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In my world, no one can die. There is no pain, no death, no injury, etc. Everyone has superpowers. Some people have pyrokinesis, some people have godlike strength, some people can read minds, some people can fly, some people can make food out of thin air, some people can turn themselves into poop, and some people can make things (but not people) disappear. However, none of these powers can kill, hurt, or even be felt by anyone. In addition, there is no hunger, no thirst, no needs of any kind. People still have all of the guns and weapons that exist now, but they cannot harm anyone at all. People mainly use them for fun, since they just like to shoot random things. No one has any possessions, so there is nothing to steal. The only constant is that no one can be harmed, trapped, or killed. I am looking for a form of war that is like real war but can still have a victor in my world.

Therefore, since wars/fights are won by killing, trapping, or incapacitating an opponent, and none of those things are possible, how can there be a war or fight or battle in my world?

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe the losers are thrown in some sort of confinement ? Supermassive black hole, some impossible-to-break-out field that one of your creatures can make? basically, instead of killing each other, they kidnap and imprison eachother $\endgroup$
    – zedling
    Oct 12, 2022 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ What does this part mean? "However, none of these powers can kill, hurt, or even be felt by anyone" $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Oct 12, 2022 at 23:33
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    $\begingroup$ "no one can be trapped" - how exactly that works? Everyone has an absolute escape superpower? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Oct 13, 2022 at 0:09
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    $\begingroup$ Do these gods have any motives? No sticks you say but are there carrots? Seeking of novelty, pleasure, power, status? Seeking of status is a huge driver of conflict for humans. If there is no motivation at all why do they exist? $\endgroup$ Oct 13, 2022 at 18:51
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    $\begingroup$ Don't trap anyone, just liberate them from Earth's gravity and let them enjoy freedom. $\endgroup$ Oct 13, 2022 at 22:19

17 Answers 17

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There must be something that people can gain or lose. Without this, there is no reason to fight.

In our world, when people fight, it is because there is a situation where person A stands to gain by person B losing. War is the highest-stakes version of this because we tend to place the highest value on human health and well-being, which is at stake in violent conflict. But there's much more mundane examples too. In a game, you compete because not all players can win. And if we want to raise the stakes of a game beyond just the fun of winning, we give the winner a prize.

So, in your world, perhaps people fight as a game. That's one possibility. But it's not like war, because in war, the stakes are what you care about most. So, in your world, the "war" equivalent would have stakes of whatever the people care about most (that they are capable of losing). Are your people artists? Perhaps in a war, you are trying to destroy your adversary's creations. Are your people competitive? Perhaps they simply fight to "win" by some set of rules everyone agrees to. Are your people religious? Perhaps they compete to win the favor of God/gods. Hopefully you get the idea. Whatever your people have that they are capable of not having and value most should be what is at stake.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for "destroy your adversary's creations". That was my primary thought as well. $\endgroup$
    – Qami
    Oct 13, 2022 at 4:43
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    $\begingroup$ Capture the flag? $\endgroup$
    – kutschkem
    Oct 13, 2022 at 8:19
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    $\begingroup$ Like a Minecraft server, set on creative mode, limited in space and with the possibility to grief others's buildings ^^. $\endgroup$ Oct 13, 2022 at 10:04
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    $\begingroup$ Honestly the best answer here. I think that taking the comments of the question author into account even this sort of war wouldn't work however. There isn't even a way for these superbeings to prevent each other from doing anything. So "destroying each others creations" would just be a: "Yeah everything's gone now" I think the described setting is just very boring. $\endgroup$
    – Blackclaws
    Oct 13, 2022 at 16:19
  • $\begingroup$ Fitting quote from Arrival: "ask him the Sanskrit word for 'war'", later answered with "[it means] a desire for more cows" $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Oct 14, 2022 at 15:17
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War games

I am part of a group that meets regularly to engage in various ersatz conflicts using symbolic tokens and ritualised rules - also known as "board game club". Why? Because it's mentally stimulating, because victory feels satisfying even if it has no material effect, because interacting with others through the formalism of a game can be more entertaining than simply chatting about the weather.

The same applies to your immortal, intangible, invulnerable post-humans, who sound like they would be bored out of their skulls by the utter flattening of their Maslow pyramid. They wage war the way we play Catan, or chess, or Rhino Hero.

Importantly, that's it. There's no dramatic repercussion to their social standing, their attractiveness to mates, their prospects in life. These are not trifling games played for high stakes. They are just a pastime for the terminally ennui'd.

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    $\begingroup$ I suspect your victories really feel satisfying because in your club victors perform the "victory dance" and losers are obliged to watch and applaud politely, even if the dance goes on and on. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Oct 12, 2022 at 22:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Willk A patently ridiculous victory dance is best here. One that the losers must politely applaud to while thinking they lost to people like that. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Oct 13, 2022 at 14:32
  • $\begingroup$ "Queen's bishop to D6. Your move." $\endgroup$ Oct 13, 2022 at 22:06
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    $\begingroup$ Seems like the real spoils of war are the friends we made along the way $\endgroup$ Oct 14, 2022 at 10:21
  • $\begingroup$ Online first-person shooters seems like a closer comparison to battles where you can't get hurt (although the strategic aspect of war is probably more like a board game, or strategy game). If one considers esports, and non-e-sports, one can certainly imagine this having some rather significant repercussions to social standing, attractiveness to mates and prospects in life (if you want it to). $\endgroup$
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 14, 2022 at 12:28
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To wage war, you need three things: one, money; two, money; and three, money.

The vast majority of modern wars, starting with the Thirty Years' War, haven't been won by killing all the other guy's troops. Instead, they are won by mucking up the other guy's infrastructure enough that he can't wage war.

For example, consider the First World War. At the end of the war, the Central Powers were doing quite well militarily. They still had plenty of troops left, and Russia had just surrendered. However, it was at that point that the Central Powers were themselves forced to surrender. Why? While they still had plenty of warm bodies, the infrastructure to feed and arm them was collapsing.

Consider also the Second World War, twenty years later. The reason the Axis lost (again) was because they lacked the manufacturing capabilities to match Russia and the United States. Supplies were always an issue, but the Allied carpet-bombing of their factories destroyed their ability to make necessary supplies, and therefore their ability to prosecute the war. Thus, while they initially made much headway against the Allies, they were soon overrun.

In more modern times, the purpose of nuclear and biologic weapons is not to destroy the enemy's military. After all, military installations tend to be spread out and well hidden. Instead, countries keep WMDs to destroy the civilian and manufacturing centers which comprise the enemy's infrastructure. Insofar as WMDs are meant to be used against military targets at all, it's to keep the enemy from firing WMDs back.

Without food, munitions, and clothing, troops cannot fight.

Furthermore, you must also keep in mind morale. If you can make the enemy lose the will to fight, the war is already won.

Thus, your supermen's wars would likely be much like the Second World War. While there would be significant ground combat, its primary purpose would be to keep enemy ground troops from marauding around behind your lines. The actually useful combat would occur in the form of massive bombardments of enemy cities and manufacturing complexes, accompanied by extensive naval actions to destroy enemy shipping. The purpose of all this: destroy the enemy's manufacturing capabilities, throw a monkey wrench in their economy, and cause as much suffering as possible. Whoever breaks first, loses.

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    $\begingroup$ All of this seems related to denying the enemy physical objects needed for their survival, but in this setting, nobody has any needs whatsoever. You don't need food when you can't starve, you don't need clothing when you can't overheat or freeze, and munitions are rather useless when weapons can't injure anyone or destroy anything that someone needs. No matter what you destroy of the enemy's, by the OP's definition of the setting, they didn't need it. How do you cause suffering in someone with no needs? $\endgroup$ Oct 13, 2022 at 14:45
  • $\begingroup$ @NuclearHoagie Yes, endlessly shelling the enemy won't kill anybody. However, you can still rain on the other guy's parade (sometimes literally, what with the kind of powers the OP describes). $\endgroup$ Oct 13, 2022 at 22:07
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    $\begingroup$ When suffering is impossible, annoyance may be sufficient. Sure, maybe people don't need to sleep or eat, but they may want to anyway, and someone raining thunder down around them constantly is going to interrupt that. $\endgroup$
    – Miral
    Oct 14, 2022 at 1:53
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Physical conflict is evidently not the route to go. As it stands, the stakes are low, perhaps to the point of boredom for our inhabitants. So they might invent conflict to relieve themselves of their ennui.

Mental Tests

Perhaps they engage in matches of chess or some similarly mentally intense game and hold themselves to abide by the results of the match. The games become very intense, as they are the only means by which one may climb your world's social hierarchy. Winning a match is more than just a game, it defines your sphere of influence.

Simulation of War

Perhaps these beings are technologically advanced enough to develop a fully immersive Virtual Reality experience, one in which they can fight and their avatar/character can die. Because they find their ordinary lives so dull, they take a great deal of pride and care in living the longest and most powerful virtual life.

War by Proxy

Perhaps your world is inhabited by some creature that is mortal. The impervious beings select some of these creatures and impart as much training and wisdom as possible into them before setting them out to battle each other to the death. Since the creatures can die, and the beings are emotionally attached to them, we can raise the stakes. Basically, Nuzlocke Pokemon.

However

The stakes in your world are very, very low. While not impossible, it will likely be difficult to convey any sort of significance to a conflict that has no real consequences. Without the possibility of failure, stories can become very bland. I would proceed cautiously, and consider scaling back the power of your entities somewhat. I find the idea that they cannot be trapped to be particularly concerning. As it stands, no one can stop anyone else from doing...anything, really.

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  • $\begingroup$ All of those example are vicarious experiences... I was really looking for more of a physical war that follows rules that are not self-imposed. As this stands, the people could just cheat and/or make a rule that says "I win" to the other people. And there is no way to contest the rule of "I win." $\endgroup$
    – user98896
    Oct 12, 2022 at 15:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Ashida in a world where people are so impervious to damage, I really don't see how one could approach this non-vicariously. One might similarly ask for recipes in a world where no one can eat, taste, or smell. $\endgroup$
    – Brandon_J
    Oct 12, 2022 at 15:30
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Sport

Same as the current world—well, we can die, but we don't want to. So instead of constant warfare we have the olympic games to show how great our countries are. We have swordfights where we wear funny costumes and helmets that stop injury, we play american football with giant pads on our shoulders, we play "battles" on a chess board where the ones "dying" are plastic pieces.

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Sending to the future

Someone hit by a weapon can be transported to some distance point in time (or space) taking them out of the fight. This will eventually give the victor control over a block of time/space.

I agree with Dark Malthorp, there needs to be something to gain or lose. In this case that is time/space.

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Everything you describe is true for almost every competitive online multiplayer game ever played.

Every day, millions of people all around the world have merciless firefights in games like Counterstrike, Apex or Fortnite, engage in bloody close-quarter combat in For Honor or Mortal Kombat and throw whole armies at each other in Starcraft or Age of Empires. Over and over again in an endless series of brutal battles. Even though they have no personal reasons why they would want to harm their opponents and no tangible consequence for winning or losing.

Why are all these people doing that?

  • For fun
  • For self-improvement. Becoming better at the game as an end in itself.
  • For social status. They want to be known as the best player in the community. Or the most entertaining one according to their followers on Twitch and/or YouTube.

The same would be true for your world. People would fight each other as a leisure activity, to find out who is the strongest, and to become the strongest themselves. Not for any tangible benefit, but for status and self-actualization.

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Overwhelm their senses. As a bonus, there are some defenses possible, depending on your tech level and the foresight (good to know goggles will help with the 1st point, if you neglected to manufacture/bring them...)

  1. Sight. Blindingly bright light, this won't make the opponents permanently blind, but they cannot quite fight while the light is on. Possibly fought with sunlight and mirrors in a low tech environment, xenon lamps or lasers later. Defense: goggles. Won't really help against individually targeted very strong laser, which opens up some arm race possibilities. Also won't be that efficient if the opponent starts blinking the light - you have to take them off, the eyes have to adapt, and in that moments you are vulnerable. Blinking light gradually morphs into psychological warfare.
  2. Hearing. While there is probably no pain threshold, loud prolonged sound will prevent the opponent from communicating efficiently, and can easily lead to psychological warfare again ("nails on chalkboard").
  3. Smell. Hydrogen sulfide is reasonably harmless in low amount, but still gives terrible nauseating smell. And if people cannot die, you have many interesting alternatives (that are likely immediately fatal in our world). Defense: gas masks. Overcoming the defense: liberal application of strong acids. Again, a possibility for an arm race.
  4. Taste. Very much the same as smell, but different chemical agents and some ways to deliver them (strong liquid stream aimed at the opponent's face?). Probably going to be lumped together with the smell.
  5. Touch. Maybe used on POWs as a (psychological) torture - is tickling a thing in this setting? Or, if itching works as well, spreading some chemical or physical agent (metal filings or sawdust) might be the way to go. Not incapacitating, but makes the fight uncomfortable.
  6. Thermoception. Again, not incapacitating, but making life uncomfortable. High temperature is easier (and lower tech) to use than the low one, as a bonus, if you make your opponents endure fires for some time, their clothes will burn off and they'll have to fight naked, which is a strong psychological barrier (at least in our world).
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So @OCDev, has a good point. You are literally talking about how to create an economy in any MMO. You can't die, but you do have to share a monetary system with everyone else. It's inevitable that said monetary system, or a competition-based hierarchy, or even a status shift, would eventually take place of killing. That's kinda the way the wealthy do things in our world.

You have to replace the concept of death with defeat, based on whatever form of competition is available. Every time someone is defeated, a financial transaction occurs between them and the person that defeated them.

Ooo, here's a fun caveat. If you defeat someone who can't afford the transaction, then YOU have to pay HIM. I'm betting people would carry non-accidental defeat insurance. Also, you don't get credit if you defeat more than one person with an action. In a pseudo-death scenario, setting off a bomb, or even shooting a bullet through two people has no effect.

There's always a status shift when you defeat someone. It tells people who else you might defeat, for one thing. Maybe all defeats are publicly announced.

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This is a common and popular activity on multiplayer games where you often can't harm people, and they can log out, but you still want to traumatize them.

Exclude people from desired areas or groups and put them in undesired locations

While you can't trap or harm people, you can keep them away from locations and groups you value. Build physical barriers around territory you value. Push them away from places you like, and prepare things like poop houses to put people you don't like in. Use movement powers to knock people away from places you like.

Psychologically torture people

You can target their minds even if you can't physically harm them. Offer someone a meal, and then while their senses are turned on cover them in sewage. Display disturbing images or practices that hurt people's minds. Find social secrets people have and threaten to reveal them if they don't surrender/ join your side.

Isolate and make your enemies friendless

Use psychological pressure and fun activities to draw in your enemies. Whoever has the larger group can better block opponents, and can better pressure them.

Ruin enemy activities

If they try to play a game of football, set their field on fire. If they try to have a meal or watch a movie or have romantic relationships play loud and depressing songs. Do your best to ensure your rivals can't have fun.

The end goal is that you make the enemy group disband or leave your group alone.

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Horses for courses

Why can't people be imprisoned? Do they all have every power simultaneously? The super strong guy gets put somewhere that requires super speed to escape. The super fast guy gets put somewhere that requires super strength to escape. The telepath gets fired into the sun. Etc.

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The Question should not be how war could be fought in your world, but why anyone would want it to be.

If you've designed a world in which the only constant is that no one can be harmed, trapped, or killed and even food can be conjured out of thin air, what is there to war about?

If you could re-jig the rules to include something to fight about still, many wars are not won by killing, trapping, or incapacitating anyone, but by anticipating and out-manoeuvring the opponent as pundits have been pointing out for a good few thousand years.

Consider most famously in modern times, the fall of France.

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They fight with thier domains for thier domains.

Since you are basically describing gods and not people, lets just treat them like gods. The gods in many polytheistic religions ascribe to Domains: aspects of the world that are thier preview (AKA: theirs). If you are a master of fire, then you might really enjoy hanging out with your own personal volcano. It is a place where you can do anything you want, have anything you want, because your powers are tied to fire.

But then, some annoying sea-god might come along and hit your volcanic paradise with a tsunami because he does not like the way you keep boiling off his water. These 2 gods cant harm each other, but they can harm each other's domains. So a battle ensues between the fire and the water god until the volcano is snuffed out, and the defeated fire god with no more fire left to command has nothing left for him here; so, drastically weakened without a domain to command anymore, he is forced to leave and go find another place to build a new fire domain.

How these individual conflicts escalate into wars

No one god is all powerful against all powers. In the previous example, the fire god was at a distinct disadvantage, but against a forest god, he would have done much better. So to preserve thier domains, gods form up into Pantheons (alliances) so that when one of thier members is challenged by another god, they can call on one of thier allies that is better suited to win the conflict and destroy the enemy's domain.

In extreme cases, a border conflict could escalate to a full blown war between 2 pantheons as they reshape nature to deprive each other of thier respective domains. Wars have clear winners and losers when they pass the tipping point where the loosing faction can no longer muster any new powers without thier oppositions immediately being able to destroy thier new domain. At this point there is nothing left to do but retreat and find new lands where no one is around to destroy thier domains while they rebuild.

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Wars are fought because something can be won

An opponent cannot take one's life for there is no life to give. They cannot take possessions for none are owned. They cannot fight for resources for none are needed. In a world where nothing physical can set one above another, what is left to lose?

Their reputation

Whether the winner obtains bragging rights or the loser is cloaked in shame, all that's left to win or lose is one's reputation. Readers of your story will relate to this because we all remember our school years where our reputation (often defined in terms of "popularity") frequently highlighted or tainted our memories of the era. It was desirable to know that people wanted to be with us and shameful, embarrassing, and/or depressing to know that no one did.

And that's important. You don't just need a solution to your problem. You need a solution that the people who learn about your world can relate to.

Decades ago I remember seeing a photograph of an Arab man sitting on the fallen statue of Saddam Hussein. My memory suggests he was thumbing his nose or some such, but that might be an embellishment. I remember reading the accompanying article, which explained a fascinating fact (and if this isn't quite the truth, please correct me! It's an old memory). In the Arabic world, it's not enough to simply win the war—one had to insult one's enemy. You truly won the battle when you could stand over your enemy and cast aspersions at his family.

I suggest that your wars will depend on the "cast aspersions" part fairly heavily. The winner of a war is one who places the enemy in such a circumstance that they are insulted... embarrassed... their reputation is tarnished and they lose popularity.

People want to be around the winner, the person who can most deftly insult the enemy without bringing shame on themselves. They don't want to be around the loser, the person who can't see it coming, can't overcome the insult, or can't avoid the stain and stigma.

These aren't games anymore than they are today, right now, in our own lives

And this is the important part. Many humans (most, if we're being honest about it) will do almost anything to avoid embarrassment, shame, and loss of reputation. There are actual laws on the books (slander, libel) protecting people from an unfair or unreasonable loss of reputation. We care how we're seen by members of our own families, friends and neighbors, and our communities. We all understand the constant fight for self-worth and the "dark side" of harming another's sense of self-worth.

We poo-poo these issues and try to sweep them into the category of "childish things" by naming the war, "drama." But it's a war that in Real Life leads to very real loss of life through suicide.

We can relate to a group of immortals who have only one thing to lose: their reputation.

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Imprison The Immortals

The ultimate goal of any conflict would be rounding up and imprisoning the immortals. If they have no need to eat or drink, or possibly even breathe, then the prison could be made very efficient. For the worst of the foes, sealing them in a tomb could be a long term solution.

They might eventually claw their way out of that situation...

Maybe a more effective approach would be burying them in cement. The immortal could be left with his head exposed, so you could have civil discussions about them joining your side in exchange for freedom.

Spaceflight

Finally, ejecting the immortal into outer space would probably remove them from the picture. Either you can shoot them towards the sun for a probable removal from the story entirely, or just in random directions, where their fates can be determined by orbital mechanics, and immense amounts of time.

And elsewhere in the galaxy, many centuries later, a man fell to earth...

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The first step will be to identify something to fight over. Maybe some kind of resource that makes the superpowers possible, and preventing your enemy from gaining this resource makes them mortal. Or maybe something that enhances the powers. Or perhaps there are differnent environments and biomes, and some are simply more comfortable, so you would fight to gain access for yourself, and prevent access to others.

Let say, as an example, that there is a planet that is desirable for whatever reason. What i suggest is to map out a chain of countermeasures. So you start with superpowers that allow you to take over the planet. Maybe people who can suppress the enemies, and physically push them off the planet. Then when you have the planet, you need superpowers that create forcefields and so on, as a defense.

In the end, this means that some superpowers will be more useful than others. That means that if you have such a superpower, you might fight for the highest bidder, so mercenary companies might come into existance who bid for the most powerful individuals, and then fight for the faction who is willing to pay.

I am rambling I guess, hopefully you can extract something useful.

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There's a large LARP event in Germany every year called Drachenfest with a similar premise. Characters attending these "war games" cannot die. Instead, if they are killed they go to a special place from which they return after some time.

What this does is take them out of the equation temporarily, and it works well, has worked well for many years.

So if it is possible to temporarily disable opponents, you can strife for objectives. Conquer that hill or city, destroy that building, steal that flag, whatever it may be - you don't need the enemy to die in order to accomplish your objective, you just need them out of the way.

It would change warfare a lot, but there can still be conflict and strife for specific objectives. Keep in mind that in most wars, your actual goal isn't to kill as many enemy soldiers as possible - that's usually just what you need to do to in order to accomplish whatever it is you actually want - control their capital, take their king captive, liberate your oppressed people, etc.

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