Streamlining Mass Combat in 4E with Throngs and Squads

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.]

 

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:

Roman Legionary (Praetorian Guard Regular)

Level 9 Soldier

Medium natural humanoid (human)

XP 400

HP 97; Bloodied 49

AC 25; Fortitude 22; Reflex 20; Will 19

Speed 5

Initiative +9

Perception +6

Traits

Shield Wall

When a Legionary is adjacent to another legionary, he gains a +2 bonus to AC and Reflex.

Marked Advantage

The human soldier deals an extra 1d4 damage on all attacks against a target that is marked by it.

Standard Actions

m Gladius (weapon) • At-Will

Attack: +16 vs. AC

Hit: 2d6 + 6 damage, and the target is marked until the end of the legionary’s next turn.

R Pilum (weapon) • Encounter

Attack: Ranged 5/10; +14 vs. Reflex; The Legionary casts his pilum which tends to stick into a foe or his shield, slowing him down and reducing his defenses.

Hit: 4d6 + 4 damage and the target grants combat advantage to all foes (save ends).

m Tide of Iron (weapon) • At-Will

Attack: Requires shield; +16 vs. AC

Hit: 1d6 + 7 damage, and the target is pushed 1 square if it is Large or smaller. The legionary can shift 1 square into the space vacated by the target.

Triggered Actions

M Downed like Achilles • Recharge 6

Trigger: When the target misses the legionary with a melee attack.

Attack (Immediate Interrupt): Melee 1 (one creature); +14 vs. Reflex; The Legionary jabs his blade into the ankle of his foe, dropping him to the ground.

Hit: 4d6 + 5 and the target is knocked prone.

Skills Endurance +10, Intimidate +11, Athletics +13

Str 18 (+8)

Dex 17 (+7)

Wis 14 (+6)

Con 17 (+7)

Int 14 (+6)

Cha 14 (+6)

Alignment unaligned Languages Common

Equipment pilum (heavy javelin) x2, scutiarri (heavy shield), gladius (short sword), lorica hamata (chain shirt)

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:

Legionary Squad (praetorian cohort)

Level 16 Soldier

Huge natural humanoid (human)

XP 1,400

HP 204; Bloodied 102

AC 32; Fortitude 29; Reflex 26; Will 27

Speed 5

Resist takes half damage from melee and ranged attacks; Vulnerability 10 to close or area attacks

Initiative +11

Perception +8

Traits

O Squad Aura • Aura 1

The squad makes a gladius attack as a free action against any non-squad, throng or swarm enemy that starts its turn within the Aura

Shield Wall

A legionary squad can choose to keep creatures out of its squares with its shield wall. This is in effective against swarms.

Squad Traits

The squad is only subject to effects that are created by close or area attacks. Any of the squad’s attacks is considered a close or area attack when applied to another squad.

Squad Traits – Attrition

When a squad becomes bloodied, it is weakened

Hit ‘em while they‘re down!

A prone enemy within the squad provokes attacks of opportunity for any attempted movement and takes an additional 3d6 damage from that squad’s attacks while prone

Standard Actions

c Gladius (weapon) • At-Will

Attack: Melee 1 (one creature); +23 vs. AC

Hit: 2d6 + 9 damage, and the target is marked until the end of the squad’s next turn.

A Pilum (weapon) • Encounter

Requirements: Must have pilae. This power can be used 2 x per encounter.

Attack: Area burst 2 within 10 (creatures within burst); +21 vs. Reflex; The squad casts their pilae which tend to stick into a foe or his shield, slowing him reactions and reducing his defenses.

Hit: 5d6 + 7 damage and the target grants combat advantage to all foes (save ends).

m Tide of Iron (weapon) • At-Will

Requirements: Requires shield.

Attack: Melee 1 (one creature); +23 vs. AC

Hit: 1d10 + 11 damage, and the target is pushed 1 square . The squad can shift 1 square into the space vacated by the target.

M Break the Wall! • Recharge 5 6

Attack: Melee 1 (one creature); +23 vs. AC; The squad makes a concerted effort against its foes, pressing the attack and cutting through the line

Hit: 5d6 + 7 damage and the target is knocked prone. If the target is a squad, the squad moves into its space and target is instead weakened and grants combat advantage until the squad is no longer in its space. A squad’s shield wall is ineffective against this attack.

Miss: The squad grants combat advantage to the target (save ends) and provokes an immediate attack of opportunity.

Skills Endurance +16, Intimidate +15, Athletics +19

Str 22 (+14)

Dex 12 (+9)

Wis 10 (+8)

Con 21 (+13)

Int 10 (+8)

Cha 14 (+10)

Alignment unaligned Languages Common

Equipment pilum (heavy javelin) x2, scutiarri (heavy shield), gladius (short sword), lorica hamata (chain shirt)

© 2010 Wizards of the Coast LLC, a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. All rights reserved. This formatted statistics block has been generated using the D&D Adventure Tools.

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.

8 Responses to Streamlining Mass Combat in 4E with Throngs and Squads

  1. I read the title as thongs, and was confused. These are some great mechanics though. I might steal them. another interesting idea would be that the squad breaks ranks at bloodied or something similar to show discipline failing or just out of a tactical necessity. That would be kinda neat.

  2. I had contemplated something like that, but I generally implement that sort of action as DM rather than through mechanics, and the party actually chased away i think four of the squads (all wounded) after they killed their leaders.

  3. I think, if we’d had Gita and Sevash there, Dowsabel would have focused her attacks a bit more on the throngs instead of the leaders. Based on our setup, I felt it prudent to attack the Priests and only include the throngs if they could be in the effect of her area attacks.

    I’m sure it won’t be the last time our group encounters throngs though.

  4. I totally support the use of throngs. It’s different from the normal encounter, and adds a bit of realism (to a world full of demons, and magic, and whatnot.) Also, as you said, it allows for regular soldiers to still be relevant. Don’t always have to fight super monsters, and demi-gods. On top of that they present a new challenge for strikers. Really makes me appreciate the few burst and blast powers at my disposal.

  5. Third edition was the last time I ran DnD, but when I did I did just this! I had “swarms” of medium humans for mobs & soldiers. I like it a lot! Plus, you can do weird things like have special kill conditions that disperse the unit– frag the Lt or chop down the standard, whatever.

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