Worlds of Design: The Four Stages of Magic - Part 3

Now that we've established the four stages of magic, here are some questions to ask yourself as you design your campaign world. You can read parts 1 here and 2 here.

[h=3]Art, Craft, or Science?[/h] First, is magic an art, a craft, or a science? If an art, there may be few practitioners, but some few of them may be spectacularly successful. Whereas if magic is a craft, there may be more practitioners, but fewer who are really outstanding, for in the course of turning an art into a craft, the most individualized, most unusual elements are often submerged beneath the general standards of the craft, resulting in a skilled mediocrity. If magic is a science, it becomes relatively easy to practice magic - it would be taught in every "university" - and the number of practitioners may be very large. Whether the most prominent "scientists" will be extremely powerful is a matter of opinion. Perhaps, within very narrow specialties, the most prominent magicians will he able to do wonders, but there will be no versatilely powerful magicians comparable with the most successful "artists".

Are the most powerful magicians merely the top of the pyramid, or far end of the bell curve of practitioners - are they merely those who practice and study more than their contemporaries - or are they those with the greatest talent or greatest luck in experimenting with the unknown?

I view magic-as-art as the realm of the talented and lucky, those who delve into the unknown, who depend on intuition, "wild magicians" with innate ability. Both magic-as-craft and magic-as-science would be realms of the hardest workers and best students (and of those best at following the accepted "rules").
[h=3]Morality?[/h] Is the use of magic regarded as moral by ordinary members of society? If not, magicians must hide themselves, much as Dr. Frankenstein hid his experiments with creating human life. This is the realm of the "angry villager" syndrome. I think that some forms of magic would almost always be looked upon as immoral, but no form, not even healing magic, would always be regarded as moral. An almost certainly immoral form of magic is necromancy, defined in this case as magic dealing with the dead. Humans, at least, object to anyone fooling around with their dead relatives and ancestors.

In many cases, society will be unable to differentiate between one kind of magic and another. Hence all magic may be regarded as moral or, more likely, as immoral, regardless of how helpful it may be to the populace.
[h=3]Religion?[/h] Magic in the name of religion is always more acceptable than magic detached from religion. For example, some earthly religions have had considerable necromantic content, but evidently were accepted by society. Magic coming from priests may be acceptable, while the same magic coming from anyone else is unacceptable - it may even be regarded as blasphemous. This question will be of great importance to adventurers, of course.

In medieval tradition, magicians took very little interest in affairs of state - in any affairs other than their own pursuit of power and money. But this isn't necessarily the case in a fantasy world. The general question is, how much interest do magicians have in the world at large? And in particular, how much interest does the referee expect player magicians to have in worldly affairs? I have seen campaigns in which player spell-casters pursued their own affairs without concern for politics, while in others they were forced to become pillars of the state, supporting the government or society against outside threats, or perhaps even bringing down the local government.
What is the relationship between magicians and authority in the society? I might have said "secular authority", because the relation between magic and religion is part of the question of the morality of magic. But sometimes a religious group may be the secular as well as the spiritual authority, and magicians must deal with it in both spheres. At any rate, the question is, do magicians support authority, do they ignore it, are they used by it? How are magicians treated differently from other members of society by the laws and customs of the land? Are they, like gunslingers in the wild west, required to "turn in their guns" - their wands and other magic items - when they enter a town? Are they specially taxed? Or are they exempted from taxes? In the extreme, are the rulers themselves magicians?
[h=3]Making Magic[/h] Finally, how do magicians learn to make magic items? Is it relatively easy, taking little time and money, or is it quite expensive and time-consuming? Can only the greatest magicians make items, or can anyone who learns a few necessary skills? In fact, can someone specialize in making items of a particular kind, for example certain potions? The answers to these questions will go far to determine the availability of magic items in the fantasy world. If "magic shops" exist, then either the world is full of magic items created in another age, a sign of Senility, or more likely magic items are produced wholesale, a sign of Maturity. In an Infant or Adolescent age, magic shops would be unknown, although the occasional magician might specialize in creation of simple magic items.

Think about these questions, and about the stages of magic, when you design your setting or campaign, and perhaps you'll come up with something more unusual than the typical medieval fantasy so commonplace in gaming.

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!

log in or register to remove this ad

Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio


A well thought out an useful series of articles. The one thing that made me smile was this bit:

"Think about these questions, and about the stages of magic, when you design your setting or campaign, and perhaps you'll come up with something more unusual than the typical medieval fantasy so commonplace in gaming."

The medieval world is very alien to modern people. It may be a "typical" setting, but it's rarely done well, or perhaps I should say it's rarely truly medieval. Even if you posit medieval ideas evolving and changing, what you end up with is a world with very different ideas than ours. The game "reality" of multiple gods / faiths, various intelligent races, magic, and monsters changes the path from the, historical, medieval / feudal society / world to our modern world. There is a lot to explore in the "typical medieval fantasy" world.

Related Articles

Visit Our Sponsor

Latest threads

Level Up!

An Advertisement