d20 – Summon Army

John Dee and Edward Kelley evoking a spirit

More! I want MORE!

First up for today it’s another question from Alzrius.

What sort of spell(s) would it look like to summon an army for a considerable amount of time?

I recognize that the problems with this request are the inherent relativity of the terms “army” and “considerable length of time.” As such, let’s presume that we’re talking about summoning no less than twenty (though certainly more) 2nd-level fighters (of a standard PC race, such as human) for 1 hour per caster level.

My instinct here was to use the rules for summon monster spells, wherein if you sink a higher-level spell into lower-level creatures, you can summon more of them, but between the number of creatures and the length of time you want them to remain, that rapidly becomes infeasible.

Hence, would a specialized spell that was less flexible than a standard summon monster spell (which allowed for a choice among several monsters, and could be scaled through lower-level summons) allow for such a spell to exist at sub-epic ranges? Certainly, not granting the standard celestial/fiendish template to “normal” creatures (which any standard humanoid race would surely be) would help too.

In short, what would the “summon army” spell look like?

Alzrius goes on to append the note that modern definitions of “army” tend to be awfully large – tens of thousands of men at a minimum – but spells like that are obviously going to be epic anyway.

Well, lets see now… The base point for comparison is indeed the “Summon Monster” spell template in The Practical Enchanter. To check the base for such a spell, a summoning spell for a specific CR2 creature can be cut down to level one. You just take the “one creature with a CR one above the listed limit” rule (I’d allow it; a second level warrior is hardly the most deadly CR2 creature out there) and the “only summons one type of creature” modifier and apply them to the level three base spell you need to summon CR2 creatures.

That’s potentially useful – but the one-round duration at level one means that your summoned warrior gets only one attack, which might well miss. A good old Magic Missile is more reliable, and Mage Armor is probably a much better defense. The duration of the summoning scales with level, but so does the damage of the Magic Missile and the duration of the Mage Armor.

To get twenty such creatures, we need +2 spell levels for 4d4, and another +2 spell levels for an additional 4d4 – for 8d4, averaging twenty.

That takes the spell up to level five. To get it to one hour per caster level is +3 spell levels – for a total level of level eight.

Either the fifth level version (Get’em Guys!) or eighth level version (Honor Guard) isn’t that bad a spell really. If you use the eighth level version your minions won’t be all that useful in any serious straight-up fight at the levels where you can cast the spell to summon them in the first place (unless you apply some special options to bring the spell level down), but sensible, loyal, and totally disposable minions have many non-combat uses. They can provide a suitable escort when riding into town, check for traps, pick up dangerous artifacts, dig ditches, go and hunt for food (and then vanish without eating any of it), act as servants, provide massed arrow support, create diversions, and so on. They aren’t too powerful, but they are fairly versatile and will be around all day.

Scaling up to a full-sized army using standard modifiers is trickier. The quickest way to do it is to summon squads instead of individuals. That’s a bit cheesy, but – once again – we’re talking second level warriors, so I’d be inclined to allow it.

Adding +2 levels jumps the CR of the summoned creatures to 5. Three level two creatures are CR5, so now we’re summoning 8d4 three-man teams. To keep this non-epic, drop the duration of the higher level version to one minute per level – keeping it at level nine and summoning sixty men for at least seventeen minutes. Call it “Charge of the Light Brigade“. Again, not the best ninth-level spell around, but there might be some uses for it – especially if you’ve got some way to power up the creatures that you summon.

Honestly, though, this is less than overwhelming. Meteor Swarm could wipe out this entire force in an instant. What we’ll want to apply next is the Compact metamagical theorem from Eclipse. Both the increase in numbers and the increase in duration can reasonably be taken as Metamagic – so we could use the theorem to take up to six levels off the spell; three for compaction and three to counter the metamagical boosts we’re building into the spell.

So: we’ll take a day to cast this (and probably store it when we’re done, -2 spell levels), use some expensive components (a selection of weapons perhaps, -1 spell level), owe a minor favor to the spiritual powers who are providing the spirits we’re summoning (-1 spell level), become exhausted when casting it (thanks to the strain of anchoring all those spirits, -1 spell level), and spend 100 XP casting it (-1 spell level).

OK. At CR7 we get six-man squads of second-level warriors – probably with a few siege weapons and such to go with their regular weapons. That’s a base of spell level six, reduced to five since we can only get those second-level warrior squads. We want one hour per level, so that’s +3 spell levels. We want a total of 8d4 squads, which is another +4 spell levels. Fortunately, we’re getting -6 spell levels from the Compaction theorem – which brings the total down to level six for “The Raising of the Lost Legion“. That’s pretty powerful – but we are requiring a day-long ritual and expensive components. If we drop those, leaving the favor, exhaustion, and 100 XP cost, we’re back up to level nine (“Iron Master of War“) which does seem suitable. A hundred and twenty men with siege weapons for a day isn’t really that big an army, and can still be dealt with fairly simply (Dispel Magic anyone?), but there are times I might prefer such a spell to Time Stop, Meteor Swarm, Summon Monster IX, or Gate.

Certainly not always, but I can think of some situations.

That’s about as far as we can go while still keeping our “summon army” spell non-epic.

Now, there are some “Army Creation” spells in the high-levels spells section of Eclipse:

  • Unseen Horde creates at least 500 invisible constructs roughly equivalent to a second-level fighter for one hour per level at level thirteen.
  • The Dark Hordes summons up to 36 CR worth of infernal beings with a maximum CR of 9 each for a years service (which could cover quite a few low-CR beings in groups) at level sixteen.
  • Army of the Dead raises 5000 HD worth of undead of up to CR 16 each and gives them some bonuses as an instantaneous effect (you’ve got to kill them to get rid of them) at level twenty.

Of course, level twenty is the level for spells such as Stars Like Dust, which makes the utility of armies somewhat questionable. Still, a variant on Army of the Dead which called forth a larger number of hit dice of creatures – limited to, say, CR 4 each and “normal” races only, plus giving up “complete control” in favor of “reasonably loyal” (in exchange, perhaps, for 20,000 hit dice in total) to colonize and work your land seems pretty reasonable.

A spell like Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth there would leave your upper-end dark lords without any real reason to go out and snatch populations – but if they’re casting 20’th level spells, they can probably handle getting some normal people to work for them anyway.

Eclipse: The Codex Persona is available in a Freeware PDF Version, in Print, and in a Paid PDF Version that includes Eclipse II (245 pages of Eclipse races, character and power builds, items, relics, martial arts, and other material) and the web expansion.

The Practical Enchanter can be found in a Print Edition (Lulu), an Electronic Edition (RPGNow), and a Shareware Edition (RPGNow).  There’s an RPGNow Staff Review too.

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4 Responses

  1. How many levels would you add, if any, if the summoned creatures were constructs or plants?

    I can see a 9th level version, Master Gardner, that summons an army of vegetables meant to ambush in plain sight, move a hell of a lot of soil (plant roots are amazingly strong) or demolish a structure.

    • Well, the summoning difficulty is based on challenge rating. The only real fiddle-factors are whether or not the game master allows the “one creature on the list with a challenge rating one higher than the baseline for the spell” option and the “summon groups that count as a higher CR creature” trick (I’d limit that one to special-purpose spells myself, rather than allowing it for general summonings). .

      Allowing both for a spell that summons second level warriors is entirely appropriate. After all, take your basic second-level (CR2) fighting type and throw him or her up against a fairly wide range of CR1 monsters – perhaps a Large Monstrous Centipede? – and the outcome is in pretty serious doubt. As far as the “groups” trick goes, well, normal fighting men usually come in pairs, trios, and squads, just like wolves come in packs. It seems like a natural grouping.

      There are creatures those modifiers don’t work for. If a creature is on the upper end of the power range for it’s CR, or has some really useful special ability, the “one creature of one CR higher” won’t apply. If the creature wouldn’t normally come in cooperative groups, then the “groups” modifier really doesn’t fit; working against a creatures natural tendencies makes things harder, not easier.

      Ergo, as a general answer, variants on “Get’em Guys!” or :”Honor Guard” will work for all CR1 creatures and for CR2 creatures that the GM approves. “The Raising of the Lost Legion” and “Iron Master of War” will work for creatures that fit the lower-level spell criteria AND commonly come in groups.

      If you want to start calling up creatures with higher challenge ratings, or tinker with the numbers more, it’s probably best to just pick the CR you want off the chart in The Practical Enchanter under the Summoning and Channeling spell template, stick the modifiers that apply on it, and see what spell level comes out. That takes us into “tens of thousands of possible spells” territory again.

  2. Thanks for this. I wanted to ask how the changes made to CR in Pathfinder would modify things.

    In v.3.5, Challenge Rating is (notwithstanding any racial CR) equal to your class levels, with the caveat that NPC class levels result in an equal CR -1. Hence, a human with two levels of fighter is CR 2.

    In Pathfinder, these values have been decreased by 1. That is, class levels grant a CR equal to the number of levels -1, and if you have any NPC class levels then you have a CR equal to the total -2. Hence, a human with two levels of fighter is CR 1 (and a human with two levels of warrior is CR 1/2).

    Presumably this would be an easy adjustment to make, but I still wanted to ask.

    I also wanted to ask about the formula for using a summoning spell to summon lower-level creatures in The Practical Enchanter. It says, on page 104, that using a summoning spell to summon creatures as a summoning spell one level lower summons 1d4+1 such creatures, and two levels lower summons 4d4 creatures (with the extra notation, presented on your blog here, that each further level down grants an extra 2d4 such creatures).

    From what I can see, v.3.5 and Pathfinder use a more conservative rubric. Using a summoning spell to summon creatures as a summoning spell one level lower summons only 1d3 creatures, and two OR MORE spell levels lower summons only 1d4+1 such creatures.

    Is The Practical Enchanter’s differing method of how many creatures can be summoned in this way a deliberate alteration, or is it an error?

    • In this case, since the summoning spells run by CR, it’s best to just go with the new challenge ratings. That is a bonus if you’re summoning “adventurers” – but summoning adventurers other than generic warriors generally isn’t a good bet. Quite a lot of the spirits with generic class levels you might get a hold of aren’t especially helpful… Ask for “a wizard” and you might get a scholarly divination specialist, a specialist in more summoning (and, under the “unable to summon” rule for summoned creatures, quite useless), a ritualist, or some expert locksmith who considered himself “a wizard at his job”.

      In most cases you really are better off with a selection of monsters with reliable abilities.

      As for skipping the “1d3 of one level lower” and going straight to 1d4+1 and 4d4, that’s mostly because the original SRD summoning tables often had creatures on them who’s CR was unusually high or low for the level of the spell. That, in turn, meant that the “pick your own creature list” spell template had to either chop off the challenge ratings that you were allowed to pick from below the top creatures on the original tables or allow people to fill their list with overly-powerful creatures.

      In the interests of flexibility – and because people could always use the original spells anyway – the top end of the challenge ratings for most of the levels got chopped off. Since the “best” creatures you could get at a given level were thus just a bit weaker, it seemed reasonable to let summoners get more of them if they wanted to do so. That way a wider range of the creatures on your list might actually get used.

      I seem to vaguely recall something to do with back-compatibility as well (perhaps it was with Summon Elemental Swarm?), but it has been long enough that I can’t be definite there.

      Reinserting the “1d3″ level is easy enough of course, but it will slightly disadvantage characters who are making themed summoning lists. Given the number of people who feel that summoning is too powerful anyway (Like Commander Varsin, on the bottom right column of page 98 does), that might be a desired nerf of course.

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