AD&D Mass Combat

The Battle of Emridy Meadows. Legions of the Horned Society facing off against the massed chivalry of the Knights of Holy Shielding. The woodsman of the Grandwood ambushing thousands of the troops of the Censor of Medegia. It’s the stuff of legends. It also makes awesome background for a campaign.

When EGG and RJK ran that too-cool-for-school series of articles in the early 1980’s in The Dragon (back when the “The” still preceded the “Dragon”) which detailed various and sundry events in the Flanaess in CY 578/579, I don’t believe it was any accident that many of them dealt with the movements of troops and various skirmishes and battles that were taking place. Given the miniatures wargaming background whence EGG and the other ur-grognards came, they expected their audience to be familiar with such things and appreciate them for what they were.

Indeed, we are also told that a miniatures combat system was on the production schedule, although I’ve never seen any inkling that it was anything more than a line-item in The Dragon.

Dungeons & Dragons, of course, stems from Chainmail and its Fantasy Supplement, and TSR attempted to bring the game back to its roots with the publication of Swords & Spells, the last (IIRC) of the little brown books, and dealing with mass combat using miniatures in that lovable if infuriatingly vague style typical of the time. Of course, that was all fine and dandy if you were in possession of many hundreds of dollars of splendidly-painted miniatures (probably thousands today), plus a terrain table. I’ve never heard of anyone actually having played those rules, although I’m sure it must have happened at some point. Aside from the lamentable Battlesystem (which is better off left forgotten), the idea of mass combat seems to have been largely ignored in the AD&D era.

I think an update of the Swords & Spells rules, in the AD&D style and under its auspices, would be a completely doable project. Unfortunately most gamers nowadays don’t have the masses of miniatures that would make it usable.

Jump ahead several years and one game-type to the right. Napoleonics miniatures wargaming has been around for many decades (I was playing 25mm Napoleonics in college, as a matter of fact), and is one of the classic genres of miniatures wargaming. Back in the late 1970’s the good folks at Game Designers workshop had the idea that you could do Napoleonics miniatures without the miniatures. Instead, they produced colorful cardboard counters in the same size as based miniatures, which were naturally much less expensive to produce and collect. Even today, in the collector’s market, you can get a complete set of Napoleonic armies (English, French, Spanish, Russian, Prussian, etc. etc. etc.) for only a couple hundred dollars.

You can guess where I’m going with this.

I’ve put together a couple of visual aids. The first is a table displaying the base sizes for various combatant/weapon combinations from the Swords & Spells booklet. I’ve turned it into a handy-dandy table to make it easier to figure out what the base size should be for each figure. I made it in both fractions and decimals, just in case someone might need to use the information in a program like Photoshop. Anyone who is a fan of Swords and Spells will hopefully appreciate this bit of love.

The second is a sample of what a System 7-like counter could possibly look like when applied to the sort of AD&D-style mass battle miniatures game I’m talking about. (Speaking of which, a name for the project eludes me. Advanced Swords & Spells doesn’t work for what is a hopefully obvious reason.) Of course, this is just a first pass, and it will take a lot of work to produce a whole army, let alone a set of armies, but I hope its enough to get the idea. Imagine a gaming table covered with colorful counters in different sizes and proportions denoting their type, brimming with heraldry, each with a handy set of basic info denoting capabilities. Download the files, print them out on card stock, and you’ve got an army for a couple of dollars worth of ink. Anyone could make their own units and armies as well; if your Ranger Lord has a company of 5th-level dwarven crossbowmen under his own banner, you’d have the tools to create your own units.

I would also like to put together a whole OOB for the major powers of the Flanaess (because, as the name of this blog might imply, I’m first and foremost a Greyhawk fan). EGG and RJK began the project in The Dragon, of course, as mentioned above. This would just be filling in the gaps. Naturally that would be beyond the scope of the OGL, and I certainly don’t have the wherewithal to look into a license from WotC (although if anyone from Washington is reading this, I am certainly willing to entertain the idea of coming on board to develop such a project!). As a fan product, though, posted out on Canonfire!, perhaps, it might be done, as a means to encourage both DM’s with their own campaigns and fans of other published settings to do the same. (Does the Forgotten Realms even have armies? From what I remember they don’t really seem to mention it if they do.)

Such an AD&D-ization of Swords & Spells is not a light undertaking, and I do have a bunch of other projects on the gaming front. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, though, and if there seems to be some interest in seeing it, it’d certainly be an incentive to put in the work to see it through.

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.

9 thoughts on “AD&D Mass Combat

  1. I’m a little surprised by the counter. I was expecting something square considering you offer only only a single dimension on your table of base sizes. Is the other dimension assumed? Which is it, and what is the size? (I’d assume it’s the depth of the counter, as it’s usually not as important as length for issues such as flanking, etc.)

    I’m not much of a wargamer anymore, but this looks like a neat project. I’ll be keeping my eye on it.

    – Brian

  2. in the pdf why is the Heavy Horse smaller than the Medium/light Horse?

    Think you made a typo.

    Also I would make an addendum for Horses, that if the weapon is a lance/spear that it would be based on a 1-1/2″

    and a on a Pegasus, Hippogriff, and griffon if the weapon is a lance/spear that it would be based on 1-3/4″

    Just my humble opinion.


  3. Brian: The system assumes units are five across and two deep. Special creatures, like giants and dragons, are individuals.

    Jerry: That struck me as odd at first as well, and then I realized that the unit sizes aren’t solely dependent on the physical size of the creatures, but also on how closely they can fight next to one another. Heavy warhorses are trained to fight in very close formation, and thus have a smaller frontage compared to a light warhorse, which is deployed in a looser formation.

  4. This is neat! I actually played one playtest battle of Swords & Spells (using counters) long ago to see how it worked. It was interesting; having never used a diceless system before, I was pleased at how well it worked for a fast-playing ruleset. It also captured the flavor of D&D better than Battlesystem (at least the 2e version, which is the only one I have).

  5. Very interesting subject to bring up. We used to fight our “counter and dice” battles on a 1″ = 30′ scale (10-12 man frontage at 2.5-3′ per man in close order and 5-6 man frontage at 5-6′ per man in open order), which allowed us to field armies in the lower tens of thousands. As I recall, casualty representation was the trickiest part of using counters.

    Similarly, I imagine a unit of 500 hp Human Levies would not occupy the same space on the battlefield when reduced to a half, quarter, or tenth of its total hit points?

    By the same token (no pun intended), when you use counters to represent large numbers of men, it becomes somewhat difficult to alter the depth and frontage of the companies during the course of a battle (we ended up having multiple counters of various sizes and shapes for each unit on the field).

    A lot of that can be overcome through abstraction, but it is less satisfying on the whole (in my opinion).

    Still, I really like the idea of coloured heraldry (we sometimes used pre coloured cardboard to differentiate the sides).

  6. That’s a very interesting point, Matthew. The Swords & Spells rules don’t account for changing the size of the bases to represent casualties; they are assumed to be fixed at 10 figures (2 ranks of 5) and that’s that. As I recall, when we were paying Napoleonics, we had plastic rings which we’d place over each figure on the stand to keep track of casualties, but the overall base size similarly remained constant.

  7. Right you are. Yeah, units of ten are probably less difficult to abstract than units of thirty, sixty, or more (at the top of the range we had companies of 120 men represented using 1″ x 1″ counters, or more usually 2″ x 0.5″).

    A bit more fiddly to deal with moving units in multiples of ten, though (we started with units of 5 on 0.5″ x 0.5″ counters) 100 counters for 1,000 men, or 1,000 counters for 10,000, could potentially make the movement phase quite a chore!

    Still, not every counter need be individually punched out, I supppose.

  8. S&S is complete crap, rules just don’t work — Hey, the Orcs cost NOTHING !!! Trying to scale up directly is a concept that just doesn’t work. Miniatures rules require levels of abstraction.

    OTOH the 2nd edition of Battlesystem is SUPERB. One of the best fantasy sets even today.

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