Wednesday, May 12, 2010

All The Magic In The World

The question I received from Jhandar goes as follows:

“While I understand that economic spread sheet calculations represent trends and pricing guidelines for your world, I wonder at various magical spells that would have fairly large impacts on certain items. From basic agriculture benefiting from a plant growth spell which is available to both druids and mages, the impact of this and frequent application would lead crop yields centuries into the future ...”

A large impact? No, not really.

While mage spells are able to effect an immediate change upon the environment, in all reality the world is simply too big a place for it to be productively influenced by the presence of magic. There are not enough magicians, particularly of high enough level to cast spells that have permanent effects, and they are too scattered throughout the civilization of my world.

Take the first, best example, plant growth, which was specifically mentioned. According to my player’s handbook, it requires a third level druid to cast the spell, as it is a third level spell. Now, this is not so unlikely - druids are uncommon, but I would estimate there are three for every hundred levelled persons, and one third level druid (or stronger) for every eight druids encountered.

Given the previous post, the reader must remember that not every third level druid in my world would take plant growth as a spell, particularly their first spell - but there are less than twenty third-level druid spells that I use, so it would probably get taken by a fair number of druids who were eighth level or better. The ninth level druid in my offline campaign has the spell.

Plant growth is described by the book as affecting a 1” diameter square per level. I always consider that 1” = 10 feet, but the DMG is clear that in the outdoors, 1” = 10 yards. For the purpose of this post, let’s use the DMG’s definition.

This sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t. Let us say a 12th level druid (call him Troy) decides to influence the local crop production by casting the spell every day on the local Lord’s fields. Each day Troy grows 10,800 square feet of ground, enabling that land to be immediately harvested. In the space of a month, Troy can affect 324,000 square feet.

However, when you consider that one acre = 43,560 square feet, this is a total of only six acres. A typical, poor peasant will normally influence the growth of 30 acres, which will grow a crop of hay in as little as 60 days. Most other crops take less than 100 days. In 100 days, Troy can affect all of 24.7 acres - less than an ordinary peasant can accomplish by applying simple labour and time.

Since there would normally be forty times 30 acres on a typical manor, and as there are literally tens of thousands of manors in my world - from which the grain supply derives - we’re talking about a paltry effect where it comes to the casting of the spell. This is reduced further when it is considered that I don’t rule that a spell has a different influence depending on whether one is outdoors or not, so that a plant growth spell in my world cast by a 12th level druid only affects 1,200 square feet per day. Troy would be far better off paying attention to other things, and letting his hired men raise crops ... and very occasionally stepping in to influence things when the weather needs a kick in its ass.

Even at that, spells like precipitation and cloudburst affect comparatively small areas of land, and produce vastly reduced amounts of rain, when compared with natural phenomena. It takes a very high level druid to really bend the weather around - and one has to ask, why would he bother?

Wouldn’t it come to light for many very high level druids that, philosophically, there is as much a logic to death, decay and drought as there is to abundance? Drought clears land and reduces the population - people being, always, the worst enemy of druids. And while not all druids would have this outlook, it again reduces the class influence.

So, when you add up the variables - the number of druids, the minimum level of the druid, the likelihood of the druid taking that spell, the very high level the druid needs to be to have even minimal effect, and the inclination of the druid ... we are talking about no real effect on the economy at all.

Remember, it is a very large economy. I think the scale of my world is really what is at question here. The vastness of what hundreds of millions of people can do in terms of manufacturing washes out the special influence of a few powerful magicians - who, on the whole, represent perhaps 0.01% of the population.

Similar examples abound. The creation of both a wall of iron or a wall of stone, for instance. These are both fifth level mage spells, and so they are naturally rarer than plant growth. The Player’s Handbook describes a wall of stone as a 5’ square surface, 3’ thick (I think - I may have to go home and look this up). While this has a marvellous use for an instant wall in many situations, and where it will help throw up a shelter in a matter of days ... but a single casting still represents only the amount of work that could be expected to be done by any ordinary labourers in the space of a day. And day labourers are MUCH easier to come by than 9th level mages who happen to have the spell in question. Construction goes on everywhere, all the time ... and I can also imagine the labourers are a LOT cheaper than finding, recruiting and compensating the mage would be.

And there is a consideration in terms of engineering acumen. A mage may be able to throw up a twenty foot stone wall, three feet thick ... but who’s to say it has been properly settled on a good foundation? Would that wall have exactly the necessary shape, taking in account of the stress factors that tons of stone creates? I would wonder how many foolish mages would spend weeks throwing up a castle, only to die in the night as it collapsed under its own weight. A mage would also have to be a mason if any structure magically created in this fashion was expected to exist permanently. And that combination makes the likelihood even rarer.

There are similar concerns about a wall of iron. Most players would imagine that the iron could be used to easily plate the outside of a tower - but iron is many times the weight of stone. Medieval iron is not equivalent to the prehensile steel we use to make office towers. Any permanent fixture made of iron would have real problems.

These are the sorts of things that I know many other players disdain to consider. But I find my pleasure in thinking about how these things would work within the existing frame of reality. There it is, and if you read this blog you won’t be surprised.

Now, coming to Jhandar’s question about technology - yes, there is much to be said for the effects of magical research. Magic would allow for considerable investigations into every scientific field ... including mathematics, but I will let the theoreticists argue about that. I believe that a magically fuelled world would be technologically beyond the natural world as it was in the mid-seventeenth century (my world’s time frame). Chemistry and medicine would in particular be understood to a far greater degree. And this is why I do consider, fundamentally, that every imaginable technology could conceivably exist on my world, however difficult it may be to find.

That difficulty I believe is based upon another consideration in magic, which does not exist in the real world - not all magic works for good. Yes, a group of magicians should be able to research the method and build a ‘space elevator’ into space. Hell, why not? It is cutting edge technology for us, at the moment in development stage by a company working in Seattle. But that company does not have to deal with something that a magical world must consider - that any apprentice fool with a change cantrip can weaken the chemical structure of the metal holding up said elevator, such that it need not crash down this minute, but at any time. Anything delicate could, quite easily, be spoiled by the simplest of magic - the very magic that a boy is taught before he learns his first full spell.

If you accept the existence of cantrips (and I do), then the argument must be made that as a mage gathers knowledge, he or she learns these little cantrips. And there would be many more half mages or quarter mages running around with a cantrip or two than there would be actual mages in the world.

And so if the world had flintlocks and arquebuses, it would only take a few apprentice mages to dampen their powder and cause those weapons to blow up in the user’s face. Any sort of delicate instrument, from motors to light bulbs to whatever you will would be at the mercy of unravel, tarnish, tangle and so on. This is a main reason why a fighter might be more interested in a durable, reliable broadsword than in a pistol.  A crossbow, fucked with, just falls apart.  A pistol, fucked with, blows up.

The power of magic to destroy invented technology is far more pervasive than its power to create technology. It is not only the magic we would like to have, but ALL the magic, possessed by every kind of creature - and many more creatures and actual gods (unlike this world where we have only mock gods), all with an agenda, with a purpose, far beyond what the players can realize.

For every force increasing crop yields, there are forces capable of poisoning or curdling the world in order to keep the peasants starving and weak, to undermine kingdoms or to bring down other competitors.  The only thing that keeps this chaos in check is that, over it all, there exists a supernatural hierarchy having one all-consuming interest: