Classical Archetypes III – The Bandit and the Mercenary

Blackwater operated helicopter with mercenarie...

Bandits or Mercenaries? Sometimes it's hard to tell.

Bandits have been called a lot of things. Sometimes they’re highwaymen, sometimes they’re pirates, sometimes they’re outlaws, or cutthroats, or slavers – but they’re all essentially wilderness thieves.

Sadly, the stealth-tactics of urban thieves are often unusable in settings where your prospective targets tend to keep things on their persons, or leave lookouts, and there are no crowds to cover attempts at sneak-thievery.

Perhaps worse, when victims are infrequent, each one has to really count. That pretty much eliminates “soft” techniques, such as begging, scams, pickpocketing, and most other forms of snatch and grab. When you don’t get many targets, you want to get everything they’ve got.

That leaves intimidation and force – and, like any other predator, bandits will take risks only in proportion to the potential rewards. In most cases that means that, unless there’s a huge reward for keeping someone alive, they must be ready to kill at the slightest sign of resistance if they expect to survive for long. Given this attitude, it’s unsurprising that most bandits will also act as kidnappers and slavers as sidelines to the usual extortion and murder. While some (few) bandits do have a code of sorts (“Pay up, don’t resist – and we’ll release you mostly unharmed”), most will cheerily disembowel anyone they suspect of swallowing their money and torture those they suspect of hiding it. A fair minority will maim, rape, kill, burn, torture, and destroy, just for fun.

That’s why banditry, piracy, highway robbery, and most of the other variants, are subject to the death penalty in virtually every land throughout history. Despite modern romance novels and movies, bandits are not nice people. Those few who survive for long rapidly become tough, skillful with at least a few weapons (and usually with everything short of heavy armor, although they usually stick with light armor in the interests of mobility), familiar with the area, and well-equipped with contacts to tip them off about law enforcement sweeps and rich targets – and to handle their connections with the rest of the world. Sadly, most Bandits are fairly poverty-stricken. If they had much in the way of resources, they wouldn’t be out living such an absurdly dangerous lifestyle.

Mercenaries – whether companies, native auxiliaries, or bodyguards – have been around for a very long time. In essence, they’re simply fighters who put THEIR lives “on the line” for YOUR cash. Just as importantly, when you come right down to it, every mercenary is an individual.  Some mercenaries have a “code”, but most of them are simply pragmatic. Their ultimate loyalty is to themselves – and so their lives and reputations will take priority over your desires.

Their skills tend to reflect that attitude, as well as the fact that they are likely to be operating unsupported, and with no one else to rely on. Like the soldier, and for much the same reasons, mercenaries tend to go for the heavy weapons and armor. Unlike soldiers, mercenaries tend to be able to do their own planning, repair weapons and armor, act as emergency medics, and otherwise support themselves. They’re also usually as tough as they can possibly be; the ones who aren’t don’t live very long. On the other hand, they aren’t usually very big on discipline or organization unless they have a really talented leader – which means that characters with this archetype are often almost interchangeable with many barbaric “soldiers”, unsupervised garrison troops, and rebels as far as their game mechanics are concerned.

Most mercenaries don’t want to stay in the business. It’s dangerous. They want to get enough money to set up in business, purchase land, or otherwise retire. Worse, mercenary work isn’t all that steady. They’ve got to pay for their own gear, lodging, supplies, and care, all year, on what they’ll get for a season’s work. Unless they’re being hired for garrison duty or as “advisers” (and thus will be being partially paid in security and lodging, like ordinary soldiers) hiring mercenaries is going to be quite expensive.

Of course, a mercenary probably has far more actual “combat experience” then a soldier – not that they really want it. That’s why they’re generally quite happy to take those cheap jobs maintaining order or as replacements for internal garrisons the local officials want to send to the front. That kind of job offers many perks for a clever mercenary – over and above the really big one of being able to pick and choose among possible jobs, or walk out if things get rougher then you contracted for. That’s one reason why a lot of people look down on mercenaries, but they rarely do it to their faces.

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