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Militaries and Fantasy or How to Build an Army

Authors Note: I did my best to refrain from using military and army interchangeably in this article. To clarify a bit, by army I mean one specific body of fighters. By military I mean a country or warlord’s fighting force as a whole.

Military history is a bear. Humans have been fighting each other longer than history can record. It is an overwhelming subject, and a two-thousand word article cannot possibly do justice to it all.

Battles of Westeros by Tomasz Jedruszek

Military bodies are diverse. There are millions of ways an army can be organized, and its effectiveness is valid as long as it works to counter whatever opposition it encounters. Therefore, to add substance to any military organization, a world creator should focus on the macro aspects before deciding on how many men are in a regiment or how range attacks and foot soldiers are combined into a single fighting unit. This is the one area in worldbuilding where starting from the bottom will not work.

When designing an army, outline the following aspects before delving too much into the details.

Purpose and Origin

Royal Recruiter by MariusBotaHere is where mission statements and codes of honor come into play. Militaries are created to either conquer other lands or defend its own. A military can undoubtedly do both, but essentially one takes precedence. An army that is designed for offensive campaigns and conquest does not need to be evil. The need for water and land resources is a powerful driver for men to rise forth and do battle.

The great kingdoms began when a single warlord, general, king or leader managed to unite multiple clans or tribes (Alfred the Great, Clovis, Genghis Khan). These great consolidated forces were often the result of conquest, but not always. Forces would constantly unite for a common cause.

Normally, when creating a world, the military is already set as an established institution to provide the attack or defensive power that governments and communities need. However, if there is an emerging nation or civilization in place, a military body should evolve alongside it.

Scope of Powers

Law enforcement and security entourages are types of armies. A group of soldiers can be worldly veterans, or they can be town guards. An army should have clear delineations. It would make sense for soldiers to police a new colony while laws are revised and any resistance or unrest is quelled, but consider carefully whether it makes sense for a king’s regiment stationed outside the walls of a strategic town to have to leave their posts to chase down a mugger. It is not unheard of for soldiers to pull this kind of double duty, but the area of responsibility should be established somehow. Otherwise armies and law enforcement will become simple generic fillers.

Manpower and Resources

the Stand by donovanvaldesI know I mentioned before that specifics are not important when designing an army, but the sourcing and manning of armies should be addressed. Is the army a group of professional soldiers or is conscription in place? What is the quality of life for these fighters? Do the soldiers get paid well? Do they get paid at all? How easy is it to stockpile and replace weapons? How are the armies fed, and who shoulders the cost? How do soldiers train for battle? Use these questions to add the details needed to portray the strengths or weaknesses of your armies.

Technology

As an overall guideline, armies should have the latest and greatest technology of the era. If gunpowder has been discovered, cannons should be part of the weapons cache. If the concept of flight is known, the military should have mechanical airpower at their disposal. Unless there is clear strife between the military and scientific (or magical) communities, cutting edge weapons and equipment should be in the hands of the armies. That being said, this rule-of-thumb does not apply to special magical weapons and artifacts, since these special objects are the seeds of the fantasy genre formula.

Philosophy

war by hanjun81This is possibly the most important factor for determining the effectiveness of an army. This is usually based on the purpose for the army, but it is not the same thing. Military philosophy can be a complicated subject, but it can also define the military body. The overall behavior of a fighting force reflects the underlying philosophy that drives these soldiers to do battle. Consider the following three questions:

Is this army evil or good? To most of us, world domination is seen as an evil concept. It can be argued that mankind would benefit from a single leader or government, but the very thought seems to threaten our concept of liberty and human rights. But true evil runs deeper than simply conquering nations. Overtaking a city in order to spread ideology or partake in its resources does not make an army evil, since they are only doing their jobs. Rejoicing in the suffering of a town while raping it and razing it to the ground, however, does.

How does this army value life? Are civilians to be respected and protected or are they nothing more than a resource to be used? What happens to the vanquished? Are they kept as prisoners? Are they disarmed and released to fend for themselves? Do they become slaves? Or are they killed off like a colony of pests?

What is the meaning of honor? Codes of honor are the unwritten rules of a soldier. Honor dictates behavior, sportsmanship, loyalty, and teamwork. When a group of people follows a common set of rules, it allows for better communication, a strong esprit-de-corps, and method of self-discipline that allows for better empowerment within regiments and units.

Magical Warfare

The Battle Under The Mountain by Matthew StewartThe great thing about magic is that it is the source of energy for the creation or execution of fantastical things. Magic does not require much explanation as compared to, say, science and technology. Star Trek used many respected scientific theories as the foundation of their futuristic technology. If something does not make sense to readers, they will have a hard time suspending disbelief. Fantasy and science fiction readers are generally pretty savvy when it comes to science and modern technology. It takes much more logical explanations to draw in a reader of science fiction. But magic does not need to be explained in depth. It’s magic!

But because magic does not exist in our reality, there is nothing to use as a historical basis for an army of necromancers or conjurers. Any kind of strategy for magical attacks and defenses can only be gleaned from the imagination of a great fantasy writer. There is nothing that can prove or disprove the effectiveness of magic in battle. Can the fireball of a high-level caster melt a stone wall? We would not think that likely in real life, but in a fantasy world there is nothing to disprove the power of a wizard mighty enough to create the heat needed to melt stone. The only limitation is a writer’s ability to have the reader suspend disbelief.

So with that in mind, why does magic seem to take a back seat when it does to warfare in fantasy settings? Why does magical power appear to be the last resort in the climax of a multi-book saga? I read a lot about magical swords and rings and flying horses and great eagles that serve as cavalry. I have read several stories where dragons are steeds or sources of magic not to be trifled with. I have read about magical schools; I have even used this premise myself. I have read about a small group of magic-users embedded in mundane fighter units. I have also read about bold adventurers soaring through the skies on a flying beast, jousting and dog-fighting with an opponent in an aerial duel that the loser really should not be able to survive.

Battle Mage by David PalumboBut I can’t recall reading about a battlefield with fireballs and lightning bolts flying back and forth in precise tactical patterns, with some neutralized by waterballs or rendered harmless by magical shields protecting the casters as they frantically wave their hands to defend their ground. I can’t think of a story where battalions are appearing and disappearing, teleporting from one flank to another, making the war zone look like a strange game of Chinese checkers as they shoot volleys of magic missiles at groups that teleport out of danger to a more strategic spot. Maybe I am just reading the wrong books. If anyone knows of a fantasy book or series that deals with magical warfare in depth, I would love to find out about them.

I have an idea regarding the answer to the above question. Just because magic exists in a world does not mean that magical armies must be established in that world. There can be very good reasons why magical armies are so rare. Magic in itself could be an extreme rarity, thereby limiting the ability to form and train a magical fighting unit. Handling magic, such as the need to memorize a spell to perform a single cast or the incredible amount of concentration needed to execute a spell, can create considerable constraints. There could be treaties in place forbidding the use of magic in battle. There could be a much more convenient way for countries to win wars. So it is not unrealistic not to have magical armies. It is just not very common to read about magical warfare.

Psychic Armies

Psychic powers are a fantasy attribute, but the subject seems to work better in the paranormal segment. The fantasy genre mainly focuses on these five main psychic areas:

Telepathy – The ability to read and control minds and sense emotions. This can be as basic as spying on someone’s thoughts or as deadly as disabling all cognitive function and rendering the target a simpleton. A psychic can also use telepathy to perform illusion tricks.

Telekinesis – The ability to move and control objects. Great for ballistic attacks.

Teleportation – The ability to transfer oneself from one location to another. This can also apply to different planes, worlds, dimensions or whatever. A good offensive use of this field is to banish enemies or even summon otherworldly monsters. Spiritual traveling (astral projection) can be classified as a subfield of teleportation. A more accurate term for this would be psychoportation, but it is still a form of teleportation, just not in a physical sense.

Soul Trap by kerembeyitPsychometabolism – The ability to heal or harm living things. This can also include metabolic enhancements, such as increased strength or cold or heat resistance.

Divination (Clairvoyance) – The ability to predict the future and see or scry events taking place far away, or even at a different time or dimension. It is a great reconnaissance tool.

ESP should fall within this area since it is that sixth sense which allows a psychic to perceive things that non-psychics can’t. But my own divination powers tell me that many would disagree and place ESP under the telepathy field. It is a sound argument, but I don’t fully agree with it.

It goes without saying that one or two powerful psychics can easily develop the ability to destroy an army unassisted. But a good way to design psychic warfare is to compare it to how the Internet influences the world today. A single click can send a message to millions instantly. Charismatic leaders and movement champions are currently using social media much like a psychic would reach the minds of the masses. Machines and infrastructure grids are controlled online over wireless connections. Countering a psychic army can consist of mental ‘hackers’ who can disrupt and disable psychic connections, steal valuable information and communications, and at the very worst, erase the mind of the psychic, temporarily or permanently.

Battle Lost by Tomasz Jedruszek

Sadly, war and conquest is part of our nature, and we have yet to evolve to the point where our intellect and our appreciation for human life and peaceful coexistence is able to overcome our instinct to fight those who differ in looks, values and spiritual beliefs. There are still many problems we need to figure out how to solve. But hopefully we will eventually get there.

As a post note, if you would like to delve into the subject of military history, I’m a huge fan of Dan Carlin. He has this great podcast where he talks about history and warfare. He has tons of great information to share, and he is fun to listen to. His podcast is called Hardcore History. It is on iTunes, and his website is www.dancarlin.com.

Title image by MiguelCoimbra.

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9 Comments

  1. Billy says:

    Great article!! In response to books with magic in warfare, Wheel of Time comes to mind. Not so much in the first half of the series, but later on when the Asha’man are established there are some decent battles which change tactics due to the incorporation of magical missiles and gateways.
    Also consider Brent Weeks’ Lightbringer series. He does a great job of adding magic to warfare. Giving it a rich history and comes up with some neat tactics and unit formations.

  2. Damien says:

    The red knight by miles Cameron and the follow up, the fell sword touch on this to a degree

  3. Josh Vogt says:

    I know this site has covered Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops books, but just pointing them out again as fascinating takes on modern military combined with magic. While this article seems to be addressing more epic/historical/sword and sorcery military contexts, just tossing in a mention for anyone who might’ve overlooked Shadow Ops and would be interested in such reads.

  4. Cheryl says:

    As a fantasy author who writes battles involving magic, I can see where there can be hesitation to fully utilize magic as an offensive or defensive capability. The first thing I had to consider was :Is use of magic justified as a means to an end and is the magic only used to make the good guys better at something than the bad guys? (the magic bullet, no pun intended, scenario where the good guys always hit and kill their targets, but the bad guys can’t hit the broad side of a barn two feet in front of their noses). In both cases I had to evaluate what the use of magic would do for and against both sides of the battle and decide how to remove the magic bullet scenario and make the use of magic justifiable beyond letting the good guys win. In my first book, magic is used, but with the caveat that it is only for defense. The enemy is non magical and using magic as a full out assault would have made the magic bullet scenario ridiculous. In my second book, both sides have magic, but it is clearly an unequal balance, so I added more aggressive magic use, but not enough to make the enemy fall instantly and making the scene laughable. The heroes need to work for their wins. In my work in progress, it goes to level three, all out magic and non magic war (shhh spoilers!) and I can’t reveal any more than suggest that it goes to the next level. I am not afraid to make magic a powerful weapon in fantasy battles, but it must be used properly.

    • B. Pine says:

      It sounds like you created a nice build-up for a magic showdown. Normally the bad guys are the ones who are more powerful, and the good guys struggle to achieve the strength and means to overcome the enemy. It seems you went the opposite way. That cannot be an easy plot to create.

  5. Randi says:

    Extremely helpful article! Thanks.

    As to the magical warfare question, I’ve seen what I consider to be magical armies in manga and anime. My brother was watching this epic battle scene toward the end (?) of the Naruto series, and pretty much all of the fighting and defense involved some kind of magic or conjuring. Then again, the “armies” were fairly small.

    Traditional novels? Hmm, I don’t recall any that I’ve read, either…

  6. Robert says:

    Check out the Vlad Taltos series by Steven Brust. It’s very character focused by the setting involves a Empire that maintains an Army where you have a wide variety of skills and abilities across the various “races”, as well as easy access to all sorts of magic. The primary character, Vlad Taltos, even gets involved in a few armies in active combat at various times so Brust has a chance to flesh out just how crazy you can go with magic and actual armies.

  7. B. Pine says:

    Thanks everyone for your suggestions. I loved WOT but did not finish the series because hubby kept hogging the books and I lost interest, but I plan to start it again from the beginning. Now I have more books on my radar. Anime and animated series like The Last Airbender are great visual inspirations, and I would love to see the storyboards and writing that brings these projects to life.

  8. Sean says:

    I think the “philosophy” section misses the mark – a military force is characterized by the cohesion of the army/military as a functional institution. In other words, why are the entities that comprise that force willing to kill others, be brutally killed themselves or grievously wounded – why are they willing to follow orders to march out to face a foe? It is fear (facing their leaders is worse than facing the enemy), coercion ( families are kept as hostages or their souls are kept in magical suspension for example), religious beliefs, defense of property/religion/homes/etc., promise of plunder/rape/extermination of hated foe or societal expectations of the institution (persons of military age are expected to serve and serve honorably/obey commands or maybe persons of military age are expected to serve and stay away from civilized society until they grow up and get the bloodlust out of their system/make a name for themselves), etc. Depending on what motivates the military or army, this will determine the degree of organization of the force. Is it a small force, personally loyal to a leader (i.e., if that person is not leading from the front, no one is following and the army disintegrates into tribal groups or individuals), institutional loyalty to a hierarchical structure (this is a modern military, where enlisted men follow senior enlisted or officers simply due to the fact that it is the cultural norm of that institution and not because they are the most capable, brave or experienced persons), maybe leadership is determined by right of combat (magical or old fashioned brute muscle – woe betide the weak, slow and/or old leader past his/her prime and forget about long campaigns since a leader needs to win fast to maintain his force before it duels itself to death). Remember, every being in the force is armed – why do they not simply turn on each other? Your military/army must be built around the answer to this question – and have structures that prevent the failure of this reason. This will also determine command and control – can leader trust his subordinates to follow his/her orders? Why or why not? This will tie into the use of that army as well. If the leader must demonstrate personal bravery to maintain his right to lead, don’t expect the force to have sophisticated national strategy and battlefield tactics (the leader will be at the point of attack, and unable to control the army once engaged, battles will be “line up and charge”, last being standing wins). Historically, the Mongols had a sophisticated command and control system for the time – the commanding general actually stayed back and controlled his maneuver elements, taking advantage of tactical opportunities. This was possible because, unlike the armies of Western Europe at the time, there was no shame in the leader not leading from the front and also no shame for a man to be what we would consider a “staff” officer, which is essential for planning and control. It has been posited that General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia suffered from a social problem that “true gentlemen” were combat commanders, not staff officers, and the logistics and planning of the army fell on too small a staff for the enormity of leading a contemporary army of the time, to the detriment of General Lee’s health and the army’s long term viability (add this to the long list of other reasons the Confederacy lost the war).
    Also, the determination of “evil/good” is in the eye of beholder, try not to fall into that trope – no force thinks itself evil, although its opponents might (and even its own citizens since the only fate worse for a peasant than an occupying enemy army is an occupying friendly army.) Imperial Rome’s military did not consider itself evil, although the Gauls might say otherwise – the whole good/evil dichotomy needs to retire from fantasy fiction, quite frankly.
    Could write a whole ‘nother section on command and control and logistics, in which magic could provide a very, very powerful weapon to enhance a small force (i.e., horses (or dragons) on campaign need untold amounts of fodder (and water for horses) – a dimensional portal to a grazing area next to a river could eliminate the need to have hundreds of oxen and wagons to supply said beasts, meaning fewer losses due to “wastage” and the ability to campaign over farther distances or in inhospitable terrain). However, if your foe has the same capability, winning decisively can be a problem since retreats are easy and raids would be the norm.
    i also agree that Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History” podcast is excellent (both entertaining and educational) if you like this sort of thing.

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