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.

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