There comes a point in the progression of an adventuring party from zeroes to heroes where I think D&D 5e struggles to provide the right amount of challenge.
I’m talking about the “mid-tier” play, somewhere between levels 5 and 10 — after the game is all about beating up goblins and bandits for their lunch money and before the bit where taking on dragons, archmages, and sometimes literal gods stops being a complete suicide mission.
At this point, the PCs have progressed beyond fighting four nameless kobolds who kidnapped the town’s prized pig (although I maintain this sort of madcap nonsense is peak D&D. You can keep your epic fantasy; give me your poor, your hungry, your pathetic scheming picaros and self-serving desperados having low-stakes, chaotic escapades, but I digress) and need something tougher to fight.
It’s tempting to push them toward big, scary solo monsters. Stuff in the CR 5-13 range with enough hit points to stand up against a party of mid-tier heroes, like young dragons, giants, and even slightly trickier left-field decisions like an Oni.
However, in 5e’s mid-game, the action economy is such that any solo monster that can stand its ground against the PCs long enough to make for an interesting combat encounter is also likely to be strong enough that it will down or even kill an adventurer in one round of combat.
Sure, there are some exceptions, like monsters with escape mechanics or the right combination of abilities and resistances to keep things interesting, but these usually require a decent amount of DM skill and more than a little luck.
More often than not, things are very swingy.
As a dungeon master who wants to do more than veer back and forth between wish-fulfilling power fantasy and ignominious player death, it can be hard finding something to appropriately challenge your players in these “middle levels” when PCs can do crazy powerful stuff but they also can’t take crazy amounts of punishment.
I think the answer is factions.
Why Should I Use Factions in My DnD 5e Campaign?
Factions are, in many ways, the ultimate D&D monster.
Factions can be as big or small as you need them to be.
They contain lots of types of enemies, and in many ways the individual characters — from mooks and mercs all the way up to the folks in charge — are all shaped by the faction itself, which can do a lot of legwork when it comes to worldbuilding, establishing tone, and figuring out how to play certain NPCs.
That’s a lot of information, and it’s all going to be the basis for what we’re talking about today, so let’s break it down.
Factions Can Be as Big or Small as You Need Them To Be
Whether they’re a gang of local ruffians or a vast, shadowy conspiracy of powerful wizards, one of the great things about factions is that they scale up and down really well.
In a tightly packed, cramped space, it can take as few as two or three people to make a faction. Zoom out to the kingdom level, and a faction can represent thousands, if not millions, of people all united behind a particular political ideal.
Also, fighting a faction doesn’t mean you have to fight the whole faction at once, although that can be a possibility.
It’s very hard to fight a dragon a little at a time, but factions can be split up and meted out encounter by encounter.
However, every time you fight a faction (or interact with it in general), you’re fighting the whole beast, so to speak, and your party’s relationship with it as an organization develops.
From an encounter-design perspective, think of faction size as a monster’s hit points. They’re there to help determine the length and challenge of the encounter, and they replenish over time.
Factions Contain Lots of Different Types of Enemies
In much the same way a powerful solo monster is made more dangerous and exciting by its access to cool abilities, spells, and legendary actions, factions can treat the individuals that belong to them as a source of cool abilities.
What this means in practice is that factions don’t have to (and shouldn’t) be an endless stream of uniform, disposable enemies.
Sure, you should probably have some of those (everyone loves blasting stormtroopers) as well, but it’s the special units among the massed ranks that make fighting them exciting — even if it’s not mechanically all that different from a single monster with a legendary action.
Factions Inform the Wider World and the Individuals Within Them
Lastly, factions are incredibly helpful as a dungeon master when worldbuilding.
First, the existence of a faction says a lot about the world in which it operates. A city with a large and powerful thieves’ guild is going to have a very different vibe than a city dominated by a religious order.
The kinds of factions that form and influence your world are a more effective form of exposition than any dusty tome or 20-page player handout.
For example, in one of my games, all the old pagan gods are being murdered and absorbed by the one true god, who roams the multiverse devouring them to fuel its rise.
There are a whole lot of knock-on effects that this cataclysmic event has on the world, but I don’t tell my players what’s happening; I show it to them in the factions that they encounter.
- There are secret societies of druids smuggling illegal gods to safety in the mountains and carrying them in ornate clay pots on their backs.
- There are nomadic warbands of monotheist crusaders rampaging across the land in search of gods to kill and eat so that their power might be transferred to the one true god all the sooner.
- There are ruthless capitalist enterprises dedicated to finding the corpses of dead gods and stripping them of their mineral wealth, which they sell to cabals of wizards in the capital city of the empire.
At no point has anyone sat my players’ characters down and said, “So, there’s one god that wants to become the only god by eating all the smaller gods,” but rather the PCs keep bumping into (and sometimes getting hired by) members of these factions.
Similarly, as a DM, membership in a faction works wonders as shorthand for an NPC’s personality.
I’m not saying that you should make each member of a faction a carbon copy of their fellows, but certain factions certainly value some traits and beliefs over others, which are a great place to start when you need to make up an NPC on the fly. In my own campaign, for example:
- Members of the druid circles are secretive and mistrustful but fair and kind.
- Members of the raving monotheist crusaders are brash, zealous, and judgemental but earnest.
- Members of the god corpse mining conglomerates are collected, calm, and rational but greedy and callous.
Different NPCs within those factions are going to have inner lives of their own, but these are the traits that form the moral, cultural baseline within their respective organizations, so these are probably the traits they’ll outwardly display to strangers.
My players have come to learn this, and they plan their interactions with these factions accordingly.
They know to always deal plainly with the druids, to outright lie and manipulate the zealots, and to always make the miners think they’re getting the better end of the deal.
How To Make Factions Feel Unique
I also think it’s important to think about how a faction’s leader(s) impacts how you portray it.
Take the Xanathar guild from Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, for example.
Secretly ruled by a monstrous and paranoid beholder with deep-seated neuroses and a taste for luxury, the guild itself is a festering hive of mistrust, monsters, and malevolent backstabbing with a healthy dash of fear thrown in.
Xanathar’s second-in-command has a secret minotaur fetish (and a labyrinth in his bedroom — talk about idiosyncratic and exotic tastes), strange monsters like Mind Flayers work in the guild’s ranks, and the whole upper echelon of the guild works to conceal the fact that the Xanathar itself is actually a beholder.
The entire guild hideout is a mess of zombie beholders, pet rust monsters, traitors, bizarre contraptions, and dangerous magic items.
Basically, it’s very much an extension of the Xanathar itself.
When creating factions, making them feel unique is often just a matter of making sure that they feel like expressions of their leaders’ personality and ideals.
Just a few simple touches can do a lot to make even simple goons feel more like they belong and therefore your faction (and therefore your world) is a living, breathing, cohesive space.
A faction led by a slightly unhinged renegade wizard, for example, might attract people of a slightly chaotic disposition, who maybe have a fascination with the arcane.
Going through a guard’s pockets and finding 2d6 gold coins is fine.
Going through a guard’s pockets and finding a well-thumbed spell scroll for casting the light cantrip, or a jumble of brass wire and divining crystals, or a small silver pendant with a rune of abjuration on it is better.
Factions done right aren’t very much more work to run than individuals, and they provide your players with more toys to play with and more tools to use to get what they want.
However, running factions rules as written in combat can create a whole load of different problems to the issues you get running solo monsters.
The Problem With Mass Combat
Just as the action economy can make solo monster combat feel decidedly swingy, it can also make massed combat (fighting large groups of enemies) feel like munching your way through a bathtub full of unseasoned oatmeal — flavorless and never ending.
Fighting 12 goblins means the DM rolling 12 attacks, maybe 12 damage rolls, taking 12 bonus actions. It’s endless.
This is the advantage that solo monsters have over groups, but I think it’s something we can fix.
Fighting Factions: Making Mass Combat Not Suck
The first and easiest way to make mass combat fun in D&D 5e is to treat it like D&D 4e and use the minions rules.
Basically, minions are a type of creature that has the exact same type of stats, actions, and abilities as their regular version but only one hit point. One instance of damage and poof! They’re gone.
Mimions can do a great job of speeding up combat, not to mention making your players feel like total badasses as they wade through wave after wave of enemies.
However, every single one of those enemies still has to take an action and move, and… it’s all still kind of clunky.
Introducing Mass Combat Groups
What we’re going to do is treat a faction of enemies (a Mass Combat Group) as a single creature with Ability Scores, a Proficiency Bonus, an Action, a Bonus Action, a Reaction, and so on.
Instead of multiattack or rolling out each goblin’s attack individually, we’re going to have a gang of goblins deal AoE damage in a similar way to swarms in old school D&D.
Any enemy caught within the faction’s area of effect (equal to its movement speed squared for melee or the range of its weapons) is going to have to make a saving throw (adding bonuses for stuff like being on cover and defensive spells) each turn or take damage.
They take half damage on a successful saving throw if the group is making a melee attack but no damage if the attack is made with ranged weapons.
The Ability score used to make the saving throw is determined by the melee weapon your character is carrying.
I might also rule that a character who takes the dodge action on their turn has advantage on this saving throw.
To calculate the damage a group deals against an individual target, treat every hit as an exploding critical — every damage die deals max damage and is then rolled again.
For example, getting hit by a goblin warband’s scimitars means that every player automatically takes 8 damage (max roll on 1d6 + 2) plus 1d6.
This makes fighting big groups more cinematic as characters constantly dodge hails of blows but still walk away scraped and bruised to hell.
It also makes it dangerous and quick to resolve as the entire goblin warbond’s turn can be reduced to “the goblins swarm forward, hacking at you with rusty swords and daggers, red eyes gleaming. Make a saving throw.”
Then, all the players make their rolls, the DM dishes out damage accordingly, and what might have been a 20-minute combat turn where all the players get to do is compare what the DM says to their AC is done and dusted.
Now, it’s the players’ turn to hit the group.
All Mass Combat Groups have resistance to single-target damage, which is not overcome by magical weapons and other effects.
Only AoE damage (or creatures two or more sizes bigger than the creatures making up the group) overcomes the resistance.
Special Characters in Groups
Now, it’s perfectly fine to treat special creatures (magic users, clerics, leaders, big monsters, etc.) as their own monsters in addition to mass combat groups.
However, if you want to include them, you can easily fold them into this system with their actions now taking the form of Legendary Actions for the group.
Pick one thing that each special character can do. Examples include casting a spell, attacking, moving the group somewhere, and imposing disadvantage on a PC.
At the end of another creature’s turn, the special character in a mass combat group gets to take a legendary action.
We’re going to dispense with hit points for Mass Combat Groups. Instead, give the group a number of Wounds equal to its CR (Minimum of 1).
Each group also has a Threshold (say, CR x 5) where, if the PCs exceed that damage in a single turn, they get to make a Mass Combat Move against the group.
Mass Combat Moves can…
- Inflict a Wound on the Group.
- Force a group to make a Wisdom Saving Throw to avoid breaking and running.
- Prevent a Group’s special characters from acting on the next turn.
- Prevent a Group from dealing AoE damage on the next turn.
- Kill a special character.
Example: Whozgit’s Wyrdos
A gang of goblin raiders led by a slightly unhinged goblin sorcerer. They daub themselves in purple paint and collect strange and unstable magical artifacts that they revere as sacred.
Goblins, Small humanoids (goblinoid), neutral evil
Armor Class 15 (Leather Armor, Shield)
- Wounds: 1
- Threshold: 14
- Speed: 30 ft.
STR 8 (-1) DEX 14 (+2) CON 10 (+0) INT 10 (+0) WIS 8 (-1) CHA 8 (-1)
- Skills: Stealth +6
- Senses: Darkvision 60 ft., Passive Perception 9
- Languages: Common, Goblin
- Proficiency Bonus: +2
- Scimitar: (range: 30 sq. ft., melee), 1d6 + 8 slashing damage on a failed save or half as much on a successful one.
- Shortbow: (range: 80 ft. ranged) 1d6 + 8 slashing damage on a failed save.
At the end of another character’s turn, one special character may take an action.
- Whozgit. The goblin sorcerer may cast the spell Magic Missile but must also roll on the Wild Magic Surge table.
You can (and should) obviously tweak all of this as you see fit. Maybe you want groups to have fewer hit points or to deal more damage.
The point here (and the reason I use this house rule in my own games) is that it takes a whole load of administrative pressure off my shoulders if I want to run a faction or group of enemies in combat.
And, from reducing the swinginess of fights to giving your players more ways to learn about your world, I think there are plenty of reasons why I’d want to ditch a single red dragon for a horde of screaming goblins any day.
Until next time, folks, happy adventuring, and watch out for goblins.