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What Magic Would Be Most Realistically Most Impactful?

Kaodi

Adventurer
As someone who has been spending a minimal amount of time outside many days trying to cut down a WHOLE BUNCH of weeds and saplings and sweating like the fat pig I am I was wondering about what in-game abilities and adaptations would be wildly popular and powerful and impactful (outside of healing magic). Being able to work outside comfortably in the heat or cold is a low level effect in D&D/Pathfinder (Endure Elements) but would be a massive quality of life improvement. And if it was not one that could be achieved with magic, there are a lot of different kinds of people who could possibly command a premium as seasonal workers due to fire or cold resistance, or as industrial workers due to acid or electricity resistance.

Another way to look at it is how in the world of Avatar lightning bending is an incredibly rare skill but a century later it widely used for industrial purposes. A lot of magic could have practical uses that does not really get explored much in game because most people are not here to play Magindustrial Revolution & Clockwork Dragons.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
There is an element that we'd need to address in discussing this, that most RPGs do very poorly: demographics.

How many wizards/druids/clerics/users of any particular power are there in the world? That puts a bound on how impactful a power is on a broad scale of a society.
 

Blue

Orcus on a bad day
Okay, when talking about hiring for acid or electrical resistance (a great idea!) it would seem that you are positing a world where the magic is acknowledged and present in enough quantity to make that reasonable.

I'd go for something like Zone of Truth or other magics of that ilk. Again, with the acceptance and potentially commonality, I think it would revolutionize human's justice systems and politics.

Low level divination would I think would be eagerly sought after. Even Augury's Weal or Woe would be useful from Project Managers through CEOs, all levels of military, and Heads of State.

Plant Growth. A single 8-hour casting enriches all plants in a 1 mile diameter for a year, yielding twice the food. Think about that in a lot of countries, especially ones where distribution is hard. But really, you mentioned healing - with all of the healing, cure disease, regeneration, and raise dead we might reduce early death that having more food in the same area is needed.

Smaller things - Locate Creature to help in rescue efforts. Geas for short term legal repercussions. Illusions for storytelling, entertainment and advertising.

Just about any spell that people have complained "breaks the economy".

I'm leaving out planar travel spells, don't know how you envision them in the real world.
 
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DMMike

Game Masticator
Lightning-magic spawned an entire D&D setting: Eberron.

I'm not a big fan of races that have inherent magic abilities/resistances, exactly because of their consequences on macro-economies - like demand in the workforce. Except I usually think of it in the more medieval or bronze-age way: slave labor. Elves don't sleep? That's around-the-clock work!

So, despite your premise being such a slippery slope, I'm going with mind-control/mind-reading as the most "impactful" magic. Because it doesn't really matter how impactful your magic is, as long as you can make people believe in it.

What if you knew a spell that would make you enjoy weeding?
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
Adding to the good contributions above:

1) Continual Light/Flame: light without the need for fire. This reduces serious hazards from open/uncontrolled flames on land, in mines, at sea, etc., from nighttime crime, getting lost or predation in the wilds.

2) any magic that can result in perpetual motion “free energy” type effects. That includes automatons, undead, and almost any magic that can produce long/permanent access to elemental planes or energy- everflowing water for mills, eternal flames for heat & steam, unceasing wind power. Even access to elemental earth could provide cheap building material or ammunition for war engines.

3) any magic producing long-term access to other planes of any kind can be invaluable in waste disposal, leading to reducing disease vectors.

4) any magic that can replace or rein in the scope of someone’s job, especially if the job involves skill. Mending, for instance, reduces the need for a lot of “bulk” skilled labor.
 

Aldarc

Explorer
Healing. How many village midwives will likely have the Stabilize cantrip? Birthrates go up. Childbirth-related deaths go down.

Outside of healing magic? Nature magic that can boost the agricultural output and food supply.

Think about how the proliferation of relatively lower-level magic will contribute to socio-economic impact of a culture. (Also think about who can afford what.) What would access to guilds providing Continual Light spells do for a town or city?

Blasting spells will also change how people fight in mass combat. Smaller, mobile formations that decrease the threat that a spell like Fireball would achieve. Or maybe even line formations that spread troops thin to prevent fireball. Troops protecting their magical artillery units. And troop formations designed to neutralize magical artillery.

Overall, never underestimate the "little things" about magic that have a much bigger impact than what spells like Wish can achieve. This is the lesson enshrined in Eberron.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
Almost any combat magic you can point at and magical creatures- domesticable, trainable or negotiated as allies- moves the way war is prosecuted away from pre-gunpowder offensive & defensive tactics to something more akin to the 20th century forward. That includes defensive combat engineering shifting from open-topped castles to bunkers, trenches, and a general lack of old-style battlements. Given the number of tunnelers and magical earth movers, any kind of earthworks are going to be more at risk, and possibly abandoned as a tactic in most situations.
 

Doug McCrae

Adventurer
Another other important question is: are the rules complete? Does magic exist in the game world that isn't covered in the game rules because it has no relevance to the assumed activities of the PCs?
 

Doug McCrae

Adventurer
Plant Growth is the most impactful spell in 5e D&D.

EDIT: At least in the core rules. The cantrip Mold Earth from Xanathar's Guide to Everything beats it.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
That includes defensive combat engineering shifting from open-topped castles to bunkers, trenches, and a general lack of old-style battlements. Given the number of tunnelers and magical earth movers, any kind of earthworks are going to be more at risk, and possibly abandoned as a tactic in most situations.
But.. bunkers and trenches are earthworks.
 

Doug McCrae

Adventurer
Lightning-magic spawned an entire D&D setting: Eberron.
I'd say Eberron was spawned, more than anything else, from the movie Raiders of the Last Ark. To a lesser extent, The Maltese Falcon. It's a mashup of D&D and fiction set between WWI and WWII. The magic trains and magic airships could be powered by anything with a fantasy flavour - elementals, golems, spells - but the real reason they exist is to meld the cool aspects of both fictional universes.
 
Magic will certainly have a pervasive impact. I think without defining how prevalent magic is and how it works it will be impossible to answer exactly how impactful it might be. I think much of the extrapolation often depends on several assumptions I find unreasonable, first that high level magic can be made prevalent and second that any magic and especially high level magic has no side effects simply because none are listed in things like spell descriptions. And I think that magic especially powerful magic is likely to have side effects and that just because we don't really know how it works or just because those potential side effects aren't described doesn't mean that they aren't there.

So first, I think the most impactful magic will be the ones that are available at low level because those are the ones that will be most pervasive and sustainable. I don't believe that high level spell casters are something that most societies can produce in significant quantities and though even a few of them will have a big impact, it won't be the most impactful simply because of its rarity and its unsustainability. The rarer the high level caster the more likely their works will break or be destroyed before another high level caster comes along with the willingness to repair them.

And to that we should now append that again, it really matters how magic works. In 3e for example almost all permanent magic involves an expenditure of experience points, which is far more valuable than the expenditure of gold or even time, as it not only involves the spellcaster spending some of their past life, but sells off their future as well by setting back their development. So things that cost XP are going to be limited according to the availability of that resource, which for most NPCs is going to be a very dear resource indeed. In 1e almost all permanent magic involves risking the permanent loss of health in the form of Constitution loss. Again, this is a very dear resource indeed. And this is just the part of the magic we have some knowledge of how it works. We know vaguely that that 'gold' in 3e actually abstracts out the expenditure of rare magical consumables, such as gems or monster parts. But without knowing for example how many Griffins must be slain to create a magic item that requires Griffin parts, we don't really know anything about the long term impact or the scalability of the 'technology'. It could be that high demand would drive magical beasts to extinction, eventually ending the technology.

Consider the case of the zombie powered grist mill. We know that zombies can power a grist mill. We have no idea how quickly a zombie body will fall apart if eternally condemned to turn a grist mill. We do know that zombies seem to have no ability to heal on their own, and that I would think means that you'd need some sort of zombie servicing technician capable of healing zombies from the damage of decay and wear and tear that goes below the level of hit point injuries but which would certainly accumulate. And so now you must not only postulate someone is creating zombies to run grist mills, but also that someone with the magic to repair zombies is willing to maintain them and that communities are OK with grandma being zombified and turned into a component of a grist mill and that you can do all of that with no magical or spiritual side effects. Maybe, and as a DM you could say that indeed that does happen in your game, but I'm skeptical that if realism is the goal here that it will be simple or necessarily vastly superior to having a few donkeys turn the mill.

Or in short not only must most impactful magic be prevalent and accessible, it must also be permanent, cheap, and renewable.

Finally, magic if it has a negative impact will almost certainly have a strong push back. If people don't feel magic on the whole is making life better, they will justly fear and hate those that abuse it or even practice it. A good example is mind controlling magic. A spell like 'Charm Person' as some have pointed out would have a huge impact on a setting. But the impact is so large and so wholly negative that it's likely to just result in everyone known to be or believed to be capable of casting 'Charm Person' murdered in their sleep, and society feeling that it had not done ill by ridding the world of such a monstrous power. That is a huge impact on the world, but not necessarily the sort that I think the OP was thinking of.

So additionally, the impact of magic must either be inescapable or else it must be one that society will tolerate and allow or else the actual impact can only be great in the sort of persistent resistance to and defenses against magic it creates. And further, it's impact must be measured in terms of some sort of balance or demographics which, this being a fantasy game, I don't feel amiss in describing as not less than the conflict between good and evil. Enriching plants via plant growth indeed could have a potentially large impact on society, comparable to scientific farming methods in impact (though on its own not as great, presumably much of the rest could also be magically replicated). But that impact is only actually realized if the number of spell casters enriching plant growth exceeds those stunting plant growth by the equally accessible application of negative magic, and that in turn will depend on unanswered questions we have about the nature of spell casting - who can learn it, how widespread it can be, how tied to some sort of cosmic balance it is, and so forth.

I haven't rigorously looked at an SRD for the purpose of addressing this question (and I'll probably do that now that the thread is suggesting I do so) but I'd second a vote for something as simple as 'Mending' as addressing all the issues that I brought up and therefore likely making a pretty big impact on society. It at the very least suggests that being a magical tinkerer and fixing things is a viable trade that people are likely to accept as long as you confine yourself to something that they can understand and appreciate like that, and it's economic impact while subtle is I think going to be rather powerful if it becomes pervasive if you think about how many "broken windows" it saves and how many man days of labor to replace them it saves at a pretty trivial cost.

Endure Elements has certainly had an impact in our current campaign as the party travels through the steaming jungle, but its impact on the larger world again depends on demographics. Before you can really use it to replace skills like Endurance and Survival, you need to be able to cast it on a significant portion of the work force - and it's not really clear that enough spellcasters exist to do that. Obviously, you could postulate a world where routinely common laborers were low level spellcasters in order to take advantage of Endure Elements, and assuming they could also and at the same time acquire the other skills they needed for labor, then that might work. But it's not at all clear that D&D or most RPGs really do endorse the idea of everyone being a 1st level wizard, and you have to wonder if there wouldn't be subtle consequences to that like everyone has a bad Fortitude save that would make the society fragile in the long run. And that depends on the demographics of commoner in your world.
 

Kaodi

Adventurer
As per the RAW I think you could buy a magical piece of clothing that allowed for Endure Elements to be used once per day for as little as 200 gp. A level 1 npc with a rank in a profession skill, the npc array, and skill focus would make, I think, an average of 9.25 gp per week. So for about half a years pay you could never be made uncomfortable by the weather again, and you could pass on this same ability to a line of your descendants. Would people in the real world shell out 20-25K to never feel hot and probably never feel cold again?
 

Blue

Orcus on a bad day
As per the RAW I think you could buy a magical piece of clothing that allowed for Endure Elements to be used once per day for as little as 200 gp. A level 1 npc with a rank in a profession skill, the npc array, and skill focus would make, I think, an average of 9.25 gp per week. So for about half a years pay you could never be made uncomfortable by the weather again, and you could pass on this same ability to a line of your descendants. Would people in the real world shell out 20-25K to never feel hot and probably never feel cold again?
That's the cost of a car. And then, it's not "never be made uncomfortable by the weather again", it's "one specific set of clothing you won't be uncomfortable". So it needs to be washed. Is it work clothes, party clothes, outdoor clothes - it's not all fashions (that's a different enchantment). Most people also won't wash and wear the same clothing every day to every event.
 
As per the RAW I think you could buy a magical piece of clothing that allowed for Endure Elements to be used once per day for as little as 200 gp. A level 1 npc with a rank in a profession skill, the npc array, and skill focus would make, I think, an average of 9.25 gp per week. So for about half a years pay you could never be made uncomfortable by the weather again, and you could pass on this same ability to a line of your descendants. Would people in the real world shell out 20-25K to never feel hot and probably never feel cold again?
Half a years pay is as [MENTION=20564]Blue[/MENTION] has pointed out equivalent to the cost of the car. If a day's wage for an unskilled laborer is about 1 g.p. then 200 g.p. is roughly the equivalent of $10,000 in modern terms. That's an expensive piece of clothing. Certainly the wealthy would pay for that sort of comfort, and you could probably make a living making tunics for knights to keep themselves cool or warm in their armor but would the impact to the ordinary person by in fact that great? Or to put it a different way, is the garment so much better for an ordinary person that they'd decide to purchase one over the cost of enduring the elements by mundane means and wearing much cheaper clothing that is still suited to the environment.

For one thing, I have a hard time imagining that a piece of cloth if worn daily, and worked in under conditions of manual labor, and washed regularly would survive to be passed down to your descendants. And again, we are back to what does magic do and how does it work. If in fact merely making cloth magic made it immune to ordinary wear and tear, that would be a much bigger impact I think than even the fact that his magical cloth made you cool or warm at need, especially considering the historical cost of cloth before powered mechanical looms. Bandits stole clothes from their victims in historical times because the clothes were some of the most valuable portable goods that could be procured.

Mending doesn't work on magical clothes, and though the game doesn't model ordinary wear and tear on magic items, realistically I think they are going to occur unless you flat out state that it doesn't. I would not expect a garment meant for hard labor to survive use for more than a few years, and then the question becomes did possession of that garment costing half a year of labor in those few years increase your productivity by half a years worth of labor? Maybe, but such garments while impactful are by no means certainly common.

But you are right to try to exploit the magic item construction system in 3.5. It's not balanced and in particular it is very much not balanced at all with respect to making short duration effects persistent or long duration effects daily. In fact, in large part for the very reasons we are discussing here - potential economic impact - I use different numbers and sometimes different systems than the raw for figuring out what arbitrary items should cost.

And for me the big one that needs discussing in terms of its impact in an item is perhaps the most broken spell in the game: "Create Water".

(PS: As I said, I use a different system so I'm not that familiar with the RAW, but as best as I can tell the cheapest you can get on 1 1st level charge/day item for 3.5e is 360 g.p., which is closer to a year's wages.)
 
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Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
But.. bunkers and trenches are earthworks.
Right- sorry I wasn’t clear.

I was trying to say that most of the stuff I mentioned would lead to 20th-21st century style trenches, bunkers et cetera...

...BUT...

With all of the tunneling critters, elementals with earthglide, and earth moving magic spells & relics, even those might be abandoned as being too risky/vulnerable except in certain circumstances. Remember how in Desert Storm, coalition forces simply bulldozed over some of the entrenched Iraqi positions, burying soldiers alive? Or the bunker-busting bombs deployed in most major air forces?

Now imagine fantasy analogs: an enthraled earth elemental being set upon an enemy bunker. Or a Druid casting “Earthquake” and/or animating the roots of foliage to attack those in tunnels.
 
So I'm going to list spells that I think would fundamentally change the world, and their impact on a scale of 1-5

Light: 1 - 10 minutes of bright, clean light doesn't have trivial value in a culture without affordable lighting options. Biggest impact would be items that packaged the light.
Mending: 2 - Repairing broken items completely and cheaply has tremendous cumulative economic impact. Everyone is wealthier. Certain acts can be undone and reversed which would not otherwise be reversible.
Mount: 4 - An absolutely tremendous source of free labor - one horse power for a whole working day more or less free. Material component is highly sustainable, and packaged this is incredibly powerful.
Comprehend Languages: 3 - Ability to read any written communication has huge value.
True Strike: 3 - Fireball gets the attention, but this is the spell to watch for in terms of military implications.
Charm Person: 3 - Huge potential impact, however biggest impact will be the zeal with which society will prosecute attempts to use this spell. It's probably a death penalty offense to get caught, and I'd rule that on a passed save you have some idea someone tried to enspell you.
Disguise Self: 1 - The ability to look like someone else creates a huge problem. Impact decreased though because society would adapt to not trust what it sees.
Silent Image: 2 - The ability to make something that isn't there appear there creates a huge problem. Impact decreased somewhat because society would adapt to not trust what it sees.
Summon Swarm: 1 - Potential military implications, limited mostly by the short range. Exact impact depends on rulings on how the spell works.
Detect Thoughts: 1 - Mind reading has huge implications. Limited by short duration and the fact that casting it unobserved will be in practice difficult. Obvious implications to legal inquisition though, and even if it isn't admissible as evidence in court, it certainly is a good source of leads.
Continual Flame: 4 - Light this cheap, abundant, and clean has amazing economic impact. Even with a cost of say 50 day's wages, this is worthwhile and pays for itself. The quintessential economic impact spell.
Magic Mouth: 1 - Anything permanent has impact. A hidden impactful feature of this spell is that it has artificial intelligence.
Invisibility: 3 - Major implications only partially mitigated by the fact society would adapt and create defenses against this spell. Impact decreased only because economic value is low.
Minor Image: 2 - As silent image. There is also implications for this as a form of art as a theater production, possibly not unlike going to the movies. It's almost certainly the case this spawns a profession.
Alter Self: 3 - The 3.5 version is pretty broken but this is one of the lowest level spells that forces you to deal with the impact of flight on a culture. Also disguise self but not an illusion, so even harder to defend against.
False Life: 1 - A very underrated spell in terms of its impact or utility. Protects from most ordinary hazards for practical durations.
Levitate: 3 - Again, flight or in in this case, a crane that can be employed anywhere.
Spider Climb: 3 - Nearly flight and has much the same implications. Huge impact when packaged in an item.
Tongues: 4 - A spell I'd like to think has enormous positive impact in reducing misunderstanding and creating empathy between people. But then, knowing people, probably not.
Tiny Hut: 1 - This is absolutely amazing emergency survival utility. Impact limited by the cost to package the ability which is a reoccurring problem starting at this level and higher and the reason I don't think higher level magic would be as impactful as the lower level stuff.
Major Image: 2 - As silent image.
Fly: 3 - The ability to defy gravity is profoundly influential.
Water Breathing: 3 - This is so powerful that it's probably economically viable to package the ability, even at this level of spell. There is almost certainly a profession based on this ability and retrieving what was lost from underwater.
Phantom Steed: 1 - Ironically, probably not nearly as broken as it's 1st level counterpart 'Mount'.
Fireball: 3 - The quintessential military impact spell. One of the spells that calls into question the nature of war unless you can adjust the rules of mass combat to compensate.

Listing these spells, I also realize that most of these have been altered in my house rules to some extent. Fireball has a counter for units with shields in formation. Fly has gone up a level. Spider climb is severely nerfed. The cost of packaging these spells as items is generally increased. Continual flame has an XP cost. Etc.

At 5th level, the implications break wide open and I've always limited them only by assuming there are countable 9th level casters in the world - often single digits per nation state, with '1' not being an unusual single digit.

Higher level spells to watch out for:
Animate Dead - 4
Dominate Person - 2
Wall of Stone - 5
Fabricate - 4
Sending - 3
Dream - 3
Teleport - 3
Nightmare - 3
Magic Jar - 2

Most of those would be 5's or force me to assign 6's if they were lower level and more accessible. Wall of Stone is particularly problematic, even at this level of accessibility.
 
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Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
I just saw in my mind an ad for “Two Men and a Tenser’s Floating Disc Moving Company”.

And Magic Mouth being used like those motion detecting advertising installations. Or on the front of ambulances, “Get out of the way! Get out of the way!”
 
I just saw in my mind an ad for “Two Men and a Tenser’s Floating Disc Moving Company”.
Good grief, I forget Ernest's Floating Disc. Yeah, that one deserved mention.

And Magic Mouth being used like those motion detecting advertising installations. Or on the front of ambulances, “Get out of the way! Get out of the way!”
Only if in a permanent form, and the permanent form is expensive.

However, one unaddressed issue is that most of the spells that get published for D&D are spells which are primarily of use to adventurers. But by no means can we assume that these are all the spells that exist, and there would seem to be spells of equal power to those that are published which we could imagine, but which if they existed would have huge implications to the setting.

I tend to create these mostly as counters to spells to explain why seemingly powerful magical effects aren't as profoundly impactful as they could be. For example, I have an 'improved magic mouth' that among other things can be triggered by the presence of invisible creatures. In general, in order to defend against something the defense needs to be cheaper than the thing it is defending against. In practice though, D&D has tended to make defenses expensive and attacks cheap.
 
Right- sorry I wasn’t clear.

I was trying to say that most of the stuff I mentioned would lead to 20th-21st century style trenches, bunkers et cetera...

...BUT...

With all of the tunneling critters, elementals with earthglide, and earth moving magic spells & relics, even those might be abandoned as being too risky/vulnerable except in certain circumstances. Remember how in Desert Storm, coalition forces simply bulldozed over some of the entrenched Iraqi positions, burying soldiers alive? Or the bunker-busting bombs deployed in most major air forces?

Now imagine fantasy analogs: an enthraled earth elemental being set upon an enemy bunker. Or a Druid casting “Earthquake” and/or animating the roots of foliage to attack those in tunnels.
The question becomes, "Are casters capable of doing things like that around in sufficient numbers to dominate all military thinking?" Seriously, in the campaign world that I've been running there is only one 10th level wizard in the whole nation the players started in, and yes, he's notable and his name is known to the enemies of that nation, but one Earth elemental might not turn the war and all military strategy on its head all on its own and - as Rawlings noted - the enemy has wizards too.
 

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