The Challenges Of War: Large Scale Battles

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on October 29, 2010

One thing that I have never felt Dungeons & Dragons has handled well are large battles fought by armies. D&D gets the details down for one-on-one combat and small scale party based encounters. The mechanics are designed to accommodate these scenarios. Unfortunately, the rules that make small scale encounters fun simply don’t translate to larger battles.

Fortunately, these types of encounters are few and far between. Most adventurers spend their time in dungeons or completing quests that don’t require armies. However, every once in a while an army is needed. We can see examples of this when we consider the Lord of the Rings. For the majority of the tale the Fellowship journeys forth as a small group. It is only during a few climactic moments that large scale battle is called for.

One easy solution to this problem is to have the outcome of the battle pre-ordained via the narrative. For example in a particular battle the good guys army suffers a crushing defeat. This is designed to set up the next part of the PCs’ quest. The PCs play a minor role in the larger conflict. Their contribution is played out over several combat encounters with the final aspect of the battle representing their flight from the fight – either through an encounter they must eventually retreat from or through a skill challenge.

Another way to handle large scale battles is through the use of a skill challenge. Outlined below is a modified skill challenge that can be used when there is a need to deal with a large battle. This skill challenge does not follow the outline of a traditional challenge that has a fixed number of successes required before three failures. Instead, to succeed in this challenge the party needs to earn victory points. The amount of victory points required to win the challenge is variable allowing the DM to adjust the length of the challenge.

Mechanics of the Challenge

  • Victory points are required to win the challenge.
  • You earn Victory points by rolling a d6 after making successful skill checks.
  • The DM sets the amount of Victory points required for overall victory depending on how long he wants the battle (skill challenge) to last.
  • During each PC’s turn they describe (through role-playing) how they are contributing to the larger combat. Each PC then determines the skill most appropriate to accomplish that action and makes a skill check as usual (using a d20). The success or failure is recorded.
  • If the check is successful the PC rolls the appropriate number of d6s to see how many Victory points they earned. Easy DC = roll 1d6, Moderate DC = 2d6, Hard DC = 2d6 and you can modify the outcome of one of your d6 rolls.
  • If the check is a failure you automatically loose a Victory point.
  • The results of the d6 rolls grant the following number of Victory points: 1-2 the action goes against you and you loose a victory point. 3 no change in the conflict. 4-6 you score a victory point. If the PC succeeded on a Hard skill check they can add +1 to the outcome of either of their d6 rolls this round. If they roll high enough that the +1 won’t make a difference (both dice are 4 or higher) then the extra benefit is lost.

Example Skill Use

The events occurring during a large battle encompass many different actions. Almost any skill could be used in these circumstances. Listed below are some examples for a few different skills.

Bluff

You create a diversion to place your opponents off balance. You use the opportunity to gain the advantage on the enemy force.

Diplomacy

With rousing words you push your forces forward towards victory.

History

Using your knowledge of tactics you attempt to gain the advantage over your opponents forces.

Intimidate

You demonstrate a show of force hoping to demoralize your opponents.

Nature

You use your knowledge of terrain to position your troops in the most beneficial location.

Streetwise

You spend time amongst the troops, moving along the fortifications. The time spent allows you to determine the moral of your troops and which unit to send in next.

The DM may break the challenge down into components in order to run other skill challenges or have small skirmishes (combat encounters) occur during the larger challenge. A skill challenge representing a large scale battle could run from a few hours to several days of game time. There is plenty of opportunity to introduce additional skill challenges that are themed towards large scale battles. Over the next several weeks we’ll explore other elements of these kinds of encounters.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Liam Gallagher October 29, 2010 at 10:49 am

Good article. D&D finds it’s roots in table top war gaming, and a lot of people who play those games are the same people who play D&D and so these are important considerations, moreover when you consider that so many D&D games are set with some large conflict as the frame.

Good stuff.

2 Rook October 29, 2010 at 2:53 pm

I like this idea of involving the PCs in a large scale battle. I’m not as into the skill challenge approach. What I’m thinking of doing is designing a handful of specific encounters sprinkled throughout the battlefield, such as a unique battle squadron, a warbeast (with riders and handlers) or an encroaching siege weapon. Assuming the PCs are victorious, I would have their side win the battle. If not, they would be forced to run from the oncoming horde. We’ll have to see how this goes.

3 Wimwick October 29, 2010 at 3:12 pm

@ Liam Gallagher
Agreed, it’s sometimes nice to look back at the roots of the game and ask how can we do that?

@ Rook
In a previous campaign the party was involved in a seige, we were the defenders. Most of the PC interactions were played out via combat and I’m a fan of that. What this challenge aims to do is provide the PCs with a leadership level of input towards how the battle goes. I would use this challenge with a requirement to earn 30 Victory Points. Then I would work in 2 or 3 combat encounters for the PCs and 1 or 2 other skill challenges.

As the battle ensues, the actions in the combat encounters and skill challenges will change the decisions the PCs make in the larger seige challenge. These decisions could give the PCs a bonus or advantage during the other encounters.

4 jonathan October 29, 2010 at 7:34 pm

Great post! Mad Brew Labs, At-Will, and TheCoreMechanic.com posted a 14-part series collaboration titled, funny enough, exactly the same thing : “The Skill Challenges of War”. You can check it out here:

http://www.thecoremechanic.com/2009/01/skill-challenges-of-war-part-14-summary.html

Enjoy!

5 Wimwick October 29, 2010 at 8:24 pm

@ Jonathan
I recall the series, it was a great read. My aim is to create about four or five challenges on different aspects of war. I’ll be sure to re-read your series so that any similar topics add to the discussion rather than duplicating the ideas..

6 Chris October 31, 2010 at 9:48 am

Some interesting ideas here. I’ve often tried to incorporate battles into my games but it is definitely not something well supported by the core books or any supplement that I’m aware of.

7 Brian October 31, 2010 at 9:50 pm

I like this idea. For some of the skills, you could also couple a combat encounter with each skill check. For example, you could throw a really difficult encounter at the party that wants to bluff (create a diversion), requiring only survival for a certain number of rounds. Or, if they want to intimidate, make them kill all the baddies within a certain number of rounds.

8 Mike November 1, 2010 at 11:08 am

Thanks for the post! I’ve often wanted to put a big battle in here and there to let PCs be generals and influence the course of battle. I never though of using a skill challenge for it, but it seems like a cleaner way than coming up with mechanics for armies based on stats, sizes, and strengths of individual units. In particular this would allow a Wizard to use some spells or rituals to affect the course of battle, and the sneaky types can do recon or disable supply lines, or send false orders to their enemies while the larger battle is going on around them.

9 Wimwick November 1, 2010 at 10:30 pm

@ Chris
I’ve found that D&D has in the past released a battle system to cover large scale combat. I’ve never been a fan of this and had previously just worked things in to the narrative with the PCs participating in climactic moments.

@ Brian
Working short combats into the actual skill checks is always fun. Just be sure to allocate the same amount of time to each player.

@ Mike
I think the possibilities are endless and are really only limited by the creativity of the players. Given the duration of this type of a battle, all kinds of rituals and powers could be used.

10 shimmertook March 11, 2011 at 12:26 pm

ps, Looking through your archives further, this series never seemed to have taken off. I do hope it is revisited with more good ideas about large scale battles.

11 Wimwick March 11, 2011 at 2:43 pm

@ Shimmertook
Several of the post ideas we had for this are currently on the back burner. Don’t worry we’ll get back to it.

12 Igooog October 21, 2012 at 5:48 pm

I really like this idea of the Victory Points system. But I think the simple skill checks could be improved by coupling combat encounters with them. For example, the players have to fight through masses of enemies to get to a goal, at which they make the skill check.
On a success, they roll a d6 for the Victory Points. Say they have to complete the skill check within a certain number of rounds in order to succeed with that part (In the case of failure, they lose 1d8 Victory Points). Anyway, they get a bonus to their victory point roll equal to however many rounds remain for that objective.

Say the players have eight rounds to make their way to a drawbridge before it’s shut. They get to the set point from which to make either a check or an attack against the ropes (to disable the bridge from being shut (you could even add extra VP for that goal, as it completely disables the bridge from closing)). They accomplish the goal in 5 rounds, so their VP roll would be 1d6 + 3 VP.

Not sure if I went on too long, just wanted to share my views on how it could be used.

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