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?
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