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
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
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)
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
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
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
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?
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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