Worlds of Design: The Nature of Armies

If you’re building a full-scale world for your campaign, that will likely involve armies. Let’s discuss what happens in the real world so that you can avoid straining the disbelief of your players.

I am not afraid of an Army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of sheep led by a lion.” – Alexander the Great

There are lots of different kinds of armies. This column and next, I'm going to talk about some of those kinds. This time it’ll be about armies in general, next time about specific kinds of armies.

battle-7243515_960_720.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

National Armies​

In the modern world we’re accustomed to “national armies”, the military consisting of roughly 10% of the entire population of a country.

Of course, we’re used to the idea of nations, people with similar culture and language in most cases, all loyal to the idea of a single political entity. That is, a nation is a people, not a political state/country. Some nations have no country. Yet a nation in this sense is primarily a modern idea. (I'll talk another time about the nature of independent “states” (not USA states).)

Here I'm interested in the different kinds of armies that might become involved in melee warfare, usually quite different from national armies, and often not professionally trained.

National armies in the sense of a levy of an entire population (conscription - the draft) are an idea of the French Revolution (1789) and later. Before that, political states rarely became wholly embroiled in warfare (ancient Greece is an exception). Warfare was a matter for the ruler rather than for the populace as a whole.

Tribal Armies​

Perhaps the idea of national armies is not so different from age-old tribal armies in conception, but conscription results in professionally-trained armies who serve continuously for years. Tribal armies were a temporary levy of all males of military age, who were expected to have some ability to fight, but no formal training. Greek city-state armies relied on well-to-do men who had some training, but were called up temporarily, and could include as much as a quarter of the entire (free) population. All the groups regarded as "barbarians" by civilized countries relied on tribal armies; but the "barbarians" were typically so tough and used to conflict that they could overcome civilized armies - even Empire-era Roman professionals.

In most fantasy worlds you won’t have modern-style nations, except perhaps when an entire species is identified as a nation. And the rulers of those polities that are not nations won’t be able to mobilize the entire populace. Often, the populace won’t give a damn about the impending war, because one ruler (of the same species) will be much like another from their point of view.

Agricultural or Monied?​

A major question to ask about the nature of armies is whether they came from an agricultural economy or a monied economy. In the latter coinage is widespread and used for transactions, while in the former coinage is rare and most transactions are barter, with agricultural goods being the primary local trade goods. In the monied economy soldiers will usually be paid, whereas in the agricultural economy soldiers will usually be obligated to serve and are not otherwise paid. This is, for example, a difference between the Roman Empire (the entire Empire was organized around paying the soldiers) and the Roman Republic.

Humanoid "monsters" may organize armies in much the same way as humans do. But so many monsters don't seem to be attached to a political state, they're usually what I've called tribal.

Logistics​

I've quoted Napoleon about logistics. Keep in mind that armies are obviously important in warfare, but logistics, and leadership, are often more important. Keeping your soldiers in supply, of food, water, clothing, transport, weapons, and all the other paraphernalia of war, makes a huge difference. But not much of anything can compensate for poor leadership.

Next time I'll discuss particular kinds of armies, such as dynastic and feudal armies.

Your Turn: How important is the nature of armies in your RPG campaigns?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
I disagree. Armies would still be useful for invasions of other countries/areas. There are plenty of examples in FR, Greyhawk and Dragonlance of this being done. Sure, lone heroes can be used to take out commanders and the like, but an army on the march is going to steamroller PC heroics.
Only because theres no morale rules for DnD, a Level 20 Fighter or Barbarian can kill 300+ Soldiers 1 before they fail their death saves.
as I said its a Monster fight not a clash of armies
 

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Argyle King

Legend
To clarify, the way I am thinking of an army is in the 'total' opposing force sense of the word rather than in terms of a specific military unit.

If the idea is that massed military units are no longer a viable way engage in combat in D&D settings because leveled heroes exist, then we should be able to replace all of those massed military units with D&D heroes.

From a numbers perspective, I'm thinking an army should at least number in the thousands, probably in the tens of thousands, at least if we're comparing it to historical battles.

I believe a lot of those units can be replaced in a setting powered by contemporary D&D.

The reasons are similar to why (and how) can perform many of the same functions with less total manpower. Likewise, force projection is currently easier. This is partially due to commonplace (and easy-to-reproduce) magic mimicking the functionality of military technology. Even something we take for granted -like night vision- becoming commonplace is a big advantage.

How levels plays into that, on top of those increased capabilities, the durability (HP, AC, and etc) added by each level also increases the force multiplier of each individual piece.

A good breakdown of how this applies to a tabletop rpg (without getting sucked into military jargon) can be found in GURPS Supers. The book talks about how "supers" is a genre with a very large range of power levels, and that (for the GM) fine tuning the desired power level and game play experience can be done by thinking of a supe in terms of what threats they can handle. Is the supe equal to a street gang? ...a tank? ...something bigger? I believe that a lot of that discussion also relates to D&D PCs (and higher level monsters).

D&D also does this by labeling the tiers of play.
 

Schmoe

Adventurer
Armies in my world include elite units of pegasus riders, shock cavalry of golem-crafted dire bears, veteran units of professional soldiers, light mage-knight cavalry, and other various types of units. Magic infuses D&D, and I think it's unrealistic to picture an army that doesn't take it into account. That being said, there is still a role for a massed division of 10,000 relatively untrained troops, it's just that they will be supported by bardic inspiration, rage priests, and air cover.
 

I believe a lot of those units can be replaced in a setting powered by contemporary D&D.

The reasons are similar to why (and how) can perform many of the same functions with less total manpower. Likewise, force projection is currently easier. This is partially due to commonplace (and easy-to-reproduce) magic mimicking the functionality of military technology. Even something we take for granted -like night vision- becoming commonplace is a big advantage.

How levels plays into that, on top of those increased capabilities, the durability (HP, AC, and etc) added by each level also increases the force multiplier of each individual piece.

A good breakdown of how this applies to a tabletop rpg (without getting sucked into military jargon) can be found in GURPS Supers. The book talks about how "supers" is a genre with a very large range of power levels, and that (for the GM) fine tuning the desired power level and game play experience can be done by thinking of a supe in terms of what threats they can handle. Is the supe equal to a street gang? ...a tank? ...something bigger? I believe that a lot of that discussion also relates to D&D PCs (and higher level monsters).

D&D also does this by labeling the tiers of play.
I don't have experience with GURPS, but the general rubric I've been working from is the reverse. What fantasy threats can an army handle? My 320 troops vs 1 lvl 20 barbarian results in significant overkill. And an extension on that, what fantasy threats can an army trained in addressing fantasy threats handle?

Then it's a question of, how many of those threats (level 20 barbarians or similar) do I think exist in the world. And similarly for other PCs and creatures at various levels (e.g. is there enough spellcasting to eliminate starvation as a side risk). And then lastly, do I think this aggregates to enough damage, utility and toughness to make massed military units composed of common folk obsolete.

From a damage and toughness perspective, it seems to me that there has to be a looooooot of leveled D&D shenanigans to outstrip the scale of impact from massed troops. From a utility perspective, it seems like the benefits from D&D leveled shenanigans both support and disrupt benefits gained from massed troops. It's kind of a wash.

From my perspective D&D under a 5e paradigm is a game designed for small unit combat, and as such, most of what PCs and monsters can do (mechanically), tends to be limited to small unit short duration operations. D&D special forces are very special, but, in isolation, most of those capabilities scale poorly to a conventional battlefield.
 

eyeheartawk

#1 Enworld Jerk™
I think the discussion of massed troops vs higher (ish) level magic users, creatures etc misses the point. Most military thinking is along the lines of highest return for least cost. Massing your infantry against a lvl 20 barbarian would indeed work, but likely at great cost. It's like assaulting a entrenched enemy position with mostly light infantry and insufficient armor and artillery support. If the light infantry is well motivated it can be done, but at likely much higher cost than a reasonably well supported and a more optimal composition of forces would achieve.

And that's assuming they are well motivated. I would wager that a 10,000 person footmen, cavalry and archer army could probably beat a red dragon. But they would probably break and flee the battlefield before they eventually widdle the dragon down. If I was a spearman and I saw 100 dudes get lit up and burned alive in front of me as the result of one single attack from the dragon I'd probably think twice.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
If Hasbro tries to create a d20 version of strategy game they could check the true impact of the magic in economy and battlefield. Do you choose healing potions for your elite members or to hire more archers? What if a low-level warmage can cast a ritual with the help of a squad for a defense against projectiles. The long bows could pierce the heavy armours, even the arrival of the gunpowder.

Illusory magic could create decoys to trick shooters, or effects like smoke grenades. Throwing a stone with a magic rune to summon a swarn could cause serious troubles to the enemies.

Would be very expensive magic for crossbows to reload itself?

If the magic to anime a construct is possible, why not to create an "magitek motor" for a war wagon? This could mean the end of the heavy chavalry.


The spell to create food and water could allow the people within a castle to stand a siege for years.

If humans could create armies, why not algo the giants to conquer and to fund their own empire?
I think a lot of this depends heavily on just how much magic is assumed to exist in the setting. Like the siege and create food and water example.

So you’re in a castle, under siege, and there’s a cleric who can cast 3rd-level spells. Create food and water is fighting against things like animate dead, beacon of hope, bestow curse, dispel magic, glyph of warding, mass healing word, revivify, sending, and speak with dead. Feeding 15-45 people for one day (depending on how you read the spell) is nothing compared to those other choices. And it’s certainly not “years” of holding out from that one spell. To defend a castle requires hundreds of people. Giving a fraction of them food doesn’t do much to help.
 

Stormonu

Legend
Only because theres no morale rules for DnD, a Level 20 Fighter or Barbarian can kill 300+ Soldiers 1 before they fail their death saves.
as I said its a Monster fight not a clash of armies
I could care less about level 20 characters, those are once-in-a-hundred years sort of NPCs that spring up in my campaign. PCs are going to be around 5th-9th levels, with 9th at the heroic end of the scale, with army leaders (we're talking generals or battle-hardened kings) between 7th-9th, with outliers to 14th.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Just by way of example, let's have a look at some longbowmen and an adult red dragon.

Adult Red Dragon. AC 19. HP 256. No applicable immunities or resistances.

Longbowmen (using the Guard statblock). AC 16. HP 11. Longbow +3 to-hit, for 5 damage, range 150/600.

According to the mob rules (DMG, p250), you'd need four longbowmen to score one hit. So 400 longbowmen would score 100 hits, with an average of 5 damage...that's 500 damage, which is almost double the dragon's total hp. So one volley at roughly half that size would be enough to kill the dragon in one go. To be precise, you'd need a group of 208 longbowmen to down a dragon in one volley.

Because of range limitations and disadvantage, the longbowmen aren't going to hit well (or at all) until the dragon with within 150ft. But once the dragon is within 120ft, it can use frightful presence, which only 1-in-10 longbowmen will save against (using the same mob rules). More than likely, the longbowmen will see the dragon coming on the horizon (visibility to the horizon is usually 3 miles, sans obstructions) and ready their first (and for some, only) volley for when it comes into range. One-in-four longbowmen will hit for 5 damage each.

The longbowmen's optimal tactic would be stay between 120 and 150ft and keep firing. Not likely given the dragon's 80ft flying speed.

Once the dragon is within breath weapon range, the longbowmen will die by the score. Well, even being generous with the "fireball formation" and a bad reading of how many targets a 30ft cone can hit, the dragon will kill 30 longbowmen per breath weapon use. It's safe to assume it will multiattack & legendary and kill 14 longbowmen every round until its breath weapon recharges. Fourteen because of three normal attacks, assume hit and assume dead target, and three legendary actions, one extra tail for one extra dead longbowmen and again being generous with the area effect of the wing attack that will hit and kill 10 more longbowmen with each use.

The dragon's optimal tactic would be surprise, frightful presence & legendary, breath weapon & legendary, multiattack & legendary while breath weapon recharges. Surprise is not likely given the size of the dragon. If it's airborne, the longbowmen would see it coming, unless they're in perfect conditions, like marching on a road in a forest. If it's on foot for some reason, the longbowmen would hear it coming.

If the group of longbowmen is big enough to survive mixing it up in melee with the dragon long enough to be a threat via returned fire, then the group would have been big enough to down the dragon at range before getting into melee. So, as always, surprise is practically the deciding factor. If the dragon is in melee with the longbowmen before they can get a volley off, then they'd need to be a group of about 2000+ to kill the dragon (as only 1-in-10 would save vs frightful presence).

Estimates of how many archers with an army vary wildly depending on the battle and time period. Several hundreds to thousands was typical historically.
 
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I think the discussion of massed troops vs higher (ish) level magic users, creatures etc misses the point. Most military thinking is along the lines of highest return for least cost. Massing your infantry against a lvl 20 barbarian would indeed work, but likely at great cost. It's like assaulting a entrenched enemy position with mostly light infantry and insufficient armor and artillery support. If the light infantry is well motivated it can be done, but at likely much higher cost than a reasonably well supported and a more optimal composition of forces would achieve.

And that's assuming they are well motivated. I would wager that a 10,000 person footmen, cavalry and archer army could probably beat a red dragon. But they would probably break and flee the battlefield before they eventually widdle the dragon down. If I was a spearman and I saw 100 dudes get lit up and burned alive in front of me as the result of one single attack from the dragon I'd probably think twice.
I see military thinking as.

First: In order to achieve victory, what things have to be done or what things do I need to prevent my enemy from doing
Second: How can those things be accomplished
Third: How replaceable are the resources being used?
Fourth: How efficiently can those resources accomplish the goal to which they are set

For better or worse there are things that massed troops can do that leveled PCs and monsters, broadly, can't do. Also, presumably, leveled PCs are a scarce resources while 'common folk' are not. There are likely to be some quantity of objectives that can be accomplished most efficiently by PCs but where the value of that objective isn't worth the potential to lose a resource that cannot easily be replaced. Sometimes you order the light brigade to charge because that is the cost you can afford to spend.

How morale is likely to work on a fantasy battlefield is going to mostly be open to interpretation (imho). Conflicts with leveled characters and creatures would be woven into the fabric of the setting in most cases. As would how much conflict there is generally in the setting. There's a wide range of potential for how motivated these troops could be.
 

Argyle King

Legend
I don't have experience with GURPS, but the general rubric I've been working from is the reverse. What fantasy threats can an army handle? My 320 troops vs 1 lvl 20 barbarian results in significant overkill. And an extension on that, what fantasy threats can an army trained in addressing fantasy threats handle?

Then it's a question of, how many of those threats (level 20 barbarians or similar) do I think exist in the world. And similarly for other PCs and creatures at various levels (e.g. is there enough spellcasting to eliminate starvation as a side risk). And then lastly, do I think this aggregates to enough damage, utility and toughness to make massed military units composed of common folk obsolete.

From a damage and toughness perspective, it seems to me that there has to be a looooooot of leveled D&D shenanigans to outstrip the scale of impact from massed troops. From a utility perspective, it seems like the benefits from D&D leveled shenanigans both support and disrupt benefits gained from massed troops. It's kind of a wash.

From my perspective D&D under a 5e paradigm is a game designed for small unit combat, and as such, most of what PCs and monsters can do (mechanically), tends to be limited to small unit short duration operations. D&D special forces are very special, but, in isolation, most of those capabilities scale poorly to a conventional battlefield.

To the first paragraph: I think doing the comparison both ways is valid. The book which I referenced was looking at things from the perspective of (a GM) having all of the PCs in the same ballpark of power. Worldbuilding and crafting a setting would look at things from a different angle, but much of the discussion would be the same. (Even when I'm not playing GURPS, I find that the books -especially the genre books- are good references.)

You could be right about the levels. Some of that is anecdotal for me. I'm basing those thoughts on some 5E Adventuerer League games, my disappointment with the Leadership feat in 3rd Edition, and a handful of encounters which stick out in my memory.

Regarding military tactics, I'm taking the real world practical experience and academic knowledge I have and trying to extrapolate it to a fantasy setting. There's still some guesswork involved with fantasy, but the results I've had in play have been good. 😄 In a past 4E game, I was asked if I would play something other than a Warlord because I made the rest of the party too good.

All things considered, I would agree that 5E is far more "bounded" than the edition I started with: 3E. However, there are still times when what I think "bounded accuracy" means something different for me than what it means to D&D design. (Some of that does appear to be possibly changing in the new books, but it's too early to tell.)

I accept that though. There's a reason why different rpgs exist; they cater to different styles.

Personally, if I want armies, castles, and etc to be a bigger part of my experience, D&D wouldn't be my first choice. D&D can certainly be a very rewarding experience that includes those elements, but I would also say that D&D has evolved into its own genre of fantasy -and one with genre conventions which don't always mesh well with how I imagine a battle playing out in a book, in a movie, or on a battlefield.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Personally, if I want armies, castles, and etc to be a bigger part of my experience, D&D wouldn't be my first choice. D&D can certainly be a very rewarding experience that includes those elements, but I would also say that D&D has evolved into its own genre of fantasy -and one with genre conventions which don't always mesh well with how I imagine a battle playing out in a book, in a movie, or on a battlefield.
What would some of your top choices be?
 

We shouldn't be too suprised if in the future the D&D One, that new virtual tabletop, allow an optional mode for wargames, even a solo-game with an AI controlling the enemy army. Then some players would be playing being warlords controlling an army instead exploring dungeons with a little number of adventurers.
 

To the first paragraph: I think doing the comparison both ways is valid. The book which I referenced was looking at things from the perspective of (a GM) having all of the PCs in the same ballpark of power. Worldbuilding and crafting a setting would look at things from a different angle, but much of the discussion would be the same. (Even when I'm not playing GURPS, I find that the books -especially the genre books- are good references.)

You could be right about the levels. Some of that is anecdotal for me. I'm basing those thoughts on some 5E Adventuerer League games, my disappointment with the Leadership feat in 3rd Edition, and a handful of encounters which stick out in my memory.

Regarding military tactics, I'm taking the real world practical experience and academic knowledge I have and trying to extrapolate it to a fantasy setting. There's still some guesswork involved with fantasy, but the results I've had in play have been good. 😄 In a past 4E game, I was asked if I would play something other than a Warlord because I made the rest of the party too good.

All things considered, I would agree that 5E is far more "bounded" than the edition I started with: 3E. However, there are still times when what I think "bounded accuracy" means something different for me than what it means to D&D design. (Some of that does appear to be possibly changing in the new books, but it's too early to tell.)

I accept that though. There's a reason why different rpgs exist; they cater to different styles.

Personally, if I want armies, castles, and etc to be a bigger part of my experience, D&D wouldn't be my first choice. D&D can certainly be a very rewarding experience that includes those elements, but I would also say that D&D has evolved into its own genre of fantasy -and one with genre conventions which don't always mesh well with how I imagine a battle playing out in a book, in a movie, or on a battlefield.
Fair enough. It's kind of funny. I think we agree overall on the suitability of D&D (5e at least) for battlefield emulation, just for opposite reasons somehow.
 

Argyle King

Legend
What would some of your top choices be?

Currently, my two favorites are on very different ends of how to approach things.

I like GURPS 4th Edition. Despite being a "toolkit" system, it tends toward some semblance of grittiness and plausibility as a default. I certainly acknowledge that it has conventions which rub a lot of people the wrong way. (The 1-second combat round can be a jarring change) My experience has been that the reputation of being too complex is exaggerated. It certainly can be if all of the optional rules are turned on, but I wouldn't suggest that any more than I would suggest throwing a bunch of D&D books at a new player. It's by no means a perfect game. I learned a lot of things through trial and error (and I use a few house rules,) but I found that GURPS actually could do what D&D 3rd Edition made me believe it could do. Out of the box, it assumes a grounded (or "bounded") baseline before adding on the fantasy elements.

It's not fantasy, but Edge of the Empire (Fantasy Flight Games) is good. In contrast to the simulationist mindset of GURPS, Edge takes more of a narrative approach to things. However, I have found that it works well in feeling "real" because of three reasons:
1) Most things have tradeoffs. Sure, you can pump all of your points into one ability, but that means have weaknesses (which actually matter) in other areas.
2) Actual thought was put into how individual characters interact with vehicles, ship weapons, and so-forth.
3) The game does a good job of keeping the action moving even when a conflict increases in size. I've had sessions involving chases, space dogfights, and ground battles back-to-back-tp-back; and it never felt like the group was just sitting in a room and hack away at HP. Likewise, a group of Storm Troopers could be deadly if the PCs use bad tactics.

... it's still Star Wars; it still allows the PCs to feel special and heroic; but it also puts effort into giving some teeth to antagonists and making a conflict feel like one. Can I mangle a squad of Storm Troopers? Yes, but I can also go down to a hail of blaster fire if I'm using Jenkins-Tzu's Art of War and banking on my 'soak' to save me.

In both of the cases above, my personal belief is that how hit points and defenses are handled are a big part of the experience. How they handle things differently (than D&D) is very different from each other, but still both work. I think that's important to point out because it shows that there are multiple solutions.

Of the two, I would guess that Edge is likely more similar to the style familiar to a contemporary D&D audience. I love the blood & guts approach to GURPS, but it has the potential to be a jarring experience for players accustomed to being able to soak hits with D&D hitpoints. The last two editions have made monsters "harder" by piling on more HP.

(Dungeon Fantasy does an okayish job at doing D&Dish style but isn't what I want if I'm going for war and conflict rather than Dungeon Supers. Douglas Cole's Gaming Ballistic stuff is good. After the End can be refluffed into a pretty good approximation of Dark Sun.)

I'm aware that Genesys is the 'generic' version of Edge. I have the materials but haven't played it yet. I'm not quite sold on how it handles magic. Which is weird because the Star Wars stuff does a decent job of allowing the Force to feel magical but without trivializing non-Force-users.
 
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Argyle King

Legend
Fair enough. It's kind of funny. I think we agree overall on the suitability of D&D (5e at least) for battlefield emulation, just for opposite reasons somehow.

I don't get the impression that our tastes are incompatible. Heck, even just being able to have this conversation is nice.

In my head, I want the chaos and violence involved in trying to do something like storm a castle; I want the barrage of cannonball blasts splintering wood during a naval battle; I love the classic visual of a fantasy knight lowering his lance toward some monstrosity. To me, that's a better experience.

If we're talking armies, that's especially true.

In other conversations, I've often used pro wrestling for comparison. I believe it's a good comparison for fantasy. Clearly, there are elements which do not in any way resemble an actual fight. But, when it is done well, it's done in a way which helps me buy-in. If some semblance of reality (even if it's exaggerated) didn't matter, why bother having a ring, a referee, or pinfalls? That's a good question to ask, even when metal chairs, a wrestling demon from hell, maniacal fitness instructors, and a drunk redneck from Texas have been involved.

I believe that a similar mindset can apply when trying to figure out how to mix together medieval-ish military strategy and flying fire-breathing lizards.
 

The only UA we got on mass combat bring a single clever idea.
That an army can be evaluated by the sum of the creature composing it.
An army will find way to fight, according to number, abilities, size, spells and all the rest.
The DM still need to evaluate leadership, morale, supply before a fight goes on.

the role of PCs is best when it go into those : leadership, morale, supply, intel or other preparation mission. during battle day, facing the other side champions is the best job to do for PCs.

for running the battle I think that simple ability or skill checks is quite enough.
 
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I don't get the impression that our tastes are incompatible. Heck, even just being able to have this conversation is nice.

In my head, I want the chaos and violence involved in trying to do something like storm a castle; I want the barrage of cannonball blasts splintering wood during a naval battle; I love the classic visual of a fantasy knight lowering his lance toward some monstrosity. To me, that's a better experience.

If we're talking armies, that's especially true.

In other conversations, I've often used pro wrestling for comparison. I believe it's a good comparison for fantasy. Clearly, there are elements which do not in any way resemble an actual fight. But, when it is done well, it's done in a way which helps me buy-in. If some semblance of reality (even if it's exaggerated) didn't matter, why bother having a ring, a referee, or pinfalls? That's a good question to ask, even when metal chairs, a wrestling demon from hell, maniacal fitness instructors, and a drunk redneck from Texas have been involved.

I believe that a similar mindset can apply when trying to figure out how to mix together medieval-ish military strategy and flying fire-breathing lizards.
Yeah. I think we want some of the same results in terms of violence and chaos.

I think you want PCs to feel more vulnerable to that violence and chaos at any level. Any stray bullet arrow or bolt can mean the end. I would like PCs to have more impact on the outcome at higher levels.

And I think if we rely on 5e class mechanics, beyond a few levels in, neither of us gets what we want. PCs have too many hp to go down to cannonballs, but can only affect relatively small parts of the battle (sometimes near vanishingly small parts of the battle).
 

Just by way of example, let's have a look at some longbowmen and an adult red dragon.

Adult Red Dragon. AC 19. HP 256. No applicable immunities or resistances.

Longbowmen (using the Guard statblock). AC 16. HP 11. Longbow +3 to-hit, for 5 damage, range 150/600.

According to the mob rules (DMG, p250), you'd need four longbowmen to score one hit. So 400 longbowmen would score 100 hits, with an average of 5 damage...that's 500 damage, which is almost double the dragon's total hp. So one volley at roughly half that size would be enough to kill the dragon in one go. To be precise, you'd need a group of 208 longbowmen to down a dragon in one volley.

Because of range limitations and disadvantage, the longbowmen aren't going to hit well (or at all) until the dragon with within 150ft. But once the dragon is within 120ft, it can use frightful presence, which only 1-in-10 longbowmen will save against (using the same mob rules). More than likely, the longbowmen will see the dragon coming on the horizon (visibility to the horizon is usually 3 miles, sans obstructions) and ready their first (and for some, only) volley for when it comes into range. One-in-four longbowmen will hit for 5 damage each.

The longbowmen's optimal tactic would be stay between 120 and 150ft and keep firing. Not likely given the dragon's 80ft flying speed.

Once the dragon is within breath weapon range, the longbowmen will die by the score. Well, even being generous with the "fireball formation" and a bad reading of how many targets a 30ft cone can hit, the dragon will kill 30 longbowmen per breath weapon use. It's safe to assume it will multiattack & legendary and kill 14 longbowmen every round until its breath weapon recharges. Fourteen because of three normal attacks, assume hit and assume dead target, and three legendary actions, one extra tail for one extra dead longbowmen and again being generous with the area effect of the wing attack that will hit and kill 10 more longbowmen with each use.

The dragon's optimal tactic would be surprise, frightful presence & legendary, breath weapon & legendary, multiattack & legendary while breath weapon recharges. Surprise is not likely given the size of the dragon. If it's airborne, the longbowmen would see it coming, unless they're in perfect conditions, like marching on a road in a forest. If it's on foot for some reason, the longbowmen would hear it coming.

If the group of longbowmen is big enough to survive mixing it up in melee with the dragon long enough to be a threat via returned fire, then the group would have been big enough to down the dragon at range before getting into melee. So, as always, surprise is practically the deciding factor. If the dragon is in melee with the longbowmen before they can get a volley off, then they'd need to be a group of about 2000+ to kill the dragon (as only 1-in-10 would save vs frightful presence).

Estimates of how many archers with an army vary wildly depending on the battle and time period. Several hundreds to thousands was typical historically.
For an even match base on Xp, it makes 720 guards to face the dragon.
With disadvantage they still get 6% of hitting. 30 points of damage per 100 archers.
The dragon won’t even get close enough to use frightful presence.

dnd math aren’t made for mass battle.
 

Argyle King

Legend
Just by way of example, let's have a look at some longbowmen and an adult red dragon.

Adult Red Dragon. AC 19. HP 256. No applicable immunities or resistances.

Longbowmen (using the Guard statblock). AC 16. HP 11. Longbow +3 to-hit, for 5 damage, range 150/600.

According to the mob rules (DMG, p250), you'd need four longbowmen to score one hit. So 400 longbowmen would score 100 hits, with an average of 5 damage...that's 500 damage, which is almost double the dragon's total hp. So one volley at roughly half that size would be enough to kill the dragon in one go. To be precise, you'd need a group of 208 longbowmen to down a dragon in one volley.

Because of range limitations and disadvantage, the longbowmen aren't going to hit well (or at all) until the dragon with within 150ft. But once the dragon is within 120ft, it can use frightful presence, which only 1-in-10 longbowmen will save against (using the same mob rules). More than likely, the longbowmen will see the dragon coming on the horizon (visibility to the horizon is usually 3 miles, sans obstructions) and ready their first (and for some, only) volley for when it comes into range. One-in-four longbowmen will hit for 5 damage each.

The longbowmen's optimal tactic would be stay between 120 and 150ft and keep firing. Not likely given the dragon's 80ft flying speed.

Once the dragon is within breath weapon range, the longbowmen will die by the score. Well, even being generous with the "fireball formation" and a bad reading of how many targets a 30ft cone can hit, the dragon will kill 30 longbowmen per breath weapon use. It's safe to assume it will multiattack & legendary and kill 14 longbowmen every round until its breath weapon recharges. Fourteen because of three normal attacks, assume hit and assume dead target, and three legendary actions, one extra tail for one extra dead longbowmen and again being generous with the area effect of the wing attack that will hit and kill 10 more longbowmen with each use.

The dragon's optimal tactic would be surprise, frightful presence & legendary, breath weapon & legendary, multiattack & legendary while breath weapon recharges. Surprise is not likely given the size of the dragon. If it's airborne, the longbowmen would see it coming, unless they're in perfect conditions, like marching on a road in a forest. If it's on foot for some reason, the longbowmen would hear it coming.

If the group of longbowmen is big enough to survive mixing it up in melee with the dragon long enough to be a threat via returned fire, then the group would have been big enough to down the dragon at range before getting into melee. So, as always, surprise is practically the deciding factor. If the dragon is in melee with the longbowmen before they can get a volley off, then they'd need to be a group of about 2000+ to kill the dragon (as only 1-in-10 would save vs frightful presence).

Estimates of how many archers with an army vary wildly depending on the battle and time period. Several hundreds to thousands was typical historically.

That's a good breakdown.

I'm not as familiar with the mob rules as I would like to be. (Even in AL, a lot of DMs here don't use them.)

Because of that, I'll admit to some of how I envision it in my mind being skewed toward more of how situations went in 3rd Edition or PF.

5th does perform better than both of those.
I think some of my disconnect comes from PC options which are easy to cheese.

Edit - There still is some disconnect with damage not meaning injury. But your breakdown of the mob rules makes me want to take another look at how things work.

To get back on topic:

Also, a lot of things which aren't seen as powerful (like not needing to sleep, not needing to eat, or being able to see in the dark) are pretty good when spread across an army.

I think it's important to have an idea of how common "common" is when it comes to magic items and spells. How easy is it to train a group of warlocks?
 
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overgeeked

B/X Known World
That's a good breakdown.

I'm not as familiar with the mob rules as I would like to be. (Even in AL, a lot of DMs here don't use them.)

Because of that, I'll admit to some of how I envision it in my mind being skewed toward more of how situations went in 3rd Edition or PF.

5th does perform better than both of those.
I think some of my disconnect comes from PC options which are easy to cheese.

Edit - There still is some disconnect with damage not meaning injury. But your breakdown of the mob rules makes me want to take another look at how things work.

To get back on topic:

Also, a lot of things which aren't seen as powerful (like not needing to sleep, not needing to eat, or being able to see in the dark) are pretty good when spread across an army.

I think it's important to have an idea of how common "common" is when it comes to magic items and spells. How easy is it to train a group of warlocks?
Exactly. I think we assume leveled characters are way more common than is reasonable. They should maybe be 1% of the population at most. The idea of a squad of peasants signing up, making a quick pact with the Raven Queen, then eldritch blasting their way across the battlefield is absolutely not how things would work. The big heroes and the big villains, sure. Common enough to make up entire regiments in an army? No way.
 

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