On Magic in Fantasy – 2

Read Part 1

In the previous installment, I explored my notions about characters using magic consistently and coherently within the wider story. Basically, that characters should not be given magical abilities or superpowers unless you are prepared to have them use them at every given opportunity. This time, I will investigate what the use of magic might do to a story’s wider setting. What, pray tell, does having all of these characters running around using magic in a realm do to the place?

So here we are in the fantasy realm of Magica, and our party of characters has just defeated the Dread Archmage of Infinite Baddassery, using all manner of magic to do so. As reward, they are given medals and noble titles by King Fruitloop, and epic levels of oral sex from the Rainbow Royal Court. The End.

What fun!

However, while the story might be over for the reader, the author must not forget that for their characters, life goes on. As a storyteller, the author chose not to share with us every mundane detail of what the characters ate for breakfast and where they were able to take a dump. This is good. But this does not mean the characters were not doing these things.

So, with this group of intrepid magic users now puttering about their daily lives, how might their magical powers affect their environment? To frame this in a wider sense: what does the existence of magic do to a society?

Good question.

As I stated last time, I choose to use the Dungeons and Dragons ruleset for my realm and fantasy stories. For the sake of those curious, the specific rule set I base this, and all my other D&D thinking on, is 3.5.

So, within this system, how does allowing magic into a realm play out?

Well, anyone who has played D&D for any length of time knows the answer already: Mages (wizards) run the show. Any realm within the D&D universe that does not want mages and spellcasting priests running things had best devise a good story reason for why that is so. Because as soon as the Dungeon Master (DM) allows one of their players to play a mage, and once that mage gets up to high level, there is no denying that they will be shaking up the power structures of their society.

For the sake of pedantry, though, let’s play this out in broad strokes.

In Mundania (the non-magical counterpart to our previous realm, Magica), there are no mages or spellcasters. But, our foolish DM has allowed their player to import a 20th level mage. The mage decides she wants to be the Dread Archmage Queen of Ultimate Baddassery and presents herself on the field of battle to face the King’s army.

Now, the King of Mundania is no slouch. His army is ten thousand strong. The foot soldiers are all first through third level warriors, of course. For every ten of them, there is a 3rd through 5th level fighter sergeant. For every hundred, there is a 6th through 9th level fighter officer. Then the King and his personal guard are all 20th level fighters.


Our mage stands alone against this mighty force. How does this play out? Not well for the status quo of non-magic, I am afraid.

When things kick off, it goes without saying that the new Queen already has a number of spells active on her. The basic set would be: Stoneskin, Free Action, Protection From Arrows, and Fire Resistance. For those not in the know, this means she is immune to a certain number of physical attacks (Stoneskin), cannot be grabbed, grappled, or tangled in nets or ropes (Free Action), nor harmed by any arrows or fire.

Then, when hostilities begin, the Queen casts Time Stop. This speeds her up relative to the rest of the world to give her 2-5 rounds of action while the King and his army are effectively paused. The order of spells she then casts (within the Time Stop effect or otherwise) are: Improved Invisibility, Fly, Teleport, and Force Cage. This means she is now hovering invisible over the battlefield, surrounded by a cube of indestructible and invisible bars of force that she can cast spells through.

The Queen then proceeds to cast Cloudkill repeatedly on the King’s army, basically turning the battlefield into World War One at its mustard gassing worst. This spell automatically kills all the soldiers and most of their sergeants. Leaving the Cloudkills to move on and do their work, the Queen then casts Dominate Person on the King’s number one knight and bodyguard. He, of course, gets a saving throw, but that’s a will save, which sucks for fighters. He likely fails the saving throw. She instructs her new meat puppet to attack the king.

Following this, she is at her leisure to proceed as she will. At this point, it is really more about whatever style and flair she chooses to bring to this, the battle of Her Ascendency. Does she Fireball, Lightning Bolt, and Magic Missile the King and his men into oblivion? Dominate more of his fellows? Summon a bunch of demons and giant tigers to eat them? It really is up to her. The world is her oyster.

And boy, is it ever.

Those astute readers who remember my last “On Magic” piece might be saying to themselves, “hey! I thought he said the D&D system of magic was relatively well balanced!”

So I did. But what I meant was, relatively balanced in relation to spellcaster-on-spellcaster action. As well, low level mages are as weak as baby chicks, and take a ridiculously long time to get powerful. So this balances the gameplay over the long haul. But once they level up, look out.

Yeah, if King Arthur and His Knights was run as a D&D campaign, the only reason we don’t see Merlin casting spells is because he’s five hundred years past having to flex on dumbasses. The culture as a whole has learned not to test him.

So, yeah, don’t fuck with mages. And mage guilds? Forget about it.

However, what does this do to one’s storytelling? If, as a creator, one wants a realm with magic and powerful wizards, as well as epic battles of armored fighters, how does one justify it?

Of course, I would not presume to tell anyone else how to go about this, but I am happy to share how I have rationalized it.

Basically, there are going to be a very limited number of high-level mages in any given population. In game mechanics terms, the amount of experience points required to level a character up to 20th is restrictive. In a standard D&D realm with the tropes of dungeon diving and monster mashing, there just simply cannot be enough monsters to go around.

So there is that. If we want, we can justify a scarcity of powerful magic users this way and just leave it at that. Let’s not, though.

As we have seen, with preparation, mages are basically invulnerable in a direct confrontation with fighters and other, non-magical classes. However, this does not mean they are immortal. The number one threat to any high-level mage is another high-level mage (be these monstrous or humanoid – check out Storm Giants if you don’t believe me). With intelligence being their primary statistic, and book learning an integral part of their training, Mages are not prone to making ill-considered and hasty moves.

So, if the only thing that can reliably threaten a mage is another mage, it stands to reason that mages would work things out to avoid confrontations with each other. Why put yourself in mortal jeopardy for an extra slice of cake when there is more than enough cake to go around amongst one’s peers?

Enter the mage guild. Mage guilds exist for precisely the same reasons that normal guilds and unions do. It stabilizes the market and commodifies the skills of the members by restricting access to them. It also provides a mechanism to mediate disputes between members, and very real consequences for those that break the guild’s rules. If the one thing that can threaten a mage is another mage, then a group of mages working together must be reckoned with.

So there we have it. If we want magical realm with mages in coexistence with medieval or renaissance warfare, we need only install a mage guild. Make membership mandatory for all arcane spellcasters, and give them a strict policy against interference in political affairs. Done!

This can be an effective way to enforce the setting we want, but it is awfully heavy-handed. Therefore, next time we will investigate how we might allow spellcasters to get involved in politics while balancing things through an application of game theory and logical consequence.

read part 3

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