Over at Tenkar’s Tavern, Erik has posted a few thoughts about the existence of what he calls “mundane magic”; the sort of magic that everyday people would use to replace technology:
The spells that no right-thinking adventurer would keep in his or her spellbook but make daily life easier for the masses. Because magic, if it did exist, would certainly replace bits of technology.
Secure communications? There’s a spell for that. Cleaning a mansion? Yep, there’s a spell. Butchering? I’m sure. A variation on the web spell for enhanced fishing? Why not? I’m sure there is a spell for quick and safe snow removal in someone’s spellbook.
These don’t even touch upon magic items that are less about adventuring but more about creature comforts. Magical hair brushes, razors, drinking fountains, lighting, warm baths, snow shovels and the like. Just because it doesn’t come up in play doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
While this may seem sound on its face, it doesn’t really seem to hold up under scrutiny. One has to look no further than our own world, and the history of technology, to see why. It really wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that we see the sorts of technological innovations Erik describes above; vacuum cleaners, washing machines, electric razors, gas lighting, etc. For all intents and purposes, the technology of “creature comforts” crawled at a snail’s pace from the fall of the Roman Empire until the 17th century. In a quasi-medieval culture such as most D&D settings assume, there’s simply no reason to develop such things when man- or animal-power will do the trick.
We can set aside the possible objection that there aren’t enough magic-users. With a minimum intelligence of 9 (just under the average), there would be plenty of possible candidates for the occupation that could hack casting a first-level “Bigby’s Snow Shovel” spell.
Then why would’t it be practical? Simple. Nobody will bother developing such spells if people can’t or won’t pay for them.
Creating a new spell is a very laborious, time-intensive, and above all expensive process. Nobody (or at least precious few) is going to go through all that for purely altruistic purposes. The spell lists abound with fireballs, walls of ice, earthquakes, and invisibility because that’s what’s in demand by the wealthy nobles who will pay for new advantages on the battlefield. Much like our own world, where the development of weapons hurtled along at a furious pace, the development of magical weaponry will similarly be rapid, because that’s what people are willing to pay for. Civilian advances are pretty much incidental to military research, and that’s not likely to change in a magical world as opposed to a technological one.
Plus, on a practical level, who is going to pay 5 g.p. for a butchering spell (the absolute lowest cost for hiring an NPC to cast a spell, in this case bless) when a butcher will do the work for a silver piece a week? Perhaps as a symbol of conspicuous consumption, to show that a rich nobleman or merchant can afford to be so profligate as to pay a hundred times as much for a simple service as he needs to. But for an everyday application, until there’s a certain critical mass of infrastructure and knowledge (as we saw in the Industrial Revolution, where mass production made such creature comforts practical on an economic level for the first time) there’s simply no economic incentive to do such things.
Indeed, the very people who might be willing to pay for such labor-saving magical technology — the people who perform the manual labor in the first place — would be the people least able to afford it. Just take the most obvious application in a largely agrarian economy; the spell control weather. In a drought, or in the face of damaging frost or strong winds, such a spell would seem to be a farmer’s dream. But it costs 10,000 g.p. to hire someone to cast it! Not even an entire village would be able to bring that much capital together for a single spell, and if they did it would leave them all destitute.
Now, I can see a campaign where such everyday magical technology is ubiquitous, but it would be a very different sort of setting. One where all the things Erik mentions are reality, and even more is done on an industrial scale; captive fire elementals heating great boilers in locomotives, air elementals driving airships, lightning para-elementals used to power telegraph systems, and so forth. (I even want to say there was such a campaign published, but I can’t think of it off the top of my head.) But such a world would look very different than the standard pseudo-medieval milieu we’re used to in most D&D-type games. With such a milieu comes certain assumptions about the economics of the world, and unless something radically changes on that level, ubiquitous non-military magic just isn’t feasible, in my view. To be honest, you’re much more likely to see magical hand grenades and mortars before you’re going to see magical washing machines and hair dryers.
Then again, if you look at the list of cantrips in Unearthed Arcana, it could well be argued that you’re seeing the beginnings of just such a mundane technology. The whole category of “useful” cantrips like polish, freshen, dust, and tie might well be the early beginnings of such a magico-industrial revolution. Or they could be indicative of the sort of conspicuous consumption I noted above; it might be a status symbol to have a magician apprentice there to cast a spell to tie your shoes for you. Or, maybe it’s just a reflection of the “follow the money” principle above. Those particular cantrips were created because they could be used for the convenience and comfort of the thousands of magic-users who could teach them to their students, who for years would act as personal servants to their masters.