TLDR: If you’re running 5E, you need to buy this book.
When I heard that the next book in the 5E lineup was Volo’s Guide to Monsters, I was a little disappointed. I’ve never been much of a Forgotten Realms fan, and Volo’s Guide sounded like it was going to be a fluff piece with articles similar to the old Dragon Magazine “Ecology” pieces. While that’s great for magazine content, I didn’t get too excited about the prospect of a $45 book with minimal new information.
Fortunately for me, Wizards really outdid themselves in packaging a variety of things in this book that make it a very valuable addition to my growing 5E collection.
Volo’s Guide starts with the following disclaimer in small, easily missed print, under the cover attribution:
Disclaimer: Wizards of the Coast does not vouch for, guarantee, or provide any promise regarding the validity of the information provided in this volume by Volothamp Geddarm. Do not trust Volo. Do not go on quests offered by Volo. Do not listen to Volo. Avoid being seen with him for risk of guilt by association. If Volo appears in your campaign, your DM is undoubtedly trying to kill your character in a manner that can be blamed on your own actions. The DM is probably trying to do that anyway, but with Volo’s appearance, you know for sure. We’re not convinced that Elminster’s commentary is all that trustworthy either, but he turned us into flumphs last time we mentioned him in one of these disclaimers.
I enjoy the fact that wizards is having fun with this volume, and it made me enjoy getting into the book a bit more than if I hadn’t noticed it. I also appreciate Wizards sold a special limited edition FLGS cover for only $5 more (pictured above) to help the local shops get a leg up.
The book is broken into three parts: Monster Lore, Character Races, and a Bestiary.
Monster Lore, the first 100 pages of the book, is what I had expected, but some crunch where I otherwise expected fluff for lifestyles of Beholders, Giants, Gnolls, Goblinoids, Hags, Kobolds, Mindflayers, Orcs and Yuan-Ti.
Examples of neat details that might constitute crunch include beholder charts detailing size, shape, texture, and a great random name generator, with tactics, variant eyestalk abilities, minions, treasure and a lair map. History, mindset, and biological function is laid out in a depth previously unvisited in text as far as I’m aware, allowing the GM a deeper background on this favorite of monsters.
The Chapters going forth are what I’d call asymmetrical, being that they don’t follow a routine pattern. Chapters on Giants have more details about origins, their habitat and personality traits. Gnolls have details on tactics, random traits and features, and tables to help build a gnollish warband. Mind Flayers have some magic items listed that are specific to their culture. Yuan-ti have a variety of charts detailing their variable physiology.
Each race detailed has a map of their typical lair, which gives some great examples where the trappings of the race might be otherwise somewhat mysterious (Mind-Flayers in particular).
Overall, these chapters are well written and flesh out the background of these common and popular monsters. Is it essential? No. Is it helpful? Yes. My fear had been that for $45.00 I was going to get that, and that be it. Fortunately, it goes on.
Now we start to hit things I can work with, and things that people invariably try to do on their own with varying degrees of success. I happen to currently be playing a kobold priest of Kurtulmak in our Out of the Abyss game, and have been playing a kobold trapper race variant my GM got off the internet somewhere. I yearned for canon guidance on what a kobold PC should look like. Fortunately, Volo delivers.
Races detailed are Aasimar, Firbolgs, Goliaths, Kenku, Lizardfolk, Tabaxi, and Tritons with a separate section for “Monstrous Adventurers” giving blocks for the already detailed bugbear, goblin, hobgoblin, kobold, orc and yuan-ti pureblood.
I’ve always been a guy that likes the idea of playing the monster as a PC, and this opens doors for me.
This, by far, seals the deal for this book being a must-have for the dedicated 5E player. 100 pages of new and classic monsters that were conspicuously absent from the Monster Manual. A few personal favorites include:
- Flail Snail!
- Several new Variant classed giants, very cool
- Shadow mastiff
- Spawn of Kyuss (Greyhawk?)
- Xvarts (Eric Mona must have been involved in this)
- Yeth Hound
- Many more!
Also a number of “Beasts” (including a rot grub swarm) and 21 new stock NPCs which are sure to prove super useful on an ongoing basis (in particular, it appears a mage of each spell casting school, archers, archdruid, war priest and so on). Not mentioned in my list are also special “classed” versions of various orcs, yuan-ti, hobgoblins, and so on, as well as some subcategories of other races like beholders that will prove useful in putting on games that utilize those species. This is where the book proves out its crunchiness but give me stat blocks that I can use to have a more interesting game.
Wizards has done a good job of bringing a little more than just the basics to each book it has published. Each adventure module has had a few spells and a few more general stat blocks that make each book tempting to pick up. This book, as a sourcebook, doubles down on that principle making there elements that you just can’t afford to miss. This book has extended value for the GM of your group, but remains optional for the player short of playing a racial variant. That said, I think anyone who picks it up is going to find it’s a great addition to their collection.
All Praise Kurtulmak!
The bounty hunter campaign is still going strong at The Wyvern’s Tale. Yesterday, the mission involved infiltrating a the Rebel Nebulon B Medical Frigate Redemption, to capture a wounded high-value target that eluded another team of bounty hunters.
The target was a former representative from Ithor, an Ithorian named Gela Aasa. Not sure if that is a canonically-correct Ithorian name, but I got it from a Star Wars name generator, and it worked. If you run Star Wars with any regularity, I would highly recommend having a sheet of these random names to grab for NPCs or players who are looking for a name for their PC.
As described in previous posts, I came up with the outline of three likely scenes and probable NPCs from the adversary decks, and selected some fun and interesting weapons and equipment for the PCs to rent or purchase that would likely come in handy during the mission. For this particular job, I chose some items from Age of Rebellion‘s Desperate Allies, as well as the Mimetic Suit from Fly Casual, which basically acts as a personal cloaking device.
Desperate Allies includes some interesting clothing options that confer different benefits like banal apparel to make characters harder to identify in a crowd, diplomat’s robes to add a boost die in social checks when trying to use status to bypass regular protocols, or resplendent robes and performer’s attire for those trying to attract attention and serve as a diversion for their stealthier comrades.
For weapons, I choose from Desperate Allies again, providing the option to purchase Military Holdout Blasters which are very concealable, but pack more punch than a regular holdout, as well as Goseia HIC “Mercy” Grenades. These grenades emit a hallucinogenic gas that impairs memory, and causes illusions.
The party passed on most of the costume options, but picked up a few banal mechanics coveralls, a few of the holdouts, and all of the grenades!
Once the team was briefed and equipped, it was time to start the mission. Here are the three scenes I planned for:
- Boarding the Redemption. The frigate would be hiding in a light nebula, while the main Rebel fleet was battling the Empire elsewhere. As the medical model has the fighter bay replaced by a medical suite and a dozen bacta tanks, it would only be escorted by a handful of fighters. The PCs need to come up with a premise for boarding the Redemption with falsified Rebel credentials provided by the Guild for this mission. Likely NPCs: Comm Operator, Rebel Liason, Alliance Infantry, Rebel Pilot.
- Surgery Suite – The main hanger on the Redemption has been converted to an oversized medical bay. The hunters will need to locate the acquisition, determine his current condition, and find a way to transport him to their ship, and deliver him alive back to the Guild. Likely NPCs: Diplomat, Physician, Medical Droid, Rebel Pilot, Alliance Infantry.
- Escape – They’ll need to escape with their quarry, which may prove difficult given the tractor beams, laser cannons, and fighter escort accompanying the frigate. Likely NPCs: Alliance Commander, Comm Operator, Rebel Pilot. X-wing, Y-wing stats.
I had imagined the PCs would try and pose as some diplomatic delegation to get close to the target. As it turned out, one of the players that showed up this week brought his Wookie Doctor PC. This afforded a much more conventional angle for being there. The protocol droid acted as the Wookie’s translator, as the other PCs posed as mechanics, while one Rodian Assassin PC elected to use his newly acquired Mimetic Suit to stealth around the ship. This allowed the team to smuggle in smaller weapons in tool kits and the Wookie’s medical bag.
I provided a simple schematic I found, which helped the PCs plan their operation, and also helped us keep track of who was where in the ship. I would highly recommend printing out ship schematics of ships you plan on using in missions. Most of the common ones are readily available.
This mission had the fewest combat encounters of just about any of the previous bounty hunter missions. It also would have been difficult to fight an entire frigate worth of rebels, but the players came up with some brilliant strategies to avoid combat at set them up for successes.
One of the “mechanics” was a Gand Outlaw Tech that was actually quite good at mechanics. His human smuggler companion was able to fake it. The Gand was also decent at Computers, and was able to find the target was being treated in a VIP wing of the medical suite, and under guard. The wookie and his droid translator gathered some information by some successful charm and medical checks with the young, inexperience and overworked Rebel physician and a troop of Rebel special forces the Wookie was asked to triage. Meanwhile, the Rodian made use of his stealth suit to head down to the main turbolaser and laser cannon batteries.
Hilarity ensued as the Gand used his position in main engineering to disable the tractor beams, cause steam to come out of the vents of the target’s room, which added to the smuggler convincing the posted guards there was a “small” radiation leak in there. Nothing to worry about. The Rodian was able to sabotage the turbolasers and laser cannon batteries, but rolled a despair and a triumph on a stealth roll to get out of there. We ruled this meant a gunnery deck officer mistook him for a Rodian on the gunnery crew, and that he was late for his shift and needed to be written up. That ended in one of the few fights of the entire session, aided by the Gand cutting the power to the entire area, which made for a lot of setback dice from darkness.
In the end, the Wookie, the Droid, and the Smuggler were able to safely transport the target, disguised as a hoversled full of medical supplies back to their ship. The Gand created false records of where the target was transferred to in the frigate, and the team crafted a dummy attached to one of the “Mercy” grenades, so when the rebels came looking for him, they were in for a hallucinogenic surprise! The power being off in the gunnery section meant the turblift was off too, so the Rodian rigged an escape pod to “misfire” and hoped his fellow hunters figured out a way to pick him up. The Droid succeeded on a daunting piloting check to hook up with the escape pod, and the team was able to hold off a pair of Y-wings long enough to escape with their acquisition. Amusingly, the Gand’s obligation came up for this mission. His obsession was to earn a name, and by capturing this Ithorian rebel conspirator, he certainly did!
Coming back from NTRPG Con loaded with goodies, I started going through things I hadn’t read yet and putting stuff in order. Glad I looked, because I discovered a lost treasure! When I was putting stuff into the zine boxes, I found a great level 2 adventure for DCC RPG called “The Vertical Halls” from Phlogiston Books and written by Gabriel García-Soto that for some stupid reason I never got around to reading before this weekend.
Spoiler Alert: It’s pretty damn epic. I loved it from beginning to end. The interior art by Francisco Tebár and Valentí Posa is especially great.
I don’t want to spoil anything too much, but there is a lot to work with here. The adventure can literally fit into any kind of scenario. For your ‘typical’ fantasy campaign, you can place it as is into any mountainous region. It could really work well in a Shudder Mountain campaign for sure. You could crank up the weirdness factor and put it into something like the Purple Planet, too! Make the town a ruin an go Crawling Under A Broken Moon. It could fit almost any setting if you do just a little adjusting, I’m sure.
It starts out simple enough: your adventuring group enters the town of Shadypass where, like they do, the villagers are all acting a little odd. Some investigation leads you to the main event and I’ve yet to see a creepier or more disturbing setting. Excellent throwbacks to some Lovecraftian goodness and the best part is that the author has taken some ‘typical’ monsters and put their own spin onto them. Great stuff! I can’t wait to get a party inside and make them squirm!
The PDF and Softcover combo are available on RPG Now. Definitely one to pick up and I am anxiously awaiting the next product this studio will be releasing!
One of the greatest things about role-playing is that the choices are not limited. You can elect to solve a problem different ways, act recklessly or thoughtlessly, and indeed can do something downright evil, and the GM has to adapt to that approach. It’s the one thing that, to my mind, will always keep role-playing slightly ahead of video games, no matter how interactive they tend to get. With the option of unfettered control, players can elect to play evil characters in RPG’s with some degree of success. However, evil campaigns are where the boundless possibilities of table-top gaming can become a two-edged sword.
It has been widely suggested that Gary Gygax original developed alignments with significant inspiration from Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, which contributed the idea of Law versus Chaos and of forces aligning with that principle. Basic Dungeons and Dragons had Law, Chaos and Neutrality depicted handily by this, one of my favorite sketches from those books:
This, theoretically, should just about do it, but not to keep things too simple, our beloved Gary went and made this much more marvelously complex alignment chart, with Good and Evil, Law and Chaos on varying axes:
This added shades of nuance, and later became colored with tendencies. Lawful Neutral with Lawful Good tendencies etc. etc. This allowed for a description of many different layers of alignment, and theoretically should permit a player to describe his character’s beliefs pretty closely.
This level of detail originally existed to force characters to act in accord with their proscribed ethos, maybe as a story telling tool, maybe as a heavy-handed way of teaching players how to role-play. Some of it was simply a game mechanic or limiter on how players interacted with items and spells – numerous items would do damage to or be unusable by members of a certain alignment. I believe it was to limit capricious behavior by players who, having different consequences in-game than in real life, find themselves looting and killing more quickly than they typically would in other situations. It’s a clumsy tool for keeping the game on track.
THE ISSUES WITH EVILNESS
So what happens when you toss the limiting element of that out the window? An Evil Campaign incorporates alignments that don’t tend to go past Chaotic Neutral, and are traditionally very difficult to get off the ground. When alignment fails to work as a tool, all bets are off. Characters can burn buildings and torture the innocent to get their results, and a party full of such characters has no limitation or recourse, making the story telling a very difficult proposition for the GM.
It’s very strange for me to articulate this idea, that alignment is still a tool we need to keep things on track. But most stories that are written or created take the heroic point of view as a given, or at least the mercenary view as the farthest the players are likely to take it. While, Mercenary values should have some appeal to all parties, but there is an added consideration when Evil is at play… betrayal, backstabbing, and advancing the cause of the adversary are all on the table. Accordingly, Evil is very hard to consistently motivate.
It’s more relevant than ever because Paizo has recently released its Hell’s Vengeance adventure path, where, for the first time, the adventure path centers around evil characters. Serving the fiend-aligned throne of Cheliax, the heroes take part in a series of adventures to quell uprisings in the name of Iomade and so on. It promises to be an interesting experiment to see if an adventure series can be constructed in such a way so as to not break down in to absolute chaos.
Paizo is aware of the danger of such an event. In the introduction, they say that the key to not having everyone kill each other is for everyone not to be a jerk, and for the group to advance the mutual cause of fun. This is the best answer one can give, but I can tell you from personal experience that this is very wishful thinking.
BACK IN MY DAY…
Several years ago, I ran an evil campaign, known only as “The Evil Campaign”. People hungered for it, and for a few years, it was a favorite. It coincided roughly with the publication of the Book of Vile Darkness, which gave us some rich material to work with. The characters were nuanced, and the players some of the best I’ve played with. Thinking that these details were enough of a check on their own, I introduced the characters to the world without any safeguards in place.
They literally all killed each other within 30 minutes.
The only survivor was, fortunately, the mild mannered and charismatic necromancer, who had gathered each body as it fell and dragged it back to his laboratory. Struggling to find a way to bring the game back into some sort of order, I extended an invitation to this necromancer from an agent of Iuz the Old, and decided then that some sort of guarantee needed to be made as to compliance, since player restraint did not appear to be trustworthy. Acknowledging its cheesiness, I borrowed from SSI’s Curse of the Azure Bonds game, imprinting them with tattooed sigils that stay their hand’s when moving to kill an ally.
Through his clumsy but necessary mechanic, we were able to play for another year or two, though players worked to undo other characters in the game and constantly sought ways to kill one another, getting around the curse. While much fun was had, and there were moments of peace, it was in the nature of the characters to be at odds. It wasn’t bad role-playing, in fact it was quite good role-playing, but it was somewhat the nature of the beast. In the end, it was exhausting as a game master to keep the story moving in a predictable way allowing me to prepare, and we fell away from it. You could never tell what crazy thing the players were going to do next, but often it was to kill a major NPC because they looked at them funny.
That’s because often, as players, we hold Evil to a much higher standard than we do good. Players act as though evil aggressively seeks out mischief, chaos and death. And while it sometimes does those things, it more often strikes randomly as granted by opportunity. The true face of evil is not the monster that wants to kill, burn and destroy. It’s very seldom Rovagug or Tharizdun. It’s typically more like Doyle Hargraves in Sling Blade, or Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s subtle, selfish, and sneaky. In a fantasy game, the evil out there operates in the open by virtue of acknowledging the power of law and working around it, nibbling at its edges, and slipping back away into the night. Evil people work together all the time, and while there are disputes, the first move is not always to kill each other. There are layers of frustration, and means of revenge that aren’t killing.
It’s a tough road to go down, but I look forward to hearing what players in Paizo’s Hell’s Vengeance AP experience. It’s got potential, and if someone could pull it off, it would be them. But I think more likely, we’ll see a pile of bodies by the end of the first book, and maybe another reskinning of the old Azure Bonds mechanic by a few GM’s. Look forward to hearing how good ‘bad’ can really be from our readers who have played it, and what they’d change if they could.
As we approached the first troll of the campaign, I anticipated that were were going to have this discussion.
It’s 5th edition D&D and none of us, to my knowledge, have encountered a troll in the new system. However, we all know by now that the regenerative abilities of the Troll are legendary and horrible and punishing for those who assume that dead is dead. Unsurprisingly, the players imported out of game knowledge to ready against the rise of the troll, lighting torches and oil, and the debate started.
“I spend a ki point to trigger my defensive ability…I’m not trusting that shit,” the Monk said as the troll went down.
“Two things,” I said, “One, you know nothing of trolls, and two, you’re like 30 feet away, and you’re going to waste a ki point… so don’t for either of those two reasons.”
“Certainly,” the Wizard said, “We’ve heard something about trolls. I’m a scholar if nothing else.”
“Maybe,” I allowed, “but there’s lots of horrible creatures out there, trolls included. Make some rolls and I’ll give you some wives tales and things.
Party rolled with less than amazing results, but indeterminate.
“You’ve all heard a story about an old woman who captured a troll and cut off its head, then kept the head in a basket. The troll would then tell her secrets, and she used it to get out of a variety of challenges and marry well and live happily ever after.”
“Good enough for me, light it up” someone said. Burning starts.
Hmph, I thought. “Isn’t anyone going to get the head?”
“I am not taking this things head in a basket.” the paladin said.
And that was that. I was a little disappointed, as an evil GM, that I couldn’t get the players on this old surprise, even if we were all fully aware of the trick. Did it diminish their fun? I don’t think so. Did it diminish mine? Only slightly. But overall, it seemed bad form from what I consider to be a group of truly excellent gamers. That said, I feel confident I would have done the same thing in their shoes. So what do we do, as gamers, with the knowledge of metagaming and the desire to metagame, and perhaps even the need in some cases to metagame?
Wikipedia defines Metagaming as:
Any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed ruleset, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game. Another definition refers to the game universe outside of the game itself..
Now before you think I’m living comfortably in my glass house, I do this too and am not trying to throw stones. We ALL do this to some greater or lesser degree. Whether it’s using tactics that your 1st level character wouldn’t use, or not running when attacked by goblins for the first time, or picking spells based on your experience as a gamer as to how useful they are. If we didn’t metagame at all, most of our characters might end up returning to their farming and sheepherding responsibilities after the immediate crisis had passed, and tell the same story at the local inn every Godsday about the time they went down to the old Moathouse and tangled with a couple humanoids.
So what do you do about it? First, you have to know what form of metagaming you have, and then identify whether its a problem that you need to remedy, or if you even want to. Metagaming has a certain utility that might just have a place in some games. This is me playing devil’s advocate with myself to some extent, but let’s play this out for a minute.
I’ve identified the most common types of metagaming that I encounter on a day to day basis:
- FLOATING HEADS – This is where you offer friendly advice to another player on how to run their character or communicate your in-game desires to them out of game. Your head floats off its shoulders, whispers in their ear, and floats back, so to speak.
- PRO’s: This keeps the action on point, makes the play most effective, avoids general murder, clarifies miscommunication due to the abstraction of the setting, and occasionally reminds a player to act more in line with the way their character might actually respond, rather than what a less skilled or confused player might do under the circumstances.
- CON’s: Leads to kibitzing and breaks the game. You have to have some faith that a player knows how to run their character, and the imperfection of communication on a battlefield is a core issue in general for those involved in combat. Further, spells like Rary’s Telepathic Bond allow for players to communicate in their heads with little other benefit, and this is a 5th LEVEL SPELL. To do it with impunity without the benefit of the spell essentially negates its usefulness.
- FINAL VERDICT: Should be kept to a minimum, to address player confusion rather than to advise, instruct, or exhort.
REVISIONIST HISTORY – As illustrated above, a plan or course of action is reversed after one or more active steps are taken to complete the initial task, only for the action to be withdrawn or reversed one or more steps to apply the corrective action
- PRO’s – Often in a game, the order of actions is unclear, and polite society frowns on interrupting or shouting over other people talking. Often, the loudest, most quick witted, or most ridiculous player leaps into action while other players who may be playing quicker, smarter, or more clever characters might not articulate their actions first, and the GM rule that they are too late to stop Mr. Dwarf Smash from axing the door. That’s not fair, is it?
- CONS – People do dumb things, and so do their characters. Half the fun is watching players and characters make mistakes with deadly or hilarious consequences. Sometimes its allowable, or initiative needs to be rolled, but players often want to rewind events back too far, and gain out of game knowledge of the consequences by doing so. It slows down the game and confuses everthing.
- FINAL VERDICT: We use a rule at our table that you can back up most actions until a die is rolled. Then, the action locks in. I would say too that if the players discovered something, like a trap, that they would not have known, it’s too late as well. You have to be careful in looking at this, however, as the crazy barbarian shouting “I smash in the door” should be interpreted as saying, “I want to smash in the door” and a few seconds pass before it happens. Louder does not mean faster.
OUT OF GAME KNOWLEDGE – Using personal knowledge of the rules, books, and statistics out of game to affect the actions of a character in game.
- PROS: It’s unavoidable to some extent, but sometimes allows the players to have more fun. It keeps the game master in check when the rules are bent or broken. Can create some appreciation for the nuance of a clever build/trap/spell combination. It’s also very hard to relearn everything in game in every campaign you ever play in.
- CONS: Changes the flow of the storytelling and arguably breaks the game. Creates situations where player characters act in discord with their experience. Especially dangerous, however, for Game Masters who use strengths and weaknesses of characters against them when monsters may have not subjective knowledge of those weaknesses. This would also encapsulate excellent GM tactics where monsters may not be operating at that level.
- FINAL VERDICT – This is the toughest to avoid and also perhaps the most onerous at the same time. It is perhaps the worst, however, on the GM side, where stupid monsters fight with tactics and knowledge that is not properly afforded them. I have felt the urge to avoid targeting a player with a spell that he is warded against, but feel good about myself when I do it anyway. Typically a nod to this sort of learning curve can help bring the game into technical compliance with the spirit of the game itself. (i.e. He takes a swing, and his best blow clatters off your armor. He knows he’ll never penetrate it and moves on to an easier target, etc. etc.)
Does Metagaming have a place at your table? It’s already there, I can almost guarantee it. There are a few pointers I can offer as I’ve seen them used in the past:
- Change Things– Book knowledge is useless when a monster’s appearance changes slightly. A friend terrified us by making kobolds appear to be tiny red-skinned devils. We actually fled. A little twist can keep things interesting, and is used to great effect in Dungeon Crawl Classics. You never know what’s going to happen there.
- 6 Word Maximum – Players get six words each round of combat to communicate, even off their turn. Kind of fun to limit yourself, and keeps it brief. Limitations of sound travelling through stone still applies.
- Attribute Checks – If a player is about to botch it, like not check for traps when a talented theif is in the party, a roll may be suggested or required as long as not too much has happened in reliance on that action. Intelligence or Wisdom Checks, or Charisma checks by other players to get the acting player to stop and listen. Initiative in worst case scenarios. Let the dice then fall where they may, and always freeze the action once a roll has determined success or failure.
- Caller – Grognards will remember that the game originally had a position called the “Caller” who would take the assembled players (usually about 10 in those days) and once the plan was digested, would call out to the GM what they would do. When things get confusing, I still use this, and it is amazingly helpful. Try it when things get crazy. Old Gary knew a thing or two about what he was doing, so lets give him the benefit of the doubt.
As always, we love to hear what your suggestions might be. Look forward to your comments.
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.