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

Argyle King

Legend
Exactly. I think we assume leveled characters are way more common than is reasonable. They should maybe be 1% of the population at most. The idea of a squad of peasants signing up, making a quick pact with the Raven Queen, then eldritch blasting their way across the battlefield is absolutely not how things would work. The big heroes and the big villains, sure. Common enough to make up entire regiments in an army? No way.

I think that's a fair assessment.

But, even if leveled characters were that numerous, I don't believe the system should be structured in a way that makes it an automatic win. I'm 100% on board with heroes being above the world around them, but I prefer that they're still part of it.

Back when I was playing 3rd Edition, I took the Leadership feat because the idea of having an army seemed cool. Very quickly, I realized that said army was effectively worthless against most threats. Instead of being a lord of a castle, Leadership lead to something more like a NASCAR pit crew: NPC classes to build items for me, heal, and etc.

I believe that the way things scale for vehicles, seige weapons, and such can be a factor in how large units work. That's one area that I believe the Star Wars game mentioned above does pretty well.

5e is the edition I've DMed the least. So I haven't worked out how to better handle some of the things I've noticed from sitting down as a player.
 

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overgeeked

B/X Known World
I think that's a fair assessment.

But, even if leveled characters were that numerous, I don't believe the system should be structured in a way that makes it an automatic win. I'm 100% on board with heroes being above the world around them, but I prefer that they're still part of it.
Absolutely. But look at that example I posted. That's an adult red dragon, CR 17 with AC 19 and 256 hp. About 208 longbowmen can take it out in a single round. What's the max hp a PC can have? For a 20th-level barbarian with max hp at every level and +5 CON mod, it's about 350 hp give or take. Add the toughness feat puts it up to 390 hp. Make them a hill dwarf and that's a cap of 410 hp. That's a crazy amount of hp. But, assuming the same AC 19, that's only 328 longbowmen to take that PC out in one round. If the barbarian is raging, two rounds. The longbowmen have range and numbers, the barbarian has melee or thrown weapons, or a single ranged attack. It's when you get to high-level magic that the PCs are out of and above the world.
Back when I was playing 3rd Edition, I took the Leadership feat because the idea of having an army seemed cool. Very quickly, I realized that said army was effectively worthless against most threats. Instead of being a lord of a castle, Leadership lead to something more like a NASCAR pit crew: NPC classes to build items for me, heal, and etc.

I believe that the way things scale for vehicles, seige weapons, and such can be a factor in how large units work. That's one area that I believe the Star Wars game mentioned above does pretty well.
Star Wars d6 is amazing. So great, in fact, that people are still cloning it and putting out "new" games. I liked the idea of scaling in Star Wars, but I never found an official implementation that worked for me. It was always weird and clunky. The dice cap version was just convoluted. I think eventually we just started halving and doubling things between scales. PC shooting a speeder? Double the to-hit, halve the damage. Speeder shooting a PC? Halve the to-hit, double the damage. It wasn't perfect, but it was easier to manage.

Something similar could work for 5E. Though they already have things like siege engines and object damage rules in the DMG.
5e is the edition I've DMed the least. So I haven't worked out how to better handle some of the things I've noticed from sitting down as a player.
Sure. Every system has its quirks and oddities. Some handle any given area better or worse than another game. If you run with 5E's premise of PCs being fantasy superheroes, things fall apart rather quickly. If you dig into the math and ignore the CR system, it's not quite as bad as all that.

I'm kinda hoping the Dragonlance module will have a useful bit of D&D-adjascent wargaming rules to it. That's their claim at least.
 

Argyle King

Legend
Absolutely. But look at that example I posted. That's an adult red dragon, CR 17 with AC 19 and 256 hp. About 208 longbowmen can take it out in a single round. What's the max hp a PC can have? For a 20th-level barbarian with max hp at every level and +5 CON mod, it's about 350 hp give or take. Add the toughness feat puts it up to 390 hp. Make them a hill dwarf and that's a cap of 410 hp. That's a crazy amount of hp. But, assuming the same AC 19, that's only 328 longbowmen to take that PC out in one round. If the barbarian is raging, two rounds. The longbowmen have range and numbers, the barbarian has melee or thrown weapons, or a single ranged attack. It's when you get to high-level magic that the PCs are out of and above the world.

Sure. Every system has its quirks and oddities. Some handle any given area better or worse than another game. If you run with 5E's premise of PCs being fantasy superheroes, things fall apart rather quickly. If you dig into the math and ignore the CR system, it's not quite as bad as all that.

The way the Star Wars I mentioned worked is basically that certain ship weapons (or large vehicle weapons) are functioning on a different scale. While the entry may say something does 1 damage, that actually means 10 when hitting a human-sized target. Instead of AC, the game has Soak -which is basically armor as damage reduction. Being more heavily armored might mean you're slower and easier to hit, but the armor stops some amount of damage from getting through. In the case of ship weapons hitting a person, it's very likely getting through and causing some sort of injury. It's possible to get lucky and survive a glancing blow, but there's very rarely a time when a player banks on being able to just soak up the hit.

In comparison, the most egregious things I've (anecdotally) seen in D&D 5E have involved players mixing and matching races and ability scores and starting with 20+ AC. Then it goes up from there as they gain more things to stack on.

I'm not currently familiar enough with the mob rules to see how that changes things.
 

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