Most fantasy worlds are trapped in a perpetual state of medieval stasis. This is perfectly fine for the most part until you start to consider how a world might have changed due to the introduction of magic. A world like Forgotten Realms has existed for millennia, and even with thousands of level 20 characters romping through it, hardly anything has changed. The majority of people still live a peasant lifestyle, with very few people ever experiencing magic ever in their lives. To me, it feels like they created the Forgotten Realms, and other Dnd worlds and then added magic onto it, instead of building it from the ground up with magic in mind.
I do want to start off by saying, there is nothing wrong with these worlds. Generic fantasy with centuries of backstory is engaging and simply fun. We don’t need to think about the mechanics of flaming lizard flight to simply enjoy the world. But, I like having an element of verisimilitude in my settings, and I am a big fan of Brandon Sanderson’s worlds. These worlds are built with magic being an integral part of the setting during construction and helps to create the mythos, religion, and ideology of its inhabitants. Today I would like to build a world from the ground up, accounting for the baseline of Magic that is present in Dnd. How exactly would a world change with access to spells that raise the dead, an infinite supply of cantrips, and occasionally the power of a Wish?
The Basics of Magic
When creating a new world, especially one that is going to be compatible with Dnd, you need to have a few assumptions about the world in order to help you build it. The first thing we need to understand is magic itself. Is magic a swirling aether in another realm that wizards draw power from? Is it energy we draw from ourselves, or is magic only unlocked by doing kung fu to manipulate the air around you? /u/Mimi-ion has started an excellent discussion around magic in his post “A Theory of Magic”, which talks more about magic, analyzing it from a scientific lens. For the sake of this post, let’s start by defining what exactly magic is in Dnd.
Magic in Dungeons and Dragons is Vanican in nature. What this means is you learn very specific spells that do close to the exact same thing every time you cast it, and after you cast it you “forget” the spell and must spend some time memorizing it again. The TV Tropes article about Vanican magic is an excellent place to learn more about this. 5th edition changed this slightly by allowing spellcasters to still remember their spells after they cast them, but eventually, they would run out of spell slots. The central idea behind this is that spells (specifically wizard spells) are memorized and stored in the brain, and when cast would exhaust the wizard and even be forgotten. This necessitates the use of spellbooks and writing spells down, as the physical act of casting a spell is amnesia-inducing.
With one segment of magic defined, the next part would be to consider how many people are capable of arcane magic. Let’s start with the assumption that 1/100 people are magically capable. This brings up another question, as to whether magic is genetic or purely random. Both options lead to very interesting worldbuilding scenarios. Let’s take a middle of the road approach and say that magic is both genetic and random. You are more likely to have a magic user if you have a kid with someone else who can cast spells, but it is ultimately random and some hillbilly in the mountains can have a very destructive sorcerer even with no trace of magic in their blood.
The Average Wizard
Another thing that needs to be determined about magic is the average level of wizards in this world. How common are wizarding schools? With magic being such an important thing to have, especially in a world as dangerous as the typical Dnd world, magic becomes doubly important. Lots of funding would go into teaching wizards how to better harness their spells. How difficult is magic to learn? Even with the best schools and funding, magic might be so difficult to understand, that competency past first level is considered outstanding. Following the Exp charts in the PHB, we can use these numbers to reach some conclusions.
- 1st Level: 300 Exp
- 2nd Level: 900 Exp
- 3rd Level: 2,700 Exp
- 4th Level: 6,500 Exp
- 5th Level: 14,000 Exp
With these charts we can see that going from 2nd level to 3rd level is three times as difficult as going from 1st level to 2nd level. Going from 3rd to 4th is three times as difficult again, and 4th to 5th is about three times as difficult again. This means that getting to 5th level requires you to level up from 1st to 2nd level approximately 46 times. (14,000/300). Even with good schools, that much schooling would require most of your life to reach 5th level. Getting to 2nd level is similar to getting your associates degree, whereas getting to 3rd would require a Ph.D. 1.77% of the USA has a doctorate degree, and this is in a world without Dragons and Beholders. I do believe that in a fantasy world, even with a huge focus on education, most magic users would not get to 3rd level.
Let’s recap: Magic in Dnd is a Vanican system, which requires memorization and diligent study. 1/100 people are magical in nature, and it is both genetic and random. The average level of wizards is 1st to 2nd level. With only 3 details figured out about this world, we can already begin to understand so much more about it. The most magic the average person would see is cantrips and 1st level spells. Wizarding colleges would spring up in the bigger cities, and once the wizards have spent a minimum of 2 years there they would go back to their hometowns and help them in any way they can. Magic is exhausting, and dangerous, and may lead to mental conditions after an extended period of use. Nobility has sprung up around the magic bloodline, and those born outside of the noble house would be treated similarly to muggle-born in Harry Potter. Next week, I am going to talk about what spells would shape society, and how powerful cantrips really are. Thank you all for reading, I hope you have a great week and an amazing Tuesday!