Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Magicians as Billionaires

High-level magic-users, if the basic assumptions of a standard D&D setting held true, would be the equivalent of the modern world's billionaire class. With the ability to travel across continents and summon powerful servants on a whim, and with entire rooms full of magical item bling at their fingertips, they would have much more in common with each other than anybody else - a bit like how, if you take the average super-rich Brazilian, South African, Indian, South Korean, Australian and Canadian and put them in a room they will seem more similar to each other than they will to their own typical countrymen. 

This could very well be how the common tongue got started. Globe-trotting members of super-rich elites need their lingua francas. For our world, it's English. For a D&D world, it's the common tongue; a dialect created my magic-users from across the planet to communicate with each other, which has filtered down to the hoi polloi because people who like to think they're upwardly mobile all want to speak it. 

It could also be why wherever you go everybody seem to be using the same spells. Super-rich people on Earth all go to the same sorts of parties, listen to the same sorts of music, take the same sorts of drugs, wear the same fashion brands. High-level magicians in D&D land are the same: one of them comes up with a new spell and suddenly everybody else has to have it. Certain brands, like Mordenkainen, Leomund, or Bigby, are all the rage at different times. And every so often somebody finds a charming little spell created by some obscure tribe, orc shaman, or hobgoblin witch and turns up at the next feast to show it off, and within a year everybody's using it - just as some Hollywood star will start eating Burmese street food or whatever one day and it becomes (literally) the flavour of the month.

It's also surely why high-level magic-users all live in megadungeons full of traps and guardians. Your average multi-billionaire has pads in New York, Paris, London and Tokyo, his villa in Sao Paolo, his getaway in Sorrento, and all that, but the place he really relaxes is his secret hideaway - his private island in the Philippines; his ranch in Patagonia; his estate in the Scottish Highlands. And he competes furiously with his peers to build the best, biggest, most beautiful or unusual of the lot. If they could, you can be absolutely sure they'd have a manticore guarding the entrance, poisonous gas traps everywhere, and a tribe of vegepygmy slaves. 

14 comments:

  1. An idea I've approached from the other end previously. [http://worldbuildingandwoolgathering.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/your-wizard-is-journeyman.html]

    That said, the dungeon angle didn't immediately strike me.

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  2. Ha! Terrific - and very Jack Vance. This is all flows quite (super)naturally from Mazirian the Magician.

    Your bit about the "charming little spell" is just perfect!

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    1. I didn't think of it as Vancian but yes, you're absolutely right.

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  3. Its not about wealth, or even about power, its about status.

    If being a powerful wizard brings status, and wizards can practice their wizardry openly and be recognized for it, then they can exercise power and behave like the wealthy elites.

    But if wizardry does not bring status, if it is not well paid, if they have to rely upon higher status patrons to finance their research, and compete with each other for patrons, or even hide what they are doing, then they will be in no greater position than anybody else.

    Like a physicist who technically knows how to build a bomb but could never get the materials on his own, low status wizards would be dependant on patrons to supply components, labs, and libraries for research - and who would likely retain ownership of those assets, and maybe the resulting spells as well. Fearful governments will limit trade in known spell components and criminalize the casting of dangerous spells without a permit. Wizards suspected of casting spells upon people will be persecuted in, well, witch hunts.

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    1. "if they have to rely upon higher status patrons to finance their research, and compete with each other for patrons"

      That sounds a lot like the the great Renaissance artists. Perhaps in some lands or city-states, magicians are the wealthy elite, and in others they are like master artists, their 'work' highly sought after by the actual wealthy elite (such as great merchant families, or the church).

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    2. Those are all cool ideas for settings. But I think when you consider what a high-level wizard can do in D&D...I mean, being well paid isn't a concern when you can in effect create your own money.

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    3. Not sure how they create their own money, doesn't sound like any edition I have run. But even if they can, it does little good if no one will sell to them or work for them, or they are declared enemies of the state.

      Even bog standard D&D settings tend to hold onto the idea, at least a little, that wizards aren't really part of mainstream society. The uninviting wizard's tower is an example. I think we hold onto those tropes because we instinctively know how society would really react to wizards, even if we can't articulate why.

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    4. Fool's Gold. All you need is a couple of brass statues or a pile of copper coins. And why let on you're a wizard when you're buying or selling things? For that matter, why does it matter if you're declared an enemy of the state when you've got Mass Charm?

      I get your point - D&D works better if wizards are outside mainstream society. I'm just carrying out a thought experiment here.

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    5. Two things to keep in mind when considering the impact of magic is the limitation on frequency of use and the awareness that NPCs have (or may not have) concerning the possibility of magic. Fools' Gold lets you make a fake gold statue but how often can you employ that trick and how long does it last? And since people know magic exists, you have to wonder if the person who's buying the fake gold statue is aware that it's fake.

      To Beoric's point, I think it's fair to assume that wizards hold positions at both ends of the status spectrum. We should think of them as highly intelligent mathematicians, physicists, technologists or scientists: in possession of knowledge that can change the world but they need resources to make that change happen.

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  4. _Globe-trotting members of super-rich elites need their lingua francas. For our world, it's English... has filtered down to the hoi polloi because people who like to think they're upwardly mobile all want to speak it._
    The real world offers a different and interesting example - it's actually French plus some Latin and Greek, for any time before WW1. English is a dirty trade language, used by rough men in colonial outposts to fleece natives at gunpoint. Like Arabic, Malay and Portuguese it's been streamlined and localized to serve as a trade argot. The upper classes wanted something else to speak in order to maintain their social distance, up to the point where the logic of capitalism more or less overthrew that of aristocracy.

    If wizardry is exclusive, I suggest a wizard's tongue _and maybe_ a common tongue for the networks that supply the ingredients for those immortality potions. If the secret is out and everyone has the (remote) chance to be a wizard then yes, the world will oscillate rapidly between flat and sharply divided, like our own.

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    1. I like the idea of a Wizard's Tongue. Or maybe they all just speak Elven or Draconic or whatever as the equivalents of Latin or French.

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  5. This can be connected with the concept of D&D as a post-apocalyptic setting. Clearly before wizards were much more ubiquitous, but now only the 1% of them are still globe trotters. But common spread back in the glorious past, and new wizards now must toil and hide until they are high level enough to do whatever they want.

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  6. I was going to criticize the comparison to rich dilettantes and socialites, reasoning that you're not likely to see a weapons manufacturing billionaire showing off his latest killing machine at a party in Vegas ~ comparable to a firestorm spell ~ but I've been looking over spells for 2nd Edition and holy crap, there are a ton of non-combat magics out there. Like, out of the 800 or spells that I've cataloged, maybe less than a hundred deal damage (with a smaller number providing direct bonuses to armor class). (I think the ratio of non-combat to combat spells is lower in 3rd Edition and beyond, but I haven't even started crunching those numbers.) In that sense, I can see the comparison, especially if we think of wizards (and generally all adventurers) as occupying a niche in society not unlike archaeologists and explorers from the 17th - 19th centuries.

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