Magic as Technology II: Limiters

Continuing yesterday’s thoughts, today I’m going to talk a bit about how any ubiquitous presence that acts as a kind of technology has to have limits on it. As a friend by the name of Ria noted, without limits of some kind you’ll end up with a silly arms race on the part of the PCs. There are a couple of ways to deal with this, as we’ll see.

So the key here is to define why we need limits in the first place, and there are two of those. The first, from a world-building perspective, is that without some form of limitation on magic there’s nothing to stop a society with arcane magic from rocketng from the initial discovery of magic to some posthuman arcane singularity in a generation. If that’s the story you want to explore, more power to you, and it could be interesting; if you want a relatively stable society that you can use as the base for a campaign, however, you need limits.

The second reason for limits is from the perspective of game mechanics; if there aren’t any, players will chase the most ridiculously powerful things they can, because they want an edge on their opposition. This can only end in a magical arms race, which again can be fun if that’s what you want to do, but it almost certainly won’t lend itself to any kind of lengthy campaign or stable world. In a “normal” fantasy game this is limited by the scarcity and cost of magic, but that won’t work here.

So what can we do to provide a limit, then?

First, we can look at magic the same way we look at modern industry – it needs inputs and it has waste. On the personal scale this seems negligible, but on a society-wide scale the consumption of resources will hit a bottleneck, and the waste product will build up to dangerous levels. If you want to give players the chance to gear up to their hearts’ content with a bit of extra risk, you can stipulate that while minor magic is something anyone can get away with, serious magic requires up-front costs for rare or regulated materials and packing significant magical firepower requires a license.

Second, we can look at the pollution itself – if running wild with magic risks creating a zone of arcane fallout, players might get to be hesitant with it after running into a few such disasters. Having the inn you’re staying at turn into ground zero of an arcane fallout event can drive the point home when the dead get up as gibbering mutant nightmares, and having the villains frame notoriously incautious player groups can be a very effective plot point.

Third, we can simply regulate what’s available, but increase the scope. When pretty much every city guard has access to sleep and color spray as a matter of course, the lieutenants have wands of hold person and you can rely on the captains of the guard to be outfitted for most contingencies, letting players run a little wild with what they want to have isn’t really a problem; the thief may get that pair of keen daggers they want, but the city watch has their own enchanted gear on everyone from the street up. The nonmagical vermin in the sewers and ignorant goblins squatting in the town trash (and getting mutated) might get town apart by the PCs, but their actual foes will match them just as well.

Lastly, we can consider that what we’re looking at isn’t really fantasy anymore, not in the familiar sense. We’re looking at something closer to an industrial revolution; something that has more in common with Deadlands and Space 1999 than Pathfinder. Once we accept that, we can build the entire setting around the premise of commonly available and simple magic, where no one thinks twice about picking up a potion to help deal with their hangovers, alchemists and lower-skill wizards operate corner stores dealing in arcane solutions to regular problems, and magic has advanced to creating ships that fly and sail beneath the ways commonly enough that the PCs can book passage between cities. It’s the option that offers the most freedom, as long as you make sure the system can support it. Replace the typical rewards of escalating loot and overt power levels with experience, social contacts, and arcane contracts that can be used to manipulate things without ever needing to get in a fight – until the conflicts with foes boil over, that is, and those contracts with strange entities need to be called on to back the PCs up.

That wraps it up for today! I’ll be back to this in the future, never fear.

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Magic as Technology II: Limiters

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