Mercenaries have been a subject of fascination for me for ages. As a kid, I devoured books about the Flying Tigers and other merc pilot outfits, but also fell in love with Arthur Conan Doyle's The White Company and Corwin raising his army of Earth mercs to take Amber. Later, Glen Cook's legendary Black Company books and Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen continue to loom large for me, as do Iain M Banks's Use of Weapons and Drake's Hammer's Slammers.
|NC Wyeth's "The White Company"|
Driving back home just now, I listened to a great interview on why Erik Price's plan for Afghanistan is terrible. Price, the founder of Blackwater/Xe/Academi/Constellis, was described by the guests as (among other things) "Gyro Gearloose" and "[a guy who] thinks he's Tony Stark but is really Lex Luthor." Hell of a listen. (See also this 2007 piece, by Paul Tullis and one of the folks on the interview, Robert Young Pelton.)
|Blackwater's Grizzly AFV|
By Dominguez2 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
Even while I listened with horror to the Blackwater podcast, a treacherous 13-year-old who lurks in my brain was going "that's so cooooool" at some of the Blackwater shenanigans. To be clear, the cool bits were more the homegrown vehicles and wild antipiracy plans than the civilian massacres, heedless destruction, and disregard for human life. (Those last bits are...kind of not so hot, to say the least).
|Joel DuQue, for HareBrained Schemes's Battletech|
Instead, a better place to start is something like the Mercenary's Handbook for Battletech. This book (1st ed by J Andrew Keith - see above) lays out a few principles that help clarify what makes a merc campaign interesting:
|Niclas Meldeman - "A Landsknecht Brandmeister"|
- It's about logistics, economics, and survival as much as it is about strategy and tactics.
A merc unit isn't just about warfare and fighting - it's also about doing so at a profit (or else you wouldn't be mercs in the first place). While this can (if taken to extremes) lead to excessive spreadsheet management taking over play, it also helps focus the players on long-term decisions. While it's possible for PCs to take extraordinary measures to heal (or even resurrect) a single companion, it's harder to do so for whole units. Players have to conserve their forces and ensure that they're spending their money wisely. (As forces increase, player overhead does as well - perhaps a refreshing change for GMs who are all too familiar with player power creep combining with money meaning less and less throughout play.) This point seems like it might interact interestingly with the traditional "1 GP = 1 XP" rule for classic D&D.
- The merc has two concerns to keep track of - the actions of their enemy and the actions of their employer. Corollary: the employer feels the same way about the mercs.
Hiring a mercenary unit means that a state actor has delegated one of the state's core functions (the monopoly and control of violence) over to an actor that is operating from financial gain. This sets up a slew and a half of dangerous incentives for both patron and mercenary. Shadowrun is infamous for including a stereotypical "Mr. Johnson" patron who generally intends to screw the players over upon completion of the job (either because they Know Too Much or to avoid paying the contract.) Battletech takes a more subtle approach, with constant struggles between patron and merc regarding both payment and the amount of control that the patron will ultimately be able to exert over the mercenary unit. Long-term, the mercs have to worry about being hung out to dry, sacrificed for either financial gain or simplifying the playing board. In turn, the patron has to worry about the mercs being unreliable (failing to fight or turning their coat) or even staging a coup once they're in a commanding position.
- It's not all about the fighting.
As I mentioned, many discussions of mercenaries in RPGs (primarily fantasy gaming) seem to abstract mercenary play to merely mass combat. However, this undersells several of the strange and outre mission types that lend themselves exceedingly well to RPGs in particular - the ones that require out-of-the-box thinking and unusual actions to supplement maneuver and force. In the Mercenary's Handbook, Keith identifies a few contract types that fit this bill: cadre duty, security/riot duty, siege warfare, recon and objective raids, and guerrilla warfare.
These contracts place the players in situations where they either have interesting responsibilities not usually present in PC groups (shepherding and training green troops, conducting security rather than breaching it), or situations ideally suited to PC organization and scheming (infiltration to shorten a siege, guerrilla warfare). These are frameworks which offer social interaction, sneaky tricks, and lateral thought a chance to shine alongside direct application of force, while giving players increased resources (and responsibilities) to manage.
- A mercenary campaign is a shortcut to domain game play.
Classic D&D has the domain game - rulership, land management, and building a kingdom/dynasty - as a traditional endgame. The mercenary campaign lets players engage with a section of those widgets earlier than they might otherwise (and in novel ways that don't quite match up to standard domain game play). It also places PCs in a situation where they have to engage with the broader setting, interacting with movers and shakers in a situation where the PCs have got an inherent value and potential leverage for the bigwigs.
|Rievers' raid on Gilknockie Tower, G. Cattermole|
The next component is a good, quick, and easy-to-integrate/translate mass combat system. (It is a merc campaign after all. Even though force on force conflicts may not be the core gameplay from session to session, you'll want to have a robust enough system to allow players to take on force engagements in a fun and engaging manner. (You'll also need players who are interested in mercenary gaming, but that's not really something I can provide assistance with here, beyond noting that such players are objectively smarter and more attractive than others.)
It's a tricky thing to put together and organize. I've tried before and had it either peter out or crash and burn very rapidly. But I'm convinced that there's a core gameplay loop here that's immensely satisfying, and I want to explore this space further.
...or maybe I just want to field some homegrown AFVs along with some landsknechts.
How have you worked war and mercenaries into your campaign? What's worked and what hasn't?