Mass Combat

In my RPG games, campaign arcs sometimes end in mass combat. The players forge alliances and that’s how they take down a local evil. I like it!

2019-06-25 Episode 25

Podcast Mass combat.


Mass Combat


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2019-03-29 Mass Combat Alternatives

There are always alternatives, of course. I’ve always wondered about using DBA (De Bellis Antiquitatis) or HOTT (Hordes of the Things). I picked them up but ended up never playing them. I heard Michael “Chicago Wiz” talk about it in his podcast (Part 1, Part 2).

Recently, @awinter had some very different recommendations for me: He recommended Morschauser and Gerard De Gre! You’ll find them in Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World, of course.

Morschauser’s Ancients War Game and Humanizing the Roster System contain material from 1966 and 1967, talking about a “roster system” used to play a wargame and how one might use it to actually run individual soldiers. A very early predecessor to D&D!

Duelling in the Sandpit – Lunge, Cut and Stop Thrust talks about Gerard De Gre’s simple system suitable for use “in the bedroom.” (I don’t know about that...)

I’m not sure what to make of it. I still think I want those recognisable D&D elements in my mass combat rules which is what I liked about Greywulf’s Mass Combat Made Easy rules, which I had started using pretty quickly. I just discussed my current iteration yesterday. See 2019-03-28 Mass Combat. I talked about the other systems I’ve used on this blog back in 2016. See 2016-09-01 Mass Combat.

Yes, I think mass combat is important! 😀


Comments on 2019-03-29 Mass Combat Alternatives

Worth mentioning also is By this Axe by Chris Koutalik.

Anders H 2019-03-30 13:46 UTC

Is this not the one I mentioned in the 2016 post? The name is different, though. Back then I wrote: “By this Poleaxe by the Hydra Cooperative for “small-scale battles or skirmishes involving 15-120 combatants on each side”... I’d be interested to hear comparisons!” Have you used it? Do you have a report or some examples on a blog sonewhere that I could check out? I am I nterested, but I want to know more before buying and reading it all.

– Alex Schroeder 2019-03-30 20:31 UTC

Jeremy Friesen of Take on Rules writes about Daniel Collin's “Book of War”.

– Alex Schroeder 2019-03-31 09:28 UTC

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2019-03-28 Mass Combat

Did some revisions to my mass combat section in Halberds and Helmets. This is what I have: One Page Mass Combat.


  1. uses D&D stats
  2. units can be any size (none of that 1:10 stuff)


  1. big numbers when it comes to hit points (hopefully the table alleviates the “… takes 42 damage, so they’re down to 92, which means 92/4.5/2=10-and-something so 11 gnolls remaining”
  2. high variability: one roll to hit, one hit for damage. I guess we could always deal average damage, or just keep everything in hit dice instead of hit points? And use a big table that says how many percent of that you deal on an attack based on the attacker’s HD and the defender’s AC. I suspect that would result in a more boring game, though?

Definitely needs more play testing. 😀


Comments on 2019-03-28 Mass Combat

Let’s try this: 20 knights (HD 1 AC 2 1d6 ML 8 with 90 hp) against 200 peasants (HD 1 AC 9 1d6 ML 6 with 900 hp).

  1. knights win initiative and attack but miss; peasant’s miss as well
  2. peasants win initiative and attack but miss; knights hit: and deal 1×5 damage → peasants are down to 895 hp but make their morale check

At this point the knights must realise that this is harder than imagined. The next morale check is due when the knights have dealt another 395 points of damage. Since they hit on a 10 they have a 55% chance of dealing 3.5×5=17½ points of damage every round, so if the knights are never hit, this takes 395/0.55/17.5=41 rounds.

At the same time, the peasants hit on a 17 so they have 20% chance of dealing 3.5×9=31½ points of damage. The first hit is going to wipe out a third of the knights. This is bad news for the knights. They had one chance and blew it.

What happens if the knights split up? Let’s say they attach in four groups of 5 knights each.

  1. knights win initiative and three groups hit; they deal a total of 8×3=24 damage → peasants are down to 876 hp and make their morale check, which they fail
  2. the peasants are now broken so they try to rally themselves with another morale check which they fail
  3. knights win initiative again and two groups hit; they deal a total of 9×3=27 damage but more importantly, they are now routed

What would have happened if the peasants had won initiative (50% chance) and landed at solid hit (20% chance, so a cumulative chance of just 10%), but they would have gotten an attack against each of the smaller knight units. As five knights only have 22 hp, that’s a 10% chance for each of the smaller knight units to be annihilated in one go.

It’s hard for me to say what a good strategy would have been. I have the feeling that in this situation the variance is too high and that the knights are better off waiting for a situation where the peasants try to split up.

Thus, the forces meet but no engagement is fought. The knights start trailing the peasant army.

I think I like this result.

– Alex

Let’s try an example from an actual campaign, including player characters. I’m going to use Orcs vs Everybody Else, a scenario where we had a three way fight:

  • 40 bandits, 13 mounted elves
  • 19 dwarves, 1 eye terror
  • 20 orcs, the party

Let’s figure out how we’re going to run this. In the game the dwarves were trying to see whether they could get a good deal, or pull a quick one, or subjugate the survivors, so they’re going to delay.

Bandits are easy, we use our stats for humans. These bandits are poor. They have no armour, but they carry a throwing spear, a fighting spear, and a shield.

  • 40 bandits (HD 1 AC 6 1d6 ML 7 → hp 180)

Elves are tricky because they use 1d6 instead of 1d8, and they each have a spell. Let’s say that a third has sleep, a third has magic missile, and the rest has charm person. As for arms and armour, they are lightly equipped with chain, bow & arrow, and a long sword. In melee, their horses also attack!

  • 13 elves (HD 1 AC 5 1d6 ML 10 → hp 46)
  • 13 horses (HD 2 AC 7 1d4/1d4 ML 7 → hp 59)

Dwarves are easy but the eye of terror is hard. I’m going to use the stats from the Advanced Edition Companion for Labyrinth Lord.

  • 19 dwarves (HD 1 AC 4 1d6 ML 8 → hp 86)
  • eye of terror (HD 10 AC 0 1d6/1d6/2d4 ML 9 → hp 45; tons of powers from the eyes: petrification, slow, hold monster, sleep, hold person, power word stun, telekinesis, feeblemind)

Orcs are also easy.

  • 20 orcs (HD 1 AC 6 1d6 ML 8 → hp 90)

The party is hard. I’m just picking some of the player characters and retainers from the Status page...

  • a dwarf 6
  • a magic user 6
  • a dwarf 5
  • a thief 5
  • an elf 5
  • two fighters 4
  • a magic user 4
  • a halfling 4
  • a thief 3

Perhaps I’m going to simplify this as follows:

  • three magic users 5 with a fireball or lightning bolt each, and some sort of hold person, and some sort of magic missile
  • five fighters 5 with good armour, and an average strength or magic bonus of +3

As they are “hiding” inside the orc unit, I’m not going to worry about the details, for now. What’s important is that we have at least one player character charismatic enough to push the orcs’ morale up to 9, just in case.

OK, I think now we’re ready.

Roll for initiative! Orcs & party win, then dwarves, then bandits & elves. The orcs & party decide to go against the elves, first.

  • orcs attack elves but miss
  • the first magic user casts fireball for 20 damage, elves make their save, take 10 damage, and make their morale check; I think it’s only fair that horses are targets as well since they occupy the same space, but horses fail their save and thus take 20 damage, and make their morale check

New numbers:

  • 11 elves (HD 1 AC 5 1d6 ML 10 → hp 36)
  • 5 horses (HD 2 AC 7 1d4/1d4 ML 7 → hp 39)

On with the attacks:

  • five fighters attack with a +3 bonus, three hit for 19 damage, thus reducing the elves to half their number, but they still make their morale check

I guess they massacred the elves that fell off their horses...

  • 5 elves (HD 1 AC 5 1d6 ML 10 → hp 17)
  • 5 horses (HD 2 AC 7 1d4/1d4 ML 7 → hp 39)

We still have two magic users to go, so they try to demoralise the bandits, too.

  • the second magic users cast fireball for 22 damage, bandits fail their save, take 10 damage, and fail their morale check → broken
  • the third magic user only needs to deal a tiny bit of damage so uses a magic missile to deal 5 damage → routed

We don’t care about the bandits any more, they run for their lives before engaging in melee so nobody gets a parting shot. Their total losses is 27/4.5=6 bandits.

The orcs have suffered no losses. The part has suffered no losses. The elves lost more than half their number, and they’re still willing to fight, but since the dwarves see how things have gone, they stay put and the elves promise to leave and not to return, and the players let them go.

Initiative and morale is very important, obviously!

I guess the elves are still dangerous. A sleep spell takes out 9 orcs on average. A magic missile and two charm person spells take out another 2. But that still leaves a magic user with a fireball spell which is going to annihilate them... So better to stop now.

– Alex

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2016-12-22 Mass Combat, Again

A few weeks ago, I wrote about mass combat rules. Yesterday, I had a fight of the party plus 45 light infantry and 8 war dogs against Lord Baba and his 40 thieves. I wanted to use mass combat rules because last session the party was fighting werewolves and real wolves with the aid of a dozen zombies and it had turned into a lot of dice rolling. At the same time, I didn’t want to use something like An Echo Resounding because I didn’t have units of about 100 each. Thus, I fell back on the old M20 Mass Combat rules I had available. But I wanted to make it simpler. The M20 rules still have a problem: Every damage roll is multiplied by the combat scale of the attacker, divided by the combat scale of the defender, and rounded down. So, I tried a slightly different approach.

Group combatants into units as you like. We had three players and me at the table, so each one played their characters, and a single unit. One had all the war dogs, one had 25 infantry, the other had 20 infantry, and I had 40 thieves, and they all had their player characters and I had my non-player character.

Compute total hit-points for all units. Just multiply the average hit-points with the number of individuals. 40 thieves means 40×3.5=140, 20 infantry means 20×4.5=90, 8 war dogs means 8×11=88.

Combat starts as usual. Roll for initiative, move, attack, and so on. AC, movement rate, morale and saves don’t change.

Damage dealt is multiplied by the combat scale. This models how in larger skirmishes not everybody gets to attack. There are corridors, corners, trees, cover, the press of bodies, whatever. Knowing this table, it makes sense to divide units in particular ways. Thus, we changed the split of infantry units from 20/25 to 21/24 so that both units got a ×6 combat scale for their first attack.

Number Scale
2-5 ×3
6-10 ×4
11-20 ×5
21-40 ×6
41-80 ×7
81-160 ×8
161-320 ×9
321-640 ×10

When you’re hit, adjust your combat scale. Divide the remaining hit-points by the average hit-points per individual and round up to see how many are still alive. For example, if the thieves have 53 hit-points left, then we still have 53/3.5≈16 thieves (rounding up). The original combat scale of 40 thieves was ×6, but 16 thieves have a combat scale of ×5.

Player characters can “hide” within a unit, granting them their charisma bonus for morale checks. When the unit takes damage, the player and non-player characters are the last ones to actually take damage. All these characters attack as usual, with separate attack rolls and separate spell casting actions.

Spells works as they usually do. We had some sleep spells cast, for example. No problem.

Every unit must make a morale check when it looses its first member, and another when it loses half its members. This is important! Such a unit is considered broken. They will hunker down and disengage. This happened to one of the units following the thieves into their hideout.

A player or non-player character within a broken unit may attempt to rally the unit. Only one character per round may try this. If this succeeds, the unit will have skipped a round, no problem. The unit commander in our game managed to pull this off.

If a broken unit suffers any damage, it will rout. A routed unit must flee the battle field and any other unit in melee range will get a free extra attack with a +2 bonus.

Those were all the rules we needed.

It solved my main requirements:

  • less math, no tables
  • no units of roughly equal size
  • player characters can still act

It still required a calculator to determine the numbers lost after every hit.


Comments on 2016-12-22 Mass Combat, Again

I guess the original system was “better” in that you had to deal at least as much damage as the enemy’s combat scale in order to deal any damage at all, which makes splitting up your side into units of 1 very inefficient. But how inefficient? Is there an optimum? Do we care?

I think the aspect of splitting up each side into an acceptable number of units is the one were much is decided and these rules I wrote up will not help you. If you need an “reason” for people not to split their side up into units of one each other than you’ll laugh in their face and refuse to play along, then perhaps “having to deal at least as much damage as the opponent’s combat scale” is actually what you need to do. It also means that individually, player characters will eventually stop making a difference because they’re essentially “units of one individual each”. That’s a drawback I’m not willing to incur. I’d rather have a discussion about reasonable unit size at the table before mass combat starts and that’s that. So there you have it.

– Alex Schroeder 2016-12-22 17:17 UTC

I like my own rules so much, I added them to my Referee Guide. :)

You can download Referee Guide from Github.

– Alex Schroeder 2016-12-25 22:28 UTC

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2016-09-01 Mass Combat

Recently, Ken Baumann asked about huge battles on Google+. Was it fun, how did it work?

How big is a huge battle? I regularly have fights with dozens of participants on each side. The party alone is usually a dozen characters and a dozen dogs, raptors, war bears and more.

How often? I use big battles every now and then, maybe once a year in each campaign. That is, there will be one or two sessions for “the big battle”. Often there will be many sessions before the actual battle where people try to find allies, make peace, sabotage the enemy and all that. It’s a whole campaign arc.

As for the Rules: For up to maybe 100 individuals per side, I just use lots of d20s, with groups of 10 or 20 doing this or that and resolving the rounds as we go.

Example: Yesterday was the first session of a siege and I just wrote up a session report.

Mass Combat: For more than that, I split them into units of “about 100 each” and resolve combat as if each unit was a single monster. I’ve tried various methods, and I’ve tried each of them exactly once. :)

My first mass combat session used Mass Combat Made Easy by Robin Stacey which he wrote for M20. I used them when we still played D&D 3.5 and they work well. As combat scale is proportional to the number of individuals in a unit, those need to be recalculated after every hit, which needs a calculator person at the table.

Next I tried the mass combat rules in the B/X Companion by Running Beagle Games and they were OK. Basically you add up all the hit points and deal automatic damage based on your to-hit roll. This means that each unit has hundreds of hit points and you still need a calculator person at the table.

Next I tried the mass combat rules An Echo Resounding by Sine Nomine Publishing and they worked well. The only issue I had was that I didn’t like the domain level management required to pay for upkeep and related stuff. It worked very well as at the table, but if and only if all the units are “about 100 each” or if you can translate a monster into an equivalent “unit” – it’s easy if you’re fighting orcs and goblins but what about ogres and dragons if you don’t have units of 100 each? You need to translate them into “warbeasts” and similar units, which is where you need to improvise.

Other Options: Other options which I haven’t tried but I’d be interested in hearing how it went at the table:

Domains at War by Autarch, but since their Adventure Conqueror King System seemed to offer more detail than An Echo Resounding, I didn’t look at it.

By this Poleaxe by the Hydra Cooperative for “small-scale battles or skirmishes involving 15-120 combatants on each side”... I’d be interested to hear comparisons!

Book of War by Daniel R. ’Delta’ Collins is based on OD&D numbers, so I didn’t look at it.

Rules Cyclopedia has The War Machine section with rules that tell you how to compute a battle rating for each side and resolving it using a single d100 roll per side. It’s short, but it seems more appropriate for multiple engagements in a longer warfare campaign. I don’t think a single engagement would be a satisfying conclusion for a campaign arc.


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2015-05-03 Domain Game Goals

I recently wrote about my current setup for a campaign wilderness map and the associated hexcrawling that goes along with it. The greater context is the promise of ever changing gameplay. This is true for characters with saving throws replacing armor class as your most important defense, this is true for spells that change how the game is run, and I want it to be true for the campaign itself where dungeon looting yields to wilderness exploration, and eventually to kingdom building.

Kingdom building is what the domain game is all about. Wilderness exploration is about travelling from here to there and the creatures you encounter. It’s about learning who your allies and enemies are, new towns with new leaders and their own economic goals, monster lairs, humanoid tribes, instigating war, brokering peace. Eventually, the players are going to lay claim on a lair or a town. Now what?

Let us consider existing options for the domain game. The simplest rules I know are the ones in the Expert set by Cook and Marsh. Fighters get a land grant, build a castle, clear the surrounding area of monsters, organize patrols, attract settlers, raise taxes. Any mercenaries hired cost money. Clerics do the same thing, but their castle is only half as expensive and they get fanatically loyal troops for free (5d6×10). A magic-user gets to build a tower and attracts apprentices (1d6). A thief gets to build a hideout and attracts more thieves (2d6). Demihumans are like fighters. They build a stronghold and attract settlers of their own kind. Elves are automatically friends with the local animals. As for the attraction of settlers, all it says is that spending money on improvements (”inns, mills, boatyards, etc.”) or advising will do it. The details are up to the referee.

If you want a bit more detail you can use An Echo Resounding. It’s what I have been using for a while. A while back, I wrote a summary of the rules. Apparently you can add a lot more details by using Adventure Conqueror King System. There is an interesting comparison of An Echo Resounding and Adventure Conqueror King a forum I read a few years ago.

Unfortunately it’s turning out to be too much work for me. When I look at the monthly campaign summaries—something I write every four sessions—I notice that there is some free form stuff in the Sages and Spies inspired by recent events, my players’ interests and adventure hooks, and there is some stuff generated by the rules of An Echo Resounding. For every lair I need to find out whether it spawns units. If it does, these units need to attack a nearby location. I need to resolve these fights and if the units win, they plunder the location they attacked. For every non-player domain I need to figure out what sort of move they make during their domain turn. This involves looking at the numbers and rolling a d20, but often it has been so long that I feel I need to double check those numbers or I find little mistakes. In the end, a lot of time gets spend for very little gain. Or, to look at it from another perspective, I spend some time looking at numbers and rolling dice to produce text that is boring compared to the free form stuff I write up for the Sages and Spies section.

The stuff players like about the system don’t involve that much maintenance. They like knowing about their units and they like going to war every now and then. They like to build things in their domain. In my game, gold spent yields experience points. Since I have a list suggested prices for buildings, this encourages them to build temples, hospitals, towers, bath houses, and so on.

Building Price
a small statue for a well or a garden 50gp
a small, public altar made of stone with spirit gate und a small well (5ft.×5ft.) 250gp
a small shop made of wood with a place to sleep in the back room (15ft.×15ft.) 300gp
a simple wooden building with one floor such as a tavern, a gallery or a gambling den (50ft.×50ft.) 700gp
a wooden building with two floors in a village (50ft.×50ft.) 1500gp
a stone building with two floors in a village (50ft.×50ft.) 3000gp
a manor house with two floors, marble columns and statues in a city (50ft.×50ft.) 10,000gp
a provincial castle with six floors (60ft.×60ft.) and an inner courtyard (30ft.×60ft.) surrounded by a wall 75,000gp

This leads to a strange effect: Build a large wooden Freya temple for 1500 gold and you’ve got a temple and 1500 experience points (gold spent = xp gained). Spend a few domain turns building a temple, however, and you will have a temple, it will give you Wealth -1 and Social +4, and a powerful 9th level cleric will come and settle here (using An Echo Resounding).

Having two very different ways of building a temple complicates things. It seems to me that paying for the temple using their own gold is a more visceral experience for players. They built it. This is what it cost. It’s easy to embellish it. It’s easy to list it on the campaign wiki. It doesn’t require anything on my part except determining a suitable price when they ask for a quote.

I also think they don’t mind getting a 9th level cleric, but there are still questions: why haven’t we met them before? Why aren’t they coming on adventures? In fact, why isn’t this a player character?

My game allows players to run multiple characters. In a particular session, players can bring up to three characters. The character with the highest level is the main character, the others act as secondary characters. Experience point gained for killing monsters is split on a per head basis. Treasure—and therefore experience points for gold—is split by shares. Every main character gets a full share, every secondary character gets half a share.

Sometimes, players will grow tired of characters. Sometimes, characters will break bones or loose limbs. These characters are perfect fits for these roles. Majordomos of castles, priests in temples, heads of guilds, captains of ships, regents of towns.

This is how I hope to achieve a greater identification with the setting. Over time, more and more important folks will be former player characters. It’s also ideal for a new campaign. At first, no high level priests exist. As soon as the first player character cleric reaches 9th level, however, raise dead is an option for all the player characters in the region—even if they’re playing in a different group! And raise dead will remain an option even if the player running the character abandons them or if the player leaves my table. The character has been established, backstory included.

My players also love their units. This is not a problem. We can keep the champion levels introduced by An Echo Resounding. The chapter introducing champion levels is Open Game Content. I’d go further than that, though. We could get rid of all the resource points and simply say that all other need to be equipped and hired.

The party could build an armory, buy equipment for four hundred heavy infantry (swords, chain and shield is 60 gold per person based on prices in Moldvay’s Basic D&D or 24000 gold total + 3000 gold for the armory itself based on my list of buildings above). Then, if the town is big enough to supply enough able bodied fighters, four units of heavy infantry militia will automatically be available whenever the town is attacked.

Hiring mercenaries will require less money. Human heavy foot guards in peace time will cost three gold per month (1200 gold per month for four units), twice as much in war time (2400 gold per month for four units).

I don’t think I need to use the War Machine rules introduced in the Rules Cyclopedia. I can keep using the unit combat rules in An Echo Resounding, the B/X Companion by Jonathan Becker, or the M20 Mass Combat Rules by Greywulf. I’m not sure what my favorite mass combat rules are, for the moment. I’m tending towards keeping the rules from An Echo Resounding because rolling for attack and damage is easy to remember. There is no scale factor and there is no Unit Attack Matrix. That makes it easier to understand.

What about the abilities your champion gets that aren’t tied to units? Sticky Fingers gives you +4 Wealth value. I don’t want to think about domain income, upkeep, taxes or tolls. When Chris Kutalik started rethinking domain-level play in his campaign, he suggested the use of domain skills and a skill check to go along with it. I don’t want to introduce skill checks and I don’t want minor and major skills in my game, however. Sticky Fingers does sound like a skill, though.

So, that’s where I’m at right now. What about abilities, or aspects?

Based on a recommendation on Google+ I took a look at Houses of the Blooded. There, you have domains consisting of provinces and each province consisting of ten regions. Each region produces something, and based on that you can have armies, goods, trade, and so on. I think it interesting, but I don’t think I’d want my D&D to be about it. Too much detail, it’s not really part of player characters, we wouldn’t want to spend time on it at the table, and so on.

I was also looking at the King Arthur’s Pendragon and The Great Pendragon Campaign. My campaign fell apart because of many reasons, but the lousy winter season where you’re supposed to look after your family, your manor house, your lands, build fortifications and all that—this part of the game just was not exciting enough at the table. And that is a problem. As Chris says in one of his blog posts, there’s always the danger of these systems turning “boardgamey” or “beancounterly.” Or that all the decisions have no consequence after all.

I’m still chewing on this.


Comments on 2015-05-03 Domain Game Goals

On Google+, Andy wondered about moving some of the ’beancountery’ aspects of domain play from the table to the downtime between session, to email, to G+ or to the referee playing ’solitaire’. This is a good question. How much indeed? What I can say is that there is very little interaction between me and my players between sessions. Everything needs to happen at the table. Between sessions, people focus on work, family life, other hobbies, etc. In our Pendragon campaign, that meant running the winter phase at the table. This lead to some frustration. The winter phase was not seen as part of the game. It was something that happened before or after the game. It took away from the game itself. In our An Echoes Resounding campaign, that meant me rolling all the dice and writing up all the results between sessions and players making two domain turns every four sessions, and most of them wanting to do the right thing but having no idea of the options open to them and a winter phase effect if we talked about it for too long. In the end I feel it means a lot of work for me for very little gain at the table and for the players. I can only speak for myself, of course. As far as I am concerned, I don’t enjoy playing a solitaire domain game. That’s why I need a different solution.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-05-04 07:47 UTC

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2014-02-19 Huge Parties

Yesterday I ran a game for eight players (I usually cap at six). We had already established that this was going to be a raid on a pirate fortress. I knew that it was going to have 80 elves ready to fight, 80 elves sleeping (all 1st level), a 9th and a 7th level elf, and a red dragon. The party allied itself with some commando elves and so the attacking force consisted of eight player characters and their eight henchmen with levels between 1 and 7 as well as the commando elves, six 6th level elves and eighteen ordinary 1st level elves; forty characters in all. I handed out little index cards with the stats of the elven commando leaders and their henchmen. Three hours later it was all over, most of the pirates slain, the dragon dead, the enemy leader killed, her second in command take prisoner, the dragon hoard secured and the fortress being towed to the players’ domain. (This is a big mashup campaign using Spelljammer ships and fortresses, and An Echo Resounding for domain level play.)

It was a very unusual adventure, but I like the change in pace!

The fortress was structured as a series of encounters with a mini map I kept behind the screen, usually with ten elves, sometimes with a leader of level 1d6+1; sometimes with more elves about to arrive. Good use was made of hold portal to prevent elves from joining up and good use was made of silence and sleep to surprise enemies and incapacitate a dozen foes in the surprise round, haste was used to quickly position archers and casters, sneaky thieves were used to scout ahead and best prepare for assaults, and to avoid tricky hallways with enemy archers hiding, several lightning bolts were used to kill the dragon before it could join the elven sorceress, they survived her cloudkill with minimal losses and managed to dispel it the next round…

It was a bloodbath.

For ease of reference and consistent spell selection of both the allied commando elves and the defending elf pirates, I used a technique I described previously: my spell book notation lists the spell-book of the top elf or magic-user with spell level and spell name, and a third column with the character level at which this spell is usually picked. This helps me run a lot of spell casters. This list would begin as follows, for example:

Spell Level Character Level Spell Name Notes
1 1 sleep 2d8 HD
1 2 shield AC 4, AC 2 vs. missiles
1 7 detect magic
2 3 invisibility
2 4 detect invisibility 5 rd.level
2 8 knock
3 5 haste 30 min.
3 6 dispel magic
3 9 fireball 9d6
4 7 polymorph AC 0 1d6+1/1d6+1/3d10 MV 240
4 8 dimension door 360 ft. or 120 m
4 10 ?
5 9 cloud kill ⌀ 30 ft., MV 6
5 10 ?

The most important skill of all is a sort of military “go! go! go!” efficiency at the table, however. No questions about who rolls initiative. Roll all the dice – have d20s and damage dice of matching colors and have all the colors assigned to your dudes and roll them all at once. All enemy elves, regardless of level, had AC 4. When your turn comes up, just tell me “I hit three times, damage is 4, 5, 2.” That’s the plan, anyway. :) Also, pick a leader who tells me where the party goes. Which stairs do you pick? Quietly or quickly? When the fight is on, just keep pushing. When the fight is over, let players talk, laugh, investigate, debate.

That’s it.

The picture shows the kind of notes I had prepared ahead of time. As you can see these are crude sketches of the area and enemy positions. Most enemies were all elves with a single magic missile memorized. If the party won initiative, it was usually over in a few seconds.

As you can see on the little fold-out flow-chart on the left, the encounters weren’t all arranged linearly. My main idea was this:

  1. Failure to scout ahead would result in players fighting elves on catapult platforms, essentially wasting resources. As it turns out, players did scout ahead but decided to fight all the elves anyway, thinking that they wanted to elimminate any surprises behind their backs.
  2. Following the main entrances would put the focus on fighting, following the steamy passages left and down would allow more sneaking and would allow players to fight the dragon before it joined up with the leaders. Players chose to go for the sneakier variant.
  3. I had the vague idea of figuring out whether players were wasting time or being too loud and springing extra ambushes on them if they did. In the press of the moment and considering how lame rolling for “move quietly” would be in this context, I just used the flow-chart as is.
  4. When I gave the players the commando elves to run, I told them that the elves would evaluate their leadership and if they felt that the party had been betraying them (using them as cannon fodder), then surely they would turn on them – just as the party would have turned on them. The players accepted this.

It worked for me!

In the final analysis, it was a lot easier than I expected. Was it because the commando elves were too strong? Was it because the party had four extra players I had not expected? (Two of them are new players from my Sunday campaign and another two players are not regular players so I wasn’t counting on them.) Oh well, I think it’s only fair to not adjust difficulty levels on the fly.


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2010-08-31 Mass Combat

I got the B/X Companion and read through the first half including the Mass Combat chapter. I like it. Much like the M20 Mass Combat rules, units are based on the stats of a single creature. There are some differences, however. I was interested in these differences because we had used the M20 rules for a chapter-ending battle in my beloved Alder King campaign.

  1. Unlike the M20 Combat Scale resulting in ever decreasing efficiency of the unit as it grows, the Companion has no such thing. In an abstract way, every unit member gets to contribute.
  2. Unlike the M20 attack roll, the Companion rules offer a nice table of HD vs AC telling you the percent multiplier for damage done. You roll once for damage, so chance still plays a big role, but it is no longer as random as before. My players will appreciate this.
  3. The Companion rules have lots of info on how to use morale, fleeing, rallying, battle standards, defending you homeland, your home town, numerical superiority, and the like. As we had used D&D 3.5 there were no morale values available and I hadn’t thought of using it. My mistake! Next time, the commander’s charisma will be much more important.
  4. I liked how my rules allowed the dwarven barbarian to charge into the lizard men and do full power-attacks dealing thirty points of damage and more, killing a lot of lizard men. The Companion rules take a different approach. Heroes deal tripple damage when attacking units, large monsters deal 10 points per HD, creatures with immunities multiply damage by five, etc. This has the drawback of abstracting the player character’s attacks away – spells in particular – but it solves the problem of the differing time scale. The rules I had used before were a bit hazy on spell effects at this time scale. The Companion rules abstracts the time scale away and doesn’t talk about spells with area effects. I’m guessing that the spells will always hit, units making no saving throws, and you can cast three spells per clash.

It makes me want to switch from D&D 3.5 to Labyrinth Lord and use these Mass Combat rules!

The only typo or error I saw in a simple reading was one of the examples saying 35% at some point but the formula listing × 0.38 instead. I’m very happy with the text quality. Well done!


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2009-12-27 Mass Combat

My Alder King game will soon end with a huge battle. I’m planning to continue the campaign, but some of the primary player characters will probably be settling down as well and secondary characters will take over. Entourage Approach for the win! 🙂

The rules I proposed are based on the Mass Combat Made Easy rules by Robin Stacey aka Greywulf. I’ve added some tactical modifiers and some notes on spell effects, and I’ve added a rule on player characters and other heroes joining units.

I’m trying to make the gathering of the host into its own little minigame: There’s a list of preparations the player characters can make. They can do six preparations for free. Every additional preparation has a 1 in 6 chance of triggering the battle. The battle is triggered after 15 preparations one way or another. The preparations include spying on the enemy, visiting old allies, convincing neutrals to join the fight, and so on.

I wonder if it’ll work. What do you think?


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