[D&D] Quick resolution for skirmishes and large fights

edited May 2019 in Make Stuff!
In the "Without the action economy" thread, @Deliverator gave a method for simply spending HP & other resources to resolve minor fights. @Eero_Tuovinen responded with his thoughts on resolving large skirmishes, predicated on D&D's core conceit that for each HD of each combatant, there's about a 50% chance of dealing 1HD's worth of damage per round:
At the start of the combat round talk about the fictional positioning however much you need to. Figure out which parts of the forces engage which other parts [...]. If you just want a result, then assume that all forces on both sides engage effectively, tactics be damned.

For each combat-participant who manages to engage this round roll a d6. The default hit probability is 50% [...] Similarly, if the forces are too large to roll all the dice, scale the dice proportionally [...]

Because 50% casualties per round is a tad too quick [...] do a "damage soak" stage next: for each hit of damage caused, roll the die again and discard the hit on a 1-3; this signifies a hit that was too minor to down a combatant. [...]

After deducting casualties you're ready for another round! Do some more maneuvering to shift forces around and represent the tactical consequences of the round you just resolved, then continue on to dicing the second round. Don't forget morale checks where applicable. [...]
This is great! The meat of the thing seems to be in the "establish fictional positioning" and "do some maneuvering to shift forces around" bits that Eero kinda breezes past.

I'm not a medieval warfare history buff, but I'm pretty sure the whole point of things like shield walls, pike squares, archers, skirmish lines, light horse, cavalry charges, and all that jazz is maximizing the number of your dudes who can engage effectively while minimizing the number of their dudes who can engage effectively, ie, fictional positioning, do some maneuvering.

To actually run a big battle, you'll probably have to think about all that stuff a lot more deeply.

The crux of it is, though, that while formations remain... in formation, you'll have relatively small "surface areas" of combatants coming into contact with one another. When formations break, you'll get actual melees, where everyone gets to hack at everyone. A broken formation is probably quickly followed by broken morale and disorderly withdrawal from the field; if it's not, you get slaughter.

So a fight might look like this: a wedge of knights charges a shield-wall of infantry backed by pikeman, with a formation of longbowmen behind.

First we resolve a round where all of the bowmen apply themselves against the knights.

We check damage and morale. Is it enough to stagger the charge and turn back the knights, or break the formation so that they arrive at the shield wall as a ragged lone horsemen rather than a tight, driving wedge?

Then maybe we resolve a round where a small number of knights—the tip of the wedge—match up against a small number of shield-men and pike-men—the point in the shield wall that they are trying to breach.

We check damage and morale. Does the wall hold, or buckle and give?

Then we maybe resolve a round where knights take on shield- and pike-men one for one, ish, as they pierce the wall and charge through the line. Does the morale of the line hold, allowing it to re-group, or does the formation dissolve?

Then maybe we resolve a line where knights take on archers one-for-one in close combat, as they break through the other side of the enemy's main line of battle and reach the unit of longbowmen. Or maybe by this time the longbowmen have had the wherewithal to retreat, and the enemy's reserve horse have been rallied in time to engage the knights, or whatever.

That's a lot hidden in "talk about the fictional positioning" and "do some maneuvering"!


  • Personally, instead of rolling a d6 for every 1 or 10 combatants of whatever, I'd probably start from something like "For every 4 combatants able to engage the enemy effectively, 1 enemy is downed and 1 wounded."

    Then roll a single d20 for the engagement, and adjust that ratio up or down for each side depending on whether the roll is high or low. Maybe have a table for it.

    Possibly look for results of 1/2/3 and 18/19/20 on the same roll to tell you whether formations and morale hold.
  • Rather than "combatant", "HD". Magic users and flying really shine in this setup.
    Which leads me to, Hordes of the Thing. There are some easy wargames that will be a better fit than wargamey RPGs.
  • Yeah, you get how it goes - that's exactly what I meant with the bits I skipped. I was musing about quick resolution, after all, not about the appropriate methods for running mass combat encounters.

    What with this being in the D&D context, you also have the player characters running about and trying to do all kinds of stunts to influence the battle this way or that. I generally assume that the mass combat round is 10 minutes long - equal to a dungeon exploration round - which means that PCs have some time for wacky hijinks in between.

    And yeah, you could do a table-based overall roll. Note, though, that you'll need to craft the table carefully if you don't want the resolution probabilities flattened out too much. I feel that the D&D d20 pass/fail is a net positive for the heroic swashbuckling skirmish, but it'd be pretty quirky for mass combat. You probably want those results to have a nice bell curve, and that's what you get with the dice pools.
  • As for the minutiae of pre-gunpowder warfare, the point of bunching a lot of men into a regular formation - a "closed formation" as the wargamer often says - was foremost that it guaranteed each individual soldier's flanks against enemies. It is much easier to stay safe in the battlefield if you have your own allies in static positions right next to you. As long as they remain that way they essentially guarantee that you'll only have to face about one enemy combatant at a time. It's a loss-mitigation strategy that ensures that each one of your men who goes down does that after an actual struggle instead of being simply cut down from behind.

    The closed formation also makes it easier to control the group, which means much better cohesion in advancing and retreating and so forth. Better morale, obviously, and the men didn't even need to be quite as physically formidable individually as a loose-formation warrior needs to be to be effective. And finally, you could use the mass of men to break into the looser formation of a less disciplined enemy, sometimes literally trampling enemy combatants to death.

    The Roman legions proved the superiority of this arrangement against open formations in field battles pretty conclusively over their centuries; everybody was doing it by the time the empire was ancient. By the middle ages generals would organize even the lowest-skilled musters into blocks in preference to unorganized hordes if they could. It evidently worked better historically.

    My go-to simulation for the block thing is that, just as Jeph says, the block limits the number of combatants going at it at one time, and thus it tends to make the combat run longer compared to a "general melee" (which occurs if two hordes clash, or blocks lose cohesion). It also improves the defense of the block, which effectively means that while both sides are making less to-hit rolls than they would in a chaotic melee, the block's taking less hits every round. If the enemy force lets this go on, a well-organized force can overcome an otherwise superior enemy in a drawn-out struggle simply because they take less casualties per combat round.

    This would, obviously, be the mechanical reason for why you want to break the enemy formation. Not only would it cause a morale check, but they would lose their formation bonuses (mostly to defense), making them a much softer target. Worst is if they also lose their combat cohesion in addition to their formation, and largely stop fighting: as long as that lasts you get free hits against their escape. If you have a reserve unit - ideally mounted - to help in harassing the fleeing enemy, they may actually end up taking rather high casualties.

    Of course what happened historically on the grand scale was that as experience with block warfare accumulated, it became more and more rare for the blocks to outright break. Casualty rates were relatively low as long as you could get the formation out of the battlefield intact. Most casualties suffered by medieval armies - aside from logistical issues - came from suffering a rout and consequent enemy harassment.

    Fortunately many D&D combats aren't highly trained formations fighting each other, so it's rather rare to see them whittling at each other for 30 rounds or whatever. Players would love it if you allowed them to just declare a closed formation, but it's very reasonable for the GM to decide that no, you're not going to train your peasant muster into pike-fighters in a single afternoon. (True story, that.) Many larger fights in your average D&D milieu will feature all sorts of forces that fall short of the cynical discipline of a Spartan or Swiss formation.
  • Hah, we typically have a few months' downtime between adventuring excusions, and one of my former players (dearly departed for Atlanta) would immediately start training the peasantry to form swiss squares of pike & crossbowmen whenever he had a damn chance.
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