Spells in Mass Combat

Since I’ve been on a wargame kick lately, and someone asked in the comments of my previous post, I thought it would be a good idea to sort of sketch out the approach I’m taking to magic in Triumph!

I should point out that the Washington Grand Company is working on a set of Fantasy Triumph rules, but I have no idea what they will be like, other than the few hints they’ve left on the message boards. There’s also no telling when they’ll be released, so I’m forging ahead on my own.

The thing to remember first in a Greyhawk-setting mass combat is that the AD&D rules are geared towards small, skirmish-level actions. In other words, melee with a small party of adventurers and a relatively small group of enemies and/or monsters. This scale is reflected in the spells, such as animate dead (there’s really no way to have a literal army of skeletons unless you have hundreds of 5th level clerics or 9th level magic-users) and even mass invisibility requires a 14th level magic-user, and such are exceedingly rare in the World of Greyhawk. Only a large army would have such a personage, and even that’s not a guarantee.

Then there is the damage that spells like fireball and lightning bolt do. In order to get a feel for just how effective those spells would be, we need to compare and contrast with the weapons and damage of an average soldier, and extrapolate out. Apologies, but this is going to get into some math. (It should also be said that this applies to magic items as well, since they usually just emulate spell effects, or nearly so.)

So let’s take an average human veteran (1st level fighter) as our example. Aberdolf Strongbeard’s got 5.5 hit points, chainmail (AC 5) and a longsword (1-8 hit points damage, average of 4.5). Because we’re going to be scaling up, I’m keeping the fractions for now.

Now, it’s the case that Triumph! doesn’t have a set scale for each figure. A single mini on a stand could be 10 guys or 100 or even 1,000. And naturally the size will make a difference when we’re comparing damage, so this is going to be somewhat arbitrary. But taking the troop levels from Dragon 57, and the army list from the previous post, we can put together the “ideally proportional” Ideean army for 47 points. Since an army is 48 points, we’re right on the money.

That army is 14000 men, and will consist of 47 figures on bases (it’s just a coincidence that it’s exactly the same as the point value). Quick math gives us 297.9 men per figure. Let’s call it 300, but remember it’s just for the purpose of this exercise, and in a game of Grant Triumph with three commands, that same army would be 100 men per figure, because there are three times as many figures for the same army.

Now back to Aberdolf. A whole figure made up of Aberdolfs would have 300 as many hit points and do 300 times as much damage. But the game doesn’t play at the figure level; there are 3 of those figures on each base of heavy infantry. So 900 times as much.

Our base of Aberdolfs thus has 4,950 hit points, and will inflict 4,050 hit points when it hits. Assuming he’s facing equipped just like him, our 1st level fighter has a 25% chance of hitting AC 5 (he has to roll a 15 or higher). All 900 of them can therefore be expected to inflict 1012 points of damage per round (if they could all hit the enemy at once, which is not realistic, and is probably closer to 200 hit points if they’re formed into 5 ranks).

That still seems pretty damned impressive.

Now, let’s compare that to a single magic-user’s offensive spells. We’ll take the most obvious; fireball, which can be cast once by a 5th level magic-user.

Fireball would do 5d6 points of damage cast by the lowest-level magic user with the spell, or an average of 15 hit points (almost the same as a wand of fireballs, with 18 hit points damage). That’s enough to kill anyone unlucky enough to be in the area of effect whether or not they make their saving throw, which is a 20′ radius circle (1,256 square feet). But fireball doesn’t just have a set number of hit points of damage; it has an area of effect, and will essentially kill any Aberdolf in the area. The density of the troops will depend on the type, of course, but since we’re dealing with heavy foot let’s keep it at close order.

A quick look at Wikipedia tells me that historical medieval troops in close order had a density of anywhere from about 1 man per 21 square feet to 1 man per 3 square feet. Let’s split the baby and say 1 man per 12 square feet.

An area of 11,309 square feet with 1 man every 12 square feet yields 105 men in the area of effect.

That 5th level magic-user just killed over 100 guys in close order. That’s pretty impressive, even if it doesn’t really scale as the magic-user gets more powerful (the area of effect doesn’t change by level, just damage and range, and it’s the area of effect that really impacts how many guys get fried). The magic-user just gets more fireball spells to hurl at the enemy.

To put it in perspective, that magic-user just inflicted around 577 hit points of damage with a single spell. That’s the same as 128 Aberdolfs would do with their swords, or half a stand of heavy foot.

Now, paradoxically, spells like that will be much less effective against troops that are in open order, like skirmishers or untrained levies (“rabble” in Triumph! terms).

Cloudkill is another area effect spell that could do some real damage. It essentially kills everything in an 800 square foot area, but it endures for at least 9 minutes (giving it an effective area of effect of 7,200 square feet), traveling 30′ per minute, and could thus careen through a line of troops and slaughter a great many of them. Although not as many, paradoxically, as the good old fireball, but it might be able to hit a stand as well as a stand behind it as it floats through their ranks.

That’s a lesson to learn here. Just because a spell causes instant death, or inflicts a lot of hit points’ worth of damage per person, doesn’t mean much in mass combat situations. You’re dealing with a lot of low-hit point, high-density soldiers, and it’s the area of effect of the spell that matters, as long as it can inflict around 6 or more hit points per person.

For instance, cone of cold would be all but useless in such a situation. It does a lot of damage, but that’s almost all overkill. The area of effect is ridiculously small on a battlefield (a cone only 50′ long for a 10th level magic-user), and thus the casualties it causes are not nearly as impressive as the simple third-level spell fireball.

So as far as spells (and magic items) go, I can see a special deck of battle cards with spell effects. Each spell would have a combat factor against different troop types (just like a regular unit), and possibly a special rule-bending effect (like cloudkill having penetration through one unit into another behind it). At the beginning of the battle, depending on the levels of the magic-users, they would have a number of such cards that could be played during the appropriate phase of the turn. Once played, the spell card is discarded. There would only be a few select spells available, since the overwhelming majority of spells in the Players Handbook and Unearthed Arcana would simply not be of much use in a battlefield situation.

Now, the question becomes, are magic-users denoted on the board as special units (like leaders) or are they assumed to just be running around the battlefield and embedded with the units?

I would tend to say the latter just for the sake of simplicity. If there are magic-user units on the board, then the players would have to keep track of how many spells each had, and it would add a layer of record-keeping that I think would be outside the spirit of the game.

I would, however, go as far as to say the spell could only be cast by a unit within his command distance. That implies that the magic-users are with the leader, and sent to those places on the battlefield where they are most needed.

So if you want to cast a spell with a unit within command distance, just assume a magic-user was sent to support the unit, and burn the appropriate card. Maybe they’re moving around the battlefield using invisibility spells on themselves, but they certainly wouldn’t use fly, because that would take up a precious 3rd-level spell slot, and those must be conserved for fireballs!

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

5 thoughts on “Spells in Mass Combat

  1. The other thing to keep in mind is that those spells are line of sight. Your magic user can’t shoot over friendly troops. What happens when the travelling fireball impacts on the back of a friendly Aberdolf?

    1. I think that’s getting a little too tactical and D&D-thinking. There’s a lot of abstraction in a wargame, and if you’re going to include spells, one of the assumptions has got to be the opportunity to cast that spell.

  2. If high-level wizards were fairly common on a battlefield, the troops might be practicing social distancing. Actually, troops do that in modern warfare against machine guns and various explosives.

  3. Some extra fireball math for you: Fireball “conforms to the shape of the area of effect” (hence why letting one loose in a confined dungeon might not be the best idea), yet always has the same volume (~33000cu) – would a ground burst not be more effective against troops? Radius in the hemisphere would increase 20% (to 25′) for a total area of effect of 1974.5sq’ …

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