The post below continues a series that started with an overview of the four principles Wallace Cleaves used in thinking about his world, the Vault. The first principle and second principle have been covered in more detail in other columns. This article will focus on the third principle.
3) “Magic changes everything,” but how common is magic?
Magic is Prevalent and Pervasive
Magic is part of the D&D world and of nearly every fantasy roleplaying setting (or else it really isn’t “fantasy”). But how common is magic? The easy dodge is to say it’s up to the DM to decide, but the reality is the game rules themselves do provide insight into how common magic use could be. The two main types of magic, arcane and divine, and the ability to access them are governed, generally, by the stats of Intelligence and Wisdom respectively. These stats are actually fairly quantifiable and if they are indeed the main requirement for using these magical powers, then a very large number of people will be using magic. (I’ll explain my rationale for this statement below in some detail.) Magic of both kinds is common and it will affect the game world profoundly in two significant ways.
1) It’s high fantasy.
D&D expects magic to be common, at least in the party (mage and cleric each essentially required) and the world needs to reflect this. That does not necessarily mean every little village will be attended by a resident wizard and cleric, but it does mean that access to these professions needs to be fairly widespread or multiple adventuring parties are going to be very rare indeed. There isn’t anything wrong with having the players be the only wizard or cleric most people have ever seen, but that isn’t really the model of the D&D experience. Few D&D worlds (Athas may be the exception here) posit anything less than a healthy amount of rival wizards, magical mentors, arcane guilds, multiple and decidedly pantheistic temples. There is a lot of magic in the D&D experience; again, it is high fantasy.
But what does high fantasy mean? I don’t want everyone doing or using magic (again, see Eberron), but how can I avoid that? If you take the rules at face value, anyone can learn magic, both wizardly and divine. There is no barrier to entry other than perhaps some requirements for Intelligence and Wisdom. (Multi-classing into mage or cleric does require a 13+ Intelligence and Wisdom, respectively.) A wizard is dependent on his intelligence to make his spells work if they are resisted, but this isn’t really that much of a barrier. Most magic is still pretty effective, even if saved against, and it is certainly possible to build a wizard who relies on spells that don’t require or are at least not all that dependent on having to overcome saves.
Still, I’d imagine that studying magic is pretty difficult, perhaps on par with getting a masters degree in something suitably arcane, like medieval English literature. It’s not impossible even for someone of relatively average intellect, but it is certainly a lot easier if you have a bit of brain power behind you. Likewise, you can’t make much use of that knowledge unless you have the intelligence to develop and articulate what you’ve learned. Finally, the sort of study and application that such a field requires is just not going to appeal to a person who isn’t gifted with above average intellect. They’d probably rather spend their time learning to swing swords or pick pockets or something. So, I’m going to posit that a decent Intelligence is indeed a significant determining factor for how much magic there is in the world.
How limiting is this factor of Intelligence, and by extension Wisdom if we also consider clerics? I don’t really know how to judge Wisdom (though I’ll take a stab at it later on), but there is a good analogy for Intelligence scores in the real world.
First, let’s say to have any real ability as a mage you need a minimum Intelligence of 14. Why a 14? I’m thinking that with anything lower a person just isn’t going to be that proficient and won’t really make the most of the skill. In older editions higher intelligence scores were required to cast higher level spells, but it now seems like more of an all-or-nothing proposition. I would still imagine that it is much more likely that a truly gifted individual will reach the heights of spellcasting acumen, but with a score of 14 we can assume a reasonable proficiency with magic as achievable. A 14 is above what is required for later multi-classing into the wizard class, so it seems to represent a level of Intelligence that would be more than naturally proficient with magic. I’m imagining that multi-classed characters are rare birds anyway, and might just have the gumption to learn a trick or two even if it doesn’t come naturally. It makes some sense that an intelligence of 13 would allow magic use with a bit more specific training. It’s still a bit of a theory, but I’m sticking with a score of 14 as the base to practice magic, and I like that I’m probably being a bit conservative at that.
What is that score of 14 in real terms? Well, if we use the very poor (or maybe not, see this article for some great arguments about the effectiveness of standardized and IQ tests) measurement of IQ as a guide, only a little over 2.6 % of the population has an IQ above 130. I’m going to equate that with about a 16 intelligence and equate that with the “gifted” or “very Superior” range (from the Weschsler Adult Intelligence Scales Classification). I’m going to reserve an 18 intelligence for the true “genius” category. It’s hard to establish (and I won’t bother to justify it here) but this is above about 140 IQ and is probably about .5% of the population (and is included in the above 130 IQ group). Working backwards, I’m saying the score of 14 in Intelligence is equivalent to the “superior” group which is at about 120-129 IQ or so, and that’s 6.9% of the population. “High Average” is 110-119 IQ and I’m equating that with a score of 12, which is about 16.6% of the population. (Just FYI: 49.1% are in the 90-109 “average” category and the declining levels of intelligence almost exactly mirror the high end rates.)
So that means out of a population of 1,000 people, about 90 to 100, just fewer than 10%, will have an Intelligence at or higher than a 14 and be able to use magic more or less effectively, but only 25 or so will be able to become really talented at it and only 5 of those will be able to do the most advanced magic, or at least be really good at it. That’s still quite a few potential practitioners of magic. Imagine a smallish regional area with about 100,000 people in it. For most standard fantasy style settings that would encompass an area of about a thousand square miles (two 25-mile-wide hexes). Alternatively, imagine a fantasy metropolis of 100,000 people (I’ve seen a number of settings with that population, though such metropoli would be prohibitively rare in the real medieval ages). In either of those imagined areas you could have 7,500 people with the potential for minor access to magic, with 2,500 talented practitioners of magic, and 500 of those would be extremely gifted.
Even if only a fraction of those who have the potential to do so actually learn to practice magic, it is not at all unreasonable to imagine that at least half of those 500 with a marked natural gift for magic would take to wizardry. That means that in an area the size of a reasonable duchy or a very large city there could be 250 wizards. Potentially, and I can see a very good argument for this considering the power and general utility and appeal of magic in the D&D world, there could be thousands of wizards. That is a massive amount of magic, enough to affect every level of culture and society. Even a relatively small region would have mage guilds, colleges and access to some very powerful and reality altering spells.
2) The gods are present.
They grant power to their followers and can (as is evidenced by the new cleric class rules on divine intervention) directly affect the world. Still, the most profound effect the gods will have is through clerical spells which allow healing, the curing of disease, the raising of the dead and a variety of other very beneficial (and demographically significant) abilities. All of these miracles depend on the ability called Wisdom (except for the odd bard or other class that can access some of these features through another stat, but let’s not digress too much).
I dodged Wisdom in the last bit, but I’m going to assume the stat measures a facility with a similar demographic breakdown to that of Intelligence. I like that the new Basic D&D gives the stat equivalent descriptive synonyms of “Awareness, intuition and insight.” I now like to think of Wisdom as a kind of instinctual capacity to intuit something without significant conscious thought (for a larger discussion of the “quantifability” of insight see this article). This is actually a very important powerful ability as people can often perform amazing feats that are impossible with standard rational processes. My favorite examples are the British plane spotters of WWII and Japanese “chicken sexers” (which sounds a lot dirtier than it is). Both groups could learn to subconsciously identify meaningful differences that they could not rationally explain or quantify. (See the following article for more on this crazy phenomenon and its teachability.) I think this is a wonderful parallel for divine magic. Clerics intuitively tap into the power of the gods, learning by practice and inspiration how to channel that power. This also is nice in that it makes them skillful intuitors in general, able to suss out individual and community problems and provide insightful advice, all things we generally associate with the priestly classes.
So, if Wisdom is a quantifiable ability to access the subconscious brain in a useful way it is not unlikely that it has a distribution among the population with a similar range to that of cognitive Intelligence. (I know I’m taking a bit of leap here, but I have to make some assumptions, and my intuition tells me I am right to do so in this case.) Consequently, a portion of the population similar to that which can access arcane magic will have access to divine magic. In fact, as it is instinctual and thus “easier” to learn it might even be more prevalent. (Note Graham Robert Scott’s argument in this vein in the article that accompanies our Ludus population engine.) Thus we have almost 10% of the population able to access divine magic, and that might be a very different group from those using wizardly magic!
This suggests that healing may be very common and the religions will be very prominent because of that. So, if that is the case, we really need to think about the way religion will work in this world and not ignore the fact that it will affect everyday life in a host of significant ways.
(Addendum: there is an interesting side note I’d like to make here. This point about the commonality of magic is actually very much at variance with the Tolkien-based world view. In the works of Tolkien and most of his near-contemporaries, magic was rare and often in decline. This is almost explicitly not the case in D&D, in which magic is fairly common.)
So now we come to the main point, which is that without some other hidden–external to the standard rules–explanation, magic is going to be both prevalent and pervasive. It will affect all levels and aspects of society. People will be healed by magic on a fairly regular basis (though resurrection will still be prohibitively expensive). Homes, at least for the rich, will be lit by ever-burning torches. Magic will influence commerce, politics, civics, and warfare in very immediate and significant ways. It is almost impossible to imagine a D&D world that isn’t heavily influenced by magic, enough to significantly differentiate the setting from the expected customary western European medieval standard (which I’ve noted numerous problems with anyway, earlier in this series). The world will be different.
It does not, however, have to lose some of the standard medieval trappings we all know and love. It is not necessarily the case that magic would simply stand in for or reproduce the wonders of technology (again, I’m thinking of Eberron here). One thing to remember about magic is that it is very personal. Unlike electricity, which every schlub can use even without understanding how it actually works, magic requires personal understanding and agency. Sure, there are magic items that anyone could use, but they are still going to be fairly, even prohibitively rare. (The new item creation rules are positively punitive!) The pervasive magic will be localized to and around the people who can cast the spells. Those people will still be relatively uncommon and will have to be sought out. They will be powerful and will have an effect on the world around them, but they won’t necessarily change the lot of the average commoner on a day-to-day basis. Most people simply won’t have access to that kind of magic except in extreme circumstances and duress.
In other words, peasants will still turn fields with an ox or horse team and a regular old plow. However, if someone gets injured while plowing that field, they will be taken to the nearest cleric for healing. Castles will still be built with hard labor and stone by stone. However, their defenses will also have to be built to withstand opponents who can fly and throw fireballs. Magic will affect the extraordinary parts of life dramatically. The matters of life and death, government policy and military strategy, high society and learned institutions will be heavily influenced by magic. However, the daily routine, the normal ebb and flow of life will likely not be all that affected.
That actually strikes me as just right for a gaming world. I want a place where there is magic and wonder, but we can leave the regular population in peace to go about their bucolic, agrarian lives and provide great evocative settings. I can have my archmage and my peasant too, and that is just right for magic in D&D.†