D&D started as a hack on a war game, which is why OD&D depends on, but does not provide, mass combat rules. The original game included kingdom management rules and prices for castles and armies. The first adventure module, in the Blackmoor supplement, had rooms that contained hundreds of soldiers. You were expected to break out TSR’s Chainmail war game to use these things. In fact, as you got higher and higher level, Gygax expected that more and more of your time playing D&D would actually be spent playing Chainmail. That’s sort of like if you went to a Scrabble tournament and they said, “Good news! You guys are such good Scrabble players that now you get to play Monopoly.”
D&D went mainstream because audiences liked the fast, immersive, co-op game of the imagination, and they didn’t latch onto (or even understand the references to) the slow, rules-bound, head-to-head, miniature-requiring war game. So, in later editions, the Chainmail references were cut. Essentially, D&D’s intended end game, conquest and rulership, was removed. The middle of the game, grinding for money, was extended, even though there were now no castles and armies to spend the money on.
And this is a big loss for D&D. In any edition, high level D&D is not a solid product. High level fights are swingy, monster variety is sparse. And, worse, with epic battles and kingdom-building mostly offscreen, characters can’t leave their mark on the game world, except by saving it from ever more powerful dungeon monsters. Players and DMs alike generally try to keep away from war epics, because running big battles isn’t something D&D does.
To fill the hole left by the removal of Chainmail and epic-fantasy play, TSR and WOTC churned out stand-alone battle supplements every few years:
-OD&D introduced Swords & Spells, which was an updated Chainmail with special rules for each of the D&D spells and monsters. It technically allowed battling lone heroes against 10:1 (10 soldiers to a mini) figures, although it recommended avoiding cross-scale combat as much as possible.
-Basic D&D included War Machine: a sort of spreadsheet where you came up with a rating of each army and then rolled a percentile die to decide the battle.
-1e and 2e both published an edition of Battle System. This was another entry in the Chainmail/Swords & Spells tradition, but it came in a box with cut-out-and-assemble peasant houses, which was cool.
-3e had the Miniatures Handbook. Again, its mass combat rules were along the lines of Chainmail, featuring typical war game rules for formations, facing, morale, etc, using d20 mechanics.
-5e has two sets of playtest mass-combat rules, some iteration of which will presumably see official publication some day. The first playtest has traditional wargame-style rules, with frontage, etc. The second boils down every army to a single “battle rating”, in the Basic War Machine tradition.
All of these games perpetuate the flaw that kept Chainmail from catching on in the first place: in order to play them, you have to stop playing D&D.
D&D is not a war game. All the design decisions that make a good war game lead to a bad D&D game, and vice versa.
-Because war games are played competitively, they must be fair. D&D campaigns can only achieve longevity when they are unfair in favor of the players.
-Because war games are fair: war games must have complete rules. You can’t make stuff up halfway through without favoring one of the players. So you can only make a pontoon bridge if there are rules for it. D&D rules are incomplete by design. There are no rules in any edition for making a pontoon bridge, but if you can scrounge up some boats and lumber, the DM will let you do it.
-Because war games are complete: war games must have detailed rules. A good war game models the rock-paper-scissors of archery, cavalry, and spearmen, and provides big bonuses and penalties based on terrain, flanking, morale, fog of war, high ground, and anything else that might conceivably come up. D&D, on the other hand, features abstract combat rules that look nothing like reality. Core D&D combat is a barebones transaction of combatants trading swipes. More important than realism is simplicity, because most of D&D is not in the combat engine but in the DM and player improvisation that happens at the same time.
running an epic battle in D&D
D&D is great at handling small fights – say, five characters fighting a few trolls. Why can’t the same rules handle five characters, the town guard, and a dragon fighting against a skeleton army, a lich, and a dozen trolls?
What if the first edition Monster Manual had contained stat blocks for a skeleton horde, a town watch, and so on? Think of the stories we could have been telling all these years.
My alternate-history army stat blocks are pretty simplistic, but that’s what I like about them. A requirement for war-game standards of rules completeness and detail has been holding back high-level play for years. A D&D combat is great because of all the rules that Gary Gygax didn’t include. Let me talk about the war game rules I think D&D can live without.
Casualties. When half your archers are dead, you can fire half as many arrows, right? Nah. Just as a D&D hero at 1 hp fights at full strength, A 100-soldier army, even at 1 hp, is still a 100-soldier army. After the battle, hit point damage can be translated into some ratio of dead, wounded, and fled, at the DM’s discretion.
Facing, frontage, formation. These rules appear in nearly every war game. We need that level of detail like we need the First Edition grapple rules.
Figure scale. War games are not designed for varying figure scales: every miniature on the battlefield needs to represent, for instance, 20 soldiers. A war-game fight between a lone hero and a 20:1 army unit is usually wonky or impossible. On the other hand, if every army is treated as an individual D&D monster, a tenth-level fighter can battle on fairly even terms with a troop representing 10 first level fighters, which can in turn battle a troll or a unit of 36 goblins.
Time scale. Most war games have realistic but D&D- incompatible turns of ten minutes or more. I’m sticking with D&D combat rounds. If a massive war is over within a few six- second rounds, that’s fine with me.
If anything, D&D-style fights can be too fast. To make it more likely that everyone gets a turn, I’ve added a special rule in my army stat blocks, capping attack damage so that no army can score a one-hit KO. This favors the underdog (and the underdog is usually the PCs). Still, this is a special exception and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were unnecessary.
Leadership bonuses. Many war games assign static bonuses to troops based on the abilities of their commanders. In a war game, which doesn’t allow for referee discretion, this is the best you can do. But in D&D, if a player delivers a speech and leads a charge, or comes up with a clever scheme, the DM can assign appropriate bonuses. The more the players act creatively, the more vivid the scene will be – just as in a standard D&D fight.
Spell rules. We do NOT want a Swords and Spells-style gloss on every spell describing its interaction with armies. Here are my abstractions:
1) Damage spells ignore area of effect. An 8d6 fireball does 8d6 damage.
2) “Condition” spells are all-or-nothing. If a Bless spell can target all the members of an army, it operates normally. Otherwise, it fails.
Morale, flanking, setting ambushes, charging, fighting withdrawal, high ground, and every special case I haven’t already mentioned. First and and Second Edition have explicit morale rules. In other editions, morale failure is by DM fiat. If the local morale rules (or lack thereof) are good enough for 10 goblins at level 1, they’re good enough for 100 goblins at level 10. The same principle, “use existing combat rules”, applies for flanking (present in 3e and 4e), charging (present in every edition but 5e) and so on.
Here are the stat-block templates I’ve used for turning any creature into an army of any size. I’ve done first and fifth editions (my current favorites).
(crossposted/lightly edited from here)
I have a game for you to play! It’s a brutalcore puzzler called Quest for the Crown 2.
You may feel like a real video game genius after beating the game for the first time, but stick around to the end of the credits! The “second quest” is harder, and don’t get me started on the “third quest!”
Yes, it’s an April First game! But like Google Ms. Pac Man, it’s kind of a real game, although a jokey one.
QFTC2 is an alpha web demo of a longer mobile game that I plan to release in a month or so.
A lot of people will put up with level grinding in computer RPGs – that is, repetitive combat against identical enemies. Imagine how easy it would be to run a D&D game for a bunch of those people! “You meet another group of 8 goblins. Roll initiative!” Everybody cheers!
It doesn’t work that way. Repetitive D&D combat gets boring way faster than repetitive computer game combat.
There are a number of plausible explanations for this: D&D players have higher expectations; they want to pack lots of fun into a limited weekly time slot; the social contract of the game means that you can’t quit the game when you are bored.
My theory, though, is that repetitive D&D combat doesn’t work because of other people’s turns.
In a CRPG, there is basically no dead time waiting for the computer players to go. The opponents either act concurrently with the player or, in a turn-based game, act very quickly. That means the player is always playing. Mindless activity beats inactivity every time.
In D&D combat, you’re actually playing (taking your turn) for maybe 15% of the time (assuming 5 other players and a couple of monster turns). The other 85% of the time, you are watching theater. So the theater has to be good.
In D&D, taking a swipe at yet another goblin isn’t a peak experience, but it’s pleasant enough: maybe about as fun as level grinding in a CRPG. The problem is, watching other people mindlessly level-grind is no fun at all.
Given the theater-heavy nature of D&D combat, it needs to be either interesting or short.
OD&D combat, for instance, is short. A random encounter with goblins is often a routine hack and slash, but with low goblin hit points and morale, at least it’s over soon.
The D&D edition with the longest combats is probably Fourth Edition. It puts all its chips on interesting combat. Every single monster has a unique attack or trait. There’s lots of tactical movement. There are no rules for random encounters, so each individual goblin fight is artisanally placed by the DM. Monster groups are mixed. And monsters are only threatening within a very narrow level band, so after you’ve used up the novelty of the Goblin Tactics trait, you’ll never fight goblins again (with these characters).
Still, in any edition, fighting the same old goblins gets boring after a while, which is why every edition has a market for more monster manuals, and why every DM invents new traps, battle locations, and monster powers.
All of this novelty isn’t primarily for the active player. I bet that in a one-on-one D&D game (one player and one DM), repetitive goblin battles would go a lot farther. DM inventiveness keeps the inactive players engaged. They don’t have fun dice to roll or damage numbers to add up. They need something to think about (“Oh my god, why did the goblin explode? What will happen to Frank if he fails his saving throw? How far am I from the nearest goblin? should I run away on my turn?”) or some new theater to watch (The look on Frank’s face when he takes 16 damage from an exploding goblin).
In WOTC-era D&D, with its long-form battles, there should be no repeat fights: that is, battles which are essentially identical to recent ones. It’s just too boring for the players. TSR-era D&D is more forgiving of repeat fights, though you probably still don’t want too many.
But what about when it makes story sense for the players to face identical enemies?
There’s a tension between a dull D&D “realism” – in a steading of hill giants, shouldn’t every encounter be against hill giants? – and an unpredictable menagerie with no internal logic. I’m not advocating for the latter. if you’re in the Spiderwood, you’re not immune to spider attacks just because you already faced one. But each spider attack can be a novel variation on the general theme of “spiders eat you.”
If your dungeon key or random-encounter table is heavy on identical monsters or patrols, you can jot down two or three twists to liven up repeat battles. Each such twist gives the players a new avenue for creativity, a new puzzle to solve. The players waiting for their turns will welcome the diversion.
As an example, here is a list of 20 goblin “random encounters” which I’d consider running, even after the players have used up the standard “vanilla goblins” encounter. None of these encounters are super bizarre or outre – they’re just tweaked enough to differentiate one encounters from another.
1 A bigger group of goblins than the PCs have yet faced
2 Goblins with unusual weapons: 2 goblins per pike! 6 goblins operate a ballista! Thrown bottles of poison gas! Bolas and nets! Lassos from above!
3 Elite goblin rangers that have been assigned the task of tracking and ambushing the pesky PCs
4 Goblins who are stationed near a trap, ready to spring it on intruders. (This encounter can be re-used once per unique trap)
5 Two different groups of goblins: opposing or neutral factions, or a group of reinforcements who will arrive after a couple of turns
6 goblins who have survived previous encounters with the PCs, and have prepared for the PCs’ tactics (Unarmed goblins with tower shields surround the fighter while others grapple and gag the wizard)
7 Goblins who don’t want to fight (they might be scared, or willing to change sides, or protecting wounded, or emissaries under a flag of truce, or children)
8 Goblins from a different tribe, reveling in the mayhem caused by the PCs and willing to help them. They might be a war party or captives
9 things which only appear to be goblins. They could be halflings in disguise, or decoy dummies, or nilbogs, or barghest
10 Goblins with obvious treasure (the players won’t mind that the battle is otherwise familiar!)
11 Goblins who run immediately
12 Goblins who are arguing with each other and can easily be ambushed
13 Goblins who can retreat to a place where they are difficult to reach (maybe a ledge, small hole, or armored vehicle)
14 mounted goblins (on worgs, carrion crawlers, giant bats)
15 A goblin with an interesting personality (a groveler who wants to work for the pcs, or an 18-intelligence Sherlock type who shouts astute deductions, or a Drizzt do’Goblin type, or an entertaining trash talker with lots of hit points)
16 one of the goblins is an illusionist
17 Goblins with hostages, destructible treasure, or something else that gives them bargaining leverage
18 grotesque goblinoid experiments created by the local goblin (or evil human) wizard: they have a super-strong third arm, or they’re a chained pack of leprous berserkers, or they are scorpion-goblin centaurs, or they explode for 4d6 damage when hit
19 sneaky goblins who follow stealthily from a distance, looking for a chance to loot treasure whenever the PCs are in battle with treasure guardians
20 Finally, the goblin boss and entourage! The boss actually uses his or her low-level magical treasure to the fullest: potion of fire breath, giant strength, growth, or invulnerability for flashy combat fX; poison or philtre of love to be slipped into a PC’s drink; cap of water breathing plus a nearby lake for a safe place to retreat; immovable rod to block doors, climb to inaccessible locations, and perform all sorts of skullduggery; decanter of water to drown the PCs; beads of force to trap PCs; a folding boat to terrorize the countryside with a summonable Viking longship!