Mass Combat, Done Fast

•January 22, 2013 • 2 Comments

I’ve seen several methods on the Internet detailing how to handle resolving battles in D&D that are larger than just the PCs and a few monsters. Sometimes it’s a skirmish between a few small bands of warriors: human militia versus goblin raiders. Sometimes it’s several squads versus several squads. Sometimes whole armies march against each other. These battles can take place with or without the player’s intervention. They might participate directly in the battle or they may attempt to influence it indirectly. In any case, I (any DM really) need a fast, scale-able  easy way to determine the outcome of any given battle.

I have devised a method to resolve these battles in one die roll, two or three tops. If I’m in the middle of running a session, I should keep things that don’t directly involve the party. Let’s say 8 or 10 human militiamen go up against 15 goblins in the woods and the players decide to not intervene. The fight still needs to happen, and I don’t want to just handwave it away. Let the dice decide who lives and dies. On the other end of the spectrum, 1000 angels dive from heaven to meet 10,000 devils straight from the depths of the Plains Below. It would be easy to get caught up in the complexities of legions fighting legion, or aerial combat or the intervention of even higher powers.

But no, I don’t have time for that. And neither do the players. We come together for a few hours to adventure around worlds and generally do heroic stuff, not watch other imaginary character do heroic stuff. The important thing that I do as Dungeon Master is resolve the external conflict and get the focus back on the party and what they are doing. Sure, I can go on and on about the events in my own magnificent story. Similar to the way older ladies and gentlemen have the privilege to tell long-winded stories for their own amusement, we dungeon masters love to tell the grandiose stories and let our players sit and listen to our creative juices flow.

I’ll get on with it now.

There is a board game that we’re almost all familiar with that is all about quickly resolving battles and just plain getting on with the game as a whole, not getting lost in the mechanics of individual units. Risk. It’s super simple really. Attacker rolls a few dice, defender rolls a few dice, and it is over. The attacker can opt to attack again and the same rolls are made again. It can be ‘swingy,’ but it gets the job done. I propose something similar for resolving battles in Dungeons and Dragons. This ought to work well enough with any edition of D&D or Pathfinder or what have you. It’s a three-part process for each battle or skirmish and then we get back to whatever the party is doing.

  1. Pick a die for each side.
  2. Roll off
  3. Narrate

This three-step process ought to let your quickly resolve any size battle, and it can be adjusted as you see fit to cover any number of circumstances.

Pick a Die for Each Side

In Risk, the attacker got to roll a number of dice depending on the size of their force and the defenders got to roll a corresponding amount. In my method, the Dungeon Master picks an arbitrary die size to represent one force and another to represent the other. Let’s say that the untrained village militia from our example above is defending their homes from goblin raiders on mounts. The militia is a weak force and easy to defeat in open combat. I’ll arbitrarily assign them 1d4. The goblins are slightly better equipped and have mounts giving them a decided advantage. They get 1d6. In an open field with no obvious terrain advantage, the fight is a simple roll-off between 1d4 vs 1d6, high roller wins that battle. It can be one die roll-off to determine the entire fate of the battle or a short series of roll-offs to determine a victor, like best 2 out of 3.

There is room for modification of the rolls, depending on conditions set by the Dungeon Master or the creativity of the players. Did the militia have the smarts to stay in their village instead of facing mounted troops in an open field? Give them a +1 to their d4. Did they spend the night before preparing defenses against charging goblins, like barricades or pit traps? Give them a +2. If the wizard of the party decided to set some alchemical bombs around the village to go off when the invaders get near? That’s worth upgrading the militia to a 1d6+1. Feel free to let the player’s creativity go wild with coming up with ways to give bonuses to the side that they are helping. Did the rogue sneak into the enemy’s camp during the night and poison the goblins’ rations while they slept? -1 to their d6.

This part of my method integrates itself very well with 4th Edition’s skill challenge mechanics. The party’s warlord can give a rousing speech to embolden the villagers, while the fighter helps by training the militia to better use their simple swords and pitchforks. Each successful skill check can add to their allies’ battle roll or detract from their enemy’s.

You can add a great many modifiers and adjustments, and it can get fairly involved quickly. I would recommend you keep it simple though, because that what this method is all about: keeping it fast and simple.

Roll Off

This is the easy part. Roll your dice, add your modifiers, and determine a winner. The villagers with the barricades and alchemical bombs roll with 1d6+1 vs the goblins poisoned by the rogues’ daring sabotage 1d6-1. Who ever rolls higher wins. As I said before, you can use one roll-off to determine a complete battle or break it down in to best 2 out of 3; whatever you as DM see fit. If one side rolled very poorly, call the battle early and say it was a complete rout.

Narrate It

Now that you’ve rolled the dice and determined the winner of that skirmish, tell the party the outcome. Don’t tell them the values of the die rolls, make it interesting. Describe how the wizard’s alchemical devices caught the goblins off guard in the initial charge. Recount how the villagers were able to hedge their foes in more easily in the alleyways between their homes. Mention the stink of poison coming from the goblin corpses. Don’t forget the mothers of the village weeping for their husbands and sons who died in the battle. Include the valiant young warrior who rushed out to repair broken down barricades or faced the goblin warlord in single combat. Give the result of the battle weight by introducing new NPCs, like a warrior maiden who wishes to follow the party to repay them for their assistance in the battle. Make it interesting.

There. Finally got started on a real blog. I hope to continue semi-regularly posting methods of mine, or flash fiction, or adventure ideas. Anything to keep the creativity flowing while I wait for my next D&D campaign to get started. Please leave feedback, share, and let me know if you use this method in your own game.


Greetings, reader

•January 4, 2013 • 1 Comment

Hello, my name is Matthew. On Twitter, I go by the handle chaoticDM. DM, if you are familiar with the game Dungeons and Dragons, you know stands for Dungeon Master. A couple years ago on Twitter, many users were taking an adjective and sticking it in front of ‘DM’ and BAM, they were up and blogging.

I was one of those users and set about tweeting constantly about my experiences as a dungeon master and communicating with those who also shared my love of the game. I did not have my own blog until now, but was rather a microblogger, condensing my thoughts and stories and ideas into 140 character bursts. It was a fast and easy to share but imperfect method, and even small ideas were awkwardly broken up into a jumbled, unparsable, unretrievable mess.

This microblog is my attempt to fix that. Some of the ideas and methods that I’ve had for sometime and were or would have been buried in thousands of tweets will be brought to light here. I hope these are useful to someone other than myself. Feel free to share anything that you find here , and if you are a dungeon master like myself, you have a license to steal it for your own game.