A few weeks back I talked about how archery is misunderstood by fantasy gamers. And wouldn’t you know, someone disagreed with me. But the respectful counter-argument raised about my archery post wasn’t in defense of rangers in D&D. Or much about archery at all, really. Our discourse seemed to focus on the plausibility of small, elite groups, like a party of adventurers, having a fighting chance against ranks of archers or a phalanx of spearmen.
To catch you up, here’s what I wrote about stray archers in a group of otherwise melee combatants:
Yes, there are circumstances where lone archers can kick lots of ass. Yes, there are times when we’d rather stand back and plug the troll with arrows rather than get clubbed to death. But here’s the thing; lone archers hanging back and supporting a group of swordsmen should be the exception, not the rule.
In modern terms think of the fantasy trope of the lone-archer as a sniper, instead of the much-more-common rifleman. Aragorn up there is going for kill shots, while avoiding his companions. That takes a lifetime of training coupled with incredible natural talent. Not everyone can be an Olympic sharpshooter. So having one or two Orcs with short-bows hanging out behind a squad of melee skirmishers is suicidal and counter-productive. Remember, your archers are trying to Stop/Slow/Move the enemy. This can’t be done with a couple of jerks wielding hunting bows.
And here is the response (approximately) of my longtime acquaintance/fellow history lover/war romanticist. I asked him to paraphrase his argument in an email after the fact, so this might not be exact.
Historically we see instances where small groups of highly trained soldiers make a world of difference in major conflicts. I know you were trying to correct the misconception that archers roamed the battlefield like disorganized pot-shotters. But I believe small elite groups do exist, and that’s what we’re role-playing as. I bet if we stepped into the shoes of Thermopylae’s 300 or the Heavy Water saboteurs, we’d probably feel the same kinship and professional courtesy as any elite band in fantasy ever did.
I could quibble about the difference between saboteurs and marauders (which is how D&D players exclusively operate) Or I could argue that the Spartans’ 300 was a rear-guard, not an offensive force, and they were joined by about 1,500 Greek fighters who also fought as an organized phalanx… Instead I’ll argue that the real problem with heroes in D&D parties is that they fight like individuals.
D&D characters fight like a disorganized raider band. And any equal number of warriors, be it archers or spears, would grind them into the ground if properly organized.
Last year Cracked put out an article on this very subject, focusing more on movie combat. You can read about it here. In short the article talks about how film would have us believe that medieval combat started with a volley of arrows, followed by a furious charge, and then all the warriors split into individual melee duels. Just like Lord of the Rings or 300.
That’s why we see individual badasses getting into small personal skirmishes in movies, fiction, and gaming. It’s dynamic. It’s fun. And it gives our hero an opportunity to shine while surrounded by gore. As the audience (or player) we want to see big clashes and incredible feats of strength and prowess by small heroic groups. But the reality is that if the heroes are running into the fray like berserkers they’ve already failed at war.
Here’s the problem: throughout history ranks of moderately trained, moderately fit, well-organized soldiers slaughtered disorganized groups of elite warriors almost without fail. This is how the early Roman empire conquered so much of the Mediterranean. Phalanx lines are slow-moving, simple, and boring to watch. But they are effective.
Pictured: Extremely boring yet highly efficient warfare.
As Dan Carlin pointed out in one of his Hardcore History episodes, hoplites (Ancient Greek spearmen) were usually farmers who were required by law to practice military formations once or twice a year. They weren’t career soldiers or battlefield uber-men. They were regular dudes who carried very long spears, and they marched in a big square with the veterans on the outside edges. Having veterans to box in the conscript farmers kept them from fleeing. This tiny bit of organization led to unprecedented Greek victories.
So what happens if you increase the skill and prowess of the men in your phalanx? What happens if you hire professional soldiers instead of farmers? You conquer the world, that’s what. Just as Alexander the Great, who used Pezhetairos–hoplites with super-long spears, accomplished.
Having a higher degree of training and ability doesn’t magically turn you into Jet Li on the battlefield. An elite group of fighters wouldn’t abandon formation for the freedom to kill dudes in flashier ways. Better training, food, and experience makes you more effective at fighting in a phalanx. And this applies to every pre-gunpowder era of war. That picture above could be a bunch of level 1 goblins, and they would still slaughter a party of level 10 fighters no matter how “elite” they are.
So why don’t the players organize? Why don’t we see more phalanxes on the Dungeons and Dragons grid? I argue that the players are capable, but the game itself discourages good fighters from being good soldiers. Let’s first look at what makes a good soldier: discipline, rigorous training, consistency, the ability to follow orders, and courage.
Now we compare these to how D&D rewards its players…
Discipline: This is the capacity to remain in formation despite fear or anger. If a ball of fire from a wizard or trebuchet hits the center of your phalanx, D&D rewards those who act with the highest self-interest. The characters scatter and the formation evaporates. Also, because loot from corpses is a first-come-first-serve affair, being near a dying enemy is preferential to being elsewhere–like locked into a phalanx that’s on the march.
Rigorous Training: No, I don’t mean the sort of rigorous training a D&D party goes through. Killing an endless assembly-line of monsters doesn’t constitute “training.” Military training would require the party to drill together regularly, to focus on the same types of exercises, and to specialize in their role within the formation. Instead we have one character leveling his diplomacy skill, another specializing in dual-wielding swords, and a ranger whose animal-handling is so high he could open an underground dog-fighting ring without the actual ring.
Consistency: The only thing consistent about D&D players is their chaotic behavior and lust for gold.
Following Orders: See above. I argue that if the pay is high enough some players will actually take orders for a brief period of time. Once they get paid (or bored) all bets are off.
Courage: This is the only one I will admit witnessing at the game table. Just as some players display Walter White levels of cowardice and self-interest, other courageous outliers have been known to take up the d20.
D&D players operate like marauding bands not because it’s efficient or historically accurate, but because the game was designed by people who watched Conan the Barbarian. The fallacy of the small elite group dominating a corner of the battlefield is just that–fallacy.
And we’re finally starting to see movies and fantasy catch up to this notion, too. How many people watched the Battle of the Bastards expecting Jon Snow, The Onion Knight, and Tormund to put their backs together and form a human lawnmower? But it doesn’t matter how awesome your small elite group is, does it? Because military organization and discipline will triumph every time.