My Holy Grail found - mixing mass combat D&D with RPG D&D

On the first day of Summer, the 58th year after The Doom, the brave Marshall Roehm, his valiant companion Sir Reynald, a large company of knights, cavalry and foot soldiers crushed the Orcs who had set up a fort on the site of the old Dalewoods Wayfarer's Inn. Aided by a brave group of adventurers who snuck into the fort unseen and blew open the gates, Roehm's forces soundly defeated or drove off the orcs. It was the Marshall himself who speared the Orc Chieftain with his lance, ending the battle.

This Sunday's campaign game, delayed from November, brought a chance to move a game seamlessly from RPG D&D to mass combat D&D and then back. It's something I've wanted to do since getting involved back in playing D&D in 2008 and reading about the Chainmail/D&D battles that were run back in the day. It appealed to me... the idea that players could be involved in things that were small in scale, and yet much bigger in scale *and* finding a way of doing that simply and seamlessly so that it didn't feel like we were jumping from (for example) playing Clue to playing Risk and then back to playing Clue.

The adventurers, who've now been named Heroes of the Duchy of Irecia, had discovered a way into the inside of the palisade walls that was unknown to the Orcs. One of the adventurers, an elven mage by the name of Pyria, struck a dangerous deal with the mysterious Striped Mage for scrolls of Fireball, in order to blow the gates open and provide a clear path for the Marshall's forces to overcome the defending Orcs. 

I went back and forth through a number of mass combat systems - Chainmail, Battle System, the OD&D Swords & Spells supplement, HOTT/DBA... none of these really seemed to scratch all the itches I had. They all had their good sides, but the biggest downfall was either their complexity, need for some previous wargame experience or their failure in a fairly seamless transition or realistically including the players into a combat situation where they weren't going to stride through the fields like Super Heroes (until they hit 8th to 10th level...) but they could make a meaningful contribution and have some chance of survival.

The Marshall gathered his forces - knights consisting of nobles and landowners from around the vicinity of Enonia, militias and men-at-arms sworn to his service. Sir Reynald, brother to the Duke of Irecia, also joined the forces, bringing his mercenaries and his own retinue of knights and cavalry. Nearly 200 brave men and women marched at a double-time pace to the fort, making the trek in under 6 hours for what normally took 8 to 10 hours of a walk. Unfortunately, for the adventurers who would again enter the palisade to surprise the orcs, their mage Pyria was nowhere to be found!

Then enter David Collins of Delta's D&D Hotspot blog. In September of 2011, he released a small set of mass combat rules called "Book of War." (link to Lulu page)

David is a mathematician who teaches college math in New York and writes fascinating posts on statistics, math and analysis of D&D. His Book of War rules clocks in at under 20 pages (under 8 pages for the core/basic rules - IIRC) and they are simple, fast, and very statistically comparable to the basis D&D rules. Out of all the rulesets that I'd looked it, it was easiest to make rules to include PCs into the mass combat and have it feel like D&D but not to where they were transformed from 2nd and 3rd level PCs into Superhero level PCs.

The group was approached by a former adventurer by the name of Parabellum. It seemed that Pyria had been compelled to do something else, but wanted the attack to succeed, so she bargained with Parabellum to join the attack. He eagerly agreed, packing only a few things, the precious Fireball scroll and several pipes to keep his courage up. With their plan still intact, the adventurers set off with the attack force to begin the battle at dawn!

One of Delta's positions in designing the rules was to statistically prove that lower level PCs simply were not able to make a difference, using the 1:1 combat rules/statistics as designed and scale them up to 10:1. You really need to have a figure of characters totally 10 Hit Dice before you should even step foot on the battle field! To have the kind of power that a Hero or Super Hero has in Chainmail, you need to be much, much stronger. Rather than restate his argument, I'll simply link to his post "Book of War: Heroes" Go ahead and give it a read... it eventually convinced me!

The adventurers entered the dark dirt tunnel. Their group consisted of the Might Mazlor - Curate of The Light, Balto and Fergus - the littleling and human friends, Ja'kar - the Fist of Meesha, Ragar the Ranger, Bel-a-dur the enigmatic elven warrior and Grel, Paladin of Tangadorin the Light Bringer. Joining them were Sally, an Adept of the Light, and the pipe-smoking, frying-pan toting Parabellum the Mage. Negotiating with a crazy kobold shaman who had a rat farm at the entrance to these dank and dirty tunnels, they bribed him with shanks of freshly butchered pork. He eagerly let them through and they negotiated familiar tunnels until they reached the basement walls of what had been the Inn.

Based on Delta's approach, I rethought my approach to how to include PCs in mass combat. I kept with Delta's basic conversion approach - you must have at least 10HD in a figure. With regards to magic, I finally solving the problem with "which spells" by deciding that if you can't affect 10+ targets with the spell, or an area of 20'x20' or greater, then the spell doesn't matter at mass combat scale.

This opened the door for me to write my houserules - Book of War Supplement: The Fellowship.

In the rules, I figured out how to abstract a party of different PCs into a figure that worked much like any other figure in Book of War. The biggest hurdle was to make sure that I didn't overpower the PCs but also try to give them options to be unique, as a figure consisting of many possibility abilities would be very unique and potentially game breaking.

The adventurers pushed through rocks and rubble that had been used to plug the tunnel from the basement. Creeping inside, they discovered that the orcs and goblyns had been busy! The former tunnels and small storerooms had been opened up into large workshops and barracks! Clearly, the bestials were looking to make this simple fort into a much larger facility, one that could support a thrust into the heart of the remaining human lands! 

The adventurers found an opening to peek through, the stealthy thief Balto avoiding being seen. Horns blared as the Marshall began a pre-arranged feint, distracting the Orcs so that the adventurers could get in position to use the Fireball and destroy the gate. Deciding that the opening was too risky, the adventurers found the main doors from the workshops to the outside, but guarded by two goblyns! Bows thrummed, fists flew and swords flashed as two goblyns fell quickly. The adventurers crept outside into the middle of frantic Orc activity! The cavalry was about to ride out the East gate to sweep around the fort and flank the humans. The goblyn and orc foot soldiers massed at the West gate, ready to smash into the human lines.

(Photos of the initial setup, as the adventurers came out into the literal center of the fort!)

I was able to convey the basic rules for Book of War and the sequence of play very quickly to the players. Roll d6s, I'll tell you what to hit, you can move this much, you can take this many hits. Thanks to the PCs having more than 20 HD combined, they would be able to take two hits. This would save them, as the orcs did land a blow!

My plan was to run the NPC forces and monster forces and let the players figure out what they wanted their figure to do. The Marshall had a plan, and the Orc Leader had a plan. The PCs blew the gate, Parabellum was able to read the scroll (10% chance of failure!) and the Orc Leader, faced with a small force inside, decided to stick with his original plan. He sent the Shaman to throw Darkness on the players and dispatched a squad of orcs (1 figure) to deal with the intruders. He went to the gate to face down the humans and direct the battle.

A loud cheer erupted from the humans as the palisade gate blew apart in a fiery burst! The orcs, shocked, all turned to look at the adventurers now in their midst! Parabellum stood with a disintegrating parchment and a proud grin at his handiwork, while the rest of the party drew weapons and prepared to fight for their lives.

The Orc Chieftain bellowed out orders - ATTACK! - and the orc cavalry swept out of the fort in one direction, the complaining goblyns and dour orcs out the other to face the humans. Little did they know that a trap had been laid by the cunning Marshall... most of his knights were waiting for the orc cavalry to sweep by and he would crush them from behind!

The players were not happy that the human cavalry waited two turns to come out of hiding! As the orc cavalry was faster than the human knights. The Marshall himself rode up beside the lines of human foot soldiers, prepared to meet the charge of the orcs or the attack of the Chieftain himself. Battle went quickly and an aspect of Book of War became apparent very quickly - morale! The goblyns broke first after losing half of their force, It was up to the orc foot soldiers and cavalry to carry the day.

The PCs shook off the Darkness spell by using their Continuous Light-bespelled swords and necklaces to chase away the darkness. They then faced an orc figure sent to kill them. They did take a hit from the orc! Good thing they qualified for 2 HD as a Book of War figure.

The tide of battle shifted decisively when the orc foot soldiers broke and ran! Seeing the Marshall himself hold up to the charge of the cavalry, watching their orc mates die quickly, the foot soldiers' resolve broke. They followed the goblyns, who never regained their morale, into the Dale Woods and back east towards orc lands. They ran past the charging knights of Sir Reynald, who had swept from the woods and were bearing down on the orc cavalry from the rear. 

The orc cavalry crashed into the archers and into the guard of Marshall Roehm. The poor archers held up bravely, but were overrun, all dead save for three souls out of twenty. The Marshall, his knights and the orcs traded blows, and although the Marshall was injured, he kept fighting. 

The heroes faced down the spells cast by the Shaman, and then faced the orcs who came ravening towards them. A fight that saw several heroes injured also saw the orcs lay dead at their feet. The heroes charged towards the gate, to kill the Shaman and pursue the Chieftain!

The players finally hit a point where what they wanted to do butted up against the scale of mass combat. Some wanted to fire missiles (they didn't have the required 75% of figure participants with missile weapons), some wanted to cast spells and fight in the same turn, They were bumping up against what they wanted to do wouldn't reflect on the scale that we were playing. Plus, there was disagreement within the party of what they wanted to do. I had forgotten my idea of having a caller for the figure.

In the end, the players defeated both orc figures that came after them, and contributed greatly to the victory by blowing the gate. The battle came to quick end as the orc cavalry were defeated, and the Chieftain killed by the Marshall. Almost 50% of the orc forces broke morale and never recovering, running off the board.

Rather than seeing the humans smash themselves against the gate and trapping them by encircling orc cavalry, the Chieftain had been forced to commit his forces out in the open and he himself was encircled.

The orcs had been defeated! With the body of the fearsome Orc Chieftain laying dead at the feet of the Marshall, any hope the remaining forces had of regrouping vanished. Orcs and goblyns fled into the woods and back to the lands they came from. The men and women cheered long and hard. The victorious Marshall rode into the fort and the soldiers followed. 

"We have taken the day!" the reinvigorated Marshall shouted. "We have bloodied their nose and sent them running! Long will this day be remembered for the bravery and stoutness of human hearts and arms! YOU are the victors and this is the first blow we strike against the Darkness! And to you, brave adventurers, we salute you! This day is because of your achievement and drive to find a way for us to take the fort. By my authority as Marshall, I name you all Heroes of the Duchy of Irecia!" 

After the scenario finished, we discussed how it went. All of the players liked how simple and easy Book of War was to play, and they liked being a part of the battle. Some of the players discussed how it was hard to not be able to do the things they expected to be able to do.

It was a good back and forth and after chewing on it a bit, I had the realization that I should have let the players control ALL of the human NPC forces or at least be able to suggest things, make decisions and do all of the activities for the human side. That might have blunted the fact that most 2nd and 3rd level PCs are not going to be heroes they imagined, but more of the soldiers and lieutenants that make up the bulk of the forces. It would have allowed *the people* more of a chance to be a part of things while their PCs are limited, they should not be. Lesson learned for next battle!

And the discussion will still be ongoing. I'm always willing to consider tweaking the rules, as long as they stay consistent with the Book of War approach.

With my holy grail found, and with the mood of the players VERY upbeat after having delivered a decisive blow against the Orcs, my campaign is going along wonderfully. I wonder what's next...


  1. Feels great when everything finally comes together like that. Following the rule of "Yes, but," you could have let your players do whatever they wanted, but pointed out that whatever they wanted might not have had an effect. "You want to fire one arrow at that mob of orcs? Fine, you fire and arrow and kill one - now you are still facing a mob of orcs."

    No surprise Delta gave you the key to unlocking the problem - his Hot Spot has long been a favorite of mine.

  2. @Warren - I'm honestly pretty OK with telling them their limitations. I think once they know the boundaries, they'll get a feel for what they can do. I think doing a "yes, but" would end up being frustrating? Almost like a "why am I bothering?"

    Delta's been a treasure trove of thought provoking posts. I don't always agree with him, but he hardly fails to make me think... or make my brain hurt with the math.

  3. Delta's Book of War is awesome.

    I used it to do a re-creation of the Battle of Emriddy Meadows in my campaign (not called that because it took place in a different place).

    I have like 700 counters or something stupid like that.

    I think this supplement is excellent. It follows Delta's general idea and gives low level PCs a chance to get involved battles.

    If I ever run a campaign that is battle heavy I think this is will come in handy.

    Have you passed this by Delta to see if he'll roll it into his rules?

  4. Hi Gizmo, I did send these to Delta and he posted them to his blog as a supplement. I'm glad you'll find a use for them, let me know how it goes, please!

  5. I'm not familiar with the Book of War, but I have done a fair amount of RPG mass combat over the years. If the PCs want to do something that isn't a figure's worth of effect, like your example of .75 figure's worth of archery, I'd either round up from .75 to 1, because they are the heroes of this movie, or track that they might do a partial figure's worth of damage in the first round and two rounds of archery will show an effect on table.

  6. @Ed - I know "Yes but" is popular these days, but I'd much rather give them the boundaries of their actions so that they don't waste their time on something that ultimately doesn't do anything. By giving them the boundaries of their possible actions, that frees them up to know and start figuring out what they can do and what they want to do with what they have. This leads to understanding and less frustration, in my experience.

    In a mass combat, 2nd and 3rd level PCs are not "the heroes of this movie", rather they are hanging on for dear life in a maelstrom that could consume them. As it was, their figure killed two orc figures (20 orcs) with only one hit scored against them (out of 2 possible), so they did far better than they probably should have.


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