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Magic in this world focuses on controlling the elements of nature (earth, air, fire, water). Witches perform magic by drawing in energy from the natural world and focusing it into a spell using their own mana reserves through an incantation. In this way, they are able to channel this energy into affecting the material world.

Using witchcraft for warfare is limited, as there are not many witches. Therefore, they are a valuable addition to any army. The problem is limiting their effectiveness. Throwing fireballs, calling down lighting, or causing earthquakes are far too powerful, and turn these witches into one-man armies. The amount of energy in the environment is unlimited. However, powerful, attacks like those would take a massive amount of time, energy, and quantity which are usually impractical. Those nuclear options would take large amounts of witches several hours to complete, spending high amounts of their own mana in the process, which is why they are rarely used and saved for extreme measures.

How can I limit/balance my magic system to force witches to play a necessary but limited role. The best answer will:

  • Discourage direct, frontal combat.

  • Encourage ambush and surprise-related tactics.

  • Express the limitation in terms of the elements of nature. In other words, "if they draw more than X mana, it'll burn them up" isn't the kind of answer I'm looking for.

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  • $\begingroup$ @JBH i thought it did. ill try again. $\endgroup$ – Incognito Apr 15 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH that is it yes. $\endgroup$ – Incognito Apr 15 at 16:00
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH Yes that is what i am looking for. $\endgroup$ – Incognito Apr 15 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ Make them too nuclear of an option in large groups? Bring on the witchy cold war. $\endgroup$ – IT Alex Apr 15 at 17:45
  • $\begingroup$ "large amounts of witches several hours to complete" -- I can think of a 7-9 hour period that occurs every day during which an opposing army is unlikely to be doing much. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Apr 15 at 20:55
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Your system is already well setup for those tactics: to defeat an army you need a large group of witches to spend hours preparing an obvious and tiring spell, but to defeat those witches all you need is a single witch to break their concentration for a second. The only requirement is an obvious sign that a big spell is being caused so that opposing mages can disrupt it.

If storm clouds start gathering or trees start growing in a specific area, it's a guarantee that an army's witch-artillery (howitchers?) will zero in on the witches preparing the spell. These watchful witches will finish their small spells first, sending focused lightning bolts and fireballs to ruin runes, halt hymns, and cutoff concentration long enough to cause the big spell to fizzle.

Because of this, magical strike teams using small and quick spells will be the main tactic of witch warfare. Disrupting enemy supply lines, striking vital infrastructure, assassinating critical targets, and stopping attempts to cast big spells will be the main tasks witches perform, as well as staying on reserve to prevent such attacks on their own logistics network. Neither side would risk sending their witches into the main fight, in fear that doing so will weaken or distract them and allow the enemy witches to finish a big spell.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for "howitchers" :D $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Apr 16 at 10:45
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Controlling wood

  • Shafts of arrows swell with water (the witches manipulate the water already inside the cells). This makes it difficult to shoot them and impossible to aim properly.
  • Wooden bows also warp and weaken as the water in them changes.
  • The heads of axes fall off their wooden handles. Ditto any weapon using a wooden handle or pole.

Controlling metal

  • Sword hilts heat up with fire. No need to affect the entire sword, just the part the hand touches. A glove thick enough to protect the hand would also affect how the solider fights.
  • Knives (whether for fighting or throwing) have the same problem.
  • Armor becomes too hot to wear.
  • Helms discharge water through the eye holds, making it impossible for the solider to see when they're on.

Controlling wind

  • Ground glass is carefully blown and aimed into solider's eyes and up their nostrils.
  • Or stinging ants.
  • Or stinging nettles.
  • Or even nothing more than thick campfire smoke. It follows the soldiers around and does not dissipate.
  • Has the advantage of it not being as obvious that magic is involved, if you wish to hide that fact.

Controlling earth

  • The ground appears even but random locations have tunnels (think something like gopher holes) that you don't know are there until you step on them and your foot sinks. Or twists. This takes care of mounted soldiers and reduces the number who can get through on foot (or limits their speed).
  • Stepping on invisible fire ant or yellowjacket nests would be a nice touch.

There are many ways your witches can use minimal energy to devise attacks on their opponents. None of this kills the soldiers outright but it makes their weapons less useful and makes them vulnerable to traditional modes of warfare from the soldiers the witches are helping.

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Every elemental force could be hampered by its enemy force (for instance water vs fire, earth vs air... or - even better - a scissor-paper-stone scenario, like water beats fire beats earth beats air...).
This way you can limit the power of the spells a witch could launch.

For instance, a fire witch would become less powerful according to the quantity of water nearby. If she must fight near a river or the sea, her fire spells could deal a little more damage than a sunburn. An earth witch would be extremely powerful in a cave, but would lose a big amount of her power on the top of a mountain.
Battle tactics could rely on this information: if I know that my enemy has a water witch at his disposal, I could turn on big fires to reduce her impact on the battle; or I could pump a lot of fresh air in a cave to face an earth witch, and so on.

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I made a custom tabletop RPG with Ad Hoc magic like this once, and my approach worked out fairly well. To start, think of the power a witch can project as limited the same way your body is limited, and try to keep it someone "human" in scale. A Human body can lift ~10-300kg or run ~15-45kph with most people in the far lower limits. Just like you can limit and measure how much a person can exert their body in things like speed and strength, a witch just needs a measure of their limits as well. Secondly, you need to limit things that give you a perminate pay-off for a one time investment or give too much power over elements outside of your domain based on technicalities such as being able to make a giant army of stone golems by bringing them to life or using the heat in a rock to activate a fire power.

For example, an average hydromancer might be able to do the following:

  • Exert a force of 100-3000 newtons on any body of water at a time depending on their proficiency with most being in the 150-300 newton range.
  • Cause 5-100kg/sec of water to phase shift between solid/liquid/gas depending on their proficiency with most being in the 10kg/sec range.
  • Can extract water from solutions at a rate of 0.5-5 liters per minute depending on their proficiency with most being in the 1 liter range.
    • Can not use other powers directly on water solutions that are more less than 95% water

From these rules, most witches could derive the following abilities:

  • Walk on water
  • Use a bucket of water to quickly freeze a door shut.
  • Use a bucket of water to quickly fill a room with steam.
  • Convert a cup of water into lethal javelin of ice.
  • Damn up a small stream with a wall of ice over the course of a few minutes.
  • Extract drinkable water from mud.
  • Slowly and painfully kill a person by pulling the water out of their body.
  • Use salt water, wine, or other >95% water solutions as "water".

A powerful witch could do some slightly more impressive stuff like:

  • Launch a cluster of deadly ice sicles, killing a small group of enemies with a single attack.
  • Quickly form an icewall blocking a corridor
  • Pull enough water out of a person's body to kill them in seconds.

Things that a witch could not do alone (or not at all) include:

  • Freezing an entire army's feet into a bog.
  • Summoning a blizzard to bury a city in snow.
  • Parting the Red Sea.
  • Instantly freeze the hearts of a group of enemies.
  • Bring a body of water to life
  • Use blood, mud, or other <95% water solutions as "water".
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Witchcraft thwarts and poisons.

Traditionally, witches are suspected when milk goes sour, lambs aren't born, babies get sick, wheels fall off. Witches mess up what you are trying to do. The problem is you are never sure if it is witches, or if it is just bad luck. Or both.

This stealthy endeavor is perfect for your witches. Bowstrings and axles break. Food goes maggoty. Blisters form. Holes open in your pockets and pouches. Bad teeth act up. Bedbugs come.

Nothing impossible. Nothing that might not happen normally to an army in the field. But when you find a two headed albino toad floating in the beer, that is her signature. That is when morale starts to crumble. Because maybe the toad is all she actually did, and the soldiers give her credit for everything else that goes wrong.

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I think that some smaller spells would help with this. The witches don't need to call lightning, but they could be able to send small electric discharges strong enough to do damage. Maybe they can be able to manipulate water, but not a lot of it. Trow not so big fireballs? But I think potions would be really useful. There can be potions that blow up like grenades, potions that unleashes a stunning gas, etc.

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Environmental Weaponry

Whilst creating earthquakes or summoning lighting may be too energy consuming, we can instead use nature to our advantage.

Rather than creating an earthquake, it is far easier to engineer a landslide. Your witch would stand at the top of a canyon, mountain passage, hillside, cliff, etc. When the enemy army approached, she would use her magic to push dirt or rocks or even snow onto them or in front of them to block their path. You could even have two witches, one to block their way forward and another to block their retreat, trapping them in the middle. From there archers can fire down onto the army trapped army to kill them.

In a similar sense, you could have witches create floods by bursting dams or riverbanks, causing the water from a reservoir to flood the valley or the river downstream, thus drowning and battering the enemy.

Air can easily be utilised for an ambush. By pushing loose material, such as dirt or sand, into the enemy army you have effectively blinded them. The small particles will go into the solider’s eyes, causing them to water and be extremely uncomfortable. This allows your own soldiers to run in and kill them as they won’t be able to properly defend themselves.

Fire is by far the easiest element to use as it spreads on its own. This means you do not need a huge amount of it to achieve a devastating effect. When the army marches through a dried grassland or forrest, your witch can create small fires around them. The dried land will quickly ignite and spread, eventually engulfing the army in flames.

Human-Made Weaponry

All of the above depend on the local environment, you cant create a flood without a large body of water, nor can you create a landslide without somewhere to push the material down. These methods can be more easily employed in a variety of places.

While you may be hard pressed to find a mountain to create a landslide on in a city or village, this does not mean you can’t employ other methods. Rather than pushing rocks down hills, you can instead collapse walls and buildings by damaging the load-bearing walls. This achieves the same effect as described above, just in settlement.

Water is hard to use if there is no natural body. However, it is not impossible. You can bring water and heat it to create steam, using it to obscure your army’s movements. Quite a valuable tool in some cases.

Air is also hard to utilise, though you could potentially use it to create updrafts, allowing you to use gliders to scout out the enemy or drop troops behind their lines to sabotage equipment.

Finally, we come to fire. Fire is again the easiest to use, enemy siege equipment or tents can be set alight, killing or weakening their forces. You could instead use it to create smoke, obscuring your army’s movements.

Here are some ways your witches can utilise their magic in an ambush-like way. Some of the above may instead fall into sabotage or skirmishing but i feel like that is what you were going for. None of these methods would require a huge amount of energy as most are using the already existing energy found in nature, such as gravitational potential or chemical energy. This allows for witches who’s magic is not exceptionally powerful to be very useful in some situations.

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Discourage direct, frontal combat. - Snipers. Magic might be great but having your head explode before you even hear the bang puts a real damper on it. Witches would dress as regular soldiers and try to blend in. Throwing a fireball might be cool but it points you out to a sniper.

Encourage ambush and surprise-related tactics. - Magic counters magic. If they know you're bringing magic to the fight, they bring magic to counter your magic. It's most effective when they don't know it's coming. A witch would be an awesome multi functional commando. They can scout, mislead, communicate, heal and fight all rolled into a single air droppable soldier.

Express the limitation in terms of the elements of nature. - Each witch has a garden hose worth of magic. Sure you can fill a lake but it will take a really long time. Two witches do it twice as fast but still a long time to fill a lake. A huge coven of witches working together and suddenly that lake is viable. A huge coven can do powerful things but another huge coven can drain the magic back out just as fast as the first draws it in countering it's effectiveness. Even a smaller coven can slow the ritual down enough allowing time to evacuate, counter attack or bring in reinforcements.

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