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I have a magic system in which mages can enhance existing power sources (such as taking a small spark and building it into a fireball) or launch pure 'magical' attacks, generally their magic is only good at direct immediate applications of force/energy, no long term effects or subtler magics; but they can be quite powerful particularly in battle.

All mages store power in a Crystal which they use as a reserve to fuel their power. It can take anywhere from days to weeks to fully 'recharge' a crystal, depending on skill of mage, quality of crystal, and abundance of ambient mana. When they run out of mana they can't do anything and are helpless, and in fact generally try to keep at least half their mana in reserve at all times for emergencies.

However, an oddity of the system is that it's 'cheaper', in regards of magic used, to deflect or even redirect an enemies attacks back at them then it is to produce your own. This is because an attack requires two steps, building up enough force for the attack to be dangerous and then directing the attack. While a defender need only expend enough power to 'capture' the attacking magic to redirect it, a much lower expenditure of mana. He also requires the skill to capture and control the spell fast enough to keep it from striking him, if not skilled enough he may be roasted, but most mages can redirect a single attack pretty easily.

Non-mages can also Channel, which allows them to flow mana through their body to enhance speed/reflexes/etc to make them into stronger and faster fighters, thus solders are generally faster and more lethal then soldiers of today, with a larger difference between master solder and ameratur. Mages can not do this, the energy stored in their Crystal prevents Channeling. Thus they are no match in a purely physical fight. However, they still generally consider non-mages a minor threat since they can unleash death from range and generally kill solders, even skilled Channelers, before they can close in to do any harm.

I'm trying to get a feel for what magical duels are likely to look like in this setting. Mages often fight other mages and so will have learned how to fight. They can go up against mages that are more or less skilled then them, and may go up against mages that have more or less mana 'stored' then them (a less skilled mage may have more mana then more skilled mage at time of a duel if the skilled mage had recently expended some of his for instance). A mage has an idea, but may not always be certain, about how much mana another mage has stored when a battle starts.

What I want is for magical battles to still be interesting, trading of attacks and defense, counter attacks & redirects, that can take a little while to be decided. However, the fact that defending is more mana efficient seems likely to push me to one extreme or another, which is something I want to avoid as being less interesting.

I want to avoid is situations where mages rarely attack because it's so much easier to defend, but I also want to avoid the opposite extreme where a mage will unleash a flurry of attacks to overwhelm the enemy attack and end the battle in the first second. How can I encourage dynamic fights, preferably including different strategies being preferred depending on your skill vs enemy, available mana each side has, and even enemy preferences?

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  • $\begingroup$ I see two ways... Either make sure there are always more than two mages in a fight, or make fights go beyond the magical (i.e.: mages are going to use guns, knives, goons etc. to fight). $\endgroup$ – Renan Jul 28 '16 at 18:47
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    $\begingroup$ Reading your question, I can't stop thinking about magical tennis $\endgroup$ – Subbies Nov 6 '18 at 12:48
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One option that I could see working well is making the mages a lot more mobile on the battlefield than they normally would be in fantasy. If attacks are very easy to redirect, maybe make attackers move around a lot and try to sneak attacks into the sides of an opponent or from a downward angle (like a magical uppercut).

If fighters are moving around very quickly, it would be much harder to redirect an attack back at an enemy. So instead of fights ending very quickly, they would be more like battles of attrition, with skilled mages trying to wear down an enemy's endurance or mana until they can't fight back, or surprise them and sneak an attack in.

I could also see feints and being innovative as playing a large role, just like in real world boxing or even fencing. For instance, a mage could reveal a small torch with the intention of making the enemy think they're doing a fire attack, and then blasting the enemy with smoke instead. When the enemy is coughing and dazed, they could fire the real fireball and end the fight. However, this wouldn't be too OP, because an opponent who knew of his tactic could counter by clearing the smoke easily (I imagine doing something like clearing smoke would be much easier if you saw the attack coming).

Long story short, having fights be decided by innovation and quick movement in all directions could keep combat refreshing and complex, instead of the more Harry Potter style standing in place and duelling.

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    $\begingroup$ (Voldemort) I'm going to kill you Harry Potter! I'm pointing my wand as hard as I can! $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Aug 14 '16 at 22:58
  • $\begingroup$ when the mages are so mobile they will most likely even dodge attacks making it even harder to attack making fights longer $\endgroup$ – user55267 Nov 6 '18 at 11:46
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There's a couple of different ways to do this.

My first suggestion is to make it more difficult to "redirect" a more powerful attack. In other words, if a powerful mage throws an immensely powerful fireball at a weaker opponent that opponent may not be able to redirect the attack because he lacks the power, not necessarily the skill. Right off the bat that will create an imbalance which will make fights more challenging in some situations.

Now for my other ideas:

Feints and Illusions

If an attack can be blocked, distract your opponent so that he won't block it.

It would be interesting if some "evil genius" in your universe finds a way to "capture" a lot of energy, and then shoot two small fireballs in quick succession instead of a single large one.

Alternately, one spell can create an illusion of many fireballs being launched, and the defender has no idea which is the real one.

MMA (Mixed Magic Arts)

Google "Multiclassing: Because wizards run out of spells". If that picture won't make you LoL I don't know what will.

Same principle applies here. You shoot a fireball at an opponent, followed by an arrow or two.

Or maybe you summon minions that shoot (weaker) projectiles of their own.

Conclusion

What it really comes down to is being able to either distract, or overwhelm your opponent.

I envision a fight where a skilled mage will launch a barrage of illusions at his enemy, followed by a chain of weak attacks, and the summoning of imps, or other minions, all adding their own "pinprick" attacks to the mix.

The defending mage will have to unbind your summoned creatures, dispell the illusions, and deflect your attacks all at the same time.

Two skilled opponents could go at it for quite a long time, and have one heck of an interesting battle.

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  • $\begingroup$ Illusions is a good idea. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Jul 28 '16 at 19:13
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion - I was hoping they're all good ideas :-P $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jul 28 '16 at 19:17
  • $\begingroup$ Illusions are a particularly good idea. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Jul 28 '16 at 19:19
  • $\begingroup$ what about traps? which are invisble until you step on 1 in the ground? $\endgroup$ – user55267 Nov 6 '18 at 11:53
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Some answers gave an idea that more or less gave you a solution when put together.

The magic you are describing relies a lot in really knowing the options you have. Magic let's you modify the rules of nature, how the energy and forces work.

Therefore, a mage with good knowledge of physics might have a huge advantage.

@Pork made some examples on how to evade attacks in a way that could be more mana-efficient, like changing the positive charge of the air.

Same could apply to more situations, like changing humidity of the air, magnetism, gravity, etc. With that you could improve your deffences, but also make a simple attack way more destructive.

What I see here is that attacking can be more efficient than simply throwing huge amounts of power. It all depends on how well you know your power.

This way, fighting between mages would really be a battle of wits. Rather than simply throwing and redirecting raw power, they'd optimize their use of mana through their knowledge of reality (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.).

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The implication in your setting is that launching a powerful attack on another mage will make you weaker relative to the other mage. So why would you ever do something that makes your position weaker? If confronted by another mage, your best strategy would be to NOT attack them and wait to see if you could bait them into attacking first and doing something stupid.

From the real world, people try to kill other people without letting them fight back. There are three strategies:

  • Open up an attack suddenly before the defender is able to defend (the stab/shot in the dark ambush).
  • Bring enough friends so that he can't defend himself.
  • Kill him so slowly he doesn't know he's dying (i.e. poisoning)

Those are basically how all assassinations went down historically. And historically, defense is stronger than an attack; a powerful warlord or king or ruler would be surrounded by bodyguards etc.

So in your setting, your problem is not how to get mages to kill each other, but instead how to do it in ways that are not cowardly assassinations. You see, no one wants to die, so why would you risk your neck on an engagement that you might not win, especially if the very act of attacking to start an engagement lessens the chance of you winning? Certainly, why would you risk your neck on an engagement when you could just poison your enemy (I assume that a crafty mage can develop some magical/enchantment version of a poisoning....or just use regular poison).

I think your scheme runs into a problem with human nature. If you want mages to fight, then attacking another mage cannot be a net negative, or all you will get is assassination attempts. You will have to build in some net positive to striking first...or at the very least make it win-probability-neutral.

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  • $\begingroup$ In short, nobody likes a fair fight (except maybe spectators) Most strategists agree that if you ever find yourself in a fair fight, you've failed. If I am a mage I never want to encounter another mage without one or more other mages along to help, preferable enough to avoid the fight altogether. (i.e. surrender or die) $\endgroup$ – Seeds Jul 28 '16 at 21:56
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I feel kind of like I may be looking at this wrong, but....

If your main power is amplifying things that exist, couldn't I amplify the heat generated by friction to directly burn my opponent? Or, if this force works both ways, I could decrease the friction he experiences while walking to make him slip. If there's any wind in the area, I could amplify that to push him off balance, especially if it comes from his side or something.

You mention that mage me can make stuff bigger, you don't really address the idea of redirection. With an extremely literal interpretation of your system, I would have to amplify something else to counteract whatever was there - maybe a light breeze to redirect a fireball, positively charge the dust in the air to absorb a lightning bolt, heat something to melt an icicle, etc. I would generally disagree with the idea that its cheaper to reflect something (unless its a beam of light) than it is to nudge it towards someone but if that's the hand waving you're engaging in, fine.

If I had to fight under these conditions, I would take props with me. I might have chaff made of combustible material so I could chuck it at my opponent, he would be forced to use magic to redirect the material while I looked for one or two that get through. I would also wear gear that wasn't really flammable to allow me to mostly ignore anything he shot back. Or you could use something like a flashbang and redirect all the light + sound at the enemy while also amplifying it.

I think one of the easiest ways to make fights longer is to give mages one or more 'powers' or 'spheres of influence' that cover what they can affect with their 'magic'. This might also mean they have different ways of recharging - the lightning mage plugs into a wall outlet, the wind mage sits on a roof, etc. By doing this, you also make it so that a water mage could condense a shield to ward off a fireball but couldn't directly send it back. If their 'senses' are sort of limited to what they affect, this also makes sneak attacks more viable and probably a larger part of a fight.

Under that situation, a Channeler might still be a threat. Channelers should probably get their own specializations - either body parts or attribute classes (strength, stamina, speed, defense, thinking, etc), probably attribute classes. Body parts sounds kind of weird, but you could do 'eyes', 'ears', 'upper body' kind of stuff.

L.E. Modesitt Jr's Saga of Recluce had a system somewhat similar to what you're describing, from what I recall most battles were settled with one of: total overwhelming force, a large amount of minor actions or using magic as a distraction while they kill them with a mundane trap.

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From a game design perspective there’s two types of conflicts, skill based and tactics based, something entirely skilled based would be a racing game where you can’t affect the other racers, you all race the same course with the same cars and whoever crosses the line in the shortest time wins. On the other hand an entirely tactics based game would be something like playing chess by email, each player has all the time in the world to choose their next move so there’s no reaction speed or focus required, players just have to make wise choices.

The magic duelling you describe seems very skill based in the sense that spellcasting is a learned skill however it doesn’t sound like spell failure is a common event. If larger spells take more time/effort to cast but are also more effective at penetrating defences then you’ve a risk/reward mechanic. Big slow difficult spells are more risky but more rewarding whereas small fast simple spells are good for disrupting enemy spellcasting but won’t do much if any damage. Now terrain and position is very important because if you can use physical barriers to block enemy attacks you’ve got an advantage, likewise you don’t want your enemy to take cover or hide, especially if they know your location but you don’t know theirs.

Thus you have tactics (where should I go, what spell should I cast, should I focus on attacking or defending) and skill (how fast can I cast, how big can my spells be, how well can I manage my mana and bluff that I’m vulnerable when I’m ready or ready when I’m vulnerable). With tactics and skill being important factors a more skilful mage can be defeated by good tactics whereas a tactical genius could be overwhelmed by superior, this makes the outcome uncertain, of course the better mage will win but the definition of “better” is a capricious thing.

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What you describe is actually quite close to many oriental martial arts. Kendo would be an excellent example, where the going theory is that the first person to move loses. You could draw a great deal of content about these duels from those martial arts.

Mage duels would need some outside force encouraging the mages to get closer to eachother. As you get closer, the line between an attack and defense blurs. An action which captures an opponent's spell defensively may also set one up to make an attack in return.

Other than that, it would be a matter of waiting for your opponent to make a mistake. Sensitivity to what your opponent is doing would be king. If you can detect a flaw in their defenses, and fling a very small attack at that chink in their armor, you may be able to distract them away from defending another part of their body. Then you can make a larger attack there.

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However, an oddity of the system is that it's 'cheaper', in regards of magic used, to deflect or even redirect an enemies attacks back at them then it is to produce your own.

When the opponent redirects your attack back against you, then how about redirecting it right back? Maybe while also adding some more energy to it in the process?

A magic duel could be kind of like a ping pong game with the wizards passing the same magic projectiles back and forth between each other until one slips up and gets hit. In order to confuse the opponent, they will add additional minor projectiles to the fray, deflect some attacks but reflect others or do feints like pretending to deflect a fireball into the ground and then actually reflect it towards the opponent in the last moment.

I could also imagine a kind of magic tug-of-war with both opponents mentally wrestling over the control of a single fireball between them, each one trying to press it towards the other.

There would be a lot of room for applying strategy, psychology and skill. The continuously escalating back and forth of projectiles would also look quite impressive and exciting to any spectators.

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