Unearthed Arcana: Mass Combat Analysis

This week the D&D team provides revised rules for mass combat.

In a much earlier Unearthed Arcana, we had gotten rules for mass combat again and this is the revision probably based on the community feedback. To be honest I was surprised a bit. I was expecting the Mystic, since it has been stated that it’s ready to be published in an Unearthed Arcana installment. What I was hoping for, however, was another installment about Eberron. Anyway, let’s begin.

Battle Rating

Battle Rating represents the effectiveness of a unit, which is a group of creatures. Each creature has a Battle Rating which is determined by its Challenge Rating. This is one of the two numbers that are important for a unit.

Creating Units

A unit can contain up to 400 creatures, depending on their size. Tiny, small, and medium creatures count as one space each inside the unit, while larger creatures than that count as more. It actually makes sense, to be honest. A Tyrannosaurus Rex would definitely take up more space than a Bugbear.

Each unit must have a commander. That’s one difference between this one and the previous set of rules for mass combat. In this case, the commander is important because their Charisma Modifier plays a role in the Morale checks(more on that later) of a unit. The commander must be part of the unit but doesn’t count towards the unit’s size.

In order to determine the BR of a unit, you add up the BR of all the creatures consisting it. This also includes the commander and any creature that is used as a mount. It’s not quite clear if mounts also count towards the size count of the unit. For example, the Bugbear can use the Tyrannosaurus Rex as a mount. Do I count the Bugbear’s size as well?

It is stated that it’s best to create units with similar creatures because the abilities of a unit are reduced to the lowest common denominator. Well, that makes sense, as well, and we can see that in real life as well. Throughout history, we can see armies being divided into various units, such as infantry, artillery, or cavalry. This is done in order to increase the effectiveness of the combatants and that’s why this note exists in the document.

Compared to the previous version of rules for mass combat, the two major differences are that the new rules have bigger units in mind and the structure of the units is much simpler.

Morale Rating

Morale Rating is the second number that is important for a unit. The DM assigns a number from -10 to 10 to the unit, based on various factors such as how its commander is treating it, and adds the commander’s Charisma Modifier to it. This is the Morale Rating of the unit and it’s used in Morale rolls. However, this is not a static number and can increase or decrease.

Running Battles

The structure of the combat rules is close to the one used in the Player’s Handbook, but there had to be some changes. I believe these changes help resolve combat faster, especially since we’re talking about hundreds or even thousands of combatants.

A round of combat is now 1 minute, instead of 6 seconds, in order to represent the scale of the armies and the time they need to perform maneuvers.

Initiative is a fixed numbered and it’s 10 + Unit Morale Rating + Commander’s Charisma Modifier. Take a note here that the Morale Rating already includes the commander’s Charisma modifier in it, which means that this can be an error or it’s a way to add more worth to the commander. In the previous set of rules, units weren’t required to have a commander, even though it provided some good benefits.

The speed of a unit is 10 times the lowest speed of its members. In order to use movement like flight or swim, every member of the unit must be capable of doing it. And that’s a reason why the note about creating units with similar creatures is important. Aarakocra work much better in a unit entirely comprised of Aarakocra than in a unit that also features Kobolds and Carrion Crawlers.

A difference in movement is that a unit stops moving if it moves adjacent to an enemy unit and it also can’t move away from it unless it takes the Disengage action.

The combat economy is pretty much the same; a unit can move and take an action.

Attack has some slight changes but it’s pretty straightforward. A unit can make a melee attack against an adjacent enemy unit if at least one creature in the unit is within 5 feet of the target. On the other hand, it can make a ranged attack only if all its members can make a ranged attack that can reach the enemy. Again, unit consistency plays a role.

When a unit attacks a target, both of them roll a d20 and add their BR. You compare the rolls and you have four options.

  • Tie. Nothing happens.
  • Target wins. Nothing happens.
  • Attacker wins by 10 or lower. The target’s BR is reduced by 2.
  • Attacker wins by 11 or higher. The target’s BR is reduced by 5 and they have to make a DC 10 Morale check. On a failure the unit is eliminated.

There are also ways to get Advantage or Disadvantage on the attack rolls. Some reasons can be that you have the high ground or there’s an allied unit adjacent to the target.

The Dash action is pretty much the same and the Defend action is the Dodge action. The Disengage action is a bit different. If the unit takes the Disengage action, it makes a DC 10 Morale check. If it fails, it stops moving and can’t take another action this turn. If it succeeds, it can move up to half of its speed and doesn’t stop if it moves adjacent to an enemy unit. While less helpful than the non-mass combat Disengage, the mechanics of it fit the flavor of large scale combat pretty well.

Moreover, there are two more reasons a unit may need to roll a Morale check. The first one is due to casualties it has sustained. If it’s reduced to half or less its starting BR, it has to succeed on a DC 15 Morale check or immediately be eliminated.

The second reason is due to casualties friendly units have sustained. If a friendly unit within 500 feet of the unit is eliminated, it has to succeed on a DC 10 Morale check or it won’t be able to take any actions or move on its next turn. Both of the situations fit the flavor of mass combat pretty well.

Characters in Mass Combat

There are three ways to use player characters in mass combat. The first, and probably the most boring, one is by having the character be absorbed into a unit. This can be done by calculating the character’s BR and adding it to the unit’s BR. You can calculate a character’s CR using the rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

The second one is having the characters in the battlefield, but not as part of a unit, and let them fight units. This can be done by either using the rules for handling mobs, found in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, or by resolving regular combat between the characters and the creatures of a unit.

The third option is having the characters as part of a unit, but with a twist. They don’t count towards the unit’s BR, move with the unit, and take actions with the unit. However, they can make full use of their abilities.

An extra option, that can be used in combination with the three above, is having the characters take part in critical events. These events are very important and could change the outcome of the battle, depending on how the characters handle them.

Now that I’ve talked a bit about the new rules, it’s time to look at the one major flaw they have.

What happens if a Bugbear tries to fight a Tyrannosaurus Rex? It will probably become its hors d’oeuvre. But what happens if a unit of Bugbears tries to fight a unit of these majestic beasts? Let’s do some mathemagic.

A Tyrannosaurus Rex is a Huge creature with a CR of 8. This means it takes 9 units of space, which in turn tells us that a unit of them contains 44 individuals, at most. A unit of 44 Tyrannosaurus Rex has a BR of 352. Not bad, but let’s take a look at the Bugbears. A Bugbear is a Medium creature with a CR of 1. This means it takes 1 unit of space so a unit can contain 400 of them, which takes us to a BR of 400.

Now, let’s have these two units fight each other. What’s going to happen if the unit of Tyrannosaurus Rex rolls a 20 (this is not a critical hit in mass combat) and the unit of Bugbears rolls a 1? The Rex unit will miss. Now what if the Bugbears attack and roll a 1 while the Rex unit rolls a 20? This is a hit that also makes the Rex unit roll a Morale check. At the end of the day, the Bugbears are going to have Dinosaur BBQ. Now let’s put five Rex units against one Bugbear unit. Let’s even have the Bugbears flanked so they get advantage. Again, the Bugbears will win with zero losses.

In general, I like these rules much more than the previous ones. They allow to use bigger armies much more easily. That was a good idea. However, the way the BR is calculated gives a huge advantage to medium or smaller creatures to the point of rendering units of bigger creatures useless against them.

But let’s not forget that this is playtest material and not everything can always be perfect. I believe it’s the first time there’s such an error in an Unearthed Arcana and that means a lot, considering that a whole bunch of them have been released up until now.

So make sure you take a good look at the rules, decide what you like, and make sure you point that out in the next week’s survey. This feedback will be very helpful in order to get a pretty awesome set of mass combat rules next time. And speaking of surveys, you should fill out the survey for the Warlock and Wizard.

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