What role could mages play on a Napoleonic Era-esque battlefield? I’ve gotten into debate with a few friends over what their role could be and I want to know if you would have any insight?
Off the top of my head: Mobile Artillery, Sapper, Close Infantry Air Support (yeah, not a thing in the real world at this point in history), Communications, Intelligence, Counterintelligence (not anachronistic, oddly enough), Assassin, Propagandist (also anachronistic), Saboteur, Heavy Infantry, Combat Medic, Counter Artillery, Sniper (not completely anachronistic), Logistics, Necromantic “Recruiter…” Actually, let’s forget that last one. What kind of a mage are you talking about?
Also, if combat extends to the sea, that’s even more extensive, as your mages could potentially have some drastic effects on sea travel and combat.
The problem here is, you didn’t define the kinds of mages you’re dealing with, or that effects, your setting’s version of early 19th century Europe. The more powerful magic is in your setting, the more it will disrupt, “real history.” Also, the more options that open up on that list above.
I think I’ve talked about this before, but if you have powerful pyromancers, gunpowder weapons become way less attractive. It’s no longer an easy way to transport energy to power kinetic weapons (and, yeah, that is what gunpowder is, in abstract), instead it becomes a liability your foes can use to kill you. In an extreme enough situation, that could completely prevent the development of firearms, leading to a Forgotten Realms style setting where you have 16th century technology, but guns are unheard of because any mage could detonate your powder stores with a simple cantrip.
Though, while we’re thinking about that, a setting where alchemy could actually channel magical power would also sabotage the development of gunpowder long before we got this far. People spent a lot of time and resources looking for magic, and in the process, shaped a lot of the modern world in ways you might not realize.
Trade off is, you might open the door to technology that simply doesn’t exist in the real world. A setting with geomancers may be able to do things with passing signals through crystals that wouldn’t replicated in the real world until the development of radio. This is something that might have been in your setting for centuries.
Now, is still a mage, when your Napoleonic soldier can have a radio, even though the origin of the technology is magic, the actual method of using and powering it is mundane?
So, the problem with this question, and it’s probably where the arguments are resting is: how powerful are your mages? What can they do?
So, let’s pull that list apart and see what you need to make each one happen.
Mobile Artillery requires that your mages are able to cast large scale destructive spells. That’s it. A mage that can drop a fireball on the enemy can fill this role happily.
Sapper requires a bit more precision. They need to be able to breach fortifications, so a well focused blast would do the job. How they get there is a different question. Also, the ability to detonate gunpowder comes under this one as well. Detonate an enemy’s powder stores, and their ability to fight is going to diminish quickly.
Close Infantry Air Support requires the ability to fly and, that’s pretty much it. Though, being able to chuck destructive magic around would go a long way towards this. Also, this can get nuts. Think: Flying artillery platforms, powered my teams of mages. Combo this with mobile artillery mages, and that’d be a handful.
Communications requires mages that can communicate with each other remotely. That could just be simple augury, or it could be something else, like the geomantic radio suggested above.
Intelligence/Counterintelligence starts with the scrying, and the ability to create illusions. Get past that though, and the options get a lot more complicated. The ability to read minds, or influence thoughts, are huge boons for a spy. Invisibility is another massive advantage. Even just improving someone’s senses for a brief period could be incredibly useful at the right moment. As I mentioned, this isn’t anachronistic, spymasters go back a few centuries before Napoleon, so, while it’s not The Cold War, you could certainly have duels of Napoleonic spies. Not necessary, but subtle casting, (so, not having to perform a ritual or invocation) would be a serious perk.
Assassin a lot like the spies, difference is, they want someone dead. Most of the same power set remains useful, though magical methods of killing someone silently are a serious perk.
Propagandist (also anachronistic), this goes back to the mind reading and influencing thing. Serious propaganda didn’t get going until the 20th century, but if you’ve got mages who can manipulate people’s thoughts, or even just their emotional state, that could be extremely useful. Also, hostile empaths could significantly impact enemy morale, to the point that you might be able to drive a foe to break before you even fired a shot.
Saboteur a lot like the spy or assassin, just with a slightly different target list. Entropic magic that lets you decay things would be nice here. Rot their food stores, rust their cannons. Fun stuff like that.
Heavy Infantry requires mages that can augment their combat effectiveness. That’s it. Though, being able to use spells in melee could easily cross from heavy infantry to a “conventional battlemage.” Being able to cast quickly, or have enchants that last through the entire fight, are nice to have, and you kind of need one, or their mostly pointless.
Combat Medics require the existence of healing magic. After that, there’s a few things they might be able to do depending on how magic works. Shielding against incoming artillery or dispelling hostile magic are both, potentially, in their wheelhouse. (Though, I suppose technically, these may be alternate specialties, and could be performed by battlemages, or some other specialized countermagic role.) They may also fill that whole magically augment the front line role, instead of having dedicated Heavy Infantry casters.
Counter Artillery… I just covered this. Like I said, could be a separate specialty, could be the medic’s role. That said, you would probably need some dedicated countermages in your camp to protect from all of the horrific things I’ve just suggested.
Snipers require the ability to put a spell exactly where you want it at long ranges. This kinda mixes over with the assassin, without needing to sneak in, or the artillery, without needing to hit a large area. Though, you should start to see where having some defensive mages in your camp would become a mandatory precaution.
Logistics requires mages that can, somehow, aid with the transport of goods. The obvious, and extreme, answer is portals or even just levitation, but even just a cryomancer who can keep food cold in storage, or a mage who can use conjuration to produce other perishable items could be extremely valuable. Even, simply being able to track shipments remotely, through augury, would be a huge boon for any military. Being able to say, “yeah, that thing you’re looking for is over there,” is massive. This is before you consider the idea that you might have mages making weapons that don’t conform to the “real world.” After all, why deal with storing powder, if you have a mage in logistics that can recharge energy muskets?
What can mages do? Whatever they want. It’s up to you to set the rules for your story and your world. After that, it’s important to look at the real world and say, “how would this change things.”
After that, well, even the skies aren’t a limit.
If you want to look at a Napoleonic setting with magic, I’d recommend Pillars of Eternity, and not just because the update yesterday pushed the second game onto my feed. It’s an interesting setting that does break from conventional fantasy in a number of ways.