Combat in Fantasy Part 2 | A Tradition of Decisive Shock Warfare

In Part 1 of this series we covered some of the basic terms and ranks that are found within a legion. Now let’s talk about how they are actually used within combat in fantasy.
The Atlantis Project Atlantis Rising Atlantean Soldier Combat in Fantasy a tradition of decisive shock warfare

Combat in Fantasy

Here are some things that I use in my series.

  1. Army Trumpet: A trumpet held by the Army signaler, capable of giving commands to the entire army.
  2. Legion Trumpet: Held by the Legion signaler, capable of giving commands to the entire legion.
  3. Cohort Whistle: Held by the Cohort commander, capable of giving commands to the entire Cohort.
  4. Century Whistle: Held by the Century commander, capable of giving commands to the Century.
  5. Passage of Lines: This is a Roman tactic, where every minute or so the second rank passes the first rank, so that all five ranks get a chance to be in the front line. In a Roman Legion this tactic is ordered on the century level, with the Centurion using a whistle.
  6. Passage of Cohorts: When a legion deploys it deploys in two lines: Cohorts 1-5 deploy in the first line, Cohorts 6-10 deploy in the second line. During a lull in the battle, the Legate or the Army commander can order a passage of cohorts. This places completely fresh troops onto the front lines.
*The Army Trumpet and Legion Trumpet use different keys and can be easily distinguished. Same with the Cohort Whistle and Century Whistle.

This is an example of what a passage of lines looks like:

Excerpt from Atlantis Rising

The ground was slick, blood pooling in little dips. After an eternity of pushing he was in the second rank. A spear flashed towards his face, he moved his head to the side. It missed and he laughed. They were so slow. Centurion Paratta blew his whistle, the front rank paused while Titus gathered his strength. The whistle sounded again and with a roar he surged around the right shoulder of the man in front of him. He bit down hard on the mouth guard as he slammed the boss of his shield into a face, shattering teeth.

What this scene does not show is what the first rank did after they were replaced by the second rank. We’ll skip ahead a few pages and watch when Titus is replaced on the front lines. He starts the scene still in the front rank.

The battle swirled around him. The crash of steel on steel, the screams, his own roar, the skirling of the pipes. They all filled his ears. The enemy surged forward again, filling the hole that he’d created.  The press of bodies crushing.

Two men slammed into his shield and pushed him back. The shield behind him pushed him forward. He roared and head-butted, the steel visor breaking the first one’s face. The Babylonian slumped and collapsed, to be crushed under the churning feet.

Blood dripped from his visor into eyes and mouth. Blindly, his blade snaked forward, to the second man, hitting mail and resisting. He twisted his hips and the blade punctured and glanced off a rib. He blinked trying to clear his vision. 

The whistle sounded and he stopped pushing forward, the pressure on his back slackened. It sounded again and the man behind him leaped forward, knocking a Babylonian flat on his back. A Babylonian, wounded and leaking from a cut across his eyes, grabbed Titus’ ankle. He thrust downward finishing him and then slipped through the ranks towards the rear; killing wounded as he went. He stopped when he reached the back of his century the fury receded a little. He breathed hard and reached for the hose and grimaced at the blood covering the mouthpiece. He was thirsty, wet from sweat and blood; it soaked his body suit. He drank, tasting the blood as the water poured down his throat.  

 Below is the best example of what I’m talking about. You can see it in the first minute of the video. Its Hollywood, so it isn’t exactly accurate, but its close enough.

Legion Passage of Lines

This level of coordination does not happen in a vacuum. It takes years of training; on the century, cohort, legion, and then army level. Battles are chaotic and whatever you don’t practice will be forgotten on the hot forge of combat. That is why regular drill is so important. Its why our modern militaries still teach it.

If you want your army or the enemy army or any any army, to be able to operate at this level in a battle, then they need to train for it. Recruits learn how to operate within a century. Then the centuries learn how to drill as a cohort; the cohorts learn how to drill as a legion; and then legions learn how to operate as an army.

Physiology of Combat

Since this is an article on combat in fantasy, and since there is a high likelihood that one of your characters will be in combat, lets quickly go over the physiological changes that a person undergoes in combat.

Combat in Fantasy Stress Induced Heart rate chart Fantasy | A tradition of decisive shock warfare the atlantis project jake parrick

NEVER expect to operate at your “personal best” when aroused. It has been my experience that you will sink to your most practiced and recent trained response. –Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

The Atlantean military uses what is called stress inoculation training. Lets so how he responds in the opening of the battle.

With a roar, the Babylonians lowered their spears and charged. The Archer Regiments ceased their fire and Titus stared at the wall of spears quickly closing on him. Pilus Prior Ulren, commander of the Third Cohort, blew his Cohort Whistle in a Preparatory command.

Titus reversed his grip on his pilum in preparation to release. The centurion gave a long blast and then two short ones.

His neck throbbed with the pulse of his heart; he was about to kill. He was going to kill. His vision narrowed so that he was looking through a straw, breath ragged as his narrowed vision fixed upon the open mouth of a screaming man. He ran forward, pilum raised, eyes on the screaming, dark skinned man, pointing a spear at him.

He released his pilum and seamed to fly with it as it hit the throat of his target, picking the man up and hurling him into the man behind.

Titus killed for the first time.

All sound ceased, the roar of the charging enemy falling away. His heart drummed in his chest, beating in his ears; it was the only sound.

The next rank ran past him and released. Titus scanned left and right, his training taking over, breaking his tunnel vision. The third rank pushed past him. The sound returned with a roar and his vision widened. The fourth rank ran forward and then the fifth. He was now in the last rank.

So when Titus scanned left and right, as he was trained to do, it broke his tunnel vision and auditory exclusion; lowering him into a condition red. In condition red a person is primed for combat. 115 BPM to 145 BPM: Complex motor skills increase, visual and cognitive reaction time increase. We often see in books when the character is in combat and time seems to slow, this is a physiological reaction that the body undergoes. Its actually a real thing.

So you want your character to begin the fight with an initial jolt, somewhere in upper grey–180 BMP, and then lower into a condition red–145 BMP. This gives them a combination of very useful effects. At 180 BMP vasoconstriction occurs, preventing blood loss from injuries, pain doesn’t register, blood floods into the muscles oxygenating them. These effects can continue on even when the character lowers into a more controlled condition red–so that they maintain the positive elements of condition grey while also receiving the elements of condition red.

I use these facts, the facts of combat, without actually using them. There are no scenes in the book where Titus considers the effects that his stress induced high heart-rate are causing on his body. There is no need too because the reader feels what is happening to Titus.

We also see the use of the pilum. A specially designed javelin which bends upon impact, making it difficult to remove and impossible to be reused by the enemy. We see the cohorts throw their first pilum in coordinated patterns, by rank, and then throw their second pilum all at the same time. This tactic serves multiple purposes: First, it obviously kills people, which is the purpose of war; it disrupts the enemy lines, preventing the enemy from closing with the legion as an organized mass; and lastly, it creates tanglements: bodies, shields, bent pilum, these are all tripping hazards that the enemy now have to push through.

Preparation for Battle

This level of coordination doesn’t just ‘happen’. It requires years of preparation to ensure that men in high stress combat situations can actually react to orders. We have all read a book where a kingdom has been at peace for years, they’ve allowed trees to grow up to the fortress walls, the army doesn’t have a high training schedule; and then the author has them gather an army that can somehow march twenty miles in full armor and fight a battle using a complex series of flag commands…It’s just not going to happen.

You don’t have to spend a great deal of time showing that your army trains. In fact, you could easily lay the foundation with just a single paragraph that talks about how the army goes on practice marches in full armor. Or briefly describe the tough training the army relies upon.

Our genre has few rules but as authors we must have integrity in our work. We ask our readers to suspend their disbelief, so we must provide them the mechanism by which to do that. Whenever possible we should provide them with a firm reality in which to base our fantasy. Realism in combat is one such way of doing that.

I’m going to end it here with a final fact: Horses will not charge home against a shield wall or pike wall. So if you have knights in your book that charge some infantry that are in a shield wall or pike wall and somehow manage to break the line…its not going to happen, unless the infantry break before the cavalry actually gets there.

I will say this in favor of infantry breaking in the face of cavalry charge. I have horses. They aren’t war horses…they aren’t even that big at 16-17ish hands. But I’ve been charged by one before, he was just kidding around, but holy crap it was scary. I could totally see how if you had a thousand war horses, chosen for their size and armored, charging together…well it would definitely scare me. So if the infantry haven’t practiced against that. Haven’t stood in a line while friendly cavalry charge them, haven’t felt the earth shake under the drum of hooves, I could see how they would break.


This article was written by Jake Parrick.


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