I really loved your “Five Ways Your Characters Can Acquire Magic” and “Six Consequences of High Magic”. They really got me thinking about magic and effects on a fantasy society.
In the indie game I’m making, everyone can learn magic, but after reading your “Five Ways Your Characters Can Acquire Magic”, I realized that the disadvantage of such a system is—why doesn’t EVERYONE learn magic?
It is hard for me to consider such implications of a world where literally everyone attends some sort of Magic School + the massive implications that would have on society where everyone can now cast fireball or knows alchemy or can cast healing spells or whatever.
So my question: In a world where everyone can learn magic, *would* everyone learn magic…and what would that look like / how would that affect society?
My postulations: [There could be protectionism by established mages limiting who is able to learn magic, or people might not want to learn magic because it would make them a weapon of the state]
But these are just my own little musings and I am curious to hear your side / thoughts in this regard.
Thank you so much! You rock :DTucker
Hey Tucker, great to hear from you again!
As you noted, it’s basically impossible to give a general answer on the specifics of how a hypothetical magic system would affect a world since it depends entirely on how that magic system works.
In a setting where anyone can learn magic, the number of mages generally goes up with how much utility the magic has and goes down with how costly it is to learn. Note that I said “utility,” which doesn’t necessarily equate to raw power.
For example: if anyone in the Avatar world could learn bending, you’d have way more people learn Earthbending than Firebending. Firebending’s main use is in combat, and even a militaristic society only needs so many soldiers. It does have non-combat uses, but they’re pretty limited.
Earthbending, on the other hand, is basically a magical construction machine that you can also use for fighting if you want to. Earthbending lets you make any structure practically for free, from individual homes to ambitious mega-projects. Oh, and you can also use it for fast travel or seeing in the dark. Not only would everyone want to learn Earthbending for their own self interest, but it would be a huge benefit to the country if as many people as possible learned Earthbending.
Protectionism is certainly possible, but it depends a lot on the specifics of how your magic works. Would powerful mages want to limit the number of new mages getting trained? Maybe, but only if your magic has certain dynamics attached to it.
In real life, you usually see protectionism in situations where there’s a limited demand for a given profession, and allowing more people to join would devalue the skills of existing professionals. Magic could certainly work like that. Maybe magic is mostly used to open portals, and there are only so many places portals can be opened. The more portal mages there are, the more competition for a limited number of portal jobs.
But if magic is more generally useful, like Earthbending, you don’t have the same incentives. The demand for that kind of magic is practically infinite, so there’s no reason for powerful mages to limit new magical trainees. At least, no reason strong enough to overcome all the interests vested in getting as many new mages into the field as possible.
You could also have other reasons magic might be limited. Maybe casting spells creates harmful magic radiation, and if enough of it builds up, that’s bad for everyone. Or maybe magic is inherently dangerous, so a lot of safety precautions are needed to keep new wizards from transmuting themselves into chlorine gas.
Likewise, how hard magic is to learn changes from setting to setting. If you need to get a four-year degree in shapeshifting to transform into a wolf, only a few people would take that option. Becoming a wolf is neat, but it doesn’t have a ton of utility. The people learning such magic would either aim for specialized professions like hunting, or they would be people who just think it’s really cool to be a wolf.
Finally, it’s always possible that mages would be used as weapons by the state, but not super likely. You’d need a very specific magic system for that to work. In real life, the state can exert a lot of pressure over soldiers because the state is the one providing weapons and equipment. With most magic systems, mages are like soldiers who bring their own tank to any labor negotiation. Again, it’s possible, but the setup to make it work isn’t common.
Basically, you can create a lot of different magic dynamics in your setting, but it all depends on how you want your magic to work. The place where authors typically run into trouble is that they want magic that has huge utility, but they don’t want to reckon with the implications of such a system.
Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your story!
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Comments on What Happens If Everyone Can Learn Magic?
Theoretically, most people can learn to play a musical instrument. Before recorded music, many more people knew how to play an instrument and sing at a good or really good amateur level because this is what you needed to do if you wanted to hear music with some frequency before wide-spreading recording.
You can have a magic system similar to learning to play an instrument where everybody can learn magic but most people don’t bother because it is too time consuming and hard for everybody but dedicated professionals. Magic might take a lot of dull practice and repetition to get it right. I find that many everybody can learn magic stories presumes that learning and casting spells is easy. It doesn’t have to be, it could be really difficult like playing an instrument at a decent level or electrical engineering.
efore recorded music, many more people knew how to play an instrument and sing at a good or really good amateur level because this is what you needed to do if you wanted to hear music with some frequency before wide-spreading recording.
Or whistle. Older stories have way more references to casual whistling of tunes than I’ve ever experienced in my day-to-day life.
I think the biggest question is definitely ‘how hard is it to learn magic?’ The second one for me would be ‘are their severe consequences to using it?’
If everyone can learn magic and it is something you can do easily, everyone will probably be able to do magic to a degree. Not all may be equally good at it, but that doesn’t mean only the best would learn it in the first place. If it takes a lot of training, everyone could potentially become a mage, but only people who really want to be one would successfully go through the training.
If using magic shortens your life or might damage your body for good, for instance, it’s not something people would use freely and few people would want to use it in the first place. If there are no consequences or they are not severe (say feeling a little tired after using magic), more people would want to use it.
From those two questions, I could see a span between ‘everyone will learn to do magic and people will use it all the time’ and ‘you have to make a very good argument for some people to learn magic, despite the fact that everyone can.’
I’m definitely not going into the ‘oppressed mages’ territory here, though.
One idea is to lean into it
While there have been a few stories where everybody has magic (Xanth comes to mind), the idea is still rare enough that it would provide excellent novelty
For this setting, most magic that most people know would probably be relatively minor, and the more powerful stuff harder to learn, or perhaps requires a certain amount of talent and training (like art or music), though that is not an absolute necessity
This would require a LOT of worldbuilding, but that just means the setting is truly novel
I had a similar problem and I approached it by weakening the magic system this way:
– Magic is way weaker than in most stories.
– Learning magic is hard, it’s not something that can be taught well with words, you have to learn it yourself (like cycling, snowboarding,..)
– Magical power needs to be stored up in advance and storing magic takes time. You need as much energy as if you’d performed the task manually. So if you want to move a boulder you’ll have to store enough energy in a gemstone.
So yes, you can move a boulder by magic but you’d need hours saving up energy before you can use that, so in most cases, you’d rather just move the boulder by hand. But if someone has time to store energy for months he certainly could become powerful.
A similar example is Wayne in Alloy of Law. He can store up health in bracelets but while he does that, he feels sick.
That’s just my initial idea, I’d appreciate any feedback!
One limit could be that there’s only so much magic to go around – it’s a resource, and the more people using it, the quicker it gets used up.
Or perhaps each spell cast weakens the fabric of reality, so random effects start happening (or creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions break through).
Why doesn’t everyone learn magic? The same reason not everyone learns computer programming or medicine. The fact that everyone is capable of learning a skill doesn’t mean everyone needs to, wants to, is temperamentally suited to doing it, has the underlying skills/talents needed to make it useful, and so on. Historically, no matter how useful or prized a given skill is, there’s only a limited number of people who actually learn it. The Spartans prized martial skills and wanted everyone to learn them (though this is probably exaggerated: most of the records of Spartan society were written down by fanboy non-Spartans, and their accuracy is questionable), but their pure military society could only function because they had huge numbers of Helots (who vastly outnumbered the Spartan citizens) to do the day-to-day work.
Unless magic is trivial to learn and can do literally anything, there’s a limited number of people who will learn it and there are other non-magic jobs that will still need to be done.
Remember: No matter how accomplished your society is, culturally, militarily, technologically, spiritually, or any other way, toilets exist, get used, and have to be cleaned.
Maybe part of the problem is the way magic works in books like Harry Potter.
If you study programming you can just do one thing and that is programming. In medicine you usually also have to specialize (dentist, surgeon,..), you usually can’t just study of the medical professions at once.
Whereas in magic it seems you learn it once and then you can make things fly, shoot fireballs, teleport and so on.
Maybe magic wouldn’t be popular if you’d need a decade just to learn one skill (just like it’s in the medical field).
Harry Potter wizards and witches do seem to have individual fields that the excel at. People really good at defense against the darks arts seem to end up as magical cops. Others are good at divination or potions. So even though everybody is an all rounder in theory, it doesn’t seem that way in practice.
Using the Avatar example, another point is that benders are not necessarily better in combat, it is just that they are all more or less trained. The most capable nonbenders like Ty Lee, Suki, Sokka, or Asami Sato are all capable of taking down even high levels benders. Firebending is less effective than chi-blocking in a confined environment because it is so potentially destructive to the environment. Though I will also note that firebending does have a critical non-combat role. It is used industrially as a source of heat, which is why the Fire Nation industrialized so much faster than the rest of the world. Airbending seems to have the least utility roles aside from using sky bisons for flight, as waterbending also can also more or less replace conventional medicine. But at the same time conventional builders, power plant operators, and doctors also still have value because they are adding a different approach to things in the same way that Azula realized having that Ty Lee was more useful than a squad of firebenders.
So in general, as long as there are ways for non-magic users to still be effective in both combat and utility functions, the reason that you might want to learn other skills is that they have utility in other scenarios in which the magic system is less effective. It is about opportunity cost, You can learn magic healing, but because that is more common, non-magical surgeons can often be more useful and can thus make more money.
Another idea I think could be an interesting limit is if magic is entirely shared across populations in a voluntary fashion, in sort of a pure version of the contractual magic system from Gladstone’s craft cycle. This would create all sorts of perverse incentives, in which you have everything from a desire for larger families to an even worse version of the security dilemma faced by nations. While things like feudalism wouldn’t work, contractual magic would inevitably lead to a capitalist system in which most people sell their magic rights for money and so magic has an inherent trickle up effect in which the world’s magic abilities are increasingly controlled by a smaller and smaller population. The security dilemma also means that imperialism is inevitable, as nations go on to realize that without expansion they will inevitably be crushed by those who naturally have larger populations and so everyone has an incentive to expand or be crushed. Warfare also is even more attritional based on raw numbers of the home population, but with a small number of elite wizards doing most of the fighting and the civilian populations often stripped of their own magic abilities for the war effort instead of being drafted, creating an odd civil-military divide. This could be a basis for a sort of cyberpunk magic system in which the heroes are trying to build up smaller communities of resistance to the big forces trying to consolidate power, while also dealing with the fallout of inevitable wars.
A setting like this should emphasise the integration of magic with mundane skills. To revisit the earthbending example, “bent” earth is still earth – constructing a building would be far quicker and easier, but earthbending isn’t the only knowledge you’d require in order for it to keep standing up afterwards.
“Finally, it’s always possible that mages would be used as weapons by the state, but not super likely. You’d need a very specific magic system for that to work. In real life, the state can exert a lot of pressure over soldiers because the state is the one providing weapons and equipment. With most magic systems, mages are like soldiers who bring their own tank to any labor negotiation. Again, it’s possible, but the setup to make it work isn’t common.”
One possible solution: mages need a special item to use their magic, and this item is provided by the state.
And how would the state keep the mages on check to avoid them to take the items by themselves? Unless the mages were the state itself.
The same way the US government controls drugs: Make the item or resource illegal. Mages will still use said item or resource, but less so because of the added risks and difficulty in obtaining the thing.
An example of a world where everyone can learn magic is Fullmetal Alchemist. In that world, magic is relatively limited, and very complicated (it takes years of study and high level math to figure out how to get it to do what you want). For most people, it’s more convenient to just pay someone to do it, or to just do things the old fashioned way
You’ve got a point that if advanced math or something like expert organic chemistry is the bar for entry, a lot of people would certainly nope out.
Admittedly, I just assumed that magic in FMA was inborn because it seems to be both really powerful and also have a huge variety of applications, so I’m hard pressed to imagine why more people don’t learn.
Maybe Magic was the great thing a couple decades ago, but now you can have magic items that do the same for you, people got accustomed of it and they don’t know nor care how it works.
Also the wizards can make it difficult for people to learn magic, and without a proper training it could be useless. Not just to amass power, but because teaching something is time consuming, and most people would spend it on talented students instead of some casual.
As a counter argument: the more people can do magic, the more can teach it.
Take the perfectly normal real-world skill of reading. Only about three centuries ago, reading wasn’t that common a skill. People needed a certain level in society to be taught. Then schooling became more common as the shift from agricultural to industrial society happened and it was favourable for more people to be able to read and write. The more people learned to read, the more people could teach others to read. Once the mother of a child can read, she can teach the basics even before school or make sure that the child understands the lessons better.
Once you have a good basis of people who can do magic on a regular level, they can teach others and oversee what the others learn in school. It’s not just a handful of mages then, it’s every other person after a while and that makes teaching easier and less time-consuming per teacher.
That would be if Magic would be as easy as reading, but take for example driving, getting a drivers license is not just about knowing how to drive a car, and you can’t just do it on your own (and even if you can, you need someone to certify you know how to do it or you won’t be able to do it). I think for things as potentialy dangerous as magic the control would be higher.
Even in your driving example, there’s a difference between being able to drive and being licenced to drive.
In some places, a parent can teach you to drive and you just need to take a test to get the licence. In others, you have a more formal way (like in Germany, for instance). Quite some people can drive quite a while before they can get a licence – on a farm, for instance, most kids will learn driving a tractor years before they can get a driver’s licence. If you can drive a tractor, driving a car isn’t that hard, either.
I agree that, depending on what magic can do, there would be a process of control through licencing. If magic can produce fireballs and destroy buildings, you’d have to get a licence and it would be illegal to practice it without. If magic can just help you do your chores, I doubt there would be any kind of licence needed.
I imagine if magic was something that could be learned, it would end up as a regulated profession like medicine or the law is in our world. It would be a combination of people who are very good at magic wanting to limit the supply of spell casters to keep their status/pay up and the government wanting to ensure quality and safe spell casting. A world where the average person could fling a fireball is not going to be a pleasant one.
It depends on what magic is good for. If you look at fireballs and the summoning of demons, it would certainly be regulated to a degree. If magic is more about doing chores (perhaps summoning nature spirits to clean your dishes and do your laundry), it would probably be more far-spread. In novels, you usually do get that powerful, impressive magic, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s all magic would be good for. If I could summon a water spirit to do my laundry from me from washing over drying to folding, I’d absolutely want to learn that. If I could summon demons from the Nether Realm and would need to find human sacrifices all the time … not so much. They wouldn’t even help remove the bloodstains from the carpet afterwards.
Perhaps there are “levels” or “schools” of magic (and not just as in D&D)?
Consider, for example, the field of Mathematics. Most people should be able to do basic arithmetic. Fewer people can deal comfortably with algebra – even less with calculus. And when you get into things like Number Theory? Forget it!
So in this “Magic for All” world, it’s likely that everyone can cast a basic “First Aid” or “Light” spell. It would take a bit more training and study to whip up a “Protection” or “Flight” spell. And something even more complicated like “Slow Time” or “Polymorph Self” (to use some spell names that most readers here should be able to get their heads around) would take years of diligent study.
here’s a fitting question, how much does a person need to know in order to do any one thing?
There are plenty of very astringent professions in real life that don’t require an intricate education beyond the thing itself, like neuroscience, or plumbing.
There’s a real chance that the kind of books you read to learn to cast fireballs have little to do with the kind you read to bring people back from the dead.
Like, how much does a person have to know in order to be remotely competent as a caster of any one type of spell?
its perfectly possible to have a necromancer that just didn’t bother to learn anything about levitation, cause its just as easy to dig out and drag a body as it is to try and translate levitation for dummy’s from old Sanskrit.
Yes, there probably would be different professions in magic if it was available to everyone. People would specialise as they do in real life already.
I especially like that necromancer example, because I’m writing stories about two of them. A necromancer doesn’ need levitation – once they have a couple of dead workers up, those dig out more bodies and carry everything around, so no need to do levitation.
D&D setting Eberron by Keith Baker is a pretty good example of what a setting, where everyone can learn magic could look like, I think.
Magic in Eberron is a fundamental part of civilization. There aren’t a lot of wizards, nothing like that, but your average business owner, or magewright, as they are known in-universe, knows a low-level spell or two that help in their occupation. Prestidigitation in particular has a lot of applications from cooking to washing laundry.