Sunday, January 31, 2021

Monster Type: Army

 Have you ever read through some old adventure module and come across a room that has 40 orcs in it?  You don't see that much anymore.  Let's talk about that.

Skeleton Army by Adrian Smith

The Appeal of an Army

I don't think I need to defend the idea that it is cool as fuck to fight a horde of enemies.  Orcs, hellhounds, traitor knights, vampire wolves. . . they're all cool.

They're also intimidating in a way that a dragon is not.  Normally, in the boss fight encounters against a singular foe, the players have two advantages:

  • They get more actions than the dragon.
  • The dragon might unluckily fail an important save.
When the PCs are badly outnumbered, these advantages turn into disadvantages, the danger of which isn't lost on the PCs.

(Things like legendary actions and legendary saves were created to smooth over the advantages in order to create more homogenous combat experience, but it's still a hack.)

The Disbanding of the Army

Why don't we see armies like this anymore?  The big reason is combat complexity.  As editions of DnD got more complex, combat turns started taking longer and longer.  How much did blur slow down combat in 3e?

There's also the push for more complexity in monster abilities.  Each monster has been loaded down with more and more bells and whistles.  This creates more of a burden on the DM, to use and track these abilities effectively.  I'm not saying the trade-off isn't worth it--sometimes it is.  But we should be aware of what we're giving up when we start giving bonus actions to lowly orcs and goblins.

(I've made the argument before that there is a lot of worthwhile differentiation that can come from behavior, rather than the stat block, but that's a different conversation.)

OSR combat moves fast.  A fight against thirty orcs shouldn't be out of the question

Rules for Facing Armies

How many people can you catch in a single fireball?  Maybe 3 if they're wisely spread out.  A dozen if they're densely clustered.  On any other round, tell the wizard that their best fireball opportunity is 2d4+1 (rerolling it every round--let the wizard decide when the best opportunity is).  Armies that are trying to spread out (and have the space to do so) will limit themselves to 1d4+3 within the range of a single fireball.

Can you split up an army?  Easily, if your foes are unintelligent.  Intelligent enemies will avoid splitting up into overly small groups.  If they search for you, it will be with scouting groups that will retreat and seek help, rather than allow themselves to get drawn into a pitched battle.

The most important rules will probably be facing rules: how many orcs can attack your fighters simultaneously?

In a hallway 10' wide (or other chokepoint, I'd say that 3 people fighting abreast is the maximum, while 2 people fighting abreast would be the minimum to hold the line.

While totally surrounded, a cluster of at least 5 PCs has 2 enemies facing each of them.  Smaller groups will have 3 enemies facing them simultaneously.

Armies will, of course, fight as intelligently as they can.  This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Having one group fight the PCs head-on, while another group circles around to flank them.
  • Sending a runner for reinforcements.
  • Trying to lure the PCs into a place where they can be surrounded.
  • Using ranged attacks to get more attacks in per turn.
  • Using ranged attacks to lure PCs into position.
  • Use long-shot attacks (the equivalent of save-or-dies).
Some examples of long-shot attacks and interesting tactics:
  • GRAPPLE.  Nets, whatever.  Just pile it on.
  • Smoke bombs.
  • Setting the place on fire.
  • Releasing snakes.
  • Start chanting.    After 3 turns of chanting, a person goes blind and feeble every turn.  Lasts as long as the chanting does.
  • Start chanting.  It's a very slow polymorph spell, which turns someone into a snail over the course of 3 turns.
  • Start breaking all the valuable items in the dungeon while shouting blasphemies.
  • Lassoing a PC and pulling them away from the party.
  • Refusing to allow the PCs to lure them into a disadvantage.  Instead, they fortify a large room (or critical dungeon junction) and continually insult the PCs for not attacking them.  Although, at this point, you risk treating them like a faction.
*Differences Between Armies and Factions

Armies you fight all at once.  Factions you deal with their interests and kill them off in small groups.

I'll admit, it's a blurry line.  40 barbarians could easily be a roleplaying challenge more than a combat encounter.  Seducing them, bartering with them, getting them to fight your enemies for you, getting them to fight among themselves.


An interesting fight evolves--it's not just 3 orcs marching through the same chokepoint every turn until the whole army is dead.

Unless the army is mindless (and I don't even run skeletons as mindless foes), they'll know when they're fighting a losing battle, retreat, and try a new tactic.

Here are some other ways that armies will mix things up:

Orcs -- Settle it with a contest of champions.  The orcish champion is level 2+1d4, and will fight dirty (suggestion: as soon as the PCs nominate their champion, the orc will launch into combat without any preamble, throwing an axe and then charging).  Losing side clears out of the dungeon.

Bandits -- Will just offer you money to leave.  1d6 x 100s.

Goblins -- Start making a shit-ton of noise, summoning 1d4-1 (min 0) random encounters.

Skeletons -- 9 Skeletons start dancing.  After 3 rounds, they summon a demon of X HD, where X is the number of skeletons that are still dancing.  (Remember that undead are created by inviting incorporeal demons into a corpse.)  Other skeleton spells: mass extinguish, shatterhand (metal shatters upon coming in contact with the skeleton), fear.

Berserkers -- If they don't decide to retreat and try a new tactic, they'll fight to the death.  They bite off the tip of their own tongue.  Each round after that, they'll get +1 to hit, -1 to AC, and +1 to the damage that they both deal and receive.  This is cumulative up to +4.  If it would increase beyond +4, the berserkers instead start killing each other until they are all dead.


  1. I had a DM give all of us really high level characters, but he wasn't prepared for what we had. The idea was we would be dragooned into a legion to fight as champions. It would cut down on losses. We had a little discussion and I didn't like what was said and cast meteor swarm.

    The DM read the spell description and paused for a moment. He announced that a second legion was advancing from the rear. I cast meteor swarm again.

    His mouth fell open and he dropped the dice he was holding. While my character was mopping up with a series of fireballs, the rest of the party decided they wanted to hear the DM out and beheaded my character. The DM took some time to examine my character sheet.

    The third legion accepted my head as tribute and game play continued as one DM would expect.

    Armies and high level monsters/characters are both dangerous in different ways.

  2. What are the downsides to: "Skeleton Army, 100 HP, up to 10d6 damage split amongst valid targets each round"?

    1. They're pretty similar. Tracking the number of skeletons vs tracking the HP of the mob (where the HP of an individual skeleton is mostly negligible).

      Tracking the number of skeletons encourages the DM to split them up into subgroups, though. And even with "Skeleton Army, 100 HP", you still need to figure out how a fireball interacts with them.

    2. Doesn't consider different target's ability to avoid damage, or attacks that disrupt the ability to attack for a round. Not associated enough to allow tactical choice.

  3. Good article.

    In terms of "Why no more armies," I think there's also a fundamental different paradigm of RPGs. When modules had 40 orcs popping out of the first room, it's entirely possible there were 20 dudes in the room, each with first level fighting-men and a few henchmen. That was an even match.

    Now the expectation is that you have 3-5 players, each standing mostly on their own.

  4. You once wrote stats for fighting lemures en masse. What of rules for a horde of goblins attempting to pile on the party?

    1. If I may, I see two potential ways the Referee could handles this:

      1. The Goblin Platoon has 80 HP (2 per Goblin). When the Platoon is reduced to 0 HP, all the Goblins are dead. When the Platoon is reduced by 1/4, 1/3 or 1/2, it must automatically check morale or flee/change tactics.

      2. The Goblin Platoon has 20 Super Hit Points and a Damage Threshold of 3. Any attack that does more than 3 damage removes 1 SHP the Platoon. Any attack that does less is defeated by the Goblins' defenses and does no damage.

      And then you could give the Goblins a special ability, such as-

      Goblin War Paint: By taking X damage to itself, the Goblin Platoon whips itself into a frenzy, causing it to gain a -X penalty to AC but gain a +X bonus to damage. While in a frenzy, the Goblin Platoon doesn't think intelligently and behaves like a pack of ravenous wolves.

  5. "9 Skeletons start dancing."

    Fade in:

  6. I never used the Minions mechanic... people seem to have liked that part. Something inside me warns that such a mechanic would just contribute to a 'Fantasy Avengers' flavour, which I am not keen on. Have you used it?

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  8. Whilst miniatures and a grid are often frowned upon in the osr crowd large scale battles seems a good place to whip them out and lets you answer all the logistical questions significantly more easily. I also suspect most GMs and groups have them even if they don't use them..

    Tracking how many hits a monster has taken instead of exact hp numbers helps with tracking that over 40 critters.

    Following the combat procedure strictly effectively makes the game run as Move Shoot Charge - Spells trigger - Check morale. Which feels like a standard wargame fare and is oddly easier to grok in widescale than it can be in a smaller scale more detailed melee.

    Chainmail and by extension old school DnD was literally designed for this so it's not as hard as it seems.