A Battle for the Ages: Mass Combat in D&D

This week on Ask the Dungeon Master we take a look at some ways to run a session of all out war:


I have been running a campaign for quite some time now which culminates in an all out war.  There are 5 players and 4 NPC’s assisting.  The scale of this battle has required a ping-pong table with a grid to fit.  My question is whether or not you have any advise as to how to keep the whole battle moving along fluidly without taking too much time away from the players.

This is a problem a lot of Dungeon Masters come up against.  It’s always tempting to add epic battles like we see in Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, but the question is always: how do we make the Players remain important, and how do we prevent the battle from getting bogged down, repetitive and boring?


There are two different, and very specific things I do when I’m faced with a battle of epic proportions.  I have a set of “Mass Combat” rules I make use of, which I’ll go over in a bit, and the most important thing I do is make certain that the Players are valuable.

The last campaign I ran had an episode where the characters needed to help defend a Dwarven city from an invading army.  In order to avoid nothing but attack rolls for the next 7 hours I gave the PCs their choice of some very specific task to try and accomplish to aid their side in the conflict.  I gave the Players 4 different choices:

  • Attack the catapults
  • Defend the gates from the battering ram
  • Defend the walls from climbers
  • Lead a group of soldiers

Each of these is fairly self-explanatory.  For the catapults they needed to find a way to reach them, and then disable or destroy them.  When you give them a specific task, don’t force them to wade through hundreds or thousands of troops to reach their goal.  Give them a way to get there that doesn’t involve provoking 100 Attacks of Opportunity.  Likewise, with the battering ram and wall defense, don’t simply have them stand in one place the whole time killing soldiers as they pour forward.  Give them alternative tactics to use, like dumping gallons of boiling oil on enemies, activating some special defensive system, or operating a catapult.

As for the last option, leading soldiers, I created a Tactics skill for just such an occasion.  You may not want to use this Skill, but you can read about it here, and take away whatever you like.  The main idea is to allow a Player’s rolls and insight to grant a group of soldiers bonuses to their own rolls (this will be important for the next part).

Now, of course while your Players are busy, the battle is still raging around them, so let’s take a look at the Mass Combat rules I came up with to handle this.  (Keep in mind there are other rules you may want to use instead, but mine are pretty simple and straight forward in an effort to keep things moving quickly.)  The first thing you’ll want to do is group each of the enemy and ally soldiers.  If you have a hundred on each side, groups of 10 work well, and if you have 1000, than groups of 100 would be better.  It doesn’t matter how you group them, just so long as you end up with a manageable number of groups on each side, and enemy and ally groups are the same in number.


Once you have your groups, you’re going to treat these as individual monsters.  They will move together, and attack together, so you only have to roll 10 times instead of 1000.  First, as usual, you’ll need to determine who hits.  Rolling one attack for the whole group doesn’t work well, because it implies that everyone misses if you score a miss.  Instead I use the following table to determine if a hit occurs, and how many:

  • Misses target AC by 7+: No hits scored
  • Misses target AC by 4 – 6: 10% hit at 1/2 Damage
  • Misses target AC by 3 or less: 10% hit
  • Hits target AC: 20% hit
  • Beats target AC by 3 or less: 30% hit
  • Beats target AC by 4 – 6: 50% hit
  • Beats target AC by 7 – 9: 80% hit
  • Beats target AC by 10+: 100% hit

Now all you have to do is multiply your damage roll by whatever number of soldiers successfully hit. If they each deal 1d8+2 Damage, and 20% of a group of 10 hit, that’s 2 people.  So, if you roll 6 Damage, they actually deal 12.  As for Hit Points, multiple the entire group by whatever the average HP is.  If one soldier has 10 HP, the whole group has 100.   12 Damage is enough to kill 1 Soldier, and that’s the end of that groups turn.  Be sure to track all HP and kill off soldiers as necessary.  You may also want to adjust the Hit Percentages above depending on how long/short you want the battle to be.

The Tactics rules I developed work well alongside these Mass Combat rules, but if you choose not to incorporate the Tactics skill, I would still recommend you allow the Players to make rolls and complete certain actions that will grant bonuses to their troops or penalize enemy troops (such as disabling the catapults as mentioned above).  If both sides are evenly matched, you’ll want to give the PCs a good chance of winning.  You’ll need to be sure that they can boost their own army enough to ensure victory.  There’s nothing worse than running an epic battle and realizing halfway through that the PCs have no hope of winning.

Until next time:  Roll it like you mean it!
The Dungeon Master

If you wish to submit a question to the Dungeon Master, please e-mail them to dungeonmastermind@gmail.com, or you can Tweet me a question @AskthedDM. And make sure to review the disclaimer.

You can also see me in action in One Die Short.

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  6. Ronny says:

    I just posted my version of mass combat rules for D&D here:
    I would appreceate any comments on it you may have.

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