Monday, March 15, 2021

Farewell to Magic, A brief essay on the economics of a fantasy setting.

 In my previous post, I talked about how resolved the issue of how to price real estate for when my players want to buy not build. Along with sharing it here, I posted links on facebook and other chat groups I frequent. 

One poster posted an interesting comment about the lack of profit motive my post implied. One part stood out as a reminder of how I view the Majestic Fantasy Realms.

Without any profit there is no growth and they would stay in the Middle Ages forever.

Over the decades, even before the internet, sometime I got into debates over how a fantasy setting would work, especially with my friends who knew how I ran the Majestic Wilderlands. One thread of the conversation was the impact of magic. Some who I talked to believe that magic would guarantee prosperity, create what we would now call a post scarcity society.  

My counterpoint, that the Industrial Revolution wasn't just about about technology but also ideas of how people can organize themselves or conduct business with each other. Without those idea, all what would happen with magic is the lives of an elite few would get better while the rest of the populace would have marginally better lives like the introduction of the horse collar allow formally difficult to cultivate lands to be brought under the plow to grow food. I usually pegged the average effect of magic at 20% better.

But it was just a guess based on instinct on what I read about history.

Then a few years back, I read a book that I felt gave my opinion a little more weight. 

It called a Farewell to Alms: A brief economic history of the world. 

The thesis as far as my post goes, is that prior to the industrial revolution. Improvements in technology or society only resulted in a temporary increase in prosperity. With more food and better living condition, the birth rate rose. Within in a handful of generations, the population grew to the point where living conditions were no better than before, except now there are more people. 

One main reason is that the pace of technological and society productivity prior to the industrial age could not keep pace with the birth rate except in brief burst. Like the introduction of the horse collar allowed areas with thick heavy soils to be cultivated easily greatly expanding where crops could be grown.

In this regard magic is no different than technology. The spread of using magic throughout a culture would bring about a temporary prosperity, which will bring about an increase in birth rate, which over time would bring everything back to the way it was except now there are more people.

That is until conditions are such that ideas, technology, (and magic since we are talking fantasy) come together to form an industrial magical revolution. Where productivity increases outstrip birth rate for decades and centuries.

As I been saying for years to friends, the Majestic Fantasy Realms is set in the time period before all that happens. But it nice that my guess has better foundation in fact. 

It is a good book and I recommend it highly. It also goes into why the first industrial revolution happen which may provide inspiration for a different kind of fantasy campaign set during that time. If that interest you I recommend getting Susanna Clark's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell. A story of English magic set during the Napoleonic Wars. 


JB said...

I just picked up Susanna Clark's book a few days ago (haven't had the chance to read it yet). I loved the series (which ran on Netflix a few years back) and wanted to see how the fiction read. Wish Clark would write a sequel!

I'll check out Alms when I get the chance. Thanks.
: )

Gavroche said...

Maybe, *if¨* magic spreads throughout a culture as technology has in our world. But *can* it actually do that? Is magic something that can be taught to enough people & embedded in enough items to become so widespread it will have that kind of mass impact?

Robert Conley said...

@Gavroche Depends how works within the setting. As defined in D&D it is a scholarly profession dependent on literacy (at least of magical scripts). So maybe. But other systems where magic is based on some type of faith or in-born quality then maybe not.

Dick McGee said...

Farewell To Alms was an interesting read, but applying its lessons to a fantasy (or even alternate-history) universe is a bit iffy. In particular, the assumption that upticks in prosperity (usually due to tech innovations, but it can be caused by many things) are always going to be brief due to the counteractive effects of a baby boom is patently false.

Take a society with a good solid grasp of fertility magic (or just plain reproductive medicine) and a bit of Malthusian theory. They can (and probably would) limit their populations to sustainable levels, adjusting to new circumstances more carefully and deliberately than than the real world did. That's especially true as you move out of agricultural economies, which (in a fantasy setting) could include all sorts of arcane professions. And of course some magic will be aimed at improving agriculture too - that's likely to be one of those "innovations" that starts a prosperity increase in and of itself.

Or consider a world (like most D&D settings) with lots and lots of reasonably amiable sentient races, the majority of which aren't interfertile but could be potential sexual partners for each other. You'll wind up with very few baby booms and probably minimal population pressure because the people who just want sex will jump the species fence, delaying reproduction until they're ready to settle down - good example to be found in the extremely NSFW Alfie webcomic. Prosperity jumps can still happen, but they aren't likely to fuel runaway population growth unless whatever the innovation is is somehow very labor-intensive.

Gavroche said...

@Robert If all you need is to be able to read the manual (with perhaps some tutoring), then an uplift in the education level of your population would make magic widespread. But that seems a very reductionist view of what it takes to master the arcane arts in D&D.

Timeshadows said...

Fortunately, some of those magic-users would be female, and birth-control/body-autonomy would be one of the first concerns that would be tackled, rendering the reasoning on overpopulation speculative at best. Cantrips and Orisons from 1st edition AD&D should be enough to solve the problem of unwanted pregnancy.

With a diminished need for moving to cities to provide the cash for a family, people would have greater choice whether they would remain agrarian bond-servants, town/city wage-slaves, or, strike out into the wilderness and establish their own brand of 'freedom'. Magic Missile would not tame the wilds, but Sleep would go a long way to keeping wolves at bay.

Scattered communities would likely pattern (to some degree) after Westward expansion in that they could be linked by foot or horse travel, would mostly be confined to water courses or water bodies. but, with Druidic magics, many concerns about marsh/swamp or arid/desert terrain could be mitigated with mounds of earth built up, natural fecund materials providing fertiliser, and even isolated reversal of desertification. Arctic habitation would be increasingly possible with diminished loss of life with even one Shaman, and even Humanoids have Shaman.

Civilisation would grow more grandiose, feudalism would likely not survive, nation-states would likely rise, and yet there would be more opportunities for autonomous communities distant from the control of centralised states while still on trade routes and in resource-rich areas.

If the Mage, Druid, and Cleric could all be persuaded to work together to build a community, then nothing would be impossible, given the time and effort.

David B. said...

I think another point to be made with regards to your position (to which I agree) is also the very distinctive feature between technology and magic: perpetuity. If I create a technological feature, such as a mill, it will stay in place (if we maintain it that is). The idea of the mill can be reproduced, barring some basic knowledge and training, especially from people that already train to perform their crafts (such as builders and so on), and especially if the individual that brings it wants to share and give away his knowledge.

With magic however it's different. Not only are there very few individual that can actually master it enough to be impactful on a societal scale (I don't think Tenser's Disk qualifies), but also, when they die they bring to the tomb their knowledge and "technology". Their spells cannot be reproduced per se, and their effects are contingent on their willingness to use them. Even if the spell "Create food"* exists, you'll need to find a magic-user willing to use it. And he'll only do so on a small scale. And when he dies, that's it, it's finished. Even if you "know" that it exists, you cannot bring it back. For most spells, you'll have to find them, share them, etc. and the life of magic-users is by no mean easy and leasurely, especially with that regards (not only considering their use in warfare and adventuring).

*Of course cleric magic kind of create a problem since their spells doesn't need to be found or studied, and they would be more inclined to use them (at least for Law cleric).

JDJarvis said...

Magic can't spread through society as technology does. Magic doesn't let you have black boxes the same way technology does. I worked in the automotive field with people with volumes of certifications and oodles of knowledge on autos and they were just as stymied as anyone else when the "check engine" light came on in one of our work vans (three of us calmly open the hood of the van looked in an said "yup the engines is still there"). Most people can operate a car while having little to no clue at all as to how it functions or operates and magic is just not plausibly presented that way in any mythical or fictional source I've ever noticed. There is always some required spark, special training, or social connection that would limit the spread of magic in contrast to how technology spreads.
There is also the link to resources and effectiveness. While the upper power of magic use is expensive in time, risk, and resources it is seldom presented as being as expensive as major technological innovations and advances. Individuals have the means in a magical world to launch private moon shots or fire atomic bombs without requiring the focus of a major economy for half a decade or longer and the cooperation of maybe ten's of thousands of people. The chaos factor powerful individuals create may spur some organizational innovation buy it would also check progress due to all the lurking atomic bombs that could go off anywhere at any time.

Timeshadows said...

Where in OD&D or AD&D are the percentage of the population capable of Arcane magic given; the reference is eluding me. Faith-based miracles and whatever Druidism is doesn't seem to appear as elite and either formula or resource-bound as Arcane magics.

Witches (any of the Dragon magazine versions) seem to have a real strength in brewing potions, which is a kind of magic technology: user not dependent upon creator's knowledge, portable, etc. So, how does one become a Witch? College? No, initiation and Circle learning. Any woman (arguably any slightly above average) woman could become one, and zap!, there's the solution to unwanted pregnancies and the resultant premise that over population renders the few elite arcanists' edge superfluous. And that isn't even taking into account schools dedicated to finding, shaping, and creating 1st level mages.

Material Components do pose a bit of a damper, but really only in proportion to the power of the spell, and the degree to which Trade Routes are available. Saffron is still expensive, because it is still rare, but not as rare as it was when access to the locations where the Crocus flower grows was arduous, etc.

So, Magic is only rare if that is what the worldbuilder wants it to be, and we have seen the effect of setting where it is commonplace, but that doesn't preclude its availability beyond the scope of the initial premise; those are self-enforced restrictions.

Unbound, but not awash in the stuff, magic and its being taught/learnt as a trade is not at all beyond the imagination, and from that vantage point, while still maintaining the post-apocalyptic Western pseudo-/mock-Mediaevalism of Greyhawk (which has a lot of named types of magic technology -- I mean, items) it isn't difficult to imagine that Arcane magics could be as commonplace as Schooled Medicine, Astronomy, or even, Meteorology. One could meet someone on a train -- er, a coach, with such knowledge, and Letters, and learn that in such and such city, it is possible for someone of sufficient intelligence and the entrance fee, to matriculate into a genuine (1st level!) Wizard.

If all of the different 19th century American Churches and Denominations are any example of Clerical and Druidic magic profusion, think of how many faithful would possess even one Orison!

Take it or leave it.

ng76 said...

Worth mentioning Skerples' OSR supplement Magical Industrial Revolution, which is all about how a fantasy society changes when magic becomes reproducible and can be improved, as if it were engineering.

It takes traditional D&D style spells and describes, in stages, how extending them and improving them effect the society and economy of a city. For example, how gradually improving teleport spells slowly revolutionize transportation.

In all their examples, however, it usually ends in disaster for the society in question. This is meant to explain what happened to all of those lost civilizations that litter most fantasy worlds.

Robert Conley said...

Appreciate everybody comments. I will be addressing some of them in future posts.

Timeshadows said...

@ng76 It is a nice product.
Considering that all civilisations end, and that most of them have perished long ago suggests that magic technology is not sufficient causation to proscribe its adoption.

Simon said...

A Farewell to Alms is a great book, but very few fantasy worlds seem to be anywhere near their Malthusian Limit - Westeros, maybe. More typical are Middle Earth style vast stretches of howling wilderness punctuated by 'Points of Light' - and that certainly seems to be the Wilderlands model. I remember speculating that widespread birth control in the likes of Golarion and Faerun was keeping most of the planet as monster-infested wilderness. >:)

Some D&D worlds like Greyhawk with its powerful nation-states could be presented as Malthusian, but you would need to ignore the listed population numbers and/or change the map scale. As described it's clearly closer to 18th-19th century North America than medieval Europe & Eurasia.