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

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?
Fun question (for us worldbuilders, anyway)!

In much of the fiction and games that I see this addressed, the main limiter is that use of magic requires inborn talent and there are not many with this talent compared to the rest of humanity. Human waves of desperate people have overwhelmed smaller yet technologically superior forces in the past. Also, no one rules alone. Regardless of personal might, the ruler needs those to work in their name to control the country's populace and economy.

That said, there are also plenty of examples in history where a smaller in-group has ruled over a larger out-group for generations. If magicians coordinate they can comb the population for the talented. Once recruited, train and indoctrinate them as a new part of the in-group and elevate the family to semi-group status. This can perpetuate this particular social order. The out-group endures poorer treatment with the (vain) hope that they, their children, or a close friend will find themselves elevated.

This, however assumes a level of cooperation. If there is one thing that I've learned in health care, getting highly educated autonomous professionals to simply adhere to the same treatment protocol is like herding cats. It doesn't necessarily matter how much data is behind it, there are so many excuses why it won't work for them. Department meetings can be stormy. If you want them to comply, you have to print provider specific metrics to goad them into competition with each other. It works especially well if the department underdog leads the metric.

There are a lot of assumptions riding on ruleset and edition. I would say that AD&D has a greater ability for development of magocracies that 5e, for example. Ars Magica ennumerates several restrictions on the use of magic and activities of magicians for the greater good of magical society. That's a game where wizards are explicitly the most powerful "class" in the game. If not everyone can use magic, then, yeah, I have no problems in imagining that a particular magician's magocracy lasts only as long as they do, with the swords coming out to herald the end or pick a non-magician as the next in line.
 

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This leads to a question I've always had about D&D worlds- if the Gods are demonstrably real, to the point that devout worshippers actually can cast magic spells, then why would anyone worship an evil God? You literally know that heavens and hells are real, you know demons and devils are a thing, do you really think serving an evil God will lead to rewards in the afterlife?

Let alone why anyone would become a cultist to some jumped up Archdevil or Demon Prince....
Well, the worshipper thinks along the same lines as the god and the god's hell seems to them a heaven. You get the afterlife that fulfills what you think how the world should function. As to Archdevils and Demon Princes, well, short-sightedness is a thing.
 

Oofta

Legend
See, I think you skipped right past this though. I think you are right about why Warlords don't work and how public works may not work.

But what prevents the ruling family from making a Warlock pact with a Celestial or a Fey? "We will honor you, give you gifts, and in exchange you give us the power to rule and keep our people safe" this is actually a pretty common deal in folklore for Eastern Nations. And would be a powerful alliance that puts you on the throne.
Because they don't want to pay the price? Because if there's enough infernal interference the gods will step in with their own powers to counterbalance and vice versa? Perhaps that doesn't happen because of mutually assured destruction? In many stories, people are pawns to greater powers but the greater powers have their own agenda.
Bloodline inheritance? What prevents the family from having a bloodline connection that allows for Sorcerous powers? You don't need to study to have sorcerous powers, you just do. In fact, marriage between bloodlines with power would be prime candidates for political marriages.
I have an island kingdom that does that. But how much interbreeding can you have before you have serious issues? How strong is the inheritance over the course of generations if you don't keep it in the family?
You also can't dismiss the phenomena of second and third sons. Many first-born children were devoted to the continuation of the connections with the nobility, but the second or third born were given to the church to work as priests, and to make an alliance with the church. After all, if the local deacon is your Uncle, you have more power than the guy whose family has no connection to the church.
Clerics get power based on serving a god. Depending on campaign, the gods may or may not favor any specific government.
Many nobles learned arts and histories. Why could this not lead into Bardic magic? They are born through the study of art and history.

Many nobles were knights. What prevents them from having a divine oath of the crown and being a paladin, or studying magic and becoming an Eldritch Knight? As far as we can tell, becoming an Eldritch Knight is no more difficult than becoming a cavalier, banneret, or battle master.
While your nobles were learning that, the people who ultimately pull the strings have been plotting and studying courtly intrigue. Being a successful politician is it's own skill and requires significant training and dedication. Being a bard is, in large part, being an entertainer. Kings aren't entertainers they get entertained.


Okay, but if we assume all other things being equal, then Steve is just as likely to be in line for the throne. Steve can also hire consultants and specialists, and steven can also be good at politics, inspiring people and convincing others to follow them.

You are basically saying "Those in power were either born into it or are good at it" and people with magic can be those things too. And then, during those inevitable moments of turmoil where people are killed and political power is taken or assaulted by force... magic using individuals would be more likely to survive and thrive, wouldn't they?

How many of today's leaders could defend themselves in combat? A kingdom is not an individual, a king commands an army. Few rulers outside of very small kingdoms ever picked up arms and even then it was more of a token presence to inspire their followers than anything.

Becoming a wizard or other caster requires commitment and sacrifice. Being a leader the same. Some people do both but being a leader is completely different from being a frontline combatant. So yes, sometimes the ruler is a wizard. Sometimes they're a warrior. Sometimes, I would say most of the time depending on the setting, they're just a politician.
 

Kurotowa

Legend
This leads to a question I've always had about D&D worlds- if the Gods are demonstrably real, to the point that devout worshippers actually can cast magic spells, then why would anyone worship an evil God? You literally know that heavens and hells are real, you know demons and devils are a thing, do you really think serving an evil God will lead to rewards in the afterlife?

Let alone why anyone would become a cultist to some jumped up Archdevil or Demon Prince....
Bluntly, because the initial conception was the cosmology of a fundamentalist Christian, just with a light polytheistic paintjob on top. You know the belief that Satan is an active force in the world that is being deliberately worshiped by people who seek to promote evil for its own sake? This is that, but split up into multiple Satans. It still holds that there are objectively evil gods and people who choose to worship them.

It makes no sense internally and has no actual precedent in real world religious practices. Much better models are "That god is the god of our enemies so we hate him too" and "This god is the god of a dangerous aspect of the world, so we make sure to say nice things about her and observe her holy days so that we stay on her good side". But D&D is laden with tradition and it's often hard to change.
 

Dausuul

Legend
Let's take Bob, common every day dude, and Steve, the sorcerer. They both want to rule over their city, which was just founded.
If Steve and Bob are precisely equal in every way except that Steve has magic, sure, Steve has the edge.

But Steve and Bob are never precisely equal. There will always be traits that differ between them. And traits like "ability to lead and organize people" count for far more than the ability to personally wield magic. If Bob can get half a dozen spellcasters of various classes to support him, while Steve has to rely on his own magic alone, Steve is screwed.
 

Oofta

Legend
Bluntly, because the initial conception was the cosmology of a fundamentalist Christian, just with a light polytheistic paintjob on top. You know the belief that Satan is an active force in the world that is being deliberately worshiped by people who seek to promote evil for its own sake? This is that, but split up into multiple Satans. It still holds that there are objectively evil gods and people who choose to worship them.

It makes no sense internally and has no actual precedent in real world religious practices. Much better models are "That god is the god of our enemies so we hate him too" and "This god is the god of a dangerous aspect of the world, so we make sure to say nice things about her and observe her holy days so that we stay on her good side". But D&D is laden with tradition and it's often hard to change.
To add on, some people simply don't think of the long term. They only care about the here and now. Perhaps they don't really believe in eternal torment, that it's all propaganda. Maybe they believe that if they do good enough they'll climb up in the ranks of the hierarchy and be rewarded.
 

It makes no sense internally and has no actual precedent in real world religious practices. Much better models are "That god is the god of our enemies so we hate him too" and "This god is the god of a dangerous aspect of the world, so we make sure to say nice things about her and observe her holy days so that we stay on her good side". But D&D is laden with tradition and it's often hard to change.
Indeed. We have records of prayers and sacrifices to Pazuzu, a sinister demon of wind that could ruin crops. He was the favored rival of Lamashtu who was responsible for many kinds of infant mortality. Neither were Humanity's friend, but one was "the enemy of my enemy".
 

beancounter

(I/Me/Mine)
Then why do we have kings? Good Kings should prevent Evil Kings from taking over the world, so no kings would rule anything.
Well the good kings have their territory, and the evil kings have their territory, and neither can take over the world.

Or in other words, maintaining a kingdom is not the same as taking over the world.

But this is a fantasy game, and these are just ideas. If you don't like my idea, then don't use it.
 


They do it, but they are too smart, moving the string from the shadows. And the clerics and other divine spellcasters wouldn't allow they were too much troublemarker. And the magic is too expensive and secret.
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
To add on, some people simply don't think of the long term. They only care about the here and now. Perhaps they don't really believe in eternal torment, that it's all propaganda. Maybe they believe that if they do good enough they'll climb up in the ranks of the hierarchy and be rewarded.
Maybe? But I mean, unlike our world, where people have strong faith in various things without any definitive proof, you'd think the existence of Clerics would matter more.

Then again, our world has people who demand proof that the earth is round, so maybe not.
 

Oofta

Legend
Maybe? But I mean, unlike our world, where people have strong faith in various things without any definitive proof, you'd think the existence of Clerics would matter more.

Then again, our world has people who demand proof that the earth is round, so maybe not.

Plenty of people at least claim to believe the world is flat. The existence of clerics just means that those individuals tapped into some source of magic, it doesn't necessarily mean that everything they say is truth. From a historical perspective, a lot of the gods were feared and worshipped to stay on their good side. You didn't sacrifice to Njord, god of the sea because you worshipped him in the sense we think of it now. You sacrificed because you didn't want to piss him off when you set out on his territory.
 

Dausuul

Legend
This leads to a question I've always had about D&D worlds- if the Gods are demonstrably real, to the point that devout worshippers actually can cast magic spells, then why would anyone worship an evil God? You literally know that heavens and hells are real, you know demons and devils are a thing, do you really think serving an evil God will lead to rewards in the afterlife?

Let alone why anyone would become a cultist to some jumped up Archdevil or Demon Prince....
First, who says the evil gods are straight with their followers about what awaits them in the afterlife?

And, second, it could be that followers of evil powers think "better to reign in hell than serve in heaven." Whether any of them actually will reign in hell, of course... well, that goes back to the first point.
 

Levistus's_Leviathan

5e Freelancer
If the mages work together -- if their loyalty is to "mages" above nation or family or religion -- then, sure, they rule the roost.
This is fundamentally missing the point of this thought experiment. Assume "mages" (as in anyone that is a member of a spellcasting class) have the same basic human desires and emotions. A mage would be just as likely to pursue power as anyone else in the world, but would be better suited to succeed than a non-mage.

And then take into account that we're not just talking about one mage with the goal of conquering the world or getting all of the money. We're talking about how the magic system of D&D and the socioeconomic system of the world would combine to shape the world. Sure, a single mage on their own probably won't be able to take over the world, no matter how powerful they are. But this thought experiment isn't about the actions of a single mage. It's about how mages collectively could use their spells to make more money and put their children through magic school, or a royal family that marries into a magical bloodline in order to make their claims to power more justifiable, or a religion that uses their magical leaders to claim that they're more valid than other religions.
But if not, then the roadblock is other mages. Most people are more inclined to follow than lead, and that goes for mages too. For the leader, then, what matters is what followers you have and how well you lead them. The mage king standing alone loses to the mundane king with a hundred mage followers, just like the lone warrior loses to the charismatic civilian with a hundred swords at their back.
Again, I'm not talking about a single mage/group of mages controlling everything. I'm talking about how magic in general would allow those who practice it to more easily gain power. They'd be more likely to be higher in the social hierarchy due to the economic and social effects of their magic powers.

Sure, a single mage king might fall to an army of mages, but mages as a whole would be more likely to grab power throughout the decades than nonmages.
 

Levistus's_Leviathan

5e Freelancer
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?
. . . Because becoming the ruler of a nation would give you control of that nation's resources, which would allow you to pursue your other ambitions more easily than before.

Why wouldn't mages try to take over political power if it helped them on their quest for godhood or other great secrets?
And the final reason is because, as was the case for the lich, heroes often arise to stop them.
And that's exactly the kind of justification this thread was meant to inspire! People have been taking the premise of this thread incorrectly. I'm not saying that mages have to rule everything in D&D worlds, I'm saying that taking this question into consideration can help enrich your world. Mages don't take power in your world because adventuring parties keep them in check? Cool! Great! That could be a really interesting and awesome justification for why mages haven't taken over in the world yet: because they keep trying to, but adventurers keep organizing into groups to hunt them down and prevent them from taking power.
 

Levistus's_Leviathan

5e Freelancer
Competition between Mages
Interesting solution to the dilemma. How exactly would that work in your world? Are there other mages that keep the overly ambitious ones in check? Are there a bunch of nations/empires that are controlled by different mages, and they're the ones that are competing for total domination?
Desire for magical power/knowledge, not "to rule"
Why would mages be less likely to desire political power than anyone else? Especially when not all mages need knowledge to get more power (Sorcerers, Warlocks, Clerics, Paladins, Druids, etc)? And wouldn't political/economic/religious power increase their ability to pursue magical power to greater extents?
 

Levistus's_Leviathan

5e Freelancer
Well, the question was about "wizards", not "arcane casters".
Actually, this thread's about "mages" in general, not specifically wizards. This applies to any spellcasting class (especially "full casters", like Bards, Clerics, Druids, Sorcerers, Warlocks, and Wizards, but also Artificers, Paladins, and Rangers to an extent).

Anyone with magic would be more likely to get more political/social, economic, and religious power than non-mages. Not specifically wizards or any other specific class.
 


cbwjm

Legend
This leads to a question I've always had about D&D worlds- if the Gods are demonstrably real, to the point that devout worshippers actually can cast magic spells, then why would anyone worship an evil God? You literally know that heavens and hells are real, you know demons and devils are a thing, do you really think serving an evil God will lead to rewards in the afterlife?

Let alone why anyone would become a cultist to some jumped up Archdevil or Demon Prince....
I'd say the evil gods get worshipped out of fear. You make an offering to make them look the other way when you undertake a journey or to stave off the diseases that the plaguebringer god sends into the world.

As for actively worshipping an evil God as a cleric, they do get rewarded in the afterlife, just because the god is evil doesn't mean that those who follow them are eternally damned. Even cultists of the archdevils have a small chance of power by ascending the ranks. Otherwise, those who don't know everything about how the planes work, I'd say they'd often follow them for immediate power in the mortal world.
 

MGibster

Legend
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.
Given that magical beliefs have been with us since time immemorial, I think it's more likely that such a society would develop institutions to control the behavior of magic users. For those who haven't taken a sociology course in a long time, an institution is an "established practice, tradition, behavior, or system of roles and relationships that is considered a normative structure or arrangement within a society." The big five institutions are Government, Economy, Family, Education, and Religion.

The problem with creating such institutions in D&D (D&D especially), is that players hate, hate, hate having anyone tell them what to do. D&D is an adolescent power fantasy (which is fine), and in my experience most players aren't interested in having to follow societal rules. Which kind of makes creating institutions kind of pointless.
 

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