Home Forums General Game Design Does magic have a place in large battles?

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    Andrew Beasley


    Sorry – feel a bit like a lecturer there  but to qualify, this is for big big battles where one figure can represent 10-100+ creatures in ‘real life’ and the genre is fantasy and not sci-fi (futuristic weapons vs. old tech = magic argument).  Obviously, like my morale question, this is aimed at an addition to the One Hour Wargame but feel free to chip in even if you do not play that rule set.

    I’m in two minds over this (so this rambles a bit):

    First is a low level type of magic where only a few have abilities and they are not mass effect / large area. This would allow for raising of the dead (got to have skellies etc) as the necromancer would work in the graveyard / battlefield before but stop massive walls of flames, fireballs etc taking out whole units of troops at once.

    This fits more with Master of Five Magics or LOTR books and stops the good guys from taking over the world and dominating any battlefield. Bad guys are still free to try as their secret plans take years to come to fruition…

    Obviously, the reverse of this is the magic user becoming a one creature walking / flying tank swooping here, there and everywhere causing death, mayhem and almost winning the battle single handedly (or multiple hands / tentacles depending on race) – think GW (though others have been as big).

    I’m not concerned about the odd +1 sword, kill by look / touch spell etc as they would only effect a few troops (assuming it was not the leader) and at some point I assume sheer weight of numbers wins out and massive area spells (earthquake style) would just make warfare pointless, reducing it to a more assassin style infiltration game.

    For major combats, I can only think of a few spells that fit with my ideals:

    1) Scouting style far seeing – forcing yourself opponent to place troops first

    2) Limited terrain changing – maybe the creation of a swamp NEAR a river or body of water or drying up / damming river sections

    3) Reduction or increase in fear levels – short term almost rally to the flag / rebel yell

    4) MAYBE an area effect such as chlorine gas – tempered by duration and size

    BUT giving the limited effects I think these could be ignored for the game and though I love the idea of magic (and often played MU characters in D&D etc) I think the whole idea fits better at skirmish than large battles.

    Geof Downton

    In a previous life as a player of fantasy big battles we always used magic as an alternative form of artillery. So fireballs were not rare, but limited in effect/damage to something that could have resulted from a ballista hurling a keg of flaming pitch.

    One who puts on his armour should not boast like one who takes it off.
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    Chris Pringle

    Make the large-scale magic effects integrate with the base rules. Spells could result in eg:

    +1 or -1 on attacks or saving rolls

    + or – on move distances

    negate or enhance terrain effects

    Different armies (fantasy races or whatever) could have access to different kinds of spell in keeping with their character.

    The magical commander(s) might have an absolute fixed number of specified spells at the start; or a set number of Power points to spend on spells as they wish; or Power might fluctuate according to time passed, or friends/enemies slain, or magical locations captured, etc etc etc.


    Angel Barracks

    Assuming your world has lore, limit the spells to what the lore allows?

    Having said that, when we played WFB, which has mucho magic in the lore, we dropped almost all of it from the games.
    We found that spells like Ravine could win or a lose a battle.
    In the end we dropped all but level 1 battle magic as we found anything else could make a mockery of well chosen troops and tactics.
    My issue with WFB was we would play with say 7 or 8 units per side and a wizard could take out 1 or 2 units.
    This was a devastating blow to that side, now if you had say 20 units then losing 1 or 2 may not be such a disaster.

    I am minded to think of a recent Conan story I read where he faced an army lead by a foul sorcerer, the evil wizaaaard used his magics to hide his men in fog and surprise the enemy and so afraid of the wizaaaard were his troops they would be less inclined to rout.

    I am wondering if in a game were a single model represents say 50 men IRL, a unit of say 20 models would therefore be 1000 men.
    Would such a game have hero models that could wade into a unit and affect it at all?
    In my mind it seems unlikely, more the hero grants a buff to tests and what not.
    However, if the hero can take on a unit of say 1000 men, then maybe heroes are best fought with other heroes, or maybe wizards?

    For large scale battles I would use wizards to influence the battle rather than dictate it.


    So if an enemy unit is close to routing, a nearby wizard can use magic to enhance their view of their own demise and this adds a penalty to their rout test.
    Maybe he throws fireballs that whilst they only kill a handful of the 1000 man strong unit, it enhances their panic.

    Albert of Winterpig

    Depends is the answer, do you want it to have. do you want it localised or geographic?

    In Glorantha it is used big time, indeed one of the Lunar Regiments from the Imperial School of Magic is the Crater Makers….

    Or do you want it small, sniping and cod artillery type.


    I enjoy all kinds of fantasy settings, so I’m prepared to modulate my disbelief accordingly. A setting where a single magic-user counts for the equivalent of 500 veteran household troops in terms of sheer power-projection can be fun (not better, not anything that I value higher than its more down-to-earth alternatives, but fun). When I’m in the right mood, I could gladly make that the fundamental premise of a setting, and then shape the rest of the setting around it, however much handwaving and shoehorning that might take. It is its own justification.

    I recall an episode of Slayers where a naval battle took place, with a wizard at every gunport in place of a cannon. Ridiculous, but fun. Reminding myself of the enjoyment I’ve derived from ultra-high fantasy stories like Slayers allows me to put myself in the right mood.


    Given that you started out like a lecturer, I’ll give you the academic answer: yes and no. 🙂

    It really depends on the background to your world, as Angel Barracks has said.

    I like magic to be a feature of the battlefield and have previously treated spellcasters as units like any other, Missile spells have effects like other missile fire. Some spells can affect morale. Other spells can summon demons and other supernatural aid. There are also scouting spells and various other effects that can be achieved with magic. In many cases, the effects are similar to or the same as effects from normal units, and the only difference is the narrative in your head. The rules I use also have heroes whose combat effects are also larger than life, although a unit or two of normal troops can still take out a hero if they work at it. In each case, I imagine that the spellcaster or hero unit consists of a main hero/spellcaster and a supporting cast of sidekicks.

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    Guy Farrish

    How about an approach that used to be popular, when playing Cold War Gone Hot land games?

    Obviously a lot of time, effort, money and research went into the idea of gaining air superiority over the battle field in real life.

    Usually the appearance of a few A10s/ SU25s would spell curtains for a lot of ground units in the average wargame. Deciding who had air superiority could therefore be vital. But most of this was abstracted by off table systems of more or less complexity.

    What if magic users were thought to operate in an environment similar to that?

    After all a flying invisible wizard hurling thunderbolts isn’t much different from the appearance of a…well a Thunderbolt!

    So work out how much effort the armies have put into magic and countermagic on an abstracted grand tactical level in the Thaumturgical ether, (Points, cards, etc) and then quickly decide who won – point superiority, card game subroutine, stone scissors paper! The winner of superiority (for the entirety of the battle, per game turn, per phase etc is up to you) gets a better degree of magical interference than the loser – both get to use spells etc but the winner gets more/better, but the loser can still have some (no Hermetic nukes!).

    What the actual options are, are up to the battle system, your preference and how it balances/unbalances the game.

    I would therefore have most of my Mages occupied in this superiority battle with a few on the field as mystical ground attack and air defence.

    Success/failure during a move could feed back into the local magical superiority combat if going for every turn if you wanted to make a magical sub routine, and magical combat could feed into individual Mage’s abilities at the end of the battle (assuming they survive)– ‘Yeah we lost the battle but I advanced my Mystic Power one Sefirot.’


    (I don’t play fantasy so if this is absolutely bog standard, my apologies!)


    If you can find the trailer for the World Of Warcraft expansion “Battle For Azeroth” on YouTube, you will see army-level magic use. Anduin resurrects his whole army after they are killed, and the Banshee Queen destroys an entire regiment in an eyeblink.

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    I think that it definitely can.  Even the large mass effects spells can used if given some thought on how to limit/balance the effects.  Although you specifically said fantasy, not sci-fi, the first game that comes to mind for large scale magic is Epic 40k – 2nd edition.  There were a wide variety of science-fantasy weapons and spells that could be used with subtle or devastating effects.  There were lots of ways to rapidly redeploy troops (Warp gates, teleportation, deepstrikes/flight, storms), mass damage (death strike missiles, warp missiles, orbital barrages), troop buffs/debuffs, ways change terrain etc. Lots of creative ideas in a system that was lots of fun to play and pretty popular.

    For OHW it’s obviously going to be a lot different, but your ideas for magic seem good.  To me, a big part of OHW is working with the random force selection and given scenario terrain to create tactical solutions. Lots of ways of you could handle it, some ideas:

    Let magic influence unit types: Since all units take the same amount of damage to destroy them, add a Wizard unit to the random force table with the stats of Levy, but the ability to temporarily change their abilities or a nearby unit’s to any of the other units for a turn (e.g. knights would become skirmishers or archers for a turn or vice versa).  That could simulate using magic in a number of ways, adding tactical options without changing game mechanics too much. You could randomly limit the number of time the unit casts per game and not give the opponent foreknowledge of the number of spells.

    Let magic alter pre-game set-up: You could add Magic to the pre-game letting scenarios with wizards alter terrain or forces, perhaps create a magical fog using a screen, change a units type after deployment etc.

    Let magic alter the battlefield: You could create half a dozen terrain types following fantasy tropes each with specific effects (lava, ice, quicksand, fire, vines, darkness, poison, mud, sleep/stun, randomly teleportation, confusion etc), some with potentially devastating effects, and let wizards cast them but require the casting to take two turns, so that the enemy has a chance to react between the casting and the effect.  This could be fun because your opponent could decide whether to risk the spell effects or try to avoid, and you’d have to think about the best positions strategically. Again, maybe make a Wizard unit with a single type of spell.


    Have fun, they are short games so experiment a little!

    Andrew Beasley

    Wow – big thanks to you all for chipping in!

    First thing I want to do is limit the amount – simplest way I think is having a small number of spells on cards and you select from them.

    Second thing is the scale of the One Hour Wargame where one base is possible 50-100+ ‘real’ people.  This rules out the hero aspect in my mind even if it’s Conan!

    Given that I’m wanting to include rules for Dragons – fireballs could copy the beast but I’m seriously concerned that they would overpower foot troops totally with staffing runs leading to aerial combat dominating a land battle game.

    Fear and rally style spells are a must – maybe ranged or maybe with an attached M.U. (though the latter is totally different to all the other bases).

    If I assume terrain takes time to be changed by magic (marshes / rivers / hills etc) then I could introduce a pre-set up phase that allows players to change the board in a limited number of ways.

    As for the questions / thoughts this has left me with – they are going to take time to scribble out ideas and try them.  Feel free to throw other thoughts here at any time.

    Mike Headden

    I like the Warmaster approach to magic users. Most are slightly less effective leaders than their warrior equivalents, the heroes. Like heroes, many of them have access to monstrous mounts that allow them to fly or to boost their combat ability or to cause terror in their opponents or, in the case of dragons, all three! They have a limited selection of spells that are significant but rarely battle winning.


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    Andrew Beasley

    I had forgotten about WarMaster – Obvious really as I used to play it (big blush) Thank you for the hint.

    I’ll have a hunt for the Living Rulebook over the next couple of days (its on a removable disk, in a folder called Rules, along with a few thousand PDFs and ZIP files)…


    Thaddeus Blanchette

    I base my mages as “schools” or “councils”. To my mind, they are a few powerful mages, some less powerful, a bunch of apprentices and a handful of armed retainers to keep then safe. The schools works together to create magical effects that can do something on the battlefield.

    We get slapped around, but we have a good time!


    HoTT also has a sensible treatment of both magic users and dragons. Dragons are indeed powerful, but being somewhat long lived, very disinclined to stick around when things get dicey.

    As far as possible I’d try and keep things within the boundaries of the OHW mechanisms in terms of movement and combat effects or you risk seriously unbalancing things. I’d be particularly wary of modifying the terrain, as the terrain/objective interactions are what make the scenarios work.

    "Mistakes in the initial deployment cannot be rectified" - Helmuth von Moltke


    I was always rather fond of magics contribution to the Peninsular Campaign in “Jonathan Norrell and Mr Strange”, making ephemeral roads for Wellington, which allowed the British to run rings around the French. Allowing all of one sides units to have a permanent road move onus would indeed be a huge advantage.

    "Mistakes in the initial deployment cannot be rectified" - Helmuth von Moltke

    Phil Dutré

    I like magic to be unpredictable, since I feel that best reflects how magic is often portrayed in fantasy stories. It’s not as if you know the powers of the enemy magicians beforehand. Even his own side should and could be surprised 😉

    In many games we therefore adopt a ‘random spell draw’. Spells are drawn randomly before the start of the battle – you keep them secret – and it’s up to the player to make best use of them. This also means magic effects are somewhat limited – not huge poisonous clouds that forces all living creatures to make a save vs death or something similar. Such an approach works of course better for game setups that are more on the narrative side rather than the competitive side. YMMV.

    If magic is a very predictable game effect and/or simply becomes part of the force selection pre-game mechanics, it loses much of its flavour.

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    ian pillay

    I like the Warmaster approach to magic users. Most are slightly less effective leaders than their warrior equivalents, the heroes. Like heroes, many of them have access to monstrous mounts that allow them to fly or to boost their combat ability or to cause terror in their opponents or, in the case of dragons, all three! They have a limited selection of spells that are significant but rarely battle winning.


    I would be included to follow the WM / HoTT approach to ‘battle’ magic at this level of game. Nothing to specific to an individual but more to aid your side or hinder the opposition. Not forgetting some kind of ‘fireball’ spell 😉




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    Andrew Beasley

    @Thaddeus – I remember a very strange book for RPGs like that – you had to use water magic, fire magic and air magic to create a steaming jet of water spell.  I think it was (Amazon link – not affiliate) Authentic Thaumaturgy  by Bonewits but it was many many years ago…  Similar in principal to the (Amazon link – not affiliate) Lyndon Hardy Magic by the Numbers series but this fantasy series is much much much better – recommend it if you’ve not read them.

    – Good point, some of the scenarios do need fixed terrain.  I could limit the ‘damage’ by making the spell effective for a couple oft runs only or have counter spells…

    As for JN and MS – loved the T.V. series, borrowed the book from the library to be faced with an all-in-one version of the trilogy about 2 1/2 inches thick and its own bookmark – I only have till September to complete it as they have changed the on-line system to stop folk rebooking…

    – Like the random draw – maybe different selections for different races (again though – adding more complexity)

    As for my rules hunt – simple, it was in a folder called Warmaster   


    Piyan Glupak

    Excuse me for being late to the party, but in my own rules, the most useful ability for mages is to to assist in communication with units or groups that would be otherwise out of command. The rules use a system similar to the “Player Initiative Points” of DBA/HoTT/DBR/DBM.  Flying units and fast-moving wide-sweeping flank attacks are much less likely to get bogged down due to lack of control.

    There are other things that mages can do, for instance, cast magic at individual enemy units, make the enemy army temporarily closer to meeting the losing condition, reduce the number of groups or units that the enemy general can move in their next term to one, and so on.  These other functions of mages are rarely battle winners, and don’t tend to be worth the army points spent upon mages.

    Alan Hamilton

    Also late into this.  In our world (Morval Earth) magic is relatively common but “battle magic” is rare.  We have a number of magicians each of whom is aligned to a particular deity and has a list of spells that suit that deity.  So quite often the magician is of no great use on the battlefield with combat spells but may have a morale, healing or affect the battle indirectly by creating mist, rain or by cloud rolling.  In some games the most powerful wizards spend their magic points trying to affect the level of darkness so that one side or the other gains an advantage.

    We are heavily influenced by Middle Earth and Hyboria where great magic is more slow and elemental and low level magic is mostly about health (healing, easing pain), wealth (bumper crops, blight crops), weather (rain making, cloud rolling, mist) and so on.  Battle winning magic is rare though we do have tactical battle magic (terror beams, blinding flashes, missile deflection).

    So magic has  a place in most of our actions and battles but it is seldom decisive.

    Andrew Beasley

    Not late at all – just delayed due to Covid but I’m OK to talk to as I’ve had my bleach, pepper and garlic drink today (NO DO NOT DO THAT)…

    @Piyan I like the idea of reducing moves the General can issue (the one hour war-game assumes all troop move each turn in a ‘I go then you go’ style but I fancy the dice bag method used by Bolt Action so this would fit by removing a dice or two from the bag.

    The blinding flash spell of battle magic is a spell I’ll use – handy against missile troops or to delay a unit moving.

    Now things are a little more settled (in my mind if not world) I’ll try to pull the ideas together from here, the morale thread and the other forum (sorry Mike ).

    As a guess, I’ll dump all of this into a changes to OHW (One Hour Wargame) – why have three areas when you can have four 

    Andrew Beasley

    First thoughts on spells:

    I plan on using the bag of dice idea from Bolt Action so magic costs dice.

    For magic during the game (i.e. not during set up) I’ve got the following thoughts:

    Spells cast before movement / before combat and option for opponent to cast dispel spell AFTER you cast.

    Remove 1 dice permanently for three / four spells – select (maybe randomly but leaning to select) from:

    Dispel magic – counter one spell effect – general costs two spells while vs specific spell costs one
    Blinding flash – no archery at caster or -2 to opponent in combat
    Bolster combat skill – +2 in combat to you
    Disrupt attack – -1 to opponent in combat, +1 to your combat
    Haste – add x inches to movement (cavalry move 12 inches, foot 6 inches, skirmishes 9 inches per turn)
    Favourable wind – increase archery range by x inches (normal range is 12 inches)
    Repel undead – force undead to retreat x inches

    Combat in OHW is based on 15 hit points per unit so +2 damage is the same unit of knights hitting any unit.

    Decided the casters are not represented by figures but assume they have lower level apprentices they ‘channel’ through so the effect is local to where it’s needed 🙂 Well – would you be mad enough to study for years and go physically into battle?

    Thoughts and maybe a few more ideas please…

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