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

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
That's pretty much what I do. Some people may not even realize they're using magic, but the blacksmith knows that if he sprinkles in the right powder at the right time and chants a song to the metal, the metal is stronger and rust resistant. The local healer has poultices that work similar to antibiotics. The milk maid hums a tune and the milk stays fresh longer, the Keeblers really do make magically delicious cookies to dip into that milk and so on. The PC classes are the soldiers of the world with specialized training and equipment that people that are not on the front lines don't need.

It even permeates basic biology which is why people heal up so quickly, even if they don't realize that there's anything unusual.
That's generally how I run my settings. Low-level magic, to keep people healthy and provide low-level utility, is ritualized and commonplace. I don't really like to imagine my PCs in worlds full of disease, foul odors, and rampant death from infection and childbirth, so background magic explains that away.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

James Gasik

Legend
I was watching Gunpowder last night on HBO Max (a three part series about the Gunpowder Plot of 1605). And looking how the series portrays 1605 London, it occurred to me that I've never seen a D&D setting like this, despite the fact that the periods of history it emulates predate the 17th century by, well, centuries.

Mud streets, rampant poverty and disease, nobles with physical deformities and ailments- and I thought a moment and asked "would this world exist if magic were real?".

The answer is, probably not. And yet, despite all the advancements magic could make to a society, from curing illnesses, making construction easier, and even lighting streets, most D&D worlds are in stasis, never allowed to become "too modern" or "too magical".

As if too much magic would make the game feel too modern...like the Seventh Doctor's corollary to Clarke's Third Law.

DOCTOR: What is Clarke's law?
ACE: Any advanced form of technology is indistinguishable from magic.
DOCTOR: Well, the reverse is true.
ACE: Any advanced form of magic is indistinguishable?
 

Bluebell

Explorer
You would have to consider the source of magic itself to discuss this thought properly.

For example, most of my campaigns have the premise that magic isn't LEARNABLE, unless you already have the "SPARK".

If as you propose, it is merely a case of time and experience, then I think your thoughts are spot on...most campaigns would have many many minor magic users, much like many of us are minor shade tree mechanics, or carpenters.
That does make complete sense, and I can see how that would act as a hard limiter on magic in the world, particularly wizards (requiring both innate ability AND wealth). And depending on how rare you decide to make that spark, I feel like this question kind of answers itself: if magic is mostly hereditary, then yeah, it's probably a common element among the ruling class and therefore your world leaders are almost certainly going to be casters. On the other hand, if that "spark" is so rare as to be extremely uncommon, then there might not be enough magic users to really consider them a social class, and it would be hard to maintain generational power if family lines can't reliably inherit the ability.

To me, magic is so variable between the classes in terms of the source that the individual is drawing from that it makes more sense that some types of magic are accessible to the average person and others aren't. Clerics and paladins gain their magic from their belief -- and sure, for many, that belief will never translate into functional magic -- but why shouldn't someone with intense belief in their god be able to pray and meditate long enough to tap into a couple cantrips and a low-level spell?

There are other kinds of magic that explicitly come from one's birth -- sorcerers, of course, but also certain races such as genasi have their own innate spells. I prefer to draw a contrast between those innate kinds of magic and ones that come from other sources.
I also think from a world building perspective in a high magic world it is more likely that there will be things like an elven plant singer NPC role with specific crop magic rather than clerical create water and druid plant growth spells as the magical drivers of the non-adventuring stuff. While adventuring magic with some non adventuring uses could be the only magic of the world and you can build interesting worlds around that base, it is reasonable that the PH only shows the magic options most applicable to adventuring PCs and there is room for a lot of non-adventuring magic in a fleshed out high magic D&D type world.
That's a good point, it makes sense that NPCs simply don't work the way that PCs do. I'm really just using the classes as a basis point in this discussion since that's sort of the agreed-upon canon that we can look to.
 

You can do both. Eberron was created as a logical world to fit the rules of 3.5e, and plenty of people play in it.
The 3E-era A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe also shows how to use the 3E assumptions to make a recognizable version of Medieval Europe. It's probably more detailed than most people would like, but I used it in building the barony my campaign started out in, and it worked out very well. (I know way more about the agriculture of the region than is probably necessary, but I think that's had beneficial effects, too, in giving each community in the barony an understandable role.)
 

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.
I don't think evokers can take over kingdoms as easily as a diviner, illusionist or (especially) an enchanter could.

The most effective wizard ruling a country is the wizard you don't know about.
 

Levistus's_Leviathan

5e Freelancer
I've always wondered about this from the opposite end: why isn't it more common in these settings for the average person to have access to these low-level spells that have niche use for an adventuring party but would be extremely useful for a farmer or peasant?

Sure, becoming a wizard requires both literacy and money, but Create or Destroy Water and Purify Food and Drink are accessible by level 1 clerics and druids. The village temple for the local favored god or the nearby druid circle could easily train the average person to have enough faith or harmony with nature to hit level 1. Most people probably never move beyond that because of the time and commitment required, but that first level isn't all that inaccessible.

Extrapolate that into positions that require more learning. Why aren't judges all low-level paladins or clerics for that Zone of Truth, or wizard for Detect Thoughts?

Which means, to me, the thread's question becomes a bit of a moot point. Sure, the majority of the ruling class is probably magic users. So is the majority of the lower class. The difference is once again the same as it always is: a matter of who has access to the most resources to actually maximize that power. The average peasant will simply never have the time or gold to become a level 20 wizard. But maybe the farmer's daughter down the way studied really hard to learn Plant Growth to make sure the local harvests always succeed.
I don't think you're disagreeing with me. The point of this thread was that magic would completely change how a setting works compared to the real world. Having some farmers be druids/nature clerics and judges be paladins/clerics would be a really cool and interesting world. That's the kind of creative thinking that this thread was meant to inspire.
 

nevin

Hero
One trying to get mages to share is like herding cats.
Two gods are actually there and can interfere, so no t going to take over churches. Not for long anyway.
Two cross a mage die. Cross a cleric burn in hell for all eternity.

Three easy to kill a mage who has to carry out rulership duties. Stay in your sanctum and your virtually invulnerable.

But that aside, my question is why don't scientists rule the world? Because they'd rather do science.
Most mages would rather do magic.
 

nevin

Hero
I don't think you're disagreeing with me. The point of this thread was that magic would completely change how a setting works compared to the real world. Having some farmers be druids/nature clerics and judges be paladins/clerics would be a really cool and interesting world. That's the kind of creative thinking that this thread was meant to inspire.
That's the magical world a lot of people hate. Magic everywhere like technology in real world.
It's how my campaign world runs. The thing I like about magic being everywhere and used by the populace as well as PC's, is it just makes mages one more character. It also allows for powerful groups that may not like wizard shaking reality too hard.
 


MGibster

Legend
The answer is, probably not. And yet, despite all the advancements magic could make to a society, from curing illnesses, making construction easier, and even lighting streets, most D&D worlds are in stasis, never allowed to become "too modern" or "too magical".
I tend to view D&D as having a world that is most conducive to good times with fun adventuring. Most of the settings don't really consider the ramifications of having magic be so widely available, in part, because back when the game was created magic wasn't as widely available as it is now. But I think the creators didn't consider it because such things don't have much of an impact on the Keep at the Borderlands or going through that pesky Ravenloft Castle. I think Eberron is a good setting, but I don't like it that much because of how magical everything is. (That's just a personal preference though.)

On the flip side, we ignore a lot of unpleasantness in many games. I'm reading some old Cyberpunk 2020 sourcebooks, and holy %$#@, is that a bleak setting? A lot of it probably went over my head when I was a teenager, but I don't recall ever having any games where the misery inherent in the setting was highlighted. Night City is a place where you might be in a situation where a 13 year old boosterganger is trying to kill you, a 15 year old joy toy might proposition you, and 70% of the population have little access to health care, are food insecure, and live in abject poverty. But I've never played a Cyberpunk game where those things were emphasized.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
That does make complete sense, and I can see how that would act as a hard limiter on magic in the world, particularly wizards (requiring both innate ability AND wealth). And depending on how rare you decide to make that spark, I feel like this question kind of answers itself: if magic is mostly hereditary, then yeah, it's probably a common element among the ruling class and therefore your world leaders are almost certainly going to be casters. On the other hand, if that "spark" is so rare as to be extremely uncommon, then there might not be enough magic users to really consider them a social class, and it would be hard to maintain generational power if family lines can't reliably inherit the ability.

To me, magic is so variable between the classes in terms of the source that the individual is drawing from that it makes more sense that some types of magic are accessible to the average person and others aren't. Clerics and paladins gain their magic from their belief -- and sure, for many, that belief will never translate into functional magic -- but why shouldn't someone with intense belief in their god be able to pray and meditate long enough to tap into a couple cantrips and a low-level spell?

There are other kinds of magic that explicitly come from one's birth -- sorcerers, of course, but also certain races such as genasi have their own innate spells. I prefer to draw a contrast between those innate kinds of magic and ones that come from other sources.

That's a good point, it makes sense that NPCs simply don't work the way that PCs do. I'm really just using the classes as a basis point in this discussion since that's sort of the agreed-upon canon that we can look to.
If that's the direction that you want to explore in your world building then go for it!

That said, there are any number of reasons why someone with strong faith might not be granted clerical magic.

Maybe the gods want to limit how their power is used. Tim the farmer might be very faithful to the goddess of agriculture. However, does the goddess want to risk granting him the power to smite his neighbor in a fit of anger? She might only entrust her power to those she believes will use it responsibly. Faith =/= responsibility.

Maybe the gods have a limit on the power they can grant. Sure, the agricultural goddess could grant every farmer in the world the ability to cast create water, but that would leave her vulnerable to the god of corruption (who has chosen to be far greedier with his power).

Maybe there's a balance to the multiverse that an excess of magic could disrupt. A thousand active clerics casting Create Water on occasion doesn't significantly harm the cosmic balance. However, a million farmers casting Create Water every day would draw too much of the Elemental Plane of Water into the Prime Material, resulting in a catastrophic imbalance that would reverberate across the planes.

And, of course, maybe there's an inherent quality to some individuals that make them more receptive to divine power than others, not unlike how some people naturally have excellent vision while others may have very poor sight (or even suffer blindness). John the Cleric might have been able to tap into the goddess's power after only a few years of training. Whereas Tim the Farmer, despite having just as strong a faith as John, would have to train at the temple for several decades before he could do the same.

Even for sorcerers, just because you have power in your blood doesn't mean you have a meaningful amount. Maybe your sorcerous heritage gives you just enough magic to spray a harmless shower of sparks from your fingertips, and that's the extent of what magic you'll ever accomplish.
 


Chaosmancer

Legend
Yeah, no. Fifth level is certainly when someone comes into their own. But there is nothing special about a 5th level wizard that presumes some kind of significant advantage over other classes. Could they come into power? Certainly. Even maintain it with proper social conventions. But not with any greater likelyhood than other classes.

Right, so how is the Fighter doubling crop yields? How is he purifying the fouled wells? Can the fighter magically predict the outcome of signing a treaty before signing it?

How are these not significant advantages?
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
I've always wondered about this from the opposite end: why isn't it more common in these settings for the average person to have access to these low-level spells that have niche use for an adventuring party but would be extremely useful for a farmer or peasant?

Sure, becoming a wizard requires both literacy and money, but Create or Destroy Water and Purify Food and Drink are accessible by level 1 clerics and druids. The village temple for the local favored god or the nearby druid circle could easily train the average person to have enough faith or harmony with nature to hit level 1. Most people probably never move beyond that because of the time and commitment required, but that first level isn't all that inaccessible.

Extrapolate that into positions that require more learning. Why aren't judges all low-level paladins or clerics for that Zone of Truth, or wizard for Detect Thoughts?

Which means, to me, the thread's question becomes a bit of a moot point. Sure, the majority of the ruling class is probably magic users. So is the majority of the lower class. The difference is once again the same as it always is: a matter of who has access to the most resources to actually maximize that power. The average peasant will simply never have the time or gold to become a level 20 wizard. But maybe the farmer's daughter down the way studied really hard to learn Plant Growth to make sure the local harvests always succeed.

Exactly this
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
One trying to get mages to share is like herding cats.
Two gods are actually there and can interfere, so no t going to take over churches. Not for long anyway.
Two cross a mage die. Cross a cleric burn in hell for all eternity.

Three easy to kill a mage who has to carry out rulership duties. Stay in your sanctum and your virtually invulnerable.

But that aside, my question is why don't scientists rule the world? Because they'd rather do science.
Most mages would rather do magic.

So since clerics prevent wizards from becoming nobles, and crossing a cleric means burning in hell for all eternity, why don't clerics rule? Clerics are also far harder to kill than wizards.
 

I disagree.
Nobility everywhere eventually sought to distance themselves from common people as an explanation why they ought to rule. Often in the form of divine mandate or actual divinity or other mythical heritage.
Right, so how is the Fighter doubling crop yields? How is he purifying the fouled wells? Can the fighter magically predict the outcome of signing a treaty before signing it?

How are these not significant advantages?
Oh, you mistake me.

It's not that they can't woo the populace or roast an opponent. It's that a 5th level wizard is very fragile and easily stab-able. Yeah, they have their supporters, but so does everyone else.

If we are going to talk about the inevitability of magocracies, theocracies, whatever, we need to talk 12th level or so. If we're positing that everyone wants power, for good or ill, you have to take into account assassination. 5th level, for anybody, wizard or no, doesn't give you a lock on the throne.
 

Vaalingrade

Legend
Right, so how is the Fighter doubling crop yields? How is he purifying the fouled wells? Can the fighter magically predict the outcome of signing a treaty before signing it?
This is why we need Science and Alchemy.

Some fertilizer, fluoride and a few Poly-Sci majors go a long way.
 

@Chaosmancer Because I'm apparently a glutton for punishment...

How many years does it take to become a practicing Wizard? To go from "I literally only know how to read and write" to "I'm a 5th level Wizard," given that's your stated target. Keep in mind, we're talking about people who aren't adventurers, so they aren't delving into murder-holes and sparring with bus-sized lizards with superiority complexes and epic halitosis.

How long does it take?
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
That's the magical world a lot of people hate. Magic everywhere like technology in real world.
It's how my campaign world runs. The thing I like about magic being everywhere and used by the populace as well as PC's, is it just makes mages one more character. It also allows for powerful groups that may not like wizard shaking reality too hard.
Yea, I know a lot of people favor the crapsack world with rare, creepy magic (a la Game of Thrones), but that just doesn't feel very D&D to me. Eberron is the closest fit to what I feel a standard D&D world (if there was such a thing) would look like.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
It's like an episode of the Flintstones to me. I half expect someone in Eberron to open the cabinent under the sink to check the garbage disposal and find an otyugh under there looking at the audience saying, "It's a living."
<files that away for later use>

I think that just highlights how different the expectations of a setting can be even when playing "standard" D&D. To me, a game setting where no one had thought to use magical creatures for infrastructure would wreck any sense of verisimilitude.
 

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top