A Facebook campaign running in England at the moment is driving the song Ding, Dong the Witch is Dead up the charts, in celebration of Margaret Thatcher’s death. This has the right-wing media up in arms, and has led to an open case of attempted censorship of the BBC. But old school role-players should also be up in arms with outrage at this attack on the legacy of the ’80s: although Margaret Thatcher is clearly a spellcaster of some kind, the Witch was not an authorized character class in the 1980s role-playing canon! Nothing is more frustrating than to see important aspects of the original system mis-used in the popular press, and so in the interests of accuracy, I think we should tackle the question of what kind of spellcaster Margaret Thatcher actually was. Being an ’80s phenomenon, Margaret Thatcher has to be fitted into the character class options of the old school canon: that is, she has to be either a magic-user, druid, cleric, paladin or ranger.

First of all, we know that “the lady’s not for turning,” so she can’t be a cleric or paladin. She doesn’t seem to have been very out-doorsy, and I think it’s safe to say she wasn’t true neutral, so druid is out. And by examining her history of spell-casting, we can rule out ranger.

So what spells did Maggie cast? First and most obvious is Mass Hypnosis, a fairly high level spell. Many northern newspapers claim that she destroyed whole areas of industry in the north, so maybe she could cast Earthquake as well. Along with Ronald Reagan (who was surely a Paladin!) she could use Detect Evil – before they joined to cast that spell, no one (no one!) knew that the Soviet Union was an evil dictatorship. It’s also fairly clear that she regularly used the Domination spell on members of her cabinet, and her resistance to assassination attempts suggests the use of Contingency and possibly also Resist Fire. From this list we can see that she had access to spells that were outside the ranger list. Thus we can conclude that she must have been a magic-user.

Finally, however, there is one additional power she had that suggests the ’80s was being run as a house-ruled boutique campaign. Many editorialists are claiming that Margaret Thatcher created Tony Blair; but Tony Blair is clearly a Vampire, and as far as I know there is no spell that can be used to create Vampires. So either she was so powerful that the GM had to create a whole new set of spells for her, 1980s Britain was being run based on an obscure supplement of Dragon magazine, or the entire industrial and economic wasteland that was the UK from 1978 to 1990 was being run on a unique set of house rules.

So, based on the available evidence, Margaret Thatcher was an extremely high level magic-user character being run in a homebrew post-apocalyptic UK campaign. And definitely not a witch.

Continuing my thoughts on developing a simplified version of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3 based on the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars system, in this post I will present some suggestions for simplifying the magic system. It is likely that my suggestions for magic will tend to over-power magicians, because that’s exactly what I like in a system…


Magic in the simplified WFRP system should be based on strain, rather than magic points, and will use a simplified spell system in which wizards choose three or four ladders of spell types. Each ladder has a first, second and third rank spell, approximately equivalent to the spells in the cards currently available through the WFRP3 set. Spells are cast using a spellcraft skill check, with  difficulty determined by the rank of the spell and the attribute of a target. Spells will have a strain cost, and will incur additional strain from rolling banes. Spell casters also have a talent tree (as in the case of the rogue) but will have to purchase spells using development and experience points.

Spell-casting and strain

All PCs will start with a strain score equal to 8+WP. Strain is incurred through failed combat actions, and can be recovered after battles through discipline checks, and then through rest. When a spell is cast it costs 2+Rank strain; so a rank 1 spell costs 3 strain. Each additional bane rolled on the spell check incurs an additional point of strain; chaos stars incur an additional point of strain + a miscast card. Thus the average level 1 wizard with strain of 12 can safely expect to cast 3 spells in one battle; the 4th spell will carry a risk of being rendered incapable of further action.

If a spell takes a human target, the difficulty of casting the spell is set by the target attribute (usually WP, but this can vary); the spell incurs an additional misfortune die per rank above 1. If the spell has no human target, the difficulty is set by the rank: one misfortune die at rank 1, and then an additional challenge die for every rank above 1.

Spell types and effects

The basic role of spells in WFRP3 is to apply conditions to targets, or to damage them. This is easily represented through revised spell descriptions in simplified warhammer. A simple approach is to set the damage done by a spell at 2+Spell Rank+ Int. Conditions can be more diverse than those described by the cards in WFRP3. For example, a rank 1 spell can apply one misfortune die to checks with one attribute; a rank 2 spell can apply this misfortune die to all physical or all mental actions; a rank 2 spell could alternatively apply one challenge die; and rank 3 spells could apply two challenge dice or a combination of effects. Duration can be the caster’s intelligence, with modifications available from the talent tree. Other enhancement options could be damage modifiers in combat (e.g. +1 dmg per rank), stance dice enhancements, soak and defense modifiers, and other aspects of conditions (manoeuvre restrictions, changes in critical states). These effects will vary according to the ladder down which the spell steps, and don’t necessarily even need to have spell names – every player could make up their own spell names for their particular set of effects.

Table 1 shows an example of the key spell ladders and the effects that might be contained in differing ranks of one ladder.


Table 1: Example spell ladders

Class Order Equivalent Effects
Elemental Fury Aqshy Elemental damage attacks
Elemental Body Aqshy Elemental melee enhancements (defenses, damage)
Elemental Mind Aqshy Enhancements to social checks, reckless stance dice, bravery
Celestial luck Celestial Force target rerolls, improve luck, regain fortune points
Celestial movement Celestial Fast movement, flight, teleportation
Illusion Stealth Grey Order Shadows, Hide in plain sight, Invisibility
Shadow Damage Grey Order Conditions affecting int, willpower, control enemy
Shadow Transformation Grey order Fear, disguise, doppelganger
Shadow Body Grey order Defence effects, become insubstantial
Alchemy Gold order Damage machines, transform items, enchant items
Alchemical Enhancement Gold order Improve soak, improve int based checks, improve defence
Necromantic Protection Amethyst Prevent damage; prevent criticals; prevent death
Necromantic Perception Amethyst Detect living/dead; enhance int-based checks; speak with dead
Necromantic Attack Amethyst Cause fear; cause damage
Transformation Amber Change shape (wolf, crow, bear)
Wild Combat Amber Enhance damage; cause damage


Each ladder should have its own general spell effects, determined using a willpower check, that last WP in rounds during combat, or WP in minutes out of combat. Spell effects out of combat should last WP in minutes, with an extension to hours by increasing the challenge.

Wizard talent tree

The Wizard talent tree is shown in Figure 1. The extra strain talent can be taken multiple times. This talent tree doesn’t allow any option to increase duration of spells, which may be something that could be changed.

Figure 1: Wizard talent tree

Figure 1: Wizard talent tree

Alternative: spell-less magic

It would be fairly easy to categorize most magical effects in terms of conditions, damage and their equivalents, and to use an entirely spell-free magic system in which magic has a difficulty value and causes strain as the total of number of failures + number of banes. In this case magic would be equivalent to just a different and more interesting range of ways of doing skill checks. It would probably require a simple table of difficulties (comparing, e.g. applying one misfortune die to a single ability score vs. all ability scores vs. granting a target one additional reckless die, or a training die, and so on). This would lead to a very flexible and interesting magic system that gave magicians the ability to directly affect dice pools and character traits in complex and interesting ways. It could be worth a session to try out…

A slightly weird idea I know, but I was struck by it while sitting in a Japanese drinking restaurant (izakaya) attempting to read the fantastical labels on all their Sake bottles. I tried a variation on this theme a while back, when I suggested translations of Osaka place names as inspiration for adventure settings. While western wines tend to be named based on their location (e.g. Jacob’s Creek or Chateau de Whatever), Japanese sake[1] tends to be named after auspicious, fortunate, or bold concepts. Previously on this blog I introduced the infamous suigei, or drunken whale, which was inspiration for a lie but not for a spell; however, many of the names that festoon your average drinking restaurant’s wine shelf would probably pass muster as a spell, ability or card. So, here are a few, taken from the Rakuten sake market. I’ve included some basic D&D stats.

Sound of Snow (Yuki no Oto)

  Class: Druid

 Level: 3

Duration: 1 rd/lvl

Area of Effect: 20′ radius

                   Saving Throw: None

The caster and his or her allies become as silent as gently falling snow; +4 on all Move Silently Checks. This spell is ineffective in areas of strong wind or great heat.

The Wine: Incapable of being mass-produced, this wine retains the elegance and mellowness of handmade sake, combined with a rounded and refreshing taste. It goes well with sashimi, grilled white fish, and delicate-flavoured vegetables.

Region: Akita Prefecture, Northeast Japan.

Favorable Reply (iroyoi henji)

  Class: Cleric

Level: 1

Duration: 1 round

Area of Effect: Caster

Saving Throw: None

With this spell, the caster can ask a minor deity a single yes or no question concerning the action to be taken in the round immediately following the casting of the spell. The minor deity will tell the caster whether or not they are capable of success with the given action, but will give no information as to whether, for example, the caster is embarking on the correct actions necessary to secure this success. The action in question must be describable in terms of a single die roll (e.g. a single attack or skill check), not a general sequence of actions (such as, for example, avoiding the snapping pincers of the giant crabs in the pit while balancing on a narrow log, and grabbing a hanging gem). Mechanically, whether this spell is useful depends on whether the GM usually gives this kind of information away for free. Note also that the deity invoked is a minor deity and cannot answer questions of a difficulty beyond its ken.

The Wine: Made with a special Yamagata yeast that achieves an excellent balance of flavours, this is a wine that is able to be enjoyed with food.

Region: Yamagata

Honorable Blade of Fortune (ofuku masamune)

Class: Paladin

Level: 4

Duration: 1 rd/level

Area of Effect: Caster/sight

Saving Throw: None

The caster summons a holy sword that grants him or her both good fortune and power for the duration of its use. The sword grants its wielder +1 to hit and damage, and is capable of damaging monsters that can only be hit by magic weapons up to +3. Furthermore, when the spell is cast the caster rolls 2d10+wisdom bonus. While the caster is wielding the sword, a single d20 roll can be replaced with the result of this casting roll every round. The caster or any ally can replace their roll with the result of this roll. At the very least, this spell will protect one member of the party per round from a critical fumble; note that if the caster rolls a natural 20, this does not grant critical successes (but it can be used on rolls to determine whether a natural 20 results in critical damage).

The Wine: Brewed from rice cultivated for more than 40 years by the famous Takeuchi family of brewers, in terraced rice paddies on the Sea of Japan coast of Niigata, this wine is a masterpiece imbued with the spirit of the brewer.

Region: Niigata

Hawk’s Courage (takayu)

 Class: Wizard

Level: 2

Duration: 1 rd/lvl

Area of Effect: One person

Saving Throw: None

This spell grants its target both great courage and fine vision. For the duration of the spell the target gains a +2 morale bonus to saving throws vs. fear, becomes immune to fear of heights, and gains a +2 bonus on spot, listen and search checks. Rumour has it that the spell was developed by wizards in the service of certain ancient clans of pirates who ply the skyways over the most forbidding mountain peaks of the realm.

The Wine: The flavour of this wine is a rare and exquisite thing of beauty. Anyone who receives this wine as a gift will surely be profoundly pleased.

Region: Tottori

There are many, many more wines on the Rakuten marketplace – a whole spell book’s worth if you have the skills. And then there is the shochu … want to give it a try?

fn1: which is called nihonshu in Japanese, btw – literally, “Japanese alcohol”

When I played AD&D I think one of the first aspects of its magic system I dropped was the material components. It’s a shame, but they just represented too much of a constraint on what was already a hideously underpowered class (especially at first level). Some of the material components even for first level spells are quite challenging to provide, and they’re consumed in the casting of the spell. Consider, for example, the following spells:

  • Alarm: A tiny bell and a very fine piece of silver wire
  • Armor: A piece of finely cured leather that has been blessed by a priest
  • Color Spray: A pinch each of powder or sand colored red, blue and yellow
  • Dancing Lights: A bit of phosphorus or wychwood, or a glowworm
  • Friends: Chalk, lampblack and vermillion
  • Identify: A pearl worth 100gp and an owl feather soaked in wine
  • Light: A firefly or a piece of phsophorescent moss
  • Protection from Evil: Powdered silver

and so on.  The spells Burning Hands, Detect Magic, Charm Person and Magic Missile require no material components of any kind. These material components are very cool and really add to the romance and style of wizards, but they’re an enormous burden, especially on low level wizards. A first level wizard starts with 20-50 gps, so will not be able to cast Identify and probably can’t afford the ingredients for Protection from Evil, Dancing Lights or Color Spray in most medieval settings. That’s without considering the difficulty of carrying phosphorus, glow-worms and phosphorescent moss. Some of these spells also can’t be cast in the casting time given in their description, because the ingredients need to be steeped, smeared or scattered in a circle. Find Familiar, much more powerful than its 3rd Edition version, requires 1000Gps of herbs and incense. Even Sleep is probably beyond the reach of a lot of wizards, requiring as it does a pinch of sand – sand would have been a rare sight in 12th Century Glastonbury, I’m willing to bet. So here you have a first level wizard with 40 GPs, and before he goes adventuring he needs to gather together a piece of silver wire, several portions of powdered silver, a collection of tiny bells, some phosphorescent moss, some sand and a drop of bitumen (!! for Spider Climb).

One can imagine what happens if the party kills a gnome, who has a small admantite file in his toolkit. The file is worth 50gps and everyone else just wants to sell it, but the Wizard recognizes here an opportunity to make himself self-sufficient in powdered minerals, and snaffles it up. A libertarian party would probably charge him 200gps premium for it[1]. And at higher levels it gets ridiculous, of course:

  • Invisibility: An eyelash encased in gum arabic[2]
  • Melf’s Minute Meteors: nitrite[3], sulphur, pine tar and a (reusable) fine tube of gold worth 1000gps
  • Evard’s Black Tentacles: a piece of tentacle from a giant octopus or squid
  • Feeblemind: a handful of clay, crystal, glass or mineral spheres
  • Chain Lightning: A piece of fur, an amber, glass, or crystal rod, and a small silver pin for each experience level of the wizard

Some of these material components are very very difficult to get hold of. I doubt I could get most of them easily, even living in Tokyo. If one were to rigorously adhere to the spell components rules, every wizard would need the regular services of an alchemist, silversmith, blacksmith, and a couple of other extremely talented craftspeople; the wizard would also need to be very assiduous about cutting up and preserving any roadkill or adventure-kill he or she came across. There’s no doubt that this sort of thing makes these PCs much more interesting, but it also makes them virtually unplayable, because it essentially restricts the number of spells the PC knows in any one day, as well as the number they can cast – effectively it puts a bunch of spells beyond the PC’s reach at any time, while maintaining daily limits on those that the player does have the ability to use. A good example is Identify: a wizard at first level can’t use it, but by second level may be able to afford a pearl of suitable value. They can then cast the spell; but they can only cast it once, on one object, and they can’t cast it in the dungeon because they only know two spells a day and they need Shield and Magic Missile in the dungeon. So the party stumbles upon a ring that may be of great use right there and then, but the wizard can’t cast the spell even though it was a week’s work to find the owl feather and the pearl. So then they have to wait till they leave the dungeon, at which point they have a second item to identify but they can’t do so because they don’t have enough ingredients. Alternatively suppose that the wizard has spent all their treasure on pearls and owl feathers; they can still only cast the spell once today, because they couldn’t memorize more than two spells; but the party is pressed, and has found a magic sword and armour that they really need to use now, in the dungeon. Even though the wizard has spent his last money on two pearls and two owl feathers, he can only identify one item today.

Suppose then, that instead of using the standard approach to magic of AD&D, one introduced a simpler system in which a wizard can cast any spell they know as often as they like, provided they have the material components. This would mean that the wizard would usually have some spells (such as Burning Hands) on rotation, but I don’t see this as a bad thing. A first level wizard with Burning Hands once per round at will can do 1d3+2 hps damage per round on anyone within combat range (save for 1/2). It’s not a game changer; free use of Magic Missile makes a high level wizard pretty scary, doing 5-25 damage per round with no saving throw, but a few tweaks on minor spells (e.g. fixing magic missile at a maximum of two missiles) would easily solve that problem. Alternatively, you could give these spells simple material components: magic missile could require an arrow per missile, for example. Burning hands could require the wizard be carrying a lit flame source, that is extinguished by the spell. This would reduce the spell to the potency of WFRP 3rd Edition, where wizards have basically unlimited spell use but mostly have to use one every other round.

Even for high level spells with simple components, like the Bigby’s Hand spells, this method wouldn’t lead to infinite amounts of spell casting. Bigby’s Hand requires a glove; no one can realistically carry more than, say, 10 gloves in their equipment if they also have to carry: a small bag full of crystal spheres; a collection of test tubes carrying the components for Melf’s Minute Meteors and Invisibility; 8 or 10 small pouches of different powders, nitrites and the like; a sheath or case with several different rods; some vials of acids, pure water, tears, etc; additional pouches carrying fur, bits of leather, feathers and wings; a jar with a pickled piece of a giant octopus tentacle; a small cage of fireflies; a pestle and mortar to crush gems with; a couple of miniature platinum swords; and a collection of iron, silver, and bronze mirrors. Sure, this would make the task of spell-casting a little like a complex system of inventorying, but you could handle it, I’m sure, and if it’s hard for the player imagine how complex it is for the PC! You could also argue that if a Wizard is carrying components for more than, say, 5 spells on their person, they can’t cast a spell every round (they need a round to find the item[4]).

Furthermore, one could introduce different effects for more imaginative components. E.g. Invisibility lasts a round longer if the eyelash is from a thief (handy if you have a thief in the party); the component is never destroyed if the eyelash is from an Invisible Stalker. Water from another plane makes a spell that uses it more powerful, and the effect of spells like Identify is enhanced with more expensive pearls or more esoteric feathers (e.g. from a Sphinx). Expending a magic arrow adds one to the damage of a Magic Missile spell, and so on. You could also rule that every time a wizard is struck in combat one of their more fragile components is damaged or destroyed (randomly determined). It would also make wizards very eager to kill or capture each other, since they can loot their rivals’ components as well as their spell book.

Power limits could be obtained easily by dividing wizards into specialties, so that from first level they are limited only to conjuring or evocation, etc. Many RPGs do this, so that wizards have access to very few spells over their career. This would prevent a single wizard from being able to cast Burning Hands (alteration), Magic Missile (evocation), Charm Person (enchantment), and Chill Touch (Necromancy). I would make the conjuration, divination and abjuration specialties common to all wizards and then force them to choose one of the other four

fn1: libertarian parties probably last as long as the first Cure Light Wounds spell, and then decide socialism is the way to go.

fn2: According to Wikipedia, gum arabic was an extremely valuable export commodity and is an essential ingredient in soft drinks, and the Sudanese president recently implied he could bring down the western world through suspending its export

fn3: I find it hard to believe that nitrite was readily available in the medieval world but nitrates were as saltpeter, again not exactly your common or garden middle-ages corner store product

fn4: This could be a good rule for PCs with more than 5 magic items in general, I think.

This is a novel about a magician-policeman set in modern London. The policeman, Peter Grant, is drafted from the normal police service to work for a special investigations department that consists of a single policeman, Inspector Nightingale, and takes on all the investigations into things that no one else believes are real. In order to work in this department, Grant must also become the apprentice to Inspector Nightingale, and thus also begins learning the rudiments of “modern” magic – that is, magic as systematized by Sir Isaac Newton back in the day.

In essence, then, this is a kind of Harry Dresden story, but set in London rather than Chicago, and featuring a policeman rather than a private investigator. It’s the first, apparently, of a series. I hope no one from Chicago will be displeased with or misinterpret me when I say that London is a much more romantic and interesting setting for a novel of this kind than Chicago, and this is not the first novel to use London’s historical complexity and its modern multicultural mish-mash as a setting for the bizarre or the unusual: Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Mieville’s UnLunDun are two other good examples of stories in this field, and both draw heavily on London’s peculiar synthesis of the historical and the modern to lend their tale an additional edge of romance that more uniformly modern cities cannot get. It’s particularly well-suited to a magical policeman story because, well, because London is a city full of crime and trouble. It has a violent and depressing history, and a violent and depressing present, which makes it a bad place to live but a very good place to set a fantastic story of this kind – especially since in novels all the little irritations of London life can be ignored, and the picture can be painted using the broad brushstrokes of history, crime, modernity and multiculturalism.

Which is what we get in this book. Something is up in London, and Grant has to investigate a spate of murders connected to it. The something-that-is-up is connected to a violent grudge that has passed down through history, and is being played out in the very modern setting of post-2007 Covent Garden. There is also a conflict between the different rivers of London – whose spirits are personified in some amusing human forms, and appear to have come to an “arrangement” with the various departments and authorities of the British government. Grant is investigating all this while also studying magic as a new apprentice, trying to get laid, and trying to enjoy his new life as a freshly-graduated police constable. Much of the context of the story is very ordinary and very real – he goes to pubs I’ve walked past, in streets I’ve frequented, and talks of real very recent events that we’re all familiar with. The author also appears to be familiar with police culture and language, and we get a lot of very British policing attitudes coming through. Also interestingly for a novel from London, the author is very aware of London’s overcrowded and multiracial culture, and this is very smoothly worked through the story so that, for those of us who have lived in London, it really does feel like the London we know rather than the sanitized all-cockney-all-the-time London that, say, the Imperial War Museum likes to present. The lead character is himself mixed-race, his mother West African and his father British, and grew up on a council estate in Peckham. Witness reports are particularly amusing because they present us with such a classic hodge-podge of London life as it is now. There’s a classic report of two hare krishnas beating up their troop leader: one is a New Zealander and the other is from Hemel Hampstead. It’s so mundane, and so spot on in its mundanity, and I think this mundane realism serves to ground the magic and mystery of the story very well, so that you really can believe that someone like Peter Grant can learn to use magic and see ghosts and work for the Metropolitan Police Force.

The book also shares with the Dresden Files a well-constructed (so far) theory of and structure for the magic Grant uses. It’s very different to Dresden, and a nice attempt to imagine how magic might feel when you work it – he talks of forms, that you can feel in your mind and have to learn to understand like music. There’s also the first exposition that I’ve ever heard of why magic might need to use language to be cast, and why it must be latin at that. On top of that, the book also attempts to explain magic’s bad effect on modern technology, and Grant of course begins experimenting on this issue as soon as he discovers it, so that not only can we generate a working theory of why the problem happens but he can use it as an investigative tool, and find ways to safeguard his stuff. This is how I imagine a modern wizard would work, and it’s very well done in the story. His depiction of ghosts in modern terms, and his attempts to understand all of magic in terms of the language of computers and science that he grew up with, is also very interesting and I think a quite new take on the genre.

The book is well written and overall the flow of the story is good, though I thought Grant’s first case was a trifle too complex near the end and I’m not sure I understood the relationship between the rivers of London and the case Grant was working on – maybe that will come later. The characters are good and believable and the setting very powerfully like the London I know, but the author has weaved into it all the powerful romance of the city we see in the history books, so that while you always feel like you’re in modern London you don’t forget that this is a London built on layers of history and rich with magic and power. I think in this use of setting the book is definitely superior to a Dresden novel (and, on balance, better written too), and gives a richer and more nuanced vision of a modern magician than Dresden does.

Other comparisons to the Dresden Files also fascinated me while reading this book. The Rivers of London is to the Dresden Files like Coronation Street is to Beverly Hills 90210. In the Dresden Files, the creatures of faerie are always supernaturally beautiful and amazing, and they and the bad guys live in enormous wealthy villas. Dresden gets his girl and is constantly being offered sex by crazed sex goddess super girls, and when he gets a dog it’s a great big supernatural hound of a thing that is more dangerous than most monsters. Finally, of course, there is a lot of heavy weaponry. In The Rives of London, the spirits live in quite mundane buildings – one of the spirits of the river is a traveller – and the characters’ homes are nothing special. Grant doesn’t get his girl and is either warned off the spirit girls, or gets an erection around them while they completely ignore him. He also inherits a dog as a by-blow of a crime scene, but it’s a stupid little ordinary lap dog that doesn’t have any special powers and is a bit overweight and not very helpful. And the only gun that appears in the story is fired once and then disappears, no one can find it and its appearance is frankly shocking because people in London – even criminals – just don’t use guns. I’ve no doubt that things will get more upmarket as the books go on, but it’s an interesting contrast between the artistic styles of the two countries: just like in soaps and dramas, this story conveys that sense of humility and shame-faced shuffling it’s-not-quite-good-enough-is-it?, frayed-carpet and slightly daggy cardigan atmosphere that the British are willing to put into presentations of their own culture. In short, it lacks the brashness of a similar American story. Usually I’m inclined to prefer the brash and the beautiful in American stories to the grotty and mundane in British ones, but in this case I think I like the ordinariness that bleeds out of the pages of this book. I think it helps me to understand Grant as a newly-minted wizard cop better than I understood Harry Dresden.

This is an excellent story, overall, and if this series improves as it goes along (which most series like this do, I think) then it’s well worth getting into. I heartily recommend this tale!

Following my thoughts on post-scarcity fantasy, I found myself reading the Chronicles of the Black Company, which presented me with a range of examples of a world where the relationship between magic and culture is not static, and magic is not treated as a technology that fell from the sky. Where a lot of fantasy worlds seem to have been designed as straight depictions of a medieval world with magic unthinkingly bolted on, Cook treats it as a living part of the world, rare but subject to innovation and capable both of causing social change and being adapted and enhanced by it’s society, as well as interacting with undone technology. We are also presented with an idea that is often ignored or under-played in classic fantasy: the importance of research, literacy and the historical record.

There are many examples of innovative use of magic in this book, mostly in the military context. The simplest example is its use in spying and finding spies. The Black Company keeps its use of wizards very secret, like Guinness and its use of statistics, and as a result its enemies never understand how the Company can know so much about them, nor how they can catch spies and scouts so well. The Company exploits this by spreading misinformation and suspicion, giving the impression that it has spies everywhere and deliberately spreading a reputation for cunning and counter-espionage. Wizards in this world are rare, and the Company ruthlessly exploits the relative advantage they give it, as well as both protecting them and keeping them secret.

The wizards also fashion minor amulets and magic items when they are really essential, and though they aren’t powerful they serve to give Company members a slight edge at certain times. Their mighty leaders, the Taken, go further than this, however, employing magic liberally in battle to destroy, mislead and hamper the enemy. Storms, powerful chemical weapons, fireballs, illusions and all manner of enchantment tricks are employed, as well as magic to rally the troops. The Taken also have flying carpets, which early on in the war they use primarily for their own personal missions. Later on, as matters get more pressing, they use them to ferry key Company members about and later still for troop transport. Finally they start building larger carpets which are designed to glide, fitted with ballistas, and used as aerial attack platforms. Eventually simple bombs are designed, and they enter a kind of aerial warfare arms race with their enemy. This is the kind of thing that I expect magic to do in the world, but very rarely see described with any sense in the genre. Cook further backs this up with occasional references to other innovations: at one point, for example, Croaker is given a painkiller derived from a rare locally-sourced herb. He immediately seeks out it’s name and suggests stockpiling it for the Company, only to discover that the Taken are considering cultivating it after the war for civilian use. This is how I expect any rational person to react to a magic or medicinal herb, but in most fantasy stories this knowledge remains strangely sequestered, and is never converted into any benefit for the wider community. In this book, the eternal bad guys think about it as soon as they see the possibilities it contains.

The most refreshing aspect of Cook’s approach to fantasy in his world is his depiction of research. Croaker,being the Annalist, is literate and aware of the importance of documents, and his Company consider documents to be more important than loot. At one point they stumble on a cache of key rebel documents in a captured camp and as soon as they learn what they’ve got they become ruthless beyond compare. They kill every rebel captive who might identify that they were there, set a trap to delay reinforcements, and flee with the documents before the soldiers have had any time for pillage. Amongst these documents they find evidence that they may be able to learn the true names and history of the Taken, and possession of these documents becomes the most important consideration of the story. At later stages of the series Croaker and some of the Taken prioritize the safety of these documents over that of their men or their treasure, and exhaust themselves researching them. Even the knowledge that they possess them is a death sentence for anyone not of the Company. I don’t think I have ever read a fantasy story where research is so explicitly worked into the narrative and so key to military success, and it’s both refreshing and enlightening. Obviously other stories – e.g. The Lord of the Rings – have the success of research as a trigger in the narrative, but this story works the ideas of research, espionage and secrecy into the fabric of the story in a much more sophisticated way.

This book’s treatment of magic as an integral and living component of the world is a good example of what I was pining for in my discussion of post-scarcity fantasy. It shows how much richer and more interesting the fantasy genre can be when people think more deeply about the role magic plays in the world than just seeing it as the domain of pre-destined teenagers and bearded old men.

Following my previous post on post-scarcity fantasy, what would scientific inquiry look like in a world where economic and social relations are dominated by magic? As we saw in the previous post, even if only a small number of people have magical power, and only a small number of them have more than a little, we can solve significant social welfare problems without actually understanding anything about the way the world works. We can fly without understanding gravity or aerodynamics; we can cure disease without understanding biology or genetics, and we can prevent disease through the brute force of secondary prevention (treating a disease so fast that it doesn’t get time to spread); we can inquire into guilt or innocence without establishing a proper system of policing or law enforcement. Whole areas of scientific and social inquiry become a waste of time, because we already have the solution – and a lot of modern scientific and social knowledge developed from the quest for solutions in an uncertain world.

So what kind of scientific inquiry would happen in a world short-circuited in this way? I think that a lot of questions would still be explored, but in very different ways, and perhaps through a different epistemology (? I’m going to use this term from now on without being 100% sure I am using it right ?) of knowledge. Most magical systems give us a variety of detection spells, and also the ability to commune with higher beings or outsiders, often gaining only elusive answers and not necessarily getting the full picture. In fact, much of the knowledge one gains from magic is, contra its image of mystical depth, completely superficial. Spirits and demi-gods give vague, elusive answers; detection magic will tell us that a person is diseased, but won’t tell us anything about what a disease is, what it is caused by, or where it fits into the world as we know it. Let’s consider how inquiry might proceed under such a worldview. I will use examples I know from the world of public health, but you could easily consider others. I’ll give three examples – two medically interesting, one socially revolutionary – and then discuss the underlying epistemology.

The First AIDS Case

Consider the first identified AIDS case in the USA, about 1983. This was a symptomatic case, so the person had probably had HIV for about 10 years; there were undoubtedly others in the community who were still asymptomatic, and spreading the disease by an as-yet-undiscovered method. After a couple more cases had been identified the Centres for Disease Control did some investigating and found out all the cases were likely gay men. They didn’t know how it was transmitted, but assumed it was a disease and therefore transmission was probably preventable, though its possible relationship to gay lifestyle meant they wondered also if it might be the result of some other non-biological cause (prime candidate: amyl nitrate). After a short period of investigation they guessed it was probably sexually transmitted, and suggested some basic public health measures; there was debate about closing gay saunas. It took 4 years of intense work before someone in France (I think) identified the HIV virus, and I think about the same time they developed an antibody test. Roughly during this time they also developed a taxonomy of AIDS, so that they could identify symptomatic HIV and AIDS, understand the course of the disease, and make prognoses. All the identified symptoms were actually symptoms of other, opportunistic infections, so they introduced a system of checks to identify whether someone likely had AIDS – this kind of thing is essential for passive case-finding to play a role in monitoring the spread of HIV. It takes 3 months for the antibody test to work due to the seroconversion window period, and it’s not 100% accurate (though very close). After another 4 years the first anti-retrovirals were introduced, and treatment improved. Now, 30 years after the first cases were identified, people with HIV can expect to live a basically normal life, though there is not yet a cure.

Compare this with what would happen with a first case in Faustusville. The patient would present with unusual symptoms, so the cleric’s first question would be – is this a disease or a curse? This is answered in one round, using a spell. Then the cleric, noting that the symptoms are new, would cast Remove Disease and send the patient home. A few months later another patient would turn up with another set of symptoms that were iconic opportunistic infections, and the same process would be followed. The symptoms for the second patient might be different to the first; the cleric doesn’t care one whit. It’s a disease, with symptoms. Not only would the cleric not know that the diseases were caused by the same underlying process, but this information would be irrelevant. In the case of a disease like HIV, even the transmission method would be irrelevant.

The First Black Death Cases

By contrast, the black death would be scary. Multiple cases would present in a very short period, suffering extreme discomfort. The disease would probably spread before the cleric had treated all the initial cases (due to incubation periods, and the role of fleas). So it would be in the township’s interests to identify how it is spreading – even though no one understands disease, hygiene or biology at all. So investigation would be necessary. This could be done, quite simply, with a commune spell, which would potentially give the cleric all the (superficial) information they need to prevent it. Suppose the cleric notices that people in the same household tend to get the disease first. Then he or she invokes the commune spell – which gives only yes or no answers – and off we go:

Cleric: Is this new disease more likely to be spread within a household?

God: Yes

Cleric: Is it spread directly by contact between individuals within the household?

God: No

Cleric: Is there some other vector of transmission operating within the household?

God: Yes

So we’ve established that it’s an environmental problem, not a direct human-to-human transmission problem. Now we can make an exhaustive list of things in the victim’s homes, and just keep asking questions (with commune spells) until we get a reasonable list of culprits. We can also ask additional questions like “can we solve the problem by reducing overcrowding?” Note that this kind of question-and-answer system would be very effective in the prevention of malaria, dysentery – a whole range of basic infectious diseases – but without knowing anything about the disease itself. And as time goes on, clerics will start to produce a set of questions that are useful, such as the vector question. Consider:

Cleric: Does this disease have a transmission vector?

God: Yes

Cleric: Is it human?

God: No

Cleric: An insect?

God: Yes

There you go, you’ve just found the first step in preventing malaria.

Changing Society with Three Questions

Consider now this exchange between the cleric and a god.

Cleric: I have noticed that women sometimes get a minor disease after sex, that can be very painful. Is this a punishment for their immorality?

God: No

Cleric: Is it caused by any malignant spirit of any kind?

God: No

Cleric: So, it is simply a disease that is transmitted through sexual activity?

God: Yes

With this set of questions the cleric has established that there is no link between the suffering we experience as mortals and our morality. Pursuing this with a few other issues (such as cancer, stillbirths, etc.) will soon serve to establish that there is no moral dimension to illness. The last 200 years of the development of medicine have been heavily coloured by this debate – particularly about sexually transmitted infection and sex work – but in our medieval world, without knowing anything about the disease itself, its process of transmission or the biology of sex, our superstitious cleric has answered this question – direct from God.

How this Affects Knowledge

This kind of question-answer process of inquiry will obviously affect both our understanding of the universe around us, and the way that we construct scientific inquiry. Faith is a very different phenomenon when you not only know that your god exists, but you speak to that God and ask direct questions about the morality of your universe. God may have set you some strictures about sex; but then you ask god and it tells you that sexually transmitted infections have no relationship to breaches of moral codes. Bye bye stigma and shame! Furthermore, other key moral questions can be answered definitively: “Are women inferior to men?” “Are black people smarter than white people?” These inquiries shine a light into our morality in a way that modern science just cannot.

Yet at the same time, we don’t know anything about what’s really going on. Our inquiries are superficial, and only as good as our hunches. Our investigative process does not consist of positing hypotheses based on theory, then testing them through experiment. Rather, we build hunches based on observation and test by asking God. We build knowledge through sentence cascades: by considering what we will ask God if he says no to our first question, and what we will ask if she says yes. Then we go away and compare the knowledge with what we see happening, and build some more question-chains, and come back and ask more.

With this kind of system of inquiry, we can learn that birds don’t fly by magic and that it’s impossible for humans to build a non-magical wing that enables them to copy the process. But we can’t understand the actual process of flight. To do such a thing we would have to release a flock of pigeons and cast Time Stop, then walk amongst them, observing their wings. Or perhaps with an ingenious process of illusions we could film them and replay the illusions slowly. We could posit the existence of an aether, and God could tell us we are wrong. But we could never find out the speed of light, because to do so would require that we develop a process of experimentation that is alien to the way we gather knowledge.Over time – and especially if clerical power became more widespread, and more influential – it would become increasingly difficult to think of other ways of inquiring into a problem, just as most westerners now find it hard to believe knowledge that isn’t obtained through scientific inquiry.

Also, the knowledge we did gather would be highly concentrated amongst those in the immediate orbit of the clerics. Class and caste differences might disappear from our society, but power structures based on knowledge and magical possession would become very strong. And of course, the clerics could lie, and we would need to obey what they told us, because it comes directly from God, mediated by no book or historical debate. If the clerics commune with God and tell the Lord of Faustusville that a strict caste system is essential for the good of society, then a strict caste system we must have – who goes against God? This knowledge is not only absolute but almost completely unobtainable for those not in the proper caste. But would the clerics feel comfortable lying about what God told them, knowing God was real? And what if Lord Faustus insisted that all commune spells be cast from within multiple Zone of Truth spells? In fact, it seems likely to me that social development based on this type of inquiry would bifurcate early on into two very different paths: one based on complete truth and adherence to moral codes based on understanding the world as it is really known through direct inquiry; or a social path in which a clique of evil, treacherous clerics use their knowledge of the universe to further their own power while lying ruthlessly about God’s teachings to the masses, in order to hold them in a society that the clerics desire. In the former society there would be no discrimination based on imperfect knowledge, no social structures based on false assumptions, and no moral codes that were unnecessary. It would be a strange place indeed. The latter society would become increasingly authoritarian as the clerics controlled access to the truth ever more tightly, and would have a fatalistic view of the future and of social order that would be truly terrifying. You can’t rise above your station because God says so; you can’t commit crime because they will catch you; you can’t leave because they won’t let you; you can’t rebel because everyone genuinely believes that it is the correct natural order of things; you can’t prove otherwise because no one will ever believe you. It’s the worst excesses of the dark history of our own churches, held together by the worst abuse of supernatural power – and everyone believes it is right.

So, even as we were solving social and welfare problems, we would be creating a society with no potential to learn or develop new ideas, filled only with superficial and disconnected knowledge. Like the world we would inhabit tomorrow if all scientists died and all books burnt so only the internet remained, and we had to relearn how the world works from wikipedia, accessed through a single computer terminal by a clique of 5 people.

What a terrifying thought!

It’s often bugged me that fantasy writers don’t take advantage of the cosmology of their worlds to examine how social, political and economic relations would change in a magically-imbued world. It’s not as if this is without precedent: sci-fi writers do it all the time, but for some reason fantasy writers can’t move past a grotty mediaeval slum, modeled on (usually) the social relations of 15th century Europe – a very poor period of our history that surely would have been completely different if the people there had access to magic. Iain M. Banks has managed to envisage a galaxy with no limits, due to what he calls post-scarcity economics; this is based on the availability of technology that essentially frees humanity from the constraints of limited energy, and the ability to travel very very fast. This kind of technology is available in fantasy worlds too: magic fundamentally breaks the law of conservation of energy, which means that, in theory, the achievements of fantasy societies are only limited by their imagination. How would a society with unlimited energy function? How would class, race and gender relations change in a world where, for example, no one gets the clap and women never die in childbirth? What happens to feudal relations in a society where plants grow magically, and no one ever needs to go hungry? Why don’t fantasy writers try to explore this concept?

I thought I’d take a look at how this works through access to the fantasy role-playing canon. Using the D&D 3rd edition DMG and Players Handbook, let’s consider how we could construct the social relations of a small fantasy town.We’ll take a development focus, just as if it were a poor developing nation in the modern world, so our key interest is to increase wealth by:

  • Reducing child and maternal mortality
  • Improving agricultural production
  • Infrastructure development
  • Access to universal healthcare

These roughly mean we’re covering most of the millenium development goals. In the real world, the MDGs haven’t been met, even with all the developed world throwing our aid resources at them; those MDGs that have been met have largely been due to development in China. Some countries are held back by HIV/AIDS, others by war or under-development. Let’s see what happens if a single mediaeval town got to open the D&D Player’s Handbook and make it real.

The Demographics of Faustville

Faustusville is a town of 10,000 people, ruled by a benevolent, enormously intelligent and stunningly good looking dictator called Lord Faustus, who has a harem of 20 incredibly good-looking women, is revered by his people, and has written a book of sayings, The Little Green Book of Faust, that all his people love to hear readings from at their (completely voluntary) 4 hour Sunday community meetings. Everyone loves him, and it is his plan to keep it that way through an extensive development program. By improving the health and wealth of his people he aims to:

  • Make them richer (so that he can collect more taxes)
  • Make them tougher (so that no one overruns his community)
  • Make them love him even more (if this is possible)

From the D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide we can estimate the total number of magic-users in this community (see Appendix 1): it’s a surprisingly large number. In fact, there are a total of 118 people capable of divine magic, 128 capable of arcane magic, and 4 semi-magic users (i.e. rangers and paladins). This is without including adepts and bards (the movies in this town will be great!) Fully 2.6% of the community are magically capable, which is not so extreme really. There are only 56 Clerics, which is probably enough to maintain two churches.

Of the remaining people, let’s assume the following:

  • Birth rates: birth rates in this town will not be those of a developing nation like Afghanistan, due to the primary intervention I’m going to propose, so I’m modelling them on a country like Chile: about 14.3/1000, or 143 people per year
  • The black death: this is the worst disease that can possibly strike the community, and I calculate the death rate for this (from Wikipedia) to be about 1 in 9. That’s right, wikipedia tells me that in 1348 -1350 (two years!) the black death killed 100 million people out of a global population of 450 million – which is about 50 million per year, giving an incidence rate of 1/9 per year.
  • HIV/AIDS: if there were to be an HIV/AIDS epidemic in Faustusville, it would strike hard (no condoms – though actually you could probably create them using certain spells). Let’s assume that, like their leader, Faustusites are a bunch of libertines. HIV incidence rates in, for example, Uganda are probably about 0.48 per 100 person years (they had 120,000 new infections last year in a population of 37 million; if you assume 25 million sexually active, this gives you about 0.48 per 100py). Let’s triple this and get 1.2 per 100 person years. Uganda is not the worst-affected country in Africa, but it has a high prevalence and countries with twice its incidence are probably those that are suffering economic consequences from HIV; this is the sort of disease that, if you could magically cure it, you would be well-served in so doing.

So, in this context, what can our noble Lord Faustus do?

Development Through Magic

Clerics and Infant Mortality

The first development goal Lord Faustus prioritizes is infant and maternal mortality. Infant and maternal mortality are linked, and high infant mortality is a key driver of high rates of childbirth. High childbirth rates lead to high poverty. To improve productivity in society and reduce population growth, we need to attack infant mortality. In the real world this involves a complex system of vaccinations, childbirth centres and ante-natal care. In Faustusville, it involves clerics. The primary cause of infant mortality is injury during childbirth,preventable disease and diarrhea, all of which are preventable (except some of the injuries). How can my clerics fix this?

  • Cure Light Wounds: My clerics can heal a maximum of 125d8+99 hps per day[1]. No one in my town will die in childbirth due to any of the common physical sequelae
  • Cure Disease: My clerics and druids can cure a maximum of 27 diseases per day. No one will get gangrene through industrial accidents, poor birth conditions, or in fact any other possible cause. Septicaemia will never happen after childbirth.
  • Create Water: My clerics and druids can create at least 125,000 litres of pure water per day with a mere cantrip, which is enough for a city of 4x the size of Faustusville. No child will ever die of diarrhea in Faustusville

With 143 births per year we’re seeing one every 2.5 days, roughly. I have 10 divine spell casters capable of casting Remove Disease, which means I should be able to have at least one of these clerics on hand at every birth. If the lower level ones can’t handle it, the higher-level ones have Heal. Any trauma that might have long-term effects can be fixed through Restoration spells. My clerics can cast 2 Raise Dead spells per day. There is no reason to expect that anyone should ever die in childbirth.

Note also that Druids can create Goodberries days before birth; women giving birth can take these in the first instance and call clerics later if they continue to experience difficulties. And no one will die from caesarian section: not only can we make holy blades with extremely good surgical properties, but we can heal everyone involved immediately afterwards, and bring the dead back to life if we stuff up. In fact, in the worst case we could just kill the mother, cut out the baby, and bring the mother back to life; done quickly, this could even be more humane (and I have clerics who can kill the mother with a word).

Clerics and Disease

I also have some Paladins. In total, my divine spell-casters can cure 192 diseases per week. This means that they can prevent an outbreak of black death in its first week, and the town is completely capable of dealing with black death, Spanish ‘flu, a full-blown HIV outbreak and ebola all in the same week. It’s also trivial to stock up on remove disease potions; one potion costs 30 xp and 375 gps, and the clerics can make them every day. 375gps is a lot of money, but a wand of Continual Flame will fetch 2000gps, and my wizards can make 16 a month without losing a level – the trade options are huge. This means that in a year we can stock up on enough Remove Disease potions to handle a major outbreak of any single disease. In fact, there is no reason that anyone should ever die in Faustusville except through old age or war. Disease and accidental death are things of the past. Even industrial deaths of the worst kind are completely irrelevant -we have Heal, Raise Dead and Restoration spells, so even heavy industry is largely rendered completely safe.

Nothing Ever Breaks in Faustusville

Mending is a 0 level spell. My Clerics, Druids and Wizards can all use it, and this means they can easily repair up to 300 or so broken minor objects every day. So if someone has invested a lot of money in a saddle, some good shoes, a large amphora for the storage of oil, whatever – it will last forever, essentially.

Agricultural production, trade and consumption

We have up to 13 Plant Growth spells per day, and my clerics can feed at least 117 people per day just through magic. They can create enough pure water for the whole town, with a lot to spare for storage, baths, whatever. This means that agricultural production in this town will vastly exceed consumption, and Faustusites can trade a huge agricultural surplus with neighbouring towns. We’re probably all very fat. There is no scarcity in winter, because we can preserve food and clerics can create food. In the depths of winter, if every cleric focused all their spells on this one create food and water spell, we could probably feed the whole town. No one will ever starve in Faustusville. No drought will ever reduce agricultural production (we can create rain with the Create Water spell). We can pollute the river with all our effluent, and clerics will just purify it.


The clerics in Faustusville are capable of casting Control Water spells that will drive a total of 68600 cubic feet of water into a dam. A 1.6kW hydro-electric dam requires 17200 cubic feet of water flowing from 20′ above the location of the plant, so if we lived near the sea the clerics could produce about 6kW of electricity a day (at least) through this spell; they can add small amounts using the Create Water spell. Furthermore, wizards and clerics can both cast Continual Flame; in about 3 months we could have installed lighting in every house, shop and factory in Faustusville, which never runs out and has significant effects:

  • never have to make or buy candles
  • factory and shop working hours are extended in winter
  • reduced risk of fires

The latter is particularly important; fire was a deadly risk in mediaeval times, and could destroy huge sections of a city at massive cost. Though obviously, Faustusville doesn’t need a fire brigade. We just have a wizard with the Quench Flame spell. But if that doesn’t work, we’ve got huge amounts of spare water…

Magic And Justice

Mediaeval society was capricious and superstitious, with strange methods for determining the truth about crimes and criminals. Not so Faustusville. No one is ever wrongly convicted in Faustusville, and very few crimes go unpunished. This is because we have a wide range of judicial methods at our disposal. Besides the obvious investigative tools – True Seeing, Detect Evil, etc. – we have an excellent selection of interrogation tools:

  • Detect Thoughts: Second level! I just need to ask a few questions and my wizard scans surface thoughts. My wizard can be invisible while I do this; we can disguise it as a bar conversation using an Alter Self spell. I have a total of 24 wizards capable of this level of sophistication, so investigations will be over pretty quickly. But I don’t convict someone on the back of this alone, oh no
  • Zone Of Truth: Another 2nd level spell. Once we’re suspicious that you’re either a suspect or know something about the suspect, we call you in and slap on the Zone of Truth. You don’t even need to know it’s there – you walk into it and bang! you’re answering my questions honestly. Not only does this mean you can’t hide your own crimes; it means you can’t intimidate witnesses, and you can’t get your family and friends to cover for you. And note: rape is non-existent in my society, because every woman knows that she can make an allegation and the truth will always be discovered. There’s no he-said-she-said in my world, and no false allegations. The only way you can protect yourself is to bribe the wizard who interrogates you; but this is trivial to prevent, because I can roll a die and select another wizard to interrogate the wizard who interrogated you. Which means that no wizard will ever be able to be corrupt. In fact I have enough spells to randomly interrogate every wizard every week as to whether they have been corrupt in the last week – and to randomly interrogate every official functionary every year. I also have Detect Lies spells to back me up. How’s that for “enhanced governance”?
  • Commune: If there’s any doubt, I can just ask the gods themselves whether a particular person is guilty.
  • Sending: Also note that you can’t run, and you can’t hide. I can send a message to every neighbouring town days before you get there, if you decide to run; and my more powerful wizards can fly or teleport there ahead of you if they know where you’re going. And once I get there I will always find you with my Locate Creature spells. There is no escaping justice in Faustusville, and the right of appeal is absolute: a cleric just asks the Gods, in a Zone of Truth.

And if that fails, I have Power Word, Pain.

This is almost infinitely better than our current justice system. Even the death penalty is pretty simple – I have Slay Living, Cloudkill and Inflict Critical Wounds. You will die when I tell you to, painlessly, and I will destroy the body. Plus, I will resurrect the person you killed, heal any negative emotional effects on the person you injured and/or raped, and if necessary make them forget the whole experience so they don’t have to relive it. And I can use charm person on your friends and family so they don’t resent the act afterwards.

What’s the point of crime in such a world?

Infrastructure Development

Modern society is made much better through paved roads and sewage systems. This is all pretty trivial in Faustusville. We have Shape Stone to make it easy to set up particular structures; paved roads are trivial – we dump rock on them, cast Rock to Mud, smooth it out, and then cast Mud to Rock. We can soften stone to make it easy to work with, then harden stone to make a structure. Paved roads with drainage ditches, sewage systems built through simple magical procedures, and magical methods to purify water and produce water where there isn’t enough, in a society with street lights and house lighting that never go out. We can make dams for water, and we can move water upstream as well as down, so our water wheels and mills never fail to function. If we want, we can build esoteric towers and crazy structures through the work of the Druids of the town. No one needs to live in a hovel, and we will never have a shortage of firewood for heating because we don’t need it for anything else and anyway, we can just grow more with our Plant Growth spells.


This is the best part of the whole deal. There are two wizards capable of casting Permanency, so the spell can be cast twice a day. It costs 500 xp to make Comprehend Languages permanent, so we can basically cast it on every 2nd child, and then every year the wizards will have to go adventuring to maintain their current level. With a bit of research, this effect could be extended to intelligence, so we could cast permanency on a Fox’s Cunning spell, for every 2nd or 3rd child born. Note that this is a bootstrapping process. We start with our existing mages researching this spell, and casting it as much as they’re able (with permanency) on the next generation. As this generation gets older, they select the best and train them to be wizards. The number of children capable of becoming wizards increases, so we get more in the next generation, and so on. Eventually, we have enough wizards to cast Fox’s Cunning on every child; our population is 4 points of intelligence smarter! Which also means it’s better able to cast other spells, so in time will become wiser, tougher, etc. Ultimately, over maybe 4 generations, we’ll find that people of Faustusville roll 3d6+4 in order for their stats –  race of essentially super heroes, who never die before their old age, can speak every language, never get sick, never experience disability or madness, and live in a crime-free society.


The D&D magic system is, as magic systems go, pretty limiting, but I think I’ve shown that even under this system groups of wizards and/or clerics acting together can achieve almost anything. As an individual cleric you may not be able to go more than 3 or 4 rooms deep into the dungeon; in concert with 50 others you can build any building, solve any crime, and prevent any epidemic. In short, you can build a post-scarcity economy. And this is not the limit; the DMG tells us that cities of larger than 12000 people have an even larger number of higher-level magicians, and commensurately more lower level ones. The world where these wizards, druids and clerics live will indeed be a post-scarcity paradise. Of course, as our society becomes richer magical technology becomes more common (as it is easier to build and trade). Ultimately I imagine every family will have a few magical trinkets to hand down to their children – +1 charisma, or +1 strength, maybe a ring of resistance +2, ultimately ioun stones and magical mounts and all sorts of other things. And although it might take longer, even societies with a much smaller number of magically capable people will do the same thing, ultimately. I’ve constructed this post-scarcity economy in  a society where only 2.6% of the whole population are magically capable, and the vast majority of them are 1st or 2nd level. But even then, it’s clear that no serious problem will ever afflict anyone in this society. Even without experiencing an industrial revolution, it will attain a state where crime is always caught, no one ever dies except by old age, and everyone lives in a good house in a clean and beautiful place. Gender relations can be revolutionized, class relations become irrelevant, and injustice disappears.

But for some reason almost all fantasy literature ignores this kind of concept. The stories remain bogged down in a filthy, primitve, ignorant feudal world, where life is hard, racism and sexism is rife, and injustice is the order of the day. Does it seem reasonable that this is even possible in a world where the basic principles of our mediaeval history don’t apply? And what does this tell us about the imaginary space that the fantasy genre occupies?

Appendix 1: Magical Complement of Faustusville

1 x lvl 12
1 x lvl 7
2 x lvl 6
2 x lvl 4
4 x lvl 3
12 x lvl 2
24 x lvl 1
Total: 46
1 x lvl 9
1 x lvl 12
2 x lvl 6
2 x lvl 5
8 x lvl 3
16 x lvl 2
32 x lvl 1
1 x lvl 9
1 x lvl 8
2 x lvl 5
2 x lvl 4
4 x lvl 3
12 x lvl 2
24 x lvl 1

1 x lvl 8
1 x lvl 7
4 x lvl 4
8 x lvl 2
16 x lvl 1

1 x lvl 8
1 x lvl 10
2 x lvl 5
2 x lvl 4
4 x lvl 3
12 x lvl 2
24 x lvl 1

1 x lvl 10
1 x lvl 9
4 x lvl 5
8 x lvl 3
16 x lvl 2
32 x lvl 1

fn1: Yes, I calculated this and other spell-level figures. I did this on the assumption that all my clerics had no wisdom bonuses to spells. If they do have wisdom bonuses, their usefulness increases significantly. Same applies for the wizards (and did I mention the movies the bards can make?)






Critical reinterpretation at its worst


Many people in the RPG world think what I’m about to say is heresy, but I actually think that board games and computer games have some interesting ideas to teach RPG makers and players, and a lot of them are based on making available new and specialized content – that is, objects and purcahsable add-ons – that can provide additional opportunities for role-playing, or tools to help the GM and the players manage the game. A lot of these ideas are common in Japanese RPGs, and some of these tools when combined enable the game to improve the number of rules options available, and to have incidental rules – like fatigue, encumbrance and the like – that people typically hate to use because they’re fiddly to manage.

As an example I give Warhammer FRP 3rd ed, which I’m using now. It has 5 ideas which, used together, enable both improved role-playing opportunities to emerge from dice rolls, and give better management of in-game actions, which in turn allows Warhammer 3rd ed to use a wider range of resource types for players. They are:

  • Special dice: these enable actions to be resolved on two dimensions, with one dimension the standard success/fail and the other a good luck/bad luck dimension that is largely used to add role-playing hooks and interesting side effects to actions. These two dimensions offer the opportunity to succeed but have a bad or annoying side-effect, and to fail but have some minor quirk of luck. They also enable success in one action to affect another. For example, good fortune on a successful Sword and Board action enables  a fighter to reuse their Block defense. Such a dimension in, for example, D&D might mean that a Cleric rolling good luck on a Bless spell might regain one of their daily Turn Undead uses. In D&D 4th edition, good luck on an at-will power could lead to a recharge of an encounter power; or success on an encounter power might recharge another encounter power, or add to the tally of available healing surges. Of course, all of these extra effects in combat can be hard to keep track of, except for the additional use of Action Cards…
  • Action cards: which enable you to pull all your main effects out of a book and put on the table for easy reference,  so players do not have to constantly reference the books. This would be useful in D&D for wizards and clerics but even putting a character’s to-hit table on a card would make that action resolution very quick. I’ve given the rather trivial example of Magic Missile here (the text is from Greyhawk via Grognardia). Obviously Magic Missile is trivial, but it seems uncontroversial to me that having things like hit tables and turn undead rules on easily-accessible, attractive cards is really useful, especially in a game like D&D where lots of rules (e.g. surprise, finding secret doors) that are used a lot may differ by race, class or situation. The downside of attractively-made cards is that they add to the cost of a product in art and production[1], so they’re hardly justifiable in and of themselves[2], but in WFRP 3 they are justified by a useful mechanical tool, cooldown, which is only possible as a mechanical technique due to the combination of Action Cards with Recharge Tokens.
  • Recharge tokens: this enables actions to be limited in terms of available power (for spells) but also time to reuse, i.e. cool-down, which is something I think 4e D&D wanted to use but couldn’t get working because they weren’t thinking board-game-y enough. In WFRP3 each Action has a recharge time written on the top right corner of the card, and you track recharge by putting recharge tokens on this spot, then removing one at the end of each round. These tokens can also track other sorts of recharge. For example the Morr’s Touch spell is discharged after a certain number of hits, which are tracked using tokens in the recharge section of the card. If an Initiate of Morr gets a lot of luck on another spell roll they may be able to add recharge tokens to this card, adding to the number of hits they can deliver. But they don’t need to track these on paper using a pencil and crossing it out, because the tokens are right there. These tokens also track fatigue and stress, which can be accrued for any action and are an important consideration in the development of insanity. They are also used for tracking the duration of conditions. When I first read about this method I thought it would not be an improvement on just writing numbers on a sheet but it really actually is, both because you don’t have to keep track of actual  numbers (you just move tokens around) and because it’s trivial to keep track of 6 or 8 recharge processes at once when they’re combined with cards, while keeping track of recharge next to multiple effects written on a paper is messy and easily confused. The upshot of this is that the WFRP system enables continual use of magic, but through the combined management of power points and recharge. Power points can be redrawn after use, but this takes a round, and spells may take several rounds to cool down. This means that Wizards and Priests always have their spells available to use but can’t use them at will. I think this is the approach Wizards of the Coast wanted with D&D 4e, but without cards and tokens a truly flexible cooldown system is impossible, so they went for the more basic form represented by at-will/encounter/daily powers. I think cooldown is a natural idea for both spells and non-magical actions, and keeps the game fun for everyone because they always have the actions they want, but usable at a frequency that is balanced by the system. I don’t think recharge has much use in pre-4th edition D&D, but I’m sure there are other uses for tokens – for example, after casting bless you put a number of tokens equal to its duration on the card, and remove one per round. This frees up the GM from a lot of management issues.
  • Progress Tracker: a really simple idea for keeping track of contests between PCs and enemies that span long periods. e.g. chases, building armies before a deadline, etc.This is system-independent but really useful. For example, suppose that the adventure requires that the PCs find the location of a secret cult before the cult sacrifices the Mayor’s daughter. The GM can decide how much leeway to give the PCs and then constructs a progress tracker with a number of spaces corresponding to this leeway. Halfway along is an event space. Every time the PCs make a mistake (raid the wrong building, or screw up a negotiation with a potential informer) a token is moved one space along the progress tracker. When it reaches the halfway-point event space the cult become aware of the PC’s investigation and send assassins against them; if the progress tracker reaches the end before the PCs have found the Cult HQ, the girl gets sacrificed and the PCs have failed. This gives the GM a method for relating failure in the investigation to the outcome, and a way to construct limits on how many mistakes the PCs can make. I think this is a really useful tool for managing competitive tasks of this sort, and can offer really interesting plot triggers. In a longer adventure event spaces could be scattered through a progress tracker to indicate incidental events (unrelated to the adventure) or just spots for the GM to roll up rumours/weather/adventure hooks (this is how the progress meter was used in the Scenario Craft adventure I played). This is system-independent and again, although it doesn’t need a purchasable product, a solid cardboard progress meter with a style that suits the game is nice to use. The Scenario Craft adventure had a double-page spread in the book that could be photocopied and contained the progress meter and all the associated random charts, for easy reference.
  • Party character sheet: used to build up tension between party members. The tension meter increases with every failure, and at some point triggers a negative effect that depends on the type of party the players have chosen to play. There is also a pool for storing fortune points, which are added to whenever the party gets a success, and then distributed amongst the party whenever the number of points equals the number of PCs. I think fortune points are a system-independent idea as well, being basically a house-rule to enable players to get out of trouble. The party character sheet also has a special skill for the group, and two slots for a talent that anyone in the group can activate. In D&D3.5, there could be a special set of feats that go on this character sheet and that players can choose to purchase for their PC in place of normal feats. This would be particularly suitable for bard, rogue and other support characters (or could even be used to make bards desirable as party members!) My current party are playing “Brash Young Fools,” so when their tension reaches 4 points the party have an argument and everyone’s stress increases by one. The “Hired Thugs” party take a wound at that point, indicating that the increasing tension of continual failure has led to recriminations that actually came to blows. In this group, continual failure can be deadly. Again, this sheet benefits from the use of tokens, and is also at its most basic completely system-netural.

These ideas are all things you can make yourself and import into OD&D, but most of them are ideas from computer games or board games. Most of them enhance options for role-playing. The current version of WFRP was made by Fantasy Flight Games, who are a board- and card-game company too, and I think they’ve incorporated the lessons of those other genres into their work. In this blog, board games are credited with improving the rules of modern wargames, again through the incorporation of ideas from outside the world of wargaming itself.

I think RPG players and makers have an objection to “additional content” that is often quite visceral and reflexive, and has a lot to do with the way in the past companies like TSR and Wizards of the Coast have tried to sell all sorts of useless crap via splat books. But this stuff often didn’t improve or change our play at all, just gave us ever-increasing numbers of meaningless choices. Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE) did this with Rolemaster – I had maybe 3 companions, but the only useful one was the first (with the addition of the Nightblade character and a few new open spell lists); the rest were useless fluff. Of course, ICE and TSR produced some very nice world settings, but along with these useful additions came a bunch of useless stuff (especially from Wizards of the Coast) like Fighter Handbooks and The Complete Left-handed Basket Weaver, etc. However, in amongst this useless pile of accrued crap is a simple truth – sometimes the stuff that gets added on is really useful and enhances the game, regardless of its financial advantages to the original company. Even though the additional content in WFRP3 presents Fantasy Flight Games with an excellent vehicle to sell more stuff, this is neither a new phenomenon, nor something unique to card games, nor a cynical money-pushing decision on their part. The material added to WFRP makes for a genuine interesting improvement to both that particular game and to the practice of role-playing generally, and I think it’s a sign that there is a lot of gaming practice outside of RPGs that we could stand to learn from – including (shock horror!) in computer games.

fn1: Don’t I know it! I’m currently translating all the Warhammer 3 cards to Japanese and printing them and it takes a huge amount of time and effort.

fn2: A lot of Japanese games seem to present actions/effects in card form in the book but don’t present the cards themselves. I think it’s assumed the players will make their own cards with a photocopier, or maybe in some cases they’re sold separately.