Tag Archives: magic

Q&A: Magical Warfare

How would a magical war go? Like, what would be the set up for platoons specifically?

How magical, and what kind of magic?

The problem with a question like this is that, from a world building perspective, magic basically takes the form of alternate technology. It exists and develops alongside technological advancement. In some cases it may evolve faster, but, the overall concept is identical.

So there’s two factors we need to look at. How powerful is your magic, and, how common is it?

The more powerful your magic is, the more it will disrupt how warfare is fought. This is also true for overall political power in your world. The more powerful your mages are, the more they’ll be able to completely exclude non-mages from all power structures.

For example, if your mages can casually obliterate non-magical infantry, your world won’t have much use for “conventional,” infantry. You might even see mages waging war against one another directly via spellcraft, rather than any conventional concept of warfare.

Why invade a resisting city when you can rain fire on it, or consume the souls of all it’s non magical residents turning them into a kind of zombie? Why not just drop it into the sea, and be done with it?

This is where the exact nature of magic in your world becomes very important. You need to create rules for how magic works and then plan accordingly.

How common magic is in your world also heavily influences warfare. If magic is incredibly rare. If mages only come from a few noble bloodlines, you’re not going to see a lot of magic on the battlefield.

On the other end of the spectrum, if magic is relatively common. If anyone can be taught to cast basic spells, you could easily see a situation where combat magic is the norm. Where every soldier in a battalion was expected to understand a basic ranged spell, and a shield against incoming spells.

Worth noting, when I’m talking about how common magic is, there’s a few potential factors to consider. How often can someone cast? Are there any significant costs associated with magic? How hard is it to teach? And of course, who can cast magic? Obviously, if your setting allows anyone with some education to cast magic, that’s going to look very different from a world where magic is exclusively the purview of a few hereditary bloodlines.

If magic is powerful enough, but it takes some time to train up magic users, you might see a situation where military forces constricted significantly. Where a few squads would be considered enough to secure and occupy an entire city.

Similarly, if spells have a considerable cost associated with them, or can only be cast on very restricted schedules, that will have less of an overall impact on the way your world develops than if they can cast at will.

Another important question is, “what are they fighting for?” Historically, more wars have been fought over resources than ideas. When your world allows for basic transmutation of one good into another, for example converting something into gold, then gold has no value. You can’t fight over gold, because it has no value. If a mage can conjure up enchanted plate, then steel isn’t going to have much market value. If a mage can easily produce enough food to feed a thousand, then you won’t have a need for farmers or agriculture. Things get weird. Do empires war over magical materials that are consumed to produce goods? Do they battle over nexuses of magical energy? If they can use portals to bounce around at will, do they even bother securing their own borders, or do they operate out of heavily fortified enclaves leaving everyone on the outside to fend for themselves?

As a writer building a world, magic is open to your imagination. You can do, nearly, anything you want. The only thing you’re tested on is how creative can you be? Can you create a scenario that fits the shape of the world you want? Magic in warfare can be anything from magical artillery to squads of superheroes. The only question is, “what do you want to do?”

-Starke

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I need some help, in my novel my main character has a lot of skills with swords but people on my fantasy planet have powers, so when my main character battles the villian won’t it seem usles to use swords when they can use powers?

Okay, I think you’ve mentally ended up in a rock, paper, scissors conflict. Which is it goes round and round until you decide one is inherently superior to the other so there’s no point in using it like rock or paper. Everyone chooses rock, right? So the best choice is paper! What’s the point of using scissors if it’s always smashed by rock? Even though scissors are still a viable option as they cut paper, they get ignored because they’re seen as less useful.

Except, scissors cuts paper. If someone comes to a match expecting their opponent to throw rock and think the best move for them is paper, then you change your move to… you guessed it. Scissors.

Right now, you’re thinking of those swords like some people think of scissors. Useless because everyone else has a rock. So step back for a moment, if your character is surrounded by people with powers and but has none of their own, they put their time in training with swords (or a variety of different weaponry, give them some credit here) then wouldn’t a part of their training also focus on dealing with people who have powers? Wouldn’t that be part of what they’re preparing for as it’s an eventual inevitability?

You have a character who is an underdog. They are absolutely at a statistical disadvantage, which is sort of the point of your story. However, if your characters are at a disadvantage, they don’t need to enter the conflict as if it’s on an even keel. If your hero cannot fight your villain then they must find a way to either:

A) Find aid to defeat them, some way to bring themselves up to their level by way of a friend helping them or through some other means. (If you’re writing a love story then it’s often the lover combining their powers with the hero to empower them.)

B) Find a way to bring the villain down to their level.

C) Subvert the villain’s advantages through some other means.

D) The hero goes to certain death, intentionally playing for time on the hopes or plan that someone more capable is going to defeat the villain.

If you can’t defeat someone conventionally, you find alternatives. If you want a “man to man” kind of fight then you build your hero and antagonist as equals where the skill difference between them is manageable or can be managed by the story.

You can build a very interesting story around a hero going on a quest or finding a way to subvert the villain’s magical powers. They might start feeling that it’s impossible and then through their journey with a side of character development realize that they either 1, don’t need to go through it alone (power of friendship), or 2, they figure out a solution to their problem that they can handle by themselves.

You have to decide that though and you need to come up with it yourself.

What you’ve created for yourself is the old analogy:

“Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.”

And now you’re gotten stuck on it. Your hero brought a sword to a magic fight. It seems impossible when you look at it from that direction. He’s totally outmatched, right? Magic beats swords. Guns beat knives.

However, the fact is that the knife can be quite dangerous in a gunfight, most people who do don’t stand opposite at ten paces and wait for the go signal so the other guy can shoot them. They start close and attack before the guy with the gun has time to draw. Can’t use a gun if you can’t get it out of your holster. It takes time to aim and fire. If the guy with the knife starts within grabbing distance as most muggers do, already has the knife out, and closes the distance then it’s over long before it gets started.

Funny, isn’t it?

Not so much, actually. The knife/gun thing happens in real life and people have died as a result of it. A large portion of people who choose to carry a gun as a form of self-defense get caught up in the same idea you did with magic. That so long as you have the gun, it trumps other weapons. All the hours put in at the shooting range don’t help much if they haven’t been practicing point shooting, quick draws, and learning to be aware of your surroundings.

Statistics, advantages, and conventional wisdom all have their place but when they’re keeping you from stopping, sitting down, and problem solving your situation. If you’ve hit a dead end then it’s time to go back to the drawing board and your setting’s magic system. Powers and magic needs limitations, it’s easy to make it so that they can do everything but not only is that unhelpful, it’s also boring. Sit down and think about limits and weaknesses that you can put on the setting’s magic system. There’s Vancian systems like in Dungeons & Dragons for wizards where they can only perform a certain number of spells per day or ones they’ve memorized. There’s Fullmetal Alchemists’ equivalent exchange.

One of my favorites is from L.E. Modesitt Jr’s Saga of Recluce where the forces of Order and Chaos meant that you could only perform certain types of magic certain ways with nasty side effects such as headaches, backlash, and extreme hunger just for doing it, much less doing it wrong. Chaos mages, though far more aggressive and actively destructive, for example were all doomed to die young and turn to ash. Their magic aged them rapidly. Those who totally immersed themselves too much in chaos could be killed simply by coming into contact with an object created by an Order wizard and even metals commonly associated with Order could be toxic such as an iron arrowhead. Order wizards, meanwhile, build. They can live for a very, very long time if they maintain their rigid orderly lives, but order is also extremely dull. Their creations can be actively destructive, but they themselves are limited to protection. They can only work magic through objects such as a staff whereas Chaos wizards just channel. Both groups need to eat a substantial amount of food or they start to waste away as the magic they use has a direct effect on their bodies equivalent to performing strenuous exercise. They can be blinded or even killed by overdoing or channeling too much magic.

One of Starke’s favorites is Mage: the Ascension (note: not Awakening) an urban fantasy/punk rock RPG system from White Wolf which features a concept called Paradox. Mage’s world is built on a consensus reality and the power of will, if everyone believes that there is no magic then there is no magic except for that one guy over there with a lot of willpower who decides there is and is now overriding everyone else. The trick with magic and paradox is that you can do magic, so long as you don’t get caught. If you get caught doing something that shouldn’t exist according to the consensus then you receive reality backlash that makes the spell go awry. Paradox doesn’t care about your intentions, it only cares if you did it.

This brings us to the “Threefold Law” in Wicca which firstly a real religious tenet and secondly is similar in concept to karma. It also appeared in Gerald Gardner’s 1949 novel according to the Wiki:

“Thou hast obeyed the Law. But mark well, when thou receivest good, so
equally art bound to return good threefold.” (For this is the joke in
witchcraft, the witch knows, though the initiate does not, that she will
get three times what she gave, so she does not strike hard.)

If you use a fantasy magic system in line with the Threefold Law then it’s an ethical test for your mage. You do good with your magic then you’ll receive good, but do bad or selfish acts and you will receive bad in turn.

You may not want something that costly for yourself, but it’s worth going through the fantasy section at your local library and making note of the different magic systems, the costs, and what they affect.

I’m not the biggest fan, but Jim Butcher’s Furies of Calderon starts with a protagonist who has no powers and has to live by his wits. (The first (few?) books anyway.)

So, instead of pondering your hero, ponder your setting and your villain. Once you know how both work, it often becomes easier to see the path out.

-Michi

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My MC has horrible facial burns and scars (3rd/4th degree) in a setting where healing magic exists. The in-story explanation for why she’s not dead from necrosis/infection/heat-damage to the brain is because, well, magic. Assuming the underlying tissue is mostly normal, how bad can the superficial scarring be without her running constant risks of infection?

It’s just going to depend on how good the healing magic in the setting is. Someone else was mentioning a Warcraft RP in one of the responses, and, granted I haven’t spent much time looking at that setting since Warcraft 3, but burns like that are pushing the limits of what someone can survive there.

On the other hand, I’ve got an Imperial Templar in Elder Scrolls Online who has half of his face, chest, and one of his arms, wrecked with burn scars. It’s one of the preset visual options. But, The Elder Scrolls is a setting where magic is so pervasive and effective, that not finishing someone off means there’s a real risk they’ll pop up later fully recovered, and in some cases (like the player characters in ESO) just killing them won’t do any good.

Depending on how potent magic is in your setting, you could potentially have a character with a partially exposed skull that’s unaffected, because magic is somehow keeping them alive. It’s all in your setting rules, and what the limits are for magic.

-Starke

muffinsticks said: This seems like it went around the question… they asked how bad scarring can be without risking constant infection

Until you introduce magic into the equation, it’s a medical question… At that point, it’s “holes in the skin.” Once the skin recovers and seals it over, you should be mostly fine from future infections.

However, when you say, “but magic,” then it becomes a world building question, and it’s really going to depend on what your setting allows. I’m sorry if I didn’t make that clear in the initial post.

-Starke

I’m playing around with the idea of a world were music is magic and can manipulate the world based on genre, meter, major/minor tonality, etc. I’m having troubles describing music in action, as a physical tangible thing rather than just sound, especially in duel sequences where two musicians are facing off. I have a basic idea of what I want done with it so I’m not asking for it to be done for me (I know that’s a no-no) but any and all input is awesome and much appreciated. Thanks for your time!

Well, music isn’t really our forte so I don’t know how much help we’ll be there.

All jokes aside, one of the best series I’ve seen using music as a form of magic is L.E. Modesitt Jr.’s Spellsong Cycle, starting with The Soprano Sorceress. It’s a fantasy setting that takes place in the land of Erde and follows the adventures of Anna Marshall, a fifty year old singer taken from our world on the day of her daughter’s funeral by means of an unlucky wish. Once in Erde, she becomes a sorceress of great power. Modesitt’s work can be a bit of a slog and these aren’t his best. You might not enjoy them as a reader, but his strength is his world building and as a writer of fantasy you shouldn’t skip him.

There’s a lot of good thinking in the novel. One of them is that it is difficult, if not impossible, for sorcerers to perform together as a duet because the chance of something going wrong is too high. Multiple voices together create more power but it relies on perfect synchronization that is nearly impossible to achieve with complex melodies. However, one warlord does manage to achieve this through hundreds of voices chanting together in an army.

The magic works through a combination of lyrics, visualization, and musical accompaniment usually through a single instrument. A truely skilled Sorcerer cannot just be a singer, they must also be a songwriter and composer. However, some get by memorizing songs and melodies from hearing them. Sorcerers and Sorceress are always singers, but to achieve greater power they need the support of other musicians often in the form of an orchestra. This forces the Sorceress to put a great deal of trust in the skill of her followers because a single mistake could be catastrophic for herself and the other musicians. The result is in setting is that most Sorcerers prefer to work alone without accompaniment. Because their magic takes a great deal of concentration, they also need to be protected in combat from attacking forces.

The sorcerer is also limited by what they know or what they can remember/make up on the spot. The use of magic takes a lot of energy, a Sorceress must eat constantly or they risk burning through their own body.

The setting also used two different kinds of magic: Darksong and Clearsong. The definitions are simplistic, but become complex in application. Darksong affects things that are alive or were once alive, growing plants in a garden for example would be Darksong. However, so would raising the dead and compulsion spells that enforce loyalty. Clearsong affects the non-living or what was never alive, this includes command of the elements, but also building infrastructure like roads or castles.

Both come with their flaws because of it’s easier, Darksong’s are greater. Darksong is easy to cast in the beginning, but over time it becomes more difficult causing double vision and violent headaches. It acts a little like an allergy, the more you do it, the more violent the reaction. Eventually, it will kill the sorcerer.

The Clearsong flaw is: matter cannot be created from thin air, it has to come from somewhere. If you’re going to create roads, you need stone and if that stone is not provided then the magic will find it for you. This means it could come from somewhere safe like a quarry or take it from the ground, shifting the landscape and causing a natural disaster or from a nearby village. It’s also pure destruction, if the sorcerer wants to resolve the situation without bloodshed, they need Darksong or they have to rely on others to do the fighting.

The series covers the effects of how this can affect the socio-political factors of the world. His work also does a good job of combining feminist themes with feudal worlds and handling different ways sexism can assert itself when dealing with a powerful woman.

It’s worth taking a look at for ideas, not just for magic but in how that magic affects the politics, the environment, and the balance of power.

-Michi