Time for an update on the latest happenings in Gherkin’s Greyhawk. I am presently running a large-scale battle – involving thousands of troops – as an adventure. The challenge with this is to keep the action focussed on the player characters while giving them the feeling of being part of a huge battle that is going on around them.
The PCs’ involvement occurs through a series of ‘scenes’ which depict particular combat engagements or missions that they find themselves in. The players are told what their objectives are and how this will affect the overall progress of the battle if they succeed.
The first scene – retaking a village that had fallen into enemy hands – took a couple of sessions to conclude, but since then I’ve been aiming to make each scene last one session. As a group we are lucky enough to have a large collection of figures (that’s ‘minis’ to you youngsters) so we can lay out a large number of combatants on the tabletop. However, in order to speed up some of the larger-scale combat engagements, things happening on the periphery that do not directly involve any of the PCs are run in an abstract sense only – in other words, I make it up as I go along rather than making hundreds of dice rolls, knocking down kills and moving the battle lines forward or back to provide the flavour of what is happening.
The ‘bad guys’ that the PCs are facing here are mostly orcs, ogres, trolls etc. That may sound a little mundane but actually they don’t often come up against these mainstays of fantasy villainy, so it makes for a pleasant change. They have axebeak cavalry and a squadron of wyvverns. The PCs tend to find themselves up against the enemy’s elite forces and commanders – although they do sometimes find themselves up against opponents that they significantly outclass and they then get to enjoy the pleasure of putting them to the rout with contemptuous ease. I think you owe it to your players to give them these sorts of encounters once in a while.
I have made good use of the 3.5e ‘Heroes of Battle’ supplement for this adventure. The authors suggest constructing a battle adventure flowchart and a complete set of diagrams of all the potential battlefield states corresponding to flowchart outcomes; I toyed with the concept but realised that this would be a huge amount of work and much of it would be wasted as only one actual path through the flowchart would be followed. (I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has tried using this method exactly as the book suggests). Maybe if I were writing an adventure for publishing, this amount of rigour would be required. Instead, I have taken an incremental approach, drawing up a plan of the battlefield and the location of units for the players, then running them through a scene or two, then drawing up a revised plan based on the outcome, and so on.
I started by drawing out the terrain and then overlaid a sheet of acetate and used OHP markers to draw in the units; a wet cotton bud is used to erase a unit prior to repositioning. (I totally have the skill to do all this on a computer but it’s so much more fun doing it by hand…..)
When working on this kind of thing it very much helps if you have experience of tabletop wargaming and/or military re-enactments. What I’m effectively doing here is creating snapshots of the battle in progress. These are shown to the players. In fact, their characters would not know what is going on across on the other side of the battlefield. However, showing these to the players gives them a sense of being a part of the greater whole and the feeling of the scale of the event that they are immersed in.
Plenty of description plays an important part in this kind of adventure. This locale has now seen three armies turn up and lay seige within the past three months; it’s war-torn, and corpses have lain unburied for weeks. It’s also nice to mention magical explosions that are seen and heard going off in the near distance, from the PCs viewpoint. Sometimes stray riderless mounts are encountered. Lady Ambarran, an elven healer riding a unicorn, breezes in after an engagement, escorted by her guards and protected by a banner that radiates a Sanctuary effect, and offers healing to the poor wounded humans.
The player characters are a large and diverse bunch so I split some of them off to go on a commando raid on a catapult battery, secretly ‘parachuting’ them behind enemy lines – dropping them off the backs of griffon cavalry with the aid of potions of feather fall and invisibility.
I have also given some players a chance to run some high-level NPC heroes, just for the pleasure of being really outrageous combat monsters…..
If the Keoish army is successful in defeating these forces, which seems likely, they will march upon their final objective – the City of Monmurg. The main issue with this battle is not so much whether they will win, as how dearly that victory will be bought, and whether they will be strong enough to take Monmurg afterwards. This final assault on Monmurg will be the culmination of a four-year campaign. Epic!
(Some previous posts relating to the Monmurg campaign: