Warfare and fantasy go hand in hand. There is something visceral and exhilarating about medieval-style combat…although I personally would never want to be in one. It may be cool to watch elves, orcs, and horsemen fight each other, but in reality, it was brutal, bloody, and no fun at all. Still, that doesn’t stop writers, including myself, from crafting massive campaigns and emotionally charged duels. What can I say? Humans love to fight.
Now, please understand that I am not a soldier. Everything I know about war I have picked up from reading, watching movies, listening to my dad lecture on history, and plain common sense. If you want to learn what should and should not be done in war, I recommend reading a lot of history books. Human history is littered with good and bad generals, close calls, narrow escapes, massacres, ambushes, traps, intrigues, bad weather, advantageous terrain, underdogs, overlords, battles that went the way they were supposed to and many that did not. History is the best teacher. I also highly recommend keeping a copy of Brassey’s Encyclopedia of Land Forces and Warfare beside your desk. Its focus is on modern armies, but much of the tactics, concern with morale, supplies, terrain, weather, etc. can be applied to old-style armies. And I’m sure there are plenty of other books at the library covering most efficient ways of killing people.
Adding magic and fantasy creatures into the mix can be a little tricky because, obviously, such things aren’t a factor on Earth, so there isn’t an easy answer about how wizards or giants can affect the course of a battle. That’s where your own creativity and judgment come in.
WIZARDS AND WARBEASTS
The biggest difference between fantasy combat and real combat is the presence of magic-users and fantasy creatures. There are different ways of handling this. I generally deploy my wizards like artillery (if there are only a few) or like riflemen or musketeers (if there are a lot…which rarely happens.) Since most fantasy armies don’t posses firearms beyond a cannon or two, magic-users are your long-range attackers and provide a good amount of shock and awe. Like artillery, they are very valuable and very vulnerable. Any fantasy army with wizards will be sure to protect them as much as possible because, unlike grunts, they can’t be easily replaced. Wizards can also act in a defensive capability, creating magical shields against arrows or enemy magic attacks. An army with a wizard has an advantage over an army that doesn’t, and the more wizards you have, the greater your advantage. Just remember that wizards are not machines; they cannot attack or defend indefinitely and they aren’t bullet-proof. Or arrow-proof. Or sword-proof. And in any battle, they will be the first target.
Fantasy races or creatures like elves, orcs, giants, goblins, unicorns, griffins, and dragons add another dimension. Most of these creatures have greater speed, strength, and endurance than humans. Many of them are also bigger. Sometimes humans will also have allies in these creatures, like a unicorn cavalry on the ground or a griffin corps in the sky or a squad of elven archers, depending on your story. However, if the humans are on their own, then the only advantage they have in this situation is numbers. Humans have to outnumber or outwit their opponents. Or, if their enemy is a dragon, run like hell. Armies with dragons have an overwhelming advantage, bordering on the unfair. But no one said life was fair, and the phrase “All is fair in love and war” just means that anyone can get hurt or die, regardless of skill or status. But mostly how fantasy beings affect the battle is up to you.
WEATHER AND TERRAIN
Two things that no general, army, or person has control over of are the weather and the land. The weather one can attempt to predict, but it cannot be controlled. If your world has weather-working mages, then a storm might be delayed or redirected. However, such meddling is dangerous and can have unintended consequences. For example, the title character from Mishipwizard Halcyon Blithe by James M. Ward wanted to have a nice, sunny, calm first tour of duty, so he magically held back the storm that was brewing. He did it, but eventually the pressure from the weather became too much. It kept building in strength and when it broke free, the storm was ten times worse than it would have been if it had broken naturally. The resulting super-storm nearly destroyed Blithe’s ship. Lesson: don’t fuck with the weather. Battles or troop movement and shelter are going to be much harder in winter and bad weather. Troops can die in accidents like landslides, from disease, or exposure to the elements. Food will be harder to find and store and any heavy equipment like siege weapons, cannons, and wagons will be harder to move. Large armies hate winter and bad weather; small armies can be destroyed by it.
Geography is critical in any campaign. An invasion force has to know exactly what it’s getting into and a defensive force needs to know where they can hold off an enemy, as well as where they are vulnerable. Geography cannot be controlled by humans, but it can be used to one’s advantage. Some lands will be easier to invade than others. Mountains and rivers create impressive natural barriers, forests can slow down troops or act as traps, and plains are pretty much up for grabs. For example, Switzerland has been able to remain neutral through two world wars because of a simple geographical fact: the Alps. Russia, despite a lack of natural barriers, was never successfully conquered by Napoleon or Hitler because it was too damn big (and the terrible Russian winters killed off at least half of the invading forces.) Japan is an island, so the only way to attack it is by sea or air, allowing it to develop in near-isolation. An invading army needs detailed, accurate maps and excellent scouts to know when and where to strike and the best way to get there. Poor intelligence leads to disaster. Defenders, even if they have a smaller army, can use the land to their advantage, leading larger enemies into traps like dense forests, swamps, or narrow ravines where they are forced to split or funnel their forces, making them easy targets. Remember the movie 300? The Battle of Thermopylae? Yeah, that can actually work. (As long as the men don’t wear leather underwear.) Wise commanders use the land to their advantage and avoid areas that will leave their army vulnerable. Those who are unwise (or unlucky) are defeated by it.
SUPPLIES AND SIEGES
Armies were once described as being a massive stomach. And they really are. Armies, especially standing ones (which means that they are maintained all the time, not just during war) are hideously expensive. One must feed, not just the soldiers, but all their animals as well, from cavalry horses to the oxen that pull the wagons to the chickens they slaughter that night for dinner. All of that food has to come from somewhere, and armies have three choices: bring it with you, forage from the land you pass through, or steal from the populace. If an army’s supply lines are cut then it can very quickly fall apart or starve to death. An invading force puts itself at greater risk the deeper it goes into enemy territory, which is why a lot of generals try to end wars quickly. They know they cannot sustain their army, so a quick victory is best. Plus, the longer a war drags on, the worse the weather gets, depending on when the war started.
Sieges are hellish, boring, and not preferred by either side. Well-fortified, well-supplied forts or castles last only as long as the food and water does. It is a test of fortitude, patience, and sheer nerve, especially if you have civilians present. They usually don’t fair very well. The longer a siege goes on, the less food there is, usually on both sides. If the surrounding countryside doesn’t have much food, breaking a siege can mean the difference between life and death for invaders. For the defenders, the longer it goes on, the less food there is and the less control there will be over the populace. This increases the risk of betrayal. And if there is no back way out of the besieged castle, then the people will feel even more trapped. Desperation in such a scenario can work for you or against you. In some instances, it can make people fight even harder. In other cases, they give up or do something stupid. It can make or break you and there’s no way to tell which it will be. A lot of that depends on individual character and the charisma of the commander.
MERCENARIES AND MORALE
War is bloody. It’s an awful, horrible, screwed up thing, and yet people keep doing it over and over. Sometimes people fight because they have to, because their homes or families or livelihoods have been threatened. Sometimes they fight because they are told it’s their civic duty or an honor or they are drafted to fight against their will. And some fight for money or because it’s fun to kill. Most armies are a mixture of these, although mercenaries are usually in it for the money. And some find killing a pleasant pastime. Mercenary forces are tricky and not to be trusted. They have no real stake in any outcome of the war, as long as they get paid. And whoever pays more will buy their “loyalty.” Now, there can be some honorable mercs who won’t switch sides because of a contract, but no commander can count on that. Usually only the stupid, the desperate, or the arrogant will hire mercenaries.
Because war is such a horrible thing, most people get disillusioned once they’ve been fighting for a while. So how do you keep them in the army? Why do they keep fighting when probably every instinct in their bodies is screaming for them to run? Part of it can be discipline, a form of brainwashing that trains soldiers to respond to orders that fly in the face of survivalist common sense. Part of it can come from fear of punishment, of dishonor, of a specific drill sergeant who you know will rip your lungs out through your back if you disobey. Part of it can be a sense of loyalty and duty, if not to one’s country or to protect a family, but to your fellow soldiers, the people you live and die beside each day. I think loyalty combines all of these things in some degree. But a good, charismatic leader is what really clinches it. For example, George Washington may not have been the best military strategist. He lost every battle he fought for the first half of the Revolutionary War. But he managed to hold together a rag-tag group of starving, freezing, unpaid militia on the verge of mutiny and led them to victory against impossible odds. The fact that he got them to stay, and not just stay, but also fight under those conditions, is just incredible. Commanders who can inspire and push their soldiers above and beyond their limits are rare. But when they come around, they are a force to be reckoned with. It is an elusive human quality that cannot really be predicted or quantified. Good commanders can (and do) still lose battles while incompetents win them. Still, the human element should never be forgotten or underestimated when constructing a war.
Obviously these are just broad brushstrokes regarding the battlefield. Each scenario you create must be considered on its own terms, but it’s good to keep these things in mind so the battles are plausible within your story. You have to plot out each key battle in your war, keeping things fresh, innovative, and believable. The best thing you can do is to study history as much as you can and use your own judgment. Just don’t give half-ass explanations why your armies do what they do. Specific cause and effect are key, and remember what pushes people to do what they do.