Some More Thoughts on Mundane Magic

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.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

9 thoughts on “Some More Thoughts on Mundane Magic

  1. This is why I’m more worried about industrialization and the advancement of science upending the pseudo-medieval stasis of some place like Greyhawk, and why I am probably one of the biggest voices in the Greyhawk fandom opposing it, to the extent of saying that steam power and petrochemicals simply don’t work at all.

    Based on what Mr. Bloch notes here, it’s possible that people will try and find easier ways of doing things that they can’t use magic to replicate. Eventually, we risk reaching that critical mass of knowledge…and then I can’t help but think the inevitable conclusion is that science supplants sorcery, guns replace swords, and what was once a vibrant fantasy world becomes a replica of our dull, boring real one.

    I think the setting’s level of magic is also a factor. In the Forgotten Realms, the sheer number of high level wizards running around makes it easier to accept that every Lord of Waterdeep has magical swag protecting their identities, or that the Red Wizards of Thay could mass-produce magical constructs as soldiers. In Dragonlance, the impracticality and failures of tinker gnome technology has left most other races concluding that magic is generally more effective, and has discouraged other races from pursuing technology themselves.

  2. On the relative abundance or scarcity of Magic Users, while the required Intelligence might not be very great, keep in mind that not every person is qualified to have any class and level at all. According to Gary Gygax in the Dungeon Masters Guide, only one in a hundred humans has a class and level at all, and even demihumans only see one in fifty. Given that Fighters and Thieves see the benefits of their respective classes at a younger age, that would probably mean that even fewer of those who qualify will even consider the long training required for becoming a Magic User. It wouldn’t be surprising if fewer than one in five hundred in the broad population are capable and choose to spend the extensive effort to learn how to cast magical spells.

  3. Well… yes, but… 🙂
    The way a lot of campaign settings presented out there, and a lot of themes and tools in the rules, are more of an renaissance or early modern period. So, manufactures hat begun to spring up in historical times. Fugger and other wealthy merchants. The printing press. Guilds could be hampering with magical intrusion into their domain as well as maybe ordering magic as a collective.
    So, while I think most of your arguments are still valid, there could be a wealthy (and relatively more numerous) burgoisy that at least had the knowledge, the second or third born sons (that in this world would often been send off to becoming clergy) and the incentive for making somewhat more mundane magic.

  4. “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!”

    Is there a costly material component involved? If not, I see that as being the “adventurer price,” i.e., the caster is fleecing people he knows can afford it, and who only want the spell for selfish reasons. I can’t see him demanding the same 10,000 g.p. of some desperate farmers unless he’s a real turd.

    But overall, I agree with you. Nobody is going to develop anything unless there is money in it. However, one way to justify it is to say that student mages have to develop a new spell as their senior thesis, and mundane “housework” type spells are much easier to get approved than “blow people up” type spells.

    “(I even want to say there was such a campaign published, but I can’t think of it off the top of my head.)”

    You’re thinking of Eberron, and it was basically “Let’s take the time period between the World Wars and give it a thin coat of fantasy paint.” It was pretty terrible for all the reasons you’d imagine.

  5. Eberron has low level magic widely available to industry, with monopolies based on magical bloodlines which can provide specialized mid-level services to those who can afford it. First level magic is available to cottage industries, mainly for the purposes of enhancing crafting ability. It is expressly magic as technology, roughly equivalent to the late 19th and early 20th century in terms of availability and impact on society.

    This supports campaigns that are generally either intrigue based (I’m running Hommlet right now and it fits in nicely) or Lovecraftian horror. It also makes the world smaller and communication faster, which creates a societal backdrop that is somewhat more complex and ambiguous than a faux medieval setting.

    Despite the increase in magic availability, alignment based divination magic is gimped somewhat in that it is not legal to slaughter someone just because they detect as evil if they aren’t actually doing anything wrong; also, clerics don’t have to have the same alignment as their deities, but always give off the same aura as their deity.

  6. Magic shouldn’t be industrialized if we want it to stay magical but there is a curious absence in many fantasy RPG campaigns of the things people did attempt to use magic for. Real people have attempted to use magic and preyer for things as mundane as finding their car keys, treating toothache, or predicting the weather and there should be no absence of such things in a fantasy world full of fireball flinging dungeon looters.

Comments are closed.