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World Building IV: Magic is the Opposite of Everything

When designing an epic heroic fantasy world setting, at some point you’re going to have to consider how magic fits into it.  It can be used “stock”, like how it exists in the Core D&D setting of the Nentir Vale, or it can be superabundant as it has always been in the Forgotten Realms, or with an added “spin” on it, it can be made into a vile and destructive practice such as it exists in Dark Sun.   But regardless of how it is used, magic is a very powerful element in any heroic fantasy setting, and it adds a unique flavor to the entire campaign setting.

But to some extent, magic also represents a breaking with the natural rules which exist in a world – the laws of nature or the laws of the gods.  And when rules get broken, someone, somewhere, is likely to take offense to it.  Creating opposition to those who practice magic can be a powerful and dynamic element in heroic fantasy campaign setting, creating new potentials for role-playing, intrigue, and adventure.

In the realms of fantasy literature, there are a couple “likely suspects” that might willingly oppose the study and practice of magic – or even oppress it: the religious faithful and the scientific community.

Magic vs. Religion

History offers plenty of examples of religion oppressing magic, regardless of its source.  For example, mysticism and magic were once an integral part of ancient pantheistic religions, but early Christianity declared such practices as pagan and evil, linking them with demonology and witchcraft.

This sort of persecution of magical practitioners by the medieval Church was certainly one of the inspirational forces in Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni Novels.  In these books, political greed and religious zealotry joined forces to attempt a genocide of a race of mystics who were deemed to be in league with the forces of darkness – even though a great many of the main Deryni characters were portrayed as devoutly Christian, mixing mysticism and faith in uniquely magical ways.
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In another example, the conflict between religion and magic also play large roles in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, which is a rather fascinating re-telling of the Arthurian Legend.  Although one might argue that two religions – early Christianity and the “old ways” – were really in conflict in the novel, it’s interesting to note that it was the worshippers of the Goddess who practiced magic, mysticism, and spells, which eventually caused the religious backlash.  And it was Christians which eventually closed the doorway between the mundane world and what might be called the “fey realm”, where the worshippers of the Goddess derived their power, when an abbey was built on the site of the intersection of the worlds.

Please note that I am not trying to cast Christianity or any other religion as persecutors.  However, these novels demonstrate the potential for an interesting campaign dynamic, where magic and religion are antithetical rather than cooperative as they are in most D&D campaign settings.  Of course, a campaign setting can have a combination of magical and religious elements, where some religions have no concern of magic use, while other religions view any use of magic as heretical and evil.

And the type of magic being used might also be a factor in the conflict.  For instance, Wizards might be viewed as “white magic” and therefore acceptable to the faithful, but Warlocks might be viewed “black magic”, and absolutely evil by religious groups.  And the persecution could extend in both directions, with certain groups of magical practitioners, gathered into covens or schools, might decide that a particular god is offensive and their worshippers need to be eliminated. So there can be varying degress of religious and magical conflict in a campaign setting, creating diverse elements for new role-playing experiences.

Magic vs. Technology

I’ve noticed that a couple of my favorite science-fiction authors take a rather dim view of the nature of magic.  Arthur C. Clark is famously quoted as stating that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.   And Robert Heinlein claimed that one man’s “magic” is another man’s engineering; “supernatural” is a null word.  While to a certain extent, these authors are pointing out mankind’s tendency to regard any powerful force they do not understand as supernatural, there is also a bit of prejudice of hard scifi authors toward magic and fantasy here.

After all, if magic exists in a fantasy world, capable of creating technological effects, is that gotf covermagic or science?  And how then does the introduction of magic affect the progress of scientific development?

A book series by Joel Rosenburg called The Guardians of the Flame explored those questions, demonstrating a fantasy world with arrested scientific development because of an overdependence on magic.  But that all changes, when a group of college students playing a RPG were transported to a fantasy world and into the bodies of their characters – caught in a spell cast by their professor/Dungeon Master, who was an exiled wizard from another world!  Over the course of time, one of the players, an engineering student becomes himself again, and began to upset the status quo of arcane power as the dominating “technology” on the world – by introducing tech such as guns and gun powder, cannons, and other scientific wonders.  Science and technology was held in check for generations by the existence of powerful magicks, and the introduction of “Earth” tech brought the conflict swiftly to a head.

Even in campaign worlds where both high magic and powerful technology exist, such as in the old Shadowrun campaign setting, these powers are mutually exclusive.  For instance, in Shadowrun, the more technological implants one has, the less effective one is at being able to wield the forces of magic.  And in Dias Ex Machina’s Amethyst campaign setting, magic characters cause technological devices to malfunction by their very presence.  Of course, in these settings, this conflict between science and magic is used to induce a level of game balance between tech-based and arcane-based characters, but this can also create conflict between the two power bases.

Of course, magic and technology might also be combined by some cultures into a new form of super-mystical science.  In the recent movie release of Thor, the god of thunder confides to the astrophysicist, Jane Foster, that magic and science are one and the same on Asgard.  Whether one believes that the Asgardians are aliens with a mythology complex, or a race of immortals with magical machines capable of creating Einstein-Rosen bridges, the combining of magic and technology makes for a powerful plot dynamic.
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Like religion and magic, a world-builder can introduce various degrees of conflict between technology and magic, ranging from societies who embrace both in combination, to ones which hate magic but love technology and vice versa.  For instance, one could have a steampunk/clockwork technological culture that loathes magic, claiming it to be superstition, while a magical based society might view this new steampunk/clockwork tech as offensive and detrimental to their superiority.

The Great “Lovers” Triangle – Magic vs. Science vs. Religion

Magic, Science, and Religion can form quite a “lovers” triangle, and all be in varying levels of both conflict and cooperation in a fantasy setting.  This can create multiple dynamics between these three campaign elements based upon geographic region, or society, or even political unit.

In some regions, for example, a world-builder might decide to have magic and a major religion allied together to repulse a dangerous new technology, such as dwarven guns or steam cannons.  Or religious groups might employ technology like clockworks or guns to even the score against a powerful magical society.

Using various levels of conflict between these three powerful elements can add considerable role-playing and adventure possibilities to a campaign setting.  The level of conflict between them can range from wars and crusades to more subtle political and social intrigues, depending on the scope a designer wants to introduce into the setting.

But regardless of the degree, using conflict between magic, science, and religion in a world-setting is a powerful tool, which can give a fantasy world a completely unique and different “feel” from any other previous experience for both Dungeon Masters and Players.

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!


About The Author

Editor-in-Chief
Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.

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