Every epic adventure needs to have at least one equally epic battle. Often coming at or near an adventure story’s climax, such a battle often serves to highlight the full realization of a hero’s badassery. Battles serve as an occasion for great speeches, massed charges and desperate last stands.
Working epic battles into a game like D&D is surprisingly tricky. The mass combat associated with such events is an ill fit a tabletop RPG, which is designed for playing out the activities of small groups of adventurers. Incorporating a cast of thousands can quickly bog down the game if you treat that cast as though it is made up of characters.
The trick to effectively incorporating battle scenes into your game is to treat the battle not as a conflict of supporting characters, but as a sort of dynamic dungeon. The battle is setting, not cast. The 3.5 Edition supplement, Heroes of Battle sums up the best way to do this as “think big, play small” Focus on the specific missions given to the PCs while the battle rages around them in the background. Their success or failure may change the dynamic of that battle-turned dungeon, but the focus is squarely on the heroes.
The D-Day scene from the movie, Saving Private Ryan provides an example of this sort of framing. Though on one level, the scene is about the allied landings in Normandy, it is essentially about the action of John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his small unit of men attempting to complete their small part of that mission. Their objectives are to get off the beach, scale the cliffs and clear the enemy positions on top. All of these things, which can be accomplished by a small group contribute to the success of the whole. The artillery barrages, machine gun sweeps of the beach and the carnage all around become the setting against which their actions take place.
Another thing to consider when working a battle into a game like D&D is the way a high fantasy setting changes the nature of warfare. Though D&D is probably most similar to a medieval setting, it adds things like magic and monsters to the mix. A massed unit of sorcerers hurling fireballs, or a flight of griffin riders could very-well make mincemeat of units relying on mass formations and other tactics used in actual medieval and renaissance combat. Tactics closer to those used by contemporary armies might actually be more appropriate. Fireballings could take the place of artillery barrages and wingriders could launch strafing runs of the field.
The mortality rate of such a fantasy battle is likely to be an even stranger beast. The presence of clerics with the ability to magically heal the wounded would certainly have a major effect. Ranks of troops might rotate off the front line as they get injured to be healed before working their way back up through the queue. Clerics, protected by powerful abjuration spells might pick their way unscathed through the ranks of the dead and dying in an attempt to save as many as possible, perhaps even to the point of raising fallen generals from the dead, or in the case of evil clerics, raising the dead soldiers of their enemy to turn against their own.
I’ve been thinking a lot about large-scale warfare a lot as my campaign seems headed towards its own set-piece battle. Have any of my fellow GMs run this sort of thing before? If so, what worked well for you? What traps would you recommend avoiding?