I ran a real neat encounter in my Dragon Age game, and I thought I’d share it here, along with some ideas you could steal from it for your game, whether its D&D, DA, or something else. The encounter isn’t mine, it’s part of a published adventure found in the excellent “Blood in Ferelden” supplement for the Dragon Age RPG.
The encounter has the party becoming the main defense against an army of invading Darkspawn (for non-DA literate, think Uruk-hai from LOTR), who are about to attack an Avaarian camp. The party has to defend the wall, and keep the Darkspawn from overrunning the defenses.
Now, as described, there are close to 200 Darkspawn headed towards the wall, so obviously the battle has to be played out a little abstractly. The way to do it is to use the larger battle as the backdrop, and focus on individual PC skirmishes as the focus of your attention. Also, the battle is divided into three phases, with PC actions causing the advancement to the next phase of battle.
We got through the first phase last night, here’s how we did it:
First, I set the preparation scene a few hours before the main attack. Archers readying their bows, people sharpening their weapons, a shaman praying to the gods, that sort of thing. It’s a good opportunity to introduce NPC’s that should maybe die during the battle, as this will increase the drama of the whole thing. Picture them befriending a young teenager, eager to use his sword for the first time. They teach him a few moves, motivate him, and then they see him get sliced in half as you narrate the larger battle around them. That stuff works and adds emotion to the scene. Never underestimate pulling pc’s heartstrings.
We then figured out the logistics of the battle. The scenario called for 1d6+2 Darkspawn to make it to the top of the wall (for them specifically to face) every three rounds. I counted rounds with a d12, turning it every new round to the appropriate number. The players had the possibility of knocking over ladders and grappling hooks and limit the number of Darkspawn that made it over. This was done as a strength test, and it proved to be effective for them, as it meant that the next time that Darkspawn showed up, it would be two less than the dice determined. They also played it smart, as before the battle, they covered the ground in front of the wall with as much oil as the town could muster, and set a wall of fire down there. I ruled that this would also cause a minus to the number of Darkspawn the dice determined were coming.
So we had three players, with the possibility of a maximum of six Darkspawns making it over the wall. The Darkspawn come every three rounds, so the chance is there for a crapload of Darkspawn surrounding the PC’s and ganging up on them. The way the encounter is written, the PC’s need to kill three times the number of Darkspawn as there are PC’s. In our case, it was nine. Now, you might think that nine enemies is no big deal if they are coming in waves, but it’s a big deal if more keep coming over the wall, players miss their strength checks to knock down ladders, and they aren’t doing too much damage while the DM is rolling crazy good…
It was a a tough fight for them, they were getting hurt. It was a tough fight for me to, as keeping track of all the darkspawn up on the wall could get messy. I used a battlemap and minis to help me out, as an entirely abstract fight of this complexity would have been too tough for me to run. I’m still too used to the tactical nature of 4e’s grid based combat to break off from the grid too often, but it’s something I’m working on and trying to conquer. The way the encounter is written, the Darkspawn attempt to gang up on the PC’s as much as possible, and that’s what I did. Needless to say, the mage was running all around the wall avoiding getting hit, since I brought her down to about 6 health points at one point. The other two warriors were by the edge, attempting to push down ladders, only succeeding every so often. So yeah, it got scary. I gave them a round to catch their breaths, let them drink health potions and cast a heal, before the action picked up again. During that time, the fight was still going on around them, but they were able to catch their breath.
If you have any knowledge of the Dragon Age game, you also know about stunts, and how cool they can be during a fight, and this fight was no exception. In fact, the encounter included special siege stunts, and one of the coolest moments was towards the end, when they had to kill one last Darkspawn. The warrior gained 6 stunt points, and used a seige stunt called “Bring the rain” which meant he signalled to the archers below to, well, bring the rain. Mechanically it meant he could have chosen to do 3d6 damage to three different enemies, or automatically kill one. He chose to hit three, killed one (the last one needed to end the phase, although they didn’t know that), and that led to the Darkspawn calling for a retreat and regrouping away from the wall, allowing the defense to catch a small breather. It would also lead to the second phase on our next session.
So overall it was a nice change of pace for us. We rarely tackle these types of battles in our games. When the horde arrived, they were eager to start rolling, and at the end of the phase they realized that this isn’t an easy walk in the park. In fact, they were surprised to still be alive, really. This sets up nicely as my plan for them is to eventually introduce them to the Grey Wardens, and surely defending a town against an invading horde of Darkspawn is a great way to get their attention.