Six Consequences of High Magic

Some fantasy settings, like anything written by Brandon Sanderson, impose strict limits on what magic can do. Others – like The Wheel of Time,* The Malazan Book of the Fallen, and just about any D&D setting – do not. In these worlds, magic is both incredibly powerful and relatively common. It’s the second group we’re concerned with today, because they all show a major misunderstanding of how human civilization works. These high magic settings nearly always take place in a medieval or Roman Empire type society, and then the authors just add wizards.

Think about how drastically our society changed when they added touch screens to phones. How much do you think it would change with the addition of people who can alter the laws of physics with their minds?* We’re talking a lot more than an over-abundance of +1 swords.

1. No Sickness

Curing diseases and healing physical damage is a mainstay of fantasy magic. Mostly it’s used to patch up the protagonist so they can recover from one near-death experience in time for the next one. But if your wizard can heal dragon fire burns or cure magical mummy plague, a little thing like tuberculosis or an infected cut is nothing.

Disease is a major killer of humans, and it used to be a lot worse. Unsanitary conditions* and a poor understanding of germs let sickness run rampant. For most of history, when a person got sick, their only options were to wait it out or appeal to doctors who likely made the problem worse.

Magical healing would change everything, especially if it’s as easy as many fantasy settings make it out to be. Even with modern medicine, some diseases are harder to treat than others. That doesn’t have to be the case with magic. Many magic systems don’t discriminate between HIV and the common cold. Just take a Cure Disease and call the cleric in the morning.

Even spells as basic as D&D’s 0th level Prestidigitation would be incredibly useful. That spell allows you to clean a cubic foot of space every six seconds, vastly reducing the spread of infection, not to mention saving people a lot of work around the house.

Imagine what Europe would look like today without the Black Death wiping out a third of the population. Quality of life would vastly improve, people would live much longer, and they’d be more productive. It’s hard to be productive when you’re dying of a horrific disease or caring for someone who is.

What if the wizards or clerics are selfish jerks who don’t want to give their healing magic to any who need it? Would there be enough Doctors Without Borders types to make a difference? Eventually enough magic users would realize it benefits them to live in a society without people constantly dying of disease. They’d likely charge for their services, and it wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be a lot better than standard medieval life.*

2. Population Explosion


If people aren’t dying of disease, wouldn’t they overtax their food supply and create famine? No, because high magic also means incredible new food production. In some settings, wizards can literally conjure food out of thin air. If they lack that ability, they can use weather manipulation or water spells* to revolutionize irrigation.

Agricultural societies are on a constant quest for more efficient methods of farming. There’s only so much arable land to go around, right? Not when you’re dealing with magic! Using aforementioned weather control and water spells, any scrap of ground with decent sunlight and soil can become farmland. In real life, irrigation is costly and resource intensive. In high magic fantasy, it’s as easy as abra kadabra.

Combined with dramatic declines in disease, more food means more people, which means more wizards, etc. These are the sorts of advancements the real world didn’t see until the Industrial Revolution, and we all know what kind of changes that brought about. Instead of rural peasant villages, most people would live in teeming metropolises like they do today.*

More people also means more strain on the environment, with all that entails. Such worlds would have a difficult time supporting classic fantasy beasts like dragons or giants. That kind of megafauna needs a lot of territory, and there just wouldn’t be room for them in all but the most remote areas. Higher populations would also need more centralized authority, and freelance adventurers would quickly see themselves replaced by state-sponsored monster elimination teams.

3. No Armies


Despite the larger population, armies would get smaller and smaller. The reason? Fireball, and every other spell that lays waste to large areas. In a world of high magic, spearmen and cavalry serve no purpose other than to run down the enemy wizards’ spell slots. That’s not worth the effort it would take to recruit and maintain an army, even if anyone could be convinced/compelled to sign up.

At the same time, wizards are exceptionally mobile. With teleportation or dimension door hopping, they could easily outmaneuver the opposing army and attack its wizards directly. Even as cannon fodder, conventional medieval soldiers would be useless.

With non-magical troops serving no purpose, battles would come down to massive magical duels. The losing side would quickly surrender, because what else are they going to do when all their wizards are dead? Occupation forces might still be necessary for keeping order in conquered territory, but any real fighting would be done through magic.

For that matter, high magic spellcasters have so many options at their disposal, there probably wouldn’t be conventional battles at all. Why go to some field when you can teleport directly into the enemy wizard’s bedroom and disintegrate them?

Alternatively, you could end up with a nuclear situation, where wizards are so powerful that any conflict between them would level civilization as we know it. Either way, men and women with sharp pieces of metal would seem adorably quaint.

4. Wizard Arms Race

In the Cold War, a nation’s status was largely measured by how many nuclear weapons it had. Nowadays that prestige has diminished, but there are still plenty of benefits that come with being nuclear-capable. High magic settings would dial those benefits up to eleven.

Nuclear weapons are only useful for blowing people up, and that was enough to dominate world politics for over 40 years. Magic can do so much more. A nation’s influence and wellbeing would be measured in the amount of magical potential at its disposal. Governments would decry the overproduction of magic, while blatantly increasing their own stockpiles. Maybe they would agree to a ban on above ground magical testing.

This would manifest differently based on the type of magic in question. In settings where magic is a rare, inborn talent, you’d see Hogwarts on steroids. Participation would be free and mandatory. They aren’t going to squander a precious national resource because someone couldn’t pay tuition. Some authoritarian regimes might even have breeding programs to produce better wizards.

If magic comes from a substance, some rare stone or plant, cultivating that substance would be an obsession. Personal wealth would be measured in how much magicanium one had, assuming it wasn’t nationalized. This scenario might see a reduction in benefits to health and food production, with magic being a hoardable resource.

The wizard arms race also presents one of the few situations in which high magic civilizations might come to blows. Normally, there’d be no need for conflict, as the power of sorcery provides everyone a high standard of living. But if one area is rich in magicanium or produces a higher than average number of wizard children, it’s time to throw down. Hotspots in the real world have nothing on the High Sorcerous Planes.

5. Gods On Earth

Any setting with powerful mages is a magocracy, officially or not. The mages might not actually govern, because who wants to deal with tax law, but they have all the power. You really think King Spineless III is going to pass a law that High Wizard Lightning Eyes doesn’t like? Those with supernatural powers would be the ultimate privileged class, their every whim catered to by law and custom.*

But it goes much further than legal authority. In the real world, we worship celebrities who are good at acting or making Youtube videos.* Magic is a lot more spectacular than even the wittiest Joss Whedon movie, and people would flock to it. Particularly powerful or charismatic practitioners could easily form their own cults. After all, who needs abstract gods that may or may not exist when someone right here can control the weather? Traditional religions would fade away or never form at all, until the only gods were wizards powerful enough to claim the title.

Beyond cults and rulership, inequality and discrimination would run rampant. Consider how bad those problems are in a world where most people have roughly equivalent capabilities. Now add a group of people who can alter reality with their minds. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture. In our world, when someone says they deserve better treatment because they’re more capable than others, most of us know they’re full of it. In a high magic setting, they might very well be telling the truth.

6. Technological Acceleration

The end-game of any high magic medieval setting is that it quickly stops being medieval.* At first, it seems that magic would slow technological advancement. Who needs the wheel when we have flying carpets? But necessity is only one reason for technological advances. There hasn’t been a driving need for computers to keep getting faster, other than that people like buying faster computers, yet look at how far we’ve come since the vacuum tube. Technology builds on itself, and magic is just a strange type of technology only certain people can use.

One reason technology used to advance a lot slower than it does now is that you need technology to make technology. Consider, you can’t experiment with gene sequencing until you have the ability to build microscopes. You can’t experiment with new wing designs until you have material light and strong enough to build airplanes.

Magic allows inventors to skip the intro steps. Powerful fire spells unlock the ability to create new metal alloys, and alchemy means a never-ending supply of material to test in the lab. Magic removes the logistical effort of the process, meaning any wizard* could easily become an independent inventor.

New technology brings non-magical people closer to even footing with their wizardly brethren. A sorcerer shooting fire from their hands is a godlike power in a world of swords and axes but less impressive when assault rifles are available. Summoned spirit horses are a lot faster than walking, but they got nothing on the internal combustion engine. This cycle was demonstrated well in the Avatar setting, where benders created new tech that put normal people on the same level.*

When wizards create new technology, they increase everyone else’s ability to contribute. Where once only a sorcerer with strength enhancements could lift heavy construction beams, now a regular worker with a forklift can.* Ironically, this eventually decreases other distortions of a high magic setting. The wizard arms race isn’t so all-consuming when some of the benefits can be duplicated by fusion reactors, and an army of hover tanks poses a problem to even the most badass of battle wizards. Magic is less worthy of worship when people carry supercomputers in their pockets.

Would some wizards try to suppress new technology? Maybe, but it wouldn’t work. More technology benefits wizards too, if not to the same degree, and it only takes a few renegades in secret labs to get things moving.

How many high fantasy settings actually look like a techno wonderland? Not very many, because high fantasy has a very specific aesthetic in mind. But your aesthetic has to fit the story you’re telling. You wouldn’t give knights F15 fighter jets and then still expect them to use lances, right? Magic is the same way. If you want to keep a medieval European-esque setting, make sure the magic is limited or costly enough not to change the world overnight.*

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

Read more about



  1. Sara

    Jesus! They are so many truths in here that I can’t numerate them! Definitly, your post was a fresh water slapped in my face.

    If magic is so normal among people, the world needs to evolve and be more than just a European-Medieval setting/resources.

    Yeah, the world must be like our today, but using magic. You are so right when you said that if we don’t want this (the world like today) we need to restrict very much the magic powers and who have them.

    Thank you!

  2. Nicholas

    I really enjoyed this article, a fine contribution to Mythcreants!

    Have you thought about doing a similar article from a divine magic point of view? I’ve always thought about the sociological changes that would happen in a world with concrete proof of the afterlife, of souls that exist after death, resurrecting the dead, of the actual Gods themselves even!

    That’s food for thought if I ever heard it.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I have thought about that. A lot. The reason I haven’t written about it so far is that, in my estimation, gauging people’s reaction to proof of the divine is a lot harder. This article is mostly about how magic would let us do stuff that mostly has parallels with modern technology. I felt pretty comfortable predicting behavior in that context.

      How would people be if it was obvious that gods and the afterlife exist? I have no idea! But maybe I’ll figure it out some day, cause it’s worth writing about.

      • SunlessNick

        One interesting side effect would be that the concept of heresy as we understand it would be absurd. When it’s blatantly obvious what forms of worship meet with the gods’ approval, anyone who disagrees is delusional rather than sinful. Which means that the only religious strife would be between gods who are enemies – though religious people might also come into confict over matters their gods didn’t take a stand on.

        Temples would be important economic centres, especially since in most settings that draw a distinction between divine and arcane magic, healing and food production are the provinces of the former. (Ok, that’s assuming a D&D Cleric style of divine magic).

        Proof of the afterlife pales in significance beside whether it’s accessible. If it is, then it’s not impossible that polities ruled by religious bodies might extend into both worlds.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Did God smite that guy down for wearing fabrics of two different clothes? If not, he must be ok!

        • Leon

          You might enjoy reading the Warhammer 40k fluff.
          In that universe the god emperor of humanity became a (barely) living god only because people began worshiping him as such.
          But because humanity is weak and puny, there just isn’t enough power there to protect everybody from the chaos gods. So the main problem for the empire is corruption and insurrection by the various cults, because if a chaos god moves in and says ‘I’m the boss now.’ The only sane and logical thing to do is say ‘Ok then. Where would you like your pile of human skulls?’

      • Jeff S Brown

        I just found this site today and read a few of your articles. Really good thinking and essay-crafting! Impressive!
        I couldn’t resist writing a note when I read this small interchange between you and a commenter, about how one might approach a similar article but related to divine magic and a culture that had no doubt about a divine realm because it was as plain as the soil their wheat is growing it. Perhaps examine cultures and sub-groups who seem to have no doubt about a divine / God’s reality; the Amish, or any clearly very confident-in-divine reality culture, from past or present, and extrapolate / muse from that?

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Hey Jeff, so while that’s a good thought, the issue is that no matter who we look at, in the real world the divine is always a matter of believe rather than observable proof. I hardly need to go as far as the Amish to find people with total faith that the after life is real, however that is not the same as being able to see the afterlife with your own eyes and talk to people who are there. That said, I took a crack at this article anyway: Five Ways Gods and the Afterlife Change a Fantasy Setting.

    • Sara

      WOW! That would be a wonderful post! (Apart from that I write something similar and now I’m stuck with this issue)

  3. Itsafrickinmoon

    The effects of magic on society are one of my favorite things to think about when creating a magic system. It’s unfortunate that too many fantasy settings fail to take these consequences into account.

    What really amazes me is how even a single magical power could have a major effect on society. The kind of high magic we see in games like D&D isn’t even neccessary for dramatic results.

  4. David MacDowell Blue

    Yep. Just…yep.

  5. Kendra Michael

    Great information! This will help me a great deal in creating a magic system.

  6. Bronze Dog

    Continuing on my Changeling chronicle inspirations.

    Moral dilemma: A compassionate doctor turned churirgeon kith Changeling is performing medical miracles on mortals, curing the incurable. The downside is that her kind works are attracting the attention of the Gentry as well as Delta-13, the local paranormal investigation agency, potentially endangering the freehold. How do the PCs respond when the Winter Court tries to convince her to stop?

  7. Stygian Jim

    Are you familiar with the Eberron Setting from the 3.5 edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I feel like they addressed many of the issues you raise, and in a way that enriched and enlivened the setting. Check it out, if you haven’t had a chance.

  8. Suitable Quill

    I’ve been giving this concept a lot of thought lately and one aspect I find interesting is law enforcement. Guards with sword and shield make a lot less sense in a world where a level-1 bard can cast charm person, friends, and sleep and that’s just beat cops. Higher level bard-detectives with hold person and detect thoughts, backed by court systems utilizing zone of truth would make crime a very risky pursuit.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Absolutely. Although magic would also have a lot of potential to be used in the crimes themselves, and to avoid capture. And if you outlaw magic missiles, only the outlaws will have magic missiles!

      • I, User

        “If you outlaw magic missiles only the outlaws will have magic missiles.” Really, Oren I’m dissapointed in you. Do you really believe what they are saying in Were-Fox News? The high democratic council is not suggesting a complete ban of magic use, only background checks for spell books.

    • Cay Reet

      Guards with sword and shield still make sense, but only while the crime is being committed by a person without magical abilities. I guess law enforcement in a fantasy world with magic needs a special unit for dealing with rogue magic users.

  9. Hunter-Wolf

    I think Final Fantasy the JRPG series always mixed magic and technology, and it’s even more explicit in the upcoming FF15, there is already a big deal of the story revealed in the CG movie that acts as a prequel to the game’s story, basically we have a kingdom that’s built on technology and another that’s built on magic and the tech kingdom is trying to invade the magic kingdom and control it.

    The catch is, both kingdoms have a mix of magic and tech, the technology focused kingdom tames and captures magical creatures and animals and uses them as assault weapons on the magic kingdom, the magic kingdom itself already has modern current day tech (cars, skyscrapers, phones, .. etc) but the core of their military power is magic, specifically the king and a magic crystal, whereas the tech kingdom has big floating battleships and an army of robot soldiers.

    And while the FF series doesn’t dive that deep into how things came to be or how the tech and magic affected each other over the years it is still one of the few cases where magic and tech exist in the same world and side by side which have always been something that fascinated me about the FF series and something i always wanted to have in my own stories.

  10. Asaph Lantz

    I’ve read pieces of similar talk elsewhere, but this is truly the most comprehensive talk on the implications of High Magic I’ve read. And yet there is still so much more. It makes my head feel like exploding!
    Love your articles, Love Mythcreant!

  11. Chakat Firepaw

    A note on warfare: How large, and what kind, of impact there will be can vary a lot.

    Consider the world described by the 1ed AD&D rules: In that, Magic Users _aren’t_ the gods of the battlefield. Sure they have fireballs, but it’s one of the few spells that even has a chance of getting the MU out of bow range[1]. The two main uses for them are going to be making magical armour for powerful fighters/paladins, (+2 plate & mail is enough to be immune to all missile weapons used by an army of 0-level warriors but longbows and heavy crossbows at short range, along with many of the melee weapons), and neutralizing the enemy’s high level fighters/paladins.

    Depending on how magic works, the casters may be staying far away from the battlefield because playing ‘field artillery’ means becoming a pincushion.

    [1] They also aren’t as effective as you might expect, even ignoring that a 12th level MU can cast a total of only 8 of them. At most they result in slightly more spread/strung out formations.

  12. Schitzoflink

    Great article! It has really made me think about magic in my campaign. I think you could control these effects by making magic use fairly rare, say 4% between all casters, and then only 1% of those magic users can train beyond a certian limit, like level 2-5. This could allow for some of the basic advances like less disease etc.

  13. RHJunior

    1-3 are just rubbish.
    1. No disease? While medical knowledge has advanced greatly, I submit the observation that even in the 21st century there are no empty hospitals. A magical world would be the same. There would be illnesses which magic could not treat, perhaps even diseases that are themselves magical in nature or have developed resistance to magic as a natural consequence of using “cure light wounds” like we used to use penicillin.
    2 Observation: in the real world, between increases in quality of life and the prevalence of birth control options, after a certain point birth rates DROP. Most western societies IRL are literally below replacement rates right now; most projections have world population peaking at about 8 to 9 billion, then tapering off. People being people, a high magic society would trend the same way.
    3 No armies. Right. People used to think that nukes would bring about the end of traditional armies, too, and used a lot of the same arguments. Yet here we are, and the world’s armies are bigger than ever. There are just some scenarios where having a wizard fireball everything is not a military option, and as always territory is held by boots on the ground— whether they’re holding guns or magic wands.

    point 5 depends GREATLY on how the magic system works. If your level of power is fixed, and entirely dependent upon an accident of birth or circumstance, yes, wizards would basically rule the roost. But if magic power was a matter of training or study, or any form of anti-magic bane existed, that would be a tenuous circumstance at best. And wizards replacing religion? Not likely. They could TRY, mind. But even all powerful sorcerers would have things they could not explain or questions they could not answer. And setting themselves up as gods would last as long as it took for the first mighty-thewed barbarian hero to show up with a sword made of wizard kryptonite, lop of their head and play polo with it.

    • James

      Take 1 a few steps further. Not every village would be rich enough to support a healer, and Cure Disease would mostly negate the need for vaccines. Without the crusade of public vaccinations, organizations such as the CDC and WHO might not have formed. Unless part of a church, local healers would likely be working alone. These would cover up any failures, allowing diseases to spread, and when it finally became public knowledge, the threat of magic-resistant superbugs would cause mass panic and widespread chaos.

    • corumeach

      No, armies are actually smaller than ever. They are just on an ultra high-tech level. Modern armies rely on cruise missiles instead of stone-lobbers, they use aircraft carriers instead of armadas of man-o-wars. Land troops are smaller than ever before. Countries are bigger than ever before. Massing tanks or foot soldiers is only good for invasion. In modern times war is not about invasion anymore it’s about global domination, about being the strongest that could destroy everyone else a second earlier than they could. You could compare modern high-tech armies to the high-magic armies mentioned in the article. The wizards do sit in the control rooms that fire nuclear intercontinental missiles (your fireballs). They assumption of the article is: low-effect weaponry/magic requires large general armies, while high-effect weaponry/magic requires small specialized armies. In the end the team with the most powerful wizards will win. The grunts won’t make a difference on that level anymore. In a sci-fi setting powerful A.I.s would be the “wizards”.

      • Cay Reet

        Good point, proving again that technology on a high level is similar to magic.

        Joke aside, you’re absolutely right with that. Today is no longer about who has the larger army, but about who has the more powerful weapons. The five wizards in a high tower who make it rain fire on everyone are a good way to port that to a magical environment. Who has the more powerful wizards will win the war.

  14. VoidCaller

    Good article, but I have one objection. I’m Catholic and I think that use of religious paintings in context of magic is disrespectful.

    I know that you are firm beliver in concept of respecting others cultures and don’t appropriating important parts of them, so I ask you to change images.

    My faith gives me imperative to act and to ask you for this, so I ask you to respect my faith.

    I’m open to discussion.

    Sorry for erros, I’m dyslexic and English is my second language.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Sure thing, appreciate you reaching out.

      • VoidCaller

        Thanks you It is nice to meet a person who respects others

    • History

      I find it interesting that you separate Catholicism and religion as a whole from magic. The papacy and Christian practice as a whole has entertained things now popularly called ‘occult practice’ since its inception, with the invocation of spirits, angels, and the dead being as commonplace as the sacrifice of blood or flesh by the devout.
      In general, arcane practice and the concepts of the sacred/profane have grown in tandem wherever they spring, from Christian alchemy to the concepts of blessings over candles, wine, or food. Whether or not any of it has effect, or what effect it may have, is another discourse entirely.

      • Cay Reet

        Nevertheless, magic as used in most fantasy stories is practiced unlike organized religion (Catholicism, Christianity, or something else). As a born Roman Catholic, I have never felt like I witnessed any kind of magic in church (although, to be honest, I haven’t been in one for a while, so maybe it’s a new thing). The transformation of bread and wine into flesh and blood is considered a wonder and not a feat of magic by the priest. As a matter of fact, Christianity as a whole frowns on practicing magic (hence the witch hunts).

        Powers granted by a god (as in practicing a religion and actually receiving specific powers through it) and the ability to control magic as a such are different. If powers are granted by a deity, they can be taken away by it (or another) at any time. The ability to control magic usually has to be forcefully removed from a wielder. Powers granted by a god are usually specific, magic as a such is often very versatile (even if a wielder prefers specific areas of it). There are, of course, magic systems which are related to deities, but most, as far as I remember, are not.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        For the record, this isn’t about whether religion and magic are the same thing, this is about respecting a person’s individual beliefs. Since it cost us nothing to do so, we were happy to accommodate.

        • History

          Of course. If someone is made uncomfortable, even if the reasoning doesn’t make sense to another individual or group of people, reasonable accomadation is the best practice – especially in theoretical discussion of a fantasy game
          The simple fact is that magic as defined by the Church (miracles performed without the grace of G-d) doesn’t mesh with anthropological and historical definitions and examples, even leading to retroactive misinformation such as another respondant’s witch hunts, and I wished to remark upon it. No disrespect was intended for my fellows in Abrahamic tradition.

  15. Graeme Sutton

    I always did find it funny that in 3.x D&D a dagger that made you 5% better at stabbing was worth over 2000 gp while a potion that cured any disease was 750 gp

    • Chakat Firepaw

      It’s more like 50% better at stabbing for a +1 dagger, (don’t forget the 40% increase in damage). Also a +1 to hit is not a 5% increase in the number of hits: If you need an 11, that +1 is a 10% increase, if you need a 16, it’s +20%.

  16. Will

    Thank you so much for this. I absolutely loathe high (ubiquitous) magic settings. It destroys everything that makes fantasy fantastic and it provokes the most mediocre roleplaying. And with more and more tabletop players being raised on video games and anime, nobody seems bothered when the game they’re playing feels utterly shallow and pointless… The very conceit of high magic eliminates any need for PCs in the first place.

  17. G.

    “There hasn’t been a driving need for computers to keep getting faster”

    I guess this would seem to be the case if you only think of computers as unnecessary consumer electronics that people use to browse the internet and tell people what they had for breakfast on facebook.

    The real applications of computers in business, administration, infrastructure, research, etc, have a very driving need for computers to keep getting faster and cheaper.

  18. Kora

    You’re in luck; there actually is a book that covers all these consequences of high magic. It’s called Red Queen, and it’s a really awesome dystopian fantasy book. Here’s how it meets all the requirements of having realistic high magic:

    1. No Sickness
    Well, we know that there’s specialized healing Silvers, (silvers are the resident magic-users) and that the privileged Silvers aren’t worried about getting hurt or sick at all because of it. However, the Reds (the people without magic) seem to not have the privilege of being healed by Silvers. The book never goes into detail with this, but I’m assuming that when people get sick they can pay to be healed by a healing Silver. Red Queen meets the first requirement.

    2. Population Explosion
    There are definitely a lot of people in the main character’s country, and we know that there are many countries beyond just hers.

    3. No Armies
    Well, Red Queen technically doesn’t meet this requirement. They still have conventional armies, but I think that’s because one of the few rules for Red Queen’s magic system is that magic-users have to be very close to the object they’re performing magic on for it to work. You can’t incinerate a giant army all at once because you’d have to be so close that you’d incinerate yourself too. And Silvers are so precious in this world that it wouldn’t be an option.

    4. Wizard arms race
    In Red Queen, this takes place with all of the competing families of Nobles. Whichever Silver is powerful enough to command all of them takes the crown, but the rest of them are left to duke it out over who’s second place. These Noble families are rather large, and they form (and break) alliances like crazy by marrying off their sons and daughters.

    5. Gods on Earth
    This is the entire premise of Red Queen: what would really happen if some people had godlike powers and others didn’t. Those with magic silver blood oppress the magic-less Reds, making them spend their life in service to them. They’re shipped off to war, forced to work in factories, and live in less-than-sanitary conditions.

    6. Technological Acceleration
    They’ve got force fields, guns, airplanes, and explosives (especially the latter). Some of it even depends on magic to work, successfully discriminating the Reds from using it.

  19. Cannoli

    I don’t know why Wheel of Time is listed in the introduction as a counter-example. While the six listed categories all fail in that setting, the world-building accomodates that.

    The magic in Wheel of Time is called the One Power, people who weild it are channelers, and all the channelers in the lands in which the story is set, are members of an organization, and go by the title Aes Sedai. Their headquarters is a large building called the White Tower, which is also a metonym for the organization. The Tower is divided into seven subordinate groups designated by color, governed by elected representatives from each group and ruled by a leader selected by the elected council, who has great personal authority. The White Tower’s political influence is immense in that region as well, as a extra-national organization, made up of people from every country, it is very wealthy and engages in political intrigue and espionage. The organization has an intelligence network, the sub-groups have spy networks and many of the individiual Aes Sedai have personal spy networks. Their leader outranks monarchs, and even rulers of countries where magic is illegal or the leader of a quasi-Knights Templar order, who considers Aes Sedai to be evil and their arch enemies, would come at a summons from the leader of the White Tower.

    And because of this supreme power, which they use to enforce a monopoly on magic, the Aes Sedai’s abilities have stagnated, they are without competition, so there is no magical arms race. Upon joining the Aes Sedai, each member swears a magically binding oath not to use magic as a weapon except against the supernatural forces of evil and their human adherents or in self-defense, and not to make weapons. Since they have a secure headquarters where most of them live and magically bond bodyguards with enhanced abilities and magical camouflage cloaks, self-defense is not a big issue for them.

    A recurring theme in Wheel of Time is that people rationalize circumstances into which they are forced, and so the Aes Sedai rationalize their oaths as a moral code and hold using magic as a weapon to be anathema. They live in a literal ivory tower, and engage in geopolitical intrigue or esoteric scholarship and philosophy. Their main recurring adversaries are magic users born afflicted by a curse that turns them homicidally insane from using magic. These individuals turn up as random accidents of birth, and have no access to teaching or training in their abilities, so they present little challenge to the powers of the Aes Sedai. Aside from all that, every Aes Sedai is paid a literal fortune as an anual stiped and they are told there are more funds available at need. A disproportionate number are nobles with personal estates and incomes of their own.

    As a result of all this, the Aes Sedai simply do not have the same concerns as ordinary people. They have no incentives to use that cleaning spell cited in the article and no need to charge for their services. The ability is also very limited, to less than 3% of the population, and a number of their students are killed by the tests to move up through the ranks before becoming Aes Sedai. It is ultimately revealed that in the final test for full membership, they test for blind adherence to the rules and the ability to keep a straight face in stressful situations. Adaptation, improvisation and thinking outside the box are not rewarded, rather they are made to complete pointless tasks, precisely as trained, in spite of distractions. And failures to do so are straight up murdered.

    As regards other issues, the population of the lands where the Aes Sedai have influence, is actually declining, from both stagnation and the influence of inimical supernatural forces. Armies are actually rather small and the military arts undeveloped, but not because magic renders them obsolete, rather the pervasive political influence of the White Tower means that when a major war starts, the Aes Sedai intervene and negotiate a peace treaty, using personal influence and soft-power political manipulation to compel both sides to sign. In a Renaissance tech level setting, with strong national identities and central governments, 10,000 men is considered a large army.

    Over the course of the series, a lot of these flaws are exposed, and the characters and Aes Sedai come into contact with magic users in foreign cultures, who are more efficient and effective in some ways than the Aes Sedai. Two of the cultures’ magic users are limited by the survival priorities of their people and their own efforts to conceal that they are using magic, so as to avoid the notice of the Aes Sedai and a third enslaves the magic-using portion of the population with magical collars and control bracelets. It is for this reason that the other cultures have not had a chance to excell outside the reach of the White Tower’s stifling influence.

    The article makes a good case and the series is both fascinating and frustrating to those of its fans who are fascinated with magic and what it can do, because in Wheel of Time, human motivations and belief are the important factors, and even magic takes a backseat to that when it is weilded by humans with errant beliefs and flawed motivations. In the backstory of Wheel of Time, the world was a utopian society for all the reasons given above (minus the arms race, because the ancient Aes Sedai managed to create a society without war and little violence, where contributions to society were path to respect and advancement), so it’s not like the author is unaware of the possibilities, but humans being human dragged it down and then created a system where the magical elites guard their power jealously, and hoard influence and control, preferring to maintain an image of people above mortal comprehension. In more recent backstory, a nation is lost to the forces of evil and one of the survivng children, now grown up, finally has an Aes Sedai willing to answer his question why they did not come to help the kingdom, which had always been a faithful ally to the White Tower for 1,000 years. The answer he finally gets, after years of his question being dismissed or ignored is that they DID send help, but the kingdom fell so fast, the Aes Sedai were unable to get there in time, and afterward, pretended they had never sent help so people would not know they had failed. That’s the position of the magic users in Wheel of Time, unwilling to let any knowledge circulate of their limitations or failures, but so dominant that they can get away with people thinking they are unreliable, indifferent and capricious.

  20. Erich

    I know this article is old, but it’s one of my favorites on this site and I keep coming back to read it as I jot down ideas and work on my story.

    I am curious about point #6. How long do you think it would take to go from pre-bronze age to modern technology with high levels of magic in the world?

    What if magic was also in it’s infancy? “Yeah, we can throw some fireballs around and do some basic physical manipulation, but reading minds and teleportation? How would that even work?”

    • Cay Reet

      It depends on your magic system, I guess. If you have a scientific base for the magic (if magic can be explained by science to a degree), magic would develop as science does, since people would learn more about magic the more they’d understand about the world. Early humans would instinctively use their power, they could probably produce some magic, but unreliably, because they don’t really know how it works. The more science and technology advance, the more people also understand how magic works, the easier it would be to teach mages about its use.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah the answer to this question is a big “it depends,” as there are so many potential variables based on what the specifics of your setting are. If we’re talking full on 3.5 D&D magic, I don’t think it would take long at all. You’d probably have an Eberon style world going within a few generations.

      If your magic system is more limited, it could take a lot longer, or your magic might even be so limited that it never happens at all.

    • Erich

      Sorry for taking so long to respond. My work week doesn’t leave much time for anything other than working, sleeping, and eating. I’m responding to both you, Cay and Oren.

      The backstory is that roughly every 100k years, something *REALLY* bad happens which messes things up for a couple thousand years. This basically resets the stage. There are also cosmic waxing and waning axes of magic, divinity, and spirit.

      This story is a reemergence of life at the relative beginning of a new age. I skipped a bit, because hunting-gathering tech levels are not that interesting to me. The current setting is moderate magic (ascending), moderate divinity (descending), and no spirit (ascending).

      The magic system is loosely based on the Storyteller Mage system. The more you know of a specific field of study, the more complicated things you can do. I’ve been approaching the amount of power that mages and priests have in the idea of a RPG that is balanced between the classes. So the magic users can do amazing things, they won’t be able to do lots of big things, all the time.
      There are two groups, priests and mages. Each group has different areas of influence.

      Priests do healing, guidance, buffing, and smiting. Their focus is caring for people, individually and as a whole. They just act as conduits for the power of the gods. They have no “internal” power. They ask the gods to do something and the gods normally say “Yeah, sure. Here you go.” The limit of their ability is based on their devotion to the god or gods of their choosing. It’s a bit more complicated, but you get the general idea.

      Mages manipulate physical reality through force of
      their internal will. There’s 4 primary schools: Kinesis moves things around and manipulates physical matter. Channeling deals with generating and controlling energy fields. Transmutation is the restructuring of physical matter. Ubiquity is bending the flow of space and time. (No time travel, just speeding up and slowing down. It also incorporates extra-dimensional spaces and teleportation.)

      Magic is structured. You need X amount of power to do X thing. There are rules as to how magic works. Specific symbols do specific things. It takes a certain amount of time to build up a certain level of power.

      There’s a bit more, like enchantment and identification, which are done by both groups, but in different ways.

  21. Kat

    So, my magic system (the one in a world with dangerous public schools) has magic involving contracts with magical creatures. ( Increasing the creature’s influence, giving in gold, doing a task, etc. in exchange for magic) People want to make contracts with very powerful magical creatures, and specifically over ones whos, the sphere of influence is over an important object. Like, magical creatures that give metal magic, instead of cooking magic. And people with many contracts to very powerfull magical creatures are considered more important find more powerfull jobs, and go to better magical schools. What sort of impact do you think that would have? Other than the aforementioned ones? (The setting is kinda steampunk-ish.)

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Hmm. In most cases, a setting’s magical implications have more to do with the power and frequency of various effects, rather than how you get them. Like, if you can get a metal spirit to produce several tons of aluminium in exchange for building it a shrine, that’s gonna have some major effects on the setting’s engineering. So I’d say look at the sort of effects that these spirits can give and consider how people might use those effects.

      • Kat

        I was thinking mostly about the political and social implications, but I think I know what you mean. Although its mostly the people with the contracts that do the magic, instead of the creatures. (Although if it’s personally important to them, they might.)

  22. Kenneth Mackay

    The ‘contracts’ idea has interesting implications. If someone has multiple contracts with powerful beings, it may force them to act in certain ways, or avoid doing certain things, because of the terms of their contracts – so they could be very powerful in some situations, but powerless to act in others.

    What sort of penalties does ‘breach of contract’ result in?

  23. Kat

    Depends, usually, it’s impossible to breach a magical contract, and doing so will usually kill you. It’s possible to end a contract though if both parties agree. (Or threats, coercion, bribery).
    There was one king, who made to many contracts and ended up forced to behave so erratically that a revolution started.

  24. Riley

    I love thinking about this. You forgot one spell. Contract law, social, judicial and political system could be revolutionized by one first level spell:

    Zone of Truth: On a failed save, a creature can’t speak a deliberate lie while in the radius. You know whether each creature succeeds or fails on its saving throw.

  25. L.

    Nice bit of work, but still. Contradictory in places, makes a lot of assumptions, and some things are in error. The last point was decent but I think you stumbled onto it rather than something you were thinking of. The point: non mages would try to accelerate tech to compete with magic people.
    They way it came across from you: magic would facilitate tech gains.
    Problem. Why invent fusion reactors when you can call on the same power with your hands while brushing teeth?
    Need is always the initial driver, not novelty, novelty comes after. That’s not to say marketing doesn’t exploit and create false need. But the true instigator is always need. Novelty in itself is not enough to facilitate quick advancement.
    Also your points have the same issue that economics has. It operates on the base errors that the market is rational, and that humans aren’t inherently lazy.
    And the computer analogy was partially wrong. Yes the most common user of cpus is the average person. But that is what I was talking about. False need. And as one poster pointed out, (paraprhasing) cpu speed isn’t increased so that a new I phone can come out, its to facilitate expert usage. And then the average consumer on the market only really gets the run off, not the cutting edge.
    Also the post is fairly general. I understand its complaints that you have, but mostly you’ve missed some things by being general (as you would do). This seems geared mostly towards table top games, but then there is something called balance. Table top games sole purpose is to be fun. You may or may not know that fun is the cross over between just about skill for the challenge. (also the place where flow happens). In which case reality (or some assumption of it because the reality is we can never know really what a magical world would be like) takes a back seat for fun and balance.
    In books, this stuff only really applies to fan fiction which is notorious for having these kinds of writing issues because, well they are beginners.
    But like I was saying these points only really apply to Table top, but not really because fun trumps “real” so really its only for fan fiction.
    Anyway example: magic fire facilitates alloy making. No because the wielder can make the alloy in their sleep. But then why would they need to alloy in the first place. Money. You mean the one thing they don’t need, considering they can make whatever they want when they want. Why would they even know the alloy (which doesn’t exist at this moment in time) could be made? I could believe boredom might do it but even then. Paraphrasing: humans only think when confronted by a problem.
    Why would tech slow? Because, as you pointed out, Magocracy. You either have it or you don’t. No real middle ground here.

  26. Circe

    What’s the line between high magic and low magic? Is there a medium magic, too?

    • Cay Reet

      I’m probably wrong, but I’d say the difference between high magic and low magic is that high magic is the high-profile stuff you have a court wizard or suchlike for. Big things which need a lot of skill and knowledge and power. Low magic is what mages do on a daily basis for the populace, such as potions, healing, or household magic.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      There’s no hard definition, it’s just a matter of how much magic you consider to be a “lot” of magic. Like, most people would agree that Game of Thrones is low magic, cause it barely has any magic at all. Likewise, most people would agree that the Stormlight Archives are high magic, as it’s everywhere.

      Other stories are harder to categorize. Lord of the Rings, for instance, has wizards and ringwraiths and dark lords oh my, but they almost never use any overt magic.

      • Jeppsson

        Yeah, that’s how I’ve heard it used too. Re LotR, I read someone saying in a discussion about low magic fantasy stories that LotR is pretty low magic despite being this grand, epic story – lower on magic than most people who haven’t actually read the books probably expect.

        • SunlessNick

          I think it’s a good book to illustrate/interrogate how the high/low taxonomy of magic is applied. There are a lot of instances of magic, but most of it is rooted in ancient history – ghosts, incidental encounters with mythical beings, bloodlines with special power, places or objects that don’t really do anything magical but are still a bit more than mundane examples of their kind.

          What it doesn’t have is a lot of users of magic. The wizards are essentially a kind of angel, and there’ll never be another one of them. The elves have their crafts, but again, that’s mostly items that are better at their mundane function – cloaks that are warmer, or better at camouflage for example – and it’s so industrialised that they aren’t even sure which bits Sam would call magic and which not (tying into point 6 a bit).

        • SunlessNick

          Maybe we need to distinguish between high magic and high wizard – Lord the Rings is high magic (lots of supernatural and legendary stuff) but low wizard (few people can *do* significant magic).

          • Zhireve

            Another way to put that could be power versus presence. How powerful the magic’s effects are in a story versus how common it is or magic users are in the world and/or story. There could also be a mysticism scale for how much is known about the magic or how it works.

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy (updated 03/28/20) and our privacy policy for details on how we moderate comments and who receives your information.