For the sake of this article a Bandit is a type of criminal which has removed his/herself from the bulk of society, dwells mainly in the wilderness (or in the seedier parts of a population center) and makes a living engaging by various means of armed robbery (or "banditry"). Since there is strength in numbers, bandits will often gang up, and depending on their infamy and wealth: these numbers can range anywhere from a handful of thieves, to having enough to rival a nation's armed forces and possibly seize power. Solo bandits also exist, although they're either highly proficient robbers that they don't need any help (or against the idea of sharing their spoils), or a rookie with more balls than brains.
There are various permutations of this, but the common theme is that if you traveled from town to town there was a good chance that you'd be waylaid by armed people which would try to extract the valuables from your person by force.
In general for most of the history of civilization crime was bad. Really Bad. The worst areas of the modern first world pale in comparison to that of the middle ages as far as crime goes. This was a time where most people were dirt poor and for most civilizations there was no form of police that cared about anyone other than the nobility or do more than nab the odd fellow they deem suspicious and scare a few more for a bit. In the Middle Ages, towns would have guards who'd protect the gates and deal with with riots, laws that required that random townsfolk or volunteers to patrol the streets at night with torches and chase away suspicious people, bounties were put out for thieves captured and rich people would have guys patrol their neighborhoods to catch anyone who looked suspicious. The countryside did not even have that and there were many nooks and crannies were ne'er-do-wells could lurk. And since most people lived in the countryside or sparsely populated villages, outlaws were an ever-present danger outside the boundaries of their homes. Empires such as Rome or China during the high points of the various dynasties and countries where things were stable like Edo Japan were somewhat better as they could have law enforcement forces, garrisons and patrols of rural areas, though they'd still be considered lawless by modern standards. The development of even somewhat modern policing (in terms of a dedicated full time professional law enforcement agency funded and run by the government, and who weren't just part of the army), which only really began to happen after the Renaissance, led to a reduction; even then, the problem of banditry was a serious one well into the Industrial Revolution, and in some places, the 20th century and/or the present day.
On the same note the worse off a country was, the more bandits it produced. In particular, armies, particularly mercenary armies, had a tendency when ill-disciplined or when badly losing to spin-off into banditry; until the 18th century, it was a common and frequently necessary tactic to pillage the countryside in order to support an army on foreign soil, and, well, people tend to do what they know.
For a further example of "war leads to bandits", if your cottage gets burned by a party of knights (possibly the ones who are supposed to be protecting you) on a raid and the choice is letting your family starve or stealing some stuff from some passing merchant who never sold anything you could afford or a tax collector who's been bleeding people dry at the best of times, a fair number of people would steal from them. Robin Hood might have been a work of fiction, but men who steal from the rich and give to the poor when taxes were too high are not unprecedented. How much of this is altruism and how much of it was public relations would be something that varies from case to case. After all, if you provide a bit of treasure to people who have little enough to begin with, they're less likely to rat you out to the local knight (who they probably hate anyway for taxing them to hell and back, as mentioned above).
The above took on a further twist in the context of regions that had recently been conquered by rival countries (e.g. Greece following its conquest by the Ottoman Empire). Deprived of direct military force and with no other options to retaliate against their occupiers, their inhabitants sometimes took to banditry as a form of guerrilla warfare. As above, this was frequently supported by the commoners, who had no love for their new masters.
When did the age of banditry end? Well, that varies according to your definition of "banditry". The three most notable permutations of the concept for our purposes are:
- Highwaymen and Muggers, who target travelers.
- Robbers, who target individual buildings (banks, jewelery stores, etc).
- Raiders, who target entire towns and farms.
The era of Raiders ends with the birth of the modern army, who no longer needed to plunder in order to eat. The era of the Highwayman ends with either the train (train robbers are usually, well, more Robbers than Highwaymen; see below for more) or the invention of an effective Highway Patrol. Large scale robbery usually ends with the birth of the aforementioned dedicated police, with at least some people who follow up on things; nowadays the most important part of robbery planning is getting away with it, which requires either a safe place to hide (a country that doesn't have an extradition treaty, forex) or good anonymity.
Some notable Real Life historical banditry:
- The Qin Dynasty fell in part because the penalty for reporting late (death) was the same as that for rebellion (death again), thus neatly creating a bandit and rebellion problem, among other things.
- Banditry was usually a part of the negative feedback loops which did Chinese dynasties in: corruption leads to a lack of funds for police and infrastructure projects in X province, infrastructure decays and the police spend more time shaking people down than fighting bandits, bandits operate unimpeded while the economy suffers (incidentally leading more people to get into banditry because there's no legitimate work to go around), which leads to budget cuts across the board which leads to more corruption.
- Alexander "Sawney" Bean, a guy in 16th century Scotland who started a whole family of bandits who decided that they didn't need the gold so much as they just wanted to eat people. And most of the grandchildren were the products of incest. I mean, if you're going to break one law, why not break them all? It took a manhunt led by the king himself to track them down.
- There were many outlaws during the period of the Wild West (in no small part due to the absence of an established police force) who get romanticized, like Billy The Kid, Jesse James, and Butch Cassidy. Many of them were portrayed as either Americanized Robin Hoods or free, unbound spirits that exemplified the Wild West, among other things. Although going past the romanticism, there was little evidence (if any at all) that proves they were anything more than proficient, opportunistic bandits that the simplefolk made stories about and eventually caught on as fact in the public mind. People tend to, incorrectly, take their existence and fame as evidence the west was swarming with criminals when it statistically had far lower crime rate than the east and most settlements went years without major crime.
- Side note: Many of the most notable figures had their origin in small scale "range wars", usually with both sides reaching for legal justification for their acts. Wikipedia has articles on these conflicts.
- There was also an outbreak of Bank Robbery during the 1930s that was later romanticized, with such names as "Pretty Boy" Floyd, John Dillinger, "Baby Face" Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, and Willie "Falsely Attributed as Saying 'I Rob Banks Because That's Where the Money Is'" Sutton.
- Mexican history is positively littered with bandit revolutionaries; Pancho Villa is probably the most notable, and among other things, he actually starred in a few Hollywood films about his exploits (yes, seriously), and provoked a full military response when he attacked the US town of Columbus, New Mexico.
Role in Tabletop Games
Bandits are great upper-low tier villains for a campaign, as they can come from diverse backgrounds with plenty of legroom to work with and typically don't lend themselves to sympathetic views. They can either be desperate townsfolk mugging passers-by to survive, a couple of assholes who can't be bothered to earn an honest living, to a unit of veteran soldiers who went rogue after realizing banditry is more favorable than serving in the military, or just having no other choice, either due to being on the losing side, or due to winding up on the wrong side of the law for some other reason. Additionally, just about any race with some semblance of sapience can become bandits. As intelligent human(oid) foes, they can employ nearly any tactic humanoids are capable of and are the only real option for low level humanoid enemies aside from Cultists.
This leads to a variety of quest ideas from: some guys jump the party wanting to loot your stuff, there are some jerks out there robbing people on the highways that the King wants taken care of, to a well-organized crime syndicate who has total control over the region that you have to bring down or play nice with.
Popular bandit archetypes
- Mugger - Lowly miscreants who prey on civilians in a population center for petty valuables, relying on the element of surprise and a settlement's weapon laws to ensure that their victim doesn't retaliate. They usually don't put up too much of a fight and will run if they realize there's even a hint of risk they'll get caught (or worse, mobbed by the angry citizenfolk)
- Highwayman - Your stereotypical fantasy bandit. Highwaymen prey on travelers, primarily on unsecured highways (as highways linked to major cities and were established trade routes: a lot of money, rich folk, and trade goods regularly flowed through them), holding them up for whatever they can carry and disappearing into their hideout to count and distribute the spoils. That said, they're fully capable of sticking people up in any other location that suits them.
- Raider - Bandits who take a more direct approach and the other common archetype. They're much like highwaymen, but they prefer to invade poorly defended areas (like villages and small encampments) to pillage their goods and retreat to their hideout before an armed response force is mustered. Rinse and repeat. Also, through out history but most commonly in Bronze and Dark Ages, raiding was the most common type of warfare conducted, so the difference between state-sanctioned raiding and actual bandit raiding was very often pedantic. In fact, the former tended to devolve into the latter as soon as the raiders noticed they could get more money by raiding than they could from military pay- or when a war ended and left the raiders with no skills they could use in peacetime.
- Bank robber - One of the most popular in the list. Bank robbers are groups of men who rob banks by: going inside weapons drawn, and forcibly steal the bank's contents using brutal force, then making a quick getaway whilst attempting to evade the law. They're pretty popular in modern settings, getting into intricate planning segments to ensure they get in and out as quick as possible, high-speed vehicle chases, and heated gunfights with the law as they fight tooth and nail to escape with their haul.
- Train robber - Popularized by old American wild west movies. Train robbers basically rob moving trains of any loot they might have, and since trains were the most reliable form of quick transportation between cities in the old west: they normally carried plenty of valuables (and trains were also normally boarded by rich folk wishing to cross the country). Contrary to popular belief, they rarely jumped from their horses to get on trains (as this was incredibly risky, and hard to pull off from a physics standpoint), and would normally board the train like regular passengers, before signaling to the gang to commence the heist. To get off the train: they normally forced the engineer to engage the brakes. Alternately, they had some way to stop the train at roughly the right point (again, confederate who boards and then holds up the engineer, or one of the many legitimate ways to get a train to stop (doing stuff to the rail, etc.)), or alternately derail the train; either way, historically, passengers were small fry that a robber wouldn't be that interested in; the focus was usually on gold or payroll that was being shipped alongside them in safes.
- Slavers - Normally considered the most despicable of all bandits. Bandits don't usually bother with kidnapping, as a ransom is typically too problematic for anyone but a well-connected syndicate to handle (as you need to find someone willing to shell out a lot of money for this person, then ensure they can't trace you back), and taking captives brings in a lot more heat than than usual. And even then, trying to move live cargo around and trying to find a good buyer for them comes with it's own sets of problems. Its simply a lot more efficient for most groups to hold people up and take their good stuff, then leave them alone; after all, inanimate goods generally don't fight back or escape (although see "Cattle Rustlers" below).
- Slavers however, say "fuck that", and in addition to the usual fighting and looting, they'll take prisoners home to sell on the slave market, with their captives' welfare usually being an afterthought, unless they were important/valuable enough to ensure the extra hassle of keeping them well fed and maintained. Slave raiders are terrifying to civilianfolk: while its depressing you can always get material possessions back one way or another. But how're you going to cope with losing friends and family? Once they're sold off, it's highly likely you're never going to see your loved ones again, and you'll be tormented to death not knowing if they're still alive or not. Hence, slave raiders typically attract the most attention, either from law enforcement and or local militia, as anyone incharge will want them gone as soon as possible (and from a less moral PoV but one that might be more common in a society that uses slaves itself: slavers are taking away your workers and taxpayers, how dare they cut into your fortunes and cost you good money to hunt them down?).
- Sea Raider - A fearsome cross with a Pirate. A Sea Raider raids coastal settlements then gets on their boat and runs away before the local lord can assemble his forces to deal with them. Among bandit types they have the narrative advantage of not needing even a temporary settlement to engage in their acts (allowing them to not just be criminals but foreign criminals) and being able to rip off all that cool Viking stuff. It was also believed for decades that sea raiders caused the collapse of several civilizations at the end of the Bronze Age.
- Banditos - Bandits with a little more ethnic flair thrown in, these are wild-west bandits with ponchos, sombreros, and pistolés representing the general lawlessness of the early Texan border (and then romanticized in western fiction.) They're also known for their ravishing handlebar mustaches. Actors that are actually Hispanic are completely optional. May or may not ride raptors into battle.
- Marauders - In the middle east there were a fair number of places where it was too dry to raise crops but you could raise sheep, goats or camels which were home to various nomadic pastoral peoples who'd supplement their income by trade, weaving, dealing in odds and ends and some banditry on the side. Since a tribe of nomads would be a set of family units who'd been at this way of life for centuries or millennia, they tended to have a more sustainable outlook about things: kill a merchant and you can rob for everything once, shake his caravan down and let him go and you can do it again and again.
- Cattle Rustlers - Men who steal cows. Common in Westerns, but were a problem wherever free range animals were a thing (sheep rustlers were and are a thing, forex, and in fact are still a problem in Scotland as of 2019). Cattle were just the most valuable animals, and the most likely to require a gang to steal; domesticated cattle are goddamn big--small cows weigh "only" 600 pounds(270 kg), but the big ones can get up to 2500 pounds (1100 kg). Why all the risk for cows, though? Well, back in the olden days a single healthy specimen of cattle would fetch anywhere between $20 (or around $500 today, adjusted for inflation) to $90 ($2,300 adjusted for 2020 inflation). And if you wanted to diversify your earnings, you could always process them for milk, meat, hides, and fertilizer (bones and unusable organs). As you can imagine, whatever you did: you had a lot of mileage with cattle, and any cattle rancher worth their salt would gladly put a round through you in a heartbeat, if you so much as think of stealing one of their livestock.
- Any Asian historically set action-focused work will usually have bandits, due to the usual reasons: They make good asskicking-fodder, and in most historical eras require almost no setup or explanation. Usually more likely to be de-romanticized and non-glamorous than American or European bandits. While there are some heroic bandits in such works, they are usually either cases of the Bandit being misguided (and thus become Heroes under the patronage/tutelage of an Old Master(tm) or other parochial figure), or the result of state corruption (and thus usually willing to turn away from banditry when that becomes a realistic option); either way, if they're to be in any way Heroic, the Banditry is an act of desparation. As mentioned above, China had frequent bandit problems in its history, leading, among other things, to the rise of the Shaolin monks and their brand of Kung-Fu for self defense.
- Pirate - The bandits of the sea.