World-Building: Magic, Power, and Economics using Magic: The Gathering Lands as an example.

Lands for Magic: the Gatherng

Last week I scribbled about the idea that magic could have a drastic effect on the economics and power structure of a fantasy world. 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.

Mystic Lands Magic System

  • It takes time to attune to a land. Only one magic user can attune to a land at a time. Other magic users have a vague sense of who is attuned to a land.
  • The characteristics of a land make it useful for certain types of magic, Mountains are good for earth and fire magic, swamps are associated with death and decay, while forests are good for healing and growth.
  • Because the characteristics matter, not just any land will do, areas worth attuning to are relatively rare and require a certain archetypal quality.
  • A Magic user has some small talent for magic on their own, but to do any complex magic they must have access to the raw power they can channel from their lands. The more powerful the spell the more land they must be attuned to.
  • Lets assume that mages are common enough to have an impact on politics and economics in our world.
  • There are a wide variety of spells but most magic-users stick to one or two specialties based on the lands they control.
  • Since this is inspired by, and not base on Magic: The Gathering, we’ll leave out the MTG fluff like planes-walkers and such.

Our Magic: the Gathering inspired system now has enough characteristics for me to extrapolate some ideas of how it will influence the political and economic environment of  standard fantasy world.

  • Heightened Feudalism: The foundation of feudal power was the ownership of land. If control of land directly increased the magic-users power it becomes even more important to them. We therefore know that control of the land is central to our world, especially to the magic-users. Territorial disputes will be taken very seriously, which will lead to a fair bit of conflict. Mages without access to lands become a sort of magical under-class, unable to fulfill their potential. Ideas of ownership and inheritance of land are central to the laws.
  • Conservation and Protection:  Since the characteristics of a land influence what type of magic can be drawn from it, you can be damned sure the controlling magic-user will be watching over his or her lands and trying to keep them as pure a possible. This might mean that they come into conflict with others who may wish to use the land for more mundane purposes, which would alter their bond to it.
  • That man reeks of the swamps!: If control of lands is important, it is likely that the magic-user will spend a far bit of time near their power base. People will judge a magic-user base on where they live and develop prejudices and generalizations about those who dwell in certain areas based on the type of magic that can be drawn from them. Mountain fold are more warlike, swamp-dwellers are morbid, and so on.
  • Land Destruction: Total warfare in such a world would often entail destroying an opponents places of power. (MTG actually delves into this) This sort of nuclear option could have nasty long term consequences with bitter wars between magic users leading to cataclysms as magic-users destroy each others lands. Even common people could wage war against the magic-users in this way,
  • Mage Lords: Because of their need to control the land magic-users would want to have a fair bit of temporal power as well. After all, an army could really come in useful if a horde of orcs decides to use your forest for firewood. Mages would likely be powerful landowners or warlords in order to keep tight reign over their lands.

Those are nice, simple extrapolations, but delving further into it we can come up with some really juicy ideas.

  • The Problem with Cities: Urban sprawl and human habitation changes the characteristics of the lands where it occurs. Some mages in the world might be very interested in population control as measure to keep their power base safe, This makes for an interesting tension between the magic-users and those who wish to make different use of the land, The problem could be exacerbated if some new-fangled type of magic-user draws power from urbanized lands or some sort of unknown power starts staining the land.
  • Concentration of Power: Even if the magic-users avoid confrontation with the mundanes over land use, conflict can arise as more and more land falls becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Landless mages will always be on the lookout for ways to get their hands on some power while those with great power will have to guard their territories zealously from each other as well as the landless.
  • Land ho!: Imagine the discovery of a new land-mass, unclaimed by magic-users in this scenario. The land-rush would be intense. Magic-users already have a big incentive to explore, given that undiscovered lands are a ready source of power, Colonization in such a case would take on the worst aspects of imperialism, with the powerful competing with the desperate in a bit to come out on top in the mad rush to gain control of all that land…
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