Magic as Technology

Today I’m going to talk about something that my wife often grumbles about: the fact that in most fantasy settings, magic is some strange and ill-understood mystery, hidden from view and feared. In practice, given the nature of our species and the sheer curiosity we exhibit about everything, this seems like it might be a bad fit for what we might actually get from a world where magic exists.

The thing here is that magic tends to get treated as a strange and esoteric body of knowledge that one has to pursue, like a professor at a college, in order to utilize it at all. This is despite all the stories that rely on the idea of a magical prodigy or someone showing a knack for it; the two ideas are opposed to each other, but we never really even blink at it due to the Chosen One myth woven deeply into the current social structure.

Knowledge gets figured out in the first place from a practical standpoint – the first person to cast a spell won’t be trying to set her enemies on fire. She’ll be trying to light a fire using wood that’s still green, because it’s cold and she really needs the heat. Or she’ll be trying to ease her workload in some other fashion – she animates the cradle her infant brother is in so that she doesn’t have to keep rocking him to sleep, or finds a way to ease the birth of a foal so that it takes less time and blood to achieve.

In a world where magic is real, it’ll be just as ubiquitous as technology is in ours. Hot water provided on tap by glyphs that heat it at the spout; storerooms kept cold by bound spirits of winter; important messages passed between merchants about the price of a product in different towns by wind elementals conjured to be couriers. This is particularly true for those worlds that hold that everyone is literate for the sake of ease among players – if magic is a skill that can be taught, the same places that teach literacy will teach basic magic.

The upshot of this is that a fantasy world that has magic as a skill to be learned won’t just have a hedge witch in every town; literally everyone in the society will know some useful low-power magic, and the kind of mid-grade wizards that normally get passed around games as useful mid-campaign villains will be about as common as a competent craftsman in any other trade. City streets will have enchanted lights at night, merchants will have entire wagons that serve the same function as bags of holdings, taverns will have magically chilled storerooms and magically heated hearths, and so on. Messages will flit out like a telegram at the worst; at an extreme, everyone may have the arcane equivalent to text messaging.

What this means to you, as either a player or GM, is to ask yourself where you want to fall on the spectrum between fantasy cliche of this phenomenally useful tool being ignored for Reasons and Today But With Magic. Perhaps the easiest is to set your games in the early days of the Arcane Revolution, possibly in the first place to realize that magic being officially part of the school system is a good plan. Players can get a chance to shape the society that will emerge from it, GMs get a chance to let the revolution happen organically, and in the future you’ll have a naturally-developed campaign setting with ubiquitous magic that doesn’t feel like you’ll have re-skinned modern society with magic.

There are downsides to consider, of course! Even rare magic tends to be painted as having Consequences that can have long-term impacts, save when game mechanics allow for wizards who delight in hurling fireballs for fun. Arcane pollution could be a problem; depletion of the resources needed could also be a problem. Climate change with an arcane bent would really be the kind of thing where you want to put the brakes on it before it ever gets going. More than anything else, it has an impact on adventures – when any civilization that goes as far as having a form of writing likely has a widespread population of low-grade spellcasters and a sizable portion of the populace capable of at least mid-grade magic and arcane creation, you’re not going to have players scrimping to get a longsword +2. That’s literally going to be what the average city watchman will be packing as standard-issue gear. The usual dangers to fantasy societies will be gone, and dungeon crawls will almost certainly prize the rare materials that go into the really exotic items. You can expect trips to the planes, battles over the ownership of exotic ores, and all manner of magical creatures being treated as foreign visitors rather than exotic and terrifying dangers.

This is a topic well worth a deeper dive than I can do in a single blog post; it opens up vistas from societies where your corpse is drafted to work after death in exchange for not having to work during life to situations like the Transplanar Express coming into being. You can expect me to revisit this in the future as a result, but for today, that’s all xe wrote!

See y’all next time!

Magic as Technology

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