Sunday, 5 January 2014

Two Drivers for Magic in your Setting

I've grown up with the standard approach to magic in fiction: pseudo-mediaeval society, before the industrial revolution, with knights in plate armour, and wizards in towers. This is the kind of setting where magic seems to be the domain of the few with the exception of the player characters. I understand why this makes for a good story, but what would happen if we add a revolution into the mix?

Before I go any further, I want to say that I haven't googled any of this so I don't know (a) if anyone has done this before (probably have) and (b) I'm not so fussed about that because if I don't get this written down it'll go around and around in my head until I'm a crazy old cat man. Now back to the speculation.

When I think about the industrial revolution I think about how clever engineers devised machines to increase productivity by saving the amount of labour required to produce commodities. I'm thinking about machines like the steam engine, the archimedes screw, and the cotton gin. Machines like these dramatically increased the output of factories and made the industrialists rich.

In the classic fantasy tropes, magical knowledge was available only to a few just like engineering knowledge. On the other hand, from the little fantasy I've read I didn't see people turning it to labour saving uses for the masses. Wizards seem hellbent on keeping the knowledge to themselves, to benefit themselves. So let's imagine that a fantasy nation, from as early as we can imagine the combination of magic and invention, doing what actual humans have done in history.

Invent machines for war and work.

War is the easy one to imagine. Fireballs, lightning bolts, golems, and enchanted weapons are just the tip of the iceberg. With a magical arms race in full swing by major economic powers, the possibilities for magical warfare are diverse. Our modern warfare has bayonets, small arms, grenades, anti-personnel mines, anti-tank mines, rockets, bazookas, mortars, tanks, artillery, fighter jets, bombers, spy planes, intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear warheads, chemical weapons, computer hackers, and drones. Plus other things.

It could be added to the setting in two ways. One is to just make magic versions of the same devices. And that's boring but serviceable. The other is to make a magic weapon that does something functionally similar. An ICBM is a long range explosive. Imagine a magical weapon that traverses continents, hits a target with reasonable accuracy, and explodes. Or would it simply be a teleported fireball? Or a remote earthquake spell?

The point is that warfare drives part of our own technological innovation (GPS, radar, etc.) and it should also drive the development of magic.

The other one to imagine is work. Imagine if a Merlin type character, in a post-Roman Britain, worked for a merchant or an agricultural lord rather than King Arthur. There's no need for serfs to till the soil if a spell can do it for less bread and in less time. So the serfs move on to other occupations, including magical studies. I think about it in the same way that today there are countless more people studying engineering (and other industrial disciplines) than there were before Stephenson built the Rocket. Instead of farmers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and so on, imagine a myriad of schools of magic where students learn how to use it for civilian purposes.

Today's economy includes products and services, for consumer and industrial markets. What would a magic economy produce? What would the market demand? If all this development took place a thousand years before the European industrial revolution would our ancestors have been interested in iPods and smartphones, albeit the magical equivalents of them.

If it really happened in history, it makes for great story fodder. I think that the political and economic drivers of war and work would significantly change a fantasy setting if only the wizards could be turned to those purposes.

Which fantasy settings do you know that use magic this way?


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