On Magic in Fantasy – 4

read part 1

read part 3

We have seen that, when prepared, powerful spellcasters are all but invulnerable to the threat posed by mundane melee, regardless of the number of warriors faced. However, this does not make them invulnerable. The key word here is: “prepared.”

Yes, mages are extremely problematic when they know precisely what they are facing and have time to prepare. However, problems have solutions. When faced with a belligerent mage lord, a clever adversary will not seek direct confrontation. There are other ways to go about this, after all.

It is important to remember that powerful mage lords are still characters. And, as such, they do not live in a vacuum. Some mages might be hermits living hermetically sealed lives with their research and phantasmal harems, but this is not how it will be for someone who has sought out political power. The whole point of having power is wielding it in interactions with other individuals. Even the Dreadmage Emperor will have daily routines and interactions with people that may offer opportunities to deal with them.

Problems have solutions, and when engaging in assassination, there is absolutely no reason to fight fair. It is not as though mages do. If the Dreadmage needs to go, don’t step to him in a frontal assault. Perhaps one can find out what he likes and send a courtesan assassin his way to peg him with her +3 human-bane strap-on dildo of poison.

The thing about mages is: they are formidable when prepared, but vulnerable when ambushed. The Stoneskin spell that offers invulnerability to a certain number of physical attacks has a limited duration. So too does the Free Action spell that prevents being grappled or trussed up. These spells are not something that a mage can be wandering around with at all times. Even a Ring of Free Action is not going to help when a hasted 20th level fighter starts carving into you with his keen scimitar. Any mage jacked thusly will not last a single combat round.

Get a fighter in close proximity to our Dreadmage with the element of surprise and the tables are turned. Knight takes Queen.

This is so in our world as well. Get a trained killer willing to die close enough to anyone, and that target is dead. This is why leaders have bodyguards, and lots of them.

At this point, with all the talk of D&D classes, spells, magical items, and game mechanics, I should not have to remind that we are not talking about the real world. But it never hurts to connect one’s fantasy world to the real whenever possible. Therefore, it stands to reason that our Dreadmage Emperor will have an elite team devoted to their personal security. In conceptualizing this in fantasy realm game mechanics terms, I prefer to stay true to the game of D&D as I played it.

I have related how my notions of the politics and power dynamics of magical realms have been entirely shaped through Dungeons and Dragons. While the characters in a game or story are not aware that they are so, the rules of the game inform and drive their world in the same way that physics does ours.

In order to become the Dreadmage Emperor, that character had to do a lot of grinding for experience points. One does not level up through study and research. One must get out here and kill, kill, kill! And mages do not do that alone. The mage is a member of an adventuring party that protects them in those early levels when they are as weak as baby chicks and about as useful as one.

The adventuring party, traditionally of about five characters, functions as a squad, with each member having their own role in combat and otherwise. So, of course, we have our mage. They don’t do much early on. Indeed, the most reliable and clever way to get them levelled up to 3rd is to forget about spellcasting. Stick them in some armor and give them a light crossbow to take potshots with. This is enough to qualify them for a cut of the XP, and means they might survive in melee with a goblin for a couple of rounds (at least until a fighter can get around to saving their ass).

With the mage as the fragile nucleus of the party, we then staff it with the usual suspects. A cleric to provide healing and undead management. A rogue, or thief, to open locks and find traps. A fighter, or two, to tank out in front. Perhaps a ranger or monk to round things out.

When things start out, our party is mostly fighting melee type encounters. None of their enemies are spellcasting, generally. It’s goblins, kobolds, orcs, or human bandits for the first few levels, at least. So, in an encounter, what happens? We see a bunch of goblins. The fighters charge, the rogue takes some potshots with their shortbow, or else tries to flank for a backstab. The cleric gets up behind the fighters to be ready to heal them and bonk at any goblins that are flanking. And the mage casts their one spell, Sleep, generally, and then stands around with their thumb up their ass hoping they are not overrun and killed.

So it goes until about fifth level. But now our mage is having some fun! We are flinging Fireball and Lightning spells. We are buffing our fighters with Haste and Bull Strength. Now we matter.

As well, our party is beginning to face spellcasting opponents. As players, our group is learning how dangerous spellcasters are. It only takes one encounter with an enemy spellcaster for the entire party’s combat focus to become killing them as quickly as possible. This is natural. Fighters might be tanks, but their Will saving throw sucks. And sitting a whole combat out after failing a save against Hold Person, with goblins chewing up your legs the whole time, is no fun. The first order of business becomes: kill that fuckin priest!

As the party levels up further, their tactical approach to encounters changes. The days of the fighters charging ahead to engage enemies are long gone, even if only faced with a bunch of non-spellcasters. Wait a second, you meat-heads, so that I can lube them up with a fireball first!

At higher levels, the dynamic of the party has reversed itself completely. The mage and cleric now are providing most of the output in terms of experience points gathered. The fighters do a lot of standing around waiting for a target, while the spellcasters duel their counterparts at range. And don’t wander too far, meat shields! When the invisible ice devil teleports right next to the mage and starts eating him, we need you right here to save his ass. In this way, bodyguarding for the mage and cleric becomes the de facto role for the fighters, whether they think of themselves this way or not.

As with any team, an adventuring party works much better when all its members understand their role and pull in the same direction. If a party is grinding it out with a lot of melee style monsters, such as giants and levelled-up orcs, they can get away with sloppy play. But if they are facing foes with spellcasting parity, they had better have their shit wired tight. And by that I mean that they had better be protecting their spellcasters from any and all threats. Parties that do not do so wind up in a total-party-kill scenario sooner or later.

All this is just to say that by the time a typical mage is getting to be higher lever, they have a solid squad of death technicians around them. These killers have been working with the mage and are used to their preferences. They have all their patterns and plays worked out. So, when a mage decides it is time to become the Dreadmage Emperor, why would they seek to hire a bunch of lower-level bodyguards? Within a realm that uses a D&D ruleset as its physics, it would be completely natural to keep their adventuring squad around them as security. And if their squad has a personnel hole in it, they can hire who they need to fill out the roster. The world is their oyster, after all.

In terms of storytelling, which is what we are meant to be about here, this is all to the good. If we want to have battle mages running around at the head of armies, we can do that. Of course, as we explored before, if they are facing a force without a mage, their own army is unnecessary. But once battle mage generals clash, there shall be a fine environment for sword and sorcery mayhem.

When we have dueling mages with their squads of high-level goons looking to kill each other, this is the chess match we have been seeking. In terms of game mechanics and storytelling, there is ample potential for all manner of outcomes. If, of course, we want them.

Next time we shall explore my notions of a what a good mage guarding and/or mage hunting squad should look like, in terms of its members. Seeing as this shall be dealing more with adventuring party dynamics within tactical combat, I think we can safely put an end to this, On Magic in Fantasy, series and move forward under a new banner.

So, until next time!

2 thoughts on “On Magic in Fantasy – 4

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