Players run a kingdom... Tiny kingdom. Pimple on the axe of their huge empire enemy. Only hope of victory is guerrilla warfare and forest ambushes.

An effective ambush doesnt result in a fight. It results in the larger force panicking and running, to be picked off at leisure. But the basic 3.5 mechanics handle it with a surprise round, after which the smaller force gets chewed to bits. How do i incorporate a will save that is fun when the PCs make it happen, but fair when kobolds or drow do it to them?

To clarify, i am willing to check out 3rd party rules (AEG or mongoose by preference). Just want to stick to the 3rd/3.5 stuff amap.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Also see this question and this question. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 4, 2018 at 9:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ I see the benefits of the answers in both threads, sticking to the 3x rss, but i have the same exception for heroes of battle as the guy in the second thread... A primary fighter will break before the flimsy wizard. Opinion: would it be reasonable to flip the will save to fort at that scale? I ask opinions here because that allows for a small yes/no/reason spread that can provide answers to more circumstances than my specific question. \$\endgroup\$
    – wolf
    Mar 4, 2018 at 9:32
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Taking a poll doesn't work on this site; that should be done on a forum. Also, soliciting house rules is dicey—answers are often unsupported suggestions. I recommend that your question propose an actual house rule that you're considering then ask Is this house rule balanced? That way, based on in-game experience, answers can evaluate it and offer suggestions. (As an aside, I am comfortable with masters of arcane magic and servants of deities being more ready to engage in battles against overwhelming odds than a dude who has as a superpower owns a sword, but maybe that's just me.) \$\endgroup\$ Mar 4, 2018 at 9:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ Or a big hammer that spits lightning, comes when called, and has a mean name? Lol. Good point though. \$\endgroup\$
    – wolf
    Mar 4, 2018 at 12:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think the edit improved the question. Shopping for rules is still shopping, so asking for recommendations for rules to use will likely see this question closed. Again, I urge picking a rule first — maybe from one of the books that it seems you're already familiar with — then asking the site if that rule's balanced. The site's better at evaluating specific rules and can't field requests for broad suggestions. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 4, 2018 at 12:52

3 Answers 3


If I were in your position I wouldn't bog down game play by doing the rule lawyer bit. Good gameplay's biggest enemy are nit-picking rules. As DM you should make judgements based on the effectiveness of the ambush in game play as much as possible. I often ignore rules to further the ease and fluidity of game play. I would use a combination of mass combat rules adjusted by what my PCs are doing. In the example you stated of a forest ambush;

Weigh the morale and experience of both sides. (If you need to assign each a number 1-20 higher the better). Ask the players specific questions about the ambush to anticipate how the side you are running will react. (Let's say that during the ambush your PC wizard makes an illusion of Elven Archers appearing and disappearing at the same time the actual ambushers are loosing arrows into the ranks. Well that's got to impact morale and spread confusion.)

Because of these factors the PCs may get 2, 3, 5 or more surprise rounds. Perhaps Round 3 some of the veterans on the opposing side have gathered themselves and are reacting, but 2/3 of the opposing force are still surprised. Instead of adhering to the strict wording of the rules adjust it as you would see as plausible.

I'm an Army Veteran and despite my skill, experience and training I can tell you that it often takes many "combat rounds" to react to a good ambush, locate attackers and respond.

That said remember the other side thinks as well. Maybe they catch on to certain types of ambushes. How would their strategist react and plan ahead?

I hope this helps, always remember game play way more important than rules. Rules were written to sell products not make game play better!

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you, the idea of additional surprise rounds makes sense and fits with what i know also... Not every soldier is going to get their head out after 6 seconds... That gives me something to work with. Tad late (PCs failed the ambush anyways), but now i have an idea how to work one if it comes up again. \$\endgroup\$
    – wolf
    Mar 26, 2018 at 5:18

You should look into Morale rules, even if this means looking at morale rules for followers of previous editions (like AD&D). A large conscripted army of peasants is more likely to flee because of an ambush than a disciplined, small veteran force even if the veterans are outnumbered. These were in earlier editions partially handled by morale (Will) checks.

In a core D&D 3.5 campaign there are no morale rules. Creatures fight to the death, flee or surrender depending on the DM's decision only. Paizo has mass combat rules if you want to look at a recent (Pathfinder) edition.

You could also consider to just make your own morale rules once you look at the suggested other editions in case you don't like those. Consider the race, class, training, level, supplies (food, water, ect), how rested they are (was the enemy in forced march, maybe had to pass across mountains?) and ambush efficiency when you decide if enemies get routed or not. A goblin due to race is likely to have a negative number to morale check while an orc a positive one, an untrained or 'greenhorn' soldier is far more likely to flee than a soldier drilled with Prussian discipline, hungry soldiers will resent their leadership soon enough and be both weaker and more likely to flee. Assassinating the officers or message runners will likely cause chaos and drop morale (make the Will checks harder) as well.

As such if the players have to use ambush tactics do the usual routine as well: Cut off enemy supply, raid the supply routes, burn their food if capturing it is impossible. Do this before even attempting to fight the enemy force directly (or even to ambush it)

However, if you do implement these, remember the enemy is not likely to be stupid and is going to adjust to these tactics. It might first send large masses of newbie soldiers as a form of active duty experience gaining when they underestimate their tiny foe (player nation), but as time goes on they will send better officers, soldiers, supplies (also equipment), begin to protect the supply caravans with escorts, execute deserters and 'incompetent' leaders (however they decide which those are, might only be sent back home instead), start to be more aggressive towards simple locals (while first they tried to act as benevolent new rulers) and could even execute those they believe work against them or just to make an exemple of assumed spies. With paranoia growing among their ranks.

With only a small nation and force on the side of the players it is highly unlikely they can win a war. They just get outnumbered. The players will need either more allies, preferably other nations which dislike the common enemy empire (maybe allies inside that empire), or continue with ambush & raiding tactics and hope the enemy leaders will decide at a point in future that the little realm is not worth the effort and losses, thus they will offer peace terms which change little or nothing (status quo, or a tiny compensation for one side's or the other's losses) but even if peace terms are offered if the enemy still considers itself dominant it will instead offer terms that benefit their own side (like vassalage for the smaller realm, or monthly taxing for a number of years)

  • \$\begingroup\$ As far as the nation and its war goes, heroes of battle and AEGs Empire have been my big books... I didn't consider despatch/messengers and i appreciate the heads up there. As a bit of background... The nation is composed of a human mining not-quite-thorpe as capitol, now a town, a settlement of gnomes, one of halflings, a large town that is ALL of the continents surviving elves, and a band of recently reclanned dwarves. They have two decent allies (orcs and dwarves), and an enemy that didnt even know they were at war... Lots of plot twists and intrigue. Just got surprised by ambush lastweek \$\endgroup\$
    – wolf
    Mar 4, 2018 at 11:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @wolf Well, I forgot to mention in my (long) reply that the enemy realm is also likely to start sending scout/assassin/ambush light forces from about the second third of conflict. The messenger targeting will only work as long the enemy forces don't start to adjust to this tactic and begin using telepaths or clerics with Sending spell, or sending stones. Every tactic/strategy should only work well for a certain duration after which the targeting of those gets harder or impossible. (1) \$\endgroup\$
    – Drake
    Mar 4, 2018 at 12:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @wolf This should force the players to also change tactics and for them the sooner the conflict/war ends the better, as the enemy has less time to adjust and prepare. A nation allied to the players neighboring the enemy realm from an other side would force the enemy empire to divide attention and resources, such a diplomatic mission (to form an alliance) would be my current priority as a player. (2) \$\endgroup\$
    – Drake
    Mar 4, 2018 at 12:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ that actually goes with my concept, and while Messenger hunters wouldnt affect troop morale much, officers rely on those guys. Breaking the brasses morale can stop an army quicker than sending the troops running. I do fhink ill stick to the 3x system, though (less conversion from 3rd to 3.5, lol) \$\endgroup\$
    – wolf
    Mar 4, 2018 at 12:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Drake There actually are official mass battle (and morale) rules in 3.5, see my answer for more details. \$\endgroup\$
    – nijineko
    Mar 6, 2018 at 19:25

The official 3.5 rules for morale and mass battles are found in the Miniatures Handbook

More famous for it's skirmish rules (small unit tactical scale), the Miniatures Handbook also contains the official 3.5 mass battle rules (including morale) in Chapter 6 on p.127 (morale rules start on p.142).

Unlike in previous editions where morale was a Will save, in 3.5 a morale check is a variant of a level check called a "Unit Level Check", which removes the original "buff wizard, weak fighter" effect of the will-based saves of yore.

Here are the basics, please see the book in question for details:


To make a morale save, roll 1d20 and add the unit’s level rating, then compare the result to the morale save’s Difficulty Class (DC). The DC for all morale saves is 20. If the result equals or exceeds the save DC, the unit’s morale state is unchanged. If the result is lower than the save DC, the unit’s morale state worsens by one step. However, a unit that fails a morale save caused by a spell or special ability becomes routing regardless of its original morale state. As with any save, a natural 1 always fails and a natural 20 always succeeds. A unit must immediately make a morale save when any of the following triggering conditions occur. These conditions are explained in detail below.

  • It takes its first casualty.
  • It takes casualties totaling half or more of its initial strength (number of miniatures).
  • It takes a casualty from an attack by a unit that just charged it.*
  • It charges another unit and fails to cause at least one casualty.*
  • It disengages from an enemy unit.
  • It is a formed unit and becomes unformed for any reason.
  • An attached commander leading from the front moves to the rear, detaches, or is destroyed.**

*If the enemy unit is at least 5 levels higher than the unit making the morale save, the saving unit makes two morale saves instead of one (see Charging and Morale Saves, below).

Note that there are slight differences in how morale checks work versus commanders and individual creatures (lone units) when compared to the unit morale rules, and there are various modifiers that can be applied to morale saves, depending on the circumstances.

These rules show their roots (the Chainmail system), and their modern purpose (selling miniatures) and therefore may not work for everyone, and like the rest of 3.x, have their, ah, quirks. Your millage may vary, however, these are the OFFICIAL rules, for those who prefer such.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, those are official I guess, but I won't be converting stat blocks to stat cards so I can use those rules. :-) \$\endgroup\$ Mar 6, 2018 at 19:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @hey i can chan actually, thats why i asked here... Those conversions arent too hard, but not how i want to spend 4 hours for a small 5 on 30 fight, lol. \$\endgroup\$
    – wolf
    Mar 7, 2018 at 1:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ Indeed, I tried to make it clear that these won't work for everyone. However, it is pretty simple to take existing set of characters, group them into units and average the HP and damage of a given unit. Volley fire are AoE attack targeting areas instead of individual characters and just a few more minor tweaks and one is ready to go. As long as one is willing to play fast and loose with these rules, one can get the game moving along even in a non-miniatures game session. Personally, I usually set the PCs as "Hero" units which operate independently, and can thus sway entire battles. \$\endgroup\$
    – nijineko
    Mar 7, 2018 at 18:59

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