This past weekend I ran the Dungeons and Dragons “When Armies Clash” large-scale battle module. It’s a supplemental ruleset that lets you create a fight with many, many combatants, where D&D is typically kept at small skirmishes. I used to play the tabletop game Warhammer 40K so when I saw that this supplement had been published I couldn’t wait to try and squeeze it into my weekly D&D game. It was like getting to play 40K again without spending decades assembling and painting an army of plastic miniatures.
I’m Dungeon-Mastering a fairly loose version of the “Hoard of the Dragon Queen” campaign and the players were leading an uprising of Lizardfolk tribes against the Bullywug (frog people) nation who serve a dragon cult controlling a castle. Got all that?
Using the advice of someone who recently played with this ruleset I kept things small, only giving each of the four players three units– a regimental unit, skirmishers, and a unit of Lizardfolk shamans– each comprised of five stands. For those who haven’t read the rules, each player essentially commanded 150 Lizardfolk. Ostensibly the stat blocks of these units weren’t very different but under this rule set they had varying unit-level abilities (the shamans were counted as skirmishers).
In true D&D fashion, the players caught me completely off guard with the choices they made. Particularly by utilizing the “Summon Creatures” ability of the Lizardfolk shaman units, they summoned swathes of additional units of nasty reptiles which gave their army a formidable and expendable battering ram. I had given the players units of shamans figuring their area-control spells like “Fog Cloud” or “Spike Growth” would be useful for screening their attack and adding some variety to the battlefield. When reading the shamans’ stat block I had brushed off that “Summon Creatures” spell as being cute and ultimately benign. Whoops.
Further, the players were able to summon more reptile units to the top of the castle walls which made short work of the Bullywug spear throwers and spell casters I had positioned there.
Unfortunately we had a hard stop time, one of the players had to leave after three hours of play, so we didn’t officially finish. But, despite the large contingent of Bullywugs waiting in the castle’s interior, I think the players would have won the day without much fuss. I had barely touched the Lizardfolk forces while trying to stave off all those summoned creatures and the Bullywugs had lost about 40% of their units.
Perhaps not from the Bullywugs’ perspective, but things went about as well as I could have hoped for! The players were creative with their approach to the battle and all four got to contribute to the attack in some significant way.
In hindsight (and if I were to ever run this again) I’d of course change a few things. First I would ensure more time for the session. It took forever to design, print, and cut out all those little chits so not finishing the battle hurt a little. That said, I knew going in that we wouldn’t complete the battle in time but the narrative of our story meant that it had to happen when it did. A huge battle right now worked really well with how the campaign is headed overall.
Second, we were a bit constrained by the size of the battlefield itself. My 3’x3′ erasable grid mat wasn’t enough room, even with the additional pieces of paper we taped on. It led to some serious bottlenecks with the players’ forces, although some of that was natural to the castle’s design and even more so that the players all insisted on entering via the small drawbridge. It helped that I equipped the Lizardfolk units with siege ladders and grappling hooks, and after repeat not-so-subtle hints from me, the players started using them to scale the castle’s walls. If I do this again I might have to abuse my company’s plotter to print a giant map so the battle has a little more breathing room.
Finally, the biggest thing I would have done differently would have been to not give the players full units of spell casters. This gave them A LOT of spell power and they kicked my butt with it. I should have just attached one stand of shamans to skirmisher units and then house-ruled area-of-effect spells so they would still be useful on a large-scale map. It’s a fine line, however, since spell casting clearly led to some dynamic action in this session.
It was a lot of work to prepare for it but I’m glad we gave this rules supplement a try. When we started the session I warned the players that we’d likely have to improvise even more than usual since the rules don’t cover every possibility, and playing with that mindset meant we all were a little more loose. It was fun, not grim strategy. And now I have to figure out what to do next– a whole army of Lizardfolk have smashed their way into this castle!