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.

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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

Dausuul

Legend
Well it depends.

Most pre-industrial age armies simply weren’t trained or disciplined enough to maintain ranks.

So many battles were basically this mob of people running into that mob of people.
Source for this? Because everything I've read about premodern combat says the exact opposite. Keeping formation was absolutely critical, allowing the troops to defend each other and attack in concert. The first army to break formation was apt to lose the battle shortly thereafter. Premodern commanders knew this and put great effort into keeping their forces in good order.

Military discipline wasn't invented in the 20th century.
 

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Dausuul

Legend
So do orc armies, cannibalism of enemy dead solves logistics issues
That's great on the day of the battle (if you win). But most days you're just marching from point A to point B; or laying/enduring siege to point C. Siege is especially rough because you aren't moving, so plundering the local farms and/or eating the farmers can't sustain you for long.

(And then there are the wolf-riders. Don't get me started on the logistics challenges of carnivorous mounts...)
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Source for this? Because everything I've read about premodern combat says the exact opposite. Keeping formation was absolutely critical, allowing the troops to defend each other and attack in concert. The first army to break formation was apt to lose the battle shortly thereafter. Premodern commanders knew this and put great effort into keeping their forces in good order.

Military discipline wasn't invented in the 20th century.
Yeah, 100%. That’s definitely an ahistorical take you’re responding to.

One example:

 

Oofta

Legend
Unless you have a ton of wizards that are fairly high level, they will have fairly minimal impact. A fireball or two a day would certainly help, but they would also be a prime target not just for enemy wizards but every archer on the battlefield.

For every tactic there is a counter tactic.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Unless you have a ton of wizards that are fairly high level, they will have fairly minimal impact. A fireball or two a day would certainly help, but they would also be a prime target not just for enemy wizards but every archer on the battlefield.

For every tactic there is a counter tactic.
At best they’re highly vulnerably and fairly mobile artillery. They’re not game changers until higher levels.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
That's great on the day of the battle (if you win). But most days you're just marching from point A to point B; or laying/enduring siege to point C. Siege is especially rough because you aren't moving, so plundering the local farms and/or eating the farmers can't sustain you for long.

(And then there are the wolf-riders. Don't get me started on the logistics challenges of carnivorous mounts...)
you dont eat all the dead at once, you keep some as supplies. If you also take slaves then your food can transport itself
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
Yeah, 100%. That’s definitely an ahistorical take you’re responding to.

One example:

That article makes it clear that the Tercio worked because Spain had a core of experienced professional soldiers.

the reality is in the pre-modern era there are few professional soldiers, most armies are untrained peasant levies
 

Dausuul

Legend
the reality is in the pre-modern era there are few professional soldiers, most armies are untrained peasant levies
Again - source, please. There were times and places (such as England for much of the medieval period) where militia played an important role, but the militia were not "untrained levies." They generally provided their own weapons and trained with them; they just didn't do it as a full-time career. It was more like National Guard service.

Truly untrained peasants would have been worse than useless. Whatever slight value they provided on the battlefield would have been nowhere near the cost and difficulty of keeping them fed -- peasants are supposed to feed you! They could only have been useful in a noncombat capacity, driving wagons and the like.

All this stuff about untrained levies and soldiers unable to fight in ranks comes from an outdated view of the medieval era wherein everyone was stupid, brutish, and sucked at everything. Medieval people were as smart and competent as we are, they just didn't know as much and had far fewer resources. They made very good use of what they had.
 
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Well it depends.
Most pre-industrial age armies simply weren’t trained or disciplined enough to maintain ranks.
Yeah, it depends a lot.

It is probably true that in total, some variant of peasant levies comprised the vast majority of troops in all battles. Which is not to say the same as saying most armies consisted of untrained peasants pressed into service.

After all, soldiers drafted by the US military were effectively a peasant levy, were they an undisciplined mob? (not at all in WWI or WWII but probably as close to one as the US ever got in Vietnam)

Most armies had a core cadre of skilled warriors. Depending on the army they might be in the front, hold the flanks, be in the rear to keep the levee from running, or intermixed. Training varied wildly.

You can go back 3,000 years to find phalanxes, not of professional soldiers, but of part timers. Pretty sure the Sumerians, Greeks and Macedonians were capable of holding formation. It took another couple of centuries before Romans established a standing professional army in Europe. And in the meantime, I don't think anyone would have said Hannibal's army was undisciplined without being laughed out of the room.

Prior to the Spanish tercios, the Swiss peasants of the 15th century recreated the phalanx with pole-axes and crossbows to defeat cavalry, which is only possible if they can hold formation.

Looking farther east the huns and Mongols were cavalry, but not random mobs of horsemen. Much like the Parthians before them, they worked in their own special formations designed to break up enemy armies through intimidating charges, blinding dust, or the appearance of a routed force in retreat, only to whirl around en masse to decimate pursuers. Arabs demonstrated similar tactics.

Various armies across east Asia were mixtures of peasant levy and cadre soldiers of different castes and yet some would stand strong against those Mongols and Huns.

Looking south, the Zulu would hardly be considered a mob at any time in the 1800s nor industrialized. Shaka created a highly trained force, including changes in weaponry. The British underestimated the Zulu to their detriment.

If you look through history books, any army that lasted more than 3 battles became disciplined and trained even if they didn't start that way. Otherwise they wouldn't have survived. Luck might get them one or two victories but by three the phrase "battle tested" applies.
 

Peter BOSCO'S

Adventurer
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.
Some spellcasters have "Augury". If cast before almost any WW I style battle, the attackers would have been told that attacking would bring them "woe". Their King might not listen the first time, but likely would the second....
 

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