The Political Economy of Low-Cost Extradimensional Energy
Reading through Taylor Martin’s excellent blog pointed me in the direction of a Dan Nexon post at the Duck of Minerva. Both Martin and Nexon have interesting takes on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (a League contributor favorite), but it was a throwaway line by Nexon that caught my eye.
…let’s not even get started on whether the political economy of feudal society is compatible with low-cost extra-dimensional energy sources….
As a part-time world builder and dungeon-master I’ve often wondered what practical effects low-cost (or relatively low-cost) extra-dimensional energy would have upon the political economy of a given setting. For the most part this has been within the context of a D20 based world, with the traditional D&D tropes of magic and a pantheon of gods who can manipulate reality. So what does the political economy of a society with low-cost extra-dimensional energy (henceforth referred to simply as “magic”) look like?
To answer that question I first have to come up with a set of ground rules. I’m going to assume the following for this exercise:
- We’re going to use the ability score distribution and casting rules of the 3rd Edition family of games. This means the mean ability score is 10, with a minimum of 11 to cast a 1st level spell. (Assumption will be that standard deviation of ability scores is 2 based on the distributions coming from a 3d6 roll method)
- The population will reflect the ability score distribution. Meaning the average commoner has an ability score of 10 with 99.7% of people falling within the 3 sigma distribution band of ability scores.
- For useful spellcasting, I’m going to assume that one requires sufficient skill (ie levels) that they can cast a 3rd level spell. Why 3rd level? Because Fireball 3rd level!
- Assumption 3 means that acquiring that proficiency requires an ability score of 13 or higher in a casting class. For the purposes of simplicity (and of keeping magic only moderately high, rather than flowing out of every pore) I’m going to assume that wizardry (intelligence based) is the only real field that can be deliberately cultivated. Assuming the distribution as in assumption 2, this means about 7% of the population has the required intelligence to become a useful caster.
- Of the proportion of the population capable of becoming a wizard, only about 10% of actually becomes a wizard. This number is pulled out of my ass, though it’s loosely based on the attainment rates for graduate degrees of the adult US population. The assumption here is that wizardry requires an equal amount of dedication, resources and scholarly potential as at least a master’s degree, if not a PhD.
The point of these ground rules isn’t to make a detailed population model of this generic D&D setting. An interesting project, but one suited for another time and place. These ground rules give a very vague idea of how common magic use might be within the population. Keep this in mind when people decide they want to nitpick the ground rule assumptions!
Based on these ground assumptions, a society that has access to the “standard” set of magic spells available in D&D (including esoteric sources such as the Spell Compendium) would look substantially different from the stereotypical fantasy feudal society. The acquisition of magic, either through a population of skilled spellcasters, or by the use of artisans capable of imbuing items with magic would become the first priority of most societies.
Magic would be restricted in availability by the following:
- Total population available to the society.
- Instructors available to the society.
- Life expectancy.
- General literacy and nutrition level.
- Population density.
Let’s unpack this a bit.
The first condition is obvious. Given that only a given portion of the population can become spellcasters, the larger the population the greater the number of potential casters.
Of course having the largest population in the world is pointless if you have no one capable of training them. And perhaps as importantly, given the amount of training required to be proficient in magic, the longer your population (and more specifically spellcasters) live, the more likely they are to remain useful sources of magic.
The next two conditions might require a bit more description. The literacy level plays a role in the population’s ability to sustain magic users, as the basis of magical instruction requires a substantial amount of reading and scholarly study. Nutrition is a more indirect indicator, but early childhood development is important on good nutrition. Poor nutrition for segments of the population is likely to restrict your pool of potential mages substantially.
Population density is important because of the instructor scarcity. The higher your population density, the easier it is to collect students for your scarce instructors. It also allows instructors proficient in different disciplines of magic to pool their resources so that your spellcasters receive a more rounded education. Conversely, a low population density would be less access to magic instruction.
Next we need to figure out what the main uses of magic would be.
Based on the spell set available in D&D (again, Spell Compendium and similar sources included) the most widely applicable uses of magic would be:
- Summoning or creation of large amounts of thermal energy either for heating or cooling. (Evocation/Conjuration)
- Communicating ideas, images, or messages across long distances with little lag time. (Enchantment)
- Curing of communicable diseases and healing various types of physical wounds.
- Protecting areas from magic. (Abjuration)
- Creating magic items that have substantially superior qualities than items produced through mundane means. (Artificing)
These uses of magic make it an ideal application for the concentration of state power. The use of magic in communication would make it easier to administer larger territorial units, while the manipulation of thermal energy would be useful for both civil engineering projects and for battlefield use. Further, concentration of resources would allow larger scale creation of magical items, which in turn would enhance the society and by extension, the state’s overall capacity.
Of course even with just this brief description, it’s clear that feudalism with its localism, land-hold connections and scattered, low density populations wouldn’t work under this system.
Instead we’re likely to see a system that first favors some sort of city-state as an organizing principle. Why?
First, the concentration of resources that is opened up by urbanization would allow a society to better manage its magic. Concentrating your population as close to an urban center as possible would make it easier to cultivate a more educated populace. In turn, this would let you choose the brightest for magical training.
Second, magic makes urbanization easier. The manipulation of energy and its relatively easy abundance would make clearing the space for urban construction easier. Gathering materials would be done by enhancing tools and workers. Some of the challenges that come from urbanization, such as the spread of communicable diseases could be dealt with through magic.
Finally, the limited number of magic users means that the destructive potential of magic is likely to outstrip the ability for spellcasters to fortify locations against it. A more geographically condensed population would make defending against magical attack easier.
So in essence you would likely have large central cities with rural sprawl. The sprawl would be made up of free-holding farms to produce the food and other resources needed by the city. The city itself would be largely centralized with a powerful magic based hierarchy. Whether or not the mages themselves would run the cities would be open to some debate. This would of course depend on whether or not there were competing providers of magic, and whether or not the first few generations of power brokers would create countermeasures to mage dominance.
Eventually some cities would acquire sufficient power to try and take over others. The question becomes whether or not amalgamation of cities into a larger empire would have consequences for the distribution of magic. Presumably any conquest would involve defeating a rival city’s own mages. Would there be sufficient numbers willing to serve the new state? Or would the reduction in mages, plus the overall increase in population slowly dilute the physical presence of mages within the new state?
An interesting question, and perhaps best saved for another time….