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.