As my home campaign of Tyranny of Dragons rolled into its closing chapter, I knew I was being presented with an opportunity that is pretty rare in rgp adventure storytelling.

Namely, it was a chance to see how a massed battle of clashing armies might play out. Usually, the clashing of armies is background to the activities of the player characters. But this time, the two storylines were converging.

12235123_10153758633194511_8073645361809820580_nIn the storyline, the combined armies of good dragons and the Lord’s Alliance are taking on the chromatic dragons and the Cult of the Dragon at a bleak dormant volcano known as the Well of Dragons.

Or, as one of the players at the table observed, “It’s our last stand of humans and elves against the forces of Mordor while the adventures try to destroy the One Ring.”

Something like that, I said.

“Cool,” he replied.

The fate of the adventurers — can they stop the summoning of Tiamat — still lies ahead. But the outcome of this battle would still play a factor in the direction of “my” Forgotten Realms.

Even if Tiamat is defeated, what shape will the Sword Coast take if the great armies of its cities is defeated? What happens if the armies prevail but the PC’s fall to the dragon queen? The implications of winning the battle but losing the war become more likely — and problematic.

And that, is a great springboard into other storytelling possibilities.

Picking a system

Not being a wargamer, I chose a wargaming system that I already had in my collection. That was The War Machine system from the D&D Companion set (1984). It has a simplified option, which I thought sufficient for my purposes. Basically, each army gets a character card with a computed battle rating that modifies a d100 roll for each round of combat.

As each player was essentially running a pregenerated army, I spent time providing some characteristics to each army. Not only did that help distinguish the factions from one another, it actually presented some roleplaying opportunities. As the battle progressed, you’d hear things like: “The dwarven army charges forward, of course.” “My elves are looking to fire arrows from the floating castle.” “These cloud giants can ride dragons, right?” “Sure, let’s go with it.”  

The 5E rules fit fairly well within The War Machine matrix. However, as these armies were meeting at the end of a fairly high-level campaign (14-plus), the HD of the various combatants were maxing out on the system’s scaling mechanism. (I think the rules probably work better with armies whose combatants are lower levels).

And for the most part, we were winging it. I didn’t want rules referencing to slow us down, so if something came up, we just came to a consensus and quickly moved on.

But there was a freshness to the activity. Trying out a new rules set — when you don’t have to worry about getting it EXACTLY right — is liberating.

Visiting the Western Heartlands

One other element was introducing the landscape of this massive battlefield (actually a series of battles stretching nearly 600 miles south from Iriabor to the Well of Dragons in Faerun’s Western Heartlands). With the second edition FR campaign booklet at my side, I was sure to read a portion of any entry of any town where armies clashed.

General Ravengard is using the abandoned temple of Waukeen in Iriabor as his campaign headquarters. The Red Cloaks of Asbravn want to join the fight, even though they are clearly overmatched. Neverember’s army is marching through the bleached landscape of the Battle of Bones. The Zhents are insisting the army detour to help lift the siege of Darkhold. The halfings of Corm Orp have had their village scoured, but refuse to relocate to the recently liberated and better protected town of Hluthvar, because they’re stubborn halflings, of course.

Things like that help give the battle character and maybe even reinforce that these armies are fighting for something other than simply defeating the Cult of the Dragon.

(I picked up this tip from watching Ken Burns’ “The Civil War.” Before every battle — whose locations are just names to us in this day and age — he describes something significant about each battle site to make it more memorable.)

How’d it go?

In the end, the great armies clashed. The dragons surged into battle on both sides and took each other out. We were surprised how quickly and devastating that was. But as the dragons focused on each other, there was little collateral damage. (Next time, the battlefield will be scoured by breath weapon damage, I can assure you). Then came the grind as infantry advanced under the barrage of missile fire and magic. And though it was close, the Lord’s Alliance prevailed. But the cost was high. All the armies of the great city states suffered great casualties. Going forward, expect a return of lawlessness in the Sword Coast.

But that’s for another adventure.

If you’ve had success incorporating wargaming or skirmish games into your rpg campaign, share them in the comments section, please.