Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Remaining Soldiers

There is a popular history book waiting to be written about the role that disbanded military units have played in historical events: young men once gainfully employed who suddenly have nothing to do and who are trained in and accustomed to extreme violence can cause all kinds of mischief; multiply this by the tens of thousand or hundreds of thousand and suddenly they become societal problems - even global problems - in their own right. You could almost say that the demobbing of the German and Russian armies at the close of WWI was a significant cause all on its own of all the mayhem that followed; you could also spin the final conquest of the American West as partly the mere consequence of the unleashing of lots of demobbed soldiers at the end of a long and brutal war. A much more modern example is the sudden dissolution of the Iraqi army during de-Ba'athification in 2003-2004, which is said to have been supplied much of the fuel for the insurgency that followed and was also clearly a significant factor in the rise of Islamic State.

(I have a feeling I may have written a blog post on this subject before, but if I have, I don't remember where.)

On a smaller scale, Japanese "remainers" in Indochina played a key role in training the Viet Minh after WWII in their war against the French, and hence subsequently against the Americans; in a strange historical twist, a lot of the French Foreign Legionnaires in that conflict were also actually German mercenaries fresh from the war in Europe. Japanese troops who had previously been stationed in China also played a prominent role as mercenaries in the Chinese civil war in the 1945-1949 period, and let's not forget, of course, Xenophon and the march of the 10,000 - which is basically a story about a disbanded military force, and which supposedly inspired Alexander in his conquest of Persia.

The idea of ex-soldiers stranded far from home has been used before, in Twilight: 2000, but works equally well for fantasy games. Why are the PCs in Yoon-Suin, or Tsolyanu, or Sigil, or wherever else your campaign begins? Well, maybe they happened to be there fighting a war and the war's over. What could be more a more natural next step than for them to begin looking around for other opportunities for wealth and glory?


  1. Bit of a tangent, but one interpretation I once put on Othello was that it was about a soldier who reaches the front line and finds there is nothing to do.

  2. The actions of soldiers from disbanded units are a major theme of A Distant Mirror. I think you've written about that book before.

    1. Yep. Another example of how disbanded soldiers with nothing much to do can fuel further conflict - I suspect that kind of explanation is frowned upon by historians but I think sometimes conflict almost has a momentum of its own.

  3. This post reminded me of that scene in Moorcock's Stormbringer in which Elric and various survivors of a battle are holed up in a cave. At least one is dying of his wounds. It's always struck me as an excellent starting point for an adventure: "Everyone knows that the war is over/Everybody knows that the good guys lost", as Leonard Cohen put it.

    One thing I mean to try shortly is to play out a battle using the Hordes of the Things wargames rules, but with terribly mismatched sides, so that the good guys will inevitably lose. When they do, we'll switch to D&D: "You're holed up in a cave in the hills over here, listening to the distant sounds of looting. YOU were with the light horse; YOU were in the phalanx broken by the orc warbands; YOU were among the archers who slew the great beasts but were broken by the lizard cavalry ....".

    It's a more extreme version of the "war is over" scenario you describe above, but having routed soldiers stranded in hostile territory strikes me as an excellent way of starting a sandbox game. I'm also fairly confident I could run this with players on both sides of the initial wargame not knowing what's at stake, so that some of them are playing the baddies - and plyaing to win.

  4. "in a strange historical twist, a lot of the French Foreign Legionnaires in that conflict were also actually German mercenaries fresh from the war in Europe."

    I recall reading that most of the 'French' Foreign Legion soldiers at Dien Bien Phu were German former Waffen-SS.

    'Brigand' of course meant 'soldier', and Brigandine meant 'soldier's armour'. IRL there was rarely much line between 'mercenary' and 'brigand'. The RPG trope of brigands as lightly armed and poorly skilled trash mobs hanging out in caves to be killed by 'adventurers' does not make much sense. 'Brigands' were a lot closer to the 'adventurers' of their day!

  5. In Medieval France there was a persistent issue with 'Routiers' plundering the countryside whenever they were demobbed in The Hundred Years War - a large impetus for organising a crusade was giving these men something - anything - to do. I imagine the Papacy and French monarchy as quest-givers in this scenario, and have tried to replicate this when my party steams into town. The main reason the local Sheriff wants you to go and batter some Ogres in the woods is it gets you and your sticky fingers and your short tempers out of town. Adventurers and mercenaries are trouble for law-abiding folk and the status quo.

    It's also a good explanation for how the 'domain game' works in D&D.

    The Catalan Grand Company were crusaders, pirates and mercenaries who briefly established themselves as rulers of large parts of Greece in the Middle Ages. The Jormsvikings also played the domain-game, holding several fortresses in the Baltic. Harald Hardradr was a mercenary for years until he gained sufficient prestige and support to come back and make himself King of Norway.

    I'd love to run a game inspired by such a band: you're foreigners dumped in this fractious land to fight a war that has already ended for reasons you don't understand and noone has paid you in two months. Go!