Even though Dungeons and Dragons evolved from tabletop wargaming, it has never really been easy to implement large scale combats in a D&D game. Likewise lower level ‘monsters’ like city guardsmen eventually become so weak that they are little more than speed bumps for high level adventurers. This has never sat well with me so I’m always on the lookout for alternatives to a game system’s marginalization of ‘regular’ soldiers and a ‘clean’ way to implement troop formations on a battlefield that does not itself marginalize PC’s.
Last week as I took the reins back from Gavin as DM, I had a chance to implement a ‘squad’ design I’ve been tinkering around with for a while. It got some play testing from both sides and I have incorporated some of the lessons learned in the ‘final’ version presented here. Here’s how it works.
I started with an individual ‘line’ soldier that my party has interacted with. This is one of the most elite versions of the Roman line troops, but the mechanics could be applied to lower level troops as well. Here’s the line troop:
I then borrowed from the ‘throng’ mechanics that Open Grave introduces, which is itself an extrapolation from ‘swarm’ mechanics, though applied to medium rather than tiny creatures. We had used a few zombie throngs in our low level gritty campaign a week before but they didn’t seem to work quite right for intelligent beings fighting in formation. In addition, the rules for throngs in Open Grave are inexact for leveling up purposes. The only real example I saw was the regular zombie (lvl 2) and the zombie throng (lvl 9).
That was a 7 level increase from the zombie to the throng which I implemented for my squads. There wasn’t much information on the number of zombies in a throng, which probably isn’t necessary anyway, but I made my squads 12 man elements. I figure military organizations are going to require a bit more precision for their numbers than a mass of zombies or a mob of peasants.
The original squad that I created had exactly the same powers as the base creature, with a few changed to burst because area attacks are needed to cause full damage against a squad (or throng or swarm) and I wanted my squad to be able to damage another squad on equal footing.
I wasn’t totally pleased with the mechanic however so I tweaked the traits a bit in the stat block to reflect a certain supremacy of a squad over individual combatants while leaving the squads to fight comparable units more equally. As a result there are five traits for the squad which might look a little unwieldy at first. However, I don’t think they are troublesome in practice.
Here’s the new squad:
You can see that for the main attacks, I kept most of them the same, but I replaced ‘Downed like Achilles’ with ‘Break the Wall!’ The Achilles power didn’t feel right to me in use during the battle and Break the Wall seemed like a necessary power as the battle unfolded. The fight was in a large pair of rooms with some elevated terrain, but there were two choke points, only one of which was open at the start. Two opposing squads charged right in and basically blocked that point until near the end of the battle.
In fact, it was a single creature, the enemy’s war-priest of Mars that finally broke the stalemate at the doorway. Which brings me to the next point, characters can still interact meaningfully, even epically, with these squads. The war-priest fought a squad essentially by himself. Troian, our warlock, blasted two squads off a raised walkway, dramatically shifting the field. The rest of the party ended up blasting the individual leaders more often than not, but the party’s new warlord had a pretty good time moving the troops around the battlefield, and stopping the enemy squads from outflanking the rest of the party. Our guardian and barbarian were MIA but I tend to think they might have been able to toe the line with one of these squads successfully while still being threatened with some damage.
On the large scale operation side, the party had four active squads at the start of the combat and the enemy had six. That, combined with individual combatants, was still a lot to keep track of. On the other hand we were able to simulate a battle of about 80 versus 50 in about the time it usually takes us to run a boss fight. I think it went down well even if my players were not quite as beleaguered as I had planned.
There are other mechanics that could spice up the squads. You could use individual officer monsters to lead these troops, particularly since other units can be in their space. And you could potentially increase the ‘squad’ to a ‘company’ by raising the level even further and increasing the base size to gargantuan. In any event, the squad in my mind fills its primary function, to keep regular troops relevant in a high level 4e game. [They also make controllers relevant beyond, "You guys are great against minions!" - Ed.]