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It's a Dog(Soldier)'s Life

by Paul Mackintosh

In which the author examines the rich variety of adventures that wartime can provide


There are very few events in this world with the dramatic potential of war. This article explores the variety of adventure hooks available for PCs during a time of war, and not just the most obvious ones of straightforward combat in the field. Let's face it, although battles big and small are going to be on anyone's list of potential wartime action, there's a lot more to war than battles. Soldiers spend a lot of their time involved in other activities, like scouting, raids, sieges or garrison duties. Not that I'm against open combat - wartime adventures need it, and battles, ambushes, massacres and routs can make very tense and exciting adventures. But there are plenty of things besides battles which can provide great material for wartime roleplaying adventures.

Your Country Needs You!

Although most of the examples given relate to a medieval fantasy world, this article should prove useful to GMs of all genres.

In the Middle Ages, armies were not maintained during peace-time, when the only organised soldiers around were castle garrisons and nobles' retinues. They were raised if and when a ruler wanted to go to war. Various means were employed to procure soldiers, and you can choose whichever method best suits to 'encourage' PCs into an army. Becoming soldiers can be an adventure in itself.

  • Enlistment into a company of soldiers to serve for a set wage, food, drink and shelter, may interest down and out PCs. This can all seem a damnably attractive prospect during a time of famine, political strife or whatever threat blights the realm. There is also the rather appealing possibility of booty, which should interest even PCs who have got the basic necessities of life sorted. Decent PCs might not relish the rape and pillage side of things, but plundering an evil enemy of sparkly items is surely a perfectly acceptable hobby?

    Whether hungry or greedy, your PCs might find their first challenge is getting into the army.In the fifteenth century, captains' contracts often specified that equipped and able troops should be mustered. An NPC captain in a similar situation will thus want to enlist experienced fighting PCs who fulfil these terms. Can your PCs prove themselves? Perhaps a turn or two in the ring might be in order? Or maybe the captain has other ideas about how they might ingratiate themselves, a little job they might do for him?

    As PC parties tend to be small in size, the captain might be a specialist looking for a mere handful of helpers: for example, an engineer who wants a little company to escort a newly constructed war-engine, or to fight through the tunnels his miners have constructed under a castle's walls: 'You fellows have fought in underground tunnels before? You're exactly what I need. Best bring those lanterns with you.'

    Another possibility is that the recruiting captain is a lesser noble out to rise in the ruler's esteem, but without much in the way of funds. It is easy to please your ruler in time of war when you are rich - just hand over some money. The hard way is to do something, preferably daring and successful, which gets noticed. This kind of ambitious leader can get PCs into all sorts of scrapes, volunteering the company for dangerous missions at every opportunity, and generally being hyper-active. The recruiting captain could even be a new player's PC, an interesting way to introduce a newcomer into an existing campaign.

    A noble might even hire the PCs without actually leading them to war. Feudal vassals owed military service to their lord, but did not always have to provide it themselves. An NPC noble short of soldier vassals, or who would prefer to keep them alive at home, may hire suitably equipped PCs to perform the service due. Such PCs might well get away with acting as an independent unit, garbed in their employer's livery, provided they accept the ruler's general orders. Operating alone is, after all, the usual modus operandi for RPG parties.

  • Conscription, or impressment by a press gang, is a sure way to gain PCs' loyal support for a cause - not! If your campaign is set in a land with a harsh government, or in a decadent empire, then captains might not care whether recruits want to serve or even if they are fit to serve, just as long as they fill their quotas. Perhaps surprisingly, this kind of recruitment can be a fun introduction to the PCs' military careers. And, as is considered traditional by some roleplayers, an inn is the best place to start.

    A recruiting captain who waits with a bunch of hired heavies for drunken souls to stagger out of an ale-house may find his task easy. Even better, he could himself ply the PCs with drink, thus guaranteeing their inebriation. In fact, if he pays a "typpling house's" landlord to be generous with the ale, he does not even need to be present himself. It is quite astounding what effect a little spirits tipped into a lot of ale can have. Even the most unwilling PCs simply awake the next morning with a headache and a new profession! Of course, many of the soldiers gained this way are likely to attempt desertion, and their fighting quality is questionable. But captured deserters can expect the severest of punishments, and in times of war examples must be made. Having the PCs, along with the army, ordered to watch such a punishment being delivered can drive the point home. Even better, if they try to escape themselves, let them find out how imaginative their officer can be when devising punishments.

    Even prisoners can be pressed into service in wartime, especially those with fighting experience. Rulers often prefer conscripting such villains rather than their nice, productive, tax paying subjects. This provides a welcome solution for GMs stuck with imprisoned PCs. Let's face it, many PC parties do have a tendency to be naughty. It also allows GMs to play interestingly nasty NPC officers, and to give PCs the really dangerous (or stupid?) missions which ordinary soldiers would refuse! And even better, a unit of convicts may be kept separate from the rest of the army in an attempt to maintain discipline, which (again) means the PC party can operate alone.

  • Volunteers are much more likely material for elite units, and those of better social standing might balk at serving as common soldiers. As part of a company of gentlemen volunteers, like the famous Three Musketeers, they would tend to operate more independently, motivated to perform brave deeds by honour rather than through want of pay or fear of punishment. Furthermore, these are just the kind of fellows that commanders pull out of the field army to go on the more interesting missions. Such PCs might associate themselves with an army for a cause, just as historical crusaders flocked to join the expeditions to the Holy Land. Perhaps some great evil threatens the land and they wish to aid the forces of good (sound familiar?). On the other hand, more mercenary PCs may voluntarily enlist as just that - mercenaries. This is again especially easy if they have a reputation as brave or skilled fighters, and will give them more control over their own fate. Crafty PCs will surely choose to serve whichever side offers the most pay, while keeping defection in mind should the enemy improve their offer. Ultimately, they must ensure that they are on the winning side - crucial if they want to have fun spending their money after the war!

    Both volunteers and mercenaries might not have a directly controlling officer imposed upon them, especially if such independence was an original condition of their contractual employment. This (again) enhances the 'roleplayability' of such a unit, because it would operate more like a normal PC party. Simply swap: "You're sitting in an alehouse when a dark-garbed man sidles over to you with an offer," with: "You're sitting in your barracks when a red-garbed major swaggers over to you with an order." Easy!

  • Your PCs might even be obliged to serve in the army, just like in late Anglo-Saxon England when every able-bodied man between the ages of 16 and 60 had to serve if the land was invaded. Even non-fighter PCs could thus find themselves called up. Compared to the elite soldiers in the select levy, the rabble of men of the Anglo-Saxon Fyrd were not very well equipped, being armed with spears and daggers, and at the most protected by a leather jerkin and wooden shield. Thief or rogue PCs would certainly fit in with this lot! NPC army commanders with sense, however, will try to utilise PCs' special skills. Thieves can steal from the enemy, perhaps pilfering magical artefacts important to the foe's schemes. Rogues, peddlers, entertainers etc., can infiltrate the enemy camp as spies and saboteurs.

"So, Any Volunteers?"

PCs should probably not be "inserted" into a rank and file unit. Firstly, because of their adventuring experience, they are probably quite different from common soldiers. Some of them don't even need swords or guns issued - they've got their own beauties! Secondly, the possibilities for adventure are reduced. If the PCs form a small elite unit, then they will be assigned more interesting jobs. This is not to say that PCs, out on their own, should be expected to fight entire enemy armies, unless the game is one of very high fantasy. They might encounter the enemy army, yes, but the adventure will probably turn into one of avoidance, cunning disguises and subterfuge rather than a long series of combat encounters. If forced to fight their way out, however, then get the dice ready.

Enough about joining the army. Let's move on to what the PCs might actually do once they are in the ranks.

"'Tis enough," they cried "We want no more!"

Whilst gathering supplies on the march an army can truly lay waste to the land through which it passes. In fact, large raids following looping routes through the enemy's lands were a basic war strategy in the Middle Ages. They fed an army without using up allied resources, and kept soldiers happy with booty. Just as important, they challenged the enemy ruler's authority, by making the populace waver in their support of the ruler who failed to protect them.

You could reverse this idea, with the villagers hiring the PCs to defend themselves against the raiding soldiers. The PCs may be surprised to find that these same soldiers are on the side of good!

Just keeping an army fed occupies many soldiers constantly. Because of the need for provisions, an army is not always gathered into a single camp. It might be quartered throughout the local farms and villages. This can lead to tension as the soldiers eat up the food stores and the locals face the prospect of famine. Trouble can arise even if the army commanders plan to recompense the civilians - hungry peasants cannot eat promises. Riotous, drunken or thieving soldiers also tend to get on civilians' nerves! In response to such grievances, the locals may summon the courage to band together and protect their supplies, attacking any soldiers attempting to take food or animals. In the English Civil War, bands called "clubmen" arose in some counties and used force to oppose the armies' ravaging, their allegiances shifting according to which side threatened their property the most. Sometimes they opposed any approaching force. Such developments can create interesting scenarios, with plenty of scope for small scale conflict, as well as for quick thinking and negotiation. If your PCs are too nice to cause trouble themselves, then perhaps the antics of an allied unit stationed nearby will spark off trouble. How will the PCs deal with such rascals, technically on the same side? Tricky! And if hostage situations, desperate stand-offs and enemy agitators are thrown in the mix, then things become even trickier.

We're on our own

As a consequence of such foraging activities, PCs might find themselves separated from their army. Reluctant PC soldiers, the kind who really can't be bothered with all that shouting and banging of drums, might simply get left behind! And even if the PC party sticks with the army until victory is achieved, they still need to find their way home afterwards. However they get separated, the PCs might find trouble. An example from history should prove interesting. Returning home from crusade, King Richard the Lionheart tried to travel through Austria, a land ruled by men hostile to him (he had recently insulted the Duke of Austria). With only a handful of companions he decided to go overland in the guise of pilgrims returning from Jerusalem. They moved one step ahead of trouble, diminishing in number until the king had only a German speaking boy and one other retainer with him. When the boy went off to get supplies, he spent a little too much money for a humble pilgrim, and was spotted with the king's gloves tucked into his belt! Captured by suspicious local lords, he eventually revealed the king's whereabouts. Thus began the Lionheart's famous captivity in Germany. Could your PCs make such silly mistakes and end up having to escape from prison? Would their false elven ears fool even an elven child?

The Whites Of Their Eyes

Obviously, battles are a major component of warfare, yet due to their unpredictable and drastic nature they were often avoided in the Middle Ages. King Henry II of England successfully defended his huge realm from incursion and even added to it, yet in all the years of his long reign he never fought one open battle. Raids and sieges were much more common in the Middle Ages, thought to be safer strategies than open battle. But battles did occur often enough, such as when besieging forces were compelled to fight by relief armies, or when war leaders thought the odds were well in their favour. There was even a common belief that a pitched battle represented the proper culmination of a campaign. In other times, like the early modern period, the pitched battle was considered the be all and end all of war. With all this in mind, let us consider open battle. After all, your players probably expect their PCs to march into battle at some point in their military careers, and you might not want disappoint them.

Possibly the best example of how to keep players in focus amongst a huge battle scene is the Battle of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back

If the PCs end up in the midst of a battle, then your players and you will have to use common sense to work your way enjoyably through the experience. It would be a shame to turn such a potentially exciting, colourful and tense situation into a "buckets of dice" encounter. Concentrating on the PCs' immediate area, in terms of opportunities for heroism and desperate action, whilst describing only what they can see around them, is probably the best way to proceed. There can still be opportunities for the PCs to alter the tide of battle - if they find themselves where it counts (like right in front of a breach in the enemy line), or facing whatever or whoever counts (like the enemy's battle standard or commander). And don't forget that PCs might even experience lulls in the fighting as the battle shifts and flows around them, giving everyone time to think and breathe; most importantly, time to take in something of the bigger picture and perhaps respond accordingly.

Yet although your players may assume their PCs will be in the thick of it all, there are other places they might find themselves. Veteran PCs could be held in reserve, and after a good descriptive summary of the fight by you, the players may be only too glad their PCs avoided the main struggle. The PCs might only go into action at the close of battle, ordered to capture an important enemy or an artefact being carried off by looters. If the PCs' side is defeated, however, the adventure becomes all about escape, a crucial matter if the foe does not care for prisoners. Loyal PCs might want to make sure their rulers, commanders or friends escape too.

Another alternative to the front line is to have the PCs protect a baggage train, or be given the task of guarding an important NPC. This latter option can become difficult if the VIP insists on putting himself in danger. At the famous battle of Crécy the old and blind king of Bohemia, in a chivalrous gesture, asked to be led into the fray so that he could strike a blow with his sword. Two of his knightly companions tied their own reins to his horse and did as he asked. All three were promptly killed!

The PCs might even be ordered to outflank the opposition and, taking advantage of the absence of many soldiers from the foe's lands, plunge into enemy territory to attempt specialist missions. Greedy PCs might be somewhat reluctant to stroll past any baggage trains they discover at the rear, which might get them into a trouble, especially if they are slowed down by a weighty load of plunder!

Boiling Oil!

When part of a besieging force, PC dungeon-delvers could be sent through a newly dug mine into the besieged castle's underground caverns. Common soldiers might not be considered much of a match for the kind of beasts that tend to lurk around in the subterranean tunnels of a fantasy fortress. There are other ways in too - Trojan Horse style trickery or daring night-time wall scaling. Thief PCs may be ordered to sneak into a castle through the latrine holes, just as one brave man did for the French king Philip Augustus when Chateau Gaillard was taken from King John's soldiers in the early thirteenth century. Such an unpleasant mission might be given as punishment for theft! However they get inside, the PCs would then be expected to raise the portcullis, poison the well or even capture the garrison commander.

PCs on the defenders' side have much more incentive to fight - what with being trapped themselves! If a castle is small, or if the allies have had to spread their strategic resources thinly, a PC party may be on its own. Castles in the Middle Ages were often defended by a mere handful of folk, like the castle of Chalus-Chabrol which Richard the Lionheart besieged in 1199, which had only two knights and a few others inside. One of its defenders, firing a crossbow from the walls while using a frying pan for cover, managed to mortally wound Richard. The king, believe it or not, was actually watching the antics of this man with amusement when the fatal bolt struck! But besieged PCs have more to do than just fight off attacks. They may need to sally out to get messages through the surrounding enemy camp. They must negotiate with the besiegers, deciding upon matters such as how long they will wait for a relief force before they surrender the castle. There could be trouble inside to deal with, as the other besieged souls lose confidence. If you really want adventure, they may have to do all these things at once.

Stuff This For A Game Of Soliders!

War-time adventures are not always about conflict with the enemy or the local population - conflict can arise within the allied forces also. Mutiny is the most obvious example; pay and conditions being the most common cause. When funds or supplies begin to dry up, commanders might start dishing out empty promises or threats to maintain discipline, and soldiers sometimes respond by taking matters into their own hands. Mutinous rumblings can also arise due to unpopular officers or orders which forebode certain doom, and they can lead to adventure.

Desertion is also a major problem in war, and is usually dealt with harshly. Captured deserters were often made examples, either through public execution or painful branding; the latter marking them for life as cowards.

In some medieval armies the leaders tried to maintain discipline by issuing regulations. In 1190 the Lionheart drew up rules to be obeyed by his soldiers and sailors during the journey to the Holy Land. When a man killed another crusader he was to be lashed to his victim and buried alive. If trustworthy witnesses proved a man had drawn a knife on another and drawn blood, then the guilty man would lose his hand! Such punishments might stir up trouble rather than quell it. And if the PCs are feeling the sharp end of military justice, or if they can no longer put up with a sadistic officer, then they might themselves mutiny. You might enjoy playing such leaders - gradually fuelling the PCs' discontent with more and more outrageous orders. Lawful (or sensible) PCs who remain loyal to their officers during a mutiny will be ordered to help re-establish order, to extract officers from trouble or to guard pay-chests. Unless a major, regime-toppling rebellion is occurring, it is usually safer in the long run to stay loyal to one's superiors. Mutineers are seldom dealt with lightly!

"There, on the horizon! Don't you see it?"

Many PCs are suited for the specialist military role of scouting, especially wilderness types. With only one or two such individuals, the whole PC party can become a scouting unit. Their main role is reconnaissance: moving in advance of the army to gather information, such as the location, strength, composition and condition of enemy forces, as well as the lie of the land. As the wise Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, if an enemy's water carriers take a drink themselves before they fill flasks for the rest of the army, then the enemy army is thirsty. Scouts need to know what subtle signs to look for!

As the first allied soldiers to arrive in an area, PC scouts can find themselves in some tricky situations. Even if enemy soldiers are not present, the local population itself might be hostile. Sometimes an opportunity which brave scouts just cannot refuse will come the PCs' way. They might, for example, encounter a high ranking foe who has ridden out to reconnoitre for himself. Should the PCs attempt to capture or assassinate him? In 1191, during his crusade in Palestine, King Richard I rode off with only his falcons and a handful of companions, intending to take a few Saracens prisoner if he came across any. While having a doze under a tree, however, he was attacked. Mounting quickly he rode into the fray, but was hard pressed as even more Saracens arrived. The day was eventually saved by a knight called William de Preaux, who cried out (in the foe's tongue) that he was the king. The foolish attackers then left as soon as they had captured this brave knight! Could your PCs be similarly fooled?

The most dangerous side to scouting is spying upon the enemy and avoiding his scouts and outriders. If PCs are captured it might be their turn to reveal information! But there are rewards to be gained from taking risks. Clever characters could infiltrate an enemy camp as assassins or saboteurs. If the enemy is advancing upon a fortress, for example, with a powerful war-machine in tow guaranteeing the castle's destruction, then some pyrotechnics might be in order! Opportunistic characters might just go straight for the enemy's wage chest. If they successfully steal its contents, the enemy could face mutiny and mass desertion, a handy thing to point out if the PCs are discovered by their own side and must explain themselves! The PCs might even come across enemy deserters wishing to change allegiance and do a bit of recruiting. If the deserters are allies, however, perhaps even the PCs' own friends, then some hard decisions must be taken.

Some Day, This War's Gonna End

You may be reluctant to plunge your campaign world into war because of the changes it brings, perhaps ruining your carefully crafted background notes. Yet a war need not alter things too much, especially if the current rulers are victorious. You could introduce a small-scale conflict, like a border-land invasion, or have the war take place in a foreign land, both of which should leave your campaign area relatively unchanged.

Neither does a war mean digging out the little metal figurines and rulers and leaving the roleplaying behind. Whatever the political implications of the war, there's a barrel full of adventures to be had, of all shapes and descriptions. With the hooks outlined above, even the most reluctant PC soldiers, skulking far from the front line, cannot avoid tangling with the epic force of war and producing some great stories. War has a habit of throwing soldiers in at the deep end. Can your PCs swim?

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