Sunday, December 6, 2009

Mass Bloody Butchery

Coincidentally, as I'm reading posts about mass combat (Chgowiz, Delta), I'm gearing up in my campaign for a mass combat.  In fact, the numbers are not yet determined, which is part of the fun, as my offline party has to wait two weeks to find out what happens next.

The party amounts to a group of level sevens and eights, who only recently found themselves pressed against the wall by 105 goblins (95 archers, 10 goblins mounted on worgs) and one fifth level ftr/mage drow elf, fighting from a fortified position consisting of two towers and a wall.  The archers and mage did a nice job of tearing holes in the party while they cleaned up the worgs.  Fun was had all around.  Total participants: 19 party members and henchmen vs. 126 opponents (counting the worgs).

Turns out, behind the front fortification, placed between two mountains, is a valley dominated by wooden fortification (treated with pitch, so firing it won't be easy), containing some 200 goblins, 50 hobgoblins and at least five drow (this is the reconnoitoring knowledge the party has).  The party isn't the least concerned with the lower-level fodder (except that there are ballista on the tower), but having the drow decimate them with magic as they wade through the fodder doesn't fill them with glee.  So they've taken steps to gather some fodder of their own.

(Incidentally, I pay no attention to rules involving the drow and sunlight.  Never have)

I want to keep the background down to a minimum.  The party's mage is the nominal head of the fiefdom, but he's been gone for a year on party business, and he has come back to find the population of the fief cut from 1800 to 1400, most of the outer towns decimated or abandoned, and this mass of creatures on the doorstep.  It could have been dealt with before it grew into this problem ... but the party didn't think it was that important.

So ... the mage is beating the drum to raise up a force from within the fief (mostly women and children), and asking the Lord next door for aid - I'll probably throw the Lord himself into the mix, plus 150 men ... which will look like overkill.

In the meantime, the drow will send out for aid also.  I'm thinking trolls, or ogres, plus more hobgoblins or whatever.  My guess is that the party force will number 230-250.  I'm thinking the opposition will top out at 325-375, depending on how many more goblins I add.  Estimated number: 600.

Now, I know this would make many DMs sweat - I can't say I'm looking forward to it.  The combat won't be accomplished in one session, something the party knows and are totally cool with.  The pre-combat, the one they finished last night, took two sessions to run.  I'm told no one was bored.

As I see it, I have three choices:

Option 1.  I can spend the next two weeks throwing together a jury-rigged mass combat system, based on previous incarnations of mass combat that I have attempted.  My experience is that, while this will work to determine who the winners and losers are, it will pretty much solve the problem from my perspective only. 

Mass combat is stale and dull for parties, who don't relate to their character suddenly being associated with a 'unit', or being damaged by average hit point distributions.  I've played out these things, and except for the player who actually likes war games like this, no one else feels invested in the slightest.

Plus, killing a character this way, when the character is part of a mass of men, is anathema to a campaign.  No one feels right about it.

Option 2.  I can ignore the battle, and concentrate on only the player's involvement in it.  In other words, divide the participants into those the party cares about and 'everyone else'.  Sure, the party fights on this side, but over there the Lord and his men do this, or that, or get blasted, or break into the fort conveniently at just the right time ... in short, reduce their involvement to a story line.  To hell with the actual details regarding NPCs.  This is about the party!

Naturally, the party winds up feeling, usually, that the whole thing has been handed to them on a silver platter, or that it has been made unreasonably difficult for them.  And let's admit it ... the DM is almost certainly going to have the Lord half-succeed (most of the enemy killed, the fort breached) while also half-failing (the Lord dies valiantly, thus not getting in the way of the party plundering the treasure).

I've tried this also; it's all right, it works.  The party usually doesn't care as long as they get treasure.  But you're sort of forced to make the party win.  If the party doesn't win, it's the DMs fault - he didn't give enough credence to the NPC force - might as well have never had the NPC force, and just had the party fight less creatures.  Why make it a mass combat at all?

Option 3.  Let me say, this is the one I'm leaning towards, because it is the one I've never tried.  Roll every die.  Yes, that's right.  You heard me.

I can almost hear the moans as I write this.  But hear me out.  This isn't 1982.

Mass combat is based on the impracticality of doing what I suggest - it takes too long to throw 1200+ attack dice and damage dice per round, not to mention saving throws and so on.  We will all be here until Hell hath passed from Winter to Spring - and boredom will reign.  Now and then a longtime DM will try it out for themself - stage a mock combat, populate both sides with a hundred fighters, and go at it.  I doubt most such combats are ever fought to the last man.

But I have been thinking ... I am easily able to roll hundreds of dice at the click of a mouse, IF I program the random numbers, and their results, into a very simple Excel spreadsheet.  With a little programming, I can produce automatically not only the die rolls, but the AC hit, the damage done and even the targets hit.  Depending on how much programming I do.

The trick would be to REDUCE the amount of programming ... to not try to cover every detail.  To make one line which selects the target, rolls a die, determines the AC the die hits (by imputing the creature's THACO), roll damage if it hits, and then cut and paste.

I honestly don't know how many people out there understand Excel - but this is almost painfully simple to do.

What it allows is to divide the party and its henchmen up into the various groups assaulting the castle from all sides, or against flanking attacks, so that every force has a party member or members involved.  I have three characters that fly (mage, shape-changing druid and thief with wings of flying), so it enables them to flit from assault to assault as needed.  The battle will be a grind - nothing can be done about that - but hopefully, a grind where everyone is invested, where characters are literally brave or terrified, depending on how it goes (out of my hands, regarding 'storytelling'), and the party can, ultimately, LOSE.

Am I crazy?


Ragnorakk said...

Crazy? I don't think so! I've tried the first two methods before and find them both less than satisfying. I don't know Excel (but you obviously do!), but doing this kind of thing in C or Perl would be pretty easy to accomplish (easy being a relative term of course), and I think it would be a very interesting experiment, and kinda ideal.

Knightsky said...

In #113 of Dragon magazine there was an article called "One Roll, To Go" that had charts for determining the success or failure of groups of 5, 10, or 20 for a particular action. For example, you might determine what a group of 20 archers need to hit their foes, make a single roll (using percentile dice), check against the appropriate table, and determine that, say, 13 of the 20 archers made successful rolls to hit that turn. If you can find that a copy of that article, it may be of use for what you're looking to do.

Word verification: catest (what the Cat Lord describes himself as)

geeknanny said...

Surely you're not planning on diagramming the location of every single of the hundreds of combatants in your battle, are you? If not, then sine you're already working at the squad level, at least for the peons, so why not just resolve squad v. squad battles using a single representative from each one? If a squad squared off against a powerful entity, you could resolve them individually, but otherwise, I don't see what doing each roll really buys you except a bunch of hassle.

Now if you were planning on tracking each combatants movement individually, more power to you; that's where I think the more interesting decisions and consequences would occur... but I can't imagine it would be interesting enough to merit the time it would take.

Alexis said...


I appreciate that, but as I've said, I've tried all of them, and every kind of system. I find it odd that you are pitching method number 1 at me.


Yes, "diagramming." Much easier done with a diagramming program, where squad sized collections of individuals can be linked together and moved as one unit.

And you're quoting number 2.

Chgowiz said...

Yup, Excel would make it pretty easy for generation of monster stats, the resolution of round by round dice tossing, resolution and book-keeping.

Now you've got my programming side ticking. Round by round results... yea, that's not all that hard. I am curious how you'd map the 3d world into 2d Excel, unless you're going to abstract some of the battlefield, or you're going to have a great deal of granularity in your sheet. Then it becomes an exercise in data entry. You are a brave man. *chuckle*

As part of your solution, I'm inferring that the players would be present and watching as the spreadsheet crunches numbers. Would this be a round by round thing, where the players input their actions? Or is this just a "fire and watch" thing?

Here's the thing that Option 3 doesn't offer - at least for me - the sense of "doing something" as part of the tabletop game. For me, the tactile moving of minis/counters/tokens, rolling of dice, being involved - that would be taken away when the battlefield is put into an excel spreadsheet. I'd have to give *something* for myself and the players to do, but that is an admitted personal preference.

Badmike said...

My brothers were part of the "roll every number" crowd. They had all the stats for every one of their followers (zero level or not), and when we had a battle with their combined dwarven and human armies against a giant invastion, they rolled every single dice in the combat, and loved it.


Alexis said...

Not quite, Chgowiz. The map will still be designed as a digital hexmap in Microsoft Publisher, visible on two monitors for the party to see. I will then provide the interface, applying the data on the excel program to the screen as necessary (I'll be having two screens of my own, one which is the duplicate of what the party is seeing, one which no one can see but me ... four monitors!).

So therefore, the party will be able to 'make decisions' throughout the campaign. This is very important, as the three major spellcasters in the party will likely move from combat front to combat front, to apply their magics to whatever battle is in greatest need. That is the main reason why "squad on squad" combat won't work in this case ... as always, every mass combat system in D&D is fucked by the magic.

I'm very glad to see that both you and Badmike seem to be on my side.

Chgowiz said...

@Alexis - sounds like that will work for your players - what has been their feedback to your suggestions?

Magic is always the random wild card - I'm curious how you'll apply the results to your spreadsheet calculations.

I'm going to "use" magic in different ways for different situations in my HOTT implementation. HOTT already has a "bespelled" mechanic and a magician element - it's easy enough to extend that to include various effects based on certain spells for mage vs. elements. If the combat goes into a one-on-one situation, D&D rules apply.

I'm always on the side of trying something out and either failing spectacularly or succeeding wildly. I definitely hope for the latter in your case.

Carl said...

Good luck.

Rolling all the dice seems to be the most fair way to do this, but I think you're underestimating the technical challenges of implementing this in Excel.

The technical challenge you should watch out for is the random number function in Excel. You may find that instead of a random number, you're actually getting the same string of numbers every time the application is initialized, or the routine is called.

From a game perspective, it's going to take a long time to move all those soldiers. Forget about resolving attacks and damage -- that's pretty easy. The movement is going to be a grind.

If you have questions on organization or design of your battle algorithms, let me know.

Chgowiz said...

@Carl & Alexis - you might find this interesting: - Section 18.

Alexis said...

I've done quite a bit of testing with the random number generator for my excel, and whereas I know there are patterns, the patterns aren't evident in any way I can detect. I know that, with enough effort, I could eventually identify them, but clearly there is a wide enough pattern so as not to be important for these purposes.

You're right, Carl, about the movement being the grind. I am hoping the attrition will be so violent in the first five or six rounds, that a third of both armies will be massacred. The trick, I think, will be to begin the battle on the edge of combat, and not six rounds before the two sides are able to close and fight. I also hope to simplify the early combat by keeping most of both groups 'in formation,' allowing them to be moved by one drag and drop.

Badmike said...

Magic is defintely the wild card. A 9th level mage can wreak havoc in ways you won't even expect...besides a fireball being able to wipe out an entire troop (even if they save they'll be toast most of the time), more subtle magics like Charms can be insidiously effective. What if an invisible, flying mage charms a troop leader and gives him "helpful" advice about going the wrong way, or exposing his flank, etc? What effect would it have on morale when an invisible thief suddenly backstabs their troop leader, kills him, then disappears again? It would be tough to hold morale after witnessing this and thinking "There could be invisible killers all around me!" Good players will surprise you in many ways.