Creating & Writing Fantasy Armies - Things To Keep In Mind & Consider

Thanks to m961, who contributed this article!

Size & Statistics

In today’s fiction we find incredible numbers in the ranks of armed forces. I’m not exaggerating when I say that people freely claim that what should be a relatively small country has millions of soldiers in a single army fighting a similarly-numbered opposition. Unless done correctly, this is laughable.

Consider that in any given country, only a certain percentage of the population will be able and/or permitted to fight. If the country has an age limit, then only those who are of age or are capable of lying about their ages could enlist. Among those who are of eligible age you’d have those who were physically disabled or seriously ill or injured. If our hypothetical fantasy world doesn’t permit women in the army at large, this would cut the pool of potential soldiers down even further. (And remember, there has to be someone to look after the children at home.)

Once you’ve actually got your army together, about half of them will be indisposed due to temporary illness, injury, or whathaveyou. Then out of that, only perhaps a fifth of the people will make up the actual fighting force, with the rest working as posts, guards, naval crews, and other non-combatant jobs. Out of perhaps eighty people you could have five people serving in the army in some capacity, and out of that you’d have one actual soldier. So basically, out of your entire population, only 1.25% could actually serve as soldiers. Figure out what your country’s population is, and you can work out from here how many soldiers there’d probably be. But you’re not done yet - next comes arming and maintaining them.

So, if we had a starting population of 480,000, we’d end up with a 6000 unit army. (Not too big, I know.) Now, consider that they need training, armor, weapons, food, medical care, payment, horses for the cavalry, tools for everyday use, and so on and so forth. All of the money to pay for this has to come from somewhere. We could say that the equipment is paid for by the members of the army, or passed along from others, but the first would mean a smaller force as not everyone would be able to afford supplies, and the latter overlooks the fact that weapons and equipment can and do break.

Now, some soldiers could keep themselves fit during peacetime through jobs such as working in the fields (farmer’s tools would actually be heavier than their own weapons). Another solution is to fund the army through taxation, but history shows that this tends not to go over well with the people. A last option is to hire mercenaries to serve in the army when at war. Despite their higher cost, one could be fairly sure they’d already know how to and be able to fight, and they wouldn’t need paid/maintained during peacetime as a standing army would.

Weapons & Armor

People often consider swords to be the bread and butter of Medieval weaponry, but this wasn’t the case. While they are good weapons, they’re expensive to make and take significant time to learn how to use well - only those who were able to receive training or otherwise get experience with a sword would be able to make good use of them. For everyone else, battle axes are cheaper and as many people would have experience with wood-chopping axes (which are actually heavier!), they wouldn’t require a lot of training to get the hang of. Polearms and spears are also cheap and easy to learn: within a few weeks and learning a few minor organization skills, a decent phalanx could be formed from even the most unskilled weapons. A halberd, then, would prove a handy weapon.

Ranged weapons are a little more complicated. Bows are cheap and quick, but need training and constant force while aiming. Crossbows aren’t much more expensive, but they’re slower to reload. However, they don’t require as much strength to hold steady, and are relatively easy for first-timers to use. (Firearms and magical weapons could also be included if the writer wants them.)

Despite armor being ubiquitous in Medieval and fantasy art, in reality it wasn’t always there. Some people had at most minimal riding equipment (leather boots, gloves, and armor) but otherwise depended on their wits and skill to avoid getting hit. Armor is also much more varied than many think - first, there’s quilted cloth, which while considered inferior, is far better than bare skin. (Quilted cloth was also used as a padding between skin and metal armor, as bare metal on skin is uncomfortable and ineffective.) Leather was more expensive than quilted cloth, and when stiffened into armor it wasn’t as flexible as many think it was. Also, leather for armor often came from bulls, which could potentially be prohibitively expensive.

Mail was also an option, but it was heavier, more time-consuming, and more expensive to make than plate armor. It was also often relegated to parts that needed to be flexible, such as elbows and knees with plate armor being used to cover the rest, but even then plate armor eventually adapted with articulated joints.

Scaled armor and padded steel are a little more complicated to go into due to variety and variations in designs, but overall protected fairly well and were lighter than plate armors. It’s definitely worth considering.

Last but not least, there’s plate armor. It protected from some of the harshest blows, though it was fairly expensive. It was further improved in the 16th century by fluting in the metal that was originally intended to be decorative, but actually made the armor stronger and allowed armor smiths to use less steel without loss in resilience.

Before going on, I’d like to talk about breast bulges in armor: the curve would lead to the force of blows aimed at the chest going right to the center of the thorax, rather than deflecting damage away from the chest. Unless a person’s breasts are too large to be bound to the body, there would be no reason not to use “male” plate armor.

With regard to military formations, there are a few things to consider. Phalanxes are quite effective, but weak if artillery (cannons, ballistae, catapults, etc.) are used against them. Archers excel when in formation to use “arrow showers,” but they could also be able to skirmish. Shock cavalry and archery mix well together, as the enemy won’t be able to cover both.

As a rule of thumb, formations don’t stay the same in battle, as they’ll have to adapt to changing situations if they hope to win. Versatile units can fend off more attacks and have greater odds of winning.

My best recommendation is to do research of your own. Armies across the globe are extremely diverse in equipment and tactics, and all of them can give you ideas for your own armies. A few to consider include the Roman, Greek, Japanese, British, Spanish, French, German, Viking, Italian, Chinese, and Turkish armies. Also, armies found in fantasy and science fiction can lend a few ideas as well.

You might also be interested in:

Tips & Ideas To Create More Believable Sword 'n Sorcery Worlds
Things Your Fantasy Or Science Fiction Story Needs
Country-Development Questions
Tips To Write Better Royalty, Nobility, & Other Upper-Class & Important Characters
Creating & Writing Fictional Organizations
On Writing & Roleplaying Characters Who Are Competent Tacticians

External Resource & References

Gothic and Renaissance Art in Nuremberg, 1300-1550
The Numberless Hordes: Keeping Your Fantasy Armies a Little Less Fantastic
I, Clausewitz: A Would-be Conqueror's Diary

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