Mass Combat with D&D 4e – Formations as Swarms

D&D is primarily a skirmish game as far as combat is concerned, well suited to about five combatants per side.  That said, giant armies clashing is a staple of fantasy.  Unfortunately, playing out giant army battles in a skirmish game will quickly go from high paced action into tedium on par with filing taxes and the emotional enthusiasm of a soulless bingo parlor filled with geriatrics who are just waiting to die.

… I don’t recommend it.

The standard response for 4e is to let the players fight part of a pivotal attack on a high value target or to use skill challenges to direct the field of battle.  While both options have merit they lack of visceral feel of big combat.

Using minions doesn’t scale up either.  A minion-only encounter will give you 20-30 enemies at most, assuming they are of appropriate level.

Let’s consider what a high level fight should look like.  At paragon or epic levels, one high level fighter has the stats to be able to take on hundreds of ordinary soldiers.  Imagine Sauron during the opening sequence of Lord of the Rings sweeping enemies aside three or four at a time.  Capturing the epic feel of a few hyper powerful combatants against an entire army isn’t easy.

I found the best way to replicate the mass combat feel in 4e was through liberal application of the swarm rules.  While normally used for bugs, rats, and tiny creatures, there’s no reason you can’t transfer these rules to mass numbers of humans.  Time to whip open the adventure builder and make some custom monsters!

I generally use a swarm of humans some 4×4 squares in size.  The swarm represents a formation which is tightly packed with soldiers, shoulder to shoulder, shield to shield.  Normally a 4×4 square could hold 16 men, but for purposes of this swarm, 80 or 100 men is more like it.

The standard action attacks should be area attacks, hitting everything in front or around them.  Archer swarms should fire huge salvos, and spearmen swarms need to hurt everything adjacent with a close burst or blast.

As with most swarms, they should resist melee and ranged weapons by half and have a vulnerability to area attacks.  Vulnerability 10 is good for heroic and paragon levels, with 20 being appropriate at epic.

The “hit points” of the swarm don’t represent the combined life of each individual man but rather the swarm’s cohesion.  When the swarm is dropped to zero HP the survivors break.  Actual casualties are up to your discretion, as few or many as is appropriate for the race.  For reference, historical formations could break with as few as 20% casualties.

In addition to mechanics, military swarms require a different narrative style to feel truly epic.  When your resident barbarian crashes into a swarm of humans, dealing 4d12+30 damage or whatever ridiculous level of pain he can dole out, you want to play up the idea that he’s hurting the entire formation.  Men should fly through the air, knocked clear from their position before the gap is refilled by the pressing soldiers from behind.  When the fighter’s attack is blocked, a half dozen shield bearers should together reel under the weight of his blows, barely supported by the people behind him.

Remember, these are paragon or epic level heroes.  They need to feel that way.

Characters optimized for single combat might appreciate non-swarm enemies as well.  To this end, you can combine a military swarm with a standard or elite level commander.  Remember that a standard sized creature can move into the squares of a huge creature, so your commander can and should move freely through the ranks, granted a bonus to cover no less.  When the formation breaks apart and his men flee he will stand alone, providing a nice capstone to an epic grind.

Armies don’t have to be enemy only.  A few swarms provide a convenient way for player heroes to take a few hundred soldiers along with them with for no more mechanical load than a single NPC companion.  And when your villain scoffs “You and which army?” the players will have the best comeback ever.

[tags]mass combat, d&d, dungeons and dragons, rpd, role playing games[/tags]

13 thoughts on “Mass Combat with D&D 4e – Formations as Swarms

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  1. I can see this as a good way to indicate to the players that they have far surpassed the typical denizen of the setting, and are now on a completely different level. Unfortunately my big battle happened a few weeks ago, so I won’t be able to give this a shot for a while.


  2. Makes sense. Once your character has reached epic levels, ordinary soldiers might as well be bugs by comparison. Excellent treatment of story-telling considerations and military formation characteristics, too. =)


  3. I love you! You have just saved my ass and have made me look like the most bad as DM ever. I am doing a zombie outbreak and want to have my town sieged by zombies. Now I know how to get the feel without the grind. THANK YOU.


  4. I would leave a comment that actually has some true meaning behind what I wanted to say, but Enrico almost stole it point for point. 😉

    Good job, Michael. I look forward to reading your next piece of work.

    I suppose I could leave off with saying something he couldn’t. Since I had the honour of testing this idea first hand, I must say it does all of the above if worked in properly by the DM. (The feel for battle, the strength of the heroes, the proper use of their tactics, etc.) I highly recommend it.


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