... now with 35% more arrogance!

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Hoarding of Magic

Charles indirectly asked the question "Why wouldn't magic be common in any world where magic is potentially learnable by anyone?" And I began an answer in a post yesterday, focusing on literacy as both an example of an easy-to-learn skill that has not been as common as you'd expect and as a prerequisite for learning the kind of magic D&D is talking about. And, in that post, I brought up the historical fact that the literate caste often actively opposed teaching literacy to the masses, or to specific segments of the population, such as slaves or the natives of an occupied territory. Being able to read and write is a powerful skill. Magic would be even more powerful.

Consider one example mentioned by Charles in his comment: Charm Person. The base concept behind that spell is that it turns one person into your best friend for as long as you would normally keep a friend; some extend that to a form of mind control, but even the "weaker" interpretation is pretty powerful.

What spellcaster who has acquired Charm Person is going to give it away to everyone who can read?

The natural tendency of most people would be to hoard powerful magic, especially magic that could be used against them. Getting a spell from someone would be a matter of trust. Even if a spell can't be used against the one who taught it, greed could become a factor. Take the Protection from Evil spell; pretty innocent, right? But which is going to make a spellcaster more money: selling notes on the spell so that other people can use it, or selling spellcasting services?

Again, look at history. In this case, the history of invention. We have several historical examples of people inventing something, then keeping details of the invention a secret so that they could make money from it. James Watt's steam engine was a trade secret until someone figured out how he'd perfected the steam engine and sold the details. In the U.S., the concept of patents and copyrights was modified specifically to encourage dissemination of information instead of hoarding secrets. Despite this, we still have fights between corporations and people reverse-engineering their designs.

There's also "accidental hoarding". In some D&D settings, there's an assumption that magic was invented long ago, and magic-users are working to recover lost knowledge. Magical manuscripts are copied by hand, which means two things: you need to pay for the copying (which is expensive, under D&D rules,) and the original is unavailable to the owner while the copying is being done, not to mention the original is at risk while it is in someone else's possession. Magic-Users may hoard their spells not because they want to keep the spells to themselves, but because they don't want some low-level doofus to spill ink over their one-of-a-kind manuscript. They may sell their notes on a spell, but they'll do the copying themselves, thank you. When they have a week or so to spare.

My house rules for Read Magic and learning new spells are much more generous than the default. If you have Read Magic, you can learn spells for free and add them to your spellbook yourself. If magic-users want income from selling spells, they will be particularly picky about who they share the Read Magic spell with. That means that learning a 1st level spell will require spell research (2,000 gp) under my system. Not exactly cheap, and probably the result of spell hoarding.

Part III of this series will cover another factor that could restrict the availability of spells.


  1. I really like this approach - it removes the need for a "magic gene" necessary for learning arcane magic, other than high intelligence and opportunity; the biggest impediment is competitive human nature and the value of hoarding knowledge. Love the analysis.

  2. In this system, is literacy a prerequisite to learning and using magic? Is shamanistic magic nonexistent, or does it instead rely on a more primitive script? As I said before, I like the idea, I'm just not sure that it makes as small of a "splash" in the setting as you say.

    1. @Louis

      Perhaps there are other kinds of sorcery as well, such as that obtained by bargaining with or commanding spirits. Such might be represented in rules by approaches like Talysman's necromancer or beast master that use the cleric turning mechanics.

    2. The mechanics seem pretty clear to me - I'm focusing more on the setting implications, and I think it's a bit difficult to reconcile the universal-potential-magic with magic-as-special ideas, without greatly impacting gameplay.

      In the above example, if there are forms of magic that can be accessed without library research, these forms will be available to most commoners. If all forms of magic are monopolized, and opportunities for magic use circumscribed, this also applies to the player characters - and anyone who wants to try out the magic system runs into the brick wall of restrictions and protections that is described in this post.

      The immediate solution (other than biting the high-fantasy bullet) I can see is something along the lines of your Adventurer class, or Zak's Alice - player characters must necessarily be part of an empowered "hero" group. -Not- normal people, but part of the subclass of humans who has the innate, and unique, potential to use magic.

  3. Sure, and all of this makes sense under the default assumption that magic is hard (i.e. takes years to decades of laser-like focus to learn to cast one friggin' spell).

    None of this makes sense if everyone already knows how to do magic, and all they need to do is copy out the page of a book.

    Sure, Charm Person would likely be regulated to the greatest extent possible, but what prince wouldn't want farmhands on his manors that can do the work of ten men? You would have to be a lunatic not to disseminate magic, as you would immediately be crushed by any prince who did.

  4. The D&D scholar-mage model doesn't strictly imply all that's going on is book learning. The spellbook model tells us how those able to work wizardly magic are limited it doesn't tell us what supernatural qualities may be in place nor the years (maybe decades) of learning required. Dissiminating magic may indeed be much more difficult then spreading proffesional doctors.The starting age for AD&D characters certainly implies MUs spend a lot of time learning magic

    Not a fan of everyone can cast as 1st level MU myself. But in a magic heavy universe maybe cantrips style magic is more common even universal. In Runequest the default is everyone can cast spells but being good at it takes ability, study, financial investment, and social obligation.