Welcome back! Please, do pull up a chair. Today, we’ll be talking about the economics of warfare in fantasy, and merrily skipping through fields of supply chains, historical failures of logistics, and why your world probably cannot support a standing army as large as you might imagine. This is a very complex topic, and I don’t doubt that there will be a significant amount of revulsion and cringing from those currently enrolled in university for economics, but I hope that you’ll at least walk away with a few pointers about creating a more realistic and intriguing economic landscape for your basilisk-riding fantasy conflicts.
Now, economics may not seem like the most thrilling aspect of a fantasy world, and they may also not seem like salient details in a book about gorgeous, blonde elf women and green fire. But, I submit to you, this is all dependent upon how much you care about the topic.
Yes, economics can be fun.
One of the most pressing reasons to focus on economics is because it holds a large amount of control over the development of your magicalollapaloozaland. Money, for better or worse, has been a deciding factor in the course of human history, and it should be just as important in your fantasy novel. You don’t have to make your goblins be anarcho-capitalist syndicates, but you should think about why and how money changes hands in your world, what goods are valuable, and ultimately what it means for your world. I don’t intend to make this entire post about the economics of fantasy worlds in general, but warfare is one of those times – in fiction and real life – where monetary concerns become amplified significantly.
So, the most logical place to begin is to understand what role the economy plays in the outbreak of war, and how your fantasy factions will be able to produce income.
If your world has a powerful faction without much wood, then you can safely assume that they would pay higher amounts for raw timber. Likewise, factions without access to metal or forging equipment would pay a (hopefully) proverbial arm and leg to get their hands on such materials. The price of goods is determined by how much others will pay for them, and in warfare, a nation or faction relies on its natural resources and economic strengths to turn a profit. In your fantasy cultures, which may not have technology advanced enough to have something resembling the stock market, physical goods tend to be highly prized. Immediate, tangible services are something that should not be overlooked. If your faction borrows from a banking institution, question the conditions and terms of their loans. Who is the money being provided by? Does the bank have any protection if the war is lost? Money is lent by people with real thoughts, schemes, and desires.
Like these saucy gentlemen.
Naturally, these are basic things that anybody – with or without Econ 101 – probably knows from real-world observation. But I bring these up to emphasize that not all goods are physical, and in fantasy, magic can play a huge role in economics. It’s simple enough to bend the rules and say your armies can conjure water and food from nothing, but it’s another to try to understand what repercussions such magic would have on the world as a whole. Would people need to pay for water access, wells, or aqueducts? Would farmers be subsidized if food could simply appear on the plates of others? Would caravans even exist? These are good questions to ask, and even better to challenge yourself with. Try to deconstruct your world, and rebuild it stronger than before.
So, once we’ve gotten the basic treatise on economics and kindergarten level supply-and-demand out of the way, we can narrow our lens to the scope of warfare. Since much of fantasy is modeled after specific historical periods from Earth, one might think that the best place to begin is by lifting concepts from history. And, by and large, I think this is a good idea. After all, real life certainly provides a good deal of backing to cause and effect, and you can adapt some of these circumstances as your world necessitates.
For example: the Northern Crusades.
When the German nobility wanted to gain some prestige and wealth, they set their sights on the pagans throughout Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, and went in (again, proverbial) guns-a-blazing. However, a small and highly-trained force is not able to effectively reinforce everything in conquered lands. They constructed castles and impregnable keeps to ward off a large amount of pagan forces, and then staffed them with skeleton crews of Teutonic knights. The local Slavs and Balts could typically be bought out for their loyalty and assistance in defending the castles, but these were not standing armies. These were local militias which were given incentives and some protection to serve.
This, my friends, is a large slice of history. Standing armies are a relatively recent concept, barring some specific examples throughout history. One of Rome’s most impressive features was its military and training efforts, of course, but modern standing armies are still a jaw-dropping contrast to the legions, particularly because of modern machines and mobilization ability. A standing army is something found throughout many fantasy novels, especially in Tolkien’s works, but they’re not always viable. Let’s examine why.
An army requires food, shelter, some form of payment (usually), and a purpose. Simply housing soldiers is a logistical nightmare. Most civilians resent having soldiers within their homes during war (or peace), so there’s a lot to be said about how many buildings would need to be constructed for the sake of keeping a roof over the heads of your legions. Troops generally don’t like sleeping in caves during peacetime. Rations are also a huge issue. Sure, it’s simple enough to give your troops food from your faction’s farms and ports while they’re at home, but what about on the march? Rations need to either be prepared or scavenged from the countryside, and the phrase “enough to feed an army” exists for a reason. Troops which marched through war territory often need to “borrow” the local livestock and crops, and after a few weeks, your forces can drain all of the supplies from a region. Soldiers need a lot of calories to march, fight, and sing drunken songs by the fire.
Speaking of fire, keeping your army warm and dry is another huge priority. Raincoats have not always existed, and particularly not in such effective forms. Firewood has to be collected and burned, and this deforestation, in protracted conflicts, can have some very damaging side effects for the local population. If your army is marching through cold regions, such as Napoleon’s troops in Russia, you need to make sure that they’re warm enough and kept out of the snow long enough to survive. Carrying tents, stakes, ropes, barrels, et cetera, can require an army of animals and logistical staff, including ditch-diggers and cooks. While moving through desert regions, water and sun protection are extremely important assets. Controlling access to oases or rivers can mean the difference between victory and sun-bleached skeletons in the sand dunes.
Does this really look fun to you? Really?
A standing army also requires some money as “incentive” to fight. Desertion was common in days when mercenaries made up the bulk of a faction’s forces, because soldiers generally don’t like having javelins thrown at their head without a little palm-greasing. If your fantasy faction intends to pay the soldiers back with property, as Romans did, then be sure that they have the resources to do so. People will not remain in the army or fight with zeal unless they have good reason, whether it’s the defense of their homeland or an invasion of foreign territory. Good reasons include care by their home faction, payment, protection of their families, and a sense of accomplishment. Pay attention to the psychology of the nameless masses – it matters!
So, do you think your fantasy nation can support a standing army? If not, it’s quite alright. Most historical factions could not. They require a high level of faction cohesion (such as taxation efforts), a cohesive culture (to promote cooperation in the armed forces), and governmental organization for logistics. A rebel band generally does not have the luxury to keep a standing army at all times. They need militias to fight wherever the conflict arrives, but not an army which receives a stipend for their efforts.
Another large issue of war in fantasy is that authors tend to ignore “little costs.” These costs are actually massive, if you total them up. Some of these hidden expenditures include the cost of a horse – and believe me, a warhorse is not cheap.
Neither are a few thousand.
Pictured: NOT a warhorse.
Some horses may be adequate for message-running, but these are nowhere close to a warhorse, such as a destrier. A warhorse must be large enough to support a man in armor, his equipment, and his saddling or any sort of armor on the animal. They must also have endurance for carrying the man, although constant galloping and charging are fallacies of bad fantasy literature. Horses do get tired. A warhorse, psychologically, has to be trained and broken to be able to endure the sounds and chaos of conflict. Many humans can’t endure it, and animals prone to startling are especially vulnerable.
All of this training and breeding, naturally, costs money. A good warhorse could cost an extortionate amount, and throughout history, many armies targeted riders rather than horses because of their value. Remember – a horse should not be bought or ridden lightly by your soldiers. They should be properly stabled, fed, walked, and used in combat. Treat them according to their value!
Of course, in some plains or woodland regions you might explain that horses are found more commonly, but the training and simple breeding patterns of these animals guarantees a pretty penny. Anything can be found in large amounts in some part of the world, but quality does matter.
Another issue of economics comes down to trade. How does your fantasy empire disrupt trade with another faction? Does it blockade ports, ambush caravans, or deny them resources? How does it trade with other factions? How does it prevent inflation and other wartime catastrophes? These questions will determine the course of war. Remember, a war is not always about burning and conquering every city. Oftentimes, war is about crippling the economy of the enemy, and forcing them to beat their swords back into plowshares so they can feed their people. Be sure that your forces target actual objectives, and not just the dark lord and his minions on a random field.
War is an expensive, bloody, and bloody expensive business. Make your world reflect the price of a mile, my friends!
Have a lovely evening, and know that part four should arrive at some point in the near future.
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