Friday, February 9, 2018

Who Are Your Mercenary Companies?

PCs come from all walks of life. Some of them have been soldiers, others were scholars, and more than a few of them were craftsmen, priests, and farmers. All too often, though, players won't give you a detailed answer on their character's work history. They simply reach for the low-hanging fruit as a way to plug the huge gap in the PC's backstory. While the most common answer by far seems to be, "I'm an adventurer!" (and I've covered that previously in Stop Using The Word "Adventurer" And See How It Changes Your Game), the second-place contender is typically that the PC is a mercenary.

Now, that isn't to say that "mercenary" is a bad background for a PC, or that your world shouldn't have freelance troops ready for hire. However, rather than just letting a player give a general job title, dig a little deeper with them. Ask why they left the group they used to work for, what trappings they took with them, if they would be welcomed back, and most importantly, who they've served with?

And if you need help with that last one, you might enjoy 100 Random Mercenary Companies from Azukail Games (authored by yours truly). Also, if you're going into the high tech future, you might want to take a look at 100 Sci-Fi Mercenary Companies as well!

Give Them Options (And Watch Characters Grow)

Mercenary companies come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors. Some are cavalry tacticians, while others are unsurpassed foot soldiers. Some are sailors in times of war, and pirates in times of peace. Every mercenary company, though, has a reputation. Because that reputation is often what they sell themselves on, and how they attract new blood.

The 100 Ronin have won wars simply by being hired, their reputation is so fierce.
Whether you take inspiration from history by looking at groups like The Varangian Guard (viking and Anglo-Saxon mercenaries who protected the Eastern Roman emperors), or you decide to make up something out of whole cloth like the Lost Squires (a group founded by squires whose knights died, leaving them half-trained, but otherwise masterless), these groups add a lot of potential to player backstories.

Take a moment to ask what mercenary companies exist in your setting? How big are they? Who founded them? What is their reputation, and do they have any kind of uniform or badge to mark out members? Do they have a motto, or a doctrine? Do they claim to serve a higher purpose, such as being servants of a god of war?

Also, remember, free companies have all sorts of needs, and will hire all kinds of freelancers. So if you're looking for a spin on "Dark Ages PMC", here are some examples to consider.

- The Acolytes of Arannis: Founded by the evoker Arannis, the war wizards of the Acolytes specialize in ending wars with arcane might. Their commanders are made up of wizards, sorcerers, bards, magi, and even alchemists, but the company also boasts assassins and warriors trained in how to kill spellcasters should the need arise.

- The Harbingers of Sorrow: Every war has losers, and the Harbingers of Sorrow was originally formed from those who knew how to fight, but who had nothing left to fight for. Dressed in funerary black, the Harbingers fight in almost complete silence but for bellowed orders, and droning war horns. Their ranks are made up of disowned knights, exiled warriors, and veterans who lost everything but their swords when their units fell. The Harbingers never flee, it's said, because they have nowhere else to run to.

- The Jolly Company of The Black Flag: When war turns to peace, sailors often turn to piracy in order to keep food in their bellies. While there was much to be made plundering merchant ships, Captain Korgon Blood realized there was even more to be made in keeping them safe. The half-orc and his galleons hired themselves as escorts, using their knowledge of the other captains to avoid being attacked when they could. While the Jolly Company is mostly legitimate now, there are always rumors dogging them that they aren't above playing both sides of the water... or in staging attacks by phantom pirates to drive up demand for their services.

But What About Independent Operators?

With all of that said, there's still plenty of room for independent contractors. After all, sometimes a caravan just needs an extra sword, and one more pair of eyes. Maybe your employer has a very specific job he wants done, and it's a one-time gig for a professional like you. Perhaps you specifically operate in gray areas of the law, so they want someone not affiliated with any established group.

That's still an option. However, the iron trade is a booming business anywhere there's strife and conflict. So consider expanding the world a bit, and giving your players several mercenary groups they could have been affiliated with in the past... or which might recruit them in the future!

Also, speaking of mercenary companies, you may want to consider Blackguard. They hire anyone, regardless of past criminal history, alignment, race, or class. And they're particularly keen on doing outreach to groups that tend to be marginalized. Kobold survivors of warren raids, orcs whose parents were killed by wandering sellswords, and even to those serving convictions for misuse of the mystic arts. Blackguard has a place for you, if you're willing to step up!

That's all for this week's Fluff post. Hopefully it got some wheels turning out there, and if you have any unique mercenary companies of your own, feel free to leave a description in the comments below. If you'd like to see more content from yours truly, then check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I work with talented gamers to create things like that Blackguard video above. To keep up-to-date on all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, if you'd like to support my work, please head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or click here to Buy Me A Coffee! Either way, I'll be happy to send you some sweet gaming swag as a thank you for your support!


  1. What about five dwarf brothers? They are fighting types. What to call this group?

    1. If it were in Golarion, my advice would be, "The Fist of The Five Kings." Especially if they were from the Five Kings Mountains.

  2. So far I haven't been in a group of "just adventurers". They've always been people who just got caught up in whatever plot was thrown at us.
    Closest we've has is the B.A.D (Blessed and Damned). And they ended up forming a band. It was a era-spanning high powered Old WOD multisplat game. There were vampires (all but one NPCs), a Weredragon, a Mage and an awakened hunter. I was the sole vampire PC. That was fun. She was Blessed and Damned.

  3. "The Dancing Swords," how would you see them?

    1. A group largely made up of bravos, swashbucklers, and fast-moving fighters. Lightly armored, specializing in urban combat and as bodyguards rather than field infantry.