Tag: worldbuilding

A Guide to Food, Farming, and Conflict in Worldbuilding


This is another worldbuilding guide.  We’re going to talk about what looks like from the outside the most boring subject in world-building: food.

Food is exciting! People eat. Even the Gods eat. Maybe, like elves, they less than humans. Or, like Vampires, they live on humans. Or they eat more than humans.

We don’t think much about food, food production, calories, and eating when we create worlds. However, for intelligent creatures who eat, ensuring a constant stream of meals is a motivating factor in everything from inventing new technologies to state formation.

This article treats food and food production, as underlying core mechanics in world-building. We can ask ourselves interesting questions:

  • What do the local people eat?
  • Where do they get their food?
  • How does food get to where the people are?
  • How is food grown and harvested?
  • What happens when the population grows and consumes all the food?
  • How many non-food-makers can society support?
  • How does the availability of food impact conflict and war?
  • How does the availability of food help organize the state?

Food production is an incredibly dense subject. A copy of “History of Food” on my shelf is 1000 pages long. Consider this blog post a very light introduction to the subject, and we’re assuming our “standard person template” is human.

The easiest way to teach concepts is in using an example. We’re going to explore a standard, low-level (1st-3rd) D&D adventure through this lens:

The village of Redwick needs adventurers immediately. Goblins moved into the nearby hills. They’ve eaten the livestock and started on the local fields. 50gp reward for the removal of these goblins!

Food and Calories

Imagine a peasant.

Suppose a peasant works his or her fields for 10 hours a day, every day. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that peasant requires 2500 calories/day with the heavy labor. That comes to about 912K calories/year. There are 1538 calories in a modern lb of whole-grain wheat flour. Assuming all things equal, a peasant must produce 600lbs of wheat flour to feed only himself per year — if the peasant only lives on bread.

Wheat produces (today) about 6.4 million calories/acre with all modern equipment, gear, technology, genetic modifications, and soil amendments. Let’s assume that peasants have access to 12th-century technology (horseshoes, the iron plow, irrigation, basic crop rotation, etc.) to lift yields. We’ll also assume a peaceful peasant produces 1/5th (20%) of a modern yield. With a horse, acre supports 3/4ths of a peasant. A family of four peasants must work about 3 acres to eat bread reliably without fear of starvation in good, non-drought weather.

Lots of things going on here: technology levels, food consumption, calorie intake, and the rest. Consider this the floor for world-building: the lowest requirements for a farmer in a fantasy world.

A peasant cannot subsist on only wheat. Wheat lacks the proteins and amino acids the human body needs. So, a peasant adds a much more calorie-dense source of food: meat.

Meat is a trade-off. Cows, sheep, and goats are worth more alive than digesting in a human’s belly. They produce valuable goods (wool, cheese, butter). They do work. Eating a cow now may mean starving next week. And cows, sheep, and goats are all ruminants: they eat grass. They don’t compete with human sources of food.

Since the cows are inedible, peasants keep chickens. Chickens are highly useful sources of protein: produce eggs, reproduce fast, eat grain. They’re small and economical.

Pigs, though, are the best of the best. Pigs are the best source of meat per food consumed of any domesticated animal (20lbs meat/100lbs food consumed). And they have a job! Pigs are scavengers! Garbage cans of the domesticated animal world.

Except, pigs eat human food. They compete with humans in the food chain when pigs don’t have access to the delicious truffles of a forest or a swamp. No forest, no swamp, no pigs. So — pigs are cheap when pigs can feed themselves. Pigs are expensive where they cannot.

We’ve Established: At a base level, with manual labor and ancient-to-medieval technology, organized people can feed themselves from the land if they have agriculture and animal husbandry. The peasant needs a combination of plant food product and protein to fulfill his or her calorie requirements. The peasant subsists on chickens, eggs, wheat, and whatever vegetables they grow in their local gardens. With plenty of land, good weather, a water supply, and no population pressures, they eat well, and they can feed non-food producers.

The goblins moved caves under Nordbury Hills south of Redwick Village several months ago. It’s a warband of four dozen individual goblins. A hunter-gatherer goblin is half human-sized. We can assume ~50 goblins eat about the equivalent of 25 humans. They’ve added 25 human-sized calorie requirements to the local ecology overnight.

This is not good.

Producers vs. Non-Food Producers

We’ve thought about growing the food. What about eating food?

There are two classes of eaters: food producers and non-food producers.

Peasants working the land are food producers. Everyone else is a non-food producer.

To support non-food producers, peasants must produce enough food to feed themselves plus additional mouths. Scribes, priests, nobles, military, artisans, local townies, the guy who runs the Inn — these are all non-food producing specialists who survive on the success of food producers.

Every non-food producer is a burden on the producers. They are an additional mouth peasants must feed through the product of their labor. Except for the military, non-food producers eat say, a standard 2000 calories/day. They cost about 750K calories a year. The village must produce ~450lbs of wheat — or equivalent calories in meat, eggs, milk, butter, oil, orchard-grown fruits, vegetables, and cheese — for each non-food producer it supports.

The feudalism pyramid works on food.

If the peasants want a priest, a local wizard, a blacksmith, or a cash-producing local industry, it must also produce enough calories/year to support these non-food producers. The higher the yield, the more specialists the community supports. The more specialists, the more goods and services.

Nobility is extremely expensive. Nobles pay their way by trading something of global community value: redistribution of global resources across their demesne. Those resources could be religious, trade, food, or military goods. The nobles also pay for the establishment of towns and cities. Nobles then encourage towns and villages to flourish because trade in a finished good makes much more money than trade in sacks of flour.

Peasants cannot redistribute wheat themselves. They are local and land-bound. Nobles are more global. They extract taxes from the peasants (in the form of food), sell it, and use money to pay for the non-food producers the nobles find valuable.

If there’s no food, nobles will extract from peasants anyway to pay for non-food producers. In a noble’s mind, non-food producers are more valuable to noble aims.

In good times, feudalism works. In bad times, peasants live on the bottom of the pyramid and subsist on the edge of malnourishment and death.

Adventurers are non-food producers. They’re an expensive luxury on a society that invests heavily in producing food, and they take their prize in gold and magic items. When society needs adventurers, peasants starve. When peasants starve, society needs adventurers.

We’ve established: Peasants must exceed their yields in product to feed those who don’t farm. The number of specialists a society supports comfortably is equal to the overage in calories from the food producers. Lower the yields, fewer specialists society can maintain. This fact is as true in an Early Medieval society as it is in, say, a Post-Apocalyptic one.

_The people of Redwick village are almost food producers: peasants living a peaceful peasant lifestyle. They also have a village priest, a village headman, and a village blacksmith. They have a local inn for visitors at the crossroads. The village supports a handful of crafts: tanning, weaving, and shoemaking.

Above the village rules a Baron and his three soldiers who “protect” the town, collect taxes, and enforce the King’s laws.

_The local peasants must produce enough calories in agriculture and protein for themselves + about 20 non-food producers. But wait: they also pay taxes in wheat-form up to the Baron. No one has coin money. Peasants pay their taxes in grain.

The peasants also pay taxes regardless of the harvest’s bounties. In a bad year, peasants don’t eat. The local pyramid is the Baron, the Baron’s men, the local non-food producers, and finally, the peasants.

The Baron give the taxes to the Baron’s boss, the Duke. The Duke takes enough from all aggregated villages to pay for himself, his household, invest heavily in his holdings, including cities, towns, colleges, monasteries, and other developments, and pay the King. The peasants must produce enough for themselves + many.

Population Density and Ecology

As the population rises, the village needs more calories to sustain itself. The more calories, the more land, and animals. The more land cultivated for food, the more humans cut down and rearrange the ecology to fit their needs. Humans dam rivers. They divert water for irrigation. They cut down forests, drain swamps, and turn grazing land into plowed land. This activity causes erosion, long term soil damage, and drainage issues. It depopulates the land of wild animals, causes overfishing, etc.

Once humans — or anything eating food — over-populates, they put pressure on the amount of land available to cultivate for calories. Once people run out of land, they starve. Once they die, populations either shrink to fit the size of the ecological niche (as in most populations worldwide until ~13th century) or the population overgrows and overruns niches.

Without population stability, the end result is massive ecological damage. If the population is stable and land use is stable, humans hold the damage to a minimum. If another group moves into the niche, or the population undergoes an explosion, people will exert ecological pressure on the system.

Ecological damage means people do not eat.

For example, slash and burn will produce fruitful harvests for a short period. Over a long period of time, as the plants grow back slower and slower, the harvests get smaller. Eventually, the land is ruined and produces no harvest.

Another example. Ancient Sumerians dammed up the Tigris to irrigate their fields of wheat. Except, the Tigris’s water contains silt. Salt doesn’t bother the plants but, over time, salt sank into the water table. The land was destroyed. Ur was abandoned. The entire Sumerian Empire collapsed. Today, the land around Ur is still uninhabitable.

We’ve established: In good times, the population grows. A growing population means cultivating more land aggressively. Cultivating too much land leads to ecological damage. Ecological damage leads to lower yields.

The four dozen goblins moved in and directly competed with the peasants. They stripped the local forests for the edible game. Then they were hungry and went after the readiest source of protein around — the cows.

A single cow is more valuable than the life of a peasant. The cows pull plows, gives milk, makes more cows, and provides protein. Losing a cow is anger making.

Worse, the peasants live on the edge of a knife to fulfill their own food and tax responsibilities. The loss of a few cows and a field is devastating to their yearly tax bills. The peasants — and the Baron — are frantic to stop the goblins from eating their crops.

Conflict and War

When two groups move into the same ecological niche in the same proximity, the second group impacts the population of the first. Once impacted, people’s ability to produce food decreases. Then, people cannot pay their taxes.

This is a quick way to a hot conflict. If no one can persuade the impacting group to leave the ecological niche, then everyone is going to fight over it. Tax collectors are going to get their due. Rent extractors will pay for adventurers.

Conflicts over ecological niches are constant throughout history. You enter my niche, my friends and I are going to kill you for it. You compete with my land and my food, and we’re going to kill you and your family. Don’t move here.

No man’s zones are common in pre-industrial societies of all sorts. Even if the land in the no man’s zone is habitable and farmable, entering the zone means death. The fallow land between one society and another helped mitigate conflict.

Here’s an example:

Your people are living on a bad, unfarmable finger of land. They’re starving and need food. You decide the hell with it and gamble. Maybe you’ll win, or maybe you’ll die.

You arm everyone. You send your warbands to annex land from your neighbors. You get lucky. You’re stronger. You slaughter your neighbors. You enslave survivors to work your brand new farms. You produce extra non-food producers who can raid the next land over.

Rinse, repeat. You build yourself a small kingdom. Then you, too, can be a non-food tax collecting extractor as you force all your people back to lands — now with bonus slave labor! Until you run into a Kingdom pulling the same trick.

What are the goblin’s motivations?

We’ve established: People moving into each other’s lands and consuming resources raises the chances of violent conflict.

The peasants fight back against the goblins, but they’re not permitted by King’s Law to own weapons. After several deaths and the yearly taxes at risk, the Baron makes the economic calculation to rid himself of these goblins. He sends in his soldiers and loses one to the hill-infesting menace. After this, the Baron appeals to the Duke.

Only the Duke has resources to pay non-food producing and expensive adventurers. Paying in money instead of food is a fabulous show of largesse. Typically, the Duke would ignore this goblin menace, but the Baron lost a man. Military men are expensive to train. The Duke ponies up.

Later on, during the adventure, the adventurers learn that the goblins were infesting the hills because they, too, were pushed out of their ecological niche. Something nasty has moved in and eaten all their food. The goblins couldn’t kill it, whatever it is.

No where to hunt or grow == fleeing to this village == eating the cows. The adventurers can kill these goblins today, but if the root cause isn’t lanced, more goblins will arrive tomorrow. Unless the adventurers hunt the goblins to extinction, always an option at a handful of XP a pop.

Is this adventure worth 50gp? And the goodwill of the powerful Duke?

Magic, Technology and Escape from Subsistence Farming

There are three escape hatches from subsistence farming. You can combine them in a world-building exercise to explain why people live in cities, hang out, and do cool things:

  • A massive die-off that decimates populations and resets equilibriums. (See: the Black Death)
  • Technology
  • Magic

In the 14th century, the Black Death was an effective solution to an overpopulated Europe. However, the Black Death led to a full century of political and economic instability. Working a massive “dying off” it into the background of a world could mark a turning point for any civilization. Huge ecological niches + upgraded farm capacity + freed capacity == movement forward.

Technology is a way out, but technology requires the freed up capacity of non-food producing specialists to research, create, and mass produce. Non-food producing specialists need either highly extractive taxes to support them or a leap forward in technology to increase yields. At first, few non-producers can spend time on research. Should some invent something that increases yields or reduces dependencies on humans, non-food producers can spend more time researching. So it goes. The trick is to raise the number of calories produced/acre while decreasing the number of people required to farm those calories and making even more non-producing specialists.

Magic’s limits are the realm of imagination. Someone can magic up food. Get a wizard, and no one needs to farm except the poor dude doing the magicking-up. The whole town is free to do non-food-producing things. Everyone can specialize or research without worrying about their next meal. The single omnipotent, all-powerful wizard solution feels fragile: dependent on humans or singular specialized devices and difficult to mass-produce.

The trick is to establish magic that works like technology. Magic that doesn’t require a caster to maintain, or magic that works autonomously. Magic that is distributable, easy for anyone to use, and reproducible.

We’ve established: Worlds can escape the producer/non-producer trap with technology or suitable magic that works like technology. The more we crank up the automation, to fewer people need to grow calories, and more people can do more things.

A single wizard with the right weather spells could conceivably raise the density of the calories produced/acre and free up peasants to specialize into non-food manufacturing roles. Specialization will both increase the quality of life and bring a much more valuable trade good into the village. This creates a dependency on calories on the wizard.

The problem with wizards, though, is that spell-casting is still human labor. Either the peasants must pay the wizard enormous sacks of cash, imprison the wizard, strap him to a pole, and force him to cast his weather spells daily forever in some hellish torment, or the wizard must automate himself out of the picture.

Escape is through machines: reliable magical contraptions that vastly increase the calories produced per single laborer. This frees people up to specialize. The most fabulous magic item an adventurer can find in a dragon’s horde is an orb the conjures constant beautiful summer rainstorms on-demand or casts Mass Mage Hand. Or, a single, magical, fully autonomous combine harvester.

Goblin Aftermath

In the end, the adventures kill the goblins in the hills. They return to the Duke and receive their 50gp reward. Then, they are off to the next adventure. Eventually, either that strain of goblins starves completely, or other adventurers come along and hunt them to extinction.

Then, whatever nastiness pushed the goblins out of their ecological niche appears, and it’s hungry. It decides the villagers of Redwick are an acceptable source of protein. 100gp reward?

Why use all this stuff?

As we’ll see in the Wandering City example, not even highly magic-advanced or technologically-advanced societies escape the need to eat. Food governs how a society organizes itself. Societies are fragile, and disruptions bring about adventure, mayhem, or even the end.

It’s not necessary to build food production and calorie consumption into a world (although some RPGs like Blades in the Dark make it pretty explicit), but understanding food helps to understand some deeper motivations of people, trade and the state.

An Example: Wandering Cities:

Let’s answer these same questions for a more abstract example. Here’s the slug from the previous post on the Wandering Cities:

RPG Summary: Cities of pure magic float at cloud height miles in the air. A thousand years ago, wizards discovered how to harness magic into grand engineering civil works. Along with damming the great rivers, shifting forests, and clearing deserts, the wizards lifted the cities from the trappings of geography and climate and allowed them to wander. Since the Great Lifting, people have prospered. However, nothing in this world is free: the great magical engines powering the cities requires a continuous source of Xadril, a rare metal found under mountains.

From a geographical disposition, the Cities exist on floating discs. The discos are about 10 miles wide in diameter. Technologically, the world feels like the first two decades of the 20th century. The world has ubiquitous magic (pervasive ubiquity.)

Let’s make these presumptions about the world:

With a low population, ten miles in diameter is enough to feed the entire population of a small, rural, floating town built around the local wizard shop. The disc has plenty of farming and grazing land. It gets plenty of rain and sun. With magic combines and high-yield feed, humans can subsist on the discs for decades if not centuries.

Over time, these settlements blossomed from tiny villages into metropolises. Towns grew and multiplied. They transformed into cities. For economic reasons, living on the discs offered more opportunity than living on the ground (TBD — placeholder as to why here).

With the growth of populations comes building. Over time, buildings encroach on the farming and pasture land. Today, the grazing pastures are gone. The sweeping farms disappeared. Real estate on the discs is worth vastly more than real estate on the ground.

On the discs, hardly anything grows that isn’t a weed or carefully manicured city-trees. People keep neither chickens nor cows. No one cultivates vast tracts of cloud corn. Except for private vegetable and community gardens, food must come either from farming-dedicated floating discos or from the ground.

As we’re thinking only in the context of food, let’s add some random color to this magic world:

  • Magic-assisted mass farming and harvesting. Perhaps a kind of golem-like magic/robotic harvesters.
  • Since the vibe is early 20th century we lean into the Grapes of Wrath. Barns full of broken robot junk. Farmers in weatherbeaten overalls fixing the combine golem with a wrench and sweat. Shotguns.
  • Assume people in the floating cities eat typical Midwestern human food.
  • Cities must get their food from the ground or client discs, as city real estate consumed all land.
  • Airlift moves food from the ground to the sky on regularly scheduled shipments.
  • The cities have massive food warehouses and food distribution centers to shift food from delivery to hungry mouths.
  • The cities have a centralized market and distribution network to smaller markets in various city locales.
  • The city is reliant on their system of food delivery never breaking down because if it does, people will starve.
  • Cities could go to war over possession of the land on the ground or distribution networks in the sky.
  • Are the airlifts planes? Blimps? Balloons?

We’ve now established:

  • High population density in the city.
  • Residential neighborhoods and industrial neighborhoods.
  • A societal split between disc-people and ground-people.
  • Competition for on-land resources between multiple cities.
  • City is 100% dependent on their ground-based possessions.

We haven’t established:

  • Castes between the ground and the air;
  • Why people live on discs;
  • The magic that propels the discs and the machines;
  • What mode of transport lifts food into the sky.

If we wanted to, we could start coloring in the lines. We could say that the cities all have their possessions and they fight each other over the best land. We already know the magic to keep cities aloft are from rare resources. We could add in blimps and balloons as the “trucks of the sky.” And make the warehouse districts the “bad” neighborhoods.

Everything in this world is a little fragile — and purposefully so. If everything worked perfectly all the time, there’d be no need for adventurers.

How to Model Magical Reality – a Worldbuilding Guide

I wanted a cohesive system for building arbitrary fantasy worlds.  While cool games exist to solve this problem, I wanted to make something for myself to build on over a few months.

I come at problems from the dark underbelly of systems theory instead of straight forward paths.  To grow a bean, first I must create the universe.  I started on core research, read papers and books, and started building a core model.  Except, these models I worked from base themselves in the actual world.  Fantasy worlds have one component they lack: magic.

Being handy with a notepad, I scratched out a generic descriptive model for magic systems I found I liked and worked with other cultural systems  – economics, geography, state, military, religion. It had tunable knobs without needing math or specific RPG systems or to open a book on urban planning.

In this post, I offer a generic method for modeling fantasy magic from a societal and cultural perspective that you can bolt on to any world-building exercise.  This isn’t a game system per se, and it is not for any specific, popular RPG system. If you wish to use this, you can plug in the engine from your favorite RPG and use these abstractions in your model.

This model also works to simulate science in a non-scientific culture or high  in a low technology culture.  Remember Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

What is a Model?

What the heck is a model?  Encyclopedia Brittanica gives this as the definition of a scientific model:

Scientific modeling, the generation of a physical, conceptual, or mathematical representation of a real phenomenon that is difficult to observe directly. Scientific models are used to explain and predict the behaviour of real objects or systems and are used in a variety of scientific disciplines, ranging from physics and chemistry to ecology and the Earth sciences. Although modeling is a central component of modern science, scientific models at best are approximations of the objects and systems that they represent—they are not exact replicas.

You can think of an RPG, any interactive constructed world including an online world, or a fictional world as a simulation model describing a theoretical world and the rules that govern that world.  Good or bad — that depends on how well we build up the model and what fidelity.  Sometimes we don’t need that much fidelity.  Broad strokes are fine.  The long sets of sourcebooks and expansions on my shelf are a testament that we like fidelity, though.

In game design parlance, we build up models using established systems. Those systems have agreed-upon internal mechanics with boundaries and failure conditions — i.e., we roll a d20 in D&D5th Ed to model an action like swinging an axe or a bit of parkour.  We tune those worlds so that they’re not wildly out of balance and don’t drop into uncanny valleys. We want our model to work and not allow a die roll to knock the whole thing out of whack.

We have some popular models:

  • Want a modeled world inspired by Tolkein’s Middle Earth but with hella more stuff?  Play D&D5th Ed.
  • Want to tinker with and inhabit a model of a decaying world taken over by cool criminal gangs?  Play Blades in the Dark.
  • Want to model a world where secret government societies hunt down and destroy horrible hidden vampire societies? Play Night’s Black Agents.

What is a Good Model for Magic?

Almost all RPGs have a system to simulate magic in their constructed world.  Magic, it turns out, is so thematically potent in RPGs — much more so than a system of economics or a system of government — that magic with unclear aims tends to muddle the setting.  Magic with active aims with clear thematic roles brings the entire setting up to a higher level. The trick is to keep magic both thematic and balanced so that it doesn’t overpower the world but also act in concert with the rest of the game’s internal themes.

This model for magic doesn’t provide tools to scale magic up or down from a pure systems simulation perspective but helps to set it in context so that it functions thematically and is internally consistent with the rest of the worldbuilding exercise.  It also informs the rest of the world.

Triangle of Magic

A majority of magic systems (not all, but most) can be assessed on three aspects (variables): UbiquityImpact, and Cost.

  • Ubiquity Is a measurement of how rare magic is in the model and how aware common people are that magic exists.  If magic powers the airships that glide overhead or the steam engines that power the 12:40 pm train, magic is ubiquitous.  If magic only manifests in the minds of mad thinkers who pray to dark Gods while dwelling in farmhouses on the shores of 1920s Maine seaside farmhouses, then magic is not ubiquitous.   The underlying aspects to ubiquity are usability and social acceptance.
  • Impact is a measurement of both the impact of magic’s existence on the overall world.  A magic spell that can destroy the world or a galaxy or the universe has an immense impact.  Magic that works on a personal level has a small impact on the world.  It may be potent, but the impact is small.  The underlying aspects here are effect and magnitude.
  • Cost is the measurement of the cost of using magic on the environment.  Sometimes magic is virtually free — or magic costs 100gp pearls.  Alternatively, magic costs sanity, sacrifice, or huge piles of natural resources harvested from the ground.  The underlying aspects are resources and humanity.

We can assign to each of these attributes an intensity of 0-100 with 0 as a minimum and 100 as a maximum. This is a standard triangle graph:

The triangle has a forcing function to enforce a balancing effect on the world.  Big cost — big impact.  Ubiquitous, cheap, common, and weak.  Balance between forcing a costing function and an impact and how many people have access.  Hanging in the middle is all three aspects at work.

Let’s look at a quick and simple example.  In the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender, magicians practice magic through bending via martial arts stances.  Magic is highly ubiquitous: even if only a percentage of the population are benders, everyone knows it exists, and magic users are everywhere.  Unless you’re the Avatar or Fire Lord Ozai during a flaming comet, the impact is mainly local and personal — flying, healing, throwing rocks.  The cost is non-existent.  There’s some handwaving at the cost, but benders never seem to run out of bending unless they exhaust themselves from their martial arts moves.

Expanding the Triangle — Extracting Further Aspects

We can solicit much more detail out of our model by defining sub-aspects within ubiquityimpact, and cost.

Aspects of Ubiquity

Ubiquity is how common magic is in society.  Beneath ubiquity, we have acceptance and usability.

Usability: How easy is magic to learn, wield, and use for a common, everyday person?  Is magic a simple tool, or does it require an elaborate ritual, gear, or tooling?  Can magic only be wielded through a special bloodline or class?  Alternatively, Is it like electricity and magic runs through everything?

  • Literacy: Can the magically proficient transmit information about the instruction and performance of magic through the written word, so anyone without the writer’s direct instruction learn, understand, and practice it at any random later date in time?
  • Education: Does the practice of magic require special schooling, apprenticeships, and tutoring?  Is the use of magic innate, and wielders can use it from birth?

Acceptance:  How accepted is magic by society? Is magic a dark secret, or is it persecuted by the Church? Is magic forbidden by law? The Gods?  Is it like electricity, so accepted it’s part of the furniture?  It is possible for Social/Legal/Religious acceptance not to be in harmony.  The Church may disapprove and excommunicate you out if you cast magic, but the state won’t punish you for usage.  Alternatively, the people see magic as an underground resistance to an oppressive state.

  • Social Acceptance: Does society at large accept the use of magic?  Do the common people applaud its use or at least ignore or accept it or find it helpful?
  • Legal Acceptance: Are there state consequences for the use of magic?  Does the state have public or secret laws governing the use, pursuit, and punishment of magic in society?  Does the state see it as part of the fabric of broader state power?
  • Religious/God Acceptance: Does the Church approve of the use of magic?  Do they have their own magicians? Is magic expressly and clearly forbidden with the Church’s own laws and systems for meting out punishment?  This also covers the personal opinion of an actual God should one be involved.  If a God doesn’t care for magic, or is pursuing an enemy God’s magic, or using magic for the state, then the God has an opinion.

Features of Impact

Impact is the physical and psychological effects magic use extracts on society and the ecology around the society.

  • Effect: Effect is what it says on the tin.  Does casting magic cause a positive effect? Neutral? Is it like engineering and science where the effect is to build tooling for humans? Is it all geared toward infinite bunnies (bad) or releasing Nyarlathotep (equally bad)?  What does the magic do on people and the world around it?
  • Magnitude: What is the maximum cast radius for a spell?  Most magic is localized, but maybe it levels mountains, calls down the rain in a drought or swallows up entire cities.  Is magic small or big?

Features of Cost

Cost is simply that: what does it cost a person, a society, and a state to use this magic?

  • Resource Utilization: What resources does casting magic consume?  Are these cheap resources or expensive?  Plastic straws or human souls? For example, most D&D5th Ed is extremely cheap cost with some notable exceptions but calling down Quetzalcoatl through human sacrifice is expensive in people and after-ritual cleaning costs.  High resource utilization magic leads to resource exhaustion (and magic exhaustion).  This is a convenient hook into state and military considerations.
  • Humanity: Does magic consume sanity?  The caster’s body?  The caster’s very soul?  All of these are limited resources.  This means the caster, and magic, have a limited time supply until reaching resource exhaustion.

That’s it.  Figuring out where a magic system sits on the triangle and then exploding out the various variables underneath the three main factors and applying some constraints generates a decent model.


Let’s pass a few well-known systems from fiction into this model and see what kicks out.  These aren’t RPG per se, but they’ve been converted into variations of them.  I chose these examples for their general familiarity and for their breadth. They’re useful expressions of random fictional magic systems with analogs in games. Each is different in tone.

I have also mocked up:

  • Call of Cthulhu
  • Shadowrun
  • Mage: the Ascension
  • Blades in the Dark

After examples, let’s build two of our own.

Example #1: Forbidden Realms

Extremely high ubiquity, low to gargantuan impact, moderate cost

D&D.  It’s a great version of an aggressively magic-rich environment.

A world where portals to the Elemental Planes open on street corners, scrolls hang around in dingy boxes in dungeons, and even the thieves can cast a good spell or two.  Magic schools are correspondence courses, sometimes people wake up in the morning with new magical powers, and  Tiefling Sorcerers order visit from the best restaurants.  Magic isn’t just ubiquitous.  It’s a required survival skill to get down to the corner store.  The state loves magic.  The Church is into it.

Earlier versions of the game had magic slightly less ubiquitous.  Now all the classes have some sort of magic.  We can assume magic starts in kindergarten and works up from there.

As for impact — it depends!  A vast majority of introductory available spells are localized effects or single point to point spells.  Then we get into the 5th level of spells and there’s cloudkill and delayed blast fireballs and it goes downhill from there.  On average most spell usages are things like identify and barkskin and healing spells.  At the high end of the bell curve, it’s blasty time.

And on to cost.  Honestly, costs for most spells simply aren’t that much out of the average adventurer budget.  A few extremely evil plot spells cost a bit of humanity here and there. Resurrection sure isn’t cheap.  For the most part, though, while casting isn’t free, it doesn’t break the bank either.

Cost becomes more interesting when we consider personal resource cost.  A mage can only cast X spells per day.  A sorcerer and a warlock have a limited list but easier access.  The other classes have an even more limited range than that.  Magic is more of a personal resource management game than a worldly one.  There’s choice, but there’s so much choice.

UsabilityCantrips and Level 1 spells are gateway spells.
LiteracyScrolls are everywhere: in stores, dungeons, storerooms, libraries.
EducationWizard schools are ubiquitous enough to kick out wizards who get eaten in dungeons.
AcceptanceNo overarching social repercussions while used in an acceptable manner.
SocialSociety generally doesn’t like magic used for evil.  Beyond that, cantrips for everyone.
LegalThe law assumes everyone has magic.  Laws more tuned to the effects (murder, theft, etc.) then magic use.
ReligiousEntire Gods and religions are dedicated to magic.
EffectTiny to enormous.
MagnitudeTiny to enormous.
ResourcesSurprising cheap!
HumanityAs long as you don’t become a lich, magic is light on the humanity.

Example #2: Harry Potter

Extremely high ubiquity, low impact, very low cost.

The world of Harry Potter is broken into two — the world of magic (magical) and the world of muggles (normies).  Even if only 10% of the population is capable of magic, and it sure seems that way, it’s still a vast world population who are either magic sensitive or magic aware.  Even if it’s only 0.01% of the world, that’s still 60 million magic users. That’s a viable secret online social network.

Everyone in the magical world is aware of magic and its everyday presence.

The magical world conforms to magic.  Spells are written in books and books are commonly available in libraries and bookstores.  Children are sent to (free, state-supported) schools where teachers perform instruction with clear goals and objectives to integrate wizards into society.  Also children, on an appointed day, receive wands to channel their magic — apparently for free. Society not only accepts magic but it is written into institutions of the state.  There is no comment whatsoever from the Church, should there be one.

One might even say that magic is the state in Harry Potter.  Most conflict in Harry Potter is not magical at all but political.

The magic in Harry Potter’s world, removing the magical beasts, is small stuff.  Magic opens doors, grows plants, scries mirrors.  Even big, adult-sized combat magic is all confusion spells and air shoves.  Very rarely someone casts a spell with much effort and cost to significant impact, but this is rare enough to make newspapers and appear in history books. In general, Harry Potter magic is utilitarian. Wizards drive (flying) cars and ride on magic trains and still need to work to earn a paycheck.

Harry Potter magic has no material cost on the world.  Occasional ritual spells use essential and rare components but, for the most part, it’s a word and a wave of a wand.

The Harry Potter world is familiar, utility, wide-spectrum, low-impact magic punctuated by the rare and notable big impact stuff.

UsabilityRequires innate talent. Once a wizard has his or her wand, magic requires pronunciation of a few syllables.
LiteracyBooks of magic fill bookstores and libraries.
EducationSystems of lower and higher education trains future wizards.
AcceptanceWithin the wizarding world, everyone casts magic.
SocialSocial repercussions are political.  Magic is politically neutral.
LegalLaw focuses on the more political ramifications of magic instead of magic itself.
ReligiousWorld has no comment on religion vs magic.
EffectSmall — opening doors, finding lost objects, flying cars.
MagnitudeSmall — personal level, localized casting.

Example #3: X-Men

Medium ubiquity, medium-to-high impact, low cost. Depends on the storyline and author.

In the X-Men, children born with the X-Gene evolve into mutants.  These are essentially superpowers (although Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run had some interesting takes on non-useful expressions of the X-Gene).  We assume that the X-Gene generates a superpower of some utility from Shadowcat and (sigh) Dazzler and everything in between and treat these superpowers as magic.

This magic is somewhat ubiquitous.  Common people know it exists.  It shows up in the news all the time.  The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants had their own country for a while.  However, governments frown on it and systems of laws exist to suppress and punish it. Normal people are generally racist toward mutants and treat them with open hostility.

Magic is generally also innate and requires no instruction (for the common case).  Either the X-Gene does a thing, or it doesn’t.  Can turn to diamond?  Great.  Focus and turn to diamond.

As magic is an expression of genetics, magic is passed down through bloodlines, making it exclusive.  This limits the ubiquity of magic.

The impact of magic runs from shifting through walls to literally blowing up suns.  If we look at the core X-Men (Iceman, Cyclops, Storm, Jean Gray, Wolverine, Beast, etc.) X-Men magic can tear up the place.  Storm alone is a high impact and high magnitude and high effect.  All she needs to do is summon a tornado.

The cost is meager.  Using X-Men powers doesn’t cost anything in material resources at all.  One might say it wears away at their humanity and they pay a cost in social acceptance, psychological stability, and long term happiness (see cost modifier).  On the other hand, they hang out at a massive mansion in Upstate New York with their friends all day, so it’s not all bad.

Interestingly, for various superhero variants, we can tweak the knobs a bit.  Superpowers can come at personal cost (eating away at humanity and vitality) only to be restored by some mystical foozle. We can make supers more demonized (less ubiquitous, rarer) by raising the cost of powers and having them pull vitality from bystanders and imposing a higher social cost.  Now we have a White Wolf game.

UsabilityEase varies wildly with expression of the X-Gene.  Requires X-Gene to wield.
LiteracyWhile training exists to help control the X-Gene, it expresses itself around puberty.
SocialPeople who are not mutants do not care for mutants.
LegalThe state persecutes mutants for mutations sake and built laws to criminalize the X-Gene.
ReligiousThe church is silent on the X-Gene.
EffectSmall to destroying worlds.
MagnitudePersonal localization to encompassing solar systems.
HumanityMutations are rough on the soul and sense of self.

Example #4: What We Do in the Shadows?

I love Taiki Waititi’s “What We Do in the Shadows?”  It’s far more Dracula than White Wolf.

Almost zero ubiquity, medium impact, big cost.

The main reason no one has come to stake the Vampires living in the house on Staten Island is that no one even knows they are there.  Ok, they’re supposed to take over the New World, but they don’t even have their block locked down yet.  Maybe next year?

Yes, in the world of “What We Do in the Shadows,” some vampires hang out, and they have the occasional party, and there’s a secret society or two. There’s maybe 0.1 Vampire/square mile of Vampire Inhabitance.  Vampirism really isn’t accepted by society at all, but there’s so few of them the state doesn’t craft specific Vampire laws. They prosecute and punish the cost vampirism extolls.  The Church is not a fan of creatures of darkness (see poor Nandor sitting in the Church during a funeral of one of his living descendants) but God just kind of cooks them, so that works out.

Power is innate.  Training takes about a day, maybe two, then off you go — no Vampire schools.

Impact dramatically varies based on Vampire age and some random factor of Vampireness.  Mostly, power is localized to the self — turning into a bat, flying, hypnotizing people, that sort of thing. It’s possible Vampire magic is much more potent than depicted at in the show — it’s hinted at — but our Vampires are lazy and hapless.  Except for the daywalking energy vampires — they’re ridiculously, almost stupidly, powerful.

The cost is high.  Not only does it cost the vampires their humanity, but they eat people regularly.  People are a pretty big resource, but if the vampires start depleting the local supply in no time, they’ll be no humans and many cops.

UsabilityEasy.  Think hard and become a bat! Requires blood transmission to become a vampire.
LiteracyVampires are obsessive about their own histories but do not transmit Vampire “secrets” in written form.
EducationLittle to none.  A small tutorial period and you’re good to go.
AcceptanceHumans do not care for the undead.
SocialWithin undead societies, things are great.  Among humans, things are not so great.
LegalThroughout history, the state has persecuted the undead because the undead eat people to power themselves.
ReligiousThe Church believes the undead are bad.  Vampires burn to ash when exposed to holiness or purity.
EffectVampire magic is pretty potent.  Living forever, flying, teleportation — all good stuff.
MagnitudeVampire magic is localized to the self and localized victims.
ResourcesThey eat people.
HumanityBeing a vampire is hard on the body and the soul.

Construction #1: Darkest Souls

RPG Summary: Dark gods from before time lie sleeping.  An ancient cult, more ancient than writing or cities, worships them and siphons godlike power for its own dark purposes.  The cult has burrowed into every corner of the state worldwide.  Every major historical event leads back to the cult.  Soon, they will wake the dark gods.  You will either destroy their agents or be co-opted.  (System – Gumshoe? FATE?  Action Priests with Guns.)

Ubiquity: Very low.

Only the cult and those who belong to the church agency who hunts the cult and extracts them know it exists.  Transmission about the cult is through ancient and near-modern documents found in arcane corners of the world.  The only way to learn actual magic is by caving in, joining the cult, and having magic beamed into one’s head via sleeping, horrible gods.  Revealing the existence of the cult will get you outed, excommunicated, framed for crimes you did not commit and turned over to the state.

Impact: Very high

The cult is potent.  They use magic stolen from their dark gods to deceive, lie, co-opt, control, and worm their way into the highest levels of money and power.  The effect is high, but the sheer magnitude of their reach is breathtaking.  Should they win and wake their dark gods, the world will fall into slavery.

Cost: High

The cult sacrifices the bodies of victims and when victims are scarce, their own bodies to cast spells.  Since the dark gods demand a human sacrifice to power true magic, the cult tends to operate in more lawless corners of the world where law enforcement won’t find them, and victims are plentiful.  If the cultists use themselves, eventually they’re used up, and they die, so their body is a carefully husbanded resource.  Operating out in the open is just a non-starter.

The cult’s magic is focused mainly on manipulation with a good dollop of shape-changing, infiltration, and any magic dealing with shadows.  You have the church, the internet, modern technology, and guns.  Lots of guns.

UsabilityUnless you’re a member of the cult or stole magic from the cult, highly difficult to wield.
LiteracySome information in Middle Eastern and Asian archeological fragments.
AcceptanceUnless you’re a member of the cult, you’re not a fan of the cult.
SocialMost people are unaware of the existence of dark gods.
LegalThe state considers magic a mortal threat and mobilizes against it.
ReligiousThe church considers magic a mortal threat and mobilizes against it.
EffectPretty powerful — mind wiping, shape-changing, infiltration, perhaps hacking technocracy magic.
ResourcesSacrifices animals, people, things, their own bodies, everything living.
HumanityConsumes the cult or anyone who stole magic from the cult from the inside out.

Construction #2: Wandering Cities

RPG Summary: Cities of pure magic float at cloud height miles in the air.  A thousand years ago, wizards discovered how to harness magic into grand engineering civil works. Along with damming the great rivers, shifting forests, and clearing deserts, the wizards lifted the cities from the trappings of geography and climate and allowed them to wander.  Since the Great Lifting, people have prospered. However, nothing in this world is free: the great magical engines powering the cities requires a continuous source of Xadril, a rare metal found under mountains.

More than one city floats in the clouds.  The reserves of Xadril are running out.  And, the ground dwellers, those Left Behind, have developed their own technology in the past thousand years.

Ubiquity: Pervasive

Look up and on a clear day, standing on the ground, you’ll spot a Floating City.  If you live in the Floating Cities, magic is everywhere.  It runs like electricity and powers an early 20th-century technological world of magic streetcars, magic phonographs, and magically lit city streets.  Not everyone in this world is a wizard, but magic is more like physics and engineering than the exclusive world of wizards and magical schools.  Wizard engineering is a standard part of the University curriculum.  Magic Engineering books are found in bookstores and libraries.  It’s a well-paid profession and a major tool of the state.

Impact: Huge

When cities are floating in the air, and magical engineering can terraform the world, magic has both a massive effect and a massive magnitude.  Magic is essentially the inner workings for civil engineering and electrical engineering.  Think Hoover Dam.

Cost: High

While magic has zero humanity cost and is 100% safe for humans to work, use and cast, strip-mining mountains for Xadril has a clear ecological cost to the planet. When it runs out, do the wizards turn their eyes to space?  Do they strip mine their solar system?  Do the cities go to war with each other over Xadril supplies?

UsabilityMagical engineering requires training but otherwise no barriers to use.  Requires Xadril.
LiteracyBooks found in libraries and bookstores.
EducationMagic Engineering Universities established and open to qualifying students.
AcceptanceMagic makes life much simpler for everyone.
SocialPeople use magic without thinking hard about it.
LegalLegal system accepts magic and promotes laws to enable the expansion of magic further and magic research.
ReligiousReligious systems accept magic.
EffectCan float a city!
MagnitudeCan float a city!
ResourcesRequires Xadril, a rare resource that is rapidly depleting.

Next Up…

Some extra time and cleverness could turn this blog post into a highly useful FATE-based toolkit for describing magic systems with Aspects.

This is a tool to start building up some bigger fantasy cities.  The next shot is likely to see how this magic model interacts with a governmental/state model and start building some moving parts.  Establish the full model that covers building cities and then, using the model, build a few cities and see how it works.

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