The Arcana of Political Economy: A Follow-Up
Author’s Note: This post is a follow-up to my original post on the political economy of magic. It’s highly recommended that you read that original post and the discussion thread after.
I’m happy to see my original post spawned a slew of discussion. I found it interesting how the concerns raised by a commentariat at a political(ish) site are somewhat different than what you’d see in your typical RPG GM discussion board. I hope to continue posts on this theme (or similar themes!) in the future and the interest shown by readers is very promising! (For another example of this sort of post see here.)
A number of issues have been brought to my attention which I’ll address the discussion points by subheading below.
Your Math is Wrong!
Fnord has made the good point that my statistical assumptions for the distribution of intelligence and other ability scores within the population was wrong. Mea culpa. In fact I’m going to flat out admit here that I screwed up. I got lazy writing a post at 3am and decided to take a short cut in determining the standard deviation and distribution of ability scores. This is a screw up and Fnord is correct that the proportion of the population with sufficiently high ability scores would be 15% rather than 7%.
Proportion of Magic Users in Society and Restrictions on Levels
In the original post I posited that there would be distributional limits to how much of the population had sufficient intelligence to become an accomplished spellcaster (defined as a 5th level caster or higher). The question becomes what sort of training would actually be required to convert the potential spellcasters into actual ones. In this vein, fellow frontpager James K pointed out that I neglected to account for level spreads in determining the number of spellcasters.
In terms of D&D mechanics there are a number of methods to determine the level distribution of a population.
The first is the method for settlement population generation provided in the 3E/3.5E version of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. This guide tells us that the highest level of a given class is based upon the overall population of a settlement. In addition, the “PC classes” (for the purposes of this discussion they are: barbarian, bard, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, wizard) have a scaling number of individuals based on halving total levels (e.g. if a 10th level wizard is the highest level wizard in a settlement, there would be 2 5th level wizards, 4 3rd level wizards and 8 1st level wizards). NPC classes (adept, aristocrat, commoner, expert and warrior) have different distributions particularly for 1st level characters which assumes a distribution of 91% commoners, 5% warriors, 3% experts and 0.5% for adepts and aristocrats.
Based on this methodology we come to a total number of spellcasters ranging from between 1-4% of the population. When we narrow down the number of casters to those above 5th level, the proportion becomes so small to be statistically insignificant in everything smaller than a village, and only gradually increases to about 0.1% of the population for a large city or metropolis. For comparisons sake, the settlement sizes used for this example rely on the DMG and are assumed to be: Thorp – 80, Hamlet – 400, Village – 900, Small Town – 2,000, Large Town – 5,000, Small City – 12,000, Large City – 25,000, Metropolis – 50,000.
Now, this isn’t terribly far from my original description of about 7% of the population having the potential for spellcasting and about 10% of that actually becoming accomplished spellcasters. This puts spellcasting roughly on par with attaining a graduate degree in terms of proportion of actual spellcasters to the potential population. I would thus be comfortable with assuming 6-7 years of schooling beyond basic primary education as a prerequisite for spellcasting of any sort, including harnessing innate magic (sorcery), or priestly invocations (clerics, druids) from deities.
A resulting population of 0.15% for accomplished spellcasters seems reasonable under this metric, with a substantial number of hedge practitioners and lower level casters rounding out the numbers to about 3% of the population. If we assume a population of about 5 million for an average sized political unit we get about 150,000 total spellcasters and about 7500 highly accomplished spellcasters.
Social Position of Magic Users and Militarization of Magic
Given the relative scarcity of magic users, what would their position in society be?
Burt, Marchmaine, bookdragon and Pat all bring up examples of how magic users would be treated in society.
Burt brings up the simple point that unless there’s some sort of counterbalancing force, the likelihood is that mages would make up a sort of oligarchy. Remo and bookdragon build upon this concept and suggest that mages would be so valuable that they would be treated as a protected class in conflict or be regarded more as spoils of war than frontline fighters. Pat furthers this by noting the terrible hit-dice that most spellcasting classes have which makes them unsuitable for a role on the frontlines. Marchmaine on the other hand, believes that mages could (due to their scarcity) become an exploited underclass used to power mundane applications of extra-dimensional energy such as heating steam turbines.
First, I think it’s important to distinguish between standard spellcasters (henceforth known as “hedge casters”) and more accomplished spellcasters (which will be known simply as mages). So far as our numbers above posit, there are a substantial (somewhere in the order of 20:1) more hedge casters in the general population than mages or clerics. Hedge casters can be anything from a low level cleric/wizard (an understudy or an apprentice, or a washout, perhaps) to more accomplished adepts or bards who practice unorthodox or unrefined magic. Even in small settlements they are likely to have some presence, serving as a local apothecary or parish priest.
A hedge caster can practice a fair amount of magic even without the levels and flash granted by higher levels. Prestidigitation , Light, Mending, Purify Food and Drink, and Message are all cantrips or orisons (0th level spells) while a quick step up to 1st level gives access to Enlarge/Reduce Person, Cure Light Wounds, or Endure Elements. A hedge caster can therefore make a relatively effective part of a military unit (such as a minor squad healer, or the equivalent of a radio operator) and their relative abundance makes them easy enough to recruit for this sort of endeavor.
Mages on the other hand are another breed entirely. Remember that Craft Magic Arms and Armor requires at least a 5th level caster, as does Craft Wand. More esoteric creations such as Forge Ring or Craft Staff require even higher level casters. High level priests and wizards would be in short supply, but wield substantial influence through their spells and crafts.
As Pinky points out, however, this power can be diluted by having multiple sources of magic. The presence of clerics, sorcerers, druids or psionicists in addition to wizards would complicate the equation by providing alternative means of accessing high level spells. Unless these different types of casters form a unified bloc against non-magical authorities, those without magic are likely to play competing groups against one another based on their different priorities. Mages for example might covet the resources provided by wealthy patrons for research and development, while clerics would prefer to wield influence through increasing the number of worshippers for their deity.
This diffusion, more than anything else is likely to defang the ability of mages to rule large swaths of the population arbitrarily. It would also provide secular authorities with the leverage needed to encourage mages to participate in more mundane aspects of governance, ranging from serving as frontline spellcasters to providing tutelage to aspiring magic users. In such a world, it’s likely that those of higher social classes who are capable of investing time and money into education would be able to wield magic of some sort, though to a lesser extent than dedicated magic users.
Portability of Magic
Fnord and Murali brought up a spirited point about the portability of magic. The question in this regard is just how cost-effective crafting large numbers of magic items would be.
Even a +1 weapon costs around 2,400 gp when the price of the base masterwork item is factored into the equation. According to the System Reference Document 50gp is equal to one pound of gold. So even a basic magic weapon costs the equivalent of 48 pounds of gold (based on current spot prices, this would be about 1.2 million US dollars) while a basic 3rd level spell wand would cost 225 lbs of gold (or 5.8 million USD). A staff of power would be an enormous investment of 211,000gp, equivalent to 2 tons of gold; essentially the cost of a modern fighter or bomber. (One might argue that a wizard with a staff of power is perhaps as effective as any F-35 on a battlefield, but it’s still a substantial sum of money).
That is to say, with these sorts of costs, the likelihood that a feudal arrangement could exist to support lords rich enough to have hereditary magic arms and armor of substantial power to defend large swaths of land. Since being able to recruit large numbers of soldiers is immaterial if you can just vaporize them or force them to fight one another with a few words, the premium placed on powerful individuals with magic items would be substantial. Given that it takes an enormous amount of resources to create the magic items to effectively equip a single individual, you might see a pattern here where feudal landholdings would make sense to make individual leviathans.
The Economics of Magic (Continued…)
Finally I want to address the concept of magic and economics more broadly. There was some debate as to whether or not the ability to create things out of thin air would create either a. a bifurcated economy or b. just shift the costs toward other areas. Very briefly at the end I’d like to weigh in here.
Fnord and Murali have essentially made my point in this matter, in that the demand for certain products will just shift factors of production elsewhere if magic replaces traditional methods of creation. The economic impact of conjuration spells is likely to be felt in the innovation fields for manufacturing or resource extraction than in access to products by the poor or working class. You don’t need steam power drills to extract iron in a world where you have Wall of Iron. Nor do you really need the industrial capability to construct iron-hull warships if you can simply use the Ironwood spell to convert a wooden warship into an armored, fireproofed ship.
The labor savings that come from automation or improved factors of production are likely to be produced by magical means rather than technological ones. Technology would likely end up being integrated into magic as assists, rather than independently on its own.
The next post on this subject will be a comparative sketch of a couple of magic equipped societies. I will be using examples out of Avlis, one in the present continent of Negaria which has the typical mix of D&D caster classes while another will be a historical society on the opposite side of the world run by mages. Stay tuned!