I have been working on an RPG (a video game) where one of the key plot "themes" is the prevalence of mercenaries, of very varied capabilities and fame/infamy/secrecy.

After lurking answers on here and seeing so many absolutely fascinating/on-point responses to WB questions by others, I figured that certainly there must be very interesting/"obvious" things that I haven't realized or considered.


  • This is a somewhat surreal and hyperviolent game, so some handwavium and ludicrousness is acceptable (and enjoyable, in theory, if done right). Think Hotline Miami x Skyrim x Metal Gear Solid or Final Fantasy or Zelda, or something. And some Dune inspiration too, as there is something analogous to Spice that has been discovered and become very valuable.

  • Mercenaries are simply defined as "private" groups that excel at accomplishing tasks due to their physical, strategic, and/or technological prowess.

  • It isn't 100% necessary that money is the end-all for 100% of these groups, but logically it would be for most/nearly all.

  • Set on an Earth-like world in the modern or near-future.

I can provide some more information if needed.

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    $\begingroup$ If I were a country spending money on a military, and mercenaries were better than my military, wouldn't I just hire mercenaries to be my military? Militaries generally are better because they have much more money than mercenaries do, government gets taxes and uses as much as needed to keep its people from dying xD - is there something that prevents this? $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Mar 20 '15 at 21:20
  • $\begingroup$ @DoubleDouble That's what I'm trying to figure out X) Right now it's just assumed to work but if there's any logic I can add... that would be nice for the analytical people, such as myself =p $\endgroup$ – HC_ Mar 20 '15 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ before napoleon mercenary armies were quite common. the combined russian/austrian army that napoleon defeated was mercenary $\endgroup$ – Jorge Aldo Mar 20 '15 at 21:53
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    $\begingroup$ What time genre do you want: a kind of modern-day mercenary (such as contractors in Iraq), the old-skool ancient Egypt, or the strictest definition: anyone who enters conflicts for personal gain? $\endgroup$ – Mikey Mar 20 '15 at 22:24
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    $\begingroup$ @DoubleDouble Typically, mercenaries USED to be part of your military. The ones that survive long enough to gain some experience and are relatively unattached tend to become mercenaries. They're usually more effective by far than militaries, but smaller and more volatile (since the government doesn't have direct control over them). If you hire them, you're taking responsibility for their collateral damage... $\endgroup$ – gatherer818 Mar 21 '15 at 4:58

I think the real question is why there are mercenaries. For this many mercenary groups to exist there would have to be something inspiring and encouraging it. That implies many fights happening between many tiny nations. In fact this world would work very best if you had no super powers and only lots and lots of tiny nations, all so small that it's too expensive to keep a standing army and it's easier to buy mercenaries for the length of time you need them.

The concept of 'buyability' would then be very important. If I have to hand over a good portion of my nations GDP to buy mercenaries to defend it I would be rather upset if the mercenaries then turned around and ransacked it. Thus most mercenaries would have a very high value on keeping their word. Those that are known to break it would never be hired, or not by anyone remotely trustworthy.

Since mercenaries are so much stronger, and thus nations probably keep little in terms of standing army, the threat of mercenaries simply moving in and taking over a nation is very high. Of course any sort of group that does this is unlikely to have the skills to lead and keep it strong. Thus some mercenaries may move from country to country, taking it over, using it's resources and then moving to the next Country.

This all combines to give a pretty interesting premise for the world. Mercenary corp X was hired to defend a nation but the nations enemies gave them a huge bribe to take the nation out instead. The corp agrees to do so, only to discover that, shockingly, no one will hire them ever again. So they try stay in the nation they were originally hired to defend and simply live off it's resources, but they find the nation is small and without good leadership (which they killed) it starts to fall apart into anarchy fast, they don't want the difficulty of trying to lead, and so they move on leaving the collapsing former nation behind in anarchy.

X proceeds to move from country to country, taking out their tiny armies, enjoying it's riches, and moving on when the company inevitably collapses from the lost of leadership and raping of it's resources. Neighboring countries, which formerly didn't bother with large standing armies, are now terrified of being invaded by X and effectively destroyed. They start hiring mercenaries to defend themselves, and suddenly all the mercenary groups around the world are moving in to a small area full of tiny disorganized nations afraid of being invaded.

The suddenly influx of so much man power, and such drastic expenditures to afford the mercenaries, then causes odd power disputes. Country Y hires expensive mercenaries because their afraid X will invade them. X hasn't invaded yet, but Y realizes they can't afford to keep paying it's mercenaries to stick around and defend them without eventually going bankrupt. Y decides since their on retainer any way they should use the mercenaries to help cover their own cost and invades undefended nation Z and taking their resources. Z has to hire mercenaries to defend itself and suddenly Z and Y are at war. Some country bordering Z and Y then hires mercenaries simply out of fear that either Z or Y will attack through them to get to their enemy etc etc. Meanwhile none of these nations have the GDP to be able to keep up with the massive expense of keeping these mercenaries on retainer to defend them, the nations are all slowly bankrupting themselves to keep the protection. In the long run even if X never invades the nations risk collapsing when their markets can no longer sustain the massive mercenary costs. It's an unstable and bad situation which looks to get far worse the longer that X is out there terrorizing the nations.

In all this you have X as the evil mercenary group to be your antagonist. You have wars suddenly happening all over the place, political nuance (you can glance over it or mock it if its not relevant to your story, but leave it implied in the back story). You have something inspiring all the combat and warfare, and it being bloody and to the death because all the nations feel that their fighting for their very survival and people can be crazy in a mob mentality like that.

Your protagonist can be the heroes simply by always keeping their word. Perhaps mercenaries have codes for how they work together. In either case the protagonists ultimate goal is to stop group X. In so doing they can fix the whole warfare nonsense that X accidentally spawned. You get gore and bloodshed while being the good guys, yay!

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    $\begingroup$ I'm only partially into your post so far but I'm completely blown away... you have provided fascinating points and each paragraph could provide the basis for "other" plot arcs that I've been trying to fill/add to the main storyline (as well as provide some excellent, logical contexts). The ideas of loyalty, and treachery for resources/nomadic merc groups... I really love. $\endgroup$ – HC_ Mar 20 '15 at 22:14
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    $\begingroup$ @HC_ thank you. it's not really orginized because I was coming up with it as I wrote it. The pieces just sort of fell together by accident. I almost feel sorry I got bored and didn't continue to see what else I could do lol $\endgroup$ – dsollen Mar 23 '15 at 16:35
  • $\begingroup$ Mercenaries do work with superpowers as well. Rome and Persia used them extensively. Partly because they had low quality conscripts and slaves. Partly because most of the action were at the fringes of a very large empire. Ancient Greece also used them to deal with the threat of superpowers. You can have a band of people who were Roman trained, with 10 years of experience, then went for the mercenary life. $\endgroup$ – Muz Jul 1 '15 at 21:49
  • $\begingroup$ @muz oh definitely mercenaries work with larger nations, the US employed quite a few in our recent not-technically-wars. However, the original question here was one where the mercenaries were stronger then the standing military. It seems less likely that the mercenary strength would be greater then their standing military with superpowers. Plus, when you want lots of mercenaries fighting like the OP asked for having lots of small nations gives more reasons for battles and general more civil unrest to exploit. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Jul 1 '15 at 23:03

Read about the history of Renaissance Italy. It seems an almost exact parallel to your situation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Condottieri

One factor you may not have anticipated is that battles between various mercenary groups can degenerate into showpieces, as mercenaries tend to be interested in living to enjoy their pay.

  • $\begingroup$ Very interesting second point! Thank you! I hadn't considered "fake" showmanship/staged battles. $\endgroup$ – HC_ Mar 20 '15 at 22:10

For a historic model of what could happen, look at Renaissance Italy, or more generally, at European warfare between about 1600 and 1800.


In general, a lack of government (meaning no militarys at all) could work - This is usually explained as a global catastrophe that destroys all large government and everyone just fights for survival. Zombie games or games with a backstory similar to Fallout would fall into this category.

You could have some new ideology that the world has conceivably decided to adopt. The world creates the "Mercenary Guild" where people can choose to sign up and become famous like any other sport. Conflicts are decided by hiring two groups which fight it out, keeping the general population of the world safe.

Or, some group discovers technology that puts them far ahead of all the governments and makes themselves the world's police force, made up of many different groups. They manage themselves and won't work in favor of one government or another or some sort - they could completely takeover, but don't. Which is why governments just leave them alone. Not sure why you would need so many different groups though - the world would have to be in a major uproar or something. Perhaps this world police force just had something major happen and split into many factions without any unity.

  • $\begingroup$ "Conflicts are decided by hiring two groups which fight it out, keeping the general population of the world safe." > So, much like Italy during its mercenary era, except that there wasn't much actual killing :) $\endgroup$ – Muz Jul 1 '15 at 22:11

In the real world, I consider mercenaries or private military contractors a very bad idea. But bad ideas can make good adventure settings.

Capable can cover a great many things. In the real world, serious military forces can operate across a spectrum from internal security operations to major theater war. Private military contractors tend to specialize in things like bodyguard duty during counterinsurgency warfare or rear area maintenance support.

One could imagine a world where different contractors specialize in different things -- a mercenary artillery battery, an air assault brigade, a squadron of ASW frigates for hire. Almost by definition, they'd be better at their niche job than full spectrum forces.

But no matter how good they are, they would be unfamiliar with the area of operations and the other elements of a combined arms force. Sure, one can hire an artillery battalion to support an infantry regiment, but the artillery forward observers won't have trained with the infantry platoons. And neither one has trained with the logistics company.

So you don't hire different mercenaries and integrate them, you go to a general contractor for a turnkey operation. A mechanized division with artillery and aviation brigades plus rear area support services. But how many of these contractors could there be on the planet? Five? Ten?

Things look different if the mercenaries operate with the tacit approval of a major nation state. But then they're not really mercenaries, they're not-quite-regular national forces.

  • A genuine mercenary would be in the profession for the money. Assuming that he is not currently under contract, would he fight for the highest bidder or does he look for politically/morally acceptable causes?
  • A mercenary might sign up for a force which later comes into conflict with her homeland. Will she be tried as a traitor or do people accept that such things happen?
  • The employer of a mercenary conducts genocide behind the front lines. The mercenary was not directly involved in those crimes, but he gave his employer the time and space for mass murder. A couple of years later, the other side asks for his extradition to stand trial.
  • A mercenary has signed a contract to operate an air defense system. In a high stress situation, she fires at a passenger airliner. Can the relatives of the victims sue the mercenary company? How about a class action lawsuit against the (different) company which produced the SAMs and the company which produced the radars?

You talked about an earthlike world. Are you talking about a setting with multiple planets and interstellar travel? Having more space and less population density might be conductive to mercenary operations. There are plenty of science fiction settings with these elements -- the Traveller RPG, Drake's Hammer's Slammers, Pournelle's CoDominion series, Bujold's Vorkosigan books, ...

  • $\begingroup$ Very great response, them being defined by their capabilities is what I had in mind, but I had a less robust mental picture of just all the possibilities that would create.. contractors + mercenaries I do like the idea of quite a bit, as it does make sense to me that some groups would exist to "glue" the pieces together for you, since that itself is a "capability." This story takes place on a single Earth-like planet where technology may be 20-30 years advanced but nothing too revolutionary other than more abundantly available advanced weaponry/tech. $\endgroup$ – HC_ Mar 23 '15 at 15:43

A bit more tech than you're envisioning, but look at the Hammer's Slammers novels. The basic force driving this is a universe with a large number of small combatants. Most of the time they have little if any military, it's a better deal to shell out a whole bunch of money to hire mercs when needed than to maintain a standing army of anything like their firepower. It gives a good basis for why you could have mercenaries being the primary combat forces.

The universe has a bonding commission that ensures the mercenaries actually do the job they're paid for and since it's high tech warfare it generally becomes clear that defeat is inevitable before large numbers of casualties are sustained--and thus the loser usually doesn't get torn up too badly.


I think the "Implications of a world where mercenaries are more capable than most militaries" would cover a lot of ground, but lets start with why governments might prefer to hire a mercenary group rather than maintain a standing army.

A few of the other answers mentioned that small nation states may favor mercenaries, but I can definitely picture large powerful nations employing mercenaries... After all, The US has the largest military in the world, but they still hire out.

So, in your scenario why might even large wealthy countries prefer to contract this kind of work rather than handling it themselves?

Plausible Deniability

Large powerful nations may not want to be seen doing ethically questionable things.

Say nation X wants to attack and weaken nation Y, but doesn't want to deal with the scorn of the international community, (you know... sanctions, broken alliances, and so on...), they could hire out their dirty work to a private firm under an obligatory non-disclosure agreement. Nation Y would strongly suspect that nation X was responsible for the attacks and in turn would hire another contractor to retaliate. You end up with proxy wars between somewhat nation-less mercenary groups, while both nations X and Y claim to have no direct control or involvement in the conflict.

Of course the above only works if the mercenaries don't expose who they've been hired by, but that could very easily be handled by a chain of command. Ground forces probably wouldn't be privy to that information. The details of contracts would simply be way above their pay grade.

One way you could explain how these mercenary groups grow to rival and overpower national militaries could be the scope and profitability of private industry.

Lets say that rather than hundreds of small mercenary groups you just had a handful. It would be a bit like pitting a company like Apple against a company like Microsoft in an armed conflict.

Or worse still, if you wanted an interesting plot twist, you could have one global mercenary conglomerate which maintained a monopoly on the market. When wars broke out it could be, lets say the Northwest Division VS the Southeast Division in a proxy war, none of the troops on the ground would be aware that they're employed by the same firm, nor would the nations hiring them. The conglomerate controls the outcome of all armed conflict in a way that maximizes long term profiteering. Picture a company a bit like the Umbrella Corporation, from the Resident Evil series.


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