Worldbuilding

Six Consequences of High Magic

Lady of the Blaze by Spiritgrove (used with permission)

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

Crowded

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

Disabled_Tank_Gaza_1917

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.*

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  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!

    • 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

  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%.

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