Nature of Battle

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"You wicked children! How dare you? Sinning against your mothers and fathers, who conquered the world?"
— Antigone, general of the veteran Belharan Silver Shields, haranguing the opposing army shortly before winning the Battle of Amoltos

Writer Credit

  • Nature of Battle Codex Entry



Even in the war-torn Heartlands, set-piece battles with large armies after the fashion of the Godswar, the Tronarii conflicts, or the Khushkan war are relatively uncommon. Most combat is the result of smaller-scale engagements: raids, ambushes, banditry. No matter what kind of fighting one is doing, though, it usually takes up relatively little of a warrior's daily experience. A soldier in a mass army on campaign spends most of their time marching, making camp, or standing guard; one who spends their months clearing out bandits or the Wraith-touched still takes more time to search for their foes than to battle them. For their own part, raiders and bandits usually try to avoid fighting whenever possible, because it's bad business. In all circumstances, combat is a small, even tiny, amount of terror, shock, and death amidst a broader reality of grinding drudgery.

Ambushes, skirmishes, and raids, the most common forms of combat, often involve little straight-up fighting at all — and a great deal of killing or subduing enemies through surprise. Set-piece fights with large armies are different. Thanks to the existence of shields and body armor and to the tightly packed nature of many formations, most set-piece battles result in very few casualties - at least, during the battles themselves. The two opposing forces maneuver against each other, sometimes clashing and jabbing away with their spears before separating again to lick their wounds and recover their strength, but few fighters die in the face-to-face melee. What truly determines who wins a battle is morale. As soon as enough warriors on one side take enough counsel of their fear to want to run away, that side starts to retreat whether the general wants to do so or not… and that, not the main clash of spear against spear, is usually when the slaughter begins. Unable to remain in formation, a fleeing foe is easy prey for the opposing side.

As a result, the thing that generals and soldiers alike care most about is warding off terror. A mark of a truly well-trained warrior, such as a paladin of one of the divine military orders, is being able to join battle silently, without needing to pause to psychologically prepare for the clash of spears and shields. Most warriors cannot do this, and need to remind themselves that they are part of a larger whole, alongside sisters and brothers fighting for the same purpose. They sing songs to lighten their mood and subsume their own emotions into a pounding beat or a warrior’s chant. Many such pieces were originally composed by valkyries, who don't need to sing them for their own good but who often lead larger allied armies of the less-professional both in battle and in music. Lest anyone get the impression that valkyries are always prim and proper, Lumia's sun warriors, who've often fought in the ranks before joining the Order of the Argent Wing, are as likely to teach their allies grimly comic or raunchy joke songs as they are hymns or wistful ballads. Anything to keep nervous allied warriors in the line alongside their comrades.

This also means, though, that warriors take whatever opportunity they can to frighten their enemy. Shining, well-maintained armor and shields, gleaming weapons, a display of magical power, a host of physically unusual allies like centaurs, the gleam of valkyries' wings, a magically-amplified battle cry or grim warning from the opposing general: all can make an warrior rethink the likely outcome of a clash with such dangerous foes. Some mages even possess powers of mind to directly attack the willpower of the soldiers fighting them. It is possible, however, to take this too far, and go beyond cleverness into military uselessness. Some small professional forces have tried to demonstrate complicated formations and maneuvers as a sign of how well-drilled they are, which can frighten a less-talented foe, but if their opponents simply keep their heads and attack, the resulting confusion usually results in the collapse of the 'well-drilled' army's formation.

When battle is joined, it is usually for a purpose. The most obvious one is material. Just as bandits attack lone travelers to take their possessions, so too do great armies fight each other for spoils. After all, the entourage of an aristocrat from, say, Yvennes contains a great deal of plunder: the large assortment of expensive bronze weapons and gear, the food, the slaves and servants brought along with the army, the camp followers and families that can be enslaved or ransomed by the winning side, and of course plenty of the ubiquitous electrum coins. Because of this, even a dangerously well-armed aristocrat's entourage is a better target than a poor village. Looting is not merely an activity for after the battle, either. When a well-equipped warrior falls, the fighting will refocus on their body as wealthy and poor combatants alike try to seize it and strip it of its valuables. And if there are any prisoners after a battle, they are invariably ransomed or enslaved — usually the latter.

One thing does often alleviate casualties, and has become somewhat more common since the Godswar: rather than face slaughter or maiming in the pursuit after a lost battle, many defeated foes are willing (or downright excited) to offer up their bodies in exchange for their lives. As far as the undisciplined and brutish are concerned, a foe in one's power is better used for baser purposes anyway, and besides, killing is usually a worst-choice in the lean years following the apocalypse. The orcs of the Sailgraves are the most notorious practitioners of this right of conquest, but even if otherwise uncommon, the possibility of less-than-lethal combat ending with sexual gratification and either an assertion of dominance or enslavement is at least known and understood by anyone in Savarra who takes part in battle — when it is not the explicit reason for battle, which it may well be.

Not all combat is about loot or lust, of course. There are battles of conquest, fought to seize territory and subjects, which were uncommon in the immediate aftermath of the Godswar but now occur more and more frequently as the Heartlands' wealth in productive land and people grows. There are battles fought against the Wraith-touched, to defend lives against the soulless monsters that continue to lurk in the shadows. Finally, of course, there are battles between groups of the living who fight simply because they hate each other, where plunder and even conquest are secondary conditions.

Plunder, honor, hunger, hatred, justice, fame: all are good enough to get ordinary soldiers to march into battle. But once they're in the thick of the fighting, things become different, and men and women seize on different reasons to avoid running away from the spear-points in front of them. More than a few stand fast for the sake of those next to them, to avoid letting them down. Others, especially in mass armies, fight because they have little choice, because the densely packed infantry formations box them in and make flight impossible. Last, but not least, there are those rare professionals whose greatest bulwark against terror is that they have simply been doing this for a long time, they are good at it, and they have a pride of craft and skill that keeps them from fleeing like woodcocks.

Codex Acquisition

Discussing "Big Battles" with Annika will award the Nature of Battle Codex Entry.


  • There are several historical allusions in this codex entry.
    • The quote of "Antigone" is directly taken from a line said by the general Antigenes at the historical Battle of Gabiene. Antigenes also commanded a unit of Silver Shields (or Argyraspides).
    • The Silly Mode reference to the Lakedaimonians at Leuktra is a comment on the usefulness of classical drill. Although there is little scholarly consensus on what actually took place at the Battle of Leuktra, one interpretation was that the well-drilled Lakedaimonians (or Spartans, as they are more well known) were attempting a complex formation when they were destroyed by the Boiotians.
    • Even out of Silly Mode, the commentary on overly complex formations also refers to the practice by classical Chinese armies of supposedly (there is some dispute over whether it would have ever been possible to do this) creating absurdly complicated, almost artistic battle formations with zero utility in actual combat, like the infamous Eight Gates Formation made famous by the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The reason for the practice is somewhat unclear, but one hypothesis is the one advanced in the codex entry: making complicated formations would confuse and overawe enemies who were not as well trained.
    • The incentives for battle are adapted from an argument made by Guy Halsall in Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West.
  • Amoltos is one of the cities of Xenaspa.