I try my best to provide a dynamic, living world to my players. Stuff happens. Sometimes the PCs are part of that action, but most of the time they aren’t. There’s a reason for this: doing an epic battle as box text or skill challenge isn’t really epic. Traditionally, there haven’t been any good answers to this problem and we teach GMs to focus on a specific portion of the action that can involve the PCs. This usually means holding a gap in the wall or line until reinforcements arrive, assassinating an enemy leader or attacking the enemy’s flank. These can all be excellent encounters, but they don’t capture the feel of a grand fight. There is a tool, rarely used these days, which can accomplish some of this and potentially provide a needed break from the routine of playing the same character week after week. It’s called a replacement fight.
A replacement fight is any combat where the players don’t play their characters. Instead, they’re handed something else. In my campaign, I had a naval battle where each player ran a battleship. You can also do this with military units.
- Give the players advance warning. This gives them an opportunity to consider their tactics and familiarize themselves with the “monster’s” stats. Handing someone a sheet and saying, “okay, this is what you’re going to be running for this next fight” can be a bit jarring.
- Stick close to the party’s level. While you can set the encounter at any level, your players are probably used to the math at their level. They know (approximately) how many hit points enemies are likely to have, how much damage they are likely to do and what their defenses are probably going to be.
- The archetypes still work, but may need some tweaking. The heavy battleship with the rows and rows of cannons may hit like a brute, but it might have steel armor, as well.
- Maintain roles, but encourage the players to mix it up. Replacement fights are an excellent opportunity to give your players a break. There’s nothing that says that each player gets only one “monster,” so you can go to town as long as the players don’t feel overwhelmed. The only role that requires special caution is the leader. You should probably limit closely the amount of healing that occurs during a replacement fight, because having too much can make the fight tedious or it can make the healer unit too important.
- Be prepared for the players to lose… or win. The main purpose of a replacement fight is to help the players feel relevant in a large world event. Nothing will destroy that more completely than not having their success or failure have an impact. Your players will be justifiably angry and bitter.
- Larger scale means shorter ranges and less movement. If you want to maintain a realistic feel, the squares should be larger and you should probably avoid powers that slow. Movement rates of 2-4 and ranges of 3-4 work just fine for “military unit” monsters. Keep this in mind when determining pushes, pulls and slides.
- Simple is better. In general, you should give the monster an at-will, a recharge and an encounter power. Much more and the monster can become difficult to manage
Some ideas for replacement fights:
- Giant golems.
- Demonic hordes and the angels that face them.