When D&D is the wrong tool for the job

There are times when the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) game isn’t the most effective tool for the job, even when the job is creating a backstory for a D&D adventure or campaign.

While working on a few non-player character (NPC) anecdotes to add flavor to my next D&D campaign, I was presented with something of a conundrum. I wanted to retell a story of a skirmish-level battle, but most of the participants weren’t standard D&D heroes with classes, levels and powers as explained in the rules. Instead, the protagonists were town watchmen, some militiamen, a guard captain and a fighter with a bit of ecclesiastical training, all people whose abilities are outshined by even a first level D&D character. Without wanting to reduce the combat to a meaningless tussle between minion-type monsters or to draw up a battle story from scratch, I resorted to an infrequently used weapon in my D&D arsenal: a different game system.

In this case, I used a simple rules system for tabletop miniature combat – Song of Blades and Heroes (SoBH), by Ganesha Games, although any similar system, ranging from Reaper’s Warlord to the now-defunct D&D Miniatures game could also have sufficed. The strengths of these systems are found in their making extensive use of line troops and that they set up and play much more quickly than D&D combat. After about 10 minutes of warband creation and 20 minutes of dice rolling, I had enough events to cobble together the following narrative:

It was an unseasonably warm afternoon, even for early summer. The reeve had ordered increased patrols after hearing reports of the walking dead being sighted out past the outlying homesteads. Sergeant Gelhan was leading three guardsmen in heavy armor; Fergus, Alfred and I were crossbowmen in the militia, and we volunteered for this daylight patrol so that we wouldn’t have to pull this type of duty at night. Also with us was a friend of Gelhan’s: Nordgrim, a self-described witch hunter who had some training at the church. That brooding fellow said not one word during the patrol, but Gelhan always spoke well of his aim with a crossbow, so we let it be.

We were at a point along the north road where the road proper gently bent right, following the base of a wooded hill. A clearly visible trail , curving more strongly to the right, probably rejoined the road on the far side of the bend, presenting something of a shortcut. Right where the road met the edge of the woods, two stone structures – the first a massive milestone and the second a natural rock outcropping – flanked the road.

Nordgrim was the first to see them. He let out a sound – a bird call he used as a signal – and gestured to a group of figures at the far side of the bend. There was a group of the walking dead, right there in broad daylight! At a glance, I saw four skeletal warriors, three skeletal archers, a wisp of something shadowy and, leading them, an undead  knight on a skeletal horse. They had already seen us; the knight raised his sword and the skeletons marched off down the forest trail. Gelhan moved ahead, behind the rock outcropping closest to the woods. At his command, the guardsmen formed a shield wall and marched in lock step toward the trail opening, with spear points lowered. Unbidden, Nordgrim readied his crossbow and motioned for us to follow him along the road proper. We did, stopping between the rocks so our flanks were covered.

The undead knight rode ahead on his fell charger, but was still out of range. A hallow voice barked orders from within his helmet in a language Nordgrim later identified as the Elder Tongue. The skeleton infantry disappeared from view, only to re-emerge a few feet from the advancing guardsmen at the near end of the trail. At the same time, the skeleton archers advanced in a ragged line; two fired at Nordgrim. The first arrow flew well overhead, but the second lodged in the witch hunter’s thigh, knocking him to the ground. That was when we saw that wisp of thing – a ghost – drift across our field of fire and disappear into the trees, not far from the rock outcropping to our right, and behind which Gelhan was standing! All of us stared slack-jawed at its movement.

Nordgrim snapped off that part of the arrow shaft that projected from his body and lowered his crossbow, but not at the enemies before us. Instead, with a yell to Gelhan, he shot hard to the right, where one of the skeleton infantry had detached from his fellows and made its way past the rock outcropping, less than a spear length from Fergus! The shot passed harmlessly through the skeleton’s empty ribs. At Gelhan’s command, Alfred and I dressed ranks and fired at the skeleton, while Fergus just stood there, trembling. Alfred missed; mine struck the thing in its eye socket - which glowed a hideous green color - and it went down. Recovering his courage, Fergus stepped forward and, swinging the end of his crossbow almost like a pickaxe, smashed it to pieces. At the same time, one of the guardsmen – Darm, I think his name was – charged forward without command, probably thinking his fellows would join him, but it seemed like they didn’t understand or were awaiting orders from Gelhan.

By that point, I had lost sight of the knight, but I could see the skeleton warriors advancing on Darm. The first charged him, but was knocked back; the second charged, but feinted a swing as the third charged with the real attack, cutting Darm badly and driving him to his knees. At the same time, that ghost reappeared, moving through tree, rock and skeleton as easily as if through the air; it stopped, gloating, hovering within a foot of Darm’s face.

I wanted to help Darm, but we had bigger problems. The skeleton archers had dressed ranks and closed to range, and loosed a volley at Nordgrim, who took cover behind the milestone. Gelhan turned to assist Darm, telling us to take out the undead archers. All three of us fired, but only one of the quarrels – and to this day we argue about whose quarrel it was – dropped the lead archer. Darm regained his footing, but with so many enemies surrounding him, dared not reach out to attack. At that same moment, another guardsman named Rogar - that’s right, he who would later become Sir Rogar, the justicar - broke ranks and charged the ghost, driving his spear point into what looked like wispy nothingness. But a strange thing happened: The ghost let out a piercing cry, and blasts of green energy spread in arcs, lightning-like, from undead soldier to undead soldier. In a moment’s time, one of the skeleton warriors and all three archers were rendered to ashes. All that remained were two skeleton warriors and the knight.

The knight saluted us with his sword hilt, and cantered away down the forest trail. In the absence of their leader, the two skeletons fought on mindlessly; one knocked Darm back down. Darm, from a kneeling position, caught the skeleton’s ribs on the haft of his spear, immobilizing it. As that was happening, Nordgrim scored an amazing shot through the narrow gap between the tree line and the rock outcropping, dropping the other skeleton. At a word from Gelhan, we fell back out five paces to get clear shots on those last two skeletons. We peppered them with quarrels until they, too, fell to ash.

After the battle, we asked how Rogar killed the ghost. He only smiled and, never being one to mince words, simply said, “blessed weapon.”

It is for that reason, friends, that I recommend that you have your weapons blessed before departing on that road, just in case that knight has raised any more followers. If you don’t believe me, go ask Darm.

Game mechanics summary, for those who play SoBH:

Turn I

The undead begin with initiative. The death knight leader has time to issue an order to his skeleton infantry to advance through the forest path before losing initiative.

The humans have a much better time with the dice. The leader orders his heavy infantry to march in file off the road to meet the advancing skeletons, then moves forward to a position where a large rock gives him cover, but where all of his units can still see him. The witch hunter advances quickly along the road, taking up a position just forward of two rock outcroppings that flank the road; following his cue, the crossbowmen advance, forming a loose line between the two rocks.

Turn II

The death knight rides forward, staying back far enough to be covered from enemy missile fire and to be within sight of his other troops, but still far enough ahead to order his skeleton infantry further ahead. They quickly negotiate the bend in the forest trail; three emerge at a grassy area about 20 feet wide, opposite the human infantry, while the fourth, still in base-to-base contact with his comrades, is next to one of the rock outcroppings by the human crossbowmen. The ghost drifts across the with hunter’s field of fire, to a place of safety behind a copse of trees. Two of the skeleton archers advance along the road and fire upon the witch hunter; the first misses, the second scores a knockdown. The third skeleton rolled three failures, and initiative passes to the humans.

The witch hunter stands back up and fires at the advancing skeleton by the rock outcropping, but misses miserably. He motions to the leader, who orders the crossbowmen to concentrate fire on the encroaching skeleton, while advancing to join them. The crossbowmen dress ranks and two of them shoot (the third cannot, as he is in melee position relative to the skeleton), scoring a knockdown. The third crossbowman attacks the downed skeleton in melee from advantage, killing it. One of the heavy infantrymen move ahead, but initiative is thereafter lost, so the remaining three stay in place.

Turn III

The death knight rides along the wooded trail, directly behind his three skeleton warriors, who he orders ahead. The first advances toward the lone infantryman and attacks, but is knocked backward. the second advances and adopts a defensive stance, while the third advances, attacks, and scores a knockdown by bonuses earned through outnumbering his foe. The rearmost skeleton advances to join his fellows and all three loose arrows at the witch hunter, missing. The ghost again crosses the road without incident, passing through trees and rocks and his own companions, arriving adjacent to the fallen infantryman.

The human leader sees the peril of his subordinate but the other heavy infantrymen cannot see him to receive orders; he orders the witch hunter and crossbowmen to concentrate fire on their only clear target, one of the skeletal archers. The archers loose their arrows, scoring a knockdown. The fallen infantryman stands up, but is nearly surrounded, so he refrains from attacking and incurring a penalty for being outnumbered. Only one of his companions is able to activate, move forward, and attack, but that fellow’s attack is telling; he scores a gruesome kill against the ghost, forcing a morale check. While undead are granted a hefty morale bonus (there’s no need to fear death when you’re already dead), their failing a morale check indicates that enough psychic energy was released from the kill to cause the destruction of other undead within a certain radius. This particular check resulted in the destruction of two of the three skeletal archers and one skeleton warrior, which dropped the undead warband to less than 50 percent of its original size – which forced another morale check, resulting in the destruction of the third archer.

Turn IV

His warband all but destroyed without a single enemy casualty to show for his effort, the death knight retreats. His two remaining skeleton infantry mindlessly fight on; the first knocks the lone infantryman back down, while the second attacks from advantage, but is knocked down itself.

The human leader is able to call out one order before losing initiative, ordering his crossbowmen and the witch hunter to wheel right and fire on the skeleton standing over the fallen infantryman. The witch hunter darts between the trees and rock outcropping, firing one shot that knocks the standing skeleton down. The first two crossbowmen fall back from the rock outcropping, gaining a field of fire that included both fallen skeletons; both skeletons were destroyed where they lay. The third crossbowman stood fast, covering the leader and watching against further attack.

Turn V

The death knight yields the field to the humans, who suffered no casualties.

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5 comments on “When D&D is the wrong tool for the job

  1. Chuck Bryan says:

    Brilliant game. Simple mechanics and short encounters to play multiple scenarios and campaigns!

  2. Alric says:

    Thanks for the kind words. While it wouldn’t work as well as actually playing out a battle with D&D heroes as combatants (since the character powers and such aren’t present in SOBH), it worked well for situations where the combatants were essentially zero-level fodder.

    Thanks for your visit, too.

  3. bb says:

    This was interesting and a good example of the type of role-playing I enjoy: interesting things happening to everyday people, not outlandish things happening to people with unbelievable abilities. You’re right that this type of encounter wouldn’t work D&D, unless maybe with very, very low-level characters.

    This type of encounter and characters are commonplace among those who use the Hârn world setting or HârnMaster rules. You should try them out if this kind of thing interests you.

    • Alric says:

      Indeed I may – never played Harn. Thanks for the tip.

      • bb says:

        You should check out Lythia.com for lots of great free Hârn-related downloads (adventures, places, maps, etc). You’ll also find the HârnForum there, where you can read or take part in all sorts of interesting discussions of all things Hârn.

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