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Worlds of Design: The Four Stages of Magic - Part 2

The idea that there are natural stages that derive from use of magic is not new. Laying out the stages can help a lot when you’re creating a fantasy setting. Part 2. You can read Part 1 here.


Senility

The fourth stage, Senility or Decadence, is depicted in Larry Niven's fantasies about the end of the magic era and in Jack Vance's Dying Earth and Eyes of the Overworld. For some reason, whether magicians have naturally died off without sufficient apprenticeship, have left for other worlds, have been killed by non-human enemies, or have exterminated each other in great wars, there are few magicians left, and those who remain are usually those who were greatest or near-greatest of their kind. Such Powers exhibit one of two extreme attitudes. Either they no longer care about the world (they have more important concerns), or alternately they rule large areas by virtue of their powers (think of Sauron in Lord of the Rings in this context). No one actually bothers to make magic items any more, for there are hundreds of leftovers from the age of Maturity, hidden in hordes or accidentally lost or buried only to be found centuries later in this Senile age. As in the stage of Infancy, there may be people who believe that magicians don't exist - never did, or at least don't any longer.

The political struggles of the world, strongly affected by magicians in the Adolescent age and dominated by magic in the Mature age, are now settled by swordsmen in most cases. Magicians are too few to directly influence most struggles, and anyway they usually have more important things to do, from their point of view. In some ways this is similar to the age of Adolescence, but the magicians are far fewer and much more powerful, and there are more magic items (and, perhaps, magically created monsters) around. Some D&D campaigns depict this stage, primarily in the piles of magic items littering the world, but most FRP campaigns depict the Adolescent age.

What about Adventuring?

Given the variety of fantasy, and of fantasy role-playing rules, one can name many variations of the above stages, and perhaps other ways of treating magic. Later on I'll offer some questions referees might ask themselves about magic use while constructing a campaign. But let's stick to the above four for now and ask how they may affect adventuring.

First, what people think about magicians will strongly affect the fortunes of any adventuring group that includes a spell-caster. If the local culture is in Infancy, their reaction to a strange magician is more likely to be fear than awe. Hence, a magician must be careful to use magic undetectably when locals are around, or the magician and its group may be hounded out of town!

If the culture is in magic-Adolescence, adventurers who associate with magicians will have an exalted status, though they may nonetheless be subject to the orders of rulers. In fact, at this stage rulers and those who intend to become rulers may make special efforts to hire magic-users.

On the other hand, during Maturity magic-users will be so commonplace that their status (and the status of those who associate with them) will be that of "prominent citizen,” equivalent to the guard captain, well-to-do merchant, guild master, and so on in the fantasy world, equivalent to Ph.D. scientists in our time (well, until recently).

Finally, in Senility a magician will either be treated skeptically, or with great caution and some awe. A lot depends on their ability to convince locals that they’re very powerful.

Consider also what might happen when cultures at different stages interact. For example, orcs or barbarians may be at a different (probably "younger") magical age than civilized folk. I recall reading about a wild D&D adventure in which one character, through flashy use of magic, convinced some gnolls that he was a god. The gnolls couldn't have been at the Mature stage, and probably not at any other stage but Infancy. Human cultures in widely separated areas may be at different stages, a difference that player-adventurers could turn to some advantage.

The stages also "govern" the numbers of magic items and magicians extant. If, as most games assume, magic items can be made by mortals, then they will be most common in Maturity, least common in Infancy. Magic-using individuals will be least common in Infancy and Senility, most common in Maturity. An adventurer is much more likely to encounter a low to medium level magician in Maturity than any other age. High levels will be least common in Infancy, perhaps most common of all magicians in Senility, but very rare within the population. They may be extremely common in Maturity, but on the other hand, if the highest reaches of magic use can be attained only by those willing to take chances and to experiment with the unknown, the age of Maturity (when magic-use is a science) may be an age of relative mediocrity - few really high level magicians.

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

dave2008

Adventurer
Why is the wizard in the picture have different colored hair and beard...
Wizards are just darn crazy! Always have been - always will be!

That being said, I have a lot more gray in my beard than I do on my head.
 
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Hussar

Legend
How do divine casters figure into this model? One would presume that divine casters would have a massively larger effect on culture and civilization than wizards. And, while a culture could be a wizard magic "infancy" culture, they could easily be pretty mature with divine.

I think it would be a mistake to ignore the impact of divine magic or presume that arcane magic would be the major driver for how people view magic in a setting.
 

Arilyn

Explorer
How do divine casters figure into this model? One would presume that divine casters would have a massively larger effect on culture and civilization than wizards. And, while a culture could be a wizard magic "infancy" culture, they could easily be pretty mature with divine.

I think it would be a mistake to ignore the impact of divine magic or presume that arcane magic would be the major driver for how people view magic in a setting.
Yes, that's an excellent point. If you look at "magic" in our world it initially flowed from what people assumed were divine sources, whether the "divine" was walking among us as powerful beasts or gods above us. Arcane magic, as a separate force came much later. Now, we can assume that if there is or was magic in the world, early cultures erred in their beliefs of the source, that it is in fact, a force of nature that can be learned and understood in a sciencey way. This doesn't work in the vast majority of fantasy campaigns, however, where gods do exist. Having said that, arcane magic differs from divine in most settings. It does take the place of science because in our fantasy worlds, you can turn lead into gold, and use the positions of the stars to read the future, etc. Those early stages mentioned in the article would most likely be the fear of divine forces. Mastery of arcane would come later, as people figured out how the world works. Now, you just have to decide how the deities feel about lowly creatures wielding such might, without asking permission or being blessed. This can lead to peasants fearing wizards, as they are powerful beings, operating apart from the churches. Or the gods could be more benign, and wizards are scientists, who have figured out a bunch of esoteric knowledge, and that's not a problem in society. This could fit into the stages mentioned in the article, but you still have to deal with how the gods feel. Resigned? Never cared? People have matured enough to handle it? We are going to war about whether magic should be allowed in mortal hands?

So yeah, I'm not sure "stages of magic" is the right way to look at our typical fantasy settings. I think you have to look at how the divine tolerates arcane power, and how intelligent races deal with the divine.

There are also myriad ways to look at magic. Maybe it's always unpredictable and impossible to master, no matter how advanced cultures get. Maybe it's a stable force that is not going anywhere, anymore than gravity. The typical D&D world pushed into the future does not turn into us. What does it look like? Would we become scarily powerful and a threat to the planet? Would magic cause cultures to stagnate? Would magic be awesome because no pollution? Or are there costs in using magic that are harmful to the environment or the fabric of reality?
 

R_Chance

Explorer
And then there is a cycle. From Infancy on Adolescence to Maturity to Senility and back around again. A repeating cycle does a lot to explain the relatively large quantity of magic in "dungeons" / ruins and, at the same time, the significant number of low level adventuring magic users. My homebrew setting has been through the cycle once and is back at "Adolescence".
 
And then there is a cycle. From Infancy on Adolescence to Maturity to Senility and back around again. A repeating cycle does a lot to explain the relatively large quantity of magic in "dungeons" / ruins and, at the same time, the significant number of low level adventuring magic users. My homebrew setting has been through the cycle once and is back at "Adolescence".
Yes, this is the case in many popular settings - Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk and Wheel of Time for instance all appear to have gone through this and arrived back at Adolescence.

Dragonlance and Dark Sun could be categorized as in the "Senility" stage, or in the case of Dragonlance perhaps coming back around and going through a new Infancy.
 
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