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Imagine this situation: a party of three 3rd level characters is fighting a band of 9 goblins in an open clearing. Two party members are fighters, the third a melee-weak wizard.

The warriors want to tank and stop the goblins from reaching the wizard. In reality that would seem almost impossible. I cannot find any rulings that cover this situation.

Are there any...

  • rules I have missed?
  • feats or spells that might help?
  • anything other classes might do if they were present?
  • rulings from earlier editions that I could apply?

Or is the wizard doomed to spend the encounter running away?

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closed as too broad by Mindwin, KorvinStarmast, daze413, Thomas Jacobs, Szega Sep 23 '17 at 17:48

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Too few characters to edit: you need another linebreak after your three dots to make the list as you intended. Which level is your party? Did you think about making use of the terrain, for example by placing the fighters in a sort of door so that the goblins can't just go around them to the Wizard? What about the Fighting Styles like Protection? Did they choose something different? Will they be Battle Masters to get access to maneuvers or have they chosen a different path already? \$\endgroup\$ – Secespitus Sep 17 '17 at 10:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Secespitus thanks - have edited. This is a theoretical situation inspired by a recent small game where a party of 3 1st level characters fought 5 goblins - wasn't a problem there but it made me wonder what might happen if there were more. Let's imagine there's no tactical options here (i.e. no door) - have edited accordingly. \$\endgroup\$ – Matt Thrower Sep 17 '17 at 10:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note "swarm" means something else in D&D. "Horde" might avoid confusion. \$\endgroup\$ – aschepler Sep 17 '17 at 23:28
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Fighting Style Protection (not really recommended, but should be mentioned)

The easiest thing to protect someone as a low-level 5e Fighter is the Fighting Style Protection (PHB p. 72).

Protection basically gives you the chance to impose Disadvantage upon an attack roll against a creature that is not you, but within 5 feet of you, though you need to have a shield in one of your hands for this Fighting Style to work.

This means your fighters need to choose this Fighting Style on level 1, both have a shield and stand right in front of the Wizard. Furthermore it limits you to the reactions of your Fighters, meaning you can use this only once per Fighter and they can't use their reactions to use for example Opportunity Attacks. All in all not a great option in your specific scenario, but the closest you will probably get with level 1 characters. Though running into 10 Goblins at once with only 3 level 1 characters would probably be a Deadly encounter and you should try not to go into an open fight like that.

Keep in mind that the Protection Fighting Style is not really a good option in general. Most people would say that it's pretty much useless as a Fighting Style. Be careful when choosing this Fighting Styles, but I think it's important to at least mention this option.

Use the terrain, Luke!

For completeness: One of the easiest things to do after this is probably to use the terrain. Place the Wizard with his back to the wall and make sure that there is no way around the Fighters to get to the Wizard. Use doors to make sure the Goblins can't go around. Stand on top of a ledge. Place the Wizard behind a stalagmite. Hide behind the corner and ready your actions. Distract enemies and try to get behind them. Get them apart in different rooms of the cave. Hide in the shadows. The options are near endless hear and only depend on the imagination of you and your DM. This gives you the most advantage. Especially on low levels it's incredibly important.

You mentioned a large open space so this is not possible in your specific scenario.

Maneuvers

Level 3 gives your Fighters access to the Battlemaster Archetype (PHB p. 73). This means they get special maneuvers they can use. These maneuvers might help a bit, but the sheer mass of enemies will be a big problem. Useful maneuvers include Goad, Maneuver, Menace and Push. You have to choose which maneuvers you think are most useful for you learning 3 at level 3 and getting 4 superiority dice. All maneuvers can be found on PHB p. 74.

Goad basically gives you the chance to force a creature you damage to make a Wisdom Saving Throw and impose Disadvantage on their next attack against any target that is not you until the end of your next turn.

A single enemy gets Disadvantage. Disadvantage will be very helpful to survive the next attack from this enemy. But only one enemy and only one attack and the enemy has to attack your Wizard.

Maneuver gives you the chance to make an ally move up to half their speed using their reaction. Furthermore your chosen ally won't provoke opportunity attacks.

Help your Wizard friend to move out of reach of the Goblins. Arguably they can catch up on their next turn again, but your Wizard can more easily position himself with your Fighters help.

Menace makes the target of your attack frightened until the end of your next turn if they fail their Wisdom Saving Throw.

If the enemy is frightened they can't get close to you and by keeping your Wizard friend close to you the enemy can't get closer to your Wizard friend. You should keep in mind that the enemy can still attack the Wizard from a distance and that "getting closer" might not be very useful if you already attacked them in close-quarters combat.

Push gives you the chance to push an enemy such as a Goblin up to 15 feet away from you.

Pushing the enemy away might stall their progress a bit.

All in all these maneuvery are all not really useful with the amount of enemies you proposed. Those numbers are just too high.

Sentinel feat

If your fighters are level 4 and they are allowed to choose feats you should have a look at Sentinel (PHB p. 168/170).

Sentinel basically gives you the chance to reduce the enemies speed to zero if you hit them with an Opportunity Attack, make an Opportunity Attack even if they are trying to Disengage and make an Opportunity Attack if the target is in your melee range and trying to attack someone who is not you and doesn't have this feat.

This is probably the best feat for what you want to achieve. It depends on whether you still count this as low-level or not, but if your Fighters have access to this feat they can reduce the enemies speed to 0, get a drop on the enemy even if those pesky, nimble Goblins use their Bonus Action as a Disengage Action and protect your Wizard if they stand in melee range of the Goblins. Of course this is also limited to the reaction of the Fighters and might therefore not be sufficient for a horde of 10 Goblins.


Early level Wizard spells to increase survivability

For the Wizard I recommend Color Spray (Level 1 Illusion which basically allows you to blind creatures in a 15-foot cone for one round. Depending on the positioning you might be able to blind quite a few enemies for one round.

Shield is also quite useful for not dying as it allows you to increase your AC by 5 until you start your next turn when you are hit by an attack.

Later your Wizard gets access to spells like Blur to increase his survivability, which imposes Disadvantage on attack rolls that are made against you.


TL;DR; All things considered you don't have a lot of options if you are facing a high amount of enemies like 10 Goblins with only 3 Level 1 characters and even on level 4 your options are limited at best. You should try to avoid encounters that are this much in the favour of your enemies. Use the terrain and try to fight only small groups. Use surprise to the best of your abilities. Otherwise a bigger group will kill your party.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @András I thought I made it pretty clear that it's not great by saying All in all not a great option in your specific scenario, but the closest you will probably get with level 1 characters. It's up to the Op to choose it or not. And when thinking about low-level characters, like the 3 level ones the OP really wants to know about mentioning that this option exists doesn't seem so wrong to me. But I can add that link if that makes it more clear. \$\endgroup\$ – Secespitus Sep 17 '17 at 11:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Miniman Thanks, I forgot about that one when thinking about the low-level characters. But the OP specifically mentioned feats, so thanks for pointing it out that Sentinel should be mentioned. \$\endgroup\$ – Secespitus Sep 17 '17 at 11:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @András I tried to make it more clear. But I really didn't think it was that much of a discussion point. Is there some Meta discussion I overlooked that prohibits people from mentioning the Fighting Style for completeness sake? \$\endgroup\$ – Secespitus Sep 17 '17 at 11:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ The argument that Protection Fighting Style isn't a good option seems to be based almost entirely on the fact that you can't know if it'll help ahead of time. Someone's feelings towards that uncertainty doesn't make it bad; it's still one of the only options that's purely reactive (costs only your reaction, and you don't have to use it until you've confirmed someone is getting attacked), works on others (unlike the Shield spell), has unlimited uses and even works on spell attacks. It also works equally well on stronger monsters, while opportunity attacks don't scale with Extra Attack. \$\endgroup\$ – Doval Sep 18 '17 at 16:12
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This is beyond a deadly encounter for these PCs at this level. That said, the wizard has a couple useful spells here: Sleep, Burning Hands, and Thunderwave.

PC Tactics

As goblins have low health, and assuming the tanks have not sustained massive damage yet, the goblins will be put to sleep before the tanks even if the tanks are in the AoE of Sleep. It puts an average of 22.5 hp of creatures to sleep, which is three goblins. If other goblins don't take turns to wake them, the encounter should have 10 goblins the first round, probably 5-6 the second (tanks kill 1-2) and only 2-3 by the third. If the goblins are, it still takes up to 6 goblins out of the fight for each of the first two rounds.

Burning hands does an average of 10.5 damage on a failed save, or 5.25 on a successful one. Goblins, with a +2 bonus to Dex saves, and assuming a wizard starting with Int 16-17, will fail the save 55% of the time. That area of effect should be able to catch 3-4 goblins in meelee in it, killing half of them. If the wizard survives the round, a second casting will kill the injured and half of the fresh targets, bringing the wizard up to ~5 kills. The tanks should be able to deal with the remaining ones.

Thunderwave catches a 15-foot cube, roughly doubling the AoE of Burning Hands. It only has an expected damage of 9, and is more volatile, so will roll under 7 more often than Burning Hands. It might, however, catch an additional 1-2 goblins in the area, and has the advantage of being Con, rather than Dex based, and so each goblin will have a 65% chance of failure. Those that fail are also pushed 10 feet back, possibly allowing the wizard to reposition without atatcks of opportunity.

Goblin Tactics

This all assumes that the goblins are charging the PCs and fighting to the death. Goblins are skirmishers, and usually ambushers, attacking from surprise, and cowardly when met with resistance. Their ranged attack is every bit as good as their meelee, and they can hide and attack with advantage, too. Logically, they will pick fights with lots of cover and hiding places, especially at night, when their darkvision puts them at an advantage.

According to VGM (page 40 ff) goblins are cowardly and only whipped into disciplined shape with hobgoblins in command. Their strength is terrible and constitution mediocre. They logically only attack in overwhelming 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 odds like you described. If a few of their number are killed, the remaining ones should flee. As evolved creatures, they have a sense of self-preservation and should flee individually when brought to low health (20-40%). If there's a hobgoblin captain, or captain and lieutenant (these being the hobgoblin stat block), the goblins will definitely flee when these fall. They are also, according to VGM, cowed by magic, and overt displays of such, a la Burning Hands, should also send them packing.

You might decide goblins in your world are tenacious little buggers who never give up an inch of ground. You might play them as the cowards they're presented as in the MM and VGM. All in all, goblins should act differently from lizardfolk, or bandits, or kobolds, or zombies, or cultists, or quasits. If you want your world to come alive, creatures should feel different in more than just their statistics. I reccoment this blog for more on goblins', and different creatures', tactics.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for this - the reminder about playing goblins to type is particularly good. To be clear this was a hypothetical situation. But 10 goblins for a party of 3 at 2nd or 3rd level shouldn't be deadly, for the party but still could be for an unprotected wizard. \$\endgroup\$ – Matt Thrower Sep 18 '17 at 8:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for " If you want your world to come alive, creatures should feel different in more than just their statistics. " \$\endgroup\$ – Emilio M Bumachar Sep 18 '17 at 14:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ At second level I agree. But by third a wizard should be able to burn a shield every turn, assumedly have mage armor up, and throw a shatter twice - which is a Con save with an expected damage of 13.5 - half the turns it will kill even those who make the save. It also has a range of 60 feet, so the wizard can stay well away from the goblins which seem determiend to be in meelee. The lone wizard has to burn everything in the tank, but he has a fair chance at making it at 3. A Divination (portent) or Necromancy (grim harvest) wizard has an even better shot. \$\endgroup\$ – Bartimaeus Sep 18 '17 at 16:40
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You can't always protect everyone

There are rules that can help with this, but just like you said, as in real life, 2 people can not stop 10.

Opportunity attacks

When a creature runs past you, you can make an attack using your reaction. If it hits, the goblin is most likely slain, but, you only have one reaction per turn, so even in the best case 8 goblins can reach the wizard.
You just have to keep 10 feet between you and the wizard. If you are closer, the goblin does not have to leave your reach to attack the wizard, and the Opportunity attack never triggers.

Feats

The Sentinel feat is really good to discourage enemies from trying to hit others. It also helps stopping stronger enemies running past you.

Fighting Styles

Protection sounds like it is meant to do this, but unfortunately it does not deliver. You always spend your reaction, that could have been used better (see above), but the result you achieve is not much.

Good positioning

The cave must have an entrance, hopefully not more than 10 feet wide. The fighters can block that one.

It does not matter that much

The bad
Goblins have ranged attacks, that deal the same damage and has the same hit chance as their melee attacks. So even if the fighters could block them, they can still attack the wizard without any problem.

The good
Unless they kill the wizard, the goblins can not stop him from casting spells.
You get disadvantage on ranged attacks if you have enemies adjacent to you, but many spells do not require attack rolls. The Sleep spell is very well suited to deal with hordes of weak enemies, and Acid Splash is also very good against hordes.

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Quite simply, you can't. By that point it's too late.

It's an overwhelming number of enemies, in an area with no terrain to work with. That's worst case scenario for your party and a bad tactical failure.

This isn't a flaw in the game rules, it's a reflection of just how much trouble you are in. This may be bad balancing by the DM if they've given you no way to anticipate or prepare for this encounter, or it may be your mistake for having missed the warnings and failed to take advantage of features provided.

Look for something nearby that you can use - anything will help.

Is there a tree the wizard can climb? An abandoned building you can run into and have the tanks hold the door? Does the wizard have any spells that can create pits or swamps, or walls or anything similar that you can work with?

This is where scouting and perception comes into things. In a wide open area you should have spotted those goblins coming. When you see them what do you do? Look for a place to hide, or a tactical place to fight them. The big strategic choices are whether, when and where to fight. Sometimes you have no choice (i.e. if you get ambushed, if there is a gate guard you need to pass, etc) but a lot of the time you can arrange the ground to your advantage before the fight begins.

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