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Heroes that went to war in medieval time were usually captured by the enemy when they became famous for their prowess, examples are William Wallace or Joan of Arc. That is, unless they were slain by an arrow or any other type of projectile that normally flies over the battlefield.

In a fantasy world, where the hero must survive the danger of wizards casting spells on the enemy army, powerful beasts like dragons, or giant animals, is there any possible way that an average soldier just with a high skill and a good equipment could face many battles and survive being decisive for the win?

Edit: The hero can't just rely on the big numbers. He is already famous, so we can't apply the same logic as if he were an anonymous soldier lost in the mass. He leads the army to battle, so the enemy is going to put special attention to him. Also, he is the one who have to show bravery against the bigger threats to keep the moral of the army up. That doesn't mean he doesn't know when to fight and when not, as a skilled soldier is good enough tactician to choose the best moment and place for a battle.

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    $\begingroup$ Luck can create such a scenario $\endgroup$ – Joe Kissling May 25 '17 at 15:23
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    $\begingroup$ If there wasn't a high chance of that it would be hard to get people to join an army. $\endgroup$ – sphennings May 25 '17 at 15:25
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    $\begingroup$ @sphennings During the middle ages, people often joined a lord's levied army for the promise of pay, food, and plunder, and didn't expect to actually do any fighting. It wasn't unusual for an army to go on campaign for the military season (spring to fall) without any serious enemy contact before they disband and go home. Even when battle was actually joined, combat casualties were typically fairly low by the time the battle was decided. That's all an easier sell than 'come fight a fire-breathing dragon to the death, and if you survive, do it again tomorrow'. $\endgroup$ – Catgut May 25 '17 at 15:53
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    $\begingroup$ This seems fine to me. This is not asking about a character's motivations which is where you get into too story based it is asking about the likelihood of survival in a medieval setting... $\endgroup$ – James May 25 '17 at 16:06
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    $\begingroup$ The statement that: "Heroes that went to war in medieval time were usually captured by the enemy when they became famous for their prowess, examples are William Wallace or Joan of Arc. That is, unless they were slain by an arrow or any other type of projectile that normally flies over the battlefield." Most soldiers survived most battles and campaigns unless they were fighting Mongol invaders or something. There were many famous warriors who were veterans of many wars and campaigns. If war was as dangerous as you say, the nobles would have been pacifists, not warriors. $\endgroup$ – M. A. Golding May 25 '17 at 21:24

12 Answers 12

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With Training, discipline, decent equipment, a good brain, and a good leader, sure.

Training: Quite simply, being able to poke the other guy first. Even in Melee combat. Knowing to keep the shield up is critical. Fancy swordplay often gets beat by solid basic moves. If you train hard and consistently, those moves happen automatically.

Discipline: Goes with training, but covers a lot of other stuff. A common saying amongst US Marines is that a pint of sweat saves a gallon of blood. Here is how that plays. your hero is part of a troop that takes the time and effort to dig in every single night. They protect baggage trains instead of trying to make extra speed. Make sure you have adequate rations for the campaign. They know their own limits and plan accordingly. Bring the right supplies for the terrain, all of that stuff. Bake all of this into your military culture.

Decent Equipment: If you are fighting, you are going to get poked by an enemy sharp thing eventually. If you have good equipment, that will reduce the severity of the wound. Lessen the chance of infection. Being well fed helps. Lots of Folks died from wounds and infection that today would be fairly trivial.

A good brain: He's going to be able to spot good terrain for a fight, estimate placement and numbers of troops, even on a small scale. He's going to be looking for ways to crush victory from circumstance rather than relying on the extraordinary actions of his whole group. He'll know when to avoid a fight, if possible.

A Good Leader: Quite frankly, the Good leader needs to also have a good brain, and not be willing to spend troops in foolishly uneven battles, suicide charges, and so on.

You have magic in your setting, and I think that makes these kinds of traits even more important. If wyvern attacks are part of attacking the dreaded wizards castle, well, you want a guy who is smart enough to get some archers who are trained and disciplined enough to look up. these more generic traits are just as important in a high magic setting as well as in a real world kind of setting.

Combine these and you will have a guy who can realistically say "Careful Boy boy, I am old for good reason".
Careful boy

Edit: in response to an Edit on the OP...Our warrior here is famous, so these things are even more important. We just need to add one more thing. Since he is a Leader he needs to be humble. He needs to be the guy who understands that, even though he is good at what he does, it doesn't really mean much unless he takes every opportunity he can to make sure his people can also be very good at what they do. The greatest generals throughout history knew this. The US Marines live this (Simon Sinek wrote a great book called "Leaders Eat Last" that incorporates it) making them one of the most feared and respected fighting forces in the world.

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    $\begingroup$ Because he's the one who conveniently goes to "powder his nose" just before the battle starts, then hides in the bushes until it's over? $\endgroup$ – Mrkvička May 25 '17 at 16:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Mrkvička I'm not gonna be the one to float that accusation. With a face like that, he might just have a two headed axe, maybe hidden under the beard $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI May 25 '17 at 18:02
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    $\begingroup$ From a "real-world" perspective, this is what the US Military figured out post-WWII. The Navy created "Top Gun" when their air-to-air performance started getting worse in Vietnam. Analysis showed that new pilots might not have much better than a 50:50 chance of surviving their first air combats. Those who made it through 10 engagements had dramatically improved odds of survival, because of their experience. Our military tried to make training more realistic so that new pilots would have less learning curve. $\endgroup$ – claidheamh May 25 '17 at 19:43
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    $\begingroup$ @claidheamh That is exactly what I'm talking about. You can look at all sorts of things throughout history that also bear this sort of thing out. Roman Legionary units, man to man, weren't necessarily great fighters on an individual basis when compared to some of the Tuetonic tribesmen they cam up against, but Discipline, use of terrain, and so on meant that the Romans were able to take them on, after the initial shock of meeting relatively huge, ferocious fighters. $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI May 25 '17 at 19:54
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Yes.. Do the Maths

You are in an army of 256000. Every battle leaves half the army dead in whatever manner - completely randomly. After 11 such battles, you have 125 survivors. No doubt those survivors would regale you with tales of courage and derring-do, but remember:

They say you can't argue with results, but what kind of defeatist attitude is that? If you stick with it, you can argue with ANYTHING.

(xkcd #1827 by Randall Munroe, cc-by-nc-2.5)

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    $\begingroup$ half? Would they really be that bloody? I would imagine between 5 and 30% depending on the era... Also, history.stackexchange.com/questions/5883/… $\endgroup$ – Shautieh May 26 '17 at 5:50
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    $\begingroup$ Half made the maths simpler. plus there are the deaths from disease and starvation which would often outnumber battle deaths. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Dodds May 26 '17 at 8:32
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    $\begingroup$ Simpler but extremely wrong after several battles! And heroes, having better equipment and followers, have a much lesser chance to die than the average peasant. Knights during the middle ages didn't die so often for example: they killed many non knights, but if they ever got beaten they had a good chance to be kept alive in order to be ransomed. If they got hurt they had better access to treatment. They had better food, better hygiene, etc. $\endgroup$ – Shautieh May 26 '17 at 15:27
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    $\begingroup$ I've downvoted your answer, because for people that don't see images your answer value is zero (also if the image is deleted by imgur). Please extract whatever text is in that message and write it on the answer body. $\endgroup$ – Mindwin May 26 '17 at 16:37
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    $\begingroup$ I get the feeling you posted this just to have an excuse to link a recent xkcd. $\endgroup$ – Papayaman1000 May 26 '17 at 22:16
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The thing about wars is that survival rates are much higher than you think.

The stories you hear are repeated because they were extraordinary. Most armies were not like the Mongol hordes or the Huns ravaging everything they saw.

You had your battles with their victories and defeats, but defeat most often meant retreat and regroup. Unless your hero does something foolish like give himself unusual coloring in the field (Like the Red Baron) or some other distinguishing characteristic, his chances of survival, even in defeat, are good.

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    $\begingroup$ I recall some historian talking about how battles were more about gaining/holding territory than actually killing the enemy... but I don't have a reference for you. $\endgroup$ – PipperChip May 25 '17 at 16:08
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    $\begingroup$ @PipperChip "The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting." -Sun Tzu $\endgroup$ – Richard U May 25 '17 at 16:20
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    $\begingroup$ Decimation was a specific practice applied in the Roman legion, but the modern usage of the word has evolved into something beyond that. A Roman army being decimated meant that 10% of the men were killed. Any other usage implies heavier losses. Could you provide support for the idea that medieval armies which were "decimated" (that is, handily defeated) only lost 10% of their men? $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang May 25 '17 at 18:58
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    $\begingroup$ @NuclearWang not for a throwaway line tangential to the point. $\endgroup$ – Richard U May 25 '17 at 19:04
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    $\begingroup$ @RichardU - Or, as Patton has been credited with saying: “No dumb bastard ever won a war by going out and dying for his country. He won it by making some other dumb bastard die for his country.” $\endgroup$ – Maurice Reeves May 25 '17 at 22:41
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Yes. US soldier Reuben Frank Bernard (1834-1903) is the subject of a biography by Don Russell titled: One Hundred and Three Frights and scrimmages: The Story of General Reuben F. Bernard (1936). So apparently he survived 103 battles and skirmishes in the US Civil War and the Indian Wars.

source

And to get more "medieval" on you Charlemagne (742/748-814) went on campaign almost every year of his adult life, for forty years or so, and may have fought several battles and sieges in each campaign. Thus he seems to have survived medieval warfare fairly well.

Irish High King and King of Mide Mael Sechnaill mac Domnaill (949-1022) fought many battles and campaigns, until at least the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 when he was 65. Brian Boru (c. 941-1014), king of Munster and high King of Ireland, fought many wars and battles before being killed at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 aged about 73.

Clearly the odds of being killed in each battle in medieval Ireland were small enough that some war leaders could survive forty or fifty years of war.

Before about 1900 it was common for more soldiers to die from disease on campaign than from battle wounds. It was also common for battles to last just a few hours.

But in World War One and World War Two, and some other 20th century wars, it was common for some battles to last several days, weeks or months. Soldiers could be under fire constantly for weeks or months, unless their units were periodically rotated in and out of the combat zone.

Thus during 20th century wars some soldiers accumulated tens and hundreds of combat days. Each time a soldier is in combat he has a chance of being killed or physically or mentally incapacitated.

I believe that I read somewhere that a soldier would have almost zero chance of being combat ready after some number - 300 I think - of days in battle. Either he would be dead, or discharged because of his wounds, or suffer from PTSD.

If that is correct, and if medieval combat was equally deadly per minute as 20th century combat, then a medieval warrior could survive 12 battles (each lasting a few hours), or 27 battles, or 53 battles, or 79 battles, or 104 battles, without it being very improbable. A warrior would fight only a few battles per campaign season, so he might only fight in ten to forty battles per decade.

What would be more and more improbable was his surviving campaign after campaign in the unhealthy conditions of medieval warfare without getting sick and dying. But it is all a matter of statistical probability. In an army on campaign it is possible that everyone had the same chance of being killed in battle or of getting sick and dying. Some would get sick and die before the first battle, some would be killed in battle, some would be wounded more or less seriously etc., and most of the soldiers would survive the entire campaign.

If medieval war was as dangerous as the OP said, the nobles would have been pacifists, not warriors.

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  • $\begingroup$ He lived backwards?? :-) $\endgroup$ – Burki May 26 '17 at 7:55
  • $\begingroup$ Not the most accurate source, but from Wikipedia: John Appel found that the average American infantryman in Italy was "worn out" in 200 to 240 days... $\endgroup$ – tonysdg May 26 '17 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ Burki - What are you saying? I checked all the dates I gave and Reuben Bernard, Charlemagne, Mael Sechnail, and Brian Boru were all born decades before their deaths. So why do you ask if someone lived backwards? Did Zanon correct a wrong date I gave? $\endgroup$ – M. A. Golding May 26 '17 at 19:31
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I think so. A combination of luck in surviving the first battles, and then inurement (less emotion, more rationality) that helps him survive later battles.

I was recently reading about preparing people (emergency service professionals and elite soldiers) to operate in hostile environments: extreme violence, kidnapping, terrorist attacks, torture, natural disasters, etc. Those that went on to actually have such experiences report that in the actual experience; they were better able to keep their wits, make decisions, and follow the rules than in their first simulated experience, even though they knew the simulations were simulations and the real thing was, well, the real thing: Guns were loaded, the machetes were sharp, other hostages had been killed or blown up: It wasn't just a dummy beside them but a person they knew --- But the training helped and they didn't freeze.

Freezing is quite common: When we have a "fight or flight" situation, the adrenaline and cortisol severely impair the cortex; which we need to plan, think, and devise solutions. As a result, if we are in a situation we have not been in before, and do not know what to do, it is nearly impossible to think of what to do! The consequence: many people freeze (do nothing) and die. 11% of all sky-diving deaths are because a main parachute failed, and despite having plenty of time, the sky-diver never pulled the rip cord on their reserve chute.

However, having been through it before, or even a decent simulation of it, reduces the shock of it and lets people behave more rationally.

It is like paramedic training; with experience they become inured to the shock of major injury, blood, etc, and just do what needs to be done.

This means in real life, we can see something like a feedback effect: The more battles a soldier survives, the more likely he is to survive future battles, because the more he experiences, the less effect the carnage, death, screams, panic of others and explosions have on his ability to focus and behave rationally. And that increases his chance of surviving, relative to the newbies.

A little ruthlessness on his part goes a long way, too: Like using both enemy and comrades as shielding when convenient, distancing himself from the showboats on his side that want to be heroes, working the flanks instead of protecting the commander. He doesn't exactly focus on winning the battle, his primary focus is on killing anybody that threatens him surviving the battle.

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You've described the magical dangers of your world, but not the magic protections. Perhaps our hero inherited his uncle's mithril shirt? Or happens to be friends with a priest whose powers include magic healing.

Also, you want to be looking at survival rates and combat of the last 20-100 years, not medieval.

Wizards and dragons will have a similar effect on warfare as artillery, machine guns and planes, rendering obsolete the 'massed infantry on an open plain' style of combat. Particularly if the wizards can teleport people. In modern wars, the side with supremacy in the air and very long range (100 km) tends to only get into close combat fights that they know they will win with minimal casualties.

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I must disagree with the answers proposing good training or equipement as a survival assurance. Unless the equipment and training are of supernatural kind, once he is spotted there is little one can do against a flying dragon charging at himwith its fire breath.

Maybe the hero's eyes will widden as he freeze in terror or, as the brave man he is, he will lift his shield up and shout curses at the beast. Either way, he will end as a human torch, his armor melting on his body. Perhaps he will have enough time to emit a brief scream of pain before his vocal cord are irremediably destroyed, or he won't. If his side is victorious, the survivors could bring back the rest of his body, build a mausoleum for him, and sing songs about how he slained a dozen beasts before falling ; or his body will rot on the battlefield, as nature tries to wash the madness of men with rain and thunder.

There are some things against wich ordinary men cannot much.

That said, maybe the proclamed hero of a rich kingdom will have some special assets to protect his life. Let's imagine he is a superior warrior, a giant stronger than any man alive, who every day spent hours training with all sorts of weapon. After holding a small brindge against all odds, the king decides to make him his champion, symbol of the might of the realm. As such, he may have some magical shield to protect him from fire, an enchanted armor lighter than paper and stronger than steal, a group of magus to protect him from ennemy spells...

He could also have managed to slain a sleeping dragon in his cave and plunder his tresury, wich had some of the stuff mentionned before.

In conclusion, I do not think an ordinary man, no matter how talented, has chances to survive long in the heat of the battle if the ennemy really wants him dead (and succeed to spot him). But, if he lives in a world were dragons exist, maybe there are some other tools to protect him.

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Yes, it can!

  • Good luck. The hero is just one of dozen who survive fireball, one from 10 who could kill a manticore and one from 20 who could run from dragon. So he just lucky man among another 2400
  • Right place at right time. The hero so smart that he never go to suicide attack and fight with manticore or enter to the dragon edge
  • Really good equipment. The hero has amulet which give resist from fire, armor hard enough to protect from manticore and light enough to run from dragon
  • Non-human blood/special ability. Hero has grandmother from dwarf (and has resist from magic), grand-uncle from trolls teached him how deal with manticore and father from elfs which gives him exceptional speed at long run
  • Will of gods. In fact, the hero is a loser who got in all troubles which could happen. But two gods bet he will survive. So, one of them just helped with fireball, manticore and dragon
  • Whatever. As world creator you could mix up some previous options and add another. Would it be realistic? In most cases, it's depends on how you tell the story.
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Well, that's a pretty difficult question, as we don't know the scale of the abilities your wizards, dragons and other things wield. If, for example, your wizards are on the level of the wizards in Harry Potter and use primarily magic, that only targets one opponent at a time while your dragons can't breath any fire and aren't bigger than, let's say, 4 or so meter wingspan, then yes, the soldier can survive. Let it be by pure luck or an enhanced ability that allows him to analyze the battlefield (which is extremely difficult but not inpossible) in order for him to go where the more dangerous enemies don't see him, attacking them from behind.

If the dragons are as big as a mountain and able to breath unlimited fire or your wizards posses magic that is able to instakill an aimed area, well, the chance for the soldier to survive multiple times decreases.

In the end, it's up to you what you throw in his way.

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    $\begingroup$ Wouldn't wizards on each side end up countering each other fairly well? You shoot a fireball, and I cast "dispel magic" or some sort of counterspell to cancel it out? They may be less of a threat than one might think. $\endgroup$ – Richard U May 25 '17 at 16:24
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I think it depends on where the person is fighting and what kind of fighter. If they are on the front lines then their chances are very low of success. But if they have long range weapons, or are atop a large animal, then their chances improve. If they are smart, they would dress in a way that does not broadcast their identity to everyone else on the battlefield.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding! I would imagine that it's difficult to call someone who doesn't broadcast their identity a hero in such a medieval fantasy setting. If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus May 26 '17 at 6:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Secespitus I disagree. I think you believe this merely because it is a familiar trope. Just because something is a trope doesn't mean that it is more heroic. In medieval life, unless you are rich, you are unlikely to afford any clothing or adornments that will make you stand out to your enemy. Remember that the media doesn't exist, so your face alone won't be recognized by many people. Sure, there are paintings but only rich people have portraits and there would be very few copies in the world. The way you get killed, is if you are hunted down by spies or betrayed by informants/traitors $\endgroup$ – DonkeyBoy May 26 '17 at 7:18
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In addition to other answers, it depends on the army a lot, if your generals are mindful of their men and competent, the hero has a much better chance than if his generals are out for glory and quite capable of sending him charging into certain death out of pure idiocy.

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Depending on the exact time frame (mostly the availability of cannons and artillery), the solution might be as simple as: Win.

The battle of Marathon is an example for ancient battles. Many of them went this way: The winners had few losses (about 200) while the defeated Persians lost more than 6000 men. People died not on the battlefield, but in the retreat (pursuit was a common practice and the main use of cavalry at that time).

While some medieval battles were known for the slaughter, many had comparatively low casualty rates, especially among the heavily armoured nobility.

For the fantasy element, you assume that magic would be another killer, but I disagree. I would see it as another defensive option first. Magical protections and especially magical healing can dramatically increase survival chances.

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