Unearthed Arcana – Mass Combat

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GMs get a new set of rules in this week’s Unearthed Arcana…

That’s right, it’s time for the love to go to the other side of the screen. So it’s time to break out the triple-beam balance and figure out the density and volume of your enemies, because this week’s Unearthed Arcana is all about mass combat.

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Before I weigh all of the options, let me just say how nice it is to see the GM getting a little love. This excites me to no end, mostly because is what it might herald. If they’re working on rules like this, then maybe the next book they’re coming out with might be weighted a little towards either side of the screen.

My money is still on something like a PHB II, but maybe it’ll be something a little more broad–like a Volo’s Guide to Adventuring that has something for players and GMs alike in the same sourcebook. Stranger things have happened. At any rate, we should save the rest of the wild speculation for the comments. On to the Mass Combat rules!

So they’re fairly simple right now–which is good. 5th Edition is very streamlined and I think that’s a big part of why I like it so much. These rules fit right in with the current state of affairs. At a glance, the way mass combats work is by representing the large groups of creatures on the battlefields as units, and giving those units a number called a Battle Rating based on things like abilities, morale, equipment, and how tough they are, which is determined by a creature’s CR. The higher the CR the higher the BR.

And in mass combat, Battle Rating is just about everything. It’s the number you use to attack, it’s the number you use to defend, and it’s your HP. Which makes sense, your combat effectiveness does go down as more and more of your unit dies around you. When you make an attack, you roll and add the attacking unit’s BR, the defender rolls and adds their BR, and then you compare and see how things shake out. If the attacker wins by 10 ore less, the target takes 2 points of “damage” (reduces their BR by 2), and if you win by 11 or more (BRs go up to 50), you reduce the target’s BR by 5.

And that’s the basic gist of Mass Combat. Units are everything–you can fit up to 400 Medium sized creatures in a unit, or smaller numbers of larger creatures (they’ve provided a handy table of how many medium sized creatures each larger creature counts as). From there you determine the unit’s speed, morale, and abilities. The Weakest Link rule is in effect here, which is that in general units can only take an action if everyone in the unit can take that action.

Pretty simple (if a little abstract), but things get more complicated when characters get involved. Here’s where these rules shine–they even admit it, saying that:

“The real fun of running a mass battle is giving player characters and important NPCs a chance to affect the ouctome. You might be temped to absorb such units and ignore their special abilities. You can do so by using the rules for determining CR in the Dungeon Master’s Guide…however, mass battles are more fun for players when they have a chance to engage in heroics that alter the course of the fight.”

As you might imagine, they outline a number of ways that an enterprising GM might do this. For starters there’s the ol’ take the mass combat and let it whirl around you while you zoom in on the action for some character scale combat.” Essentially, using this method, when something important happens, you pause the mass combat and roll into a normal encounter, then resume mass combat once one side or the other has been defeated or driven off.

Even if they’re part of a unit, player characters are encouraged to be their own individuals come combat time. For each turn a mob of creatures take, you get one shot to use fancy abilities or a spells in an effort to alter the course of the battle.

Or failing that, you might get swept up in a Critical Event–which is basically something big happening on the battlefield that players can be a part of. These are basically miniature adventures that are run in the midst of a big fight–things like:

  • Prevent enemy scouts from seizing a bridge or other position.
  • Assassinate an enemy commander.
  • Hold attackers away from a gate while friendly soldiers repair it.
  • Sneak into an enemy stronghold to sabotage its defenses.
  • Destroy an approaching siege engine.
  • Steal the enemy’s battle plans.

These are just the examples they list in the rules–but already you can see the story of a mass combat unfolding. The players break from the ongoing melee to join battle with the enemy’s commander (and retinue) in an epic duel. Or maybe they race across the battlefield to try and stop a courier from reaching the commander…

Either way, what I like best about these rules is that they recognize that players should be the most important part of any mass combat and that these rules don’t have to be that complex. You’re alrready playing D&D, no need to play a whole new strategy game on top of it–and anyway if you’re looking for a fantasy game with more in-depth rules for mass combats, there are plenty of games dedicated to just that. You can basically take your pick.

That said, I’m curious to see what’ll be next up for Unearthed Arcana. Rumor holds it will be a 5e version of the Mystic–but that’s wild speculation, and you know where that belongs…

Speaking of, what do you think of these rules? What do you think the future of D&D 5e is going to look like? Let us know right here, in the comments below.

  • EnTyme

    Seems like a return to 3.5 Heroes of Battle. Interesting book, that.

  • Ronin

    Wow this is a fantastic addition and fits perfectly with what I want to go for in my campaign!

  • Vepr

    Good stuff. 🙂