Mass Battles in 5e

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Have you ever watched one of those giant battle scenes, maybe on a popular TV show, and said “I want to incorporate one of THOSE into my D&D campaign?”

Friend, you’ve got a long night ahead of you.

Look. D&D is popular for reasons other than Critical Roll, and 5th edition (aka, “5e”) is great at streamlining the game. But - even a single fight can take a LONG time, and if you’re going to be battling a horde of screaming warriors or scrambling wights, you’ll find that your players will be asleep - or their characters will be dead -  long before your battle is over.


So I’m going to tell you how to make those mass battles exciting and dramatic.


These homebrew rules, which owe a bit to Savage Worlds, were sitting in my notebooks for years. They were playtested on 3.5 and Pathfinder games and there is no reason they shouldn’t work with 5e with the modifications I have added here!


As a DM, let me add that it REALLY helps to have a battle map or mat (theater of the mind games only work for this if you, the DM, and your players are VERY sharp and not impaired), and some indicators of who is what on said map.


If you lack a good grid based map, improvise. A checkers board works fine, this method is mostly concerned with the immediate surroundings of the party.


I do go a little into the theory and reasoning behind each of these rules and I HIGHLY recommend you read all the way through. However, at the end, there is a simple list form for your DM session.


The Basics:


Speed up the game and weaken the NPCs.


The party is going to take a LOT of attacks. You’ll adjust NPC hit bonuses to compensate. Some guidelines are given at the end of the page, but for the most part, it should top out at about ¼ of the average party level. Additionally, NPCs should do a small amount of static “unrolled” damage when they do hit. You’ll adjust these to-hits as the battle unfolds, and PCs either take or do not take damage. This is important to keep things interesting, and also to create a sense of “flow” in the battle: things should alternate between going very well and going poorly to give them some tension!


The party is going to MAKE a lot of attacks, too. Characters that make multiple attacks per round will slow the action down significantly. You want to prevent slowdown but you also do NOT want to penalize them for having multiple attacks, here where it will do the most good.


In any game, I ALWAYS suggest that you have your PCs roll all their dice at once! You can also do that here, and then have your players pick who receives what attack after the roll.


Don’t worry about damage dice because:

There are only three types of enemies in a mass battle: Mooks, toughs, and BIG BADS. Mooks are the swarming swordsmen, the shrieking wights, the orcs with beat-down swords. They have ONE HIT POINT - any damage and they go “down.” They may not be dead but they’re not a concern!


This removes the need for damage rolls and keeping track of enemy HP, which will speed up the fight considerably.


Toughs also have 1 HP, but they have a higher AC and to hit, or some other special abilities. Spells, long spears, archers with flaming arrows, shield walls, etc. They are designed to be priority targets, as they can dish out more damage - damage is very dangerous in these fights - and they usually hang out behind some mooks.


BIG BADS are regular monsters/NPC/PCs. When fighting them, use regular rules! They present a unique challenge in a swarming battle, so you should deploy them sparingingly, and dramatically!


Mooks and toughs ALWAYS fail their saving throws. (If the spell must hit via a roll, it still must hit) This makes AoE spells very valuable in a mass battle!


Attacks of Opportunity:


Mooks don’t get AoO. Most toughs don’t either, unless they are specifically designed to do so, with something like a shield wall or phalanx designed to prevent a charge.


PCs who have not used their reaction should get an AoO that is automatically successful - enemies rushing past will not be on the defense.


Special Attacks:

This is where those can REALLY shine! It’s time to reward characters who specialize in fighting, after all: Special attacks that do something other than deal pure damage, (knock enemies down/shove/trip, etc) should all be automatically successful vs. mooks/toughs.


Initiative:


Don’t do it! Any PC with an initiative perk or feature goes first, then arrange them by DEX. All NPCs go last.



MOVEMENT:


Movement is tricky. The morass of attacks of opportunity, threatened areas, characters getting lost in a swarm - it all detracts from the speed and theater of the encounter.


Luckily, I am here to help.


FIRST AND FOREMOST: Consider making this table change for the battle: On a single turn the party can choose to either ATTACK or MOVE.


This can penalize characters with mobility enhancements so consult with your party beforehand! However, I found that having the PCs attack or move on a single term sped up gameplay significantly.


This also forces the party to “stick together” - splitting up is way more dangerous than usual in a mass battle!


Do not get bogged down in feet and squares and movement. Most times the crush of the battle will limit the characters movements. If they need to push through an enemy formation, combine everyone’s STR bonus into one check against a DC based on the number of enemies (8+ the number of party members + the number of targets to push through is a good round one)


Make movement abstract instead of specific. Just as you considered enemies “up” or “down” enemies are either “in range” or “not.” You should NOT prevent a PC from making an attack if they are 10 feet away instead of 5!

On an attack turn (if you are splitting your turns up) a PC can get “into range” of any character reasonably close to them that is not protected by others without “spending” movement. Err on the side of letting the character make the attack.


If you are NOT splitting up your turns, do the same: limiting movement has no real upside, and it slows down the play.


Moving “through” characters is not possible unless the PC is small.


If you DO NOT split movement up, all movement should be halved and considered difficult terrain (dead bodies, dropped weapons, etc) and dashing should be off the table unless it is a dramatic charge on an enemy position.


On the NPCs Turn:


These rules are for mooks and toughs: Badasses proceed as usual.


Rather than individually have each attacker roll an attack (this would rapidly wear down even the mightiest warrior) have the attackers roll ONCE as a group vs each PC. If more than one mook (or more than two if a PC has a mitigating feat like mobility or sentinel that allow them to engage multiple targets effectively) give them advantage on the attack roll.


Do not have NPCs do damage individually! When the PCs take damage, they take the base damage, +1 for every additional mook/tough making the attack. (Max out the bonus at the average PC level)

To encourage the party to stick together and not get flanked (and encourage a dramatic “back-to-back” scene) increase the number of enemies it takes to flank them for every party member flanking each other!

Example: Jon and Tor are fighting back-to-back against a group of goblins. Normally, two on Jon would get an attack at advantage, but now it takes 3! When Ela joins the fight, now it will take 4 goblins to gain advantage on any of them.


Rather than rolling damage, have a set damage per mook or tough. Mooks should do half the damage toughs do.


How to Tell the Battle Is Over:

You’re basically trying to commit the PCs to a “challenging” encounter over the entire run of the battle. Two “challenging” encounters if you allow them a short rest in-between, say when heroic allies let them rest behind the castle walls, or when they wait on the next wave of charging foes.


As a climactic device, the battle may even prove “deadly” for the PCs - though a careful DM should let those PC deaths happen during an important showdown or action!


Essentially, for 5e terms, these mooks count as 1/16th CR for 1st level PCs, 1/8th for 4th level PCs, and so on.


You want the battle to be over in a timeframe appropriate for your session, so keep track of how many rounds are taking place. Time the rounds and see about how long, on average, it takes to go through a round. Use this information to plan the battle - being sure to set aside some longer “normal” turns for battles with BIG BADS.


It may seem counterintuitive, but the PCs performance shouldn't make a huge difference in the battle numbers. If they're alive at the end, their side probably won the battle.


If they aren't, they won't care who won.


Set a simplified count of enemy troops vs friendly troops. After the PC’s turn, record your party’s kills. After the NPC’s turn, take note of how many hits the NPCs deliver to the PCs.


That way, if partial results are needed, you can use the PC/NPC tallies and a ratio of how badly one side is outnumbered to get a sense of how many troops are left standing on each side. While there is no hard or fast rule for this, add a few wins or losses for troop quality, fortifications, or particularly heroic/foolish actions by the party.


Be sure to give the party a mission other than just fighting in the thick of it for an hour. Holding a choke point, taking out a siege weapon, defending a powerful wizard, covering a retreat: The PCs, if not the ones giving the orders should be given orders that culminate in a showdown with BIG BADS.


THE SHOWDOWN:


The battle slows and opens up for a moment, easily defeated troops give way to better armored and equipped fighters that challenge the party, and decimate any NPCs fighting alongside them.


As the party thins the last ranks, the swarming minions stand aside as a towering giant, gleaming commander, wizard with summoned fiends, or mounted knights come thundering onto the stage.


This is the showdown with the BIG BAD causing problems.


As the DM, you don’t want to be switching things too suddenly - players get into the flow of fast combat and the sudden appearance of enemies that don’t die instantly becomes jarring.


Therefore, ease them in: Throw some low CR bandit/goblin NPCs at them (you can “reskin” them to make them suitable for your campaign, but the key is that they need to have HP totals that can easily be lost in a single round, but more than one HP)


These low CR foes represent the bodyguards and minions of the Big Bad. This should be suitable for a challenging encounter: the party should have been forced to use up some defensive and “oh shit” abilities before this (if they haven't, bump up those to-hits and damages) and the fight against the these “real” foes will cause them to use more.


The fight against the Big Bad should be a tough one. The PCs should be beat up, on their last leg, and a little bit desperate.


Mooks and toughs should sit out this encounter. They should, however, serve as a dangerous “ring” for the encounter, preventing PCs from fleeing and shrinking/shaping the battlefield if necessary. Consider them damaging ground, like fire, that simply does 1d4 damage and prevents movement.








DM CHEAT SHEET:

Remember: mooks and toughs only have 1 HP!

PC Level: 1-4  

    Mooks: +0 attack    Toughs: +1 attack

        1 damage        2 damage

        8-10 AC        10-12 AC


PC Level: 5-10

    Mooks: +2 attack    Toughs: +3 attack

2 damage        4 damage

10-12 AC        11-13 AC


PC Level 10-15:

    Mooks: +3 attack    Toughs: +4 attack

        3 damage        6 damage

        11-13 AC        13-15 AC


PC Level 15-20

    Mooks: +3 attack    Toughs: +5 attack

        4 damage        8 damage

        14-15 AC        15-17 AC


Note: These can be changed on the fly to give a battle some flow.



On the PCs Turn:


Optional (recommended) The party can MOVE or ATTACK on any given round. Movement should be done AS A GROUP.


MOVEMENT: All terrain is DIFFICULT. Moving through enemies requires a GROUP STR check: Recommended DC is 8 + number of PCs + Number of Enemies + misc modifier for strong/weak enemies.


Each Player rolls all attacks at once. (There is no rolling for damage, as foes only have 1 HP)


Special attacks that knock enemies down/shove/relocate, should all be automatically successful vs. mooks/toughs.


PCs who have not used their reaction should get an AoO that is automatically successful - enemies rushing past will not be on the defense.


ON THE NPC TURN:



Attackers roll as a group vs each PC. For more than one mook (or more than two if a PC has a mitigating feat like mobility or sentinel that allow them to engage multiple targets effectively) give them advantage on the attack roll.


When the PCs take damage, they take the base damage, +1 for every additional mook/tough making the attack. (Max out the bonus at the average PC level)


Spells and siege weapon attacks used by toughs should have a DC based on how often they are hitting the PCs: Start with DC 15-20 and subtract one for each time they will encounter the attack, down to DC 8, plus about ¼ the average PC level.