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Running Wars, Big Battles, and Massive Combat in D&D

by Mike on 7 December 2020

D&D is designed to cover the stories of a small party of characters adventuring in a land of high fantasy. Sometimes the story of these characters goes into areas not covered well by the rules in the core books.

Here at Sly Flourish I try to offer guidelines to help run this wider range of stories and situations that can come up in our D&D games.

How can we run hordes of monsters in a battle without it getting bogged down? How can I quickly see if a battle may be deadly for the characters? How can we run combat without using a battle map and tokens? It's these sorts of questions I want to answer. I want these guidelines to be quick, easy, and to stay out of the way of the story that evolves at the table.

One of these common situational questions is "how do I run a big war in D&D?".

Today I'll offer guidelines for running big battles as background set pieces in D&D.

Often our DM instincts lead us to build complex new mechanics and systems for atypical situations like running a war in D&D. Just as we have mechanics to handle small-party combat, we figure it seems likely we can build another such system for massive combat. Back in 2017, Wizards put out an Unearthed Arcana playtest document for massive combat but it never made its way into a sourcebook. Instead, early in 2020, Wizards of the Coast published the following in the Explorer's Guide to Wildemount:

Since D&D is primarily a game about a small group of characters going on adventures alone, it can be difficult to simulate massive battles using D&D combat rules. Because of this, it's generally best to keep the characters away from mass battles. However, huge conflicts with thousands of combatants are a cornerstone of epic fantasy, and your players might be disappointed if your war campaign doesn't have at least one climactic battle.

To solve this problem, you can break down your mass combat into manageable chunks. Find a significant location that the characters can either defend or conquer with minimal reinforcements, like an overrun citadel. Then, have the major battle proceed in waves that guide the characters from one cinematic encounter to another. You can think of these encounters like rooms in a dungeon; some rooms have multiple doors that the characters can choose from, while others only have a single passage.

This is good advice and my main recommendation for running mass combat in D&D.

Instead of building a bunch of mechanics for running a big battle, keep the spotlight on the characters and their role in the battle. Let them hunt down lieutenants, plant explosives, uncover spies, protect negotiators, and engage in other such activities. Run big battles off screen. Describe larger battles (quickly) and give characters a first-hand view of the battle through the eyes of their characters, from the trenches to the war-room. Find quests and stories that put the characters in the middle of the war but continues to focus on the small party adventures at the core of D&D.

Here's a list of war-based adventure seeds to help inspire you to build your own war-based quests.

  1. Sabotage enemy equipment
  2. Hunt down opposing lieutenants
  3. Assassinate opposing leaders
  4. Protect negotiators
  5. Root out saboteurs
  6. Hunt down assassins
  7. Protect the queen
  8. Smuggle out prisoners
  9. Find an ancient weapon
  10. Steal the enemy's treasury
  11. Deliver a message to the front
  12. Forge an alliance with a questionable ally
  13. Dismantle a capitalizing thieves guild
  14. Capture someone vital to the enemy's war effort
  15. Defend a chokepoint
  16. Steal a ship
  17. Sink a ship
  18. Protect a ship
  19. Rescue hostages
  20. Relocate civilians caught between two armies

You can lay out a handful of such options so the players can pick the ones that sound like fun to them. Maybe they have to go spy on, infiltrate, or sabotage the enemy's stronghold. Maybe they have to sneak away and go on a diplomatic mission to recruit nearby reclusive elves. Maybe they have to defend a small watchtower about to be overrun while the bulk of the force defends a front line. Even in a big war we can still offer up the three pillars of play — combat, roleplaying, or exploration — and let the players choose which sound cool.

Not Everything Needs Mechanics

All DMs are game designers. We all tweak our game to fit our desires and the the drive to have fun at the table. Sometimes we grab on too heavily to the idea that everything needs mechanics; faction mechanics, political mechanics, travel mechanics, vehicle mechanics, and war mechanics.

Not every aspect of our game needs heavy mechanics. Sometimes we can just describe things. When it comes to running big battles in our D&D games, run them off screen and keep the spotlight on the characters and their impact in the larger war.

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