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The Douchey DM » Adventure Design, Advice » Thoughts on World Creation: Magic

Thoughts on World Creation: Magic

My continuing series on fantasy world creation.

There are a couple of very important questions a GM must ask about magic during the world creation process. Simply slapping magic on top of a medieval setting just doesn’t ring true. Something as powerful as magic is going to change civilization in some way — or be changed by it.

Mages: Corner Practitioners or Feared Outcasts?

This is critical. How does the average person view mages? Are they like a modern day doctor? Can you find one on every corner? Is the a Magic Item Mart(tm) down on Market Road, run by a friendly gnomish enchanter?

Or do average people look on powerful mages with fear and distrust? Perhaps there’s justification for a distrust of mages and magic. After all, can you really trust someone who can bend reality? Is the lord’s mage-advisor just giving him advise — or is he secretly manipulating him with some sinister spell.

Would a politicians even risk letting a mage in his court?

Much of these questions will be at least partially answered by the magic rules of the system you’re playing, but it still requires some thought on the GM’s part.

In the world I’m working on mages are rare, feared and distrusted. Because of this, they choose to live in remote areas, away from towns and settlements. Naturally, this causes many of them to become reclusive — perhaps the seclusion even drives a few mad.

When I mage comes to town, it is a notable event. Parents may shepherd their children into their homes, businesses may close early and the town guard will be watchful and nervous.

From a political perspective, I’m viewing the use of magic and mages by a politician like weapons of mass destruction. It a tool one can use on one’s rivals, but resorting to it may have dire consequences.

All this does not mean that mages must all be friendless recluses. Certainly there are mages who are nice, altruistic people, and word of these mages will certainly spread. But once a mage becomes well-liked and influential, will he then pose a threat to the political class?

How do mages learn magic?

Is magic instruction a strict mentor-apprentice affair? Does an archmage recruit (or kidnap) talented potential students? Does the mage-teach jealously guard his repertoire of spells, only doling now spells to his apprentice when the student demands more knowledge.

Where did the archmage learn his spells? Was it only from what his mentor deemed him worthy of learning? This would naturally lead to each generation of mages being less powerful and knowledgeable than the previous. Or is there a constant process of research and experimentation that leads to new knowledge, making each generation of mages more powerful than the previous?

Or are there guild, orders or clans of mages, who share knowledge and protect each other? Perhaps there are mage colleges, filled with archmages, teaching their particular specialty to rooms full of students.

Since my mages are rare and mistrusted, I’m choosing a mentor-apprentice system. Once we open up to the larger world, there may be colleges of mages, but for now its a smaller, more intimate proposition.

I’ve decided that in the starting setting there will only be a handful of magic users that the PCs could have apprenticed with. I will detail each of these NPCs, where they live, what they are like and what spells they are willing to teach their apprentices.

The players will be provided with an overview of these NPCs, and they’ll be able to choose which one chose them as an apprentice. They will also be able to tell me what their relationship was with their mentor NPC and why they are no longer under their tutelage (assuming they are not).

How has magic shaped society?

Depending how the average person views magic (the first question) magic may have a minor or major effect on everyday life. In a world were magic is common and accepted, one could except far-reaching consequences.

For instance, if there was readily available magical healing, would a society even have physicians and surgeons? In fact, might such a society have little or no medical knowledge at all?

Would questions of crime be solved with a simple spell? Would judges be replaced by mages specializing in compelling the truth from plaintiffs and defendants? Could a kidnapping be solved with a simple scrying spell? Would the nobility, which was often called upon to be the arbiter of disputes, be supplanted by mages?

What about basic sustenance? Can mages create food and water from nothing? How much can they create? Can the make farming unnecessary? Would it make methods for food preservation obsolete and result in such knowledge being lost? Can they make magical water springs, allowing for settlement of areas that would not otherwise be habitable?

Of course, if your mages are rare and/or distrusted, all of these niceties of civilization would be necessary, so citizens didn’t have to rely on magic. But there would still be some changes.

Those with a nefarious bent (the political class included) might employ mages to sway opinions and emotions of subjects, trading partners, customers, etc. If the average law-abiding person isn’t going to employ mages, you can bet criminals will.

One should also consider how much influence a powerful mage could have on public policy, if he could get within spell range of those who make critical decisions. No doubt, some mages would exploit this possibility, and some might do so with such subtlety that no one would ever suspect them of meddling.

If a mage had sufficient skill and was cautious enough, he might just make knowledge of his very existence impossible.


I think it’s a good idea for any GM who’s taken on the mantle of world creator to give a close look to magic. Additionally, when determining any aspect of your world’s societies, one should always ask the question, “could this aspect of the society be changed by the presence of magic and how so?”

Thanks for reading.


Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

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3 Responses to "Thoughts on World Creation: Magic"

  1. nanoboyNo Gravatar says:

    You are spot on about these considerations, and your mini-setting looks compelling. As a fellow GURPS fan, though, I am wondering if you are going to use the default magic system or another system. On the podcast, you have mentioned having GURPS Thaumatology (which is cracked open on my own desk right now for campaign prep.) I hope that you consider using one of the alternate systems. I have had some success with Syntactic magic and Magic-as-Powers. While the default system works, it’s just not as awesome as the alternates.

  2. @RA_WhippleNo Gravatar says:

    Very good points to keep in mind alongside the perennial advice to begin world building small, centred around the players, and expand outward.

    One thing to keep in mind is the belief in spirits. These creatures have taught magic to court influencers (like John Dee), to pupils (like Alister Crowley) and to kings (like King Solomon) for a host of reasons all within our own magic-skeptic “real” world mythology. Holy Guardian Angels might be a demon or it might be what it is labelled on its brass tin, and the fight between good and evil might involve some grey hats along with the black and white. Magic users might themselves be pawns in the fantasy world, as they have been in our own folklore.

    Systems, like post-Gygax D&D, that have separated magic from the spirit world have done a disservice to the fantasy element by requiring a tangible human-understood justification for magic.

    In my humble opinion, those human explanations of magic should not be Fausted upon the shoulders of players/GM but be an area worth mutual philosophical exploration at the game table.

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