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Worlds of Design: Four Stages of Magic - Part 1

The idea that there are natural stages that derive from use of magic is not new. Figuring out the stages can help a lot when you’re creating a fantasy setting.

Generally it appears the case that, when faced with all life's problems, the baby, he wants to cry about everything, the child wants to question everything, the teenager wants to rebel against everything, the young adult wants to solve everything, the middle-aged adult wants to protect everything, and the elder wants to accept everything.
― Criss Jami, Healology​

Without thinking, we tend to assume that magic will be regarded in the same way by the inhabitants of every fantasy world. That is, we assume that everyone will have roughly the same opinion about the power of magic, about how easy it is to use, about how safe it is to use, and about how moral it is to use it. FRP game rules frequently contain/imply such assumptions, and insofar as most of us played D&D/AD&D before any other RPG, we may be prisoners of this initial exposure. (By the way, in "magic" I include spell-casting and spell-like abilities of all kinds, not just "magic-user" spells.)

If you think about it, however, you'll realize that there are a number of ways to view magic use. At an Origins game convention long ago, Kerry Lloyd of Gamelords Ltd. briefly outlined to me four ways of looking at magic, stages that succeed one another. I'll describe and greatly expand his analysis here. The four stages may be called the Infancy of magic, Adolescence, Maturity, and Senility (or, as Kerry called it, Decadence) . Anyone who is thinking about creating a fantasy gaming world/campaign should think about these stages and the questions and assumptions underlying them, and consider how things will be in their world.

Infancy

The Infancy may begin before writing-and-agriculture civilization has begun, through witch-doctors and shamen, or it may come later when magic use is somehow “discovered”. At any rate, in this stage virtually everyone is afraid of magic, which is a new, strange phenomenon - supernatural in the sense of "beyond understanding". A few brave or foolhardy persons experiment, nonetheless, attempting to penetrate the mystery, to remove magic from the realm of the supernatural to the realm of the natural, and therefore the controllable. Others with natural talent use magic without quite realizing it. Frequently they attribute magical affects to the gods rather than to their own efforts. Hence these natural talent magicians have no conscious self-interest in learning about magic.

In this stage, anyone who uses magic is viewed with a mixture of awe and fear. If awe predominates, the magician is revered and his/her/its commands are usually obeyed, whether the awe derives more from fear or respect. If fear predominates, the magician is hounded and persecuted, rather like Dr. Frankenstein in the horror films. He/she/it must practice their art - it is not yet a craft, let alone a science - in secret. Finally, in this stage there may be many people who don't believe that magic really exists at all.

Adolescence

Gradually, however, a significant number of persons learn how to deal with and control magic - magic becomes a craft, not an art. They teach apprentices, write down their observations and techniques, and begin to be interested in more than the gods. This stage rarely comes before civilization has begun in earnest; a barbarian-illiterate tribal milieu isn't likely to provide sufficient leisure or adequate capability to accurately pass on detailed knowledge through generations and over great distances.

This may be the era when many of the great basic tomes of magic are written, and often hidden away or lost as years pass. In this stage, the great magicians, and others of great power or knowledge such as rulers and priests, use magic directly or indirectly for many ends. They are no longer afraid of magic: to them it is a tool in the same way that swordsmanship is a useful but not mysterious skill.

The average person living during this stage knows about magic intellectually but not emotionally. Or put another way, he knows that magic can accomplish certain things, and that a person with sufficient knowledge (and, perhaps, innate ability) can master certain uses of magic, but there is a large gap between knowing this (intellectual knowledge) and losing one's fear of magic (emotional knowledge). Magic is still a mystery to the average person, who fears it as much for its proven power as for its mystery. Most fantasy role-playing games depict magic at this stage.

Maturity

In the third stage, Maturity, magic becomes an everyday affair just as high technology is an everyday affair in our era. Magic becomes science, and probably goes some way toward replacing mechanical technology. Why develop fertilizers when a magician can enchant fields to gain better yields? Who will develop steam-powered water pumps if magic can pump the water? Why experiment with ways to forge stronger steel when magicians can enchant metal?

Although the average person may understand magic no more than an average American knows how their smartphone or WiFi works, nevertheless there is an understanding of the consequences of use of magic, and of ways to use it safely. People lose their fear of the mystery and power of magic. They of course recognize that magic can accomplish great things, just as we recognize that modern industry can create "wonders", but the fear is gone. Magicians tend to be seen as technicians, not as near-gods or those who speak for gods (Infancy) or heroes/generals (Adolescence).

(When my wife read this, she noted that Maturity is somewhat like Steampunk, where the technology “just is” even if most don’t understand it.)

Next time, the fourth stage, Senility, and some of the consequences of these stages.

This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. Lew was Contributing Editor to Dragon, White Dwarf, and Space Gamer magazines and contributed monsters to TSR's original Fiend Folio, including the Elemental Princes of Evil, denzelian, and poltergeist. You can follow Lew on his web site and his Udemy course landing page. If you enjoy the daily news and articles from EN World, please consider contributing to our Patreon!
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

Ramaster

Explorer
At the start of some DMG or other there was a bit about worldbuilding and the "knobs" you can turn to adjust your world. Like, whether Gods are unapproachable or if they walk among us. This is a cool way to look at magic from a worldbuilding perspective. On large settings, magic might be at one stage on a given continent but on a completely different one on the other!

While your wife thought about "steampunk" for the maturity stage I was reminded of most MMO I know, with their "portal networks" and their "crafting systems". And you too. Ajsdnkajsd
 

Koloth

Villager
Once magic becomes tech, it becomes fairly easy to introduce unintended consequences. Similar to the modern smart phone being a personalized tracking device monitoring where you go, what you eat and who you are with. Maybe that magic wand can be monitored by the MSA - Magic Security Agency.
What about possible environmental issues? Too much magic use might drain the region's or world's mana pool. If that is the case, can mana be mined, stored and transported? Might create trade routes for raw mana.
 

Aldarc

Adventurer
Eberron has possibly been the best official D&D setting in exploring the natural consequences of magic as tech, including the uneven development of various "modern" luxuries.
 

Derren

Adventurer
One thing that regularly pops up is that many people want magic to feel of magic in its infancy (mysterious, unpredictable) but in order to play a magic user, magic internally must be mature, at least to the player (if you do X, Y happens so and so often each day etc.)

In my opinion it is nearly impossible to play a magic user with magic being in its infancy.

By, the way. Best Magic - Technology mix? Shadowrun.
 

SMHWorlds

Explorer
And you can slot particular settings or styles of magic into each of those eras. A game like RQ would have several of them living in concert with one another.
 
You can take this further. Like human lives you have a cyclical aspect to this. Senility overlaps with Infancy and Adolescence. There are artefacts around that no-one understands and a new generation trying to decode them, create their own magical revolution. The old age of magic is in Senility while the new age of magic draws on its secrets to form a new Infancy and Adolescence until it develops to Maturity and the old age and new age become one.
 

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