Say there was a fairly large island continent. Say half the size of Australia. Now lets say it is united under one ruler. Magic exists in this form:

  1. All magic requires runes and a verbal activation (saying 'magic words' that correspond to the runes). Runes are one-use only.
  2. Any spell lasts a maximum of one minute (no enchanting)
  3. Any spell has a certain maximum amount of power, and will not complete tasks under that power (you can create a small fireball, but can't make a storm or teleport)
  4. Any spell takes three seconds to take effect after the verbal component has been said (gives time for a counter-spell)
  5. Runes can be traced on a surface (temporary rune) and can then be activated only by the maker, or engraved/written (permanent rune) where they can be triggered by anyone holding the object.
  6. All activation phrases must be yelled, and cannot be muffled (can't use magic while gagged or holding cloth over face)

Now, that benevolent king that ruled over his people. Suddenly one of an extremely rare species of unaging people killed all the rest of its kind and declared war on the kingdom. With powerful magic he defeated the kingdom and usurped the throne. For around a millennia the new king ruled tyrannically. Finally, the people got sick of it and all the little low-level rebellions got together and... I'm getting ahead of myself. What I want to ask is how those low level rebellions would fight the army. Obviously the only possibility is guerrilla warfare, so my real question is: How would the king's army respond. What tactics/equipment can we expect them to use to combat this new threat of guerrilla warfare? EDIT: What I'm really asking here is effective tactics/equipment to deal with medieval guerrilla warfare. I don't need the king's opinion or that he will send people to kill the rebels. HOW will the people he sends kill the rebels?

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    $\begingroup$ To quote Tywin Lannister, 'Ser Gregor will head out with five hundred riders and set the Riverlands on fire'. This is the mediaeval and the Roman way of dealing with insurgency. It was also the way people deal with insurgency until very recently. It is horrifying barbaric. It also works. $\endgroup$
    – ifly6
    Mar 18, 2017 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ What they are saying is that that does not matter. Collective punishment on civilians would have been the response. They do not actually care about proportionate response to the current threat, they care about deterrence of the same happening elsewhere. And like they said it was the standard for millennia, because it works. $\endgroup$ Mar 18, 2017 at 20:45
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    $\begingroup$ This wiki article may also give some inspiration. In particular, what led me there was thoughts of the American Revolutionary War. I found what potentially looks like a really nice write-up on the topic of guerilla warfare and the response to it in that war, except it needs an account on that site and I couldn't view the whole thing. But, just a thought of a potential research starting point. $\endgroup$
    – Jason C
    Mar 18, 2017 at 20:57
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    $\begingroup$ To give another example of medieval tactics to deal with such warfare, look at William the Conquerors, Harrying of the North. The campaign was so savage that it is said some resorted to cannabilsm to survive. $\endgroup$
    – Sarriesfan
    Mar 19, 2017 at 11:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Gryphon burn the whole city to the ground. Problem solved. $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Mar 20, 2017 at 13:23

8 Answers 8


There is so much to unpack in the original question. So much historical, psychological, and socio-economical baggage. So let's begin.

Historically, kings that reigned with an iron fist--surprise, surprise--were detested. So there are plenty of history and legends passed down regarding the uprisings that were inevitable to rise. Robin Hood is just such a figure, though I'm sure he needs no introduction.

Another such figure that we've all indirectly heard of, is Nebuchadnezzar II, though most will remember the name as the ship Morpheus was captain of in The Matrix Trilogy. I find this one far more interesting, because of the legacy ol' Nebuchadnezzar left behind. Whether true or slander spread by those he conquered (given the majority I've learned about him is from the Old Testament in the Bible), he is reputed to have suffered from Clinical Lycanthropy or Porphyria (both of which are discussed on the link to Nebuchadnezzar).

Bear in mind, however, that all kings are cruel in the 'good ol' days', it's just that beloved kings were cruel to their kingdom's enemies. (this is important for public relations efforts for the king)

Psychologically, you offer something that can be taken many ways.

Suddenly one of an extremely rare species of unaging people killed all the rest of its kind and declared war on the kingdom. With powerful magic he defeated the kingdom and usurped the throne. For around a millennia the new king ruled tyrannically. Finally, the people got sick of it and all the little low-level rebellions got together and...

So much in this block of text. The things a man can learn in a thousand years (if he's able to remember any of it, but that aside). What troubles me most, is how (or why) he would kill all of his own people to rule over others. This speaks of fear on his part, and some seriously twisted backstory that I could speculate on for hours on end (let's not go there now, in other words). So let's get to the more troubling part.

For around a millennia the new king ruled tyrannically. Finally, the people got sick of it and all the little low-level rebellions got together and...

This makes no sense. No one that lives a maximum of 80 years will tolerate this for a thousand and then get fed up. By this time, the king's ways will have been so ingrained into their culture that most will just accept it as it is ("What can you do, it's always been like this").

This is something that would have been revolted against time and again--which could be the actual problem:

Rebellion has become so common, that to not be a rebel is to be an outcast. Think Timber in Final Fantasy VIII, where everyone in town is a resistance member.

But how do you deal with that as a king with a thousand years of experience of surviving these pathetic little coups? For that, we turn to our Robin Hood example, and how poorly this worked out.

Tax the people into the poor house. Public executions to break the spirit. And burning down entire villages that would dare harbour even suspected criminals. Why didn't this work for John? Because everyone will come to hate you, and if anything, a dictator (even a royal dictator) needs his powerbase on his side. See 3 Rules for Rulers for a more in depth explanation.

So, if this king rules for over a thousand years, he knows the game, all the rules, and he's safeguarded his power structure indefinitely. So, how does he react?

He's a king, micromanaging just isn't an option. He has the army and generals he needs to trust. Expect these generals to have been loyal to him for generations (father to son, most likely, simply because "if it isn't broke, don't fix it"). They'll receive orders to make an example out of these people, and make sure everyone else is too scared to help them.

How to do this? Wanted posters, hanging a few people alleged to have helped the rebellion, and making sure the people know their place: beneath the ruling class's feet.

Historically this has been done via warrior classes (knights in Europe, Samurai in Japan) because if you are raised to believe this is the way the world works, it is easier to shrug off having to kill innocent men, women, and even children (and yes, this has historically been the case in both Eastern and Western societies).

Another option would be South Africa's Apartheid. Built upon the principle a house divided unto itself cannot stand. Keep the people segregated, keep them fighting amongst themselves, and they will never gain the strength needed to oppose the king or the ruling class.

Keep in mind my third point: Socio-Economics. Dead people cannot work, so the king doesn't want to kill them, but he will if he must. He wants them to work, to know their place and make him rich, so that he can support his power bases (reference to the 3 Rules for Rulers video), so that he can continue being the king, and the status quo is maintained.

Expect the state endorsed religion to support accepting your fate and devoting yourself to being a good little slave. Perhaps a belief that you'll be rewarded in the life hereafter, or perhaps reincarnation is a thing, and you'll be granted a much better life next time.

Having dealt with all of that. What tactics would the king's army use to hammer down the nail that sticks up? I've mentioned a few already, but why not offer some more ideas.

  • Shields marked with runes, so that the spells are already prepared and always within grasp of the soldier bearing it (logically, defensive spells/runes makes more sense on shields)
  • Swords marked with offensive runes.
  • Expect all state sanctioned cities, towns, and villages to have soldiers loyal to the crown. This means a country wide intelligence network, which can lead to people who have studied how to ferret out spies and plausible rebels.
  • If all else fails? More Dakka always does the trick (TV Tropes warning on that link. Don't blame me if you offer hours of your day to that site!)
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    $\begingroup$ Side note: guerilla tactics were common back then. It's just that the king had better PR, and they were labelled as outlaws and criminals, and not to be trusted. So, really, not much would have changed. $\endgroup$
    – Fayth85
    Mar 18, 2017 at 20:44
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    $\begingroup$ Excellent point on the cultural change. I agree he would be basically a living god if he spun the story right. You don't defy a god, he's clearly not human. $\endgroup$
    – Mormacil
    Mar 18, 2017 at 20:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Gryphon That all sounds amazingly convenient. So in that thousand years, no other opportunity presented itself? No one got desperate enough to do something stupid? No one lost a loved one? Saw their best friend killed by the king's tyranny or his army's conceit? Or were they waiting for someone with a specific celestial sign to mark them as 'the one'? Humans are not that patient, not en masse. Someone would have done something, and if that someone was charismatic enough, or beloved, or just had one friend crazy enough to follow them, something would have happened. $\endgroup$
    – Fayth85
    Mar 19, 2017 at 11:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Gryphon "Who knows?" You should. Because every attempt should be documented and studied by the king that wants to remain in power indefinitely. As a powerful mage, he would know the value of information gained. As a dictator, he should know the trends of when his army should be more vigilant. As an 'immortal' he should be a thousand times more careful with his power base and his life than a regular person. Because we risk a hundred years, he risks eternity. $\endgroup$
    – Fayth85
    Mar 19, 2017 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ Seriously, dude. 99% of all plot holes come from details the writer(s) overlook, just like this. Every rule you write has consequences, and those consequences can and should lead to plausible effects. The difference is whether or not you predict them, and whether or not you have a backup plan already in place to catch them. But that is on you, all I can--and will--do is point them out. $\endgroup$
    – Fayth85
    Mar 19, 2017 at 13:13

There was guerrilla warfare in Medieval times

The whole point of stone castles was to be able to withdraw to an impregnable position that couldn't be efficiently reduced by siege. From this impregnable castle, the defenders could raid supply trains, play scorched earth to deny the enemy supplies, and generally be a nuisance.

In your setup, I don't really see a reason that these magic users would be able to reduce stone castles any easier than in real life. You say they can only make small fireballs, and to put runes on the walls is no easier than putting a ladder on the walls, and just as easy to get the rune-user hit with a crossbow bolt or some boiling oil.

If stone castles are still nigh-impregnable, then a large number of stone castles will make a land mostly unconquerable. This exact scenario played out between England and France, in the middle of the 14th century, during the first part of the Hundred Years War. The French were annihilated at Crecy, and the fortress at Calais captured, but attrition on the English was too high to make further gains against other fortified places.


Terror, you want complete and utter terror. To quote king Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria.

I built a pillar over against [the] city gate, and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up within the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes, and others I bound to stakes round about the pillar; many within the border of my own land I flayed, and I spread their skins upon the walls; and I cut off the limbs of the officers, of the royal officers, who had rebelled.

Polybius on Roman counterinsurgency

one may often see not only the corpses of human beings, but dogs cut in half, and the dismembered limbs of other animals. . . . They do this, I think, to inspire terror.

So first you sow terror in your enemies. You rather have them not fighting at all. Your second goal would be removing their protection. BUrn down the forests, the countryside. Kill all vllagers that are proven to help them. If you can outpace the new recruits you'll win.

Thirdly you kill the head of the snake. Both the Romans and modern day Americans like to go after the leaders of their enemy. One with assassins and bribes, the other with drones and hellfire missiles.

Extra reading: http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1166&context=curej


(Sorry if my english gets wrong sometimes, i'm not a native english speaker.)

Medieval tactics on the battlefield, consists on concentrated regiments with armed soldiers with specific traits, weapons and tasks. REMEMBER THAT Medieval warfare is very different from the modern warfare introduced by Napoleon.

And so you want combine some kind of guerrila warfare into medieval wars? That is possible. Lets start from the very begining...

1 - How to build a rebel army

Who will sponsor this army? The dissatisfied nobility; the own people helping by sharing the crops and money; a foreign country enemy to the current governement. An army needs food, money and equipment to survive. You can decide who will sponsor the army.

How to recruit? A rebelion uses differents methods of recruinting depending on how the war is going. They can recruit people in the largest cities in hideouts; they can recruit at the farms; they can recruit people on the road; they can do it in the conquered land (If the rebelion has managed to get some)

Where they will sleep? HQs and army encampaments has to be somewhere. Where else would it be if not on the remote places? Caves, mountains and swamps are good places. Guerrila armies are easy to pass through these places (but they are not imune to attrition.)

How to feed the army/give the equpment/payment? Clandestinity and piracy are the key-words here. There can be assaults on caravans and shipments. The people responsible to sponsor the army will provide the

The ideology. I think this is the most important you should be asking. Try to imagine what the recruiters will say to inspire the villagers and citzens to the cause, thats their ideology. The vietnans used the rethoric of "freeing Vietnam from capitalism." But this is medieval times, isnt it? The ideology here is more attached to tradition and/or religon. Maybe you could relate to the old times or maybe you could create some legendary hero that is inside the rebelion. "I've joined the rebelion because of Kelsier, he survived the tirany of the king with this incredible powers! He is the only one who can defeat him!"

2 - How to fight this war using guerrila

The strategy. The main aspect of a guerrila is the occultation of the army and its movements. Propaganda were also played an important part on this kind of warfare, because the rebel soldiers are basically villagers, and the people need to feel anger and courage to fight aganist the system. You can get inspiration from the American Revolution, where they've used small attacks to damange the british army. The americans lost the larger battles, but with night attacks on small convoys and important shipment and caravans, they've managed to win the war.

Fighting the own country. Different from the american revolution, the enemy isnt an empire with its capital far from your land, isnt it? The conflict could happen through many, MANY years or just some if a treaty is signed. So, what is the goal of the rebellion? Is it to free a part of the land? To take control of the country? The goal will affect on how the rebelion and the kingdom see the war. The main weapon of the rebelion will be its legitimacy and the ideology on it. If the rebelion loses the people, he loses the war. If the people still belive on the rebelion, the war can continue forever.

Small battles. They will be the key for the success of the rebelion. The goal is not to attack directly the kingdom and destroy it with a single blow, but with bleeding. Make the country bleed. Attack caravans and shipment, destroy their farms and kill their commanders.

Large Battles. The guerrila wants to avoid this. They know they cant fight with an army.

Besieging a city. This can be easily arranged with engineering, may it be with basic rams and ladders or catapults and trebuchets. But I suppose that the wizzards in your world are scholars, they could be the siege engineers and the magical engineers. Maybe they could do something cool with a system of runes into a battering ram, a catapult. And with the rule number 5, you gave on the post, anyone can operate the machine. Remember that a siege can last months, even years, so logistics are important here.

3 - How would medieval tactics have changed if guerrilla warfare had become common?

The main question is: how should we preserve the spirit of a guerrila warfare? That is: the occultation of an army and its movement? How to split the army wihout losing it? How to inspire the people to fight through propaganda? And the most important, how to defeat the enemy? All this, under the conditions of your world (And you world will play an important part for a possible "medieval guerrila.")

The enemy. It would be useless to discuss the guerrila wihout considering of how the enemy is. His empire is vast but his governement is centralized? Why is that? The capital is the only place on the empire with higher culture and resources? Why the other cities dont have similar importance? Geographical limitations could be a good solution for this (or just something else.) Remember that the advantages the guerrila uses, the kingdom could use too. Technology and magic could be used to solve the limitations that medieval era imposed.

Hiding the rebel army and organizing it. Hiding is not the problem, the problem is comunication and logistics in general. Technology and/or magic could solve this. Maybe the wizzards can make contact through telephaty or magic globes. Maybe the supplies could be arranged with magical creatures that manage to drop the supplies by land, sea or air.

Inspiring. Stories are important, in medieval times, your hero(s) would probably be considered as demigods. Religions and beliefs were build by oral traditions, stories that the elders and travellers say about the mysterious events, persons and creatures of the world. There must also be a reason of why the villagers will abandon their hoes and pick up swords to fight aganist their lord and king. Maybe the people are not servants, but slaves, maybe you the kingdom make the people pay high taxes.

Bleed the enemy. Maybe this society is more advanced and the governement is more centralized. The kingdom depends on foreign trade and agriculture is not very dependable on people, which allows more migration into the cities.

Medieval warfare. The runes and mages could play an important role on leading the groups and armies. Attacks on cities would be more common and nobles and lords would start to pay their alligeance to a new leader that wants to take the throne.(The guerrila kind of warfare would still be a problem depending on the economy, because the rebelion shouldt be able to bleed the country if the economy is mostly driven by agricultre.)

How to destroy the enemy? Conquer his land and capital, and you will achieve victory in defeating him. This can only be achieved when the king is weak. (But if during the war, a powerful lord manage to take the throne?)The problems could emerge later with possible lords and nobles that didnt allied to the rebelion that declare themselves kings or pay their alligeance to other king.

But anyway, what would change? That depends directly on how your world will be. My answers will help you to avaliate these simple questions like... how is the king? How its kingdom? How the people live? What they belive in? etc... You should be worried on how to preserve the medieval identity and the guerrila warfare identity. (But this would be another topic isnt it? :v)

For your inspiration: Brandon Sanderson uses a perfect example of how to build a rebel army in his book series, Mistborn. The Elder Scrolls V Skyrim can also provide you with some inspiration with the stormcloaks.

There is also this video of how the roman army is organized.


In Poland we have this saying "Read a book before writing one".

I will tell you a story. It take place on a continent. Near another bigger continent. On the smaller one, let's call it England, there was a beloved king. But he had to go to the toilet. So his evil brother took over the throne and said: Ha, peasants, now I will torment you with taxes and my tax collectors and my iron fist in the shape of sheriffs
But then come a guy and says: Ha, you and your stupid sheriff. My name is Che Guevara and I will live in those woods and fight with your tax collectors when they try to travel through them

And so he did. Che lived in the forest with his guerrilla friend, el friero Tuck, Smallo Jose, and girlfriend Marion Castro. He made traps for the tax collectors, shoot them with his trusty Bow-47 and hit them in the head with sticks.
Of course the didn't wanted to try to seize the castles or fight in the open because they had full plate armour and he had sticks. What he would do to them? Dent it?
Seizing a castle would require, in the most optimistic option with gates wide open, an equal amount of soldiers to the ones stationed in the castle. So they would need a lot of them and/or with good equipment. And if you had a lot of soldiers and good armour and weapons you we're no longer a guerrilla.

So how's the king responds? Well, it's easy - Can somebody take a 200 of count Xvsyt men and go there and kill the marauders, thieves, bandits, unhappy peasants or whatever those people call themselves.
Or, if he king was more into getting his hands dirty he would lead his knights by themselves and cut their head with his big sword.

Name one successful revolution that was lead by peasants that wasn't French Revolution.

  • $\begingroup$ Chinese revolts against the Qin, Xin and Sui dynasties; Bagaudae against Roman, outlived the Empire; Kakitsu uprising; War of the Remences ; Kaga rebellion; Poppy farmer revolts in China, multiple successes. But I'll give you far and large they fail. $\endgroup$
    – Mormacil
    Mar 20, 2017 at 11:21
  • $\begingroup$ As you said there were not many successful, so the rebellion, from the point of view of the ruler, was no different from some band of thieves that grew in significance. For the king it didn't mattered if they had a cause to fight for against him or they just did it for the money. War of the Remences is actually one the proof that even when sided with stronger, more able side you don't get what you fight for even if you win. $\endgroup$ Mar 20, 2017 at 11:33
  • $\begingroup$ Not many were succesful but a large amount of the Chinese rebellions seem to succeed. Both way back and recent (1900+). For the king though all humans are like insects, aging and weak. $\endgroup$
    – Mormacil
    Mar 20, 2017 at 11:35
  • $\begingroup$ But again, the question if when the rebellion is really a guerrilla fight and where it's just regular war. The Qin revolt was lead by trained leaders that had both experience and resources to lead an actual army. $\endgroup$ Mar 20, 2017 at 11:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Mormacil I know nothing about East Asian history, but neither the Bagaudae nor the Remences were 'successful.' At best, they were not worth the effort to extinguish, in the case of the Bagaudae, and easier to bribe than crush in the case of the Remences. Neither came close to overthrowing any rulers and either contributed to the collapse of any state. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Mar 20, 2017 at 13:10


Assuming your world has horses, uses a similar economy to our medieval times & your magic doesn't trivialize transportation, a group of horsemen can still hunt down rebel troops on foot quite easily. Horses fit for warfare were very expensive, so it would be unrealistic for rebels to have easy access to such resources. This means the king would be able to force engagements with rebels, making guerilla tactics as we know it very difficult. There were examples of infantry repelling cavalry, but those usually required well-trained troops to remain calm during charges.

As a side note: Kingledion made a good point about how difficult it was for armies to attack small forces in a fortified position. If your rebels rely on public support or are generally good people though, the King could simply do what rulers usually did when their enemies hid in their castles & pillage the local country side. This cruel tactic often forced rebels into open battle to avoid ruling over nothing but burned rubble & might apply to your world too.

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    $\begingroup$ And this is why a lot of successful or semi-successful rebel movements based themselves in swamps. Good luck to your cavalry there. $\endgroup$
    – biziclop
    Aug 8, 2023 at 13:32

I think the king's army should be bewildered at first but then they will keep on it with brute force, taking heavy casualties but not caring for they outnumber the enemy by so much. If they don't outnumber the enemy they should brake their army into smaller groups, and encircle the enemy, trapping them and using sneakiness themselves.


This is the key:

What tactics/equipment can we expect them to use to combat this new threat of guerrilla warfare?

Under this setup as @Fayth85 say, rebellion is common. But is most of time useless.

Is important to note this: WHEN "guerrilla warfare" IS A THREAT?

(No, is not when exist a lot of bodies or property damaged...)

Combat that start from the small people is fated to fail... BADLY. You don't need much to crush/control them.

Rebellion with some chance must be after a MASSIVE IMPLOSION of the society (like by famine)...

or start from the mid/high class. Revolutions like the american one was from the high levels of society.

This lead to what could make them potentially effective: Now have support, money, resource and PEOPLE THAT KNOW THE SYSTEM because are part of it.

Then it come the second requeriment: A good strategist / tactician.

You need to have Sun Tzu working for the rebels, and some few nobles that give operational support and intel.

If you pay attention, is like the Rebellion from the Star Wars... (just that there is more magic and luck)

Now finally, you rebellion have a chance. And if you have a charismatic hero with a band of mistfits (but truly oustanding) top-of-line soldiers better yet!

Then, how deal with it?

You do exact the same things as before. Reality say this is enough, and most rebellions die soon.

But then Sun Tzu and/or the hero and band of misfits have enough luck and skills to pull of solid attacks thanks from the intel and support of you "shadow goverment". What make a solid attack depend in your setup, and more likely, is where the perception of power lie.

If this rebellion use TRUE guerrilla tactis and much less open battles.. all normal ideas can't work and now it become a game of spy-vs-spy, intel, and commandos. Your fight is more internal than external.

Your game as the EMPIRE:

  • Find and eliminate the competent leadership, and get rid of their high command INSIDE your ranks.

Your game as the REBELLION:

  • Strike against key targets, subvert in the shadow the operations of the empire, convert nobles to your cause, increase the support of the population (and something most rebellions fail to do) AVOID FIGHT THE EMPIRE DIRECTLY.

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