D&D 5E Tools for Running Larger Battles Efficiently


I've been DMing for about 8 months with very little tabletop experience outside of it. Its been generally enjoyable, and I've managed to keep a relatively stable group throughout those months. There definitely have been some hiccups along the way, usually when I get ambitious and try something new.
My last session, my players had gotten themselves caught between a power struggle between two factions within the city Waterdeep. They were captured and about to be imprisoned by an old enemy they made many months ago, when another faction(Red Wizards of Thay) saw the opportunity to attack. They had a choice to reconcile with their old enemy and right a previous wrong, or assist in the assault. They chose to stand against the red wizards.
So the scenario was they had to hold against waves of enemies forces as they stormed up to the second floor. I meant for this to be a climatic confrontation for the players leading up to a longer break, but unfortunately due to my lack of planning...we only got halfway through it. Its understandable that such a large fight is going to take some time but I thought I could just wing the details like I usually do depending on the encounter. There were a lot of moving parts which caused things to move slowly, meaning players were individually less involved over longer spaces of time. There were multiple large enemy units supported by golems attempting to smash through barriers, while friendly NPCs helped the players.
So going into next session I want to be more prepared for moving things along quickly to keep the energy level up. I WANT to get better at running these larger battle scenarios because stories may organically grow towards larger confrontations and its cool from a story point of view. Middle(15-25 pieces) and large(armies) scale battles are a perfect way to amp up the stakes and tension.
So for anyone who has successfully run these types of battles...what were your strategies for making larger battles more fun? How do you keep things moving at a snappy pace without everything grinding to a halt due to so many factors? Making custom minion groups?
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Well, you said you thought you could wing it. Preparing will solve most of your problems. Beyond that...

Hand wave/narrate anything the players aren't directly involved in doing. Don't start rolling dice against yourself. Not sure if you actually did that in your scenario, but thought I'd bring it up. There's already plenty of chance involved in PC activities, I can't think of any good reason to leave the peripheral stuff to randomness.

Don't use too many creatures that can take more than one or two hits, and take care about exposing the lieutenants/generals to PC fire until "it's their time" (dramatically appropriate). Speaking from experience, my players like to focus down the big guy before dealing with his minions. Sometimes this works in their favor, but since we started playing 5e and analyzed this notion of bounded accuracy, I've given them frequent reason to reconsider that strategy.

Large scale fights aren't about damage per round, they're about kills per round. It's a subtle but important distinction. Also, it doesn't have to about KPR either, and victory/defeat conditions that don't involve killing stuff can liven up a long battle as well.

Big battles are AE characters' times to shine. Let them. A single fireball shouldn't solve the entire fight, but provide opportunities for them to have a major impact. The players don't need to know another wave is just around the corner, but let them bask in the glory of a well placed AE for a moment.

If any single piece in the setup is dragging things out to the point of being more a hassle than a dramatic effect, consider eliminating it prematurely. This needs to be handled on a case by case basis to make sense, so there's no formula on how to handle it. In your example, maybe the weight of the golems causes them to fall through the floor and get buried under rubble, or the ceiling above collapses on them when their pounding shakes the local structural integrity of the building.

Be organized, which kind of goes along with being prepared. This really goes for any scale of battle, but figure out ahead of time how you're going to track initiative, hit points, progression through the scenario, etc. I recently went through a 10-round, 40 monster scenario with my table. It lasted about an hour. It wasn't quite as complex as the scenario you describe, but rounds went fast despite the large number of moving parts.
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So for anyone who has successfully run these types of battles...what were your strategies for making larger battles more fun? How do you keep things moving at a snappy pace without everything grinding to a halt due to so many factors? Making custom minion groups?[/FONT]

I've experimented with alternate rules systems for truly mass combats, but for PC-sized combats on the order of 30 or 40 combatants at a time, here are the lessons I've learned. They're surprisingly simple.

1.) Make sure you know all of the monster stats by heart. Flipping back and forth through the MM sucks the life out of you.

2.) Buy lots of dice. Rolling twenty attacks at once is trivial if you have twenty d20s; but rolling five d20s four times and adding up the number of hits takes quite a bit longer for some reason. It's the same reason why rolling Fireball damage on a single d6, eight times, is slower than having a full 8d6. Mathematically they're equivalent but ergonomically more dice is faster.

3.) For Speed Factor initiative: write down action declarations and resolutions. I don't know if this would be as important in the default, cyclic initiative that 5E comes with in the PHB, but for Speed Factor variants it's pretty vital for me to have a little table with a row per level so I always know who has and hasn't declared their action yet, at a glance without having to ask, and so I also know who has and hasn't resolved yet. (E.g. for an attack, I write down a "-" or a checkmark and the amount of damage.)

It also comes in handy when players want to respond to unexpected changes in circumstance. When the mind flayer de-cloaks right in the middle of the PCs and Mind Blasts them, and the barbarian says, "I grab [the wizard] and drag him out of the line of fire," it helps that instead of just saying, "You had your turn already," I can say, "No, you're busy right now firing the catapult."

Oh, and this is doubly important when the DM is running multiple creatures on both sides of the battle, like your case where friendly NPCs are helping the PCs. I actually prefer to offload those NPCs to the players to run for the battle, or if not to keep the NPC actions simple and fairly uncreative, so the spotlight stays on the PCs.

4.) Practice. Run practice combats in advance against test parties (not clones of the PCs, that would be unfair--the monsters should not be optimized specifically for beating your PCs) to determine tactics, memorize monster stats, learn the terrain, get better at managing creatures on both sides of the battle, etc.
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I'd also recommend having a look at "Handling Mobs" on page 250 of the DMG.

This has been working quite well for me. The party was ambushed twice by a group of 50 goblins last week, and this week they fought 50 skeletons. None of those battles took very long. I'm always trying to fine tune and make it as smooth and efficient as possible, and this rule is an excellent tool for that.

One thing I'm still working on is how to keep combat moving when there are more than two types of opponents. I've found when you've got several statblocks (or character sheets) to worry about on the other side things can really slow down.

Mass battles can be a lot of fun and aren't that hard to run if you prepare for them. I am developing a simple system for large scale conflicts which I will share here. It requires a little GM prep work but not as much as running the entire affair in the regular combat system.

The important stuff will be taking place wherever the PCs happen to be. I got the idea for this from the way I design adventure scenarios. A large battle is simply another scenario. What is important to know is, what is going to happen without PC interference. Once you have a good idea about how things will turn out if the players decide to bug out or twiddle their thumbs, then you will be ready to see how their actions influence outcomes.


Have an idea of all forces participating in the conflict both as allies and enemies of the PCs. The statistics of these participants will help guide you making judgment calls.

1) DIVIDE THE BATTLEFIELD AREA INTO ZONES. There can be a handful or many depending on the size of the conflict. Only use as many as you think that you will need. The PCs will begin in one of these zones along with enemy forces that oppose them. This may be a random placement or against specific enemies depending on the setup and intelligence available to both forces.

Place allies and other enemy forces in the remaining zones. Again base these starting forces according to the information available to them. At this point all forces should be deployed in zones. Draw a rough sketch map of the zones and note which forces are in each one.

2) DETERMINE MATCH UP COMPATIBILITY IN EACH ZONE. ( except the one the PCs are in) This is a rough level compatibility test. Look at factors such as numbers/ratio, individual prowess of combatants, special abilities, etc. This is where we determine if there is enough of a mismatch to apply modifiers to the conflict. A positive modifier means an edge for the PCS allies. A negative modifier means an edge for the PCs enemies. For each zone determine the match-up modifier in a range of 0 to +/- 4.

This is where being familiar with the participants stats is important. Only a severe advantage should get a +/- 4 modifier such as being outnumbered 3 or 4 to 1, or a force of regular men fighting half or more of their number of ogres. Remember special abilities. If the entire enemy force is resistant or largely immune to the other side's attacks (soldiers vs wererats) that would count as a huge advantage.

This is also a good time to assign modifiers for information the players may have that is shared with allies or for good tactical deployment depending on the setup and how much time there is to prepare.

3) FIGHT! Each round determine the status of the battle happening in each zone the PCs are NOT in. Roll 3d6 for each zone of battle applying the modifier for that zone. Use this table to apply the outcome of a round:

3-4 (or less): Allies in severe trouble- enemy gains 3 points
5-8: Allies in trouble-enemy gains 2 points
9-10: Struggle locked but stable- enemy gains 1 point
11-12: Struggle locked but stable- allies gain 1 point
13-16: Enemies in trouble- allies gain 2 points
17-18 (or more): Enemies in severe trouble-allies gain 3 points

The first force in a zone to reach 6 points wins the battle in their zone. Make a note of how the battle in each zone is going. This way you know how the tide is swinging during each round and roughly how long each zone will take to resolve.


Each zone will have a victor. The cost of the victory is determined by the margin ratio:

6-0: clean sweep, no casualties, enemy largely destroyed
6-1: easy victory, 5% casualties, enemy soundly defeated
6-2: victory, 10% casualties, enemy defeated
6-3: tough victory, 30% casualties, enemy defeated
6-4: costly victory, 60% casualties, enemy barely defeated
6-5: pyrrhic victory, 80% casualties, victorious unit broken


A unit that achieves victory in its zone can then reinforce friendly units in an adjacent zone. It takes 1 round to move to an adjacent zone. A move across 2 zones would require 2 rounds, etc. All units save a broken unit can move to assist allies. The round after joining an allied unit, the reinforcements add a +1 to +5 modifier to their allies in the new zone depending on what shape they were in. A unit moving to assist after a clean sweep victory would add +5 while a unit following a costly victory would add only +1 for example.

All of this can be determined in prep with notes of what is happening in each zone round by round. Now there is a rough outline of how the battle will progress without PC actions. As the players fight their part of the battle and move to help allies in other zones you have a solid idea on what is happening in each place as the PCs get there. The system isn't that difficult to use at the table if you would prefer the flow of battle to be a surprise each round especially if you have players help make the rolls.

This is still a work in progress and meant to be a simple aide for mass combat in an rpg. There is nowhere near enough detail to make an engaging war game out of it.


I run most of my games online using Fantasy Grounds, so the die rolling and totaling is done automatically. That saves a lot of time during longer battles. I've actually noticed that during table top games with real dice, it could take players and dm 15-20 seconds to grab the right dice, roll them and total them up (mostly with damage calculations for fireballs or other dice pool spells..but to a lesser extent with straight attacks too). If there are 5 players and a DM (and the DM is running 10 monsters) the totaling of numbers on the dice could add 2 minutes to the combat round. If the battle takes 10 rounds...that's 20 minutes added just for totaling dice. Yikes.

If I were running games at the table, I might use average damage for the foes at least. That could cut down the time.

Also, make sure everyone sees the initiative order so that each player knows in advance when he/she is up. Try to get players to act more impulsively rather than sweat out every possible option before making a decision. Same with DM....pre-plan a strategy for the monsters and then just roll with it. You could pre-plan common reactions. Here are a couple that work well to make the combat more quick:

If a commander type creature goes down..other creatures that are commanded by it will run. (Some combats might have 4 command creatures each with 3 or 4 underlings)

Don't be afraid to have foes move around even if they provoke attacks of opportunity. In the heat of battle, many monsters or worried foes don't always act logically. Just keep the battle interesting rather than letting it devolve into a chess match.

Like others said..prep helps (especially with spellcasting foes...they tend to take much more concentration and thought to run as a DM), but the more you do it, the quicker it will get.

Good luck.


In medium scale battles:
I just look at the match ups and say that each Guard delivers 5 damage to whoever it attacks each turn, each Orc delivers 6, Archers deliver 3 or whatever. Just pick a rough number that would be their average damage and take that off each guy they target every turn.

In large scale battles:
It is all about climactic scenes. Everything between them in narrated. It is a good time to split up PCs. List the amount of important things that are happening, ask each person where they want to be. All combats start at the same turn, so everybody is playing like normal, despite the fact they are in separate encounters.

The only enemies that are put into an encounter are those that are not matched up with an ally. So you might find you can duel the death-knight one on one if all his undead minions are fighting your allies. If your troops are losing the battle, then their might be 50 enemies on the ramparts, 10 of which are free to attack the PCs. All other combatants are terrain features, nothing more. You can push past them and take 5HP damage each square you move through, just like a fire or a thorn wall. No rolling or it slows things down.

To get to each encounter, there is a set amount of damage that will be taken, reduced by a skill roll or save sometimes. E.g. Get to the enemy flag bearer = lose 20HP, nothing you can do about it. Get to a sniping position, lose 15HP athletics roll for half; hold the falling barricade in place = lose 30HP, str save or carpentry for half. This just reflects combat fatigue and unavoidable injuries off-camera.

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