Worldbuilding: the magical industrial revolution

Over on the Steve Jackson Games fora, Sean Punch (“Dr. Kromm”) offered an interesting idea (Cost to cast spells as a service - Page 3 - Steve Jackson Games Forums): Mages in what is now a classic fantasy adventure setting tend to be viewed with jealousy and/or fear (I would probably say “envy” rather than “jealousy”); and since this means that ordinary people are often hostile to them, they are likely to avoid close contact with the general population, and thus to be viewed as aloof and/or power-hungry. As a result, they aren’t likely to practice magic in a way that transforms everyday life (in GURPS terms, raises the Tech Level): their personal motives are more about self-protection, and they probably don’t care about uplifting a society that fears, mistrusts, and persecutes them.

I found myself thinking of an analogy: People who own capital—for example, Jewish moneylenders in the Middle Ages. They’re subject to envy for their wealth (or imagined wealth); they have an incentive to isolate themselves for protection against day to day violence and harassment; and that isolation means that they’re easily targeted by the proverbial angry villagers. So their capital doesn’t much go to productive enterprises; more of it goes to nobles whose essential business model is more like extortion. Once you have fairly reliable protection for property and contracts, it becomes easier for accumulated wealth to fund “improvements.”

It hit me that the model of mages as isolated, reclusive, and self-protecting is actually well represented by Ars Magica, where mages live in fairly isolated communities; or at a higher power level, by Mage: The Sorcerers’ Crusade, which has a founding legend of the common people rising up to destroy the aloof and power-hungry wizards.

On the other hand, if you come up with a legal framework in which (many forms of) magic [are] legally protected, you may move toward a society where spells and enchantments are available for everyday use, and where magic does raise the Tech Level, in the style of “Magic, Inc.” or Operation Chaos or The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump. At that point your society ceases to be low-tech and becomes different-tech, and it’s no longer going to look “medieval.” Instead of having “improvers” who practice crop rotation and selective breeding, you get professional mages who cast spells of yield increase and pest control and weather manipulation and the like, for example.

The fiction I cited tends to assume that the magically advanced society looks very much like ours, but with spirits and magical forces taking the place of electrons and energy. But likely the differences would be greater than that. I think it might be hard to envision a fully develop high-tech magical society, but fiction or games set in the days of transition might be an interesting project.

1 Like

My small exposure to Ars Magica suggests that those mages (a) want to be left along for months on end of Deep Thinking and experiments and (b) have very little to talk about with non-mages anyway.

I know that Barbara Hambly takes it as an article of faith that mages and non-mages cannot get along on anything larger than an individual relationship level: people who don’t actually know a magician personally will inevitably be envious and/or afraid of magicians in general.

(For gameable worlds with magically raised TL, one might also mention David Pulver’s GURPS Technomancer setting, clearly influenced by the sources you cite, though it doesn’t have a bibliography.)

I think the problem with building a genuinely high-tech magical society rather than a parody of the real world is that it’s both very hard work – all sorts of things which one can assume for a historical setting may have developed differently and can’t just be assumed – and that the result is likely to be very unfamiliar to potential players. Yes, Tékumel and Glorantha have their fans, but they’re harder to engage with at a casual level than “fighter, cleric, magic-user and thief get together to loot someone else’s home”.

One key decision, I suspect, is whether the ability to cast spells to a useful degree is fixed-and-rare or trainable and thus potentially universal. (And in turn the ability to use magical things made by someone else.)

It all depends on the rules for magic. What is it? What can it do? What can’t it do? Who can use it? If they’re just using magic as an alternative to coal for generating steam and/or electricity, then what does magic add to the setting besides occult window dressing?

1 Like

That’s precisely the kind of thing I’m trying to avoid. I don’t want “magic” to be a handwave enabling superscience; I want something based on how magic was actually believed to work.

This, specifically, is the kind of thing I’m looking for. I’m not so concerned about the players; at least my remote players, the ones still mostly in San Diego, seem to be able to cope with strange worldbuilding assumptions. I brought the idea up here to invite speculation about how such a setting might work.

Actually, my copy of AM, which is fourth edition, has a virtue called Gentle Gift, which says that Unlike other magi, whose Magical nature disturbs normal people and animals, your Gift is subtle and quiet. You do not suffer the usual penalties on rolls for interacting with people and animals. That seems to imply that mages don’t isolate themselves solely because they have special interests but also because mundanes react badly to them.

It’s more than implication. It’s sprinkled throughout the 4th ed book. For example, from page 17:

Magi tend to be deficient in basic social skills that are necessary to survive. Ironically, their mystic powers only compound their inability to deal with the mundane world. The Gift of magic, though precious, makes people and animals around magi ill at ease.

That was my impression, but I didn’t have time to read through the book looking for a direct statement to that effect. Thanks for the reference.

I just happen to have the 4th ed PDF and did a search on “mundane” to find the reference.

Unfortunately “mundane” didn’t occur to me as a relevant search term. I haven’t looked at AM in quite a while; my players never showed any interest in signing up for a campaign.

It seems to me that what both Sexagesimalian and I are sidling up on from different directions is that there isn’t “a” magical industrial revolution, because there isn’t “a” magic. If someone chooses “like GURPS Magic with these population frequencies of magery” then we can build off that, but magic in general is far too variable across fictional worlds¹ for one to say anything very specific.

¹ Magic in the real world, of course, produces an industrial revolution that looks exactly like the one we got.

1 Like

There is also a Major Flaw, Blatant Gift, which means people immediately realise there’s something weird about you, and animals are “are extremely disturbed, frightened, and possibly enraged by your presence.”

I have not played much AM, but I’ve always had characters who wanted to deal with mundanes, and thus always took Gentle Gift.

Right. Now suppose that astrology were 100% reliable and accurate as a form of divination that practitioners claim going all the way back to antiquity. How would that relative modest form of magic affect the course of history up through the industrial revolution?

This is the question that gets me most when I puzzle at this exercise.

If some folks just plain can’t cast spells at all, then it seems like it wouldn’t take off. Figuring out why some folks can’t cast seems like a really dark experiment in writing a history of remnants in such a setting. Maybe I feel too much for the underdogs to model this.

If everybody can cast Shape Earth, Ignite Fire, and Purify Water a few times a day with a similar effort to six hours of manual labor (or whatever you actually got out of peasants between meals and breaks and all), then it’s a totally different situation. I have trouble picturing what this looks like if it arrives circa early Renaissance, early Roman Republic, early Gupta era, or early Song era.

You get a few people who fail to learn almost anything. Reading, writing and basic arithmetic have changed over history from things that only a few could do, to things almost everyone manages. And yes, there are people living in today’s high-tech societies who can’t read. They’re usually good at covering it up, and only work in manual fields. I used to have one as a next-door neighbour.

Well, one of the questions to ba asked is: how much magical ability does a citizen of this society need? Do they need to cast spells themselves, or can they just follow instructions to do this and then that without knowing how it works?

If only a few people are the powerhouses for this stuff, they might be the kings or they might be the slaves.

The scope and precise details of the capabilities of magic (and perhaps more importantly the limitations of magic) are what make the difference.

If envy is the only motivation for hatred (with the added frisson of ‘they just bain’t like us, ye know’) then I think the advantages that magic gives the magician is the important thing. If I knew that my neighbour could cast age-delaying or even rejuvenation magic… Well, just now I’d be fighting off the sin of envy like nobody’s business.

But despite the hatred of the Jews and the theological rage against usury, eventually modern capitalism emerged. Moneylending was just too useful and people gradually got used to the idea. The ideology of the culture (to go all Marxist on you) shifted to make the idea of paying the mortgage and having a credit card and an overdraft just normal. So if the magic produces things that are useful (rather than say a better fork for eating snails or other luxury goods) it will become accepted.

Along with envy though there is also fear. That chap over there knows secrets that you don’t. He can manipulate forces you don’t understand and when your life goes badly you can believe that he’s using them to do you down without you even noticing.

If the fiction we are writing is one in which that’s true then we are writing dystopian magical/industrial revolutions. There are issues of what might come crawling out of the Toxic Spell Dump too.

I think that the story of a society changing to accomodate the newly discovered (?) techniques of mass produced magic is one that involves balancing oppotunity and threat. A state must not allow any faction to operate without supervision and restraint lest that faction become the masters of the state and turn it into their own personal plaything. But also a state must incorporate as much of the new technology as is reasonably safe to do so. It’s a matter of balance always.

It should be noted that perhaps the isolated magician can become so powerful that they no longer feel they need anything that the common run of people can produce. But there is one commodity that they may find only minds other than their own can provide.

Interesting work, that is. Problems and projects that challenge the wizard to use their talents in new and worthwhile ways. For the man/woman/construct that has everything there is no finer gift.

Yes, though that took centuries after the legalization of usury. It was Herbert Hoover—when he was Secretary of the Interior, 1925-1928, I believe—who established the thirty-year fixed-rate mortgage as an American institution; I think before that mortgage loans had a term about like that of car loans now. And credit cards were rare in the United States before World War II, as I understand it. Borrowing money to pay for production came in well before borrowing money to pay for consumption.

But also, what I’m looking at is precisely the shift in ideology, law, and culture that led to toleration of moneylending; I’m trying to envision historical sequences that might similarly lead to toleration of spellcasting.

There’s a short story that I can’t recall the name of about a parallel world where it has been discovered that demon raising magic can cure people of mental illness. (Who would know better the twistier bits of the human mind.)

Somehow the Church has accepted that raising demons is acceptable if it ends the curse of lunacy. I can just imagine the conclaves that went into that decision.

At the end of the story a magician forces a demon to take him to people who know how to treat the new terrible scourge of infectious diseases and he ends up in our timeline, determined to show them how to treat mental illness in gratitude for all that he is learning about the germ theory of disease.

I’m not sure though that the idea of taking historical ideas of what magic could do would be the best way to treat such a worldbuilding exercise. Those ideas were never clear and some of them were not very useful.

And can you even be sure that your thoughts are your own? Plenty of room for paranoia there.

1 Like

There are some accounts that go into more specific detail; for example, I have Benedek Láng’s Unlocked Books on my shelves, which I first read back when I lived in San Diego and was working on Worminghall for SJ Games.

But I can see at least three approaches one might take to magic: Using the version that’s defined by some set of game rules (standard GURPS magic, Ars Magica magic, Mage: The Ascension magic, GURPS Path and Book magic), using the concept of magic held in some historical culture (the Hindu idea of siddhis, for example), or defining a concept of magic in abstract terms such as those of semiotics.

There are all sorts of things that some people can’t do. John named reading and writing; I would name, on one hand, grasping quantitative relationships (without which you can’t do physical science, or engineering, or accounting); on another, saving and accumulating capital. All three of those are relevant to having a society become “modern.”

So I suppose I’m asking what a different sort of “modernity” based on the widespread use of magic might look like.

Do you know the concept of WEIRD psychology? The initials stand for Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic, and they define a set of traits that psychological research implicitly takes as the human norm (one of the most widespread types of experimental subject is the American college student); but the majority of human history was created by people without these traits, and large parts of the world still largely lack them.