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I really need help trying to get this to work. I'm working on a faction that primarily employs spell swords as their Frontline force. They have other parts such as artillery, combat medics, and other such units but for right now I want to focus on the main melee forces. What's stopping me is that no matter where I look, I get the same answer, swords are subpar as war weapons. So a head on fight is generally not an option. I considered using small group tactics, but without a dedicated diviner there would be problems doing this enmasse. But they can't use polearms because longer and bigger weapons makes their spellcasting much less efficient.

And I'm just at my wits end and have no idea what to do anymore.

for context spell swords are basically those who are able to use magic and bladework in tandem with one another, enhancing their physical capabilities and being able to unleash powerful combo attacks.

Ok context number 2. People wanted clarity on how spells worked and its essentially inspired by real life physics, everything has a "Logic" behind it on how it operates. For example, understanding combustion is how you use basic fire magic. Knowing how freezing temperatures is required to use basic ice magic. Understanding how certain constructs work such as shields. Understanding the structure of weapons lets you use magical energies to reinforce it making it stronger still (The higher quality the weapon the more effective the enhancement) This means you can't really cast a spell if you don't completely understand how, it works and the more complex the more magical energy it takes so you can't just spam it without intent.

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    $\begingroup$ It is completely unclear what makes swords non-viable in the context of your world. Thus answering how make them viable is an impossible task. Swords have been a widely used weapon IRL for millenia. This question alleges that somehow magic enhanced swordsmen are not going to work out which would go against historical precedent. I do not see what the problem is. I'm just being told there is some sort of problem. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Mar 20 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ Surprised that no-one asked, but what's the tech level of your world? The original post mentions artillery and combat medics, which suggests post-gunpowder, perhaps even modern setting. In which case, bringing swords to a gunfight isn't going to work. $\endgroup$ Mar 20 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ @GiantSpaceHamster Perhaps they were poorly worded, artillery meant more along the lines of people using crossbows that fire class vials filled with volatile liquid, and combat medics are just that healers who help the wounded via artificery of some sort. There are no guns in this setting and at least for this nation the closest comparison i can make would be akin to steampunk. $\endgroup$
    – Masakan
    Mar 20 at 17:02
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    $\begingroup$ @VLAZ I suppose the question is because swords have been historically viewed as sidearms the question people might ask is why would you use them as a primary weapon in a war context? $\endgroup$
    – Masakan
    Mar 20 at 17:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Masakan ...in your post... "swords are subpar as war weapons", "they can't use polearms because longer and bigger weapons makes their spellcasting much less efficient". $\endgroup$
    – M S
    Mar 20 at 21:29

7 Answers 7

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Sounds like Romans

If your spell swords are prone to offensive ranged magic, and can generate a large shield of protective force, what you've got is almost a Roman Legionary, just without chainmail (though that wouldn't be a bad addition) and armed with a number of pila=however your magic works. Depending on how many Spellswords your society can raise there are three options for making them your "main" combat arm:

  1. You concentrate spellcasters with offensive properties into your army, giving your army a higher than average percentage of spellcasters.

    If everybody in the Legion can use offensive magic to some extent they would operate just like a Roman Legion, though perhaps a pre-Marian one where the least experienced Spellswords are up front (hastati) , then the main line (principes), then veteran (Triarii) spellcasters who can protect a retreating army or provide support in a very critical moment. The idea is to grind down your opponent with successive waves of attack, wearing out the enemy with your less experienced troops while preserving your best forces for the killing blow.

  2. If you don't have an army's worth of casters, the Spell Swords would essentially become small unit leaders, with the people under them being normal non-casters armed with sword, shield, mail, and helmet.

    Your spellcasters would take the place of pila for the romans, and presumably could "throw" magic equal to however many pila the squad would be throwing. While this army could function exactly like the first, it would also be perfectly functional as the classic Early Imperial roman legion of 10 cohorts grinding their way through the enemy with supporting (presumably non-magic) cavalry and skirmishers (who are either non-magic or perhaps the "apprentice" level of spellswords mixed in with traditional skirmishers).

  3. You actually have a secondary non-magical fighting force that provides the bulk of the infantry. Something along the lines of an articulated phalanx where the pikemen are normal wizards, and the large pike blocks are interspersed with smaller (but still 100-300 man strong) Spellsword units operating as magic/sword infantry. The idea of this force would be for the pikes to grind their way through the enemy, with the Spellswords providing flank security, allow the phalanxes to advance/withdraw under ranged attack cover, and provide a killing blow to the enemy's flanks while the phalanx engages their front.

    Macedonian successor states utilized similar tactics on occasion, with medium/non-pike heavy infantry being the "glue" that held their main phalanx together with their flanking cavalry. In that setup the cavalry is what actually wins the fight, but with magic you could keep your Spellswords lightly armored and fast (maybe superhumanly fast) enough to get around the flanks or into gaps that the phalanx creates in the enemy line but is too inflexible to exploit.

    In this version the Spellswords are still the "premier" combat arm because they allow your army to do what few other phalanx armies can (articulate) which lends prestige. If they're also the ones exploiting the gaps and acting as flankers then they are also the ones WINNING you battles, which means they'll be the prestige arm even if they are a fraction of the size of the "normal" infantry contingent.

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    $\begingroup$ You're actually really close to what I originally had in mind and with your input I kind of got this idea. Have the main force cast shield and hold the line similar to a roman phalanx, all the while people in the back lob explosive vials at the enemy to break up their formation, then once they are scattered the spellswords would swoop in and skirmish with hit and run tactics further disrupting their line and turning it into a free for all where they have a more comfortable advantage. $\endgroup$
    – Masakan
    Mar 20 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ Of note - a perfect position for a spellcaster apprentice in a Roman-like organisation would be the skirmisher (velites). They would engage the enemy from afar before the battle starts. And if they can do that with fireballs (or other ranged spells), it would be the best opportunity to practice spellcasting and train with an alternative ranged weapon. Thus when they "graduate" to regular army personnel, they'd be able to more freely use their ranged spell option which they've trained well before. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Mar 20 at 17:34
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    $\begingroup$ It would actually work more "realistically" the other way around. Have the vial-lobbing START the fight, break up/disorient the enemy formation, then have the guys with shield spells and swords rush forward and slaughter the disorganized enemy while they're trying to recover. $\endgroup$
    – 30Keydet
    Mar 20 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ Oh! Yes! I like the way you're thinking! $\endgroup$
    – Masakan
    Mar 20 at 17:38
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Why are swords bad

The word "bad" is probably too strong here. However, we should examine why swords are not the weapon. Why do we have other weapons than them.

Swords are versatile weapons. They are quite decent at doing a lot of things - stabbing, cutting, defence. You can even just bludgeon people with it - a sword can be used as a makeshift very long heavy metal stick, after all.

Swords are not the best weapon at each of these tasks, however. If you want a big club you could use...a big club which would be way cheaper. Spears can stab well, axes can cut well. And other weapons can also outperform swords in specific tasks. In a way, swords are "jack of all trades, master of none". Although that might again be a strong term here.

While historically swords have been used almost throughout all of history even after firearms became common, they never were the only weapon used. Most armies would have had a mix of armaments. Some would carry spears, others halberds, others swords, etc. With a mix of armaments, it is easier to handle different situations than just putting all your eggs in one sword basket.

Thus instead of "bad" a better way to call swords is "not the best". But the fact that they have been used for millennia proves they were viable.

Some additional situations where a sword is less effective is against certain combatants:

  • cavalry is a huge issue as by the time one can attack with a sword, there is a lot of weight and thus power coming on top of them
  • archers have the ultimate range advantage
  • heavily armoured combatants, such as knights are better taken on with a polearm1. An alternative weapon is a heavy blunt weapon like a mace which does not penetrate the armour but does cause concussive damage even through it

Honourable mention: there are swords specifically good against armoured enemies. For example, the estoc is typically a stabbing sword used to pierce armour. This really just speaks to the versatility of swords.


1 poleaxes in particular are dubbed "medieval can openers" as they were very effective at dispatching armoured knights

Why are swords good

OK, we know that swords are versatile. But what makes them particularly good is that swords are excellent at close combat. A spear or halberd can have a range advantage, however, if the gap is closed, these types of weapons lose a lot of their usefulness. Up close when you are not only facing the pointy/cutty end of the stick but the stick itself it is easy to keep the opponent from stabbing/slashing by grabbing a hold of the stick. Yes, it is easier said than done but assuming you are within sword range of one another, the long pole type of weapon is at a disadvantage.

A sword does not suffer from the ability to be just stopped with a hand. There is nowhere to grab a sword safely other than the hilt as most swords are bladed. Even only-stabbing2 are very hard to keep hold of as a long thin metal part than a polearm. Therefore, once into sword range, there is little to deny the advantage of the sword.

Other closer-ranged weapons such as maces or axes are still effective but typically still require some room to swing for power. Closing the gap further with a sword, does make those weapons less effective. Even when grappling with the enemy, a sword can be used quite effectively to cut and stab. An axe less so.


2 An example of no only-stabbing sword is the Roman gladius which is a stabbing-focused weapon. However, it does also have edges and can cut.

What should magic do to make swords less bad and more good

Range

We see that long range is probably the biggest issue a sword might have. Thus anything that can help with longer range would be superb. For example:

  • fireballs are going to be devastating against dense formations
  • fire in general can be used to make enemies come towards you (if they are fleeing the fire)
  • ice can make terrain difficult and force enemies to move
  • strong changing winds (if the magic allows for that) can negate a lot of the advantages of archers

A spellsword should use magic to disrupt enemy formations, deny them range advantage, and get the enemies to sword range.

Enhancement

Swords are weak towards some enemies. However, if they are enhanced by magic that does not need to be the case. Perhaps even a regular sword can pierce armour if properly supplanted by magic. And while it might be harder to deal with cavalry with a sword, spells can certainly help. Or at least protect the wearer from the force of cavalry.

Mobility

If one does have powers not available to others at their disposal, perhaps one of the best things in general is to somehow be more mobile than the enemy. That might be because the enemy is restricted or because you are somehow faster. Depends on what magic could do and how. But better mobility would be possible in either case.

For spellsword tactics should be to quickly dispatch vulnerable enemies using their sword and magic. A spellsword team would likely be most useful as a sort of "SWAT" team to strike quickly and decisively. Perhaps break enemy formations with explosions or other spells, then spread out and use superior mobility to attack exposed enemy combatants.

Honourable mention - coolness factor

To review - swords are not the best weapon for a lot of tasks but are pretty good. Historically, people have actually used swords despite or perhaps because of it. For example, some have hunted boar with swords. It is probably better to use a weapon like a pike for the task but there is certainly prestige to be had for using the not-the-best tool for the job. Traditionally, people have used all sorts of tools that were worse than alternatives on purpose to show off their skills.

It is certainly within character for people in your world to use swords instead of other weapons to try and maintain an air of superiority of themselves. Especially if these are supposed to be elite troops. It goes hand in hand with the typical trope that mages are prideful.

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I'm going to take a crack at this

  1. The comments have a debate that makes perfect sense from the perspective of the future looking back at the past. We've realized that swords weren't the most versatile weapon. But from the point of view of the past looking forward, they hadn't learned that lesson yet! They were developing military tools and trying everything out. So remarkably versatile tools like hunting knives became swords. It wasn't until a honking long period of time passed that people began to realize that some weapons were "generally" better (like the spear) or circumstantially better (like a pike). I sincerely believe that debate has trapped us into not thinking about the bigger picture.

  2. You have a magic system. Rooted in physics... OK, if you insist. But you're still stuck with that fact that magic isn't physics, which means you need to develop a magic system that's balanced (meaning there are pros and cons to different methods of application and forms of energy). That's a long way of saying that you're inventing the physics — which is a lot cooler than using physics because it forces you to care about the balance (Mother Nature did that for you if you use IRL physics). Why the long diatribe about my contempt for trying to force magic into physics? Because what makes a sword useful in your world is the specific balance of magic that can be applied to that specific type of weapon — and that has nothing at all to do with whether or not swords were "subpar" in the real world.

So, ignoring the fact that swords were an integral part of human history for thousands (if not more) of years, it appears we have the following:

  • Your question appears to be, "how can I rationalize using swords in my magic-based society?"

  • The answer is, "balance your magic system so that specific types of attacks can only be achieved if a sword is involved. It has nothing to do with physics, it has everything to do with your magic system. In fact, look at this not from the perspective of "what is a sword?" (because there are a gazillion kinds of swords) but from the point of view, "what's the mindset, emotion, or feelings of a person when they think of the word "sword?"

A word by any other name often isn't as sweet as the word itself

I have fun with language. I'm by no means a professional nor did I sleep in a Holiday Inn Express last night... but some words carry (depending on the culture you come from) a strong emotional context.

For many people, railroads have a strong, almost romantic feeling. Giant creations of humanity that opened up vast areas of geography. Even if you hate the loud horn and earth-shaking rumble, there's often a soft spot in one's heart for trains.

And space ships... and horses... and books... ... and swords.

What makes a sword so important in your world? Not necessarily the meter-long two-edged object actually held in one's hand. I propose it's the state of mind someone has when they're holding it. They're as contemptuous of those holding spears as the spear wielders are of the sword corps! A sword is an object of honor and nobility! When you think of someone standing against the storm, it's never of a person holding a spear or arrows... it's someone standing tall with a sword!

And your magic makes use of that to permit a specific subset of the magic to be used for specific purposes that can't be used via any other weapon because the emotional state incurred by those weapons is different.


In other words, I recommend you stop trying to force your fantasy world to conform with actual history. That really isn't worldbuilding, which is the act of creating consistent, balanced, and interconnected rules that govern the interrelationship of characters and events with the world around them. In short, stop worrying about all the reasons thousands of years of human experience have created for not elevating the sword above any and all other weapons and instead embrace the real life idea that the sword was, nevertheless, elevated. Do you see ceremonial spears in the U.S. military? No. The Marines have a cutlass saber (sorry, the Marines in the game Traveller had cutlasses... shows you what I was doing during my high school history class...). Can you find a military that does? Probably. The cultural differences between those two militaries are a better starting point for understanding how to rationalize swords in your world than a review of military history — which can only lead one to believe otherwise.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hmm...well if i had to think of one word that describes what i feel when i look at a sword, some that come to mind are...Creativity. Adaptability. Intelligent. Civilized. I have to imagine for an arcane centered culture these would be very important. As for how it would interact with weapons, a good example would be reinforcement from fate stay night, making it stronger and harder than it normally would be, the higher quality the weapon the more powerful the reinforcement. $\endgroup$
    – Masakan
    Mar 20 at 16:28
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding 1: The lesson that swords aren't quite the best weapons for an army caught up quite early on, though. There's many reasons why, but pretty much every culture on Earth relegated swords to backup or dueling weapons (or symbols of status!) from the beginning of time. Now, making the magic system be the reason why an organized army uses swords instead of spears (or magic) is perfectly fine, but going by OP's question it seems to me he wants the justification to be rooted in real world military tactics, which is much harder. $\endgroup$
    – Vilarinof
    Mar 20 at 17:07
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, and as far as i can tell the only ones that managed to pull it off with any level of success IRL is the romans and even then, it eventually fell apart when the terrain didn't work in their favor. $\endgroup$
    – Masakan
    Mar 20 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Vilarinof Consider mine a frame challenge. I suspect that a thorough analysis of history will show that swords became what pistols are today: a "sidearm" that's useful for personal defense when the main weapon is unavailable. I note that the edged weapon was thus available throughout most of history (if you include the idea of the bayonet, which IMO was outmoded the day it was invented). That's the point of my answer. The idea of the sword was much stronger than the reality of the sword - and that's a great basis for magic. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Mar 20 at 17:29
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Spells can make swords viable

Normally polearms / pikes and such would be superior to swords, but magic that the spellswords have negates these advantages. The strength of polearms/pikes is in their use in formations - a slow moving wall of pointy sticks that the enemy can't get around and will end up impaled on. However, the weakness of such formations is their lack of manouverability - one-on-one, a skilled swordsman should have good chances against a lone spearman trained to fight in formation. And, as we know from CRPGs, mages have Area of Effect spells. A slow moving densely packed formation will be very vulnerable to a fireball. However, a dispersed group of mages that can dodge fireballs and shoot their own will have better chances. A cavalry charge could be stopped by a spell that spooks horses. So the best tactic against spellswords would be to use your own, which sounds like what you're going for.

Spellsword on spellsword battles would be extremely chaotic. The two groups of spellswords would lob spells at each other while charging to melee distance, and then have one-on-one sword duels.

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  • $\begingroup$ That's what I'm thinking, a spellsword really wants to skirmish and not have to deal with a tightly packed formation. So, before anything else they want to break the formation apart so they can fight more comfortably. $\endgroup$
    – Masakan
    Mar 20 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ "one-on-one, a skilled swordsman should have good chances against a lone spearman trained to fight in formation" not necessarily. Probably true for the large pike phallanxes. But there are also spears that could used for one-handed fighting. And were quite effective, too. The advantage of spears, even in 1 on 1 (or even 2 swordsmen on 1 spearman) is the reach and also how deadly stabbing was (Roman army gladii were mostly stabbing swords for this reason. They could also could cut but wasn't the main focus). However, with magic the reach advantage might be denied more easily. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Mar 20 at 17:39
  • $\begingroup$ I'd argue that if a spear man can effectively use a longspear one handed, he's not your average spearman and you got other problems to worry about. And in a 1v1 the longspear becomes tough but not infallible. $\endgroup$
    – Masakan
    Mar 20 at 17:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Masakan there are spears designed to be usable with one hand, that doesn't tell you anything about the skill level of the spearman $\endgroup$
    – M S
    Mar 20 at 18:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Masakan no, a one-handed spear is still long enough. Here is the fight scene of Hector vs Achilles from the movie Troy. It's not the best example of spear fighting (and the breaking of the spears halfway through is not really as easy) but it's still showcasing how spears still have better reach (with that said, Achilles does some behind the back stab around 1:57 which makes zero sense as it reduces the reach). $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Mar 20 at 18:36
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How can I make a military that largely enlists spell swords viable?

By starting from the beginning! The military enlists spell swords because enlisting purely magical practitioners doesn't work. They are too weak for frontline use in war, they are too intellectual to just follow orders, and they are too cowardly in the face of defeat.

Wizards tend to care only about Magic and the pursuit of more knowledge about magic. This makes them well suited to advisory roles or sponsored kingdom benefitting projects but not war.

What's stopping me is that no matter where I look, I get the same answer, swords are subpar as war weapons

That is true when in the hands of an ordinary normal guy. A spell sword has enhanced speed, durability with the help of magic. There are no spell spears because of the weakened effect of magic when using the longer weapon. Thus, in your world: sword < spear < spell sword.

Your non-spellcasting individuals would still find other weapons to try to compete or delay the spell swords until your own spell swords could come to reinforce.

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Magic is based on your soul, and is stronger the closer it is to your soul.

When casting magic, such as blade magic, you are manifesting the intent of your sword heart on the world. The power of any attacks or actions vastly decreases the further you go away from your sword heart.

Swords are the optimal weapon to maximize the amount of magic you can imbue into attacks. Ranged weapons and spears, while having niche uses, are inherently inferior at most war tasks. In the story you could have some people try to use it and have the superior close ranged sword magic overcome the spear arts easily.

Other factions may make much more use of magitek.

Non spell sword factions have either natural or magitek grown ways of bypassing this limit, say by imbuing souls into arrows. It's extremely hard, and spell swords are the easiest way to fight.

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Spellswords who learned to cast Silence would be awesome Special Ops / Storm Troops. This is in magic world which has trench warfare earlier than our own due to having area damage spells earlier.

They can cast Silence which would neutralize enemy spellcasters in a range, then move in trenches and cut throats of unsuspecting guards at night. They don't really need polearms in trenches. They also don't need firearms, especially as these would be silence'd too.

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  • $\begingroup$ That would be incredibly powerful, useful....and could potentially be used on them. Don't want to set a precedent. Plus the range isn't that wide so you'd likely only get a couple at most $\endgroup$
    – Masakan
    Mar 20 at 18:36
  • $\begingroup$ Any successful military tactic is going to be used over and over even if army theoretics would not want to set that precedent in the first place. They often don't. The command often doesn't. It still happens. $\endgroup$
    – alamar
    Mar 20 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ They'd still need to find a way to actually make it out before anybody knows what happened. $\endgroup$
    – Masakan
    Mar 20 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Masakan In case of trench warfare there's a finite number of soldiers manning that particular trench, and once they realize the enemy is here and they were overwhelmed, they will retreat and cede that trench. $\endgroup$
    – alamar
    Mar 20 at 18:49

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