D&D 5E A full on battlefield encounter (not just a skirmish) at level 2/3 - any tips, ideas anecdotes, etc? xD

kagayaku

First Post
Ok, I ramble a lot, I can't help. I bolded the stuff that isn't just rambling. Anyone got any cool GMing tips or anecdotes that might help me out?

I'm 5 weeks new to this whole "DM" thing, and due to a severe underestimation of the life endangering bravery/unwillingness to flee of my players and their characters, it is likely they will soon graduate from skirmishes and bandits and go straight to a full on battlefield, at level 2... possibly 3 depending what they do. Point is: no fireballs, few spell lots, very few hit points.

The main thing we all want is for the story and battle to be epic and fun. The players are aware there's a chance they may all be rolling new PCs at the end of the night (though I think we'd all prefer that wasn't the case), and I trust my players will have the sense to withdraw if things do turn ugly, so I'm not too concerned about them all dying so long as they have fun doing it and hopefully, leave a legacy. However, I do want them to feel that the outcome rests on them, at least in their small area of the battlefield, and that this will somehow impact the battle at large.

I guess I'm looking for input from anyone who's had this before on how to keep things flowing with so many combatants on the field (flow I struggle to maintain anyway, though players are helping now with less cross-talk, etc.), how to keep a long battle interesting, how to ensure it doesn't become DM vs DM, how to make the players feel they are making a difference, and how to make them feel like they are in a full battle. I think it'll be fine once we get going and the fun just happens, but getting the right challenge level and RP feel I think are harder to get right.

In terms of rules...
  • We use little card stand minis (it was a stupid idea to make minis, I've now made about 60, mostly for this combat) and dry wipe gridded matts, but are being imprecise with the squares.
  • I have read the Unearthed Arcana: When Armies Clash and Unearthed Arcana: Mass Combat rules and will be using some of them, but I won't use the different scale as it will confuse people and the PCs can only see a small area of the battlefield anyway.
  • We also already use the Hitting Cover rules (DMG 272, but if a character is the cover that gets hit an additional attack roll is needed to do damage) which I plan to use to make firing into a crowd seem less like sniping one guy and more like firing into a crowd.
  • We are experimenting with flanking and facing (but with quick common sense rulings as the ones in the book seem a little fiddly).
  • I also plan to introduce the Overrun and Tumble rules (also DMG 272)
  • I will be using the Morale rules (DMG 273) for NPCs on both sides.
  • There may be a Push of Pike situation and I plan to use the Squeezing into a Smaller Space rules for creatures trapped in the middle of it, which I think will surprise the players in a fun way.
  • The weapons and armour the invaders are using will largely be 'shoddy', so will have -1 to hit, damage and AC, may break, and will be worth less if poor looting checks mean the players largely just find shoddy weapons (though they will of course be well rewarded if they survive).
  • The invaders will have some kind of siege weapon or beast to give the players key targets. I was going to use boulder throwing ogres but I think a siege weapon that defends itself would cause a certain TPK, even if the NPC's do weaken it :'D I haven't yet figured out how I'm going to run these or what damage they do to creatures or structures.
  • The map will feature ramparts, temporary and permanent palisades, pit traps dug by the defenders, vantage points for ranged defenders, choke points, etc. so there should plenty of terrain related things for players to climb up, push things into, etc.
  • The players may, very reasonably, have their characters flee if the lines are overrun, in which case I'll probably be back here asking about chases in a week or two xD

Thanks a lot for reading that (just the bold stuff or otherwise xD) and I hope this will bring about many interesting tales!
Cheers,
Kagayaku
 

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Quickleaf

Legend
[MENTION=6876021]kagayaku[/MENTION] I have experience doing battlefield encounters focused on the PCs at a variety of levels from 1-10. Can you talk a little more about the specifics of your scenario? Sounds like you have an "evil humanoids lay siege" scenario and both sides are armed with pikes fighting for control of a gate? That's all I could get from your description.

Some things off the top of my head...

  • Define 3-5 battlefield objectives for the PCs to accomplish in the mist of the battle. These should be poignant, involve meaningful choices, and have an immediate impact on the flow of battle (and possible in the long-term). If you're having trouble defining interesting objectives, think of what the villains are trying to accomplish, the disposition of their troops, and the personality of their commanders. Now think about the site and its defenses, and personalities of their commanders.
  • Keep the action focused on the PCs. Personally, I almost entirely avoided mass combat rules. In the situations when the PCs had gathered or called upon allied military units, I created "unit cards" they could play to gain certain benefits apropos of that particular unit. When played, the card had an effect that might be a one-off or ongoing.
  • Using Morale is great. Describing the clash of armies is great. However, you want to avoid scenarios where you roll against yourself or where NPC rolling overshadows the PCs.
  • The Mob rules in the DMG p.250 are a great resource. Consider using them if the PCs are ever outnumbered (i.e. draw fire to themselves and don't have their own unit's support). Also, when doing this, minimize opportunity attacks against the PCs in most situations.
  • Think of the battle kind of like a dungeon. The battle should have different zones (rooms) that have different units active in them and different hazards associated with them. For example, Press of Pikes might be a zone at the center front of the battle, and you write up a paragraph on the situation. Difficult terrain. Supporting one side requires DC # Strength check, with these consequences for individual/group success or failure. If a character ends up caught in the middle, they have to squeeze and are limited to small or tiny weapons.
  • Don't rule out the possibility for exploration or interaction on the battlefield; maybe they need to convince a stubborn commander to issue a tactical withdraw before his forces are routed, or maybe they witness an enemy scout get killed while carrying intelligence reports and have the option of riding out to retrieve those reports.
 

Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
The Primeval Thule GM Companion has some mass battle rules that are in my opinion far more workable than the ones in the Unearthed Arcana article. They keep the focus on the PCs and the mass battle more in the background, and are both simpler and less ridiculous than the UA rules. I've used them for competing groups in the mid teens (15 vs. 17), so I'm not sure how well they scale, but they worked very well for the smaller skirmish.

They are also completely or easily compatible with all the options you list wanting to use.
 

kagayaku

First Post
Thanks Quickleaf!, thanks Ath-kethin!

I've only recently bought the PHB, DMG and MM, so I'd rather not buy the Primeval Thule right now, but it sounds like they cover exactly my circumstance so maybe I'll consider the PDF. Can anyone weigh in on this recommendation one way or the other?

You've both said to keep the battle focussed on the PCs, and that sounds like good advice. I'm thinking the players and characters will get a sense of the battlefield at large in the early stages of the siege, looking out at the surrounding encampments from the tops of town walls, but once the siege starts they'll be drawn by the chaos into personal survival and local threats.

Only one of the PCs is likely to have command of even a small unit (sans possibly some of the more charismatic characters getting themselves small ad-hoc followers), but I like the idea of the unit cards. Can you please elaborate on those, Quickleaf? The kinds of things they allow the PCs to do, if you think they work best as essentially combat actions for units, once a battle powers, or somewhere in between?

I'll almost certainly use the Mob Rules now, thank you for bringing those to my attention. I also like the way of thinking about the Push of Pikes as a moving dungeon room and the small weapon constraint, that makes sense to me. We usually allow Opportunity Attacks whenever it makes sense rather than following the real rules and I think our rule will naturally reduce these; if you make yourself vulnerable by eg. picking up a weapon adjacent to an enemy they get an attack, but if a creature is being eg. attacked on all sides they may be unable to attempt Opportunity Attacks at all.

I'll have to think some more on the 3-5 objectives as really, taking out siege weapons and maybe key commanders is all I have right now. I think the town will also have a much better chance if they can provoke groups of the easily agitated orcs into attacking early while their commander wants them to hold back and defend the siege equipment to breach the walls. I do have some reasonably well fleshed out commanders on both sides though so I will try and incorporate their personalities as you suggest.

I have a rough, broad-scale timeline of battle events if the players do nothing if that's of any interest to you (if something here makes no sense to you do let me know haha):
[edit] And yes, I'm aware this is basically the script of Helm's Deep xD[/edit]

  • [already happened] one of the PCs, a princess of a nearby land, sends a carrier with a message asking for help from her family as the PCs are meeting the local lord tomorrow in unfavourable circumstances
  • [already happened] As the PCs meet with the lord, a scout bursts in reporting orcs on the move 2 days march away
  • [already happened] A war council is formed, and work is made to fortify the town, spread propaganda, harvest vulnerable crops and fill the granaries, stockpile weapons and armour, train able bodied peasantry to make better use of their weapons, pray to the gods, dig pit traps, and send out more scouts. Messages are sent to nearby settlements requesting aid. The nearest city is about 5 days march away and the orcs are marching from almost that direction so carriers may or may not make it to the city.
  • Panic spreads and people begin to flee the town, the guards are ordered to stop any person capable of wielding arms from leaving the town. Scattered in-fighting ensues.
  • The orc army approaches over the horizon, young and feeble people, and some fighters, are called back into the walls of the town and barricades are readied at the gates. Archers man forward defences about 100 ft ahead of the main walls (for play reasons: 1 round of dashing + 1 round of movement, also visualisation - from the room we are playing in to the house across the street xD).
  • Scouts and spies are despatched from both sides to monitor the enemy and probe for weakness, causing minor skirmishes. The orcs set up encampments encircling the town at about 1000 ft (which for ease of visualisation is about the length of our local park) from the main walls, a little outside the range of defensive mangonels with elevation. Orcs begin assembling their own ikea-branded mangonels but no scouts survive with this information. Raiding and razing of outlying buildings and fields.
  • Skirmishes are fought at the forward defences.
    • Town's people strike at poorly placed orc and goblin units during days (limited mounted archers and cavalry carrying archers making hit and runs) causing minor attrition and taking minor loses.
    • Disposable goblins and bloodthirsty orcs charge the forward defences during nights, causing moderate goblin losses, some orc losses and total defeat of many of the forward defences with moderate losses.
  • Town retreats from remaining forward defences over the losses. Under cover of darkness orcs commanding goblins move mangonels into range of the main walls and gates. The town is bombarded.
  • The town attempts to respond with its own mangonels and archers, firing burning pitch and arrows into the darkness. This has limited success and causing some orc units to charge early, getting them killed by archers on the walls. The siege continues though and the town is forced to scramble its limited mounted forces to deal with the catapults, taxiing archers and dropping them off at useful range en-route
  • Most catapults or their teams are destroyed by the end of the night but not before one gate and one section of wall are collapsed. Many goblins not suited for combatting cavalry were also killed and many more flee, but the cavalry is met by orc javelins at range and melee and about 90 percent of it is destroyed. Goblins and orcs chase down the archers in some locations causing heavy losses on both sides. Remaining archers and cavalry retreat.
  • The town's people desperately try to reinforce the fallen areas with manpower, redirecting guards and civilians from other sides of the town. Goblins are sent as a first wave carrying a mix of spears, maces, axes and shortswords and meet a mix of terrified guards and peasantry with spears and shields at the gate. The goblins climb the collapsed wall sections and begin to over-run the archers on the wall.
  • A Push of Pike (well, spear) forms at the gate as both sides are depleted, the goblins taking heavier losses from both spears and arrows. Some goblins tumble through and begin to cause chaos inside the town, flanking behind the guards' formation and harassing defensive archers and siege teams as well as looting and vandalising the town. They are hunted by civilians and guards inside the town who were there to ensure order is maintained even during the siege.
  • Orcs and goblins charge the far side of the town, now more lightly defended, carrying ladders and grappling hooks to climb the walls.
  • The orcs amass and charge the gate, throwing a semi-organised volley of javelins as they charge, destroying many units on both sides of the Push of Pike including much of the trained guardship. Remaining archers respond turning their attention to the orcs. The towns catapults fire shrapnel into the orcs, but have limited success as they are being harassed by the tumbled goblins.
  • A small group of cavalry commanded by the princess PC's brother rides in and destroys remaining orc catapult teams, capturing a couple of catapults and firing a volley of stones into the backs of the orcs.
  • The orcs arrive at the gate, swinging their greataxes and slaughtering large sections of the forces there. The lord's brash son refuses to issue a retreat order and commands his men to ensure no one flees, but many of his own men are fleeing already. Some orcs break off to charge the princess's brother and his soldiers.
  • Remaining forces retreat to the keep, but many are barricaded outside as the orcs encroach and are slaughtered.
  • Outside the city, cavalry and horse archers from a nearby town arrive and mop up some fleeing goblins as they heads toward the gates.
  • The princess's brother loses a small number of men to orc javelins and orders a tactical retreat before joining with the arriving cavalry.
  • Inside the town walls, goblins and orcs are pillaging and razing the town. Archers try to defend the keep and men and women inside try to brace the heavy doors as orcs attempt to force their way in with their axes.
  • The newly arrived mounted forces approach the gates and are met by orc javelins. The doors of the keep are breached and orcs start piling into the corridors where a chaotic crushed battle ensues. Some people fight, others pray, still others flee into the keep or just give up.
  • The cavalry overwhelm the orcs at the gate and spread through the town, slaughtering orcs and goblins as they come across them. Many of them charge the orcs around the keep and suddenly the orcs are trapped, being slaughtered by cavalry and mounted archers.
  • Inside the keep combatants on both sides realise this, some orcs try to flee, townspeople get a second wind, and the orcs are destroyed. Goblin and human looters alike and some orcs flee the town with their new wealth.
  • The town is left with only a fraction of its former population, many buildings and resources destroyed, the walls and gates heavily damaged and fires spreading through the town. They have many difficult decisions to make.

I think much of the timeline wont matter too heavily as if the PCs can't see it they wont know until afterwards what happened. It does mean I'll have an idea what's going on outside of the PCs' area of immediate influence though, which could be useful. I'll probably use a system I saw on Drunkards & Dragons, where he rolls dice in front of the players and every turn reduces them by 1. I'll use a small dice for the princess's brother, a larger dice for the incoming allied cavalry, and more for certain other events, but I wont tell the players what they mean. Much tension!
 
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Xeviat

Hero
The thing that pops up for me is how AC and saves aren't really under the player's control, so at low levels they could be dropped fast by attacks. In an effort to make them feel the danger of the battlefield but allow them to play it safe and have some control, I'd try to have an encounter start at some extreme distance or with a large amount of cover so ranged attacks against them have Disadvantage and cover for a while.

The rest, well, it's going to be tough. A "fair fight" at those levels would be only 1 or 2 goblins per character. So, unless the goblins are attacking lots of other people, the players are going to be in a lot of risk.


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Quickleaf

Legend
You bet :)

You've both said to keep the battle focussed on the PCs, and that sounds like good advice. I'm thinking the players and characters will get a sense of the battlefield at large in the early stages of the siege, looking out at the surrounding encampments from the tops of town walls, but once the siege starts they'll be drawn by the chaos into personal survival and local threats.

Sounds like you want some chaos to the battle. Maybe if they succeed in a battlefield objective, they get to choose their next objective – the smoke lifts, they take elevated ground, they question an enemy captain, etc. But if they fail in a battlefield objective they get swept into whatever you have waiting on the wings.

Only one of the PCs is likely to have command of even a small unit (sans possibly some of the more charismatic characters getting themselves small ad-hoc followers), but I like the idea of the unit cards. Can you please elaborate on those, Quickleaf? The kinds of things they allow the PCs to do, if you think they work best as essentially combat actions for units, once a battle powers, or somewhere in between?

Sure. Well, it depends entirely on the unit. That's why I was trying to encourage you to speak in specifics.

Several years ago, my players took down a "Prince John" type villain. They'd assembled 5-6 allies, including cavalry, crossbowmen special forces, some kind of monster (can't remember), and these eladrin high-guard. During a big battle there were lots of NPC vs NPC fights happening, so it wasn't like PCs vs. Army, it was more like PCs vs. an unusually hard and potentially deadly fight of their own. There was a misty field they were trying to take, in pursuit of the retreating Prince John who'd they routed (which was handled on a more plot / long-term adventure level rather than mass combat). They're holding their own, but then a dracolich (which had been running around since 3rd level as a result of a failed adventure) lands and takes out the NPC cavalry commander in one round. The players know this thing is deadly and they still have enemy troops they're fighting.

So the Bard PC sounded the war horn given to them by the cavalry commander, and made a successful Charisma check to get them to snap to attention despite missing their commander. I gave the cavalry the following power:

[SECTION]Ser Tuirean's Cavalry Charge (once every 4 rounds). On your turn, you can blow the war horn as an action. Make the following attack against all enemies on the ground without cover in your current zone: Melee Weapon Attack: +6 to hit (if cavalry is "bloodied" reduce to +3 to hit), advantage vs. non-mounted creatures; Hit: 10 (1d12+4) piercing damage and must make DC 12 Strength saving throw or knocked prone.[/SECTION]

Resolving this obviously was done with minimal rolling to avoid tedium.

They ended up narrowly winning the battle through a trick they pulled using a magic item to subdue the dracolich. "Prince John" retreated to his conquered fortress at the center of a mystic lake...the eladrin eldritch knight PC's former home. Magic mists protected the lake, preventing their force from immediately pursuing or effectively using missile/siege fire on the Prince's boats. The players had a choice: Wait for all their allies to assemble (and for their allied ritual caster/advisor to dispel the magic mists), or go in hot to disrupt an evil ritual without much support. They decided to go in hot. The only allies they could bring with them across the magic lake were the eladrin high-guard. Exploring the fortress, they learned that the evil ritual-in-progress (it was a months long ritual) had already subjugated many eladrin, merging the former king & queen into the stonework, and at one point the dark magic even charmed some of the eladrin high-guard into triggering a trap. However, the high-guard came in really handy when the PCs faced a large spiral staircase protected by corrupted/wicked/charmed high-guards.

[SECTION]House Tureal (?) High-Guard. The High-Guard can be used in different ways (subject to DM's discretion). They can be posted to guard a route, preventing enemies from using it. They can channel the mists of the isle to use a longer range misty step on the party, perhaps reaching as far as a mile. They can channel the mists of the isle to surround a zone of battle in fog cloud which also requires a DC 15 Intelligence save to correctly identify voices, navigate your way out of, or target the creature you wish to target (rather than a random creature). There may be other things they can do, left to your imagination.[/SECTION]

The eldritch knight PC had the high-guard hold off their corrupted members, so the PCs could pass them without taking opportunity attacks while running up the stairs, and then pin down the corrupted high-guard so they couldn't misty step after the PCs. I narrated it as a sort of teleporting battle happening all around them as they ran up the tower, leaping over stairs getting blasted to ruin by stray bolts of magical force, or throwing corrupted high-guard out of their way down a several story drop. Why up? Because villains always do the bad stuff at the top of the tower ;)

Then the final 3rd zone of the climactic encounter was the top of the tower, but I'll cut if off there for now. I will say that my version was an anomaly – 3 zones, very linear – because when I think about more medieval era battlefields, I think of multiple zones happening concurrently.

I have a rough, broad-scale timeline of battle events if the players do nothing if that's of any interest to you (if something here makes no sense to you do let me know haha):
[edit] And yes, I'm aware this is basically the script of Helm's Deep xD[/edit]

Ah ha, so that's your point of reference. Seems like a reasonable outline of possible events.

I think much of the timeline wont matter too heavily as if the PCs can't see it they wont know until afterwards what happened. It does mean I'll have an idea what's going on outside of the PCs' area of immediate influence though, which could be useful. I'll probably use a system I saw on Drunkards & Dragons, where he rolls dice in front of the players and every turn reduces them by 1. I'll use a small dice for the princess's brother, a larger dice for the incoming allied cavalry, and more for certain other events, but I wont tell the players what they mean. Much tension!

I like your basic approach, but from experience recommend some adjustments to your plan:

1. Provide the PCs ways to know what's happening elsewhere in the battle. Maybe there's a vantage point on your map where they can see what's going on for 2-3 miles or more. Maybe a weak but allied spellcaster sends an animal messenger. Maybe fleeing peasants report the postern has fallen. Maybe a spontaneous interrogation of a goblin spy gains intel. Maybe they rendezvous with an allied NPC captain with a spyglass. That sort of thing.

2. Any time you put down a countdown die, be clear about what it represents and make it visible (either permanently left on the table for players to see and remind themselves, or call out what you're doing and why you're rolling a lower die EACH AND EVERY time you do it to remind your players. If you need/desire to introduce vagueness about what a die represents, consider whether separating the PC-player knowledge is worth the diminished impact. In your scenario, you might be able to get away with: "Here are 4 countdown dice, which start at X, Y, and Z. The numbers represents however many <units of time> before the event occurs. One of these dice is for the Princess' Brother, another for the Incoming Cavalry, another for Volstagg the Orcish Necromancer, and another for Fire in the Barbican. But I'm not telling you which is which. If you can figure that out during play is up to you."
 

kagayaku

First Post
The thing that pops up for me is how AC and saves aren't really under the player's control, so at low levels they could be dropped fast by attacks. In an effort to make them feel the danger of the battlefield but allow them to play it safe and have some control, I'd try to have an encounter start at some extreme distance or with a large amount of cover so ranged attacks against them have Disadvantage and cover for a while.

The rest, well, it's going to be tough. A "fair fight" at those levels would be only 1 or 2 goblins per character. So, unless the goblins are attacking lots of other people, the players are going to be in a lot of risk.

Thanks Xeviat!
I'm a little worried about this as well if I'm honest. The players have fortifications available and I'm giving all the invaders (except key bad guys if the PCs decide to target them) 'shoddy' weapons and armour with -1 debuffs to their atk, dmg and ac which will hopefully make things a tiny bit less scary (and these invaders aren't particularly well off so I think it fits from a narrative perspective). There are also a small number of guards and a large number of lesser trained armed townsfolk fighting on the side of the PCs so they'll provide some cover (yeah, I know :'D) and damage output, and maybe will make it a bit safer if the PCs decide they want to charge out from cover and attack the catapults etc. Though... in a situation with many NPCs around the PCs I'm still not sure how I'm going to fairly determine who gets targetted when, eg. a volley of javelins rains in, or orcs charge the front line. I guess I could treat everyone in the area as equally likely targets and print off a table of probably of getting chosen x times by y picks in a group of z size, then just roll a d100 or d20 against the chart for each PC and key NPC in the targetted group and pick other NPCs randomly. I think that would be relatively fast but maybe a little ott. Obviously smarter enemies will specifically target whoever they see as a high value low risk target. How would you deal with this?

Wow, thanks for another in depth reply, Quickleaf. :) It sounds like you've successfully ran games with the exact atmosphere and pressure I'm looking for!

I'll do my best to take your advice on board. I'm still trying to figure out some battlefield objectives that make sense for the situation, PC level and their standing in the town, but I'll get there. More will no doubt naturally arise from the players choices on the day too. I hadn't really thought about splitting the battle up into zones as such but it could help me simplify things so I'll think about that. Whatever the case, I really like the unit cards idea now that you've described an example. With about 1 day before the arrival of the orcish army, if my players can give me an excuse to make one available I'll be sure to do so. ;)

1. Provide the PCs ways to know what's happening elsewhere in the battle. Maybe there's a vantage point on your map where they can see what's going on for 2-3 miles or more. Maybe a weak but allied spellcaster sends an animal messenger. Maybe fleeing peasants report the postern has fallen. Maybe a spontaneous interrogation of a goblin spy gains intel. Maybe they rendezvous with an allied NPC captain with a spyglass. That sort of thing.

I think this is pretty much the way I want things to be running. I'll be using small dry-wipe grid mats for the nearby and imminently dangerous stuff, and a smattering of descriptive story telling and shouty NPCs for everything else. I already know that some of my PCs want to be on top of the walls, and others want to be down by the gates (or possibly on a... possibly stolen... war horse). Anyway, some of the players will be able to see a long way, others will be near key commanders, and... possibly one will have high mobility. I figure all of these things will lead to plenty of opportunities to give the players lots of information and agency. Incidentally, I'm hoping the players will stay nearby to each other, but if the guy with the horse really wants to charge into the distance with the cavalry I'll let him. I think it'll be ok so long as the important aspects of visible surroundings outside of the mats are succinctly and clearly described, and I have multiple mats so I can still show everyone their immediate tactical surroundings (providing they don't split into more than 3 groups :'D)

2. Any time you put down a countdown die, be clear about what it represents and make it visible (either permanently left on the table for players to see and remind themselves, or call out what you're doing and why you're rolling a lower die EACH AND EVERY time you do it to remind your players. If you need/desire to introduce vagueness about what a die represents, consider whether separating the PC-player knowledge is worth the diminished impact. In your scenario, you might be able to get away with: "Here are 4 countdown dice, which start at X, Y, and Z. The numbers represents however many <units of time> before the event occurs. One of these dice is for the Princess' Brother, another for the Incoming Cavalry, another for Volstagg the Orcish Necromancer, and another for Fire in the Barbican. But I'm not telling you which is which. If you can figure that out during play is up to you."

Is there a particular reason you consider it important that the players know what the countdown die represent? The reason I'm asking is that I want to use them for 2 benefits:
1. A little bit of dramatic irony driven suspense as the players know that SOMETHING significant is coming the characters' way and that (knowing me very well as they all do) it is likely bad... Though in this case it mostly isn't so maybe they don't know me so well after all.
2. So they don't all call me out for dropping a deus ex machina on them to bail them out just when they need it and "cheating" for them.
I don't want to give away surprises before they happen though (for example that the princess's message reached her family on time, which was rolled for behind the screen), nor give the players too much to metagame with as it may be tempting for some but would detract from the fun for others. I figured I could just roll a d6, put that down, put down a d4 on 4 and roll another d4 and put it on top of the 4, etc. and say "Don't let me forget to put these all down by 1 each turn guys and gals", and just watch them enjoy the panic. I suppose they could accuse me of cheating what each die means (and honestly, if it makes it more exciting or balanced I'm not against doing that) but it'd have to happen a few turns in advance for most things as they'd be likely to notice signs of what was to come a few turns ahead of arrival anyway. It seems ok to me?
 

Quickleaf

Legend
[MENTION=6876021]kagayaku[/MENTION] Happy to pass along any hard-earned insights that make your game better. I really cut my teeth figuring all this out for myself. Good luck :)

Two follow up things:

Obviously smarter enemies will specifically target whoever they see as a high value low risk target. How would you deal with this?

That's really exactly true in a medieval warfare scenario. I realize this is D&D, but to give you an example...armored warriors often carried thin daggers in case they defeated a foe with a helmet. According to the sources we have, it seemed fairly common practice to do something like this: Hold the thin dagger to slit in the helmet or other vulnerable point in the armor and demand the person's lineage – if they weren't noble they got killed, if they were noble they got held for ransom.

Another example: In medieval combat you don't have, say, 50 longbow men line up and get directed to "shoot down the one with the red feather helmet." They're launching volleys of arrows on a much larger scale.

In your "Helm's Deep" scenario, you shouldn't be targeting the PCs with multiple goblin attacks each, for example, unless the sh-- orc-- really hits the fan (probably as a result of the PCs drawing undue attention to themselves).

This is why I recommend battle zones, translating stuff like this from "hundred monster attack" paradigm to a "hazard of war" paradigm. So you can better foresee what you're actually planning to run them through.

[SBLOCK=As an aside...]As an aside, recently I placed a chamber in a high-level dungeon with 99 flameskulls. I knew that running it as a combat would be A Bad Idea, so instead I focused on "what's interesting that the PCs can do here? how might they might circumvent these monsters in a creative way? and how do I make sure they have enough time/ways to avoid getting killed till they manage to do so?" I ended up designing it as a trap using Unearthed Arcana: Traps Revisited.[/SBLOCK]

Is there a particular reason you consider it important that the players know what the countdown die represent?

In your scenario not knowing exactly is probably OK, as long as they know it's "something bad."

I should have emphasized that it's the immediate and ongoing visual prop that matters.

It's the Jenga tower effect in Dread (a terrific little indie horror game where you draw pieces of a Jenga tower as you tell the story/play the game, with collapse of the tower leading to some grisly fate for that hero). Having a physical prop – even just a die you keep turning down – that the players can constantly reference helps sustain the tension when players might otherwise forget.
 

hastur_nz

First Post
I ran a little battle recently for 3xPC's at 7th but no fireball etc, and one of my players had DM'd the same one earlier for his group which was probably much lower level. Some of it's probably relevant for your situation...

My players got a lot of time to organise the exact defenses - where all the NPC's were, what their assigned tasks were (including non-combatants who were assigned to fight fires etc), they also dug and covered pits with spikes to help defend the gates. They kept the NPC's out of much direct fire, most of the time, and made sure they all had good cover themselves. For invading forces were mainly Orcs, with Ogres that flung flaming stuff. My players made sure they never left the inside of the compound, and with cover I hardly hit them, but these are much tougher than level 2 or 3 PCs. A few common-folk were killed once some Orcs breached the main gates, until I had the rest run away and let the PC Fighter hold the Orcs back (I run morale for both sides). I didn't plan on rolling too many dice, but because everyone was spread out all over the whole battlefield, I ended up having too, but it was only about 40 orcs etc so not that big really. My players enjoyed the tactical aspects as a change of pace, and they all gave it much thought, so it ended up being an easy victory; next session the players actually took the fight to the survivors before the re-enforced, re-grouped and attacked again, which was also fun.

My player who had DM'd the same scenario, said his players put all the towns-folk up on the walls, using ranged attacks etc, and most of them got killed off. So there's lesson - same scenario, but different player tactics can lead to very different outcomes.

For a group of low-level PCs, vs an army, personally I'd be very worried that the players will get in over their heads and die too easily. Basically a PC only needs to get surrounded by enemies, and they are likely to go down and be un-saveable. Attacking a siege engine sounds cool, but realistically how can low level PC's do that without it being a suicide mission? If I was a player, I'd spend my whole time behind as much cover as possible, doing very little to draw attention to myself - maybe some stealth and/or intelligence mission, but I'd be very worried that my 20-30 hit points wasn't going to last if I got anywhere near a section of the army. I'm not sure what heroic actions your players might expect, maybe they can be commanders of a sort but hopefully not front-line ones. Remember - if this is Healm's Deep, your level 3 PC's are definitely NOT Legolas or Gimmli or whatever, at best they might be Merry or Pippin.

Your "rescue mission" ending does indeed feel like Deus-ex-Machina, so personally if I was going to use that device I *would* let the players know that external help is possible, and that it's on a count-down, and if there's things they can do to speed it up, stop the enemies from thwarting it, etc. That's actually a good chance to let them help influence the battle in meaningful ways. In other words, let the players help drive the conclusion of "reinforcements save the day", if that's what makes sense.

I think with such low-level PC's, and I'm assuming also inexperienced players, you owe it to everyone to be clear that the army is large and a few heroes obviously can't defeat them by themselves, but there might be some smaller-scale things that the heroes can do that will help swing the tide of battle. Don't make them guess what's going on, give them information and choices to make. By all means let them be creative in what they could do, but if they are not sure give them some decent options and if their ideas are clearly poor let them know and allow them to reconsider, i.e. don't let them get themselves killed just because you made them guess and they guessed wrong.

Last thing - pre-plan some basic stuff, in terms of numbers of attackers vs defenders, likely casualties at various times, etc, and where appropriate just narrate what the PC's can learn of what's going on around the place, e.g. 300 orcs armed with geataxes and battering rams storm the front gate, fire and arrows rain down and kill half of them before they crash though, then 100 defenders try to hold them back but each orc is worth two men, etc etc. Obviously the players can help influence the defenders actions, plans etc.

Good luck, it's a lot to chew off so early in your DM career.
 
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Draegn

Explorer
In a battle not everyone has to be defending the city from an attacker or directly involved in combat. The two rogues along with their motley crew of scoundrels prevented another thieving guild from stealing the food stores and selling it back to the city populace at inflated prices. For their reward they asked for exclusive rights to clearing the enemy dead from the field and disposing of any goods they find as they see fit.

One of the wizards who is rather a dandy decided to avoid the stench of battle and have a long relaxing bath and massage. From his respite of the grime of war he was forced to deal with a traitorous faction within the city walls.
 

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