Military PC’s and Fantasy Armies

The structure of a simple guerrilla warfare or...

EVERYBODY’S got an Org chart…

So you want the players in your campaign to form a military group.

Whether your inspiration comes from WWII movies, or the novels of the Black Company, or any of ten thousand other sources, the idea is pretty common. Forge that group of awkward misfits that your (very likely equally misfit) players have created into a tight military team, have them face terrible enemies, and have them either triumph through discipline, preparedness, and teamwork or at least do a lot of damage and fail heroically!

There are some problems though.

  • In almost every game, the players are there to play characters who are far more capable, powerful, and skilled than they are. In fact, the vast majority of RPG characters are far, FAR more formidable than any normal person. We’re looking at action movie heroes here, at the very least. Indeed, in rather a lot of games, the characters will soon be the equivalent of superheroes or major military units – capable of wiping out small armies or fortified towns entirely on their own.

That’s a problem. Conventional military forces rely on organization and strength in numbers, not on overwhelming individual strength. They don’t lose their artillery support because the wizard has an upset stomach and didn’t turn up to play. They don’t routinely have 50% of their close-combat troops severely hung over. They don’t let their mighty hero walk forward alone and wipe out half a roman legion. When one high-end warrior-type is equivalent to one tank platoon, tactics, logistics, and most other military considerations change a lot.

  • Most games make character abilities wildly individualistic After all, the players like having lots of options, it helps keep the characters clearly distinct, and it helps to give each of them the spotlight in turn. A character might have magical powers (of many different types), or psionics, or incredible weapons skills, or superhuman strength and flaming breath, or any of hundreds of other things. Even worse, any given character might be a winged cat-creature with venomous fangs and claws, or a disembodied spirit, or a psychic dolphin rather than a relatively normal human being.

That’s a problem. Military organization relies on standardization – and not only because it gives the commanders a reasonable idea of what the abilities of their troops are. It doesn’t work at all the same way when your new Chaplain might worship Thor, and control the weather while enthusiastically smiting away with his sacred hammer, or be a master of dark necromancy who raises reinforcing hordes from the dead of the battlefield, or be a psychic alien who lives in a life support system on the moon and only appears via astral projection to advise meditation and peace. You can’t even necessarily rely on assigning people to help cook when they might have a venomous touch, or be poisoned by the food that another character type eats, or have no hands, or some such. An effective fantasy commander or strategist has to know the individual special abilities of each character under his or her command. Can you say “information overload”? Can you say it with an opponents once-per-full-moon blazing moonfire talons stuck in your head?

  • Most games function in wildly unrealistic ways when it comes to movement, and weapons, and injuries, and a hundred other things. It can’t be helped; trying to cover everything in genuinely “realistic” detail will overload any game master – and many games use settings where “reality” is very different from the observable universe anyway. All of those things will change what tactics make sense in the setting. For example, in reality, snipers are quite effective in their (somewhat specialized) role on the battlefield. Players, on the other hand, hate having their characters sniped – they tend to see it (often quite rightly) as an arbitrary “you’re dead!” from the game master. They may want to try the role themselves, but it’s kind of limited and often boring – especially when a lot of the action is off the battlefield. Thus most rules systems discourage sniping with unrealistically short ranges, abstract damage systems that make it readily survivable, or various other devices.

That’s a problem. A player – or game master – who does not base their tactics on the game system is doomed to disappointment. You CAN often find ways to do what you want, or excuses for having real-world-sensible but system-impractical tactics work – but you’re going to have to work at it and to have your excuses and reasoning ready in advance. Simply picking tactics that make sense in reality is not going to work out well.

  • Realistic militaries rely on binding people together as a group – generally starting with the classic “put them through hell together and they’ll hang together” routine followed up by all the usual team-building exercises. Unsurprisingly, in real life, that often works. The effect is enhanced by facing large numbers of similar opponents; when you can’t relate to the enemy as individuals who usually speak another language, it’s easier to do all your bonding with your own group.

That’s a problem. It’s not going to work on player characters at all. They, after all, are being run by players who are not actually “going through hell together” – and if you try to make things miserable for the players for a few months, instead of just noting that their characters have trained together under miserable conditions, the players will walk out on your game and play something else. In this case, you’ll just have to resort to bribery. Give them some special benefits for hanging together and trying to work with each other and most of the players will go along without any prompting at all. Perhaps a free lifestyle and an equipment allowance that escalates with their rank? That sort of thing worked in quite a few real armies after all.

  • Real militaries rely on rather ferocious discipline. After all, they’re fighting natural tendencies to avoid danger, to avoid killing other people, and to look for personal advantage instead of looking to the overall advantage of a massive organization. Even in real life the military often finds unofficial tacit local truces among opposing troops. Here you’re lucky; the players want the characters to be in on the action, and will find excuses to be in three dangerous places at once if you don’t stop them. The opponents being killed are paper phantoms in any case, and are often clearly labeled as being “evil monsters”. The forces involved are generally small groups of fairly powerful individuals – and so “advantage for our side” is often identical to “advantage for me”. The only trouble is that the players want to play – which means making their own decisions, coming up with their own plans, and doing their own thing. They KNOW that they’re unique special-forces types at a minimum and may well be superheroes. They don’t take any kind of detailed or immediate orders well.

That’s a problem. Conventional military command structures are designed to keep the commanders safe, to drive soldiers into battle, to micro-manage people at each step, and to try to make sure that things go according to someone else’s plan – and that’s exactly upside-down as far as role-playing gamers are concerned. To make it work you’re probably going to want to follow the “mission impossible” model rather than anything realistic; you give your motley crew a mission and turn them loose on it. Of course that’s how “defend this section of wall” turned into “lure a small army into a massive booby-trap”, “scout the place and do some damage if you can” turned into “arrange an explosion that leaves the enemy base a smoking crater and inflicts thirty-six thousand casualties and massive losses of equipment on the enemy”, and “find out what they’re up to” turned into a raid on the enemy command structure. They’re player-characters. Figuring out “how” is their job. All their “superiors” need to do is tell them what they need. It may not be very “military” – but “your patron has a mission for you” has worked in games for a long, long, time. You can throw most military protocol, and law, out the window too. Fantasy military units are kind of small (where they aren’t just slightly-larger adventuring parties to begin with) and will never have needed such tight control in any case.

If you want a military game, don’t think of it as organizing a platoon of infantry. Think of it as organizing the Avengers. Chain-of-command and military discipline don’t mean a lot when your forces consist of Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and Doctor Strange. You may point at a target, but they’ll do it their own way – and there’s not much use fighting it.

When it comes to a chain-of-command… Well, if the problem involves frost giants, Thor is in charge. If it relates to the US military or it’s government – especially if you’ve got troops to deploy or civilians to get out of the way – it’s Captain America. If it’s the robotic legion from the conquest computer, it’s Iron Man – and if it’s the magical creepy-crawlies from the Dark Dimension of Eldritch Horrors, it’s Doctor Strange.

So here’s a table-of-organization for a fantasy military:

  • The High Command: These are the people making strategic decisions and peering at maps and paying the bills. Generally a job for NPC’s since these are the people who don’t do much but give missions to other people. That’s boring.
  • The General(s): The guy who splits up general assignments into individual missions and hands them out to particular units. Generally another NPC, since it’s the people in the units who will be doing all the interesting stuff.

That takes us down to the level we’re actually interested in – the company.

A fantasy military company isn’t going to be very big. No game master wants more than – say – twenty figures on a side, and most will prefer less. Sure, you can use some variation on the mass combat rules for bundling minor figures together – but even if you let people play entire units as characters, getting too many in one place is going to be a pain.

So our likely company is going to consist of four to six mass combat units and maybe a dozen PCs.

Now, the rest of the world is usually going to be dealing with the “Command Staff” – the people who are responsible for overall policy, making sure there are supplies, helping coordinate the efforts of the other sub-groups, keeping track of personnel, and – if mercenary – deciding what contracts are accepted and when to skip out on them. Most people will call this the “Command Staff” – and leadership is often a part of the job – but most fantasy commanders rely on the cooperation of their company members; they’re too valuable, powerful, and welcome elsewhere to try anything else. Commanders may lead from the front if they’re powerful warriors, handle tactics if they’re good at that, simply bring in contracts, work with the mages… whatever. In a fantasy army, being in “command” centers on collecting possible missions, not necessarily on leading.

There’s room here for a “Commander” and – possibly – a  First and Second Lieutenant who help the commander out, deal with smaller issues, and stand ready to step up if something happens to the commander.

The other departments depend a LOT on the setting – but the same general pattern holds there: You have the top-level experts – whether they’re called  “Master”, “Chief”, or “First”, the runners-up (“Second” or perhaps “Senior”), and perhaps “Trainee” or “recruit” for anyone who’s just joined up (a good spot for followers, although player characters normally won’t be mere recruits for long).

Likely groups here include:

  • Archers (Riflemen, Slingers, or whatever): Missile weapon specialists in any case.
  • Agents: Spies, assassins, and stealth experts. Responsible for dealing with non-company agents and political obstacles, interrogations, undercover negotiations, dragons, and so on.
  • Engineers (Pilots, Technicians, and so on): Responsible for siege engines, lock picking, driving and piloting, field fortifications, and similar.
  • Rangers/Scouts: Responsible for locating routes, spotting ambushes and enemy positions, guiding the company through the wilds, dealing with wild animal and minor monster attacks,
  • Magi (in various styles): Responsible for magical affairs, artillery support, counter-scrying, and dealing with major magical opposition.
  • Seers and Psychics: Responsible for psychic stuff, clairvoyance, and so on.  Not all that well defined in many settings…
  • Clergy and Healers: Responsible for healing, religious services, the usual counseling, and protective magic (if priests have such powers in the setting).
  • Quartermaster and Transport: Responsible for transportation, food, water, munitions, and other supplies, transport vehicles, and money.
  • Cavalry (or vehicular forces): Mobile forces, may overlap with Scouts. Possibly Heavy and Light in some settings.
  • Infantry: The heavy foot-soldier types. Responsible for holding the defenses and screening others.

If two player-characters have similar talents… just give them secondary ranks in their sub-specialty (it might be best to do that regardless). Given the variety of characters, everyone ought to be able to star in their own department.

If there are support troops, just designate them as “Sergeants”. If the company has a cavalry unit,  two infantry units, and a unit of siege engineers, then you have Sergeant (W) of Cavalry, Two Sergeants (X and Y) of Infantry, and one Sergeant ( Z) of Engineering.

This approach works nicely for a group of player characters; it puts everyone in an important position in their areas of specialty, gives pretty much every character an official title and a designated area of authority (which tends to please the players), and further loosens up the chain of command – since the commander is not going to be trying to manage everyone in their specialty.

Next time I get back to this, I may detail  a sample  company.

2 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Method in the Mythos and commented:
    Sorry I’ve been somewhat slow with content recently, I’ve been organising a new job and moving house. Now those are partly over with, and I can get back to writing. I shouldn’t be too much longer for the first-person Mists of Albion fantasy, but in the meantime here’s an article on real-world vs roleplaying military structures. This has broader implications than just how roleplaying battles are conducted, and I’ll be commenting on this soon.

  2. […] Military PC’s and Fantasy Armies: Functional fantasy-style military groups for PC’s, to go with Mass Combat Made Simple. […]

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