First - No discussion of soldiers today should begin without some mention of the incredible number of men and women who gave their lives to insure our freedoms today. If you have never been to Arlington National Cemetery (or the equivalent in your home country) you do a disservice to yourself. It is both inspiring and horrifying to imagine the number of people who have died for us. While I pray we may never need to put them into harm again, I know that there are those in the world who believe our freedoms are not ours to keep, and we will again need to rely on our soldiers to protect us and those freedoms.
But this is about fantasy soldiers! OK, in the last post Adventurers vs. Soldiers - Men of Steel or Wheat?, I was going on about game mechanics, but that’s not everything to discuss here. Why should adventurers nearly always defeat soldiers? Well, magic! No, that’s not a cop out answer. Here’s why:
Most commonly a party of adventurers will be well rounded: tanks (aka bricks aka meat shields), mages, maybe a rogue. Soldiers are primarily just fighter types. While the adventuring fighter types are probably a little better than the soldiers, they are also backed up by spells, magic items, healing potions, etc. etc. etc. etc. That’s a huge advantage! Now I often give my military officers some minor magic, because my world has a lot of enchanters, so I think it makes sense. But the rank and file are probably on their own.
Also, soldiers are typically outfitted and trained for a particular style of combat. Adventurers are a bit more of the “adapting to chaos” style. Soldiers in a bar fight are less likely to see a chair, table or full beer barrel as a weapon than adventurers are. An archer unit expects to be able to get off a few flights before the enemy closes, but if the adventurers ambush them, this may not work out so well. Similarly, shield and spear infantry expect to be able to move in formations. If the adventurers can sucker them into battle in a ruined city and keep moving as the battle goes, the infantry unit is going to break formation and lose at least some of their best techniques.
So what do soldiers have going for them? Well, maybe not as much on the battle field (unless they get to choose it), but if you’re role-playing, they do have some great advantages. It may seem odd to start here, but history (even recent history in Egypt) shows us examples of where the military staged a coup and then went on to run the government. Adventurers cannot get the support of the people in that fashion. If adventurers stage a coup, they become “warlords” and you should count on the people being “liberated” by some force within a generation. Now a generation can be pretty long if you’re the warlord, but historically, it just doesn’t work.
But it’s more than just coups. Soldiers (unless the government is unjust - and no, I do not yet think the US government has gotten there yet) have the support of the people. If a soldier were wounded in battle and bleeding to death, if they could do it safely, most citizens would drag him to safety and dress his wounds. They would probably loot a mercenary (adventurer). They would let a soldier sleep in front of their fire on a snowy night, and probably make him breakfast in the morning. There are countless ways that simply being seen as a “good guy” by the people is helpful. Maybe some adventurers can get this (I’m thinking paladins or Robin Hood characters), but for the most part, adventurers are on their own.
Let’s not forget the other side to soldiers. If they lose a battle but escape, they can call for reinforcements. In fact they can probably be replaced by reinforcements (fresh troops). I haven’t seen an adventuring band able to pull of that maneuver yet. It may sound like I’m giving adventurers a lot of advantages and making the solders out to be less effective on the battlefield. I am. If not, why hire mercenaries, other than you don’t want your own soldiers to die. Both have their part to play in your fantasy world, and drawing distinctions between them makes each of them seem far more important when it is their turn to take action.