09 November 2013

Magic-as-technology, take II.

Knobgobbler, my first kind commenter, gave me the notion to elaborate on the theme, something I would've done sooner or later anyway.

Caveat: we're talking realism here.  If you insist on million-person cities, Spelljammer-level ubiquity of powerful magics and all the trappings of High Fantasy, terrific ... just handwave what you want and have done with it.  YMMV.

Let's say you have a respectable sized city of 10,000 people.  (This really is a respectable sized city; it'd make the top five in England at most points in the medieval era.)  If wizards are as common as blacksmiths, you've got about 20.  Terrific, right?  Plenty of enchanting muscle!

Well, now, hold on.  Are all those folks practicing enchanters?  Of course not.  There are two major factors.  For one thing, most fantasy game systems require wizards to be of a certain power level to be a successful enchanter, excluding some -- or many -- wizards from ever doing it at all.

For another, why would every wizard be a professional enchanter?  Take Master Elaina, the water wizard -- sure, she’s the city’s most powerful mage, but she’s a full-time adventurer; she’s not enchanting for a living.  Mistress Syrielle is a legend, but she’s mostly retired now, and spends her time puttering in her garden from her wheelchair.  Master Ravenswing works for the Duke, mostly in divination; he’s not enchanting for a living.  “Whisper” is the hired mage of the richest fellow in town, and they say her telepathy and anti-thief magics are why he’s so rich; she’s not enchanting for a living.  Master Nightflame is the professor of thaumatology at the local academy; he’s not enchanting for a living, and neither is his sister Arathena, who got stuck with the Guildmaster job of the local wizards’ chantry after Syrielle retired.  No one trusts Master Hamal any more since he fell into the bottle; he’s sure as hell not enchanting for a living.  And Master Detheril is the new Knight Marshal of the city, and on the short list for a coronet the next barony that opens up; he’s not enchanting for a living.

So you might have ten enchanters; you might have half as many.  Just remember, though, if everyone else is an enchanter, you don’t have spare wizards for anything else.  Need someone to cast a divination spell for you?  No one available.  Want a wizard to teach your party’s wizard a spell?  Sure, spend three months in Nightflame’s next class (it’s about necromancy, by the way), and you can; otherwise, not.  Need that magical scroll written?  You’re SOL.

Well, alright, half of what’s left.  Six enchanters, then.  How liberal is your game’s enchanting rules?  I use GURPS, myself (and let’s ignore that published material suggesting that only one wizard in ten be of a power level high enough to enchant at all, shall we?).  Purify Water sounds like a good, basic spell; an item that is self-powering takes 550 mage-days to enchant.  Which means that all six of those wizards, working together, can reasonably bang out an item in three months; it can purify nearly 3000 gallons of fresh water per day.  In a year’s work, they can enchant enough to handle all the fresh water needs of the city for drinking.  (Unfortunately, the cooking, bathing and industrial needs for fresh water are about TEN TIMES as much.)

But sure, they stick with it.  Now the city has plenty of fresh water, magically created!

Fair enough.  But it doesn’t have magical streetlights.  It doesn’t have magical weapons.  It doesn’t have magically created food. It doesn’t have anything else enchanted.  And even that much rests on a few very flimsy premises:

* Every enchanter is a skilled water enchanter.  Why would they be?  Is every wizard you run?  Mightn’t they just as likely be earth enchanters, or fire enchanters, or temporalists, or communications specialists?

* None of them have any better gigs going on than creating fresh water for the city.  What happens when agents for Countess Silvermist come and ask a couple of the enchanters exactly how long they plan on playing Third String Waterboy for the Duke, when they could come work for the Countess for double the pay and their own private towers?

* As I mentioned in the pertinent GGF post, nothing ever goes wrong.  The Purification items don’t get stolen and sold on the black market, the city’s enemies never decide to ruin them, the wizards never strike for more money, the city always pays on time and in full, none of the wizards ever gets sick, the Duke never concludes that the city has plenty of water already and the money’s better spent refitting his cavalry troop after they got pasted in the last battle, the fire that torched a fifth of the city miraculously missed the Water Works, or the Duke’s never an egotistical snot pissed off that Countess Silvermist’s water purification items are made of gold, so his ought to be too, ditch the old ivory ones?

So sure; there are some ways wizards can have a material impact on life in a city.  If your system has a Predict Weather spell, one forecasting mage can save the lives of a lot of fishermen.  One wizard with long distance telepathy ... well, we know what instant communications can do.  A battery of wizards, as a long term civic project, well funded, might be able to implement ONE change - pure water, magical street lights - as long as that change is simple, and nothing goes wrong.

So do the math for your own systems.  How many people get to be journeyman wizards?  How many wizards are capable of enchanting?  How many wizards do you want to task to do other things: battlemages, teachers, researchers, detectives, adventurers, court wizards, mages-for-hire and fussy old coots who just want to putter in their gardens and not be bothered.  Does your magic system encourage/require specialization?  How long does enchanting take?  Can just anyone use an enchanted item?  Can an item work without supervision?  How fragile are magical items?

This is why you don’t have “magical” economies.


  1. What I take from this is a reinforcement of my opinion that magic, as presented in-game, is often not well thought out... usually coming off as too easy, too reliable, too reproducible, too safe. Ersatz technology rather than 'magic'.
    Lighting the city and purifying the water and boosting crop production seem like much larger benefits to the community than having some guy making/selling +1 swords or teaching wandering gangs how to throw fireballs.

    1. Heck, the way I figure, a great many spells would be *illegal.* What ruler in his right mind would allow the general wizarding public to learn Invisibility or mind control spells?

      But that being said, it's not that magic is poorly thought out. It's that the companies are catering to the clientele. Western culture is increasingly oriented to not having to wait for ANYthing. Privation is for losers. Entertainment, goods, communications, all that has to appear on-demand, and at once.

    2. Agreed about the 'illegal' thing. I'd enjoy that in a game setting... where magic users were either sanctioned by the state or else they were renegades.
      Also agreed about the 'gottahaveitNOW' culture. I think even when a system does attempt to reign in the excesses of the magical shopping malls players tend to ignore, expecting a Magic Mart in every village they come across.

    3. I do exactly that in my setting, and maybe *that* should be another post. You might find it interesting.

  2. "Caveat: we're talking realism here."

    No, you're talking about one particular branch of 'realism', vaguely medieval Europe with magic (not very realistic) but not too much. There's not thing more realistic about having a few people who can cast fireballs or gates to the Plane of Water than having a lot. And cities with hundreds of thousands of people, well organized empires, and even democracies that divert resources to the public good, are all just as realistic as small feudal towns. The empires may even outnumber (or outmass) the feudalisms in history, though the democracies won't.

    As for wizards being as common or rare as blacksmiths... one question is, why? Given how versatile magic is, shouldn't there be more demand for experts in it? Is it really fair to compare wizards to just blacksmiths, or to blacksmiths + carpenters + bowyears + engineers + doctors and more?

    In D&D clerics can enchant too, and if we mapped priests to clerics, there could be a lot of them.

    There's also a big difference between "total post-scarcity magic" and "no impact on society at all". Maybe magic doodads for everything is unrealistic given the setting assumptions. But how about some? Haaskinzburg might have a Decanter water supply, because of an elementalist who lived there once. Desuston might have a mill powered by a bound demon. Bumiville might have a self-repairing city wall.

    Communication and surveillance magic has extremely high administrative, military, and commercial value, so should probably be heavily invested in if feasible at all -- especially given the usual sort of magic item, which may be expensive to create but has no maintenance other than not having it stolen, unlike optical telegraph lines or top end pony expresses. And as you yourself say, the changes from that can be huge -- one can argue that the modern era starts with the electrical telegraph.

    Elites might well logically ban private mind control or even mind probing magic -- but they'd just as logically want it for themselves. An amulet of ESP or helm of telepathy is pretty useful for a ruler or a judge, not to mention anyone else.

    Magic items tend to be permanent in systems, so even if creating them is rare, they'll accumulate. If they get stolen, that just means they accumulate somewhere else; the most unrealistic thing about magic items is a hoard of them not being used. (Unless it's a case like Smaug, sleeping on a whole city's pile.)

    There's also often more magic available than standard magic items. Elementals, golems, or demons are often sources of free energy in the physical sense, whether from physical labor or the heat of a fire elemental. Flying animals are more common and maybe smarter: just having a homing pigeon familiar who's smart enough to fly back and forth, rather than needing to be carried by cage one way, is a huge communications boost. Flying mounts allow faster communication, elite travel, and better surveillance or mapping.

    Items don't have to be awesome. Anything that turned oil into light more efficiently than candles or oil lamps would be great, you need to go all the way to permanent continual light.

    Simple spellcasting can change society too. Game spell lists tend to be dominated by combat spells, but that's gamer focus. Given versatile magic, we'd expect spells like "detect fetal sex", "cause abortion", "guarantee boy" (or for livestock, "girl"), "block fertility", "ward against vermin", "preserve food", as well as the "cure disease" that's probably in there somewhere. Spells that can make a big deal even if there's only one caster per 500 people.

    Magic not having any effect on society is possible to arrange, but not particularly realistic.

    1. A few responses.

      First off, almost every system out there postulates that the mere ABILITY to learn magic is uncommon: not everyone can do it, and in most cases very few can do it. (If it WAS possible for anyone to learn, why in creation wouldn't ALL adventurers learn some?) Having mages be as common as blacksmiths implies a hugely -- and uncharacteristically -- liberal potential here.

      As it happens, even D&D -- and I give a caveat right at the top of the blog that I do NOT play D&D, and this blog isn't *about* D&D -- seems to agree. As I mentioned in the Magic Changes Society fallacy post very early on, with just a couple of exceptions, wizards in published D&D settings are very uncommon, and every NPC isn't dripping with magic items. You also seem to have glossed over my assertion that wizards are going to be going a lot more than just enchanting: I recommend rereading that.

      (The same applies to priests, by the way. I strongly object to the premise that priests are spending all their time enchanting goodies for The Public Good. Isn't it in fact ten times more likely that they're spending their time at the pastoral and administrative duties most religions emphasize? One would expect they're doing the work of their deities to the exclusion of being public works utilities.)

      Now let's take that one-wizard-per-500 premise. I agree that non-combat magic would be far more prevalent in any sane society, the same way that not every one of us has paramilitary training. But let's take your laundry list. Do you figure that every wizard is proficient in birth-related magic? In disease-related magic? In food magic? The same demographic problem I mentioned above still prevails: if you have 20 wizards, you have a zero-sum city. Every wizard enchanting goodies is one less wizard available for fertility magics. Every wizard doing food magics for a living isn't doing long-distance communicating for a living. The royal wizard isn't available for public works. The headmaster at the Academy isn't available for public works.

      You might have five of those wizards who are. You might not have that many. So ... how many of those ten thousand citizens are imploring the ONE wizard out there casting "block fertility" in any given day? Quite possibly far more than she can enchant.