Mass Combat in Adventurer Conqueror King

Of the many challenges of developing a mass combat system for Adventurer Conqueror King, the greatest challenge is the one that Valamir points out on the Story Games forums: Namely that the military tactics of a society where wizards can hurl fireballs would be very different from those of the ancient or medieval world. It is easy to imagine a world where 20th century tactics developed, with magic as the equivalent of air strikes, rangers moving in loose squad-based formations, and so on. D&D as Vietnam. Such a setting, however, would deny the opportunity for the pitched battles of history and legend. Part of what first attracted me to fantasy gaming was my love for military history, with battles such as Cannae, Gaugamela, and Hastings, where lines of men clashed and died. Nevertheless, one cannot ignore the fireballs. To create the Adventurer Conqueror King mass combat rules, Domains at War, I turned to Napoleonic Warfare as the model. Napoleonic warfare was characterized by several tactical dilemmas for commanders. The main weapons for infantry were the musket and bayonet, and for the cavalry the saber. Muskets were slow-firing, hard to aim, and confined to ranges of 50 to 100 yards. Only a massed volley could have real effect, with lines of infantry delivering rolling volleys. However, despite musket fire,  charges into melee with the bayonet were a decisive tactic, as the slow rates of fire meant at most 1 or 2 volleys before the enemy could be struck, if a sufficient pace of advance to contact could be sustained. All other things being equal, the wider an infantry formation, the slower it moves, because of the necessity to 'dress the lines' and maintain shoulder-to-shoulder stance with the man to your left and right. Linear formations of highly trained troops, such as those employed by the Prussians, could move at 75 paces per minute. French conscripts in "columns of attack" could move at 120 paces per minute. The essential argument of the day was 'column v. line' or 'firepower v. shock' - could the column advance with bayonets, or would it be turned back the fire of the musket? [Note to Napoleonic experts out there: Yes, I am oversimplifying and ignoring the argument as to whether or not the columns were intended to form line at the point of contact.] Adding to the complexity was the existence of cavalry and artillery. Fast moving saber-armed cavalry could overrun loose formations of infantry; their only chance to survive was to 'form square', a dense formation like a bayonet hedgehog. But dense formations, such as column and square, were highly susceptible to artillery, which had long range and area of effect. This seemed to me an excellent model for a world of pitched battles that included fireball-throwing mages. I imagined the mages to be roughly the equivalent of artillery batteries in the Napoleonic era, both in terms of their numbers and their effect. Archers are the equivalent of linear 'musket' infantry, heavy foot are akin to columnar 'bayonet' infantry, and cavalry is, of course, cavalry. Mages can be kept massed (as "grand batteries") or parceled out to individual units as battalion guns. Interestingly enough, the Roman Legion is often compared to the Napoleonic armies of 1,500 years later for its tactical versatility and formations, so the tactical formations that appear in ACKS are not too dissimilar to those of the Roman maniple, either. What they do not resemble are the packed masses of phalanxes or spearmen that dominated warfare for long centuries. Now, on to some game mechanics:

  • Mass combat is fought using miniatures on a tactical battlefield.
  • The basic unit is a "stand" measuring 1" x 3/4", with a ground scale of 1"=20 yards. A stand occupies a 60' x 40' area.
  • A Stand is generally 100 infantry or 25 cavalry. 100 infantry in a stand have a width of 12 files and a depth of 8 ranks. 25 cavalry in formation have a width of 6 files and a depth of 4 ranks.  (A Stand might also be 25 ogres, or 12 fire giants, etc.)
  • Combat is resolved using the standard ACKS mechanics (hit points, attack throws, armor class, saving throws) with some math built-in to the stand's statistics to reflect troop density. An "area of effect multiplier" scales damage up where necessary to reflect the killing power of fireballs.
  • Charging, flanking, and morale are integrated into the game. Morale checks can cascade, resulting in entire portions of the battle line fleeing.
  • Characters and creatures of 4HD or higher can serve as "supporting heroes" for Stands of weaker troops. Supporting heroes fight other supporting heroes, or failing that, cleave into lesser troops. A Stand of 100 goblins might be led by an Ogre as a supporting here.
  • Characters and creatures of 8HD or higher can serve as "independent heroes". Independent heroes move around the battlefield without a Stand, fighting other independent heroes, joining the fight against supporting heroes, or cleaving into lesser troops.
  • Every spell and magic item in ACKS is supported in the mass combat system.

In understanding how ACKS mass combat plays out, the Demographics of Heroism (discussed in my earlier blog posts) are very relevant here. According to the Demographics of Heroism, 5th level characters are roughly 1 in 500. Of these, 40% will be fighters, and only 10% will be mages. Thus the number of mages capable of casting a fireball numbers only about 1 in 5,000, or 1 per 50 stands. Presumably wealthy nations would increase their "fireball power" by having their powerful mages create fireball scrolls for the lesser mages to deploy as artillery. A single fireball scroll in ACKS costs 750gp in coin plus another 750gp in rare components, or 1,500gp.  1,500gp is enough to field a force of 500 militia for a month. A single fireball can wipe out around 50 militia (20' x 20' x 3.14 area of effect / 5' x 5' troop density = 1256 / 25 ~~ 50). Thus if the Elite Mage Army fields 1 fireball and 500 militia, and the Stupid Peasants show up with 1,000 militia, the Elite Mage Army will destroy 50 militia, and then be outnumbered 950 to 500. Obviously no actual battle plays out like that, but it's useful to dumb down the math to its most basic level to illustrate what shape fantasy armies might take. In actual campaign play, the armies that evolved were a mix of heavy infantry and archers, screened by light infantry at an approximately 2:1 ratio, with investment in fireballs and other magic approximately equal to the investment in light infantry.

So, it looks like there’s an assumption being made in your Demographics that I was worrying about last night when trying to apply it to a settlement that I’m developing: that assumption that it’s uniformly applicable across various scales.

If the Demographics of Heroism says that 1/5000 people is 5th level, or 1/12 is 1st, why is that also the frequency we’ll find them in the army at? Wouldn’t classed characters disproportionately end up in the military and other adventuring-type occupations? So my town of 3000 people may have 250 1st level inhabitants, but the 300-person military would have more than 25 1st level soldiers, because there’s more call for them there than as farmers… Similarly, there might be 25 people with religious occupations, there wouldn’t just be 2 1st-level clerics and a bunch of 0-level acolytes? The 50-man mercenary band would have more than 4 1st-level fighters?

(I’d ask this tonight at the TGI social but it’d be a bit off-topic)

Great question, Tom!

First off, as in Basic D&D and AD&D, most men-at-arms are 0-level normal men. With that in mind, imagine a typical feudal army. The “army” is itself a pyramid where a manorial lord has a few knights, who in turn have some sergeants-at-arms, who in turn have some men-at-arms. A 100-man warband might include 80 0-level men (men-at-arms), 8 1st level fighters (sergeants-at-arms) 3 2nd level fighters (knights), and 1 3rd level fighter (the local manorial lord). 5 of these warbands might work for a 5th level baron.

If you assume mages and clerics are distributed along similarly feudal lines, then you would assume that the 5th level baron, with about 500 men (5 3rd level fighters’ warbands) probably has a 3rd or 4th level mage as his court wizard and a 3rd or 4th level cleric as his chaplain. When he goes to war against the neighboring baron, those are the forces they are pitting against each other.

So that’s the baseline for envisioning the average conflict.

Now, if we imagine a period of Total War in a society, in which all of the classed characters could be recruited into the war – of, say, 6MM people, there could be (1 in 12) about 500,000 classed characters which form an elite army. Of these, 1 in 50, or 10,000 will be 5th level or above, and 10% of those will be mages, so you’ll have 1,000 mages capable of hurling fireballs. So that’s 1,000/500,000 or 1 in 500, or 10x the frequency that would appear in everyday life.

But it’s hard to imagine a period of total war in which ALL of the classed characters are recruited, that doesn’t have some sort of vast Levee En Masse that recruits a huge number of un-leveled characters - as cannon fodder to absorb those fireballs, if nothing else! 0 level characters are valuable because they are only minimally worse than 1st level, while being much more widely available. Moreover, some of the leveled characters will have “aged out” of adventuring, being retired, wounded, etc. Their level doesn’t necessarily speak to their current fitness for the rigors of army life.

That said, there can and will of course be areas which are “thick” with higher level characters. Such places, units, countries, regions, etc., will be considered HIGHLY dangerous and threatening. A small barony run by a 14th level mage would be like North Korea with Hydrogen Bombs… small, but terrifying.

There’s also the cost to consider. A leveled character will expect an exponentially higher retainer cost per month (based on their level) than say a 6gp Level 0 Light Infantryman. I think that really helps to explain why every army doesn’t just field every wizard in the land.

If one looks back to CHAINMAIL and it’s use of the wizard, there was an error converting the area effect of the fireball into d&d. The large catapult had an area effect of 3 1/2" but this was siege/man to man scale, there was no “mass combat” scale for the catapult.

One way to reign in the effect of spells is to not make adjustments from outdoor to indoor scale.

Are you planning on having the fireball have a 30 yard radius? Chainmail’s actual radius was 3 yards (a generous are of effect for a 1 foot diameter catapult rock.

The wizard in chainmails job was really three fold, chase off dragons, dispatch other hero units, knock down castle walls–it reall wasn’t about obliterating hundreds of 0-level mooks (neither was this the dragons job for the same reason).

My only fear is that give their “point cost” wizards with 30 yard diameter fireballs cause too many problems needlessly.

I’ve got a post covering this with Matthew over on the odd74 boards in the Chainmail section titled “catapults, canons, and aquerbus”. Also, delta at has two recent posts on the subject with my replies in the comment section.

Bargle - WOW! What a great find. Thanks so much for sharing it.

At present, fireballs in ACKS have a 20-foot radius. Based on your notes above, we’ll downsize them to a 10-foot radius. That leaves them at a much better size!

Within my own campaign, I have made no secret about my frustration with over-sized fireballs – too large for dungeoneering, overly powerful on the battlefield. My only reason for not down-sizing them was respect for the Chainmail legacy.

The lighting bolt as well should only be about 3/4" yard wide and 6 yards long. The ranges were in mass combat scale (240 yards) but the area of effects were not–just like catapults.

the light catapult was 2" which is 6 feet, the wizard used the heavy catapult of 3 1/2" which comes to 10 1/2 feet across.

Since CHAINMAIL had an optional rule for spell range starting at 24" for seers and over 60" (600 yards) for wizards, perhaps fireball could begin at 5 feet in diameter at 5th level and then double to 10 feet at name level perhaps?

oops. heavy catapult comes to 11 and 1/2 feet across.

In swords and spells gygax increased the fireball to 4" which would be 12 feet keeping lightning bolt unchanged.

On the subject of spells and mass combat, your version of haste isn’t useful for mass combat, perhaps a variant haste spell that simply doubles the movement rate of 20 men or so (keeping the aging so as to keep wizards scary to normal men) without the increased attack. Call it ‘forceful march’ or something.

Just noticed another fun feature. Wizards in chainmail could cast fireball/lightning bolts as direct or indirect fire. I.e. He could lob a fireball over a wall if he wanted!

With you on the utility or the Napoleonics era model Alex, although you might find the US “legion” to be a little closer fit

The combined arms approach embodied in mad anthony Waynes legion organization would defiently prove more flexible in handling armies with wizards and dragons than the more monolithic divisional organization in the contemporary armies of France, I would think. Maurice De Saxes’ Reveries might also provide some inspiration. The organization scheme he advocated was theoretical, and drawn from the Roman example, but along much the same lines.

Fireballs in OD&D and Swords and spell were 20’ Radius - 40 feet across. Arneson commented on ODD74 forum however that he allowed smaller ones if that is what the caster wanted.

Arneson’s original method of employing them can be found in his 1973 draft of the D&D rules and is as follows: “… the accuracy will vary with the distance of the intended target. Targets within 50 feet can be hit with 99% accuracy, at 55 feet 95%, accuracy, and the accuracy decreases a t 5% per every 10 feet.” (Glossary of Terms, p. 20)

Daniel - The Legion of the US is really interesting! I hadn’t been familiar with it before. Thanks for sharing it.

So Daniel/Bargle, am I to understand the timeline went like this:

  1. Chainmail Fireball - 10’ radius (catapult sized), hit based on player estimating range and angle
  2. Arneson Fireball - 20’ radius, % chance to hit based on range
  3. D&D Fireball - 20’ radius, always hits
    In other words with each iteration, fireball got more and more powerful.

As of v17 of ACKS, I have the fireball at 10’ radius, always hitting.

Well… was trying to avoid a CHAINMAIL argument with Cooper/Bargle, but the “error” he mentions is a bit far fetched. There is no “siege/man to man” scale in CHAINMAIL. Scale in CHAINMAIL is 1"=10 Yards. There is a note in the Man to Man section on misile weapons saying “Ranges for each weapon are divided into thirds for simplicity” - applying to weapons for which only a single maximum range had been given in the mass combat section. It doesn’t apply to catapults, only bows and such. Nothing is said about changing the area of effect and certainly nothing about altering siege warfare or any other scales in the game.

On p12 the heavy catapult has
Minimum Range 24" Maximum Range 48" Hit Area 3 1/2"

D&D rescales Yards to feet, such that 1"=10 feet, thus a fireball has an area of effect of 35 feet. Gygax simply rounded that to 40, he didn’t make “errors” converting his own stats, it is simply what he intended and Arneson agreed with. Coopers’ point about there being 10 or twenty catapults represented in a single catapult unit is not relevent, since the single wizard is equal to the unit, whatever it’s size.

  1. and 3) should probably be reversed. The detials in Arneson manuscript suggest very strongly that it is the final version he was preparing when Gygax published the Lake geneva draft that Dave complained was “not right”. So I think Dave was trying to curb the “always hitting” rule. I used a variation of the chance to hit rule in D@D. (and CoZ), but in dungeons, it rarely comes into play.
  1. fireball description in 0d&d says 20 feet and, “this is larger than the fireball in CHAINMAIL. CM’s fireball is 3 1/2”

  2. catapult and bombard rules are not in the mass combat section of CM, the are in the missile fire section of CM and in no less than 3 instances refer the reader to the siege/man to man section. Catapults were not used in mass combat; in real life, or in CM.

  3. ranges are in 10 yards, are of effects are in 1 yards.

since the catapult was for use in man to man siege, one must ask themselves, given that 1 figure represents 1 man (let’s say a 5/8" miniature represents 1 man wielding a sword as S&S informs us) how man many ca be hit with a 3 1/2" catapult? 3 or 4? Or 30 or 40?

Furthermore! (all in good spirits Daniel!) using miniatures must inform us about effects. Ad&d spacing in a dungeon (4 men abreast with spears, 2 with swords, etc) comes directly from the basing figures from s&s. A man with a spear uses a base of 3/4". This gives 4 men in a 10 foot dungeon corridor. 1" was 1 yard in man to man scale, otherwise–using figures the rules would not allow more than single file fighting in a standard 10’ dungeon c

Of course using different sized miniatures changed the area of effects and numbers of men effected.

CM has a man on a 30mm or 54mm base. I believe it was all codified in swords and spells as men on a 5/8" inch base, but look at the size of creatures and look at their area of effect. A wizards fireball of 3 1/2" cannot effect that many heroes in man to man combat if the hero is on any one of those bases.

And lastly. Te very idea of indoor and outdoor scale comes directly from chainmails mass combat/man to man scale. D&D combined and mixed all scales in a mash (12" but indoors it’s at a snails pace, 1" 10 feet but three 5/8ths bases can fit in a 10 foot corridor, etc).

So, man scale was something but d&d just mashed it all up 10 yards 10 feet and 3 feet. It’s as much a mess as the economy. Best to have–like CHAINMAIL, multiple rounds of melee per 1 minute turn, but movement rates and scales that match. Which means that if a 5/8th base of 10 men move 120" yards in 1 min. Than a single 5/8" man moves 12 yards in 6 seconds and wizards cast 1 spell per minute.

Then you can zoom in and out of the battle field–from man to men without continuity problems.

I apologize, I’m on my iPhone and it’s difficult to type in these reply boxes.

The best example is giants and thrown rocks in 0d&d itself referencing CM.

here’s some more interesting information.

1 cubic foot of stone is roughly 150 lbs. A boulder 10’ in diameter would weight roughly 25,000 lbs. No giant is going to do anything like throw that 200’. A giant throws a rock with a light catapult ( 2" area of damage according to 0d&d as informed by CHAINMAIL). The potential targets hit cannot be more than anyone standing withing 6 feet of the missile, it certainly cannot be 20 foot radius of foes.

The size of stones of roman catapults:

When the torsion principle was perfected, it became possible to fire a stone weighting as much as 78 kilograms. Indeed, the Roman military engineer Vitruvius gives dimensions for catapults firing stones as heavy as 162 kilograms, although such giant machines may never have been actually constructed. More typical machines fired balls weighing from 13 to 26 kilograms.

The average size and range of a catapult missile: “The longest recorded range for a catapult firing an arrow of the ordinary size, about 70 centimeters, was about 640 meters, and there is some reason to believe the claim was not inflated.”

The largest Bombard in the world Was the “tzar’s cannon” in red square which is about 2 1/2" feet in diameter.

So, in CHAINMAIL a small catapult is 2’ feet across and a large is 3 1/2’ which is quite generous for a damage area.