Thursday, April 2, 2015

Magic in Mass Combat

If the reader has read the combat that I've posted this week, then its possible that you may have noticed some of the same trends that I did.  I knew when the combat was in place on the blog that I would want to talk about those things - so this is the first of two posts (I think it's going to be two) that I plan to write about that.  If you haven't read over the combat, you may miss much of the nuance here.

To begin, I'll copy a comment I wrote yesterday, describing my spellcasting system:

For my spells to function, the character must first 'cast' the spell, which means to gather the energy and control it within; during this time, if spellcasters are jarred or have their concentration broken (by a weapon, attack, another spell, etcetera), then the spell is RUINED and cannot be cast again that day.

Once the spell is cast and ready (and with high level spells, this can take two to five combat rounds), it must be 'discharged,' which means sent out from the spellcaster's body at the thing to be influenced. Thus, the full procedure of using spells is loading the gun/firing the gun.

Consider the limitations this provides:

  1. Spells must be cast from a vantage point where the caster is protected; otherwise, a stray arrow, thrown weapon, splinter from a ballista or some other flying object is going to ruin a critical, valuable spell at the wrong moment.
  2. Everyone on the battle field knows that when someone starts moving, chanting, waving their arms about, falling into a state of deep concentration and so on, that the 'gun' is being loaded and that the spell is coming soon after; therefore, seeing this happen will cause an opponent able to free themselves from a melee to hurl themselves at a caster to stop the spell from happening.
  3. Nor can the caster stand amidst a mob of friendlies, since as the battle waves and pushes, a shoulder slamming into the caster at the wrong moment will also ruin the spell.
  4. Because casters cannot, therefore, stand on the front line of a battle and throw spells, spell power is limited by what the caster can see - which in many cases won't be much if the caster is at the back of an allied mob.
  5. Coupled with the spell taking time, so that something like a fireball will take three complete combat rounds to employ in the battle, more of the actual battle is taken up with actual combat and not spell use.

Compare the battle described with a gaming system that allows casters to use spells without having to 'load the gun,' repeatedly, as often as they need to, without any specific concern regarding the environment surrounding them.  Clearly, from the combat, every major change occurred because a caster let loose a spell or fired a wand:  the ladder force at the south wall being extinguished in the first few rounds; the north gate battle being utterly changed by a second fireball; the appearance of ghouls and toads, shoring up the battle after the battle was lost; the north gate being warped so that it couldn't be closed; the brownies being conjured, greatly affecting two troops of defenders; and finally the strongest mage smoking the defenders once free to let loose.  Change this to free, continuous use of magic and we have greatly diminished the effects of ordinary, low level fighters who literally held the situation by sheer numbers and will.

The insistence that magic should be continuous and convenient has, like the creation of the machine gun over the flintlock, eradicated much of the tactical quality inherent in battle.  Magic is altogether too powerful a force in the game to permit an inexhaustible supply of it.  But then, I know that most 'battles' that are being run consist of three or four super-powerful enemies against three or four super-powerful players, so that battle has degraded into endless slug-fests of smashing down hundreds of hit points by small percentages round after round.  Battles are not, as I've depicted, large numbers of contestants, many of which are fragile and easily blown apart.  As such, the defense to the role-playing 'machine gun' has not been the acknowledgement of the meaningless trench war slaughter that followed historically, but the transformation of characters and enemies into thickened rubberized Gumby dolls able to soak up damage.

I learned much from the mass combat, so that today I would play it very differently from a defending point of view.  Today, rather than have the towers populated by archers whose purpose it was to shoot into the crowd of attackers, they would be trained and ready to identify spellcasters on the periphery, keep them under close observation and have means to tag such individuals for other archers.  From the beginning of the combat, these archers would be waiting for a spellcaster to twitch; they would be trained to recognize the tiniest movement or lack of movement (concentration) as spellcasting.  And every spellcaster on the field that had released a spell would be under a continuous barrage of fire, while ordinary attackers were virtually ignored.  Why fire at a man-at-arms when that man-at-arms is not going to win the battle for the enemy?

On a grand, worldly scale, this would produce a combat strategy where casters deliberately kept themselves concealed until the latest possible moment, to get that first, all-important blast off before they were identified - recognizing that once they did, they would be known and afterwards targeted mercilessly, by teams whose sole existence was to be trained to shoot at and hit magic users.  Like other crack teams of trained forces through history, these 'mageshooters' would be deadly shots, +2 to hit vs. spellcasters at least, perhaps +4 if the target is actually casting.

Not that I want someone to run with that and create some goofy character class out of it.


  1. I see a sort of arrow/bolt that can be purchased, where the top of the missile is a compressed yellow or red powder, so that as the missile is fired at the the ground next to the spellcaster, it explodes in a ball of yellow dust that immediately draws the attention of every archer on that side. Thus, in a very simple way, a single mage casting a simple spell - even a defensive spell, which would still require the requisite, recognizable casting movement - would soon after be hit with ten, twelve arrows fired from every direction.

    I can see a crossbowman talking to his fellow on the wall: "I don't like the way that one is twitching."

  2. Regarding anti-magician sharpshooters: is that a potential candidate for inclusion somewhere in, say, the Fighter's sage abilities?

    I don't think it would be much fun on its own, but as a rider along with some other skill related to, I don't know, military expertise for the purpose of raising a large army, or something.

    Or maybe it's just the kind of thing the players will learn from all the times the enemies do it!

  3. That was PRECISELY my thought too, Maxwell.

    The fighter sage abilities are divided into five categories: training, planning, leadership, engagement and animal use (for want of a better word to cover horses, dogs, elephants, etc).

    I haven't done any of that work yet, but yes, targeting specific enemies should be part of that knowledge.

  4. Alexis, I only read blogs once a week or so, often more sporadically, so I apologize for repeatedly commenting on "older" posts. You outpace me.

    Do fortifiers in your world make any allowance for airborne menaces like flying casters, dragons, etc.? I don't know how they reasonably could in an otherwise-medieval society without getting into "high-level bartender" territory, but I don't know your world.

    I know you've mentioned sub-max dragons and the like, which are probably rare and unlikely to be involved in most sieges, but a 5th level magic-user might not be.

    I always assumed that a flying mage would be something pretty unusual to have to deal with and that countermeasures would be personnel-based rather than any sea change in fortification practices ... it doesn't seem reasonable that conventional fortifications and security could counteract all the things even a mid-level caster can do.

    (I've seen you mention otherworldly beings like slaad ... if demons, etc. with unlimited teleportation ability make it into the world, are traditional fortifications completely unequipped to counteract that? My take has always been "yeah, pretty much" but I'm obviously asking to hear yours.)

  5. A comment is a comment; the age of the post makes no difference to me.

    I like traditional fortifications because they retain a good 'feel' for gaming. True, they probably won't keep out an ancient red dragon, but they do pretty good with keeping low level parties out of the Queen's bedroom.

    There are plenty of spells that help defend traditional fortifications - fire trap, grease, guards & wards, snare, trip, alarm, etc; I'm always struggling to think up new ones, like the topiary sage ability. These things help against truly weird massive creatures.

    But the only way it really works is to say that earth elementals and dragons, among other things, are either rare or unwilling to expose themselves.

    Consider: if there is a 24th level mage/druid/cleric in the kingdom (in my world, where it takes a LOT of running to be 24th level), then it's rational that they're going to bring the pain to anything that wrecks a fortification, no matter what that thing is. The dragon can float in and fry Dresden to the ground, but that dragon's lifespan afterwards is limited.

    There are other angles, too. I could write a post about this.

  6. "I could write a post about this."

    That would be cool. It's a potentially setting-warping issue ... if you don't ignore it, you at least have to think it through.


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