Bandits? Pirates? Raiders? Thieves? What’s the difference?
For a number of reasons I will be distinguishing various types of marauding humanoids by their tactics, motives, and circumstances. For the purposes of this post, I am treating bandits as those who primarily engage in opportunistic victimization of land travelers outside of well defended areas, most frequently by ambush. This is to differentiate them from pirates—who operate mostly at sea by means of vehicle (or sky, or silt-skimmers, or even vehicular caravans roaring across vast wastelands, depending on your setting), raiders—who primarily attack vulnerable settlements, and thieves—who generally operate within urban areas.
Bandits are a constant scourge for adventurers, wagoneers, pilgrims and just about anyone else traveling overland in a typical fantasy world, especially along long roads or in the wilderness not far from places where the spoils of armed robbery can be converted into riches. While their primary interest is in separating travelers from their valuables, there are several reasons why they would try to subdue their prey rather than pick through the remains of a slaughter like a bunch of murder-hobos.
Reasons for Bandits to Take Captives
Nerves. As dedicated as bandits are to harming others for their own gain, their profession is robbing, not killing. They may very well be willing to kill if it comes to it, but it’s easier for everyone involved if their threats don’t have to be carried out. Even in a hardened, angry group of rebels funding a revolution, most of the ones with no hesitation to kill would be put to other, messier tasks than taking jewelry and horses from travelers. In a fight, they may simply prefer to knock out and tie up their opponents until they can decide what to do next.
Heat. Not in the literal sense, but in the sense of increased attention by authorities. Bandits are a problem that authorities will naturally want to deal with, but especially in dangerous areas or on long, isolated trade routes, robbers on the road are often by town guards as a case of Someone Else’s Problem if it isn’t directly endangering townsfolk or the local economy. Murderers on the road, however, will rapidly provoke a heavy response like heavily armed road patrols, or even worse, parties of competing adventurers with bounty posters, actively seeking to run them down.
Time. It can be difficult and dangerous trying to sell stolen goods after those who have been robbed have already reported their losses to the authorities and word has gotten around about that particularly valuable art piece that the brigands were hoping to feed themselves for a month by selling. If they keep the victims tied up in a camp in the woods until all the valuables are already sold off, then it’s not too hard to simply let them go, and let the poor fools try to explain that they own the statue that just found its way into being the centerpiece of the mayor’s feast table a few days ago, while the bandits move on down the road to camp outside the next town.
Ransom. On occasion, the most valuable thing a bandit group has to sell is the safe release of the people they have absconded with. Especially if a member of the adventuring party is a noble, a wealthy looking merchant, or a diplomat, or otherwise part of an organization that cares greatly for the well being of its members, the bandits will at least keep their victims alive and relatively unharmed at least for long enough to try to negotiate a price, either with the captive or with those who can arrange payment.
Slave Trade. If slavery is accepted in or near the region, or if it is not accepted but there is a thriving illegal trade on the black market, bandits will likely come to see every traveler as yet another commodity to be stolen and fenced. In fact, in such circumstances, bandits will likely prefer for the individuals or groups they rob to simply disappear entirely rather than run to the authorities or leave suspicion-arousing bloodstains on the road.
Recruitment. In cases where slavery is a likely outcome for captives, bandit groups suddenly have a bit more in common with pirates, namely that for many, joining their attackers voluntarily in a life of crime for at least a time is far, far preferable to the alternative. Such bandit brigades will often bargain with captives to replenish their numbers from time to time to replace deserters, casualties, and those taken by the authorities.
Bandit Capture Tactics
Ambush. The biggest advantage bandits on the road have is that they know exactly where the travelers will be passing and likely possess greater knowledge of the terrain than their victims. This allows setting up all sorts of traps and hiding spots well in advance. Ambushes often happen at blind corners or places where terrain is tight on either side of the road combined with cover to hide in, such as forests, causeways, or spurs of rock. Foggy areas are also a plus.
Traps. Enterprising bandits can employ not only traps for individuals like pits, snares, and nets, but also traps for entire wagons or small caravans, preventing easy escape. Causing a small rockslide or downed tree in a spot that can’t be seen until the travelers are very close allows bandits to create another such barrier behind the traveling group and pin them in. This is especially effective in narrow ravines, dense forests, or causeways through a swamp as mentioned above.
Disabling Vehicles. Bandits who are well equipped might be willing to use their precious moments of surprise not to attack guards but to try to break wagon wheels or similar tactics to prevent the cargo from getting away. This has the side benefit to bandits intent on taking captives of forcing the victims to stay close if they wish to defend their goods, reducing the likelihood of someone escaping and sending word to the authorities, especially when dealing with stubborn adventurers or miserly caravan leaders.
Magic. Depending on the politics and environment of the area, bandits may have a spellcaster or two, especially druids and rangers in areas where there is a strong conflict between civilization and the wilds, or sorcerers, warlocks, or the like in areas with rigorous laws about magic use. If certain species are stigmatized, their more common sorts of spellcasters might be more prevalent, such as clerics among dwarves or wizards among high elves or gnomes. Spells that create barriers to movement would be especially useful.
Magic Items. More likely than a spellcaster, bandits might have one or two pieces of magical equipment that aids in taking captives or cargo—most likely pilfered from a previous traveler. Use caution not to employ anything that would pose a problem should it fall into the players’ hands, however. Adventurers are a crafty lot. Some good examples would be a wand that shoots webs or conjures walls, ropes that entangle opponents, or items that create illusions.
Animals. Bandits live in the wilds much of the time and would likely have someone among them who is skilled at working with animals. Dogs that herd horses off the road into a dead end, a trained giant spider to create obstacles and restrain enemies, or even monkeys that create distractions could be utilized to assist in banditry. In areas with many monstrous beasts, a trained basilisk could be an excellent way to persuade victims to surrender rather than risk a standoff turning into a bloodbath, as well.
Stealth. If one or more of the party, or NPCs in their traveling group are able to slip away before the group is captured, they might be able to sneak into the bandits’ camp when most of them are sleeping or otherwise distracted (either by tasks like seeking new targets or by a diversion set up by a clever rescuer) and free at least enough of the party to hold off opposition while the rest are released. Or they could just slip in long enough to give a dagger to a tied up party member to free themselves with.
Bargaining. People who can afford to transport expensive goods overland often have a much larger store of resources elsewhere that could be used to pay a ransom. Particularly persuasive characters could also offer some other sort of deal in the bandits’ best interest. The latter will vary quite a bit based on the ingenuity of the party as well as on circumstances within the game world. Another possibility is an agreement not so report them to the authorities in exchange for freedom, which, knowing player characters, will probably result in the party regrouping and returning to take back their possessions.
Deception. Bandits might be tricked into believing that reinforcements will be coming or that they were only part of a larger caravan that got spread thin and is vulnerable, giving the player characters some time to make a play. The bandits may also be tricked into thinking they bit off far more than they can chew, or the party can strike a false bargain or con to turn the tables.
Infighting. Bandits may not necessarily like each others’ company, and some may be in the profession unwillingly, either by family, forced recruitment, or a period of poverty in which they joined only to find that leaving would make enemies. Belligerent bandits might be subtly turned against one another or a member of the band who wishes to defect might offer the party an opportunity to escape or battle the captors, in exchange for taking them safely back to town and telling no one of their involvement.
Combat. If the party can get free and obtain what equipment they need in order to do battle, attacking when the bandits are resting or otherwise not fully prepared to fight may be enough to turn the tide against an enemy that previously defeated them. The bandits may also have diminished numbers due to the prior battle or there may be other captives who can be freed and give assistance—either by fighting alongside the party, finding them weapons and armor quickly, or providing tactical assistance like knocking down tents, releasing animals, setting fires, or the like. If you are creative with the nature of the assistance it will make a much more memorable encounter.
Joining. The party may simply convince the bandits to let them join…or agree if the bandits insist. They will probably be watched carefully for a while, but either through cunning or by simply going along with the deal they might find opportunities to slip away, or may even find themselves with a new group of allies.
What’s in it for the Party?
Favor. Factions with an interest in maintaining law and order, or secure trade, or safer wilderness, or even just seeking to eliminate competition will be appreciative of assistance clearing out bandits, or even simply reporting their whereabouts to the guard. If the bandits have been poaching or despoiling the wilds or taking slaves, these groups will likely be even more thankful.
Bounties. Everywhere from small villages to large cities will offer bounties for the defeat of bandits in their area to any wandering toughs passing through. Anywhere smaller than a city probably depends on bounty hunters to deal with criminals who operate primarily outside the immediate vicinity of the guards’ patrol routes.
Equipment. Bandits that are successful tend to be well equipped. Bandits that aren’t, have usually already been dealt with. At the very least they will have their own personal weapons and armor, plus some backups stashed away in case of damage or loss. They also likely have a moderately large supply of rations so they can spend their time robbing travelers instead of foraging. They may even have a magic item or two, but the owner of something particularly powerful would likely move on to bigger ponds, if they know its potential.
Previous Victims’ Possessions. Unless the party is the very first victims of this group of bandits, or the bandits have had a very long dry spell without a successful take, they are likely flush with gear, coin, food, and trade goods that have not yet been fenced, since moving too much stolen goods to close to when it was stolen will draw the kind of attention they don’t want.
Animals. Bandits probably have horses, maybe dogs, and in rarer cases, exotic trained animals like wolves or magic beasts. Depending on how the party escapes, many of these animals may survive and might even be willing to serve new owners, especially with successful animal handling or magic. If they party doesn’t want a set of horses to worry about, they will always sell well in any settlement.
Thankful NPCs. Bandits who take people captive may very well have other captives, or members who were “conscripted” into the bandit group may be glad for a chance to help those who deal with the leader. These may simply be villagers who reward the party with food, services, or gold; or they may become allies in a larger story.
Information. Mere bandits likely are not in possession of anything legendary or terribly exciting, but they spend a great deal of time in places that others generally avoid, and they might know of ancient ruins or powerful magical locations. If they work with slavers or other criminals, they might be “persuaded” to provide clues to pursing those they deal with, or if not, sharp-eared captives might overhear important information. They might also inadvertently inform the party about which people in the nearby settlements are corruptible.