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

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
How important is the nature of armies? Important enough to suspend disbelief. I'm not too picky after that. Although there must be armies; people love to fight.

Gygax apparently based D&D on the War of the Roses (1455 to 1487). So, late Middle-Ages.
Did you mean GRR Martin based ASoIaF on the War of the Roses? It could be both, I guess...

Where does the notion that a modern military comprises 10% of the entire population come from?
Another mix-up. 10% is the amount of LGBTQ+ of the entire population. Soldiers of a different type.
 

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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.
But all those uses of magic would specifically be used to enable or disrupt massed military units. It's not magic vs. army, it's magic & army. It does require a bit more "modern" mindset when considering tactics and logistics, but to me it's not so much a deal breaker as an opportunity.

As far as the archers, a barbarian at 20th level gets 2, maybe 3 attacks if they're dual wielding or have some other bonus action attack per turn. With zero misses, no turns lost to movement, and an assumption that min damage kills, they almost get to 10% of the archers before going down.

Note that this is a very favorable set of assumptions for the barbarian. If our archers hit on more than a 1, you start cutting out large fractions of the number of attacks needed. Similar drop if they have a source of advantage. Yet another drop with even minor boosts to damage per hit. And another for any attacks that get in before rage starts. And this is a level 20 barbarian.. max level..with maxed con.

Doesn't really seem like an army problem to me. If in one minute, 300 guys can take out the toughest living warrior using mundane equipment before he can kill 30 of them, I'd chalk it up to armies working as intended (or legendary warriors not really living up to their names).
 
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R_Chance

Adventurer
Where does the notion that a modern military comprises 10% of the entire population come from?
I think the reference on "modern armies" is to 20th Century industrialized armies in time of war. Armies in WWII were in this size range. About 10% of the U.S. population served. A higher percentage of the German population. Desperation will do that. It depends on the ability of an industrialized society to supply and feed a force.
 

Argyle King

Legend
But all those uses of magic would specifically be used to enable or disrupt massed military units. It's not magic vs. army, it's magic & army. It does require a bit more "modern" mindset when considering tactics and logistics, but to me it's not so much a deal breaker as an opportunity.

As far as the archers, a barbarian at 20th level gets 2, maybe 3 attacks if they're dual wielding or have some other bonus action attack per turn. With zero misses, no turns lost to movement, and an assumption that min damage kills, they almost get to 10% of the archers before going down.

Note that this is a very favorable set of assumptions for the barbarian. If our archers hit on more than a 1, you start cutting out large fractions of the number of attacks needed. Similar drop if they have a source of advantage. Yet another drop with even minor boosts to damage per hit. And another for any attacks that get in before rage starts. And this is a level 20 barbarian.. max level..with maxed con.

Doesn't really seem like an army problem to me. If in one minute, 300 guys can take out the toughest living warrior using mundane equipment before he can kill 30 of them, I'd chalk it up to armies working as intended (or legendary warriors not really living up to their names).

Even if that's "working," it's still an army fighting one guy.

That's a very different type of fantasy.

Heck, even Rambo needed to use something vaguely resembling military tactics (and divided the enemy when possible).
 

RainOnTheSun

Explorer
I'd expect armies in D&D worlds to be very focused on defense. That isn't really based on any one edition of the rules, it's more based on the core experience of D&D being "a handful of unusually powerful people go out and solve problems with violence." The army can't be the ones doing that for them. Those hundreds of archers killing the mega-barbarian or the dragon or what have you work much better when they're concentrated on a single point, too, and that's a lot easier to do on the defense.

So, when a big monster attacks, the local soldiers drive it off, and then they get a group of adventurers to track it back to its lair and finish it off. They don't go do it themselves, because they'll suffer a lot of casualties that way.
 

Ixal

Hero
I'd expect armies in D&D worlds to be very focused on defense. That isn't really based on any one edition of the rules, it's more based on the core experience of D&D being "a handful of unusually powerful people go out and solve problems with violence." The army can't be the ones doing that for them. Those hundreds of archers killing the mega-barbarian or the dragon or what have you work much better when they're concentrated on a single point, too, and that's a lot easier to do on the defense.

So, when a big monster attacks, the local soldiers drive it off, and then they get a group of adventurers to track it back to its lair and finish it off. They don't go do it themselves, because they'll suffer a lot of casualties that way.
Even in D&D the main purpose of armies would be to fight other armies and take territory, not to hunt.
 

Mezuka

Hero
Did you mean GRR Martin based ASoIaF on the War of the Roses? It could be both, I guess...
From what I recall reading (not sure where) Gygax was talking about the level of technology and equipment in D&D. When you read the Folio history of Greyhawk it's very tumultuous with a lot of conflicts and wars between kingdoms.
 

I have a lot of fun thinking of warfare when I do world building.
The key element is the army composition. Who are those in the armies?
i conclude for my world, that those heavy cavalry knight as we see in the azincourt battle are using the knight template.
a professional army such as Roman army have entire unit composed of veteran as the template.
organized kingdom would use mage as the template in good number. sending and teleportation circle would be strategic feature. A large army could have 50 mage as a strategic artillery and support unit.
 

Even if that's "working," it's still an army fighting one guy.

That's a very different type of fantasy.

Heck, even Rambo needed to use something vaguely resembling military tactics (and divided the enemy when possible).
I think we disagree on what constitutes an army then. A school marching band can have 300 people in it.

A rennaissance battlefield could have 30,000 troops on the field (or waaaay more than that).
 
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If Hasbro tries to create a d20 version of strategy game they could check the true impact of the magic in economy and battlefield. Do you choose healing potions for your elite members or to hire more archers? What if a low-level warmage can cast a ritual with the help of a squad for a defense against projectiles. The long bows could pierce the heavy armours, even the arrival of the gunpowder.

Illusory magic could create decoys to trick shooters, or effects like smoke grenades. Throwing a stone with a magic rune to summon a swarn could cause serious troubles to the enemies.

Would be very expensive magic for crossbows to reload itself?

If the magic to anime a construct is possible, why not to create an "magitek motor" for a war wagon? This could mean the end of the heavy chavalry.


The spell to create food and water could allow the people within a castle to stand a siege for years.

If humans could create armies, why not algo the giants to conquer and to fund their own empire?
 

Ixal

Hero
The spell to create food and water could allow the people within a castle to stand a siege for years.

That would imo be the biggest impact of magic on historical armies and warfare at east when using D&D rules as they make it very easy to ignore logistics on purpose.
This low level spells make a large part of medieval and rennaissance tactics impossible.
 

That would imo be the biggest impact of magic on historical armies and warfare at east when using D&D rules as they make it very easy to ignore logistics on purpose.
This low level spells make a large part of medieval and rennaissance tactics impossible.
Enhh.. in 5e, Create Food and Water is a 3rd level spell (char level 5+) and feeds 15 people or 5 steeds for 24 hours.

It only really changes things if you have enough spellcasting in your population for hundreds or thousands of casts of it every day.

If your population has one 3rd level or above spell slot for every 15 people usable every day, then yeah, it doesn't work. But I'd submit that at this level of spellcasting, armed conflict is probably the least of the societal differences from rennaissance Europe.
 

In 3.5 Unearthed Arcana there was an optional rule about "Incarnations". Maybe if a castle could suffer a siege, then maybe there were some extra defense magic. For example a temple as a "magic item", with the help of more people, for example a religious ritual, and with more time, then a "low-level" cleric could get better effects.

Other point is if gundpowder is discovered but totally forbidden in the battlefield by the war deities because there were "fight without glory". Then the shooters could be cursed by the war deities.
 


Thondor

Explorer
But all those uses of magic would specifically be used to enable or disrupt massed military units. It's not magic vs. army, it's magic & army. It does require a bit more "modern" mindset when considering tactics and logistics, but to me it's not so much a deal breaker as an opportunity.

As far as the archers, a barbarian at 20th level gets 2, maybe 3 attacks if they're dual wielding or have some other bonus action attack per turn. With zero misses, no turns lost to movement, and an assumption that min damage kills, they almost get to 10% of the archers before going down.

Note that this is a very favorable set of assumptions for the barbarian. If our archers hit on more than a 1, you start cutting out large fractions of the number of attacks needed. Similar drop if they have a source of advantage. Yet another drop with even minor boosts to damage per hit. And another for any attacks that get in before rage starts. And this is a level 20 barbarian.. max level..with maxed con.

Doesn't really seem like an army problem to me. If in one minute, 300 guys can take out the toughest living warrior using mundane equipment before he can kill 30 of them, I'd chalk it up to armies working as intended (or legendary warriors not really living up to their names).
Your argument has a number of assumptions, the biggest two that don't work for me are:
The 300 archers can all fire at a single target every round. (He is in range, and visible, and deemed enough of a threat, not blocked by the other 299 archers.)
After a few rounds of our Barbarian laughing and killing archers, with a dozen arrows sticking out of him (or no evident effect depending on how you narrate hitpoints), archers morale will break and they'll decide to leave or fight someone else.
 

Argyle King

Legend
I think we disagree on what constitutes an army then. A school marching band can have 300 people in it.

A rennaissance battlefield could have 30,000 troops on the field (or waaaay more than that).

Depends on the context.

If we're talking with more specifics and more about the marching band you've mentioned, I would say that's more comparable (in size) to a company-sized element.

A platoon tends to be around 40. Often there are around 4 platoons in a company, plus attachments and support personnel. Though, that's using a more modern view, in which better technology allows a combat unit to be smaller while still effective. In older militaries, it varies a lot, but I would lean toward guessing slightly bigger for a variety of reasons.
 

Your argument has a number of assumptions, the biggest two that don't work for me are:
The 300 archers can all fire at a single target every round. (He is in range, and visible, and deemed enough of a threat, not blocked by the other 299 archers.)
After a few rounds of our Barbarian laughing and killing archers, with a dozen arrows sticking out of him (or no evident effect depending on how you narrate hitpoints), archers morale will break and they'll decide to leave or fight someone else.
I am assuming the barbarian is visible and in range since that is how all the 5e barbarians that I am aware of do their damage.

As far as why the archers would focus on that barbarian. In a D&D fantasy world, the level 20 barbarian is just about at the tippy top of humanoid toughness. Kind of a 'reasonable' target to focus (at least if you buy into the prestige of the character level rather than its actual mechanical impact on the battle).

As far as whether the unit breaks, anyone can dm that however they want. But with the math the way it is, at some point the archers start coming out on top. Commanders start to learn that, and it becomes a lesson in fantasy boot camp.

And the same lesson applies for virtually every D&D melee martial and basically any melee D&D monster that isn't sporting outright immunity to nonmagical weapons.
 

Depends on the context.

If we're talking with more specifics and more about the marching band you've mentioned, I would say that's more comparable (in size) to a company-sized element.

A platoon tends to be around 40. Often there are around 4 platoons in a company, plus attachments and support personnel. Though, that's using a more modern view, in which better technology allows a combat unit to be smaller while still effective. In older militaries, it varies a lot, but I would lean toward guessing slightly bigger for a variety of reasons.
To clarify, the way I am thinking of an army is in the 'total' opposing force sense of the word rather than in terms of a specific military unit.

If the idea is that massed military units are no longer a viable way engage in combat in D&D settings because leveled heroes exist, then we should be able to replace all of those massed military units with D&D heroes.

From a numbers perspective, I'm thinking an army should at least number in the thousands, probably in the tens of thousands, at least if we're comparing it to historical battles.
 
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Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
I am assuming the barbarian is visible and in range since that is how all the 5e barbarians that I am aware of do their damage.

As far as why the archers would focus on that barbarian. In a D&D fantasy world, the level 20 barbarian is just about at the tippy top of humanoid toughness. Kind of a 'reasonable' target to focus (at least if you buy into the prestige of the character level rather than its actual mechanical impact on the battle).

As far as whether the unit breaks, anyone can dm that however they want. But with the math the way it is, at some point the archers start coming out on top. Commanders start to learn that, and it becomes a lesson in fantasy boot camp.

And the same lesson applies for virtually every D&D melee martial and basically any melee D&D monster that isn't sporting outright immunity to nonmagical weapons.

i think the issue though is that in a discussion of armies discussing army targetting one barbarian isnt relevant thats an army v Monster fight, rather do the maths for 300 Archers 1 vs a band of 10 level 10 Barbarians

more relevantly though big armies are there to Occupy territory and intimidate civilians, real fights are your small bands of elite ‘adventurers’
 

Stormonu

Legend
i think the issue though is that in a discussion of armies discussing army targetting one barbarian isnt relevant thats an army v Monster fight, rather do the maths for 300 Archers 1 vs a band of 10 level 10 Barbarians

more relevantly though big armies are there to Occupy territory and intimidate civilians, real fights are your small bands of elite ‘adventurers’
I disagree. Armies would still be useful for invasions of other countries/areas. There are plenty of examples in FR, Greyhawk and Dragonlance of this being done. Sure, lone heroes can be used to take out commanders and the like, but an army on the march is going to steamroller PC heroics.
 

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