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 as plausible (studying magic is difficult and expensive) as acceptable (the nobility is just 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 can be used intuitively, it makes no sense to require high stats of intelligence, wisdom or knowledge. The stereotype that high intelligence can be found only in unsportsmanlike and physically weak characters obviously is utter nonsense.
- Magicians learn magic in special organizations and must submit to their rules.
This is credible, because all elites are closed systems with very strict entry rules and limitations for members. If sorcery is complicated and hard to learn, it will not be possible to become a magician by reading a tome and using trial and error at all.
- Sorcerers may not use weapons or armor for a variety of reasons.
There are many game mechanic rules to limit the obvious power of magic usrs in games and they usually do not work well with the world concept. Therefore these rules are often disregarded by players. 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. Even if all magic users would grow an allergy against metals (aka worn armor), such rules are short-sighted and ridiculous. Players would come up with all sorts of constructs that nullify magic users’ powers, if this worked at all.
- Casting spells is limited.
Wizards may often memorize a low number of spells and casting them makes them forget them until they relearn them over several hours of study per day. That’s only one of many really silly limitations (considering the fact that magic users should have to show high mental abilities). Mana as a requirement to cast spells is another try (mana would become as precious as oil if available in physical form). Yet, mind controlling the king requires only one spell to be cast successfully (and kings often don’t have great mental resistance). If you still need several tries just send several wizards. The common rules to limit usage of magic in games work on a personal level, but fail on a larger level. Any organization would find ways to circumvent the limitations a single magic user has and that would clearly create another world as intended.
These limitations try to create the infamous glass canon – a wizard that can create one great effect per round or day and then completely fail to perform in anything within the group of adventurers afterwards. Actually these wizards are just archers with a magic bow and only three arrows left.
Why did game designers go for such game mechanics? Certainly not as a world design feature but as a limitation of the obviously great power of spellcasters. Even the earliest game designers felt that magic would have a dramatic impact on any game world. They created a froze image of a pseudo-medieval world, added some fantastic elements and magic users (with limits) and hoped, the world would develop roughly as our own did. But that is not what would happen.
Magic changes everything
Magic is a resource and a weapon. And the most valuable and powerful of them all. It’s the nuclear bomb of your fantasy world. 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 only fireball spells. Invisibility, mind-reading, clairvoyance, healing, etc. are unimaginable powers reserved for the gods only. People who can cast such magic are automatically gods among their fellow human beings.
If you wield magic, you do not have to fight physically, bribe, manipulate or conquer by other means. You can manipulate people to do your bidding, whether you whip up the masses or make the king your puppet. The use of magic even goes largely unnoticed by third parties or bystanders. In the most harmless (and theoretical) case, wizards would be helpful guides of the powerful classes. In the worst case, only sorcerers will sit on the thrones of the realms, waging terrible wars on all levels. They would probably not only send armies of soldiers, but make use of common people turned into puppets, magic assassins (conjuring a poison snake into a chamber is easier and safer than going there by yourself) and summoned creatures of all sizes.
Gods, religion and priests would lose their meaning and influence, people would no longer respect them, if there are some among themselves performing wonders. If you think of clerics and monks wielding magic they suffer from all the problems wizards and necromancers have. Clerical magic may be sanctionized while wild wizardry is prohibited in a society. In the end the only difference is, that your country or world would have a priest king instead of a wizard king.
Magic users would not always be kind-hearted old men with a white beard – as many of them would be power-hungry, unscrupulous and self-centered as there are among normal people. Yet, every one of them would be far more powerful than an army of evil sword-masters. Wizards are hard to fight or eliminate (even if they only have 1d4 hitpoints), their magic makes them extremely versatile and untouchable. You can not just send an assassin, when there are magical traps and summoned monsters in that bedchamber or the sorcerer could just command the attacker to kill himself. Magic is like ultimate high-tech with divine attributes in a dark age world. There is no real difference between a magic missile and a laser rifle. Sword, crossbow and armor are hopelessly inferior.
The limitations and game rules designed for wizards only work as long as the players follow the intended behavour of their characters. If a player get’s creative and allows his character to use magic for anything else than long range combat support, the rules will no longer work or become awkward. Create flame is a tinker magic spell common in many games and uses by apprentices. It is intended to be used to spark a camp fire in a world where lighters are uncommon. What if the caster chooses to create the flame right inside of the knight’s helmet or pants below his plate armor? It’s unlikely that the knight can ignore his pants set on fire for long, yet the game rules fall flat here (make a roll to check if the woolen underwear does not go up in flames immediately?). Most players choose to play along with the rules and just have fun wielding magic instead of a magic bow or sword. They would not use clairvoyance or listen spells to learn dirty secrets that they can use to blackmail people or get them burned as witches – that’s a choice of morals and alignment. But many NCPs in the game world would use their powers for very bad and selfish causes and it would be very hartd to stop them from that acting fair and good.
“Realistic” wizards would not
- be recognizable by their clothes or looks, that would be more than foolish (even if magic users are accepted and not pursued)
- 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 (not even for money)
- refrain from armor and weapons (they would avoid to expose themselves to physical dangers)
- bring themselves into situations where they have to survive without their magic
- renounce fame, power, prosperity and security and live as holy samaritans
Wizards definitely would
- be, by far, the most powerful elite in any game world
- flock to and control the seats of power
- fight each other via proxies (lords, armies, assassins, monsters etc.)
- accumulate power and wealth to guarantee their safety and control of power
- send others into the wilderness or dungeons 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 magically increase the mass 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 with a lot of built in limitations).
A possible solution: costs that hurt
No, not mana in bottles or charms – magicians would take over the mana production and optimize it for themselves, who owns the mana would accumulate money and power. However, if you combine serious personal costs with the use of magic, a wizard will consider whether to use his abilities to take someone’s lunch (as well as create lunch for someone in need).
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 abuse of the fabric of reality and reality itself could react 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 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.