Worlds of Design: Types of Armies

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

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


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.


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.


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


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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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.

Your Turn: How often do player characters start out as soldiers in your campaigns?
Often. I’d say about half have backgrounds as soldiers, veterans, or mercenaries. Not just the fighters.

There’s a significant difference between active military and former or part-time. For my current TOEE campaign:
  • Leader was in his village militia & fired over a woman pre-game start, became famous, now just finished military officer training (a prestige class for only his Greyhawk homeland of Furyondy) and is on first commando mission with his old party and people they picked up
  • PC who was a scout for her tribe (Ranger/Rogue) of the military caste.
  • PC fighter who was drafted and ran away, making a living as a mercenary, now turned fledgling mage
  • PC rogue who was/is a spy for an order of knights and undercover as a mercenary
  • NPC who is his village militia, run by his dad, and also a spy - the famous Elmo. Background by Gygax, not me.
  • NPC who was in village militia and didn’t want to join them in banditry so deserted. Background by Gygax.
  • 2 PC’s who were mercenaries together, abandoned by their caravan to their fate
  • 1 PC who is spying for the gnome council (not a gnome!)
  • 3 other PC’s with no military or espionage connection

So yeah, more than half in this case.
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