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.
You create a diversion to place your opponents off balance. You use the opportunity to gain the advantage on the enemy force.
With rousing words you push your forces forward towards victory.
Using your knowledge of tactics you attempt to gain the advantage over your opponents forces.
You demonstrate a show of force hoping to demoralize your opponents.
You use your knowledge of terrain to position your troops in the most beneficial location.
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.