The Dungeon Master Pastor – Rev. Rory Philstrom, Retreat Leader
This will be Rory’s third D&D retreat as Retreat Leader. He currently serves as Lead Pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Bloomington, MN, where he has founded a D&D Youth Group and developed a process for using the roleplaying game genre as a tool for Biblical learning and exploration. He’s also produced a resource called Biblical Verbal Components, which matches a unique Bible verse to each official spell in Dungeons & Dragons 5e (available on the DMs Guild). During the social unrest following the murder of George Floyd, Rory served as part of the Interfaith Movement Chaplain Corps, providing spiritual care at marches, protests, and relief efforts around the Twin Cities.
Outside of pastoring and dungeon mastering, Rory has been an SMA speaker both nationally and internationally, talking about life with his son, who was diagnosed at birth with Spinal Muscular Atrophy.
The Geekpreacher – Rev. Derek White
Derek, aka The Geekpreacher, leads a clergy cohort group titled D&D and Discipleship showing clergy (and others) in the East Ohio Conference United Methodist Church how to use a tabletop roleplaying game like D&D as a discipleship tool. As The Geekpreacher, he has spoken at and moderated panels on Faith & Gaming at various conventions. He has also led ecumenical worship services at GenCon, Origins, and serves annually as the official chaplain for Gary Con, a gaming convention in Lake Geneva, WI that honors the life of D&D co-creator, Gary Gygax.
When he’s not pastoring and chaplaining, Derek is busy making documentaries. He’s been involved in the production of multiple documentaries, the latest entitled The Satanic Panic and the Religious Battle for the Imagination which won the Best Gamer Film award at GenCon 2022.
Rev. Ben Loven
This will be Ben’s third D&D Retreat, and second as a DM. He currently serves as Senior Pastor of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Rochester, MN. Pastor Ben loves to help God’s people imaginatively live into the mission that God gives through baptism. He moonlights as a Dungeon Master for pastors and their spouses, as well as members of his congregation.
Matt co-founded Four Humors Theater in 2005, a local and touring theater company that creates original works. In 2012 he also helped co-found the Twin Cities Horror Festival, now an annual event. Since 2014 Matt has been working as a writer and consultant with Augsburg Fortress publishing house, creating materials for church youth education. When he’s not doing that, he’s parenting his two young kids and working gigs as a professional DM.
Back in the beforetimes (2018 & 2019) a bunch of clergy and other faith leaders got together to play D&D and learn from one another about the intersections between role playing games, faith, and ministry. We called it “Pastors & Dragons”. I am beyond excited to announce the return of this retreat under the new name “Holy Rollers“!
In the midst of this coming winter, clergy and people of faith will join together for an epic 3 days and nights learning, resting, and playing Dungeons & Dragons. With a mix of gaming, learning, and rest, this retreat will allow you to explore the connections between life, faith, and the world’s greatest roleplaying game.
Holy Rollers: Blest Marches will explore emergent gameplay through a West Marches style experience. Interspersed with the gaming will be time to learn and discuss the role of faith in our world and emergent ways of being church today.
The 2023 Holy Rollers Retreat will be held Jan 31 – Feb 3rd at the ARC Retreat Community, about an hour north of the Twin Cities. In a homelike atmosphere, ARC offers 90 acres of pristine wetlands and woodlands within a majestic white pine forest. Trails are available for walking, skiing, and snowshoeing, as is a labyrinth for walking meditation.
Each day will afford hours of Dungeons & Dragons play, with daily game sessions run by four seasoned DMs. The whole experience will be that of a collective West Marches campaign. This unique campaign structure will have some distinctive characteristics.
Play sessions, their frequency, and their length, will be determined individually by each party, within the time constraints of the retreat.
Players will form parties out of a player pool of up to 20 players.
The plot(s) will develop through emergent gameplay. That is, the players will decide where to go and what to do, venturing out to explore a vast and dangerous expanse of uncharted wilderness.
The West Marches were first devised by Ben Robbins around 2000 in a now-famous series of blog posts. Since then, there have been thousands of West Marches games run based off of Robbins’ original idea. The structure of our gaming will also be guided by Izirion’s Enchiridion of the West Marches, which further expounds and develops this unique style of gameplay.
Within each day, opportunities will be offered to go dig deeper into the role of the church in the gaming community (both the good and bad), as well as exploring emergent ways that people of faith are forming themselves for the work of God today. A highlight will be a screening of the GenCon-award-winning documentary The Satanic Panic and the Religious Battle for the Imagination and follow up conversation with the featured Pastor Derek White, aka The Geek Preacher.
TAKE A LONG REST.
The ARC Retreat Community offers a quiet place to slow down the pace of life, restore balance, and grow on your spiritual journey. Enjoy healthy and delicious meals prepared and served from the ARC kitchen. Cozy up by the fireplace or strap on snowshoes and explore the 90 acres of pristine wetlands and woodlands within a majestic white pine forest, located in Stanchfield, MN, about an hour north of the MSP Airport.
Retreat participants will have their choice of lodging.
A while back I posted my Lord of Hosts Battlesystem, which provides a straightforward way to scale up the D&D 5e experience to a full mass combat scenario. Recently I created some art for it and got it formatted into a pdf, which you can find over at The DMs Guild. The price is set to be pay-what-you-want, so there’s no reason not to go check them out!
While the standard combat rules of Dungeons & Dragons can handle fights of up to a few dozen, they struggle to adequately handle true mass combat.
The Lord of Hosts Battlesystem builds on the standard combat rules to model larger scale battles, from dozens to hundreds to thousands, while still enabling individual adventurers to lead an army’s charge against an enemy regiment, rally dispirited soldiers to rejoin the fray, or defeat powerful enemy creatures.
Most mass combat rules operate by creating a separate game system that sits on top of the standard 5e mechanics and often only work on a narrow scale, BUT NOT THIS ONE! The Lord of Hosts Battlesystem can upscale your combat without making it feel like you’ve suddenly started playing an entirely different game, AND IT CAN DO IT TO ANY SCALE!
These easy-to-run and easy-to-learn rules help your PCs turn the tide of battle by offering them a small handful of bonus action options, all covered on a single page that makes a simple reference at the table. The rest of the Battlesystem runs on a simple base mechanic and a new use for the DMG’s guidance for Theater of the Mind fights to add considerations for the full range of character and creature abilities. So let your armies clash with The Lord of Hosts Battlesystem!
Last fall I took this Pastors & Dragons project to Gamehole Con. While I was there I ran a bunch of Cypher System adventures that I developed which I called “Adventures of Biblical Proportions”. I have found that the Cypher System provides a much more flexible base for Biblically based games than the more common D&D 5e system. With Cypher the genre of the stories you tell is much more malleable, making it extremely simple to run everything from historical no-magic, supernatural myth, high fantasy, modern, sci-fi, or any mix of genres you can think of.
My main issue with running Cypher, in spite of its simplicity, is that the rulebook is a bit all over the place. The Cypher System Rulebook has a ton of sidebars and cross-references, but I still found it pretty difficult to grok. Something about how it is organized feels really chaotic, and there are little bits of rules hiding all over the place.
In order to understand how to run the game, I began putting a sheet together that had all the necessary rules bits on 1 page. I was inspired by The Alexandrian’s Numenera focused cheat sheet, and wanted something similar but for just the general Cypher System. Last Fall, I polished up that page so I could easily use it to explain the game to new players. I think it turned out pretty well, so here it is for the world to use as well. I hope you like it!
This one-page cheat sheet explains all the basic Cypher System mechanics I’ve found to be necessary for actual play.
It’s no secret that the world is a difficult place to grow up in. In my weekly gatherings with our Confirmation students, these astute middle-schoolers would raise questions about the events of the world and the grim realities of society. Racism, sexism, bullying, gun violence, school shootings, violence against those who identify as LGBTQIA, climate change, divorce, the list goes on. Yes, the world is a difficult place, and we might be deluded into thinking that the best response to a difficult world is to get dreadfully serious, when the best response is actually joy.
Know to find joy in the darkness is wise
So go the words of Brandi Carlile’s song “Stay Gentle”, and there is a deep and wise truth in them. Playful joy keeps us alive and keeps life worth living. Deep joy keeps us able to hope even in the most dire of circumstances. Imaginative joy opens our eyes to ways the world may yet be. Laughing joy can rid us of the bondage of all the concerns of life that threaten to weigh us down.
One of my great joys has been in playing the game Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop roleplaying games like it. In the game I get to tell stories with friends about exploring fantastic locations, solving problems, and overcoming great adversity. I’ve had the joy of playing with kids, fellow pastors, friends, and complete strangers. These games have the potential to unlock the imagination, and the joy therein, in a way few others ever could.
That’s why this summer I am trying out a new thing in my ministry and will be hosting a new Dungeons & Dragons youth group for middle and high school students. This 7-week campaign will go up against the forces of tyranny on a fantastic and fun-filled adventure. There will be hijinks and laughter as we bond around the table and create stories to remember.
Each session will begin with the most important thing at the table, the people. After a short time of community building, we’ll take off into the world of adventure. Each session will end with us debriefing the session and talking about bringing the heroic spirit into our daily lives.
We’re still taking registrations, so if you’re a middle or high school student in the Twin Cities, Minnesota area and are looking to make friends and sharpen your spirit and your imagination, join us and be a hero this summer!
On Epiphany of this year (January 6th) the folks at the freshly minted Red Panda Publishing began their Kickstarter campaign to bring their “Adventurer’s Guide to the Bible” to life. That campaign is just about to wrap up, with less than 2 days left to back the project. And on all accounts it’s been successful thus far, with over 1000 backers and raising enough to unlock every single stretch goal.
This project takes the history and cultures of the Ancient Near East, the words of the Bible, and more legendary aspects of the Christian faith, and mixes them together to offer a new setting for D&D 5e adventures. The developers at Red Panda Publishing were kind enough to reach out to me and share a preview copy of their product, which included 138 pages of the module. That’s what I’m reviewing here.
Mixing real world religion and TTRPGs is a risky business. This is not a project that will appeal to everyone. Real world faith resists simplification and gamification. It’s simply too complex to get completely right. However, I have also experienced the richness and the fun that can come from drawing inspiration for your tabletop adventures from the Bible. In my opinion, to succeed at it takes both devotional sincerity and enough tongue-in-cheek willingness to wink at the whole endeavor and just have a bit of fun. From my experience with the material and the folks at Red Panda Publishing I think this project does just that. The Adventurer’s Guide to the Bible appears to be a thoughtful and sincere project coming from people who care about both matters of faith and having fun at the table.
An inclusivist worldview.
One of the first questions I had when looking at AGttB was how they would handle representing other faiths within the world of the project. As a pastor/theologian/person of faith, I think one of the most interesting aspects of worldbuilding in any D&D setting is deciding what to do about deities. The section on “Gods of Your World” in the Dungeon Master’s Guide is ripe with different examples, from the loose pluralistic pantheon that is most common to an exclusivist monotheism to a world without gods that is powered by the force of ones philosophies.
This is a real world question too, one that scholars and people of faith debate about all the time. How do you intellectually comprehend the vast diversity of human religious experience? Generally the different approaches to this question fall into a trichotomy: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. If we think of diety as a mountain summit and a faith tradition as a mountain trail, exclusivism would tend to believe that there is one “correct” mountain and one “correct” trail, and that other trails lead to incorrect or false mountaintops. Pluralism would tend to posit that there are multiple “true” mountains and many true pathways up those mountains. Inclusivism would say that there’s one mountain, and that the many different paths are actually all pathways up the same mountain, and perhaps one of those pathways is the clearest route to the top. AGttB more or less takes that inclusivist approach. When various religions are encountered, they are generally understood to be worshipping the same God as Jesus is revealing, even if the practitioners of those religions might say otherwise.
About the Content
The writers provide a lot of background. With using real world locations, there is a lot of background to give. They use it to paint a rich picture of the 1st Century Ancient Near East. Sometimes that background started reading more like a history book than an adventure module, but that was mainly in the introductory chapter. I think their goal is to provide enough information so that Dungeon Masters don’t have to look elsewhere to feel like they are running a well-researched quasi-historical campaign. The locations are fleshed out. The number of NPCs is vast. There is a lot of stuff to see and do.
Though there is a lot of research that has gone into this, the writers have used some imaginative liberty in a few different places. Some of the geography is adapted (for instance, the first main city of Media is an adapted version of the historical city of Ecbatana, but moved 1000 miles to the south). Some of the locations draw more from legend than from history (like the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark). All in all, I was impressed by the vastness of what was provided. There are a lot of places to go and explore, and I can see having a lot of fun with it at the table. With locations galore, The Adventurer’s Guide to the Bible really shines as a setting book.
The adventure plays as a follow-up to the Epiphany story of the Magi visiting baby Jesus. The adventurers are tasked with going to find the missing Magi and help fight back some encroaching evil. The villains are personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins, and each is digging into a different area of the map and extending their influence into the populace. NPCs include the Magi and a number of people from the New Testament and some of the apocryphal books of the Bible, like Tobit. And yes, Jesus makes an appearance or two.
The campaign hits quick and hard. In a departure from the standard 5e D&D design mentality, the adventuring day in this campaign is usually going to consist of a lot of exploration and social interaction and one very difficult fight, rather than the 6-8 encounters that the DMG suggests. I could see this posing a challenge to less experienced Dungeon Masters. I can also see how this allows for a much faster level progression that normal D&D campaigns usually experience, and could support the players gaining a level after each session.
One of the problems I have seen in this design is that there are a number of places where the heroes get sidelined while angels or Jesus take the spotlight. The designers have opened up a Discord channel for backers and are hoping to use that community to provide some playtesting and editing, so some of that may change, and I’m hoping it does. That’s one of the real challenges with a project like this that puts the heroes into a setting with so much history, sometimes it feels like the real plot is going on elsewhere. The designers (and the DMs who will be running this adventure) need to remember that this story, if it’s going to work at the table, needs to be a story about the characters of the players who are there. This isn’t a problem that’s unique to this product, it happens anytime an adventure is set in an established setting with other powerful NPCs running around. Sometimes the book seems to get it right, othertimes not so much.
This brings me to the biggest potential “problem” of this book. They fell victim to one of the classic blunders – The most famous of which is ‘never get involved in a land war in Asia’ – but only slightly less well-known is this: ‘Never stat up Jesus!’ The designers have promised to provide stats for the Son of Man/Son of God, stats that were not included in the preview they provided me. What was provided was the Challenge Rating, Jesus of Nazareth clocks in at a CR 9, but goes up to CR 30 in his ‘Risen” form. I’m worried about how these stats will be used at the table. In Dungeons & Dragons, if something is given stats that usually means situations will inevitably arise where the players and DMs will find a way to kill it (just ask all the villagers of Hommlet). I anticipate we’ll see a lot of stories about irreverant D&D tables celebrating that they “killed God” as soon as this adventure is released. I would rather the designers leave the God stats for the Risen Christ out of the game entirely. We don’t need megalord Jesus. As for that CR 9 stat block? I’m really hoping for something like an NPC version of the Way of Tranquility Monk from Unearthed Arcana. And I think CR 9 is probably too high. If I were designing it, I would probably just adjust some ability scores and tack on some special abilities to the commoner stat block and call it a day.
Most of the art for the Adventurer’s Guide to the BIble is on order, but there is enough out there that the style can generally be seen. The layout artists have done a great job organizing the pages and giving the book a very polished look. The character art strikes a slightly cartoony feel, in line with things like The Action Bible.
The cover image shows an elf, dwarf, fighter, and a cloaked rogue/cleric. It’s a classic D&D party, with all the classic D&D problems. Everyone is male and they all show white skin tones. It’s really an unfortunate image. Inside the art is better, with a great deal more diversity depicted and a lot fewer dwarves, elves, and people in anachronistic armor. There’s still too many caucasian people depicted for a book that’s supposed to be set in the Middle East.
The maps are sufficient and full color. The city maps draw on historical layouts from archaeological dig sites. They’re not up to the level of map that you would find in an offical WotC hardcover adventure, but they are usable and better than a lot of maps I’ve seen in official Adventurer’s league modules.
The Adventurer’s Guide to the Bible adds some game content as far as character options, unique monsters, magic items, and spells. There’s a lot here, and they try to cover a really wide design space. Unfortunately, they don’t always hit the mark. In the spells and monsters I saw, I wasn’t always clear why they chose not to use material already in the 5e SRD. Do we really need a different stat block for a guard or a noble? Giving them the same name as already existing monsters in D&D adds to the confusion. And do we need a spell called Exorcism when we’ve already got Dispel Evil and Good, which does the same thing?
There are a lot of player options, and a lot more that have been unlocked thanks to the kickstarter reaching stretch goals. The ones I saw were not all that exciting though. Their design was usually a bit clunky and not up to the quality of already published 5e options. The same goes for the new subclass options. The versions I saw were pretty clunky, with abilities that tended to be way overpowered. My favorite was probably the Bard: College of Psalms, which had a potentially interesting mechanic. I’m hoping the rough edges get worn off before final publication, but from what I’ve seen so far there’s not a lot I would use as-is at any table I would run.
My Final Opinion
All in all, my final opinion is this: The Adventurer’s Guide to the Bible is a labor of love and a huge undertaking by a team of just four people, led by Ben Maerzke. The content is largely written. From what I’ve seen this is a project that tries to balance both devotional sincerity and a fun experience at the table. They really want to get this right, and are using a private discord server for bakers to continue the editing process, with an eye towards religious, cultural, and racial sensitivity. It will be a hard project to get completely right, but from what I’ve seen I think the team has more hits than misses. Ultimately it’s got enough promise that I chose to be a backer. Maybe you will too.
At previous Pastors & Dragons retreats, I’ve had groups of up to 12 people at the table. Running a game for a crowd is difficult to do. Many people have found the sweet spot of 5e D&D to be about 4-5 players. When the table gets crowded with 6, 7, 8 (or 12!) people, a lot of folks have found that the fun begins to get lost. So how do we keep the fun with a large group?
Keeping large group D&D fun is hard for a couple reasons. The first is that the role-playing and exploration phases of the game are difficult to keep everyone engaged. The players that are naturally more outspoken can easily dominate the spotlight. It takes a lot of work to keep everyone engaged, as there is usually just one DM adjudicating all the action. This is a hard nut to crack. The DM really needs to lean into the role of inviting forward players who tend to sit back, and reminding the more outspoken players to step back. They also need to create situations that necessitate group conversations and watch out for too much 1-on-1 PC-to-NPC interaction.
The second reason that this is hard, and the one that is driving this blog post, is that combat with a large group can turn into a real slog. There’s a lot of out-of-spotlight time for players during combat, as other players are taking their turns, making their decisions about their actions, trying to assess for the best possible action to take. Battlefields are a lot more complex, and this just makes everything even more difficult to adjudicate. For this, the tool of Speed Factor Initiative is one of the best ways I have found to keep things interesting, moving, and fun.
Speed Factor initiative is one of the optional rules in the DMG. It was also a tool that was created and used in some of the earliest versions of the game. Those early versions of D&D were built for huge groups compared to what we normally see today, parties of a dozen or more. Those early ways of handling large groups piqued my interest in Speed Factor Initiative, and then the Angry GM’s blog post about Speed Factor initiative, pushed me over the edge and encouraged me to try it for myself.
To use this at my tables, I’ve created a player-facing version of my Speed Factor Initiative rules. Each player gets one. You can download a copy of my Speed Factor Initiative tool as a doc or pdf and print some out for use at your own table.
I give them the opportunity to plan their actions in an action declaration phase. Then I have everyone roll initiative. Their d20 gets placed on the sheet over the corresponding number and the initiative countdown starts the action resolution phase. “30, 29, 28, 27, 26, 25, 24, 23…” As their number comes up they resolve their actions in quick fashion. In practice I’ve found that this method of initiative works and makes combat much more engaging, much less of a slog, and a bit quicker for large groups. It’s specifically a large group technique, and grows in effectiveness the larger the group is.
The action declaration phase is more engaging because it lets everyone at the table “play” as they plan actions, discuss, set up combos, whatever. There’s no waiting while other people come up with what they want to do. Everyone is engaged in the fun. Set a timer to make this phase feel tense and keep things moving.
The action resolution phase is engaging as well, because you’re counting down through initiative and people are waiting for their number to be called. There’s tension and surprise. You’re not sure whose turn will come up next, and since all the decisions about which action to take have already been made, it goes much faster.
There’s a couple hangups with this method. The first is that people have to understand that they are effectively locked in to the actions they declared, with the option to dip out of that action and take the Dodge action instead if what they planned goes awry. This means that when their turn comes up their declared action might not be the best possible action they could take anymore. Tough cookies. You have to do what you declared, that’s the only way this speeds up play and keeps it fun for everyone. If you start letting people change their minds, you might as well just use standard initiative. The second is that in my experience this works best for in-person play. Group discussions just don’t work as well online, and that’s a large part of what makes this fun.
As we seemed to be coming out of the pandemic this past summer, I was trying to figure out a good way to re-engage the Pastors & Dragons Retreat. With that in mind, I decided to try something new – taking some of that good gaming retreat content to a broader audience at Gamehole Con!
As the delta variant has come on, I’ve been a little anxious about this whole plan, but I’m thankful that Gamehole Con has had a vaccine mandate and will be enforcing that for all attendees. This makes me feel a little safer. If you are curious about what Biblical gaming can look like and you’re fully vaccinated, think about joining me for some games in Madison, Wisconsin this October!
On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday I will run eight games in a series I’m calling “Adventures of Biblical Proportions”. Each session will stand alone as a one-shot experience, though players who come back multiple times will notice ways that the stories interconnect. Each session will explore a different passage of the Bible from the New Testament, inviting players to enter into the Biblical story and experience it firsthand. These games will be part history, part legend, with each exploring a different gaming “flavor”, be it the supernatural or social horror or the backdrop of war.
These games will be run using the Cypher System, which I have found to be a more adaptable TTRPG alternative to D&D 5e. D&D 5e is a great system that I love deeply. Some of these adventures saw their beginnings as 5e adventures, and worked to great effect. However I’ve also found that the 5e learning curve can be a little steeper and I appreciate the simplicity of a more story-focused system like Cypher, especially when engaging with church groups which may or may not have any tabletop gaming background.
Alright, enough with the blathering. Let’s get to a rundown of those games!
Adventures of Biblical Proportions!
Gamehole Con 2021
Chains in the Graveyard – Fri., Oct 22nd, 9am
Protect the people from the powers of the graveyard in a supernatural horror adventure.
Faster Than Stones – Fri., Oct 22nd, 1pm
Outrun the threat of death in a social thriller adventure.
Release to the Captives – Fri., Oct 22nd, 4pm
Grant release to the captives in an adventure of angelic secrecy.
Island Odyssey – Sat., Oct 23rd, 9am
Go on an Island Odyssey in a game of fantastic adventure.
Idols of Athens – Sat., Oct 23rd, 1pm
Explore the idols of Athens in a monstrously metaphorical adventure.
Mystery of Ephesus – Sat., Oct 23rd, 4pm
Explore the mystery of Ephesus in a supernatural investigative adventure.
A Monstrous Appetite (Revelation Part I) – Sun., Oct 24th, 9am
Confront the appetite of dragons in a monstrously mythic adventure. This adventure can be played alone or as part of a two-part series based on the Book of Revelation.
Beasts on the Earth (Revelation Part II) – Sun., Oct 24th, 12pm
Confront the wide sweeping machinations of beasts in a mythic wartime adventure. This adventure can be played alone or as part of a two-part series based on the Book of Revelation.
If you’re coming to Gamehole Con, it would be great to play with you. Sign ups for these games are live over at gamehole.com!
War is a force that gives us meaning. The clashing of armies has the power to rewrite national boundaries and change the course of history. While the standard combat rules of Dungeons & Dragons can handle fights of up to a few dozen, they struggle to adequately handle true mass combat.
The Lord of Hosts Battlesystem builds on the standard combat rules to model conflict on a much larger scale, from dozens to hundreds to thousands, while still enabling individual adventurers to lead an army’s charge against an enemy regiment, rally dispirited soldiers to rejoin the fray, or defeat powerful enemy creatures.
In most cases, when two armies oppose one another, the DM serves as the general for one side, and the players serve as generals for the opposing force. These leaders direct the soldiers that make up their armies, and everyone at the table might also represent individual champions (such as the PCs and important NPCs) who are capable of turning the tide of battle all by themselves.
To make managing dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of creatures at a time easier, similar creatures are organized into units. A unit might be a small squadron of 10, a company of hundreds, or a battalion of thousands of individuals. Each unit acts together on the battlefield, fighting until they are victorious, destroyed, or flee, succumbing to broken morale.
Each unit may have a commander, though they can also operate without one. Commanders play a key role in resolving battles, and their Charisma might be what stands between victory and defeat.
Building a Unit
Units consist of similar creatures, for example 15 Orcs or 6000 Star Spawn Manglers. In general, units are organized in sizes according to the scale of the combat being played out. The scale of a battle impacts how big of a map to use and the length of a round of combat. Refer to the Battlesystem Scale Table to determine appropriate map scales, combat round lengths, and unit starting sizes.
Battlesystem Scale Table
Time of Combat Round
# of Creatures per Unit
The starting size is the number of creatures a unit begins the battle with. As a unit takes damage, the number of surviving creatures will shrink. Starting size is like a unit’s maximum hit points, while surviving creatures is like a unit’s current hit points. Note these numbers – they will impact when the unit makes morale checks and will be refered to throughout the battle.
A unit of creatures with a starting size equal to the number of creatures per unit shown in the Battlesystem Scale Table occupies the same space on a battle grid that a single creature would occupy on a 5ft grid.
When operating as a unit, the unit’s creatures make a single initiative roll and act together as one, using the same stats and abilities as of the single creature. If a creature has an ability that requires an ally to be nearby, such as Pack Tactics, that ability is active for all creatures within the unit.
All rolls other than initiative are resolved using these modified mob rules.
If a unit’s actions result in making damage rolls, use average damage or roll damage as if for a single creature, then multiply that number by the number of creatures that scored a hit. The same applies for healing.
Example: A unit of 14 Orcs attacks an enemy unit of Svirfneblin (AC 15) with their greataxes. The player makes an attack roll and rolls a 10 on the die, resulting in a 15 to hit. 5 Orcs hit with a 15, 5 more hit with an unnatural 20, and the last 4 miss with a 10. The player rolls damage and gets 9, multiplied by 10 creatures that hit equals 90 points of damage dealt to the enemy unit.
Advantage and Disadvantage can apply to these rolls as circumstances favor or disfavor the entire unit. Critical Hits and Critical Fails apply to the entire unit as well. If a player rolls a natural 20 on an attack roll, every creature in the unit hits the target and deals critical damage. If a player rolls a natural 1 on an attack roll, every creature in the unit misses the target regardless of their other modifiers.
Durations of Spells and Other Abilities
When casting spells or using creature abilities with lingering effects (like a Ghoul’s paralyzing claws) during mass combat, the duration of these effects is measured in rounds.
Spells and abilties that have a duration of Instantaneous or until next turn happen immediately or last until the next turn, even though the time scale of combat turns is longer. Spells with a duration of a minute or longer instead have a duration equal to the number of minutes times ten.
Example: a unit of Priests who cast Spirit Guardians (with a 10 minute duration) have a spell duration of 100 rounds regardless of the time scale. Likewise, a single PC warlock who casts Armor of Agathys (1 hour duration) now enjoys a duration of 600 rounds regardless of time scale.
The potential lengthening of spell and ability durations represents the combatants drawing on otherwise hidden stores of magic to rise to the need of their comrades and the heightened challenges of warfare.
Spells that require a longer casting time have their casting time measured in rounds in a similar manner. Spells with a casting time of a minute or longer instead have a casting time equal to the number of minutes times ten.
Tracking Damage Done to a Unit
While each unit uses the statblock of its component creature, the DM and players should round the creatures’ average hit points to the nearest 5 or 10. Write down the hit points of a single creature in the unit next to the unit’s starting size.
Tip! Adjust the creatures’ average hit points up or down to reflect how the combatants have been treated by their allies and commanders, their general health and condition, the stakes of the battle, their investment in the outcome, and any other factors that you think should play a role.
Tally the damage inflicted to the unit as a whole instead of the damage dealt to individual creatures. Assume that every hit targets the most damaged individual. When the damage tally is enough to kill one or more individuals in the unit, remove them from the number of surviving creatures, reset the damage tally to zero, and carry over extra damage.
If a unit has an ability that allows it to drop to 1 hp instead of 0 hp, like Undead Fortitude or the Death Ward spell, determine how many individuals are affected by this ability and track those survivors separately as a sub-unit of the main force. This sub-unit is identical to the main unit except for the damage threshhold to kill an individual. Assume that attacks target this sub-unit first, before the main unit.
If a unit receives any healing, apply the healing to the damage tally of the unit as a whole. If multiple creatures within the unit will benefit from healing, multiply the healing by the number of creatures that benefit. If the healing is enough to completely heal one or more individuals in the unit, add them back to the number of surviving creatures, carrying over any extra healing. A unit can never have more surviving creatures than its starting size.
If a unit receives temporary hit points, determine how many creatures within the unit will benefit. Multiply the temporary hit points by the number of creatures that will benefit. These are the unit’s temporary hit points and serve as a buffer against damage. The temporary hit points are lost first and any leftover damage is applied ot the unit’s damage tally.
Special Unit Actions
As an action, a unit can reinforce an adjacent unit of similar creatures. These reinforcements renew the resolve of their allies, reversing the effects of a failed morale check and resetting the sarting size of the unit to the sum of surviving creatures in the two units. The reinforcing unit loses its turn in combat and is joined to the space of the other unit, as the two units meld into one.
If both units have a commander (see below), the commanders decide which one stays with the newly reinforced unit. The other commander immediately leaves the unit.
Movement, Reach, and Range
A unit can occupy an individual creature’s space and vice versa, but not the space of another unit. A unit can also move through any opening large enough for one of its individual creatures.
When using a grid, the speed of a unit’s movement is measured in squares, and is equal to the speed of an individual creature divided by 5. To translate this speed into feet, multiply the size of the squares/hexes by the unit’s movement speed.
Example: a unit of Hobgoblins have an individual speed of 30 feet, resulting in a unit movement speed of 6 spaces, regardless the size of those spaces. In a single round, the unit can move 150 ft. in a battle using a 25 ft. scale or 3000 ft. in a battle using a 500 ft. scale.)
A unit can make a melee or ranged attack against an enemy if any part of the unit is within reach or range (respectively) of the target. Likewise, a unit of spellcasters can use their spells to target any point that is within range of any part of the unit. If a spell’s area of effect covers any part of an enemy unit, the entire enemy unit is affected.
Areas of Effect and Conditions
TAE Damage Multiplier
Some spells and creature abilities like a dragon’s Breath Weapon attack are especially effective when used in mass combat. Their damage to a unit is multiplied based on how many targets could reasonably be caught in their area of effect. Use the Targets in Areas of Effect Multiplier table to adjust damage from area of effect spells and creature abilities. The damage multiplier represents the number of small or medium sized combatants that are caught in an area of effect. Players running spell casting units or units of creatures with similar abilities may want to jot down the TAE damage multipliers for their commonly used spells and abilities.
Targets in Area of Effect Multiplier Table
TAE Damage Multiplier
Size ÷ 10 (round up)
Cube or square
Size ÷ 5 (round up)
Radius ÷ 5 (round up)
Length ÷ 30 (round up)
Sphere or circle
Radius ÷ 5 (round up)
Size Damage Modifier
If the combatants are of a size other than small or medium, modify the rounded result of the TAE damage multiplier by the modifier listed in the Size Damage Modifier Table.
Size Damage Modifier Table
Size of Creatures in Unit
Size Damage Modifier
x 2 (round up)
÷ 2 (round up)
÷ 3 (round up)
÷ 4 (round up)
Saving Throws and Conditions
When a spell or ability requires a targeted creature to make a saving throw, the entire unit makes a saving throw using the modified mob rules above. When a unit makes a saving throw to save for half damage, the total damage dealt is reduced by 1/6 if one section saves, reduced by 1/3 if 2 sections save, or reduced by half if all 3 sections save. Likewise if succeeding on a saving throw results in no damage taken, the total damage dealt to the unit is reduced by 1/3 if one section saves, 2/3 if two sections save, and is reduced to zero if all three sections save. If a spell or ability imposes a condition, a unit is only affected by that condition if the condition affects more than 50% of the unit.
If a unit is forced to make a saving throw based on the amount of damage they have received, like a concentration check, use the damage of a single attack, before multipliers and modifiers, to determine the save DC.
Battlesystem Saving Throw Effects Table
# of Unit Sections that Save
For Half Damage
For No Damage
Against a Condition or Effect
Damage Reduced by 1/6
Damage Reduced by 1/3
Damage Reduced by 1/3
Damage Reduced by 2/3
Unit Not Affected
Damage Reduced by 1/2
Damage Reduced to 0
Unit Not Affected
Example 1: a single PC wizard directs Burning Hands (a 15-foot cone) at a nearby unit of 60 medium Orcs. The Orcs make a saving throw and 1/3 (20) of them succeed, while 2/3 (40) of them fail. Using the TAE Multiplier table, we can say that two Orcs are actually targeted (15 ÷ 10 = 1.5, rounded up to 2). The wizard multiplies the damage of their Burning Hands spell (3d6) by two to get an average of 21 damage. Since 1/3 of the Orcs succeeded on the saving throw, the damage to the unit is reduced by 1/6. So the total damage from the wizard’s spell to the unit is 18 (21 – 3).
Example 2: a unit with ten surviving Archmages could launch a barrage of Lightning Bolts (100-foot line) at a unit of 15 large Ogres. Using the TAE Multiplier and Size Damage Modifier tables, we can say that two of the Ogres are targeted by each Archmage (100 ÷ 30 = 3.33, rounded up to 4 ÷ 2 = 2). The Archmages multiply the damage from their Lightning Bolts by 2 (8d6 x 2 = 56 average damage per spell x 10 sorcerers = 560 total average damage). The Ogres rolled poorly on their saving throw and none saved, so their unit takes the full 560 points of damage, likely killing 9 of them.
A commander is a significant creature on the battlefield—usually a player character or a powerful NPC or monster. These individuals may operate independently on the battlefield, but are most effective when they are appointed to a unit.
At the begininng of a mass combat, determine who the commanders are and whether they begin the fight independent or appointed to a unit. Commanders roll their own initiative and retain their place in the initiative order even when joined to a unit. While appointed to a unit a commander shares their unit’s space and moves with them on their turn, but take’s actions on their own turn. A commander maintains their own statistics and makes their own attack rolls, ability checks, and saving throws.
Protected and Protector
As a part of a unit, a commander both protects and is protected by their allies.
A commander can force an attack targeted at their unit to target them instead. Likewise when a creature the commander can see targets it with an attack, the commander can make the unit the target instead. Any time the unit is dealt damage, the commander can choose to redirect any amount of that damage to themself.
If a commander’s unit is eliminated, even if the commander was the original intended target of the attack, the commander remains in play. A newly unattached commander can immediately join an adjacent unit without a commander or remain unattached and occupy part of the space the stand formerly occupied. If a commander’s unit is subjected to a spell or ability that forces a saving throw and has an area of effect which covers more than 50% of the unit’s space. then the commander is also affected and must make a saving throw.
If a commander is dropped to 0 hit points and forced to make death saves, they make a single save each round.
Commanding Your Forces
When joined to a unit, a commander uses their Charisma to bolster the strength and the spirits of those in their charge.
A commander on the battlefield has five new options for its bonus action: Incite, Prepare, Rally, Reappoint, and Spur.
A commander can try to inspire the soldiers of its unit to greater effort by making a DC 15 Charisma (Intimidation or Persuasion) check. If it succeeds, the unit gains advantage on all attack rolls and ability checks it makes until the end of the commander’s next turn.
A commander can order its unit to be more wary by making a DC 15 Charisma (Intimidation or Persuasion) check. If it succeeds, the unit gains advantage on all saving throws until the end of the commander’s next turn.
A commander can steel the nerve of their troops by rallying them to the fight and making a DC 15 Charisma (Intimidation or Persuasion) check. If it succeeds, the unit gains Advantage on all morale checks until the end of the commander’s next turn. Whether the commander succeeds or fails, a broken unit can make a new morale check at the beginning of its turn. (See Check Morale.)
A commander leaves its unit and becomes independent, or joins a unit without a commander.
A commander can order its unit to move more quickly across the battlefield by making a DC 15 Charisma (Intimidation or Persuasion) check. If it succeeds, the unit can use its reaction to move up to its speed.
Few soldiers want to die. After a unit suffers significant losses, the survivors might lose their nerve for battle. Rather than stay and fight, the rest of the unit tries to run away. Anytime the rules call for a morale check, the unit must make a DC 10 Wisdom saving throw.
The first time that a unit is reduced to less than half of it’s starting size, or any time it begins its turn at less than half or its starting size, the unit must immediately check morale.
If a friendly unit within sight of the unit is destroyed or broken, the unit must immediately check morale.
A Commander Falls
If a unit’s appointed commander is killed during the battle, the unit must immediately check morale.
Failing a Morale Check
If more than 50% of the unit fails the morale check, the unit becomes broken. For the rest of the battle, a broken unit must spend its turns trying to move as far away from enemy units as it can. It also can’t take Reactions. For its action, the unit can use only the Dash action or try to escape from an effect that prevents it from moving. If there’s nowhere to move, the unit can use the Dodge action.
A commander is never broken. It can decide to move with a broken unit or immediately leave the unit at the start of any of its turns.
If a broken unit has a commander, the unit has a chance to rally at the start of its turn. If the unit is called to rally by its commander, it makes a new morale check at the start of its turn, potentially with Advantage. If the save succeeds, the unit is no longer broken. It takes its turn as normal.
One of my favorite parts about magic in fiction is all the extra accoutrements that go with it. Complicated hand gestures, mysterious and rare materials, and powerful incantations fill out a rich world of wonder. While D&D 5e has gone to significant lengths to put fun and creative material components in the rules, those verbal components have been left up to each player’s imaginations. Most of the time, however, that fun part of the game gets quickly glossed over.
If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I have a habit of tweeting out Biblical verbal components for the many and various spells of Dungeons & Dragons 5e. Over the last couple years, I’ve tweeted thousands of Bible verses matched up with hundreds of different spells. Last year I published that collection of Biblical Verbal Components over on DMsGuild.com. This supplement offers options for what to say when you need some verbal spell components for the over 500 officially published spells in D&D 5e!
Since I first published that collection, new spells have been added to the game in Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. I’ve been working on updates recently and am proud to announce Biblical Verbal Components 2.0! All the new spells have been added and some of the old ones changed to match the errata. There’s new artwork as well to help inspire your imagination as you play.
I’ve also dropped the price on this collection of over 50 pages of supplemental content. Now it’s just $5. Every penny of profit goes to help people in need through an emergency needs fund. This fund helped meet over $2,500 of need in 2020.