I’ve always liked and appreciated worlds and stories that maintained a realistic feel. Now, when I say ‘realistic’ I don’t meant ‘set in modern day or a retelling of history,’ although I do enjoy both. My definition of realism in fiction (and the one I’ll be exploring in this post) is that things follow a logical and reasonable line of causes and effects. Basically, everything that is and happens in the world needs a reason and it has to be consistent with the rules the world established early on and anything added or removed will have consequences for the world. This definition means that a story could be set in a fantasy world, but it could still be ‘realistic’ and could have ‘realistic’ magic.
This brings me to a fundamental problem I have with some RPGs. While I love plenty of stories and games where things go unexplained and have logical holes, I generally prefer worlds and stories with consistency and, yes, realism. The most popular tabletop roleplaying game in the world is, of course, D&D, but I do not believe that it does a good job of remaining consistent in its world and I’d like to haves some fun by pointing out why. Wizards are absurd. I mean it. Every edition of D&D has shown that, while slow to start, wizards, clerics, druids and just about any spell caster will dramatically outshine any character class that stabs people really hard (check here for more detail on this trope). Imagine this, two characters at the highest level facing off, one is a wizard and one a fighter. The wizard has a myriad of ways of dealing with the fighter, she could send him to the abyss, turn him into stone, take control of his mind or simply disintegrate him. The fighter can stab really hard.
What exactly is the problem here? Well, obviously there is a difference in power between the characters, but that is not actually the problem. Do you think that Frodo was less important to the story of the Lord of the Rings because he was less powerful than Gandalf? Of course not. The idea of ‘game balance’ in a tabletop RPG is really there just for the tactical fighting and not the story, but again that isn’t the point. The reason why this is a big deal is because the world does not reflect the fact that spell casters are second only to the gods. I admit that making a max level wizard or cleric is really hard, but if the players can do it, so could someone else. Eventually, in the thousands of years of history that most fantasy worlds contain, there will be wizards, clerics, druids, and sorcerers who did make it. In addition, these people are so powerful that they can simply become immortal by making clones of themselves, putting their soul in a jar or various other methods. Looking through the highest level spells that casters can get reveals that they can grant wishes, create their own demiplanes, summon meteors and bring people back from the dead, and they get four of these kind of spells a day. In a fantasy world where the vast majority of people are malnourished peasants, no one is going to stop the wizard who took over the kingdom by summoning a dragon that ate the king and disintegrating anyone who disputes his rule. Oh, and even if you kill him he’ll just come back as one of his clones, kill you and bind your soul to some amulet so you can’t pass on to the afterlife. Wizards are absurd.
I equate this idea to an aspect of the Fermi paradox, so hold onto your seat, this is going to be one heck of a tangent. The Fermi paradox, for those who don’t know, states that with all of the opportunities for life to develop on other planets why can’t we seem to find any? What does this have to do with world dominating wizards? Be patient, I’m getting to it. One proposed solution to the paradox is that there are ‘great filters’ which are metaphorical barriers that stop life from reaching the stars. Things like: global warming, global thermonuclear war and lack of resources. However, if one civilization was able to survive the filters it would be so close to impossible for it to simply die out that it could colonize the galaxy. Now, this is like our problem with the max level wizard. It may be hard to become a powerful wizard, it may be close to impossible; however, if someone made it (and if a player can do it we know someone could) that person couldn’t be killed by anything less than a demigod. This doesn’t even factor in clerics who have the gods on their side making it easier for them to survive and reach maximum power. If one person made it and taught others bringing them to his level, and they taught others, the number of powerful wizards starts to increase dramatically.
OK, so what? Why should you care that the kingdom that your character is fighting to save should really be a magocracy/theocracy? Well, because it tells a cool story that does follow from the rules presented in the game. Imagine a world where there are three sets of powers in the world, the magocracies ruled by councils of mages full of dark arcane secrets, theocracies ruled by the living avatar of a god with the same might and authority and stretches of wilderness ruled by druids who will not let so much as an outhouse be built in their domain. The players have to navigate this bizarre political landscape where if you can cast magic you better believe that you and going to have it documented and regulated so you will not overthrow the government, but at the same time you are a first class citizen above the common folk without the blood, talent or faith to take the same path to godhood you’re taking. And what about martial characters? You used to live in a world of honor and fealty and strength, but now your sword is seen as worthless, a piece of scrap metal no more glorious than the tankard you are drowning your sorrows in, I wonder how that makes you feel.
Now, I’ll fully admit that I get a little carried away. In games like D&D, especially when it comes to magic, it is basically impossible to discern how the world will work. The single weakest spell in the game can break the entire world. Fighting crime is completely different when wizards can ask questions of corpses. Trading and interacting with other species becomes insanely easy when you have someone on staff who can mutter some words and understand any language spoken to him. People are hardly trustworthy when young mages can disguise themselves as whoever they want and charm people into making them allies. Trying to discern all of the effects of one spell is hard, let alone every spell when they all interact. I know that the world I propose, while I feel it is more realistic than the basic world, it still doesn’t meet the criteria I described in the beginning, but that just because there are so many factors that would impact the world. I just wanted to draw attention to the problem that magic poses in these sorts of fantasy games and how even following them to the logical conclusion can still lead to an entertaining world where you can set a story. Now, I’m off to overthrow my summoner overlords and bring back the age of kings. Who’s with me?