A writer need not march off to face the forces of darkness unprepared for battle! All writers should arm themselves with the best and brightest clichés to aid them in their fight. After all, a writer should write with honor and courage and… HA HA HA! No. A writer should use every dirty trick in the book when writing a fantasy battle. Well so long as those don’t involve putting too much effort.
My Honest Thoughts on Fantasy Battles
I love battles. Why do stories always have to suffer from a forced romantic plot? I would love if they shoehorned in an epic battle instead. It would make as much sense. At least I would be entertained. Well not really. Instead I would probably pick it apart because I have played way too many strategy games.
Real medieval style battles mostly involve a lot of skirmishing. Then one army takes a hill and the other army retreats. When they do fight, it’s mostly just a protracted shoving match until one side runs away. Kind of like a giant game of chicken. Most casualties in combat occur to the retreating army (I think this is because of basic human psychology. People are more likely to attack someone in the back because they can’t see their face and are thus dehumanized). The rest is basically a series of mind games between generals who are trying to trick each other, but usually it just boils down to whoever has more resources.
When making a fantasy battle, I do have a few things I would suggest to keep in mind.
Terrain Terrain Terrain
High ground is going to be useful no matter the magic or monsters. The only exception would be flight (more on this later). Rivers are extremely difficult to cross for soldiers in armor so bridges and natural crossings become choke points and easy to defend. Same with hill tops. Attacking a fortified mountain would be next to impossible without specialized troops. When I do a Terrible Writing Advice on fighting scenes, I will bring this point up again. So many writers forget to account for terrain in their action scenes. Terrain does more than just be an obstacle for the characters, it is an opportunity for characters to use it in their advantage. Use terrain to make the characters look smart when they take advantage of it.
Formations were king in ancient warfare
From the phalanx, to the Roman Legions, to pike-men walls, armies all used formations throughout much of history. We don’t today. What changed? Several things actually, but the big ones would be machine guns and artillery becoming more powerful. Even before machine guns, rifles made formation fighting near suicidal during the American Civil War. Here is where things get tricky and will depend on the setting’s magic system. If a world’s magic has anything that comes close to the destructive capacity of machine guns or modern artillery then say goodbye to those fancy battle formations. If the magic becomes strong and abundant enough, then battles would probably devolve down into a bunch of wizards and their support troops rather than an army with supporting wizards (and I would certainly doubt they would cluster up in a big target).
Flight Changes Everything
Air superiority is going to be huge in a medieval style battle. A dragon is probably going to dominate the battlefield and if there is more than one then it’s basically a game breaker. Archers or siege weapons are not going to be enough to stop more then a few flying foes. Airships with siege weapons are going to rain death upon enemy formations below. Walls are worthless if any side has access to significant air power. And while we are on the subjects of walls.
Fortifications and Walls
Static defenses do not have a good historical track record. At best they deter enemies from attacking at all because it’s too much of a hassle when they could just raid the defenseless village next door. There were periods in history where castles and other fortifications proved effective, but any military commander with a sliver of cunning can turn an army into a well oiled besieging machine. The Romans did this in Judea where they took a whole bunch of “untakeable” forts. Static defenses usually only slow a determined enemy. In a fantasy setting with high magic, I would expect forts or castles would not be that useful unless a nation is fighting low magic foes.
Quality Bests Quantity (up to a certain point)
Professional armies will almost always beat barely organized rabble. However, professional soldiers are much harder to replace if lost. War is an endless nightmare of logistics and a constantly losing battle to keep organized. No army fields the best of anything. Instead, every force must find a good compromise when it comes to fielding equipment and trained personnel. Sometimes it’s better to have 100 decently trained troops rather than 1 super soldier or a 1000 untrained rabble.
Logistics Logistics Logistics
Usually, the side that wins is the one that can simply keep their troops fed. The best equipped and trained soldier in the world is worthless if he or she is too starved to fight or doesn’t have any ammunition to fight with.
Don’t forget politics, both internal and external
Even armies from the same culture have all kinds of internal rivalries and disputes. A multi cultural force is going to suffer that plus an extra helping of culture clash. This is an opportunity to show off both world building and conflict. The good guys may all be on the same side, but doesn’t mean they have to like it or even get along.
Weather messes up everything
Humidity may have saved western civilization from the Mongols because their compound bows came apart when exposed to European humidity. Rain can completely shut down ranged weapons since no one can see and the winds are going to scatter arrows. A smart commander knows exactly how weather will change a battle and how to use it.
Battles in fiction are about characters
I know this seems basic, but I feel it needs to be highlighted. It doesn’t matter how clever the strategies are or how flashy the magic explosions, if the audience doesn’t care about the characters then the battle is pointless. Even the battle itself should serve to highlight the character whether that be though showing a character’s remorse at the loss of life or showing them elated by the thrill of bloodshed. A battle is merely conflict on a grand scale. The opportunities it presents are numerous. So don’t screw it up by promising a huge battle and then fading to black because you just skipped my favorite part.