Tag Archives: worldbuilding

Q&A: D&D by Gaslight

Not 100% writing related, but my friend – who’s very knowledgeable about military history – wants our D&D campaign to be as realistically medieval as possible while also maintaining the fantasy elements. This is explanation as to why there aren’t many female warriors/soldiers/etc, and the ones we DO encounter will be magic users, because if someone can do magic you’re going to put them on the front line. He’s a great friend and a brilliant DM, but am I wrong for having an issue with this?

No. Intentionally or not, you’re seeing someone try to justify their misogyny using logic that is internally inconsistent. The problem is really fundamental, fantasy elements, especially D&D’s, preclude medieval power structures and military strategy. It also, very transparently, exposes their misogyny, without them even realizing it.

So let’s start with that last one. The argument for excluding women from front line combat roles is that they’re unsuited to combat. This is an argument made in the real world where the list of sapient species capable of fulfilling a combat role is somewhat short. It’s also bullshit. It has no historical basis. Women have operated as frontline fighters throughout human history. Not everywhere. There have been mysogynistic cultures. But, the idea that women cannot fight, and never fought is shockingly unsupportable. I can’t remember the last time we linked, We Have Always Fought, by Kameron Hurley, so, here it is, read up, enjoy.

But, when we’re talking about your game of D&D, we’re not talking about the real world. We’re talking about a world with Orcs, Minotaurs, and other races, all of which have innate attribute bonuses to their strength and constitution. They are, quite literally, stronger and more durable than human fighters.

The inverse is also true, (while 4th and 5th edition changed this), used to be Elves had a penalty to constitution, making them less suited to frontline combat roles. Again, if someone’s trying to say, “women aren’t suitable for combat,” while gleefully signing off on male elves, that’s misogyny.

It is reasonable to have basic stat prereq stats a character would need in order serve in a military. For example, they might not be allowed to enlist if their STR, or CON scores were below 10 or 12, there’s even some realism in that, most militaries don’t want recruits who are physically or mentally infirm. If you think every stat should be at least 10, cool, easy. However, female characters would have no difficulty hitting those thresholds.

Short version: If you’re saying that women can’t serve in your D&D military, you’re also saying that humans are unfit to serve, across the board. There’s some potential worldbuiling to be had there. For example, in Dragonlance, Minotaurs are frequently employed as sailors. Their physical stat bonuses make them ideal for a rough life on the seas, and many take to it happily.

And, to be clear, those physically beefier races are pretty well distributed through the population in Forgotten Realm’s Faerun. You don’t see a lot of half-orc infantry units, in general, because of social stigmas against them, and their numbers aren’t that high, but that doesn’t play well with the idea of a medieval power structure, or really the way power tends to work in general. In any plausible, medieval, world, those half-orcs would be conscripted into military service in some capacity. This highlights something about D&D, and high fantasy in general, that is easy to overlook: this is not medieval.

Medieval Europe was shaped by a lot of factors. For our purposes, the utter lack of individuals with godlike powers is a fairly significant factor to look at.

Let’s start with a specific phrase: “if someone can do magic you’re going to put them on the front line.” This is very questionable thinking. How, exactly, are you going to convince someone who can cast Cloudkill, that you want them in an infantry role?

Warfare is not fun. It’s not an enjoyable activity. When you’re talking about a medieval conflict, a lot of your forces are going to be conscripted. So, how, exactly, do you conscript a wizard? Even at level 1, they have access to a host of dangerous abilities that makes forcing to do you want incredibly risky. This before you consider that not all magic users are wizards, and some are decidedly more dangerous to harass.

Wizards in D&D draw their magic from an education in the arcane arts. This means, many wizards actually come from academies or larger organizations. Organizations that would not appreciate having their members poached by a local despot. A local despot who would be hard pressed to survive the ire of higher level wizards and basically 5th or higher level spell.

Clerics, Paladins, Druids, and Rangers draw their spellcasting abilities from their gods. (In the case Druids and Rangers, it’s technically nature itself, but the distinction is more about the spell lists and fluff.) Ironically, if you wanted to see front line magic users, Clerics, Paladins, and Rangers are high on the list. Rangers often serve as scouts, while Clerics often serve as combat medics and Paladins are, literally, holy crusaders.

There is one more spell caster that draws power from an outside source: The Warlock. Warlocks get their power from bargaining with Demons, Dark Gods, Edlrich Horrors, or even more terrifying powers. Yeah, trying to force one of these guys fight for you sounds like a horrible idea.

There are two more magic casters in standard D&D. The Sorcerer and Bard both draw magic from within. Where the Wizard learns spells through study, or the Cleric prays to their god, the Sorcerer just kinda throws a fireball. They don’t really understand the intricacies of arcane magic, they simply “know” how to cast intuitively, much in the same way dragons do. Unironically, one common origin for a Sorcerer’s powers is a dragon somewhere in their family tree. Their magic tends to be chaotic and unpredictable, meaning they’re not a particularly good fit for any regulated military.

Personal builds aside, Bards are very similar to Sorcerers. As a player, you can make some pretty beefy builds, but as a part of the world, they don’t fit well with military campaigning. Though, a chaotic good kingdom could, plausibly, recruit and send bards to war to boost morale of their troops, that’s not really part of any campaign settings. (Incidentally, said chaotic good kingdom probably wouldn’t engage in conscription to begin with. That’s more of a lawful activity. They’d also be less likely to care about the gender of their recruits, because, again, chaotic good.)

I’m also skipping over some of the weirder classes that haven’t, necessarily, made it into 5th Edition, like the Spellsword, Favored Soul, Spirit Shaman, Archivist, or Warmage. There’s a lot of variation here. The important thing to understand moving forward is that, you can’t force a mage to fight for you, and you can’t have a fantasy version of Medieval Europe if it includes a single level 20 Wizard.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. You can’t have a fantasy version of Europe if you have any characters over ~ level 10.

Something a lot of people miss about D&D is how far up the power scale goes. Figure that your average military will never have characters above level 5. Elite forces and singular champions might get to 10 (though 8 is also a pretty reasonable ceiling for them.) The kings and warlords may get into the elite range, but they could easily be on par with the rank and file soldiers, ~level 3 – 5. And, you expect a level 12 warlock, who got their powers from bargaining with the forces of hell to just bend knee and go die for a petty little mortal?

When you start looking at character progression, after level 10, your character is, pretty much, a fantasy superhero. Your challenge rating table starts rolling over from bandits, druids, mages, and assassins, into mythical creatures, and other “big ticket” enemies. Your level 13 party shouldn’t be encountering mercenaries, they’re up to the task of going after adult dragons.

In case you thought that was just your character having the stats, the abilities that your classes unlock in the 11-20 range starts getting out of hand as well. For example, a level 11 Barbarian can, literally, be too angry to die. A level 13 monk gains the ability to speak and understand any language. They can also be understood by anyone. And then at level 15, they no longer need to eat or drink anything. I’m cherry picking, a little, but these abilities transcend the humanly possible.

This loops back to a fundamental element of D&D: The game is a power fantasy, and it’s built around that. You could not drop a level 11 character into 11th century Europe without them fundamentally altering the course of human history. They are that powerful.

When you’re creating wars in that kind of setting, saying, “I’m going to stick to medieval warfare,” doesn’t track. The short version is that you can’t have a medieval era in a conventional D&D campaign setting. The diversity of conflicting religions, backed by their own gods, mean you (probably) would not see a unified religion (or any other single body) taking control over a massive territory and forcing the society into a technological stasis.

Magic, frequently, replaces far more advanced technologies. I’ve written about this at length before, but if you have battlefield spellcasters, you now have mobile artillery, advanced communications, remote reconnaissance, and a host of other, “modern tools of warfare.” As a ruler, you now have political problem, because you need to secure the loyalty of those mages. It may be enough to secure personal loyalty from the individuals, but in larger scale warfare, you’d need the loyalty of the organization training and overseeing them. You cannot simply force to serve you, the way you could round up another batch of peasants for use as shock troops.

The, “problem,” with Forgotten Realms as a medieval setting is, it’s way too cosmopolitan. There’s a lot of physical mobility. There’s a lot of cross-racial interaction. Granted, not all interactions are positive, but you have a world that far better understood than what medieval Europe had. It’s also more technologically advanced.

Remember how I said that mages mean you have access to a bunch of modern technologies on the battlefield? Magic has also seriously impacted technological development. Firearms exist, but are vanishingly rare. This isn’t because they’re new, it’s because they’re kind of irrelevant. Magic can already do the things that made firearms revolutionary in the real world, and have been able to do that for quite some time.

While medical technology is less advanced, clerics and druids gain access to spells which will outright cure diseases at low enough levels for that to be a fairly accessible service. Even bringing someone back from the dead isn’t difficult, (though that is expensive.)

The power structures of the world tend to center around higher level characters (usually in the borderline-superhero range.) With that world in place, it’s basically impossible to recreate the real Medieval Europe with any kind of logical consistency.

There is one last part here, your friend is subverting the intended spirit of D&D. Wizards of the Coast recently published an article on diversity:

One of the explicit design goals of 5th edition D&D is to depict humanity in all its beautiful diversity by depicting characters who represent an array of ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, and beliefs. We want everyone to feel at home around the game table and to see positive reflections of themselves within our products. “Human” in D&D means everyone, not just fantasy versions of northern Europeans, and the D&D community is now more diverse than it’s ever been.

The entire article is worth reading, and I encourage you to do so. However, this a takeaway, if anyone your roleplaying group is engaging behavior that makes you feel excluded, or marginalized, it’s something that needs to be addressed.

If your friend is an, “expert,” on medieval warfare, and thinks that women never fought, it seriously undercuts his research.

One of the ironies with Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla‘s release were the idiots who threw a fit over the option to play a female viking. It almost feels like a straw man example, because Ubisoft preemptively released comments on the subject:

But the fact is, and I think what’s really important, is that it was part of their conception of the world. Sagas and myths from Norse society are full of tough female characters and warriors. It was part of their idea of the world, that women and men are equally formidable in battle…

Thierry Noel

The archaeological problem with vikings is that earlier archaeologists were determine gender based on whether the individual was buried with militant goods without checking if the skeleton was actually male. Meaning, they assumed that all raiders were male, therefore, all raiders they found were male, without checking to see if that assumption was true.

The debate, now, is that quite a few women were buried with militant goods. If we take the original assumption, that means viking raids were coed. Or burying them with a sword meant something different. However, Noel is right, looking at their culture, their myths, and then saying, viking women placidly stayed at home while the men, and only the men raided, is dubious at best.

Throughout history, women have fought in warfare. Not in every nation. Not in every time. But they have fought. Saying, “but it’s not historically accurate,” has no place in the real world. To say nothing of a world of elves, dragons, wizards, and bards seducing the goddamn spiders.

-Starke

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Q&A: Combat Magic

Hey! Sorry if this isn’t your area, but I’m writing a fantasy story set in a world where people have various individual abilities (i.e. one kind of magic each). There’s a villain character with a military background who has magic, who’s fighting a character without any magic. What kind of powers could someone have that would make them really effective on a battlefield/commanding troops, but put them at no great advantage in one-to-one combat of this kind? No worries if you don’t know. Thanks!

This reminds me of a post from a couple months ago. Obviously, it’s not the same question, but might be useful reference.

Support related magic could make someone far more effective in a command position, but have little effect on personal combat.

One irony is that the D&D bard fits your question, almost perfectly. The class is a real master-of-none situation. If you want to fight people you’d be better off with a fighter, paladin, or other front light combat type. If you want to heal them, clerics and druids specialize in that. If you want a mage, there are wizards, sorcerers, and a number of other, better, magic users. What Bards do is buff party members, improving their attacks, helping them resist hostile effects, and improving their skills, while filling in on all the other roles as a backup. Being able to magically inspire your troops may sound like a pretty minor thing, but it’d be a major strategic asset. The class gets treated like a joke by the community, but in the right hands it can be very potent.

Beyond examples like the Bard, even just having an unusual attunement to sensing magic at range could be useful for tracking enemy forces that have their own battlemages.

Remember not to discount your villains who don’t fight. Someone with a military background would know how dangerous powered opponents are in their world, and would take steps to prevent being ambushed by them. Because they’re not able to leverage their abilities in one-on-one combat, they’re probably going to ensure that they’re not alone when your hero comes for them.

Without knowing what kinds of magic exist in your world, it’s a little difficult to know exactly what kind of spell list your villain may have access to. So let’s split this up a bit.

Healing magic, particularly of a sort, on the spot, healing can be incredibly potent.

Being able to augment other characters, such as boosting their attacks or defenses.

Being able “debuff” enemies, reducing the same.

Necromancy, being able to call up the souls of the dead. This one depends a bit on how necromancy works in your setting, but if it involves prolonged rituals, that won’t help in a fight, but it will let you make some friends for when a fight does come.

Wards or bindings that prevent enemies (or certain kinds of individuals) from crossing borders or leaving specific places. Which would lead to your villain being able to bind your hero to a location while they ran for help. Illusion magic could help them make their own forces appear more fearsome, or powerful, significantly impacting enemy morale, while offering limited value in direct combat.

Counter-magic is a bit of a weird one, but could significantly help your villain. It wouldn’t make them more effective in combat, but it could help to negate enemy powers. On a larger command scale, it would give them the ability to specifically negate enemy powers that would be devastating if left unchecked.

As world building goes, magic is opportunity to get creative. You decide how the metaphysics of your world work, and then create powers that fit within that. At that point, your not limited to things like lightning bolts or fireballs, and you can start creating some really unique powers, if you’re so inclined. So, there isn’t really a wrong answer here, let your imagination run wild.

-Starke

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Q&A: More Bronze

I saw that recent ask about materials and it made me wonder… how much of a difference does the material of equipment make? Bronze versus steel, for example. Would having better materials convey any measurable advantage in a fight?

It’s significant.

There are a couple big things that happen when you’re switching materials, and jumping from bronze to steel is probably the best way to illustrate them.

First: Steel will hold an edge. You can sharpen bronze. Hell, you can sharpen silver, and some do still use silver cutlery. However, when you sharpen steel, that edge will stay much longer.

Second: Steel allows for much more mechanically demanding designs. The big thing here is armor, but this is also true with weapons as well. (Even if this isn’t what you’re thinking of when someone calls a weapon, “mechanically demanding.”)

Creating a structurally stable blade out of bronze is limited to a fairly short blade. I forget the exact length, but it’s somewhere around 24-36 inches. In modern terms, this is a shortsword. While the Celts tried to make bronze swords much longer, the result was not ideal, and the weapons would, “collapse.” in combat. A lot of this comes down to, bronze is a much softer metal. In contrast, early modern steel swords, like the Zweihander could exceed seven feet.

We’ve talked about combat range before, and how having a longer melee weapon is a significant advantage. In comparing bronze blades to steel ones, we have a return to the daggers vs longswords scenario. Someone with a bronze weapon can’t get close enough to stab someone defending themselves with a steel blade.

There is a major element here I’m skimming over. The predominant infantry weapon of the bronze age was the spear. So this isn’t quite as one sided as it looks. But, the advantage still stays with steel, as the sheer variety of polearms would explode with evolving smithing techniques.

Armor is a, mostly similar story. Bronze armor cannot replicate the mechanical complexity of articulated steel plate, and then take it into combat. Bronze being softer, the armor will wear and deform faster, and suddenly those articulated joints will jam. I’m making an assumption here, but I suspect the sophistication of armor designs advanced in step with the advancement of armor materials. This was true with weapons, and just looking at what you can do with bronze vs with steel, you can’t engineer that down to lower quality materials in most cases.

So, the end result is, you can make significantly better weapons and armor out of steel. Even when you’re replicating bronze weapons in steel, the result will be a more durable and effective.

The bronze to steel thing is a bit of an extreme example. You can see this more granularity when you’re looking armor and weapon advancement as the quality of the steel alloys improved.

To be clear, would a copper or bronze weapon BREAK from a single strike of a steel weapon? Or would the copper and bronze weapons/armor just need to be replaced more often than steel ones?

Probably not in a single strike, but there’s a few things I should address here:

First: You never want to parry blade to blade. Doesn’t matter what your weapons are, you’re going to risk damaging, or breaking, your own weapon.

Similarly, you don’t just hack away at someone’s armor; that’s also destructive to your weapon. Instead you’re looking for ways you can get your blade into vulnerable parts of their armor. So, joints for example. (There’s an exception here: If you have a hammer, just pound on them.)

Second: Weapons aren’t really disposable. You don’t travel around with a golf bag of blades and just swap to new ones as the old ones shatter. Historically, soldiers would carry a few backup weapons. A sidearm (usually a sword, or a handaxe), and a dagger, in addition to their primary weapon (usually a polearm), but people didn’t walk around with five or six swords strapped to them.

Most combatants would maintain their weapons, so it’s not like you’d just take a sword and keep using it until it broke. (At least, not if you knew what you were doing.) You’d be careful with its use to minimize the damage it suffered. You’d want to make sure that any minor damage was repaired to the best of your ability. That blade was kept clean and sharp. You never want to run a weapon until it’s destroyed.

Third: Bronze will not hold up in combat against steel weapons. That goes for both the armor and the weapons. I’m not sure a single strike would mangle a bronze weapon to uselessness, but it would not be in a good state, and a few solid hits would probably destroy it. (I’m a little fuzzy on exactly how much abuse it can take, because I don’t have a lot of experience working with bronze.

Ironically, that first point isn’t completely true if you’ve got steel weapons and going up against someone with copper (and possibly bronze), you might get some minor nicking along the blade, but it’s going to hold up far better than your experience would suggest.

Now, as I said, I don’t have a lot of hands-on experience with bronze, so I’m not 100% sure how durable it is, beyond, “not very.” I’m familiar with the history, but this specific match up never happened, which is part of why I’m shying away from saying, “yeah, it’ll take X number of hits.”

The thing to remember is that there’s a huge technological advantage in the materials your smiths can work with. This is at least as significant as the kinds of weapons you have access to. Also, the kinds of weapons and armor you can produces are, functionally, “gated,” by the materials available. The reason no one in 5AD had a greatsword isn’t because they couldn’t imagine the weapon, they couldn’t make with the materials available.

-Starke

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Q&A: A Modern Warmage

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.

-Starke

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Q&A: Worldbuilding and Logistics

Hey, me again. I was busy today. Is it realistic to have a castle full of expert fighters (talking about 500+), like, cliché-knight-level experts (that have magical powers, mind you, like photokinesis) and still have plenty of food, supplies, weapons, etc. Like enough weapons for spare weapons?

silverwolf0516

The question here is, do the numbers support it?

It might not look like it, but this is a math question, and I don’t have the information to give a definitive number.

Ignoring the standing forces for a moment, a fairly large fantasy nation could easily support a large stronghold to hold elite forces. The arms and armor aren’t a problem, until they become one.

Now, conventional arms are supply and demand, if the idea is that each of your mage knights is supposed to be carrying around magical weapons, that becomes a bigger supply question. Can your setting’s smiths, arcane smiths or whatever produce the things in sufficient volume? If arms and armor are (mostly) mundane then that’s not a problem. Also if the weapons are simply “there.” That is to say, they date back centuries, and their actual sources are lost to time. Maybe they were all forged by some mythical creature that could pump them out. At that point, okay, fine, they’re there, and irreplaceable.

So, how many of them are there? I’m going to stick with 500 for the moment and run with that idea. But, you need to start asking questions about how common these powers are. Figure that most people with these powers wouldn’t spend the time to develop the powers to the point where they could become an elite fighting force. I’m going to peg this at somewhere between one in a hundred to one in fifty. (I think it’s entirely valid to inflate these numbers even further, it’s possible that less than one in a thousand  possesses the ability and drive to become one of these elites.)

So, we take the 500, multiply to get a rough number of the overall population for your world/nation whatever. This puts powered population of your nation somewhere around 25,000 to 50,000. (Obviously, if you take the 1:1k, you’d have half a million powered people.)

So, then we need to know how frequent these powers are in the general population. If one in ten manifests these abilities, at any level, that might mean your fantasy nation’s population is somewhere around half a million. That’s not unreasonable. And, if we’re talking about an economy supported by 500k people, these numbers are fine. But, to get here we made powers incredibly common in your setting.

At the other end of the spectrum, if only one in a thousand even manifests an ability, and only one in a thousand has what it takes, you’re looking at a population of 500 million people. The modern United States has a population of ~308 million. Your elites would literally be one in a million.

So, are there the numbers to support that? An economy of half a billion people wouldn’t have trouble maintaining upkeep for that fortress. The weapons and food are significant logistical issue, but in a large enough system that’s manageable, if expensive.

You can put your thumb on the scale and shift the numbers heavily, by selecting a non-representative chunk of the population. For example, if the magical powers are hereditary, you could significantly skew the overall powered population in favor of your organization. If one in five is part of the program, and in one in a thousand of your world is powered, you’re looking at a population of around 2.5 million. Again, for a “standard fantasy setting,” that’s not too high for a major civilization. This is also assuming that the full 500 are from one nationality, and not worldwide.

There are some limits to skewing the math too hard. Usually in favor of justifying your elite’s existence. Realistically you can’t get 100% enrollment. Even 20% is pushing it. Most people will not want to fight for a living. No matter how good your setting is at picking them, some will be missed (especially if there is no hereditary element.) Some simply won’t be good enough. They won’t commit to training, they’ll screw around, and ultimately, they’ll be worthless for your organization’s purposes. 20% is ridiculously high, but you could make an argument for it.

The overall rate of incidence, how common powers are in general, has a massive effect on your setting. The more people practicing magic, the more innovative was your setting will start to change from the real world (or its history.) Even after the superficial stuff, magic facilitates “impossible” technological growth. The more magic users your setting has, the more they’ll distort it.

There’s probably a legitimate argument that, in a fantasy setting, combatant is the least culturally valuable role for a magic user. When they could be doing almost anything else, advancing their civilization’s technology or understanding of the world, and that stuff can be applied. It’s still a necessary role, but it also argues against the overspecialization of magic users as strictly elite combat units.

Another problem is, just because “your” society came back with this answer doesn’t mean another couldn’t have come up with a different one. Just because your nation uses their magic users in a combat role, it’s entirely possible other nations on your world would have significantly smaller battlemage cadres with a focus on R&D. In practical terms, this means they could be facing forces that are far better equipped by technology they cannot comprehend, because when their mages were practicing how to stab someone, the other guys were developing autonomous power crystals that could be used to operate heavy machinery, or developing mass produced magical weapons that could be wielded by their standard infantry.

I haven’t answered the food thing. Short version is, if there’s the agricultural support to keep food coming, then sure. They’re going to eat a lot. Keeping in fighting condition is requires a lot of calories. But, if there are enough people to actually staff your magic using elite corps, the agricultural support is probably going to be there. However, this does dictate where your fortress can be. It needs to be someplace with ready access or secure supply lines to, your major agricultural centers. Again, you can mess with this a lot, depending on the overall sophistication of magic in your setting, (which is directly related to how common magic users are.) It’s possible you could see portal travel and cryomantic food storage, allowing your fortress to be up on a mountain somewhere and still stay supplied.

This might seem like a lot of busy work, but it is stuff you should think about, because it’s how you answer your question, “is this realistic?” I don’t know, what are the rules you set up for your world?

-Starke

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Q&A: Super Reputation

Do you think people would be scared of Superman/heroes in real life? I watched the a movie and he was asked to answer for things he could potentially do. Not things he had actually done. In Suicide Squad, everyone acted like people will powers are automatically bad (yet the Joker has no powers and is bad and there are bad people w/o powers in the real world). So why don’t superheroes have people who are jealous of their powers or awed by them? If they existed, would they be seen as a threat?

To be clear, asking someone to defend themselves from potential actions, rather than actual transgressions is a Red Herring fallacy. People do this. I’ve been on the receiving end of many ad hominum attack over the years. There’s no real value in saying, “but, you could choose to drive your car through a gaggle of nuns, so clearly you can’t be trusted with functioning limbs.” It’s so many steps removed to be ludicrous. However, you will still see people making these kinds of arguments. So, it’s stupid, but quite realistic.

You cannot hold someone accountable for what they might do; only what they have done or attempted to do.

Also worth remembering that, on top of being a terrible movie, Suicide Squad is about about getting a team of supervillains and coercing them to play nice. It’s an interesting, little, genre subversion of a book. That didn’t translate well to screen, when it’s in contrast to a Superman who kills people, and a Batman who looks like he escaped from Dark Knight Returns.

A universal problem for adaptations of the more subversive comics, is that the “ecosystem” of comic book films doesn’t reflect the tone that mainstreams comics has. For comics like The Tick, this isn’t stumbling block. But, when you’re adapting stuff like WatchmenPowers, Deadpool, or Suicide Squad, the assumed setting they riff on doesn’t really exist in that medium. I’m not saying these are automatically bad. Except Suicide Squad, and it’s problems are far more extensive than a lack of, “bright and upbeat,” comicbook adapted films to play against.

Ironically, The Tick was written as a repudiation of the darker and edgier comics of the 80s and 90s, and plays better as an adaptation today, than the original comic.

How would people react to superpowers? Yeah, all of the above. Not, necessarily the same individual, but all of those are potentially realistic responses.

Fear is a reasonable, irrational response. People can be afraid of anything they don’t understand. So, could people be afraid of someone who has the power to destroy the city? Yes. Absolutely. That’s a serious threat. There are people who are afraid of far more benign things, like spiders or snakes, which don’t have the ability to end all life on earth because of a bad breakup.

Like I said, Suicide Squad is a bad example, because with the exception of Rick Flag, these are psychopaths. Okay, mixed vote on Deadshot. But, still, not nice people. And, everyone on the prison staff has absolutely no sense of self-preservation.

However, the premise you’re outlining, that superpowers are inherently dangerous, or evil isn’t unheard of. From the superficial with characters like Spawn, to more social commentary like X-Men, there’s a lot of comics that discuss and play with these ideas. There’s stuff like The Authority, and Watchmen which start questioning what superheroes are good for. There’s even plenty of stuff exploring questions like, what if Superman was raised by an abusive asshole, with various degrees of tact and subtly.

The question is: Why does society view superheroes the way they do in your world?

If the first person to publicly display superpowers in your world was a villain, that’s going to color the way people look at superheroes. Not your audience, the people in your world.

The source of a character’s powers will influence how people look at them. I mentioned Spawn earlier, if you’re unfamiliar, the character is literally empowered by hell, and sent back to earth to lead an assault on heaven. So, yeah, not exactly family friendly. Also, he originally burned to death, and he’s covered in horrific burns, so still not exactly a photogenic hero. That said, your character might be able to conceal the source or origin of their powers, or their powers entirely, if they’re careful.

 What your character does can affect how people view superheroes. This gets into the concept of scale. A street level hero might be able to, over time, change the minds of people in their neighborhood, but it’s a long road ahead. Someone like Superman might be able to change public opinion, eventually.

You can see some of these themes with characters like Daredevil, or Spiderman. Where they have a strong influence on the people around them, but are unable to affect larger public opinion changes the way groups like The Avengers can.

Can people be jealous? Yes. Even among superheroes. Just because your character got superpowers, they may still feel inadequate when presented with someone who’s powers completely eclipse theirs. This is to say nothing of normal characters who feel they should have received those powers by right.

People can be jealous of anything someone else has that they don’t. That includes superpowers. It’s also worth remembering that jealousy is a human instinct. There’s nothing wrong with experiencing it, so long you don’t act on it, or feed into it. Don’t judge yourself in contrast to others. It’s not healthy, and it won’t end well.

Can people worship superheroes like gods? Yes. Cult of personality is a real thing, even before you start mixing inexplicable powers into the mix. It’s entirely possible you’d have a superhero who accidentally founded a religion. The important details would be in setting that up so that it makes sense, but it’s not that far fetched that someone would view a superhuman being as a god, or a divine representative. This can quickly get complicated, because there’s a lot of different ways this could go, depending on the individuals involved.

The short version is that most of this is reasonably plausible within some context, regardless of whether it makes sense in those films. Even some of the mutually exclusive concepts. You could have some people revering your superhero as a god, while others are terrified.

-Starke

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Q&A: Delta and HRT

Hi, I’m writing an urban fantasy where the deuteragonist is a former member of Delta Force and FBI Special Agent who works with the FBI Hostage Rescue Teams as an instructor. Any tips for the do’s and don’t for hostage rescue situations?

Okay, I’m going to chew on the background for a second. Your character sounds like a unicorn. It’s not. The combo is a lot more plausible than it first seems, but it sounds a bit out there.

Delta Operators are vanishingly rare. The exact size of the organization is classified, but best guess is that there’s only around 250 – 300 Delta Force Operators cleared for field work or hostage recovery at any given time.

I’m not clear on exactly how many Hostage Rescue Teams the Bureau maintains, but it’s also a short list. If your character trains the HRTs, that’s a full time job.

The reason the Delta to FBI thing strikes me as weird, beyond simply collecting alphabet soup, is that Delta trains FBI HRTs, and, the FBI’s HRT instructors train Delta. It’s a symbiotic ouroboros. Both groups practice some of the same tactics, though the exact methodology varies. This leaves me with a simple question of, “why?”

Why leave the military, to go to the Bureau to do the same job with the same people, and a fraction of the benefits? This doesn’t mean you can’t, or that someone wouldn’t, just remember it’s probably unnecessary. Your Delta instructor could very well know and have trained your HRT member protagonists with no extra layers mixed in.

Given this is urban fantasy, that might be your reasoning. Characters like Ultraviolet‘s Vaughn Rice (Idris Elba) come to mind. They’ve seen horrific things in mundane organizations, and were inducted into clandestine monster hunting agencies because of their experiences.

Though, I’m not 100% certain the HRTs a good fit. Especially if your setting has Delta, or more specialized groups tasked with countering supernatural threats and monsters. If that’s the case, you might want to trim one of those off. Your character went from Delta or HRT into their monster hunting organization, rather than stacking up multiple “elite” backgrounds, even if they are justifiable together. I guess, one entirely plausible explanation is if your character is setting up their own agency, and tap your Delta/HRT to bring the new program up to speed. That would track. Still strange that they’d follow that career path, but it would certainly bump their resume up the pile, when searching for recruits.

To be fair, there’s also a lingering question of, “why isn’t this guy your protagonist?” They may, very well, be a more interesting character than whomever you planned to run with. This isn’t a strike against them if you’re careful. Just, be aware that you may need to up your protagonist’s game to keep them engaging.

As for actual hostage rescue tactics, I’m not the best person to ask. My original primer was via The Negotiator. It’s a good film (if you can still stomach Kevin Spacey), but not something I’d call educational. A quick search did turn up this article on PoliceOne.com. I’m not particularly familiar with the site, but the information tracks with what I do know, and the psychological methods presented are solid, so, it seems legit. There’s also a much more in-depth primer on HowStuffWorks.com. It’s not comprehensive, but should fill in some minutiae that the PoliceOne article skimmed over. You may also want to ask @Skypig357 for his opinion.

I’m also left with questions for how viable hostage rescue would be when dealing with supernatural threats. Though, I suppose, in a context like the Nightwatch novels, or Men in Black, where you’re dealing with the supernatural as just another law enforcement headache, it’s certainly possible.

-Starke

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In my setting, there are people with fire magic who can heat up metal till it’s red hot and basically fry people wearing armor. Would it be believable to have metal armor not have become a thing? Or would people have just found ways to eliminate the fire mages?

It would depend on a few things. How effective is the ability? How common
are the mages? What kind of precautions could negate this ability? What else can you do with this?

We’ve talked about how you build armor around the threats you’re most likely
to encounter while using it. If this is an extremely common ability, and one
that can affect entire groups of enemies at once, then, yes, it would seriously
affect the role of metal in combat. Though, it might not mean abandoning metals
entirely.

So, let’s pick apart those questions and talk about what the mean for your
setting, and your question.

The biggest question is about how well the abilities work. Both the speed of
the ability, and its scale will directly affect how the ability needs to be dealt
with, if it does at all. If it’s on a large scale, torching an entire army at
once, for example, then the casting time (or the speed that the spell heats
metal) only matters if it’s long enough to find and kill the caster.

If the scale is small, one or two people, then the biggest threat would
(probably) be during combat. In that context, we’re back to kill the mage. This
is especially true if the mage needs to be in direct contact to make it work.
Even if they can simply zap whomever they see, they’d be limited to an area
denial role. That is to say, they could prevent hostile forces from rushing
corridors or streets that they’re watching. This also assumes there’s little to
no strain on the mage. If casting this is a strenuous action, and they’re
limited to a couple of zaps, it’s entirely possible they wouldn’t affect
warfare much at all.

If fire mages are exceedingly rare, either because it takes years of
dedicated training, because most people simply don’t have the ability, or
because mages suffer serious attrition during training, that means even large
scale burns won’t affect much.

Think about it this way, if there are five people on your world who can
instantly charbroil an enemy army in their own gear, that’s simply a threat to
be carefully tracked, and neutralized, before you start a battle.

As you add more (and the abilities become more common) it becomes harder to
keep track of enemy mages until you get to the point where it’s functionally
impossible to track them individually. Depending on your setting, that number
could actually get pretty high before you reach that point.

Also, with larger numbers, the smaller scale versions of the ability would
have more of a chance to affect how warfare works. If you’re able to field one
or two mages in your average army, and their primary role is as snipers, that’s
not going to affect how people fight, for the most part. (Though, it could,
seriously, alter how nobles behaved on the battlefield, or even if they’re
present at all.) But, if you can field entire squads of pyromantic infantry,
then those small, “reach out and torch someone,” abilities become a lot more
threatening. At that point, eliminating them before the fight is basically
impossible, so your setting would need ways to deal with them in the moment.

The hard part about introducing magic to a setting is establishing its
rules. To an extent, you need to build an entire set of metaphyics for why
magic works the way it does, before you start getting into specific abilities.
In the absence of that, you have a setting where people will (or, should) work
to counter the threats they face, and magic becomes the convenient answer for
all of life’s problems.

With fantasy, this isn’t automatically a problem, but it is something you
need to keep in mind, when you’re building your world. Look for systems to limit
how your magic works, and what it can do. Or, be ready for a setting that is
very difficult to work with, because the answer can always be, “magic.”

People are creative. When faced with the prospect of being cooked to death
by an enemy mage, the immediate solution is to find a way to prevent that, or preemptively
return the favor. This could be as simple as booby-trapping your soldiers (or
their gear) with spells that will redirect pryomantic magic back at the caster,
or enchanting their gear with some kind of thermal negation effect, so when the
pyromancers try to flash fry them, all they manage to do is give their foes
flaming weapons and armor.

This could also lead to armies making extensive use of divination, allowing them
to better track enemy mages. Which in turn would lead to mages looking for ways
to create decoys, moving around forces that don’t exist, in an effort to
confuse anyone scrying for them.

It could also result in the creation and enhancement of other materials that
are magically immune to pyromancy, or made from something the pyromancers can’t
affect. Such as impossibly durable resins, or unmelting, super-hard ice plates.

It’s also worth realizing that these kinds of powers would radically change
the way metallurgy developed as a technology. When you have mages that can replicate
forge technology that wouldn’t “naturally” exist for centuries. There’s a lot
of potential for changing the way it evolves. You could very easily see much
higher quality steels than the real world ever produced in its analogous era,
and potentially even alloys that simply aren’t possible in the real world. I’m
not sure what 12th century battlefields would have looked like with space age
alloys, but it’s not outside the range of possibility for your setting.
Especially if your pyromancers can participate in the refinement process as
well. This also leads to the potential that they may have materials that are
centuries ahead of their technology, (because magic allows them to work with
the mater directly).

When you’re creating a world, and you come up with an idea, usually, the
best thing to do after that is sit there, and see if you can find all the ways
people would react to it. An ability like being able to instantly heat metal to
forging temperatures would be dangerous in combat, but it would also have many other potential applications.

-Starke

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So I have a world where a staff is the most common weapon (metal is expensive and wood less so + culture of a citizen army) and a few people with the money and skill develop a technique with a double-bladed sword with a similar reach. In-story it’s regarded as a stupid idea and more likely to get the wielder killed but if it does work, a single warrior in the right place can hold a lot of ground against multiple enemies. It looks cool in my head but i’d love a logic check.

It’s not going to work. First off, twin swords (with a full blade extending off both ends of the grip) aren’t real. It’s not that no one came up with the idea before, they simply don’t work.

Bifurcated blades do exist, but rarely on swords. The most common, historical, examples are varieties of swordbreakers, which were heavy daggers designed to trap and hold an opponent’s sword. The overall design is too fragile for a longsword, and wouldn’t survive use.

A number of modern weapon shops do sell twinblades and bifurcated swords as showpieces, because they look cool (if you’re into those aesthetics). But, they’re still not something that would see actual combat usage. You sacrifice too much utility for flashy options that you couldn’t use effectively in combat without getting killed. Swords are kept inside the body’s profile to make them harder to track and defend against. If you’re whipping around, waving it like a staff, that makes them easier to parry, and harder for the wielder to defend against incoming strikes.

There’s another big problem with this plan. Forging metal weapons isn’t something you simply learn, and can then make whatever you want. It is a process of technological development. It starts with smaller weapons, and gradually, as the techniques develop, becomes more complex, and able to support larger and more elaborate weapons.

Just to be clear, either variety of dual bladed swords are extremely complex from a forging perspective. Modern smiths can make them, but they’re standing on the shoulders of millennia of metallurgic and forging innovations.

In a setting where the metal your smiths would be working with is exceedingly limited, to the point that they’re not even using iron tipped spears as their basic infantry weapons, they would not have the raw materials to screw around and develop more advanced smithing technology on a whim.

Advancing swordsmithing (as a technology) would be extremely expensive, and not something that most smiths could afford to engage in. This means that smithing technology would progress very slowly, assuming it didn’t stagnate entirely. It’s not unreasonable to assume that iron would be in such high demand, that it would be illegal (or deemed a sin) to misuse the stuff (when experimenting).

This means: Forget twinblades, it’s entirely possible your setting doesn’t even have longswords. Depending on the availability of iron, they may be limited to something like the gladius.

The second big problem is, you’re dealing with people who have polearms. Even if it’s just normal staves, they’ll have more reach than your character. Meaning, they can get in and poke him without fear of retaliation. Even if they’re just using treated wooden spears, that could quickly get very messy for him.

Ironically, staves and polearms are the best melee weapons for crowd control. The strike patterns can create a wide enough arc, that it becomes much easier for holding multiple foes at bay. If you’ve never seen them, I would recommend looking at spear and staff forms on youtube.

Depending on the available materials, you might even see some kind of stone tipped spears. Not, necessarily, paleolithic designs, but with carefully constructed mounting mechanisms. Bronze or copper are also possible weapon materials. They’re softer, and you can make bronze or copper shortswords. So, if that material is available, it’s possible their swords (and spears) use that as their primary metal. It’s also (I’m told) much easier to work than iron, so there’s that.

So, there’s your logic check. There may be ways to rearrange this to get what you want, but you’ve specified will fundamentally alter the available weapons technology, social, political, and religious development, so it’s something you probably want to think through carefully. To an extent, this part is on you, it’s your setting, so you do control all the factors. But, try to keep in mind how people, particularly intelligent ones without access to all the information, would behave, and shape your world to fit that.

-Starke

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I’m trying to figure out a form of magic that isn’t Elemental, and all I can really think of is something like telekinesis. What do you think of avoiding cliche ‘elemental’ magic? Do you have any advice for doing so?

fixyourwritinghabits:

Well, almost anything can be reduced to the elemenst if you think about it, but why being a reductionist? That could be your starting point.

Taking what I just wrote above, not everything is matter, why not use energy as a source of magic? Not only telekinesis, think of Magneto, the guy can control magnetic forces, Flash was given the Speed Force, Black Canary uses the Canary Cry, which are sonic vibrations, and so on.

There are other forms of magic, not necessarily related to an specific energy, healing, for example. What kind of energy or elementat form is magic healing? What about electronic devices? There can be magic related to them. What about opening portals to different worlds, or teleportation? These can be considered superpowers instead of magic, that’s where your imagination has to step in.

To avoid the elemental magic cliché, give it a twist. What if everytime you use earth magic, let’s say create a wall to protect yourself from an attack, you create an earthquake somewhere else? What if, in order to use water magic you have to be hydrated  otherwise you can’t? (There’s a scene in The Incredibles where Frozono can’t use his powers because the air is too dry).

Here are some links to guide you through

Hope this helps you.

L.-

I probably should have slapped this into the “Top Ten Coolest Magic
Systems” post, but here’s another, slightly oddball example, that might
get you thinking.

Mage: The Ascension split magic into nine “spheres,” or kinds of magic.

Correspondence was magic based on location. This ranged from a mage knowing exactly where they were, to being able to find anything, or anyone, to teleportation, depending on the power of the mage.

Entropy was the ability to predict and affect random events, or the natural decay of things. A mage versed in entropy could predict the future, prevent objects from wearing out.

Forces was the basic “elemental” magic sphere, with a significant twist. It did include things like fire and lightning, but it also affected other physical forces, like electricity, kinetic energy, magnetism, and gravity. A mage versed in forces could track an electrical current, or even prevent a security alarm from triggering. A master of forces could potentially initiate a nuclear detonation or extinguish a star’s nuclear fission.

Life was the ability to affect and alter living objects. It included sensing life, healing, harming, and shapeshifting.

Matter was the companion sphere for Life that affected inanimate objects. This included things like transmutation, but also allowed a mage to determine an object’s exact composition.

Mind was telepathy and psionics. It also allowed mages to manipulate memories or even someone’s identity.

Prime was a kind of metamagic, interacting specifically with magic. Prime could make magical effects permanent, or effectively defend against another mage’s attacks. It also allowed a mage to detect magic being used, regardless of the sphere.

Spirit specialized in interacting with extra-dimensional beings, “spirits.” This tied directly into the setting’s cosmology, but the basic idea should be fairly self explanatory. As I recall, at higher levels it would allow mages to enter the spirit realms (The Umbra).

Time was the ability to sense and manipulate time. This ranged from a mage being able to always know exactly what time it was, view past or future events, enter “bullet time,” up through being able to freeze time or step outside of it.

There was some intentional overlap, the Spheres were designed with the idea that mages could mix multiple spheres together to create a desired magical effect.

Additionally the setting operated under a consensus reality system, where overtly magical actions would incur severe backlash. So there was a very strong incentive for mages to come up with inventive ways to deal with their problems. It was flat out better to deal with an attacker by giving them a heart attack or cause their weapon to fail catastrophically, than to start throwing fireballs around.

-Starke