Unearthed Arcana’s 5th Edition “Battle System” review
Last March, Mike Mearls released a mass combat system for 5th Edition games Dungeons and Dragons, “When Armies Clash”, that has been dubbed “Battle System” due in part to the file name. Grognards will also remember Battlesystem for 2nd edition, a system for mass combat. This was released through Unearthed Arcana, the name for Wizard’s monthly newsletter with new and optional content for 5th edition games.
I’ve always been a fan of at least the idea of mass combat for D&D, as the movement of armies seemed to be the end game for many campaign events, especially for your first edition fighters who commanded large numbers of men as a 9th level ability. A current and former player from my high school days reminded me a of a large scale combat scenario I had put together back in the 90’s that involved mass combat and hand drawn hexes to complete our 4 year campaign. It was, as he recalled, one of the coolest ways to end a campaign he had ever experienced, and hadn’t re-experienced it since.
That’s flattering, but plenty of game designers and players have attempted to incorporate such a system into their current games, and indeed Gary Gygax was playing Chainmail and like games as mass-combat first before Dave Arneson brought the adventure indoors to Castle Blackmoor and later Castle Greyhawk. I regret to say that I haven’t sat down to play the original rules, and maybe should. But I have explored various subsequent iterations, and have even taken a stab at my own through Skyland Games’ Fog of War. While somewhat fun to play, it’s not a masterpiece, but check it out and remember it was written with 4th edition in mind, if that even matters.
Really, no mass battle system game has really hit the nail on the head and also been easily adapted for tabletop play. Mearls attempts to accomplish this with the recent Unearthed Arcana release. It succeeds in some areas and fails in others. We’ll go into that in a second.
The New Battlesystem Mearls presents is a short document, just over 8 pages. In it, groups of 10 combatants form up into a single figure on the battlefield, called a “Stand“. Stands join together to form one of two types of Unit. These units are Skirmish Units, which can Hide, move in a non-adjacent (but close) formation, and take the higher of their component initiative bonuses in rolling initiative. The other primary unit, Regimental Units, must remain adjacent to one another and cannot hide, but may take different configuration that allow advantages (such as advantage on attacks, bonuses to defense, and so on). Lastly, a special unit exists, the Solo Unit, which represents a sine player, capable of joining a unit.
Stands separated from their units and Solo Units take double damage and are attacked with advantage.
What Mearls does is smart, and almost necessary. It incorporates the existing rules, and changes the scale down to 20′ squares. It eliminates diagonal movement to avoid what we call “F#%k You, Pythagoras” rules inequities in diagonal movement under the current rules set, but most other rules continue to exist as written and take place on a representative scale. Ergo a spell that has a range of 20′ strike else square away. Specific rules set out what happens when your ability doesn’t affect an entire square and other gray areas.
Standard movement of a stand is divided by 5 to determine their speed for battlefield movement. Monster abilities that include a distance effect, such as a Minotaur’s knockback ability, are divided by 5. Other ranged attacks are divided by 20. This inconsistency is problematic, as we’ll discuss below.
Units begin Morale checks after losing half the number of their unit (which, coupled with the penalties for becoming detached,create the primary justifications for acting in a unit). Leaderless units that fail run with abandon towards the safety of the table edge, which Solo Units attached to a unit may force rerolls until escape makes the retreat permanent. Units are removed at the END of the round, allowing the simultaneous nature of the combat to occur.
Simple brief rules are a must. Mearls accomplishes this for the most part by keeping them short and incorporating the primary rulebooks by reference, without elaboration. In our playtest, one player threw up her hands at the rules-set, but adopted it easily when play started after a round or two.
Movement is gridded, and uses a representative scale of 10, making it playable with what you’ve been using in regards to miniatures, maps, and so on.
The need for a solo unit is adopted but also penalized for working alone against an army. Allows the players to be somewhat effective on their own, and to take ownership of another unit and command.
Character death is avoidable if the unit is destroyed, but solo units stand to be killed if they get out on their own.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK
Reading the document itself, it’s brevity is a blessing and a curse. It isn’t comprehensive (it IS FREE, after all) and while it makes it easy to read and digest, it doesn’t address the idiosyncrasies of D&D as it relates to mass combat. Accordingly, a lot is placed on the GM to manage calls. This is a mild complaint, but errata and FAQ’s would be helpful. Overall, however, this has a feel of a pet project or weekend effort, rather than an organized release. In all likelihood, that’s just what it is; a home-game house-ruled experiment. It would benefit for revision, extrapolation, and review.
Strange inconsistencies exist in the document. Monster abilities and movement both are divided by 5, while ranged attacks and spells are divided by 20. There’s no explanation for why the difference in those measurements, but it makes a significant difference in the way the events play out. It diminishes the benefits of range, and gives a vague advantage to monsters that feels like a typo or unedited revision. I recall 1st edition calculated outdoor movement differently than indoor movement. A throwback, perhaps?
The difference between skirmish units and regimental units are somewhat difficult to distinguish. Certainly their regiment benefits and initiative calculations make for some differences, but skirmish units need to remain within 1 inch of each other, making their movement flexibility questionable.
Overall, the system takes more time than you would expect it to. A relatively simple combat ended up taking us about three hours to play, though that would potentially improve with repetition, puzzling over the inconsistencies slowed us down. (“Does this monk ability fall into the divided by 5 or divided by 20 measure?:) Most spells maintained a range that made them useless on the battlefield absent a more generous interpretation of their measurement restrictions.
WHAT IS NEEDED?
A great question, but not one that is easily answered. We can assume that every mass combat system needs a few common components:
- EASY TO LEARN – If you really want to play mass combat with some degree of dedication, a wide variety of games specialize in the mass combat experience as complete systems. We don’t want a completely different system, we want something we can blend in with our Dungeons & Dragons. Getting your 5 players to learn something new for a single game is going to be hard, so the system has to use the existing rules and shake up as little as possible.
- APPROPRIATE SCALES – Mass combat is entirely a matter of scale. Arguably, you could play D&D normally and say everything was representative, but we break into inconsistencies where scale is concerned. Your ‘Burning Hands’ spell barely fills a corridor – why does it now explode across the ball-field sized area?
- MORALE – A key component of most war-games and battles is the importance of Morale. A mechanic must exist that addresses what happens when allies break and run, and also to give a role for the great leaders (the players) that drive the action. Else, you diminish the role of the heroes, which is poor story telling if nothing else.
- PLAYER ROLES – Players have to have a way to be themselves on the battlefield. It is unfair for the wizard’s fireballs to be under wraps when they would be most effectively used in a battlefield scenario, and pairing them with 10 additional wizards to cast one fireball makes little sense as well.
- TACTICAL RELEVANCY – Massive battles should reward tactics, and have, ostensibly, advantages for positioning, flanking, charging and higher ground.
Mearl’s system his a lot of these but needs polish. Primarily, scales seem out of wack. Also, when playing with mixed stands, play becomes confusing and irregular. Largely, for playability, concessions probably need to be made. Items or spells that amplify abilities, powers, and magic that allow a game to be played in a more consistent way. Without these concessions, you have to play everything straight and by the book.
And that’s probably the underlying problem. While D&D was designed originally as a mass war game, D&D as it exists today wasn’t designed with that in mind, and doesn’t translate well on a direct basis.
While I might continue to use the system with slight modifications, Mearls suggests using objectives to accrue victory points, which adds a dimension of various goals other than annihilation that permits even a small force to prevail.
This Victory Point arrangement, sadly, is probably best applied without the ‘board game mini-game’ element. Mass combat is best represented in a game as a backdrop, with characters taking important action to secure victory points which are calculated to analyze respective success or failure. This is well illustrated in the underrated 3.5 Edition supplement “Heroes of Battle” as well as in Paizo’s Reign of Winter Adventure Path module #70 “The Frozen Stars” as well as Pathfinder Society module Quest for Perfection: The Defenders of Nesting Swallow. Heroes of Battle is all about running a game entirely centered around massive battle as a backdrop for the action, while The Frozen Stars portrays key events requiring the party to complete key actions to earn victory points towards partial or total success. Defenders of Nesting Swallow addresses Defense Points, which reward players for strategic planning versus effective combat-action. All have a lot to add to this conversation, and none involve combat grids and tactical movement.
Somewhere on the horizon, I am contemplating what to do with my now complete collection of Bloodstone Pass modules, which use the clunky 2nd Edition Battlesystem rules. Are these modules, which incorporate necessarily the Battlesystem elements as a core component, really playable for a modern gamer not usually disposed to the time-suck of a mass combat system? Are Mearls’ rules usable or adaptable in a helpful way for that series? Can either that system or the traditional Battlesystem adaptable to be fun, quick, and accurate without leading to frustration? I’ll continue to seek the answer, as I have these past decades, until something truly fits the bill.
Surely others have pondered these mysteries before. What systems do you use, or what steps have you taken to bring the power of that final epic battlefield confrontation to your players? Let us know.