It has been some time since I have talked about Dungeons & Dragons here so I figure I’m about due. My mini adventure, Something Sinister in Cespius, is coming along but isn’t ready for public yet, so I thought I would share another idea I’ve been cooking up for possible use in my home campaign: a battle mechanic to simulate large-scale conflicts.

One of the paradoxes of D&D is that it was born from tabletop tactical war-games, but when it comes to simulating large-scale conflicts, the 5 member adventuring party  model falls flat, especially if you’re trying to recreate a grand battle between armies of 10,000 soldiers. How can the players stand out in such a massive army? More importantly, how can 5 adventurers make a difference against an enemy 10,000 strong?

There are several very important things to remember.

  1. The PCs don’t need to kill the entire enemy force single-handedly. It might seem obvious, but in a game built around balanced encounters, players and DM alike get used to the players vanquishing entire teams of monsters.
  2. Large battles are fought by smaller teams with specialized jobs. Treat the adventuring party as an elite strike-force. This is what my battle mechanic is based on.
  3. The PCs are heroes. Don’t forget that the PCs are probably the most powerful people on the battlefield. Let them feel that way. Make sure they feel like they’re having a significant impact on the course of the battle. One hero can change the course of history; the adventuring party has 5.

Keeping all this in mind, we can start to think about how the battle will look. The PCs will participate in 3 out of 5 possible battles. In the beginning they will be presented with 4 options of where to focus their attentions on the battlefield leading up to the climactic encounter with the enemy commander. Each scenario carries with it a possible bonus or penalty that will have an impact on the final encounter with the enemy commander. After completing two encounters on the field, the PCs come up against the leader of the enemy forces, aided by the choices they made or hindered by the battles left unfought.

Make sure your players know what they are in for. The PCs are very powerful (and they are the stars of the show), so they should have some sort of command position. They are privy to intelligence on the enemy and should know how their choices will impact the battle.  Let them make the tactical decisions. This planning phase is a great opportunity for role-playing and establishing relations with other powerful characters in the world.
The four choices:

The Front Line – The front line is beginning to cave. The PCs could choose to focus their attention here to beat back the enemy and re-form the line, saving the lives of hundreds of allies who would otherwise be routed. This should be the most visceral of the combats. The PCs are heroically wading into the enemy, swords and spells flashing, driving back the relentless onslaught. Use minions in abundance to create that large-scale combat feel. Don’t forget to give the PCs some minion allies also. There should be about 5 enemy minions to each PC, then sprinkle in enemy and ally minions 1 for 1. Successfully beating back the minions grants the PCs minion allies of their own in the final battle. When the PCs confront the enemy commander, give them each 1 minion ally to control on their initiative count.
The Engines of War – Allied archers and artillery are sorely taxed as they focus their efforts on taking down the great siege engines with their flaming arrows and trebuchets. If the players could sabotage the siege engines, it would free up the archers to offer ranged support in the last battle. This is a skill challenge. There are two great siege engines to be disabled, each requiring 4 successful skill checks before incurring 3 failures to be disabled. Each engine is also operated by 3 minion enemies who must be dispatched before the players can destroy the machines. While disabling the siege engines, the players are behind enemy lines and at risk of being spotted.
Primary Skills:
Strength – A PC can try to destroy the machines by simply pulling them apart with heroic strength.
Thievery – A more subtle PC could use thievery to disable the inner workings of the device.
Dungeoneering – PCs skilled in dungeoneering have a solid background in engineering that can help them determine how best to compromise the structure of the siege engines.
Secondary Skills:
Insight – A successful insight check grants a +2 bonus on the next primary skill check. Only usable once per engine.
StealthBluff – After each successful primary skill check, the PCs must make either a stealth or a bluff check, performed by the PC with the lowest modifier. On a failure, they are noticed and attacked by an enemy soldier.
Successfully disabling the siege engines frees up the allied archers to support the PCs in the final battle. In the climactic battle, the allied archers make a single attack from their position high on the fortress battlements against a random enemy on initiative count 10.
Enemy Artillery – This is a straight-up combat. Select level-appropriate ranged artillery roll enemies with a few soldier or brute guards. Failure to deal with the enemy artillery means the PCs will be harassed by enemy fire during the climactic battle. Each round, on initiative count 15, the enemy archers attack 1 random PC.
Dark Ritualists – This dark cabal is channeling protective magic into their commander. Select level-appropriate arcane controllers and a few soldier or brute guards. Failure to interrupt the ritual and break the magical wards protecting the commander will result in a +2 bonus to the enemy commander’s AC and fort defenses.
The Final Battle: This one is all you. Select an appropriate elite or even solo monster, preferably one you would expect to be in command of a large number of enemy forces. An oni mage, a pit fiend, or even a red dragon all come to mind as good candidates. It will be even more rewarding if the enemy commander is someone known to the PCs for example a recurring campaign foe. In the interest of not spoiling too much for my players, I’ll keep the identity of my own enemy commander a close secret.
I hope this post helps any DMs looking for a way to simulate a large-scale battle in 4e D&D. If you try it out or have any suggestions, please leave a comment. I look forward to hearing some feedback.