For my game I wanted to try and have a pitched battle and struggled a bit to think about how I could run something like that on the tabletop. Some ideas were a combination of a skill challenge in tandem with a few fights. Successful (or failed) rounds for the skill challenge would result in advantages (or disadvantages) in the following fights of the battle. Although it still was a bit longer than I wanted, and I didn’t want to get bogged down in a massive combat with tons of participants on each side.
A long while back I touched on handling fights through an abstract way. Another past post of mine looked at randomizing attacks of opportunity. So looking at these ideas I whipped up some quick and dirty rules how I would handle a mass combat.
Players fight the leaders - Recreating a massive battle where players hacked through nameless throngs of minions would be boring. I wanted the PCs trading blows with the main villain as something heroic. The goal was simple, either they kill the lead baddies, or end up worm food themselves, or potentially so beaten and battered they surrendered and end up as captives.
In my game I had the players fighting against a wizard that had a huge golem in toe. These guys were the big threat. If the group took them out, the remaining forces would likely break and run. I think that is key to having this kind of engagement. Don’t just throw bodies at the players, give them a few personalities on the field. Maybe a general and a few commanders scattered about. If the players drop enough of them, morale for the opposing army will wane and eventually make them rout.
All sides suffer attacks of opportunity - I figured out the appropriate bonus for attack and typical minion damage for the player’s level and used this as a battle attack of opportunity. Then each turn, including for the villain NPC’s I employed the following rules:
1. At the beginning of the turn, they provoked a battle attack of opportunity.
2. If the players (or creatures) moved up to ½ their speed, each square of movement, ignoring shifts, would provoke a battle attack of opportunity on a 1 in 8 (using a d8).
3. If they moved greater than ½ their speed, they provoke a battle attack of opportunity for each square of movement on a 1 in 4 (using a d4).
4. Players make their move as normal, and then the battle attacks of opportunity are resolved.
All sides can suffer combat advantage - At the end of their turn players (or monsters) may be in a poor tactical position. On a 1 in 4 all opponents have combat advantage against them. If they moved less than half their speed (including shifts), they suffer combat advantage on a 1 in 8. Players offer combat advantage until the beginning of their turn.
Narration, Narration, Narration - The most important part of the fight is describing the scene. Players are going to see very few tokens and monsters on the map. Effectively, they are going to pair off against a handful of monsters at most representing the main villains and command elements of the enemy army. However it’s important to stress that there are others all around them. Every one of them are in a pitched battle, parrying attacks and making several attacks themselves, but all of these actions are never rolled.
It’s important to paint a picture that the players have fellow soldiers flanking them, and if they are lucky, find their opponents distracted by unnamed foot soldier giving them an opportunity to effectively land a powerful attack. Be graphic and try to paint a scene. If a player runs across the battlefield to engage an orc commander, quickly count the squares, roll all the dice and describe the action.
If a player gets suffers a few attacks and takes a bit of damage, describing how a brutish orc hurled a spear at them, catching them in the side as they bolted across the ground to face the orc leader, is engaging. Just telling the player they opened up three attacks of opportunity, with two hitting for 12 points of damage just doesn’t cut it. Frequently remind the players they are darting and weaving, parrying attacks and aiding fellow comrades, even if there is nothing on the map to show these other participants in the battle.
What comes out of this is that players are under constant threat of attack. It’s assumed that surrounding them are allies and enemies alike. If they are moving slowly, they maintain some form of rank with allies and suffer less attacks of opportunity. If they break ranks and whirl around the battlefield, they have less companions watching their back.
Finally, throughout the battle they could be dodging missile fire, or having their attention split among several attackers. The greater the movement their turn, the more likely they will allow opponents to have combat advantage against them. If they stand firm, or move little during their turn, it’s less likely that someone can flank them.
For my group it worked well. Constantly having an attack against them, right at the start of their turn, having the potential of offering combat advantage, all the while trying to take out the main villains made for an exciting fight. It takes a lot of handwaving and describing the action, but in the end I think my players had a memorable fight of a large battle that worked using a few additional rules and a lot of narrative action.