D&D 5E World Building: Tech, Magic, and Society

greg kaye

Explorer
A while ago I did some research in how much / fast a person could dig a hole. I figured that gravedigging would set a reasonable standard. I found a reference from the 1800s that discussed gravedigging in Nova Scotia. It reported that it took two men six hours to dig a grave 7 ft deep, 6 ft long, 2 ft wide using wooden shovels in "rocky soil". Long time.
...
Grave digging in rocky soil: 7 ft * 6 ft * 2 ft (84sqft) in 6 hours
Mold Earth in loose soil: 5ft * 5ft * 5ft (125sqft) in 6 seconds
 

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Oofta

Legend
Well, by the "can I move it with a shovel" definition it would be.

I mean... whoever designed the spell never picked up a shovel in their life. That said, it's only barely inferior to move earth, the 6th level spell. If I read it correctly.
Which is part of why I rule that it is far more limited to loose earth. Saying that you can dig with a shovel isn't saying much. Given enough time and effort, just about anything short of solid rock can be moved with a decent shovel.
 

squibbles

Adventurer
Well, dang, this thread got very fixated on grave digging very fast. The internet is a hell of a drug.

Okay, so wind up to question 3: Should you use historical models for your D&D world, or does magic throw that off? [...]
The answers depend a lot on your starting assumptions. If you're taking the approach recommended by @Oofta to start with the fantastical world you want and work backwards to things that must be true about magic and the in-world expression of the game rules, you could use a historical model without it being terribly thrown off. And that's a good way to go.

To me, the more interesting thought exercise is to start with the assumptions and then try to figure out logically what kind of world there would be. It's an impossible task, but can lead you to weird places... which is why it's fun.

I tried working through this exercise with the 5e core books a little while ago and found myself going in a unexpectedly anthropological direction. These are my assumptions, which kind of followed from one to the next as I thought about it:
  • Magic comes from gods and fundamental principles of reality that predate civilization. Magic would have shaped life and civilization from its infancy, which means that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to start with a level of technology (i.e. renaissance, medieval, etc.) and then add magic; magic needs to be baked in from hunting and gathering forward.
  • This means that magic has been around long enough to cause civilizational selection pressure. So, while there may at one time have been groups which feared magic or persecuted magic users, those folks aren’t around anymore. They were all outcompeted thousands (millions?) of years ago by groups which made effective use of magic.
  • It stands to reason that magic would be extremely prevalent—as prevalent as it is possible for mortals to make it—since it gives those who have it or have more of it strong advantages over those who don’t.
  • So why wouldn’t everyone be a magic user? Possibly some species are (high elves, drow, forest gnomes, and tieflings just in the PHB), but I’m going to make further assumptions based on generic fantasy conventions and the text of the 5e core books, that there are some substantial practical limitations which prevent it:
    • I doubt that a god or similar entity is willing to delegate its powers to more than single digit percentages of any mortal polity. The PHB notes for example that “Not every acolyte or officiant at a temple or shrine is a cleric” and “the gods don't grant this power to everyone who seeks it” (both PHB 56). Divine beings are, in general, jealous of sharing their power.
    • Similarly, externally powered casters probably can't serve the competition/fitness priorities of the societies they are part of, since their supernatural benefactors will impose other priorities. So, for example, if druids are “concerned with the delicate ecological balance that sustains plant and animal life, and the need for civilized folk to live in harmony with nature” (PHB 65), you can't really have an agrarian empire that relies on them to cast plant growth to sustain its large population.
    • Sorcerous powers that are inborn/genetically inherited are pretty limiting on magic as a technology. Excepting a massive state run breeding program far exceeding, say, that of Dune's Bene Gesserit, genetically inherited magical ability would be hard to scale.
  • So then, everyone is a wizard?
    • No, but lots are, maybe most are.
    • If people can learn to be wizards through study and practice, like the way a 21st century person can learn to synthesize dangerous chemicals, build electronic devices, carry out surgery, or play concert violin--but these skills are ALSO the cutting edge of military, economic, and technological advancement--then society would optimize to train as many of these people as possible.
    • Potentially, this group includes bards, but I'm not sure if their abilities are partially inborn or fully learned.
    • Wizard's and bards wouldn't be the equivalent of 21st century engineers and lawyers, or the equivalent of college graduates, they'd be the equivalent of 21st century people who can read, write, and use a computer--if you can't do those things, you are at a huge disadvantage compared to the very large group of people who can.
  • And given that this paradigm, potentially, arises very early in sapient social development, there are lots of things that we see as inevitable, that a magic-having society might never do.
    • Lets say that early tribal and clan based societies learn that they can survive indefinitely by having a druid cast goodberry multiple times a day for them. 1st level druids feed 20, 5th level druids feed 90, 10th level druids feed 150.
    • Druids don't like to do this very much--but one day one clan anywhere in the world realizes that they can reliably train college of lore bards to do the same thing.
    • This society can scale up to billions of people without ever developing agriculture (apart from cultivating sprigs of mistletoe, but technically that's arboriculture).
    • Every other society would copy it ASAP or be destroyed.
  • And without agriculture, nothing from any premodern society makes sense.
    • There would be no wars of conquest--since it's people and not land that creates value (though I'm sure there would still be wars of some kind).
    • Technological development or progress would be vanishingly rare--since technological innovations would be less efficient than magical solutions that are already available.
    • Families would be small, like they are now--since, unlike in premodern societies, children aren't a cheap source of labor on the farm.
    • Gender roles would be egalitarian--since neither gender has physical advantages in casting spells.
    • And all kinds of other weirdness.
[...] Last, but not least, people sometimes get too caught up in things like "Castles wouldn't stand a chance against dragons". While this is true if dragons had just popped up in some medieval city, but that's because dragons don't exist in the real world. Therefore in a world with dragons there would be counters to dragons. When people's lives are on the line we tend to get quite creative on how to defend ourselves. [...]
I think dragons and other airborne threats would lead large societies to build their settlements mostly underground. With sufficient magical food and light they wouldn't need to go outside very much.

I proposed in other threads these casters should be pampered relative to the value they provide society. [...]
most talks focus on arcane magic, but IMHO the biggest change is divine magic. Divine magic is more accessible as there are more people willing to devote itself to a deity than to decades of mind twisting study. And this devotion has a very tangible feedback: divine spells. Now, there is no excuse for a hamlet to not to have cleric. Small wounds would be healed instantly. A non-magical epidemic can be curbed by casting enough lesser restoration.
I think these takes are mistaken. If casters are extremely valuable, society is going to make the maximum amount of them it can--and wizards are probably the least bottlenecked class of casters a society can produce.

Of course, a few druids with Goodberry, and there is no need to grow food at all.
Except that the druids might be philosophically opposed to this arrangement.

If mold earth could move non-loose earth, you could rapidly undermine many structures, without risking mining. ⚒️
A lot of worldbuilding could be rapidly unbuilt.
I agree that this would, potentially, be one of the civilizational game-changer spells, along with continual flame (permanent indoor light), lesser restoration (end disease), and wall of stone (infinite construction materials).
 

Wall of stone is a big one.

Find three or more natural stone outcroppings near the surface that are less than 200ft apart. Use the 3" thick wall variant (10 20x10 panels) to connect them. Now add as many other Walls of Stone as you need to create your fortress, expanding off those footers. Use the 3" walls to make your shell and interior walls to have something quickly, then layer more walls over them. Or cheat and make intentional cavities between walls for your grateful villagers put fill material like clay. Or the bones of your enemies. Whatever.

Speaking of the peasants, one wall of stone can make a 400sf hut with 3" solid stone walls, arched ceilings 15ft at the peak, ~150sf loft space and a fireplace. It can't catch fire, will never rot, no drafts, can't be chewed up by squirrels, can't get termites, and is immune to arrows. Pile some dirt up on the exterior walls for insulation. All the peasant has to do is build the doors and windows to go in the holes you left.

It is adequate shelter for a family of 4. Not roomy by any means, but sufficient. Daisy chain a few together to make temples or taverns.

Make one or more a day.
 

greg kaye

Explorer
Wall of stone is a big one.
...
How does its durability compare with other walls?
"The wall is an object made of stone that can be damaged and thus breached. Each panel has AC 15 and 30 hit points per inch of thickness. Reducing a panel to 0 hit points destroys it and might cause connected panels to collapse at the DM's discretion."
Are there signs, on D&D maps, of wall of stone being used?
 

The answers depend a lot on your starting assumptions. If you're taking the approach recommended by @Oofta to start with the fantastical world you want and work backwards to things that must be true about magic and the in-world expression of the game rules, you could use a historical model without it being terribly thrown off. And that's a good way to go.
already you have my mind going. Like a week and a half ago I was scared to make a world and DM and now I am thinking about a second campaign/world. So wow way to go. Although right now I am trying to focus on the world I am building.
To me, the more interesting thought exercise is to start with the assumptions and then try to figure out logically what kind of world there would be. It's an impossible task, but can lead you to weird places... which is why it's fun.
oh my is it ever.
I tried working through this exercise with the 5e core books a little while ago and found myself going in a unexpectedly anthropological direction. These are my assumptions, which kind of followed from one to the next as I thought about it:
  • Magic comes from gods and fundamental principles of reality that predate civilization. Magic would have shaped life and civilization from its infancy, which means that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to start with a level of technology (i.e. renaissance, medieval, etc.) and then add magic; magic needs to be baked in from hunting and gathering forward.
This is a great start. I immediately started thinking about how 17th level druids wizards sorcerers clerics bards and warlocks didn't just spring up though, no more then we with tech started with ARs and Iphones. So magic 10,000 years ago may have been much more primitive, and even 500 years ago some spells that are common now may have been rare or not existed then... that lead me down a rabbit hole that will be my next post.
  • It stands to reason that magic would be extremely prevalent—as prevalent as it is possible for mortals to make it—since it gives those who have it or have more of it strong advantages over those who don’t.
yeah I have heard this with the harry potter world building before, that mages should be ruling the world because of natural selection... meaning our understanding of sciences says magic wins.
I think dragons and other airborne threats would lead large societies to build their settlements mostly underground. With sufficient magical food and light they wouldn't need to go outside very much.
I don't know about underground, although I am sure some would, but domed castles is the answer I see a lot.
 

So far as I know, they used bronze in ancient Egypt. This sounds more Celtic to me. But there are plenty more knowledgeable historians than me on these forums.
Offhand, New Kingdom Egypt is iron age - but I also know that casting iron was and is really uncommon because you need extremely hot furnaces and even with those don't get good results in most cases. Cast Iron is industrial revolution technology.

But, at least in the early iron age I could see people trying to cast iron and finding the cut-tree method better than casting in sand like they did with bronze.
 

Offhand, New Kingdom Egypt is iron age - but I also know that casting iron was and is really uncommon because you need extremely hot furnaces and even with those don't get good results in most cases. Cast Iron is industrial revolution technology.

But, at least in the early iron age I could see people trying to cast iron and finding the cut-tree method better than casting in sand like they did with bronze.
But would their be sufficient availability of the right sort of trees in Egypt?
 

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