D&D 5e Playtest: Mass Combat Rules

I love that the new Unearthed Arcana column on the Wizards website offers public-playtest versions of future material for D&D. This week, there are rules for mass combat – always one of the sticky design areas for tabletop games intended for focus on individuals. In part to make sure I understand them myself, this post examines the playtest rules in detail.
Also, I have to say this up front, because otherwise I will never get through this post: “hur hur, he said ‘unit.'”

Better now. Read on.
The Zoom Button

The document begins with a discussion of changing the game’s scale from squad combat to regiment combat (which is itself a charmingly vague term). It is not only the number of active individuals that changes (ten individuals constitute a stand, the most basic acting unit), but also time and distance. The change in time is good, because I think we’ve all done the math on a squad-scale battle in D&D and realized that the climactic struggle against the Big Bad was resolved in less than two minutes. Likewise the change in distance, because my TacTiles wouldn’t be too great for displaying the field of Agincourt in 5-foot squares.
The language around the distance shift is pretty confusing, because units operate on 20-foot grid squares, but because of the time scaling, they move the same number of grid squares in mass combat as they do in 5-foot squad combat. There are also some minor clarity issues around the grid spaces occupied by a stand of troops, but basically it’s saying that if a stand is made up of Large creatures, then just as Large creatures take up 2×2 5-foot spaces as individuals, they take up 2×2 20-foot grid spaces as a ten-creature unit. If I understand correctly and am not failing at math, ten figures fighting as a unit take up the square footage of sixteen figures fighting individually. I would have expected that to run in the other direction, crowding figures closer together to fight as a unit, but the math of 20-foot grid squares is mighty convenient, and it’s not like it matters.
It’s interesting that the grid rules for mass combat outright ban diagonal movement and do not consider units touching on the diagonal to be adjacent. I assume that this is intended to keep a lid on just how swarmed a unit can get – 4:1 is the worst possible case, rather than the 6:1 of a hex map or 8:1 of squad-level D&D with a square grid map.
The stand must, of course, be essentially homogeneous, with the same AC, hit points, attack and damage values, and so on. If it’s really an issue, I assume that smoothing out modest differences by averaging values is good enough for government work.
Skirmishers and Regiments

Okay, so the stand isn’t actually a unit for action purposes – it’s chiefly there for math purposes, though they can take some actions as a group-within-a-group. Any number of stands, comprised of any conceivable variety of creatures, can form a unit. A unit can be organized in one of two ways, and this is where things start to get interesting with these rules.

They also grow more detailed, but if you’re interested in these rules in the first place, you’ve got to have some level of comfort with and interest in detailed resolution of a mass combat, with the mathiness that entails. If you didn’t, you’d employ a purely narrative resolution, or boil the whole deal down to a single die roll. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if that’s what’s satisfying for you and your group. Blog of Holding has some alternatives for you.

Skirmishers are organized to be fast-moving and responsive, while regiments are organized to seize and hold ground. It’s a classic light infantry vs. heavy infantry divide, but with the expectation of fantastic creatures, spells, and individually potent heroes joining or leaving the fray. The balance of benefits to each is interesting and on-point, though once we get to what each type of unit has to do to avoid “becoming isolated,” I have a flash of worry about complexity of resolution. For now, that’s just a note to consider once we get to those rules.

My other big question going forward is how or if there might be specialized rules for cavalry units. I’m far from a military historian or tactician, but I have done a tolerable bit of reading on column and line tactics from the Byzantine era on through the Napoleonic. I’m not expecting any such thing, but it’s such a pivotal decision that I might explore adding some as a houserule.

Solos are heroes, individually significant monsters, and the like. Being a solo is not mutually exclusive with joining a stand. Especially for PCs, joining a stand should be high on their list of priorities. A PC can act as the commander of a unit if the unit has no commander already in place, and if the PC is attached to a stand within that unit. (At this point, the stand/unit terminology is making my head hurt a bit. The document uses them correctly, but the words appear so often in the text that my eyes start to skip over them.) Anyway, a commander can spend a bonus action each round to grant the unit one of three different bonuses, all of which look pretty good.
If taken too literally, the rules for solos cause some strange visuals: an unattached solo takes up the same space on the battlefield as a stand of creatures of the same size. So for some reason, when Peregrin Took gets separated from his unit, he’s occupying a 20′ x 20′ square? Well, I guess that’s what a halfling wandering through Minas Tirith, confused and alone, might look like… and there are a lot of demoralized stands retreating through his square in those scenes, which they can totally do. Fair enough, Mearls.
Unit Integrity
Okay, this is finally getting explained, cool. Huh, these are really unusual rules for D&D: positioning matters, and it’s about staying within a certain distance (varying by whether the stand is a skirmisher, regiment, or solo) of its unit, or in the solo’s case of any allied unit. “Isolated” is functionally a condition, and some means of adapting it to squad-level play might serve a purpose. It’s harder to isolate a skirmisher than a regiment, and slightly harder to isolate a solo than a skirmisher. While isolated, the stand or solo suffers disadvantage on all attacks, and grants advantage on attacks against it, and attacks against it that hit deal double damage. So diagonals not counting for adjacency is sort of a big deal here.
Hmm. So let’s look at an extreme case: an ancient red dragon is Gargantuan. What happens when Smaug. Chiefest and Greatest of All Calamities, descends upon Dale and the Lonely Mountain? Well, okay, he never actually has to land to murder everyone, so only missile weapons matter for purposes of the fact that he is isolated and has no way to not be isolated, other than shifting the fight to squad-level combat. Still, he’s granting advantage on attacks against him, and takes double damage from those attacks, so I’m guessing Bard the Bowman is a bow rogue who rolled a crit on his Sneak Attack shot. That’s a cool 30d6, which still won’t down an ancient red dragon, but it does make him question his life choices.
On the other hand, our dragon, kaiju, or whatever doesn’t have to deal damage to ten individuals. From a resilience standpoint, they have to deal one-tenth as much damage to each stand as they otherwise would… so what if they have disadvantage on that roll? Likewise, a unit deals 2d8 + (2 * stat bonus) damage, rather than 10d8 + (10 * stat bonus) damage, so… yeah, I guess it’s still good to be the monster.
The Unit Integrity rules also mean that forced movement, such as the example of the minotaur unit used in the document, is a big deal – maybe a bigger deal than in squad-level combat. For full effect, follow up the push with a hail of arrows by another stand. I wonder if a stand or unit can make a Shove attack for a one-square push, as an individual can in squad combat? If they can (and it seems like they can, because “a stand attacks just like its component creatures”), I worry that it will be too easy for any stand or unit with two attacks in a round to isolate and destroy enemy stands.

These rules include five types of terrain: clear, road, forest, water, and high ground. The rules here are clean and straightforward, so naturally I think it calls for one or two more terrain types to be a bit more complicated. Fire comes to mind, because lighting something on fire to the inconvenience of one’s foes is one of the classic stratagems… and because this is D&D, where fireballs are a significant danger at any moment. It should be a source of morale problems foremost – if there’s fire in the path of your retreat, you have a problem. Actual damage from the flame might be more exciting, but it’s probably a lot harder to get enemies to stay in the area you’ve prepared with oil so that you can set them on fire.
Beyond that… it’s a fantasy adventure game, show me some crazy terrain types! …even if they mostly don’t need unique rules, because they’re covered by something found in the DMG. Fine, fine.
Combat Procedure

Having established its nouns, the document now explains its verbs, such as how to start the whole affair. The rules acknowledge that there may be some bookkeeping labor at this stage, just to track which stands belong to each unit for isolation purposes. If and when these rules are Official, I’d expect some cool third-party peripherals to aid with that data tracking.
Initiative is basically normal, but a unit’s initiative procedure is modified by whether it’s a skirmisher or a regiment. The mass combat round structure is just different enough from normal D&D that winning initiative might matter for more than just the first round. Or not, but I guess we’ll see.
Movement is normal except that once you’re adjacent to an enemy unit, you have to use the Retreat action to break off combat. That thing about diagonals not counting for adjacency? Super important. I am surprised that skirmishers can move-act-move (that is, split up their Speed on either side of the action), implying that regiments cannot. Two of the regimental configurations only allow half movement anyway, though – which is good for emphasizing the difference between skirmisher and regiment.
Battle Actions

Okay, now we get the verbs for real, and how they differ in mass combat from squad-level combat. The special rule for reach of 10 feet or more is something I was wondering about: instead of its normal function, it grants an extra attack as a bonus action when you Attack with the unit’s action. Potent, but not as bizarre and awful as “normal” reach would be in mass combat.
The Attack action kind of highlights that while these rules help with mass combat, we may need rules to zoom out one more level for the grand battles of books and movies – “Each stand in a unit directs its attack against another target stand.” If you took the Battle of Pelennor Fields and zoomed out to the 1/10th scale of these mass combat rules, your table would still collapse under the weight of your Reaper Bones and a single turn would still take an hour.
I wonder if adjacent ranged weapon attacks suffer disadvantage, as they would in squad-level combat.
Hoookay, the rules for casting a spell in mass combat might make my eyes bleed. A stand of spellcasters behaves a little oddly, especially when we get to targeted spells and areas of effect. Ten spellcasters all cast the same spell and deal… twice as much damage as it would otherwise deal? I’ve got to be missing something here, other than how easy it is to get isolated and murdered. But you know, a lot of armies are going to treat spellcasters of any great potency as solos anyway.

The Cast a Spell rules remind me, a little indirectly, of the Birthright mass combat rules. Those rules had scale problems, or at least oddities, of their own – a single wizard (thankfully rare in-setting) could deal unbelievable damage with a fireball, or could learn and cast Battle Spells – normal spells reworked to act on a mass-combat level, such as a rain of magic missiles or a unit-wide charm person.

The 1:10 scale of mass combat may also do some odd things to the effectiveness of healing spells. Even more so than in squad-level battle, the healers of the party should give serious thought to saving all of their spell slots for healing, because each cure wounds (to say nothing of greater magics) is saving ten people and functionally buying you a replacement unit that is already in position. I’m guessing default, rulebook healing is more effective in mass combat than is actually desirable.
Configuring is one of the regiment’s defining features. I think most designers would have treated the heavy infantry as the relatively plain, just-go-hit-things type, and the skirmishers as the Spec Ops type with a long list of options. Mearls went the other way with it, and I’m inclined to see that as the more compelling choice.

  • Aid: This reads a lot like the press of a shield wall as Bernard Cornwell describes it – stands that can’t reach the nearest enemy are still ably supporting their allies in the front lines. The thing I’m not clear on is how deep a formation can be before Aid loses its effectiveness. Three stands deep? Four? This matters more for massed arrow fire than for melee.
  • Defend: This is a Roman testudo, plain and simple. Unfortunately it inherently includes the whole unit, but this is a pretty credible way to let regiments hold ground against all attacks. I don’t know for sure if +2 is enough of a bonus, but it’s rare enough to see a fixed numerical bonus that… sure, why not. Use this one with forethought, though: sacrificing the Attack action is a solid short-term strategy, but attrition is a harsh mistress in the long term.
  • March: This is sort of your default state, with all options open but no bonuses other than moving at full speed.
  • Lament: Er, wait. This one isn’t in the document…

Hiding is an action open only to skirmishers and solos. It works normally, except that any stand within a unit that cannot Hide, or chooses not to Hide, loses its action for the round.

The Join action is a big part of gameplay as a solo, which means it’s one of the ones players most need to understand. I utterly failed to understand it on a first read, because one of the most important points – you still attack like normal, you just move as part of the stand – is buried in the sixth paragraph of the rules block. I’m not completely sure how attacks against the stand affect the solo. Does an enemy stand declare whether they’re attacking the stand or the solo, do they automatically attack both, or some third thing? There’s a paragraph on spell resolution, but that doesn’t help for weapon damage. I know what happens when the stand dies, but how is damage applied to a stand with an attached solo?
The Retreat action has a lot in common with the squad-level Disengage action, except that there’s no “withdraw without disengaging/retreating” option. Retreat, and the later rules for broken (demoralized) units, have the same problem that rules for escape have always had in D&D: the pursuer has the same Speed as the pursued, which is a good rule in itself, but causes a lot of the problems that D&D is criticized for. How many times has someone pointed out how unrealistic it is for enemies to fight to the death? Even this document does it, but it doesn’t provide a way for a unit deciding between retreat and sticking it out to have even a 50/50 chance to getting away.

The actual problem? In real life, the victorious characters are tired from their adrenaline crash, the defeated characters are scared, and even a psychopath isn’t as vindictive and tireless as a PC chasing an enemy that might still have 2d10 silver pieces in his pocket.


This is my last chance to find an answer on applying damage to stands with attached solos, but instead I have more questions. If an enemy does enough damage to kill a stand, excess damage applies to adjacent identical stands. This is very confusing in the context of the Cast a Spell action and its area-effect resolutions. It seems to open the door to “double-dipping” the damage from a fireball against a stand.

Let’s say Simbeline the Sublime tosses off a fireball that damages Stand A and Stand B, which are in the same unit and identical except that Stand A is already badly hurt. 8d6 can be some pretty serious damage, so Stand A bites it after absorbing just 15 of the 30 damage from the fireball. I take from this rule that Stand B also takes 30 damage, plus another 15 damage from Stand A’s overflow? (But if Stand A and Stand B aren’t identical, Stand B takes no overflow damage.)

It’s interesting that defeated stands aren’t removed from play or prevented from acting until the end of the round. I can’t help but ponder adopting this rule, perhaps with minor tweaks, into squad-level play, where it would be remarkably cinematic. This would seem to reduce the impact of initiative, since no matter how well a stand rolls, it’s not going to eliminate an enemy stand before it can act in a round.
End of Round

Another fascinating aspect of having an End of Round phase: stands within a unit can automatically move into a defeated stand’s place, which means that defeating a stand doesn’t intrinsically create a gap in the enemy line. Forced movement, on the other hand, would create that gap, I think?
There are also formal Morale rules here, which apply on the unit level rather than the stand level. As usual, they do not apply to anyone important (solo, that is). The solo can decide to move with its demoralized unit and get a chance to rally them, or abandon them and stay in the fighting, possibly joining a different stand. I like that you only calculate whether a Morale check is necessary once per round.
End of Round is strikingly unkind to PC solos – for death saving throws, you temporarily revert to six-second rounds, so no one else has a chance to come along and save you if you start bleeding to death, because other solos (such as your party members) don’t also drop into six-second rounds.
Objectives and Victory Points

This is the one part of the document that I think just doesn’t work. Objectives accrue Victory Points, and the first side to 10 VP (or with the greater number of VP, if both sides pass the post on the same round) wins; the margin determines the decisiveness of the triumph. That part is great, but setting the number at 10 inherently limits the scale of battles, and I’m not really convinced that players and DMs need the extra help to figure out which side has achieved their objectives, or by how much. It gets much stickier with the Protection objective, where you accrue 1 VP per round as long as you meet certain status-quo kinds of conditions. Ten minutes of protecting the (location, object, or piece of infrastructure) doesn’t exactly constitute what I expect from mass combat. Yeah, I’m being super nitpicky in a playtest draft, but my contention is that VP don’t accomplish a whole lot other than telling the losing side when it’s all over.

Other than Objectives and Victory Points, this is a pretty sound document. The way the system equates ten normal soldiers to one Important Character will draw fire from some. The system doesn’t offer scaling beyond 1:10 zoom, and many people will be disappointed at the limits of that scope. I can envision how to go out to 1:50 or 1:100 scale, though it sacrifices some portion of the smooth, simple function that is this document’s strong suit. The document doesn’t really touch the effects of top-end spells as moves and countermoves in a battle, though it’s possible that nothing particularly needs to be said.
What I personally want out of mass combat rules – and this won’t shock anyone who has read my recent post on Thorin Oakenshield – is to get tolerably close to presenting the many different major engagements of Peter Jackson’s hexalogy, without having to hire these guys to do it for me. I think the core rules cover siege warfare rather better than one might expect by default, both for siege engines and exhaustion-by-starvation, though specific varieties of fortification may be in order. I would love to see specific rules for cavalry of various types, including cavalry formations, though that might get too complicated. It just seems a shame not to have a lance-charge and a pike-hedge as explicit tactics.
I remain very excited that the public playtest of 5e rules continues, now with optional rules modules rather than the core system. If nothing else, it means I’ll always have blog topics ready to go! (They’ve also posted Eberron rules, which I should try to write about, but I generally found them less controversial than the mass combat rules… other than the implication that characters of every race would have a feat to spend at character creation. Why would only Variant Humans get to start play with a dragonmark?)

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