So, I’ve seen other settings before where magic-users – mages, sorcerers, wizards and similar – are basically gods. There have been fantasy stories where a mage can singlehandedly wipe out an army, and no mundane man could challenge them. In those settings, the mages typically have forcefield shields, endless magical bolt attacks, flight, telepathic communication or whatever.
I would like to strip all of that away, and ask what is the best way of implementing of a more limited form of magic during wartime? How would mages realistically be used in battle and warfare?
In my world, magic is a concept that exists but there are pretty hard limits on how much of it a person can use. Firstly, I'll highlight the levels of power that I'm considering.
- Mages are all imperfect humans. Like any regular soldier on a battlefield, a magic-user is prone to miscommunication, friendly-fire, or even panic. Come battle, a mage requires training and command to keep them in formation,
- Besides a defined number of spells, mages do not have any superhuman capabilities. Their reaction speed, their awareness, and their durability are the same as a regular person,
- The quantity of mages is limited in number. It requires a large amount of study to use magic, typically decades. Due to the time and dedication involved, most experienced mages tend to be quite elderly,
Restrictions of magic:
- A mage can typically cast a maximum of three spells per day. After casting three spells, they require a full day to recuperate their strength,
- After every spell, it takes around one hour of recharge time,
- It requires intense concentration to cast a single spell,
- There are serious, life-threatening consequences involved with casting too many spells too quickly,
- Magic works in short, powerful bursts. A typical spell lasts no more than a few seconds,
- It is impossible to maintain magic for any extended period – attempting to create and then maintain a magical barrier would drain the mages very, very quickly.
- A mage requires direct line of sight to the target to aim the spell,
- The power of a spell is inversely proportional to its range. If a mage tries to target something a long distance away, and the energy will dissipate over that distance. The range of a spell is approximately half that of a longbow,
- There is a trade-off between power and precision when casting magic. For example, a mage could launch a large fireball into enemy lines, but that would be difficult to control and he wouldn’t be able to aim very well. Alternatively, a mage could launch a concentrated beam of heat to evaporate a single enemy’s skull, but that would require a lot of focus and he wouldn’t be able to put much power behind it,
- To cast a spell, a mage must be holding a large, two-handed staff,
- However, there are no restrictions on their clothing or armour. A mage doesn’t need to wear robes, he could wear full-metal plate. Likewise, before and after casting, the mage could swap weapons to hold a sword and shield if necessary,
- Magic originates from the caster’s staff and requires a direct medium to reach its target. A mage cannot telekinetically crush a man’s heart with magic, for example. The mage could only crush a man’s heart if he placed his staff directly against the man’s chest,
- Depending on the circumstances, a spell can be blocked or deflected,
- A spell cannot work passively. There is no such thing as a magical shield,
- Enchanting or imbuing other objects with magic is not possible,
- No spell exists that allows far-seeing, scrying, or instantaneous communication. The most that a mage could do is fire up a signalling flare,
- No spell exists that allows direct mind control,
- No spell is powerful enough to significantly control the weather.
Capabilities of magic:
- Most mages use and specialise in elemental control, but other specialities exist.
- There are quite a variety of different spells that can be cast, usually limited only by the caster’s own skill, power and focus,
- For example, a mage could cause the surrounding air to spontaneously combust into a fireball. He could also gather static in his hands and generate a lightning bolt. He could also telekinetically create a fissure in the ground beneath him. Alternatively, he could pull moisture from the air, or manipulate air pressure to form a shockwave. However, they are limited by peak power,
- For a rough approximation of their maximum power, a mage might launch a fireball with a five-metre impact diameter,
- When faced with a solid castle wall, a mage would be able to create cracks in the stone and tear it apart, provided that he was close enough proximity. This could be used to break through walls, gates and fortifications, no battering ram required,
- No single type of spell is ‘fixed’ – there’s a large amount of freedom for creativity during casting,
- Manipulating light and creating hollow illusions is possible, but again these illusions are restricted in range and duration,
- It also possible to mages to ‘curse’ or ‘hex’ individuals. They can artificially induce the symptoms of various ailments or diseases against their enemy. This requires a lot of focus,
- Most mages have one or two speciality spells, depending on the individual. A mage can often perform their preferred spell with great efficiency, but they would struggle to cast any other different spell.
The above are general guidelines – there are some individuals that would be stronger, others are weaker, but that’s about what a commander could expect from an average mage.
Basically, mages are like cannons that can fire very infrequent, very powerful, short-range attacks. However, unlike cannons, they are fleshy men in the middle of the fighting.
I imagine that a magic bombardment would be very good at breaking through walls or scattering a cavalry charge. However, a skilled archer can still outshoot a mage by quite a large margin, and so mages would still be very vulnerable to a hail of arrows. Archers can fire a lot further and a lot more regularly. In the thick of fighting, the enemy would probably train their marksmen to target any figure holding a staff.
Also unfortunately for mages, they do need to be on the front line to be really effective. They don’t have the range of siege weapons. You could guard them with a shield wall, but the mage still needs line of sight and a clear target to fire a magical blast.
So, the question: how does the existence of mages of this level affect military warfare and strategy in this world?
Let us assume that you are a general; you have an army of conventional forces (such as archers and crossbowmen, infantry and spearmen, knights and mounted units, etc.), and you also have a limited number of mages to support them. Let’s assume a few dozen mages among a thousand men. What is the best strategy of using these mages in battle, bearing in mind their effectiveness and weaknesses? What formations do you use, how do you get most use out of them?
I’m especially interested in consideration of different types of combat. How would mages influence a pitched battle? Or what about when besieging a castle? Do you use them differently during skirmishes or raids, or is there a better place for them off the front lines altogether?
Also, what do you do when the enemy has a larger number of mages in his army? How do you defend against them?
I have my own thoughts on the subject, but I’m curious to see what other people suggest.