known that facing spells is not really a factor. In D&D it would be rare to see that kind of situation, though it would depend somewhat on how the DM has arranged the demographics for spellcasting NPC's. Rare enough that the tactics of the phalanx or formations of pikes and polearms might logically never be developed (and thus those weapons themselves not be developed). At the very least, military units would be trained whenever possible to change out of tight formations without losing the ability to operate as a cohesive unit and strategy would not rely on maintaining tightly ordered units.
Two: Magic rules the battlefield.
Like the small battles that player characters engage in on a daily basis, large scale warfare would also hinge a great deal upon the application of magic. Whether it's fireballs, cure light wounds spells, or magical swords; magic and warfare go together like bacon and eggs, druids and trees, P.C.'s and chaos. Anything like a professional military force in D&D should be continually working to coordinate spellcasting into its strategies and tactics.
Just consider the military uses of these spells when applied in large numbers: Strength cast en masse upon footmen about to charge; Webs cast upon enemy cavalry charging between usable anchor points; Invisibility cast upon large numbers of infiltrators; Fly cast upon units set to bombard with spears, darts, flaming oil, or simply dropping big rocks; Create Food and Water cast daily to feed an army on wilderness campaigns; Bless as a general power enhancement for any unit; or Spider Climb for scaling castle walls. And these are only first and second level spells!
It is perfectly reasonable to assume that the largest and most capable armies are equally, or possibly even more concerned with the number of clerics and mages they contain and the spells they can use as with the numbers and quality of their conventional troops. The army that can field a corps of 100 1st to 3rd level mages is a powerful army indeed even if the enemy without mages outnumbers them 10 to 1. The commander who comes up with good military uses for common spells is likely to be more valuable than an extra division of troops.
Three: Special Forces also rule.
As the above ideas regarding low level spells suggests, fantasy warfare is naturally going to be prone to being very multi-dimensional. The theory of combined arms ought to be very much alive in D&D warfare even if the participants don't really recognize it as a specific military philosophy since they wouldn't know how to conduct effective wars without it. D&D fantasy warfare should almost have more in common with modern warfare than medieval warfare because of the complexities which are possible with the application of magic. Aerial units, underground units, surface naval and underwater units, ethereal, invisible, hasted, enlarged, etc. There is incredible diversity in the types of military units and tactics that are possible with magic and fantasy creatures and it cripples suspension of disbelief to assume that military theory and practice would not have taken some advantage of this.
Unlike medieval era warfare, armies won't just find a big field, line up with bows, axes and swords and then charge each other. They did it that way simply because that's largely the only way they could fight a war and get anything done militarily. With magic available to them they should scout, maneuver, sabotage, spy, ambush, feint, probe, regroup, and generally do anything BUT line up in an open field and blindly charge each other. Combined arms makes an army much more difficult to defend against because there are many more strategies and tactics to have to defend against and failure to do so means defeat. An army without air units of its own is susceptible to air attacks; inability to detect invisible opponents means your positions are infiltrated and destroyed from within; etc., etc..
There is a drawback with this mindset and it's one that simply cannot be overstressed: If this philosophy is taken too far then the game loses its fantasy feel and becomes a simple mirror of real-life modern-day warfare except the names are changed. It also can mean that overseeing a large war as a DM becomes a very big job as you deal with the plethora of possibilities. Most people would agree (I hope) that a thinly disguised version of modern warfare isn't what D&D should be. Even if "logic" has to be overlooked to a degree we need to keep things based fairly firmly in a quasi-medieval framework simply because it's more fun that way.
Four: Intelligence is paramount.
Since the medieval practice of simply meeting in the nearest open field is a discredited option, armies will attack far more often by surprise and in a wider variety of circumstances. Because an undetected army can be so much deadlier in an D&D world, paranoia among military leaders is likely to be something of an admirable quality. Due to the heavy use of magic of all types (though in this case I am thinking mostly of consistent use of divination and communication related magic by spies) as well as all manner of scouts it should be nearly impossible to keep a mobilized army a secret for long unless the opponent is really sleeping on the job. When they are in the field and one army locates another it is imperative to attack as soon as possible in hopes of achieving some element of surprise rather than risk discovery and allow the enemy time to prepare his defenses, divine your own capabilities and vulnerabilities, or even to make preemptive strikes against you before you can launch your own attack.
In short, accurate intelligence information on the enemy is vital. In the real world this has been known even before Tsun Tzu put it in writing and the principal shouldn't be ignored as much as D&D warfare seems to (at least as far as methods of war that I've seen discussed or used seem to). Scouts in the form of thieves and rangers attempt to locate the enemy before he locates you, both by penetrating his screen of scouts and by preventing his scouts from penetrating your screen. Divination spells of all sorts can get further information and even provide guidance on courses of action. Many divinations are going to be impractical or impossible to defend against - and this is yet another reason for rapid attack once the enemy is pinpointed. Aerial mounts can provide overhead reconnaissance, as can polymorphed and invisible individuals, or those using Fly spells.
Five: Everybody dies.
All this magic will have a devastating impact in increased combat losses. Even on a good day, losses will be horrifyingly high among the rank and file, and even when considering the heavy use of healing magic staggering body counts are simply going to be unavoidable. This suggests something actually contrary to what is implied by Law #2: that perhaps you will need more conventional troops rather than spellcasters in order to absorb these losses. Commanders will also have to work very hard in trying to minimize these losses and keep morale high because an infantryman who knows he's being sent away to die isn't likely to put much effort into his work. It is also, again, all the more reason to attack immediately and not stop until victorious, because then the grunts will have less time to realize they are being ordered into a meat grinder.
Remember too, that when the battle's over you still have to have an adequate number of common soldiers to hold the ground you've just taken or you end up wasting a lot of military without gaining a thing. To put it all together - a D&D army would seem to have to be much larger than a more realistic medieval army in order to be a truly viable and adaptable force.
Who is Above the Law? (Or, why the above doesn't always apply)
These are not exactly universal laws. Even calling them laws is pushing it, but it does indicate the kind of thinking that is needed because every DM's campaign is a little bit different. So, we come closer to the kernel of the problem - no D&D mass combat system can possibly hope to accommodate any but a small number of campaigns, there are just too many variables in the styles of play and details of the military forces involved. Are the PC's truly exceptional, rare individuals or are NPC's with equal or superior ability to PC's relatively common?
For example, a campaign where magic is a real rarity would invalidate these laws easily, and in such a case a traditional medieval European or Napoleanic approach to war is far more reasonable. A campaign with a magic glut, however, where the DM has even the beggars carrying +2 daggers and High Priests are a dime a dozen, also invalidates much of my handiwork and in such a case it could be reasoned that mass warfare might even be rendered obsolete. 3rd Edition D&D has established a "standard" level of equipment value for a given level of character (PC or NPC) as well as demographic information to find how many individuals of a given class and level are potentially available. But still, campaigns will vary widely.
Amassing armies of thousands of conventional troops only to see them rapidly slaughtered is foolish when success can be achieved just as easily by a much smaller, heavily ensorcelled strike team of individuals. It even seems that a mass combat system is completely at odds with the very design philosophy of D&D and could never work the way it needs to.
Certainly nobody thinks first of D&D when they want to play out a battle between large armies. The D&D game and its combat system are designed around the idea of a small party of characters winning out over what would normally be impossible odds. The characters achieve this by developing individually into heroes of mythic capabilities; they can tolerate tremendous physical punishment, they cast spells of enormous power, they possess magical items of legendary ability and together the characters destroy ancient red dragons, orc hordes, liches, and small to mid-sized armies. When you then try to extrapolate this system to where both sides have such super-heroes as well as conventional troops the system ceases to be D&D because D&D seems meant to be geared predictably in favor of the PC's and revolves around their activities. Perhaps mass combat needs to have its place in the D&D game defined a little better?
Characters Drive the Combat
I hope I have well established for you the idea that the body count in a D&D war of mass combat is normally going to be excessively high due to the inclusion of magic. Let's assume for the sake of argument that we have a good mass combat system. We still have a problem in using it because it is up to the DM to determine the composition, numbers and tactics of an opposing army.
I find it to be a significant effort simply making out realistic spell selections for a few opposing NPC spellcasters - to have a little variety included and to challenge the PC's without spelling their certain doom or letting them get their hands on too much power from their enemies. To do this for an army's worth of spellcasters? Along with combat stats, a variety of armor and weapon combinations for a variety of troops, plus treasure and magic items you also need strategies and tactics. It is all an unnecessary grind considering the inevitable results: side A wins with tremendous losses and side B is destroyed with even greater losses. The only real question needing to be answered is what portion of side A manages to survive the war. If the armies involved are not the direct concern of the PC's, or if the army isn't under direct command of the players - then why should it matter how accurate and detailed the combat resolution is? The DM will decide the outcome anyway when the PC's are not involved.
What if the PC's are involved? When they are on one side or another of a decent sized war it sort of goes against the point of playing the game to devote too much time and attention to the armies around them as opposed to the PC's themselves. The characters are supposed to be the focus of the game. When they are reduced to mere cogs in a vast military machine that focus upon their deeds is lost.
This then is simply an aspect of the game that is better role-played or described than diced out in intimate detail. Still, suppose you really want to know exactly how many of each side are going to survive the battle and you'd rather not determine it arbitrarily; or maybe the P.C.'s are to be involved directly in the combat and it is desirable to know just how effective their contribution is. Is it still worth it to work out the whole battle in detail? Consider this:
Very generally speaking, how many units are in each army; what's the total head count? One thousand, ten thousand, fifty thousand? The battles are likely to take place over miles of terrain. The PC's are likely only going to see action in a small part of the battle, witnessing only a few of the units on their side versus a few enemy units. If you can conduct a combat between 5 PC's and 50 orcs it isn't that much more difficult to add a hundred grunts from a unit on the PC's side. You have only to manage a few units at a time rather than the kaleidoscope of each army as a whole for each round of combat. As long as the PC's stay together the DM should only need to provide details about a small section of the enemy force to play out.
Since we can easily determine the outcome of a small section the question reappears - how do we determine the outcome of the rest of the battle and how does the outcome of the PC's part of it affect the rest? Since role-playing is the name of this game we ought to concentrate on that. Making it into a pure game of number crunching is a bit contrary to the point of playing.
Unless the PC's are running the armies as leaders, virtually all of the work falls upon the DM's shoulders. He needs to do some heavy thinking long beforehand about the level of magic in his campaign and the frequency of its use in its wars. He needs to consider how wars in the campaigns history have been fought and how they might be fought differently in the future. This is up to the DM because only the DM can answer the specifics regarding these questions about his campaign. When the PC's become embroiled in warfare then the DM needs to get down to cases. He needs to start writing up details regarding the armies involved, the number of men, their skills, training, leaders, tactics and strategies. The more of this sort of thing he does beforehand and spreads the work out over time the better off he is because when a war finally comes to blows he already has an excellent general grasp of what would and could happen.
Meanwhile, how do the details of one army differ from their enemy's? How good is the intelligence information? Has one side or another conducted a successful campaign of deception regarding their capabilities? How good are the spy networks of either side? Is the other side as likely to have heroic characters like the PC's and how effective will they be? Who does the DM want to win and why?
The DM Always Wins
That last question is a good one to consider. Regardless of the level of involvement of the PC's in the conduct and outcome of wars the choice of whether they win or lose is up to the DM (or should be). He needs to engineer the outcome that he desires or that is the most interesting for his campaign and its players. He also needs to play out the battles in the method that is most interesting for the campaign and its players. To that end the battle should be played out in the manner that best fits the method of the PC's participation in it.
Are the PC's leaders of the army? Then they ought to get the feel of the battle in that way - reports of this unit advancing quickly, that unit needing reinforcements, sub-commanders informing them of unexpected enemy tactics and the like. Are the PC's in the front lines? Well then they ought to be engaged in normal D&D combat with the troops that are facing them and trying to guess their enemy's strategy and tactics at that level. Their knowledge of the progress of the battle should be limited to the reports they receive from message runners or by hearing your description of what they see of the fighting being conducted over on the next hill. Where the PC's are involved in direct combat, run direct combat. Where the PC's are in a position to observe and give orders, describe to them their observations and the results of their orders.
This is the role-playing approach to battle resolution as opposed to the wargaming approach. The wargaming approach would have you bogged down in monitoring the battle in detail, in every corner of the battlefield, for every round of combat. Unless you really want to know what happened at every step save yourself the tedium and role-play it as a simple commanders message stating success and requesting further instructions, or as a description of the dark tide of the enemy attackers inexorably washing over the defenders.
So, what do you do when the roleplaying approach just isn't going to cut it? The PC's are in direct command of 500 men in an army of 5000 and you need to run a combat. The following is essentially the way Battlesystem handled things but without all the formal rules and folderol to confuse the issues.
First step: make it easy on yourself - when it comes down to rolling dice let the PLAYERS do the dice rolling for the troops under their command. This will not only save YOU the trouble of rolling hundreds of dice but it'll keep them involved on a level other than that represented by their PC's alone. You aren't likely to have to worry about cheating as they'll be just as busy as you simply making combat rolls.
Second: keep the units commanded by players of a singular composition. That is, don't have the men commanded by a given PC comprised of 25% swordsmen, 10% axemen, 10% longbowmen, 5% crossbowmen, 15% cavalry, etc. To operate as any kind of cohesive military unit they need to BE a singular type of unit. That means they should all have the same armor, weapons, and similar stats. Assign the troops an average stat block. The enemy these troops face should be similarly composed, meaning they should be a unit whose individual members conform to a single stat block. If you feel you simply must have variety in here somewhere then average things out. Your objective at this step is simplification. You don't want to have to be keeping track of gobs of different stats, modifiers, etc.
Third: since you don't want to be rolling dice for hundreds of enemy troops against hundreds of player-controlled troops you need to roll dice for groups rather than individuals when dicing for the unit vs. unit combat. It depends a little on the actual numbers of troops being dealt with, but certainly groups of 5 at the very least and more likely groups of 10 will make it manageable. Each group of 10 rolls to hit, deals damage, and takes damage exactly as if it were a single man. If the group has 8 hit points and takes 10 points damage then a group of 10 dies. What you are doing here is averaging. If 100 men all hit the enemy on a roll of 16 then 25% of the men per round will hit the enemy - on average. Rather than roll for 100 individuals you roll for them 10 at a time using a single roll. Statistically, things will generally work out just as they would if you were rolling for each of them individually. Any difference is NOT going to be significant for your purposes.
Now then, since the PC's will be attacking as individuals rather than a group leave out the rolls for, say, one group of 10 on each side (PC and enemy) and make individual combat rolls for these with an appropriate number of individual enemy combating the PC's as would normally occur in non-massed combat. Groups attack groups, individuals attack individuals. The attrition will be quite rapid (as noted above under the heading Everybody Dies) and very quickly you won't have to roll for the groups any more because they'll be dead or one side will be in retreat. Then simply conduct all combat between individuals as you would any normal combat except that the players would continue to roll for the troops under their command.
You can easily adapt this simple system to accommodate a special individual or two on the enemy side as long as you let individuals fight individuals and groups fight groups. Even a few area-effect spells can be dealt with without too much trouble on what is still a relatively small scale like this, but do yourself a favor and keep things as mundane as possible (basically, you'll have little choice but to do so anyway). This will allow you to run at least a small-scale massed combat. Without too much effort these simple principles can be scaled up to run even larger scale battles.
Do yourself one more favor though. Before leaping in with both feet on such a project spend some time playing out some test combats with units and PC/NPC leaders as described above. Take note of the kind of casualties the characters inflict in comparison to troops they command. Depending on level, magic items, and whatnot they are likely to be nearly as deadly as a platoon or two and will certainly survive much easier. Use this to get a feel for how to balance forces and how you want your battles to ebb and flow. Introduce some stuff like aerial troops or giants and see how it changes things. Add a few modifiers to the rolls for stuff like leadership ability. Guess what? You're building for yourself the mass combat system YOU need. Combine this with the recommended roleplaying approach and you'll certainly get everything you want out of massed combat.
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