Sunday, January 17, 2010

You Have To Love Combat

Last night, the mass combat continued.  I think it must be understood that there is a considerable amount of player angst riding on the success of this combat.  The lead character's fiefdom, and therefore the established lairs of each party member (and the money they have invested) depend on the outcome of this combat.  Since the Lord from the neighboring fiefdom has thrown in his lot, they must not only win to keep his friendship, but they must do so in a manner that does not make them appear like cretinous swine.

The same can be said for their hirelings and their followers.  As the ranger and the druid have animal friends, there is a strong interest in giving those animals more combat experience, without getting them killed.  They themselves obviously don't want to die.

I think the majority of combats, without it being intended that way, tend to be foregone conclusions - either the party will lose, or the party will win.  The interesting thing about a mass combat is that with so many variables, and so many die rolls, freakishly weird stuff will happen, resulting in unusual decisions that might never occur in a battle between four or five characters and two or three opponents.  Those decisions lead to moments of crisis, panic, triumph and immense relief - depending on how they are allowed to run out their course by the DM.

The principal problem with the mass combat "rules" strategy is the simplification of this sort of chaos.  Chaos, truly unrelieved chaos, can be one of the strongest opportunities for a player to role-play 'on the edge.'  I do not speak of mere combat, rolling dice in a round and round the table format, but a spontaneous moment in the middle of a maelstrom of arrows, pounding hooves, exploding spells and what have you, making charisma checks to convince the neighboring Lord's third henchman to take three men and GO GET HELP ... while the Lord's henchmen is arguing in the midst of it all that it's fine, no problem, take it easy.

I know that many DMs that are out there hate combat.  I know they resist it because of its repetitive nature, the manner in which it can get bogged down, the inconvenience of multiple modifiers and endless details, bantered about while half the players spin their dice or chat about the last movie they saw.  The shouting to keep it down, to get it straight, to concentrate on what the hell is happening, to make a goddamn decision about whether their player is going right and left ... and for the most part not giving a shit.

But when a combat is run well, when the stakes are greater than just treasure or experience ... when the stakes are actual living and dying, the success or failure of months of campaign creativity, the tower one spent a week designing, the hippogriff the player learned to ride (while nearly dying), and all that ... a character gets invested.  A combat, properly inserted into the campaign, not in terms of the party just riding by and thinking, "Let's take a castle," but instead, "We must take that castle or we lose everything" ... that combat is the crux and be all of the game itself.  It is the combat people remember ten years later, that they can never fully convey to a player who wasn't there: "You can't know what we went through."

We ran through two rounds of this combat last night.  We got a late start, and so we weren't able to invest the seven hours the combat needed to really make some headway.  No one was bored.  All hell, at one point, did truly break out.

Here is the combat at the end of Round Two.

The principal event was that the mastodon, featured left of center and called "Pony" (player's name for it), smashed through the wooden wall of the fort and rampaged its way through a number of goblins and hobgoblins.  The remainder formed a ring around the mastodon and are now throwing masses of spears at it.  The incidental damage rules worked great - the mastodon wounded or killed ten opponents in its first round.

At the top of the map, goblins and cavewights (the latter more or less the equivalent of ogres in the Monster Manual - my ogres are tougher still), rushed out through the gate and over the top of the wall (the cavewights can simply rush up the stairs and drop beyond the wall). They were met by glaives set vs. charge, which made quite the mess of them.  A single glaiver was able to roll triple damage, doubled for the set glaive, with a bonus of +1 from a bard's martial strains, for a total of 42 damage (maximum possible).  Much celebration followed.

At the very bottom, the group of men approaching the wall with ladders were stymied by the appearance of a wall of fire (the red line), which fried the front rank and left the whole unit in confusion.  If the unit routs, it could be a disastrous delay in opening up that front. 

To their left, the weakest group facing the castle, comprising of elven archers and peasant elves (few hit points), are faced with a group of hobgoblin's armed with polearms, coming out the gate.  My elves are not 'super humans' ... they are mere creatures with 1+1 hit dice, not much in this battle with so many high leveled persons, and more or less equivalent to hobgoblins.  The only leader among the elves is a second-level mage, a member of the party.  I don't know why they left this group so weak, but they've now sent out for help.

In the bottom right, the dire wolves, intentionally starved, are hitting the front line of glaive-setting humans.  A party cleric is marching in six zombies, and the party's 10th level mage (Garalzapan) is invisible at the top right of this mass.  That same mage is the Manor Lord of the fief being defended, and readying to cast pass wall to open up the fort.

There's a lot of detail I'm not covering - but this should give you a sense of what's going on.

Last point.  Note the line of cavalry riding up the hill (steep slopes indicated by grey areas), turning left as they reach the wall.  It becomes important.  At the front is a 5th level paladin, mounted on her warhorse.

And here is the end of Round Three

The most interesting part here came where the front four horsemen, wheeling a little bit faster than their train (one 60 degree turn per round), were able to smash into the side of the goblins at the top gate, overrun their way through the mass and cause unbelievable turmoil.  It took a good forty minutes to sort out this mess as it really got going, but damn!  Was it a lot of fun!  It is the sort of thing that no mass combat rule simulation can invent, but which ordinary combat rules (plus some refinements about overrun) manages with magnificent excitement.  No telling yet if this group will break its way in easily, or flounder in the morass that's forming.  It's supported by a 9th level druid (who just transformed from a mouse into a human) - found right against the wall and named 'Pikel' ... and much hinges on his ability to get off a few significant spells.

The Pony continues to maraud, and is now supported by the 7th level ranger upon her hippogriff ... I think they're foolish to get inside, but if the mastodon runs, it will probably be unstoppable, and the ranger can take to the wind in a crisis - in the meantime, together, they look to slaughter heartily.  This is good, because there's clearly a lot of bodies to slaughter.  The air promises to be thick with spears.

And now the polearms are moving at the elven bowmen - who fire as the party starts the next round.

The ladder force did not rout, and the 7th level cleric among them is casting dispel magic.

The glaivers supported by Garalzapan and the 6th level player monk (Shalar) are doing good work with the dire wolves ... looks like those won't be much trouble after all, despite their averaging 22-30 hp.  But then, they haven't gotten close to the walls yet, and the slingers inside haven't deployed.

Seriously.  Does it sound dull?


  1. sounds like awesome fun! keeping track of total number of rolls? :P

  2. Sorry...which mass combat system are you using for your game?

  3. JB,

    Not using a mass combat 'system.' We are rolling every die, just like in any combat.

    For notes on how I run combat, search my blog for past entries.

  4. Magnificent. Sometimes it really is worth it to go through things in close detail like this.

  5. Just a question, but what program are you using to host the images in these mass combats? I am trying to find one that I can put a background image in then overlay the characters and I am having a rather annoying time of finding one to my liking.


  6. I use microsoft publisher, Connor, to make the maps and then manipulate the pieces on top of them.


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