Posted by : David Guyll May 01, 2014

A common criticism about 5th Edition is that the designers seem more inclined to just recycle legacy mechanics—whether or not they evoke the style or "feels" that they claim to be going for—instead of actually designing rules or refining them (which has led to the derogatory title of D&D Previous): you have got Hit Dice, unnecessarily rigid class progressions, nonsense pseudo-Vancian magic, and now...Battlesystem?

I got into Dungeons & Dragons back when 2nd Edition was still a thing, but if it were not for a thread over on RPG.net would have never known just how desperately they were scraping the bottom of the nostalgia-barrel. According to Wikipedia, it was a wargame supplement for 1st and 2nd Edition, and the closest I could find to mechanics was that a figure represented 10 infantrymen or cavalry, or a single hero, THAC0 and maximum damage determined your Attack Dice, while Armor Class became Armor Rating. You rolled an Attack Die per unit, the defender rolls some more dice to cancel hits, and left over hits became casualties.

Sounds a lot like Warhammer, and it seemed to get mixed reviews, but it is unsurprisingly more than what Mike divulges:
  • Combat rounds are inflated to minutes (though creatures arbitrarily abide by it).
  • Groups of units are lumped into "stands" (with larger creatures for some reason needing fewer numbers to qualify), and sometimes creatures can "stand" alone.
  • Stands can be either regiments or skirmishers, though no benefits/drawbacks are mentioned for either.
  • Stands make one attack, compressing what would normally be ten attacks into one, unless it attacks a solo, then they all get to make one attack...unless the solo is in a stand, then the stand just makes one. 
  • Solos make one attack against a stand, except when they fight a solo: then they get to make all ten.
  • "Rounding out" the rules are victory point rules. You give objectives victory point values, and at the end you tally them up to see who really wins.

As you might imagine there are a couple of problems. I will start with the nitpicks.

First, I hate the name. Nothing about it suggests mass combat, and when I first saw the article I thought it was for the "tactical" combat module that they mentioned a few times but then never revealed any mechanics for. Also, why is it billed as an "optional part of the core system"? Mass battles are not something I have seen in any Dungeons & Dragons adventure, so unless there is some other remotely manageable way to handle two armies clashing, labeling it as optional seems kind of pointless.

Now for the bigger issues, and by bigger issues I mean the stuff that 5th Edition fans will largely dismiss, maybe because it is optional, likely because 5th Edition can seemingly do no wrong (even when they later backpedal, like with the stupid cursed-egg-origin for dragonborn), and definitely because damnit Dungeons & Dragons should never change: Hit Dice and pseudo-Vancian magic are the optimal way to convey...whatever the hell it is they are trying to convey.

Sorry, got sidetracked for a bit there...anywho, why does the duration of a round change? The article tries to reason that larger battles take longer, so a round gets beefed up to a minute, except that solo-on-solo action takes place in "normal" time, meaning that they get to make ten attacks when the stands are still making just one. This in turn creates its own issues.

Solos only make one attack when they join a stand. Why? Are they just...standing there? Second, how come a solo Large gets to make ten attacks, but if he bumbles into the space of four other Larges they combine to form the world's most ineffective Voltron which, all combined, gets to make just one attack in an entire minute? It gets even stranger when you think of two solo Huges running up to give each other a high-five, only to find that they are now magically a tenth as effective.

Now maybe the rules try to account for all of this stuff. Maybe adding a solo to a stand gives it a drastic boost to something, as opposed to just negating attacks. Maybe the damage that five Larges can inflict is somehow factored into the one attack they get to make. Maybe on a miss nothing happens, or maybe the damage is just reduced. This would make more sense, since it would be silly for 2-10 creatures to all miss based on a single roll, but some people seem to think that missing always means a miss (despite the fact that it cannot). No idea, because Mike does not provide any examples or clarifications.

Mind you that is just melee solos: what about spellcasters? How do you factor a spellcaster's compressed spellcasting when part of a stand? What about outside of one: in ten rounds a spellcaster gets to cast at least ten spells (more if you take into account totally-not-Minor-action-magic). I would exploit this inexplicable change in action-time to fireball the hell out of nearby stands. Even if I—for some reason—had to target the solo, I would do my damnedest to catch other enemies in the area of effect.

Shifting gears from solos, here are some other questions/concerns that cropped up (though I am sure there are more):
  • Damaging area-effects. Would it do more damage to a stand or what? I think it should, since normally an area-effect would obliterate an entire cluster of creatures, but who knows.
  • Save-or-screw area effects, like a gorgon's breath, and similarly a medusa's gaze.
  • Creatures with single-target save-or-screw effects, like a flock of cockatrices.
  • Other area spells, particularly those that for some reason target hit points, like sleep or all of the various symbols.
  • Single target spells, like melf's acid arrow. Does the system account for one-time extra-damage spells?
  • Healing magic. If stand-damage just means casualties, does healing work at all? What about temporary hit point magic?
  • Area-buffing spells, like aid or bless.
  • Creatures that normally make multiple attacks: does the stand's damage account for this? What if a stand has half units that make one attack, and half units that make multiple attacks? What about fighters taking extra actions?
  • How do stands of ten Small or Medium creatures all gang up on a solo? They are for some reason using a grid as opposed to hexes, and on a grid you can only get surrounded by eight Small or Medium creatures: what gives?
  • Mixed stands. Do you average the damage?

Again there are no actual mechanics shown to us, so maybe this stuff will get hashed out in the end, but right now, at a glance, it looks lazy, uninspired, you know, all the usual stuff that we have come to know and expect from 5th Edition. It would have been interesting to see an actual example of two on how things scale up, and whether the system addresses some of the more extreme abstractions.

{ 7 comments... read them below or Comment }

  1. I saw this in Legends and Lore but didn't think deeply about it. I'll withhold judgement until I understand better exactly what they're trying to accomplish, but in general, I've always LIKED the fact that D&D is a shit-poor mass combat wargame. That's so totally NOT the point of the game.

    In fact, the whole idea that there's some "massive humanoid invasion that threatens the future of the kingdom" is the worst, tiredest trope in the fantasy fiction. By avoiding mass combat rules, D&D avoids the idea that we're always fighting some kind of "invaders from beyond", and that's a good thing. Encouraging mass combat is therefore a bad idea that just brings out the worst, tirest storytelling in DM's worldwide.

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  2. I think fighting huge armies CAN be a cheap cop-out for a finale if done poorly (see the latest Alice in Wonderland move...or rather don't), and in a general sense when I think of a game where I have to manage an army and wage huge wars D&D is not the game that comes to mind.

    Should D&D avoid mass-combat? I do not think it HAS to, but I also think that WotC would be better served by trying to establish what the feel/identity of the game is, and design rules and mechanics that serve that premise.

    This? It sounds like an INCREDIBLY abstract skirmish game, even by D&D's standards: each "mini" is 10 people, solo characters only get 10 attacks if they attack other solo characters, two solo titans get 10 attacks each unless they are paired up, etc.

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    Replies
    1. "It sounds like an INCREDIBLY abstract skirmish game."

      @David - I think that may be the point. Now, I'm not defending any specific design choice, but I think the designers know D&D rules are not good for mass battles so they need an abstracted short cut to determine the outcome of large battles.

      I do think it is a little odd the way they are handling solos, but honestly haven't put that much thought into it as I wasn't really interested in the mass combat mechanics. I think the C&C Mass Combat rules could easily be substituted. They are also abstracted, but appear to manage the "hero" effects (essentially solos) within a squad a little better. I don't have it here in front of me, but if you haven't read it, it may be worth checking out.

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  3. Off the top of my head, I can think of two published adventures that made use of mass combat, H1 Bloodstone Pass and FRE1 Shadowdale. Other than that, this post is interesting, as it gives a completely new perspective on Battlesystem, unfettered by detailed knowledge or even play experience.

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  4. Neither of which applies to, well, any of the concerns/questions I voice. Well, unless the new Battlesystem is exactly the same as the old one (which it does not sound like it is, based on the meager details Mike provides), in which case it would be more helpful to actually address/answer them. :-)

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  5. My biggest objection here is that it seems a corner-case system that should maybe be given full focus on a supplement. It is not very relevant to the core game experience and it wastes development time and resources they could be using to... you know, make 5E into something other than a nostalgia-fueled slog.

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  6. Yeah, the only time I think of mass combat in D&D is Eberron, since that the default campaign takes place only a couple years after a war.

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