My group are deep into Curse of Strahd and inevitably, like all adventurers in Strahd’s domain, they have discovered that wine is the life-blood of Barovia. Multiple quest givers offer rewards or assistance for solving the mystery of why the wine has stopped flowing throughout the land.
Of course, it doesn’t take long for them to realise the problem. It all relates to Druids, Blights and Baba Lysaga’s Scarecrows. In particular, when the party arrive at the winery, it is overrun by Twig and Vine Blights.
Now, it’s a great encounter. The sheer number of Blights, the Druids with their Thunderwave spells and the Gulthias Staff all make for a challenging encounter for the party. Especially if (like my group) they also mistake their potential Raven allies as enemy combatants and take them on as well.
The problem is though, as challenging as it is for the players, it’s way more challenging for the DM. Very quickly, this battle can amount to 30+ Twig Blights, a group of Vine Blights and around 3 or 4 Druids. My group is a party of 6 players and an NPC (Ezmerelda) so it’s a mammoth combat.
We play over Fantasy Grounds so at least we have a map with tokens and a combat tracker to keep track of initiative order and hit points. Trying to run this encounter theater of the mind must be virtually impossible. Even using the virtual tabletop tools, the combat was slow and laborious, particularly if (like my group did) the party have the sense to get inside the building and lock the majority of the Blights out. The creation of choke points greatly increases the survivability for the party but it slows the combat down to a crawl. It took us the best part of 3 hours to get through this one, and we weren’t hanging around between turns.
It is possible to reduce the Blight attacks to waves, but that reduces the challenge to the players considerably and it feels stilted and like a choice of convenience over realism. The winery is a small place. The sound of battle won’t take long to reach all of the other Blights and Druids lurking elsewhere in the building so deciding that for some reason they can’t hear the battle kicking off doesn’t make sense.
With that in mind, it may be worth treating the Blights as “Mooks”, a term and mechanic that can be borrowed from 13th Age. The principle is simple. Each blight gets an attack, so they still feel like a threat, and they still have the potential to get in a nasty hit on the players. However, instead of having their own individual hit points, they are (as a group) given a collective pool of hit points. For example, there are 24 Twig Blights with 11 hit points each. They will have a central pool of 264 hit points. For every 11 points of damage, remove one Blight from the combat. So for example, if a player attacks a Blight and does 14 damage, the Blight the player attacked takes 11 damage and is killed and the remaining 3 damage is applied to the pack. A further 8 damage would see another Blight killed.
This method allows the DM to maintain the mass combat feel and keep the risk factor up in terms of potential damage for individual hits by the Blights but shorten the combat considerably by removing Blights from the map more quickly. It’s also better suited for tracking in theater of the mind combats. It’s particularly suited to the Blights because it’s easy for players to imagine hacking through a little twig person and taking a chunk out of it’s compatriot standing nearby with a dramatic swing of the sword.
Overall it’s a great battle as written but it just becomes painful near the end when it becomes clear that the Blights aren’t going to win. Sure, you could just call the fight there but somehow that seems empty and “gamey”. “Mooking” the Blights speeds up the encounter without sacrificing the tension.