Domains at War Designer's Notes #1: Magic


Welcome, everyone! The Domains at War kickstarter has just launched, and after just 48 hours we’re already close to meeting our initial goals. It’s an exciting time for me as a designer, as the rules pass from a small closed circle of testers into the hands of the larger gaming community.

During the month that our Kickstarter is running, I’m going to be presenting a series of designer’s notes on various aspects of Domains at War. If you like our design philosophy, perhaps you’ll back the product; and if you don’t, then I’ve spared you from future disappointment! Either way, it brings the design out of the “Ivory Tower” and hopefully makes it more meaningful to you.

Let’s start with magic. When designing Domains at War, I wanted it to be able to handle fantasy engagements where sorcerers could fling fireballs, undead could rise from the earth, and strongholds could be wrecked by miraculous earthquakes. But I also really wanted it to be able to simulate the historic battles fought in the ancient and medieval world. My first design challenge was determining whether these two design goals were even compatible!

After reviewing the many ways magic has appeared in fantasy wargames and military fiction, I concluded there were basically three schools of thought.  

At one extreme is the “magic as machine-guns” school. Here, spells are as common as machine-guns, clerics as common as medics, and griffins as common as airplanes. The result is what might charitably described as “World War II of the Ring”. This school envisions elven-cloaked snipers unleashing lightning bolts on unsuspecting foes while an air force of wyvern riders drops bombs. That’s undoubtedly fun, but has more in common with Warhammer 40K than any of the wars of antiquity.

At the other extreme is the “magic as atomic bombs” school. Here, magic is much feared and occasionally very powerful, but rarely seen in conventional warfare. This school imagines that most battles are identical to those described in history. The fate of kingdoms is decided by spear and phalanx. Magic rarely has any direct place on the battlefield, although it may occasionally end a war. While this thinking dominates much of fantasy fiction (as in Conan, Lord of the Rings, and Song of Ice and Fire), ACKS and its brethren allow for more magic than this school can tolerate.

In between these two extremes is the “magic as cannons” school. Here, mages are equivalent to artillery batteries in the Napoleonic era, both in terms of their numbers and their importance. They can be kept massed (as "grand batteries") or parceled out to individual units (as “battalion guns”). In either case they are much feared, and the side that possesses more mages has an important advantage, just as in the 19th century the side with more guns had a potent advantage. But they are still so rare and their volume of firepower so limited that battles are primarily fought by massed ranks of soldiers taking and holding ground with personal weapons. 

Domains at War is unquestionably a product of the latter school. Yes, our rules do suggest that a baron’s castle could be devastated by an 11th level mage with disintegrate and move earth. But the demographics of the Adventurer Conqueror King System also suggest that there should be no more than one 11th level mage per million people. There are 4,000 barons for every mage of that caliber! Such demographics, combined with the small number of spells available to spellcasters and the great cost of magic item creation, means that Domains at War campaigns will never be dominated by magic.

The topics covered by these rules reflect this underlying philosophy. For those areas where magic is most likely to affect warfare - construction, reconnaissance, sieges, and pitched battles – Domains at War provides detailed and comprehensive rules for magic. But for most aspects of warfare, the rules primarily focus on the mundane, not the magical. They aim to give the Judge a solid foundation for his military campaigns, one that’s grounded in real-world history. From there the Judge can improvise special rulings for any unique instances of magic, knowing that the fundamentals of warfare in his setting are on sound footing.


Hey Alex, I would recommend putting this out on a Kickstarter Update so backers don’t miss it. An interesting read so thanks.