1. Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us.

Traditional battle mages

Discussion in 'World Building' started by skip.knox, Nov 2, 2019.

  1. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    5,667
    3,633
    313
    So, picture the most stereotyped kinds of battle magic. We're talking magic missiles and fireballs and that sort of thing. Has this ever been done well? In terms of sensible battlefield tactics (before firearms). I'd be interested to see references. I would exclude any super-soldier types of the sort Steve Erikson has. I'm talking regular infantry and cavalry with battle mages added.

    Do such mages render regular army irrelevant? Relegated to guarding the camp or maybe serving as reserves? Or is there a place for genuine, mutually beneficial combat deployment? It struck me as I try to develop my own ideas about battlefield magic that I've read very few books that really use this. Even Tolkien barely has magic in his set pieces. There's the army of the dead and the Ringwraiths at Pelennor Fields, but not much else. Mostly just monsters. GRRM uses the magic fireworks at Kings Landing, but much of the rest is again regular folks fighting in regular ways. There's little evidence of actual military evolution taking account of magical power.

    Looking forward to replies on this.
     
  2. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    4,074
    1,256
    163
    I tend to not read books with battle mages, or I've just avoided them accidentally. I don't think its' been a conscious choice.
    About the only stories, I've read that include battle magic are some D&L Eddings tales.
    Towards the end of the Belgariad there is a huge battle with lots of magic involved. There it is more used as an assistance to the trial of arms. Illusions are cast, troops are hidden from view, nature is harnessed to cause harm but little in the direct and large scale magical attack. The magic tires the caster so there are no barrages of fire-balls arching across the sky... It feels more like special forces being used carefully to create tipping points rather than front-line forces.
    In one of their later Sparhawk books, the characters refer back to a huge battle that happened 500 years earlier that had demons. magic and a lot more. It was told in retrospect so the whole battle lasts about a page or two and a lot of that is about how the average soldier just wasn't able to deal with facing demons or seeing whole units explode into magical-fire. It was only specialist troops [with the assistance of gods] that stood a chance. I did like that the after-effects of the battle are mentioned. It had been a continent-wide mobilisation and the battle cataclysmic. It ruined the continent's economy for decades to come, causing famine and death for years afterwards.
     
    Night Gardener likes this.
  3. Yora

    Yora Inkling

    411
    183
    43
    What immediately comes to my mind is Avatar. Fire and Earth benders basically assume the role of artillery. They are extremely effective, but even when each side can bring dozens of them to a battle, they can't take on armies of thousands and so need equally large numbers of regular soldiers to support them. The Water benders are more about stopping and delaying the enemies' movement.
    Since it's a kids' show they don't go for lethal blows, so they are almost always used in supporting roles, in which they are extremely effective. Sealing off paths or breaking through fortifications.
     
  4. Pemry Janes

    Pemry Janes Sage

    266
    14
    18
    I've given it some thought and I see magic in combat to be subject to the same considerations as other types of combatants.

    Training and pay, it probably takes a long time to train a mage and that means they can demand higher pay or reward. That's a limit to an army if they rely more on a feudal structure.

    Attack and defense, does the magic system allow you to counter offensive spells? If yes, it is a race between offense and defense. If not, it gets real bloody real quick. Of course, there is also the question of power, how powerful can the spells get.

    As an example, in my world mages came up with a spell that would allow them to turn large bodies of water into high pressure jets that would wear down walls. Solution, get rid of the moat so that besiegers don't have ready access to water. That, though, does make them more vulnerable to more conventional tactics.
     
  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    5,667
    3,633
    313
    I appreciate that, but I take video off the table. Once I explore magical possibilities, the question becomes how to present it in words. The problems and their solutions are fundamentally different. Probably arbitrary of me, but there it is.
     
  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    5,667
    3,633
    313
    >I tend to not read books with battle mages, or I've just avoided them accidentally. I don't think its' been a conscious choice.
    That's part of what got me thinking about this. In discussions, one can find an unending stream of people sort of dismissing battle mages (I use the term in a generic way to cover all uses of magic on a field of battle) out of hand. Fireballs, and all that. Yet, when I look at what I have read, I can recall very few examples. And that made me wonder, is this an area that could be explored?

    Well of course it can. In that spirit, I appreciate the reference to Eddings. Belgariad is somewhere in my distant past; I might have to take another look there.
     
  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    5,667
    3,633
    313
    >I've given it some thought and I see magic in combat to be subject to the same considerations as other types of combatants.

    Yes. In addition to working out the logistics of using magic on a field of battle, how it would work and how it would fail, one also has to look at the socio-economic context. Altearth is medieval in that respect, so mages wouldn't be paid. They would be more like nobility, drawing an income from land and rents. That in turn introduces all sorts of interesting wrinkles about loyalty and who would actually show up on the day of the fight, but I'll leave that for another day. Right now, I'm just interested to see what people have to say on this subject. Most especially I'm interested in how they have written it, or in references to how others have written it. The devil may be in the details, but all his minions live in words.
     
  8. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    7,591
    3,097
    313
    In real warfare they developed the flame thrower, which is effective and terrifying (at least, enough so for this point), but they never use it. At all. And the reason is that the moment it lights up, every gun on the enemy's side of the battlefield is pointed at it.

    And that's a flamethrower, a device that can be mass produced and takes relatively little time to train in. Now take a mage, who's rare and studied their entire life in the subtle arts of magic. Put them on the battlefield, light up a fireball, and watch the arrows come flying in. Your enemy would have torsion catapults all over the field lying in wait for the mage to make a move. Unless you know what you're doing, your mage gets in about one shot, and then it's one dead mage.

    How do you handle this problem? Hit and run tactics? Magic defenses? Put them in the middle of a shield formation? Get a bunch of fake mages tossing molotov cocktails as a diversion to draw out their sharpshooters? If the battlefield is a game of rock paper scissors, it's archers beats mage, mage beats infantry, infantry beats archers. That's not really accurate, of course, because single units usually have mixed arms, and there are different types of infantry, and there's cavalry... *sigh*, never mind. But you can't use a mage unless you can protect a mage, and that's not as easy as it sounds.
     
  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    5,667
    3,633
    313
    Agreed, DevorDevor. Much depends here on how many mages you have in the field. If a particular fantasy world can produce them by the thousands, then you can have whole armies of nothing but wizards. That sounds like fun, of a chaotic sort, but doesn't match up with my Altearth. Still, I'd like to know of any examples of such. Maybe the logistics of that could be found in big SF space battles. Those are handled well in The Expanse books.

    Another variable is speed. How quickly can a wizard sling those fireballs? And for how long? I guess one the scope of a nuclear bomb would be all you need, so size would be another variable.

    A variable I've introduced in Altearth is reliability. Dozens of factors affect how magic works, including things like terrain, weather, time of year, time of day, the caster, other casters, and so on. Somewhat like predicting the weather, if you could model all the variables you could make reliable prediction as to results, but the people at the time of my stories not only don't know the science, they have incorrect theories. Therefore, most people will say that magic--spellcasting in particular--is unreliable. Unreliable is not a word that makes military commanders happy. But that's all specific to my world. I'm still hoping to hear how writers have implemented battle mages in their books. Mages on pages!
     
  10. MrNybble

    MrNybble Troubadour

    132
    24
    18
    What is a traditional mage battle? Really depends on the magic system in place. If you have mages that are so powerful they are classified as weapons of mass destruction, they are going to be controlled so people don't fear them. On the other hand you have mages with powers that are specialized that only affect one person at a time. Epic battles with fireballs, lightning strikes, and other showy effects make for great tales of wonder, but poor practical sense.
     
  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    5,667
    3,633
    313
    > What is a traditional mage battle?
    Do you know of any in published works? I don't have any problem thinking up possibilities and scenarios. I'm interested in how those scenarios actually get written. As I said above, I've mostly come up empty.

    I promise I'll put forward my own thoughts, but I wanted to hear from others first.
     
  12. MrNybble

    MrNybble Troubadour

    132
    24
    18
    I would say Harry Potter series, but that would get me shot. Would manga be considered published works? Kidding, I wouldn't use that as a good example of practical mage battles. There is a MtG novel "Arena" that has mage battles. It's hard to find a good battle scene between mages that can wield powers to kill thousands with the snap of a finger.
     
  13. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    5,667
    3,633
    313
    >It's hard to find a good battle scene between mages that can wield powers to kill thousands with the snap of a finger.

    Agreed, probably because it removes most of the conflict. I do sort of remember a big battle scene in WoT, but it's been too long since I read that series. The more I think about this, the more I think there's room here for some sort of battlefield magic. I do have something along those lines in my own Goblins at the Gates. There's a set-piece fairly early, then there's the siege of Constantinople. But the one side is goblins and they have just one magic. It's a good one, but there's little in the way of tactics on their part. On the other side is a hodge-podge of magicians, but they're all naturals--no training, so no real coordination or strategy. Just scrambling to stay alive.
     
  14. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    4,279
    1,355
    163
    In most fantasy settings, battle mages are basically walking artillery pieces.

    The best depiction I can think off hand are the wizards encountered in Glen Cooks 'Black Company' series, which gives a sort of worm's eye view of the spells involved.
     
    skip.knox likes this.
  15. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    1,833
    989
    113
    Tanya Huff does some interesting things with battle mages in her Wizard of the Grove. They're essentially nuclear options, only brought into play under dire circumstances. Also, Malik explores the idea of the battle mage in his Outworlders series.

    We're going to be playing with this in our current WIP, Beneath a Stone Sky, with a huge, three-army battle and battle mages with all three armies. Seelie, Unseelie, and Dwarven. I'm very interesting in seeing where this discussion takes us, as I currently have a basic idea but not much in the way of specifics as to what this is going to look like. >.<
     
    skip.knox likes this.
  16. Yora

    Yora Inkling

    411
    183
    43
    Flame throwers did get a lot of use and were very effective. But they were not used like rifles out in the open. Their main use was in trenches and buildings, where there are lots of walls around to provide cover and other soldiers with rifles could guard all doors from which an enemy might try to attack. Flame throwers were used more similar to hand grenades, with the big difference that they look a lot more scary. I don't think flame throwers are substentially more deadly than grenades, but they were much more effective in making enemies flee or surrender. Which is really the point of combat. Fighting an enemy to the death is very dangerous. If you can get the enemy to stop fighting, it's much safer to you.

    Now a flamethrower at Waterloo would indeed have been very pointless because the soldier is too open and in sight of hundreds of riflemen.
     
  17. Pemry Janes

    Pemry Janes Sage

    266
    14
    18
    The WoT scene you are thinking of is probably Dumais Wells. That is actually a decent scene when it comes to how devastating battle mages can be. It starts with two sides in balance, one side defending with a theater shield that the other side is battering down. The defending side is also limited in that their casters can only fight when their lives, or that of their direct retainer, is threatened. And neither side is used to using their magic in this sort of direct battle.

    Then the new casters come in, trained specifically to fight with magic. They basically destroy, it is described how the enemy foot soldiers just get turned into mincemeat in a scene reminiscent of WOI. It does help that this new side has what amounts to wormholes so they can appear without warning.
     
    skip.knox likes this.
  18. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

    1,079
    244
    63
    I heard it described somewhere that the role of artillery is to take a position, but it takes infantry to actually hold it. It seems to me like it'd be pretty easy to slot battle mages in as effectively artillery units.
     
  19. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    7,591
    3,097
    313
    I barely remember what happens, but there's some of this in the second Sword of Truth book (I didn't read the first, or the later books).
     
  20. Nirak

    Nirak Scribe

    29
    20
    3
    I don't know if "done well" could be applied, but books based on tabletop games (Forgotten Realms comes to mind when that setting was popular) have battles using mages - and they are the very stereotype you're talking about with fireballs and magic missiles.
     
Loading...

Share This Page