Fallout taught fans that war…war never changes. Military historians, however, argue otherwise. Case in point: the stirrup.
Before firearms dominated the battlefield, it’s generally agreed that the stirrup was the most important innovation in warfare for a couple centuries. Fans of the Rohirrim will recognize why: cavalry is fast and maneuverable, and the stirrup allows the rider to swing swords, carry lances, and fire arrows with ease. Anyone who doesn’t have an army equipped with stirrupped cavalry is doomed to be dominated by those who do. As a result, the stirrup changed the way armies waged war and (arguably) the very face of medieval Europe. Keep in mind, the stirrup is a piece of leather that’s attached to the saddle.
With that in mind, what would magic do to warfare?
This question has been covered by other writers, including Dan Koboldt’s excellent series on fact in fiction, but it became a sticking point for some friends and I when discussing fantasy. I was frustrated because wars in most magical fantasy settings looked a lot like regular wars: rows of infantry, archers, shield walls, spearmen, etc. Mages were few and far between, and when they were portrayed as soldiers, it was clear that the author hadn’t parsed out the details of the inevitable magical arms race. If a muddy battlefield could bring down Napoleon at Waterloo, what would lightning storms and house-sized fireballs do?
I decided to rely on the most devious tactical minds known to fantasy warfare: D&D players. Two of my friends, Joel and Nick, were notorious at finding game-breaking loopholes in our sessions, which made them the perfect people to stress-test a new kind of magical combat doctrine. So I gave my friends a challenge: given a set of general rules, figure out the most efficient way to win battles that involved magic and mages. These were the constraints:
1. Armies are made up of semi-trained militias, career soldiers, and mages. Mages range in skill level from hedge-wizards, with very limited magic, to wizards, who are powerful casters. Armies are generally loosely organized, made up of units of 5 to 50 people.
2. At the periphery of the battlefield are healers and enchanters, who support the army by healing the injured and enchanting their allies with spells that prevent physical or magical damage. They generally need to be nearby to cast their magic, and do not enter the fray. These healers are non-combatants, and can’t be attacked.
3. Magic is either spoken, written on the body in enchantments, or evoked using movement, such as the moving of hands. For the sake of this exercise, I described a magic system that operates similarly to the magic in Wizard of Earthsea, where runes, Names, and songs allow mages to cast spells (with movements added as another method). More powerful and complex spells (like splitting open the earth or summoning giant fireballs) would require more powerful casters and would be proportionately more difficult to pull off.
Keep in mind, this exercise wasn’t meant to model a D&D session—it was meant for fantasy writers. Because magic varies so drastically from world to world, I was less interested in getting down into the nitty-gritty details (like cast-time and levels of difficulty for different spells) and more interested in learning how to go about building magical combat from the ground up. I had originally thrown in the caveat that all combat had to be non-lethal, but let’s forget about that for now.
Joel and I had a long text conversation about the ins and out of magic, while Nick had a much more succinct plan. Here’s what we came up with:
Mages Are The Heart of the Squad
Joel: “The wizard would easily be the heart and soul of the squad, probably the leader and strategist. His soldiers would be like an extension of him, I’m picturing samurai-level loyalty. He tells them what to do, and they do it without thinking. They have to follow his lead always, without explanation, to ensure his strategic maneuvers are effective, to ensure that honor is maintained. Once he surrenders, they all do.”
With the introduction of magic, Joel imagined that the wizard becomes not just another solider, but a leader. A wizard’s disproportionate influence on battle ends up forcing the soldiers around them to hinge their actions on the wizard’s, and with dozens or even hundreds of mages acting independently, the main fighting force would have to break up into units tied to casters.
This also brings a new paradigm to warfare: instead of targeting generals to disrupt the chain of command, mages would become top priority due to their ability to influence the battlefield and command troops. Being able to identify and shut down mages quickly becomes essential to victory, and so does protecting them.
Healers and Healing Are Going To Be Key
“…if the mage in a group is an effective enough healer, the soldiers could get away with being a lot more brutal, with the assumption he can just stitch them up afterwards. That also makes me wonder about the limitations of magical healing. Does it take a long time? Maybe weeks to regrow limbs? Can limbs be regrown at all, or would the medics realistically be able to stabilize them and ensure they live? If so, I could see the potential for a very brutal dismemberment-based tactic in which you try to flood your enemy’s healers with so many victims that they can’t keep up. Your opponent would be stuck taking care of their own, useless soldiers, while in the meantime you keep pushing.”
Joel identified one of the key parts of the scenario I set up: the healers in the backlines. In medieval warfare, surgeons or physicians were limited by the medicine of their time, but if magical healing exists, it could mean that soldiers could (in theory) sustain traumatic injuries and make it to a healer in time to recover and return to battle, acting as reinforcements. Whether it would take minutes, hours, or days, healers allow an army to salvage some of its soldiers and get them back into the fight.
Joel strikes upon some ways to combat the effects of magical healing, which include flooding the logistics chain that allows injured troops to be brought to the healers in time to survive. Another potential tactic is capturing injured enemy soldiers rather than killing them, which prevents them from being brought back to their lines to be healed and re-entering the fight.
Counter-Magic is Essential
Joel: “You’d think an army full of wizards would win every time, but if that’s your whole strat, a bunch of [counter-mages] with hardcore muscle could run straight through and penetrate to the mages…Maybe I’m stuck on that theme, but soldiers trained to get up close enough to wizards to try and [mess] up their magic. Written magic would probably be the hardest, unless they carry some sort of anti-magic payload, kind of like a radio jammer or something… it might also be tactically advantageous to stall, keep the antimagic guys busy as long as possible…”
I imagined that each school of magic (written, spoken, and movement) would have certain vulnerabilities to getting “jammed” by an enemy mage. For spoken magic, it’d be introducing chaotic frequencies or dissonances to ruin their spells, or silencing people by constricting their larynxes or filling their lungs with smoke. For movement, it would be constricting or interrupting their body movements while they’re attempting to cast a spell. Written magic would require something a bit trickier. We imagined that written magic would take the form of tattoos on a mage’s body, or as something like computer code written on a scroll.
No matter the format, counter-magic would be absolutely key. Being able to shut down other mages before or during their casting means cancelling their influence on the battle. The introduction of specific anti-magic forces would be a big turning point, and would introduce new tactics like penetrating an enemy unit to bring down its mage with specially equipped anti-mages armed with tools like scrolls or enchantments.
Macro and Micro Magic
“Altering [the] landscape, [assisting and disrupting] communications, illusions and deceptions, that’s where [magic] would play in, cloaking your squad to ambush and get the upper hand, making it seem like you have twice the men that you do, creating the higher ground…you could funnel your enemies with a canyon or cut them off from retreat with walls of fire, wash them away in a flash flood, demoralize them with shitty weather until they f**king give up. Spells of blindness may also be good ways of shutting them down. [You could create] fog banks to hide in…[or create] instant fortifications.”
This is where magical warfare becomes hard to fathom: the macro effect of spells on the flow of battle. With dozens of powerful mages attempting to create global effects on a battlefield, combat would come down to which side is most flexible and has the strongest will to prevent retreats or routs.
In this context, the strategies used by DotA and League of Legends players actually become interesting models of magical combat: swarms of drone-like soldiers rush across the battlefield, but the tide of battle is turned by the heavy hitters, who are in a constant dance of anticipating what kind of tactics their opponents will use and learning how to counter it. Single-target cancels, ganks, “nukes,” and AoE all become relevant terms when the battle hinges on a relatively small group of actors on both sides.
At the same time, the “micro” side of magic is still worth noting: we imagined that less powerful mages can be very specialized and even more capable at certain tasks than wizards, but they are not as all-around powerful and adaptable as the big hitters. Micro-magic could take the form of tactics-level moves that turn the battle in favor of individual units, rather than changing the course of the entire engagement.
Joel: “[You] could balance [illusions] out by making them very technical and not very versatile. You have to tailor make the illusion to the situation, like programming a hologram. If you don’t it might “clip” into the environment or otherwise seem tellingly non-interactive with the environment…In that sense, it would take a lot of prep work and have to happen exactly as planned to be believable. Even then, an astute mage would possibly see through it, or maybe even break it. It could end up being that illusions are really only effective against non-wizard troops. And wizards may employ simpler illusions that are more versatile, like fog banks or darkness…
“Imagine also the possibility of brief illusions. They don’t have to hold up to long scrutiny, but a micromanaging mage could throw in a couple illusionary soldiers into the midst, create illusions of their leader perhaps even with voice, giving false orders…Maybe even throw off their wizard by having a sole attacker seemingly get through to him, then watch as he and his closest guard scramble. You may even be able to disrupt him midspell, if for just a moment.”
Joel and I both agreed that illusions would be incredibly powerful tools. Even if one army has enormous destructive real-life potential, an army deploying strong illusions is only limited by its imagination. Joel and I discussed the mechanics of illusions spells and talked about how to make them balanced within the context of warfare, and some of the potential ideas we came up with were making illusions difficult to render realistically, or creating a magical ability to see through them, similar to True Sight in D&D.
Within the chaos and confusion of melee combat, soldiers have to make snap judgements based on glancing around them—whether to advance, whether their side is winning, whether they should run, etc. Being able to control the appearance of the battlefield is probably even more important than putting out destructive power.
Guerilla Warfare Is Still As Effective As Ever
My friend Nick had a very different idea for magical combat doctrine, one that eschewed head-to-head symmetrical warfare in favor of ambushes and guerilla tactics that struck at enemies when they least expected it:
“Were I in that situation, I’d have a fast-moving army that specializes in fighting with plugged ears. Sneak in, light off flashbang grenades or use magic to implode pockets of air to rupture eardrums. No hearing means no organization, men can’t give orders or communicate, horses are deafened and blinded, healers can’t hear cries for help, and the chain of command collapses. This could be done constantly and repeatedly to prevent healers from just regenerating their eardrums. Formations could be designed for combat without hearing and to put troops in a position to watch each other’s backs. The army could learn sign language or a series of gestures for use while the plugs are in.
“Basically, flashbangs are gonna be OP. Ideally, the front line of the other dudes are blinded, deafened, and sedated within the first few minutes of combat.”
Nick’s image of magical warfare is pragmatic to a fault: rather than allowing the enemy to field its mages and meeting them on the battlefield, he imagined using relatively simple tactics to render the enemy’s numbers and might useless.
This exercise in armchair war-gaming was meant to do one thing: open up the imagination. Too often, fantasy writers stick with the tropes of the genre and the popular images of what fantasy is supposed to look like, rather than letting the world take its own shape. Magic can change everything in a setting, from economics to warfare, and while sitting down to let the possibilities unfold can be dizzying, it ends up being a lot more exciting and realistic.
Every fantasy author dreads when an astute reader raises a hand at a panel and starts poking holes in their worldbuilding because they’ve spent the past year poring over your work’s inconsistencies. Don’t fear those people—bring them onto your side.
Special thanks to Joel Clapp and Nick Nelson.