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I'm having issues designing a balanced magic system.

let me elaborate.

a handful of nations have allied against a big empire, and the fighting has regressed into trench warfare. Tech level is early 1900s, think late WW1 - early 1920s.

there's just one caveat: magic is quite a thing.

but humans and half-humans aren't the most adept - and they're the ones fighting the main war. the most powerful mage in the human(ish) world can conjure up, say, a fire. magic-users have also revolutionized medical tech, so if you break a leg fighting (literally), you probably won't need an amputation.

however, elves don't really believe in all this tech nonsense, they prefer to rely on swords, armor, draft animals, and most importantly, magic.

the elven kingdoms lie outside of the nations at war, and have a puny population compared to the other countries at war (elves do have abominably long lifespans though). they also seldom get involved in icky human affairs. this has resulted in them retaining strong culture. furthermore, they have a degree of fear of the humans (big empire mostly, the big empire has driven the dwarves and orcs to the brink of extinction through extermination campaigns) but also an acute contempt.

the thing is, elven magic is quite subtle and isn't very direct. much of it revolves around metaphysical worlds and emotional connection. elves can enchant items, like a boat that won't sink, a sword that doesn't dull, and armor that won't clank, but these enchantments fade. the rate of deterioration for these enchantments depends on the skill of the enchanter. furthermore the enchanted item cannot generate energy of its own, so no flaming swords or lightning cannons.

as it stands, I don't see a bunch of high fantasy elves living in medieval villages and castles standing a chance against a resource-rich empire with advanced artillery, chemical weapons, decent healing capability, and firearms. how do I balance this system to make the elves a formidable foe while keeping elven magic subtle and elegant?

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    $\begingroup$ What does balance even mean in this context? $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented May 23 at 4:59
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    $\begingroup$ @sphennings a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions. $\endgroup$
    – alkahest
    Commented May 23 at 12:00
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    $\begingroup$ And what does that mean for a magic system to have correct proportion? This seems like an aesthetic quality that is entirely subjective. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented May 23 at 14:48
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    $\begingroup$ Seems like there’s a myriad of ways to do that and you’re asking us to brainstorm, generate ideas, and effectively build your world for you instead of helping you solve a specific worldbuilding problem. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented May 23 at 18:39
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    $\begingroup$ Given that the issue is with the core ask, you can’t salvage this post without asking an entirely different question. With our policy prohibiting edits that invalidate existing answers there’s not much you can do. Next time don’t ask us to build your world for you. Instead ask for help solving a specific worldbuilding problem. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented May 24 at 4:09

7 Answers 7

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You answered it yourself:

elven magic is quite subtle and isn't very direct. much of it revolves around metaphysical worlds and emotional connection.

This would make elves extremely good manipulators, diplomats, spies and politicians. There is absolutely no need for them to fight in the wars, every Elven realm is basically magical Switzerland.

Even if a human dictator ordered Elven land to be conquered, they would soon change their mind. Maybe the truth was revealed to them in a glamorous, beautiful dream, or maybe they were personally invited to the ethereal Elven capital. They understood that bringing war there would be plainly wrong. After all, aren't Elves magnificent? And lovely, and kind? Why would we try to hurt our friends? After all the Big Empire is a nation of bright future and progress, why would they hurt these angelic creatures that make the life worth living? Better focus on exterminating those pesky orcs!

Elves never need to fight non-Elves. All they need is a honest conversation, a warm, soothing touch, and carefully chosen words of wisdom and kindness to make the humans turn around and kill someone else instead. Preferably, the humans should be killing the Dwarves and the Orcs, since both of those races are wretched spawns of darkness that are deaf to the Words of Kindness the Elves try to share with them.

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    $\begingroup$ Ooooo Magical Switzerland - I love it! $\endgroup$ Commented May 23 at 7:33
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    $\begingroup$ Absolutely - and the reason the elves are so resistant to higher tech is so there are no road/railways runnning through their lands that would make convenient invasion routes for humans wanting to go through elfland to attack other humans (ie they don't want to be Belgium in WW1). Also, humans conviently never locate any key mineral resources in their lands... The elves know their Sun Tzu, the best way to win is without fighting. $\endgroup$ Commented May 23 at 12:24
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    $\begingroup$ Which also means... they are obscenely rich. They can just hire a human army to fight for them, and they do. They have an elite "security service" and a bunch of international agreements protecting them. $\endgroup$ Commented May 23 at 20:20
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    $\begingroup$ @VictorSergienko sure they could buy mercenaries.... but that would be terribly gauche and unsubtle. I would rather thing an Elven ambassador might occasionally imply, in plausibly deniable yet absolutely convincing way that this particular nation of humans would benefit from destroying another human nation in the near future, and that it might possibly lead to them achieving greater happiness and a sense of achievement... $\endgroup$ Commented May 23 at 22:00
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    $\begingroup$ @GoingDurden: It’s staring us in plain sight here: Sun Tzu was an elf. $\endgroup$ Commented May 25 at 8:43
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So, you have the answer in your question - you just dont see it:

Trench Warfare

Now - many people think of Trench warfare and think of Mass Artillery barrages, Machine guns mowing down scores of people, The Somme, Paschendale etc. And that is right.

However, When you did make it to an Enemy Trench, suddenly it got very up-close and very personal. For example - the US's favorite Not-a-warcrime stick: The Winchester 1897 Shotgun - This was close range, with a Bayonet and the ability to Slam-Fire (Meaning you held the trigger down and racked the Pump to fire the next shot) meant that in the narrow confines of a Trench, it was brutal.

A group of Elves, armed with Swords in a Trench would be absolutely deadly.

But! I hear you ask - How do they get into the Trench without being massacred in the thousands?

Enchanted, Bullet proof armour

If the Elves can close the distance to the Trenches - then their operating as an entirely Melee force is little to no impediment to their Combat effectiveness.

But let's throw in some other stuff to make them even better:

Elves are masters of Bushcraft and blending in with the land - consider the scene in LoTR where Sam and Frodo use the Elvish cloaks to look like a Rock outside the gates of Mordor

This allows them to cross No-Mans land virtually undetected. Allowing them to raise absolute havoc in the Enemies rear-echelons (which are typically less well-guarded).

Your Elves are a Proto-SF, SAS/SEAL/Delta/Commando type force who specialize in Asymmetric warfare - Sabotage, Assassination and other ungentlemenly types of Warfare

They use Magical armour to stop bullets, their years of experience and living with Nature to blend in and when they get into a Trench or behind the lines, they are able to cut down scores of Men before slipping away silently into the night.

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    $\begingroup$ That's all nice and good, but commandos don't hold positions. How are the elves going to stop humans from storming their positions and invading their cities? $\endgroup$ Commented May 23 at 12:02
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    $\begingroup$ They might lose a few cities but when all your officers in the controlled cities are assassinated; and a few weeks after the start of the war your country leaders are too... then maybe you decide it might not have been a good idea to attack the magically sneaky elves. $\endgroup$
    – Jemox
    Commented May 23 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ @MatthieuM. Defence in depth. The humans never hit an opposing line, but officer assassinations and supply line sabotage will cripple their ability to fight. They either retreat or dissolve into packs of desperate and hungry soldiers that can be mopped up one by one. $\endgroup$
    – jb6330
    Commented May 23 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ Elven forests are like Australia on steroids. You will die before you even get close to a 'city' on Krynn; the literal forest will eat you alive, assuming nothing else has yet. Or even without magic, try invading Vietnam just to see how much farther you can get than all the other idiots. You either burn the forest to the ground or you'll lose. Spoiler alert: incinerating an entire country's vegetation will prove to be difficult. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented May 24 at 1:20
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Catachan, home of Elves. $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Commented May 29 at 11:48
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Negative Enchantments

elves can enchant items, like a boat that won't sink, a sword that doesn't dull, and armor that won't clank

So elves can confer positive effects on items. What if they can also confer negative effects? Like a rifle that always shoots nearest friendly soldier, a grenade that somehow always lands right under your feet when you try to throw it, a tank that always catches fire and drives over nearest friendly troops. Any army invading the elven kingdoms would end up suffering appaling casualties inflicted by their own equipment.

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    $\begingroup$ love this suggestion! how would the elves get ahold of enemy equipment and enchant it though? $\endgroup$
    – alkahest
    Commented May 23 at 14:36
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    $\begingroup$ @alkahest Magic assisted espionage. Making guards a little sleepier or a little more impatient to finish their patrol, enchanting a cloak to be difficult to pay attention to, enchanting papers to seem boringly routine, all sorts of subtle spells that let them get close to manufacturing or stockpiles. And once some of the stocks are compromised, the humans start worrying about which ones are. A little bit of magic to enhance the paranoia and the human's will be fighting desertion as much as the enemy. $\endgroup$
    – jb6330
    Commented May 23 at 16:09
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Stacking the battlefield in their favour

Elves have developed magical options to neutralise or counteract the technological advantages of the humans.

  • Notice-Me-Not Field, is the human name given to a class of spells that render a person, place or object immune to notice and being found. With a powerful enough field people will walk right past an Elvish stronghold and find it impossible to place onto a map. It's very hard to fight something you can't find and forget as soon as look at.
  • "Murphyonic Field" is a spell that degrades the operation of human technology within an area - engines stall and guns misfire. Without a lot of their technology, the advantage goes to those who have spent decades practicing with the sword, bow and arrow.
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Maybe a tweak: enchanted items cannot generate energy of their own, but can (to an extent) absorb and repurpose energy given to them. Thus a sword could be magicked to absorb the kinetic energy of an approaching bullet, so that the bullet falls to the ground and the sword gains strength and sharpness; or a spell could capture the energy of an exploding artillery shell and convert it into a lightning bolt back towards the enemy. Or imagine a long spear that could be used against a charging tank, grounding the spear-butt and letting the tank split itself apart; the tank impales itself on the spear and the tank's forward energy is converted into a backward-directed heat. This kind of magic would neutralize most of the advantages of WWI-style weapons without creating overwhelming offensive capabilities, though I imagine you'd need a proximity rule — spells need to be close to a person/elf activating them — to prevent distance weapons like magic bullets or shells from being developed in turn.

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Never Mount a Land War Into Russia Elfland

As Napoleon and Hitler both discovered, Russia's greatest defense is not its military, but its size and climate. Scorched earth retreats left the invading armies relying on long supply lines that were not nearly sufficient for support.

What magic is more subtle and elegant than illusion? The elves don't have to fight invading armies if the armies can't find them. Elven cities and farmland can be covered by illusions of impassable terrain, forcing invading armies into barren areas between, so that they can't resupply off the land. Alter the illusory terrain to make pathfinding difficult, causing units to get lost or separated. "Encourage" supply trains to go the wrong way where they can be easily captured or destroyed.

Elven magic may also be able to subtly manipulate the weather. No need to conjure up tornadoes or anything so gauche. Just make the winter colder than it would otherwise be, or summer just a little hotter and drier. Make the rain more unrelenting in spring, or concentrate disease-bearing insects or food-destroying vermin. Watch the casualties pile up and morale plummet.

What else did Russian winters bring? Stuff didn't work. Horses died, engine lubricant became gummy. If the elves can manipulate entropy or probability (oh so subtle!), the invading army's technology advantage can be weakened severely. In Elfland, engines fail, tires pop, axles break, shells misfire, and food spoils much faster than anywhere else.

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  • $\begingroup$ Its asia. Never commit to land war in asia.or invade Afghanistan. $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Commented May 29 at 11:50
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Magic and Technology Do Not Mash

You can take inspiration from Arcanum, which had exactly the same problem with a human faction (and gnomes...) being a growing industrial power, while other human faction and elves still relied on magic.

You see, modern technology is built on precise manufacturing and consistency of physical properties of materials and parts. But the whole thing about magic is changing physical properties of nature: enchanting items to make them stronger, conjuring fireball, summoning stuff from who-know-where, on charming other beings.

What happens when you combine technology relying on precision manufacturing with magic? Well, the physical properties will change, your barrels will be narrower or wider, either blowing your cannons outright or just reducing their reach significantly. As long as the black powder burns correctly, since it can fail to burn or burn to fast blowing up your cannons.

All your industrial techs will start failing quickly, and your best bet would be to just put the bayonets on your rifles and go melee since stabbing will fortunately still work. But then, there is a guy with proper metal armour and a much more nimble sword against you, so it doesn't look well.

So you just ignore them and be glad that this works the other way around as well, magic doesn't do well where there is too much technology.

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