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Seattle, Washington, United States
I'm an old time roleplayer who became a soldier who became a veteran who became a developer who became a dba who became a manager who never gave up his dream of a better world. Even if I have to create it myself.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Military Structure in an RPG

Extensive complexity for military structures is not that important in most fantasy RPGs - however, in honor of the hobby's wargame origins and in the spirit of plausibility, I'd like to share some notes. Hopefully they will help others brainstorm and understand these structures!

BabyBat took this picture, because she is awesome.

Besides being in the military for a few years, I am also a student of military history, from the early Roman period forward. I believe a lot can be learnt about a culture by studying their approach to military, and conflict in general.

Remember that this is a great place to make the flavor of your chosen culture really shine. There is a big difference between a forced-conscription, high per-capita military and a volunteer-only, low per-capita military presence in a region. Make a basic framework, and focus on flavor from there.

Officers and Soldiers
Officers lead Soldiers. These are generic terms, as the "soldiers" might be naval seamen, marines, warmages, archers, or anything else you can dream up. The nomenclature simply refers to the big question of, "Who's in charge?" It also presents the first cultural question: how are officers selected in your fantasy military organization?

In some cultures, generally the less civilized ones, the most cunning or most powerful (or a combination of both) tends to become the leader. A troll might be stronger than an orc, but the troll is probably too stupid to make orcs fight, and is thus subservient to the (slightly) smarter creatures. So, don't make the mistake of thinking strength is everything - some degree of charisma or personality, and intelligence, is also required. But being able to personally beat down the opposition never hurt.

Aside from such cultures, though, most structured militaries have encouraged - or required - a class distinction between Officers and the folks they lead. Perhaps a noble title is required to be an officer, or perhaps it is an elected position amongst citizens. These officers are granted a Commission, or a formal delegation of authority, by the country's political leader. In these societies, a combination of political prowess and accomplishment create promotion opportunities for more extensive control of the armed forces.

In some structures, soldiers can become officers through demonstration of prowess or expertise in their field. Modern police agencies and some historical navies are associated with this method, so perhaps it could be more common in such elements. Also, many military structures allow for truly exceptional soldiers to become officers via various rituals, from knighting ceremonies to extended candidate schooling or apprenticeship.

Regardless of the formalities, only three ranks of officers are generally important in an RPG: Company-grade, Field-grade, and General- (or Flag-) grade. It's doubtful that distinctions between members of an individual grade will be important to the average game. In many structures, being an officer is a part-time job only held during times of threatened or actual conflict.

Company-grade officers lead small units, like platoons, companies, departments, squads, sections, phalanxes, contuberniums, centuries, maniples, phyles, enomotias, gangs, or flights. Example rank names include Sublieutenant, Lieutenant, Ensign, Knight, Optio, Decurion, Centurion, Subcommander, Deputy, Captain (non-Naval), Mage, Demiphylarch, Phylarch, and Enomotarch. Company-grade officers almost always fight alongside their soldiers in a direct leadership capacity. Staff officers at this level serve as advisors or personal servants to higher ranking officers.

Field-grade officers lead collections of smaller units, either formally or informally organized into large units. In many societies they are no longer responsible for individual combat skills, but rather motivational and organizational skills. Units led by Field-grade officers include battalions, brigades, vessels, cohorts, legions, pentekostyses, lochoses, and squadrons. Rank examples include Colonel, Major, Commander, Captain (Naval), Commandant, Tribune, Primus, Gul, Highmage, Lord, Pentekoster, and Lochagos.

Flag officers, or General officers, are the most senior grade of officers and in some structures there might only be one individual with such a rank. Most nation-sized militaries will have more than one. They command armies, forces, forts, installations, bases, wings, fleets, and similar large organizations. Their organizational and strategic capabilities are of supreme importance. Sample ranks include General, Marshal, Admiral, Commodore, Archmage, High Lord, Legate, Praetor, Executor and combinations of other ranks like Major-General or Deputy-Marshal.

In most RPGs, distinctions between different ranks of soldiers are of lesser importance. However, they can be divided into two general categories: Private and Sergeant. Soldiers are frequently full-time occupations, but might also be a collection of farmers or savages.

Privates are the meat of the military, quite literally in some cases. They might also be called seamen, foot-soldiers, crew, gang members, apprentices, tadpoles, or pond-scum. They are the bulk of the fighting forces and take the heaviest casualties in any conflict.

Sergeants are a generic term for non-commissioned officers, which are those individuals not qualifying as an officer, but who are still charged with direct leadership of the more junior soldiers assigned to them. This can be formal or informal, but unlike officers, in primitive or informally structured units they do tend to be the strongest or most powerful from amongst their peers. Other ranks for these individuals might include Petty Officer, Frogman, Principal, Alpha, Corporal, Senior, or Chief.


  1. Nice read.

    I googled Frogman because it's the first time I across that term.
    I found http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XkvAh3RAOs
    I was not disappointed.

    1. No matter how bad you fail, there is always someone on youtube who fails more.

  2. This is about as basic as you can explain it. Good job.


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