Throughout Dungeons & Dragons’ history, there have been attempts to use the mechanics to approximate mass combat, with armies fighting armies. Some of this desire derives from the origins of the game as an offshoot of Chainmail, a miniatures wargame. Some of this derives from the milieu of the game as a fantasy roleplaying game, of which massive battles are a staple.
Fourth Edition, in some ways, crystallizes the issues with mass combat in D&D: why is an army being included the encounter? Fourth Edition places the party in the center of the action. If the DM wants the players to watch armies fight one another, the DM can simply narrate the outcome. If the players are to direct the battle as generals, the DM would be better served pausing the D&D game in favor of one of the many strategy games specifically designed for that purpose. However, there are some areas in which it can be useful to have mechanics for replicating the clash of armies in D&D:
Charge! PCs may lead an army into battle against a villainous set of NPCs with their own army. In such a scenario, the army takes a supporting role while the PCs and individual NPCs dominate the battle. One might look to the movie Troy for how such a battle could be conducted. In Troy, the nameless armies clash and fight, but the battle is clearly decided in each instance not by the soldiers, but by the heroes: Achilles, Ajax, and Menelaus on the Greek side, and Hector on the Trojan side. These are mythic heroes, who can decimate whole phalanxes, wading through the troops in order to reach the other side’s noble heroes to do battle in what is essentially one-on-one combat. Here, the armies serve as a combination of hazardous terrain and minion. While not deadly, they can whittle down a hero’s defenses, and constrain his movement.
Kill them all! Players may face an army all alone. In this scenario, the PCs may be all that stands between the villainous army and innocent undefended civilization behind them. One might look to the movie 300 for how this might be envisioned. There may be a single leader of the army, but he may not even show up until after the bulk of his troops have been vanquished. The primary villain is the army itself.
In order to approximate these battles, my wife and I devised a newtype of creature that uses a combination of companions from the DMG2, swarms, and the piecemeal creatures delineated in a prior series of articles. An army becomes an amorphous swarm of soldiers, statted either as an adversarial creature, or as a companion. As pieces of the army are taken out of the battle, the army shrinks in size, leaving bodies behind as difficult terrain. The final piece of the army is reduced to a handful of minions.
What I present below are the stats my wife and I created for the Adversarial Army, and the Allied Army. Both have been set to level 15, which seems to be the appropriate level for players to be leading and taking on armies, and is also the level of the Human Soldier Minon first introduced in the adventure “Sea Reavers of the Shrouded Crags” by Logan Bonner in Dungeon Magazine, vol. 158, page 82 (Sept. 2008), which we will use to represent the final stage of the army.
The Fray: We wanted the largest form of the army to occupy a 6×6 space, which works best for a company of 100 soldiers, but Garagantuan creatures generally occupy only a 4×4 space. By granting the army a one-square aura, you can approximate a larger creature. The aura – which is called the fray – should be visually described as having soldiers in it. However, these soldiers are not as tightly packed as the main body. Players can enter the Fray, and have to if they want to damage the army. This requires a bit of abstraction, but in play it works well, especially if you use a visual representation of the fray on the battlefield.
Attrition: As the army takes damage, it results in casualties. Attrition gives players a real sense of accomplishment when facing up against an army of enemies, and also increases the tension as they watch their erstwhile allies fall in battle. Attrition manifests in three mechanical effects. First, as pieces of the army are stunned until the end of the encounter (no save), the army shrinks in size. (The Fray aura remains 1 square). This shrinks the army – including the Fray aura – from a six-square (Gargantuan plus Fray) force, to five-square (Huge plus Fray), then to four-square, and finally to a three-square (Large plus Fray). This represents a force of 100 soldiers, 50 soldiers, and 25 soldiers, respectively. If you want a smaller army to face or ally with the PCs, you can use a army with one or more pieces already disabled.
Second, as the army shrinks from attrition, it leaves bodies of soldiers in its wake. As the army shrinks, each square no longer occupied by the Fray has a 3-in-6 chance of becoming difficult terrain, represented by fallen soldiers.
Third, when the penultimate piece of the army is disabled, the entire army disbands, leaving only five minion soldiers in its wake. These soldiers can represent the final soldiers from the core, or they can represented casualties from earlier in the battle who manage to rouse themselves.
The army we have designed is comprised mostly of humans. That is why the army has been given the human’s racial power. We have also equipped the army with a basic longbow/sword and board configuration. However, by playing with the races and the equipment, you can customize your army.
Race: Instead of a human army, make the army of a different race of small or medium size. Simply replace the Heroic Effort power with the encounter racial power of the new race. An eladrin army would be able to teleport. A minotaur army would have a ferocious charge.
Equipment: You can give the army nets and give them rechargeable restrain attacks. Or polearm weapons to increase their reach from 2 to 3. What if the army has been equipped with a magical battle standard? Or alchemical attacks? Maybe they have harpoons to drag down flying adversaries. Be creative, but be sure to describe the army appropriately, and be careful that the army does not become unbalanced, particularly allied armies.
I have posted the adversarial army and the allied army on the Community Monster Manual:
- Allied Army, a five-piece level 15 defender companion
- Adversarial Army, a five-piece level 15 soldier
I hope you enjoyed this article.