War and Nations in Dungeons & Dragons

Throughout the history of Dungeons & Dragons, the primary focus has been on the exploits of bands of adventurers, typically exploring dungeons, killing monsters and gaining treasure. However, every so often, there’s a glimpse of an older style of play: one where the characters hold positions of responsibility and command large armies on the field, often to protect nations they’ve carved out of the wilderness.

It has also been one of the worst-supported forms of play.

Throughout the early forms of the game, the reward for becoming a high-level fighter was to gain a small army upon building a stronghold. If you carved out a realm from the wilderness, you also gained money through taxes. The first few editions didn’t say very much about what happened then. The most extensive version of the realm-building rules was released in the Companion Rules, but they weren’t integrated into the main strand of the game.

I’m not a big fan of abstract ways of resolving mass battles. I prefer to use miniatures or counters to do it. Most of the abstract methods tend to lack drama and boil down to rolling dice. I despise the system that Paizo came up with for their Kingmaker series – one of the biggest piles of untested shit I’d seen, with a set of “tactical choices” that failed to provide valid choices. There was one tactic to use, and the rest were just a way of losing battles.

For, if you rule territory, you’re going to get into battles.

The DM has been left almost entirely on their own when it comes to the other side of ruling: diplomacy. To be fair, this is an area that requires a lot of DM inventiveness, as they need to come up with situations that allow the role-players in the group to have an interesting time working out how to deal with competing demands. There’s likely to be a brilliant campaign there, and, with war the penalty for failure, you can build up the stakes.

One of the unfortunate aspects of most official D&D world design is that it seems the designers have forgotten that you can have a war between two nations. When I think of wars in the D&D settings, they’re all World Wars. The Greyhawk Wars. The Last War of Eberron. The War of the Lance. How does the game change when you’re in a warzone between two nations, one of which you consider home, but it isn’t this world-consuming war?

I believe that one of the unfortunate effects of alignment is that people get caught up on the Good vs. Evil axis. If a nation is considered “Good”, it won’t attack another “Good” nation. It gets boiled down to Good vs. Evil. However, you can easily have two nations, both following the precepts of “Good”, that go to war with each other. It’s happened enough times in our own history!

The trouble with battles is then working out what the players do. A fighter is a great warrior, but their impact is much less on a battlefield of 50,000 or more soldiers. I enjoyed the method in Heroes of Battle for engaging the players, but it didn’t do much for resolving the outcome. Do you need a method? Can the DM just decide? Well, if the PCs are just acting as elite soldiers or forces, you can. It works less well when they’re the rulers!

What I need to work out here is the form of story you tell that uses battles. The story then informs the detail you need when resolving them. Something to think about!

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6 Responses to War and Nations in Dungeons & Dragons

  1. Stuart Bamford says:

    When I think of large battles, my head actually begins to ache from all the calculations you’d have to do to have a reasonable chance of simulating mass combat from a commander’s point of view.

    However, using systems already in 5e, you could construct a basic framework that would allow tactics to take effect (advantage or disadvantage) and treat each ‘group’ as an entity unto itself.

    What I could see is this. You have multiple levels of ‘skilled’ soldiers. Green recruits are akin to conscripts, veterans are equivalent to level 1 Fighters, and Elite Soldiers equal to Level 4 Fighters.

    This way you can treat each group as a singular entity by assigning AC, attack bonuses etc, and use the number of people in the unit as the HP Value.

    Conscript Spearmen
    – Attack Bonus +2
    – AC 16 (Scalemail + Shield)
    – HP 20 (20 men) each HP loss is -1 soldier

    Veteran Spearmen
    – Attack Bonus +4
    – AC 18 (Scalemail + Shield + DEX)
    – HP 40 (20 men) each 2 hp lost is -1 soldier

    Elite Soldiers
    – Attack Bonus +6
    – AC 19 (Halfplate + Shield + DEX)
    – HP 80 (20 men) each 4hp lost is -1 soldier

    each round you simply treat each ‘unit’ as an individual entity.

    In addition, you use tactics like flanking, high ground and ambush attacks to give your units advantage, while fighting from unfavorable conditions such as low ground gives you disadvantage.

    Obviously combat feat etc would be excluded from this kind of battle, unless you wanted your PCs in the think of it, but even then, you could conceivably use the same system melded with normal combat progression to include PCs as combatants alongside your ‘general’ troops.

  2. Maybe the best way to do this with existing 5e rules would be to treat each unit as it’s own character with ‘tactics’ able to grant advantage or disadvantage on their attacks. That way you can keep the DnD feel of chance, succeeding against epic odds, and so on, but still allow the PC commanders to influence the battle’s flow.

    I could probably mock up a few simple homebrew rules that would use existing mechanics to emulate large scale combat, make it feel good in a sense (as good as normal combat in DnD would anyway)

  3. Joel says:

    This is a great discussion topic. My favorite mass combat adventure was the Red Hand of Doom in 3.5. The players earned points by completing events which helped or hindered the fate of the free peoples in the Elsir Vale against an invading horde. If the PCs earned enough points, the PCs could affect the outcome to allow the good guys to rally and halt the horde’s advance. The focus was on a campaign rather than battles. However a point based system could be applied to battles where specific events could affect the outcome. For example, the outcome could start out with the good guys losing but with the PCs destroying the siege engines in a night raid then poisoning the enemy’s water supply, the enemy forces were forced to withdraw. I would love to see a re-boot of RHoD in 5e.

    • merricb@yahoo.co.uk says:

      Yeah, that way of handling a battle was really good. It requires a lot of set-up from the DM, of course. 🙂

  4. designbot says:

    I’ve always thought the simplest way to manage this would be to carry out combat as usual, rolling once for each unit or type of creature, but multiply the damage and hit points by the number of creatures in the group.

    • merricb@yahoo.co.uk says:

      It’s gives you a way to represent mass combat, but it tends to not represent the manoeuvring of combat well, or the effect of battle magic. Massed combat *should* feel different to regular combat.

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