Subsidized Magic Part I – Guards and Armies

And for today it’s the start of an answer to another question…

It recently occurred to me to ask to what extent a local government might be inclined to subsidize magic items for characters that work for it?

While most NPC government workers wouldn’t need that many magic items to begin with, those with combat-related professions likely would, such as city guards. While armies don’t make that much sense under the d20 System’s assumptions (as higher-level characters can effectively overpower large numbers of lower-level ones), a lot of places still seem to have them, particularly if there’s a concern about covering large amounts of territory and subjugating a large but geographically diverse number of low-level creatures. So the idea of outfitting a police/military/similar force doesn’t seem to be entirely meritless. From the Romans to today, most militaries don’t expect you to bring your own gear.

The issue with this is that it seems to run up against the underlying presumptions of the d20 System, which is that wealth (at least insofar as the gear value of items is concerned) is a measurement of personal power, emphasis on “personal.” Having gear loaned out to you by the state throws that out of whack. If a rich government is invading a culture where most everyone knows some low-level spell effects, then it might make sense for them to equip all of their soldiers with a +1 breastplate of spell resistance (19), but each of those costs 36,750 gp, which is far and away more than an army of 3rd-level NPCs should be able to individually afford.

The compromise would seem to be that your wealth-by-level value would presumably cover subsidized gear (e.g. that lower-level characters are (not) given very much because they’re not very valuable individuals), and that the issue of that being “subsidized” rather than personal is little more than flavor text that never actually comes into play. The problem is that this still necessarily runs up into metagame limits on the equipment that a government-sponsored force (under this idea) would have, rather than taking into account a verisimilitude-based accounting of what would actually be most useful for them and what would be plausible for the government to be able/inclined to invest in their troops. (Having an Eclipse-based answer, such as taking Major Privilege/government-sponsored gear, helps to reduce this down to the cost of a feat or so, but simply moves the cost to CP rather than gp.)

Overall, there doesn’t seem to be an easy answer to this, besides saying that such funds would be better spent elsewhere.

-Alzrius

There are two major pieces to this question. First up, we have giving the general military – guards, patrolling troops, and so on – magical gear. Secondly, there’s how such a system might affect Adventurer’s and other special characters magical resources.

We’ll need to break that first part down quite a bit more.

So… How much does equipping soldiers cost in the first place?

It sounds awfully silly today, but for a very long time troops were indeed expected to supply their own armor and much or all of their gear. Thus the early Athenian army poor men went unarmored as Psiloi (usually carrying nice cheap javelins, spears, slings, or – very rarely – bows), those who could afford a full infantry kit went as Hoplites, and the wealthy (who could afford horses and armor) went as Hippeis (cavalry). Incidentally, Hippeis could also usually afford to stay out of most of the fighting and thus avoid being killed. It was good to be wealthy!

Of course, that tells us nothing at all about how much wealth that really represented in a citizens life. I suspect that no one really has enough detailed information on the economy of ancient Athens to give a satisfactory answer to that question these days.

Roman Legionaries needed to bring pretty much all of their own equipment until the late republic period – and they weren’t really supplied by the state until Augustus. Of course, they were pretty generously paid to enable them to buy their own gear while still supporting their families (at least to some extent; the later tendency to destroy families finances while the men were away fighting really messed things up in the long term). Depending on whether or not there was a war on Rome spent fifty to eighty percent of its budget on the military (in 2015 the USA spent between 18 and 20% of its budget on the military depending on what you count – more than the next eight most expensive militaries on earth combined) – but the Roman military only employed about 2% of the adult male population or less than .4% of the population overall. A d20 world might well do the same – d20 civilizations are at LEAST as threatened as Rome – but they’ll have to cut back on the numbers substantially to afford much in the way of (very expensive) magic. A prosperous city of 100,000 might support a roman-style military of 300-400 men – or 30-40 men with 6000-8000 GP worth of supplied magical gear each.

Oops! We’ve basically gone back to first edition, with one-in-one-thousand being a possible henchman or adventurer and less than half of those actually active in such pursuits. Well… first edition WAS very heavily influenced by the “historical simulation” gamers.

Similarly, the men in most feudal armies had to supply much of their own gear – which is why padded armor was so common; a mans mother, wife, or sister could throw that together in short order, and hope that it would keep their relative alive. Even layers of cloth stuffed with rags was a lot better than nothing.

With armor that was relatively understandable (if not nice). Is one guy too poor to afford good (or any) armor? Well, it sucks to be poor. That’s nothing new. Is someone who can afford it still too cheap or stupid to properly maintain their armor? If it makes a difference, then it’s their own fault and the loss is small. At least as importantly… two guys in mismatched armor are a lot easier to train and drill than two guys with mismatched weaponry. Armor was a LOT less important than a good shield through much of history anyway.

Weapons were supplied a lot more often. After all, when it came to weapons… trying to train a group armed with a random selection of old swords, spears, knives, javelins, clubs, and repurposed tools was and is a NIGHTMARE – and usually turns out to be very expensive for what you get out of them on the battlefield. It’s good enough for irregular troops, but irregular warfare was a lot less effective in classical warfare.

Why was that do you ask? Well…

A modern commander most often wants to occupy an area, control it, and – if possible – treat it as a resource. He or she wants to maintain order, to keep the farms and production facilities operating, and avoid massacres of women, children, and noncombatants. Such a commander can be readily opposed by irregular warfare. Groups of guerilla fighters can gain supplies, recruits, information, and other support from the locals that they represent even as they conceal themselves amongst them and can – over time – greatly increase the costs of occupation, perhaps even making it unsustainable or diverting troops and thus contributing to defeats elsewhere.

A classical commander who wanted to ship the useful women, children, and noncombatants home as slaves, exterminate everyone else, loot the area, poison the water sources, burn the fields and settlements to the ground, and sow the ground with salt so that no one could live there again for a generation… couldn’t be opposed by irregular warfare. If you wanted there to be anything left of your homes or families in a week or two you needed to face and defeat his or her army in open battle. In the face of that kind of enemy there was no time for irregular warfare.

Lets consider some quotations.

  • “I destroyed them, tore down the wall, and burned the town with fire. I caught the survivors and impaled them on stakes in front of their town.”
  • “Pillars of skulls I erected in front of the towns.”
  • “I fed their corpses, cut into small pieces, to dogs, pigs, and vultures.”
  • “I slowly tore off their skins”.
  • “Of some I cut off the hands and limbs; of others the noses, ears, and arms. Of many soldiers I put out the eyes.”
  • “I flayed them and covered with their skins the walls of the town.”
    • -Translated from various Assyrian monuments by Pritchard and Champdor.

And that sort of leadership was why the principle that “you must meet them in battle” (since irregular warfare did not work unless you were doing it in the enemies home country) went unquestioned for a long time even after nations started to have some scruples about such tactics and irregular warfare started to become practical.

Secondarily, few governments wanted (or want today) anyone and everyone to have easy access to military weapons. There are a few places – like Switzerland – that made or make it work to some extent, but it isn’t normal.

So weapons, shields, and basic supplies like food and such (since troops were useless without such things), were usually issued.

That still doesn’t tell us much about the actual costs though.

Looking to the d20 rules for answers… is a bit odd.

According to Pathfinders Downtime Rules it costs 220 GP (or 44 apiece) to add a squad of five soldiers to your army. Each comes equipped with Scale Mail (50 GP), a Longsword (15 GP), a Heavy Wooden Shield (7 GP), and Javelins (1 GP each, number unspecified) – and rather than having to be paid, they provide an income (1.5 GP/Day) for you. OK, that’s 147 days to start making a profit – but reinvest in more troops and the magic of compound interest gets you 558% growth a year. This obviously does not work, so I’m going to skip this bit; it makes even less sense than most d20 rules.

According to the SRD, the salaries for “Trained Hirelings” (including mercenary warriors) start at 3 SP/Day, but may be “significantly higher”. That doesn’t say what equipment they come with either. Do they come with normal gear for their professions and levels like followers do? How much extra money will they want? Who knows?

Well, your basic craftsman or professional earns about 1 GP/Day. That’s probably about what your basic guard makes, albeit with lots of little kickbacks and graft on top (unless we go with “the guards are notoriously underpaid” idea, which has some justification). If the job is supposed to be dangerous, two to three times that. If it’s adventurous… at least ten times that (and even then it’s mostly “guard the camp” stuff; guards and mercenaries are not there to be heroes). For basic gear… Studded Leather (25 GP) or Chain Shift (100 GP), Heavy Wooden Shield (7 GP), Shortsword (10 GP)… three to five months salary should cover a decent gear package. You’ll need to subsidize that if you’re recruiting a new guard, although part of the cost can be taken from their salary if they don’t want to turn the stuff back in when they retire.

Is that reasonable?

  • About the earliest actual hard costs I can find for equipping a basic soldier are from World War II, where it apparently cost about one and a half weeks salary ($15 ro $25 or $200-$400 after inflation) to equip a basic US infantryman. Of course, that is after industrialization, with little armor, and with cheap-and-reliable firearms – which tells us very little about quasi-medieval fantasy settings.
  • By the 1970’s – after throwing in a flak jacket and some new weaponry – that cost was up to around $2000 after inflation. That was still pretty cheap – roughly half a months salary (again, as adjusted for inflation) for an average person.
  • A few years ago it was about $20,000 after (much less) inflation. That’s probably our best comparison, because it’s now starting to include a bunch of pricey special-purpose, gear, body armor, and fairly expensive weapons – which seems very roughly comparable to equipping a classical man-at-arms. About four to five months wages at the mean salary.
  • All right; the d20 SRD-based estimate isn’t totally unreasonable, so it should be good enough to play with.

For a full-sized army there are notable economies of scale, and no extra cost for danger (danger is a fact of life in d20 worlds in any case) since you’re paying all the time and any danger is very likely to be occasional. So I’ll call that 100 GP/Year for maintaining a professional soldier. So a professional army of 5000 men… will cost half a million gold pieces per year.

This kind of expense is why the legions soaked up everything that the Roman Empire could come up with and were always looking for more – and why feudal armies were normally called up for the length of their service obligations and no longer. It’s just as insupportable in d20. If you’ve got that kind of money to spend on military matters you invest in high-level adventurers and let them handle things. In the real world an army could often get you money. In d20… not so much.

Now if we go with the city magic warlord trick… it’s 120,000 GP to deploy an army consisting of 12,000 L2 Veteran Troopers, 800 Grizzled L3 Sergeants to command squads of 15 Troopers each, and 100 L4 Dashing Captains to command Companies of 8 Squads each – all properly, if mundanely, equipped for their levels.

Of course, with a warlord it’s a one-time cost coming out of their wealth-by-level – but, after all, an army can usually get you some money. It just isn’t often enough to actually pay for itself. At the worst, if they’re not fighting, you can put them to work as field engineers and such. That’s one reason why the Warlord trick doesn’t have any kind of an upkeep cost.

So lets double that cost. That will give each man… an extra 9 GP worth of gear. An increase of 1.5% if spent directly. That’s fairly useless. It would cost 645,000 GP to get each man a Cure Light Wounds potion (who would produce them anyway?), let alone something worthwhile. (This, of course, also tells us that the d20 economy makes no sense, but I’ve been over THAT).

What about the cheap options using Magical Businesses? A Shrine of War can maintain 1200 +5 enchantments for a mere 36,000 GP – 30 GP per weapon. That might even work if you got bundles of arrows. At an effective cost of .6 GP each (or less if you pay for the Shrine over time), you could keep each man supplied with ten of them for a mere 77,400 GP.

Looking at the costs for a magical Tattoo Parlor… no, we’re back in the millions again.

There simply is no way to permanently equip even a modest army with really useful amounts of magic in d20 unless you use a Ward Major (from The Practical Enchanter) with an appropriate Distant Gift, use Eclipse-Style Leadership to give them all some positive levels, teach them all Innate Enchantment (Eclipse again), or employ some similar trick – which is mostly back to personal power again. You can use Dominion (again, from Eclipse) to temporarily give them some positive levels, possibly including some magical talents – but that’s still personal power and even then it’s only temporary.

You could give the city guard a few items that they hand around from shift to shift – but City Enchantments and Wards Major are better for that.

Like it or not, magic item prices in d20 are designed to allow the characters to find huge, exciting, treasures, deal in heaps of gold and fabulous jewels, and be incredibly rich, while still having personal stuff to spend that money on – and items that are out of reach.

And when magic items are intentionally set up as a manifestation of incredible wealth, success, and personal power, it’s pretty much impossible to rationalize handing them around to ordinary folk without wrecking the assumptions of the game.

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One Response

  1. […] Continued from Part I – Guards and Armies. […]

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