Warfare in the Vault & the Basin Kingdoms
For this article, I am going to focus on a region called the Basin Kingdoms.
Until 20 years before the current campaign, the Basin Kingdoms were part of the Imperium. However, two decades ago, in a global event called the Dwindling, the luminous orb at the center of our Dyson-Shell world dimmed, even in daytime, and legions of chromatic dragons and fiends invaded the region. Although the invading hordes were repelled, the Imperium was left shattered. The Basin Kingdoms comprise one of the larger shards left over from that older empire.
Warfare in Basin Kingdoms bears a strong resemblance to combat in the mid to late Fourteenth Century in Europe, with some notable exceptions dictated by the realities of a world where magic plays a significant role.
The Set-Up: Feudalism Returns When the Empire Falls
Decades earlier, under the Imperium, most lords in the core of the region had paid scutage to support the legions while maintaining small numbers of ready house soldiers. The lords had employed these house soldiers to deal with local issues and to form the nucleus of mustered armies when local threats developed.
However, in frontier regions, things had developed a little differently. Part of the reason for this is that, in the Vault, the further one gets away from civilization, the more the geography of the world shifts and moves around, a feature of the setting that we call soft geography. This means you could one day find that the nearby woods have become thicker, more menacing, and suddenly filled with goblins — because they aren’t the same woods that were there before. In these frontiers, where external dangers were more obvious and prevalent, stronger feudal structures had persisted amid a tradition of localism and independence.
Now that the once mighty Imperium is effectively dissolved, however, the Basin Kingdoms have begun to break up into petty fiefdoms and to squabble among each other as greater and lesser powers attempt to fill the resulting power vacuum. As a result, the feudal system has seen a remarkable resurgence. With internal power struggles and the constant threat of new incursions by humanoid hordes and monsters, the Basin Kingdoms have become a setting rich in potential for battles of many kinds, and on many scales.
A Player’s Perspective
by Graham Robert Scott
Wallace and I both DM, and get to be players in each other’s campaigns. So I have run a character in one of Wallace’s military campaigns, in the region that he is describing. We were stationed as scouts at a frontier outpost, where our task was essentially to watch the surrounding wilderness. When soft geography changes kicked in, we had to go investigate — never knowing quite what we might be walking into. It was terrifying and thrilling to head out on those missions. And I loved the novelty, in that the “dungeon” was coming to us, rather than the other way around.
Since the collapse of the Imperium, the Basin Kingdoms as a whole have become more militarized both to deal with the continuing external threats and to fend off (or instigate!) incursions into neighboring territories that were also past of the Imperium. This increase in conflict has facilitated a return to the older feudal system as local lords struggle to acquire enough troops fend off or precipitate conflicts with their neighbors. Local rulers, such as former dukes of territorial regions, self proclaimed kings of new states, increasingly independent city states and newly freed subject territories all now seek to establish their own internally loyal and self supporting armed forces. This has led to a massive increase in feudal structures in the more civilized and central regions of the Basin Kingdoms and entrenchment of the already existing system in the outlying regions.
Because of these increasing tensions and internal hostilities, the feudal host, not too long ago relegated to a minor role in the affairs of the Imperium, is once again the most significant military force in the Basin Kingdoms. While many knights and barons are happy to pay a scutage fee to escape service, it is something of a matter of pride for members of several of the Moric houses (particularly the Argent and Tynha) to serve in person. This has somewhat limited the development of a paid professional army, although contract soldiers are beginning to predominate in more urbanized regions, especially in the last few years as local tensions mount.
The Knight’s Obligation
The basis of this feudal service in the Imperium, is the knight’s obligation, which was regularized under the Interregnum and which still holds today.
In the Basin Kingdoms, any people enfeofed to the highest secular lord in the region are called barons as a generic term, though any individual baron may have a distinct title as well.
The knight’s obligation works like roughly like this: A baron is given a certain amount of land in return for a set number of “obligations,” customarily something along the lines of providing a few dozen fighting men for forty days of military service a year and perhaps some other duties or requirements. The baron in turn grants out portions of this land to individual knights who will then make up the core of the military forces the baron is required to provide. The amount of land given to an individual knight is not set, but it averages somewhere between ten and fifteen hides of land. (A hide of land is about 120 acres and can feed 25 people.) The knight’s obligation consists of the knight himself, a squire and a retainer.
The knight must provide his own equipment and that of his men, which is also standardized by statute and custom.
The first requirement is that the knight has a warhorse, a riding horse, and a packhorse. His squire must also be mounted. The knight must be equipped with a chain hauberk, shield, and helm or better armor (AC 15 or better), and his squire and retainer must be provided with leather armor (though it is considered embarrassing to dress one’s squire nowadays in anything less than a chain shirt). The knight must have a sword and two lances, the squire a sword, and the retainer a long dagger. They must bring with them two weeks of provisions (the rest is to be provided by the king or whatever authority the baron owes fealty to) and are expected to bear the costs of traveling to the set muster point.
Prior to the Dwindling, the squire was originally intended to be a body servant, usually of noble blood, preparing for knighthood himself. Squires generally did not participate in battle except to fetch replacement arms and guard the baggage. But they have come to be a well-armed and armored force often fighting dismounted in the front ranks. Many squires are now professional soldiers themselves, cousins or uncles of a knight without their own land. For them war provides a rare opportunity for loot. The retainers were and still are drawn almost entirely from the general population. They too have come to play an increasingly prominent role in warfare, originally serving largely to hold and guard a knight’s reserve mounts. They are often proficient in regional fighting styles, such as the longbowmen of the Middle Marches, or the light cavalry of the Selwan Plains.
Exceptions to the Feudal Pattern
Contract troops. While knight obligations are seeing a resurgence, some more progressive lords have come to rely heavily upon contract troops hired by appointed leaders. These leaders are (as noted) usually members of the House guard or powerful barons. They literally sign a contract with the king to provide a set number of troops (anything from a dozen to several thousand) for a particular amount of time (usually a year’s service) for a standard rate of pay. In this way a king or lord is able to raise troops much more flexibly, calling up archers, cavalry, pikemen, etc. as needed. He is also able to keep them in the field for longer periods of time.
Peasant musters. Other arrangements for troop gathering are used on a more local level, especially for defense. A tradition surviving from the days of the Interregnum states that in the case of invasion, or threat of invasion, the local lord may call upon one man per hide of land to take up arms to defend the region. If one (wealthy) peasant family holds the land, the head of that house or one of his sons will often answer this call. If the land is divided amongst several families they will band together and select one of their number, the rest providing him with the necessary equipment. That equipment usually consists of some kind of leather or padded armor, a long knife, and a weapon of his choice (often a regional specialty). The lords have in the past taken liberties in calling up these troops to fill out their ranks, but have also been careful to pay them (usually at the standard rate of 2 silver pieces a day) in order to maintain their discipline. Those who would answer the general muster are also often the first to seek employment in the contract armies requested by the kings or lords who use them. There is wealth and adventure to be won in war, and many even among the peasantry are happy to follow its call.
† A long knife or long dagger has the same statistics as a dagger, though characters with martial weapon proficiency might substitute the mechanics of the shortsword.
† A chain hauberk is a chain shirt.
If the text refers to a sword, any type of sword may be used.
† A greatbow is a martial weapon that requires Strength 14 to fire without disadvantage. It has the range of a longbow but inflicts 1d10 damage.
† A mantlet is like a cross between giant shield and portable wall. It requires two hands and an Action to move a mantlet, but two soldiers sharing a mantlet may each benefit from three-quarters cover, or a +5 AC bonus, against anyone in front of them. In practice, one soldier carries the mantlet while a bowman or crossbowman uses it for cover.
Urban mercenary corps. As the urban centers of the Basin Kingdoms develop and increasingly operate as independent states, they too have begun to play an increasingly important role in warfare. Many city charters required that the community provide a certain number of troops at the Imperium’s need, who serve much in much the same way as a knight for his obligation. The wealthier merchants of the cities will often be able to provide a small amount of heavy cavalry (this also serving to blur the lines of distinction between the wealthy merchants and the aristocratic knights) and can always come up with the extra retainers. More recent charters, and expansions of old ones, have included new duties often in the form of troops these urban centers are best able to provide. As missile weapons have begun to play an increasingly important role in warfare, crossbow corps raised by the cities, at first for their own defense in time of siege, have earned for themselves a place of respect in the modern army. Large urban centers might be able to provide several hundred of these elite troops, and they have come to form the backbone of many of the contract armies employed in the Basin Kingdoms, some even hiring out as mercenaries. They have taken pride in this new tradition, and have organized themselves into effective units, defended by well-trained mantlet-carriers and supplied with ever more efficient weapons.
Regional and racial specialists. Several types of purely mercenary troops (as opposed to the more regular contract armies) are also active throughout the Basin Kingdowms. Perhaps the most famous of these are the dread Kuehlan high elves who often hire out in small mercenary units to fulfill their traditional cultural rite of passage known as the Reaving. By ancient tradition, each member of this warlike elven nation must defeat at least twenty foes in combat and return their skulls to the family shrine in order to become full citizens of the Kuehlan Dominion. Having in many cases served for decades, these elves are among the most feared mercenaries in the Basin Kingdoms. Several human cultures have mercenary groups they are well known for:
- Middle Marches greatbowmen are highly coveted.
- Hygaelic light skirmishers are renowned.
- Light infantry from the semi-independent city state of Arshmurga, along with their renowned composite bowmen, often appear in armies.
- The mercenary soldiers of the Selwan Plains are particularly noteworthy for their light cavalry.
- Spearmen from Mor Ithel are also held in high regard.
Unit Leadership & Battlefield Deployment
Troops raised by both contract and feudal methods are generally organized by type and will serve under a master chosen from among the nobility. Specialist and mercenary troops will often have their own leaders, but will follow the orders of their superiors or employers on the field. The king, local lord, or perhaps a powerful baron will usually be in charge of the army as a whole, delegating authority to other lords, based upon both merit and connections. Contract troops will generally be commanded by the knight who hired them, but may also fall under the command of other higher ranked lords. The structure is far less developed than might be expected, with only very broad rankings, but it is effective nonetheless, partially because the lords and commons already have a social structure upon which they can fall back even on the battlefield.
In actual combat, archers and support troops will generally be placed along flanking positions set to take advantage of terrain and defensive features. The cavalry, which remained the heart of the Imperium’s local armies, will often be divided into units called battles under the command of individual lords. These will operate as semi-autonomous units in the chaos of the field, but the main ‘general’ will usually have worked out a basic plan which they will attempt to follow. These battles will charge and retreat, flank and stand as the situation dictates and as their courage demands. Often the side which has numerical superiority will attempt to charge the opposite line of battle, sometimes after harassment by archers. If repulsed, they may rely upon flanking maneuvers or infantry support, both of which the defenders will attempt to counter with their own cavalry in reserve.
More recently archers, both greatbowmen and crossbowmen have begun to play an increasingly significant role. Few cavalry charges can stand up to concerted missile fire, even with improvements in armor. Knights are beginning to fight on the ground more often, finding this effective both against the unreliability of their mounts under fire, and in the face of opposing charges. Supported by their own archers, such formations have proved very disciplined and difficult to resist. Battles have also grown larger, as the armies and their support structure have become more effective, and the significant reintroduction of commoners to the battlefield as internecine conflicts develop in the wake of the Dwindling has taken something of the sheen of civility and grace from the whole affair. At least the knights and lords seem to feel this way, but no one can seriously suggest a return to the old ways.
There are a great many other factors that influence warfare within the Basin Kingdoms. Changing weapon and armor technology, foreign relations, and the expansion of trade all effect the methods and conduct of war. This article has merely scratched the surface, detailing the ways in which armies are gathered and ordered. It is important to remember that warfare and the ways in which it is conducted have an effect upon everyday life. The tie between the aristocracy and its military background means that there is very little separation between the government and the military. It also means that status is at least partially related to one’s ability in combat. Changes in warfare also have an effect. The new reliance upon troops drawn from commoners both reflects and enhances the growing power of this class. Everyone is affected by warfare, whether directly or through its symptoms, and there is little insulation at any level.
An Alternative Military Model: The Imperium’s Legions
I’ve added the Imperium’s Legions to the world of The Vault for those wishing to employ a more familiar rank and command structure. The real-world model for the Legions’ structure was that of late republican and early Imperial Rome, as Rome’s structure was based on arms, armor, and combat realities not too far different from what might be experienced in a pseudo-medieval fantasy world.
Before the Imperium fell, most military effort was concentrated outward toward the dangerous fringes of the Basin Kingdoms region where the ever shifting geography of the outer hexads brought new threats with alarming regularity. In response to this largely external threat the Imperium developed a more regularized military model comprised of a number of legions of professional soldiers who often served for decades in remote posts on the frontiers.
These legions have a regular structure of officers and advancement and owe allegiance not to any single lord or kingdom but rather to the Imperium itself, despite the fact that the Imperium has been essentially defunct for two decades. In practice, the remaining legions have recommitted themselves to the large city states that continue to finance and support them, most notably Mor Ithel and Mor Gilos, the two largest cities on the Rin.
Graham Robert Scott: This is the force that my character belonged to, alluded to above.
Most of the legions that survived the Dwindling are still stationed on the outskirts of the Basin Kingdoms and are heavily engaged in stopping further incursions from threats generated by the continued movement of hexads on perimeter of the Basin Kingdoms.
Imperium Legions: Organization and Order
The great Shorizonic Legions were traditionally made up of about 5,000 soldiers. Each was numbered as they were established and also granted an Imperial Sigil, a sort of totemic mascot that tops the legionary standard. These standards were traditionally taken from legendary monstrous beasts, such as hydras, griffons, and the like. Legions are called both by the number they were assigned and by the name of their totemic standard. For instance, Legio VII is also known as the Manticores.
Legions are organized by several subdivisions. The main unit after the legion itself is the cohort. There are officially 10 cohorts in the legion, but some cohorts may be omitted if a legion is under strength. Each cohort ideally comprises 5 centuries, though some only have 4 under the legions current conditions. Centuries traditionally have between 50 and 100 soldiers. Centuries are further divided into Decades of 10 men which are in turn split into maniples of 5 men.
Legion: 5,000 soldiers (at maximum strength), divided among 10 cohorts
Cohorts: 500 soldiers (at maximum strength), divided among 5 centuries
Centuries: 50 to 100 soldiers, divided into decades
Decade: 10 soldiers (this number is kept mostly stable), divided into two maniples of 5 each
The command structure of the legion is a bit complicated. The Legate is in supreme command of the legion. He is assisted by two individuals, a Tribune Major (usually just referred to as a Major), who is an officer and likely drawn from the nobility, and a Prefect, who comes from the enlisted ranks. The Tribune Major takes command of the legion if the Legate falls, but the Prefect is actually in charge of most of the tactical decisions and technically outranks the Tribune Major as long as the Legate is alive. These three figures command the legion as a whole.
This structure is essentially replicated at the cohort level where each is commanded by a Tribune Minor (usually just called a Tribune), who is an officer and quite likely a minor noble or member of the gentry, and a Primus, who has generally been promoted from the post of Centurion. The Tribune is in overall command of the cohort, but the often experienced and respected Primus generally relays his orders.
The century is commanded by a Centurion with an Optio acting as his second in command. Every Century also has a standard bearer, who does not have a command role, but who traditionally serves as a sort of quartermaster in addition to holding the century’s standard in battle, around which the unit will rally. Each decade of a century is commanded by a Decanus though this is an old fashioned term and the title of “sergeant,” drawn from the non Imperial military structure, has long been used in its place. As each decade is divided into two maniples. If the maniples separate, one will be commanded by the Decanus and the other by the Pollex, which means “thumb.”
The line between officers and enlisted men does not really exist in the same way that it occurs in modern armies. The Legate and Tribune ranks are generally drawn from the nobility, but the other ranks are based on merit and seniority. The Legate decides promotions in the legion and can change ranks essentially at will, though he will traditionally allow subordinates to offer recommendations.†