Wizards, the real rulers

Wizards are an integral part of many role-playing games. Often they are restricted by rules, such as not being allowed to use weapons, a weak attempt to limit their unimaginable power. If we assume that the people in fantasy game worlds behave at least approximately as people in reality do, then some of the widespread assumptions and rules about wizards are more than unbelievable.

What assumptions about sorcerers are common?

  • Magic is elitist, few have access to it.
    That sounds plausible (studying magic is difficult and expensive) and acceptable (the nobility is another elite minority).
  • Wizards tend to be highly intelligent but physically inferior.
    Some intelligence may be required if the study of magic is comparable to that of particle physics. If magic is intuitive, it makes no sense. That high intelligence should be found only in unsportsmanlike and weak bodies, is easily recognizable as nonsense.
  • Magicians learn magic in special organizations and must submit to their rules.
    This is credible, because all elites are closed systems, mostly have very strict rules and requirements. If sorcery is complicated and hard to learn, it may not be possible to become a master magician from a manual only.
  • Sorcerers may not use weapons or armor for a variety of reasons.
    This is utter nonsense and these rules are often disregarded even in the games in which they are used: A wizard in a plate armor can not cast a mind-reading spell, but someone without armor can read the mind of a human in a plate armor. Natural laws in a game world should, even if they are absurd, apply to all. People would come up with all sorts of constructs, that block magic easily, if this worked at all.
  • Casting spells is limited.
    Wizards may only memorize a low number of spells and casting them makes them forget them until they relearn them over several hours of study per day. Well, that’s only one of many really bad limitations. Mana as a requirement to cast spells is another try. Yet, mind controlling the king requires only one spell to be cast successfully. If you need several tries, send several wizards. The limitations work on a personal level but fail on a global level.

These limitations try to create the infamous glass canon – a wizard that can create one great effect and then fail completely to perform in a group of adventurers afterwards. Actually this type of wizards are usually just archers with a magic bow and only three arrows left.

Why did game designers choose these and similar game mechanics? Certainly not as a design feature but as a limitation of the obviously great power of spellcasters. Even the earliest game designers knew that magic would have a dramatic impact on any game world, and that it would not develop as a slightly altered image of our historical world.

Magic changes everything

Magic is a resource and a weapon. And the most valuable and powerful of them all. You can not steal or fake magic, it is infinitely available if you know how to access it. No weapon is as dimensionless and as versatile as magic. Not just fireball spells. Invisibility, mind-reading, clairvoyance, healing, etc. are unimaginably powerful tools normally reserved for the gods only. People who can do such magic are automatically gods among their fellow human beings.

If you wield magic, you do not have to fight, buy or conquer with other means. You can manipulate people, whether you whip up the masses or make the king your puppet. The use of magic even goes largely unnoticed by third parties. In the most harmless case, wizards are guides of the powerful. In the worst case, only sorcerers will sit on the thrones of the realms.

Gods, religion and priests would lose their meaning and influence, people would no longer respect them, if there are some among themselves performing wonders.

Wizards would not all be kind-hearted old and wise men, the majority would be power-hungry, unscrupulous and self-centered – and incredibly powerful. They are hard to fight or eliminate, their magic makes them extremely versatile and untouchable. You can not send an assassin when there are magical traps and summoned monsters in that bedchamber, and a sorcerer, who just has to tell an enemy to kill himself. Magic is like ultimate high-tech with divine attributes in a Dark Age world. There is no essential difference between a Magic Dart and a laser rifle. Sword and crossbow are both hopelessly inferior.

Wizards would not

  • be recognizable by their clothes or looks, that would be more than foolish
  • go on adventures and risk their lives in dark dungeons
  • live as hermits in the mountains and use magic only to cook soup
  • run benevolent schools and share their power with everyone
  • refrain from armor and weapons, if it makes sense to wear them
  • bring themselves into situations where they have to survive without their magic
  • renounce fame, power, prosperity and security

Wizards definitely would

  • be the most powerful elite in the game world
  • flock to and control the seats of power
  • fight each other via proxies (lords, armies, assassins, etc.)
  • accumulate power and wealth to guarantee their safety and control of power
  • send others into the wilderness to bring them ancient knowledge (books) or artifacts
  • outwardly appear like any other prince or ruler
  • use magic to guard himself against unpredictable attacks (like install magic traps)

A wizard threatened by a steel-clad warrior wielding a two-handed sword would only need to create ice right under the feet of that guy while being charged. Or he could cast a Spark Spell right into the warriors armor, setting his garment ablaze. Or magically increase the weight of the armor or the sword until the attacker could not use it anymore. Even petty magic would have great impact and the imagination of the spell caster would be the only limit (even in games that offer pregenerated spells and no wild magic).

A possible solution: costs that hurt

No, not mana in bottles – magicians would take over the mana production and optimize for themselves, there would be no shortage of mana. However, if you combine serious costs with the use of magic, a wizard will consider whether to use his abilities to take someone’s lunch.

A spell could have expected or random effects on the sorcerer and his environment – physical damage, mutations, violent effects, illness, madness, conjuring misfortunes, etc. Any spell could be an unnatural absue of the fabric of reality and it could be striving to make up for it. Thus, although each spell could have the desired effect, sooner or later, it would haunt the caster or relatives with equal intensity. The handling of magic should be done immediately more responsibly and considerately, even old master magicians in their tower would not be immune to experiencing drastic consequences even in critical success. Even „good“ magic would be affected, a healing spell could then kill the patient or the healer. Whether magic is still fun then, just try it out.

If the costs are too low, the almighty elite will emerge, if they are too high, only crazy people would try magic. If magic is only safe to use if it is slow, the direct effect in the field is lacking, but in the long term the same power structures would appear as explained above.

No matter how you incorporate magic into your game world, you should definitely think hard about what long-term and inclusive effects the existence of magic might have and whether you will be happy with such superficial and implausible constructs as the classic D & D Magician with his limitations.