Podcast Episode 25 – Creating Armed Forces


Episode 25: Learn How to Create Armed Forces

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create armed forces like the army, navy and air force. This includes how to become a member of one, their ranks, and how they’re viewed by society.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • How terrain impacts where armed forces exist
  • What special sites should exist for them.
  • The difference between various ranks and roles in the military (whether army, air force, or navy)
  • Why you should consider their place in society
  • How transportation impacts them
  • What to consider for how people join this military, including prerequisites

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Episode 25 Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-five. Today’s topic concludes our discussion about how create armed forces like the army, navy, and air force. This includes how to become a member of one, their ranks, and how they’re viewed by society. This material and more is discussed in a chapter from Cultures and Beyond, volume three in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.


Before we get started, I want to mention that if you would like to purchase transcripts of these podcast episodes, you can now do so directly from the homepage at www.artofworldbuilding.com.

The first thing we should worry about with armed forces is the location. The case can be made that the armed forces are going to exist whether we invent them or not, unless the location is one that does not allow for this. For example, if the civilization is not very advanced, it’s not going to have a formalized military. If the landscape is also something like grasslands, then we may have a more nomadic people where they don’t really have a formal military. The same could be true of somewhere that’s very mountainous, where the people don’t travel very far. In this case, I’m thinking of the fantasy dwarves. These places may be exceptions rather than the rule, where the terrain is really impacting whether something forms or not.

For the purpose of this episode, we’re going to assume that you have a somewhat more varied terrain and enough civilization that armed forces are going to be needed. Some types of armed forces are going to work better over one kind of terrain than another. A good example is the cavalry because they’re not going to be used in the mountains nearly so much as somewhere flatter. This is, once again, a kind of specialty group that can be operating on its own, and also, at times, be incorporated into a larger military as a specialized unit.

For example, a long time ago, in the United States, we had the infantry who were on foot, and then the cavalry who were, of course, on horseback. These were treated as different units within the army. When we are creating the armed forces, we should decide if we are creating a specialty group or the larger organization like the army. It doesn’t matter whether we focus on the smaller group or the overall group first, just as long as we go through what we’ve created more than once, paying attention to both the overall structure and then the usage of any specialty groups.

In both fantasy and science fiction, we have another issue regarding terrain, and that is that we have multiple species. So, we could have elves within our armed forces and, as a result, they might bring a specialty for operating within a forest that the overall army, for example, does not otherwise have. This means that an elf could be part of a specialized unit that is comprised mostly of elves, or the elves could just be part of the overall military. By the same token, we could have dwarves who specialize in underground fighting, or anything on the mountains, but then there might also be dwarves who don’t want to be part of that specialized unit, and are just part of the army, navy or air force in general.

This is an opportunity to put some racism and some bigotry in there because we could have someone like the humans see an elf who is part of their unit and object to this, saying, “Hey, why are you not with the elven unit that is supposed to be specializing in forest fighting? You’re here with us.” This is a believable aspect of the relationships within the military. Of course, we can do the same thing with any species of our own that we have invented.

One reason all of this matters about terrain is that this will determine, in large part, where this army or other group tends to be located. If they don’t do well on plains or in the desert, and they aren’t needed there much, they’re probably not going to be located there. If circumstances force them to fight on such terrain, they may have less training and experience. The opposition in a conflict might know this and try to take advantage of it by forcing the conflict to take place on that kind of terrain.

What if one army has elves who specialize in forest fighting and another does not? It would make sense that the one with the elves might try to force the conflict to take place near or in a forest. They might also use the forest for cover, knowing that they’ve got people who can navigate really well there, and the opposition does not.

Special Sites

Another aspect of location is whether this military group has any sort of specialized sites, and where these are located. For example, maybe they are expected to be super efficient at fighting a certain type of creature, and therefore they need to have experience fighting these. So, maybe they’ve got a training base located wherever that creature is. Generally, the military uses special training sites, and they don’t have the training available everywhere. So, one of the decisions we need to make is where this training is taking place. A large population center is an obvious choice, as is any sort of special terrain or nearby creatures that training is needed for.

This can be true with science fiction, as well, if we have training for something like pilots where they need to deal with certain kinds of space phenomenon. Naturally, training for certain things can happen in one location, and training for others can happen in a different location. We can also decide to give each of these locations a cool name, like “the Citadel” or “the Dark Abyss.” Therefore, characters can mention this. “Hey, in my time at the Citadel, I did so and so.” If we give it an interesting name, it just adds a little interest for our readers. It can create mystique about what the training facility is like, and make people curious what goes on there.

Beyond training facilities, we might also have special locations that they use as part of their duties. One example that comes to mind is if they ride giant birds of prey, like eagles or falcons, and when they land on the ground, they are vulnerable. And if they need to camp for the night, this could be a problem. So, maybe they do things like build special towers out in the wilderness that are large enough for the birds, for them to camp, and where these cannot be accessed from the ground. Using our imagination, we can think of other places similar to this.


This neatly dovetails into another related subject, and that is what they are using to get around, whether they are walking, riding animals, or riding machinery. We should make a basic decision about what they are typically using. One reason for this is that the military will most likely be charged with supplying that. For example, horses will most likely be owned by the military, even if a specific soldier has a specific horse that he is typically using for the purposes of bonding. The reason for this is that military horses must, of course, be trained. The same will be true of any other animal that is ridden as part of a military group.

Machinery comes up a lot more in science fiction and, obviously, this is something that’s going to be supplied by the military. In a film like Star Wars, the only reason Han Solo gets away with flying the Millennium Falcon is that he’s not an official part of the military there. You’ll notice all of the other ships look the same, and they have the same capabilities as a result. For additional realism with science fiction, we should invent different kinds of machines that people will be using. They will have different capabilities. Whether that’s firing ability or defensive abilities, or even the kinds of terrain that they are designed for. One way that we can use this as storytellers is having the characters acquire a type of machinery that is not the ideal one because they’re on the run, or something like that. They have to just take whatever they can steal, for example. There is something that they want, but they can’t find it, so they have to take something else.

It helps us if we have already invented these machines, and if we’ve already created limitations so that our characters can complain about whatever choice they have to make. This allows them to get a vehicle that allows them to escape, but it may not do so in an optimal fashion. Therefore, they might have to travel from wherever they are now to some other location and hope that they can acquire what they really need there.

This is one way to not only be realistic, but create more plot points for us. If they can always acquire exactly what they need, that’s not very believable, and it doesn’t have a whole lot of tension to it. We need things to go wrong.

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How to Join

Once we’ve decided where this military group typically operates, the kind of transportation they have and what kind it is — whether it’s a navy, an army, an air force or a space force — then we can start thinking about the road to becoming a member of this armed forces, and what someone has to go through. Many militaries will accept people who have no particular training or skills before they join the military. Those people are put through what is called “basic training” in the Army in the United States. However, by the time they complete basic training, they are expected to have acquired certain skills. This can be a default decision that we also do for anything that we are inventing, but we might also want to decide that certain prerequisites are required.

Why would we decide this? Well, if the group is supposed to be elite in any way, they probably don’t want to waste their time training people who appear to have no talent or skill for something. This, again, brings up the concept of joining the general military group or joining a specialized force within that group. The latter is arguable more likely to have specific requirements. Expert swordsmen probably want a certain amount of skill with a sword and even a knife. Cavalry might require basic horsemanship skills. The air force might require a certain amount of flight skills. A space force could require the same of any time piloting in space, or possibly even doing launches from the ground, through the atmosphere and into space.

One way we can use this is that in addition to someone becoming an elite member of this specialized group if they pass all the tests, they were able to be recognized as being kind of special even before they joined because they made the cut. This can result in some snobbery, of course. There will always be people trying to act like they are better than you. Maybe this group even has a reputation for being haughty. That could, in turn, make some of our characters resent certain members of this group if they are encountered during our story. So, this is another way that we can leverage this kind of development.

So, what prerequisites might your group need? Think about how you intend to use them in the story that you are creating them for. What do they need to do? And are you just going to use them as a general army kind of thing where they’re just going to go out and be a nameless mass of 5,000 people who maybe all get killed, or a bunch of them do, or they win the war but you’re not really going to delve into the specifics of who they are? If that’s the case, then maybe don’t worry too much about creating prerequisites for them. On the other hand, if you imagine that you’re creating this group because one of your main characters is supposed to be a member of that group, or a former member, or even an aspiring member, then you probably want to think about the prerequisites. Not to mention, as we’re going to get to in a minute, the training they went through, or are going to go through, and then what the final tests are going to be.

So, the first question, really, is do you need to worry about prerequisites or not? As a final note on prerequisites, not all of them have to do with physical skills. It might be something like knights requiring you to be of noble birth. This is, of course, a kind of discrimination. We can leverage that to create some tension. That brings up the subject of characteristics. You may remember from the Creating Life volume in The Art of World Building series that we looked at things like intelligence, wisdom, charisma, strength, constitution, agility, dexterity and morale. Officers are more likely to require the higher mental traits, like better intelligence. By contrast, we could reasonably assume that the enlisted men and women might need more physical attributes because that’s what they’re bringing to the table instead.

A group like medieval knights are not really known for their agility, in no small part because they are wearing heavy armor. So, obviously, they’re not going to have a huge requirement for agility. They may require better dexterity, however, in order to wield a sword with expert skill. Military who wear less armor might have higher requirements for agility. So, we can use the typical armor that they have as a way of deciding some prerequisites. It’s always great when we can use decisions we’ve already made to help us make other decisions.

For any characteristics that we decide on, it can be difficult for anyone to test these. However, in science fiction, simulations offer a good way to do this. For example, we could have a scenario where wisdom is required to escape a situation. In another one, their morale might be tested by whether they flee or they stand up to the opposing forces. Physical skills are necessarily easier to determine with a test. So, if we want to have tests for these other mental traits or characteristics, we might have to think about that a little bit more. These tests can be famous, and they can also add some interest to our story.

Another aspect of initiation testing is that it can allow someone to bypass certain training if they show that they already have the skills required. Either that or the test can be so easy for them that they don’t really need to prepare for them, and they just kind of blow through them. One way we might want to use this is to have that character impress the leadership. Therefore, that person is tasked with a higher level of service than they might have otherwise been expected to get.

Someone who’s already an expert pilot or a sword fighter isn’t going to have to go through all of the training, and they may realize this person has a lot of potential. In both fantasy and science fiction, we tend to like characters who demonstrate that they are special in some way, partly because it allows us to live vicariously through them, and the idea that we would also be that special if we were in their shoes. This sort of escapism is one of the things that this genre allows us to do as an audience member.

Some of these tests can also be purposely unfair to see how someone reacts to that. Do they whine about it or do they accept it gracefully? Or do they simply point out that something wasn’t fair? If you were a military leader, would you want a whiner on the frontlines or in charge of anything important? Probably not. If we’ve already decided how these people are going to be used, that makes it easier to figure out what kind of training they need. The easiest way to decide how they’re going to be used is simply to imagine some scenes where they are doing whatever it is that they do. You don’t have to really write these, you just kind of play around with it in your head. What do you imagine them doing in your setting and in your story? What kind of impact are they going to have? Do these actions require a certain amount of skill for them to implement? If so, well, there’s your training.

Unless we have an understanding of how long it takes to be trained in something, like swordsmanship, in order to become an expert, we probably don’t want to be too specific about how long someone is in training. Granted, if we’re talking about a skill that doesn’t exist, then no one can show up and tell us that we’re wrong.

The last thing to mention here is that there are most likely going to be some sort of final tests in order for them to graduate and become a member of this military group. We can decide that these tests are relatively safe, or that they’re so dangerous that sometimes people actually die from them. Naturally, this will have an impact on someone who is about to take these tests. It can also impact the way that others view them if they know that these guys took tests that could’ve resulted in their death, but they didn’t, they made it through and now they’re a member of this group. This could cause some people to look at them in awe. To decide this, decide what kind of a reaction you want people to have to any character who is a member of this group.

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Military Ranks

Unless you have served in the military, there is one area of it that you probably don’t understand much more than I did, until I took the time to do the research. That is the ranking and the difference between commissioned officers and enlisted grades. That’s what we’re going to discuss now.

Like virtually all episodes of this podcast, this one is based on a chapter from The Art of World Building series, and, in this case, it is from Cultures and Beyond, the chapter on how to create armed forces, of course. I mentioned this because in the book I have a number of charts that lay out the different ranks and what that really means. I’m not going to go right down these charts, but I am going to cover the basics about this. Before we get started, I want to mention that we can use any of the existing rank structures that exist in the army, navy or air force. We don’t have to make up our own. Another option is to take the same ranks, but give them new names so that they seem different, but they actually aren’t. Why would we do that? Just to create a sense of another world.

Unless we are writing a detailed account of what it’s like to be a member of this military, we don’t really need to go into any kind of detail at all about most of this. It’s more that we should understand some of this. As it turns out, if we compare the army, navy and air force ranks to each other, they are pretty similar. They just have different names. For example, in the army, the field marshal or general would be the equivalent of a fleet admiral in the navy, or a marshal in the air force. At the opposite extreme of the officers, we have the officer cadet, which is called that in both the army and the navy, but is called a flight cadet in the air force. Otherwise, this is still the entry level rank for an officer.

I want to contrast the commissioned officers with the enlisted grades and explain what this means. A commissioned officer is appointed by a formal document that is issued by the head of state. That is the person who is running the government. You may remember from a previous episode, or from the Creating Places book, that we discussed heads of state in detail. The generic word “officer” actually means “commissioned officer” most of the time. However, it can refer to a non-commissioned officer. What’s an NCO, as it’s often called? That is someone who has not yet earned the commission, and they have been promoted from the enlisted grades. One thing that this can mean is that the officers went through special training to become officers, but the non-commissioned officers did not because they have risen through the enlisted ranks who did not go through that special training.

So, let’s talk about what it means to be part of the enlisted grades. In short, this is basically everyone who is not an officer. In the army, this would include your privates, your corporals, your sergeants and your sergeant majors. The commissioned officers are trained in things like management and leadership, and they often have a college degree — especially at the higher levels. In a world without colleges, we may be able to skip that and just say that they have a certain amount of experience.

The enlisted grades are the bulk of any military. These are the fighting men and women and anyone who is supporting them, such as pilots, engineers, technicians and more. The non-commissioned officers that we talked about a minute ago are considered crucial in the military because these are people who sort of have their boots on the ground and have a lot of experience, having gone from private up to whatever rank that they have. These are the primary points of contact between the enlisted grades and the officers who outrank them. In other words, an officer may not really understand what it is like to be one of these guys who’s got his boots on the ground all the time, and what it’s like for the basic military men and women. So, therefore, these NCOs do have this because they rose through the ranks. The NCOs, or non-commissioned officers, have practical experience being soldiers, as opposed to the commissioned officers, who may have none.

In the book, I also go into detail on the difference between a commanding officer and an executive officer. In short, the executive officer is responsible for running the military organization, and reports to the commanding officer. You may have heard them referred to as CO and XO, the XO being the executive officer and the CO being the commanding officer. This sometimes comes up in military shows or movies where someone asks, “Who is your XO?” or, “Who is your CO?”

Ranks and Roles

When it comes to a rank and the role that that person plays in the military, this can change from military organization to military organization, and from country to country. So, the good news here is that we don’t necessarily have to get this right, we just have to have a general understanding of the kinds of things that go on, and then we can invent whatever we need for the world that we are inventing and, of course, no one from our fictional world is going to show up and tell everyone that we got it wrong. What I’m getting at is that we sometimes have a tendency to want to get something right and, as with many things, that’s not really something we need to worry about. Plausibility in world building is the bar to get over.

Now, before I talk about the military ranks and their roles, I do want to briefly mention that in the book I have another very useful chart of all of the military units, how many people comprise those units, and who the typical commander is. For example, we’ve all heard of a platoon. Well, what is that? It’s got about 15-45 guys in it, and it’s commanded by a lieutenant. A brigade has somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000 men, and that has a commander of a colonel, or maybe a brigadier general. In the air force, a flight, as it’s called, may have three to six aircraft and support crew, plus a squadron leader.

Rather than go through a whole chart for the rank and the role, I’m just going to point out some of the more interesting tidbits from these. For example, in each branch, there is a five-star rank that sometimes only exists in an honorary way, or during a time of war. So, under peacetime, it doesn’t exist  and a four-star general, for example, is the highest rank. That would also be true of an admiral in a navy.

One of the more interesting army roles is that of the captain. This person commands a company and is sometimes the second-in-command of a battalion. This can be the entry level rank for those who have an advanced degree, such as a doctor, a lawyer, or maybe someone like a wizard. This is usually the highest rank that is still in the field as a fighter. That means all the majors, lieutenant colonels, colonels and different kinds of generals above them are not going to be in the field. Below the captain is the lieutenant, which is sometimes called a first lieutenant, and a second lieutenant, which is an entry level rank for the officers. College graduates can sometimes skip that rank, and even others are often in it for less than a year.

In the navy, you may have heard of admiral, vice admiral and rear admiral, but not really understood what these meant. Generally, a fleet is divided into thirds, with the admiral being in control of the middle third. The rear admiral is what you might expect, the admiral of the lowest rank, a two-star rank, who is the least experienced and has control of the rear of the fleet. And that is opposed to the vice admiral, who is a three-star rank, and who is commanding the vanguard, or the front of the fleet. The admiral in the middle is the four-star rank, who has the highest rank, and he is the one who is in command of the overall fleet.

The commodore is the one-star rank, and this is someone who commands more than one ship at a time. This is typically a temporary rank. Normally, this person would be a captain, and that’s someone who is commanding the largest ships.

In the air force, we once again have multiple names that are very similar. For example, the air chief marshal is the four-star rank, and this is the commander of an air force. The air marshal would be the three-star rank, and this person is, again, commanding the vanguard of a fleet of planes. The air vice marshal is, again, a two-star rank that is commanding the rear of a fleet. As with a navy, the air commodore is someone who has a one-star rank and is commanding multiple groups.

If you need this kind of thing worked out for your story or your setting, I highly recommend either researching these on your own or just picking up a copy of Cultures and Beyond where I have already collected a lot of this for you.


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Place in Society

I briefly want to talk about their place in society and how they are viewed. This can have a big effect on how we portray them and how other characters react to them. Naturally, how they are viewed by one society or one settlement or sovereign power may differ from how they are viewed by someone else. As with many things, we want to generalize in our notes about them and then make up exceptions as we go along.

We can actually generalize those exceptions as well. For example, they could be highly valued in places where physical danger is a constant presence, but in places where safety is taken for granted, they also could be taken for granted. Maybe there’s not even a whole lot for them to do, but they must be kept around just in case something happens and, therefore, they are idle and not considered terribly worthwhile. Maybe some people even want the military to get smaller, and some of these people to essentially lose their jobs and livelihood and have to find another way to make a living, the goal being to reduce the amount of budget that is spent on maintaining this military force in that size.

Another issue that can come up is that sometimes the military, or members of it, commit war crimes, and they might actually be known for this. As a result, people could fear the soldiers quite a bit. This fear could cause some people to avoid them, of course, and they might also cause restrictions, such as these people only being allowed to dine in the back room so that people don’t feel uncomfortable around them. They may not be welcome in certain kinds of establishments. On the other hand, if they are honorable, they might be seated in a prominent place, and even have people say, “Hey, Knight So-and-so frequently dines here,” as a way of bringing in more customers.

Unless we have a need for one depiction or another, it’s probably best to go with a somewhat more moderate tone, where they’re neither loved nor despised. They’re just kind of there as a basic force that is needed. But, of course, you need to make your decision based on your story.


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How to Get Started

While we didn’t cover every aspect of how to create a military organization, I do want to mention how we should get started. I think our first choice is to decide if we are creating a smaller, specialized group, like the U.S. Marines, or a larger force, like the entire army. This will help determine where they typically operate, and every subsequent decision we make. We should try to determine what sort of role we imagine them playing. Whether that’s a large scale conflict and world wars, or just something smaller. That could just mean that one of our characters is a member of this group, and that the group itself is not going to go to war in the context of our story.

At a minimum, we should also invent their symbols, their colors and any slogans. We can skip over something like history, but it is a good idea to have at least one or two historical figures that used to be members of this military group so that our characters have someone to aspire to or to fear being compared to. Another area that we can skip creating is worrying too much about the details of how someone becomes a member of this military, or creating ranks that differ in any meaningful way from the standard ones that are common on Earth.


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