The Red Box Blog

Ramblings about D&D.

A Fantasy Arms Race

I woke up this morning and realised that there is one very important and pervasive aspect of war that I have never seen in a war campaign – an arms race.

Real Wars Have Been Won By Superior Arms
In the real world there is an enormous importance given to having the superior weapons and armor. Throughout history militaries have rushed to develop the weapon that can render their enemy’s armor useless and the armor that can stop their enemy’s weapon. Yet I have rarely heard this term more than whispered in fantasy rpgs.

I am sure a big part of this is that we are meant to believe that weapon and armor in these worlds are stagnant, and that warriors have been using the same arms for centuries if not millennia. But the other aspect of it is that the rules aren’t well built for showing off tech upgrades.

D&D Rules Aren’t Made for an Arms Race
If a country were to develop a new armor, you could give the armor better stats or not. If you decided to make it statistically better, even slightly obviously every player would want a suit; but how much better would it have to be in order to sway the out come of a war? I would think a lot. Moreover, if the enemy then develops better armor, and then the good guys better than that, just how much are you willing to increase the armor stats?

The same problem exists with weapons where there aren’t many choices for stats to increase, and very quickly you run out of real estate – you suddenly have an uber weapon in your game that could hugely affect game balance.

Spells Would be the Focus of Military Research
So both the armor and weapon systems in D&D aren’t conducive to the more suttle aspects of an arms race; you can’t really build one to counter the other, and a constant parade of small upgrades will quickly result in a loss of game balance. Fortunately, there is an aspect of D&D that is more accepting to new upgrades.

In the warfare of a D&D world, spells would most likely be the artillery; making them very important. Nations would have very good reason to be developing new spells all the time. They would constantly want new defensive spells that could stop the offensive spells the enemy is throwing. They would want new offensive spells that can either punch through or bypass the defensive spells the enemy is throwing up. They would want new buffs that give their troops unexpected advantages. Wars in D&D should be a steady stream of new spells.

Don’t Forget Game Balance
What would be the most important thing to remember when developing spells as an arms race is the level of the spell. First of all you wouldn’t want any of the new spells to be uber spells that don’t belong at that level; this would be easiest to acheive if instead of trying to build a spell that provides a notable statistical advantage (like a d12 magic missile), instead develop spells that overcomes a problem that nation has been seeing in combat (like a magic missile that does less damage but has double the range) Second of all it would be important to keep research at appropriate levels; a nation might have wizards spanning all levels of casting, but the function of wizards at each level would be very different.

So what do you think about a spells arms race? Have you ever had one? How do think it might play out?

Have an opinion about this article? I love comments. Please feel welcome to leave your thoughts.


December 8, 2010 - Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , ,


  1. Fantastic article. I’ve always thought the idea of a similar arms race in a sci fi story would be a fantastic story, and I’ve daydreamed about writing one, but never thought about it much in terms of the fantasy genre. I’d love to see this pulled off well. Even 3 or 4 back-and-forth new spell developments could be sufficient for a campaign if the impact of each new spell/technique was important.

    Comment by Greg | December 8, 2010 | Reply

  2. […] A Fantasy Arms Race from The Red Box Blog ” RPGs ( […]

    Pingback by Rituals Outside the Box and an Invitation | Moebius Adventures | December 8, 2010 | Reply

  3. I really like the idea of a Fantasy style arms race, but I think you could take it a step further. Magical weapons are not uncommon in games and making magical armies is a theme that has been explored before – most notably (in my mind) the Warforged from Eberron. Actuually a spell-focused arms race between nations might provide a really good blend of story elements. Contrary to what you were mentioning, giving high powered spells to lower level wizards might be really interesting as a game concept, especially if it had some type of horrible consequence; for example, if you used the rules from Dark Sun for blighting the land with magic in a standard campaign and applied that rule to military wizards using spells for which they don’t yet have the levels to use. A bunch of level 1 wizards tossing level 5 fire balls could be made interesting if you are causing damage to the world by doing this.

    Comment by Shinobicow | December 8, 2010 | Reply

    • Negative consequence for using too powerful of magics opens all kinds of doors. Blighting the land is certainly one (this is frequently mentioned in back stories, but rarely occurs in the present).

      Another might be a very immediate and negative impact on caster; like aging him or a small chance of death with every spell. How do you deal with an enemy who is constantly training 1st level wizards so they can cast high levels spells (dying in the process) for the honor of their country?

      Or if you had two warring armies that obtained magic from very different sources, maybe using too high a level spell either weaken your sides magic source, or strengthened the other side’s.

      Comment by The Red DM | December 8, 2010 | Reply

  4. Arms and Armor are important, but an evolution of tactics and strategy wins just as many or not more. Ask the Romans and their losses of their legions in Germany.

    I think the game is relatively well setup to have an arms race for just standard equipment.. at least from an old D&D perspective. Having good gear wasn’t having magic stuff… that was awesome. Good gear was something like chain mail. I guess you can apply something similar in 4e, but it’s a mass production of magic equipment most likely.

    As for spells, that should indeed be a good evolutionary point. As each level has it’s limited however I think it would be more strategic versatility than anything. The race would be most likely to get higher level casters or find ways of cheating the system, as the blighting similar to Dark Sun

    Comment by Grey | December 9, 2010 | Reply

    • I wasn’t trying to downplay the importance of tactics, but your points are well taken.

      Comment by The Red DM | December 9, 2010 | Reply

  5. I know, just pointing it out is all.

    How do you figure the best way to go about a spells arms race is given that the standard breakdown of a casters power is via level? The majority of variability is exactly that, just a huge variety of spells unless you make ones that are “regional” specialities, sort of like cooking. But typically D&D dosen’t break things down as such

    Comment by Grey | December 12, 2010 | Reply

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