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You Wanna Fight?

Gun For Hire

Bryan Jonker
December 11, 2001  

"Any fit young man looking for employment with a difference at a salary well in excess of 100 pounds a month should telephone 838-5203 during business hours. Employment initially offered for six months. Immediate start."

Anthony Mockler, The New Mercenaries: The History of the Hired Soldier from the Congo to the Seychelles.

I knew that the next article would be about mercenaries, but as I started, I realized I didn't know what to write. Like any good gamer, I fist went to my RPG books. The DM's guide wasn't much help. It said how much each type of mercenary cost, and some general rules about morale, but that's about it. Another book was more useful: The Mercenary's Handbook. 104 pages from the mercenary's point of view: payments, loyalty, types of missions, etc. It even has a sample mercenary contract - I mean, what more could you want? However, the Battletech world is rather unique; as I found out, real life isn't always so amiable towards mercenary troops.

The big mercenary troops in history were started not as individual or small-party groups, but by countries. The most popular is the French Foreign Legion ("I enlisted to forget..." "Forget what?" "I don't know, I forgot."), but there were many, many other groups. These groups would be sold by the country to the highest bidder, or shipped out to foreign lands for specific missions, usually hazardous. Because the mercenaries were foreign and in it for the money, they were used when local troops may hesitate, like civil wars. Other times, the mercenaries were called in just because there weren't enough local troops to handle the problem.

Sometimes, mercenaries were treated well: the Swiss mercenary troops were so valued by the French monarchy that they were allowed to keep their own autonomy, not forced to take orders in French. Other times, like during the American Revolution, the mercenaries were hated both on the field and by the country that hired them.

Of course, there were mercenaries outside the government. Military units, active in France in the Hundred Years War, refused to disband during truces and moved across France and Italy. These units, called ecorcheurs (skinners) and condottieri (named after the contracts they signed) worked for the highest bidder and extorted money from vulnerable towns - the medieval version of class bullies asking for lunch money. France and Italy didn't have standing armies, so these mercenary troops would fill in for those armies. Urban V issued a bull stating that anyone who died fighting the condottieri would automatically be forgiven of all his sins. Later, he started a crusade to try to get the mercenaries out of Europe.

Neither trick worked, and they ravaged the countryside, including churches and nunneries. Several captains got lands and titles, marrying daughters of nobles and entering respectable society. Similarly, in the 1960's, a group of ex-military formed the Five Commando, a mercenary unit that fought in the Congo during the turmoil there. They ran the newspaper ad in the introduction, and got 1,000 troops. Their future wasn't as rosy; most were killed or captured and sentenced to prison.

Finally, there's the domestic mercenary: police officers, private security, bodyguards, and private investigators. Like the more traditional mercenary, they are fighters for money. Unlike the mercenary, they may not see combat.

There are three main role-playing advantage to mercenaries, whether they are from the government or a private individual. First, mercenaries tend to take anyone. Therefore, mercenary groups can have a diverse group of people (and fighting styles) and still be believable.

Second, the mercenary's "code of honor" is relatively lax. In the 1960's Congo, mercenaries could get dismissed for "not being paid; murder; looting; [or] the non-existence of apartheid." Later, the letter stated that troops were sent back "after being found in possession of 'dagga'." In any case, the mercenary's attitude will be dependent on the leader.

Finally, mercenary groups allow the GM to skip the political arena to some degree. Mercenaries' loyalty was to the company, not the nation. Again, the French Foreign Legion was famous for this; when asked what nationally a member was, the proper answer was "Legionnaire, mon General."

These things also make mercenaries ideal for starting and continuing fights. According to Dunnigan, people march into battle for four reasons: pride, effective preparation, friends, and what he calls the "fight or else" syndrome. When the fear of dying transcends these four reasons, the soldier runs, surrenders, or deserts. Mercenaries, by their nature, often have these features in spades. Mercenary groups are often tightly knit, having special traditions to create unity. Camerone Day is observed in the French Legion, where as Cecil Adams states, "the celebration consists primarily of getting drunk as a pig for two days."

The popular view of a "gun for hire" creates excitement. Because mercenaries are often fighting local peasants, the mercenaries can comfort themselves with having superior training and firepower. Mercenaries, if not necessarily well paid, are volunteering and get something back from the deal. The possibility of looting increases that "something back."

Finally, mercenaries are usually led by experienced officers (it takes a lot, for one thing, to get enough connections to field troops). These officers know how to motivate troops. The mercenaries are often in different lands speaking different languages and having different customs. An Englishman in the Congo can't just walk away - he needs to find a way back home.

So, what does all this mean for the Game Master? As long as these four traits, or one of these four traits are there, the mercenary will continue fighting. Mercenaries, or at least mercenaries with good leaders and strong traditions, won't bolt. This is good for the GM. However, even mercenaries have their limits, and the GM has to put herself in the mindset of mercenaries. Why fight the warriors (PCs) if the PCs hopelessly outclass them? Most people would run away to fight another day, so the clich goes.

For the true hopeless battle (whether the NPCs are Imperial Stormtroopers or religious fanatics), you need faith. People fight for faith, and that will be the focus for the next article.

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Wanna Fight by Bryan Jonker