So, we were down two players but decided to press on, as it gave one of the new players some more screen time, so to speak. We opened up on the cleric, who was split off from the party because the player was away doing a birthday dinner with his wife (Really! Some people’s priorities! chuckle…) Aiding the Prefect of Ariolica and their main force of 80 Vigiles from the city, with another 60 or so dwarves from the Jura Mountans — Jurahold, home to one of the PCs, Carrus Zwergi (aka Carrus the Vandal Killer, aka Carrus the Goblin Killer…)

The Romans meet the goblins of the Vanhalis clan of Vandals on a snow-covered foot path a few hundred yards from the abandoned dwarven town they’ve been renovating — or rather their captives taken from Timo’s Ford have been renovating — and Augustinius the Cleric tries to help Prefect Abrecan convince them to give up their hostages and leave the area. The task is made harder by the angry dwarven contingent, that want their leader, Smaigo Zwergifuhr — killed just before the introduction of Carrus and two other characters — avenged. The goblins know they are on the back foot here, but Augustinius’ Insight test gives him the realization that with their women and children only a few minutes away, these Vandals are going to fight to the death if they think they can find a way out of this.

They try to defuse the situation but a runner from the village comes bearing news of the raid the other characters conducted the game session before. This led to a battle between highly unmatched forces…but big ones. So, what to do to manage a mass combat sequence in Dungeons & Dragons? A fight like this is generally outside the tropes of the game, at least at the most basic level. My first thought was “Crap, I’ve got to cobble together some mass combat rules!” My second thought was — “Why can’t i just manage this like a swarm? There are swarms of rats, bats, insects, etc..why can’t we have a big swarm, like a “force” with stats like a creature and just have a player roll for the Roman force, and another for the Vandals?” (I still think this is a viable idea, by the way!)

Then I bothered to google “D&D 5e mass combat rules” and found a quick and dirty set of mechanics from the Unearthed Arcana setting. (Here you go.) The basic idea is to have a “leader” and use his challenge rating plus a modifier for the number of folks. This is your Battle Rating. This gets added to your attack roll on a d20 and based off of the failure or level of success, you find out if the other force is routed or destroyed, etc. There is a morale system (the Romans started with a +2 for steady, and the goblins +4 for “highly motivated”) which adds into the commander’s initiative test and for whether the forces hold or break. It’s simple, it’s quick, and it does suggest that you zoom in periodically to let the characters do their stuff — in this case, the cleric got to throw a few spells around, but the Vandals quickly were overrun and chased back to their village.

Meanwhile, the other portion of the party planned and executed an excellent feint to draw the last of the Vandal warriors into the back door of the cavern the bad guys had been holding their hostages, where they could winnow their numbers down. The heroes then bashed them up with aplomb. I really am shocked by how effective even 1st level characters are in 5th Edition, but by Level 3, they are positively lethal, especially the fighter (including the spell-less ranger class that Carrus is) and monk classes. Magicians are pretty effective, as well; cantrips are now useful, rather than pathetic. (Lookin’ at you, Mage Hand.)

With the Vandals vanquished, our heroes rejoined the Roman and dwarven forces in the village. the women and children were chained and taken by to Ariolica for the slave markets, even though goblins are considered lazy and untrustworthy laborers. Which brought up a thing consistently raising its head — alignment. What’s “good” and what’s “evil?” Icio, the Christian monk has some pretty strong opinions on that, including the worship of false gods…but his fellows are “good” and worship other gods. Lawful is pretty straightforward — slavery was legal and a form of punishment (as was simply killing everyone and razing the village…but these are good guys) in Rome (and until 1792, save for the occasional experiment here and there, legal and normal in almost every country.

So what’s good and evil? If a follower of Satan, or Loki, or Dionysus, for that matter, does things that are “godly”…are they good? A similar conversation on this can be found in Plato’s The Trial and Death of Socrates, if you want to read about a fat old blowhard that pissed off a  town enough they made him drink hemlock.

Since I wanted a game that wasn’t the usual high fantasy shtick, I’ve found myself with a campaign in which moral and religious questions are central, and the heroes might not be all that. It also meant that raiding a goblin village where the bad guys had been on the run from other worse guys meant no magical items and not bags of loot randomly dispersed about the premises…their reward was in good dispatches to the emperor, in the good will of the people around them, for the monk the conversion of a village, and some coin here and there. The biggest rewards were a warhammer made by the finest blacksmith in the hold (Carrus’ father, actually) and a similarly excellent gladius for the former legionnaire, Marcellius — a +1 to hit for their great balance and workmanship.

That brought the first volume of our D&D game to a close. We left off with the characters deciding to head north for Augustus Treverorum with the dispatches of the action for the emperor. But even on horseback, with the snow the best speed they can hope for is 10 days to get there…and a lot can happen in a week.