No Heroes In War

I want to expand on a few things I mentioned in the last blog.

First of all, just so it's clear, the primary point of the last post was this: There are no endgame rules presented in either Chainmail or Original D&D, and that goes for either fantasy mass-warfare or dominion management. It's not specifically my point that that's either a good thing or a bad thing. But clearly the impression of such is given, when it's not truly available. (Again, see OD&D Vol. 3 p. 25, as an example.) If we want to be charitable, we could call this impression a "teaser" of things that could come later. If we wanted to get really cranky about it, we could perhaps call it "deceptive advertising" or somesuch. (Of course, I prefer the former.)

Now, as a very minor corollary to that observation, we've also discovered another, somewhat more specific piece of common wisdom that was also erroneous, and that's what I'd like to further highlight here. Throughout D&D mass-warfare writings, we're given the impression that higher-level fighters and monsters can, acting alone, stand against masses of normal troops. ("These fellows are one-man armies!" as per Chainmail p. 30.) This is incorrect, and what I'm interested in here is the proactive effort that was needed to obscure this rather key fact. Here are some case studies.

Case 1 -- Chainmail Fantasy Supplement. Note again that these rules are only for man-to-man action (1:1 figure scale). There is simply no provision available to adjudicate a high-level fighter acting against large masses of troops. Of course, this fact wasn't made explicit in Chainmail, and you have to look to the Introduction of Swords & Spells years later to see it in print from Gygax.

Case 2 -- Swords & Spells. Consider this example from the Introduction (p. 1):

At the scale of these rules a single man can be represented by a single figure on the table. So if one opponent has a lone hero (4th level fighting man) facing several figures of men-at-arms (or orcs or similar 1 hit die creatures), an actual melee can take place. The hero will inflict .40 of the damage shown for a 4th level creature on the combat tables and sustain damage until sufficient hits are scored upon the figure to kill the hero.

Now, there's no need to leave you hanging here, when we can calculate in advance exactly when the hero in question will be killed. And that is (taking reasonable assumptions): In one full turn of melee against one opposing figure. Proof: Assume the hero has average hit points (4.5 x 4 = 18), and is wearing full plate & shield (AC 2). Average damage is shown in the combat table on p. 24 (or, take d6 damage and compute 4/20 x 3.5 x 10 = 7). Note that one full turn in S&S allows 3 melee rounds of attacks (p. 17) and you have 7 x 3 = 21 points of damage against the hero, killing him in one single turn. If you like, feel free to add some hit points for Con bonus, and I'll add the plural "figures" from the quote above to dispatch the hero even more quickly.

Gygax doesn't spell out exactly when the 4th level fighter gets killed (namely: immediately), nor does he explain later on the page why "the admonition regarding single creatures is important" (namely: so they don't get killed immediately). But he could have.

Case 3 -- Battlesystem 2E. (Side note: I love Doug Niles Battlesystem 2E book. It's a really beautiful work, and if it weren't for some very small but critical flaws I wish I could use it all the time.) Consider the same quote I pointed out last time (p. 106):

From a mathematical perspective, the attributes of heroes in a BATTLESYSTEM scenario are inflated beyond those of the creatures in the units surrounding them. However, the conversion is based on the assumption that there is an intangible quality to heroism that exceeds in importance the hero's worth as a fighting machine.

Well, why not spell out exactly the factor by which hero attributes have been inflated? Let's see: A standard figure represents 10 men and is given a "Hits" value 1; hence each "hit" really represents 10 HD total (or more; see p. 105 or my posts from last month, which are comparable). Meanwhile, "All monster types, and characters of the fighter class, receive 1 hit for each 2 Hit Dice or experience levels." For example, a 10th-level fighter or monster (~10HD, comparable to the total hit dice for a normal 1-hit figure), is given 5 hits by this system. In other words: Heroes in Battlesystem have been quintupled over their actual D&D-scale health values. This is to say nothing of their attack values, which are more complicated to compute, but given similar inflation factors.

Niles could have spelled this out, as well, be he chose not to. (The Battlesystem boxed set came with special lead figures for use as heroes/ commanders, and I guess it would be raining on someone's parade if Niles were to suggest that they weren't going to be at all effective standing alone in mass land combat.) Even so, heroes and lone fantastic monsters can be quickly dispatched in Battlesystem by racking up just a few hits on them.

Now, there are a few narrow exceptions to all of the foregoing. One is if the hero's AC is so good that no normal man can hit them. In OD&D this point occurs at AC -2 (plate & shield with +4 total bonus), which is pretty difficult in core OD&D (impossible with a literal reading?), but becomes more likely with Greyhawk and other supplements. (This is possibly countered if you use AD&D's combat tables, count a natural 20 as always hitting, or strictly apply rear/flanking situational bonuses, but that discussion becomes highly edition- or house-rule-specific.) Second would be if the hero/monster is only hit by attacks of a special sort, such as silver or magical weapons, et. al. In these cases a hero figure obviously really could wade through armies of men untouched, until some enemy hero decided to give him chase. But still there is no real contest to play out; the specially-protected hero could automatically massacre an unlimited number of normal men without any threat whatsoever.

Again, I want to clarify that I'm not saying that this affair is either good thing or a bad thing in itself. (In fact, I guess I'd have to say that the realization is refreshing compared to my prior thinking. Numerous new possibilities open up.) Maybe given completely free design capacities you'd choose to have the interaction of heroes with masses one way, or the other. But clearly the impression that heroes can stand against masses doesn't, in general, bear out in play for either D&D or any of the mass-combat games that were later based on it. And that's an error that could have easily been avoided.


  1. Interesting. On one hand, I agree - a hero or superhero is not going to stand long against a tide of monsters -- except -- when you look at what was influencing the authors of the early systems. Conan could stand against a number of enemies. It was possible in S&S fiction for a hero to make their way through a mass battle. The heroes in LotR survived massive onslaughts. Perhaps the disconnect was in the natural desire to have those outcomes in fantasy setting versus a more realistic setting which says 20 orcs are going to piledrive a hero into the ground through sheer numbers. How does a system reflect either?

    I've been debating on that with my own rules, and I'm going to leave it up to the GM of the battle. If a single hero is contacted by an element of multiple enemies, they either suffer automatic hits, death or you can go man-to-man melee and attempt to resolve the 20 or 50 or 100 to 1 combat.

  2. Aha! After this clarification, we find ourselves in perfect agreement.

    Yes, its almost become the accepted standard... that heroes in war are all but untouchable! Take that same hero, and the thirty mounted knights he's whalloping singlehandedly, outside of the context of a melee battle and all of a sudden the hero is fighting for his life! Watch Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers (film) and witness as the heroes hold off a siege of tens of thousands, enjoying themselves even, counting their number of slain! Why then, did the band of fifty or so they ran into earlier give them such trouble? Because they didn't have an army to help them? Well then, there is your answer... a hero simply ISN'T a single entity on a battlefield anymore, he's a single anomaly, an exception among the masses. A weight that is averaged out by the farmboy down the line who can barely lift his makeshift spear.

    That's why there really isn't any D&D mass combat rules that make sense... because none of the things that D&D pay attention to (personal strength and advancement) have any meaning when spread over the whole of thousands of individuals moving as units and fighting together.

    It's just like you said, we've been provided a set of man-to-man rules and are trying to shoehorn them or stretch them into a scenario in which they don't fit. We want resolution where its not needed. Dust off your copy of Warhammer Ancient Battles or Little Wars or whatever, and then translate the results back to D&D when that personal level of detail is needed once more.

  3. I wonder if there would be a way to express a battle as you would a dungeon, such that the halls, doors, rooms, and traps would be translated into terrain features and enemy troop formations, and then it would be up to the characters to navigate it.

    This would perhaps be a more pertinent way to incorporate large battles into what, as wiseman207 said, is essentially a game about individual characters, not large troop formations.

  4. Hey BigFella, what you say is exactly the approach taken by 3E's "Heroes of Battle" book. It didn't appeal to me personally, as I had a hard time wrapping my head around a battle so static that Pcs could navigate it like a dungeon.

    Review link: http://www.3rdedition.org/reviews/viewer.asp?id=104

  5. I have an odd question and this occurred to me last night on my long commute home... why is there such a desire to mix one-on-one within a mass combat scenario? Alot of games seem to bend backwards to incorporate rules that will somehow abstract both and I wonder if that's missing the point?

    If I'm going to have a mass combat, then it's going to be a mass combat. Why am I working so hard to mix the two with a seamless system? It would be like trying to reverse this to where we're fighting man to man in the dungeon, and suddenly we want to do 100 on 100.

    If the PCs are involved, at some point, they have to either play by the rules (fight within groups) or accept that they're vastly outnumbered.

    If there are situations where one on one makes sense in the middle of mass combat, then I suppose we could break away for a quick round or three to resolve the man to man. And I suppose we could allow a mechanic for how the individual PC could possibly delay a single element, but that PC is not going to be able to destroy the element - unless again, they're mage/cleric. (I'm thinking of undead turning here)

    Now I'm going to have to post how this works in my head. :P

  6. "why is there such a desire to mix one-on-one within a mass combat scenario?"

    My guess is that it's that D&D is typically played many vs. one, while wargames are one vs. one or many vs. many. If as DM I do a straight conversion of the battle to a wargame, I'm going to have a dozen people making decisions for the side the PCs support, while I'm making decisions solo for my side (as the game was designed to be played). - Tavis

  7. Certainly this problem in Od&d isn't in evidence in 1e though am I right?

    an 8th level fighter kills 8 men per round and if he's standing next to a magic-user that magic user is destroying twice that amount (between mass sleep spells and fireballs) standing next to a 9th level cleric turning hoards of undead into ash.

    So, in 1E I see three 9th level characters capable of defeating an army by themselves as the above three are wiping out roughly 50 enemies every minute.

    In fantasy trope, the hero is always outfitted with some sort of protection to guard his person in battle. In game terms, one would expect a lone fighting-man hero to be warded with protection from missiles at the very least.

    Do my above examples not apply to the S&S and chainmail?

  8. To Whit: (I am of course happy to be corrected on any of the following assertions)

    in 1E D&D
    8th level fighter has on average 44 hp.
    You can only be flanked by 4 enemies.
    assuming enemy requires a 20 to hit gives a total of 20% per round of taking damage.
    average damage from, say a sword, is 4.4 damage.

    It would take 10 rounds for large force to overwhelm a hero. In that time the 8th level hero would kill 80 of his enemies.

    Seems pretty heroic to me with the RAW of boromir biding time for the fellowship. If they were only attacked by 75 goblins then the 8th level hero would come through the battle victorious!

    Of course, nobody wants their character to die 10 minutes into the battle, which is why Legolas and Gimli stuck together, they were able to slaughter huge groups of enemies (perhaps numbering between 50 and 100, maybe even 200 at a time) and then retreat to a safe spot to rest for a while (get healed from a cleric/drink a healing potion etc) like a boxer retreating to his corner between rounds.

    Seems to me heroes work just fine in large scale and individual scale, but something tells me I'm missing some crucial point you're getting at.

  9. Sorry to triple post.

    Instead of having your heroes "killed" when their HP reach zero, instead rule that a hero is exhausted and must retreat to safe ground for the day after having his hit points exhausted.

    So, once an 8th level hero takes 44 damage from his enemies, he cannot effect the battle any more that day. (leaving him with a daily total of about 80 kills).

    The only way to kill a hero is for there to be 1:1 combat with another hero force be it, champion, demon, dragon, ogre captain with fighter levels etc. In all other cases the abstract nature of hit-points represents "endurance" and how long they can swing their sword, or cast spells.


  10. @Bargle - you can only be attacked by 4 enemies? That's a new one on me. :) My players would love me for that.

    The hero can miss. :)

    And considering that we're talking 100 to 200 troop elements, that Hero is starting to sweat a bit. :)

    Also regarding the "exhaustion" - I want my mass combat to be just as deadly as man to man - if a hero is getting low, they need to heal up or retreat, just like man to man. Otherwise, why not just give them the victory now?

  11. Well it certainly makes sense to limit how many people can stand around one tree (hero) and swing an ax at the same time without getting in each other's way. I know there must be some rule that limits how many monsters can surround a player's character...is it 6 then? I'm sure there is a rule.

    I didn't think about the player missing...

    There is precedent to requiring heroes to be the only ones to take down other heroes (see the opening scene of LotR when Aragorn's ancestor was the only hero stopping the Big Bad Guy himself from literally swinging his giant mace and killing 20 men at a swing.)

  12. IIRC, it's 3 men abreast at 10'. 3 in front, 3 in back. Put one at each side and you're up to 8.

    There was never a requirement in Chainmail that heroes can only fight other heroes, in fact the rules are set up so that imbalance can happen.

    You also have to consider criticals and fumbles. Now the Hero is starting to look really worried.

    I don't like that requirement exactly for the reason that if the player wants to set themselves up for that type of battle, I don't have a problem with it, but they have to understand they're sacrificing themselves.

    I don't really look to LotR to be my guide as Tolkein had to keep his heroes around... who would be King otherwise? ;) If we look at Boromir, or even Thorin, that's probably a more accurate rendition of what should happen in his universe when you fight individually.

  13. Hey UWS guy, I think we're mostly saying the same thing. (a) Heroes will dish out quite a bit of damage. (b) They will die relatively quickly. (c) You need extracurricular house-rules if you really want to keep them alive.

    The rules are more-or-less the same in OD&D and AD&D. The fighter-attacks-as-level rule is there, but it's rather clunky and inelegant IMO. It's not in the OD&D books explicitly, but it was in Chainmail and an official Strategic Review article for OD&D; it's not in Holmes or BXCMI. It breaks down completely as soon as you face hobgoblins or veteran men (HD1+1).

    Other observations: Even to get this level of proficiency (survive 10 rounds) you need to assume at least name level (9th+) and "hit only on a 20" (plate & shield +2 or so) and "protection from missiles". Level 4, 5, 6 etc. basically does no good. Any single dragon or giant does little good. My major point being that all of this is surprising to some people.

    The rule-of-thumb given on 1E DMG p. 69 is, "If the single figure is size M, it can be attacked by a maximum of 8 size S opponents, 6 size M, or 4 size L."

  14. Oh, and I want to point out that a strict reading of AD&D PHB p. 25 gives the fighter-attacks-as-level only to "all creatures with less than one eight-sided hit die", so even orcs wouldn't be subject to it.

    But that's splitting hairs to a point that's probably not helpful.

  15. You're right Delta.

    Although, when looking at groups of monsters, when there are more than 5 or so, generally they are accompanied by higher level captains and leaders. So in a sense a 5th/4th drow f/m-u (just to take a random example from a published module) leading a band of 20 dark elves shouldn't be so much of a hero as to wade through 100's of human soldiers right?

    I've never used mass combat rules in D&D so, honestly I'm probably mucking up the discussion more than helping.

    I look forward to any and all squaring of the circle of 1:1 and 1:100 rules.


  16. I would argue that a Hero or Superhero in a melee is going into battle supported by elite troops. Consider Achilles and the Myrmidons, for instance; or Roland and the Paladins; or Arthur and the Knights. In each case there are "name" heroes accompanied by a unit of un-named but still elite warriors. (And anyone who has played Warhammer Fantasy Battle will recognize that this is how Heroes are used in that game, as part of units).

    This radically changes the nature of a mass melee, because now the Hero is getting attacked only once per round (by the opponent opposite him), not 4-5 times per round, and is likely to be hit only 5% or 10% of the time. His unit of Myrmidons is occupying the other enemies, keeping them from surrounding the Hero. The Hero, meanwhile is attacking some large number of times (if OD&D/AD&D v. 1HD) or at least 2 times (if high level AD&D), and almost certainly hitting and killing.

    Played this way, Chainmail/AD&D works just fine.

    As for magic-users, we think of them as Napoloenic cannon. You probably have 50 or so in an army of 50,000, and you assemble them into a "grand battery" with field fortifications to protect them, and you tear wholes in the enemy line. If enemy units reach the mage battery, it'll get captured/killed, but good generals don't let that happen.

  17. Alexander, I definitely agree, I do think that's one of the better ways of considering this issue.

    However, that's not how it was ever presented in official D&D sources (Swords & Spells, Battlesystem, etc.: hero figures always stood alone). It would also short-circuit any fighter-attacks-as-level rule, if they were only in reach of 1 or 2 opponents per round. But it would keep them alive nicely, and be in flavor with many myth/pulp sources.

    I feel like 50 wizards might be over the top, but you could be right about a 1:1000 ratio. Seems like one wizard alone has the firepower of nearly a whole battery of cannons (consider rate-of-fire, likely wand use, lack of crew, move earth and hallucinatory terrain, etc.)

  18. That's true. If there is one figure on your battlemat that could be understood as a single man, its the wizard. I think Chainmail tried to treat them as a walking catapult or something similar. High level D&D wizards are particularly nasty, they're the sort you'd want to have an army of thousands marching against. No doubt you'd be enduring lightning and fire, hoards of undead and monsters fresh from the dungeon, and all manner of things. That being said, I'd certainly not expect said wizard to be in the thick of the melee, goodness no. Still I'd expect him to be represented on the unit level, surrounded by guards or saddled on some terrible beast. He'll be standing up on the outcropping, raining down death, conveniently magically shielded from all sorts of missile fire. When the PC's elite unit finally wades through the slog or sneaks up the flank for the final showdown... its time to switch to D&D rules. Those 20:1 figures you were using on the battlemap are exploded out into generic mercenary and soldier NPCs, and all the players are placed for the final showdown. Conveniently, with the older editions everything's still ruled out in inches, so no need to do much serious conversion if your wargame rules were roughly compatible. I say find a roughly generic system, one that you can overlay D&D rules for charging and spells and the like, as you need.

  19. Sigh... so late at night and i haven't read through all the posts in discussion, but i wanted to post my thoughts anyway. Apologies if i state something that has already been stated.

    I've been trying to make my own system for years now, started out at diceless roleplay, evolved into simple d6 rolls for random anomalys, then character creation, 1:1 combat, skirmish level combat (such as common fare in dungeons), and have more recently attempted to blend heroic combat into mass combat.

    Some concepts i've toyed with in theory but have yet to practice are the following:

    Strength in Numbers: the more there are in a Unit of soldiers, the stronger the individuals become. Every 5 or so gives a +1 bonus to all stats for whichever single target the Hero is attacking.

    This deals with things such as group mentality, democracy, strength in numbers, group adrenaline, stampede, so on and so forth.

    Overkill: If or when a Hero deals excessive damage, that leftover is dealt to the next closest enemy within the Unit. Say that Orc i'm attacking has 5 HP, I deal 8, that Orc is dead and I just dealt 3 Damage to the next Orc.

    Consider, if it takes 2 seconds to kill a man, and each round/turn (?)lasts for 10 seconds, how many could a Hero potentially kill? Got this inspiration from watching Aragorn mow through Uruks in Fellowship of the Ring.

    Heroic Aura: Any positive status effect cast on the Hero, or by the Hero on himself is shared with whatever Unit he is in.

    Just a few ideas, and none of them perfect solutions i'm sure, as i've said, i haven't tried them all.

    In mass combat, it may do to work the opposite of the Strength in Numbers rule. Instead of boosting mobs, nerf Heroes. Every hero over Lv 10 rolls -2 when outnumbered, when over Lv 15 -4, Lv 20 -6. (I use D20 for combat rolls obviously)

    I bookmarked this page, i look forward to the response.

  20. Ah! after having a night's sleep and finishing the discussion thread, i see some of my comments worked counter to the discussion topic: How to keep your hero alive against a massive onslaught.

    I still like my Overkill rule, though perhaps you could also give the Heroes a Morale check. When passed they receive a boost to stats (adrenaline) and minor healing (second wind). The amount of the boost would be proportional to the amount by which the hero is outnumbered. This would wear off at the end of the round, and be re-rolled at the beginning of each turn/round (?) so as to prevent the Hero from having a permanent buff.

    Matters of resurrection have always concerned me. How is it done? Does the Cleric res you where you fall, or does he res you where he stands? Do you res back at town? Do you even get to res at all? How many times can a Cleric res, and who can he res? Certainly not an entire battalion of nameless soldiers, that would imbalance the game i think.

    Playing RTS like Warcraft 3 has influenced my taste in TBS wargames. Delayed resurrection of Heroes at specific structures. Heroes being quite mediocre at low levels but eventually growing into that epic Lv10 ponce that everyone is afraid to see by the end of the fight. Heroes backed by soldiers because a cornered hero WILL die. I think someone said it this way, they are single anomalies, not single heroes.

    I'm all for mixing Heroes into Mass combat, but i don't think it would be done 1:500. At least not on the open playing field.

    Again, referencing the LotR movies, the instances where the Heroes stood alone against great odds were on hilltops, amidst ruins and trees, dodging around boulders. They didn't stand in one place for very long. This is how i would treat Heroic combat against an army of 50-200, with the Heroes defending some small opening, their back against the wall, not marching out into the open.

  21. One may also consider this guy's approach.