Seven Musts for Dominating a Fantasy Battle

A giant eagle attacking orcs.

Don't use flying units, whatever you do. That's just rude.

Everyone is always asking me questions about fantasy battles, like I’m some kind of spec fic blogger. So, to answer every question in perpetuity, I’ve put together the only list that you’ll ever need on the subject. It tells you exactly what to do, whether you’re an author or the protagonist of a portal fantasy story who must command the army of good when next comes the dawn. Don’t let me catch you studying real battles or reading books by actual military historians. What could you possibly learn from those?

1. Take Away All Helmets

Three main characters charging into battle in Narnia. The heroes of Narnia are basically invincible.

The helmet is often vaunted as critical protection for soldiers. It keeps their heads safe, so the propaganda goes. For the naive and uninformed, this can be a convincing argument. We can all sympathize with the desire to have a stout bit of metal, wood, or even leather between your brainpan and an unfriendly axe.

To anyone who thinks that, you need to wake up! The helmet is actually a leading cause of battlefield deaths because it obscures the wearer’s face. The Powers That Be don’t want you to know this, but the more a soldier’s face is covered, the easier they are to kill. A full face mask is obviously a death sentence, but the more open helmets aren’t innocent either. A soldier’s best protection is for their beautiful face to be fully exposed, hopefully with hair fluttering in the wind.

You might think this is only useful for evil armies, as heroes are notoriously unwilling to kill anyone whose nose they can see, even if they’ve spent the last hour slaughtering masked minions without pause. And it’s true, sending your soldiers into battle open-faced is very useful for keeping chosen ones and scrappy protagonists at bay.

But this tactic also works against villains, though with a somewhat reduced effect. Heroes don’t kill people with faces, because it would be wrong. Meanwhile, villains will also hesitate, because soldiers with exposed faces have a degree of plot-shielding.

Needless to say, it will be exceptionally annoying if your opponent also employs this technique, so do everything you can to prevent that. Before attacking, consider opening up a discount helmet store where the enemy can see it. Be sure to use big lettering to show how much cheaper your helmets are than normal; make it a deal they can’t refuse.

2. Forget Unit Diversity

A long column of identically dressed Aiel in the snow. The Aiel know how it’s done, they’re an entire culture of light skirmishers!

The next thing you need to understand is that having more than one kind of soldier in your army is for absolute noobs. Having differently equipped or trained units only invites division as soldiers and fans alike get into online arguments about which squad is best. Who has time for that?

Instead, the key to victory is to focus exclusively on one type of unit and exclude all others. It doesn’t really matter what kind of unit, so long as everyone in your army is the same. You might go for an entire army of heavy cavalry or pack your whole roster with longbow archers, it’s all fair game.

This is way easier to do if you have a Planet of Hats setting. That way, you can just recruit your entire army from Knight Country or Archer Country rather than weeding out unit diversity yourself. If by some chance you find yourself in a well-developed, lived-in setting, I’m sorry to say you’ll be in for a lot of work.

Once you have your homogeneous army assembled, you can march into battle confident that you’ll only ever encounter terrain and circumstances that favor your chosen type of soldier. The ground will never be rough and uneven so as to hinder your riders, nor will the wind ever blow the arrows of your archers off course.

And I absolutely promise that your army made entirely of heavy infantry will never need scouts, and that if you choose light skirmishers instead, then there will never be a situation where you have to stand and fight on open ground. These things just don’t happen in battle, so don’t worry about it.

3. Cavalry Can Charge Anything (ANYTHING)

A screen shot of a LotR video game showing cavalry charging a giant elephant. Yeah, this’ll go great.

Horses: they’re great. They’re basically monsters we’re allowed to ride. The advantages of cavalry on the battlefield are many, giving both increased speed and an elevated position from which to strike at the enemy. But by far the most valuable tactic of any cavalry unit is the charge.

Cavalry charges are a great way to win a battle, and the best part is that they work in literally all circumstances. Do you need to charge down a steep incline? No problem. What about into a veritable forest of pikes? The horsies will get it done. You can even charge your cavalry directly into huge monsters and everything will be fine.

Now, some of you smarty-pantses may have read that actually, horses have problems with all of those things. Horses run best on flat ground, and a steep incline can seriously hurt them. Pikes are specifically designed to be set against a cavalry charge, and, historically, one of the main uses of war elephants was to scare horses, because horses are notoriously afraid of anything they aren’t familiar with.

You could say all of that and be totally correct, but you’d be forgetting something very important: this is fantasy, and I can do whatever I want. A nearly perpendicular angle will just make the horses run faster. Pikes will bend out of the way, awed by the sheer majesty of charging steeds. As for monsters and beasts, maybe horses in real life are just cowards; have you ever thought of that?

The point is that in a fantasy battle, the cavalry charge will always work. Your enemies will be swept away, and there will probably be some heroic music. This is doubly true if your cavalry charge is bringing desperately needed reinforcements to a beleaguered ally.

4. Never Use Magic

Yennifer from The Witcher shooting fire from her hands. No, bad Witcher! How dare you use magic properly in a battle?

You might think that because you’re writing a fantasy battle, magic would be involved somehow. That’s what makes it fantasy. However, it turns out that although magic is integral to all fantasy worlds, it should never be used in battle.

Think about it. If wizards were allowed to run around throwing fireballs and calling down lighting, what would all the other soldiers do? A medieval fantasy army simply isn’t equipped to deal with spells that can simulate the functions of modern artillery. It’s even worse if the mages in your setting have other abilities.

If mages can fly, then they’ll provide perfect reconnaissance at all times. If they have weather magic, then the enemy will never make it to the battlefield since they’ll be frozen under several feet of snow. If your mages can scry the future, then the whole battle is won before it can begin. The more powers your mages have, the worse it gets.

Pretty soon, it becomes obvious that actual armies and battles aren’t necessary, since everyone should just wait for the mages to fight things out. We can’t have that; it’ll ruin all the time we’ve spent studying for our fantasy tactics test! That’s why all mages should be kept far in the back, maybe offering a cryptic prophecy or two.

If you absolutely must use some kind of magic in your army, make sure it’s limited to something that could also be done through mundane means. Dragons? Those are basically just scaly horses. Attack spells? They’re little more than arrows with better special effects. As long as nothing fundamentally changes about how battles are fought, you should be fine.

5. Make Every Soldier a Rugged Individualist

Ned Stark and Jamie Lannister facing off. I feel like this is about to go great for Ned Stark.

There’s a weird idea some people have that battles are won through teamwork, and that groups of coordinated, disciplined soldiers will defeat an unorganized mob any day. The people who think this have clearly never fought a fantasy battle before.

When you watch or read fantasy battles of the past, one thing stands out over and over again: individual heroes are always able to defeat multiple enemies, even when those enemies are working together in a group. This phenomenon is incredibly consistent, no matter how dark and gritty the story is.

The lesson is obvious: don’t train your soldiers to work together. Instead, they should each operate independently, since depending on others is apparently a critical weakness. When deploying before the fight, make sure to spread your soldiers out so they don’t accidentally end up helping each other. The more surrounded by enemies they are, the better.

This works especially well in tandem with a lack of helmets. If possible, make sure each of your soldiers has a dark backstory and a driving need for vengeance. Everyone knows that it’s nearly impossible for a person to die before they get their revenge. If by some chance your soldiers die anyway, then they’ll come back as vengeful ghosts, so that’s a nice bonus.

If there absolutely must be teamwork in your army, then it should be limited to, at most, two soldiers standing heroically back-to-back. They should still be surrounded by as many enemies as possible. This level of cooperation is still a risk, but sometimes you don’t have any choice.

6. Always Go for the Desperate Hold Out

X-Wings and Y-Wings flying through space. We could just evacuate, but a hopeless battle makes way more sense!

Frederick the Great once said “He who defends everything, defends nothing.” In The Art of War, Sun Tzu says that a general who retreats without fear of disgrace is a jewel of their nation. The lesson seems clear: sometimes you have to avoid an unwinnable fight, or retreat from a losing one, so that you can fight another day. Staying to fight when you can’t win is likely to be disastrous.

Sure, but what do those losers know? I’ve studied hundreds, er, dozens of fantasy battles and you know what I’ve discovered? Running away is only for people who don’t want to win. You might think that retreating is a good way to preserve your army so you can attack at a more advantageous time, but it really shows that you aren’t devoted to victory.

Instead, if you stay to fight an impossible defense, then things are sure to go your way. For one thing, you’ll almost certainly get surprise reinforcements who use one of those cavalry charges we talked about earlier. Everyone loves those. They’re a great excuse for heroic poses and heartfelt orchestral soundtracks.

On the off chance that reinforcements don’t come, you have other options. Someone in your scrappy band might discover the enemy’s one secret weakness, or the bad guy might offer to face you in single combat despite having no reason to do so. Whatever it is will definitely happen at the last minute, so don’t lose hope!

One thing that definitely won’t happen is your forces getting overwhelmed in a crushing defeat that could have been easily prevented. That doesn’t sound very heroic, now, does it?

7. What Even Is Food?

Dwarves with plates of food in The Hobbit All breakfasts are unnecessary, no matter the number!

I hear a lot of people complaining that fantasy armies lack supply trains, and I was going to spend this section explaining why those are unnecessary, but then I realized something: I have no idea what a supply train is. Can anyone help me out?

First, the name is so confusing. Why would there be a train on a fantasy battlefield, unless you’re writing a steampunk story? That’s just silly. I’ve studied every fantasy battle I could think of, and I don’t see anything that might qualify. Armies have soldiers in them, right? What else could you need? One second, I’ll go look it up.

So according to Wikipedia, “In military contexts, a [supply] train is the logistical transport elements accompanying a military force.” Apparently it’s a bunch of people and animals who carry all the things soldiers need to fight. This doesn’t make any sense. What could soldiers need to fight other than a sword to swing, a horse to ride, and a complete lack of helmets?

This whole concept baffles me. It makes war sound like some kind of collective endeavor where organization and support are more important than individual fighting prowess. In this framework, soldiers would need food just as much as they need weapons, and I’m not sure how to handle that.

Fortunately, I don’t have to understand any of this, since it’s pretty obvious that no successful fantasy army has ever had a supply train. The soldiers just ride out ready to fight, blissfully unaware of who’s been keeping their horses fed and their armor rust-free. That’s the way fantasy battles should always be written. It’s not as if a more realistic portrayal of warfare could create a compelling narrative and help readers immerse themselves in the story. Why would you ever think that?

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  1. Rosenkavalier

    Ideally, of course, you’ll also want to ensure that your two opposing armies are equipped from completely different time periods – naturally this will have no impact on their tactics or effectiveness, however…

  2. Cip

    You forgot the most crucial of all things every bad guy army needs – a complete and utter lack of hierarchy. Otherwise when the bad guy is impossibly beaten by the plucky helmetless underdog in pointless single combat the entire evil army won’t turn tail and run, they’ll just shrug and promote the next down the chain and keep fighting. And that’s no fun for anyone, much less the now exhausted and possibly wounded plucky helmetless underdog.
    And don’t forget to mount your cavalry on pretty thoroughbreds because they look so good, and just ignore the fact that they would struggle to carry a grown man in full plate and mail, whilst also wearing their own plate and mail. Not including all the weaponry. Because thoroughbreds are prettier than actual heavy horses who would be able to (apparently. I think heavy horses are incredible, but a fantasy cavalry would hate me).

  3. Cay Reet

    How dare you, Sir! Suggestions like these are why I get killed off in Age of Mythology.

    It would be more fun, from my point of view, if fantasy battles were a little closer to real battles, if the deployment of units and their diversity were a thing. “The Brothers Cabal” did that to a degree – the Templars, the Yellow Inquisition, and the Dee Society were the infantry while the Sisters of Medea and the Daughters of Hecate, both societies of witches, filled in as the artillery, standing behind the other groups, so they could focus on their magic instead of having to deal with pesky close-quarter combat. Then there also was aerial cover by Miss Montgomery’s Warbirds (all pilots and the mechanic are women), of course.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Oooooh, that sounds super cool.

      • Cay Reet

        The advantage of having an alternate reality in which you can have a time which has aspects from before WWI, before WWII, and the early 1950s.

        The Templars in this reality take in women as fighters, as does the Dee Society. Only the Yellow Inquisition (settled in the countries around the Mediterranean) is exclusively male (a leftover from their creation by the Vatican, I guess). Both the Sisters and the Daughters are exclusively female and very powerful. One of the Sisters incinerates someone on a castle tower with one glance and one spell. She later on also shoots a werebull with an elephant gun.

        The Warbirds (three Americans and a Dutch) fly entomopters instead of regular planes (there are no planes in this world) – fighter-like constructions with dragonfly wings that beat so fast that they can stay airborne. Like a dragonfly, an entomopter can fly backwards and sidewards and also land and start vertically. Their mechanic is British and the only member of the crew who is certified for night flying (she’s a former member of the RAF who was transferring planes, something which female pilots actually did in the RAF during WWII, usually at night).

  4. Angelo Pardi

    An other general problem is length. Battles in fantasy are much too long, a medieval battle should be at most one day long (especially without supply trains, helmet and military organisation).

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, most battles in medieval times were short, a day or less (usually less). Unless, of course, there was a siege, but that’s another topic.

    • Dinwar

      Sort of true.

      Most field battles were about a day long. That’s because after a day of fighting, you don’t have much fight left in you. Plus, casualties weren’t really that great–the idea was to break the enemy formation and take captives (a high-ranking captive’s ransom could finance the entire war), not mindless slaughter. Don’t get me wrong, battles were brutal on a scale we cannot imagine in today’s world! But the goal was never to kill everyone. Remember, a LOT of the fighters were mercenaries, and if it comes down to “die horribly” vs. “not get paid”, a mercenary will choose “not get paid” every time.

      After a day of fighting whoever’s going to win has won, whoever’s going to lose has lost, and the rest is cleanup.

      That said, battles were actually not the main type of war in the Middle Ages. Most wars were a series of sieges. This makes sense given the tactics and society at the time; if you hear a hoard of soldiers is coming to attack you’re not going to stand and fight, you’re going to hide behind those big giant walls that the local lord put up specifically for you to hide behind. Seiges could last weeks or months, though a few months was realistically the upper limit based on how military conscription worked at the time. The folks in your army were only there for a given number of days most of the time, and they had to be back for the harvest anyway or else your people would starve. Mercenaries can fill the gaps–an idea which eventually lead to the concept of a paid standing army–but for a long time a siege that lasted more than a few weeks was a lost cause because your army would evaporate.

      The other thing to consider is WHY battles happened in the Middle Ages. Many times–several Crusades, and the war that included Agencourt, to give a few examples–winning was secondary. Nobles breed like rats, and there’s only so much land. Eventually you’ve got to do something with the excess. If you invade a land and win you’ve got a lot of shiny new land that needs managed. If you lose, well, at least you come home with fewer nobles than you started with. The harsh reality is that the point of some wars was to kill off YOUR OWN PEOPLE–or, more accurately, to give them the chance to earn glory by conquering or becoming a martyr. (No one in history has written down “Let’s go to war to kill off our surplus nobility”; it’s one of those things historians had to piece together. But the evidence is pretty compelling.)

      • Cay Reet

        I’ve heard that in most battles at that time, it was more likely for men to die of illnesses than in actual battle.

        And, yes, it makes sense to cull the nobility every now and then with a nice, big war far from home. Either they gain land and don’t need any of that which their older brother should be getting or they are dead and only need enough land for a nice grave.

        • Dinwar

          You were more likely to die of disease than of wounds right up until the World Wars. I forget which was the turning point. Up until that point medicine was so crude that “Just cut the damn thing off” was a common way to treat infections.

          That in and of itself is something that most books on fantasy combat forget. It’s not just brave warriors bashing each other in the head; there’s a whole infrastructure to war. From a tactical perspective that’s not always a huge consideration, but it’s THE consideration in strategy. If you kill a soldier you just kill some guy; if you wound a soldier you cost his country time, treasure, and moral. If magical medicine involves resources (say, herbs or potion ingredients), wound enough soldiers and you can drain your enemy’s treasury and win the war without winning a single battle. This isn’t unrealistic; blockades are attempts to do exactly this, from a different direction.

          Tolkien touched on this. As did, of all things, Medieval literature. Makes sense in a way. We’re more removed from combat than they were; their entire society was built on war. So to them it would have been obvious to include scenes of wounded knights being tended to. But the focus is always on the warriors.

          It’d be interesting to see a fantasy war from the perspective of the healers. Middle-Earth MASH.

  5. Paul C

    Great article, Oren. A benefit of quarantine is being able to relax with Mythcreants.

    One addition? Do not forget to discard any teleported-in/time-shifted/mage-retrieved GUNS or — apparently — LONGBOWS. (Do fantasy writers thing Agincourt was a hoax?) Of course, longbows ought to be supported by pikes…

    For the fantasy writer’s bookshelf: A fascinating book I read years ago — so it should be very cheap in any open used book store!:
    The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, by John Keegan (1976). This goes into detail about what was battle like for the foot soldier. One surprising conclusion (surprising if one has not been shot at!) is that the horizon of danger has grown larger and larger as the range of weapons becomes longer and longer. That is, In the past, it was easier to get out of the killing fields and catch a breath. Nowadays, there is almost no place to hide.

  6. SunlessNick

    historically, one of the main uses of war elephants was to scare horses, because horses are notoriously afraid of anything they aren’t familiar with

    The Indian army that fought Alexander got their horses to integrate with elephants by getting them drunk. Unfortunately it turns out that horses tend to be mellow drunks* so they weren’t the best for cavalry.

    * Unlike elephants, which tend to be beligerent assholes.

  7. Mike

    Even 13-year-old me was aware of the helmet thing. So, in a story I wrote at that age, I explained that my villain didn’t wear a helmet to the final battle because his nose had been broken a few scenes prior.

    …is that even a valid excuse? I think it would be, but I don’t write medieval fantasy anymore, so one of you guys can clue me in.

    The sweet sarcasm in your articles keeps me going in quarantine, Oren.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m not an expert on armor either, but my instinct is that a recently broken nose could explain why the villain isn’t wearing a face plate (Ouch), but I’d still expect him to wear the rest of the helmet. It’s also possible he might have been able to find a helmet where the face plate was sufficiently roomy so he’s not pressing his injury against it, but again that’s just my guess. I’m glad you’re enjoying the posts!

    • Dinwar

      It’s not. I’ve worn a helm after breaking my nose. In fact, I broke my nose BECAUSE of my helm–I strapped it wrong, it rotated after a shot to the head, and it crashed into my nose. I borrowed a different one and went back to fighting. There’s supposed to be ample room between your squishy nose and the hard metal of the helm to prevent broken noses from bothering you. Knights wrestled and boxed for training and fun, so they likely had broken noses (and hands, and arms, and legs, and ribs); they’d have been used to this sort of thing.

      That said, a valid excuse could be that the blow was hard enough to dent the helm to the point where it’s not useable. The blow I got was to the top of the head, which wouldn’t affect the nose, but I’ve seen blows to the face that dent helms. The face is always a weak point, because you have to have air holes.

      Another excuse is hearing. Doesn’t matter what you do, helms make it hard to hear. You have the metal and padding (a LOT of padding, both built into the helm and separate from it) dampening sound. And a blow to the head makes your ears ring sometimes, making it even harder to hear. It’s probably stupid to remove your helm for that reason, but a high-ranking officer may consider the risk worth it. Not for long, of course, but they may.

      A better reason? Lack of supplies. Helms take a LOT of metal, and therefore are expensive to produce. You can’t make plates and sew them together, either; you’re talking large amounts of dished metal. A damaged helm may not be replaceable. There were all kinds of ways to get around that in the Middle Ages, so you may want to check out options. A smaller leather and metal cap, which doesn’t offer as much protection, is a good option: it’d expose the person’s face while still offering some protection and would be realistic.

  8. Angelo Pardi

    So the question now is: who does them right ?
    I feel like Tolkien does OKish to good (at least they wear helmets).

  9. LeeEsq

    I know the Belgariad isn’t popukAr in this site but one of David Eddings strength was that he dealt with these issues in his work. When Ce’Nedra led the West against the Angaraks, Eddibgs dealt with supplies, different types of troops, etc. it might have helped that he was in the army.

  10. Erynus

    People in point 2 have shields!! they will die… every single of them.

  11. JohnnySteele

    Just realized I’m totally guilty of #2 for one of the societies in my ongoing tabletop game… but in my defense, they’ve lived in a forest for countless generations and aren’t interested in expansion, so their army organization and tactics are tailored accordingly. That they’re much less effective outside their home turf actually ends up being a plot point when they have to fight as part of a larger coalition.

  12. Anthony

    Don’t forget that if your fantasy setting DOES have powerful combat-wizards doing magic and such on the battlefield, that the advent of the most primitive firearms (and other gunpowder weapons) will completely undo the centuries of not millennia of research into the magic arts; making them tremble at the sight and sound of tube-on-a-sticks that take two men to operate (and half a minute to shoot again).

    It will not matter that early gunpowder is so volatile, so explosive that the chamber has to be half the diameter of the barrel, nor that early tube-on-stick guns are so weak that they have to be a pike’s length away to penetrate so much as a well-made gambeson. As soon as our dimension-skipping protagonist’s experimental taskforce show up and fire a volley, the future has arrived. Immediately the wizards wielding godlike powers -those able to call down torrents of fire and earth-shattering lightning- will know that they are outmatched and attempt to flee.

    Cast aside all doubts that they would mistake the simple hand-cannon for a magic thingamambob, or -heavens forbid!- use their knowledge of the magic arts to prevent the powder from combusting, or just snuff out the matches of these new munitions. The very -existence- of firearms cancels out magic. Not only are guns against the rules of fantasy, but they are so utterly against the rules of fantasy that they break them and replace them with what the author thinks the rules of reality are.

    • Dinwar

      That assumes guns work the same way. I can see them working differently. Why use gunpowder when you can use a spell? It would take a powerful mage to make a fireball that could kill a person quickly; you could probably train a regular person (assuming magical aptitude is fairly common–say, as common as good eyesight) to make a small explosion fairly easily. That’s all a gun is: a way of directing an explosion. And the real advantage of a gun is that it’s quicker to train troops to fire a gun than to use bows or hand-to-hand weapons. If it takes me a week to train my troops to fire my magi-guns and it takes you six months to train your mages to use combat magic with equal effectiveness, I’m going to steamroll you.

      That does not mean, of course, that guns will dominate the battlefield. Armies exist within societies, and it’s entirely reasonable to think a society would reject guns in favor of more “elegant” ways of killing people. It’s happened in history, after all.

      • Bubbles

        I’ve heard that before, actually. While I agree that guns might be easier to train people to use than strong magic, what about using both magic and guns? I think this is a more general issue which I feel might have been pointed out somewhere on this blog already – a lot of claims that technology makes those who don’t have magic stronger than or even equal in power to those with magic don’t really work when you consider that those with magic can also use technology. Of course, many authors do try to get around this by saying that magic interferes with technology, and while magic can work however the author wants it in a story, you still get into issues about what exactly is considered “technology” for this purpose which can easily lead to the setup seeming very contrived. I don’t think it must always seem that way – one idea I was recently speculating about is, for instance, fey being vulnerable to iron like in certain folklore might hinder their ability to use a lot of modern human technology, as iron is very commonly used in it. With that said, there are probably alternatives that don’t use iron, but I feel that iron is so useful that having to use alternatives counts as a disadvantage, plus how much they will be developed depends to some extent on factors such as when fey came into contact with humans and how humans regard them (yes, fey could develop technology on their own, but if they, say, lived in another world and never did before they met modern humanity…)

        • Dinwar

          Part of the issue is the definition of “technology”. The heavy plow revolutionized agriculture, but most people would be perfectly comfortable with a magic-based society using one, for example. It’s an inherently fuzzy word, and authors have a fuzzy concept of what to do with it. Outside a few cases, most authors hold anything after the widespread introduction of firearms as “technology”, but that leaves a LOT of gray area!

          Continuing with the assumption that learning magic is like learning martial arts: I can see magic taking long enough to learn that mages wouldn’t have a lot of time to learn to use guns. Or they simply wouldn’t WANT to use guns. Knights weren’t big on shooting longbows, but samurai were originally bowman, so it’s clearly not the case that bows preclude swords. Or maybe there’s something about learning magic that makes learning to use a gun a non-starter. Surgeons don’t tend to take up boxing as a hobby, because they need to protect their hands, so it’s not entirely implausible. Or like you said, there could be some aspect of the gun that is incompatible with magic. “The Chronicles of Amber” did this–gunpowder doesn’t ignite in Amber, so you can’t build guns. Whichever route you go, though, it should be consistent. If mages can’t use iron, they have to rely on flint, glass, or ceramic knives, for example.

          Ideally, though, magic and firearms would be used in conjunction with one another. Mages would serve as the equivalent of artillery, aid in recon, etc., while non-mages used firearms to level the playing field a bit. Rather than set-piece battles that we always see in fantasy, you’d get more modern styles of combat, with mixed units supporting one another.

          • Anthony

            Well, since this took a turn for the serious, I guess I might as well NOT give a sarcastic opinion. Forgive the wall of text.

            The thing about guns as I understand (not being a historian, lacking any formal education) is a complicated one when it comes to the why of it; in that there are so many little reasons why they became prevalent. Mostly these are due to societal changes and corollary advancements in technology, such as most soldiers being professionals. Huge armies were not that common; as conscription would be a horrible idea in a society where most of everyone farms for a living and one’s forced need to be back home in time for the harvest, this being in a world lacking refrigeration and most other forms of preserving food. Furthermore, in such an agrarian society the lords were much more vulnerable to revolt or coercion, as their wealth came primarily from farmers.

            In short, the conditions for a large conscript army did not exist in medieval europe and life was overall seen as less disposable. This began to change during the Renaissance, when the powers-that-were could invest in other sources of wealth and generally keep the peasantry powerless, as they then had no leverage. Come the years that followed the renaissance, we start to see a more modern society: one where peasants and similar plebians were simply worked harder to produce more food for the increasingly non-farming populace or likewise be more dedicated to a single trade. Due to gunsmith being a trade that many could have, under increasingly industrial conditions the advancements in firearms technology (range firstly, power secondly, accuracy and ergonomics thirdly and fourthly) were inevitable.

            Given these factors and the rise of full-time professional armies, the conditions were right for gun-based armies at the end of the 17’th century (1680s~1690s) with only a few still retaining pikemen and sergeants still leading with some variety of staff-weapon. The first to use this type of military were the Dutch (if I’m not mistaken) whose army were able to defeat a much larger force that greatly outnumbered them.Seeing that this Dutch method of arming an army mostly with guns was able to repel a conventional army, the larger nations changed to this new convention.

            Thus, conscription became widespread across Europe and vast armies of unwilling soldiers became the norm.

            As I assume most of you are not writing historical fiction, allow me to explain that the very context of how firearms are used need not be that of any historical time or place, nor that the technological progress ought to be contemporary to historical arms, nor even that guns result in napoleonic warfare. We are made to associate firearms with technological progress because they were made practical in a world that enabled their being made practical. We also associate them with progress because of colonialism, as the great powers of the time used them in conquering lesser powers abroad …who often also adopted firearms, but you don’t hear about that bit.

            My point being that your worldbuilding need not mirror our real world, nor popular psuedohistory when it comes to guns (or other things for that matter). To conjecture: if guns were discovered in the Bronze Age, they probably would have taken well over a thousand years to advance from a pipe-on-a-stick to looking like a boomerang carved by a chronic drunkard, just because of how limited all the other technologies were,(you’d have to use bronze; early iron was REALLY bad) and more importantly because of how society was. Big gun-toting armies wouldn’t have made sense because there were so few people, the shields and armour of the time could stop such underpowered loads, and slings were the premier bullet-throwers of the ancient world. (so why spend so much money employing specialists, when you can hire twice as many goat-herders for half the price and double the output?)

            Depending on the setting, guns might be a product of the magician clique, looked down upon as mostly useless for fighting (the case in China for a while), cumbersome to the point they’re not common as personal weapons, or just outclassed by other means. They needn’t be dominant to be present.

          • Cay Reet

            A few remarks on the historical background.

            One reason why you don’t get enormous armies in medieval Europe is that in most countries then, the ruler (king/emperor) had relatively little say. Unlike the Roman Empire, the German ‘Empire’ for instance was only nominally one and the local lords pretty much did as they wanted. They had battles, but those were, naturally, only between two lords with a couple of villages and towns under their thumb, so their armies never were big, even though they were conscripts. The battle usually also wasn’t far away and most ‘wars’ of that time were decided in one battle, so you’d conscript the peasants, go for the battle, take home those which survived and that was it. Big ‘state against state’ battles didn’t happen until well after guns were invented. Mercenaries were common by then, so a lot of soldiers were, indeed, professionals. Conscription might happen, but not as an ‘every male citizen’ thing and more as a ‘one son from every family’ thing. The fact that battle took people away from regular work is one reason why Sun-Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ states early that ‘the best way to have a war is not to have a war’ – because it’s extremely costy. Not only do you have to feed the soldiers, you also have less people creating the food at the same time.

            One reasons why guns came to dominate the battlefield is that they’re much easier to use than, say, a longbow. That was why the crossbow was much more common for a while as well – it takes much less time to learn to use a gun or a crossbow than to become as good with a longbow. Artillery has been around since ancient times (the Romans had heavy darts to throw, then there’s slingshots and, of course, spears and early bows) and everything which enhances the range is good. Guns have a much higher range than crossbow, while being similar in terms of training, so they replaced the crossbow. Cannons are better than trebuchets, so they replaced the trebuchet. That’s how upgrading usually works. You have something that suits your needs better and you shift use to it.

            If magic is easy to teach and a magical attack has a better range than a gun, guns are never going to become dominant on the battlefield. If guns can be used in addition to magic to make it stronger, they will definitely be integrated. That is down to worldbuilding. You can, however, be sure that sooner or later the ‘latest’ in weapons technology (aka the most deadly weapon which causes most damage), be it magic or something else, will be dominant in battle. Even societies which originally frowned on the use of guns eventually adopted them, because in many cases, the enemy didn’t have the same doubt about aiming a few hundred or more guns at them.

      • Erynus

        On the guns vs magic debate, i think that guns or weapons and armour in general wuould triump over magic because they are transferable, while magic knowledge is not. Anyone can try and use a gun, maybe not in the most proficent way, but in dire circunstances better that than nothing.
        If a mage needs to put concentration and effort into a bulletproof spell, she would be in disadvantage to someone wearing “passive” body armour. Mages could use armour too, but some settings forbid it to happen with the metal interfering magic shenanigans just to prevent them from being to overpowered. If we want to be realist we need to forget that “best warrior” mentality: any warrior, be it a knight, a samurai, a viking raider, an hoplite or a marine can be defeated by any other warrior, there is nothing like a best warrior, weapon or tactic. I bet greek hoplites would rank way better in close combat than modern soliers, just because now the fighting distance is way far than in Medic Wars times.
        Also, mages are people and are as prone to make mistakes as anyone else, and i’d rather have a stray bullet flying away than an un controlled nuclear fireball.

        • Dinwar

          I think the transferability of magic is going to be dependent upon the magic system you use. For example, the Enchanted Forest Chronicles had magic that was complicated to set up, but once it was set up anyone could do it (this was demonstrated in a spell that temporarily melted wizards). Magic could also be stored in objects and used by anyone. “Venturers of Aerth”, a game in a fantasy setting, has wands that release all their magic when they break. It takes a mage to make a wand, but anyone can use the wand, even accidentally (they’re used for traps).

          Also, consider non-combat roles. If a mage can make a magic stone that boils water it’s going to revolutionize field rations. Magic bandages with built-in healing powers increase survival rates of troops. Even something like a magic mirror, which allows troops to talk to folks back home or allows generals to look at enemy positions, would have major consequences (something Tolkien addressed really well in LOTR). Even if the general can’t operate the crystal ball, if he can use it while the mage operates it it still confers a tremendous advantage. Everyone thinks of combat as fighting, but really it’s intelligence, command and control, and supply lines. The actual fighting and killing are almost an afterthought (and in Medieval warfare often were a sign things had gone really, REALLY wrong).

          As Cay said above, it’s down to world building. How magic operates in battle is going to be dictated by the type of magic in question.

          • Anthony

            In what I’ve been writing so far, the limitations of magic in regards to firearms, along with the small scope of conflict in the world basically means that any gun which isn’t a tube with a hole out the side is going to be viewed as needlessly prone to complications and limited in application. Guns are employed more for defence behind fortifications in this setting, since out on a journey they won’t be ready to shoot right away; so they’re terrible at defending against a dozen-odd monsters charging you out of the blue.

            Now, everyone knows SOME limited forms of magic, but they are generally all quite mundane in scope. Starting a fire is the most well-known, practiced and ubiquitous spell of them all; if you want to light a candle, some tinder or indeed a length of match, you whisper the magic into it and what you’ve got will start to burn around where your breath reached. If you’re going about with a hand-cannon, you’ll have to make sure your powder isn’t too close to your mouth or throat or chest, because that won’t end well.

            As for magic by itself, more spectacular powers are not humanly possible per the limitations of human physiology. Those who wish to become among the best of the best wizards have to be rather thoroughly mutated into monstrous creatures, which very few people want to be.

            This is at least how I’ve keep the less bizarre elements of my work stuck in the 15’th century. It gets weirder the less it’s to do with weapons.

          • Erynus

            My point is that the moment you come up with a way to disable magic, you’ll retort to the non-magical warfare, so the existence of magic won’t invalidate armour or guns. Weapons and armour are an art form on its own, they are engineering marvels, despite the “bulky heavy armour” trope. If anything would hinder the warrior, it would be removed, and that is a staple to the warfare as a whole since ancient times.

          • Dinwar

            Erynus, I think we have different takes on magic, leading us in different directions. My take has always been that magic is part of the physics of the world. It makes about as much sense to talk bout “disabling” magic as it does to talk about “disabling” gravity or weak force. You don’t disable the force, you disable the device.

            I’m not saying my view is right; obviously there’s a plurality of ways to deal with magic in fiction, which is awesome! I’m saying this to provide context to my comments and admit to my personal biases. I’m not trying to say “I’m right”, I’m trying to say “Here’s how I’m wrong”.

            Leaving aside that issue, you’re absolutely correct. Magic would inevitably lead to an arms race, as every other technology has. And often the solution to one weapon is unrelated to the tech involved in the first. To add to your examples: As cannons got better, fortifications adapted to being more dirt-based. Rock is surprisingly weak, at least when compared to a fairly steep embankment. You simply can’t build a rock wall capable of withstanding a field cannon circa 1800. So it’s very likely that non-magical solutions would be found to the problem of mages in combat, regardless of how one views magic.

            I think some of the Star Wars books went this direction. A Jedi can simply crash your spaceship or absorb your blaster bolts, so they’re REALLY hard to fight. The solution? Create an environment where they can’t concentrate sufficiently to do so. The point of a lightsaber fight isn’t the lightsaber, it’s to distract the other Force user to prevent them from bringing other Force powers into play. If you’re causing the distraction you can generally still use more of your awareness to channel power, since you know what the enemy is likely to do. Of course, since he’s trying the same thing, the end result looks remarkably like two non-Force-sensitive people whacking each other with swords.

      • LeeEsq

        Most fantasy stories seem to treat magic as something very few people can do and that you need some sort of innate talent to rather than as a sort of skill you train people to do like we train pharmacists. Besides the fact that very few people seem to want to read about commercial-industrial scale magic outside of the Lord D’arcy stories, magic being nothing more than something that people can be trained to do, no innate specialness required, will really demystify and democratize the fantasy genre in a way a lot of authors and readers seem allergic to.

  13. Kenneth Mackay

    I’m now trying to remember the name of a fantasy novel I read some time ago that used magic to power steampunk technology – steam engines’ boilers were heated by captive fire elementals, so trains and steamships needed no fuel, and produced no smoke or soot.

    The protagonist’s revolver used bound imps rather than gunpowder or cordite; when the hammer struck a round it marred the pentacle stamped on the base of the cartridge, allowing the imp to escape by pushing the bullet down the barrel. To avoid releasing imps into the world, a magic circle was engraved on the end of the barrel, so the escaping imps were teleported straight back to Hell.

    Combining magic and technology like that is something I’ve hardly ever seen in fantasy, though in worlds where magic exists it should be commonplace.

    Perhaps LeeEsq is right, and readers don’t want their magic demystified!

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