Worlds of Design: How Big is Your Army?

For those who prefer "realistic" numbers in RPGs: Inflated numbers of combatants for battles litter history books, derived from wildly inaccurate contemporary histories. We can do much better in figuring out actual numbers.

For those who prefer "realistic" numbers in RPGs: Inflated numbers of combatants for battles litter history books, derived from wildly inaccurate contemporary histories. We can do much better in figuring out actual numbers.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Some GMs don't care about practical limitations, and will happily claim an army is hundreds of thousands strong. But that kind of nonsense will put off some players, breaking their immersion in the setting, destroying their suspension of disbelief - because it's nonsense, barring extraordinary magic or combatants who don't need to eat!

As player characters progress to greater capabilities, some may become involved in warfare. I'm discussing this for the benefit of those GMs and game designers who want their world to make sense. Keeping the numbers down may also help when you're trying to fight out a battle on the tabletop in a campaign.

Army Inflation​

Many decades ago, I recall being in awe as I read about one of three Battles of Panipat (India) involving 600,000 men according to accounts of the time. The numbers were repeated in a 20th century dictionary of battles, yet sounded immensely inflated. They were, as are the claims from ancient and medieval times for many other battles. Logistics (supply, more or less) limits the size of pre-"modern" armies. In order to feed them and their horses, you can only concentrate so many in one place (not counting cities that have developed long complex supply chains, though few cities exceeded the size of armies in pre-modern times). Modern estimates for any of the three Battles of Panipat are for less than 150,000 total combatants in the 18th century battle, less than 100,000 for each of the older battles, not 600,000.

I find that counting, or relying on someone else to count, helps solve many questions; but even the commanders of pre-modern armies didn't know how many troops they had. So we resort to other methods.

Let's take some examples of battle sizes.

The Battle of Hastings and Marathon​

In the late 19th century, estimates for the size of armies at the Battle of Hastings (Norman conquest of England) were around 25,000 each. Today as we understand circumstances better, estimates are typically 6,000-8,000 per side. Not a big battle, but huge in its results.

Numbers cited for the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE) by the ancients are wildly unreliable. A method used by modern historians to try to achieve a reasonable range, was to compare the size of the (excavated) Persian camp to the size of other camps where numbers are fairly well known (as in the past few centuries, or some Roman camps). The Persian camp couldn't possibly accommodate anything like the numbers cited.

Another way to estimate number of participants is to know the number of men manning a ship. Greek and Persian triremes were quite standardized, and we know their size from excavating sheds where triremes were stored. If we know that the complement was typically 200 men, we can calculate that 371 ships (reported in detail by Herodotus for the Battle of Salamis) equals 74,200 Greeks. A similar logic can be applied to Viking armies, but here many historians distrust the number of ships reported by contemporaries, so we end up with estimates varying from hundreds to thousands.

Yet I still see wildly inflated numbers from works of the time repeated in modern day historical books.

Barbarian Invasions​

How about numbers of "barbarians" in ages of invasion? We have almost no reliable numbers. One that is reliable is the number of Vandals (with some Alans) crossing from Iberia to Africa, because the Romans (who transported the Vandals to participate in a civil war in Africa) had to know how many ships they needed. I've seen 80,000 quoted by historians, including women and children. Which likely meant no more than 20,000-25,000 warriors.

The Battle of Towton​

What may have been the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil, the Battle of Towton (1461), involved 50,000-65,000 men counting both sides - about 1-2% of the population of England at that time!

Modern Battles​

Even in Napoleonic times, when roads were much improved and the supply system was designed to cope with large armies and rapid movement, the concentration of more than 100,000 on a side was quite rare, and confined to later in the war (Borodino, Leipzig for example)

The bloodiest battle of the American Civil War (Gettysburg) involved less than 100,000 on either side. The largest number of one side in any battle was Chancellorsville (133,000 Union). These were three and four days battles, not a single day, in times when railroads made supply immensely easier.

Contrast this with notions/claims of many hundreds of thousands in much more primitive circumstances. Such high numbers simply aren't possible, nor was there any way for contemporaries to know actual numbers.

Armies in Your Campaign​

When you run an RPG campaign involving warfare, you don’t generally need to get into details of latrines, camp followers, and pay, but you might want to recognize the difficulties involved in moving and maintaining very large numbers of troops. Most warfare in the melee age was “small war” that involved hundreds rather than thousands, and rarely tens of thousands let alone hundreds of thousands.

I used to live in “Battle Creek” Michigan. That eponymous “battle” involved all of . . . three men (no deaths). A castle could be held by less than a hundred men, unless the attackers were highly motivated and very numerous.

My advice is, forget the vast numbers and focus on interesting interactions.

Your Turn: What are the most numerous armies that have ever actually fought out a battle on the tabletop in your campaign?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

pogre

Legend
My difficulty with mass combat with D&D was always magic, not so much numbers.

For me, I had to come up with a way to limit the use of magic on the battlefield. I use a mage law that forbids the use of magic on the battlefield - the details include mages declaring a mage war on anyone who violates the law.

I used to mess around with anti-magical banners and the like. However, if you don't limit magic - mass combat is a very foolish endeavor in D&D.

I will be the first to admit I have never integrated mass combat rules into D&D in a completely satisfying way. I keep trying though ;)
 

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overgeeked

B/X Known World
My difficulty with mass combat with D&D was always magic, not so much numbers.

For me, I had to come up with a way to limit the use of magic on the battlefield. I use a mage law that forbids the use of magic on the battlefield - the details include mages declaring a mage war on anyone who violates the law.

I used to mess around with anti-magical banners and the like. However, if you don't limit magic - mass combat is a very foolish endeavor in D&D.

I will be the first to admit I have never integrated mass combat rules into D&D in a completely satisfying way. I keep trying though ;)
The other way to go is to simply not have heaps of leveled mages in a setting. One or two per kingdom would fit most non-epic fantasy, folktales, myths, and legends
 

But that kind of nonsense
You may not want to start off with such ... biased opinions. But then again, maybe you do.

Anyway, most battles in D&D for campaigns I run are less than 100. A few historic battles have been in the thousands or tens of thousands.

It's more about practical implications of resolving the battles and having the player characters be the focal point that any attempt at realism.

Because all your discussion forgets one simple fact of D&D; magic.
When a wizard can open a set of portals and have armies marching through from a dozen cities. A cleric can conjure food & drink. And a necromancer can raise armies of undead. One should not be so bound to the mundane and limitations of human history.

Edit: oh yea, and then you have gods...

After all, D&D is supposed to be fantasy.
 

My difficulty with mass combat with D&D was always magic, not so much numbers.

For me, I had to come up with a way to limit the use of magic on the battlefield. I use a mage law that forbids the use of magic on the battlefield - the details include mages declaring a mage war on anyone who violates the law.

I used to mess around with anti-magical banners and the like. However, if you don't limit magic - mass combat is a very foolish endeavor in D&D.

I will be the first to admit I have never integrated mass combat rules into D&D in a completely satisfying way. I keep trying though ;)
I don't know, massed infantry battles were still happening all the way into the 20th century, and I can't think of a ton of tools in a 5e spellcasters' arsenal that are more effective than early industrial artillery and anti-personnel weapons.
 
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One thing to note is that a mage on the battlefield is a tempting target for siege weapons, arrow volleys, assassins, other mages, etc.

Depending on what a mage can do, they might not reveal themselves unless their side is having serious trouble.
 

Dioltach

Legend
I'd say that magic users would pretty quickly give up on being part of a pitched battle because they know they'll be targeted. Dedicated units of archers with Detect Magic, for instance. So in a world where magic and battles have been around for any length of time, the problem will probably have sorted itself out.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
I tend to go with a Unit of 100 medium humanoids (adjusted for size and cr) as that keeps the PCs as the focus be they In the Unit, Leading the Unit, Commanding a Unit or Fighting the Unit.

if theres 5 PCs then thats potentially 500 combatants that matter, with the rest being essentially background terrain (that certain commands are able to modify)
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
My difficulty with mass combat with D&D was always magic, not so much numbers.

For me, I had to come up with a way to limit the use of magic on the battlefield. I use a mage law that forbids the use of magic on the battlefield - the details include mages declaring a mage war on anyone who violates the law.

I used to mess around with anti-magical banners and the like. However, if you don't limit magic - mass combat is a very foolish endeavor in D&D.

I will be the first to admit I have never integrated mass combat rules into D&D in a completely satisfying way. I keep trying though ;)

spell casters can be disrupted so its likely that armies have come up with tools to do just that. In 3e we used Shout as a standard sonic attack vs spellcasters.

but yeah formation tactics arent so good once regular magical artillery is involved, such societies are more likely to favour skirmishers and small bands of specialist adventurers
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
a major factor for ancient armies was logistics - specifically, food. It was a considerable problem and seriously impacted operations and strategies.

So an undead army would have a significant advantage...
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
a major factor for ancient armies was logistics - specifically, food. It was a considerable problem and seriously impacted operations and strategies.

So an undead army would have a significant advantage...
So do orc armies, cannibalism of enemy dead solves logistics issues
 

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