D&D Concepts: Marching Order

One of the suggestions in the new D&D Starter Set is that you work out a Marching Order for your party. This is a pretty simple concept – it’s the formation that you use when moving around – that has seen some development through the history of D&D.

In the early years of the game, adventuring parties were often much bigger than they are now. Nine characters seems to be a fairly standard amount, or at least it’s presented that way in the first edition Dungeon Masters Guide. Dungeons tended to consist of rooms connected by 10 foot wide corridors, so the standard formation for travelling was considered for that width. Although later editions standardised the amount of space a character took up as 5 feet, the AD&D DMG has each character taking up 3-1/3′ so that three characters could stand abreast. Thus, a party would arrange themselves into a formation of 3 rows of 3 characters each – a 3×3 formation – often with shorter characters (halflings and dwarves) in the front rank so archers could fire above them from behind.

These days, you will tend to have from four to six characters, so, with the 5′ space for characters, you get a 2×2 or 3×2 formation.

You can generalise all of this to a party need a Front Rank, one or more Middle Ranks, and a Back Rank. Who goes in each?

The Front Rank and Back Rank tend to serve similar purposes: they are the ranks that will tend to be attacked. Most often, it will be the Front Rank that ends up in combat, but the Back Rank will be first into combat in those cases when the party is attacked from behind. As a result, you need good armour classes and high hit points in those ranks.

The one exception in the Front Rank tends to be the trap finder; it’s very easy to find traps when the barbarian in the front rank has already fallen down the pit trap, but most parties want a little more warning than that! Alternatively, the tracker will want to be in the front rank when you’re following a trail.

The Middle Ranks contain the characters you don’t want in the front rank during combat – typically the wizards, who have poor Armour Class and Hit Points, but rogues, spell-casters and archers may also be there.

So, what happens when you only have two ranks and the wizard is standing with no-one between him and the large bugbear that has sneaked up behind you? Well, the typical reaction to this is for the wizard to get squished (or to quickly use a thunderwave spell to push back the bugbear and then slip behind the fighters…) In earlier editions of D&D, we used to hire men-at-arms and, at later levels, henchmen to fill in the spots further up the list.

Men-at-arms are mercenaries who fight for pay. If you’d like to include one in your game, I’ve included some house rules at the end of the article you could use – at least until the full rules come out in the near future.

The chief problem of putting characters into the various ranks comes when combat begins: who can participate? Although characters in back ranks can cast spells or fire missile weapons, they will normally be penalised for the opponents having cover (from the other members of the character’s party!) This, at least, is kinder than the rules in AD&D, where you’d be quite likely to hit your allies instead!

Another option is to use Reach weapons from the second rank – pikes, halberds, whips and lances. Again, I’d impose a cover bonus to the target’s armour class, but at least members of the second rank of characters could attack. If the spell-casters are in the second rank, one of the first actions in combat would be for the spell-casters to move back so that the fighters in the back rank could move up. Note that you can happily move through allied characters without penalty.

With larger parties (five or more characters), five-foot corridors prove a major problem. All of a sudden you’ve only got one character in the front rank and able to attack. They’re great defensively, but they can be very frustrating to play in. As a DM, I rarely use corridors of that width just because you can have a lot of players sitting around unable to participate. If you are going to use them, having them as part of a maze of several intersecting corridors – so the characters could be attacked from different directions – makes a much more interesting set-up.

Twenty-foot wide and wider corridors are quite challenging for the party, as it is much harder to protect the more vulnerable members of the party, especially using the 5E rules. I would tend to spread out more to protect the centre.

It is worth noting that keeping very close together is great when you’re in non-magical combat, but is quite dangerous when Area of Effect spells like fireball start getting thrown around by the enemy. Know your opponents and be prepared to change your tactics when necessary!

Ultimately, the marching order provides the DM and players with a quick reference when the group is attacked for where everyone is. The marching order should protect the vulnerable characters and allow everyone to participate effectively in the combat.

House Rules for including Men-at-arms in Dungeons & Dragons 5E

Mercenary soldiers between jobs and young, untrained fighters often seek employment with adventurers. It is high-risk work, for which they are well compensated compared to their usual scales, but hiring them can prove very useful for new groups of adventurers delving into dangerous places.

If the Dungeon Master has men-at-arms available for hire, they are hired on a per expedition basis of 2 gold pieces per day.

Man-at-Arms; AC 16, hp 10, MV 20′, longsword +3 (1d8+1). Str +1, all others +0. Scale mail + shield.

Men-at-arms are not stupid, and will not perform needlessly dangerous acts. If commanded to perform an action the DM considers dangerous, or if one or more of the party are rendered unconscious or killed, they may refuse the order or flee. For a simple loyalty system give them a rating of 7 plus the Charisma modifier of whoever hired them. When loyalty must be checked, roll 2d6: if it is higher than their loyalty rating, they have failed the check and will refuse the order or flee.


    • merricb

      There should be official rules for hirelings and henchmen in the DMG, but my rules should work for the time being. I’m very interested in seeing what the official rules are!


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