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Right now, I’m planning a situation where faction “a” is going to fight faction “b” and the players pick a side, and the side which the players choose is fairly likely to win, in which they have to kill all creatures in the other faction. How do I make it so that faction a and faction b are around the same strength?

Example: in the current game I am thinking about making an encounter between 10-30 commoners and a lvl 2 fighter, vs 7 bandits and a bandit boss. The PCs are all lvl 1 charecters (wizard, cleric, and monk), and I would like whatever side they choose to have a fairly high chance of winning (say around 75%ish), would this happen, or would one side always win over the other regardless of what the PCs choose? If one side would always win, how could this encounter be changed in order to be more balanced?

Some clarification on the rules: so far into the campaign there is no homebrew, and the only optional rule we are using is a grid rule.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just to clarify, are you planning to run a 40 NPC combat using the full combat rules? \$\endgroup\$ May 1 at 18:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, what does "winning" mean here? Killing the opposing leader? Forcing the other side to surrender, or to run away? Killing every enemy? \$\endgroup\$ May 1 at 18:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ I have a couple questions @Ekadh Singh I have to ask to you a couple questions to answer your question. 1. Can I know the creatures you are choosing? 2. Around how many of these creatures will you have total? 3. What is the out come you would like to see? \$\endgroup\$
    – MemeMan
    May 1 at 18:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @WakiNadiVellir probably not, that would take forever. Also, winning means killing the other side, as in this battle both sides have a fairly large stake in it. \$\endgroup\$ May 2 at 13:31
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How to do large battles

Of course you could do it in detail, give everything a stat block and basically do just a large fight like there were 10-30 player characters... but in my experience that offers just a very long and tedious fight.

Instead for my games I figured out that the following works most fluently:

Every time a player character or important NPC is involved in an attack, roll it in detail. Do the rest narratively. Rather focus on your party and their closest surroundings. Everything else is just background noise.

The problem with doing the whole battle in detail is: Your NPC will do the most actions during the fight, hence get the most spotlight and that most often feels for players like an interactive cutscene with some DMPCs and less like they were the protagonists.

Here's an example from my home-brew system (but that's more a basic issue and works in every system):

My party was traveling with their NPC-Airship crew... about a dozen well armed redshirts and their captain (the only named NPC in that scenario). They ran into a horde of undead constructs and had a rather big fight. When we rolled for initiative I rolled once for the captain, once for the crew and once for the undead constructs. Whenever a construct attacked a player or the captain, or when the players or the captain attacked a construct we rolled like normal, but every action between crew and constructs were just narration. Crew members were slaughtered and constructs suffered some autodamage... just so much that the fight stayed gritty and exciting. If the fight was too hard, the crew "fought" a little better, if it was too easy another construct got involved with the players' actions.

It's quite easy to keep control and your players don't get bored. At least for me, that was the best solution for those situations.

For comparison another example from an earlier campaign (same party, same characters), when I didn't figure out large combats yet (that was in DnD 3.5e):

My party hunted a high level Mary Sue shapeshifter assassin. They were level 6-7 at that time, the assassin was level 13. They managed to collect a decent amount of money through the last quest and hired a mercenary battalion (50 level 1 fighters, and 1 level 4 fighter... their leader) to lure Mary Sue into a trap. And I did every single roll... the Mary Sue sliced every one of them into shreds. It was a super frustrating combat and super boring. Because I rolled and rolled and rolled, and all my party could do was watch me rolling and telling them the casualties Mary Sue inflicted among their mercenaries.

It was the worst most memorable fight in my DMing history. DON'T DO THAT!

Using miniatures

If you use miniatures or tokens/standees and have enough to show all creatures that participate in combat, do that. But let all NPC and opponent miniatures at the same time. Most of the time they're not much more than moving obstacles and just show which squares are occupied. Commoners shouldn't fight themselves tho. But they could give the players a benefit for gang-up. I'd go for example with +1 on attack and damage for each commoner that stands next to your melee-target.

But if you want some published guidance...

...you might want to look into this Unearthed Arcana article.

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Neither NPCs nor cinematic sequences need to follow the rules, so don't bother trying to balance something like this

Combat being balanced mostly means, in this case, that it will be longer. Having four hours of combat, where there are no stakes because the outcome doesn't matter to the story and players are sitting idle ~90% of the time while you roll dice, may not have the effect you want.

I have a couple of reasons why I think that this idea suits the situation you describe:

1. Combat is slow, and the game is intended to be played by players, not NPCs

Combat is generally the most time-consuming piece of play in D&D; it takes time for everyone to consider their options, make choices, roll dice, and so on. It can already be a problem for players who are awaiting their turns with a small party. Adding in 10-30 additional individuals will slow things down to an outrageous degree, and there will be literally nothing for the players to do (or even really think about, at level 1) for ~90% of combat time (just by numbers of characters on the field).

And what you get for all that trouble isn't much: a fight your players mostly watch unfold, but which probably doesn't have much impact outside of the things your players do get to do (if the forces are intended to be evenly matched without the PCs, then this is mechanically the same as a decisive fight involving the PCs alone against a challenge meant to be balanced for them).

2. Commoners aren't going to be very interesting in combat as combatants

Throwing in an NPC who is not very capable in combat works here and there: an escort mission, a rescue, and other things like that can make commoners interesting by influencing the decisions PCs make in a fight by adding extra constraints.

But a commoner rolling to hit with an unarmed strike, improvised weapon, or simple weapon over and over again is going to get repetitive quickly. They don't have any special powers or combat maneuvers, nor any special relevance to the battle. They just exist until they are downed. While they are still in fighting shape, they will inevitably surround the bandits, secure flanking bonuses to attack with Advantage, and are likely to cripple the other side, if not win outright, through weight of numbers.

Either way, my experience suggests that this is likely to come down to slow grinding down of each side, which will cause any sense of danger and tension to bleed away long before the fight is over.


What to do instead? It depends on your goals

When considering any scene in a game, it's important to consider what you want the point of that scene to be. Then you shape other things to suit that goal. For my DM style, sequences like this are virtually always one of two things:

  • A cinematic spectacle establishing mood and tone
  • An environmental obstacle

A cinematic spectacle doesn't need any rules at all, nor any variability. A vicious bandit can hack a poor villager to pieces just when they come into a PC's view, or a group of five villagers might force a bandit to the ground and then hack him or her to death with their farm tools. You can emphasize how unprepared the villager is compared to the bandit, how violent and callous the criminals are, and so on. These are staged in advance and don't vary because they are strictly narrative devices which just happen to take place in a combat environment. You choose when the players receive any bit of narration, but there isn't any meaningful, rules-based combat happening around them.

As an environmental obstacle the brawl around the PCs imposes additional constraints on combat (even if the players define those for themselves) and presents unpredictable dangers and opportunities. If the PCs want to protect the villagers they will have to keep an eye out for villagers in immediate danger and then try to intervene. If it's a big brawl I wouldn't expect the villagers or bandits to know whose side the PCs are on-- do random NPCs stab out at the PCs, or suddenly attack someone endangering the PCs? Who knows? That kind of thing being decided by dice roll each round or PC turn can ratchet up tension and make the combat more interesting.


There is some official guidance for this, which treats groups of individuals as mobs with probabilities of landing at least one hit

There is an approach in the DMG for large scale combat involving mobs of individual creatures:

Keeping combat moving along at a brisk pace can be difficult when there are dozens of monsters involved in a battle. When handling a crowded battlefield, you can speed up play by forgoing attack rolls in favor of approximating the average number of hits a large group of monsters can inflict on a target.

Instead of rolling an attack roll, determine the minimum d20 roll a creature needs in order to hit a target by subtracting its attack bonus from the target’s AC. You’ll need to refer to the result throughout the battle, so it’s best to write it down. [Full rules follow, but it seems too much to reproduce the whole section here] (DMG, Chapter 8: Running the Game, Combat, Mob Attacks).

I've used these and they will definitely streamline combat with lots of participants for you, as well as making balance considerations easier. I, personally, have not found large-scale combats using these rules to be all that exciting for the players (unless they have their own, more conventional combat goals to consider), but the option exists and will help with your goal here. It is relatively easy to game out combat when hits are guaranteed each turn. You just need to decide on sizes for the mobs.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Having four hours of combat, where... players are sitting idle ~90% of the time while you roll dice" This could be avoided by giving the players control of "squads" of the NPCs on their side. \$\endgroup\$
    – nick012000
    May 3 at 5:22
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Don't create scenarios with outcomes you don't want

I would very much recommend against letting chance determine the outcome of the encounter if you want a certain side to come out victorious.

If you have plans for when the players lose and can continue the story accordingly, then letting chance determine the outcome will work out, but then the requirements of balance aren't really that important.

As DM, you also can control the fight on the back end by changing HP values, killing off enemies faster, etc. It can be seen to look like a 'fair' fight, but it's actually more railroading for story effect than the players realize.

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My practice with this, and I have done this a few times, is to set up the factions and do a practice run or two without the players, to see if they are closely matched, and what the flow of the combat will be like. So when I run it with the characters, I use one of my practice runs as the model, so I don't have to roll and adjudicate each swing during play. Then I can have the characters join, and make their rolls, and I just have to roll any attacks against the players, and can just narrate the rest -- "over on this flank, the bandits seem to be pushing back the commoners; 3 of the commoners lay dead."

Or, set up the players with a smaller combat that affects the outcome. e.g. in your scenario, the bandits might be stronger, but there might be town guards coming to help the commoners, and the party can choose to help the bandits win faster, or to delay the guards -- or if they pick the other side, to call the guards, clear the way, and seal off the gate so the bandits can't escape.

The last time I ran something similar was a very large scale battle, between about 2000 Hobgoblins with Waterbreathing spells, fighting a Kraken to drive it off a shipwreck. I sure wasn't going to try to roll all that during play, real time. I determined during the pre-tests that the Hobgoblin army would likely beat the Kraken, losing about 1/3 of them in the process. And it took about 5 rounds. But the Kraken had some minions -- an Aboleth, a few Chuul, some Merrow -- that could tip the fight the other way.

The PCs were eight 8th-level characters. So the party could throw in on either side. In this case, they had allied with the Hobgoblins (and indeed had been the ones to cast the Waterbreathing spells on the army), and so the Hobgoblin warlord had the party fight and block the Kraken's minions, aided by a few of the Hobgoblin's force -- a Devastator, an Iron Shadow, his Mindflayer advisor, and a few Bugbears (carrying a half-dozen of the Mindflayer's pet Intellect Devourers in their heads). The party succeeded in doing this, so the Hobgoblins won.

I could play the smaller fight (which was complicated enough!), and just narrated the Army vs. Kraken fight on the side.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great answer! This is a really helpful description of what happened with commentary to help explain what you went through. +1 \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    May 1 at 20:16

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