World-Building: Magic, Power, and Economics (Primer)

“Comfort and habits let us be ready to forgo, but I am not ready for a creed which does not care how much it destroys the liberty and security of daily life, which uses deliberately the weapons of persecution, destruction and international strife. How can I admire a policy which finds a characteristic expression in spending millions to suborn spies in every family and group at home, and to stir up trouble abroad?”  John Maynard Keynes from A Short View of Russia (1925). Reads rather like a certain, more modern problem.

Mo Magic, Mo problems?

For me, magic is the essential element of Fantasy. Magic, even in its subtlest forms, invokes that sense of the Fantastic, clearly showing us that we have passed beyond the looking glass. Fantasy authors and gamers argue endlessly about what makes a good magic system. Many of them make excellent points, and I don’t really feel the need to put forth my own theory of magic system design (yet). The magic in Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale and Bloodlust: Will to power is functional and familiar: I felt that asking readers to accept a long story about Fantasy Gladiators was enough of a departure point for a new author.

Stripping magic down to its bare bones, to the mechanics of the magic system  as a gamer would say, leaves us with the following necessary parts.

  • Internal Consistency: Magic is usually, but not always, supernatural. It does not have to follow the laws of science as we understand them. Because of this, it is doubly important for a writer to be consistent when using magic in their writing. If a reader catches a contradiction in the way magic is used their suspension of disbelief will often fail. Skilled world-builders create rules for their magic systems either beforehand or as they write. The reader does not have to be exposed to these rules, however. As always using folklore and tropes allows a writer to tap into rules that have already been set out in myth and fiction, but make sure to use them consistently.
  • Fantastic/Supernatural/Miraculous Element: Magic should, on some level, be obviously unreal. It helps acclimatize the reader to the idea that they are reading a story in which the impossible is possible. This does not hold true in all cases however. Some forms of Fantasy make good use of the device that characters and readers are unsure if they are facing mundane or magical challenges.
  • Definition and System: The Writer should know what the magic is. Is it the language of creation? Is it the magician tapping into the code of the simulation the world resides in? Is it bargains with Eldritch powers? Is it a gift from the gods. ETC ETC. Again the writer needs to knew these, the readers do not. Costs and requirements are important. Who can use magic? How does one learn?

Pretty basic stuff.  Keep it in mind as we move to what I really want to write about: the effects of magic on power structures and economics.

Much like how magical elements shift warfare, I find that the impact of magic on the rest of the world is often ill considered in Fantasy Games and novels. Here are a few simple example, purely chaotic.

  • Resurrection: In Bloodlust the Gladiators can attune to Keystones, powerful constructs that allow them to survive almost any injury. I am very careful to limit what the Keystones can do, however. They must be attuned to beforehand, they are heavy, and they have limited range. Certain spells and abilities can overcome the magic of the stone or inflict injuries beyond its ability to preserve the life force of a Gladiator. Without these restrictions, Keystones would become weapons of war, allowing the Gifted to engage in warfare without almost no risk.
  • Magical Resources:  If magic requires certain resources, then control of those resources becomes a major part of the economy of the world. Even if the resource is relatively common, a monopoly or speculation can create false scarcity. The nature of these resources can add interesting spins to the world as well. Think of how the nature of oil or steel and how it is extracted has changed our world.
  • Cure Disease: The cure disease spells found in most games are better than modern medicine. If easily available they remove one of the bigger pressures on population growth even in medieval settings.
  • Magical Crops: Magic is likely useful for more than fighting. A spell that enhances crop yields likely isn’t going to excite readers or game players, but it could certainly vastly increase the population of a kingdom. The same goes for magically enhance methods of gathering or processing other resources, creating a better economic base for a fantasy nation.
  • Knowledge Economy: If spells are lore-based, like most Tolkien style fantasy, then their is a definite economy in keeping spells secret. A powerful wizard might trade great favours for important lore, or kill for it. Spying becomes part of magic, and protecting one’s research is a full time job. And the poor fool who tries to share all of his lore with the world for free? the others would gang up on that guy.
  • Light: It is hard to imagine the modern world without a reliable source of light at night. The changes that could be wrought by even this kind of simple magic are profound. Less fires from lanterns and torches, more productive time in the day, and so on.

These are just simple examples. In general every change that magic brings should be thought through. The details make for excellent world-building and will really fire up a readers imagination. I know I am a big fan of Fantasy Authors who delve deep into the changes that magic creates in their world…


One comment on “World-Building: Magic, Power, and Economics (Primer)

  1. […] Last week I scribbled about the idea that magic could have a drastic effect on the economics and pow…. The example I gave were fairly simplistic and I wanted to follow up a longer, more interesting example. I chose the idea of taking power from the land which is well represented in fantasy. Examples include Magic: The Gathering, where players use land cards to generate mana to power their spells and the Fallen Enchantress series where players capture elemental nodes on the landscape to increase their spell power. The basic idea is that the magic user draws the power needed for their magic from the lands they control. Lets say I like this basic idea and want to use it as a magic system in my game world or story. I’ll start by defining the fundamental characteristics of the system and then move on to how I think those will inform basic world building. […]

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