The Political Economy of Low-Cost Extradimensional Energy

Nob Akimoto

Nob Akimoto

Nob Akimoto is a policy analyst and part-time dungeon master. When not talking endlessly about matters of public policy, he is a dungeon master on the NWN World of Avlis

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68 Responses

  1. Avatar bookdragon says:

    Speaking as a level 15 Artificer (;D) I’d say that a study of the influence of science and engineering in the growth of both empires and modern states in the real world answers most of the question.

    Obviously we can’t harness actual magic, but based on Clark’s 3rd Law, what we can do – and in fact frequently take for granted that we can do – would be indistinguishable from magic to most of our distant ancestors who lived in feudal societies.

    Of course, there is one assumption missing in your list: that the state and/or populace sees magic as a good thing, rather than a force drawn from the powers of darkness. Again, the impact of that assumption is also observable in the real world…Report

  2. Avatar Annelid Gustator says:


  3. Avatar Murali says:

    So that explains Thay as well as the fact that most major cities have a big mage quarter.Report

  4. Avatar North says:

    I’m assuming for the purpose of this thought experiment we’re ignoring the other forms of magic such as the faith based divinely granted magic (clerics) and the inherent bloodline driven magic’s (sorcerers)?

    Given this I don’t see an enormously different world than our own. What we’re talking about would be a world where the intellectuals have some actual physical oomph behind their smarts. This suggests to me that early intellectuals wouldn’t have been quite so vulnerable to rampaging barbarism in your world (people would be thinking twice about sacking the local Monastery if there were plausible odds that the scholars housed within would turn you into frogs and then blow you up. Also knowledge in this world has a real value that’s evident even to your standard club waving warlord so there’d be a greater inclination to value it.
    So, on that measure I would expect an accelerated accumulation of knowledge due both to a reduced rate of barbarism against intellectuals (driven by both fear and wider valuing of knowledge).

    On the other hand physical sciences could be given a shorter shrift. Why spend centuries figuring out the laws of thermodynamics when you can conjure a fireball using magic?
    On the other-other hand intellectuals are a restive bunch and you’re inevitably going to have real science being discovered by magic users and the safer stable intellectual environment could foster the development of the physical sciences under the sheltering umbrella of the protection magic would afford universities, schools, monasteries and libraries.

    Optimistic take: A world with magic would be better than our own simply because magic is a resource and a world with magic would thus have more resources than our real world and, ceteris paribus*, more resources are superior to less resources.

    Pessimistic take: A world with magic would be potentially worse because of a greater amount of ways to unleash violence upon each other. Potentially magic would offer individuals the power that is currently wielded only by advanced states. Would Gengis Khan have hesitated to deploy nuclear weapon level magic? I think not.

    *This presumes compatibility with technology. The Arcanum of Steamworks Obscura world, interestingly, assumed incompatibility; magic was weakened and ineffective in areas of significant technological activity and technology and the basic laws of nature got squirmy and malfunctioning in the presence of powerful magic.Report

    • Avatar bookdragon in reply to North says:

      For some reason this comment, particularly wrt to physical sciences, immediately made me think of Discworld – in particular, Ponder Stibbons, Head of Inadvisably Applied Magic, whose experiments with High Energy Magic and attempts to ‘split the thaum’ caused much consternation among his elder and more traditional colleagues (not to mention the folks in Ankh-Morpork who got the fall-out when those experiments went pear-shaped).Report

    • Avatar Alan Scott in reply to North says:

      Man, I hate settings where spells and technology are portrayed as opposites. Science is the opposite of magic in real life because science is truth and magic is bullshit. There’s no reason that conflict should extend into a world where magic isn’t a lie.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Alan Scott says:

        Yes, there is. Science is only plausible in a place where the world is predictable. When you get well-designed worlds, the designer asks himself “okay, how predictable is everything”… and then has to answer why.Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Kim says:

          The way they describe magic in the D&D universe, it itself is predictable. The shaping of arcane forces requires formulae; presumably there are underlying rules one can discover and build a physics of magic.

          The addition of divine magic does add a wrinkle, but it’s not necessarily outside the bounds that this also follows its own rules.Report

          • Avatar Kim in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

            If things have too many variables, they cease to be predictable. D&D doesn’t have your spellcasting depend on the phase of the moons, the amount of mana around you, etc etc.
            D&D would make a decent science/magic hybrid. Not all systems are like that.Report

            • Avatar Alan Scott in reply to Kim says:

              The phases of the moon are pretty predictable.

              Magic in a game in inherently predictable on some level, because it derives from the game’s rules.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Alan Scott says:

                moons. plural. When you have three of them, and then need to use a supercomputer to model a storm in your gameworld… Then you’re looking at a reasonable level of “this shit is too complicated for a Medieval mind to understand…”Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Kim says:

                remember, the first step towards Science is repeatability. If things are too complicated from the get-go, you don’t get repeatability.Report

  5. Avatar Kim says:

    Kulthea was written by folks with more of an eye towards economics than D&D…
    That said, the most significant difference between Kulthea and our world is that Kulthea’s humans are under constant attack from monsters.
    (Yeah, they’re going more or less with city-states, but less “rural sprawl” and more “mostly defensible near the city”).Report

  6. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    1. I see no reason that a network of city-states, each with large agrarian aprons, could not be organized into a political superstructure that has a feudal-“ish” hierarchy. Obviously those city-states need not have democratic forms of government, and for a role-playing game a democratic government actually sounds quite inconvenient for the game master.

    2. Personally, I can’t logically avoid militarization of magic. The incentives for the state to exploit magic for its military benefit is simply too powerful to avoid the conclusion that magic will be channeled to that purpose. The typical magic-user is going to be a soldier who practices fireballs on targets in the drill yard every day, not a cranky but lovable old bearded hermit living in a tower in a forest with a room full of alembics.

    After all, the first polity to teach at least low-level magic to a significant number of its footsoldiers would gain a significant military advantage over its neighbors. The magic might be of an offensive nature — magic missiles or damage enhancements on melee weapons — or defensive, like armor buffs or quick-heal-your-buddy stuff. Either way, soldiers with magic, even low-level magic, are necessarily going to be better than soldiers without it. With your baseline assumptions that about 10% of the population is capable of learning magic, at some point, some rich noble is going to offer a trainer a substantial reward to train her military, and make an effort to recruit a higher percentage of smart people into the military to be trained. Doesn’t strike me as beyond imagination that while 10% of the general population would be magic-literate, a quarter or more of the military would be. If all the militaries are like this, there is a balance of power. If there is an imbalance, of course, there’s opportunities for fun. But over time, the arms race will force every military to match their adversaries’ training programs.

    3. In your capacity as an architect, you might want to consider whether you want mageocracy, aristocracy, or aristocracy-open-to-mages. Creating a world where magic use is incompatible with noble blood and eligibility for high political office is one way to control ridiculous and non-credible amalgamations of power. Culture or law eliminating magic from the highest levels of political power probably makes for better storytelling opportunities, and badder bad guys. And of course a Big Bad could be a nobleman who shocks his peers by attaining mastery in the arcane arts and breaks away from the political coalition and must be, well, removed because of political inconvenience.

    4. Another device to consider is a strong state in which private magic use required either employment by the state, or licensure from it. A special class of law enforcers would be needed, and charged with the detection of unauthorized use of magic and enforcement of the state’s monopoly on the use of this power. (Sounds like a good job for the PCs.)

    5. The nature of defensive structures becomes critical, too. You can create a substance that baffles magic, in the manner that Walter Jon Williams posited that bronze abosrbed magical energy in Metropolitan. A castle or a series of town walls would have to be not only thick and strong to withstand physical attacks, but also laced with bronze mesh, preferably encased within the walls rather than draped arond the outside of it. Military tactics adjust accordingly — enough physical damage must be done to the wall by the mundane segment of the military to pierce the magical baffle, at which point the military mages will use their power to exploit the breach. If you aren’t going to create a magic-baffling substance, then you’ve got to think through how a military that is going to have significantly mobile artillery (in the form of magically-trained soldiers slinging fireballs) would fight a large set-piece battle against a similar force. Seems to me that the battle would require both a stronger-than-real-life ability of the commander to exploit the terrain, and an even greater emphasis on infantry speed to close ranks and render useless the proliferation of the magical artillery. (Speed, of course, is also something that magic might be used to enhance.) But particularly if you posit the existence of a passive magic baffle (bronze mesh in the castle walls) the control of defensive structures becomes strategically essential for any kind of political activity.

    6. Can a magic-user sustain a population during a siege? If you can have a magic-user create food and water, then siege warfare quickly becomes a near-impossible proposition for a besieging force: you’d never be able to starve the enemy out of their castle. Maybe that’s good, if you want the PCs to break a siege by raiding into the defensive structure and taking it down from the inside. But maybe that’s bad, because it bogs down either the good guys’ or the bad guys’ army too much and denies opportunities for adventure and combat in favor of the more realistic-seeming series of events of a bunch of soldiers sitting around not fighting each other. Bo-ring!

    7. Possibly the msot valuable magic-users would be the ones who could create durable magic items. A wizard who can storing up fireballs in magic wands, for instance, could over time accumulate an arsenal of those things to distribute to soldiers. Once again, enhanced combat abilities. If the state militarizes magic use, then +1 swords would proliferate. (Why limit it there? Why not +2’s or +3’s? Or vorpal blades?) So too will armor get better, quickly, and in large numbers. Speed- or initiative-enhancing military boots would up the ante for the magic-enhanced army. And given the premium that the state will place on such magic-users, it seems only realistic that the state would incentivize people going down this career path, whether by inducement or compulsion.

    8. Then, there’s the economy question. If the entire army is armed with ultralight plate armor, seven league boots, and vorpal blades, these things stop being priceless and aspirational objects and start being commodities. A crate full of vorpal swords becomes something a gang of bandits can steal and arm themselves with, or that thieves than lift out of the armory and sell on the black market. The market price of the weapons will fall accordingly until — well, until you have a weapons economy that looks something like the present-day real world, where handguns are available for the equivalent of several days’ worth of wages. Not cheap, but within the financial grasp of nearly anyone. And if you’re positing an urban-centric geography, with city-states surrounded by large rural greenbelts, the relative scarcity of farmers will increase their wages. So those farmers are going to be armed with reasonably strong magical weapons to protect themselves from bandits, orc raids, and the rest. Now, maybe they cheat, maybe they don’t pay their magic-use license fees, etc. But I they surely aren’t going to put up with being pushed around by PCs trying to bully the local peasantry.

    9. If magic proliferates under the sponsorship of the state, woe be to the underpowered PCs who lack it. It’s bad enough being a level 1 PC likely to be taken out by a stiff breeze or a giant rat, but without some kind of a patron to provide the PCs with enough equipment to stay competitive with the arms race going on around them, you could be looking at a very rate of PC death. Unless you want to make ressurection magic common as well, in which case you’re looking at an economy burdened by overpopulation after a generation or two. But either way, the most convenient way to keep the PCs on some kind of rails I can imagine would be the need for patronage to just plain keep up with all the NPCs and baddies armed to the teeth with awesome magic weapons and armor. At least, until they get enough stuff that they can go rogue if that’s what they want to do.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Burt Likko says:

      (2) It depends on how common magic actually is, and it also depends on your ability to control the cabal of people who use magic.

      Now, if you *are* the cabal of people who use magic, that’s one thing… but typically “earthly power” is portrayed as something less interesting than the pursuit of arcane power – not entirely unreasonable.

      Problem with using magic-users as shock troops is that their hit points are terrible, and they can’t wear armor. Fireballs are much less effective than Summon Weather; a night operation with a Magic-User/Thief and Spoil Food would do more to stop a siege than a couple of fireballs (which have to be thrown from well within arrow range).

      A magic-user back at the castle, just producing sword +1s or leather+1, would be a better use than most.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        But if you can dual-class, or you dispense with the silly and arbitrary rule against armor, then there’s no reason you can’t buff up a footsoldier to the point he can shoot off a magic missile or two across a battlefield to soften up the enemy as he closes to sword range. And you put your more powerful spellcasters in back so a wall of infantry can protect them. I think that starts to look like a Napoleonic or US Civil War style fight, with advancing lines closing ranks under criss-crossing artillery fire.Report

        • Avatar bookdragon in reply to Burt Likko says:

          In that case the mages can make staffs to throw fireballs and hand them out to soldiers capable/trained to use them. (The people who made guns and cannons in those wars were considered too valuable to be near the front – much the way my grandfather was exempted from military service in WWII. Nearly anyone can be a foot soldier. Not that many people can design tanks).

          Actually I think the more interesting side would be development of new magical weaponry or perhaps new ways of using existing spells in that context. Sending false messages to enemy commanders, rusting important bits on siege engines, etc.Report

  7. Avatar Remo says:

    ‘Presumably any conquest would involve defeating a rival city’s own mages.’


    Mages are a very valuable resource. By your own numbers, about 0,7% of the population would be wizards of some competence. That is fairly low.

    Low enough that mages could actually have the power to be apolitical. Think about it – they have enough political pull that the rule at large could be – killing mages is a war crime anywhere. Any of said cities could not function if they had their mages killed. If a invader did so, they would be left with a large city on their hands with all the problems that exist in large cities but not enough mages to bring in the magical healing and heating needed to sustain itself.

    If i was a mage, thats exactly what i was going to push for too. Detach myself from society as a whole, as mages would be simply too valuable to be killed in the struggles of the normal buffons.Report

    • Avatar bookdragon in reply to Remo says:

      Given the %s, I’d say it’s unlikely that mages would be on the front lines in most battles. They’d be too valuable reinforcing defenses, sending magically fast messages, and creating enhanced weapons/armor for the regular soldiers. Only a small subset would be anywhere near the front – the ones needed for fireballs and related offensive spells.

      Killing a mage might not a war crime, but it would be a waste. I could easily see a rival city’s mages disappearing into the conquering city’s pool of magic-users (sort of like Warner von Braun…)Report

    • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Remo says:

      Not to be contrarian, but why wouldn’t we just harness this Low-Cost Extradimensional Energy with Mage Drones heating massive boilers of Water for near endless steam power?

      Not to mention toasty warm public baths?

      You see them as the elite, why not see them as a highly exploitable minority?Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Marchmaine says:

        People have written fantasy stories before where the mage class is the highly exploitable minority.

        It’s a hard sell. In order for you to use the mage class as a highly exploitable minority, you have to be able to exploit them. That means you need both information and power asymmetry in your favor.

        You’re unlikely to have either, let alone both.

        A particular ruler might be able to hold one mage under his thumb (“Serve me or your daughter will enjoy unspeakable horrors!”) but that doesn’t scale.Report

        • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

          Crony-Magism? Co-opt the Mage-Makers, exploit the drones?Report

        • Dune.

          In order to do magic at all, one must repeatedly use an addictive substance. Monopolize (local) control of the substance and control (most) magic users that way.

          Not saying that’s how I would set up a campaign. But it could be done; you could get large-scale control that way.Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Burt Likko says:

            Note that in Dune, the Emperor gets his ass handed to him by relying upon this control mechanism and then losing control of the control mechanism.

            Not that this refutes your point, just that when you mess with the bull…Report

            • Exactly. Keeping or seizing the control mechanism is an easy focus for a campaign. Maybe you need The Dingus to harvest it or control of a specific location like the Unobtanium mines–depending on how the GM wants to play it.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Burt Likko says:

                There’s also the engineered dependency on the other side. The Empire can’t survive without navigators.

                Really, if you’re going to subjugate someone, you can’t then turn around and make yourself critically dependent upon them. Bad idea.Report

        • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

          Ooops, also meant to add that I recall several anti-magic dystopias… but they all seemed allegorical to race issues. Were there others that contemplate magic as a purely exploitable resource? I haven’t dipped into modern fantasy (other than GoT) in decades, so quite possibly, yes?Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Marchmaine says:

            Usually authors don’t get quite into the mechanics of magic in that way.

            The Master of the Five Magics had some interesting implications. There are five schools of Magic… one of which (alchemy) can be outsourced and/or automated to a degree. Alchemy is treated this way in some other books, as well.

            It’s hard to make the complicated stuff, because you still need a high level of craftsmanship to do so, but it’s easy enough to mass-produce some simple things.

            If you could get 50 guys trained in chaining out Potions of X, but Potions of Z, A, and Q were all too complicated to automate that way, you could get some interesting sorts of power-stacking.

            I mean, let’s say you figure out a new cheap and easy way to generate potions of fire resistance. Healing or invisibility are too hard, but you can chain out those fire resistance potions like mad. You’ve got a pretty high incentive to use pyrotechnics heavily in your siege equipment, and even load up your own guys like suicide bombers with kettles of oil or alcohol, except they don’t suicide.Report

  8. Avatar Fnord says:

    I’m not sure where you’re getting your numbers for what portion of the population has a given ability score. Standard variance for a discrete uniform distribution of n=6 (a fair 6-sided die) is (6^2-1)/12 ~= 2.9; Uncorrelated variances simply add, so the variance of 3d6 is 8.7; the standard deviation, then, is ~2.9, not 2. So about 15% of the population has a starting Int of 13+, not 7% (it’s even worse if you use the actual distribution for 3d6, which puts more that 25% of the population at 13+).

    Also, under the 3e rules, you get an ability boost ever 4 levels. With +1 to Int at level 4, you only need a starting Int of 12 to cast 3rd level spells at level 5. So the numbers are even higher. Magic coming out of our ears indeed.

    Perhaps fortunately, we can make becoming a 5th level wizard difficult, even if you have the natural talent. Starting age for human wizards is 15+2d6 years. Average starting age is 22, then, and based on “adulthood” being defined as starting at 15, average education time is 7 years. So becoming even a 1st level wizard is, depending on our definitions, somewhere between acquiring a bachelor’s degree and a bachelor’s degree plus several years of graduate school.Report

    • Avatar Murali in reply to Fnord says:

      Anybody can use a staff of fireball if they have the appropriate feat. Either purchacing it or by taking a level in some rogue class (thief/bard). Classes, which usually have a fair bit of intelligence to allocate points for. Of course crafting items is a lot harder a proposition and you need to have a fair bit of experience to burn in order to do so.Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to Murali says:

        Anybody can use a staff of fireball if they have the appropriate feat.

        Is that true? I’m more familiar with Pathfinder, but as far as I’m aware you need to either have the spell on your class spell list, or you need to have the Use Magic Device skill (and bear a non-trivial risk of failure at low levels).

        Basically the only way for low-level characters to use wizard spell items is to take a level of wizard.Report

      • Avatar Fnord in reply to Murali says:

        Magical items are expensive. A wand with a 3rd level spell has a base price of 11,250 gp; what that means in real terms will depend on our economic assumptions. But it does mean that it takes 11 days of full time work by a 5th level caster to make it. If we are to assume that 5th level casters are rare, then their time will presumably be valuable. And it costs 450 experience points; what that means in real terms, again, will depend, but it is almost 10% of a level for a 5th level character. If high level characters are assumed to be rare because gaining experience is slow, difficult, or dangerous, then xp to be spent on magical item creation should also be precious.

        And wands and staffs are limited use items.

        If you want magical items, especially limited use magical items, to be common enough to have a major impact on culture, you pretty much need spellcasters to be common enough to have a major impact on culture.Report

  9. Avatar Morat20 says:

    Wish spells will really screw your economy. Forget gold currency, or gold-backed currency. The ability to Wish gold into existance — your economy would have to be either backed by the materials needed for a Wish spell (if they can’t be created by a Wish spell) or items/gems/etc worth MORE than the cap on a Wish spell.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Morat20 says:

      Of course, the rules are malleable. Make the house rule that works for your story.

      So make gold be the magic-baffling material. Now you can’t wish gold into existence. Armor with enough gold in it protects against magic–but gold is a soft metal so it makes lousy armor. There’s your inherent game-balancing tradeoff right there.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Witchblood, by Shetterly, explores the idea that steel is confounding to witches. It works out both to your advantage and disadvantage in the book (steel-armored knight can’t be hexed directly, but you can still loosen the stones on the ceiling above his head, which works fine; lightning is attracted to steel, so even though the witch suffers damage from backlash, you’re still crispy-crittered).Report

      • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Nah, then you’re just ridding yourself of rules rather than explore what they mean to the system. Wish isn’t the only way to permanently conjure — energy-to-matter conversion is baked into the magic system, and you’re starting with “What’s life like with a system with heavy energy input from an infinite ourside source”?

        Well, your economy is probably two-tiered — not by class, but by access to Wish variants and other conjuration spells.

        The non-Wish sorts (call it ‘lower calls’ — peasants, royalty, etc. Non mages and non-epic people, basically) use a standard currency. Gold, fiat, whatever. It suffices for them.

        The upper tier, however, don’t NEED that currency. It won’t buy them what they want. What’s the point of gold when you can wish it into existance? They don’t need anything from the lower classes (not food, not labor) — what they want are potent magic artifacts and rare meterials that are above or beyond the threshold for energy-to-matter conversion.

        Those people would have a barter sytem — unless they could find a substance that could not be conjured to substitute as coinage. (magicite or mana rocks or whatever). They’d trade the fruits of their labor — things they enchanted, acquired, killed the owners of, or looted — above the Wish requirement.

        I honestly don’t see much interaction between the two tiers. You’re lower tier until you’ve breached the Wish limit. Then you’re powerful enough to make or acquire post-Wish level goods, at which point it doesn’t matter how much gold the Mayor of Screwed Town offers you to kill the dragon. The dragon is only worth killing if he’s sitting on post-Wish level goods.Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Morat20 says:

          Did you read Brin’s “The Practice Effect”? The idea is that everything gets better with use.

          Interesting sideways effect on an economy.Report

        • Avatar bookdragon in reply to Morat20 says:

          A magical system where it takes a lot of time and study to become a mage inplies that they need to expend some time/concentration/level of personal effort to channel that outside energy source.

          So maybe they can do that to make food out of thin air and keep their castles warm, but does it pay to expend their effort their when there’s cheap non-magical labor available for the price of protection or the production of a few goods that would take mundanes a whole lot of effort to make? If it takes me the same amount of magical effort to make a plow that pushes itself as it does to magic a few meals into existence, then it makes more sense to make the plow and lease it out for a steady supply of bread.Report

        • Avatar Murali in reply to Morat20 says:

          As others have mentioned so long as magicking up your daily necessities is less magically (and energetically) efficient than providing magical services (soldiering, enchanting etc) for cash, you are going to need to participate in the muggle economy. And insofar as magically aided tools are more efficient than unaided tools, the use of such tools will become widespread. So, the rules can make conjuration/transformation especially energetically taxing. (e.g. David Eddings’ Belgariad), make it impossible (Wheel of time) and the economy can still plausibly function.

          Potterverse is probably one of the few cases where the described economy is implausible.* The magic there is just too powerful with too few drawbacks. People never seem to get tired of doing magic except as tired as people get by constantly waving your wand and saying words. There might be serious limitations on what spells can do, but it has never been explained as to how wizards get their food. They don’t buy it from muggles. And the weasleys as poor as they are don’t seem to be farmers. There certainly wasn’t anyone selling fruits or vegetables in diagon alley.

          *Seriously, no muggle born has thought of arbitraging the difference between the gold-silver exchange rate in the wizarding and muggle worlds?Report

        • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Morat20 says:

          I confess I don’t agree and don’t entirely understand the anti-house rule ethic:

          Nah, then you’re just ridding yourself of rules rather than explore what they mean to the system.

          Are you re-enacting Gettysburg here, or telling an interactive story? If a rule in the books doesn’t work for what you’re trying to do, discard the rule and use the plenary power of the gamemaster to do something that does work. To be sure, you should understand the rules and why they’re set up the way they are before you go tweaking them. But (for me) the fun of an RPG is in the adventure, not in losing yourself in the physics of the game. I mean, we’re talking about a game where elves and magic and dragons are at play. Magic is cheating past ordinary physics anyway. I say, don’t marry yourself to gritty realism like “A fire-breathing dragon couldn’t physically do something like that!” The dragon couldn’t breathe fire in the first place, and really, what use has a dragon for mounds and mounds of gold coins stored in locked, trapped chests? At some point, you’ve gotta say “Screw realism” and just go with it.Report

          • Avatar bookdragon in reply to Burt Likko says:

            Reminds me of one of my favorite D&D games from back in high school. We stumbled upon a dragon we weren’t in any shape to take on, but one of the group started talking philosophy with it. A very amusing exchange, although the tactic was clearly puzzling the GM, especially as the rest of the party caught on and joined in.

            Finally we passed him a note: ‘If we can convince the dragon that he is too improbable to exist, he will disappear in a puff of logic (see HitchHiker’s Guide)’

            GM rolled a die and looked up with an evil grin. ‘You’re all dead. The dragon saved with the ultimate counter-argument: I flame, therefore I am.’Report

          • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Burt Likko says:

            Hmm. it’s more that energy-to-matter is an integral part of the D&D system. Wish is just the extreme end of it.

            Your whole query — “outside energy into the system” — enables energy-to-matter (you have excess energy, so you can make more matter than is lost) so outlawing Wish doesn’t outlaw the problem unless you cull out every bit of conjuration magic.

            If energy can be converted to “stuff” then the cut-off point (whether it’s wish or something else) between “what can be created” and “what can’t” is a weird spot in the economy, and things are gonna be different on the far side of the divide.

            Gold is just especially illustrative because it’s a common D&D currency and can show the cut-off point. (It’s written into the Wish spell).

            If not gold — can you conjure food? Why have farmers in a world where Rings of Sustenance are cheap? Well, you have to feed the folks who can’t afford the Rings, but everyone else — they’ll conjure what they wish. Which means the “too poor for Rings” and “People who can afford Rings” participate in entirely different economies.

            Food is a requirement for life in one, totally immaterial in the other. You can trade cash for food in one, but in the other you can’t (or rather, who would buy and why?) no matter how much delicious food you might want to sell.

            if you get free “energy” that’s one set of issues. If you can use that energy to perform “work” that’s yet another. If you can turn energy into “stuff” that’s another.Report

            • Avatar Fnord in reply to Morat20 says:

              There are certainly economy-wrecking spells in D&D (Fabricate, Wall of Iron). But what it doesn’t do is create a bifurcated economy. It’s certainly not the case that rich people have their food magically created, while poor people farm or buy their food from farmers. If food from farms is cheaper than food from spells (holding quality, etc, equal), rich people can buy food from farmers and pay wizards for things they can’t get from farmers.

              If magic makes something so cheap that even that isn’t practical, you still don’t get a bifurcated economy, you get everyone buying things from the wizards. You don’t get rich people paying wizards to create Walls of Iron, and poor people mining. Even the peasant’s plow blade was once part of a Wall of Iron.

              But it’s not because the energy is “free” in the sense of coming from outside the system. It’s not free in a practical sense; it requires considerable human effort to train a wizard, and each wizard can only cast so many spells per day. It’s because magic is much, much better at it than mundane effort. If Wall of Iron made 3 pounds of iron per casting, instead of 3 tons, it wouldn’t break anything. And the fact the Fabricate merely rearranges matter, rather than bring outside energy into the system, doesn’t change the fact that the ability to turn 2 tons of raw material into finished goods with a single spell makes many varieties of mundane craftsman obsolete.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Morat20 says:

      Wish spells are really tricky, if they’re easy to cast. But maybe it isn’t materials. maybe it’s timing, and will, and a bunch of other REaLLY hard things to make happen.
      Then a wish spell becomes rare, and something someone only pulls off once — and maybe not for anything gamebreaking.Report

  10. Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

    Just posting a note to say I’ve been reading up on the replies and might do a composite post to address these concerns.Report

  11. Avatar James K says:

    I think there’s another variable you’re missing Nob – level requirements. In D&D the vast majority of people are low level – level 5 people (the minimum to cast level 3 spells), are fairly rare outside of adventurers who level quickly due to the sheer danger of their occupation.

    In a D&D style universe it’s entirely possible that wizards are too rare to affect anything much.Report

    • Avatar Remo in reply to James K says:

      A single Wish casting Wizard could be enough to change the economy of the whole world, depending on how much of a change a Wish could bring.Report

      • Avatar bookdragon in reply to Remo says:

        Did you see The Daily Show last night?

        Stewart looking into the screen, addressing Romney:

        So you’re repealing Obamacare, but you’re keeping the good parts of health care and Social Security and Medicare for current seniors, and you’re going to keep the employment programs, and you’re going to cut taxes by 20%, and you’re going to build more submarines and destroyers that the Pentagon even wants, and finally tackle our immoral debt and deficit.

        I’m gonna ask you a question. Let me see if I got it here. (takes out clipboard) As an American voter, and I think this is important, are you a wizard?Report

  12. Avatar Pinky says:

    Why assume teachable magic?

    I realize that that’s consistent with a D&D type world, but it’s not the only possible scenario. Xanth, for example, has inherent magic. But even within D&D, there are alternative ways to obtain magic. There are psionics; there are magic-equivalent talents that characters can develop as they level up; there are creatures with magical powers. There are also, as others have mentioned, magic items.

    The overall effect could be “magic deflation”, where the abundance of alternative magic sources lowers the value of the magic-user’s skills. I think that’s how the D&D world is pictured. Multiple sources means multiple islands of power, which results in diffusion.Report

  13. Avatar Zeno says:

    What if the more powerful the magic, the more radical the notions one had to believe to use it?

    What if there were great wizards among us, but they were ignored as crackpots, or else doomed to obscurity?

    In a hypothetical feudal kingdom public knowledge of magic would be limited to state licensed healing potion manufacturers and the occasional prodigy that managed to achieve the use of fireball. The cultivation of the talents of the already uncommon people with a natural inclination for magic would be retarded by a horrendous public school system and an overly baroque and needlessly obscurantist theory of magic maintained, epicycles/mechanical aether and all, by the massive bureaucracy of scholastics funded by the government in the form of Big Magic, who spend their days constructing ever larger circular henges in the hopes that a 21 km wide one will produce spirits with an energy equivalent to 18 TeraPrimes, something far beyond the pecuniary means of the independent conjurer. These factors would result in wizards capable of casting something like Wish appearing once a generation, and their mastery over these powers would be transient and feeble at best, so that they couldn’t be reproduced for a skeptical audience when the phase of the moon wasn’t correct. Mages who actually spent decades of their lives jumping through hoops to get their prestigious positions at Nibelheim U. and Riesenheim State and titles of D. Mag. and M. Sorc. would ridicule anybody who managed to happen upon a new spell, declaring such things impossible as evidenced by the Merlin-Sigismund Postulate(never mind that it makes exceptions for non-Vancian systems). Tomes like The Structure of Magical Revolutions would be read and commented upon, but would not change things very much. Over all, it may take centuries for radical changes in magical theory to be widely accepted enough to have any substantial impact on the economy or politics, and a new establishment even larger than the last would spring up to defend the modern Apeiron Centric Model of the Planescape against all challengers.Report

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