Mass Combat in Middle-Earth

The players in my Adventures in Middle-earth game are messing with me. I’m sure of it. They took a nice, simple campaign of helping people and fighting the forces of Sauron and they’ve made it into some kingdom-building Greyhawk nonsense. So, what is a poor Loremaster to do? Lean straight into it.

Basically, things went along like this. I ran my players through “The Marsh-Bell” as an introductory adventure, just to get their feet wet (Get it? Feet wet in a marsh?) and try out the systems of Adventures in Middle-earth. They had a good time and successfully rescued the Dwarven captives from the horrible probably-hobbits and then went back to seal up the entrance to the water-logged lair. Two things came out of this adventure, though. Firstly, there was a hoard of gold in the lair (the pickings of all the marsh-dwellers’ victims through the ages) and the players were convinced that some of those items might be important artifacts. Easy enough, I decided to make that true since they were clearly into the idea and eventually they’ve brought these to Gandalf and Radagast for their help in identifying.

The One Ring - Nazgul
A Black Rider from the One Ring RPG. Image © Cubicle 7 Entertainment

The Rot in the Mountains

The other fallout from the trip to the marsh-dwellers’ realm was the players’ obsession with the Rotting River, the “stream [that] descends from the Mountains of Mirkwood to join the River Running” here in the Long Marshes. The reason for this, of course, is the corruption of orcs massing in the mountains that hear the call of Sauron to the south. This is meant to be foreshadowing, people, but my players charged right in to investigate. I tried to throw them some scraps for this (letting them use this as leverage to gain people’s help, investigating things during Fellowship Phases) but they doubled-down by turning the remains of the Refuge in the Mountains of Mirkwood into a new fortress stronghold called Amon Tauhîr.

All in all, this calls for a large-scale reworking of the fetch quest campaign I had in mind and provides some handy direction for the narrative. So, I fully embraced it and this is the new trajectory of the campaign. Amon Tauhîr (a hodge-podge of the characters’ initials and Sindarin) has ended up being the meeting point for all the people the party is talking to: Bofur and some Dwarves from Erebor, Woodmen from several different settlements (they helped a lot of them out), and hopefully some Men of Dale soon. Poised in the Mountains of Mirkwood it is certainly going to be one of the first battles against a resurgent Mordor.

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Orc Host from the Two Towers film.

Mass Combat Options

Mass Combat in Fifth Edition was something that the designers mentioned from the start but I’m less than impressed with what’s in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, specifically the short few paragraphs on “Handling Mobs” (page 250). This is great for how a group of monsters attacking a single target might hit that target, but not for how you can get mobs fighting mobs. Last month, an Unearthed Arcana article helped things out but it was still a little bland.

Instead, I’ve turned to a third-party product called Kingdoms by Legendary Games. This company has done a really good job of making a mass combat system that is A) easy to run, B) easy to set up, and C) scalable and modular. The first (about) two-thirds of the book is about creating and running kingdoms in a fantasy setting, treating them like characters. I really like this and plan to use it in statecraft campaigns in the future but the immediate use for this pdf is for the mass combat rules that make up the last (about) third of the document. By the way, I also got their other products in this series (Ultimate BattleUltimate War, and Ultimate Rulership) but these are more appropriate for high-magic settings… with the possible exception of the aerial combat stuff in Ultimate War if you want to have elves on eagles versus Nazgûls on fell beasts.

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Goblin Attack from the Pathfinder Beginner Box

Armies of Wilderland

The first chance for me to pull this out is with the villagers of Stonyford against the bandits of Valter the Bloody in the adventure Kinstrife and Dark Tidings from the recent Wilderland Adventures book (itself a 5e version of the Tales from Wilderland book for The One Ring RPG). This is a handy way of getting used to the system in a low-risk way, both because the worst that can happen is a town getting razed and because they will be rescued by Beorn unless they totally screw things up.

Once I’m ready with this, I’ll be gearing up for a protracted series of battles against Orc hosts, worg packs, troll fists, and maybe worse. I have a regional map of the area around Amon Tauhîr and will see a few skirmishes leading up to the big event at the stronghold itself. They wanted trouble in the Mountains of Mirkwood, they’ve found it, dammit! If you want to run some mass combat scenarios in Adventures in Middle-earth as well, feel free to use my armies along with Kingdoms and go crazy! You might change the course of the Third Age or you may make things much, much worse.

Armies of Wilderland Document

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