So here's the scenario. I have two rather large and evenly matched empires: one led by human knight sorcerers with bloodline based magic and another by dragons, who are fairly similar to the dragons found in Dungeon and Dragons as far as capabilities are concerned, but aren't colour coded for your convenience in determining their ethics. I want the status quo to be a cold War, with both sides deeply distrustful of each other, but neither keen on the idea of a full blown war.

Here's a little overview of both groups' political and military structures. It's a bit wordy, but I wanted some context for reference.

First, the human knight sorcerers:

The knight sorcerers rule a feudal state with an emperor who grants authority to his vassals down the pyramid of lords and ladies of decreasing importance. So, several local nobles would owe allegiance to a single regional lord. Several regional lords would owe allegiance to the king and those kings would owe allegiance to the emperor.

Law and general government structure is fairly uniform across the empire. While local lords hold a large amount of power, abuse of it tends to end badly for the lord in question. And while not a democracy, all citizens do have some basic rights (no imprisonment without trial and such). Personal freedom has its limits, since all citizens normally belong to a specific lord's domain by birth, but it's an era of licenced movement and loose grips. As long as your paperwork and taxes are in order, things tend to go smoothly.

Local militias are well organised and a centrally controled army serves the emperor directly. Their job is to deal with any situation that's too serious for a local lord and his militia to deal with on their own. Military technology-wise, pikes and crossbows are extremely common. But primitive firearms, cannons and use of fantastical beasts also occur. Cannons are far more common in the regular army, but fantastical beasts such as griffins, wogs and hydras are more frequently used by local militias.

And now the dragons:

The dragons are ruled by a dragon empress and her family. The empress is an absolute ruler, but a fairly pragmatic and wise one. Male dragons each have their own lands and humans that belong to them. They can do what they wish with both, but poor management tends to get them in the empress's bad books. Getting in trouble with the empress tends to result in said dragon's authority and position being taken from him and granted to another dragon who's managed to curry favour through good results and managing things well. Female dragons don't own lands, so instead tend to take a strong interest in subjects other than ruling. They tend to hold positions like alliance brokers, priestesses, spymasters and scientists.

A major reason for this is a male dragon can sire half-dragons and spawn whole lines of dragon-blooded servants, while female dragons can not. These dragon bloods are considered from a legal point of view to be partly the dragon in question whose blood run through their veins. This grants them considerably more rights and privileges than normal humans. But it also means that their actions tend to reflect more the dragons' "favour the Empress" culture. As a result, a strong sense of blood loyalty is found among dragon bloods, knowing that if they do well, it will be their closest relatives that will likely reap the benefits. It is also why most of the dragon empire's high ranking positions are held by dragon- bloods. Dragons are relatively few in number, but trust blood to get things done.

Humans living in dragon lands, by contrast, have no legal rights or protections and their dragon overlords can do what they want with them. Also while it's considered bad form to harm another dragon's humans. It's typically something the offender would fix by paying a fine or doing the aggrieved dragon a favour.

Due to how the dragon empire is structured local law varies greatly, and all armies belong to a specific dragon. Dragons themselves exercise considerable martial might and some are tactical geniuses, with some of the older half-dragons not being far behind. Elite dragon-blood regiments tend to be common among the more martially gifted and older dragons, though the human based part of the armies tends to have poorer training and worse equipment than the knight sorcerers' forces. This is due, in part, to a less centralised and weaker infrastructure. Cannons and other firearms are pretty rare as a result.

What ways might I keep these two empires from trying to start a war with each other?

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    $\begingroup$ How will you judge the best answer? Why doesn't mutually-assured destruction (which is what kept Earth's cold war cold) work for you? Are the proxy wars we experienced (e.g., Vietnam, Korea) allowable? Are the dragons shape-changers? If not, they'll have trouble with the espionage Earth saw during it's CW. Keep in mind, there's a big difference between "I don't want to fight" and "I don't want to lose." Which is the predominant philosophy here? Please remember, "cold war" doesn't mean there wasn't a ton of fighting... it just tended to be more out-of-sight/out-of-mind. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jan 7, 2019 at 4:44
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    $\begingroup$ the cold war stayed cold because the prospect of winning a war was worse than the prospect of not fighting one. $\endgroup$
    – Jasen
    Jan 7, 2019 at 10:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Jasen and here in lies the actual correct mathematically proven answer, as described by the Nash equilibrium. Just look up and find the Nash equilibrium that best fits your back story. $\endgroup$
    – Aron
    Jan 7, 2019 at 10:32
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    $\begingroup$ So, basically, Ottoman Empire (humans) vs. Russian Empire (dragons). Look up Eastern European history till WWI $\endgroup$
    – nzaman
    Jan 7, 2019 at 11:55
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    $\begingroup$ If those dragons breath ice it's going to be a cold war no matter what. $\endgroup$ Jan 7, 2019 at 13:04

13 Answers 13


Distance - the intervening mountain range, swamp, or near barren grasslands make logistics of open war extremely impractical

Attitude - it just isn't worth the trouble unless they bother us first

Internal politics - cold wars can be more about how the ruling class uses them to influence their own people than external politics. Maybe the distrust is mostly or entirely an excuse to say things like "pay your taxes or the dragons will get us!"

Excessive cost - alternatively, the border is close and boiling with tensions, but the empire is scared about massive loss of life from dragons (which would qualify individually as weapons of mass destruction, easily), whereas the dragons are concerned about the risk of losing even one of their few number of true dragons in open war.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for cost. Both sides seem pretty pragmatic, so they would do a cost/benefit analysis, and if the benefit does not outweigh the cost, then the pragmatic thing to do is NOT to go to war. Doesn't mean they appreciate each other, of course, what with the knight sorcerers seeing the dragons as slavers, and the dragons seeing the knight sorcerers as a the end of their reign. $\endgroup$ Jan 7, 2019 at 7:45

One means to keeping a cold war going is the two antagonistic sides having the means of mutually assured destruction. These two empires could go to full-out war with each, but in the end, at best, one side will win. At worst, continued stale mate. With an "unlimited" supply of cheap soldiers (the serfs on the human side and humans on the dragon side) wars would break out as often as the elites did not truly feel the consequences.

Now if both sides knew that full-out war would guarantee their own society's utter destruction, they would sit in a cold war status, jockeying for dominance in other arenas to better their positions.

There is no better example of how to keep a cold war going than the events from the 1950's to 1988. One side just ended up collapsing because it could not keep up with the other.

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    $\begingroup$ This. Most wars in the real world stayed cold if there was MAD. Otherwise, sooner or later one side will get ideas. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Jan 7, 2019 at 10:43
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    $\begingroup$ Exactly what I was thinking... Maybe the dragons cannot reproduce, and the humans have the remaining eggs; if the humans destroy the eggs, the dragons will wipe them out, and then the dragon species will become extinct. Maybe this particular case is not applicable in this setting, but something along this idea (humans can cause dragons to become extinct, but before this happens the dragons can wipe out humans due to their overwhelming strength) $\endgroup$
    – frarugi87
    Jan 8, 2019 at 11:09

One way would be to introduce a third party. It's neutral towards both the dragons and the knights, and it wouldn't stand a chance if it went to war with either of them.

But if both the dragons and the knights believe this third party could easily overrun them if they went to war, even if they are the winners, that would be a strong motive not go to war. Note that this third party doesn't actually have to be strong enough, or even have the desire to war -- all what needs to happen is that the dragons and knights believe they'll lose out to the third party once they defeat the dragons/knights, as any war between them will mean heavy losses on both sides.

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    $\begingroup$ You could also regard the third party as a Kingmaker, they're not able to take over, but they could tip a balanced conflict in favor of their chose side. This means that even military superiority to the adversary isn't desirable as the third party can swing it back if they so choose. $\endgroup$
    – Fallonor
    Jan 7, 2019 at 20:02
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    $\begingroup$ Make them necromancers. They don't have an army right now, but if you go to war their numbers would grow with every fallen corpse $\endgroup$
    – Andrey
    Jan 7, 2019 at 22:36
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    $\begingroup$ My setting has a important necromancer in it's past of the Voldemort style. Fear of him not really being dead and waiting to create a undead army could be a fear that plays on both sides thinking? $\endgroup$ Jan 8, 2019 at 0:34
  • $\begingroup$ I like this. C is like England in WWI. It's not going to start the war, but it has a treaty with both that whoever fires the first shot becomes their enemy too, and they are powerful enough that the other side loses (unlike England). $\endgroup$
    – user39548
    Jan 8, 2019 at 15:20

Mutually Assured Destruction

Yes, it worked for Earth, it should work for your world.

The main difference is that the means for destruction are asymmetric in your case.

I'll assume for the question that both sides have significant defenses against each other's armies and capabilities, so that a conventional military strike at any vital point is unlikely to succeed.

The dragons could however launch a series of night raids to literally scorch the earth, burning the humans fields, orchards and lightly guarded livestock. This would destroy an entire harvest and plunge the humans into famine that will bring the empire down. There just aren't enough skilled soldiers to defend effectively against this. A handful of militia archers at each village is not going to make a difference to this.

The inability to destroy the food supply during winter (when it is in well-defended storage buildings) is not critical as winter is terrible for warfare anyway. With limited mobility and supplies, an attacking human army would be easy prey for the dragons, whose flight gives them the power to strike anywhere.

The sorcerers have some devastating magic ritual they could perform that would seriously harm, but not disable the dragons. Perhaps they could make human women infertile to dragons or kill all the dragon bloods. This would disrupt the social order of the dragons and probably a rebellion by their human subjects if the dragonbloods die.

Both attacks leave the other side able to retaliate and no reason to hold back. Both would also require extensive development to protect against, which would be visible and risk triggering a pre-emptive attack. This way the war stays cold.

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    $\begingroup$ This is the answer I was scrolling down to find, and IMHO the only reason for two parties with significant and genuine political antipathy to keep their war "cold". The balance of terror, i.e. MAD, is all that can really keep wars cold. $\endgroup$ Jan 7, 2019 at 15:49

Cold War

Magic when used on a large scale could have the side effect of drawing heat from the world. Maybe this is how magic works, or it could just be an accidental byproduct; either works. An all-out war would result in the mass deployment of weaponised magic by both sides, and plunge the world into a new ice age that directly kills off large swathes of the population and destroys both kingdoms' economic base. Presumably both sides found this out the hard way, when hostilities were abruptly cancelled by an unexpected winter.

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    $\begingroup$ Narratively a little bit anvilicious, but I kinda like it. $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Jan 7, 2019 at 10:17
  • $\begingroup$ That's just mutually assured destruction, but even less reliable because it's at one remove, which means the war will restart every generation as people have to experience this for themselves before they will believe it is real. $\endgroup$
    – Benubird
    Jan 9, 2019 at 10:38

The cold war between west and soviets was never full blown hot war - it came as result of defeating a common enemy and divvying up the spoils of that war. You could just basically copy that as the origin for why they even share a border in the first place.

Have the current situation be the result of being former allies who destroyed a kingdom in the middle - kingdom of lizard people or whatever, that's not important - just make them be so horrible that neither side wants to appear as being as horrible as they were and so mass executions, burnt ground tactics and such are not viewed favorably by either side - also you could have there be other semi-independent city-states scattered on the border between the two build on the ashes of the lizard people who would be totally extinct now - or at least thought to be. Then the two cold war sides would try to influence those states to join them and not the other side, they would fund shadow wars and provide military assistance and such, but stay technically out of it. Both sides would have to be engaged in this - Both sides would posses weaponry/army to wipe out any city in the middle grounds too, but will rarely do full invasions or attempts at such and in case another side does one, the resistance is not supported openly by the other.

You could also just make the magical powers be dependent on the distance to some magical object or home temple, further making it less feasible to attack either side full blown, so instead proxy skirmishes are done on the states that live between the two.

I mean, you already basically could just label the Dragons as the red menace. That kolkhoz peons basically have no rights whatsoever just underlines that and that there are special people who have more rights(communist party members or dragonkin, who can get rid of common folk at will) - and that passports are easily acquired and can be used to move between states in the west but not so easily into the border states or for moving from one major block to another.

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    $\begingroup$ This (otherwise pretty good) answer starts with the idea that the cold war came "as result of defeating a common enemy and divvying up the spoils of that war" and that is totally false, unfortunately. In fact, the soviets saw "the West" (especially the British Empire) as their natural arch-enemy since the very beginning and that's well reflected in the media of that time. There are multiple reasons why it didn't come into global scale cold or hot war earlier, but it is clear that the cold war was not just a fight over the spoils of ww2, all the components of the war were there decades before. $\endgroup$
    – rs232
    Jan 7, 2019 at 10:09
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    $\begingroup$ I didn't mean that cold war would have been fighting over the spoils of war. The established line for where the iron curtain fell was result of divvying up the spoils. With the common enemy defeated there was no longer a need to be allies - but here was this long common border. The UK and Soviets had somewhat friendly terms until the separation of east and west many year later was escalated by the Soviets. And don't get me wrong, I blame the escalation of cold war in Europe entirely on USSR trying to keep people under control, to prevent them from just packing their stuff and moving west. $\endgroup$ Jan 8, 2019 at 8:47
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    $\begingroup$ I like your answer and with this point cleared out by your comment I like it even more :) $\endgroup$
    – rs232
    Jan 8, 2019 at 9:41
  • $\begingroup$ You forget the critical reason why the cold war never became hot: MAD. If the tech level was a little bit lower (i.e. no nukes, maybe even no ICBMs) they would almost certainly have escalated to a full, "hot" war. $\endgroup$
    – Benubird
    Feb 12, 2019 at 9:50
  • $\begingroup$ I don't personally think the nukes and the MAD was all that important for the cold war to exist. It's just a personal opinion though, I realize that. We still have MAD but not the same cold war - and we had an example of massive bombing without nukes and results of that already - and MAD came to picture a while after. Nukes or no nukes, the eastern bloc would have blocked off their people from the west by enacting the iron curtain. This is essential for the cold war period to have been what it was, not nukes. $\endgroup$ Feb 14, 2019 at 5:30

The Question I found myself asking is: "What is the motivation for not destroying the other party?"

The mutually assured destruction aspect was already mentioned by other posters, so I'll skip this.

Another reason a party won't go to war could be that they don't have the troops to succeed. The dragons could think that the human magic is enough to destroy them while in reality the humans are very sure that they'll be wiped in a full out war, keeping up the illusion of power through magic, planned misinformation and other trickery. (Russia used to have inflatible tanks to trick satellite spionage)

Also, the humans could also have taken dragon eggs hostage. Direct descendants of the queen/empress. Their magic used to keep the eggs in a stasis where they neither hatch nor die.

The dragons may fear an uprising of half-dragons and humans, unsure if the magical abilities of their slaves and underlings may be enough to start a dangerous revolution.

As dwllama mentioned, cost is a very important factor of war. Troops, supporting the society and morale of citizens.

Hope this helps you.


Give them personal reasons to hate each other, but political reasons to avoid conflict.

Fights between parities ("wars") are, generally speaking, fought over limited resources - whether that's iron, water, or grazing land, one country has something the other country wants so they invade. So just make it so that the two countries use entirely different resources, and have no interest in the others land. At the same time, give them some sort of personal benefit - for instance, any time a dragon eats a sorcerer or a sorcerer kills a dragon, they get stronger.

That gives them incentive to keep the war going (because they want it to be socially acceptable to kill each other), but at the same time keeps it from getting hot - because wars are expensive for everyone, not just the frontline combatants, and they don't want to be paying out money to fund a war that will give someone else the benefit.

With this set up, you get lots of rhetoric about how much each side hates each other, riling up the population, followed by raids of a single individual with a small band of helpers to hunt down one of their opposite number, but no large scale fights.

Peace is impossible, because individuals are not going to stop the hunting and killing, not when they get so much benefit from it. A full blown war however would be disastrous for the emperor, because it will cripple him economically, while dramatically boosting the power of his nobles - almost certainly resulting in a coup. Therefore, cold war!


To answer the question

What ways might I keep these two empires from trying to start a war with each other?

Put a third party in it, which threatens to annihilate both dragons AND humans.

Much like the elves and dwarves of Lord of the rings, both of them has a huge grudge on each other, yet they allied during the attack of the orcs in the movie Battle of the Five armies. Heck, some elves where killed by the dwarves too.


Humans constantly improve warfighting skills. Dragons don't.

Humans use tools to fight. And since they are the very definition of an arms race, the tools get better every year.

Whereas dragons mainly fight with their God-given sharp and burny parts, and don't arms-race with silly gadgets.

Just at extremes, a dragon would be able to achieve a total wipe-out of a first-string Roman legion. But a modern junior-varsity force, such as Estonia's army with its MAPATs, Javelins and radar-guided AA guns... or Turkey's G-class frigates with SM-1MR missiles, could exterminate the dragons by pushing buttons.

All this to say, it is inevitable that there'll be a point where the knights are able to hit the dragons hard enough to make the dragons think twice. That is not yet license to kill dragons; a dragon fight would still exact a heavy toll, and of course the knights remain totally vulnerable to countervalue damage e.g. against undefended villages. So either party will pay a heavy price for fighting.

At that point, each side could destroy the other, but the price they'd pay is not worth it. Neither side would have any opportunity for a debilitating "first strike" as would occur in nuclear war, as the knights are too dispersed, and the dragons are too many.

The knights may have reached a "live and let live" philosophy of "no reason to attack the dragons if they aren't attacking us". The dragons clearly have that philosophy already, since humans survived the period when the dragons could crush them.

Against this balance of terror, you also have trade. If knights and dragons have cause or ability to do business with each other, nothing stops war like trade. That's a big part of why America has so many trade agreements.

  • $\begingroup$ Intresting thoughts. Through as counter balance point dragons only grow in personal power overtime. $\endgroup$ Jan 8, 2019 at 0:18
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    $\begingroup$ This would be a good scenario to build the conflict that the story would need. The centuries old balance of power having the scales tip slightly to one side. Over the years, for every 1million advancements dragons make, humans made 1million and one. Sooner or later, the two sides would realize that humans now possess the upper hand, causing panic in the dragons elite, thus triggering actions that may cause the tenuous peace to come to an end. $\endgroup$
    – Sonvar
    Jan 8, 2019 at 3:08

The Wastes: A Testament to the Madness of War

The war has not always been cold. Indeed, once upon a time, a knight-sorcerers led army met a dragon-led army in the middle of contended lush plains, to the East of Jericho.

Wait, you say, there's no such plains to the East of Jericho! It's a barren wasteland where all living die and wither!

And you'd be right. It's said that the dragons and their progeny were so powerful, laying such devastation in the human army, that the knight-sorcerers had no recourse but to execute a terrible circle spell, drawing a star from the sky and crashing it onto the battlefield. The dragon army died. So did the knight-sorcerers army. And the knight-sorcerers themselves. And the magic-infused wind which blew outward from the battlefield burnt and stripped all the land for miles upon miles, killing all, razing hills and towns.

Dragons can be killed, but not by half-measure. The only known way is causing a star (hint: meteor) to fall from the sky, and unfortunately this tends to kill quite a bit more than the dragon.

Used on land, it creates a wasteland. Been there, done that. And nobody's really sure that if it was invoked again, the next time it would raze an even larger area.

Used on water, it's posited that it would create a giant wave which would raze the coasts on both side of the sea. Tests throwing a big rock in a lake certainly suggest so.

The Dragons could wipe out the knight-sorcerers' kingdom, but not without a few knots of knight-sorcerers sacrificing themselves to invoke falling stars here and there.

The knight-sorcerers could sacrifice a few fanatics of them to invoke falling stars here and there, razing the Dragon's capital, or their royal line, but they'd never be able to kill all Dragons, and that'd leave the human kingdom open to retaliation. Cities would burn.

So the two skirmish, but take really good care not to escalate things too far.

Plot hook: a few fanatic knight-sorcerer or a mad Dragon have decided that they're ready to accept the cost, and will attack... sending their own side scrambling to prevent it from happening and forcing a squad of knight-sorcerers to cooperate with a Dragon and its brood.


How did the real cold war stay cold?
With the fear of nuclear weapons.

As mentioned before me, mutually assured destruction is a wonderful reason for this, and will be most convincing to readers, as it has real precedent.

You should think in advance if you eventually want the war to turn hot. At that point you either have to

a) Make someone disregard the mutually assured destruction.


b) Make something change so that m.a.d. no longer applies.

a) has the problem that then the whole world is inevitably screwed and the story you can tell from that point onwards is constrained by the fact that everyone is dead.

b) is better (in my opinion) since it constrains you less. However this must be carefully crafted. I don't want to write your story for you but I'd probably create some rare tools or artifacts that can be used to inflict unimaginable destruction and horrors, but which somehow grow old and are discovered to have lost their power over time...

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    $\begingroup$ My current WIP idea is to have a undead based threat that would ballon into a far more serous one if a masive war took place on the two empires main land border. A sort of cursed area were the dead don't stay dead and is powered by death. It should give me plenty of leeway latter, since it's the sort of curse that a plotline could end. $\endgroup$ Jan 8, 2019 at 0:27

Every feudal state, ever: "The knight sorcerers rule a feudal state."

England, Spain, France, etc. : "The dragons are ruled by a dragon empress and her family"

Jews, aka : "Female dragons don't own lands; they tend to hold positions like alliance brokers, priestesses, spymasters and scientists."

I don't see how this can be a cold war because as written, the dragons could destroy the world if they wanted to but it doesn't sound like humans can. There would need to be a case of mutually assured commerce. And it sounds like the 'female dragons' have that covered just like they always do.


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