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The Impact of Magic on Fantasy Worlds

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 20, 2011

Fantasy worlds rarely take into consideration the full ramifications of the effect of magic in the game world. It’s probably easiest to take the approach that magic is rare enough (player-run magic users notwithstanding) that the effect is minimal on the fictional world that it might still resemble our own.

But would it? Imagine a few situations – which were actually somewhat real problems in eras where superstition and fear of witchcraft were more prevalent:

#1 – You are a farmer. Your livelihood – in fact, your very survival – is dependent upon your crop yield. Suddenly, half your crops sicken and die of some kind of disease, which has left your neighbors (so far) untouched. Your family may starve as a result. You know witches who have the power to do exactly this. You suspect a few people in your village of having that power. And one of them has a grudge against you.

#2 – Your spouse is dying of cancer. There are people who absolutely, empirically have the power to heal any disease with a little a 100% success rate with a little hocus-pocus. They are hard to find, however, and the only one you can locate stubbornly refuses to see you. Consequently, your spouse dies of the disease. Is the reluctant healer to blame for murder?

#3 – Someone has the power of telepathy. Not telekenisis / psychokenisis, not the ability to influence decisions directly with their mind, inflict pain or mental anguish, or anything like that which would be valued in your average role-playing game.  But, with very little effort, they can know your secrets, your lies, your thoughts, your hopes, your fears, your “buttons,” and your plans. And use that knowledge against you with you being none the wiser. This person is subtle – he doesn’t need to resort to anything as crude as blackmail or stealing your safe’s combination. He doesn’t need to be, does he? What could he really do? What would he really be capable of? What would happen if there were others like him? And what would happen if people somehow found out?

Actually, that last one was explored in the television show Babylon 5 (and some novels taking place in that universe), and the results weren’t pretty (among the humans). Suspected telepaths were rounded up into camps, and strict regulation and restrictions placed upon them. Telepaths were recruited to hunt down violations by others of their kind. The impact of the appearance of telepaths was overshadowed only by the advent of interstellar travel and meeting alien races.

The creator of Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski, actually suggested a use for even the weakest of telekenisis in his comic series, Rising Stars. All it takes is a tiny pinch of the carotid artery to make the perfect assassination. Forget massive impacts and fireballs and hellstorms – a mage with fine control over remote force could kill quite efficiently and secretly.

I found myself wondering about this a little over the weekend, while watching a recent movie where – as often happens in movies taking place in the modern world – cell phone communication played a major role. How different this was from movies from twenty years ago, where trying to get two characters into communication with each other could be half the battle!  The ability to communicate with virtually anyone, anytime, in anywhere in the world (assuming they are near a population center in some spots) is really pretty phenomenal. We now know about things happening on the opposite side of the globe in real-time, and share the experience through Internet videos with the smallest of delays. It’s really pretty incredible, and we’ve transitioned over to the idea pretty seamlessly.

To a medieval villager, the cell phone would be an overwhelmingly powerful magic. But if the Verizon guy (or I guess the newly former-Verizon guy)  dropped in on peasants in the 800s in Europe and started his “Can you hear me now?” schtick, would they reject the scary juju, or would they embrace it quickly and transform the entire concept of medieval life as we know it?

I kinda think the latter. And I think the transformation would have far more ramifications than we can imagine. But it’s a fun exercise to imagine it, anyway.

So how would a traditional medieval European society – the common setting for fantasy RPGs – really be impacted by the presence of these kinds of magical powers, and the people who can use them?


Filed Under: General - Comments: 20 Comments to Read



  • skavenhorde said,

    This treads closely to one of my daydreams that I hope to make a book or at least a nice simple game out of one day.

    Call me crazy (and you probably will after I post this), but I’ve a few ideas with how magic could affect this world.

    The story goes that Gaia finally has had enough of her children being such evil little shits who seem to want to kill her. So she chooses on man/woman to be her avatar to fullfill her wishes. That avartar then has all of Gaias powers which for all intent and purposes means he is a demi-god no one can kill. He gives the world an ultimatum. Fix your problems with the earth and your people within five years or he’ll drop the human race down a few knotches in the food chain while he summons in creatures of all kinds to live among them.

    He promises heaven on earth or hell on earth depending on what choices all the humans around the world make.

    He can’t be stopped, killed, bribed or taken out of the picture in any way. In essence America is dumbstruck that they can’t just shoot him in the head and be done with it.

    Something about that always appealed to me because I know it would take something like to get any governments working on common goal for the good of the earth and its people.

    It’s quite a large bill to order, but that thought always appealed to me :)

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    Wide-ranging high-power magic, handled believably, is its own kind of singularity event – the changes it would create are so massive that our pitiful minds can’t take in how much it would affect things.

    You can make interesting fantasy settings out of taking a single reliable magical power and extrapolating the effects (sort of like science fiction, only not!), but trying to imagine the full D&D spell list dropped into medieval Europe, for reals? Brainsplody.

    In D&D you can raise the dead. Sure, it’s difficult and expensive, so it will mostly be limited to the rich and powerful – and those NOT rich and powerful aren’t exactly going to appreciate that. Or what if it isn’t quite so difficult and expensive, and death basically stops being an issue?

    In D&D you can create food and water out of nothing. You can end all famine. You can stop having to farm as there’s no point anymore. The concept of killing and eating living things, even plants, might become abhorrent.

    So there’s a fun game – choose three spells from the spell list at random and create a society based on those powers existing. Three is small enough that you should probably be able to still manage it… Unless you rolled wish. Then you’re just screwed. :)

  • Menigal said,

    This is pet peeve of mine, when magic is simply dropped over a world with no thought as to the real changes it would force. Old fantasy stories (think Conan, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, etc.) tended to make magic a rare and dangerous thing (incidentally, does anyone else wish there was more swords and sorcery in games?). The users were powerful, but distrusted and quite rare. Your average person probably never experienced it.

    Over time magic’s become more and more commonplace, and quite a few games, stories, and settings defalt to the the old magic-as-technology trick, giving magical versions of modern conveniences, still without really addressing the cultural changes.

    A lot of the big, world changing powers started out as answers to gameplay problems. An orc hit you with an ax? Healing spell. Some strange mold in the dungeon gave you a disease? Here’s a spell to handle that. You went into a Gygaxian dungeon? Guess you need a spell to raise the dead now.

    Unfortunately, moved out of the dungeon crawl, these gameplay-extenders shake the foundations of the world you’re playing in. Investigating the changes they would make in a pseudo-medieval world would change it into something less recognizable, which may be why some writers/designers ignore them.

    I still like the idea of a rare, largely distrusted magic. Maybe not to the point of all-out witch hunts, but still a world where magic-users are viewed with as much superstition and fear as respect. Healing magic, as one of the bigger “problem” areas, is rare or nonexistent. In a game there are countless other ways of fixing the same problems.

    I think, as far as games are concerned, the designer should think about how he would fit each spell into a story. If it would demand a change in the world there, then the game should reflect that same change. Of course, I like my game worlds to have a sense of believability. Most people these days don’t seem that bothered by it.

    WhineAboutGames has a good idea. It might be fun to take, say, all 1st level D&D spells (1st or 2nd edition might give a wider range) and look at just what changes they would make in a generic medieval setting. Maybe the next time I get bored I’ll toy around with that.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    You went into a Gygaxian dungeon? Guess you need a spell to raise the dead now.

    I’m lucky I’d just finished drinking my Diet Coke before reading that, or I’d have sprayed it all over my keyboard through my nose.

  • Maklak said,

    What I really wanted, but never managed to do in a DnD game, was to build a trading empire based on teleport spell (and maybe others of the kind). The Red Mages from Forgotten Realms had a splendid idea about building trading outposts.

    In DnD there is considerable impact of magic on society, but nowhere close to the level of not needing to farm. It is handwaved by rarity of spellcasters, and how expensive spells are (but then again DnD economy is badly broken). IIRC 100GP is 1kg of gold, and even 1st level scrolls cost 25 GP. Adding a spell to mage book costs 100 GP per level. If you think about it, that’s just insane.

    Jacek Dukaj wrote “General’s move”. While it is mostly about ascention to power of a very clever litch, it also describes to some degree a society with megetech. There were flying vehicles and such, but magic had the biggest impact on war. There was no point in sending conventional armies against battle mages.

    Ewa Bialolecka wrote “Weaver of illusion” about a boy with skill in creating illusions, that surprised even other mages. It also described blending of mages into society. They were a separate race that invaded the land almoust a thousand years ago, and conquered it. They had a capital city and mage school with walls of solid rocks, made of stones melted together with extreme heat by ‘sparks’ (pyrokynetic mages). No other country even bothered to invade them. There were a few separate magic talents, and so magical castes. ‘Makers’ were the strongest. They had power over matter. They could turn stones into gold, sewage into milk, and basically could provide whatever thay wanted for themselves. One limitation they had, was difficulty and danger of transforming living matter. They would not even attempt healing. They were annoyed by pleas from the general population, and didn’t really need payment for their services anyway. ‘Sparks’ had Pyrokinesis. They could ignite flammable materials, shape glass by selectively heating it with their power, and so on. ‘Travelers’ could teleport. They mostly just moved stuff from one location to another in an organized way. Since there were no silly limitations on teleporting living matter (like in DnD) they could also teleport someones internal organs away it they got pissed. ‘Illusionists’ could create belivable ilusions. ‘Observers’ and ‘Speakers’ had claivoyance and telepathy. They formed an effective information network. There were a couple more brands of mages. Mages hid the fact that they were a separate race even from most mages. They handled breeding by having a special brothel with carefully selected females, and dropping orphans in various villages. They also generally had disabilities, often proportional to their power. It was also hinted, that upper echelon of mages was purposefully limiting power of mages, because to great a power in hands of thousands of individuals would be too dangerous. There were also hints of some ‘makers’ from ages past, who could transform living matter, and made dragons, and other fantastic creatures.

    World of Darkness handled magic in an iteresting way. Mages exist, and some of them are powerfull, but they hide their existence and abilities. Any overt displays of ‘reality deviatios’ are punished by paradox from magic failing to botching up to and including erasing a mage from existence.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    An interesting topic. I’ve often looked at this from a similar perspective and noticed that magic gets slapped on top of an existing society without considering the impacts quite often in fantasy.

    I’ve been writing a series of stories from this perspective. I’ve started in the equivalent of prehistoric times with the discovery of magic and the “birth” of the different fantasy races. It’s not exactly high literature, but I have fun writing the stories. Anyone interested can check them out at http://restlessdeep.com/

    To a medieval villager, the cell phone would be an overwhelmingly powerful magic.

    Yes, but good or evil magic? Given that the dominant force in a villager’s life in that era was his lord and the Church, it kind of depends on how they see it. My knowledge of history would probably indicate that the Church would try to take the technology for their own uses to get the upper hand against enemies and competitors. If they could not, they would denounce the magic as being from Satan. (See Ephesians 2:2 and “the prince of the powers of the air”.) The question would be if instantaneous communication would allow the peasants to get educated faster than the Church could spread new doctrine against the tool.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    I quite like the way Terry Pratchett handles it in his Discworld books. The magic users all tend to be kept away from normal people to prevent them from altering things too much (partially because of the problems it would cause the economy – and therefore government, and partially because of cosmic horrors).

    I really liked the way Dragon Age presented it’s magic users, even if the game failed to follow through. It stands to reason that those without magic would be fearful and jealous of those with it. The power struggle between the two groups could have been fascinating, especially if you were given the opportunity to play on either side.

  • McTeddy said,

    Why would society possibly be any different if you could raise the dead 4 times a day as a level 8 healer? Sheesh… I can’t believe you think that would change anything.

    I know I’ve often said it, but I like people to use the same tools in new ways. There are so many unexplored territories left in our fantasy worlds… yet it’s rare to see them used in any way outside the usual.

    Personally, I’m rather fond of the magic is all powerful and very hard to control. Seriously, If healing my paper cut meant my head might explode… I think I’d be happy to let mother nature take care of it.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I always liked the comment from Neuromancer (or one of Gibson’s books) about how “the street finds uses for things.” Meaning that people will adapt technology to purposes that may not have been intended by the original makers. Like the telephone. By my understanding, it was originally intended as more of a broadcast device – like radios are now. Or my favorite – how cell phones get used as flashlights.

  • Picador said,

    I put together a fantasy setting for the “Swordbearer” RPG a while back that tried to extrapolate a few interesting consequences for just a handful of the magical effects built into the game setting. Elves in the game have pretty easy access to spells that can 1) cure disease and 2) create magically binding oaths. The first effect has pretty drastic consequences: mainly, it means that the race had to have pretty dismal rates of reproduction if they didn’t want a population explosion.

    But the second effect was even more interesting in its ramifications. Imagine a warlord who can extract a magically binding oath from his subjects, either with their cooperation or through coercion. It’s a recipe for widespread slavery and despotism on an unimaginable scale. An entire nation of slaves who would sooner turn on their own families than betray their king. Prisoners of war from other tribes immediately immpressed with the same fanatical loyalty. Human children kidnapped from their homes and turned into lifelong, prefectly loyal servants and soldiers. The need to work political compromises has always been a limiting factor for real-world despotism; imagine the horror of a world where defiance isn’t just dangerous, but actually impossible.

  • sascha said,

    I find magic is often like Deux Ex Machina. It usually makes too many things possible too easily by breaking the barriers of limitation and intrication. Sometimes it does create intrication because it messes more things up than it should fix. I guess that’s a plus but other than that magic is bit like cheating for me (like players being able to fly in Second Life, heh). I do like the idea of psychic powers however, stuff like telepathy, telekinesis etc.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    When I was playing D&D our DM always ran a sort of “low magic” campaign. Magic existed, but wizards and mages were rare and very powerful. They tended to consolidate power by eliminating anyone born with the gift of manipulating magic, and using magic to extend their own lifespans. Magic items were rare and legendary in natural – after all, no wizard would create a lot of magic items that could fall into the hands of peasants and be used against them.

    Players playing magic-users in the campaign faced a double-edged sword – most people could be easily cowed and manipulated by a show of even simple magic, assuming you could command much more if you wished like the wizards that ruled over everything. On the other hand, if you were too flashy or indiscreet, you might find yourself quickly on a master wizard’s hit list.

    Each party member tended to get ONE magic item per campaign. One person may get a magic sword forged by a wizard in ancient times to defend against assassins, another a ring with limited healing properties a paranoid wizard created to preserve his life, and someone else a cloak of warmth an old wizard created to keep warm in damp stone towers. Always simple, always with an explanation.

    I know it is an old and sometimes over-used expression, but Arthur C. Clarke’s “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” has always rung true and fascinated me.

    If were to go back in time to say, medieval England, and I took a cell phone that allowed instant communication and gave the weather forecast(presuming it had a way to work without satellites or cell towers), a bag of medicines and antibiotics, a computer pad with all of history on it, a recording device, powerful explosives like nitroglycerin, an automatic weapon, dragon body armor impenetrable to even modern bullets, holographic projectors, etc. would I be able to set myself up as a wizard or a god?

    You would be able to heal the sick, accurately predict the future of events and the weather in exacting detail, destroy castle walls with a snap of your fingers, be invulnerable to harm, powerful enough to fell whole armies by yourself, able to summon “ghosts”, etc. Even if you tried to explain the technologies to the people, how would they grasp them?

    Imagine someone coming to our time from the future who comes from a period when humanity has learned to manipulate quantum particles like child’s play, or access other dimensions. Such actions would seem like magic to us unless explained – if we saw a person walking through walls, teleporting from one spot to another instantenously, etc. I doubt our first thought would be that the person is using advanced technology. Most people would assume such a person is magic, or a ghost, or the devil or Jesus.

    Or imagine that – what if Jesus were a time traveler with quantum molecular and nano-technology. Repairing the sick, re-arranging atoms and molecules to change the physical properties of a substance, laying “dead” for three days until the nanites in his blood stream could repair his body. Why, we might declare such an individual a . . . god.

    I do think more fantasy authors and world builders should do what WhineAboutGames suggested and consider the ramifications of magic in their world. A world where magic is common and can stand in for nearly all our technology today should be an advanced world.

    Trans-oceanic flights? What about “travel-ports” where for a fee, wizards teleport passengers to their destination?

    Computers? Why not magic books, enchanted to connect to the information in any other book on request?

    Plastic surgery, identity theft? Why not expert wizards in the use of polymorph spells?

    Life-insurance? Why not a fund paid into monthly to finance a resurrection spell if the unfortunate should happen?

    Justice system, crime scene investigation? Why not scrying spells cast to reveal the truth?

    A world full of magic would be one where the rich and powerful live unnaturally long and stay unnaturally beautiful. A world that had shrunk like our own with instant communication and fast, reliable travel to all parts of the globe. A world where war was every bit as devastating as in our own, if not more so, with wizards summoning demons for battle, enchanting automatons and golems to fight like our unmanned drones, unleashing armageddon spells on whole cities like magical atomic bombs. A world where those with no command of magic would quickly become second-class citizens.

    In short, an AWESOME WORLD. Get on it fantasy writers. Show us a world with magic where it makes sense, where it has been extrapolated out to the fullest extent.

  • fluffyamoeba said,

    For all the flaws in the execution of the idea in the 2 games, Dragon Age explores the effect of magic on society pretty well. It is actually the subject of the main plot in DA2.

    The main trouble with focusing on the effect of magic in a game, rather than just a setting for a book, is very evident in DA2 – you have to treat a PC magic user very differently from a PC who doesn’t use it.

  • FuzzyDuck said,

    Something i came across is this http://www.worldofprime.com/ (found due to a posting by the author while i was browsing another musing about a similar thing on some other site a while back so, um, plug for him i guess?)
    Anyway, its an interesting take on a number of game concepts as applied to a medieval-style world & the associated novel also explores the concept of how the insertion of modern technology & methods could influence it.

  • UDM said,

    Don’t have much to comment on the article itself since I just skimmed through it, but Menigal makes a good point. Magic has become so integral to a setting today, that even Age of Conan, which is based on a setting where magic is equivalent to what contemporary society calls “black magic”, “voodoo” or “witchcraft”, is going with the high-fantasy crowd.

    Personally, I too prefer when the mere mention of “spells” or “magic” would strike a wild, unmentionable kind of fear or bewilderment in the player. As Jay said above, a cellphone might have been considered heresy 1000 years ago because it is unlike any traditional convention that people then were used to. In the same way, lo-fantasy magic has an element of atypicality, and that’s why it surprises.

    It doesn’t mean the reverse is always bad, but we’re all taking magic too much for granted today. I’d like to see a setting when magic had stronger roots in reality rather than surreality. Even so it need not be uncommon – just shroud it in enough mysticism and intrigue to appear unconventional to those unused to its ways, but with a better established lore behind it.

    I recall one of Solomon Kane’s short stories that reflects the cellphone analogy quite well. I believe it’s called The Hawk of Basti – Kane is in Africa and there he meets an old Caucasian acquaintance who had usurped the throne to an African tribe before being subsequently exiled. As they were conversing while passing through the jungle, they came upon some warriors of that very same tribe who had started the coup against Kane’s buddy. As the negroes came forth to attack the two white men, Kane leveled his pistol and fired off, the sound being described as “thunder” to the blacks. Immediately, the rest of the tribe went down on their knees and offered their unhesitating subservience to the duo.

    That’s magic for ya ^_^

  • JuliusMagnus said,

    There is too much focus on magic. But the same can be said about combat. Despite all the wars humankind has fought, combat really didn’t play an important role in most peoples lives.

    I’ve researched my ancestry and I’ve found over 700 ancestors and 95 percent of them never fought in any wars.

    Magic would be an expensive enterprise. But in all truth, armor and weapons for combat were equally expensive. The whole feudal system was built around giving warriors enough economic power to pay for their armor, weapons and horses.

    Magic in games is like how IT is in the real world, npc/pc’s are hardly sages who worked decades to gather magical wisdom. In the real world people don’t have to be IT specialists to use a computer or a social media guru to use facebook or twitter.

    Somewhere down the line IT was ‘democratised’, it was no longer only found on military complexes or university campussus but it’s application has trickled down to the common man. That doesn’t mean the common man has the same knowledge as an IT scientist, the common man just has enough knowledge to apply and use what the scientist has discovered or developed.

    “Dwarfs standing on the shoulders of Giants” One does not have to have a high intelect to make use of discoveries made by people with a high intelect.

    So as you say I do think they would embrace magic quickly, just as man has embraced any other usefull discovery that has been made accesible.

  • Detritus said,

    Fantastic post!

    The manga series Dorohedoro has an interesting take on magic that rpg designers may be interested in.

    It certainly does a lot to account for how the magic works and the kind of society it causes.

    The story takes place in “the Hole” (a grim, dilapidated city)where ordinary people live in fear of wizards, who come from another dimension to perform magical experiments on the hapless inhabitants.

    The wizard’s dimension, isn’t without its problems, as it is a very hierarchical society and is an equally dangerous place to live.

    The interesting thing is the magic is some kind of black dust that gets produced in the blood stream, due to small cancerous (and devil shaped!) growths. The humans of the Hole are without these, making them a different species from the magic-using hunmans of the wizard’s world.

    A wizard can only use one kind of magic, but the varieties are varied and often completely strange. As raising the dead is possible, many wizard characters have a complete disregard for life and death is rarely considered an important issue.

    I like settings such as this that explore the effects of magic, set up specific rules of what it can and can’t do and provides a believable culture and society. I wish more rpgs would delve deeper into their settings!

    Of course this is very different from rpgs, as a poster above mentioned, where magic is more of a gameplay feature and as such, is often “tacked on” to a medieval European setting. At least in conventional RPGs!

  • Woe said,

    Very interesting post, even more interesting comments.

    The story of Soloman Kane reminded me of the real-life story of a Victorian explorer who liked to terrify African tribes. Sorry I can’t remember the name, but I’ll tell you what I can remember.

    Among his exploits: he randomly shot Africans with a pistol until they ran every time he pointed a finger at them. He also liked to throw fireworks and dynamite at them. Once he gave a demonstration to a tribe, filling a bowl with “water” (actually kerosene) and set fire to it with a lighter. Then he would go to the edge of a cliff and hold the lighter above the ocean.

    Eventually a tribal snuck up at night and killed him while he slept. There’s a moral there.

  • Xenovore said,

    The magic of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea always rang true with me. There, magic is ubiquitous — everybody knows somebody that can use magic, even if it’s just the village witch. However, the ability to use magic is rather limited; most people can’t use magic at all, and among those that actually can use it, very few — the mages — can really do anything substantial with it. And the mages know that if you get too crazy with magic (other than illusion), there’s a high probability of majorly screwing up yourself or even the entire world, so they tend to use magic only when it’s really necessary.

    Another cool limitation there is the concept of “true names”, where you can’t do much to anything without knowing its true name first. (I think this concept would be very cool in a CRPG: near endless questing to discover the true names of everything so you could work magic on it.)

    I’ve always thought that if we had magic in the real world, it would work something like that — most people would know about it but it would not be a major factor in their lives. The “mages” — the elite few that can actually use magic — would most likely be part of a church or sect, like the Catholic church in medieval Europe or the Shaolin monks in China…

  • Craig Stern said,

    “Someone has the power of telepathy.”

    Huh. If only someone were exploring that idea, in some sort of…”Telepath RPG,” if you will. ;)

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