Military Casters: Fireballs Among the Swords and Arrows

Fairy Tail

Magic is an important part of fantasy writing.  Some would say it’s one of the defining traits of the genre.  Not every story has magic, but those that do might want to consider including it with their military forces.  This is where you get battle casters, combat mages, or whatever you want to call them.  Their role is to hurl spells around a battlefield to create an even bigger scene.  So, what are some things to consider when designing or using a character like this?

(Yes, I know it’s another list, but I’ve tried to make it a non-list post and it wasn’t working.  Sorry about the repetition.)

  1. Consider giving the casters a specialty, but don’t make it a requirement.  This usually boils down to Fire Caster, Lightning Caster, Ice Caster, or some kind of element because they won’t require much flexibility.  They’re really here to make the battlefield more dangerous and act like living mortars and cannons.  So, you can decide how deep you go here.
  2. Uniforms have two paths here: One is that the casters are dressed like average soldiers to hide among them.  This gives the element of surprise, but it is hard to cast magic in armor because it typically requires precise arm movements.  The other is to give them their own uniform, which makes them stand out.  It puts a target on them, but it allows them to have gear that works with their magical ability.
  3. Always remember that most attack spells have an area of effect.  Lightning can jump among armored enemies, fireballs explode, and the list keeps going.  There are ways to make them more precise, but then you have to factor in that the caster is aiming.  So, you have to find a way around the problem of them blowing up their own people.  It’s easier than you think if they focus on the rear of the enemy forces and then switch to support magic.
  4. Do NOT ignore the existence of support magic.  This is more than healing, which can be done by fantasy priests.  I’m talking about physical enhancement and defensive spells, which can turn a battle more than explosions.  Soldiers can always handle the fighting while the casters can gradually fall back into more of a support role.  This can always be the standard tactic while you have a handful of more aggressive casters.  Of course, this is only one possibility and it depends on the author.
  5. I would decide on how a military caster is ranked too.  They might not have a title, but they need some kind of influence.  One could consider them special forces and work from there.  Personally, I would put them high up the food chain, but not at the very top.  A lot of this depends on how the world sees magic and those who use it.  You can’t have a caster call the shots if the world is supposed to fear or hate them.  Probably wouldn’t be in the army anyway unless they’ve been enslaved.

So, how would you put casters into a fantasy army?  What role would you have them play?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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16 Responses to Military Casters: Fireballs Among the Swords and Arrows

  1. Such a great post. Lots of room for discussion here. My mind went elsewhere when you talked about uniforms. I like the idea of a sniper who targets the magic users from the edge of the battle. I really like the idea of support magic. One of the hitches is having magic too powerful. It poses speculation that a magical answer would eliminate most of the book. For example, if Gandalf could ride Shadowfax across the field and level the opposition, why didn’t he do more of that? Support magic works for me, because maybe that’s the outer limit of possibility. Heroes still have to do the heavy fighting.

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    • It really depends on how the magic works in the world. If only a handful of characters how extremely powerful magic then it does bring a lot into question. Yet, both sides having the same power levels brings you back to an even playing field. For example, a Gandalf with no restraint could be countered by an opposing wizard that clashes with him. They effectively negate each other. A caster would also run the risk of wiping out their own army if they go too big.

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      • That’s a good thought. I thought they did a fair job with the Diablo guy in Suicide Squad. He was super powerful, but had personal restraints that held him back. Not great, but a fair job of it.

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      • It’s fairly common with casters too. Gandalf held back a lot because he didn’t want his allies to depend solely on his magic. At least I remember reading that explanation. Many authors add a belief in magic systems that you need to use it sparingly to avoid utter dependence. A sacrifice is another method of restraining great power.

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      • That last one makes a lot of sense. It sells well. It’s something authors in these genres need to be aware of. It’s one thing to light a candle with magic, but lighting up a city might require a bit more, or be out of the realm of possibility.

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  2. “it is hard to cast magic in armor because it typically requires precise arm movements” I realize this is a common concept, but if someone can’t move their arms well while wearing armor, there’s a problem with the armor design/construction. My twin used to make armor (cuir bouilli/hardened leather) for reenactors and LARPers, and one of his most popular items was sets of full, articulared arms: shoulder, upper arm, elbow (articulated with multiple lames), and lower arm. When someone asked how much wearing such armor would restrict movement, his girlfriend (now my sister-in-law) would put on one of the sets and then demonstrate by raising one arm above her shoulder, putting the other lower and behind her back… and locking her fingers together where her hands met at the level of her shoulder blades. As was often commented, most people can’t do that even without wearing armor. But it did make a point: if the armor restricted movement, she couldn’t have done it, either. In my opinion, a better reason (if a writer is looking for such a reason) for why magic-users can’t wear armor would be something along the lines of ‘the metal interferes with magic energy’ or some such, and make ’em get by with plain leather or padded cloth instead. (Seriously, if armor restricts movement too much, how can wizards in those long robes with wide, floppy sleeves manage just fine? Why do so many fantasy stories — and games — say that a leather vest worn as a vest doesn’t interfere with casting spells, but if that same garment is worn as light armor, suddenly magic is impeded? RPGs may get away with it, but novels need plausible reasons for why things work as they do.)

    “Lightning can jump among armored enemies” Another argument in favor of heavy leather armor instead of metal. (Real-life fact: heavy leather has impact resistence/absorption far superior to that of metal, even plate that’s been shaped specifically to deflect blows… and chain is practially useless against any impact — it’s only good against slashes, and not ideal even then.) On the other hand, wax-hardened cuir bouilli would be more vulnerable to fire attacks than metal would… (Then again, keep in mind that metal armor is worn over padding, which is usually wool or cotton or such, and these materials will burn. Wool less so than cotton, and wool padding inside silk fabric offers protection that other fiber materials don’t.)

    As for your question… In the only “fantasy” fiction I’ve written (it’s sci-fi, but the setting is “low-tech” compared to the readers’ culture, and a lot of people mistakenly think low-tech = the past = fantasy), the “wizards” are actually scholars, mostly, or engineers and such. In times of war, they’d be employed as medics, designers and builders of weapons, that sort of thing. They wouldn’t be directly involved in the fighting. No one wears iron/steel armor in that setting, although they do use other metals. (I keep intending to look up how thick aurochs hide is, compared to modern cow… Could be important later.)

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    • Personally, I thought the metal vs magic thing was a little silly. Metal is a natural material, so why would it be against magic, which is a natural force? The thing with armor is that I do think there is enough restriction to hamper precise movements. You described flexibility, which is good, but spells are typically ruined if you’re off by even the slightest motion in terms of speed and precision. Flowing robe sleeves aren’t tight, so you can continue the arm motions without them giving any resistance. This can also mask the motions and make it harder for more experienced enemies to know what spells you’re casting. I do agree that a vest shouldn’t give problems because it doesn’t affect the arms. Once you add sleeves, I can see there being some issues if those are the rules of the world.

      Just looked it up and they changed the rules in D&D: Spellcasting requires mental focus and precise gestures. If you aren’t proficient in using the armor then you are too physically hampered and partially focused on functioning within the suit to cast. This does make sense to me because spellcasters spend most of their lives studying magic and not practicing with weapons and armor. They are also not as physically fit because of the amount of time studying when compared to warriors.

      Have to admit that I’m not exactly sure what you mean in the last paragraph. The ‘wizards’ in the world are acting engineers? I don’t really think of low-tech as fantasy, so I might be missing something.

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  3. L. Marie says:

    As always I enjoy your lists, Charles. I can’t help thinking of Fullmetal Alchemist, since Edward is a state alchemist. The alchemists are ranked in that series. Also in Sabriel by Garth Nix, there were military mages who followed the Army ranking system. They had uniforms and everything. The officers were much more powerful than say the privates. They also carried guns and swords. The swords were for the magical creatures they fought that resisted magic.

    I love the idea of magical snipers.

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  4. If I were a fantasy writer (and I’m not), I could see a platoon of fire casters all strategically placed on the highest points. They could then lob fireballs at the enemy with impunity. Fun post.

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  5. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this post from Charles Yallowitz’s Legends of Windemere blog with Military Casters: Fireballs Among the Swords and Arrows

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  6. Fairy Tale is a very fun series. I should check if they have any more episodes up on Netflix.

    As for casters in a melee, you could pair them with one or two “buddies” who would keep the enemy swordsmen away. Just last night I played a session of Fantasy Hero where there was one mage and everyone pounced on her.

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    • Looks like they only have the first 50-60 episodes of Fairy Tail. I think Crunchyroll has it, but I hunted a bunch down over YouTube. Too much work, so I’m going back to the manga once I finish reading ‘Naruto’.

      Negima actually works with the mage/warrior partnership as a central plot element. Part of the main character’s goal is to find a partner who will protect him while he casts magic. It’s from the guy who did ‘Love Hina’, so there’s a bigger focus on comedy and romance. Yet, that is a rather sensible tactic.

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