Worlds of Design: The Nature of Armies

If you’re building a full-scale world for your campaign, that will likely involve armies. Let’s discuss what happens in the real world so that you can avoid straining the disbelief of your players.

I am not afraid of an Army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of sheep led by a lion.” – Alexander the Great

There are lots of different kinds of armies. This column and next, I'm going to talk about some of those kinds. This time it’ll be about armies in general, next time about specific kinds of armies.

battle-7243515_960_720.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

National Armies​

In the modern world we’re accustomed to “national armies”, the military consisting of roughly 10% of the entire population of a country.

Of course, we’re used to the idea of nations, people with similar culture and language in most cases, all loyal to the idea of a single political entity. That is, a nation is a people, not a political state/country. Some nations have no country. Yet a nation in this sense is primarily a modern idea. (I'll talk another time about the nature of independent “states” (not USA states).)

Here I'm interested in the different kinds of armies that might become involved in melee warfare, usually quite different from national armies, and often not professionally trained.

National armies in the sense of a levy of an entire population (conscription - the draft) are an idea of the French Revolution (1789) and later. Before that, political states rarely became wholly embroiled in warfare (ancient Greece is an exception). Warfare was a matter for the ruler rather than for the populace as a whole.

Tribal Armies​

Perhaps the idea of national armies is not so different from age-old tribal armies in conception, but conscription results in professionally-trained armies who serve continuously for years. Tribal armies were a temporary levy of all males of military age, who were expected to have some ability to fight, but no formal training. Greek city-state armies relied on well-to-do men who had some training, but were called up temporarily, and could include as much as a quarter of the entire (free) population. All the groups regarded as "barbarians" by civilized countries relied on tribal armies; but the "barbarians" were typically so tough and used to conflict that they could overcome civilized armies - even Empire-era Roman professionals.

In most fantasy worlds you won’t have modern-style nations, except perhaps when an entire species is identified as a nation. And the rulers of those polities that are not nations won’t be able to mobilize the entire populace. Often, the populace won’t give a damn about the impending war, because one ruler (of the same species) will be much like another from their point of view.

Agricultural or Monied?​

A major question to ask about the nature of armies is whether they came from an agricultural economy or a monied economy. In the latter coinage is widespread and used for transactions, while in the former coinage is rare and most transactions are barter, with agricultural goods being the primary local trade goods. In the monied economy soldiers will usually be paid, whereas in the agricultural economy soldiers will usually be obligated to serve and are not otherwise paid. This is, for example, a difference between the Roman Empire (the entire Empire was organized around paying the soldiers) and the Roman Republic.

Humanoid "monsters" may organize armies in much the same way as humans do. But so many monsters don't seem to be attached to a political state, they're usually what I've called tribal.

Logistics​

I've quoted Napoleon about logistics. Keep in mind that armies are obviously important in warfare, but logistics, and leadership, are often more important. Keeping your soldiers in supply, of food, water, clothing, transport, weapons, and all the other paraphernalia of war, makes a huge difference. But not much of anything can compensate for poor leadership.

Next time I'll discuss particular kinds of armies, such as dynastic and feudal armies.

Your Turn: How important is the nature of armies in your RPG campaigns?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

eyeheartawk

#1 Enworld Jerk™
Your Turn: How important is the nature of armies in your RPG campaigns?
Pretty minimal.

In a practical sense, assuming a sort of standard D&D type world, what good would even large standing professional armies and walled fortifications really do against all sort of giant monsters, flying monsters and magic users?

Unless, of course, your army is a bunch of giant monsters, dragons and wizards.
 


Arilyn

Hero
Pretty minimal.

In a practical sense, assuming a sort of standard D&D type world, what good would even large standing professional armies and walled fortifications really do against all sort of giant monsters, flying monsters and magic users?

Unless, of course, your army is a bunch of giant monsters, dragons and wizards.
These are my thoughts as well. And then there are the deities. Are they mature enough to stay out of it? What about pacifist deities? I'm thinking Organians from original Star Trek forcing peace.

I don't want to spend the time trying to sort out what a D&D economy looks like, let alone standing armies with worlds of D&D craziness!
 

Pretty minimal.

In a practical sense, assuming a sort of standard D&D type world, what good would even large standing professional armies and walled fortifications really do against all sort of giant monsters, flying monsters and magic users?

Unless, of course, your army is a bunch of giant monsters, dragons and wizards.
Would go with "it depends".

Military technology and tactics have always evolved in response to the nature of the threats they are expected to address. We still have large standing armies now, when military capabilities are often significantly beyond what any DnD monsters can accomplish.

How threatening armies are to monsters and vice versa is ultimately a slider which is under the DMs control.
 

Argyle King

Legend
In D&D, the way levels work often conflicts with how I would prefer armed conflicts to work out.

Being able to tank a cannonball to the chest (due to high HP) is pretty cool for DBZ or mythic fantasy but not so much for a campaign which involves political intrigue and PCs leading armies rather than soloing armies.
 

eyeheartawk

#1 Enworld Jerk™
Would go with "it depends".

Military technology and tactics have always evolved in response to the nature of the threats they are expected to address. We still have large standing armies now, when military capabilities are often significantly beyond what any DnD monsters can accomplish.

How threatening armies are to monsters and vice versa is ultimately a slider which is under the DMs control.
I think it's more relevant to the type of setting you choose. Could I make a believable scenario in which large scale medieval-ish armies clash with one another and not have the logic be fundamentally broken by all the stuff that exists, in say, The Sword Coast?

Sure I could.

But, even so, I would say it makes way more sense for that stuff to exist in something like Harn or Chivalry and Sorcery than it does in a D&D game with level 12 superhero PCs running around.
 

I think it's more relevant to the type of setting you choose. Could I make a believable scenario in which large scale medieval-ish armies clash with one another and not have the logic be fundamentally broken by all the stuff that exists, in say, The Sword Coast?

Sure I could.

But, even so, I would say it makes way more sense for that stuff to exist in something like Harn or Chivalry and Sorcery than it does in a D&D game with level 12 superhero PCs running around.
Sure, it's not as easy to just directly import real-world historical analogues.

But fundamentally ground is still held by people. So it makes sense that people would be trained to take or defend that ground, likely in groups, possibly large groups.

When you start bringing in your level 12 PC types it just changes your tactical options/priorities for attacking or defending that ground.

Edit: A caveat to all the above. Some of this does depend on the implicit system assumptions. In a bounded accuracy system like 5e, every creature, no matter the level, has at least a 5% chance of doing some damage to pretty much any other creature no matter the level, so armies of commoners can make sense and be effective. In a system like PF2e, where character level gets baked into AC, DCs, and saves, and there are tiered levels of success, it can get to the point where no matter how many dice are thrown, success is not possible. In these cases, the commoner army would not function, and something more professional (or ar least with more mechanical potence) would have to exist.
 
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Argyle King

Legend
Sure, it's not as easy to just directly import real-world historical analogues.

But fundamentally ground is still held by people. So it makes sense that people would be trained to take or defend that ground, likely in groups, possibly large groups.

When you start bringing in your level 12 PC types it just changes your tactical options/priorities for attacking or defending that ground.

Edit: A caveat to all the above. Some of this does depend on the implicit system assumptions. In a bounded accuracy system like 5e, every creature, no matter the level, has at least a 5% chance of doing some damage to pretty much any other creature no matter the level, so armies of commoners can make sense and be effective. In a system like PF2e, where character level gets baked into AC, DCs, and saves, and there are tiered levels of success, it can get to the point where no matter how many dice are thrown, success is not possible. In these cases, the commoner army would not function, and something more professional (or ar least with more mechanical potence) would have to exist.

I'm not so sure that I would say the "bounded accuracy" of 5E facilitates that either.

Maybe the new books will address this, but it's not very difficult to create a PC that monsters can't hit -even at low levels. At higher levels, the issue swings back the other way. With HP being used as the primary way of scaling monsters, a lot of military tactics don't work due to D&D damage not being anything resembling injury (as long as the target is above 0 HP).
 

I'm not so sure that I would say the "bounded accuracy" of 5E facilitates that either.

Maybe the new books will address this, but it's not very difficult to create a PC that monsters can't hit -even at low levels. At higher levels, the issue swings back the other way. With HP being used as the primary way of scaling monsters, a lot of military tactics don't work due to D&D damage not being anything resembling injury (as long as the target is above 0 HP).

Facilitates, probably not, but you start throwing 100, 200, 1,000, 10,000 d20 rolls at the situation, each with a 5% chance to succeed, at some point, numbers will work as a solution. Comparatively, in PF2e, you can get to a level where a nat 20 still results in a failed attack roll. At that point whether there are a thousand attcks or a million, there is zero threat.

In either case though, if you assume that a threat/conflict can be addressed through violence, and that the threat/conflict is not something wholly new to the world, then it becomes a matter of determining what systems and methods the people in the world have developed to deliver the violence required. An army with tactics tailored to the opposition could be one solution, contracted adventurers with high level gear another, powerful magic a third. Or you combine these or find some other way.

Then, if there is ground to take, someone or some thing has to be there to occupy it. And whoever or whatever it is would likely need to be able to defend against the application of violence from other people/creatures who want that ground. As a result, systems and methods would have to exist for how to defend against applied violence. And thus far, this is a task for which I haven't seen any substitute for an army. Adventurers and D&D magic just aren't good at occupying space.

The concept of "boots on the ground" has been around for a long time for a reason.
 


1% is more usual for militaristic society such as the Roman Empire.
10% is for society in a state of civil war like the Japan in the classic samouraï times.
in a medieval society, out of 100 people, maybe 30 were ready to go to war.
10 out of 30 is too much to sustain over a long period.
 

Argyle King

Legend
Facilitates, probably not, but you start throwing 100, 200, 1,000, 10,000 d20 rolls at the situation, each with a 5% chance to succeed, at some point, numbers will work as a solution. Comparatively, in PF2e, you can get to a level where a nat 20 still results in a failed attack roll. At that point whether there are a thousand attcks or a million, there is zero threat.

In either case though, if you assume that a threat/conflict can be addressed through violence, and that the threat/conflict is not something wholly new to the world, then it becomes a matter of determining what systems and methods the people in the world have developed to deliver the violence required. An army with tactics tailored to the opposition could be one solution, contracted adventurers with high level gear another, powerful magic a third. Or you combine these or find some other way.

Then, if there is ground to take, someone or some thing has to be there to occupy it. And whoever or whatever it is would likely need to be able to defend against the application of violence from other people/creatures who want that ground. As a result, systems and methods would have to exist for how to defend against applied violence. And thus far, this is a task for which I haven't seen any substitute for an army. Adventurers and D&D magic just aren't good at occupying space.

The concept of "boots on the ground" has been around for a long time for a reason.

I'm not sure that occupying space is as necessary with the logistics tools available to a high level PC.

Even in a conflict between relatively equal sides, logistics is what typically wins in the long run. That's why Rone was able to defeat Carthage, despite Carthage handing several devastating defeats to various Legions.

In a "boots on ground" scenario, the difference in levels can be the difference of US Civil War tactics and equipment versus a modern infantry platoon.

From what I've read of the new D&D updates, NPCs (and monsters) can't crit anymore. So, that leads back to the issue you've highlighted with PF.

I completely agree that a world which contains fantastic elements would develop solutions to fantasy (or magical violence). I'm not sure there's much of a solution to the issue of "this threat is of a higher level" beyond gaining more levels.
 

1% is more usual for militaristic society such as the Roman Empire.
10% is for society in a state of civil war like the Japan in the classic samouraï times.
in a medieval society, out of 100 people, maybe 30 were ready to go to war.
10 out of 30 is too much to sustain over a long period.

That seems generally reasonable. I was looking at current figures, and most nations seem to be between 0.3% and 1%, based on a small sampling I did from stats available via a Google search (nothing too scientific). But I can't find any nation that comes even close to 10%.

Out of curiosity, from where do you derive the 30/100 were ready to go to war in medieval society? Is that based on an assumption of number of males of combat-capable age only, or does it also consider whether those people would possess any weapons and armour?
 

Stormonu

Legend
Over the years, I've played bits of Battlesystem, WHFP, Runewars and the like. The last campaign I ran, Ghosts of Saltmarsh had a climatic battle of a coalition (Army of Keoland, Tritons, Locathah, Merfolk and even Sea Princes) facing off against a Sahuagin army. The party was integral to bringing the factions together, helped plan their strategy and gave them vital intelligence, and in the end, got to play the army's generals and control its forces.

So, armies are fairly important to me as I use them from time in my games. At the same time though, I've learned some players just aren't into commanding armies, and would rather focus on the "commando team" of their PCs in the action or side action.
 

I'm not sure that occupying space is as necessary with the logistics tools available to a high level PC.

Even in a conflict between relatively equal sides, logistics is what typically wins in the long run. That's why Rone was able to defeat Carthage, despite Carthage handing several devastating defeats to various Legions.

In a "boots on ground" scenario, the difference in levels can be the difference of US Civil War tactics and equipment versus a modern infantry platoon.

From what I've read of the new D&D updates, NPCs (and monsters) can't crit anymore. So, that leads back to the issue you've highlighted with PF.

I completely agree that a world which contains fantastic elements would develop solutions to fantasy (or magical violence). I'm not sure there's much of a solution to the issue of "this threat is of a higher level" beyond gaining more levels.

If I understood correctly, a 20 is not a crit, but is a guaranteed success (i.e . a hit) still. So it's still damage. So it's a matter of total hp vs. number of attacks needed to exhaust that hp and from there how many rounds to achieve that number of attacks.

Lvl 20 barb with +7 Con has something like 280 hp that they effectively double with rage.

560hp / 3.5 = 160 hits (assuming shortbow damage)
160 hits × 20 = 3200 attacks

To be sure, that is a lot of attacks, but it's not a ton in the context of armies. 320 dudes shooting their shortbows for a minute. It's a half full high school auditorium taking down a legendary hero in the same amount of time it takes to reheat yesterday's lasagna.

Spellcasting changes the calculus somewhat, but at a certain point it's still a matter of whether there are enough spell slots to do enough damage without going down to win the fight. 5e spellcasting isn't really designed to function that way. Too many spells with ranges that are too short, durations that are too short, AoEs that are too small. In a world where commanders know enough about magic to plan some basic counters to spellcasting (blocking lines of sight, patience to let some spells durations expire, etc), having more dudes to throw at the problem is still advantageous.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
I think in a D&D world armies wont be as important as small bands of elites who are sent in against threats - ie Men-at-arms and Adventurer/Mercenary companies are the standard armies of D&D

that said peasant levies will be raised when it comes to seiges but thats a political move not an actual combat one
 
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Ixal

Adventurer
A rather disappointing read to be honest.
Armies are such a complex topic.

Lets start with national armies.
The existence of national armies highly depends on food productivity and if a nation can afford to have people who do nothing useful except training to fight. Which is why you see the first national armies in the ancient empires which managed to maximize food production.
Interestingly in those times armies differed quite a lot from each other both in equipment and tactics.
There is a nice video about how the social structure of a nation influenced the organisation of an army (and why no nation was able to copy Rome)

When you do not have the ability to support a large number of soldiers who do nothing productive then it might at first seem logical to recruit your workers when needed. But people quickly found out that this has a lot of downsides. Such drafted soldiers are usually poorly trained and poorly armed as except in very rich nation the soldier had to bring his own armor and weapon. And the real downside is that your campaign have a short time limit, the soldier has to be back at home for the harvest, and even worse when you suffer losses during your campaign you are now lacking farmers and at least a local famine is all but guaranteed.
Still this was used. From Vikings which often were farmers who went plundering in the off season to the Chinese banner system were families were assigned to different banners and when soldiers were needed a specific banner was called upon and each family had to send one soldier.

Mercenaries very quickly discovered to be a much better alternative. You get trained and well equipped soldiers and leave your farmers working on their farms. If mercenaries die nothing happens.
They also do have downsides though. As they live by waging war they become a problem is peace time. Either you continue paying them or you have some very high skilled and armed bandits on your land who plunder to survive.
Also the loyality of mercenaries were questionable and you have several instances in history where battles were decided because mercenaries did not fight. For example the Swiss did not fight other Swiss, so when two armies which both contained Swiss mercenaries met the Swiss simply refused to fight.

That doesn't mean that the national army went fully away, they just took a different form. A noble calling on all his vasalls who of course come with their vasalls and all of them having their private household guard are also technically a national army (although during those time the idea of nation did not really exist in Europe. The king replaced in practice the nation).
Here a nice video how armies were formed

As for logistics, they were and are super important.
A genius leader might win a victory with fewer troops, but still, you need to manage to bring thousands of soldiers with their equipment and in good order to the same place and the same time. And that is not as easy as it sounds.
Armies require huge amount of food and water, much more than what you can forage from nature on the march. And without mass transportation bringing enough food with you was an issue as everything that carried food also consumed food, so it was quite inefficient.
Really advanced countries could have well stocked supply depots for their army to take, but that only works on their own territory. Once you leave it, or when you organization is not quite as well, you have to basically steal food from the local population. And you can only steal food once (maybe twice), so an army could not sit still and wait, they had to continuously be on the move to steal more food. And large armies had to split up and walk different paths to their destination in order to supply themselves. And all this had to be coordinated in an age without radio.

Many battles were decided by logistics. Napoleon was ultimately defeated at Waterloo, but his downfall began when the Russians denied him food and shelter by burning their own capital down. The Mamluks managed to defeat the Mongols by denying them grazing grounds and forcing them into a disadvantageous position. And the Ottomans found out (multiple times) when sieging Vienna that it is not a good idea to let their raiders burn down any farm and village in the area when you are then having to siege a city for weeks and rely on said farms to keep your army fed.
Nice article about that with an fantasy example of completely unworkable logistics.

And I just saw that Acoup just did a 3 part series about logistics

They also did a series about how generals commanded their troops in pre modern armies as it was pretty hard and often impossible to relay orders to the troops once the battle began.

Of course magic and fantasy changes all that. Especially D&D which tends to ignore everything about logistics and gives you easy ways to keep soldiers fed and supplied because logistics are boring according to the authors.
 

That seems generally reasonable. I was looking at current figures, and most nations seem to be between 0.3% and 1%, based on a small sampling I did from stats available via a Google search (nothing too scientific). But I can't find any nation that comes even close to 10%.

Out of curiosity, from where do you derive the 30/100 were ready to go to war in medieval society? Is that based on an assumption of number of males of combat-capable age only, or does it also consider whether those people would possess any weapons and armour?
For the 30 out of 100 ready to war it is a smart guess.
Remove all women 50, all young male 10, and some elder or unfit people 10, I guess 30 out of 100. This is base on historical medieval, fantasy society can be very different. Woman can fight, young can be much less present, and so on.

For Samurai many source tell 5% to 10 %.
samurai | Meaning, History, & Facts
 
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Argyle King

Legend
If I understood correctly, a 20 is not a crit, but is a guaranteed success (i.e . a hit) still. So it's still damage. So it's a matter of total hp vs. number of attacks needed to exhaust that hp and from there how many rounds to achieve that number of attacks.

Lvl 20 barb with +7 Con has something like 280 hp that they effectively double with rage.

560hp / 3.5 = 160 hits (assuming shortbow damage)
160 hits × 20 = 3200 attacks

To be sure, that is a lot of attacks, but it's not a ton in the context of armies. 320 dudes shooting their shortbows for a minute. It's a half full high school auditorium taking down a legendary hero in the same amount of time it takes to reheat yesterday's lasagna.

Spellcasting changes the calculus somewhat, but at a certain point it's still a matter of whether there are enough spell slots to do enough damage without going down to win the fight. 5e spellcasting isn't really designed to function that way. Too many spells with ranges that are too short, durations that are too short, AoEs that are too small. In a world where commanders know enough about magic to plan some basic counters to spellcasting (blocking lines of sight, patience to let some spells durations expire, etc), having more dudes to throw at the problem is still advantageous.

In my mind, I'm not even thinking about attack spells. Being able to feed an army, disrupt supply lines, enable long range communication, and etc are how I would see magic giving one side the advantage.

I question how many of those archers survive long enough to hit. The barbarian also gets a turn.

In 3rd Edition, it was theoretically possible for a large enough number of house cats to kill a black dragon.

In either case -for me personally- there's a larger power gap than I would like. Even Conan had limits on how many foes he could effectively fight at the same time. If the game is going to feature large scale conflicts, I would prefer that to look more like Game of Thrones or Kingdom Under Fire than Hela murdering everybody in Asgard.
 

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