Thursday, 24 September 2009

Handling a Major Battle in 4e Part 4

In this final post on handling a major battle I've posted the summary of the battle session. The previous post covers the set up and campaign background. The earlier posts looked at the elements making up a large battle and the mechanics behind battle skill challenges.

The characters in the party are,

Perral - Elven Avenger
Rikka - Elven Rogue
Foxley - Human Invoker
Freya - Half Elf Barbarian
Osric - Half Elf Bard


As the PCs watched the enemy form and move forward Perral spotted a huge shape swooping down out of the sky. Moments later a blast of fire erupted from the beast's mouth and the roof of the Great Hall burst into flames. The Vicomte turned to the PCs and ordered them to "Attack the dragon, kill it, destroy it - but whatever happens don't let it fly off."

Rushing out of the castle the PCs rushed to the town market where the dragon could be seen breathing on building after building. Aware that the beast was vain, largely immune to fire and equipped with a vicious tail attack the party planned accordingly. Reaching the main square the party faced the monster - as it saw them the dragon charged, breathed again and assaulted Freya with two powerful claw attacks wounding her badly. Perral struck back unleashing several devastinging strikes - blows that hurt the dragon. More attacks and spells were thrown at the dragon but with limited effect. Osric was partially successful with a major spell and as a result each hit upon the beast heartened his allies. The dragon reared back and unleashed a terrifying roar, stunning everyone bar Freya who once more reeled from a claw attack. Slowly the party recovered from the roar, rattled but firm. Blow after blow was traded and with careful manoeuvering flanks were established and the odd attack began to hit home. The dragon breathed regularly but fortified against its weapon through potions and other items this had limited effect. Gradually the dragon was penned in, and the party gained the upper hand. The dragon roared as it was hit once more and breathed in anger before launching itself into the air.

Reacting quickly Foxley call upon the power of Pelor before denigrating the dragon, its parents and the whole of dragonkind. Rikka and Freya grabbed ropes and grappling hooks left nearby and attempted to hook them onto the beast. Whilst Rikka's throw was wild, Freya hooked a wing. The dragon quickly bit through the rope but it bough the party time. Perral shouted up to it, mocking it's power, fleeing before puny humankind and with that insult ringing in its ears the dragon dived onto Foxley.

Buoyed by this success the party returned to the fight, Freya and Perral leading the way. Rikka fired in dagger attack after attack, Osric still trying to shake off the terror was struggling to hit the beast. More flames erupted ineffectively from the dragon and as its strength dwindled its attacks became less effective. It snapped and clawed at the party, now virtually surrounded as spell and blade cut and rent its flesh before falling fatally wounded. Gasping for breath but elated the PCs stood proudly round the body of the dragon, recovering their breath, knowing that the battle had only just begun.

Holding the Axen Ford

The PCs barely had time to recover from the battle with the dragon before they were summoned with great urgency to support the troops defending the ford. As they arrived a knight, an oldish man walked quickly towards you. "Hail dragonslayers!!" he beams. "I could do with your help, and a little of your luck as you can see we are outnumbered somewhat!!"

A quick discussion took place and a strategy formed. Using the Geating troops they would fall back luring their enemy into battle, sucking the hobgoblins over the ford before revealing the hidden Deirian forces and destroying them. Freya and Rikka took charge of the Geating troops whilst the others took command of the Deirians.

The plan began well and the Geating troops fell back, whatever confusion there seemed was all manufactured and a mob of goblins gleefully followed them across the ford. A second retreat northwards was also undertaken effectively and the goblins pursued eagerly. The hobgoblins sensing early victory poured across the river - the plan had worked!

The Deirians leapt from their hiding places and quickly formed up. The hobgoblin advance bumped into the Deirian battleline and bounced, held in place by the determined militiamen.

The Geatings, however, got a taste of their own medicine when the goblins used a ruse to fall back before attacking strongly. Their pride dented and ranks a little thinner the Geatings reformed. The Deirians attacked, advancing on the hobgoblins, and pushed them back blocking the ford and preventing any more enemy troops from crossing.

Freya led the Geating's in a great charge, unleashing a brutal attack and driving the goblins back. The hobgoblins and Deirian militia exchanged fierce blows - and while the militia held firm they took casualties. The battle was still very much in the balance.

However a goblin counterattack against the Geatings failed and the remaining goblins fled. The Geatings reformed their lines and with a great cry charged back into battle hitting the hobgoblin flank and driving a wedge between their troops. Disrupted by this assault the hobgoblins gave way as the militia pushed forward once again driving the remaining troops into the river.

The ford was secure and first blood in the battle was to the defenders of Hannon. Taking stock the party left the Deiran militia to hold the ford and to keep the two remaining mobs of hobgoblins out of the battle, whilst they took the unit of Geating infantry and returned to the castle.

Humanoid Inflitrators

The Geating troops were ordered to take up a position in reserve behind the main battleline, whilst the PCs were summoned to the castle where the Vicomte was watching the enemy deploy. On arrival at the castle gates though it was apparent something was wrong. The two guards by the gate were missing as were the guards on the nearby parapet. Drawing their weapons the party rushed in.

The Great Hall still burned brightly illuminating the area. No guards could be seen but in the gloom two orcs were spotted sneaking toward the tower guarding the approach to the motte. They quickly stopped and loosed arrows at the party. More arrows came from beside the granary this time from goblins. Freya rushed to battle the goblins, whilst Perral and Osric positioned themselves to take on the orcs. Foxley sniped from the gateway whilst Rikka moved into the cover provided by the Vicomte's living quarters.

The party quickly found themselves on the back foot. Freya found herself fighting a bugbear and two goblins that quickly surrounded her. Rikka was discomforted when three more goblins rounded the building and piled in to attack her. The orcs ditched their bows and charged into battle.

Foxley and Osric struck back to extricate Rikka from the surrounding goblins. Rikka attacked and hit home. Perral fought the orcs, whilst Freya struck at her attackers. The battle swung to and fro for several rounds - an orc was dispatched, several goblins killed. Freya was grabbed by the Bugbear but struggled free and was grabbed again and strangled.

Perral moved round to assist Freya whilst the others took down the remaining enemies. Perral attacked the bugbear only to find that it shielded itself from attack by holding Freya in front of it resulting in Perral's blow striking his friend. Strangled more Freya was bloodied but with only the bugbear and a goblin still standing it was quickly over.

The party quickly moved on to the motte just in time to see the defenders despatch the last of a group or orcs and goblins. The Vicomte and castellian were both sweating and breathing hard when the PCs joined them but they were all alive.

The Hobgoblin Battle Standard

Climbing to the top of the motte tower the Vicomte and the PCs had the perfect view over the battlefield. The humanoid troops north of the castle had taken longer to get into position than those at the ford but battle had now been joined. The hobgoblin regiments with serried ranks of ordered troops formed the rear of the humanoid battle line. In front facing off against and engaging the defenders of Hannon were three orc battle clans. Goblin wolfriders were held in reserve.

However what attracted most attention was a hobgoblin battle standard. It was paraded back and forth for a few minutes and then brought forward as the orcs in the centre of the line pushed forward. They hit the Ammand infantry just beyond the castle with great ferocity and pushed them back much to everyone's surprise. The Vicomte turned to the PCs, "That battle standard will be the key to the battle. Take control of the centre and capture that standard. I'll look after the flanks - but do whatever you have to do to get hold of that thing. The hobgoblins will do whatever it takes to retrieve it."

With that the PCs left to enter the battle once more. The battle would be tough and brutal. Standing between the party and the standard was a unit of orcs, another of hobgoblins, some goblin wolf riders and the standard bearer and his defenders. The PCs took control of the Ammand infantry and the Ammand cavalry, the best soldiers Hannon could muster.

The Ammand infantry began the attack, pushing the orcs back. Driving the cavalry forward they were countered by the goblin wolf riders. A spirited charge pushed the wolf riders back, before a cunning feigned retreat scattered the remaining goblin cavalry. However the orcs pushed back and the Ammand infantry reeled from the fierceness of the attack. Calling upon the reserve the Geating infantry were rushed forward and into battle once more. A punishing charge routed the orcs and cleared the way to attack the hobgoblin infantry.

The hobgoblins though represented the toughest opponents yet and in several rounds of combat both sides took heavy losses, with both Geating and cavalry forces weakened. But with a supreme effort the hogoblin unit was fully engaged and an opening created. The PCs seized the moment and charged the battle standard.

Taking the Standard

The hobgoblin standard party attacked immediately with the warriors charging forward. The initial attacks absorbed the party sidestepped their enemy and concentrated their attacks on the hobgoblin warcaster. The hobgoblin sub chief reordered his battle line pulling his warriors back to defend the warcaster but it couldn't prevent attack after attack landing on the mage. In a brutal series of attacks he was killed.

Foxley and Osric were both able to make area attacks count whilst Rikka and Perral chose their targets. Freya waded in heaving her axe to great effect. Although able to regroup and strike back the hobgoblins were clearly outmatched. Trading blows for several rounds their numbers were quickly whittled down beofre finally the standard bearer fell and the standard was captured.

The Battle for the Castle

Grabbing the standard the PCs retreated to their own lines as two outraged hobgoblin units manoeuvered to attack. Although victorious the centre of the Hannon battleline was ragged and weak. Facing no other choice a retreat was ordered. The centre falling back to the castle the two flanks retreating towards the town keeping the orcs occupied. The PCs fell back towards the castle. The battered Ammand infantry held the enemy back whilst the Geatings and the Ammand cavalry retreated inside the walls.

Once the Ammands were all safely inside the gate was thrown closed in the face of a hobgoblin assault. Freya led the PCs as they threw their weight against the gate, just managing to hold it closed. As hobgoblin soldiers hacked at the gate Rikka led those troops pouring missiles into their ranks whilst Freya organised the defenders in breaking apart some of the castle buildings to reinforce the gate. It was a tough race but the party prevailed and the gate held.

Foxley and Osric toured the bailey where many of the wounded from the battle had gathered. Assisting the healers they were able to gather more men for the walls.

Freya, Rikka and Perral toured the walls inspiring the troops. They paraded the captured standard and mocked the hobgoblins provoking them into an assault which was easily defeated. However undeterred the hobgoblins surrounded the castle and prepared to launch their asaults. Perral was instrumental in detecting the point of impact whilst Freya and Rikka led troops from one part of the castle to another in order to beat back the assaults.

The Ammand cavalry sallied forth in an attempt to disrupt the attacks but were badly mauled by a hobgoblin counter attack. Renewed the hobgoblins charged the walls again and again, and whilst ultimately unsuccessful they depleted the ranks of the defenders before pulling back exhausted, mustering only half the troops they started the assault with.

The Duc and the Final Battle

Dawn was fast approaching as the humanoids fell back. The battle remained finely poised. The ford was no longer uncrossable and while this gave the defenders another unit to throw into the battleline, one of the goblin mobs had made the long walk back to join the main enemy force. Both sides were exhausted and close to breaking - the next encounter would determine the fate of the entire battle. Crucially for the defenders reinforcements had arrived. The Duc D'Emerick arrived on the rising tide, bringing with him his mounted bodyguard.

The PCs were sent down to greet him by the Vicomte and agree a battleplan whilst the Vicomte ordered his forces and prepared for the fight. The party found the Duc in an angry mood, surprised and annoyed to find himself in the midst of battle on what he believed was a family visit. The PCs were able to calm him somewhat and quickly explained the situation to him. Whilst initially dismissive of the humanoid forces facing him he was pursuaded that this was no ordinary assault and not to press ahead recklessly. It was agreed his forces would attack the hobgoblins whilst the Hannon forces held the battle line.

The final battle was no less brutal for the exhaustion felt by both sides. It began badly for the defenders when the Ammand infantry were broken chasing a goblin feint. However the PCs led their troops in a fight back. The Deirian militia pushed a unit of orcs back. The Geatings hammered the goblins, before the Duc's forces hit the hobgoblins. The humanoids hit back, the Geatings were thrown back and the Duc's cavalry failed to ride down some hobgoblin infantry. With the battle in the balance the PCs led a unit of Deirian troops forward. Attacking the last formed hobgoblin unit they fought hand to hand until at the crucial moment the hobgoblins broke.

The battle was won. The humanoids retreated, but hurt and exhausted, the defenders of Hannon were in no condition to pursue. The Duc's cavalry merely shadowed the enemy off the field, whilst the other units rested where they stood too tired to do anything else. A victory but at a great cost - perhaps 300 of Hannon's defenders, more than 10% of the townsfolk were dead.


I really got a kick out of running this adventure. My players got really involved and in the final encounter, with the last check determining victory or defeat, were scrambling for every single point to boost their roll, searching utility powers, looking for immediate interupts - anything to increase the roll. The skill challenges were some of the most satisfying I've run and the sessions felt fresh and exciting. Give it a go!

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Handling a Major Battle in 4e Part 3

In part 1 of this series I outlined the options available to a DM when looking to run a major battle during a rpg adventure. In part 2 I went in to greater detail on how the battle skill challenges could be handled. Now here in part 3 I'll outline the lead up to the battle that my players fought during my 4e campaign, before completing the series with the battle itself in part 4.

Campaign Background

I'm running a low fantasy, points of light game, with strong overtones of Dark Age Britain. The ruling elite are called Ammands and invaded and conquered the island of Deira 30 years ago. They are militaristic and renowned for their cavalry. The main inhabitants of Deira are the Deirans, solid folk who have lived on the island for hundreds of years. The third group are the Geatings, who normally inhabit the wilderness in fierce independent tribes but who in more recent years have been forced towards towns and civilisation by growing threats. The failure of the current monarch to effectively control the distant areas of his kingdom have left the country on the brink of civil war.

The campaign began in the town of Hannon on the western side of Deira, historically a bit of a backwater place, but safe enough, with only an annual humanoid raid to worry about. The PCs were guarding the castle on the night of the Autumn solstice whilst the everyone else celebrated the start of the harvest. They foiled an assassination of the lady of the castle, tracked the assassins and killed them, before finding the attack was part of a dark cult's plan. Frustrating another attack the PCs had sufficient clues to discover the cult was led by the town miller. Assaulting the mill they managed to kill the cultists but found a letter on the body of the miller indicating that more support would shortly arrive in Hannon and that there was a traitor at the castle.

Preparing the Defence and Uncovering a Traitor

At the start of the adventure I ran two very complicated skill challenges at the same time. The party had two tasks, firstly to determine the threats facing the town and plan how to deal with them and secondly to uncover the traitor. I used the Vicomte of Hannon to outline the parameters of the skill challenge so it seemed less stilted and kept the game flowing. Two hours of great roleplaying followed

The challenge resulted in agreement that

The humanoids presented the most urgent threat
The cult and traitor the most serious.
Civil war whilst terrible was unlikely to erupt or reach the town any time soon.

A long discussion ensued on how to best protect the town. Each council member had their own agenda or issue. Each success in the skill challenge found a way around an objection, and made a check or challenge later in the battle easier. My players really got into this challenge and there were several brilliant moments including a merchant's objections to providing supplies (free) overcome by hinting that he would be considered favourably when the (now vacant) mill contract was reviewed. I granted automatic successes when the PCs came up with these great in game solutions.

With some more work they were also able to identify the traitor. They did this successfully and without arousing his suspicion. He was left in place so that he could later be used to pass on false information.

They then undertook a dangerous scouting mission in the wilderness to uncover the extent of the humanoid threat. This mission nearly cost the party their lives as several battles with orcs and hobgoblins pushed them to the brink. However they were able to reconnoitre the enemy forces and discover that the cult that they had destroyed in back in town had gripped the humanoid tribes and that united for the first time in centuries over two thousand goblins, orcs, bugbears and hobgoblins, including a battle standard party, were descending on Hannon. Cryptic warnings that "she" was coming and Hannon would burn, were ominous and worrying. Exhausted and bloodied the party were chased back to town by pursuing humanoids in a desperate battle of stealth and speed.

Battle Plan

Arriving safely back in Hannon the players were thrown straight into planning the battle.

Again using the knowledge and influence of the Vicomte, as well as a quick skill challenge, to guide them I provided the players with the capabilities both sides.

The players would be controlling an army composed of

1 unit of Ammand Heavy Inf
3 units of Deiran Militia Inf
1 unit of Geating Light Inf
1 unit of Ammand Cavalry

Each unit of infantry would be composed of 3 figures, the cavalry of 2.

Full image of their type and capabilities can be seen here.

The enemy they were facing was composed of

4 units of Hobgoblin Heavy Inf
3 units of Orc Inf
4 mobs of Goblin Inf
1 unit of Goblin wolf riders

Each unit of infantry would be composed of 4 figures, the wolf riders of 2.

Full image of their type and capabilities can be seen here.

This meant the defenders of Hannon would be outnumbered by 42 figures to 17 - it helped to focus minds!

The battle planning session lasted about an hour and was essentially a free form roleplaying session as the players quizzed the Vicomte, made the occasional skill check but essentially used their own experience to form a battle plan. I provided a map for them to use and explained the importance and effects of various key features. I used the Vicomte as a way of controlling the more extreme player ideas - running away was not an option! - as well as being a sounding board.

Through questioning they discovered the key to victory would be their ability to destroy the hobgoblin units. The orcs and goblins whilst formidable foes and present in large numbers, would not be able to overcome organised resistance - their unit cohesion would quickly break down as scavengers and opportunists sought loot from the town or nearby dead bodies. Only the hobgoblins with their regimentation would be able to keep solid battle lines and coerce the other units into following a plan and staying in the fight.

The players quickly eliminated a seaborne attack as a threat and understood that the large Dorren Hill protected their left flank, whilst the tidal River Axen helped to protect their right flank. The river was both a strength and a weakness. It was fordable when the tide was low, although only at one specific point, and would need to be defended for 5 hours. However it meant that any enemy would have to fight 1 on 1 to cross and the superior Humanoid numbers would not count. If the enemy could be persuaded to send a large number of troops to attack the ford and the ford held then the main battle might just be a little easier.

The plan was formed. They planned to Bluff the traitor into believing the ford would be lightly defended, by the Geating Light Inf as they expected the main attack to focus on the castle. However they intended to hide another unit of troops in the houses and buildings nearby. If the enemy took the bait, they would lure them over the river and then unleash the trap, eliminating several enemy units and isolating others miles from the main battle. Any spare troops would then be rushed back to the main fight to act as a reserve. The remaining units were placed in a battle line covering the approach to the town. It was a risky strategy but it just might work.

In another skill challenge they persuaded the traitor to accept the plan and ensured he passed it on before he was removed and executed.

That night as the humanoids approached the enemy had swallowed the bait.

A larger map can be seen here.

The Battle Begins

As the PCs watched the enemy form and move forward from atop the tallest castle tower they spotted a huge shape swooping down out of the sky. Moments later a blast of fire erupted from the beast's mouth and the roof of the Great Hall burst into flames. The Vicomte turned to the PCs and shouted to them, "Attack the dragon! Kill it! Destroy it! Don't let it fly off, or escape it will burn the whole town down."

Next Time

In the final part of this series of posts I'll run through the actual battle itself, give some information on the skill challenges and the combat encounters I managed to drop into the battle.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Handling a Major Battle in 4e Part 2

In the first part of this series of posts I talked about the key elements that went into creating an adventure based around a major battle and some of the adventure hooks or options that are available. In the next part I'll talk about how the battle session I ran turned out. This post though looks in more detail at the mechanics of the skill challenge during the battle.

I was inspired by a series of articles at Critical Hits on war skill challenges - you can find the originals here. Mike Mearls also covered this issue in his series on skill challenges in Dungeon accessed here via DnD Insider. However as an inveterate tinkerer and a wargamer with several wargamers in my playing group I adapted the rules somewhat.

There are a couple of factors,

  • Troop Capability - what they do and how well they do it

  • PC Leadership - how they motivate the troops and how they lead them in battle
In the battle skill challenge these elements are combined in each skill check to determine success. The PCs determine what the unit does and this in turn determines which skill check is used. The PCs can then exhort the unit to greater glory and lead them into battle which add modifiers to the unit check and act in a similar way to the Aid Another.

Troop Capability

I thought about what troops do in battle and how that would relate to the skills available in 4e. I ended up with 4 key skills.

Athletics - This skill represents the effectiveness of the unit's ability to manoeuvre, maintain formation and follow orders. Use this skill to
  • Change formation or reform after a charge.

  • Move the unit into contact with the enemy in a controlled manner - opposed by Endurance

  • Keep the unit together when the enemy feints - opposed by Bluff

  • Cover ground quickly

Endurance - Representing the unit's resilience in battle and ability to withstand losses - influenced by such factors as the armour worn by the unit and its how motivated the troops are. Use this skill to

  • Determine how well a unit holds together in battle - opposed by Athletics or Intimidate

Intimidate - Representing the unit's ability to charge into battle or the fear factor of the troops themselves. Use this skill to

  • Charge the enemy - opposed by Endurance

Bluff - representing the unit's ability to feint or disguise its intentions. Use this skill to

  • Feint or feign retreat drawing the enemy out of formation - opposed by Athletics

Other skills could well be applicable, perhaps Acrobatics for aerial units or Arcana for units with magical abilities, depending on the battle you are running.

Every unit should be rated on how good it is at each of these checks. I used a simple Good - OK - Poor rating system for each skill.

I came up with the table below for the units one might expect to find defending a town.

These are values I used for humanoid forces attacking the town in my game.

These values can and should vary from battle to battle but the PCs should be aware of them, whether because of familiarity with the military or because they discovered them during a skill challenge. They form the core of the battle skill challenge and let the players be inventive during the battle - if the battle degenerates into simple dice rolling then you and the players are unlikely to be having fun.


Each unit should also roll for initiative using their Athletics skill. This gives the battle an ebb and flow, as enemy units react to PC unit actions and vice versa. However remember only the PCs roll - the DM merely determines what action the enemy unit takes and therefore which opposed skill check the PC's use.

The Basic Mechanic

In a battle skill challenge the players will be rolling the dice on behalf of the army they are leading. Instead of using their skill value they will be using the skill of the unit. Most of the checks will be opposed checks and the DC will be affected by the skill of the opposing unit.

I use a starting DC of 10 for all the unit checks, and like other opposed checks only the PCs roll.

If the PC's unit is "Good" at that skill decrease the DC by 2, if they are "Poor" increase it by 2. If the enemy unit opposing the PCs is "Good" at their opposed skill increase the PC's DC by 2, if they are "Poor" decrease the DC by 2.

This gives a good variance to the DCs and rewards players for using their troops effectively.

PC Leadership and Actions in Battle

There are two roles for PCs in a battle - motivating the units under their command, inspiring or haranguing them, or leading the troops in the front line and influencing the battle through their own heroics. In each skill challenge PCs should be attached to a unit. Once attached they can only influence the battle by influencing the performance of that unit.

Prior to a unit undertaking any activity in battle orders must be issued. This is an opportunity for the PCs to influence the unit's performance. By undertaking a Diplomacy or Intimidate check at a DC appropriate to the PC's level they can improve the performance of the unit, adding +2 to the roll if successful, but subtracting 2 from the roll if failed. I generally allow the PCs to use Aid Another on this roll but again those failing to help subtract 2 from the result.

The success of continued use of Intimidate in this circumstance should be limited. Troops can be held in place by being yelled at or even encouraged to attack this way but only for so long. Diplomacy, perhaps backed by historical or religious allegories to inspire troops work better over the long term.

This motivation option gives a role for PCs not used to standing in the front line of battle.

PCs more used to getting engaged in battle though are also able to influence the result. They make a check against the skill the unit will use - Athletics, Endurance etc with a DC appropriate to their level. Aid Another is again allowed with the DC determined by the PC's level, and failure subtracting 2 from the lead PC's result. A success in the check adds +2 to the unit skill check, failure subtracts 2.

In addition the PC may choose to spend an encounter or daily attack power to help influence the battle. An encounter power adds +1 to the unit check, a daily power +3. For the purposes of defining the encounter I use the duration of the skill challenge.

However any PCs leading the attack are putting themselves in danger. If the unit fails the check the PCs lose a healing surge, those expending a power lose another healing surge.

Using these options the PCs have the opportunity to add up to +4 through skill checks, and can add more through the use of attack powers, to the main check undertaken by the unit.

Depiction on the Tabletop

One thing I found worked well was running the battle on the tabletop. I printed out a large map of the battlefield and used minis to represent the troops. Each unit for the PC's side had 3 figures, each unit for their enemy had 4. This way it was straightforward for the players to understand how well they were doing during the battle. Each success or failure resulted in a figure being removed from the tabletop. As units succeeded or failed in their tasks ground was taken or lost and it was clearer what had to be done and what troops were available to achieve it.
I would definitely recommend doing something similar even if the map is just drawn out on a battlemat.

Sample Challenge - Hold the Ford Skill Challenge

Complexity 3 - 8 successes before 3 failures
Level 3 challenge for PCs of 3rd level.

Key Skills: Bluff, Intimidate, Diplomacy, Endurance, Athletics
Additional Skills: Religion, History, Insight, Perception

The party are sent to assist in holding the Ford over the River Axen. On arrival they will find that a single unit of militia faces 3 mobs of goblins and a regiment of hobgoblins. The warrior in charge is an experience knight and the troops are the best the militia can muster. The river is only fordable in any strength at the ford. If the ford can be held then a significant number of enemy troops will be stranded on the wrong side of the river, miles from the main battle. Only one unit can cross the ford at a time, a period that covers two checks on the battlefield.

The knight, an oldish man walks quickly to you. "Hail heroes!!" he beams. "I could do with your help, and a little of your luck! We must lure the hobgoblins into battle and destroy them quickly. Once we take them out the goblins will lose all interest in the fight. However as you can see we are outnumbered 4 to 1!!"

The knight will happily discuss options with the players and can act as a brake on bad ideas and a source of information on tactics and war.

Checks made by PCs are at DC13
Checks made by the unit are at DC10 modified by the unit type and any other successful checks made by the PCs

PC Checks

Insight DC13: Success allows the PCs to understand that the hobgoblin forces will not be committed to battle until they believe it to be almost won. Two successful Bluff checks or two failed checks should be enough to convince them to join battle.
Does not count as a success or failure.

Perception DC18: You are able to detect that the goblin retreat is a feint and a trap and manage to warn the troops before they charge in.
Adds +2 if successful to the next unit Athletics check or -2 if failed. Only available if the enemy attempts to Bluff and feigns a retreat.

Diplomacy DC13: You exhort the troops to greater efforts. Adds +2 if successful to the next unit check or -2 if failed.

Intimidate DC13: You hold the troops in place through sheer force of personality or you lead them forward in a charge with a blood curdling scream. Adds +2 if successful to the next unit check or -2 if failed.

History DC18: By referring to heroic battles of times past you inspire the troops to greater heroics. Adds +2 if successful to the next unit check or -2 if failed.

Religion DC18: By calling on the faith of the troops they are spurred onto greater efforts. Adds +2 if successful to the next unit check or -2 if failed.

Unit Checks - DCs have been calculated using the PCs units capability but should be further modified by the effectiveness of the enemy they are engaging.

Bluff DC12: Success and the unit feigns retreat and falls back in apparent disorder. Fail and the panic is genuine.
Counts as 1 success or failure
Max two successes

Athletics DC10: By changing formation you put your troops in the best position to defeat the enemy.
Counts as a success or failure
Used to reposition after a Bluff or to move into combat without charging, to receive cavalry after infantry or to receive a charge.

Endurance DC8: The troops stand firm and hold the line.
Counts as a success or failure
Used to receive a charge or to resolve combat once battle has been joined.

Intimidate DC10: The troops charge into battle.
Counts as a success or failure.

Resolving the Skill Challenge

The river Axen has step banks and can be very deep. The only safe place for a unit of troops to cross is at the ford. The retreating tide means that the ford will be fordable for 5 hours.

The hobgoblin forces will stay out of battle until either two successful bluff checks or two failures are accrued, using the goblin forces to do the hard work. Units are only able to cross the Ford one at a time. Once the hobgoblin forces are defeated the remaining goblin forces will continue to hang around threatening but will not attempt to cross unless there are no forces defending the ford.

If the defending forces fail this challenge then the reserve will be committed to hold the line.

Next Time

In the next part of this series I'll relate the story of the battle my players fought and how I combined all the elements that go into to making a major battle.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Handling a Major Battle in 4e Part 1

I recently ran a session of 4e which focused on the actions of a party of 3rd level PCs during a large battle. It was handled as a normal D&D session rather than a wargame and I think it was really enjoyed by everyone and thought it would perfect for my first multi part post. Part 1 looks at some GM and player activity before the battle, part 2 will look at the skill challenges involved whilst part 3 will detail the battle session I ran.

In order to run any major battle a number of things need to be in place. The DM needs to know what is likely to happen. The players should be involved in helping prepare the army for battle and should be key to determining the strategy and tactics for the fight. The DM and players should be familiar with the troops involved and how to most effectively use them. Finally the DM should prepare a series of skill challenges and combat encounters designed to stretch the PCs leadership and fighting abilities. Get it right and there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to fight a battle worthy of comparison with Helm's Deep or the Pelennor Fields in your own campaign.

DM Preparation - Controlling the Battle

It's very important for the DM to be able to control the battle. This doesn't mean dictate every move but it does mean that there should be a good element of predictability to events in the battle. By understanding what is likely to happen the DM can build good, varied and challenging encounters rather than always reacting on the fly. There are a number of ways of doing this.

  • As DM you will almost certainly be undertaking the role of the enemy commander. Not only do you get to determine the make up of this force, you also control of half the forces on the battlefield. If you are attacking the PC's forces it allows you to define the opening skirmishes, as well as counter attacks. This allows you to build the opening skill challenges.
  • Carefully define the terrain on which the battle is fought. Pay particular attention to placement of major features, such as rivers, bridges, woods, fortifications, roads, ridges or hills. These can be used as objectives for attacks or defence or in the case of larger features used to secure flanks or channel the battle.
  • Particularly with low level PCs they may well not be the general in charge of their army. This can be tricky because it is important that the session focuses on the actions of the PCs and not the general. However it does allow the DM greater control over the events that shape the battle.

Once you know what you expect to happen in the battle you can plan for the encounters during it and the encounters and skill challenges before it.

Preparation for Battle

War rarely happens unexpectedly. Even if the location and timing of an attack is a surprise, wars have a build up. This provides an opportunity for the PCs to have a major role before the battle starts.

  • Uncovering intelligence on the enemy - size and make up of enemy forces, monstrous foes, battle plans, route of advance etc some of which could be entire adventures in their own right.
  • Rooting out traitors or enemy agents, sowing disinformation or commando raids to disrupt the enemies plans.
  • Strengthening defences, recruiting allies, bolstering morale, obtaining supplies or improving training.
  • Persuading sceptical citizen's they are under threat and must take up arms urgently

This can take the form of a couple of short skill challenges or involve the PCs undertaking several adventures and major skill challenges, particularly if allies need to be persuaded to join the fight.

Troop type and Tactics

Just as every monster is different, each force in a battle can be different, with varied abilities and strengths and weaknesses. If all units do is manoeuvre slowly and charge each other the battle session can quickly bog down into a boring dice rolling contest.

  • Each unit in the battle should be clearly categorised into one of 4 - 6 types per army, heavy infantry, archers, light cavalry etc.
  • Each unit type should then be reviewed and its strengths and weaknesses identified.

I'll cover this in more detail in part 2. Once this is done for both armies create a crib sheet for the PCs. Include the enemy forces as long as the PCs are aware of them. This enables the PCs to use the forces at their disposal more effectively as well as providing a more interesting battle experience.

Planning the Battle

The PCs should be involved at the heart of the planning for battle, regardless of their level or experience. Even if they are not the most experienced there are plenty of reasons for them to be present at the council of war - as scouts they have seen the enemy, as local heroes they may be expected to lead units or even act as commandos. Once the debate about the battle strategy starts everybody has a role to play.

  • As DM you can offer advice through the mouths of other PCs, correcting errors or highlighting important aspects of the forthcoming battle.
  • Just because everybody is on the same side doesn't mean they all agree - keeping all the allies on board and committed is a role for talky characters.
  • Offering commentary on strategy or the battlefield is a role for those who know their history or nature
  • Spotting traitors or those not fully committed, as well as pre-empting enemy tactics is for insightful and wise characters.

Effective plans require the players to assess the battlefield, key objectives and the type and quality of troops available. It can take time so allow for that when scheduling the session and where possible make it the last thing you do before the session ends - that way you can plan the next encounters knowing what both sides plan to do.

Battle Skill Challenges

The main aspects of the battle are assumed to be covered using skill challenges. The PCs may be able to take out a large number of minions in a fight but that doesn't matter if they are facing 200 of them. Skill challenges let the PCs take control of units of troops and resolving that phase of battle. I'll write more about how to handle the skill challenges in a battle in part 2 of this series but to cover a full battle you should look to have the PCs undertake between 3 and 6 skill challenges.

  • Initial contact encounter as the first units of the two armies come into contact. Can the PCs strike the first blow?
  • Hold the line - the enemy is attacking the PCs unit must stand firm no matter what. The battle depends on it.
  • Take the hill - the key to defeating the enemy is taking a tough objective. The PCs are the only people the general trusts to do it.
  • Rally those troops - A key unit breaks. It must be rallied and returned to the line of battle quickly.
  • Race to the objective - a key piece of terrain is unoccupied. Both sides want it. Who'll get there first?
  • Defend the walls - the enemy surrounds the castle. Where will the attack fall? Can reinforcements get there in time?
  • Rearguard - can you buy time for the rest of your forces to escape safely?
  • Pursuit - the enemy has broken and is fleeing. You give chase with orders that none shall be spared.

Mixing Skill Challenges and Combat Encounters

Whilst most of the battle will be fought using skill challenges that doesn't mean that that the entire battle needs to be fought that way. Combat encounters can be easily mixed in with the battle skill challenges.

  • The PCs need to hold a bridge, gateway or clear a path of enemies.
  • Enemy scouts or flankers have slipped behind the lines and are attacking supply units or a key point in the defences.
  • An enemy champion stands forward and issues a challenge.
  • A monstrous foe of great power attacks and only heroes can stand against it
  • The enemy battle standard must fall before they will retreat - the PCs must capture it.

Mixing up the skill challenges and combat encounters keeps the session moving and fresh and allows those players that prefer action to get their fix. It also puts the PCs at the forefront of the action and means that they will be remembered as battle winning heroes.

After the Battle

There's still plenty to do once the battle is over. Were the PCs victorious? Defeated? How big a margin was there between the defeated and the victors? Friends and allies may be among the casualties, a long established base under enemy control.

  • Terrible defeat - the PCs must escape the battlefield and evade pursuing enemy forces. Can they find and recruit new allies or will they start a guerilla resistance band?
  • Defeat -the PCs escape along with other units. Perhaps they are now the most senior officers left. Can they regroup and reform the shattered army and return to battle?
  • Technical draw - the army must regroup and quickly, battle will shortly be rejoined. The army that recovers the fastest will have the advantage.
  • Victory - the PCs are heroes, their actions the stuff of legend. But the leaders of the enemy forces are still at large, roving bands of defeated troops are fleeing the area causing terrible damage as they go.

Next time ...

I'll cover the ins and outs of the battle skill challenges in part 2 and in part 3 illustrate them in action by detailing the session I built and ran.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Nuanced Skill Checks in Skill Challenges

I saw this post earlier this week at Geek Ken and it got me thinking. I don't necessarily agree that WotC are reworking skill challenges although I do think they need to provide more guidance on how to use them. Mike Mearls' articles are good but more is still required. However it got me back to thinking about how I used skill checks in a challenge and the variety of ways I use them. So in no particular order here they are.

1. Simple checks: Roll against the DC. Results in 1 success or failure. The bread and butter of skill challenges.

2. Lead character and Aid Another: One character makes the roll, but other characters in the party can use Aid Another against either a DC of 10 of the Dc of the challenge to add +2 to the roll. Sometimes I limit this to one or two characters, in the case of Diplomacy checks, other times I let the entire party assist, in the case of an Athletics check to close a castle gate against a regiment of hobgoblins. In many cases if the Aiding player fails to assist I'll impose a -2 penalty to the main check. This discourages shouts of I'll assist from the players and makes the check more realistic. Results in 1 success or failure.

3. Specialist Knowledge: generally made against a hard DC this uncovers a key piece of information that helps the rest of the encounter. For example, an Insight check to uncover a key protagonists motivation adds +2 to all future diplomacy checks. A Nature check to identify a mysterious creature as an ancient spirit of water thereby adding +2 to all History, Insight, Diplomacy and Religion checks due to a better understanding of the creature.

4. Automatic Failure: Limited occasional use of this type of check and where it should be obvious or logical. Don't try and Intimidate the Duke unless you really are powerful and mighty, don't try Diplomacy on rabid cultists. Important to let the party know the immediate result of such use.

5. Remove one failure: Always against hard DC's - a success here removes one failure. I allowed a use of Heal in a siege to enable the PC's to patch up some wounded defenders and get them back on the walls.

6. Group check: All players roll against a DC. If the majority of the players in the party succeed then they gain 1 success, if an equal number or majority fail it counts as a failure. This was used effectively in a wilderness escape challenge where the PC's were being chased by a horde of humanoids. The party had to make Stealth or Athletics checks to determine their progress.

7. Uncover an option: Success in the challenge opens up a new line of attack - particularly useful with Insight. I used this to enable the party to use Intimidate against a Priestess who was being obstructive. They needed to engage with her first, but with appropriate questioning and by listening carefully they were able to identify her fear of being blamed for failing to uncover cultists. A suitably pitched Intimidate check then followed.

8. Lose a healing surge: I generally use this with Endurance checks - following a shipwreck and after time spent out in the wilderness. It doesn't usually count towards the success of the challenge but it does reflect that what the PC's are doing may be physically dangerous. It was also used to good effect in a series of battle encounters where PC's leading units into battle were injured if that round of the fight went against them.

9. Higher DC for a benefit: The PCs were running away and hadn't had time to spend a short rest having used all their encounter powers and were low on hit points. They had the option of increasing the DC of group checks to grant one PC a short rest. It increased the risk of failing the challenge and being caught by their pursuers but they would be able to fight much better if 2 or 3 of them had their powers back. It also added a tactical element as the players discussed which character should rest first.

10. Succeed or face the consequences: Used with some amusement in a boarding an enemy ship skill challenge. Each PC had to make a check to leap up from a rowing boat over the side of a longship. Those that failed were stuck holding a rope balanced precariously between two swaying boats. Those that failed by 5 or more ended up in the sea with further swimming checks etc required before they could join the fight.

There are, I am sure, loads more options but it gives a flavour of what can be done and how varied skill challenge checks can be. If you have any favourites or good uses for checks let me know.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Struggling with GM Motivation

I think most of us have been there. You know that you have a game in 4 days and that you need to prepare ... and yet somehow you can't find the motivation to sit down and just write. I've just gone through it before my last session - the 5th in a line of about 15 I have mapped out for my 4e campaign. It wasn't even that I didn't know what was going to happen - it was just I couldn't find the drive to sit down and put it down on paper.

Finally with about 36 hours to go I managed to sit down and start to write. What did I learn from the experience?

1. An imminent deadline is a good motivator - the closer I got to the session the greater my motivation. If you're stuck then plan ahead and make sure your diary is free the day before the session. There's nothing like the fear of having nothing to say to drive you to write. You'll keep putting it off until the last moment so just plan for that from the start.

2. Plan the session in your head - I spent a lot of time thinking about the encounters I was planning to run, playing them out in my mind. I think part of the reason I couldn't write the session was that I wasn't happy with the content of some of the encounters - particularly some of the skill challenges. However as I played them out in my mind, during coffee breaks, bus rides, the soap the Mrs insists we watch together, driving to work and so on I was able to work out how I wanted them to play out. Just the odd few minutes thinking about it was often enough.

3. Get something down on paper - even if it's just an outline, a concept or some keywords it helps and doesn't take much time or effort. When you actually come to write this is a great reference point to come back to and it gives the idea a certain permanancy. Its much easier to develop an idea once you have something written down - even if you end up changing it completely.

4. Short bursts are better than long slogs - don't write for more than a couple of hours at one go. Its much easier to face the task if you know its short, you're likely to produce better quality work and it's easier to fit into your busy schedule.

5. Go freestyle and wing it - get back to the seat of your pants roleplaying you used to do years ago. Have some vague idea of direction, compile a list or names for NPCs and have a trait table on hand to make them more memorable, think of a couple of twists and you'll have a great few hours gaming for 30 mins prep.

6. Borrow or steal encounters - buy an adventure, use one from Dungeon or surf the net and use one written by another amateur DM. Just make sure you read it thoroughly first. I grabbed some encounter groups from the Monster Manual and Dungeon Delve.

7. Remember what it is about the game you love - play to your strengths, the more you enjoy it the more you will convey that to your players and the happier the gaming experience will be.

8. It doesn't have to be perfect - you are not Tolkein, George Lucas or Steven Spielberg so don't expect your adventures to have the epic depth or heartthumping drama you read in books or see at the movies. Take the pressure off yourself. Your group enjoy gaming with you and still will even after they figure out you aren't the greatest storyteller in the world. Just get on and tell your story - it's that story the players want to hear.

I'm sure there are other great ideas out there. Post a comment and let me know what you do when lack of motivation grabs hold of you.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

My favourite system is ...

OK so if I'm going to blog about RPGs I think its only fair you should know which systems I play and what I think of them. So I'll start with my favourite system - D&D 4e.

First off I don't want to start a flame war and I'm not going to impose my likes on anyone else but I do want to talk about what works for me.

So in no particular order this is what I love about 4e.

1. Skill challenges - What a cool mechanic for tackling non combat challenges. I love these and throw 5 or 6 into every adventure from simple to really complex. When they really work they are seemless and challenging. I love sitting down and coming up with them - I think it pushes DMs particularly, but players as well, to ensure everybody is involved and that the challenge is well rounded.

2. Conditions - Adds spice to combat although they can be tricky to keep track of - I use Alea Tools - which makes things much easier. So much more interesting and tactically important to have attacks do more than just damage.

3. Forced movement and shifting - Icing on the cake. Push, pull, slide your enemies, gang up on them and then shift away. For anyone who gets a kick out of outthinking their enemy these are just perfect.

4. Character Builder - Need a PC in 5 mins? No problem! Want an NPC warlock, 5th level - 2 minutes. Need everything added up correctly and power cards to keep track of what you have used and speed up play - just press print.

5. D&D Insider - Living in the UK getting hold of Dungeon or Dragon used to be a bit hit or miss and expensive. I now get both, plus a bunch of other things, regularly and for about half the price.

6. Class roles - every class has a role, players understand their responsibilities in and out of combat. The best parties are built as teams, where weaknesses are identified and compensated for. No class is significantly weaker than another and no PC is ever stuck with nothing to do, no action to take or no contribution to make.

7. Powers - A-will, encounter, daily, utility, monster, magic item - hundreds if not thousands each subtely different.

8. Combat - Encounters are simple to plan, with monsters, traps and hazards easily assembled to provide just the right challenge for the PCs.

9. Simplification - I like complication in my games but I want to be in charge of that complication, hidden traitors, sub plots, false leads - complications that add to the game. I don't want to spend hours worrying about NPC design and rules.

10. Page 42 of the DMG - Rules for everything not covered in the rules.

All in all I have found the game to be easier to run and more exciting as a player than any of the other excellent versions of the game I've played dating all the way back to the 1980's. More near TPK's, more excitement, greater challenge and fewer constraints all combined with simpler prep for DM's.