Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The Numbers of the Beasts

So, hordes.

They are awkward beasts, and can have issues ranging from mechanical quirks to designer misuse.

However, as far as I know nobody's really come up with a better option for (to shamelessly plagiarize Dan):

  • Provide a way for comparatively weak enemies to threaten powerful player characters.
  • Simplify the handling of large groups of enemies.
  • Allowing scenes where you fight overwhelming hordes of enemies.

My thoughts on hordes are pretty simple. Mechanically, I think you need to think about:

  • Movement of hordes
  • Horde melée combat
  • Horde ranged attacks
  • Damaging hordes
  • Impairing hordes with soft attacks
  • and potentially, horde morale

Modelling hordes

The arrows darkened the sun

Ranged attacks are actually the first thing I have a strong inclination about. My thought here is that, as previous attempts at mathematical modelling have demonstrated, even weak groups of enemies can quickly produce overwhelming volumes of fire because of the relatively low Wound totals of PCs and the statistics of the combat rules. At the same time, rolling those attacks is quite a lot of work for the GM, in terms of sheer number of die rolls and the calculations required (five pathetic enemies can get off ten attacks per round, which means you could easily be making a hundred shots during a combat).

So rather than deal with all that, I think the slickest way to handle it may actually be to allow hordes only a single ranged attack per action. The size of the horde won't grant it more mechanical attacks, but will instead increase the odds of getting a successful hit in by boosting the horde's skill. Meanwhile, narratively speaking, the other attacks are whistling around heads and pinging off armour in pleasingly dramatic style.

A pretty straightforward way to handle this would simply be to say that a horde's skill with ranged attacks equals N plus half the size of the horde - this allows for a reasonable range of horde sizes from small to enormous, without immediately giving them guaranteed hits. An even simpler one would be to have Skill equal Magnitude. These are abstractions, after all, and if you're really being fired at by twenty infuriated cultists it's perhaps reasonable to say that one of them is pretty much guaranteed to get a hit on you (range and cover penalties notwithstanding). While there are some awkward edge cases possible (as always), I could add in a floor, so that a horde could have Skill = Magnitude (min. 4) for example.

A second thing that seems good to me is to model the sheer volume of attacks being put out by a horde, which are likely to leave even hardened (and therefore sensible) soldiers ducking for cover. I could do this simply by ruling that being attacked by a horde of Magnitude above a certain threshold automatically causes Pinning, although depending exactly how I implement Pinning, this may be excessive.

A horde may be allowed to divide its fire between several targets, firing with proportionate skill. For example, a Magnitude 20 horde might fire at a pair of Monitors with Skill 10 against each, or fire at four targets with Skill 5 against each.

A noxious horde which to my glance Seem’d moving in a hideous dance

A horde should move as a single unit, for simplicity's sake. A horde can move through narrow gaps as long as a single member can get through, but is slowed down by squeezing through such gaps. A few hordes may be exempt from this minor drawback, to represent hiveminds or special training that allows them to move efficiently.

The lean, filthy, ravenous army which had swept all before it

A horde is a formidable opponent in melée, and many hordes (such as insect swarms, rat packs, and mobs of hallucinogen-crazed accountants) only present a melée threat.

A horde attacks all enemies in the area it occupies. Its Magnitude is divided between targets, so a Magnitude 20 horde can attack one target with Skill 20 or three with Skill 7/7/6. Does there need to be a cap here on how many can swarm a single target? Logic says yes, but simplicity says no.

[Insert literary quote about fighting hordes]

Hordes are very easy to attack, simply because it's hard to miss them. The question here is really just how easy I want to make it, in terms of balancing narration and mechanics.

At short range, using a ranged weapon, you should pretty much just need to pull the trigger. At longer ranges, though, they present a larger target but still leave you plenty of room to miss. In combat, it isn't necessarily easier to hit at all - technically it's probably more difficult, though I'll probably handwave that.

Up close and personal

Melée combat is a slightly trickier proposition, because with the best will in the world it's quite hard to fight a mob all at once, and not realistically easier to fight them because of numbers. Rather, you're trying to defend yourself against several opponents, while only being able to attack each one with part of your concentration. A recipe for disaster!

Fortunately, here in gameland we are not limited by pedantic details like plausibility. Heroes should battle their way through packs of enemies, and fend off howling hordes from the castle gates, and so they will. A character in combat with a horde gains a bonus based on the Magnitude of the horde, not because it's especially logical, but because it fits the tone we're going for. Monitors, after all, are the sort of reptiles whose problem with hitting people is more likely to be all that annoying dodging out of the way than concerns about self-defence.

A horde can only benefit from cover if it's substantial enough to obscure a good portion of the group.

That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

How should we model damaging hordes? I think here the slightly unspecified nature of how combat works may help. Because I'm planning to handwave things like ammunition, we don't need to be too precise about things like how many shots are fired. My immediate inclination is to say that a normal weapon just takes down one enemy per hit, or two with a critical. Soft weapons work exactly as well as hard ones; they effectively take an enemy out of the fight. There is the question of armour, though - should armoured hordes exist? Shouldn't armoured hordes exist?

Another possibility would be to handle hordes entirely differently. Perhaps the weapon strength indicates the damage inflicted on the horde (with some adjustment - perhaps half strength? perhaps a rolled bonus based on strength?).

Weapons that hit an area are likely to cause additional damage to a horde. They might have a rating, or I could just use a single "Blast" keyword that does X additional damage.

A blast soft weapon might have its normal effect against the horde rather than causing damage; have to think about that one.

Suggested rules

A horde is a group of creatures that act as one for mechanical purposes. Hordes are used in order to:

  • Provide a way for comparatively weak enemies to threaten powerful player characters.
  • Simplify the handling of large groups of enemies.
  • Allow scenes where you fight overwhelming hordes of enemies.


A horde acts in the same way as other creatures, receiving two actions per round.


A horde's skill with attacks equals its basic skill + 1/2 its current Magnitude. A horde calculates critical hits based on this adjusted skill.

A horde may divide attacks between suitable targets, in which case its skill is determined by the Magnitude attacking each target.

A horde is often unable to bring its full numbers to bear on an enemy, due to restricted space or line of sight. Typically Magnitude 10 of a horde can attack a single target, but circumstances may change or remove this restriction.

Fighting Hordes

Hordes are large, and any attack is liable to hit something. A horde grants a bonus of 1/4 its Magnitude to all attack rolls.

Any successful hit against a horde reduces its Magnitude by 1d3, regardless of weapon type. For every 3 points of Strength a weapon grants, add +1 to the roll.

A weapon with the Blast property may roll an additional 1d3.

Yes, I have deliberately left "successful" a bit vague, as at the time of writing I'm not sure yet how combat normally works!


A horde moves according to the normal rules. Regardless of size, a horde can move through any gap large enough to admit one of its constituent members. Movement through a gap significantly narrower than the horde, or with enough obstacles to restrict movement en masse, counts as difficult terrain.


A horde cannot be pinned by weapons that lack the Heavy or Blast properties. Other effects can cause pinning as normal.

1 comment:

  1. What I didn't discuss was, for some reason, the idea of keeping hordes within existing mechanics by simply allocating them Wounds like everyone else.