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Supposing you simulate a large battle in D&D 4e, and you want to do it with minions (rather than, say, treating each unit as a swarm or using some special large-scale combat rules). The XP chart lets you fit, say, 40 level 1 minions into a level 5 combat, and you can use more by giving equal numbers to both the enemy's side and the PC's side, with the PCs given command of units.

But how many minions can you put in one combat before it either becomes too slow to track, or the combat system breaks down by being too easy, hard or swingy?

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Are Large Scale battles feasable? Absolutely.

The largest I have run is 65 monsters, 4 different kinds and a huge block of minions, against 6 characters and the players were sweating. The battle area has over 100 by 100 squares in size and there was hindering terrain.

Since minions have a fixed damage amount for the most part, I did the following:
1. Non-minion creatures & characters all roll normal initiative.
2. Minions roll one initiative roll and all go at the same time.
3. During combat I would move and roll attacks for each minion, but would do all the minion movement and attacks that involved a single character. This allowed the characters to respond to the minions much as they would a single creature attack.
3a. To speed rolling I used 3 d20s at a time for attacks and saves and would indicate the 3 minions fopr each roll.

The biggest key I found that kept the combat moving was having minion stats and a simple goal ready when it was the minions turn. I also did not spend a lot of time on intricate movement for the minions. They just waded in and attacked and the other creatures did the special stuff. The whole combat took less than an hour.

As for adding character side minion units, I would just do the same thing in reverse. I would give the players the stat sheet or sheets for the friendly minions and have 1 or 2 players run them. Have them all act on the same initiative just like the monsters.

My players all agreed that there is nothing scarier than have 50+ plus monsters all move,and attack at once.

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It seems like if you had each minion take an individual turn and attack roll, the game would quickly grind to a halt, with you rolling a d20 40 times while your players fall asleep.

That said, you might try a few things to streamline the battle, such as rolling a d20 and then a d6 or d8 and assigning that attack roll to that many minions. You might also just assume a 50 or 60% hit chance for the minions and have half of them hit each round.

If you have players controlling minions as well, give them similar rules, so their minions can all go at once and take less time.

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+1 for "group" roll effects. i.e. If there are 40 minis, roll 4 times and multiply the effects by 10. Or roll 4 times, roll damage on hits against minions where 1 point of damage = one minion killed, etc. Or use one percentile dice roll: % rolled * figures sharing a roll figures / X = minion figures killed. –  F. Randall Farmer Sep 20 '11 at 23:43
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One thing to keep in mind is that although the EXP may line up, once the minions become a four or more levels lower than the PCs, the minions really won't be able to hit the PCs on any kind of regular basis. The PCs will rip through them without any challenge and, as stated above, the extra die rolling will eliminate the fun of having a ton of minis on the battle mat. It just won't be much of a challenge and the fun of destroying piles of minis dries up pretty fast. The DM's Guide actually discusses this at the start of the encounter section.

Here is my suggestion based on my experiences in and running mass combat: Get all the minis on the mat. Array the two armies and think out your huge battle. Then, I would make a clearing towards the middle where the encounter for the PCs will take place. That encounter would function like normal. However, you would be able to have packs of minions surge in from either side as soldiers come in to reinforce their allies. You could also work in a trap where when the PCs get too close to an edge minion soldiers start entering the fight to engage them. That would keep them from trying to leave the encounter part of the battle until they are supposed to.

Meanwhile you could just have a little script of what the "decorative" minis outside of combat would be doing. You could even have how well the PCs are doing effect the overall battle. Maybe the PCs side starts out losing. But when the PCs take down the Lieutenant in their encounter the enemies begin to falter and then break once the PCs take down another ranking officer or certain number of soldiers.

From here there are all kinds of ways you take this.

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This is what I had planned to run battle encounters. (The story hasn't allowed me to try it yet). The battle will go on around the PCs unless they get close or try to help out, but the PC's objective will be tangential to the actual battle. The battle will function more like terrain effects than actual NPCs. –  Sam Hoice Sep 21 '11 at 2:03
    
I think that's a really smart way to go. And hey! If they are having an easy time of the fight you have a great excuse for hurling a few more packs of minions or some extra officers at them, right? –  Iain Anderson Sep 25 '11 at 17:04
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I once tried running an "overwhelming odds" kind of encounter, where the (Level 1) PCs were trying to delay the hordes attacking over a bridge.

Setup had the PCs defending a bridge, each PC having a once/turn free action attack that represented archers supporting them, and each PC having a Level 1 minion who acted just after them. Attacking the bridge was an unlimited number of minions with about one in ten a proper Level 1 creature, all with only melee attacks.

My intention was to try to force the PCs back and victory for them would be based on how long they managed to hold the bridge.

Unfortunately, it didn't go as well as I hoped... the combat turned into quite the grind... powers like blazing starfall were just too powerful against the minions, especially combined with the ranged attacks.

If I were to do something like this again, I would either run more normal encounters, and use the results to narrate the overall battle, concoct some kind of skill challenge to abstract the battle, or just narrate it outright, and skip die rolling.

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