On Fantasy Worlds and Military Forces: or, “Why don’t we just send our army to clear out that dungeon?”

Content Warning: this post contains references to military actions, combat, and death. This post also contains strong language.

This blog post specifically is in response to a August 2020 tweet by one of the more prominent individuals in the table-top role-playing game (TTRPG) industry with an active Twitter account. The post was about why you wouldn’t send an army to clear a “dungeon”. Effectively, the reasoning given, was that an army doesn’t have the specialized skills that adventuring parties do, so therefore the dungeon in question would result in a whole bunch of dead soldiers. What follows here is a write-up of how this line of thinking is absolutely absurd and reductionist, and provide TTRPG players and Game-Masters (GMs) with a better set of tools to look at how you use the military in your games.

I want to preface this by declaring that I have never served in the military. My knowledge is secondary, compiled from reading both primary and secondary sources in my personal and academic study of military history. I have read a large amount of military history, and grew up in a household with a father who consumes massive amounts of Civil War and World War II history. My personal interest was in pre-industrial European military history and World War I. I would say 50% of the discussions I have had with my father during my life have been about military history (read into that what you will regarding my personal relationship with my father).

A definition before I jump into the deep-end: the subset of fantasy I will be referencing is what I refer to as “high fantasy” (HF) or “sword & sorcery”. These settings are somewhat European medieval in appearance outwardly, but also have people running around flinging fireballs, lightning bolts, and using healing magics. Most fantasy TTRPGs operate in these settings. This is opposed to “low fantasy” where magic may exist, but it is extremely rare. Many people are familiar with Game of Thrones, which is a fairly good example of what I would classify as “low fantasy” (LF). Magic, monsters, and dragons are “real” in that setting, but they are rare. In a LF setting that is roughly technologically on par with 14th century France, the military tactics and strategies could reasonable echo their real world analog. However, in a HF setting, that would not be the case.

Let’s start out by looking at medieval (5th to 15th century CE) European warfare. You have three basic unit types: cavalry (horseback units, both heavy and light), missile (archers, crossbow), and infantry (spearman, pikes, sword and board). The pop-culture view of the battle was that it was done on a large cleared field, with each side boasting a force of up to 20,000 troops. Units would be politely grouped into rectangular groupings, and then you would have a series of advances, retreats, and so on. All aspects of the battle having been agreed upon by the “nobility” on both sides that agreed to the conflict to begin with, often based upon a border dispute or allegation that someone had besmirched someone else’s honor. Most of the is utter bullshit, but one thing is fairly common, in that the actual field commanders would not actually engage in the combat. They were usually positioned to the rear on an elevated ridge or even a temporary wooden platform so they could see their forces on the field, and have runners or riders deliver orders to individual units. The reality is while there were many battles that may have started neatly blocked out, that didn’t last long. After initial engagement of cavalry charges and some arrows flying back in forth, these battles often descended into brutal melees, and you better hope your forces had some sort of visual identification such as wearing the same color or rallying around a banner, so you could tell who you were supposed to be killing.

Even medieval forces had specialist units, such as sappers, skirmishers, outriders, siege specialists, quartermasters, etc. The roaming knight errant, seeking chivalrous adventure, unattached to any one kingdom or military is purely fictional. There were some “knights” once regular tournaments were created that went from tourney to tourney to earn some quick money, but they were not the norm. Generally speaking, your most skilled combatants were to be found serving in military units. They may have been attached to a certain kingdom, barony, fiefdom, etc., or they may have been mercenaries.

The concept of the fantasy TTRPG adventurer would be based upon fictional artifice, from fantasy pioneers like J.R.R. Tolkien, Fritz Leiber, or Robert E. Howard. These writers would influence the “New Wave” counter-culture movement of the 60s and 70s. All of these works would provide the influence for Gary Gygax, et al., in creating the first fantasy TTRPGs. Then people started writing novels set in the worlds of those TTRPGs, and the influence started bleeding over into the entire genre, where everything started being the “Hero’s Journey”.

So we wind up with settings where magic is commonplace and functionally acts as a stand-in for technology. Case in point, the Forgotten Realms (FR) setting for Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). FR is about as high fantasy as you can get. There are events known as a Rage of Dragons or a Flight of Dragons. This is when many dragons would collectively gather and go on a rampage. Keep in mind, dragons in FR make the dragons in GoT look like pathetic fire-breathing dumb lizards. There are also tribes of giants that will come out of the mountains to attack non-giant settlements. This is on top of wizards, clerics, wielders of Spellfire, literal children of gods, and numerous other monsters and powerful threats just walking around on a daily basis.

The idea that this world would have military forces structured like standard medieval European armies with cavalry, infantry, and missile units is ridiculous. They definitely would not be using tight formation “squares” for troop movements, because a single wizard could annihilate a massive amount of troops with a few properly located spells. Most armies in FR have air units, in the form of aerial “knights” mounted on griffon, hippogriff, pegasus, drake, or numerous other large flying creatures.

Here is where I think most HF goes wrong. The writers still try to pack all of this into the context of medieval European military structure. With all the magic and monsters, wars wouldn’t be fought in battles like Tours (732 CE), Hastings (1066 CE), Bouvines (1214 CE), Mohi (1241 CE), Agincourt (1415 CE), Castillon (1453 CE), or even Waterloo (1815, which was post-medieval). We have to look at magic as being an analog for technology when we consider the development of warfare.

This leads to World War I. HF air units are typically flying mounts or rather slow and cumbersome airships. These are analogous to biplanes and rigid gas airships. The initial usage for both was reconnaissance and communication, with biplane pilots occasionally taking shots at each other with pistols or dropping hand deployed bombs on units from overhead. By the end of WWI, biplanes would have mounted machine guns, which would forever change the face of warfare. In HF, you have spell-casters capable or raining down elemental fury upon the landscape or empowering inanimate objects. While a catapult on its own is a decent siege weapon for attacking enemy fortifications, it typically was not effective against individual units. However, have a magic user (MU) or an alchemist that can make that rock explode into a fiery inferno, and you have artillery units.

You no longer have a military that’s only good for “square” formation battles. You now have a ground force that is going to engage in trench warfare and tunneling operations, focused on smaller unit actions and skirmishes. Add in magic and magical creatures capable of making tunneling that much easier, not to mention subterranean species like dwarves, gnomes, goblins, and kobolds, and the face of the battlefield gets very three dimensional.

The more varied the battlefield tactics, the more specialist forces you wind up having. If there are those in your nation that can use healing magic, are you going to just go, “Nah, I see no reason to try and recruit them.” Of course you wouldn’t. Especially in settings where there are literal gods of war. A cleric of a god of war (who has access to healing spells) is probably going to enlist with whatever the local military is, or attach themselves to a mercenary unit. Then you have gods of healing. You better believe that the faithful of those gods would be acting as battlefield medics, even if they took vows of pacifism. You would have snipers. You would have camouflage forest stalkers. You would have hit and run units with a MU who could cast spells speeding those units up. You would also get “landmine” units, dropping magical explosive wards out in No-Man’s-Land, and you would get units specifically designated to locate and disarm those landmines.

Odds are, in a setting like that, most adventurers would probably have gained their specific sets of skills from military service, as the bulk of their abilities in a game like D&D are largely combat oriented, even when it comes to MUs.

“So, why shouldn’t we send the army to deal with that dungeon again?”

Context. In a HF world where you have all of these neurodivergent veteran “adventurers” on hand (seriously, anyone willing to do what an adventurer does has to be ND), who have formed little specialized squads designed to cover every type of small-scale threat a dungeon may pose, that odds are, are not even local citizens, and they will put their lives on the line for a handful of gold or gems upon completion of the task, along with whatever loot they find in said dungeon/abandoned mine/arcane tower/ancient crypt/etc., are you going to waste your military on a target that may not even actively be an imminent threat to your nation/city-state?

Nine Hells, no!

I’m going to post up that job on the local adventurer’s guild board and see who bites. I’ll probably even do it through an intermediary, so if T’hutuuuul the Lich gets annoyed by all the adventurers traipsing through his opulent crypt, he won’t necessarily know that the local government is trying to put a permanent end to him. Instead he is going to blame some faceless land development company that wants to build 50 thatched roof cottages where T’hutuuuul keeps his army of the dead. And good luck to T’hutuuuul to go through all the paperwork buried in a “clearly marked” subbasement of City Hall to find out who is actually behind “Dragon Valley View Development, LLC”.

So the King of Notaplace is going to keep his military in reserve for, you know, military actions. Now, he could send them into the Crypt of T’hutuuuul, and they would probably clear it out, piece by piece. But that’s prime real estate. Once the Notaplace Army is done with it, it will be an excavated crater. Admittedly, no more lich or undead army lurking around. Why use a force of 1,000 though, running the risk of death, disease, and injury (which if you are an even mildly benevolent or smart ruler, you take care of your military) to your troops, when you can hire out to successive groups of 4 to 8 scruffy adventurers with death wishes, until a group of them gets the job done? Because even with your trained troops with specialists tearing through that crypt stone by stone, they still have to take on a lich, and T’hutuuuul isn’t going down without a fight. Better the people dying are some randos that don’t even pay taxes.

It has nothing to do with your army being capable of disarming traps or not. Corporal Squeev, a kobold, who is part of your tunneling and traps corps is going to be just as capable of disarming the pressure plate trap than Hot-Hands MacGoogins, the halfling adventurer “rogue”.

“Adventurers can do things because they are PC classes, and anyone in the military is a NPC class, therefore they just don’t have the same abilities.”

This is one of the most ludicrous narrative pieces of D&D that persists. The idea that the player characters are somehow super specialized individuals, representing some insanely small percentage of the populace. 3rd edition introduced NPC classes, which were slightly depowered versions of the core PC classes. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but okay, it makes the PCs feel special and superior to everyone else running around in the world. I liked some of the NPC classes (especially the Mage-Wright introduced in Eberron), because they introduced classes that could occupy certain high fantasy roles, sometimes better than the PC classes. For instance, and Expert is geared to be really good at one trade skill/craft/profession. So, you could have an Expert sailor, blacksmith, or accountant. While any PC class could arguably also eventually gain expertise in one of these things, there are going to be people out there who don’t need to be combat experts in addition to being an accountant.

The only reason why not everyone walking around in D&D has levels in a “class” is for mechanical expediency, not because of any sort of internal setting consistency. D&D would even ditch the NPC classes in favor of tiered stat-blocks for various “challenge levels” of no-name NPC types in the current edition.

The weird thing that happens is an attempt to make the mechanical aspect of the game fit fictional stories set in those games. The concept that a 1st level Fighter, who may be an 18 year old kid that just picked up a sword or a 40 year old military veteran based upon the character’s background is ludicrous. The rules are as the rules are written, though, even if they have no real internal narrative logic. Instead, the writers tried for years to hammer in some sort of narrative meaning to PC classes and levels, and it has stuck.

But none of it makes sense in a setting like FR. Honestly, nothing makes sense in FR, because the setting has basically been smashed together over and over again with so many differing concepts and nations with different levels of technological/magical advancement, that none of it really works.

The military forces in that setting really don’t make any sense, where you have full-blown Euro-fantasy knights and medieval era forces in Cormyr; the Dalelands are organised militias; Mulmaster had a Beholder corps (only three actual Beholders, but still); the old Zhentarim being highly trained soldiers and clerics of Bane; Waterdeep having an army, navy, air force (griffons), a city watch, and an elite force of adventurers (Gray Hands); and then there’s Thay with its wizards (some living, some not exactly living), summoned planar beings, and undead forces.

So we get back to the initial question:

“Why aren’t my military forces going out to clear that ‘dungeon’ site again?”

Let us say your PCs have found themselves in command of an army. It happens in games. It has happened in games I’ve been a player in, and games I have been a GM in. This is a potential occurrence. Just because your players rise to a position where they have other things to worry about than clearing a dungeon, doesn’t mean those dungeons just vanished. I mean, maybe your adventurers were that good and did clear all the dungeons in the kingdom, and that’s how they became the rulers of that kingdom. That’s possible, I guess. Generally though, there’s always going to be a new “evil” wizard that decides to set-up shop in that abandoned piece of prime tower real estate out past the haunted woods. They have built up their kingdom, and there’s this issue brewing, that if not dealt with is going to be a bigger issue later. While they could go out and deal with it, there are other affairs of state that need to be seen to, and no one trusts the eunuch advisor to the ruling council to deal with that stuff, right?

Also, you don’t want to hire another group of adventurers, because hiring adventurers is what got the old rulers out of office and your group in. There’s a lot of funds to be had from those dungeons that could go in the kingdom’s coffers, but if you hire adventurers, that money is gone.

Now, you have a dilemma, because you have determined that the inhabitants on the “dungeon” pose a threat to the citizens of your kingdom. I don’t care how you came to that conclusion, but you did (and maybe you were very shortsighted in that determination, but here we are). You could do it yourselves, risking your own lives, and keeping all the sweet sweet loot for…your kingdom…yeah, your kingdom, but leaving the hands of day-to-day operations and diplomacy to that chamberlain whose always doing that steepling thing with his fingers; you could hire adventurers to do it, but then you lose all of that loot, and potentially set yourself up for challengers to your rule; or you could just send your trained military to utilize a more direct and practical solution where they will recover any of the riches contained for the kingdom’s coffers.

If your players want to do that…let them! Let them know (maybe through the chamberlain) that there could be unforeseen consequences to a military approach, and that it potentially leaves your kingdom open to other outside invaders while a portion of your army is out trying to forcibly evict some transient magic-user with an unsettling laugh.

Also, add in certain features like asking them what type of military they have been building in their kingdom? Did they focus on hiring veteran soldiers, or did they focus on recruiting local “green” levies? Have they recruited any war wizards or battle priests? Maybe they made a pact with the local druids to protect their sacred sites in exchange for a Beast Corps? Make recruitment, training, and maintenance of their military part of the game if that’s the direction they want to take. Especially if they want to start using their military to solve certain problems.

While, yes, their military CAN be used to resolve certain issues, there should always be consequences (which may be positive, negative, minor, or major). Perhaps if they become overly reliant on their military to resolve issues, the priesthood of the God of War starts gaining more and more influence over things in the kingdom? Maybe sending troops out to handle every little “incursion” starts making the soldiers get a bit frustrated with leadership?

There are effectively limitless ways to address why you shouldn’t use your military to clear a dungeon beyond, “Well, the soldiers just aren’t, ummmm, skilled in stuff that adventurers are because of, ummmm, the way the rules are written, and, ummmm, none of them are PC class because they’re, like, ummmm, untrained commoners.”

When you start making your world out so the adventurers are the 1% because they are just “better”, you are engaging in a specific style of power fantasy. Which, hey, if that’s your jam, enjoy. Just don’t pass it off as making any actual narrative logic unless you are playing in a setting where the PCs are literally demi-gods or in some way else specially anointed beyond the average person. Even then, there’s a whole bag of issues associated with “chosen one” type narratives.

So, in conclusion, any military force of note in a high fantasy setting should be composed of trained and specialized units as well as standard foot soldiers (who themselves are not “untrained”). These various roles would cover anything that an adventuring party would normally be skilled at doing, and may even be better at doing it than an adventuring party. However, if you start using your military to accomplish tasks that could be served by private sector operators, you run the risk of becoming overly reliant on your military, and setting the stage for a future military coup, or at least your own power base being eroded to the point you are a mere puppet of the military. Better to think of adventurers as being “specialized” and 100% expendable private operators, that you only have to bother paying if they succeed in their task (only the smart ones with attorneys get a portion of their money up front to use for “operational expenses”).

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