My current campaign is slowly drawing to a close. We’ve been running the Tyranny of Dragons path for almost 2 years, I think. Our group decided they wanted me to extend the campaign with homebrew side-quests so that they could all reach 20th level before facing Tiamat in the big showdown. Part way through level 18 right now, I’m starting to feel the crunch. The battle with Tiamat, if it should occur, doesn’t actually worry me. What has had me sitting around lost in thought is the battle BEFORE Tiamat.
The party has rallied the Sword Coast to their banner to march troops and goodly creatures, including a flight of dragons, to the big battlefield, where they’ll face off against the forces the Cult of the Dragon has amassed. That kind of epic encounter has always been a point where strict rules-abiding players and DMs have struggled for decades. D&D isn’t really designed for battles of an epic scale.
Usually, we spend our time focused upon our party and their exploits. How do we continue to do that, when there are dozens of dragons of every color battling it out? Not to mention the goodly and evil armies of the sword coast?! Should we? If so, how do we make the party the focus and focal point, and that epic battle the backdrop? More importantly, regardless of where we focus, how can we make the parties actions actually affect the outcome of such an enormous battlefield?
Where Do We Focus?
Focus on your players. Always. I guess it is possible that your group will be really excited about the battling dragons and seem to hang on your every word, playing the popcorn-eating role of observer. If that’s the case, you should give them what they want. They’re you’re focus, after all. I don’t think that is going to happen to you, though. If the decades of D&D I’ve played are any indicator of ‘normal’, then most players really want the game to revolve around them.
Don’t get me wrong, many players are excited at the dragons and the treants and the giants duking it out, but they want to influence that battle, too! Frankly, if they wanted an epic fantasy battle they couldn’t influence, they’d go sacrifice a day to a Lord of the Rings marathon.
Tolkien probably could have described it better than you or I can, too.
The DM’s job is, ultimately, to facilitate a group storytelling environment and to adjudicate the rules framework that hold that story together. It’s really hard to do that if the other participants in the story don’t have anything to do with the story. Or even if their part is minimal. So focus on the players. Always!
Making The Big Battle the Backdrop
This is where things get challenging. It’s not that it is hard to push the epic battle scene to the background, that’s actually easy. The hard part is moving the battle to the background without making the big battle irrelevant and unimportant. Battles like that shape the future of the nations involved, after all! You want those battles to be a big deal, just not as big a deal as what the players are actively doing.
I feel making the battle the background boils down to how you portray the players influence on the greater battle, and how you describe the action. A quick but consistent note of the status of the battlefield throughout the action is important to providing the players with context for their actions. That status report needs details, though. If you just tell your group, “the battle seems evenly matched” or even “your side appears to be losing” they’ll complete ignore the battle. Instead, tell them about the individual struggles within the greater battle.
Are the metallic dragons getting slaughtered by giant-ran ballistas that aid their chromatic counterparts? Did your assassins kill off the enemy spell casters but are now stuck in hand to hand combat with their elite bodyguards and being decimated? Details feed the story, make sure you deliver plenty of them, but then ALWAYS come back to the players. Give them options to affect the outcome. Don’t tell them about struggles they can’t influence. Motivate the players to do the task before them by making it clear how their actions will influence the other struggles. Help your players to see how important their actions are.
Making Your Player’s Actions Important
For myself, with this big battle coming up, I’m toying with two different ideas. Both ideas are somewhat related and are based around making the players actions important. I’m a big fan of creating forks. Points in the story where the player’s actions decide which path is taken for the remaining story. But I’m also toying with using a morale system.
Don’t worry, we’re not going into advanced cutlery class here. Creating forks just means taking a look at your big battle and imagining how it might progress and where there could be a specific task that could change the direction of the battle – A fork in the story “road”. Once you’ve identified several of those points, you just have to come up with a way to let the players decide the outcome of that fork. What if a breach in the wall threatens to be opened wide to enemy forces? If the players beat back the enemy at that breach, the story continues one way, whereas if they leave it to the common soldiers, maybe it goes a completely different direction. Either way, the players action or inaction has determined the course of the battle.
Other examples could be choosing between two objectives, deciding which troops to send against which enemy troops, coming up with a plan to destroy enemy war machines, or any number of specific quests. The great part about forks is they’re basically just like any other quest. Using the fork method, you just come up with mini-quests that tie into the overall ‘story’ of the siege or giant battle you’re planning, and the heroes get to be the heroes by choosing the right paths and succeeding at them. It is comfortable ground for most DMs and doesn’t require any new mechanic or random dice rolls to determine how the story is going to play out. Being the guy who saves the day is also very much what many D&D players are looking for.
There’s a joke about morale being a bad name for a car here somewhere, but I can’t lay hold on it right now… That said, using a morale system is another way to determine how battles progress. Unless morale is tied to your group it’s incredibly boring. Few DMs want to struggle through working out the morale of the army and make checks for each unit while they work out who would win between each group. Bleh. However, where I think using a morale system shines is if you tie it into fork based encounters.
Remember that breach in the wall? What if success at the breach wasn’t measured by defeating a set number of mobs, but by building up the morale of the defenders and lowering the morale of the attackers (or, if you’re the one breaching the walls, the other way around). Healing the NPCs on your team instead of your party members could boost morale. Dramatic attacks against the opponents, or killing a commander, could lower enemy morale. Natural 20’s could boost morale and natural 1’s drop it so as to a little randomness.
Boiling it Down
When all is said and done, Dungeons and Dragons is a terrible system for adjudicating an epic combat scene. If you’re looking to do that, you may want to check out Warhammer or similar games. Where D&D shines is in telling individual stories of heroism. So focus on your party and keep your D&D game within the regular bounds. Let the siege, epic battle, or ongoing war between nations be the backdrop for your smaller, but no less important, stories. Your players will thank you for keeping the spotlight on them.