Looking out over the army of monsters, our heroes have but one thought: “This isn’t in the rule book!”
The once verdant fields surrounding the lonely keep are now nothing more than a muddy pit, befouled by the boots of a thousand monstrosities. Inside the keep, a hundred doomed souls huddle behind whatever cover they can find, merely delaying the inevitable. Suddenly, the sun is blotted out by an unending stream of black-feathered arrows. A dozen victims fall in the first volley alone. Then there is a lone trumpet, followed by the thunderous roar of a thousand footfalls, running to their glory, to their demise, or to both. Soon, the very air is a cacophony of deafening sounds – drums, horns, clanging metal, but mostly the cries; the cries of anger, of pain, of death.
War. Where better to test your skills in combat than on the battlefield? There is just one teeny-tiny problem. Fantasy War sucks!* Combat in D&D is designed for, at best, 6 players and maybe a dozen monsters. Anything beyond that and the game gets all wonky. But at some point, you’re going to want a huge, chaotic, threat-to-all-mankind battle to end all battles, like those in the Lord of the Rings or The Three Amigos! So, how do you do it and keep your sanity, and keep at least a few players alive?
There are several excellent guides that detail running mass combat encounters. The Unearthed Arcana website has some very good instructions. The 2nd Edition Supplemental Book “The Castles Guide” is excellent for running a siege. And I am really looking forward to Matt Coville’s Kingdoms and Warfare Book; his stuff is awesome.
But these rules can be quite cumbersome, and they can turn a simple D&D session into a 12-hour war simulation. Units, divisions, regiments, commanders, morale, victory points – a ton of new complications; and where do the players fit in? These rules have their uses, but what if you just want to run an epic battle without having a full-scale War of the Rules? Well, you’ve found the right battlefield.
Before we begin, I apologize for the length of this post. I’ve received a lot of requests for this material and I wanted to include everything I did to run this. I’ve put all the mechanics first, I case that is all you need, but then I explain the minutia of running it and how I created these “rules” in case you want to create your own.
The first trick of running a simple siege is to convey the emotion and magnitude of a chaotic war but keep the Math to a minimum and the fun factor high. This simplified battle is designed as a series of skirmishes that occur throughout the much larger conflict. The war is going on around them, but the players only focus on the part that is right in front of them. The players may have their own unit of fighters, or in this case a few villagers with swords, and their success should be pivotal to the overall victory.
In our campaign, I wanted to have an epic battle where a horde of goblins invaded the players’ base town of Phandalin. The attack took them by surprise and they had no time to prepare defenses. For the bulk of the battle, the players (and around a dozen NPC volunteers, their unit) were charged with breaking through the enemy front line and eliminating the command center at the far end of the battlefield. If the players failed to remove this command center, then the village of Phandalin would be overrun. Of course, there were numerous complications that occurred during the course of that mission. For a full narrative account of the Siege of Phandalin, read my campaign diary, Lost Mine of Phandelver, Session 9.
Simplified Mass Combat Rules
To run these mass combat rules, you will need the Phandalin Battle Chart (click the link for a PDF copy) and several d20 dice. The Battle Chart has all the relevant stats and checkboxes to track damage and death for all of the combatants in the various scenarios. You can use my Battle Chart as is or modify it to suit your campaign. And I recommend that you buy multiple d20 dice. This way, when you roll attacks for 20+ goblins, you can roll all the attacks at the same time. This not only saves time, but it looks impressive and makes it easy to separate the hits from the misses.
The Battle Chart and these rules are balanced for villager vs. monster combat and are modified to account for the various To Hit bonuses and changes in AC. For example, during the siege, the goblinoids do not carry a shield.
Villager vs. Monster Combat
- Each player commands his own group of 3-5 villagers. Give the player a d20 for each member in his group.
- On the Chart, note that villagers, goblins, and hobgoblins all have an AC10 and +0 To Hit. Any attack rolls of 10 or higher is a hit when these groups are fighting. (This is the most common villager vs. monster scenario, while the PCs fight the stronger foes.)
- Do not roll damage for monsters or villagers. Death is determined by the number of “hits” received.
- The hp stat is the number of hits required to kill the monster. For example, goblins need only 1 hit to kill it, but hobgoblins require 2.
- The Dmg stat is the number of hits delivered per successful attack. For example, a hit from a goblin counts as 1 hit, but a hit from a bugbear counts as 3. (Yes, this is just a watered-down version of the regular damage rules, but trust me, combat will be much faster.)
- When determining damage always give players the optimal strategy. For example, 3 villagers and Toblen are attacking 6 goblins and a hobgoblin. The villagers roll 3 hits and 1 miss. One hit is Toblen striking the hobgoblin for 2 hits, killing it, and the other two are villagers killing 2 goblins. When the 4 remaining goblins attack, they also roll 3 hits and 1 miss. But, instead of targeting one villager and killing him, each goblin hits a different villager, spreading out the damage.
- Keep track of the numbers of hits received in the individual monster’s box and cross him off when killed.
- When rolling with advantage, reroll any dice that initially missed. And when rolling with disadvantage, reroll any dice that initially hit.
- Any Natural 20 succeeds for double the amount of hits, while any Natural 1 is just a miss.
- In the rare instance when villagers are fighting stronger foes, just remember to use the monster’s higher AC and To Hit bonus when rolling for attacks.
One last note about Villager vs. Monster Combat: The hobgoblin Martial Advantage Ability. The extra damage granted by this ability is listed in the Battle Chart. Before the battle, I reminded the players of this ability and the danger it presents to the villager’s survival. But I usually set up each scenario so that with good tactics the players could keep the hobgoblins separated or targeted first.
Player vs. Monster Combat is played similarly with a few modifications.
Player vs. Monster Combat
- Players determine initiative normally to determine turn order within the party. The player’s individual unit acts on that player’s turn. The player can decide whether the PC or the villager acts first. Monsters always attack last in the order listed on the chart.
- Use the same monster stats as listed in the Battle Chart during player combat. This does give an advantage to the players, but remains balanced due to the number of enemies faced.
- In each monster’s Dmg stat is a number in parenthesis. This is the damage in true hit points that a player takes on a successful hit. Players track their hit points normally.
- Players also roll damage normally. That amount is rounded up to the nearest multiple of 5 and then divided by 5 to determined the number of “hits” received. For example, a player hits a bugbear for 18 point of damage. 18 rounded up to 20 divided by 5 equals 4 “hits” to the bugbear.
- If you use a Critical Hit Table, as I do, have the player’s roll on that table for a Natural 20. But a Natural 1 is still just a miss, same as the villagers.
That’s it for the “rules”. For the rest of the article, I will discuss the individual scenarios within the siege to make them exciting and diverse; the prep work I did prior to the battle; how I ran each scenario at the table; and how I developed my Battle Chart, so that you can modify it or create your own with a different group of monsters.
The Battle Encounters
The key to designing good battle encounters is to have a unique element in each one that either increases the tension or gives the players an important decision to make. In my siege, I had five. This is a completely arbitrary number and you may want more or less. But five was a good number that pushed my player’s available resources to their limit without the ability to rest in between. In truth, my players were spent after four encounters, but this was also by design.
Encounter 1 – I want the invasion to take my players completely by surprise. They were expecting to meet an NPC in town with some information to move the main story along. As a bit of world-immersion flair, the day of this meeting happened to be during Greengrass, the Spring Festival of the Forgotten Realms setting. When they arrive in town, the festival is in full swing. Practically the whole town is gathered in the town square, singing, dancing, celebrating.
Just as they find the NPC they need, there is a blood-curdling scream and Elsa, a barmaid that the PCs have built a strong bond with, yells “goblins” and falls over dead with 4 arrows in her back. Behind her, 30 goblins are cackling with murderous intent and immediately launch 30 arrows toward the shocked villagers (and players).
This battle will consist of 30 goblins plus 1 goblin boss who has an awesome Redirect ability that keeps him from being damaged in combat. Helping the PCs during the fight are a few high-level NPCs to make this combat short and sweet.
Encounter 2 – After the battle, the mayor of the town flees in panic and the true village leader, a high-level fighter named Daran, hatches a bold plan. This splits the village up into 4 groups, 2 groups of villagers to funnel the invading goblins into a choke point where a third group (filled with the high-level NPCs, taking them out of the picture) can pick them off. Meanwhile, the players and a unit of volunteers are tasked with charging behind enemy lines to stop the, now audible, war drums that are driving these goblins to attack. When the drums stop, the attack stops.
Of course, numerous obstacles are thrown in their way. The first is a group of goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears that are forcing a small group of villagers into a burning building or be put to the sword. The players will have the advantage of surprise on the first round which should speed up this combat significantly. Also, during the final round a teenaged farm boy named Kovar, runs in and kills 2 goblins. He had split from his funneling group to join the real action here.
Encounter 3 – The direct path toward the drums is blocked by fire. While the party is deciding which way to go around, a ball of fire smashes into a nearby home, obliterating the building and killing one of the NPCs. The players can see that two catapults are raining fire down on the village from some nearby hills. If allowed to continue they will certainly destroy the town, adding a moral dilemma to the story.
Each catapult is manned by 5 goblin loaders and 5 hobgoblin winchers. They are protected by several goblin archers and led by a hobgoblin captain. Fortunately, there are several ruins to provide cover for the player’s group. The players may decide to avoid the catapults entirely and find another way around, but there will be repercussions.
Encounter 4 – When the party arrives at the base of the manor hill, they can see that the goblin war camp (and the drums) is at the top of the hill. At the bottom of the hill, protecting the main road is another mixed unit of 20 goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears. If the players engage this group at the base of the hill, they will be seen by the group at the top of the hill. The players can opt to avoid this group, and maybe find a way to climb up the hill to gain surprise on the main goblin camp.
Encounter 5 – At the top of the manor hill is the toughest battle of the “war”. In addition to the usual goblins and hobgoblins, there are a shaman, a captain, the hobgoblin war chief and his personal elite guard, plus 2 ogres (which the players were not expecting) hammering away on enormous drums. If the players remember to target the drums first, this will effectively end the siege, although the party will still have to fight this group here.
If the party is really low on resources, as mine were, you can have the war chief and his elite guards not join the combat for several rounds. You could argue that the guards’ sole job is to protect the chief and he would rather watch his other minions take care of the players. This moment of hubris will cost him dearly.
You may want to have more or fewer scenarios, but I find that five is a good limit. And, I planned it so that if the players play smart, then they will only really have to do four. On the Phandalin Battle Chart you can see that I separated each encounter with a box for each combatant and a small note to remind me of each scenario.
Prepping the Battle
The most important, and in fact, the only thing you need for a memorable battle are the memorable encounters within the battle, but there a several things that will make running the battle easier. Maps, minis and extra dice will not only help you run the battle more smoothly but they create an atmosphere that will make your simple siege seem even more epic.
The Map – For my Siege of Phandalin, I hand drew a large 2’ by 3’ map of the village where 1-inch equals 30’ or one round of movement. As large as this may seem, I wish that I had made it even bigger, because there were some parts of the battle that went off the map and sometimes there wasn’t enough room for all my minis. But the map is still good and when I unfurled this thing just prior to the battle, my players knew that they were in for something special. Of course, you can just use the village map that came with the adventure; you can use a single mini to represent the group movements around town. But this is definitely a case where bigger is better.
The Minis – For the very first encounter of the battle the players have to face 30 goblins. When I announced this and then proceeded to literally pour goblins onto the battle map my players knew that this was going to be a very deadly encounter. One of my players actually said, “We’re screwed.” It is exactly this sense of fear and dread you want.
Now, you don’t have to spend the money on fifty minis like I did, simple tokens will do the trick. You can even make them yourself, but I would make them out of card stock to give them a little more weight than just plain pieces of paper. You could even use coins; pennies for the goblins and so on for the bigger monsters. The obvious benefit of all these minis (aside from being impressive) is the ability to determine positioning and movement during the battle, and I’ll discuss this more during the playing of the battle.
The Dice – As I mentioned, you will only use a single die throughout the battle; the 20-sided die, but you will need a lot of them. Again, you can make do with just one, but nothing says this is an insane battle more than rolling 20 dice at the same time. You can find deals online selling packs of 20-sided dice for about $10-15 that come with 20-30 dice.
The Players – There is one last piece of prep work; Preparing your players. You want this to be an epic and memorable event, so make sure that your players have access to epic and memorable actions, specifically ones that are beyond their current level. The easiest way to do that is with one-shot magic items. In our campaign, the players were 3rd level, so they did not have access to all the cool higher-level spells or abilities.
In the sessions leading up to the Siege, I had them discover a dead cleric with some nifty scrolls, and then they killed an alchemist with some neat potions. Specifically, I gave the wizard a Scroll of Fireball; the cleric got a Scroll of Flamestrike, and a Scroll of Revivify. The thief and the fighter split four potions, Heroism, Stone Giant Strength, Invisibility, and Speed. And just before the battle, they got a home-brewed spell scroll called Healing Circle, but I’ll explain that later.
On the day of the battle, I bluntly told them they should expect to use all of these items. This was important, because most players, especially beginners, simply don’t pay attention to their inventory and tend to forget about what they have. Even those that know their equipment always want to save it for that special, epic moment but then are unable to tell when that moment has arrived. Let them know, that moment is right now! And then sit back and be amazed at the creative ideas they come up with.
The final thing you need to plan for the battle is time. This war will definitely take longer than your usual session (about 5 hours) and you should make sure your players know that. Or you can do what we did and split the siege into two sessions, but I would prefer doing it in one shot.
Playing the Battle
The important thing to remember about having an epic battle like this is that it is no fun if every player dies. If you were to play this many monsters legit and with proper tactics against 3rd – 4th level characters, then the characters would be easily wiped out. You want them to think that they will all die, but you don’t really want a TPK. However, should one or two happen to fall while valiantly saving the town from destruction, well, just know that the tales of their bravery will be sung by bards for centuries.
A big part of selling this epic saga of a town under siege is doing things that you usually don’t do during a normal session. In my session, after setting the scene of the festival and describing all the fun, carefree activities and the happiness and joy of the villagers, just when the player find the NPC they need and expect to have a simple information exchange encounter, a give them a terrified scream (I really screamed), a dying cry of “Goblins,” and a dead Elsa, the barmaid, placed about a hundred feet from the players on the far side of the village square, with 4 arrows in her back, and dozens of goblins behind her.
The players were stunned, mostly from my scream. Before they could say anything, I unfurled the giant map on the table, placed the dead Elsa in the center with the players on one side and, as I said, literally poured 30 goblins onto the map on the other side. This was a lot of firsts for them. This was their first battle map, the first time they’d seen this many minis at one time, and more importantly, the first time anything other than a monster or a bad guy had died; and this was an NPC that the players really liked.
I still didn’t wait for the players to respond. I tell them, as soon as Elsa hits the ground, one of the Goblins yells, “Fire,” and 30 arrows are launched toward the crowd of villagers and the players. I pull out the 30 dice that I had hidden and roll them all onto the table in full view of the players, this is another first, telling them that I’m not gonna pull any punches today. (Of course, I still can and will, but they don’t know that.) Now, I ask my players, “What do you do?” I know that there is no good answer here. They have no defense for something like this, none of my players even carries a shield. But you never know, they might come up with something brilliant. This time they have nothing.
I let the players be dumbfounded for a moment. Then I say, “While you are stunned and undecided, the Druid Edoith, whom you were just speaking with, makes a few gestures with his hands and a huge wave of wind rises up from the ground like a wall. The flying arrows are deflected and repelled, bouncing off the invisible barrier.” I ask the players again, “Now, what do you do?”
Here I expected the players to charge the goblins. I had planned all along to use the Wind Wall to stop the initial onslaught. And I also had several townsfolk ready to help defend the town against this group of goblins. But instead, it was here that the player took me by surprise. They were determined to save Elsa.
But Elsa was supposed to die. She was my sacrificial lamb to show how harsh and cruel the world could be and how deadly and serious this battle would be. My players refused to accept this reality; and good for them. The Siege of Phandalin was put on hold while we spent over 30 minutes trying to save one insignificant NPC. Always remember, the DM sets the plot, but the players tell the story.
The four players and I discussed every conceivable plan to save her. They went through the list of every special ability, spell, and item in their inventory to try and come up with some plan of action. But none of them were feasible and they accepted it when I explained why it wouldn’t work. Finally, they came up with a plan that could work, but it involved using three of the one-shot items, which I had given them to use for themselves later in the coming battles. The plan worked but they were now down some critical resources, specifically the Revivify spell scroll.
At last, the battle was back on. In the course of rescuing Elsa, the fighter took some damage and was the closest to the goblin line. Still feeling the effects of the Speed and Strength potions he drank, he charged into the goblin horde, which kinda forced the other players to do the same. Several NPC villagers also joined this fight. On the Battle Chart, you can see the villagers in the fight under the notes for Battle 1. The number after their name is the number of attacks per round. Sister Garaele casts Bless on just the villagers, giving them a +4 to hit. For this battle, any villager rolls of 6 or higher is an instant kill on the goblins. The players roll normally.
In Round 1, the druid NPC casts Entangle, tying up half the goblins. The party cleric casts Shield of Faith on the fighter giving him an AC of 19, virtually unhittable. The fighter rolls and kills two goblins. Everyone else dashes and will join the battle next round. On the goblin’s turn, I rolled 16 dice against the fighter and only one was a hit for 5 points of damage. I gave credit for this hit to the biggest, meanest goblin of the group and he was the one who called for the goblin to attack earlier. This is a Goblin Boss (a never-before-seen enemy found in the Monster Manual) and I knew that this would compel the fighter to target all his attacks on this guy.
Now technically, in the Monster Manual, a goblin has a +4 to hit, but on the battle chart this is reduced to +0 to make running the battle easier and accounts for any armor or dexterity bonus that a villager might have. Bear in mind, these combat-ready villagers, including those that make up the player’s “unit”, are leveled adventurers, hearty miners, or ex-thugs, all of whom have higher stats than a “commoner”. But technically the goblins should still fight against PCs with the +4 bonus. My advice, don’t worry about it and don’t apply any bonus to the goblin or hobgoblin attacks. The players are still going to get hit plenty. Also, for this battle, none of the goblins ever hid. These cocky goblins thought they could take this village down without it. But I did use this ability sparingly in later encounters just to mess with them.
For Round 2, the fighter went first and as predicted targeted the Goblin Boss. He rolled a hit and was shocked when I described that as the blow came down the Boss deflected the blow so that it hit a different goblin, killing it. This ability to Redirect implies that the Boss essentially parries the blow into another, and sometimes I played it this way. But I had more fun and drove my players crazy when I kept coming up with new and unique ways for these Bosses to avoid taking damage. Throughout the course of the battle there were 6 Goblin Bosses. One time a goblin tripped and fell in front of the blow. Another goblin jumped in front of a killing blow like a Secret Service agent. My favorite was when the Boss grabbed another goblin and used him as a shield to absorb the strike. Have fun with this.
The remaining PCs join the battle and roll next. All three hit, killing 3 goblins. The fighter is yelling at them to target the Boss. Then the villagers attacked. BTW the Druid transformed into a bear and went to town on these guys, as did Daran with his three attacks per round. A key point of this battle was to show off some really neat high-level abilities to impress the players and allow them to anticipate their own character’s progression. Then the trick is to get rid of these NPCs as soon as possible so that they players can’t rely on them to do everything. I rolled 10 dice for the villager’s attacks and since I only need a 6 to hit, 8 more goblins die. Every time a goblin is hit, I cross off a box in the Battle 1 section.
For the goblin’s attack, a few broke free of the entangling vines, and I rolled 8 dice. I rolled a 19, 17, 16, 16, 12, 10, 7, and 4. When the PCs and NPCs are fighting all in a group, I target the PCs with one attack first and then the NPCs. In this case, the top four rolls were high enough such that each player takes 1 hit for 4 points of damage. Two NPCs also take hits but I don’t even mark this down. No NPCs are going to die in this fight.
This battle lasted 2 more rounds, and the fighter was very happy when he finally killed the annoying Goblin Boss himself. The town cleric casts Mass Healing Word, (another spell just beyond our cleric’s level) which heals everyone 7 hit points, bringing most back up to full.
Immediately after, in another first, I play the YouTube clip, Medieval War Drums 2, on a loop that the players will hear in the background for the entire battle. This will be a constant presence, driving the players forward until they complete their ultimate goal. In fact, I turned up the volume at little bit after each scenario, as they get closer and closer to this goal. This is another “thing” I had never done before, further increasing the epic-ness of this event.
Next, came my big speech. I generally avoid monologues, I try to give information through conversation, but here I want to convey that there is a lot at stake, to impress upon the players that this is a real town with real people and not just a group of nameless NPCs, and a want them to know the very clear objective they will have in this battle. So, I gave them a speech. BTW, as part of my prep for this battle and to help with this speech, I expanded and named every villager in town with jobs, families, and numbered locations. Here is the link. Phandalin Village Roster. And here is the whole speech.
“Once the goblins are dead, you can hear a constant drumming coming from the east, but you can’t see anything in that direction because of the thick black smoke rising up from the houses on that side of town blocks your vision. The villagers are huddled in the town square, terrified and uncertain. Townmaster Harbin cries out in a panic, “I can’t die like this!” and runs off in the direction of his home.
Daran, still holding his flaming sword, speaks, “We have only a few minutes before the next attack. Elmar, Linene, and Hob, you and your boys grab every sword, bow, and arrow you can from your stores and smithy.” Those three and several boys run off to perform that task. Daran continues, pointing to the senior women, “Qelline, Trilena, Mirna, gather up the women and children and take them to my home. It’s fortified, but if you have to flee, Carp can lead you through the orchard to the hidden ford where you can cross the river and escape.”
The Shopkeeps and Smithy return with handfuls of weapons. Daran lays out his plan, “We can’t let them flank us. Elmar, Tomas, Winneth, and Ralan, take your boys north and funnel those goblins here,” pointing to the narrow gap between the Inn and the abandoned sheriff’s office. (I set this building as the one just south of the Inn.) “Linene, Reddor, Milcor, Lanar, you and your boys head south and do the same. Only use your bows, stay out of sight, and don’t fight them directly.”
Daran turns to the players, “You once said that you wanted to prove your worth. Prove it now. Stop those drums. These goblins will continue to kill so long as those drums sound. Stop the drums and save the town. You are the spear, straight through their heart.”
Daran calls out, “I need fifteen volunteers!” Four dwarves, five miners and Toblen step forward. One of the dwarves speaks up, “Aye, right down their gullet, we’ll gut them!”
Toblen comes up to you, “You’ve saved me and my kin before. I owe you. Hark, you’re with me.” The bouncer, Hark, stands beside you with Toblen.
Daran continues, speaking with three rough looking characters, “Gunter, Surthen, and Bob. You’ve said to have given up your Redbrand days. Help your neighbors now with these men and save your town.” Daran turns to a large man dressed in black leathers, “Kurgan, will you join these men as well?” Kurgan looks to Halia Thornton who nods her head yes. Kurgan and the three ex-thugs join your side.
“Everyone else, barricade that street to a two-foot gap then line up on the roofs of those buildings. Let’s hit them with everything we’ve got! Sister Garaele, Ed of Greenwood, Sildar, I’ll need your skills with me. For Phandalin!”
And thus began the siege of Phandalin. Obviously, this speech does a lot of things. It creates a lot of momentum, sets up a huge crisis that will affect a large number of people, but then it gives the players a clear objective and sends them away with a manageable group of NPCs, all of whom have unique personalities and reasons for joining the players, making the scene seem that much richer. More importantly, it removes all of the powerful NPCs (who have their own mission) meaning that the players are in charge of their destiny.
I gave each player control over 3 or 4 villagers and 4 extra d20 dice for their attack rolls. On the Phandalin Battle Chart you can see the breakdown of the villager groups. The fighter got Toblen, Hark and two miners. The wizard got Kurgan and three miners. The four dwarves were controlled by the dwarven cleric and the thief had the three ex-thugs. Kovar is not yet part of the group, he joins later. Note that each player has at least one villager with higher hit points and/or extra damage, but all of them have an AC of 10, with no To Hit modifier, and make 1 Attack per round. Also, the three thugs and Kovar have the Hide ability to match the thief. I gave each player one Villager mini to represent their squad. These 4 villagers can and should move and act independently from the player, but they will always stay together as a group.
Before the players leave on their suicide mission, the town’s cleric, Sister Garaele, tells the players, “Keep my people safe,” and gives them a scroll called Healing Circle. This homebrewed spell will heal everyone within a 20’ radius up to 10 hit points. Using this at the right time could mean the difference between success and death.
As the players head toward the drums via the main road, they come to their first complication. This entire section of town is on fire, with the smoke blowing southeast away from the player’s starting point. They come across a group of goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears who are forcing a group of elderly and infirm villagers to either walk into a burning building or be put to the sword. A few dead villagers on the ground make this scenario abundantly clear. The monsters’ attention is focused or torturing these villagers, meaning the players attack with surprise should they engage these enemies. I also informed them that while the players will have advantage this round, the goblins are still prepared for combat and will react this round, but they will roll with disadvantage.
The players could elect to avoid the encounter all together. The villagers will not be happy with this but they follow the player’s lead. They will tell the players that they should save their fellow villagers. If the players still refuse to help, following the battle, should they survive, the whole town will know that the players allowed those villagers to die, and you can decide on the appropriate punishment.
Of course, your players are heroes and would never do such a cowardly act. I arranged all the hobgoblins so that they are scattered about near some goblins and the bugbears were in another group. My players wisely sent each of their villager squads to target the hobgoblins first then attack the goblins, while the players took out the bugbears.
For this battle, the turn order was thief, fighter, wizard, and then cleric. I allowed the thief to sneak upon the bugbears, attacking one for 13 points of damage; I rounded that up to 15 which equals 3 hit on that bugbear which I checked off in its box. Then the thief rolled his 3 dice for his squad.
Here’s how I handled Advantage. Any roll that hit was good, obviously. Any roll that missed was rerolled. In this example with the thief, the player rolled a 12, 8, and 3 against an AC 10 (1 hit & 2 misses). He rerolled two dice for a 14 and a 7 (another hit & 1 miss). Those two hits were applied to the hobgoblin, killing it outright and crossing him of the list.
This continued for each player and by the end of the player’s attack there were 3 dead hobgoblins, 2 dead bugbears, and 2 dead goblins. For the enemy attack, I had the remaining Bugbear attack the fighter, the Hobgoblin Elite went after the cleric, and the last two Hobgoblins each fought the Thief and the Wizard. I rolled for each one individually with disadvantage and only the Elite hit for 8 points to the cleric. Remember that the Elite and the Bugbears have a +2 Hit modifier for this seige only, which is less than normal, but again don’t worry about it for now. I will explain these changes later.
Next, was the goblin attack on the villagers. There were 8 goblins and a goblin boss left but they also fought with disadvantage this round. I rolled a 20, 18, 17, 14, 14, 10, 8, 7 and 3. Against an AC 10 this is 6 possible hits. Since they have disadvantage, I reroll those 6 dice for an 18, 16, 13, 12, 9 and a 2. The “9” is a special case. The Goblin Boss has a +1 To Hit, so I rule that the 9 was the Boss’s roll giving him a 10 for a hit, making a total of 5 hits on the villagers. I spread the damage around so that 1 villager in each of the player’s squads takes 1 hit and I gave the extra hit to Hark because I secretly plan to kill him before the end of the siege.
At the end of two rounds, the bugbear and the all the hobgoblins are dead; only two goblins remain. Sadly, one of the miners, Wheezle, and a dwarf, Vox, also perished in this skirmish. I’m about to roll my attacks for the goblins, when I tell the players, “A young teenaged boy run onto the battle scene and in a flurry of motion kills the two goblins before coming to a stop bedside you.” One of the players asks the obvious question, “Who are you?” He replies, “I’m Kovar. I ditched my defense group to join you guys. This is where the action is and heroes are made.”
Fortunately, the player completely accepted this and didn’t send him away, even though they instructed all the other villagers to head back to the center of town. Writing this now, I realize that I had no plan should the players send him away. As a story element, I intend for Kovar to be the NPC superstar of the siege (after the players, of course). Any NPC Nat 20’s will be attributed to him. Since my players were mostly teenagers, I thought it would be a nice element to have Kovar, an inexperienced teenager, be the village hero. And it worked, the players loved this kid, so I’m glad they didn’t send him away.
Anyway, I tell the players that the direct path forward is blocked by the inferno. They will have to go around. While they are debating to go north or south, they hear an angry whistling sound. Looking up, they see a huge ball of fire hurtling toward them. Everyone rolls a low DEX save. The players all pass and I roll for a few villagers, even though the roll is irrelevant, I fully intend to kill just one villager. I deem the lowest roll as a failure and poor Bob the reformed criminal with the deliberately non-medieval name is obliterated as the ball of fire slams into him. The fireball continues into a small building, destroying it and setting the rubble on fire. Kovar now takes the place of Bob in the thief’s squad.
Looking north through the smoke, the players can see two catapults on a low hill, preparing to reign more fiery death upon the village. If those catapults aren’t stopped, it won’t matter if the players stop the drums; the whole village will be destroyed. Again, of course, the players can opt to avoid this encounter, but they won’t. But if they did, I would have destroyed the town, and the campaign would have gone in a very different direction.
I tell my players, that there are numerous ruins that they can use for cover until they get to the village’s perimeter wall. These ruins are all described as circular, like ruined towers. I my campaign, the original, ancient village of Phandalin that was overrun by orcs in 951DR, was actually an enclave of Netherese wizards. This is relevant to my end-game campaign, and is merely a piece of foreshadowing here.
Beyond the perimeter wall, it is open ground for about 60’ to the catapults which are actually separated on two low hills. In front of the catapults are some crude fortifications that provide cover for 10 goblin archers. Each catapult is being loaded by 5 goblins while 5 hobgoblins operate the winch. As the players watch, one of the goblins doesn’t clear the winch in time, launching him along with the flaming stone to his doom, screaming the whole way. Nothing beats dark humor in times of crisis.
The players quickly hatch a plan. The thief and his stealthy squad will run around to the west side of area. The wizard will use the Fireball scroll on the western catapult. In the confusion, the main group will charge the eastern catapult, while the thief’s group will flank the western archers.
This is where the minis really proved useful. Remember, this is not a war simulation, but it is helpful to know the various group’s relative position. But it doesn’t need to be exact. It doesn’t even need to be accurate or even follow any strict rules. Really, very few players will complain, especially since most of the fudging benefits the players. But to those who complain, explain that war is hell and just roll with it.
I have the thief player roll 2 stealth rolls (one to get over the wall, the other to sneak through the hills) for himself and each of his villagers individually against the goblin’s passive perception. The thief has a high bonus, so I’m sure he will pass. But the villagers do not and one of them fails the second attempt. Just because the players had a good plan, it doesn’t mean it should go off without a hitch, in fact it is more dramatic if it doesn’t. Some goblins begin firing arrows toward the thief’s location. No villagers are hit.
With the element of surprise gone, the players only have the element of confusion. The wizard uses the right scroll at right time, and launches a fireball at one of catapults, engulfing the area in fire and killing all of its operators (eleven checkmarks off the chart). But the charge to take out the second siege engine doesn’t go as smoothly.
Two of the villagers are killed before they can close the distance. And another is killed during the ensuing combat. I spread out the deaths so that each player is down to 3 villagers (except the thief now has 2), and I give each one a memorable death. Gunter, the ex-thug, is shot down as soon as he pokes his head out from around the hill he was using as cover. The dwarf, Fromathorn, is killed charging the enemy archers and as he dies, he crashes into and takes out the crude fortification the goblins used as cover. When Vaz is killed he falls backward into the barrel of oil used to light the flaming stones, soaking the area which a player promptly set on fire, damaging everyone nearby and ultimately destroying the catapult. And Kovar was still the star villager, getting in the killing blow on the goblin boss and taking out a hobgoblin elite all by himself.
By the end of this battle, almost everyone else was injured with just 1 or 2 hits keeping them from death. The cleric wisely used the Healing Circle scroll, bringing almost everyone back up to full or almost full. The cleric also used a few healing spells on his party, who had taken the majority of the damage.
At this point, we ended the session. We had been playing for over 3½ hours, which is far beyond our usual session length. We picked back up two weeks later and after the usual 15-minute recap, we continued the siege. As much as I wanted to continue, I glad we didn’t. The final battle alone took almost 2 hours to do, and it would not have been as memorable if we had been all exhausted in the end.
Leaving the scene of the burning catapults, it is an uneventful run to the base of the manor hill, using the village wall as cover from any sentries. Near the manor hill, I describe that they can see the main goblin war camp is station at the top of the hill. They can hear that the drumming sound is coming from the top of the hill, but they can’t see what kind of forces they have up there. They can see that there are several sentries at the top of the hill watching the town and the base of the hill with the main road leading up the hill. At the base of this hill, is another squadron of goblins, hobgoblins and bugbears milling about and looking bored and angry at not being able to join the killing. I inform the players directly that any attack on this group at the base of the hill will be seen by those at the top.
My players ask if there is any way to avoid this lower group and climb the hill out of sight of them. Of course, I reply, it’s just a hill. BTW by this time, I am playing the War Drums clip on full volume for effect, though I turn it down ocassionally, just so we don’t have to really shout at the table. The players pick a spot on the hill and begin their ascent.
On the spot, I added that they see a lone goblin sentry patrolling the top of the hill that they are heading toward. The only people with bows are the thief and Kovar. The player misses but Kovar hits, taking out the guard and adding to his mystique. The players were never upset when a villager outshined a PC because as far as they were concerned, it was still their dice rolling that saved the day.
“At the top of the hill, you can finally see what you are up against. In addition to the usual goblins and hobgoblins, there is a hobgoblin shaman and her bugbear bodyguards, plus another hobgoblin captain. Within the crumbling ruins of the manor, sits the largest hobgoblin you ever seen. Clearly, he is in charge and is surrounded by four elite hobgoblin guards. And now you can see the source of the incessant drumming. Two huge orges are dual-wielding two clubs, pounding away on enormous drums that they are wearing by straps over their shoulders like a monstrous marching band.”
Like I said, this single battle took 2 hours to run, including about 15 minutes of the players deciding what they wanted to do. They were really focused on completing their mission as quickly as possible, even if it meant putting them at a strategic disadvantage, which I was very proud of. I love it when players purposely do the suboptimal thing, especially when the action remains true to their character. That is exceptional role-playing.
To that end, this was their plan: The cleric would use the Flame Strike scroll on one of the ogres, hopefully killing it but at least destroying the drum. The thief would move to a better position and then fire an arrow at the other ogre’s drum, piercing it and stopping the goblin siege. The wizard would first cast Sleep on as many hobgoblins as he could which the villagers would kill. The fighter would drink his potion of Heroism and try to take out the ogres as quickly as possible. They all guessed that the ogres were the biggest threat. They weren’t, but it was a good guess.
Knowing that this was an exceptionally deadly encounter I nerfed the bad guys’ tactics a little more than usual. The ogres would not engage in combat unless attacked. Granted, this was moot since the players attacked these guys first, but I did intend to do this. Second, once the battle began, I had the General and his guards not join in. Yet. I explained that the players see one of the guards move to join the fight when the General stops him with a wave of his hand. Then, throughout the battle the General kept berating his own troops calling them weak and cowardly vermin since they can’t handle this “peasant rabble”.
Third, this is the moment when any villager is expendable. For example, there was a moment early on, when an ogre got a huge critical hit that would have killed the fighter outright with no death save. During the battle, I didn’t mind dropping a player to the point of rolling death saves but not to instant permanent death, especially since they had so nobly used the Revivify scroll earlier to save Elsa. So, a poor, hapless villager took the blow. Lucky Lem finally had his luck run out when the ogre clobbered him and sent him sailing out over the edge of the hill to fall to his death below. I have never told the player that I saved his fighter’s life that day.
The first round of the battle went great. The Flame Strike didn’t kill, but did severely wound the ogre and the drum was destroyed. The second drum was pierced by the thief’s arrow and then “when the ogre swung his club, it was dumbfounded when the club went sailing through both sides of the drum. The ogre stared in bewilderment at his now ruined drum, completely oblivious to the other ogre who is currently on fire.” The players don’t know this yet, but this act will completely save their lives at the end of the battle.
The fighter was able to quickly kill the injured ogre and then took on the other while the wizard put three hobgoblins to sleep. For all spells that use hit points to determine effect, I convert them to “hits” on a 5 to 1 ratio. Every 5 hit points is equal to 1 hit. When the wizard rolled his 5d8 for the sleep spell, he rolled a 29. Since I’d rounded up all other damage so far, I rounded this up to 30 (or 6 “hits”) putting three hobgoblins to sleep.
For the goblin attack this round, most of them missed, including the ogre on the fighter, and most of the goblins firing blindly at the now-hidden thief. Although, one of the bugbears did tag a dwarf for 3 hits, and he ultimately perished before the end of the battle. The shaman primarily targeted the two spell casters, although in a later round she did put Grease to good use, causing several villagers to fall down, losing an action.
But after the first round, this became a very tense battle that almost turned into a TPK. The dice just did not favor the players or the villagers. This was the moment when I had to save the fighter’s life and every player was knocked down to 0hp at some point during the battle and had to be revived by another player or in the case of the cleric, save herself via death saves.
Round 3 – Things went from bad to worse, when I told the party that the group of goblins at the foot of the hill have noticed the fighting and are running up the winding path to join in. They would arrive in just a few rounds. Really it would take 7 rounds, but I didn’t tell my players that.
Finally, the tide turned when the ogre and the shaman fell. Just as the Captain was about to die, the General yells out, “You pathetic worm! Now I’m really mad,” as he and his elite guard join in. This also proved to be a difficult encounter, since they just couldn’t keep these hobgoblins separated and their Martial Advantage ability killed most of the villagers who died during this fight, including Hark the bouncer.
In the end, it was the fighter who delivered the killing bow to the BBEG, which always makes that player very happy. Then I reminded them about the goblin reinforcements that are running up the hill. For a moment the players truly had a moment of bittersweet satisfaction. They had won, they had saved the town, but they were all about to die. Every character was at single digit hit points, they had no spells, abilities, or healing potions left. With a defiant resignation they turned to face the horde… That never arrived. “You hear the sounds of combat just over the crest of the hill. Peering over the edge you see a score of villagers fighting the goblins on the hillside. And the villagers are winning. Already a dozen goblins lie dead on the slope of the hill.” The sense of relief my players felt was palpable. Two of the players had not realized that they were holding their breath and let out a huge exclamation of air.
The players and remaining villagers run down the hill, joining their comrades and quickly killing the last of the invaders. When I planned these encounters, I had hoped that it would turn out this way, and it did, so I was pretty lucky. So long as the players took out the drums early in the skirmish, the other villagers would arrive in time. Even if they had not, I could have this final wave of goblin attack for a few rounds and then have the villager reinforcement arrive. It all depends upon how beat-up the players were.
At the end of such an epic battle, it is good to have a nice narrative coda to wrap up the whole event. This post is already way too long to include it here, but I did put the full epilogue in the Phandelver Campaign Dairy, Session 9 if you want to read it.
The last thing to do is to dole out experience points. As you can see on the Battle Chart, at the bottom I tallied up every monster faced during the battle. This totaled 14,500XP, way too much to hand out to 3rd level characters. I decreed that the players earned half and their squad of villagers earned the other half. My players had no objection to this. This gave each player 1,812Xp, which was enough to bring the players to 4th level, which made them very happy and still didn’t unbalance play since they were still 4th level when they arrived at the finale of the adventure.
In addition, I added 4 Bonus Conditional XP Rewards. They can be found at the bottom right corner of the Battle Chart. These awards could be earned by good tactical play or good role-play. Each reward is worth 100XP per player. The four conditions were:
- Keep at least 10 villagers alive by the end of the siege. I did not count Bob, since he was destined to die.
- Destroy the siege engines (catapults) in 10 rounds or less. If they failed, the goblins would start destroying the vital buildings in town, such as Toblen’s Inn.
- Do not commit to a frontal assault up the hill. Find another way, either climbing the side of the hill, or using the secret entrance, sneaking through the old Redbrand hideout and attacking from behind.
- Destroy the drums as soon as possible. This was the mission after all and allows for the village to send reinforcements.
The players succeeded in three of these tasks. Sadly, more than 5 villagers died, so they didn’t get the reward for that one. Incredibly they destroyed the catapults in just 5 rounds. I love to use story-based XP. It is a nice change from just murdering everyone to level up.
This is pretty much everything I did to run this epic battle. If you’ve read this all the way to here, thank you, and are you alright? Do you need to sit down, maybe take a nap? You must be exhausted. But seriously, I hope this is useful. And if you’re willing to read a little more, I’ll explain how I made my Battle Chart, so you can modify it or make your own.
Creating Your Own Battle Chart
The main rule to create your own Battle Chart is to do as much To Hit vs AC math as possible before the battle. After that, you can tweak these numbers to balance out your main combatants, in this case villagers vs. goblins/hobgoblins.
Let’s start with the villagers who use the Commoners stats. They have an AC 10, To Hit +2. Basically, they are pathetic. Now goblins have AC 15, To Hit +4. Calculating the Armor Class vs. the opponents To Hit bonus, you could say that the Commoners have an AC 6 (10 – 4) compared to the goblin’s AC 13 (15 – 2). Frankly, that difference is too big and would lead to a Villager massacre. Now if you want a village massacre, leave the numbers as is and let the dice fall where they may.
I wanted to provide a more balanced fight that allowed these villagers to actually aid the players and not just get in the way. To start, none of the villagers and common commoners. They are fighter, miners, dwarves, and thieves, more capable and stronger than the rabble. These Villagers now have an AC 12 and To Hit +3. Conversely, I deemed that none of the goblins carry a shield to war, lowering the AC to 13, and I reduced the To Hit bonus to +2.
Now, when we compare the stats, both the villagers and the goblins have an AC 10 and you no longer need to worry about To Hit modifiers. Plus, having the same AC (between goblins and villagers) makes combat so much easier to run. If I were to run a similar battle using different bad guys, I would still tweak the AC until they were the same. Perhaps an invasion of kobolds against standard commoners, all with a modified AC 9, or a war between orcs and soldiers, both sides with an adjusted AC 12.
I altered the hobgoblins the most to make them feasible for the villagers to face. Their normal AC is 18 which is just ridiculous. So, I took away their shield and their chain mail, dropping them down to a modified AC 10 as well. And I nerfed the To Hit modifier from +3 to +2, so that they also hit the villager’s modified AC 10.
As for the remaining more deadly monsters, I did not lower their AC or To Hit modifiers by any artificial means. My villagers To Hit bonus is +3, so all Armor Classes were reduced by that number. For instance, a bugbears normal AC is 16, so the Battle Chart lists it at 13. Similarly, since the villager’s Armor Class has already been reduced from 12 to 10 (to account for the goblin’s modifier), the bugbear’s To Hit modifier takes a -2 adjustment from +4 to +2. All the other monsters are given the same adjustments.
To determined the number of hits required to kill a combatant, everything stems from the baseline that an average sword strike does 5 points of damage. Just divide the as written hit points by 5 to determine the number of hits needed to kill something. A goblin has 7 hit points (1 hit). A hobgoblin has 11 hp (2 hits). A bugbear has 27 hp (5 hits) and so on. I did give the villagers higher than average hit points, but the choice is yours how many points to give them.
To determine damage output the same rule applies. Take the written damage and divide by 5. Most combatants will end up with 1 or maybe 2 hits for damage, but feel free to raise or lower that if you want. Officially, Ogres only attack for 13 points of damage, not the 20 (4 hits) I have listed on the Chart.
Bear in mind, this Battle Chart and all the statistical adjustments are designed for Villager Combat. Players bring all sorts of variables into the mix. And these modified monster stats give a big advantage to the player. Essentially, the players are adding their AC and To Hit modifiers on top of those given to the villagers. As I’ve said, just use these modified number and let the players reap the benefits and have the ability to fight even more spectacularly than they really should at this level. The battle is deadly enough without having to focus on playing the rules as written.
And when making your own changes or new rules, just remember that the numbers don’t really matter so long as it still feels fair and balanced. And since these changes actually benefit the player’s, they’d be foolish to complain. Besides, more hits mean more kills and more awesome. And what player doesn’t want to feel awesome?
There you have it. Thanks to all those who have asked me for these rules and patiently waited for this post. And after 10,000 words of “rules”, just let me add one more – Don’t let these rules get in the way of having fun. Seriously, I made up half of this stuff as I was playing, and then had to figure out how to make it all clear and concise afterwards. (You call this, Clear and Concise! Are you insane?)
But again, have fun with this. There are all sorts of different directions you could go. You may want to have your players know about the coming invasion, and you could have a part of the session be about creating defenses and setting up ambush points. This is perfectly fine and would be a lot of fun. Or you could have another group show up from a different direction. Think The Battle of Five Armies from The Hobbit (good luck running that one). Or you could have Cryovain from The Dragon of Icespire Peak show up looking for a snack. Or even, you and a group of knights could be the invading party, trying to retake a castle. The possibilities are endless. Just remember the goal is to make the players think they are going to die and then let them (or at least most of them) just barely survive, not crush them under wave after wave of unending death.
*As always, Real War sucks the most. Thank You to all the noble men and women whose bravery and sacrifice serve to keep us safe and help those in need. Real war is a horrific and tragic ordeal that hopefully no one will have to suffer through, but inevitably some will. Thank you for your dedication and service. God Bless, and Game On!
Have fun storming the castle! – Miracle Max
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