D&D 5E Discussing Worldbuilding: Why Don't The Mages Take Over The World?

Levistus's_Leviathan

5e Freelancer
In all D&D settings magic exists, can be controlled, and can perform feats of power unrivaled by non-magical means . . . why haven't those that practice magic taken over the setting? Why isn't practically every nation a magocracy, where those with magic power have taken the majority of political power (through persuasion or force)? Why aren't the royal bloodlines actually sorcerers that use their innate magical power as a justification for their rule similar to how real-world monarchies have claimed to have a divine mandate for their rule (European and Chinese royalty, for example)? If the dominant economic system of the setting is inherently capitalist, the guilds/corporations that control the majority of trade should be mainly controlled by those with magical power (wizards and artificers).

This has been a problem that has been bugging me for a while now. Many settings in D&D don't seem to consider the fact that magic would completely change how the world's politics and nations would function compared to the real world. There are settings in D&D's history that address this issue (Eberron and Dark Sun are my two favorite examples), and I find it kind of baffling that more settings don't answer it. I think that this should be mentioned in the DMG's section on worldbuilding. If magic is superior to mundane power, then there is no reason why mages wouldn't just consolidate most of the socioeconomic and political power in the setting to them.

If mages haven't taken over the setting (yet), you should probably have a justification for that. For example, in Thedas, the setting of Dragon Age games (which is pretty similar to D&D), mages used to rule over the entire continent where the games take place. However, the non-mages discovered a way of using lyrium (a magical crystal) to teach templars (religious knights) how to cancel out magical power and imprison mages in circle towers where they could practice magic but only under the close supervision of the templars. In Thedas, most countries aren't ruled by mages because they used to until a means of countering magic power was discovered. This also introduces an interesting dilemma in the setting: whether or not it's okay to discriminate against mages because if you don't, they start to take over the world again (which already happened two separate times in the Tevinter Imperium).

So, for your setting, if the Mages have taken over major aspects of the setting . . . ask yourself which types of mages do and how the world is different because of it. Here are some options (there's often overlap between these groups):
  • Mages have taken over the setting's political power: The Dark Sun approach. In Dark Sun, mages are fairly rare because the most powerful mages in the world (the tyrannical Sorcerer-Kings) have taken over most of the political power in the world and use their magical power to consolidate the political and magical power in the world to prevent others from getting powerful enough to rival them. The Unity of Riedra in Eberron is a fascist Orwellian nation controlled by a godlike extraplanar entity of nightmares that uses a similar approach, where the Inspired have used psionics for the past 1,300 years to maintain their power over almost all of Sarlona. This is typically best suited to magic systems where magic is innate (like Sorcerers and inherently magical races), but it's also possible for Wizards, Bards, Warlocks, and other magic-using classes to take over the setting's political power.
  • Mages have taken over the setting's religious power: This is true in most D&D worlds, where the leaders of most religions are Clerics, Druids, Paladins, or Warlocks. In D&D settings, it's very common for religions to be ruled by those with magical power, because normally those with magical power logically have a stronger claim to be the "chosen leaders" of the religion. However, settings could lean into this fact a bit more and call out the fact that mages are more likely to be respected and put into positions of religious leadership due to their magical powers, regardless of which type of spellcaster they are, or have the most powerful religion either absorb the other ones (like the Roman Pantheon did) or try to root out the others and execute/condemn "heretics"/"pagans" (like Catholicism). (A good example of magic being the focus of a fantasy religion is the Cosmere, where most religions have something to do with the setting's magic system.)
  • Mages have taken over the setting's economic power: The Eberron approach. In Eberron's main continent, Khorvaire, the 12 true and surviving Dragonmarked Houses have formed giant magical corporations that form an extreme capitalist oligopoly. In Eberron, if it exists in the real world, there's a magic version of it somewhere in the setting. You can go to plays where illusion magic and shapechangers are used to enhance the experience, or go to a tavern with magically-flavored beer run by halflings, or buy magically bred and trained pets, or go to a magic hospital that can heal you beyond modern medicine would be able to. Just like in the real world, giant corporations own and produce much of the world's assets, influence the politics of various nations, and take advantage of people with less power to make more money.
Additionally, you should consider which types of magic helped mages take over certain aspects of the power in the setting. For example, Enchantment magic like domination spells could more easily be used to take control of political power than transmutation magic.

If mages haven't taken over major sources of power in the world yet . . . ask yourself why not? Here are some possible options for why it hasn't taken over yet:
  • Magic can be (and is) countered by something else. The Dragon Age approach. In Thedas, Templars use Lyrium to cancel out spells and vials of blood that let them track down mages that escape. This allows specially trained non-mages to be able to counter mages in battle, which is necessary to prevent them from being able to rebel. A D&D equivalent could be magic items. Perhaps modern nations prevent mages from taking power through the use of magic items (possibly from an ancient, dead civilization like Netheril or Aeor that left them behind after the civilization fell)? Or there could be some material that cancels out magic?
  • Mages are limited by some other force that prevents them from taking over. Perhaps in this world mages (and magic in general) are way rarer than they are in most other D&D settings or it's so extremely difficult to increase magical power that most mages only have access to spells roughly as effective as the world's most used weaponry. Or maybe magic is new and mages haven't had sufficient time to learn enough about magic to consolidate power? Or material components/spellcasting foci are super rare and thus it's nearly impossible to practice magic without the proper funds/resources. The only powerful mages in this world might be the villains and some of the main characters, with everyone else not having magical powers. 5e wasn't designed around this assumption, but it would be fairly easy to add something like this to a world.
  • Mages can't focus on taking over the world (for some reason). If mages typically live young life-spans or the world is extremely deadly and magic is necessary to ward off the hostility of the setting, then mages might not have sufficient motivation to try and take power.
tl;dr - Mages in D&D logically should be able to consolidate political, religious, and/or economic power more easily than non-mages, and thus the setting should either be controlled by/heavily influenced by mages or have some justification(s) why mages haven't taken over (yet).

Edit: Note - Apparently I didn't make this clear. In this thought experiment, I'm defining Mages as any spellcasting class, not specifically Wizards.
 
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Forgotten Realms HAS been taken over by high level spellcasters. Sure, there are many kingdoms that are not a mageocracy or theocracy, but the real movers and shakers are all phenomenally powerful spellcasters and their enclaves, shadow cities, lich hive minds, etc.

The trick with FR is that those super spellcasters are in a big stalemate with each other, and need plucky adventurers to do missions to tip the balance and mess with each other without trigger all out MAD.

Which is... a little like Shadowrun with its MegaCorps hiring Runners to do dirty jobs.

Of course, you can also ignore those spellcasters and spend a whole campaign on local Calimshan vs Amn politics if you want.
 
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For world building I see two options.
Create a fantasy world and use the rules to play in it.
Or Analyse the rules to create the most logical world to fit with those rules.
 


Mad_Jack

Hero
I've always assumed that most campaign worlds just don't have all that many spellcasters compared to the general non-magic-using population, especially high-powered ones, and not all those cultures in which spellcasters occupy positions of authority are of a mind to conquer others.

An individual spellcaster in D&D just doesn't have enough power to be able to hold a large city under their sway solely by magic alone, nevermind a nation - they need to amass temporal power through other means, either political, religious, or simply raising a large enough army to threaten/overthrow the established leadership of an area.
In most fictional worlds, it's usually large, organized groups of spellcasters that hold power rather than an individual, unless the individual spellcaster is far more powerful than a typical D&D spellcaster. And either way, it's generally taken them decades or centuries to use whatever magic they have to gain temporal power. In a D&D world modeled loosely on Medieval - Rennaissance Europe there aren't many places where the population would be large enough to produce large-ish groups of spellcasters unless it's an extremely high-magic game world.
 

I once tried to figure out how a Confucian-style bureaucracy would work in a magic setting, and I came up with "all the bureaucrats are also wizards." The civil service exam includes a spellcasting portion. High-ranking officials are also powerful mages, who will occasionally use their magic to perform their duties.

Of course, most of the actual work getting done isn't done by bureaucrats without magic, and that still holds true. The local prefect can cast mold earth but if you want a canal the easiest way is to give a couple hundred peasants shovels.

Militarily, there's an officer corp of non-soldiers who prepared combat spells today, and each gets a bodyguard to keep them from being bothered while casting, but most of the army is soldiers - some professional, some conscripts. Ratios vary.

Inherent magic is something you want in your family, so known sorcerers can usually marry up. They can cast more easily so they pass the exams with less effort.

Religious orders exist parallel to the standard civil order, but the leaders of such are usually spellcasters of some kind as well. Although a cleric of a god of scholarship might be a standard bureaucrat for a living.
 

Dausuul

Legend
For the same reason nations are not ruled by the mightiest swordsmen: Just because you wield great individual power, doesn't mean everybody does what you want when you aren't standing over them with sword (or wand) drawn.

Now, if wizards see themselves as a "tribe" and band together to promote the interests of wizards against everyone else, they can take control of nations. But if they don't, they're just like big guys with swords. Every ruler needs some, and you always have to reckon with them in your plans, but you don't have to be one to rule.
 



Levistus's_Leviathan

5e Freelancer
For the same reason nations are not ruled by the mightiest swordsmen: Just because you wield great individual power, doesn't mean everybody does what you want when you aren't standing over them with sword (or wand) drawn.

Now, if wizards see themselves as a "tribe" and band together to promote the interests of wizards against everyone else, they can take control of nations. But if they don't, they're just like big guys with swords. Every ruler needs some, and you always have to reckon with them in your plans, but you don't have to be one to rule.
Spellcasters normally can achieve powers much greater and more versatile than just being a swordsman. And some types of them are born with magic (sorcerers and certain races). People generally aren't born good swordsmen.

And this is a systemic topic. I'm not saying that if there's just a single mage in the setting that they're destined to rule everything. More that if mages do exist, are fairly common, and have more power than non-mages, then the chances of them using their magic to take power is practically inevitable in the long run unless there are large roadblocks built into the setting that prevent this.

In the real world where magic doesn't exist, monarchs across the world throughout history have claimed to be divinely mandated to be royalty. In a setting where people can be born with magic, those claims (true or not) would be even stronger. People with more money (merchants and nobles) would be more likely to put their children through a school that can teach them magic (bard or wizard), which would give the family better tools to gain even more money and more influence around the world around them. It would have a snowball effect where more money increases arcane power for the family which would increase the family's ability to get more money and political power in the setting.
 


Dioltach

Legend
you assume most wizards want to rule the world more likely most are too busy trying to exploit the planes for fun and profit or killing all the people who bullied them, ruling tends to need paperwork and that sucks.
I was just about to make the same point. Why rule kingdoms (or magedoms) when you can let other people deal with the hassle? Assuming the mage is powerful enough to seize power, they're probably powerful enough to get whatever they want through other means that besides rulership.
 

Oofta

Legend
While a wizard is great at artillery, they're glass cannons. Armies in the middle ages could easily have tens of thousands of soldiers. That wizard is going to run out of fireballs real quick. Everyone needs to sleep now and then as well.

Besides, political power is rarely held by those that actually do the fighting, capabilities in combat are not that important to being a ruler.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
For world building I see two options.
1.Create a fantasy world and use the rules to play in it.
2. Or Analyse the rules to create the most logical world to fit with those rules.
1. The best and LOGIC does not exist.
2. See your world totally change when the next WOTC player book comes out. BIG EVIL GRIN.
 

Levistus's_Leviathan

5e Freelancer
While a wizard is great at artillery, they're glass cannons. Armies in the middle ages could easily have tens of thousands of soldiers. That wizard is going to run out of fireballs real quick. Everyone needs to sleep now and then as well.

Besides, political power is rarely held by those that actually do the fighting, capabilities in combat are not that important to being a ruler.
Fireballs and other means of magical "fighting" are far from the only way a wizard could take power. Enchantment spells can control minds. Divination could be used to spy on and blackmail figures of power. Utility spells can be used to easily gain more money than non-mages could make. Necromancy and Conjuration can be used to do the fighting without putting the mage in danger. Cantrips that deal more damage than typical weapons exist, too.
 

Levistus's_Leviathan

5e Freelancer
I was just about to make the same point. Why rule kingdoms (or magedoms) when you can let other people deal with the hassle? Assuming the mage is powerful enough to seize power, they're probably powerful enough to get whatever they want through other means that besides rulership.
Again, this is a discussion of the systemic effects of D&D's magic system, not about what individuals would choose to do. People born with magic would probably be more likely to be seen as royalty in human cultures, so all royalty/aristocracy might be sorcerers. People born into wealthy families would have more access to arcane schooling. And those that want more power/want to prevent themselves from losing power could seek out an Otherworldly Patron and become a Warlock. A King that wasn't born a mage might purposefully seek out the secrets of becoming a Warlock in order to keep up with his rival monarchs that were born with magic power.

This isn't really a discussion of "well, individual mages might not want power". Capitalism and/or Feudalism + Magic = Magically-Enforced Inequality

Tons of people in the real world want power and do whatever they can to achieve it. It would be easier to achieve power in D&D due to magic and harder to undo the consequences of those born in better circumstances than it is in the real world.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
I can’t speak for others, but in our setting the most powerful mage is the one in our group and he is 15th lvl. After him, the strongest is 10-12th level. Hardly strong enough to take on king’s body guard let alone their army.
This is the answer, frankly.

Even in Eberron proper spellcasters are wildly outnumbered, and just as easily ganked as a veteran soldier, at best.

But IMO even Eberron fails to take fear properly into account. If your friend can shoot lightning, that’s rad. If your bully can, that is bowel-shakingly terrifying.

Which means, IMO, that you’re more likely to see nations where it’s effectively legal to murder a spellcaster for any sign of imminent violence from them, than nations ruled by them. The court advisor is a wizard and the captain of the kings guard thinks the mage is doing a wormtongue? Stab.

Now, I prefer optimism in storytelling so I don’t do that, but I think it’s more realistic than ubiquitous mageocracy.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
IMCs, this is due to a number of factors.

Powerful mages are rare. In my worlds, there are typically only a handful of mages alive at any given time who have the power to make a realistic attempt at taking over a nation.

Most mages are more interested in the pursuit of cosmic power, as opposed to governmental authority. The powerful mages (and even less powerful mages) typically have goals that stretch far beyond "conquering the world". Why conquer a nation when you have the potential to conjure forth entirely new realities of your own making? Why settle for rulership when you can aspire to godhood?

Which is not to say that it never happens. I had a powerful lich who was trying to conquer an elven nation. But that was because he was the former king of that nation, brought back in undeath by Orcus, and he viewed the elven throne as rightfully his. The twisted lich mindset would not allow him to abide someone taking his stuff (even though the new king was the son he'd loved in life). He had no actual interest in ruling. Had he succeeded, he would have transformed the nation into an undead mockery, and then moved on to more interesting matters.

And the final reason is because, as was the case for the lich, heroes often arise to stop them.
 

Audiomancer

Adventurer
In my headcanon, it comes down to a couple of things:

1. Actual rulership is way more boring than it looks on the brochure. Few high-level wizards want to spend their time mediating disputes between squabbling barons, sitting through budget meetings, or solving the capital city’s perennial waste-disposal problems.

2. Wizards are mostly driven by the acquisition of knowledge. Your average wizard would be much happier trying to invent an Elixir or Perpetual Youth, writing the definitive scholarly tome on planar geography, or cooking up new monstrous creatures in the bio lab.
 

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