Magic and tech: weapons

It’s a given that, no matter what the setting, many people will want to know the available methods for hurting someone. In RPGs (whether video games or old-school pen and paper), that’s especially true, since combat is such a major part of the most popular role-playing games. Even written works require conflict, and military conflict is the easiest and most familiar form.

Weapons go back almost as far as humanity itself. Any culture can make spears and knives, even before the advent of metalworking. (And don’t neglect those older materials. Mayan obsidian blades could be sharper than any contemporary European sword.) Bows, bolas, blowpipes, and a hundred other “ancient” weapons can be used in a perfectly mundane world, and there’s no reason why they wouldn’t also exist in our magical realm. But they won’t be the only options…

The true path

Not everybody used swords. I know that’s a common trope in fantasy, but it’s just not accurate. Swords were expensive, requiring skilled craftsmanship, quality materials, and more than a bit of time. It might be feasible for a company of 100 men to all be armed with swords, but not an entire army.

Spears are a good alternative. They’re cheap—nothing more than a point on a pole. Unlike swords, which you needed at least some training to use (“Stick ’em with the pointy end” only gets you so far), spears are user-friendly. And, in a pinch, a pitchfork or spade can fill in. Something like a spear would form the backbone of a mundane army. There would be swordsmen, of course, but they’re more likely to be officers or other leaders.

Most other melee weapons are situational. Pikes are great against cavalry, for example, but cumbersome when fighting foot soldiers. Axes, polearms, and all the other nifty items in your favorite RPG’s weapons section have their own ups and downs. They’ll have their uses, but they won’t be widespread. However, armies of this era were anything but regular. Even trained forces could end up using weapons they weren’t overly familiar with, and the peasant rabble might turn up with whatever they could find.

On the ranged side, things aren’t much better. Bows are ubiquitous, particularly in medieval Europe. (English longbows, as we know, were a game-changer.) Crossbows are another option—and they go back a lot further than people think—but they have the problem of being slower and more complex. Other choices, like slings, have situations where they’re useful; a bit of thought should help you come up with something.

And don’t forget artillery. The catapult, trebuchet, scorpion, onager, and so on all have a long history. Every single one of them has been wholly obsolete since the first cannon, but most fantasy is set slightly before the invention of gunpowder, so they’re all you’ve got. Some are siege weapons, intended to wreak havoc on a walled city, while others are what we would now call anti-personnel weaponry.

And the other side

With magic, more efficient and deadly means of attack are possible. We’ve already decided that there aren’t mages running around throwing fireballs, so that’s off the table, but all that means is that the magical weaponry will be more subtle, yet no less devastating.

Magical energy in this setting, as we know from earlier entries in this series, can be converted to force. We’ve used that to great effect to provide motive power, but we know how force scales: F = ma. The same energy that pushes a magical “car” up to a few miles per hour could send a tiny ball of, say, lead, to a seriously high velocity. Who needs gunpowder when magic can do the same thing? That one was almost trivial, and mages worked it out a while back. Now, every regiment has an assortment of what we might consider magic-powered guns. They’re too expensive to be given to every common soldier, but they’ve all but replaced crossbows, and longbows have been relegated to sieges. (Unlike the real world, where cannons mostly came first, the rules of magic mean that handguns are much easier to make.)

But it doesn’t stop there. Magic helps with humble bladed weapons, by means of sharpening and endurance enchantments. Artillery gets an extra oomph from magical power, but its true value there lies in shot varieties. Burning and smoke are a cinch for the greenest of mages; in a catapult, the effect is better than any boiling oil or barrel of pitch. And, of course, any soldier can benefit from a stamina boost.

What does all this do to the battlefields of our magical setting? For the full answer, we’ll have to wait and see the other aspects of fighting, such as defenses. We can say quite a bit now, though. In general, our magical kingdom’s battles will tend to resemble those of a couple hundred years later. Think more Late Renaissance than High Middle Ages, except without the cannons.

Not everyone has guns, so the largest part of the fighting will still be hand-to-hand, with swords and spears and all the rest. In place of a contingent of archers will be magical gunners, armed with ever more powerful dealers of death. They won’t match today’s high-powered rifles, but they wouldn’t be out of place in the American Revolution, in terms of their effect on the enemy.

Artillery will look more medieval, but there are a few differences. With magic replacing the…ancillary supplies for shot, artillery forces will be a bit less exposed. That means they’ll be free to take more risks, to advance more quickly. Oddly enough, they won’t be as much use in a siege, at least until they get right up to the gates. Circumstances converge to make artillery very good at distance (because it’ll still out-range anything else) and up close (because it can do the most damage), but not so great in the middle.

Other uses

As we know, weaponry isn’t limited to the battlefield. Personal weapons are a feature of any culture, as are the rules governing them. For everything except the magic-powered guns, little will change in this regard. Openly carrying a weapon is still a symbol of ill intent, drawing it more so. Hidden weapons will be harder to find, because they can be smaller or disguised as something innocuous, but mages can point out magical items.

Assassination is easier in the magical kingdom. That’s unfortunate, but not unexpected. With the greater power available, not everyone will see the need for greater responsibility. It’s almost self-balancing, since everyone knows how easy it is, sort of like Mutually Assured Destruction. Blood feuds can erupt into a war in the streets, but that’s not too different from the real world of that time.

The original use for many weapons was killing animals, and this is only helped by magic. Ask any hunter: guns are far better than bows. That’ll be true even when the bullets are powered by the invisible force of magical energy. (This could have environmental issues—hunting to extinction is much easier—but that can wait for a later post.)

All told, adding magic to weaponry has nearly the same effects as adding gunpowder. The world becomes more dangerous, but many new possibilities appear. New avenues of research open up. To fight the growing offense, the mages will be asked to create new defenses. And that will be the subject of the next post in the series: how to protect oneself.

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