[RPG] How to handle large groups of enemies


A week ago for my Friday night session, my adventurers came across a pack of 18 Gnolls. 16 of them were your basic Gnoll fighter, one was a Gnoll Pack Leader, and the last was a Gnoll Fang of Yeenoghu (which was responsible for the rapid multiplying of the Gnoll Population).

I had planned that the group would meet these 18 Gnolls in 3 separate encounters, such that the group would only face six at a time. But the group decided to enter their area from 3 sides and, lo and behold, activated all 3 groups at once.

The Initiative order of 18 Gnolls plus my players was so extensive that one of my players fell asleep before his turn came around again (It was about 1am by that time). The next day me and one of the core players reflected a bit and it was brought to my attention that the encounter could have perhaps been handled differently.

What is the best way to I handle large creature counts?

While I am aware that I could create 3 enemies representing a group of Gnolls each, each a single mechanically strong enemy to ensure the encounter is just as hard, this does not give the right atmosphere if I want my players to feel overwhelmed by a multitude of lesser creatures. How do I give this overwhelming feeling, without an initiative round lasting for hours?

Best Answer

A few suggestions, apply those that sound fun to you:

  1. Group creatures of the same type into a single initiative number. Or at least, put a good chunk of them to act on the same initiative.

  2. Maybe don't act with all creatures. Some are probably stuck way on the back and do not get a piece of the action until the adventurers mow their way into them.

  3. For each chunk of equal creatures, pick a group of targets, grab a handful of dice and roll their attacks all at once. Serves to drive up the point of their numbers.

  4. Spend most of your time narrating during the player's turns, talking about their actions. Be less descriptive about mob attacks.

  5. Add the mass of creatures to an encounter where something else needs to happen, not just kill them all. For example, the adventurers need to get to the other side of a large battlefield, not necessarily defeat everyone on their way there.

  6. Enlist another player to keep track of the enemy hit points or the initiative rooster (maybe one for each). By splitting tasks, long battles are made shorter.

  7. Make smaller minions die faster (give them less HP, instead of rolling dice or using the half + 1 suggestion, just use something smaller if they are disposable). Or make them retreat when weakened, which maybe allows adventurers to sneak in some opportunity attacks, ie. stuff to do while they wait for their turn.