Handling Large Scale Battles: Army vs. Army

I played 4th Edition D&D for a short time in a friend’s campaign shortly before beginning my own descent into DMing. He ran a big battle session, similar to a Seven Samurai story, where we had to defend a town from a literal horde of kobolds. I was skeptical as to how he was going to run it but he came up with a very fun and simple system. I call it the Pauwhanian (Poe-hawn-ian) Battle System.

The mechanic is simple to use, it just requires a small amount of planning beforehand. It works like this:

Each army involved in the battle rolls two d20s. The first roll is an opposed roll that determines the “victor” of the round. The second d20 roll determines the damage the opposing army takes. The pre-planning a DM has to do, as I mentioned, is determing the scale of the battle. If it’s a small affair you might have only 100 soldiers on your side. A soldier could behave like a 1 hit point minion, then if an army rolls an 18 on it’s damage roll that might mean 18 soldiers were killed. If you wanted a less lethal solution then you could make soldiers capable of taking one wound before dying.

Determining the scale of the battle is the essential part of this system. If you have armies made up of thousands of warriors you might say that a single point of damage equals 10 soldiers lives. Once you have figured out the scope of the battle you want to run, everything else is a matter of how you want to design and flavor the battle.


One fun part about this system is creating quick maps of castles or battlefields and adding strategic bonuses to the encounter. Maintaining a wall, holding a hill, or using a piece of artillery will add a bonus modifier to the army’s attack and damage rolls. Of course you can change these bonuses into other advantages. A wall, for example, could instead provide damage reduction for the army holding it instead of an attack bonus. The players have to choose what part of a castle or battlefield they should defend, when they should attack, and what strategic locations need to be captured. Larger battles that are fought on multiple fronts will make these kind of encounters, and the decisions the PCs make, much more challenging.


                                        Large scale battles: You’re doing it wrong

Player involvement

Of course this is still a D&D game and the players need to get involved. My friend and fellow DM came up with a quick and dirty rule for player involvement that I feel really connects with the idea of 4th Edition heroes being ‘greater’ than normal people. A player character will add a bonus modifier to attack and damage rolls during the battle rounds between armies. Not every PC will give the same amount of bonuses for an army though. He decided to stick with the rule that your role determines the effect you have on the battle. A leader or controller class would give a high bonus to an army. I usually left it at a +3. A defender would give a medium bonus such as a +2, and a striker would give a low bonus of +1. This inequality might seem unfair, but controllers and leaders have a larger “effect” on combat encounters and would have a similar influence on bigger battles, this also creates a challenge for the PCs when they determine who should be positioned where during the battle.

Combat encounters

Now this kind of large scale battle would normally take up an entire session for my group. This would probably get boring if all we did was add player bonuses to a set of d20 rolls and pushed little units across a hastily drawn map. Using this kind of system is meant as a simple way to handle large battles without bringing in the myriad of player attack powers. What my friend and I have done in the past, while running this system, is breaking up the battle rounds with big spikes of combat. During a battle an enemy might take a key position away from the party and as a DM you could engage them in an actual combate encounter to recover it. These situations would probably work best with quick, dangerous encounters or maybe running an encounter with waves of minions while the party tries to barricade a hole in the castle defenses.

Victory or Defeat

The battle rounds will take their toll on both armies and it’s up to the PCs to determine the quickest way to victory. On the other hand they could lose and be forced to retreat. There are a lot of options you can explore as a DM to customize this system and maybe I’ll write another post to talk about how I’ve used this in my game and the ways I modified it.

Special Pipe&Scotch DM edition:

I am a casual smoker and decided to showcase a pipe of mine. The Killarney 01 by Peterson pipes. Made by the famous Irish pipe makers, the Killarney was my first ever pipe. The picture on their site is not exactly like mine, but it does have the same red stained briar and double rings on the stem. This pipe has been used and abused for 6 years now. I learned to smoke with this pipe and it has become an old, reliable friend. It has an ample sized bowl, the famous P-lip, and great wood figuring on the body. Check it out here.

Comments, questions? Email me at shiftykobold@gmail.com or follow me on twitter @shiftykobold

I wrote today’s article in Ommwriter. If you’re having trouble doing writing of your own check it out here.


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