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 :D


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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