Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
                    – Arthur C. Clarke


There are two planets, A and B. A is a global state with little conflict, while B is a medieval warlord state with constant conflict. A has advanced technology, while ~0.1% of B has 'magical' powers. These magical powers are limited to unnatural luck, unnatural persuasion ability, and manipulation of energy (fire, lightning, etc., however, leaves the user exhausted).

A is attempting to take over the natural resources of B. However, they don't want to do so by force, so instead they give 'gifts' to the warlords on B: nuclear power plants, cruisers, tanks, etc. They brand it as 'magic' and have their own specially trained mages maintain the large machines. The few plant overseers are the only ones who actually know how it works: most are only versed in a very specific portion of the machines and rely on mystic chants and curses to guide the machine (they work, but it's because of the technology).

An envoy from A has approached Alice, a warlord in an island archipelago, about giving this 'magic' for the cheap, cheap price of one month's supply of food for one million. Alice cannot refuse, as all her warlord neighbors would be happy to take over a country with their new weapons. However, she has deduced that this is no magic and simply a trap to get her country dependent on A for maintenance of the machines she is buying. How can Alice accept this proposal but avoid becoming dependent on A? (Her advisors estimate it will take fifty years at the current rate before her country is completely controlled by A, so Alice wants it done within 40 years)

At her disposal:

  • Population of 250,000
  • An army 12,000 strong
  • A corps of about 500 military engineers
  • About 250 trained mages, of which only 12 are masters
  • About 160 academic fellows (read: scientists) trained in the newly developed scientific method


  1. The answer gives a plausible way that people can 'break open' the systems of their technology and plausibly reverse engineer it within forty years without magic. The tiebreaker is time. Remember: They are trying to bridge an ~800 year technology gap in forty years. This is hard.
  2. The answer gives a plausible way that people can 'break open' the systems of their technology and plausibly reverse engineer it within forty years with magic. The tiebreaker is time.
  3. The answer gives a way to turn the mages into allies and get them to explain what the enemy's devices work. Remember: Few mages know how it actually works, most only know the mystic chants to get it to work. Also, imprisoning a mage without just cause is a casus belli for war. The tiebreaker is the use of magic, then the number of mages needed to be captured.
  4. The answer gives a plausible way to maintain their technology without the need for the mages provided by the enemy, either with or without magic. This change must occur within forty years. The tiebreaker is if it uses magic, then susceptibility to sabotage by an enemy, then time.
  5. The answer is none of the above.

The reason that I use magic as a tiebreaker in so much of this is that they only have around 250 mages, total, and their mental strength gets sapped up pretty quickly by using any ability.

Background Information (optional)

This is in a solar system orbiting a K-type star with about one-tenth the luminosity of the Sun. There are two planets in the habitable zone (ultraviolet and water), let's call them A and B.

Planet A: 0.9 times the size of Earth, orbiting at about 0.35 AU, this is a hot planet with large amounts of what we would call desert or steppe climates. At this point in time, they are a flourishing civilization but they are running out resources on their already resource-poor planet. They have technology similar to us today, maybe a little more futuristic with reusable spacecraft that can travel the 0.1 AU to planet B (think space shuttle with a payload capacity of the BFR).

Planet B: 1.3 times the size of Earth, orbiting at 0.45 AU, this is a cooler and much wetter planet than planet A, with large forest-like biomes and pronounced subarctic/arctic climates. There is much less desert, and it has much more resources than planet A. However, life has developed slower here, and its civilization is at an early medieval stage. Think around 1200s-ish, with the infantry revolution just beginning to occur.

Alice's archipelago: Made up of two main islands and a few dozen smaller islands about 60 kilometers from a major continent. It enjoys an oceanic climate and the separation from the mainland, combined with a strong surface navy, has kept the island safe from invaders for a while. However, civil wars were constant until 16 years ago, when Alice united the archipelago for the first time in 200 years. She has the power to rule as a dictator but generally allows a council of elected officials make decisions. She has a modern army (from a medieval standpoint), emphasizing the infantry and navy, supported by archers, engineers, and mages, paid regularly and highly disciplined.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Put on hold while it is being discussed in Worldbuilding Chat with OP. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Aug 6, 2018 at 16:52
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ The premise here reminds me of a major plot point in Asimov's Foundation series. I won't give it away, but I recommend the read if you get a chance. $\endgroup$ Aug 7, 2018 at 16:51
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ More on-topic, though. Several scholarly articles have been written pertaining to China's failed effort to reproduce a jet engine during WWII. It's a fascinating piece of history and relevant to what Alice is about to attempt, and that was only maybe 10 years of science they had to make up for. In short, she's better off taking the technology, using it temporarily to scare all neighboring warlords, and then secretly dismantling it, thoroughly documenting the device, and gathering what small science she can from it with a team of 20 engineers over a long time. $\endgroup$ Aug 7, 2018 at 16:58
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ A note about the reason for planet A invading planet B: Considering A has heavy space capabilities, they could simply mine asteroids instead of going down gravity wells, facing potential local resistance, disease, and heavy energy costs. Also, Space Shuttle-esque vehicles are not very effective at their job: its probably better just to make it literally the BFR (but get around the potential legal issues) $\endgroup$ Aug 9, 2018 at 1:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It's been mumble years since I last read it, but I seem to recall Poul Anderson's No Truce with Kings involving this sort of thing. If you can find a copy, it may provide some answers for your questions. (The low-techs definitely manage to crack open the invading "magic" tech, but I don't recall whether they successfully reverse-engineer it.) $\endgroup$ Aug 9, 2018 at 9:15

2 Answers 2


Install bioweapons on ordinary people, including control mechanisms. Let the magnetic field of the planet, or nearby sources, power the controls objects outside of the body, and nonessential-nutrients of the body to power internal bioweapons.

Practitioners can drink potions, eat pills, or simply rest, to get the nutrients back. Nutrients can be substances that the body doesn't need, or they can be the same as electrolytes, that get used up like physical effort. Using external mechanisms (tanks, artillery, etc), can be done while in a trance, where the pilot feels, or sees, certain things, and may even be able to project themselves astrally, outside of the machine, but has to project themselves inside the machine to work it.

You can also make it a possibility of an enemy taking control of their machine, with penalties to attack, etc., with bonuses for added astral protection that work against unprotected astral projections that try to take over the machine, or knock the user unconscious.

So, four men in a tank, against four men in another tank. Let's say, one man defends the tank, astrally (others may perform assists). Density of armor gives the defender an armor class, or may use the practitioner himself, as though they were grappling (plenty of other means may work), or a demon - or elemental - can be sent.

The way this would work, would be closer to chariot than a tank. The practitioners would become the fuel and weapons used.

So, one way would be to have actual tanks, and a team of magic users with a globe, or elemental bowl, or something. The tank would fire shells at the Magic User shielding, and have to knock it down as though it were an actual solid shell. D20 could work, but Alternity would be better.

Pound with spell, save as metal vs the shell hit, or pound with shell, trying to knock down a constantly regenerating shield, but they can still hurt the practitioners at damage minus a die roll plus the hardness of the shield (3D6 -[D10+6], etc.), so that the max in each will still result in damage of some sort. Grenades could be used (there are tables in the old DM's guide for that kind of thing. It was necessary for the "Barrier Peaks" module.

Lazers, grenades, shells, rockets, whatever you want. You could even use battlemechs. No problem. Just keep the damage within the realm of possibility.

You can also make the tank controlled as an elemental by the people inside, and project elementals externally, to attack enemy troops. Flamethrowers, water elementals muddying the terrain, or making the tank go aquatic, and even air elementals for flying glider-like weapons.

Put four guys in the tank and they can join powers, for a combined hit. The driver can even stop the tank to join in that damage. Tanks can be used against Magic Users as well.

You can steampunk it, go mech vs magic, or even steampunk vs full on magic. You can even use alchemists to make the machines Human, or vice-versa.

Go nutz. I'm going to try some of this out.


Three can keep a secret, provided two are dead. five and half million people cannot keep a secret, no matter how out-of-the-loop they are on the workings of their own machines.

This is the number of people currently employed in the UK in the engineering sector I choose the UK because it sounds vaguely similar geographically to Alice's archipelago. It's actually likely that since it's not going to be completely industrialised Alice's island will need far fewer Engineers/Mages than this Five million figure but it's still going to need more than several hundred with a few dozen masters at least. especially if A actually wants to get resources at any reasonable rate. Remember the reason Alice's archipelago has a population of 250000 is because it can only SUSTAIN a population of 250000 with their current agricultural technology giving a months supply of food for one million would completely bankrupt her people and cause her state to collapse (which is bad for A as well since they can't get any more resources either.). so in order to get their demands A must at least provide Alice with Haber-process chemical plants, tractors or some other agricultural advance. This goes for any resource that A wants to extract. More resources = More Mages = More chance of one of them turning and sharing what they know with Alice.

You don't really need to turn mages into allies. These traitors could have any reason for turning, perhaps they are angry at A for sending to this back water-planet and not properly educating them in their own machines, perhaps they want wealth and power, perhaps they legitimately sympathise with the people of B or maybe they've fallen in love with a local. honestly it could be anything but with the several hundred people total needed for an operation like this you are going to get turn coats. it would only take one plant overseer with a basic understanding of technology to lay-out a road map for Alice's archipelago's survival but even a few mages can give you a huge head start.

Firstly you are never going to bridge the TECHNOLOGICAL gap in a thousand years let alone forty. the scientific gap can be bridged in a few afternoons of talking but technology is more the just knowing HOW to build a jet fighter it's also being able to build it which requires precision machining of high-performance alloys. Even on our earth today they only nation that has the industrial capacity to produce a modern jet single-handedly is the USA and they are much, much bigger than Alice's archipelago.

So don't aim to close that gap, if you can produce simpler machines like rifles, steam engines, cannon, workshops & chemical plants on mass then you can easily overpower your rival warlords who are essentially wielding medieval armies with a few flourishes like tanks and cruisers. it doens't matter if your enemy has a tank in your capital city if you've already killed all his infantry with a few rifle barrages. if you time your attack right you could perhaps even have a decade before the next orbital transfer window allows A to get rockets to B. this leaves you with lots of time to further industrialise your nation, by the Time A is back you are the major power on your continent using your numbers advantage to mitigate the advantage other warlords have with an army 12000 strong fully equipped equiped with simple, robust technology.

Other top-tips for this situation:

  • use espionage to sour relations between other war-lords and A.
  • since mages can maintain technology you already have a mage turncoat is still extremely valuable.
  • work with other warlords bitter about the situation so that A has less bargaining power.
  • Hope A doesn't nuke you since they are after your resources afterall.
  • Don't attempt to recreate artefacts you're reverse engineering , realise that is beyond you and instead simply notice how prevalent features like cylinder and piston is among the designs of A and think "maybe there's something important about the cylinder and piston."
  • absolute best case scenario it's still going to cost A the equivalent of $50 per KG to move stuff between the planets this gives you a MAJOR advantage, A is sending stuff in small quantities while you will eventually be able to produce in bulk if A can send things cheaper they really don't have a reasource problem, if A needs a production facility on B offer whatever is necessary to build it on your land, a production facility by its nature will contain much more tech than any individual item.
  • Inventing the radio turns the number of possible turn coats from however many hundred people where originally sent to B to the probably several billion on A. it's also fairly easy to invent (all things considered).
  • You know that A needs more resources if you can last long enough and 'convince' enough of your fellow warlords to stop trading with A perhaps by selling tech of your own, then it's possible they will just collapse in on themselves.
  • You are an island nation, use that to your advantage. even if the enemy has a few destroyers they still need to develop a beach head, keep supply lines running etc.. etc.. this will be done with medieval tech so you can still disrupt this to keep their invasions at a screeching halt.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .