Fighting Significantly Larger Forces

What are good strategies for fighting enemy forces that are far, far larger than your own? I recall that in medieval war, pitched battle was rare, and wars usually lasted until either the attacker achieved something resembling their objective, or the defender managed to... persuade them that they were wrong about achieving said objective being worth the losses. So the goal, then, is not necessarily to charge out and slaughter the enemy, but rather to make continuing to attack look as unattractive as possible to them. It might also be helpful to politic the enemy commanders into hating each other too much to work together, but more on that in a minute.

Allow me to provide some background to my specific case. I'm really asking this so I can offer tactical advice to one of my players, as his character concept is sort of a strategic genius/great leader type, but he's not actually very familiar with medieval strategy (modern strategy, he's rather experienced with, but that's a whole new ball game). Basically, he's a landed noble who's serving as the officer of a greater baron, and they're in some very hot water. In recent story events, the character (with help from a magus who is likely drinking tea and getting ready to enjoy the war at this point, because he only helped the noble character to watch the following conflict unfold) managed to acquire for the Greater Baron a golem that many other larger and more powerful nobles were vying to get. That yielded a bunch of Gratitude, but also a lot of enemies, who aren't willing to give the golem up that easily. So they formed a coalition and have combined their armies into a pretty cataclysmic force. (Based on their knowledge of the golem's abilities, it's not entirely unreasonable to think that whoever figures out how to use the golem could take over a significant chunk of all of Europe, so this amount of effort is far from unjustified.) And the path they're taking to the Greater Baron's city? Straight through the character.

Now, I'm not specifically trying to screw this character over. I figure, this is a coalition that isn't likely to bear its own weight for long, and there are probably ways to deal with the size difference, like chevauchee tactics and guerrilla warfare and, if it comes down to it, digging in for a siege and praying for a miracle (perhaps literally). However, I'm sure we're not thinking of everything, and I want to get some opinions from you guys so I can help him out. What would be the best non-surrender options at this point?

Typical medieval warfare was based on either battle of champions where correlation of forces was irrelevant, or on low grade economic warfare where warbands burnt out anything (and anyone) of value to the opposing side. When the enemy came out to stop them, the warband would run away. The only way to defend against this is either to have such overwhelming force that you could defend everywhere, or to attack a place where the underdog had to fight, such as sieging their lord's manor.

Regardless, this seems more a politcal issue than a military one. The easist way to defeat this would be to come to an understanding (any understanding, really) with the enemy's liege lord, and invite that liege lord to mediate.

Dark Baron to the Underdog: "Do you have any last words before I burn your castle around your cowardly ears?"

Underdog: "Yes, your Duke is standing behind you, and I swore fealty to him yesterday. Neener neener neener!"

At best I'm a wannabe dilettante but I'll give it a shot. My understanding of Medieval warfare is it often boiled down to castles and sieges, mostly for logistical reasons.

A small but significant force can hold up a much larger force by just camping out in a castle. The larger force can't move past because the smaller force could easily destroy it's supply lines. The besiegers usually shouldn't even split their forces and leave a small portion to hold the siege. If the castle is well designed the castle bound troops have lots of advantages should they try to break out. You need overwhelming numbers to both pin down the castle and effectively control the surrounding country side.

In this case, I'd recommend giving a portion of 'golem' to each of the enemy commanders. The needn't be really part of the actual golem, but it would need to be good enough to fool whoever was hired to verify the items.
Thus removing the cohesion of the enemy forces and making them quite likely to fight one another to try to get the whole 'golem'.

Otherwise, traditionally the tactics involved starving the enemy into either surrendering, or having to disband/return home. ie the defenders try to outlast the beseigers' ability to remain in the field. After about 3 months of burning/taking the crops and animals from the surrounding area, the beseigers would run out of food/die of illness/dysentery/etc if they have a substantial force. They might have to split up simply to be able to feed their troops, and get their own troops back home in time for the harvest - or they will all starve over the winter even if they win the war. Almost all troops were levies, and there were very strict terms about how long they could fight for before having to be allowed to go home. These rules depend on where they are from.

Professional troops were very rare - perhaps a few hundred for a major prince/minor king. England could field quite a lot, but not without paying them. The most successful use of them was (I think) by Edward III, which is a bit later than the canon setting, and there he needed to pillage a lot of France in order to pay them, yet still failed to capture many towns/cities/castles because they couldn't afford to be pinned down for many sieges due to counterattacks and running out of food.
Logistics was the key element (although I'm not a professional either) although magic might alter that in your saga.

Defense. With foes equally matched in quality, the defender has as much as a three-to-one advantage.

Fortification: The defensive advantage is even greater if defending a fortified position, which can make the advantage as much as another three-to-one, if the fortress is adequately manned and provisioned. If at all possible slip away from the fortress after the enemy has expended a lot of effort on it.

Fall back: Most famous example; the Russian Retreat of the 19th and 20th Centuries, but the Russians had a vast area to fall back across. They also raided and removed everything they could, and burned everything else of use to the enemy.

Superior arrow power: The English stood and made the French cross withering arrow shooting at Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, although these battles are in the next century. In the 13th Century, bow power is not as strong. A mage, of course, can rain literal fire on the enemy as they advance.

Evade decisive battle until the advantage is clearly in your favor.

If the golem is that powerful, use it on the enemy.

Of course, if the enemy is that broadly based and numerous, you're out of luck. You can't take on literally everyone.

Diplomacy may be the best course. Can they get the aid of a bishop, or better yet an archbishop? Other great nobles? Major covenants?

Medieval warfare, like modern warfare, is an extension of a bigger political picture. Wars don't happen in isolation.

There's actually a lot of modern strategies that can be used that are equally applicable back then. But note that this is strategies, not tactics. Enemy of my enemy, etc.

For example, a coalition of nobles has formed to march an army. Is this coalition all under one overlord? Or is it a number of different nobles?
If it's the latter, getting them to fight each other might well be simply a matter of waiting. A little intrigue in the right places and the entire alliance comes crumbling apart.

For a combined army like that to maintain cohesion, it needs something with the kind of strength that a Crusade has to bind it together. A Crusade appeals to the piety, loyalty and greed of all participants in equal measure.
Wars of any kind drain both the attacker and the defender. Keeping troops in the field means the usual work the levies would do back home isn't getting done. The longer the campaign, the more problematic supply is going to be.

No-one lives in a vacuum. By raising their levies and marching off to war, who are the lords leaving their backs exposed to? How long can they stay in the field before someone else takes advantage of their distraction?

And finally, the PC knight is at war because of his liege. His liege is a potent noble in his own right, and they're both landed nobles (obviously). So one would assume that both of them have been playing the game of thrones properly, else they'd both be dynasties about to expire anyway. Marriages create alliances. If the PCs mother is the sister to the current lord of just-over-there, then the PC has an uncle who has ties of blood and thus reason to step in and help (especially if it is also in his interest). The same should be true of the PCs liege, only on a bigger scale.

Who is where in the great game is a huge part of medieval politics, which spills out into war. If the liege has a potential super-weapon, who stands to benefit? Himself? Or himself and all his allies? If he has no allies, then the PC should be thinking carefully about exactly how many troops he wants to commit to they conflict. Zero is a number; if he stays in his castle, what reason does the invading army have to bother him? Unless his castle literally blocks the passage through, the invading army could just walk past; he's not their target. He is a threat, though, so some negotiation might be in order to protect his lands from the worst of the deprivations of a large army.

Arguably not the case in Mythic Europe, because people at the time thought this was wrong.

Clausewitz has a long spiel on this in On War. The majority of medieval generals learned from books, not from actually being generals, and they were told repeatedly by those books that attack was always and incessantly the superior form. In Mythic Europe, that might be true, much the same way that the odd physics is true, andtheir views of economics make no sense.

One of the earlier respondents pointed out that medieval warfare is basically chevauchee (raiding) and that attacks forced the defender to concentrate forces at points not considered losable, so you can see, if you squint, how people came to the conclusion that defense is for suckers. Clausewitz also points out that a surprising number of these "Defence is for suckers" people didn't do as the Greeks did, which was march out of their cities and fight on the plain in front, which is the obvious conclusions from the same doctrine in the case of the Greeks (Never be on the defensive.)

Generally if you are outnumbered 5:1, your chances of victory are so low that if you pull it off, people won't credit the general, they will suggest it is because you walked relics around the walls before it all kicked off.

Also, falling back doesn't work in medieval Europe the way it did in Russia: falling back is just letting the chevauchee burn all of your resources so that next year, you have fewer resources when they come back. Medieval forces are so much smaller that the Napoleonic failure (where the army's demand for supplies, and population density spreading disease) are less pronounced as factors.

Regardless, my point is that your advice is modern, so it's arguably not good in Mythic Europe, depending on how mythic the troupe is.

Respectfully, no, the majority of medieval warfare is raiding, and completely avoiding the enemy's army. The job of a general in Medieval Europe is basically to force crop failure and famine on the enemy, so that next year they lack capacity to resist, then do it again and again, until the raided person capitulates.

This makes for bad roleplaying, though, which is why it basically creates Infernal auras in Ars.

William the Marshal, who was the big general for the current English war and was so good at it he's the reason we call people "field marshals" now, and that we use the word "regent" (a title they made up just specifically for him) fought a handful of sieges in his entire life.

Using the golem would be wonderful, except they haven't figured out how to control it yet.

It's mainly four major landholders. It's certainly not everyone from everywhere, but they've got a force almost three times as large as the Greater Baron's (and the PC doesn't have most of that). Hopefully, though, that size will naturally disintegrate as the alliance falls apart and logistical problems (and other enemies) force the other side to pull forces back.

The Greater Baron has a number of allies, but they're rather indecisive about making enemies of aforementioned major landholders. Perhaps ecclesiastical allies are an option; I'll bring that up. The PC covenant is the only nearby covenant that could potentially be helpful, but after deliberation the magi decided that the only thing they're willing to offer is food and medical supplies, so that's something of a flop.

Yeah, this is certainly part of the plan, though the golem complicates things.

How about mutual apprehension/fear? I mean, don't get me wrong, the second they get the golem away from the Greater Baron it's back to a free-for-all, but nobody who's "in" on the current situation wants anybody except themselves or their closest allies to have time to figure out how to use the golem. The Greater Baron isn't actually intending to use the golem for conquest, but it's not like any of them trust that he won't, or that his heirs won't if he doesn't.

These are good points towards "defensive chevauchee and then dig in for a siege until they have to go home," which is looking like a good backbone for the overall plan. It's just a very massive force (and, really, would be scary even if the levies were cut out, which might mean you guys have something to say to me about good strategy for the attackers), which helps in reducing the amount of time, but also means that a bum-rush is pretty near impossible to resist.

The PC doesn't have much in the way of family ties, actually, because he has no surviving direct family (by which I mean parents and siblings) and his oldest daughter isn't old enough to marry off yet. He does have a couple of relevant uncles and aunts, a few of whom might even care enough to come to his aid if he plays his cards right. The biggest source of allies, especially in the familial area, is the Greater Baron, but as mentioned they're somewhat indecisive, not just because of not wanting to make enemies, but also because they're not totally in the loop about the golem thing. (Hey, maybe I can make a story out of getting their help for some other PCs, if they feel like it.)

The Greater Baron and his allies all stand to benefit from the possession of the golem, and they would know it due to the baron's rather high reputation for coming to allies' aid in situations where most wouldn't; the problem is, said allies are unconvinced that such benefit exists from the golem's possession, and a lot of them would pretty much suggest diplomacy options along the lines of "give them the big useless doll, you fool." Speaking of which, the PC's own reasons for not letting the enemy army pass are rather unconventional as well... Namely, arrogance (imagine the Reputation for pushing back a force like this!) and approximately equally importantly, genuine loyalty. (Okay, maybe the loyalty isn't the biggest reason, but it's a reason.) He simply wants to defend his liege due to friendship, loyalty, and "what do you mean these guys succeeding in their goals means I'm not on the side with the potential superweapon?".

Tactical defense, strategic offense. Garrison slower infantry in defensive strongpoints the enemy will have to reduce (siege) to achieve total victory. Your more mobile forces then go around the enemy, send some to raid his lands, the rest sit right across his supply line at a critical point, such as a difficult river crossing. Your men never fight without the defensive 3-1 advantage, which gives parity of force. Militarily it gives your PC an even opportunity where a good story will produce a win.

The reason why this was not a winning strategy in history is because it ignores the enemy raiding you lands, which will weaken you for next year. But you have friendly magi that can accelerate growth of fields, livestock and orchards, right? His raiding will not be nearly as effective as he believes, while your will have full effect. Eventually, he will have to come to you for a decisive battle where a PC's glory can shine true.

They also think that arrows are not particularly effective in combat against armored knights, which will be fairly true in Europe until the English longbow victories in the Hundred Years War. They're wrong, unless mythic bias of the inhabitants mystically trumps arrow effectiveness.

There are many cases of effective defense in Mythic Europe, which is why there are castles and sieges, unless nobles are building them generally for bragging rights.

This goes back to the basic 'Which opinion about the world matters?' issue in Ars Magica; the scholars', the knights', the commoners', the local people's, the magi's?


Defense vs offense: The idea that offense dominates defense is more than just medieval doctrine that has proved false. The primacy of offense continues into modern military doctrine. A given defensive position or fortification may be difficult to overcome, yet the benefit of initiative often obsoletes a static defense. At the same time, the primacy of offense does not in itself render defensive measures and positions irrelevant.

We can easily go back and forth with examples and counter-examples from history. Each situation, involving different military and social technological development, will have a different balance. Name dropping doesn't help much since the great names are not consistent; Sun Tzu and Von Clauswitz disagree about many things, for example, and I think I'd trust more modern and less famous historians over either.

We can easily go back and forth among various writers upon military matters, each with his own opinion, each very much a man of his times bearing the assumptions and prejudices of those times.

We would probably have a rollicking good time talking about just what defense really is, and how to conduct a good one, and just who the real defender is anyway.

It isn't really a contradiction to suggest that, on the one hand, a castle offers the defenders a three, five or ten to one advantage, yet to suggest that, on the other hand, the defender of that castle is likely to lose because he has already been penned up in that castle, yet to suggest on the third hand, that holing up in a near-impregnable castle offers the opportunity for allies to relieve the defender and forces enemies to waste time and resources investing you, or even allows you time for the besiegers to make a mistake that the defender can exploit. At best, a good defense allows time to achieve victory through other means.

It was very popular to belittle medieval thought during the 19th century. But are modern wars really that different? Offense rules, until it overextends or until it suffers attrition against an unexpectedly good defense. Wars are still conducted through raid and counterraid, through the destruction of the means of production, through using defensive positions as springboards for offensive action, and even through overawing the opposition through extravagant expenditure on overwhelming but impractical arrays of battle.

Raids are common, sieges are uncommon, and set-piece battles rare. Castles are important, horses are more important. And ok, having someone on the horse is most important of all :slight_smile:.

From the perspective of playing, then, we don't really have to pretend much to appreciate medieval strategy from a very modern perspective.

It is worthwhile to have a castle because it intimidates people, because it gives your forces a safe place to sleep at night after a raid or patrol, and because it gives time for potential allies to bring force or diplomacy to bear.

It is worth destroying your enemies resources because if he is weaker, you are stronger, because you might accidentally take an exposed unexpectedly high-value target, and because your enemy is less able to do the same to you if he is forced to chase you across the countryside.

It is rarely worth engaging in a large battle because holding a large army together long enough to do so is difficult, expensive and prone to chaotic outcomes.

As for the original question, both then and now, the Yogi Berra rule applies to overcoming larger forces: Hit em where they ain't. They might have more people, but if they are lumbering around, never managing to be where they need to be, they will eventually find themselves wanting food, supplies and pay. Really, if the character can keep them tied up long enough, time has a way of doing its own work. And if the player really understands modern warfare and its diplomatic context (as opposed to some idealized version of it), much of what he knows applies in full. The technology has changed, but the people, not so much.



I'd like to nominate Ovarwa for 'best post in this thread yet'.