World Building 101: Martial Laws

Continuing the series of articles discussing various campaign elements, today we will take a look at the martial power source and associated considerations. The martial power source is seemingly the easiest to dismiss, as it is the simplest, most “realistic” option—in that it is difficult to find historical examples of people calling on gods, primal spirits, or eldritch and arcane secrets in battle, but there are plentiful examples of men hitting other men with sharpened objects. However, to do so does a disservice to your campaign world and any of your players who chooses to play a martial hero. Instead, take a little time and consider the ways in which you can develop the martial traditions of your campaign setting to make it more flavourful.

One key point to remember when approaching the martial classes is that they do not represent the rank and file soldiers of your campaign world. A martial character, be they Fighter, Rogue, Ranger, or Warlord, represents the toughest, most skilled, and deadliest of their peers, even at first level. When designing your world’s martial institutions, bear this in mind that it’s possible for a fighter to have begun as a member of a regular military unit or town militia, but something exceptional about that character sets them apart from the rest.

That said, it’s generally likely that martial characters have some advanced training compared to run of the mill thugs and footmen. Following are several possibilities for your campaign, each of which might have associated feats, exploits, backgrounds, and story hooks for character development. Some of these have already had mechanical options released. Your campaign may include the existing mechanics, or design your own to fit the needs of your world.

Military College: As an institution for educating aspiring generals or leaders, a military college can be a source of fighters or warlords. It’s possible to have specific tactics or strategies—feats or exploits, in mechanical terms—that are made available only to students of a particular college. The requirements for students could be anything you choose. Perhaps the school will only teach those of noble birth, or only citizens of the nation to which it belongs. Conversely, the school may be open to any who demonstrate skill at arms and bravery, or even only to those who impress the founder in some way. Advancement in the techniques of a military college may require additional training at the college itself, especially for school-specific feats and exploits, or it may be easier to explain the special abilities as growing naturally from the foundations laid by the beginning instruction. These feats or exploits should focus on perfecting the basics, and mastering tactics.

Chivalrous Orders: For characters favoring nobility or heavy armoured combat, you might design one or more chivalrous orders. Membership requirements may be far more esoteric than those of a military college; aspirants may have to prove themselves with a quest, demonstrate their virtues of nobility and chivalry, or otherwise show they are worthy of becoming a member. Progressing through the ranks of the knighthood may also require further quests and dedication. Different knightly orders might, again, offer training in different, unique exploits and feats; such training focuses on graceful and chivalrous single combat.

Mercenary Companies: For those pursuing less honourable paths, there’s the life of the sword for hire. Unlike individual sellswords, who may sign on to guard a caravan or act as a bodyguard for a wealthy patron, mercenary companies are groups of mercenaries organized into a pseudo-military structure who sell their services as an entire unit, typically as part of a large-scale military operation. Depending on the nature of the company, one might find any sort of martial character involved—unlike the knightly orders, the main goals of a mercenary are to survive, win, and get paid. Membership requirements can vary widely. Some companies may value their reputations for honor and fairness, while others focus on winning at any cost. Feats and exploits taught by mercenaries should focus on group tactics, and perhaps a bit of underhanded effectiveness.

Thieves Guilds: Any good thieves’ guild is difficult to track down for anyone not already in the know, but for those who are, they can provide training for most martial disciplines. Fighters and warlords are just as valuable as bruisers and gang leaders as thugs or rogues are, to the guild, and rangers make excellent highwaymen. Getting in, though, is often easier than getting out. Usually the requirements for membership in a thieves’ guild are nothing more than demonstrating some usefulness. Training from thieves focuses on sneaky tricks and fighting dirty, but they’re not typically all that picky about keeping their secrets—provided you can arrange to pay whatever the asking price is for their knowledge.

Hidden Masters: There is always room when exploring the martial power source for training to come from an old hermit who was once the great general of the kingdom, or a legendary thief retired after the greatest heist ever pulled. Training from such a source could be anything, depending on the personality of the individual master, but the real difficulty lies in finding the teacher and convincing them you are worthy of learning their secrets. This can represent a long-term quest, or it can be used in a character’s backstory. Either way, it can lead to excellent roleplaying opportunities.

Gladiatorial Combat: Many cultures have celebrated blood-sport. The challenge of single combat in the arena can set the heart to pounding and get the adrenaline pumping. With a gladiator-trained character, it’s possible that there is an organization teaching the combatants, or it could be that each stable of gladiators is trained by a master—a former gladiator themselves, most likely—and has signature exploits, styles, and feats. These will typically focus on being showy and vicious, and may involve opening oneself up to invite attacks to gain an advantage. After all, the audience loves a good showman…

These are just a few options for detailing the martial traditions of your campaign setting. Encourage your players to think about where they learned to fight, as well. They may come up with something interesting that you hadn’t considered, that will enrich your campaign. Try to avoid falling into the trap of dismissing the martial power source, though—as you can hopefully see, there are a lot of possibilities for bringing flavour to your campaign world by defining styles, exploits, and organizations for the martial power source.

Comments (2)

Quinn (January 14th, 2010)

Definitely interesting food or thought here. I love world building but have never thought of addressing the different power sources separately like this. I find my self having to do a lot of work on making the fey wild a playable setting in my current campaign and will be using this thinking shift as i address the social structure of the Fey culture.

Scott Lykins (January 27th, 2010)

in a sense when gming (long time GM here) the world plays a small part in this type of way, as much as others look at the world, the hidden depths should be more entriging like for instance the way people formulate to create a story..GMs are only storytellers and the world is a sandbox..i plan to write more..any questions email me

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