5th edition isn’t designed for massive combats.
One of the most powerful things you can do in 5th edition and its derivatives is to either get more actions or deny people theirs. As the game is simulationist, adding more people into a combat becomes a brute-force way to make this happen, be that hordes of opponents, summoned allied minions, or simply lots of players or allied NPCs. Additionally, each combatant makes every round of combat take more time, resulting in more delays between player turns, increasing disengagement with the game, and additional mental load in tracking and running encounters.
The previous Tools of War articles introduced mechanics and suggestions to address specific issues with large combats but didn’t have the space to talk about design principles and balance to help you adapt those solutions. This article aims to provide those principles so that you can adapt the previous articles for your home games.
Your goal for all massive combat modifications is to simplify the experience and lessen the table-time of running the combat. Condense multiple actions into fewer actions, multiple units into fewer units, and prevent abilities from creating new actions. This will inevitably dilute the simulationism of the game and make some options weaker and others stronger. That is a necessary sacrifice in the name of simplification and one you will have to negotiate at home. Use the following as a guideline:
- If a change increases GM load, it isn’t worth it. If it increases player load, reconsider it.
- Expect to reduce damage output in favor of other metrics. Flexibility, area control, accuracy, and tanking are all areas you can tune up to compensate for falling damage.
- Try to avoid granular resources like spell slots and recharge in favor of simpler ones like short/long rest abilities and at-will use. Using charges, ala FFG’s X-Wing, or ammunition are useful half-measures.
- Use existing mechanics as a guideline for balance where possible. Formations and group turns balance against monsters, minions balance against spell slots, NPC allies balance against both party members and magic items.
The group turn and formation rules modify existing rules to do their work. Mechanically, a group turn turns every extra combatant in the turn into a pre-existing buff, either a better version of the Help action or a single-target version of crusader’s mantle, to massively reduce the actions and damage output of a group of enemies. This favors enemies with lots of attacks and enemies that are in groups of 3. Changing the nature of those buffs and adding more steps can result in group turns that incentivize different numbers of creatures or different types of attackers, allowing you to tune the difficulty at will.
Try to avoid grouping up wildly variant enemies or different types of spellcasters as this can bog you down in resource tracking.
Formations are built like swarms with multi-attack. You can use the existing tables to create them without issue, though you likely want to trend low accuracy with weight of attacks to increase their damage. The important thing to note is that their multi-attack and artificial damage output lets them concentrate melee damage far more than an equivalent number of creatures would be able to. Restricting how they may distribute attacks, like how the tyrannosaurus must target different creatures with each attack, lets you avoid this.
Like group turns, you’ll want to be careful about mixing in different unit types in a formation. This is a more severe limitation, as formations are mechanically a single unit, and mixing AC values or resource management is an enormous mess. Having abilities or attacks that shut off at health thresholds can represent individuals in the formation going down; additionally, the Leadership ability can represent an officer while spellcasting can represent an attached unit mage. The trick here is to make it clear that, mechanically, this character is part of the formation and cannot be independently targeted. Once you do, adding specialists, operatives, and attached casters to a formation is a cool way to add flavor to an enemy.
Or to justify a two-stage boss fight once a villain’s bodyguard is dead.
The Command action, as outlined in the minions article, is designed to sacrifice damage and action economy in favor of giving minions more variability. It allows them to provide auto-advantage en masse and to force tanking, something very difficult to do in 5th edition. This is broadly balanced against spellcasting available at 5th level due to the fact that animate dead is a 3rd-level spell and is the best guideline for mass-minion control the game provides. Spells like spiritual weapon and healing spirit all provide bonuses based on some sort of controllable or passive minions, providing the mechanical basis for bonus action commands and non-damage commands, and if you’re looking for new options for player commands (or ways to mechanize creative players giving weird commands), they’re an excellent place to start. That said, I would generally avoid straight damage as it’s more likely to scale oddly or break some of your encounter designs in a way that’s difficult to manage.
NPC Allies are the weirdest and hardest to balance in the Tools of War series. They’re drawing heavily from magic items, classes, and Powered by the Apocalypse playbooks to concentrate the experience of having an ally into a few, concrete abilities. While it’s hard to pin down rules for them, here are some guidelines.
First, NPC abilities represent total potential over the course of an encounter, adventuring day, or adventure. Don’t feel bound to how existing class features and spell structures work, but make sure that they don’t outshine player characters over the course of the campaign. Rest abilities should represent about two turns of successful actions or damage with associated resource expenditure. Long rest abilities should represent about four turns or significant expenditure of permanent resources. Passive abilities should represent the passive benefits of having another party member.
Second, NPC abilities can afford to bend or break rules the way that magic items do. Their abilities exist to outline a character and fill a role rather than be mechanically balanced tools that any player can try to manipulate. They can have spells that don’t fit the existing spell lists, perform martial feats that play fast-and-loose with existing class features, and mess with the battlefield and skill checks in a way players can’t. Players should never feel superfluous, but it’s fine if NPCs open up new ways of approaching challenges. Providing advantage to player checks in an area of expertise is almost always a solid passive.
Third, NPCs should never represent a straight upgrade over a player character. They should offer different, characterful ways of dealing with problems.