I have offered to take a turn at running a game for our group. I have a story that I think they will find interesting, mechanics to cope with the fact that some players sometimes just don't show up sometimes and access to the normal GMs vast library of books (honestly, I have never seen so many, not even in the local games shop). I also have spent time designing unique loot items that can be used to advance the plot (and backup plans for if the party don't think of that).

The story calls for the party to face an vast army of usually annoyingly easy creatures. Narratively it would make sense to have a few thousand goblin archers supported by mounted units, casters and fighters in equally unfair numbers. Said army would show up at a key point in the story to prevent the players from accessing the really cool loot until later. This would be the first clue that someone is really ticked off at the party. The most sensible choice would be for the party to leg it and hold up in the nearby castle where the plot can unfold while the castle is surrounded (some politics some hidden room exploration etc).

The problem is I know the party and they might very well try and fight the entire damn army. How do I handle combat if they choose to not run away? I don't fancy roiling initiative that many times.

I considered saying "The sky blackens with arrows which rain down upon your characters. Despite your best efforts you suffer massive damage. Please roll up new characters." But that really would not be kind, or very fair - the party might survive long enough to realize that running is a good idea.

  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ What level is the party? And what count of opposition casters (at what general breakdown?) \$\endgroup\$ Mar 2 '15 at 6:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ Newer players are very prone to going squish but the longer serving group members have a range of characters that they play on rotation (or sometimes two at once because that's how they roll) which feature among their number characters that have been in play long enough to survive an Elder God (No, not that one) and a dragon or two, marrage, running a castle... Never ask for the life story of said characters as some of the players will actually tell you - in detail. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 3 '15 at 11:25
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Is that an extra confusing way of stating "1 to 15" or something? If so please edit it into your question. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Mar 4 '15 at 0:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sorry, I realise that I was answering an entirely different question to the one that was actually written down. The plan was for players to reuse characters they had grown attached to so there would be some disparity between character levels and some of the players have a small army to choose from. (The group has been going for ages). TL;DR: I have no idea. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 19 '16 at 12:36

Luckily, Pathfinder has rules for this already. It is called the troop monster subtype. It's similar to a swarm, but different and designed for exactly this case, where you pit PCs against large groups of soldier types. (It's separate from their mass combat system, which does not incorporate PCs well).

They developed it for their Reign of Winter AP, here's the blog post explaining it more and providing a troop of Russian riflemen.

As the troop does automatic damage each round to all the PCs, they should get the point and head into the castle after several rounds of that.

They're pretty similar to some quickie mass combat rules I came up with for the same goal (main differences are mine roll to hit and are also easier to construct from component creatures), which is seamless integration of PCs with mass combat with much-reduced rolling. I've used these with my group for a long time, and they fit the niche perfectly - PCs sometimes will go head to head against a unit but are always re-surprised at how hard they hit.


The situation you describe is often handled by some form or another of mass combat system, that allows you to convert a large number of creatures into a much smaller number of discrete combat units. I'm sure that such mechanics exist for Pathfinder, but I don't have an experience with them in that system. Here's what I would do.

Treat the army as an obstacle, not a set of creatures.

From what you are describing, the army is not, narratively, a set of individual creatures. Instead, your story description of the army is that it's one cohesive unit, with one goal, and a limited number of ways of achieving that goal. In that case, one way of solving your problem would be to treat the army mechanically as a large, damaging wall, rather than a bunch of creatures. If you treat the army as a miles-long wall with thousands of HP that does a few d6 worth of damage to each player each turn, then the players have chance to attack the wall without actually being totally hosed in the first round.

Calculate HP based on the number of enemies in the army times their average HP, and calculate damage based on what you think would be enough to scare away your players without killing them outright, and you've got your army. Take a look at the monster stats by CR table here, and have the army do damage equal to a creature that's a few CR higher than the party. Hopefully that will be enough to scare them off. Dont bother rolling attack for this, for two reasons: one, because there will always be a large number of archers or melee fighters rolling 20s on their attack rolls, since there are so many of them. Two, because when the players realize that they are taking this damage every round, no matter what, it becomes a lot scarier. You can describe this damage as a hail of arrows, or a dozen attacks from the surrounding enemies, or most likely both.

This way, your players could possibly beat the army if they figure out some kind of trick to prevent themselves from getting overrun, but they would hopefully get the gist that attacking an army head-on isn't a great idea, and run away. Once your players try to get away, let them. They might have some encounters with the army's outriders later, but they should be able to outrun the main force pretty easily, if that's what you want them to do.


Don't Prep Plots

First of all I will make a patronizing comment that I hope you will not take in a patronizing way (a bit like saying "so offence" before offending someone): If you want to tell stories, write a novel. If you want to participate in a joint story telling experience, play a RPG.

Please take the time to read this.

Players break your plans

kein Operationsplan erstreckt sich mit Sicherheit über den ersten Kontakt mit dem Haupt feindliche Macht.

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

Roughly translated as:

No plan survives contact with the Enemy

For those who are unhappy with the translation, please note, I have used the most common English usage of the thought - it is not and is not intended to be a direct translation - if you follow the link you will find several English versions of von Moltke's thought

Accept the fact that PCs are resourceful - no matter what obstacle you put in front of them they will find an ingenious and unexpected way of going through, over, under or around it. Some ways around your encounter are:

  • A potion of gaseous form for each PC,
  • A scyring spell and a teleport to exactly where they want to go,
  • Protection from normal missiles and spell immunity,
  • Ethrealness,
  • Wind walk and invisibility,
  • Walking around,
  • Flying over,
  • Tunneling under,
  • Any number of other ideas neither you nor I have though of.

As DM you then have two choices:

  1. Become an arbitrary autocrat by effectively saying "You can't do that because I said so", or
  2. Rolling with it.

The first option is called railroading and it is the greatest source of player dissatisfaction other than the snack food running out.

Revisit your objective

  1. You want to stop the players getting the clues/goodies until the time is right.
  2. You want the players to go to the castle so the cool stuff you prepped can happen.

For 1., If they need X before A but after B then don't let the clues/loot exist until you need it and then put it at the next place the players go. Without the stuff there is no need for the army.

If we are talking about clues then remember the 3 clue rule. The players need at least 3 clues because:

  • They won't find one,
  • They will misinterpret the second, and
  • They may get what they need from the third.

For 2., you wan't some "politics and hidden room exploration"; prep these in such a way that:

  • The player's want to do them, i.e. there is a carrot rather than a stick,
  • They are not tied to a specific location, i.e. these things are wherever the players end up,
  • It doesn't matter what order they happen in, i.e. what they need is where they are.

Running big fights

Having said all that, if you still want a big army to drop grief of the PCs:

  1. Break it into logical groups (e.g archers, melee, wizards, clerics) as big or as small as makes sense,
  2. Roll initiative for each group,
  3. Calculate the number of hits - ((to hit bonus-AC+10)/20)% for each group.
  4. Ignore critical hits
  5. Assume average damage

You could use the mob rules in the DMGII (but the're not very good) or try any or all of these.

  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ Offtopic: You should not (auto)translate quotes that already have been translated back to their original language :D since your german re-translation of that quote is a butchering ;) ("Kein Operationsplan reicht mit einiger Sicherheit über das erste Zusammentreffen mit der feindlichen Hauptmacht hinaus" would be correct) \$\endgroup\$
    – Jonathan
    Mar 2 '15 at 14:48
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ It's a butchering because he used the short form of the actual original quote "No operation extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main body of the enemy." \$\endgroup\$
    – JohnP
    Mar 2 '15 at 14:52
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Point taken about railroading. The plot is set up without narrative a bit like a large table with many dishes that that players can enjoy in which ever order makes sense to them. That doesn't stop me prompting them to the meat and veg before the cakes. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 3 '15 at 11:14

Arrow Storm

For the archers, treat it as an environmental effect. "Hail of arrows"; characters whose flatfooted AC is 20 or higher are struck by 1d3-1 Small shortbow arrows per turn; FF AC 16-19 struck by 1d3 arrows per turn; FF AC 13-15 struck by 1d4 arrows per turn; FF AC 12 or lower are struck by 1d4+1 arrows per turn. These do normal Small shortbow damage. Characters engaged in melee combat or otherwise finding cover count as one category better; characters already in the best category and behind cover have a 50% chance to be struck by a single arrow each turn.

Characters struck by only one arrow in a turn are never critically hit that turn; other characters have a chance to be hit in a critical location. A character struck by 2 or 3 arrows has a 5% chance to take triple damage from one arrow, while characters struck by 4 or 5 arrows have a 10% chance. Since shortbow damage is a single die normally, you can simply roll two more of the same dice and call it a day.

This is a little complicated to write out, but super simple to do in play - ask for everyone's AC, tell them how many arrows hit them per turn, have them roll it. When someone says "can I hide behind my tower shield / this rock / the guy I'm fighting to dodge the arrows?" tell them their new arrow-per-turn count.

Numberless hordes

There's three easy methods of handling the melee combatants. Here they are in no particular order...

Squad leader, report: Have one or two "heroic NPC" stat blocks for each type of melee unit (infantry, dog rider, worg rider, etc), ignore the common goblins. Group five common goblins with a leader of that type - they count as one creature. You can have them occupy space as a Large creature if you prefer. The leader gets +5 to attack and damage, but -5 to saves against area effects. When the leader's hp is depleted, one of his minions drops and he full heals (with his crowd-fighting bonuses and penalties reducing by one). When he's out of minions and hits 0 hp, he goes down. This lets you make them more of a threat (since each goblin is "counting as" their, say, 4th-level fighter squad leader instead of a 1st-level warrior) and cut down on your number of creatures actually being tracked at once. (Special note: weak mind control effects like charm should drop a single minion and waste a turn if they hit. After killing off one minion, the goblin remembers who the real enemy is. The more powerful dominate should probably just allow a save per turn/minion wasted. Feel free to reward creativity here, depending on what orders are given. Instant kills or save-or-suck spells (hold person, ghoul touch) should scatter minions; half may join other squad leaders, while the other half should flee or die in the back-and-forth.)

Swarm tactics: Treat a squad or platoon as a swarm. Give them all a bonus based on swarm size, downgrade the swarm size when they reach half hp (maybe every quarter for very large swarms). So 5 or 6 goblins makes a 4-square swarm, which hit like a goblin with +2 to attack and damage, at half hp the bonuses go away because a few are dead or fled. 25-30 goblins should be a 9-square swarm with, say, maybe +4; reduce the bonus by 1 at 75%, 50%, and 25% hp. Let swarms merge to heal, and go ahead and let them attack adjacent squares and take AoO's even though swarms normally don't.

This obviously isn't working: If you want to give it away to them sooner rather than later that they JUST CAN'T FIGHT THAT MANY; I've used what I call the "X in play" monster rule. Put as many figures on the battlefield as you can handle; put them in groups and have a group move on a single initiative, but still be individual monsters. Each time one dies, move its figure to the edge of the battle map and have it run/charge to close the next time that group gets a turn. Never remove a figure from the mat. It sets a very clear picture: each time one falls, another replaces it. You can combine this with one of the other two options (or even combine all three, one for led squads and one for mass unorganized attacks, if you can keep up with it).

It's been a while since I've used these, but they're decent. If you don't use the X in play rule, you should probably let your PCs "advance" when they clear the same field once or twice, giving them new terrain and tougher/more bad guys. Remember that casting while taking damage from environmental effects / swarms requires concentration checks, and feel free to throw special situations in there (a squad of unarmed goblins that grapple everything they can reach, for instance, or a lone hobgoblin cleric 7 with protection from arrows striding untouched through the battlefield, getting the attention of the melee PCs while a goblin rogue 5 moves to sneak attack the vital back row...). Whatever makes it feel fun while getting the point across that they really need to flee or die....


Maybe getting captured could be fun. Maybe the person who really has it in for them wants to gloat, or the goblin leadership was worried their horde would eat the PCs and so they take them alive as proof. Maybe a goblin sorcerer with minor image and ghoul touch slips in the confusion and the tank believes he's the cleric, not resisting that "cure wounds" until it's too late. Losing this fight doesn't have to end the campaign. Waking up on the field of battle afterward could also work - especially in a combination. Maybe half the party was left for dead, but one with Heal or cure stabilized first and saved the others. Maybe an outside party saves the whole party and now the PCs owe him a favor. Whatever works for your game.

PS: All numbers can be adjusted to taste. Some of them can even be done away with. If you don't want to bother trying to figure out how many arrows should hit what AC, don't. Assume everyone is hit with 1d4 arrows and call it a day. Simplify wherever you like.


I haven't seen it mentioned yet but there are rules for Mass Combat that could work well for this.

These rules contain options for armies of 1 creature up to 2,000 plus.

Your players would all form a single army of however many characters there are at the time or form a single army for each character.


Long, long ago I handled a similar situation (they got careless while scouting an orc army) and I handled it by assuming the rolls were evenly distributed. 100 orcs shoot, I figure 5 got a 1, 5 got a 2 and so on. The orcs didn't have enough information to pick targets so I distributed them evenly and only rolled for the odd ones. The tactical situation was so bad for the orcs (to start with they needed IIRC a 19 to hit the squishiest character, add range penalties and the fact that this battle took place under moonlight) that I didn't feel that a 20 auto-hitting was unfair and made a lower and lower percent hit as the range opened.

Edit: I also ignored initiative as the PCs were running, not fighting.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.