Magic and tech: defenses

Last time, we looked at how magic can augment a civilization’s offenses. Now, let’s turn to the other side of the coin and see what we can do about protecting ourselves against such force. It’s time to look at defense.

In the typical fantasy setting, sans magic, the common personal defense is, of course, armor. Sword-and-sorcery fiction often throws in some sort of spell-based defense, anything from walls of force to circles of protection to arrow-deflecting fields. And it’s a fairly common thing to give most potential offensive magic some sort of counterbalance. (The spell that can’t be blocked or resisted usually has a very good reason, and it’ll probably be a superweapon.) First, though, let’s look at what the mundane world has to offer.

Real-world protection

For personal protection, armor of various sorts has been around for millennia. Just about anything can be used as an armor material, as long as it does the job of preventing puncture or dissipating kinetic energy. Cloth, leather, many kinds of metal, wood, paper…you name it, somebody’s probably made armor from it. Exactly which material is used will depend on a civilization’s technological status, their geography (mo metal deposits means no metallic armor), their cultural outlook on warfare, the local climate, and many other factors. In general, though, pretty much everybody will use some armor, stories of naked Viking berserkers notwithstanding.

In the time period we’re focusing on in this series, the later Middle Ages, the best armor tended to be made of metal. But metal was relatively expensive, so not every single levied soldier is going to be running around in full plate. The best armor would be had by those with the means to procure it: nobles, knights, and the like. A well-equipped army will have better protection, naturally, while hurried musters of villagers will net you a company of men in whatever they could find, just like with weapons.

Remember that armor is designed as protection first, and most of its qualities will follow. The main type of injury it was protecting against was puncture—cutting and stabbing. Blunt trauma a very distant runner-up. We’ll take a look at medicine in a future post, but it’s helpful to think about how deadly even the smallest open wounds were back then. Without antibiotics or a working knowledge of sanitation and antiseptics, infection and sepsis were far more commonplace and far more dangerous. The best medicine was not to be wounded in the first place, and most armors show this.

Armor evolves alongside weapons. That’s why, once gunpowder spread to every battlefield in Europe, the heavier types of armor began to fall out of fashion. When fifty or more pounds of plate could no longer render you impervious to everything, why bother wearing it in the first place? (In modern times, materials science has advanced enough to create new plate that can take a shot, and now we see heavier armor coming back into vogue.)

Shields, in a sense, are nothing more than handheld armor. Some of them, depending on the culture, might have specialized defenses for a particularly common kind of attack. Others will instead use more of a weaker material, like your typical round shield made of hardwood. Again, guns tended to make most shields obsolete, at least until science could catch up. Today’s riot shields would make a 14th-century soldier salivate, but they’re based on the same old principles.

Larger-scale defenses work a different way. The usual suspects for city protection are walls, ramparts, moats, killing fields, and the like. Each one has its own purpose, its own specific target. Some of them fell by the wayside, victims of progress—how many modern cities have walls?—and some were remade to keep up. Most of them represent a significant allocation of materials and labor; bigger cities can afford that, but smaller towns might not be able to.

Magically reinforced

When the world becomes more dangerous as a result of weaponized magic, it stands to reason that new defenses will be developed to protect against such threats. One of the best ways of preventing injury, as we know, is never being hit at all. A spell to sharpen one’s senses lets a soldier react more quickly to an attack, meaning that there’s a better chance of dodging it. But that’s a waste of magical talent. Armies can comprise hundreds or even thousands of soldiers, and there’s not enough time (or enough mages) to enchant them all on the eve of battle.

Our “easy out” of stores of magical energy won’t help much here, so what can we do? Since personal defenses are, well, personal, and we’ve already said that very few people are mages, it doesn’t seem like we have a lot of options. Enchanted materials are the best bet. Armor can be fortified against breaking, making it harder to penetrate. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good start, and it will take a lot of heat off our soldiers.

It’ll also have a secondary effect, one that will come to the fore in later years. Harder, stronger materials push back the date of gunpowder-induced obsolescence by quite a while. A fortified plate across your chest won’t make you not feel a bullet, but it’ll stop that bullet from piercing your skin and hitting something vital. Like Kevlar jackets today, these would cause the impact energy to spread out, which lowers the pressure on any one spot. That’s enough to save lives, especially if the enchantment isn’t too costly. And it wouldn’t be, because it’s valuable enough to research better ways of doing it.

Fortified shields benefit in the same way, but there we get a side bonus. Shields can become stronger or they can become lighter. The second option might be a better one, if mobility is the goal.

Protecting against magical attacks is far tougher. Wards are the best way in our setting, but they have a severe downside: one ward only counters one specific type of attack. We’ve seen that magic gives us a bunch of new weapons. Warding against all of them is inconvenient at best, impossible at worst. This is a case for good espionage (another post idea!) and scouting—if you know what to expect, you’ll be able to defend against it. Still, armor can hold a few different wards, and those who can afford it will likely invest in a bit of extra protection.

On the large scale, we see the same ideas, just bigger. Wards can be made on walls, for example, and a gate can receive a fortifying enchantment. The increased size makes these ludicrously expensive, but can you put a price on the lives of your citizens? Moats, however, become practically useless, and drawbridges are little more than a degenerate case of a gate.

Picking up the pieces

Besieged settlements in our magical setting are far more perilous than anything medieval Europe knew. In pitched battles, too, the advantage will tend to go to the attacker. That isn’t too far off from what happened in our own world, from the Renaissance to the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Once gunpowder reigned supreme, defense took a back seat.

It’s the strategy and tactics that will change the most. Protracted sieges are less of a risk for the offensive side, as you can always bomb the city into oblivion. Staying in one place will only get you killed, so guerilla warfare becomes much more attractive for an outnumbered foe. It might be better for a defender to give up the city and work from the shadows as an organized resistance movement.

Magic, then, creates an asymmetry in warfare. This little bit of it gives the offense the edge. Defense needs a lot more help. Of course, it’s said that the best defense is a good offense. In our magical world, that won’t be so much a witty aphorism as a standard doctrine.

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