OGC:Warfare (5e Variant Rule)
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Large-scale battles have been part of the fantasy genre since Tolkien invented it in 1937 with The Hobbit and the Battle of Five Armies but, tellingly, that entire battle happens offscreen while Bilbo is knocked out.
Like that battle, warfare in the game has always been something the GM was expected to handwave away. And that’s fine for the core game — it has enough to cover just managing skirmishes and everything else that can happen in an RPG. It’s up to supplements like this to cover that material.
Raising an army is a meaningful part of this book, and it plays heavily into the next book, Kingdoms & Warfare. Building a stronghold is only the beginning. The region around the stronghold becomes your demesne, and you might want to grow it beyond a single province and gain more power and influence. And in any event, as a GM I’ve always assumed the last step in acquiring a stronghold is defending it in battle against those who would take it from you.
To this end, we present a system for resolving epic battles featuring hundreds or thousands of combatants on a side. Since that system gets an entire book after this one, we present only those bits you’ll need to get the job done.
- 1 Not a Wargame
- 2 Heavily Abstracted
- 3 Individuals Don't Matter
- 4 The Army that Holds Morale Holds the Field
- 5 Anatomy of a Unit
- 5.1 Name and Keywords
- 5.2 Ancestry
- 5.3 Experience
- 5.4 Equipment
- 5.5 Type
- 5.6 Size
- 5.7 Attack and Defense
- 5.8 Power and Toughness
- 5.9 Morale
- 5.10 No Hit Points
- 5.11 Creating Your Own Units
Not a Wargame
One core assumption of this system is: 5th Edition players are already playing a very complex game and should not be expected to also play a whole other wargame.
You may disagree with that. You might think that having a complete, robust, epic-scale miniatures wargame for 5th Edition would be keen. And I would agree with you!
But you and I are not the only people to consider.
Because every table I’ve played at had one or two players who loved wargames, one or two who didn’t feel strongly about them one way or the other, and one or two who really didn’t want to play a wargame of any sort. They showed up to play their character and had no interest in running an army.
This system, therefore, is opt-in. You can award your players units, they can hire mercenary units, they can build a stronghold and attract units, and they may use them in battle. But a player who finds warfare distasteful can literally ignore it all, and while the other players are commanding an army, they’ll just be playing their characters.
While you can use this system all by itself to resolve a battle — or use the rules in Simple Warfare for something even faster and more streamlined — this system assumes a battle (clash of armies) takes place at the same time as an encounter (PCs fighting monsters and bad guys). While the heroes fight the villains in the castle courtyard, their armies clash outside.
This system deploys a lot of jargon that evokes the feel of real strategy and tactics — "heavy infantry," "flanking," "morale" — and those terms all have real mechanical meaning. But we don’t track position at all. The Order of Battle describes which units that a unit can legally attack, but the physical positions of your units are entirely abstract. The armies clash outside the castle walls, or over the nearby hill, or along the road leading to the town, but we don’t worry about where the units are standing, or how far away they are from each other, or which unit is next to which. We presume the armies know how to do their job and are doing their best to maintain position and carry out orders.
Likewise, we do not track individual soldiers nor do we worry overmuch about exactly how big a unit is. The typical Medium Infantry unit is assumed to be 100 soldiers, give or take. A group of 12 knights could be a unit unto themselves, and they would have very good stats indeed, but a very small casualty die (probably a d4, see The Casualty Die).
Individuals Don't Matter
Every time I release a mass combat system, going all the way back to 2002, there’s always a vocal minority of people arguing that their 5th-level wizard with a potion of flying should be able to single-handedly obliterate an enemy army.
I know that sounds like I’m exaggerating, but that’s a real example of a complaint that stuck in my head.
It’s perfectly reasonable in an RPG about heroic fantasy to expect your hero to be the key figure in a war. But in my opinion, if that’s the kind of game you want to run… you don’t really need a system for warfare. If you’re running a game where the outcome of an entire war depends on the actions of one character or a small group… you’ve got a whole fantasy RPG for that! That sounds like a great adventure!
There are plenty of examples of this in the canon. WWII was certainly a war, but WWII movies aren’t about armies — they’re about small groups of heroes who alone make the difference. An RPG party, in other words. Look ye to The Dirty Dozen or Where Eagles Dare or Inglorious Basterds.
Instead, we accept that warfare in the game is essentially the same as real medieval warfare, and the existence of wizards and clerics doesn’t render armies obsolete—because, again, if that is your philosophy, you don’t need rules — it just makes armies more interesting.
The Army that Holds Morale Holds the Field
All commanders yearn for a tactical masterpiece, a la the Battle of Cannae, whereby through careful planning, expert maneuvering, and a little luck, one side executes a perfect encirclement of the other.
But even under these ideal conditions, the battle isn’t won when the last soldier is killed — that is a deeply ahistorical notion. The battle is over as soon as one army breaks morale and runs. Archeological diggings bear this out: the heaviest casualties were not inflicted on the site of the battle, but along the path of the fleeing army.
So, morale is critical. Every unit has a Morale score — its ability to deal with adversity and the unexpected without freaking out. Your units will make lots of Morale checks, and failing a Morale check is just as devastating to a unit as its soldiers dying.
This is something all field commanders quickly learn: Killing a soldier with sword or pike is long, dangerous, bloody business. But if you can cause a soldier to panic, if you can convince them the battle is lost before it’s begun, if you can throw their unit into disarray, then you have won.
A soldier who quits the field and runs away is tactically no different than a dead soldier. Neither contributes their might to their unit anymore, and the unit is diminished as a result. If enough soldiers panic and flee, the unit disbands. An entire unit can be annihilated without a soldier ever dying. Because a unit is not merely a collection of soldiers — it is their ability to move, take orders, and fight in a coordinated fashion. Attack that ability, and you attack the unit.
The good news is, soldiers who run away actually do live to fight another day, and units that break morale in one battle can, under certain circumstances, be reformed to fight in the next battle.
Anatomy of a Unit
Your army is made up of units. Each unit has a card with stats, and its status is tracked with a casualty die. Let’s take a look at a typical unit card:
ATTACK: +4 DEFENSE: 13
POWER: +2 TOUGHNESS: 13
MORALE: +4 SIZE: 1d6
That Just Made Them Angry. While diminished, this unit has advantage on attack checks. Enemy power tests against this unit have disadvantage.
Lots to unpack here — let's take it from the top.
Name and Keywords
Every unit has an evocative name. The Ironheart Defenders. The Blood Moon Infantry. The 7th Imperial Legion. These names are purely flavor. Our Ironheart Defenders have the following keywords: Dwarf (ancestry), Seasoned (experience), Medium (equipment), and Infantry (type). Each keyword has an associated chart (See Creating Your Own Units) showing you which bonuses you get from each keyword.
You can find a chart listing several likely ancestries you might need and the unit bonuses they confer below. Any ancestry you find in the core rules, any species or monster, could be fielded as a unit, and Kingdoms & Warfare will list many more. My players once fought an army composed of jellies and oozes when they failed to stop the cults in the Temple of Primordial Chaos.
Our sample unit is of Dwarf ancestry, which determines its basic stats.
Experience describes both how much fighting the unit has seen and how well trained they are. The levels of experience are:
- Green: Soldiers with any training, but who have seen no action. Levies who survive a battle automatically convert into Green Infantry.
- Regular: Normal soldiers. A unit of volunteers who’ve been well trained by seasoned commanders can begin as Regular, and a typical large army is mostly composed of Regular units.
- Seasoned: Troops who’ve seen more than one battle and lived to tell the tale. Well versed in warfare, probably been exposed to stuff that really challenged their morale, like battle magic.
- Veteran: Troops who have seen several battles and know what to expect in warfare. They are resilient and versed in tactics used to break morale.
- Elite: Soldiers who haven’t just seen a lot of battle and survived, but have trained and executed complex maneuvers under extraordinary conditions. Elite troops require a degree of flexibility in thinking and improvisation rarely found in normal soldiers, even veterans.
- Super-elite: The most highly trained and battle-hardened units. These are typically shock troops, orders of knights on horseback. Small units capable of surviving for long periods behind enemy lines.
Experience affects a unit’s Attack (their ability to successfully execute an offensive maneuver) as well as their Toughness (their ability to withstand a successful attack without taking casualties). But mostly a unit’s experience affects their Morale: their ability to withstand punishment and endure confusion on the battlefield without becoming afraid or — just as bad — getting so disorganized that they can no longer fight effectively.
Our Ironheart Defenders are Seasoned, which means they are not only well trained, but they’ve served in combat and survived. But there are three more levels of experience above that!
How heavily armed and armored is the unit? The ranks are:
- Light: Leather or no armor. Some troops are lightly armored because they’re peasants. Some are lightly armored because it grants them greater mobility, allowing them to be deployed quickly into a distant battle.
- Medium: Hide or a chain shirt.
- Heavy: Breastplate and shield, or chain mail. Maybe ring mail — we don’t get really picky about exactly where each armor combo falls on this scale.
- Super-heavy: Full plate mail, heavy weapons, and the training to use them effectively.
Equipment grants bonuses to the unit’s Power (the effectiveness of their weapons) and Toughness (their ability to withstand a successful attack without suffering casualties).
Our Ironheart Defenders are Medium, which means they’re probably wearing chain shirts, which is pretty typical for dwarf units. They don’t like wearing light armor.
What kind of unit is this? How does it fight? More than any of the other keywords, type defines the unit and affects all of its stats. It also defines which units are legal targets, as described in The Order of Battle.
- Levies: Unsoldiers. Levies have no experience level and always have Light equipment. They are peasants forced to fight by cruel masters, or willing to fight to defend their land. They’re basically crap at everything, but they perform a critical function: they absorb casualties, allowing your better-trained units to keep fighting longer. If they survive, they can become Green Infantry!
- Levies usually disband after a couple days’ battles. They do not stick around for weeks waiting to fight, they have farms to tend. Once they disband, must convince them to fight all over again. You cannot pay upkeep to maintain them as a standing army.
- Infantry: The meat (possibly literally, depending on whom you’re fighting) and potatoes of your army. Very limited in whom they can attack.
- Archers: Typically archers. Could be javelin-throwers if you’re talking Bronze Age dudes. Can basically attack anyone.
- Cavalry: Highly mobile troops deployed to flank the enemy and hit them where they’re not defended.
- Airborne: Flying units! That’s right!
- Fortifications: Keeps, towers, and temples are all fortifications, but so too can a hill or a wall be one. Any terrain feature one side can defend or occupy. Typically, defending a fortification grants the defending units a Morale bonus.
- Siege Engines: Typically catapults and trebuchets, but also monsters like treants, if pressed into service.
Our dwarves are Infantry, which is pretty typical for them. Dwarves have an aversion to riding on anything taller than them and tend to consider most missile weapons cowardly.
Now that we know what Dwarf Seasoned Medium Infantry is — a unit of dwarves, on foot, carrying medium gear, who’ve seen a lot of battle — let’s look at what their stats mean.
How big, in numbers, is your unit? This is the unit’s Size, which is represented by a casualty die placed on its unit card. A unit begins a battle with its casualty die on its highest face (e.g., “6” for a d6, “8” for a d8). A unit’s die is decremented — reduced by one — each time it fails a Morale check and each time an attacker succeeds on a Power check against it.
Your army only has one card for a given unit. So if your army has a lot of Regular Heavy Human Infantry, to pick a random example, you won’t have several cards all with the same stats. Instead, that unit gets a larger casualty die. The largest casualty die is a d20, which represents a very large unit* that can suffer many casualties before it breaks or is slaughtered.
Attack and Defense
When your unit attacks an enemy unit, you roll a d20 and add your unit’s Attack. To succeed on the attack, the result of your roll must equal or exceed the enemy’s Defense, a measure of both the quality of their gear and their relevant training. Units can experience advantage and disadvantage just like characters.
Power and Toughness
If your unit succeeds on its attack, it’s time to see whether your unit is strong enough, and well-trained enough, to inflict meaningful casualties.
Any successful attack will have some consequences, but when you’re dealing with hundreds of soldiers, one or two of them dying isn’t significant. Toughness represents both their literal physical toughness and the quality of their gear. A successful Power check against a unit means they will suffer enough casualties to decrement the casualty die and, depending on the shape the unit is in, this may cause a Morale check!
Morale is a unit’s most important stat, since lots of things in battle can prompt a Morale check. Unit abilities or battle magic that forces a Morale check will list the DC in the text of the ability or spell. If your unit is diminished, just taking casualties can prompt a Morale check.
Failing a Morale check decrements the unit’s casualty die. As far as your unit’s effectiveness is concerned, there’s no difference between losing morale and losing soldiers.
No Hit Points
Your character will be attacked many times over the course of an encounter. Some attacks miss, some hit.
The same is true for the units in your army.
A hit does not always mean your character dies, though. Each attack roll begets a damage roll, and it is only after many successful attack rolls and many damage rolls that your character finally drops.
The same is true for the units in your army.
But because A: you are already playing a character with hit points and doing math every time you take damage and B: you’re maybe running several units at once, we do not burden you with doing math over and over again for your character and all your units.
Instead, a successful attack check against a unit prompts a power check, in which the attacking unit checks to see "Was the strength of our attack enough to overcome the enemy’s Toughness?"
A common reaction to this system is "Why are there two attack rolls?" There aren’t! There’s one attack roll and one damage roll. There’s just no math associated with the damage roll.
Creating Your Own Units
Using the following rules, you can build your own units with some ancestry options found in most campaigns.
Start by picking a row from each of the following charts. As you go, write down the total for each stat on a blank unit template. Remember that Levies have no equipment rating or experience rating. They’re just Levies.
Defense and Toughness both start at 10.
Step One: Ancestry
Choose an ancestry below and add its stat bonuses to the unit card. Then find the traits of the unit’s ancestry on the table below and add them to the unit card.
- As an example, a Dwarf unit would begin with +3 Attack, +1 Power, +11 Defense, and +11 Toughness.
|Ghoul||-1||+0||+2||+2||+0||Horrify, Ravenous, Undead|
|Hobgoblin||+2||+0||+0||+0||+1||Bred for War, Martial|
|Treant||+0||+2||+0||+2||+0||Hurl Rocks, Siege Engine, Twisting Roots|
|Amphibious||This unit does not suffer terrain penalties for fighting in water or on land.||50|
|Bred for War||This unit cannot be diminished, and cannot have disadvantage on Morale checks.||100|
|Brutal||This unit inflicts two casualties on a successful Power test.||200|
|Courageous||Once per battle, this unit can choose to succeed at a Morale check it just failed.||50|
|Eternal||This unit cannot be horrified, and it always succeeds on Morale checks to attack undead and fiends.||50|
|Frenzy||If this unit diminishes an enemy unit, it immediately gains a free attack against that unit.||50|
|Horrify||If this unit inflicts a casualty on an enemy unit, force a DC 15 Morale check. Failure exhausts the unit.||200|
|Hurl Rocks||If this unit succeeds on an Attack check, it inflicts 2 casualties, against fortifications deal 1d6.||250|
|Martial||Inflicts two casualties on a successful Power check if this unit’s size is greater than their target’s.||100|
|Mindless||This unit cannot fail Morale checks.||100|
|Ravenous||While there is a diminished enemy unit, this unit can spend a round feeding on the corpses. Increment their casualty die.||50|
|Regenerate||When this unit refreshes, increment its casualty die. This ability ceases to function if the unit suffers a casualty from battle magic.||200|
|Savage||This unit has advantage on the first Attack check it makes each battle.||50|
|Stalwart||Enemy battle magic has disadvantage on power tests against this unit.||50|
|Twisting Roots||As an action, this unit can sap the walls of a fortification. Siege units have advantage on Power checks against sapped fortifications.||200|
|Undead||Green and Regular troops must pass a Morale check to attack this unit. Each enemy unit need only do this once.||50|
Step Two: Experience
Next, choose an experience level and add the bonuses listed to the unit's card.
Step Three: Equipment
Now do the same thing with equipment.
Step Four: Type
And then type. Levies and Cavalry both have traits listed below that can be added to their unit card if you want to make it easier to remember during battle. Cavalry units gain Charge and can engage.
Charge: Cannot use while engaged. A Charge is an attack with advantage on the Attack check. It inflicts two casualties on a successful Power check. The charging unit is then Engaged with the defending unit and must make a DC 13 Morale check to disengage.
Levies are always diminished.
Step Five: Size
Choose a size. This can dramatically affect the unit's final cost.
Step Six: Calculating Cost
Now that you’ve filled out the unit card with all its stats, it’s time to calculate its cost. This can be the literal cost to buy the unit in gold pieces, in the case of mercenaries, or just the cost used to balance encounters and calculate upkeep.
First, add up the bonuses to Attack, Power, Defense, and Toughness*, and add double the total bonus to Morale.
Then, multiply this total by the Cost Modifier from the unit’s Type, and then multiply it by its Cost Modifier from Size. Multiply this result by 10.
Add the cost of all the traits of the unit’s Ancestry. Finally, add a flat 30 points.
- This sounds more complex than it is. For instance, let’s take a unit of Elite Heavy Dwarven Infantry.
ATTACK: +6 DEFENSE: 15
POWER: +6 TOUGHNESS: 13
MORALE: +8 SIZE: 1d6
- The total of its Attack, Power, Defense, and Toughness bonuses is 20 (6 + 6 + 5 + 3). Adding double the unit’s Morale bonus to this gives 36 (20 + (8 x 2)). This result is multiplied by 1 because they’re Infantry (that’s easy), and then by 1 again because they’re Size 1d6, so we’re still at 36.
- We multiply that whole thing by 10 to get 360.* Then we add the cost of all their traits, which is 50 (the cost of the Stalwart trait) plus another 30* for a total of 400.
|Strongholds and Followers|
|Variant Rules||Warfare (5e Variant Rule)|