Mass Combat System Play Analysis

So, Friday before last, I got to test run my mass combat system. Essentially, I tricked my players into playing a hex & chit wargame with my by disguising it as Dungeons & Dragons, but it actually went really well! Much better than I expected, in fact.

The sides were comprised of about 40k humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings and just over 100k (mostly low-level) undead. The PC factions were led by 20th level Humans and max-level demihumans, while the undead were led by 9HD vampires and a level 30 MU lich.

Most undead units were 5k in size, each taking up 2 hexes. Smaller units (1000 or less) took up 1 hex and ignored facing rules, and a pair of 10k strong human infantry took up 3 hexes.

The undead’s objectives were to a)Cross the map with one of a various combination of units or b)kill a certain number of the PC heroes. The PC’s objectives were to either a)eliminate 6 units, b) destroy the lich’s siege engines, or c) force the lich to use half of his spells.

While I gave my players a few options of how they could set-up (envelopment, one-sided flanks, meeting engagement, or a prepared defense), they opted to run a prepared line defense in the middle, with cavalry on the flanks.

In about 11 turns over the course of 5 hours, the PC’s pulled off a stunning upset victory against the Lich.

Here’s why:

  • I forgot to put Permanent Fly on the Lich; I wasn’t going to pull a fast one after I’d already showed everyone the ins and outs of what I’d be running. This deprived him of his ability to do ranged spell damage as often as he should’ve been able to.
  • I allowed some of the smaller “special” units of undead to count towards the 6 unit count; I also forgot that I shouldn’t have allowed wights to take casualties from normal units.
  • The lich had no missile troops. My players did pretty well with their archers and skirmishers. While I did manage to collapse their left flank, many of my troops did so right into clerics who could blow up the weaker skellies.
  • Vampires are too weak to go up against the PC party I’d created pre-gens for; I should’ve used much more powerful undead, but I wanted to keep things simple.
  • Magic Missile was broken; I’ll fix it when I rewrite the rules; it should’ve been a fixed amount of damage based on the unit size (perhaps in relation to the target unit’s average HD) rather than multiplied by the die-roll. The elves were doing maybe 1/3 to half a brigade worth of damage per round.
  • Because I did not want to deal with 3 full levels of spells I didn’t have physical books for, the Lich didn’t have a number of abilities and additional reality-shaping spells that would’ve made this a cakewalk. As such, while he did death-touch a 20th level fighter at one point and began to rout PC units just by wading into the fray himself, he couldn’t have held his own if the PCs ganged up on him, in large part because of an absence of “contingencies”.

Here’s what worked:

  • The combat damage system. Once everyone wrapped their head around how easy it was to figure 10% of the highest two digits, calculating damage was a breeze. The rolls to hit and against armor class were simple enough that the players figured out how the system worked pretty quickly.
  • Leader Combat. Well, okay, it kind of worked. It needs to be improved maybe, or maybe implementing it on a smaller scale would work better. Really, the PCs cleaved through the Vampire colonels like butter; the unit regulars could only hit PCs on 20 and even the Vampires had a tough job of landing a blow on the heavily armored PCs.
  • Cavalry are weak in numbers but can do massive damage. They do the most damage with charges. It made me smile when the players came to the realization on their own that they were using their cavalry wrong; they realized what they SHOULD have been doing was, instead of leaving their cavalry in melee, withdrawing after a charge, regrouping far enough away that they couldn’t be attacked by a charging unit, then charge again from a flank to get the charge damage bonus.
  • Turning worked almost just as planned. 2d6 x 10% of a cleric unit divided by the defending unit’s hit dice. I required that the unit the clerics were attempting to turn must have line of sight on the cleric unit. This meant that cleric units staying behind other units, performing first aid, couldn’t turn; they had to come out where the undead could see them.
  • Giving the cleric units a 3 shot ability to prevent ½ damage to an adjacent unit, up to the total number of clerics in the unit, worked pretty well.

Here’s what was a little iffy:

  • The Combat Order in general worked just fine, and I’m still sold on doing initiative per melee, though the players did say that it slowed things down a bit. BUT if you weren’t using initiative per melee, I’d probably go with the following order within the combat phase:
    • Declare unit combat pairings and splits
    • Unpaired attackers do their damage first
    • Paired/split attackers do damage simultaneously (i.e. use the unit sizes of all units at the beginning of combat to calculate damage, rather initiative-loser potentially takes losses and inflicts fewer casualties)Now what’s with split attacks? When units were being attacked by more than one unit, I allowed the defending unit to make attacks against all attackers, splitting damage proportionally.
  • Magic. Some of the spells worked out, others didn’t. The biggest problem was that I used 1d6+1 x 10% of the casting unit calculate damage for Magic Missile. While it was fine for the 500 strong MU unit, it made the 3500 strong elf unit a murder machine. Additionally, there are just some spells that either don’t really work for mass combat or would require some additional development

Here’s what could stand some further development:

  • Accounting for hit die differences. This isn’t something I did, in part because a) I didn’t have time and b) it would’ve bogged down an initial test more than I wanted. I DID have one unit of 100 bone golems where I had their HP as the true unit strength, and, because they were a small unit, each individual could inflict a kill. So, with 4 attacks, the unit could theoretically kill 400 per round while they had an effective HP of 2400 instead of 100.I treated the PC units as “elites”, using the 2nd column of the to-hit and saves, and the ability to cast spells as a 5th level MU x3. This didn’t mean that everyone in the unit was 5th level, just that the average quality of the troop was such that it had a to hit bonus and a save bonus. This wasn’t reflected in unit strength/hit dice.

    The starkest difference was between skeletons and zombies, 1 hit die monsters vs. 2 hit die monsters; in theory, the zombies should be twice as hard to kill. I didn’t treat it that way (except for Turn results). You could do some tweaks to kills, where there’s a base 10% damage then reduce it proportionally by the number of hit dice. For monsters with more than 3 hit die, I think it makes sense to treat them like I did the Bone Golems (a large group of individuals attacking and simultaneously, while tracking the collective HP, but not treating them truly as a regular unit per the system). Because really, when the bone golems attacked, I was rolling 4 attacks for each one once rather than 100 times, and therefore assumed that those attacks all succeeded against individuals in the defending units rather than an attack against the unit itself using unit to unit resolution. This may actually be the best fix, as it can account for smaller numbers of large monsters (ogres, owl bears, whatever) fighting against mass combat scale units. The entire unit may not be attacking monsters, but all of the monsters are attacking someone in the unit.

  • Morale. The morale mechanics ended up not being used or tested, in part because I didn’t really write them down, so meh. Also, being undead, the Lich’s units weren’t subject to morale per-se. The players didn’t quite figure out just HOW killing the Vampire colonels affected the undead units. Being undead, they didn’t break and flee; they kept fighting, though they didn’t pull back or move further. I noted each time a vampire colonel was defeated that they dropped a sword that glowed black. These were +1 swords of control undead; if any PC had picked one up, they could either command or dispel the brigade the Vampire had been leading, but no players bothered.
  • Fleshing out the system for purposes of accounting, to better tie it to your B/X game. There are book prices for mercenaries but I think it would be worth crunching the numbers for custom equipping units, as well as figuring what “elite” means for both cost and ability (especially for casters).

I really think that there’s some potential to this system. It would absolutely work great with fewer units and at lower levels, I think, but hey, we wanted a stupid-high level battle against a lich.


Some More on Barbarian Rage

Last week GitaBushi tried to troll PCBushi and me into getting into another lengthy discussion on the origins of Barbarian Rage in Dungeons & Dragons.

Fortunately, I saved us all a lot of time and trouble by finding this, which has some great answers on the subject.

If you recall from a couple weeks ago, I’d found that yes, there was a possible “ur example” of Rage in Moldvay’s stats for Stark, but it was not a feature of Gygax’s original Barbarian class, which was more an outdoorsy fighter (really more akin to a high-HP Ranger than what most folks think of as a D&D Barbarian today).

Although the barbarian was introduced in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st edition) in the Unearthed Arcana supplement, they were tribal wilderness warriors more akin to rangers, and didn’t have anything resembling the rage ability. It wasn’t until Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition that barbarians appeared with an ability with the actual name “Rage.” However, there were earlier versions of the Rage ability that just had different names.

In The Complete Barbarian’s Handbook (AD&D 2nd edition) there is the Brute class kit which provides a barbarian with the “Wild Brawl” special ability, which is introduced with, “When fighting without weapons, the Brute can propel himself into a berserk frenzy.” However, “Wild Brawl” is mechanically entirely unrelated to Rage.

In the same book, the Ravager class kit provided the barbarian with the “Become Enraged” special ability, with which the “Ravager may work himself into a fighting frenzy, increasing his effectiveness in combat.” Mechanically, an enraged Ravager hits easier and does more damage, is hit easier, is harder to damage, and is harder to charm.

Also in AD&D 2nd edition there is a Warrior class kit exclusive to dwarves in The Complete Book of Dwarves called the Battlerager, which is “a fearless warrior, able to create an insane rage within himself which increases his fighting ability and distorts his physical features,” and therefore a dwarven barbarian in all but name. A Battlerager in “the Killing Rage” receives bonus hit points, bonuses to attack and damage, and an AC bonus, as well as being immune to charm-like effects, but may not stop fighting until there are no more enemies standing.

Similar to the Battlerager is the is the Berserker class kit for fighters in The Complete Fighter’s Handbook (AD&D 2nd edition). A Berserker takes a long time to “Go Berserk”, but once Berserk gains similar benefits and also can’t stop fighting until every enemy is down. Notably, a Berserker isn’t allowed to know their own hit points while Berserk!

The Complete Book of Dwarves was published in 1991, four years before The Complete Barbarian’s Handbook; but The Complete Fighter’s Handbook was published two years earlier in 1989, making the Berserker the first barbarian-like† character with an ability that is recognisable as a “rage” ability.

†Bear in mind that before D&D3, the actual barbarian class was restricted to humans, so fighter class variants like the Berserker and Battlerager was the official way of playing a non-human character that fulfilled the same class role despite not bearing the name “barbarian.”


Mass Combat Rules Alpha

Given a week and a bad idea, this is what I came up with and will be testing out later tonight. There may still be some things that will get handled on the fly as they come up, but I feel comfortable handing this off to my players who are asking “what the heck are we doing?”

The scenario involves 11 Lvl 20 (or demi-human max) PCs leading “Elite” units (second column Saves & Thaco). 40k “good guys” vs. an army of just shy of 100k undead. Undead army is led by 30th level Lich, and his forces are broken into 16 brigades of vampire-led skeletons & zombies, plus a few regiments of wights, ghouls and thouls, plus a battalion of bone golems acting as his elite guard.

Note that these rules don’t constitute the “system”, are scenario specific, and leave out a lot of details that are included on the “character” and “unit” sheets which I won’t be posting.

Turn Order:

  1. Roll Initiative: Side with higher initiative goes first.
  2. Declare Casting
  3. Winning side’s Archers
    1. Archer may not move and fire
    2. Halfling skirmishers may move and fire, fire then move, or move, fire, then move again
  4. Winning side Movement
  5. Charge Combats are resolved
  6. Losing side Archers
  7. Losing side movement
  8. Non-Charge Melees are resolved individually, with individual initiative rolls per encounter.
    1. Damage is calculated simultaneously if initiative is tied.
  9. Winning side’s spells are resolved
  10. Losing side’s spells are resolved

(AOE damage spells in melee affect 50/50, unless casters have LOS on flank or rear of a Division/Brigade)

Movement is written on bottom of pieces; it’s based on unit’s equipment.

  • Regular movement costs 1 per hex
  • Rotating/pivoting a large unit costs 1 per 15 minutes (any point of axis)
    • “Facing” only matters for Brigades/Divisions (2-3 hex units)
    • A unit may do an “about face” for 1 movement point
    • Units may rotate/pivot or about face on the same turn they charge, but must use the charge movement to move in a straight line.
  • Leaders may double move, though this may mean they leave their units. Units without their leaders do not get the CHA bonus to hit.
  • Charge: units may move double their normal movement – this constitutes a charge
    • The additional movement from the charge MUST be in a straight line.
    • Unit with long weapons win first initiative over short, regardless of who charges
      • Unless defending unit is flanked or engaged in melee with another unit
    • If a unit charges and does not engage in melee, it misses its next movement
      • Missile/magic troops that miss their movement in this manner MAY fire on their next turn.
    • Leaving Melee – a unit may voluntarily leave melee in either of the following methods, or must in the 2nd method if a leader flees/is killed
      • On unit’s melee init; may not attack; costs 2 movement; retreating player chooses facing; does not provoke an attack


  • On unit’s melee init; may not attack; costs 1 movement; unit faces direction it moved; provokes an attack.


Normal units do 10% of their strength in damage/kills. +10% per bonus for special.

Cavalry units do 50% of their strength on their initial charge, plus an additional attack. (This is noted on the cavalry character sheets, for a total of 4 attacks)

Magic units

  • Targeted/multi-target spells – 1 damage = 1 kill x10% unit str
  • AOE spells – 1 damage = 1 kill x 10% unit str

Magic User (individual)

  • Targeted spell – 1 kill
  • Multi-target spell – 1 kill per die
  • AOE spells – 1 damage = 1 kill

Turning – 2d6 x 10% of a cleric’s unit strength, adjusted by undead type.

Split Melee – if a unit is in melee with 2 units, it may make 2 attacks, halving any damage dealt.

Leaders – Leaders may fight with their troops. This provokes 3 individual monster attacks per round. Doing so, they will have a 1-6 chance per round of confronting an enemy unit leader. Both leaders may seek one another out, rolling on their initiative.

  • +1 leader is mounted with a foot unit.
  • -1 leader is hiding

Leaders may also leave their units and fight alone. Attacking alone provokes 1d4+4 monster attacks on an individual per round. Unmounted leader may not leave combat when attacked by a unit, unless a friendly unit engages the enemy unit in melee, allowing them to “escape”.

Lich Rule – Human/demihuman units may not voluntarily move within 6 hexes of the Lich. Units MUST attempt to maintain this distance, moving away from the Lich during their movement phase, even if it means breaking melee (see leaving melee). Heroes must fight the Lich alone; soldiers’ weapons cannot harm him.

(Scenario) Siege Engines – it takes a unit 1 round to destroy one point of siege engine. Certain damage spells such as fireballs may also destroy them.

  • XX – Division
  • X – Brigade
  • III – Regiment
  • II – Battalion

Errata (Halfling sling range 40/80/160); all Human and Elf PCs may have Standard War Mounts (15 HP AC15 (1d6/1d6; AB: 3)); Cleric units adjacent to units in melee may reduce that unit’s losses by 50%. They may use this ability up to 3 times, including on themselves.


Skeletons Need to REEEEEEEE!

I feel like skeletons have kinda lost their luster in a lot of games, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. They’re often used as obvious tableau monsters–skeletons at a table playing cards? They’ll get up and attack you; skeletons laying down in beds? They’ll get up and attack you. At one hit die and easily turned by priests, they just never seem like that big a threat unless they can get economy of action on you. And even then, they’re often mundane mooks; players aren’t really scared of them. Then I remembered…

Skeletons are supposed to REEEEEEEEEEEE!

Skeleon Reeee

None of the games I’ve been in have done this, and I’ll admit I’ve failed to include it myself. But when skeletons attack, they are supposed to shriek for up to three rounds. And during each of those three rounds, there’s a 50/50 chance that a wandering monster will come check out what the hell is going on.

So, you go from a blah encounter with a few skellies that the clerics turn and the fighters hack to bits to a cascading nightmare as the dungeon’s alarm system has just alerted half the dungeon to your presence.

Edit: Oops! Looks like I screwed this up! The picture for skeletons are under the entry for Shriekers. No wonder! But hell, why not have skeleton shriekers?


Short Thoughts on “Easy Magic”

Bradford Walker recently posted an excellent article titled “Easy Magic Turns Everyone into Magneto, Not Gandalf“.

One of the points he addresses is that there was a tendency for power-gamers to see the Magic Users in their party as dead weight, because so often (especially at low levels), they’d simply hide in the back and skip their turns, likely (or theoretically) denying the party an economy of action advantage.

I’ve seen lots of folks get mad at MU players because they don’t understand the MU is a situational character. It’s happened to me, especially when I’m in an “oldschool” game with new players.

I’ll be in the back passing every round in a fight, and they’ll ask “Why aren’t you helping?”

“I am helping,” I tell them. “I’m staying alive for when you really need my spell!”

Sure enough, 15-20-30 minutes later, I’ll one shot-an encounter or set-piece or be able to drag ALL the treasure out of a room on my floating disc cuz I didn’t stick my neck out for my possible 1d4 damage economy of action.

In the last oldschool game I played at an RPG day, new players begged for my help against giant spiders. I declined. And lived. And completely emptied another room of loot. When robbers attacked us back at the inn, I foiled them with a quick Web spell.

I did my job and filled my role of highly-situational-deus-ex-machina.

Unfortunately, MU players often need to be MORE cautious than they technically should, because so many DMs ignore the melee rules that prevent opponents from changing combatants in a fight without spending a full round breaking combat and not being engaged by another opponent.

Finally, I’ll note that ignoring the engagement rules, you severely cripple the role of the Fighter, particularly at lower levels. An enemy being attacked by a fighter CANNOT choose to attack some other enemy nearby (thief going for backstab) unless they’ve already entered combat with that individual. This is one reason why I advocate, if not use of minis, some token representation of where characters are in a fight.


Tabletop Gaming on a Budget

Holy crap, is Cirsova participating in a blog carnival again? It’s been ages! Like, I may have been a guest-blogger at Dice Monkey the last time I did one of these…

Renaissance Gamer is hosting this month’s Blog Carnival with the theme of Tabletop Gaming on a Budget.

Money is usually tight following the holidays, and gamers are not exempt from this. You are likely going into January gift-rich and money-poor. Which isn’t a bad thing, but it might mean your tabletop game spending has to take a backseat for a while.

Or does it? January’s RPG Blog Carnival topic is Tabletop Gaming on a Budget: how to get gold piece value gaming supplies and resources for copper piece prices. Useful just after the holidays? Sure. But maybe you’re new to the hobby and want to dip your toe before diving deep into your wallet. Or you want to try some new games without breaking the bank. Have you considered taking the leap into game mastering, but the laundry list of GM supplies is daunting? This month’s RPG Carnival posts will help you play games without spending big dollars.

This is the anchor post for the month, so if you’re taking part in this month’s carnival drop a link to your blog post in the comments below. If you just want the tips, bookmark this page and stop back throughout the month. I’ll also post a wrap-up at the end of the month, bringing it all together. And keep your eye on the blog, I’ll have my own post on the wonders and delights to be found at your local Dollar Store.

If you’re seriously concerned about gaming on a budget or are new to the hobby, there are a few things to consider.

Don’t: Buy a full set of core books. In fact, I’d say, don’t buy any core books until you’re certain what system you’re playing or running. I’m also not a fan of systems that are spread out across multiple core books (sorry, most editions of D&D!); these can prove to be a big money sink for potential players who don’t know what they want from a game or if they really want to play this or that system. Do: Research the game you want to play. If you’re new to tabletop gaming, there are a lot of great systems out there that are less weighty in terms of both rules and the literal weight of the stack of tomes you’re asked to invest in. My favorite version of Dungeons & Dragons (B/X) can be found for a few bucks in PDF; many clones of earlier editions are available for free–OSRIC’s presentation of 1st ed AD&D is much friendlier than the original in terms of organization of content.

Do: Buy a full set of dice (d4/d6/d8/d10/d12/d20). Don’t: Go all out and buy weird and highly specific or ridiculous dice with prime-numbered sides (d3/d5/d7/etc.). If you’ll be playing in a game that needs these, you can probably borrow rather than invest in the rather pricey sets.

Do: Get some cheap loose-leaf paper, a notebook, and some pencils. Character sheets are nice, but not essential. Still, good ones can be found free online for nearly any system. Don’t: Spend top dollar on a moleskine notebook, day-planners, calendars, etc. IF you’re running a game, a dollar-store calendar might be a good idea, because keeping track of time in a game is an essential aspect of running a meaningful RPG.

Don’t: Buy a whole bunch of miniatures. Miniatures are a ton of fun, and are sort of a hobby in their own right, but having totally accurate minis is not an essential component of tabletop gaming. Do: Find some cheap, but durable tokens that can be used. Most editions of D&D use combat rules that hinge on some use of miniature combat–some folks like theatre of the mind, but for that to work, you’re discarding a significant chunk of the actual game rules, and adjudication becomes a fuzzy “eh, whatever” instead of a fair game mechanic. The same applies for dungeon props, tiles, maps, etc. Those can prove to be hobbies in their own right as well, but if you’re new or on a budget, they’re extraneous and can be supplemented with all sorts of things (my group breaks out a Jenga set sometimes). It’s not the right time of year for it, but Dollar Tree carries halloween miniatures and decorations that double as dungeon dressing for cheap (I’ve got a bone gazebo! For a dollar!) But again, it’s extraneous.


Playing Some Oldschool D&D!

While I love my homegame (Gutters, Guilds & Grimoires in the Strigistadt setting) , I still have a hankering to play some jen-you-wine B/X D&D, so I was pretty stoked someone was running a Moldvay Basic game at RPG Guild Day.  Turns out it was a friendly acquaintance I’d met at NTRPGCon who was running it, too.  He had the red and blue boxes there and everything!

A lot of one-shot oldschool games tend to be either 1st level adventures or funnels for 0-levels, so I was extra stoked that we were running 3rd level characters. I jumped on the chance to play a Magic-User, because when would I ever get the chance to play a 3rd level Magic-User again?!

Argus was a pre-gen, and I wondered if I’d made a mistake, as he mostly had utility spells (and no Sleep!), and he had a Wis of 3. Did I play him smarter than his character? It would be hard not to, but I was determined to make the best of it.

Local town had a ruined wizard tower in it, and monsters had started causing trouble in the town. D&D 101!

We met up with a local adventurer who was gung-ho to enter the dungeon. First room had two doors! Choices! We took the door on the right, that opened into a hallway with one branch that led to another door and continued into magic darkness. The magical nature of the darkness was apparent, as no torchlight could penetrate it. I figured best case, someone cast continual darkness, worst-case, there was a monster that radiated darkness as an innate ability. Someone threw a rock into the darkness and woke up some giant spiders.

“Can’t you help us with your magic, wizard?”

“I’ll wait for something that’s not spiders to cast web at.

The party killed a couple spiders, but Friendly Local Adventurer got one-hit. While a couple party members were arguing whether to loot the body, leave the body, or take FLA back to town for burial, more spiders show up.

Everyone heads back to the first room of the dungeon, and my Magic User proves his worth by putting a padlock on door. Try and unlock the door, now, giant spiders!

Second room has a book-shelf full of books, a cabinet, and a pedestal with a ginormous jade stone. My magic user lights up like a pin-ball machine. He wants everything in the room hauled out back to town, ASAP. Other players are hesitant.

“But we just got here!”

“Exactly! We have all of this awesome, but heavy loot that we don’t have to take out of the dungeon very far. I’ll pull up my disc and we can take it back to town.”

Worth noting that with the exception of myself and the DM’s wife, all of the players were either new to oldschool or TTRPGs in general. The party was at least convinced that we needed to spike the two other doors leading out of the room while we assessed the contents. The north door had something behind it, as mad obvious by all of the angry scratching, skittering, and eventually banging being made following the noise of the door being spiked.

There was a bunch of frustrating debate as to whether to fight the monsters, go through the door that monsters weren’t banging on, take the loot and go, or take the loot out on the way back.

I made something of an executive decision, casting Hold Portal on the door the monsters were banging on, casting Floating Disc, and bribing two fighters to put the pedestal with the giant scrying stone on it so I could take it back to town.

Back in town, I reserved a private room at the inn for my scrying stone and myself, only to be beset by a couple townsfolk sneaking in the window! I got a lucky initiative roll and webbed them both. I insisted they be turned over to the town constabulary; despite claims that they were drunk and even the innkeeper putting in a word on their behalf, we weren’t really buying it. We had to set watch at the inn, and sure enough, the constable had not imprisoned them! A skirmish ensued around the inn, but I unfortunately had to leave.

DM let me know how it turned out: secret cult in town was trying to feed souls into the dungeon in an attempt to bring back the evil wizard, and the party fought a spider incarnation of the wizard.

Wish I’d been able to be there for the whole thing, but I had a great time!

Something I will probably be borrowing the next time I run a game:

Rotating initiative by side – big problem I had doing initiative by side was arguments over who would roll for the players and in what order they would declare. Forcing PCs to declare in order with a different PC rolling/going first each time fixes that.

I’m not sold on using crits in B/X. Partly because it’s already a high-lethality/low-HP system. I also don’t know that I care for Target 20, but I’d need to see it in action more.