In my previous article, I talked about using military formations to create the epic feel of high level heroes taking on hundreds of regular soldiers. That’s good for a single encounter, but not for much more. Now I want to talk about epic pitched battles over vast terrain.
It’s time to go to war!
War in the D&D universe is potentially quite different than the historical conflicts of shields and arrows. For one, a shield formation is useless against a fireball spell. Committing the entirety of an army to a single battle line is less “tactics” and more “suicide.”
In addition, thanks to communication techniques such as sending, military formations will be able to coordinate at a distance significantly better than their historical counterparts.
The battlefield of D&D will be closer to the modern than the historic, with short, violent encounters, and where the effective gathering of information is as valuable as many men.
In the midst of this chaos will be the players. At high levels, they represent a force equal to several hundred men. Nevertheless, while they can be in many places, they cannot be everywhere at once.
A good, large scale battle should make the party feel scattered. Every minute they should be making decisions about what to do next. A call for help on the left flank should be followed seconds later by reports of three cave trolls on the right. Do the players take on the serious monsters, or do they reinforce the defenses of their crumbling allies? Do they risk failed endurance checks and lost healing surges to flat out run between engagements, getting there a few precious minutes earlier?
No matter what the players choose, some of their allies will die and there is nothing they can do about it. Nothing except win, and make sure the sacrifices were not in vain.
Presume that the PCs are participants in the fight, not generals who direct from the rear. Rather ask them, “Do you want to chase down the raiders on horseback, or try to break the shield wall?” Letting the players direct the army as a whole removes them from the feeling of being in the midst of the battle. Drop them in the middle of the chaos and let them react!
Because the players are fighting a sequence of encounters with no extended rests, you don’t want any one encounter to bog down. Aim for level -1 or even level -2 encounters, but be prepared to have lots of them. Use simple monsters which don’t have prolonging effects, like dazing or stunning. The only battle which should be “hard” should be the capstone, and by then your players will be low on resources.
Don’t get too attached to any one of your planned encounters. There’s a good chance your players might choose to bypass a fight or take a short rest. If that’s what your players want to do, let it happen, bump the allied death toll to compensate, and move on.
While a well-paced encounter framework helps frame a fantastic story, narrative description will really make the battle shine. As players slog their way from one encounter to the other, make sure to highlight some of the following.
- Distant horns and roars from clashes that they are not a part of.
- Message boys running past, some shouting things like “we’re pushing through to the west” to give the players a sense that something is happening outside of their scope of knowledge.
- Changes in terrain, skipping over rivers, moving into or out of a tree line.
- Columns of smoke, indicating things burning
- Wood stakes forming defensible, and sharp, positions
Depending on how much magic shows up in the world, you may also want
- The distinctive smell of bat guano, used in the many evocations.
- The low tremor of airship engines. Nothing is quite as fun as an airship doing a bombing run in front of the players to clear a path. Close air support.
- A random weather duel as two mid-level clerics on either side fight via control weather rituals. Sheets of rain, dark black smoke, and twisting tornadoes are all excellent ideas.
- Flashes of radiant white light from medic tents, as low level clerics try to repair wounds.
- Requests for assistance coming via sending spells. For extra fun, send two from opposite sides of the map, and make them pick.
Depending on how creative your players are, they might want to trot out the rituals to help during the battle. You can hardly blame them; rituals like phantom steed, trail blaze, and shadow walk can be game-changers. Players don’t often get to use these rituals for combat utility, so you want to reward this kind of thinking when possible!
Friendly NPCs also help make the battle feel bigger than the sole encounters the PCs are having, and provides a throwback to past missions. A former blacksmith friend now fighting with hammer and full plate can be a welcome sight. Have friendly forces relieve the players, giving them a needed short rest or letting them bypass time-consuming battles to take on something greater.
Conversely, remember that the players are the stars of the show. Having allied NPCs hacking through enemy minions is welcome, but don’t upstage player contributions. Even if the players want the NPCs along, they’ll slow the battle down. Allies should leap into a task to say, “This is too easy for you guys! We need you to do something even harder!”
It goes without saying that the player characters get to kill the enemy general. In terms of narrative tropes, it’s practically a necessity. The enemy general being a full-on solo monster helps justify this particular cliche. He’s strong, and needs a really strong presence on the battlefield to take down.
Considering this is a capstone fight, it needs to be a step up from the battles that came before. If the players have no history with the general, then you’re going to need to make him awesome in a very short period of time. I’m not saying he needs to be riding a dragon, but consider that your starting point for awesome, and then do one better.
By the end of the battle, your players should have fought maybe half the encounters they heard about, and get trickling reports on how the other half went. Friends should be wounded, others should be dead. If they’ve worn themselves down to the last healing surge and daily power, and are desperate for a break, then you’ve done your job well.
[tags]D&D, Dungeons and Dragons, mass combat, Role Playing Games, rpg[/tags]