How to DM Wars, Big Battles, and Massive Combat in DND

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is a game that primarily focuses on the adventures of a small party of characters navigating a world of high fantasy. However, as campaigns progress, these stories often expand into grander narratives, sometimes involving large-scale battles and massive combat scenarios. Integrating these epic moments can be challenging, as the core rules are designed for smaller encounters.

In this article, we will explore how Dungeon Masters (DMs) can effectively run large-scale battles without getting bogged down in complex mechanics. The goal is to keep the focus on the characters and their stories, ensuring that the narrative remains engaging and the gameplay fluid. We’ll provide practical guidelines and adventure seeds to help you bring these epic conflicts to life in your D&D games.

Understanding the Challenge

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) thrives on the intimate stories of small parties venturing into the unknown, facing monsters, and uncovering hidden treasures. The game’s mechanics are finely tuned to handle the intricacies of individual character actions, personal growth, and the dynamics of small-group combat. These mechanics create a rich, detailed experience for players and Dungeon Masters (DMs) alike. However, when the scope of the adventure expands to include large-scale battles and massive combat scenarios, these same mechanics can become a stumbling block.

Core Focus of D&D

D&D is fundamentally designed for small group adventures. The core rules emphasize character development and personal stories within a tight-knit group. This focus allows for detailed roleplaying and intricate combat scenarios where every action can have significant consequences. The game’s mechanics are optimized for encounters where each player has a clear role, and the DM can manage the flow of combat smoothly.

However, the game’s design does not easily scale to accommodate the vast complexities of massive battles involving hundreds or thousands of combatants. The turn-based combat system, which works exceptionally well for small encounters, becomes cumbersome when applied to large-scale conflicts. Managing the actions, movements, and interactions of numerous characters and creatures can slow the game to a crawl, breaking the immersion and diminishing the excitement.

Common Pitfalls

One of the most common pitfalls DMs face when introducing large-scale battles is the temptation to overcomplicate the mechanics. When faced with the challenge of depicting massive combat, DMs often feel the need to create detailed systems to account for every possible scenario. This might include new rules for troop movements, large-scale damage calculations, and intricate morale systems.


Check out my DND Backstory Generator made with the latest, greatest AI...

While these additional layers of complexity are meant to provide a more realistic and detailed representation of large battles, they often have the opposite effect. Instead of enhancing the game, they can make sessions feel more like managing a complex strategy game or a series of spreadsheets. This shift in focus can be frustrating for both the DM and the players, who may find themselves bogged down in the minutiae of new mechanics rather than being immersed in the narrative.

Another significant pitfall is losing focus on the characters’ stories. D&D is at its best when the narrative centers around the players’ characters—their decisions, their growth, and their personal stakes in the adventure. When the game shifts to large-scale battles, there’s a risk that these personal stories can get lost in the chaos of managing vast armies and intricate tactics. Players might feel like their characters are just another cog in the machine, rather than the heroes of the story.

In the following sections, we’ll explore ways to keep large-scale battles manageable and engaging, ensuring that the focus remains on the characters and their pivotal roles within the grander conflicts. By maintaining the spotlight on the characters and using simplified mechanics, you can create epic battle scenes that enhance the story without overwhelming the gameplay.

Simplified Approach to Massive Combat

When incorporating large-scale battles into your D&D campaign, it’s essential to find a balance that maintains the excitement and flow of the game. The key is to keep things manageable and character-focused, rather than getting bogged down in overly complicated mechanics.

Background Set Pieces

One effective approach is to treat massive battles as background set pieces. Instead of attempting to simulate every aspect of a large-scale conflict, you can use narrative descriptions to convey the scope and intensity of the battle. This keeps the focus on the characters and their immediate actions.

  • Descriptive Narratives: Use vivid descriptions to paint a picture of the larger conflict. Describe the clash of armies, the roar of battle cries, and the chaos of the battlefield. This sets the scene without needing to track every single combatant.
  • Character Perspectives: Show the battle through the eyes of the characters. Highlight what they see, hear, and feel as they navigate the chaos. This keeps the narrative grounded in the characters’ experiences.

Cinematic Encounters

Breaking down the massive combat into manageable, cinematic encounters can help keep the gameplay dynamic and engaging. Think of these encounters as critical moments that focus on specific objectives or challenges the characters must overcome.

  • Significant Locations: Identify key locations within the larger battle where the characters can have a direct impact. This might be a strategic fortress, a vital bridge, or the enemy’s command center.
  • Wave-Based Structure: Design encounters in waves, guiding the characters from one intense moment to the next. Each wave presents a new challenge or objective, maintaining a sense of progression and urgency.

Examples

Here are a few examples of how to structure cinematic encounters within a massive battle:

  • Defending an Overrun Citadel: The characters must hold off waves of enemy troops, each wave introducing new threats and challenges. Between waves, they can regroup, strategize, and prepare for the next assault.
  • Conquering Strategic Positions: The characters are tasked with capturing key positions held by the enemy. Each position requires a different approach, such as stealthily taking out sentries or leading a direct assault.

Keeping the Spotlight on Characters

The primary goal in any D&D campaign is to keep the spotlight on the characters and their stories. Even in the midst of a massive battle, their actions should feel significant and impactful.

  • Character-Centric Tasks: Design missions that focus on the characters’ unique skills and abilities. Examples include hunting down enemy lieutenants, planting explosives, uncovering spies, or protecting key figures.
  • Off-Screen Battles: While the larger battle rages on in the background, focus on the immediate threats and challenges the characters face. Use brief, evocative descriptions to convey the broader conflict without detracting from the characters’ actions.

Maintaining D&D’s Core Elements

Even during massive battles, it’s essential to preserve the core elements of D&D: combat, roleplaying, and exploration. By weaving these elements into the encounters, you can create a balanced and engaging experience.

  • Combat: Ensure that combat encounters are dynamic and challenging, highlighting the characters’ heroism and tactical prowess.
  • Roleplaying: Integrate opportunities for roleplaying within the chaos of battle. This could involve negotiating with potential allies, rallying troops, or uncovering important information.
  • Exploration: Encourage exploration by introducing environments filled with hidden dangers, valuable resources, and strategic advantages.

In the next section, we will delve into specific adventure seeds that can inspire your war-based quests, providing a variety of missions that keep the focus on character-driven stories within the context of large-scale battles.

War-Based Adventure Seeds

Creating engaging and memorable war-based adventures involves designing missions that keep the characters at the heart of the action. By focusing on a variety of tasks that highlight their skills and impact, you can maintain the excitement and narrative depth of your campaign. Here are some adventure seeds to inspire your war-based quests.

Combat-Oriented Missions

These missions emphasize the characters’ combat abilities, putting them in the thick of the action where their martial prowess can turn the tide of battle.

  • Sabotage Enemy Equipment: The characters must infiltrate an enemy camp and disable critical machinery or weaponry, hindering the enemy’s combat effectiveness.
  • Assassinate Opposing Leaders: Tasked with eliminating key enemy commanders, the characters must navigate through enemy lines, face elite guards, and strike swiftly to destabilize the opposing forces.
  • Defend Critical Positions: Holding a strategic location, such as a bridge or fortress, the characters must repel waves of attackers and manage limited resources to maintain their defense.

Roleplaying-Oriented Missions

These missions focus on social interactions, diplomacy, and intrigue, allowing characters to use their wits and charm to influence the course of the war.

  • Protect Negotiators: The characters are assigned to safeguard important diplomats during peace talks. They must identify and neutralize threats while navigating political tensions.
  • Forge Alliances with Questionable Allies: The characters need to convince a neutral or hostile faction to join their cause. This could involve negotiating terms, proving their worth, or uncovering and addressing hidden motives.
  • Dismantle Enemy Operations: The characters infiltrate an enemy’s spy network or sabotage operation. Through investigation and social maneuvering, they expose and dismantle these covert threats.

Exploration-Oriented Missions

These missions encourage characters to venture into unknown or dangerous territories, uncovering secrets and securing vital resources.

  • Find Ancient Weapons: The characters embark on a quest to locate powerful, ancient artifacts that can turn the tide of battle. They must navigate treacherous landscapes, solve puzzles, and face guardians.
  • Smuggle Out Prisoners: With the enemy holding valuable prisoners, the characters must plan and execute a daring rescue mission, evading detection and overcoming obstacles to bring the captives to safety.
  • Deliver Messages to the Front: The characters are tasked with transporting crucial information through hostile territory. They must avoid enemy patrols, survive natural hazards, and outsmart those who would intercept their message.

Blending the Three Pillars

To create well-rounded and engaging missions, consider blending elements of combat, roleplaying, and exploration within each adventure seed. This ensures that all players can contribute meaningfully and enjoy different aspects of the game.

  • Hunt Down Assassins: The characters must track and eliminate enemy assassins targeting key figures. This mission involves investigating leads, engaging in combat with the assassins, and perhaps negotiating with informants.
  • Protect the Queen: During a major battle, the queen’s safety is paramount. The characters must defend her against direct attacks, manage political intrigue within her court, and uncover plots threatening her reign.
  • Fantasy RPG AI Generators with ChatGPT+


    Make life as a Game Master easier.... If you play Dungeon & Dragons, Pathfinder, or other fantasy tabletop role-playing games, check out my DND AI backstory generator and other fine AI RPG tools at LitRPG Adventures Workshop today.

  • Rescue Hostages: Combining combat and stealth, the characters infiltrate enemy lines to rescue hostages. Along the way, they might negotiate with captors, navigate traps, and engage in skirmishes to secure the hostages’ freedom.

In the next section, we’ll discuss practical tips for DMs to streamline mechanics and keep the focus on storytelling, ensuring that large-scale battles enhance the narrative rather than overshadow it. By integrating these adventure seeds and maintaining a balance between the three pillars of play, you can create dynamic and memorable war-based campaigns.

DND Large War Battles

Integrating the Three Pillars of Play

Creating well-rounded and engaging missions involves balancing the three core elements of D&D: combat, roleplaying, and exploration. By blending these elements, you can ensure that all players have opportunities to shine and that the game remains dynamic and immersive.

Combat

Combat is a fundamental aspect of D&D, and large-scale battles offer a chance to showcase the characters’ martial prowess and tactical skills. Here are some tips for integrating combat into your war-based missions:

  • Dynamic Encounters: Design combat encounters that are fast-paced and varied. Use environmental hazards, changing objectives, and reinforcements to keep the players on their toes.
  • Heroic Moments: Provide opportunities for characters to perform heroic feats, such as holding a crucial chokepoint, leading a charge, or saving allies in dire situations.
  • Meaningful Impact: Ensure that each combat encounter has a clear impact on the larger battle. The characters’ success or failure should influence the course of the conflict.

Roleplaying

Roleplaying adds depth to your campaign by allowing characters to interact with NPCs, make strategic decisions, and influence the story through dialogue and social interactions. Here’s how to incorporate roleplaying into your war scenarios:

  • Diplomatic Missions: Include missions where characters must negotiate with allies, enemies, or neutral parties. Success might hinge on their ability to persuade, intimidate, or deceive.
  • Political Intrigue: Introduce elements of political intrigue, such as courtly scheming, espionage, and betrayals. Characters might uncover plots, forge alliances, or manipulate events to their advantage.
  • Personal Stakes: Develop NPCs with personal connections to the characters, creating emotional stakes in the outcomes of their interactions and decisions.

Exploration

Exploration allows characters to uncover hidden secrets, secure vital resources, and navigate treacherous environments. Integrating exploration into war-based missions can add an element of adventure and discovery to your campaign.

  • Unknown Territories: Send characters into uncharted or hostile territories to gather intelligence, secure supplies, or find strategic locations. The journey itself can be as challenging as the destination.
  • Fantasy RPG Random Tables Books
    Make life as a Gamemaster easier.... If you play Dungeon & Dragons, Pathfinder, or other fantasy tabletop role-playing games, this RPG random tables book is full of encounters, NPCs, and more. Available as an eBook or in a classic print format. Either way, you'll have a wealth of adventure ideas at your fingertips.


  • Ancient Ruins: Include quests to explore ancient ruins, hidden fortresses, or mystical sites where characters can find powerful artifacts or gain strategic advantages.
  • Environmental Challenges: Use natural hazards, such as storms, mountains, and rivers, to create obstacles that characters must overcome, adding a layer of complexity to their missions.

Practical Tips for DMs

Running large-scale battles in D&D requires careful planning and a focus on keeping the game engaging and manageable. Here are some practical tips for DMs to help streamline mechanics and maintain the narrative flow:

Streamlining Mechanics

  • Abstract the Large-Scale: Instead of tracking every individual soldier or monster, use abstract representations for large groups. This can involve using a single roll to determine the outcome of a skirmish or summarizing the progress of the battle based on key character actions.
  • Simplified Rules: Adopt simplified rules for large-scale battles that focus on the most critical elements. This might include using skill checks to resolve certain aspects of the battle or creating custom mechanics that are easy to manage.
  • Narrative Focus: Keep the spotlight on the characters and their immediate surroundings. Use the larger battle as a backdrop to their personal stories, emphasizing their heroism and decision-making.

Focused Descriptions

  • Vivid Imagery: Use descriptive language to create vivid images of the battle scene. Describe the sights, sounds, and sensations of the battlefield to immerse players in the experience.
  • First-Person Perspectives: Frame descriptions from the characters’ viewpoints, highlighting what they see and feel. This personalizes the experience and keeps the focus on their actions.
  • Pacing: Maintain a brisk pace by summarizing large-scale events and focusing on key moments. Avoid getting bogged down in details that don’t directly impact the characters.

Player Agency

  • Choice and Consequence: Give players meaningful choices that affect the outcome of the battle and the overall story. This can involve strategic decisions, moral dilemmas, or tactical maneuvers.
  • Creative Problem-Solving: Encourage players to think creatively and use their abilities in unique ways. Reward ingenuity and flexibility in how they approach challenges.
  • Collaborative Storytelling: Involve players in shaping the narrative by allowing them to contribute ideas and describe their actions. This fosters a sense of ownership and engagement in the story.

Final Thoughts

Here’s what to takeaway for TLDR!

  • Background Set Pieces: Treat massive battles as narrative elements that provide context and scope without overwhelming the gameplay.
  • Character-Centric Tasks: Design missions that keep the focus on the characters, their skills, and their personal stakes in the conflict.
  • Balanced Integration: Blend combat, roleplaying, and exploration to create dynamic and engaging war-based adventures.
  • Fantasy RPG Random Tables Books
    Make life as a Gamemaster easier.... If you play Dungeon & Dragons, Pathfinder, or other fantasy tabletop role-playing games, this RPG random tables book is full of encounters, NPCs, and more. Available as an eBook or in a classic print format. Either way, you'll have a wealth of adventure ideas at your fingertips.


Running large-scale battles in D&D can enhance your campaign by adding epic scope and dramatic tension. By maintaining a narrative focus, simplifying mechanics, and keeping the spotlight on the characters, you can create memorable and thrilling experiences for your players.

Now it’s your turn. Experiment with these guidelines in your own campaigns and share your stories and experiences. How do your characters shape the course of massive battles? What heroic feats and dramatic moments emerge from the chaos of war? Let’s continue to explore and expand the possibilities of storytelling in D&D together.

Kenny Kings

LitRPG Author Kenny Kings

Kenny Kings first met Paul Bellow during a long-running Dungeons & Dragons campaign. They've been friends since then. Kenny hopes to use his gamer knowledge to entice “reluctant readers” who might prefer video games or movies over reading. By using books about being trapped in video games, Mr. Kings thinks he’ll be able to reach these reluctant readers. He's helping out with LitRPG Reads because of his journalism experience and love of gaming, especially Dungeons & Dragons.

Fantasy RPG Random Tables Books

Make life as a Gamemaster easier....



Or try my D&D Backstory Generator