In a generic fantasy setting there exist "magic-users" who may, depending on their specialty (like any skill, you have to specialize to become competent), raise armies of zombies, cause literal firestorms, summon and command demons, turn shadows into physical substances, etc. They don't rule the job market because any fighting man may train hard enough to pull off physical and mental stunts that would be impossible in reality, allowing them to stand toe-to-toe with the magic-users.

How is this possible?

EDIT: By "physical and mental stunts" I mean the sort of stunts seen in action movies like leaping across buildings, dodging bullets after being fired, ignoring the fatal convection next to a river of lava, resisting mental trickery, and so forth. Stuff that isn't particularly flashy but is impossible in reality like magic.

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    $\begingroup$ It's not? Unless your world has an RPG level up system. $\endgroup$
    – Skye
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 13:05
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    $\begingroup$ the same way there is magic.....magic $\endgroup$
    – depperm
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 13:26
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    $\begingroup$ Mental stunts? Like mental backflips? $\endgroup$
    – Anoplexian
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 14:22
  • $\begingroup$ "How is this possible?" what do you mean? how would it be impossible? $\endgroup$
    – njzk2
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 17:39
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    $\begingroup$ How common are these Disaster Class Mages anyway? As well, what weaknesses do they have? Realistically, power has weaknesses. Magic commonly has weaknesses related to total power and storage, as well as long cast times and slow gathering of the power needed to cast the spell. If you give them no weaknesses, then there is no way they can loose to skill and strength without power. if their magic barriers are always up at near no cost, and can't be cut by a sword or smashed by a Hammer, then there is no way a phsyical attack will ever reach them, let alone defeat them. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 18:16

9 Answers 9


One obvious solution is that there's a different way to use magical talent. Rather than doing it in a wizardly style, sufficient dedication in physical training, or craft training, lets you start to focus the world's ambient magic on other activities.

Fictional examples include the Physical Adepts of the Shadowrun TTRPG and the gifted smiths of Michael Scott Rohan's Winter of the World novels.

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    $\begingroup$ Yeah it would be a yin vs yang type thing - magical adepts focus on applying their willpower externally, martial adepts focus on applying their willpower internally. $\endgroup$
    – Tacroy
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 19:34
  • $\begingroup$ There's also the Magus-like people (from pathfinder RPG) that mix up swordplay and fireball-slinging seamlessly. $\endgroup$
    – Mermaker
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 19:56

Depending on the strenght of magic users, the task can be difficult. For this answer I will assume that your 'normal' fighters possess only physical capabilities of real-world humans. The training alone, no matter how hard, is not going to cut it. However, it's not a hopeless case. Here are few suggestions how I'd approach it (and some reasons why mages do need 'normal' fighters):

  1. You can't defend yourself from what you don't see coming. - take the caster by surprise. If you neutralise him before he even knows what's coming, his magic won't do him any good. You can achieve this in many ways - like: dagger in the back, club in the head, arrow from around a corner etc. People tend to be really creative when it comes to assassination.
  2. Wear the mage down. Assuming that the magic supply is not infinite, using it is bound to tire the caster down at some point. I like to think about mages in fantasy like of limited-use weapon. Sure, magic is powerful, but your ammo is really limited. If someone plays cat and mouse with you, its possible you will run out of juice before the real fight begins. That's where your 'normal' fighters come in.
  3. Team up. As cool as magic is, the amount of magic users tends to be limited. Just overrun them with raw numbers (see point 2.) and attack from multiple sides at once (see point 1.).
  4. Mitigate the damage. It is a fantasy world, so you can invent some kind of alloys that either entirely negate, or weaken the effect magic has. Some races can be more immune to magic than others. You can get enchanted armors that resist magic. etc
  5. Train like a beast. This point has most to do with your question. We assume that all your 'normal' fighters have the same limitations as real-life humans. In real life, if you train too hard, you are bound to injure yourself to the point where you cant train anymore. In a fantasy world, just apply magic balm to your torn muscles/tendons and keep on training. Tired? Eat a magic bean and go back to training with your full strenght. Imagine what level of proficiency would real-life martial artists have if they never had to worry about injuries and never had to stop training to recover. They would be really scary. Every one of your fighters would present abilities of an elite athlete, and in multiple disciplines. That alone wouldn't cut it, but combine it with other points (and maybe some more), and you have a chance to compete against the mage.
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the effects of magical healing on a training regime. That's an excellent thought. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 20:46
  • $\begingroup$ item 5 gets bonus cookies if any sort of montage sequence is used. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 20:54

The best way to approach this divide between magic and physical talents is to balance them, like you would balance them in a video game. Because you, yourself, are defining what magicians can do, and what physical artists can do, you can balance them.

One common thread in many of these answers is that magic offers a way to hold onto great potential energy and then unleash it all at once. Thus, as long as a magician can have time to charge, they're invincible. We're going to have to tailor that if we want to balance these awesome powers.

I would recommend having mages harness their energy in a form that is closely tied to the spell that you intend to cast. An extreme version of this might be the Dungeons and Dragons approach of your wizard having to memorize a set of spells every morning, and they can only cast the spells they memorized (consuming one charge of Fireball for every Fireball cast). If desired, you might give them the ability to change one energy into another over time (letting them memorize a Fireball, and with 10 minutes of concentration turn it into a Healing spell). As with any magic system, those details are up to you. However, the key artifact of this adjustment is that the mage is committed to a spell, and it will take them work to turn it into something else.

This leaves an opening for the physical fighters. If they can identify what spells are cued up in the wizard, they can simply avoid putting themselves in positions where that spell is effective. This is actually a major part of warfare: your number one priority is making sure the enemy can't shoot you.

You can tune this any number of ways. For example, one approach might be to make it so that spells are weak unless highly specified. You may barely light a candle with a Fireball, but if you memorize a "Fireball pointed north," you can roast a turkey. This, combined with the ability to slowly adjust the spells in your head, will create a rather interesting fight dynamic. The wizard has to keep the spells specific enough to do damage, but the more specific they make them, the easier it is for a physical fighter to avoid them.

This approach also plays well with the idea of rituals which permit wizards to cast extremely powerful spells. If they're willing to take the time to hyper-specialize their spell, it could be extremely strong. However, if a warrior comes up and disturbs the ritual, that power may be very difficult to adjust back into useful fireballs and ice-blasts, so the wizard would be weak during that time.

As always with magic, explore and use creativity, but I think a balance like stated above has great potential.


Magic is awesome because it lets you store and expend power

Did you know that you use exactly the same amount of energy for running and walking? Running just lets you get there faster. This is why pulleys and ramps and such are great - you get to spread physical effort over a larger amount of time, which makes it easier to move heavy loads.

Magic takes that to the limit. If I spend a week making skeleton warriors or enchanted swords or demon contracts, that's me storing up power. I can expend that power to make something happen in the world that I could not achieve with my flabby wizard body - topple a kingdom, raise a castle, crash an asteroid into the moon to get revenge on the Moon King once and for all.

This works great because "down time" is plentiful for everyone most of the time. If there's no rush, there is no advantage in running somewhere over walking, or carrying a heavy load straight up when you could use a ramp.

Martial arts typically cannot do this

Your kung-fu warrior is generally going to be reactive rather than active. An enemy? Run over there and punch it. It is now dead...and until you see another thing that needs punching, your punches are useless. You can't spend the next five minutes concentrating your muscle power into a really awesome punch.

This is not only a problem of power, but also one of versatility. The wizard is able to store power, so he can have stored a whole bunch of different things (which most magic systems allow, because magic is magic and so can do anything). Any ability the kung fu master needs to have, he needs to have all the time, so he typically has fewer things going on.

You can nerf the casters

The ability to store power is less useful in two cases. Case one: there is no opportunity to store the power. If it takes a week to complete the ritual of whatever, but you need the results of that ritual every day, the usefulness of the ritual rapidly diminishes, no matter the quality of its results. Case two: There are harsh limits on how long such power may be stored. If a necromancer can only have one skeleton warrior at a time (or only order one skeleton warrior to move at a time) then the skeleton warriors aren't terribly useful. If a wizard makes a magic sword, but the sword loses its magic in the next ten minutes, it's not as good as just being skilled with your regular sword.

You can let martial artists store power too

You only need a small amount of fantasy to explain how they can do this.

  • Meditation: By centering their minds and souls, your kung-fu guys can improve their abilities. Maybe they can force their own bodies to produce adrenaline and pain-blocking chemicals, allowing them to push their bodies to the limit. Maybe they channel the might of their ancestors. Maybe they do hella drugs. Whatever the reason, a small amount of prep time can give you a superman that can rival a magic guy any day.
  • Intense planning: Like, really intense. Bordering on precognition intense. Sherlock Holmes meets MacGyver intense. By studying things like how an arrow flies, the warrior can predict where arrows from his enemies might land, and just not be there. A utility belt is a must, but you can make do with some pocket sand in a pinch.
  • Allies: A very common structure of many folk tales is this one - the hero goes on a quest, during the quest he helps some magic talking animals, in the end he's in a bind but the magic talking animals come help him. Moral of the story: why punch people when you can contract the services of Enormous Bear 4 Hire Ltd. at a reasonable price?
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    $\begingroup$ Or interpret "store punch power" in the literal (multi-episode) way that Dragon Ball Z did. $\endgroup$
    – tsbertalan
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 20:39

I wouldn't worry too much about it. If you let yourself get bogged down in details about how magic "really works" (or in this case, how martial artists do things that clearly defy physics) then at best you get these awkward stops in your storytelling where you explain "Hisenberg Compensators" or "Midichlorines" or whatever. Think about how such explanation have affected people's appreciation of the story; they typically don't help immersion and they certainly don't drive the story forward.

Basically, if you're not worried about where the fireballs come from, don't worry about where the wire-fu comes from. The audience sure won't.


Maybe be a master of human mind, trick the magic-users, fool them.

Know when they might attack and how, also how to provoke them when to hide when to attack, people with much power feel strong the moment they talk about their power and maybe your weakness is a chance to strike them down.

Play around with things, throw a ball to distract them and attack, or maybe find a groub.
It should be more easy with a party of magic slayer.

But a magic-user using the same tricks would strike you down so your chances are very bad, one false attack could cause your dead.


Like Skye and John Dallman pointed out anything beyond human capabilities would probably rely on the magic or equipment available to your world (e.g. 🔫)

Also building on top of their answers, I'm guessing your magic requires energy similar to the eragon book series magic system. Thus unless technology allows for the magic users to have access to large pool of energy. Non-magic folks could still be on par in terms of capabilities.

(That being said non-magic users are unlikely to perform beyond human feats without specialized equipments or magic sources)


Why are tanks and infantry still used on the battlefield, when artillery and missile launchers can shoot at much longer ranges and do much more damage?

A wizard might be able to toss fireballs at great range, but if the fighter gets close enough, an unprepared wizard can become defenseless. Also, wizards might be in much smaller numbers, their services might be much more expensive, and they might need a long preparation time, fancy hand motions and all to cast a spell, when a quick punch or a quick arrow from a short distance might be quicker and more effective.

If a wizard is physically more fragile than a fighter, and magic needs preparation time an fancy motions, even an average fighter can beat up a wizard in a melee.

Warning, TvTropes link : Squishy Wizard


I think this concept was handled in a similar way in the Japanese manga Naruto. They broke down fighting skills to physical, mental, and elemental. Although the mental and elemental were generally seen as more effective in the manga, the physical had a large part of it also. The mental and elemental abilities relied on the amount and ability to manipulate ones own chakra, the equivalent of D&D mana. The physical abilities relied on training but also, at higher levels, the ability to remove ones own instinctual limiters, to allow more physical abilities, but at the cost of physical health.


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