The Dogs of War

When I first considered what to write for the Classics Return blog carnival my first idea was to write up themes based on the Planescape Factions, then right as I was about to start the content for this month’s Dragon was announced including an article that would present themes for the Planescape Factions. Not wanting to duplicate I sat around hoping that the article would go live before GenCon, but no such luck. So what to write? Well for most of this month I’ve been obsessing over Kickstarters for miniatures, things that are going to lead to me aquiring some 200 miniatures with a distinctly DnD theme, so what to do with all of them?

Well in 1984 TSR released the Companion boxed set with its War Machine rules and then 1985 TSR released a boxed set called Battlesystem the official DnD rules for mass combat and along with these eventually came three of my favourite DnD modules; Night’s Dark Terror, Red Arrow, Black Shield and Test of the Warlords. Now for all the criticism of 4E as a “strategy game” there are no rules for running large battles and war, even Pathfinder got its rules in the Kingmaker adventure path. So here is my simple ideas for running large battles with 4E DnD.

Unto the Breach

One of the first things in establishing a mass combat system is to try and keep as close to the core rules of the system it drawn from, to much deviation and you end up with two games, which rather defeats the purpose of expanding a game to encompass mass battle. Fortunatley 4E already has a set of rules we can expand; swarms. In fact other than expanding those rules slightly the 4E rules work very much as is for running mass combat.


Mass combat is about units of troops moving across a battlefield and clashing and so the core of the system must be how to manage battles. Swarms in 4E are described as a group of creatures working together for a purpose, which is exactly what a unit is in a battle. Swarms can be entered by characters, they can move through terrain that any one member can fit through and they cannot be pushed around by melee and ranged attacks. These are all ideal characteristics for units in a wargame because they let units interact with the heroic characters.

Units come in two basic types in warmgames, skirmishers and ranks. Ranks are units where each member stands right beside his companions and there is little space between them. In setting these up each model is in a single square and has another model beside it, this gives them the classic ranked troops look, often 5 or 10 models wide with 2 to 4 ranks behind them. In contrast skirmisher units are spread apart, each member of the unit should be within 2 squares (or 2 inches) of each other member of the unit and aside from the need to keep this basic coherence the individual models move independantly. These both create creatures that can be far larger in terms of squares occupied than is normal for 4E, fortunately this doesn’t change their interaction with the rules notably.

Special Unit Rules

Rule 1: Units cannot enter the space occupied by another unit.
This rule just keeps things more organised.

Rule 2: Even if only one figure is in contact with an enemy unit effects (such as damage) are applied to the whole unit.
This rule just makes managing things easier. In reality units would not contact so weakly anyway but rather than have to move models around to make a better more “real” interaction it is faster and easier to leave the units in contact with each other.

Rule 3: Units melee and ranged attacks ignore the swarm rules for damage and forced movement against other units unless those units are themselves composed of swarms.
The swarm rules simulate individuals fighting against a large number of enemies, units are a large number of enemeis fighting each other.

Rule 4: A unit must have at least 3 models.
So a unit of rat swarms must occupy at least 5 squares.

Rule 5: A bloodied unit looses half of its models. If this reduces the unit below 3 models the unit is destroyed.
This rule reduces the amount of figure handling and speeds up the end of battles.

Rule 6: Units can upgrade a model to a Leader for an extra 25xp. Units with a model with the Leader role gain +1 to hit.
A simple rule for giving leader types a clear benefit that is easy to track.

Rule 7: Units can upgrade a model to a Banner Bearer for an extra 25xp. Units with a model with a Banner gain +1 to damage.
A simple rule for simulating the effect of having a banner with unit colours or other symbols important to the unit or army.

Rule 8: Units can upgrade a model to a Musician for an extra 25xp. Units with a musician model gain a +1 bonus to save.
Musicians are intended to aid in co-ordinating and inspiring troops helping to overcome the situations in battle, again this provides a simple rule for simulating this.

Rule 9: The cost of a unit is the XP value of the base creature for every 3 models (rounding up) in the unit.
For example a unit of 5 Orc Scouts (normally 150xp each) has an XP Value of 150 (3 models)  + 150 (last 2 models) = 300

Rule 10: Units of Minions have 1 hp per model in the unit, all other units have HP equal to a base creature + 25% for every 3 models (rounded down).
For example the unit of 5 Orc Scouts (46 hp each normally) has 46 (base) + 11 (3 models) = 57 hit points.
This might seem to make the hit points in a battle become quite large very quickly, but this unit has considerably less hit points than 5 Orc Scouts would normally have, and remember when it has taken 24 points of damage it will loose 3 models and then be destroyed because it has less than 3 models.

Rule 11: Elites and Solos are always Heroes.
The core rules of 4E already assume these creatures are wirth 2 or 5 other creatures already.

Rule 12: All Units gain: Aura 1: At the start of each turn make a melee basic attack against enemies in the Aura.
This rule helps simulate the chaos of a melee and also helps speed up battles.


Of course heroic fantasy games like DnD are not so much about the clash of armies as they are about the heroes that lead them and their great deeds in battles. Running massed combat lets characters achieve things they would not normally be able to do in a normal session and changes the scope of the game considerably. For monsters there are clearly defined tiers of character models; Leaders, Elites and Solos. Leaders are creatures with abilities that make them greatly suited to leading units of other troops making them particularly potent in a mass battle situation (Aura 10 that covers 20 to 40 models is a lot more potent than the same aura over 5 models). Elites and Solos are either champions of their monster type or else creatures (like dragons) of such power that they are are capable of dealing with whole units of more mundane creatures single handedly.

Special Character Rules

Rule 1: Leaders, Elites and Solos are purchased at half their normal xp cost.
This is to keep the construction of armies simpler and keep force sizes down over all, unless you really want big armies.

Rule 2: Leaders, Elites and Solos may join any unit whose individual models are no more than 1 size category smaller or larger than their own and count as that unit having a Leader model.
This rule means a human can lead ogres, an ogre can lead orcs, but a human cannot lead giants or vice versa. It also means that characters that are not normally Leaders inspire troops and provide a +1 to attack and leaders are worth their xp cost just a little more.

Rule 3: Player Characters have an xp cost equal to a monster of their level.
This is roughly how the base game assumes they are powered by default in any given encounter, due to their flexibility and powers they are given a higher value than a normal trooper.

Rule 4: The commander of the army gains an extra Action Point and can be spend Action Points to give any allied unit within 10 squares (10″) an extra Standard Action.
Heroes being what they are regular troops look to them above all others to lead the way, thus they can inspire troops to greater heights than normal.

Rule 5: Only 1 Action Point can be spent in a Round by each side.

Rule 6: Characters can spend their action points following their normal rules.

Rule 7: Elite, Solo and PCs that are in a unit when it is destroyed are not destroyed but take damage equal to their bloodied value.
Taking that damage may of course reduce them to below 0hp which kills all models except PCs who follow their normal death and dieing rules.

Rule 8: Elite Solo and PC models cannot be targeted except by other characters while in a unit unless they are larger than the unit they are leading.
This means an orc shaman among troops cannot be singled out, but an ogre leading a unit of orcs can be singled out.

Building Forces

Typically in a wargame both armies fight with forces of the same size based on a point system. Instead of having a new point system I recomend using the existing XP budgets of 4E DnD (with the costing changes given above). For armies I recomend the following available points:

Level 1-5: 1000xp

Level 6-10: 2500xp

Level 11-15: 6000xp

Level 17-20: 14000xp

Level 21-25: 35000xp

Level 26-30: 95000xp

These point values represent the normal xp value solo of the highest level in the range and so are only a guideline.

Rule 1: No single model may use more than half of a force’s XP value.
This means any force can have 1 Solo of the armies XP budget at most (eg a Level 1-5 army can have at most 1 level 5 solo).

Rule 2: PCs recieve XP equal to a standard monster of their level for participating in the battle as a base.
You may of course give PCs extra awards for achieving specific scenario objectives in a battle.

Other Rules

Traditionally wargames offer much more complicated rules around movement, unit formations and the facing of a unit/models. To keep things easy for running battles in 4E I recomend just following the standard 4E rules for movement etc. Partly this is because a round in a battle should represent an hour of effort on behalf of those involved so the finer details can be glossed over as “happening we just don’t see them”.

Intiative: Role initiative for each unit and each character that is not in a unit. Then follow initiative order as per usual in a 4E combat.

Getting Models

Fortunately these days it is easy to get a lot of models for a low cost especially for popular armies like goblins, orcs, dwarves, elves, humans and drow. The obvious starting point is the WotC plastic lines, for which common miniatures (for bluk troops) can often be purchased in large quantities for a low price and don’t require any further effort (which is always good). After that there are companies like Mantic offer low cost unpainted miniatures suitable for both regular encounters and fielding armies. Reaper Miniatures then offers cheap plastic models and if you have $100 (or more) to spare their Kickstarter for their Bones line is a great way to pick up a lot of miniatures for $1 or less per miniature (though big things like the Dragons and Giants do cost more) including more unusual miniatures that are harder to get in bulk like Dridar and Ettins.


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  1. Richard Green

    Hi John,

    Interesting article. We played a fair bit of Battlesystem back in the day – there was a big fun battle in the Dragonlance series, DL 8 I think.

    I’m a bit confused by how many individual creatures make up a model, and then how many models make up a unit. Can you explain the difference between each.



  2. ObsidianCrane

    Yeah we messed around with Battlesystem as well.. fond memories..

    As to the system outlined above its a 1 model = 1 creature scale idea, though of course you could have 1 model represent more creatures if you want.
    A unit is anything over 2 models; so 3 models is the smallest unit you can have in this system. While small creatures like Goblins, Orcs, Humans etc make more sense in larger blocks (10-20), larger creatures like Giants work well in small blocks like (3 – 9) for example so rather than trying to make detailed rules for every possible circumstance I’ve kept it at that 3 model minimum for all units.

  3. Richard Green

    Thanks, that makes sense. IIRC, 1e AD&D Battlesystem had 1 counter/unit = 10 creatures, so wanted to check.

  1. Nigh-Weekly Assembly: Of GenCon and Classic Settings | The Gamer Assembly

    […] The Dogs of War by John Pope at Daily Encounter: A homebrew mass combat system, inspired by AD&D’s Battlesystem. Part of the Classics Return blogfest. […]

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