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Saturday, July 20, 2013

Potential Magic

The other question Fabio had on the post about extending first level class abilities to everyone was about magic use. If anyone can cast 1st level spells they know, can a barkeep cast a Clean or Grease cantrip?

Well, maybe. But does the barkeep know those spells? Are they available for study? Can the barkeep afford the training?

What I was getting at when I stressed the idea that these are base level abilities is that anyone can try them, regardless of class, and will be as good as any other 1st level character. However, there's an assumption that the character has the appropriate tools. Non-fighters could fight without a weapon, using just their fists and feet, like any unarmed fighter, but shooting an arrow requires an arrow and a bow. Picking locks or removing traps requires lockpicks and delicate tools.

Spells are a magic-user's tools. To be able to memorize and cast a spell, you must actually know the spell, and have it in a spellbook. A magic-user gets a first-level spellbook to start out with. A Fighter, or for that matter a barkeep, could get a spellbook and learn the spells therein, under this system, but doesn't automatically have any spells at all.

It's a question of potential magic versus actual magic in play. It applies even to campaigns that don't allow anyone other than a magic-user to learn and cast spells. Sure, a magic-user can cast Fireball. But does anyone have a Fireball spell the character could buy? How much are they charging? The fact that magic exists in the game world doesn't mean it's as common as dirt.


  1. I think some of the difficulty in parsing the zero-level idea comes from the divergent setting assumptions we all have. I think that a setting where everyone has the potential to cast spells (or even one where, yes, every barkeep can cast Grease or Clean, which is, as you point out, very different from what you're proposing) is an interesting foundational assumption.

    But I think such an approach does make it difficult to portray magic as something fundamentally different from purchasing plate armor, or becoming quadrilingual - an ability unlike any other, which can't be acquired just by spending a set amount of time and money.

    1. To go back to source, the Dying Earth had that assumption. Apparently, any schmuck could try to encompass a single spell, albeit at the risk of backfire.

  2. I find it hard to believe that in a society of humans where learning magic was as easy as copying a few pages out of a book that there would be any significant fraction of the population who didn't know magic.

    Magic is just *so useful* that you'd be mad not to spend anything you have to just to get a spell.

    And since the more people that know spells, the more people there are to copy them, supply is abundant and demand high - but satisfying demand also increases supply. Every person who buys a spell can also disseminate the spell.

    Therefore, in any society where anyone can cast spells merely by copying them into their spellbook, every single person would have a few spells suited to their daily life.

    Farm hand? Floating disc. Scullery maid? Cleaning cantrip. City watch? Sleep.

    And don't even get me started on the effect mass availability of charm person would have.

    You're talking about a society that would be completely unrecognizable to anyone from our world.

    1. Then you have a high opinion of humanity that isn't born out by history. But I'll talk about that in a separate post.

    2. Not at all. I simply respect economic reality - something immensely useful and simple to produce will quickly become ubiquitous.

      How long was it after the invention of the dynamo that electrical power was ubiquitous in all but the most backward cities? 50 years? 100?

      Magic is (under these rules) orders of magnitude easier to produce and disseminate than electricity, and also much more useful.

    3. The dynamo, however, was invented after a fundamental change in attitude, triggered by the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, particularly in America, encouraged the idea of educating the masses and striving for widespread literacy and sharing of ideas. It, in turn, is dependent on the printing press, which enabled cheaper and wider distribution of ideas. Before widespread literacy and the printing press, it took much, much longer for a new technology to become ubiquitous.

    4. " it took much, much longer for a new technology to become ubiquitous."

      Well, no, it didn't, actually. Look at, for example, plate armour.

      In 1300, plate armour was rare and expensive. By 1400, plate armour was the norm. And by 1450, plate armour was ubiquitous - even cheaper than other forms of armour, as it was being mass produced (yes, on assembly lines - that's not a recent invention, as many believe).

      So, there's an example of a pre-printing press technology going from rare to ubiquitous over the course of 150 years before the printing press.

    5. I would point out that the printing press actually existed in east asia very early on without triggering such social dynamics. There were woodblock presses in the Tang Dynasty and movable type around year 1000. Also gunpowder. Economics and technology are not so deterministic.

  3. Just because everyone can learn how to use scuba gear in our world, does that mean everyone is a deep sea diver?

    Regarding magic, presumably not everyone has access to spells, for example. There could also be social taboos around magic (and maybe real downsides to sorcery, which are just too subtle to be reflected in direct game mechanics).

    1. However, unlike scuba gear, copying a spell requires no special equipment, and is extremely useful.

      Most people would get no practical benefit from learning to scuba dive.

      And if spells really just require the copying of a few pages from one book to another, it's not reasonable to assume not everyone has access to spells.

      It would simply be impossible to restrict their dissemination, nor would it be desirable - any nation restricting spell use would be wiped off the map (economically, militarily, or otherwise) by nations that allowed widespread spell use.

      No, allowing everyone to cast spells without anyone training is fine if you want magic to be *literally* ubiquitous (i.e. essentially every person knows at least one spell), but otherwise it's simply impossible to reconcile.