Weird Question, But... How Scary Are Knights?

Knights are basically the elite troops of (Mythic) Europe. This is represented quite well by their average stats (as given in Lords of Men, page 108) which eclipse their closest competition by around five points in both attack and defense, and who have the highest Leadership modifier when fighting in a trained group (giving them an even better lead). But, well, I'm not great at statistical analysis, and I don't know much about the perception of knights in medieval Europe other than that they're considered the elites. So how frightening a force are knights? Would a relatively small group of knights usually be enough to significantly turn the tide in a losing battle (say, five groups of knights reinforcing a group of twenty combat groups each of infantry, archers, and levies against a similar force twice that size)? Would the mere presence of a large group of knights cause a force lacking in them to have morale/discipline problems, any more so than they'd normally have fighting against a different group of trained enemies (say, infantry)?

Basically, how much of an impact do knights make on battles they're part of, and would the perception of them be one of fright/respect in most circumstances?

The reality as a quick sketch at assuming trained troops is: cavalry > light infantry > polearm line > cavalry. And then there is the whole issue of archers.

However, professional lines of pikemen and the like were not in regular use around 1200. They only became really common more than a hundred years later. Meanwhile cavalry charges had been in heavy use in combat beginning a long time before 1200. So at this time a significant force of knights charging tends to be a major factor. But I don't know well enough to tell you just how large the group would have to be to be significant compared to an infantry force.

The presence of a lot of opposing knights usually implies a whole lot of other infantry and/or cavalry are opposing you too. Knights don't usually go to war without their retainers.

The presence of opposing knights also implies that your opponent is (or has the support of) an organised feudal power. Knights are retainers of somebody important. It's a bit like jet fighters turning up in a conflict today. It means your opponent has significant infrastructure and resources. That is, winning a single battle is unlikely to be the end; you are looking at a war.

If you have the right equipment, discipline, and tactics then heavily armoured knights can be defeated. But if you lack these things, then the opposing knights are pretty much invulnerable, especially in large numbers. Having the right equipment, discipline, and tactics to defeat knights is not likely something a force will have available by accident nor normally be able to improvise. So, if you did not expect to face knights you are likely screwed (unless you are lucky, or have an extraordinary commander, or some other extenuating circumstance --- Hermetic magic, for example). Even if you expect opposing knights, if you don't have practical experience in fighting knights (i.e. you don't really know the tactics) you are likely screwed.

For practical impact, as a rule of thumb, a mounted knight is worth three to five infantrymen. In some circumstances they can be enough to turn a battle, if in the right or wrong place.

Knights are better armored, better armed, and riding aggressive trained warhorses; an experienced soldier knows that a cavalry charge of five knights could crush a group of a dozen to twenty men. Veteran infantry can oppose cavalry, in some circumstances, but they are likely to greatly respect/fear their fighting power.

Morale problems; this depends enormously on situation, but it could be enough to tip attitude one way or the other, especially if the knights are famous or obviously battle-hardened.

On the battlefield of a serious battle (10,000+ per side), the addition of 5 knights isn't going to make a huge amount of difference. It will make some difference, but not a massive one - unless the positioning, etc. of the knights is able to utilise other force multipliers.

In terms of their warfare application, knights are heavy cavalry. The role of heavy cavalry in battle hasn't changed dramatically in the last thousand years; the main recent change being the introduction of aircraft that are capable of interdicting heavy cavalry. Prior to this, cavalry units (both light and heavy) filled that role. Note that heavy cavalry is still a term used in modern warfare, and strategically it is still used in much the same way. Today a helicopter gunship or a main battle tank both class as heavy cavalry; they fill a similar battlefield role to what a heavily armoured mounted soldier did.

It's probably not a bad idea to think of a knight being about the same scariness of having a helicopter gunship show up and start engaging your position in a modern context. Is it scary? Well, that depends on your situation. Open plain and all you have is anti-personnel weapons? Yep, time to get on your knees and pray. In a forest and someone remembered to pack the stinger missile launcher? Still scary, but nowhere near as much. Have your own helicopter nearby? Now it's just escalating the conflict.

Heavy cavalry can:

  • bring considerable killing power to the field, provided it is able to get into a position to effectively use that power.
  • bring considerable survivabiltiy to the battle, to the extent that the opposition needs something of similar calibre, specialist equipment or a LOT of disposable troops to deal with it
  • can range a long way from its base of operations at speed, allowing it to interdict, intercept or strike at weak points in your lines with relative ease.

Heavy cavalry excel at things like hitting supply lines, interdicting during sieges, etc. They also excel at vanguard-style charges, due to the combination of speed, protection and power. They work well as escorts.

Heavy cavalry isn't really being used to its full potential as part of a defensive line, or in any kind of holding action, or in any kind of action where they can't make full use of their mobility. In such cases, a knight defaults to being essentially heavy infantry.

Based on stats alone?

A trained group of knights charging your position is as threatening or more than receiving that charge from Stellatus, the example dragon from the core bestiary, presuming you don't have a pike line, which most won't in 1220.

Facing a dragon courageously with a Brave personality check has a listed Ease Factor of 12.

That opening 30-knight charge, if unexpected and unprepared for, could very easily rout a significant chunk of the 6,000-man army's front line, allowing the 3,000-man army to re-fortify themselves and launch a counterattack.

If used intelligently, with effective charges and plenty of opportunities to let the warhorses rest, those 5 combat groups of knights could very much divide the enemy lines (whether through scaring them into scattering, or smashing through them) a few times and give the 3,000-man side a big tactical advantage.

Would it completely turn a lost cause? Maybe, maybe not. As previously mentioned, without the right equipment and tactics, knights are nigh-invulnerable. But either way, those knights will have a big impact. (In more ways than one, if you use the Shock of the Charge optional rule.)

And I think my comparing their offense to that of a Might 50 dragon should tell you approximately how much crap will be in the chausses of the lightly-equipped, under-trained soldiers beset by the best warriors the middle ages have to offer.*

*as always, in the words of John Green, the Mongols are the exception

In an Ars game I've never had a battle with more than a hundred a side. So as for large scale stuff? Difficult to say. It's certainly held in period that a cavalry charge will send most infantry units to pieces.

In terms of how scary a general knight is...

  1. There is a slight issue with the way 'virtues' work. In fact, many free men would have had at least a touch of fighting knowledge; the assumption that a peasant doesn't know how to fight (take Martial abilities) is a bit weird. Most peasants (I assume) would have had a knowledge of how to poke people with spears or axes, but might (only might) qualify for the Warrior virtue. These guys would be a fair to large part of most medieval armies. They aren't standing armies; they get called up for a season and then go back to farming. These guys are usually arming and armoring themselves, so a spear and a leather jerkin is about what they get.

  2. The 'standard soldier' in the book strikes me as a professional soldier, a relatively rare deal. He has trained regularly at being a warrior since he joined the merc company/lords household/whatever. Individually he could take out one of the above easily, and even two or three if he's lucky without too much of a risk. He's the sort of guy who swaggers around the town in his fancy armor and people avoid him because he kills people for money, and even the toughest village thug wouldn't cross him because he practices killing people every day and the village thug just does it as a hobby.

  3. The knight is often trained from an even younger age to be a killer, and that killing the enemies of your people is just how things are done. He usually has the best armor and weapons, almost always has a horse and rarely has compunctions about 'honorable' combat. He'll ride down the 'Standard Soldier' in one turn and keep riding. He'll also usually be expected to lead either other knights or mercs. He has social protection, legal protection and physical protection.

He's one of the few people who gets to carry weapons around freely when not in a battle - not because people don't care, but because if anyone tries to stop him he answers with deadly force.

So... in a war? They are a pretty small percentage of the battle. But in WW2, I'm fairly certain there were a small percentage of tanks compared to infantry also. Out of war? They have social and legal powers which make them scary.


I think it depends upon the context.

A troop of knights, in some contexts, is totally scary. As armored cavalry, they have mobility and protection. So if they pay a surprise visit to a prosperous village or other settlement without fortification -- and being mobile, they can -- they will utterly rout any opposition before they have a chance to organize. They will be virtually immune to the feeble potshots that even a militant peasantry can muster quickly.

On the other hand, they are not likely to sleep there overnight without reinforcements.

Can those knights change the course of a battle? Sure. Can they be worse than useless? Also sure.

The statistics enter into it only vaguely, because dice and especially the context reflected in modifiers come into play. And if their opposition is a group of PCs, all bets are off for the knights.

One modifier that the knights will always get is that they act as a trained group. This can make a huge difference.

I do not see them in the same league as a dragon, though. I don't think most people would see it that way either. A dragon can fly, breathe fire and do who knows what else. Everyone understands exactly what a knight is. A group of knights might have the same charging stats as the dragon, but the dragon has other options too. Of course, surrender and submission are more likely to be options with the knights, who are less likely to eat you.

As for everyone being able to use weapons... kind of. There is a world of difference between a shepherd who is good with a sling or a farmer who wins the village quarterstaff competition every year versus a knight or similar warrior trained since he was a wee lad. "300" got a whole lot wrong, but "What is your profession," nails it.

I cannot think of an rpg whose rules do a good job representing the virtues of weapons used by one person a side arms versus by larger groups in battle, or by professionals versus yeomanry versus newbies. So AM5 is not unique in that respect.