Worlds of Design: Types of Armies

Last time I talked about the nature of armies. Let’s discuss particular types of armies and how they might interact.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

"Two armies are two bodies which meet and try to frighten each other." -Napoleon Bonaparte

Last time I talked about the nature of armies, now I'm going to discuss particular types of armies. and how they might interact:

The Noble's "Gang," Retainers, Bodyguards (Comitatus)​

Professional armies were rare until modern times. "Comitatus" is the oft-used Latin term for an armed escort or retinue, a royal bodyguard, that would be relatively few in number but would be available year-round. In the later Saxon period in England they were called housecarles, the only professional troops in the country. The Germanic Chiefs opposed to Rome frequently had a retinue of this type, the origin of the word.

Raiders​

Much of melee warfare in the past, all the way back to the ancient Near East, was about raiding for wealth, and to punish the enemy, rather than attempts to conquer territory. The Neo-Assyrians would raid opponents in order to subjugate them, then go back to Assyria and expect to receive tribute. If an area repeatedly refused to pay, finally the Assyrians would occupy it permanently instead of just raiding, but this may have helped lead to their downfall as they spread themselves too thin.

While barbarians sometimes overwhelmed civilized states, most of the time they were only raiders. We think of raiding as something that barbarians did, and of agricultural economies, but the foraging of the armies of monied economies could be almost as bad. Moreover, the economies of the ancient Near East were often agricultural economies, and those states did lots of raiding.

Only in the 20th century do we become accustomed to wholesale attempts to conquer other states rather than raid them. With the proliferation of nuclear weapons we're back to expansion of national influence by means other than conquest – unless you’re the Russian Federation.

Dynastic States​

Dynastic states: polities governed by some kind of monarch who was part of a hereditary dynasty, such as a king, independent duke, or emperor. Definitely NOT modern constitutional monarchies.

I list these separately because they predominate in early modern Europe. The actual soldiers often weren't even nationals of the country raising the army. For example, Frederick the Great’s Prussian army was about one third foreigners. Discipline was harsh and soldiers were only expected to follow orders, not to think, so you could use foreigners as more or less automatons.

These kinds of armies were supported by money (such as English subsidies for Prussia), not by agricultural economics.

"Feudal" Armies​

I put quotation marks around feudal because historians still argue about whether feudalism really existed, or how widespread it was. We can describe how it is thought to exist. The ruler/overlord granted lands to a vassal in return for an obligation to serve militarily or to pay some kind of tax. The vassal had full control of all the people in his land, primarily serfs who were attached to the land itself. The vassal used the taxes he received from his people (usually paid in kind) to help maintain the more or less professional troops who would answer the call from his overlord. Some of the peasants would also be expected to serve the call up was for a limited amount of time, to avoid interfering with planting and harvesting. This could work well in an agricultural economy.

Mercenaries​

We can also talk about mercenaries, keeping in mind they are part of a monied economy. Mercenaries are usually professionals, which is a big advantage when adversaries are not. Much of the Carthaginian army was mercenaries. Xenophon's "10,000" are one of the most famous mercenary bands. The Hellenic successors to Alexander the Great often used mercenaries. Mercenaries were common in Roman, Greek, and Persian times but not so much in the Middle Ages before the Renaissance condottieri, likely because many of the economies were not monied (how do you pay mercenaries without coinage?). William the Conqueror used Flemish and other mercenaries.

Crusading Armies/Religious Military Orders​

These are more or less unique to the Middle Ages. But the armies themselves are rarely different from typical armies of the time, though you might make an exception for religious military orders such as the Knights Templar and Teutonic Knights. The latter ought to be professional armies, but were not numerous.

The Players​

This discussion is primarily intended to contribute to your efforts to build a fantasy or even science fiction world. But where might the player characters fit into these schemes in a campaign that emphasizes warfare? Characters might begin as members of a noble's bodyguard, or as mercenaries, or as ordinary soldiers in some context. This may not work for many players, as being a soldier tends to limit what you can and cannot do: you're serving at the behest of some superior authority.

Your Turn: How often do player characters start out as soldiers in your campaigns?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Ixal

Adventurer
A very weak article, mixing the "type" of army and their mission.
A feudal army also included mercenaries and just because a army was doing raiding doesn't mean they would not be retainers.
 

Stormonu

Legend
Very interesting article, definitely some army organizations I wasn't aware of or had used.

Over the years, even back to 1E, I've had players who have had soldiering backgrounds - usually they've just been dismissed from service to earn their own way, though I've had a couple who could be called back to active duty (and were) or had loose interactions with the army. Examples from my homebrew include one character that was a member of the White Rangers (active, but undertaking search & destroy missions away from the main body), a former member of the Knights of the South who'd just completed their 4-year tour, and another who was an officer (noble knight) of the Knights of the South (with a small force of their own stationed to protect a hometown village).

In my recent Saltmarsh campaign, I've had a player who had left the Keoland army due to PTSD, and a follow-up character sent from the army to find out what happened to the former character.

I also realize I've had PCs who were part of various raiding/banditry forces, working on their own causing havoc in enemy lands - akin to Viking raiders.

Finally, I've always wanted to run a "Warriors" sort of campaign - characters are members of a large army, whose leadership is assassinated while in enemy territory, and the characters have a long journey, strange adventures and pass-through battles on their way back home.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
You forgot the possibility of PCs as Nobles with their own retinues, special forces units in their own right or even Leaders commanding troops in strategic level play.

I tend to run all Parties as either mercenaries or part of a large organisation, so have had fighters who are “Temple guards” or “village militia” or “Raiding parties”
 

R_Chance

Adventurer
A very weak article, mixing the "type" of army and their mission.
A feudal army also included mercenaries and just because a army was doing raiding doesn't mean they would not be retainers.
It's a brief overview of general categories. Historically a feudal army might employ some mercenaries, but the bulk of it was feudal. In some cases, they employed no mercenaries. Based on type size, "raiders" seems to be almost a sub-category of "noble retinues". A religious order might fight with a feudal army as well, but the orders maintained the ability to make war on their own. Mercenaries might be the backbone of an army, but there might be, for example, some feudal levies included. Across the broad sweep of history there are numerous specific circumstances that dictated army compositions. This article is too short for the gritty details to be part of it.
 


Only in the 20th century do we become accustomed to wholesale attempts to conquer other states rather than raid them. With the proliferation of nuclear weapons we're back to expansion of national influence by means other than conquest – unless you’re the Russian Federation.
Uh, Rome? And didn't Egypt conquer nearby 'territories'? And what about the whole uniting of the United Kingdoms? And what about all the other European countries that certainly were mostly formed from smaller entities before the start of the 20th Century. What about the little known kingdoms in southeast Asia? Or South America? Some of those were certainly too big not to have been built by conquering their neighbors.
 

Your Turn: How often do player characters start out as soldiers in your campaigns?
Very rarely. I can think of once being a player starting in an army as a soldier. And I can't think of any campaigns I've run over the decades where I started the players as soldiers. Maybe mercenaries or raiders. So maybe 5% of the time?
 

RareBreed

Explorer
What would the Spartans fall under? Or the Sacred Band of Thebes? Or the Mamluks and Janissaries (not quite slaves, not quite mercenaries)?

In more modern (circa at least 1700s) times, there were also militias that don't seem to fall under any of these categories (the closest might be Feudal, but militias are formed of free men and service may or may not have been voluntary rather than conscripted/obliged).
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
What would the Spartans fall under? Or the Sacred Band of Thebes? Or the Mamluks and Janissaries (not quite slaves, not quite mercenaries)?

In more modern (circa at least 1700s) times, there were also militias that don't seem to fall under any of these categories (the closest might be Feudal, but militias are formed of free men and service may or may not have been voluntary rather than conscripted/obliged).

Spartans are Feudal, the Spartiate elite were trained fighters given land which was worked by helots.

AFAIK the Sacred Band was an example of conscription.

Forced conscription in the form of Jannissaries and citizen conscription arent that different and I suspect was suppose to be included with OPs discussion of Dynastic states - which really has no connection to the article except to distinguish Dynastic Monarchies from Constitutional Monarchies in modern Nation States.
 
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aco175

Legend
I have always had a hard time with the PCs being part of the Army unless they were a 'commando unit' of some sort. A typical army might not let wizards and clerics travel with the soldiers as they would tend to be more valuable. Then you start to build in more fantastic monsters that could be with the army and such that I found it unwieldy. I even found having large armies fighting and the PCs being only a part of the larger scene to be a problem.

A lot of the PCs have the soldier background in my games. A few have more flavor and I have introduced a couple ties to the PC such as a reunion of soldiers from a battle the PC was in or another veteran tracking the PC down to help with paying the PC's life debt from getting out. It was the players idea that his PC owed 1,000gold to get out of service but left the details vague.

I would be interested in an article on how armies set up units and how each interacted with others. You see in the movie where infantry line up in front and archers shoot overhead while Calvary charge in but some on Roman shield formations vs. Viking shield formations and why wouldn't that work in Egypt with their chariots. How much was terrain involved in fighting style creation. Perhaps another article coming and not derail this one though.
 

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