Military units and ranks for RPG game design

The purpose of this article is to establish a baseline understanding of ranks and numbers of a modern military force structure, in order for a GM to be able to knowledgeably develop their own military forces in alternative fictional settings. 

This breakdown is for use only as a comparison, when determining what ranks may be desired for various unit sizes, and to help in using the most common terminology when describing force sizes.

It should be remembered that even though there are numbers listed for unit sizes, these numbers do not reflect the reality of a unit on active duty. They are ‘optimal’ numbers. At any given time a unit’s actual force will be reduced in size by having some soldiers in transport to and from the unit, being deployed on temporary additional training exercises, or out of service due to sickness, wounds or as casualties awaiting replacement. Even in garrison duty during peacetime every unit has a certain number of personnel that will be out of action due to training injuries or accidents, plus the additional reason of scheduled vacation or home/shore leave.  

When developing a set of forces, the GM should also address a comparative strength of a force and its reputation through more than just numbers. Experience will vary between units, training methods may differ drastically, the morale and cohesiveness may vary depending on how long a unit had worked together and what they had accomplished together, and depending on the game world your units may have a greater or lesser chance that a given unit will posses seasoned combat veterans.

Additionally, no matter how seasoned a unit, some personnel will be inexperienced recruits taking the place of those that have come to the end of their current tour of duty, have been transferred to other units, or have fallen in combat.

Finally, any force of Company size or greater generally has a large, possibly very large number of support personnel who accompany the unit. These support personnel do not themselves directly fight, but provide essential duties including supply organization and logistics, battle surgeons and medical aid, and administrative assistance (ptracking who gets paid, and making sure it gets done).

As a commentary on the importance of these functions, when deployed into enemy territory, no large force can effectively fight  and manuever while at the same time living off the land or hunting for their food and water. Food, clean water, armor and weapons and the facilities to repair them, bandages and medicines, all of these things are vital, and the more effective a unit is at managing and protecting their supply lines the better.

The size of Support Detachments can vary greatly depending on their competence. They can number anywhere from half the size of the fighting unit to three times their size or more.

*Special Note – As another example, in modern times it often takes as many as 15 non-combatant Support personnel to enable one soldier to fight on the front lines. This is absolutely true, and is usually portrayed in movies as a clear division between those who stay safely ‘in the rear with the gear’ in support roles, who keep their uniforms pressed and boots shiny and generally have no conception of the realities of the serious business of war coming face to face with the weary grunt fresh in from the field who looks like he slept in his uniform for a month and has a much-loved hobby of rolling in mud puddles. How fair such caricatures may be depends entirely on the leadership of both the support elements and the front line elements, and how well they work together to reduce friction resentment.

Unit and rank breakdowns

The following numbers and organizational breakdown are not meant to be historically accurate to any one particular time period. The numbers ARE accurate, and were drawn for the most part from US Army designations circa 1945. Where certain ranks and units were modified during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, I have picked those changes and forms that seemed to work best in simplifying the general breakdown to promote clarity, and to aid the GM in making their own choices for use in a science fiction or fantasy setting.

Where possible, I used US Marine Corps ranks, because I happen to be prejudiced in that direction. Have no fear in using this list, however, because if you describe a company as being composed of around 150 men of fighting spirit, led by a Captain and with an able Lieutenant as his Executive Officer, you will be very nearly dead-on in describing most US forces of our last century.

This breakdown does not take into account Naval ranks. That is a topic for a more science-fiction/space opera based storyline.

Army Organization

# Warriors Title Led by Executive Staff
10,800 Division CO: Major General  5 Officer Planning Staff (not in COC)
5,400 2 Brigades per CO: Brigadier General 5 Officer Planning Staff (not in COC)
1,800 3 Regiments per CO: Colonel XO: Lieutenant Colonel
600 3 Battalions per CO: Lt Colonel or Major XO: Major or Captain
150 4 Companies per CO: Captain XO: Lieutenant
50 3 Platoons per CO: Lieutenant XO: Senior Sergeant
12/12/13/13 4 Squads per Squad Leader: Sergeant Asst Squad Leader: Corporal
6 or 7 2 Strike Teams per Fire Team Leader: Corporal or Lance Corporal  

 Total number of men in One Division; Officers and Warriors

1 Division: 1 Major General, 5 Staff Officers.
2 Brigades: 2 Brigadier Generals, 10 Staff Officers.
6 Regiments: 6 Colonels, 6 Lt Colonels.
18 Battalions: 18 Lt Colonels or Majors, 18 Majors or Captains.
72 Companies: 72 Captains, 72 Lieutenants.
216 Platoons: 216 Lieutenants, 216 Senior Sergeants.
864 Squads: 864 Sergeants, 864 Corporals
1728 Strike Teams: 1728 Corporals or Lance Corporals.

 10,800 Warriors led by 642 Officers

11,442 men in total

That total does not include Support Detachments, which can have wildly varying sizes. Many officers wear multiple ‘hats’, or take on the duties of leading support sections in addition to the normal duties of leading their unit, especially in smaller units.

Support Detachments

Supply (food storage and cooks, uniforms, armor and weapons, miscellaneous gear)

Intelligence (Spies, paid informants, Forward Scouts and Pathfinders, Cartographers)

Medical (Doctors and Battle Surgeons, Nurses, full medical supplies and herb gatherers)

Maintenance (Armorers, Weaponsmiths, Blacksmiths, full mobile smithies, Bowyer/Fletchers)

Communications (Signal/Banner Corps, Pigeon Corps, Runners and Horn Carriers)

It should also be noted that the Military Band of a Unit or Battle Group comes from the Warrior Corps. They carry small instruments in their field packs such as pipes, flutes and small drums, and play during the march or formal functions. They do not get special consideration for this extra duty, except the appreciation of their peers.

Military Rank Structures

Generalized Officer Grades

 General – Highest ranking officer in the military force. Senior Staff Officer.

 Lieutenant General – Staff Officer, with experience in multiple types of engagements.

Major General – Can be a Staff or Field Officer, usually too senior to be allowed to lead men, when his experience can be better used in developing overall strategy rather than implementing tactics in the field.

Brigadier General – Field officer, responsible for a Brigade in the field.

Colonel – Regimental Commander, or member of a General’s Planning Staff.

Lieutenant Colonel – Battalion Commander or Executive Officer for a Regiment.

Major – May be either a Battalion Commander or Battalion Executive Officer.

Captain – The wild horse, can be employed as a Company Commander, or ‘detached’ as the Commanding Officer of any number of ‘special assignments’. The first officer rank where true leadership has been demonstrated and experience has been earned to get this far.

Lieutenant (or 1st Lieutenant) – Platoon Leader or Company Executive Officer, given responsibility for the men in his command, but expected to rely on the proven experience of his Enlisted Executive Officer, a Sergeant Major or Senior Sergeant, to show him how to get the job done.

2nd Lieutenant – honorary grade of an Officer in Training. Lower than pond scum.

Generalized Knighthood Officer Grades

Knight-General – rank of the Commander in Chief of an Order of Knighthood.

Knight-Commander – senior field Commanders of an Orders’ forces.

Knight-Captain – highest rank an independent Knight can attain without declaring oath to a liege.

Knight-Lieutenant – rank achieved after the Knight has completed a Holy Quest.

Knight – the rank of every Knight, no matter how skilled, who has not as yet taken a Quest.

Enlisted Grades

Sergeant-Major – Highest ranking enlisted soldier in any Military Force. Not part of a General’s Planning Staff or an Executive Officer of any unit larger than a Company, but still present in the leadership of every single Battalion, Brigade, Regiment and Division as the senior most enlisted leader, normally responsible for planning the actual nuts and bolts operations of the enlisted men in his unit. It has been said that the role of a Commanding Officer is to decide what needs to be done; it is the role of the Sergeant Major to make it happen… somehow.

Master Sergeant (Top) – Senior field soldier in charge of cavalry or infantry forces.

Bowyer Sergeant (Strings) – Senior field soldier in charge of archer forces.

Gunnery Sergeant (Gunny) – Senior field soldier in charge of heavy artillery (catapults, ballista).

(the three above ranks are counted equal in hierarchy, but in different military specialties)

Senior Sergeant (or Staff Sergeant) – First enlisted rank where the management and coordination of the men under his command is his primary responsibility, and actually kicking them in the ass and showing them how to get things done takes a back seat. Often forced to delegate the hands-on leadership of sections of his men to the Sergeants.

Sergeant – The old man of the service. Traditionally, once a man becomes a Sergeant, through years of experience and accomplishing his assigned missions, he can expect to remain a Sergeant for at least eight to ten years before rising to the next rank. In times of combat, that changes drastically, but during peacetime, it is extremely common for most men to end a tour of service of 8 to 12 years as a Sergeant. It is the Sergeant who is primarily responsible for training his men, personally leading them, and acting as surrogate father figure to them. Even though he may be only 24 or so, to the 18 and 19 year olds in his unit, he is old as Methuselah, and his word is the word of the lord, because if you ignore it, the wrath of god falls on your poor head.

Corporal – First enlisted rank where the responsibility to lead other men, namely Privates and Lance Corporals, is delegated. It is where possible future Sergeants get their initial training, and gives the Sergeants and Lieutenants a chance to evaluate the leadership potential of a man without handing him a Squad of 13 men to get killed..

Lance Corporal – Experienced enlisted soldier.

Private First Class – Rank given mostly to reassure the soldier that he really isn’t a fresh-scrubbed raw recruit anymore.

Private – A fresh scrubbed raw recruit, either in initial training (Boot camp, Initial Combat Training), or just past it. In the 1940s, a Recruit in Boot Camp was technically already a Private, and was called a Private. Among other things. In modern times, he is listed as a recruit, and does not become a Private until graduating from Boot Camp. And he is still called other things.

When looking at these ranks, don’t see it as “I must use such and such in my forces”, but instead think of it in terms of “which roles will be needed depending on the size and purpose of my force, and what rank names or titles shall I use to describe them?” This is your opportunity to determine your own rank names, and to eliminate entire ranges of ranks and force sizes depending on how small your forces may be in comparison.

Differences between officers, knights and enlisted men

When discussing Officers and Enlisted, there are many different ways they can be differentiated. I’m not even going to try to provide a definitive breakdown of them all, but I will give you some examples.

First, it is common that in most militaries, the lowest ranking Officer is of higher position in the chain of authority than the highest ranking Enlisted Person. There is a certain amount of professional respect and courtesy due between ranks, especially in the relationship within a unit of the new Lieutenant and the experienced Sergeant Major, but when it comes to who is required to obey the orders of another under military law, a direct lawful order of an officer has higher precedence than that of an enlisted man. The chain of command is stringently observed, and it’s importance cannot be understated.

In some armed forces, the officers obtain their warrants directly from patrons as signs of favor, as if gifts, opportunities for that officer to gain prestige and reknown through the success of their units. In those cases, it may be common that the vast bulk of the actual work may be done by the enlisted, with token appearances and guidance from the officer in question.

In many medieval armed forces, the officers came from the nobility, and part of the duty of their noble rank was the raising and leading of units composed of locals, peasants, farmers, and indentured servants from their lands. In those cases, the rank of the officer frequently derived either from their societal rank, or from the size of the force they could muster. You can see different levels of this, as well. Many settings show the peasants as being little more than property, and not permitted to touch arms or to be trained in their use. In those settings, only the officers themselves and their personal men at arms compose the force the officer brings to a battle. As the situation changes, and the noble can draw on more members of their personal lands, as armed and trained soldiers, so too does personal liberty tend to grow among those people. 

Let’s move past the historical generalizations and examples, and describe a very simplified origin of enlistment for a fantasy campaign setting, based on a society of mostly free citizens but with a distinct upper class or aristocracy.           

The enlisted warrior joins the military straight from his (or her) former life, passes physical and mental testing, and becomes a recruit (or Private). He is trained in whatever standard branch of service his superiors chose for him or her, and progresses up the ladder of rank as his experience, skill, strength of character and leadership become recognized. The enlisted warrior can progress to the highest ranks of the enlisted structure, but unless personally knighted or singled out for recognition, they will never advance to the officer ranks.

The officer is of noble or wealthy birth, and usually has an excellent education. He has had access to personalized tutoring in theory and history, as well as advanced (and expensive) personal training while growing up. Traditionally, he is sponsored to a specific Military Organization or Branch of Service by his parents, who pay for the cost of his outfitting and continuing education. The forces he leads may consist of ‘household troops’ raised from the lands his family controls, he may bring with him to a larger unit a small force of personnel from his homeland as men-at-arms, or he may travel alone or possibly with a squire or servant.

There is a common plot in fantasy literature for a free man without aristocratic ties or bloodlines to become an officer, and that is by pursuing the path of knighthood. Most knights are in fact members of the nobility that are included in religious orders, but in a fantasy setting a religious order can act independently from the nobility, and choose for themselves who does or does not qualify to be raised as a knight based on individual merit and worthiness in the eyes of their deity. This is especially likely for a religious order with a militant arm, when skill and talent in the service of their god matter more than technicalities of birth.

In a fantasy campaign, using feudal styles of nobility, it is usually impossible for anyone not of the nobility, or a certain wealthy class of merchant, to become an officer or Knight. In fact, it was a source of great class conflict that only those born to the nobility were given certain privileges, including that of training in the Knightly Arts. So in a very strict campaign, either the common man has no legal means to own arms or armor or be trained in their use at ALL, or in more lenient campaigns to become an Officer or a Knight. In those situations, it may be that the GM will decide it is possible for a member of a Religious Order to legally become a Knight and recognised as such by the landed nobility.

It’s up to the GM to decide how the politics within the game world affects the possibilities for advancement. It is usually only when a society is faced with great change or dire threat that the prescriptions against armed civilians are relaxed enough to allow the common man to mobilize and train in military skills.

In some political or campaign settings, especially those with the possibility of direct divine intervention, the Knighthood may exist not as a coordinated military unit or as an appendage to the nobility, but instead may be possessed of it’s own mystique and authority seperate and even above that of local rulers, answerable to higher centralized authority but guided by their own spirit. You can use that kind of situation to allow your Knights to assume the roles of traveling Sheriffs, similar in concept to the old Texas Rangers, covering a wide range of territory, possessing certain legal powers and acting as local judge, jury, and perhaps executioner, depending on what the source of their authority derives. As a sterling example, the Clint Eastwood movie ‘Hang Em High’ demonstrates what a Knight that has powers to apprehend, but not to convict or execute sentence, may have to endure to see justice done.

The changes in a military force, and the pressure of needing to raise more than a handful of knights can be a plot hook for change in your campaign world all by itself. Many ‘popular uprisings’ or ‘peoples revolutions’ begin when a government feels firced into training and arming a peasant population. A conflict between nations forces a repressive government to mobilize and train the peasantry to serve as soldiers in the nations’ defense, and then once the war is over, the peasants don’t just ‘forget’ that the nobles get decapitated and bleed just like the normal folks do. Plus, the peasants have a lot of tools to work the farms and fields, and most of those tools have very sharp edges.

17 thoughts on “Military units and ranks for RPG game design

  1. Are there any military RPG sims running on the Internet? I can’t seem to find any through Google and am wanting to either join a well established one or create my own.

    Great guide, Bear. 🙂


    • I don’t know of any out there at the moment, but then again I know there are lots of great resources out there now, RPG communities and forums where not only are there discussions about RPGs, but also places where PBeM RPG games take place in forum threads, so people get their game on that way. There’s probably something along those lines going on somewhere.

      I think Melpo knows a lot of links for that kind of thing, I’ll have to /poke him and see if he’ll share.


  2. Mistake or not, I’m getting warm fuzzies this morning at the thought of Blizzard’s mystery project turning out to be anything even close to any of this.


  3. re numbers – more convenience than pragmatism.

    In two parts:

    While numbers were used earlier, even as late as the start of the US civil war units smaller than division size (infantry regiments and artillery batteries, for example) were more likely to be known within the army by a name than a number. Most often it was the name of the Colonel or other commander (Beall’s Regiment), but sometimes by the name of the place of muster (Sussex Battery, or Louisiana Regiment).

    What broke this was basically size. First you’d get more than one unit from a place, thus the first, second, third (etc) Ohio Infantry Regiment. Second, commanders quit being in charge of their units for the duration, and at a certain size it was hard to maintain the command association. Finally, the pay- and log-masters in the respective capitols found it easier to use numbers, especially when it might take days or longer to be notified of changes.

    The reason it wasn’t a clean sweeping change in the US was due to the fragmented reality. The US Army officially used numbers much earlier, but when Politician Smith mustered up a militia force it needed an identification even though it hadn’t yet received a US number — thus it might be the BearButt Squadron for a while, and depending on who it joined and where it might retain that monicker even after BBB became the regimental or division commander.

    Part two:
    The above is a US foible. In some nations the preferred identification is the name. Numbers are used because it’s shorter for morse-coded orders and map graphics. Thus the Black Watch and the Coldstream Guards, for example. In Great Britain numbers tend to be used for division and up, and most units subordinate to the Regiment are also numbered — most, not all, and for pretty much the same reasons as seen in part one above.


  4. Thank you, so much for this. This is definitely going in my favourites bar. I look forward to this second section.

    I for one have an obsession with this kind of stuff. I have countless notebooks full of backstory stuff, with info on different armies, and knighthood orders, and stuff like that. I can write for hours on one aspect of some army that if I ever got around to writing this story, would barely get a passing mention. And yet I never seem to get to the ‘story’ part. It’s that backstory part I’m really hooked on. The whole military aspect of it really interests me, especially as I’ll (hopefully) be getting into it in the next year or so.


  5. I’ve been writing up a backdrop for a series of books I want to write, and this is going to be very useful reference. It will also help when I build the tabletop miniatures game that fits within that world.

    …yeah, I dream big. Can’t help it.

    So, accident or no, I appreciate the posting. 🙂


  6. Dyre42: LOL.

    Sarabian: that sounds insane. And fun. And really draining. And it also sounds like something I’d expect to see from military role players.

    Brian: unit number designations started out primarily from pragmatism. If you take a look at unit formation during the American Civil war, as volunteers from the states rolled into their local offices and grouped up, once a regimental sized force was there it was placed under the command of a gentlemanly type or an experienced oficer and marched off to war. Thus you had the “1st Maine Regiment”, the “2nd Maine Regiment”, etc. Frequently the men fought together, lived together and died together, and went home together as a unit.

    I mention Maine in particular, because if you want a wonderful living example of such a unit, I recommend you read ‘The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara, paying particular attention to the story of the 20th Maine Regiment, led by then Lt. Col. Joshua Chamberlain. It’s well worth the read. Trust me on this one.

    Anyway, pragmatism. Units would receive numerical designations and marching orders. As time wore on, some units survived and continued, others withered and died. Some were made permanent and accumulated a growing history, others were retired and their colors cased. So over a hundred years of increasing army size to fight a war, followed by a reduced force size and retired units, the numbers of units are more historical legacy than specific designation.

    Umm… geez, I hope that made sense. Kirk? Can you give me a hand here, sir?

    Kirk: Yes, I will put up the US Civil War section… AFTER I have heavily modified it, because it’s what I used as the framework for my existing game, when it’s ready.. and hints to manny and James are sterilized.

    Chiraa: I also like Mercedes Lackey’s use of magic in her books a lot. And I am personally quite proud of how I’ve woven magic throughout warfare historically in my game setting… and I really don’t want to have to ever do it again. It’s a massive pain in the butt to balance, just as Kirk said. At least, to balance without simply saying “it works that way because I said so”.


  7. I always like Mercedes Lackey’s ideas regarding magic use in armies. Mostly trickery vs raw power. Perfect for small unit stuff.


  8. heh. quantity has a quality… Anyway since you dumped part you might as well dump the rest (grin).

    For some reason I read it as SF, thus the tenor of my response. One last note in that tenor and I’ll comment on it as fantasy. One of the interesting things I ran across a while back made for a fun logistics for design. Picture jetpacks. Picture that they’re antigravity or such, but still largish and clumsy and all that. Now add the mounted infantry concept, where one in X holds the horses. go nuts

    In fantasy armies I’ve always had the most trouble integrating magic. The closest I came to making it work was when I tried just making them a platoon’s heavy weapons element, or maybe the regiment’s grenadier battalion, er, company. If you give magic the range to be artillery it ruins it for small unit engagements – at least in any work I ever did.


  9. Well, even though you didn’t intend it, thanks for putting all of this together. The tiny little bit that goes into rpg books is always too short, and sometimes incoherent.

    One additional question – Is there any significance to things like “332nd blah blah group/wing/etc”? If you are making up one of these units, are there “wrong” choices?


  10. Generally I agree that most fantasy campaigns will never see that large a number of personnel in any campaign. I once had a rather fun campaign (coincidentally when I was in the Army) where the PCs were senior officers, and the commanding general had to give orders to the colonels and in turn they passed it on. We had enough people for the top 2 positions in 2 brigades. We only went down as far as a battalion commander and XO, but it was still a rather large campaign. Skirmishes were allowed down to company level, but no one played a company commander.

    It lasted about 6 months and was played on the weekends. It was heavily involved and the GM was an absolute mess by the end. He completely refused to ever do it again.

    Damn that was fun.


  11. The main reason I wrote this article at the time was I was getting mildly irritated at how few people I knew could describe in the most general terms the relative sizes of a division, regiment or battalion, but used the terms frequently.


  12. Kirk, you’re absolutely right. That’s the main reason I’m pissed off. This was only half of it. I had a second section written where I go into a unit structure based on the US Civil War for mounted heavy cavalry, cavalry scouts that fight as dismounted infantry, infantry, special units for magic simulating king artillery, and skirmishers.

    All Iwas doing was copy/pasting from multiple articles I wrote on various topics to get everything in one place before editing it all into something usable.

    This kinda sucks… I mean, who in a fantasy campaign fields divisions of infantry? ARRGHHH!!!!


  13. For one thing, I was being humorous to myself when I listed the description for 2nd Lieutenants that they were “lower than pond scum”. Having a bunch of friends that started out as 2nd Louie’s, I know they’d appreciate it. 🙂 For a more generalized crowd, however, where maybe it’s the wife or son of a former 2nd Lieutenance reading it who might take offense without knowing why it’s a joke, it’s not what I would have published. le sigh.


  14. muahahahaha. I’ve done that a time or two, too. Well, since it’s out I’ll comment.

    It works. In fact it’s amazingly similar to a lot of other designs, including one I built a couple of decades ago. On the other hand it’s got an innate assumption: The core is infantry – DISMOUNTED infantry. (As you said, Marines.) I’d like to make a couple of points in that light.

    In current design, a US armor platoon is four tanks each with four soldiers. There are three platoons in a US armor company, plus a tank for the CO and XO. (1SG and company attachments get non-combat vehicles.)

    In a Mech Inf platoon one of your squads is the driver and TC for each of your four vehicles, and you have two squads (with a fire team plus one or two attached bodies per vehicle)

    In the US, dismounted infantry is still kept for one reason: logistic speed of delivery. If your SF winds up with high-speed, flying, or very long range capable tactical transport (APCs) there is probably a good argument that your normal structure is based on the mech inf structure. If however the cost of getting your heavy vehicles to the planet is significant, dismounted infantry becomes more typical — balanced against the ability of local forces to have much heavier elements.

    In sum, I’m saying when you start considering your organization to take a hard look at your logistic assumptions first.


  15. Oh CRAP!!!!

    Son of a bitch. That was NOT supposed to go live, I hit the wrong button. Shit, I haven’t even edited it from when I wrote it 9 years ago, omigod. I just copied/pasted and hit publish instead of save draft.

    I cannot believe I did that. I don’t think I can remember ever actually doing that before. And thanks to the wonders of feedreades, it’s too damn late now, it’s gone and out there.

    Ah well.


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