On Magic in Fantasy – 3

read part 1

read part 2

As fantasy role-players and fiction fans, what is it that we are after in a setting? Well, of course we want a realm to play in that provides powerful magicusers as well as epic medieval battles. Swords and sorcery! This is the genre in which we find ourselves, yes?

However, how does one go about achieving this without the magicusers just running roughshod over sword wielders? In the last instalment, I investigated how to do this through the use of mage guilds. However, this heavy-handed approach may not be for everyone, so this time we shall run the game theory of blending powerful magic with mundane warfare.

It is most certainly not enough to say, as many have, that mundane warfare can co-exist with powerful spellcasters because the spellcasters simply are not interested in political power. This is nonsense. Political power is power. And if there is one thing the powerful want, it is more power; if for no other reason than competitiveness with their peers. There may well be powerful spellcasters that have no interest in political power, but, as we learned last time, it only takes one to upset the apple cart.

Last time we saw how things went for a mundane army in the Dread Archmage Queen of Ultimate Baddassery’s Battle of Ascendancy. In short: not well.

So, if we replay this scenario in a magical realm where the other powerful spellcasters sit out the battle, the result would be the same. Now we have a kingdom, soon to be an empire, run by the Dread Archmage Queen of Ultimate Baddassery. The question is: does she have need of an army?

Certainly she would want some kind of nominal occupying force: boots on the ground to keep her subjects in line and borders secure. However, this force would not be expected to fight in pitched battles. If all of her opponents can only field mundane armies, they will all fall as that first great army did.

However, the Queen’s empire is now large, and its troubles are no longer powerful neighbors with great armies, but small rebellions, pockets of banditry, and border skirmishes. The Queen cannot be expected to be everywhere at once. So, her security forces develop into something more resembling a proper military: tasked with counter-insurgency and small unit engagements. Of course, these units require leadership, as do the jurisdictions they patrol. It seems only logical that the Queen would task these duties to her loyal apprentice mages. Much easier to keep a lid on things when no one is too far from the oversight of a fireball throwing mage.

And so we find ourselves with a mageocracy.

Now, there are numerous ways in which this may devolve. I will run just one to ground.

After many years of power, the Dread Archmage Queen of Ultimate Baddassery finally dies of old age, having decided, in her infinite wisdom, not to go the route of becoming a lich. When empires consolidated under the rule of a powerful tyrant lose their tyrant, the inevitable result is infighting amongst the elite. This will often results in the empire’s fragmentation through civil war. So it goes for the empire of our Queen. Upon her death, her immediate subordinates fight each other for supremacy. The empire breaks into factions and goes to war with itself.

Here we have mage on mage action. With each mage in command of their own specialized military force. Of course, this is also the same practical scenario we face if, at any point, any of the realm’s existent powerful spellcasters chose to gather a force together to stand up to the Queen and her empire.

And so the fun begins! But how does this scenario play out?

At this point it may be helpful to consider what a powerful spellcaster represents in terms of practical combat. Basically, to put it in terms we can easily comprehend, they function like a modern air force. In the battle I played out last time, what was the Queen if not the equivalent of a squad of fighter bombers?

Look to our world when modern countries go to war. What has happened when a country with a strong air force (the United States) goes to war with a country without one (Iraq). As with the Queen’s Battle of Ascendancy, the belligerent without air power suffers catastrophic defeat.

So when we think about how powerful spellcasters might affect combat, it is most helpful to think of them like an aircraft carrier in a naval battle. Or, if one prefers, a queen on a chess board. If one side has one and the other does not, the fight will be a short one. So players must be careful not to endanger their queen by bringing her out too early.

However, unlike chess, in which a lowly pawn might be able to take a queen in the right (or very wrong) circumstance, we have learned that the only thing that can reliably threaten a powerful spellcaster in combat is another spellcaster. So it therefore stands to reason that the outcome of the battle would hinge on the outcome of the fight between the spellcasters. The game would play out with these queens hunting each other with their specialized squads of bodyguards and killers. While it might be tempting indeed to zot some enemy grunts with a fireball, is giving away your position worth it?

Now we have a cat and mouse game wherein both sides are simultaneously predator and prey. And in this kind of scenario, it would be most helpful for a spellcasting leader to surround themselves with as much fodder as possible. These expendables can spread out, establish a perimeter with skirmish lines, and serve as a potential target to draw out the enemy. Just as footsoldiers do for militaries with powerful air forces. Get out there, boys, beat the bushes, and call in an airstrike when you meet serious resistance.

When both sides in a conflict are utilizing these tactics, it stands to reason that the mundane military forces of the armies would clash. In this way, we can provide for the fun of a major melee engagement while also having the potential for a magical fight between spellcasters and their devoted squads. Of course, if a spellcasting leader prevails over another, then air superiority is gained and the battle is all but won. Nothing for the other side to do but surrender. Or, die, if surrender is not an option.

From a storytelling, or gameplay, perspective, this scenario provides excellent possibilities for multiple kinds of stories. Are our heroes lowly grunts, fighting in the trenches with sword and armor? Or, are they the epic-level spellcaster and their loyal squad, hunting out their counterparts while the battle rages around or beneath them? Plenty of fodder for all manner of fun here!

So, there we have it. With large scale battle and war largely investigated, next time we will begin to investigate how spellcasters might be handled on a smaller unit and more personal scale.

read part 4

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