Order of Battle: Retrospective

I prepared an order of battle for a recent scenario. Here's what I'll do differently next time.

A battle with orcs, from the first page of the Holmes edition of D&D.

As I said in my previous post, I hadn't read any old-school D&D modules for over a decade until this month. I thought it would be educational to fly blind-ish for the start of our AD&D campaign and see how I did things. Reading some modules (new and old) and reviews these past few weeks, I noticed the idea of an order of battle come up a bunch. Makes sense – write down what the location's denizens will do in different cases, such as if the alarm is raised.

I decided to try this out immediately, applying the principle to an adventure location I prepared for low-level characters who had one or two 3rd-6th level characters to help them out. (Some players wanted new characters to earn some experience after losing some characters before continuing exploration of riskier locales.)

The PCs are still exploring the site in question, but there was a lengthy fight to first secure the location from some brigands and other evil kinds. The PCs' enemies were obviously spread out in different locations doing things when the PCs arrived, not just waiting around to be attacked. But I had added notes to my key indicating where each group or NPC would go if the alarm was raised.

Having now run the fight, I would do two things differently next time:

  1. I would indicate, directly on my map, the starting location and "alarmed state" location of each enemy group. Scanning through the key for different groups and determining whether they could get to X in Y rounds or hear Z from Q was not practical. I should have prepared an easier reference. Justin Alexander's adversary rosters can be good, but I think if there is a decent chance battle will be joined by cohesive forces from many locations, you might want that right on the map.
  2. I would have a list of total forces at the location by type, and tally them off as they are defeated. Knowing the total numbers remaining in the scenario could have allowed me to more easily judge and improv movements without worry of fielding too many or too few numbers. Since I care about providing the correct challenge and the correspondingly correct number of treasure rolls, this would have been nice. Especially when the enemies had been given a chance to regroup – I could have more easily judged how they'd rebalance themselves in their fortification. I ended up making this total and tally mid-session.

I had fun running the fight, and players dig a good siege, but the order of battle I had written was basically ignored in favor of my best memory because I made the written order unwieldy by spreading each group's orders across their keyed starting areas. If you intend to prepare a scenario with defined "unalarmed" and "alarmed" states, I recommend making a quick reference, probably with map markings.

Two bonus points:

  1. An order of battle doesn't mean that the forces you prepare it for actually have an orchestrated response in-game. In fact, most forces will probably act in some measure of disarray. Highly-coordinated and drilled responses to attack will likely be seen in only the most well-trained, prepared, veteran forces. The order of battle is for the DM, and it might just tell the DM what the forces' wild, untrained reaction will be to the PCs' raid. The DM will already know how the forces will generally act, and can spend attention on other things at the table.
  2. If this wasn't a scenario intended to be survivable for 1st level characters (which was already quite dangerous), I would have provided more ways for the defenders to take advantage of PCs plotting after forcing their enemies back in the initial clash. In such a scenario, I would definitely want to include some bullet points on how those actions relate to the order of battle. In this particular fight, twelve brigands had time to hide and fire 24 arrows at two characters in a single round. I think that is enough, considering a single surprise segment would have given them 72 arrows, complete surprise 144 arrows. (Remember: missile fire is a special ability on the XP table for a reason. How did they survive the double volley? Good armor, and the Weapon vs AC table.)