Progress in Fantasy Settings

Here is an idea worth pondering: what happens to fantasy setting when the technological progress kicks in? The obvious answer is nothing. Nothing can happen, because once a universe leaves the medieval like “sweet spot” it ceases to be fantasy and becomes something else. That’s because fantasy probably shouldn’t even be a literary genre as it is essentially an exercise in re-writing and re-imagining Tolkien. Most fantasy universes are arrested at a very similar development stage by design. It is a built in feature of the genre.

It is actually quite ironic, because Tolkien innately understood this. His Middle Earth was nothing but static. It not only had a rich history, but also a future. Reading Lord of the Rings you could feel the passage of time, and the merciless wind of changes. You saw powers shifting, Elves leaving, the Shire being changed in unforeseen ways during the absence of the Hobbit heroes. His world was changing, and tumbling out of control towards an uncertain but unavoidable future. Middle Earth was becoming more mundane and less magical and mysterious right in front of your eyes.

Most other settings distilled from the Tolkien formula don’t actually have that. They are static. You can fast forward time a few decades into the future and not much will change. Sure, maybe some kingdom will fall, and some new magical cataclysm will threaten the land once or twice. But for the most part the heroes will still be chasing after dragons, the elves will still be doing their thing in the forest, the dwarves will be digging for gold and halflings will still be trying to convince everyone they are not hobbits because like one minor lore difference. It does not have to be like that.

I propose a thought experiment – let’s take a generic medieval fantasy setting and fast forward it a few hundred years into the future and see what we end up with.

Into the Punk

Thew most straightforward line of progression would be to assume that said fantasy world would develop much like ours did. After magical medieval period they would have their own Renaissance, industrial revolution and etc. Their technology would evolve in similar way to ours, but of course they would also have magic and elves. So while similar to ours, their would would be slightly off-beat and unconventional.

In other words, given enough time a fantasy world ought to end up being a steampunk universe. One in which magic is still practiced and still a force to be reckoned with – but at the same time still rare, feared and unpredictable.

The relative scarcity of magic is sort of a theme running throughout the literature. In theory wizards and mages are just too powerful to be common. It is difficult to write interesting stories about characters who can make crazy miracles happen just by waving their hands around and yelling out gibberish. They are inconvenient, and thus relegated to the role of mobile plot devices, deus ex machina rescuers or evil end bosses. Usually it makes sense in-world too. Magic is a rare gift only available to those born with it for example. While it was always around, it’s practitioners were usually too few, and to far in between to actually change the world as a whole in meaningful way. They could affect changes locally – make a flying castle, destroy a small kingdom, etc. But the life of an ordinary peasant was mostly unaffected by the machinations of wizards, unless said wizards happened to be casting magic in his back yard.

Technology is different though. It is not as flashy or cool as magic, but it is transformative. It’s benefits trickle down to the masses and affect lives of the little people as well as the lives of the chosen few. It levels the playing field. Very few people could even hope too own a flying carpet, but a steam-driven horseless cart – that’s something you could build just about anywhere, provided you know how.

Given more time a steampunk universe ought to evolve into dieselpunk – a turn of the century, world wars type setting. I haven’t seen this sort of thing implemented often, but it could be quite interesting. For example Imagine Nazi Germany equivalent with a fantasy twist – the crazy dictator Hitler stand-in is not a loony racist, but instead a Lich who hates the living. His crazy theories are not about eugenics but about the rights of the undead versus the tyranny of the living. Imagine elves having absolutely insane air-force and dwarfs being beasts of trench warfare. Possibilities are endless.

Fast forward more and you essentially get Shadowrun – a cyberpunk setting with elves, orcs and an occasional dragon mage or two.

It would be really interesting to see a setting that could actually bring all of these diverse genres all together using a single timeline, allowing players to pick a period they feel comfortable with, or have vast multiple-century spanning campaigns involving either immortal, or time traveling characters. The closest thing I have seen to this was the Old World of Darkness in which you could sort-of stitch together Vampire: Dark Ages and Vampire: Masquerade settings if you really wanted to.

Magical Progress

The inverse of this would be something I call magical progress. If you assume that magic is not some rare, elusive gift but an attainable skill that could be taught to or learned by most, if not all sentient beings you could easily see how it could displace technology. For example, why on earth would anyone ever bother building dangerous, unstable steam engines if you could just hire a local wizard to cast a teleportation or portal spell to get you where you need to go. Would anyone ever bother working on a telegraph, if you could actually expect there to be a Palantir at every inn and town hall?

Such a universe would never reach a steampunk stage, because it would never need to research steam engines. It would have magical constructs, flying ships, portals and magical barriers. Heavy and tedious work would be “automated” using Golems and bound daemons and etc..

So essentially we are going from mundane low fantasy (like Game of Thrones) to high fantasy in which magic is everywhere (like World of Warcraft where pretty much everyone is walking around carrying a few dozen magical artifacts). The name of the game is proliferation of magic.

To become a transformative force that is able to affect the entire world, magic has to cease being an exclusive domain of the few, and instead become easily available commodity. However even with wizardry being a learnable skill, it would be foolish to expect everyone to master it. Just like not everyone is cut out to be a programmer, not all people have the desire or cognitive abilities to be mages. But that does not mean they can’t be magic users.

Fantasy already has the concept of making magic available to non-wizards well established: there are magic items, scrolls, bound spells, talismans and other types of magic infused doo-dads. In most conventional settings these are fairly rare (for obvious reasons as they tend to be game breakers and plot destroyers) heirlooms or ancient artifacts. But you could imagine that as magic becomes more widespread two things happen:

  • When there is only one or two powerful wizards in the kingdom, their skills will usually be in high demand. Therefore each of them can be expected to be well-off, and have a lot of power and political influence. If there are eight hundred of wizards in the capitol city alone, they can’t all expect to be rich and powerful. Mages suddenly have to compete, specialize and find market niches where they can charge competitive prices for their skills. So suddenly you have low wake, working class wizards willing to sell their services for cheep.
  • As soon as you have wizards willing to work for cheep, you can expect proliferation of low-cost magical items – talismans, charms, utility bound spells and scrolls and etc. You can see craftsmen buying enchanted tools, peasants shelling out cash for pest control scrolls and etc.

Eventually the demand for low-grade, low-price magic becomes so overwhelming, the working-class mages can’t keep up. They have to organize, unionize and develop assembly line like methods of artifact manufacture. At the same time high-status wizards see their own profits and prospects dwindling. Their usual clientele – kings, nobles and wealthy merchants are less willing to pay premium for the superior quality enchantments or magical services when they can stock up on lower potency but still functional scrolls, and bound spells at the corner store.

So what is left for the masters of magic to do, than to get into the mass manufacture racket and start peddling cheep goods in mass qualities. How can they compete with hedge wizard manufactures and well organized unions? Perhaps by creating fully automated factories with enchanter daemons and golems doing all the grunt work.

And just like that you end up with magical revolution – like industrial revolution but with magic. It is a little hard to extrapolate where such a universe would go from that point on. However, I am willing to bet they could jump forward towards a global information age faster than we did. Magic users already have means for instant travel (teleportation, magic portals, etc..) and instant communication (palantirs, utility communication spells, telepathy, etc..). You could expect these things to become ubiquitous as the societies realize their value and utility. They could develop a global network of palantirs, magical mirrors and similar communication devices. They could have a Hyperion style portals that connect seamlessly communities regardless of distance. They could have most of the luxuries of modern living implemented Flinstones style via some sort of magical contraption, golem construct or helper haemonculi.

What would happen after that? I don’t know. Space jamming? Maical singularity? Who knows.

Magically Enforced Status Quo

Of course if you want your fantasy world to be static, you might as well provide an in-world explanation as to why neither of the above mentioned scenarios is taking place. The easiest way to do this is of course to blame the wizards even though this is a bit of a cop out.

You could say magic can’t proliferate because it is very rare but very powerful gift. So the few individuals that posses it, could not or are simply not willing to supply the world with cheep commodity magic. It is either not in their power, or not in their interest.

Why isn’t technological revolution taking place then? Well, perhaps because the kings and wizards are not keen on the idea of giving steam engines or gunpowder weapons to peasants. Rulers see it as a threat to their absolute power. Wizards see it as competition. They all have a vested interest in suppressing it. So whenever a potentially disruptive technology is becoming too popular the inventor gets mysteriously struck by lighting, his factory burns down due to unexplained chemical fire (surely caused by his unstable invention) and all the devices he sold start malfunctioning as if someone put a curse on them.

Which is actually kinda stupid. I personally don’t like this sort of global conspiracy solutions, but I felt compelled to come up with some sort of a third alternative. Could you do better? What would be a reasonable in-world explanation for lack of technological or magical progress in a fantasy universe?

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15 Responses to Progress in Fantasy Settings

  1. alphast GREECE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    You mentioned Shadowrun, but it is already a setting which is supposed to have a purely fantasy past (although no “steampunk” in between). The setting of Earthdawn is essentially the distant past of the Shadowrun universe. It is a typical fantasy setting with no technology. Interestingly, there was an idea in Shadowrun that time was a cycle and that the future of the Shadowrun setting was nothing else than Earthdawn again. This was reinforced by the fact that Earthdawn was both a “medieval” fantasy setting and at the same time a “post-apocalyptic” one.

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  2. Eric Daum UNITED STATES Google Chrome Ubuntu Linux says:

    You should read the recluse series by Modsitt. He seems to address some of your ideas.

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  3. joek UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Well, Japan for a long time managed to avoid industrialisation and firearms technology essentially by the means you described but without wizards to aid the authorities in striking down uppity peasants. The idea is not so farfetched…

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  4. Morghan Google Chrome Linux says:

    My GURPS aliens are a psionic race that never developed technology. Why build a tractor when you have telekinesis, or a car when you can either fly or teleport, or a phone when you can send mental messages to the other side of the planet?

    They are complete tech-tards, but their unusual mental abilities put them on more than equal footing when invaders landed on their little backwater forest world.

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  5. FX FRANCE Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    Then you definitely should check out Marion Zimmer Bradley’s books on the society of Darkover. Huge stack of books, but it very much addresses the question “why would an evolved magical society stay in a medieval state?”. It is, actually, a very important part in the latest novels in that universe.

    In short (may contain spoilers) : Darkover is a small planet where, one day, one of humanity’s first interstellar ships crash-landed. The crew was cut off from the rest of humankind, and thus the Darkovan society prospered on its own. They quickly developed psychic abilities called laran. Even though it was latent in some humans, that mostly happened through intermingling with a sentient Darkovan race shrouded in mystery, the chieri, although that is not really clear in the books.

    Interestingly (and that is quite uncommon in fantasy) they had already gone past the modern technological age, got back to the middle ages, and then quickly developed a modern magical society. Also, with psychic abilities came telepathy and empathy, which is maybe the defining difference between Earth (and other planets), and Darkover : the whole society was based on very deep moral restraints that prevented everyone from going crazy knowing everybody more or less knew each other’s surface thoughts.

    Fast forward maybe a thousand years, they had “aircars”, laran networks to communicate through the whole planet, towers that acted both as centres of learning and long-range communication points, and much more. But, as it happens, their Earth descent had faded from collective memory. Also wars were unfortunately very common and hugely devastating to the fragile Darkovan climate, to such a point that everyone eventually agreed on one thing : the Compact, which prohibited weapons that did not put its user at risk. Basically, all kinds of long-range weapons, and more importantly destructive laran. Unfortunately, not being used in wars, laran use declined at lot.

    Fast-forward again, Earth had found viable planets in every corner of the galaxy, while Darkover evolved by itself. Another ship found Darkover (actually, crash-landed a second time…) and relationships between Earth and Darkover began anew. Which is where it’s getting really interesting, because Darkovan people actually want to keep their society the way it is, even though they have an alternative. Thanks to laran sciences, people live really well (it is mentioned at some point in the books that the poorest Darkovan lives much better than the poorest man from the Earth federation).

    Well, I’ve said too much already, sorry for the long post! ><
    But anyway, great series of books! In my opinion the only great ones I've read that really tackle that subject. If anybody has anything else to recommend, I'd be happy to read it!

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  6. Kuro GERMANY Google Chrome Linux says:

    One “fantasy” setting, that your post reminded me of, is actually the Avatar series (The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra). Some of the ideas that you express here can be seen in those series.

    In The Last Airbender the fire nation is displayed as technological advanced, having tanks and later ballons and even air ships, while the other nations are portrayed as pre-industrial relying on their bending (the “magic” in this universe) to do most of the daily and/or hard work. The fire nation even sees these benders (excluding their own fire benders) as a threat and tries to eradicate them by using their technology.

    In The Legend of Korra the setting is more of a turn-of-the-century one (19th to 20th) with early cars, pervasive use of air ships and electricity. During the later episodes of the first book (half a season) there are early biplane airplanes and even Alien-style battle-mechs. The conflict has shifted from one nation against all others to non-benders against benders and a critically part of that conflict is that the non-benders utilize the new technology against the benders.

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ alphast:

    TIL that Earthdawn and Shadowrun are set in the same universe. Funny story – when I was freshman in HS, Earthdawn was published in Polish for the first time (I lived in Poland back then). So all the RPG press (and my I mean the one monthly and one quarterly-or-whatever-the-fuck-we-manage polish magazine devoted to role play) were all like ZOMG, Earthdawn, Earthdawn, Earthdawn. My gaming group was kinda ambivalent about the whole thing – we had our hands full with Warhammer RP, Star Wars D6, Mutant Chronicles, Cyberpunk 2020 and Vampire the Masquerade. So we never got into it.

    Still, funny that despite reading all that Earthdawn coverage, I never actually stumbled on Shadowrun thing. Perhaps it was because Poland was totally camp Cyberpunk 2020 back then (with fully translated set of core books and expansions) and Shadowrun was only played by those who could read obtain and the rulebooks po angielsku. :)

    @ Eric Daum:

    Man, you say that without explaining… Now I need to do research. :P

    @ joek:

    This is true. Still, I think that Japan example could be put under my option #3, since the technological stasis was mostly forced from up above by conservative, traditionalist the ruling class. It worked so well in Japan probably chiefly thanks to geographical features – they were a secluded island nation which was mostly culturally homogenous. They could adopt this non-technological stance because they didn’t really have that much outside pressure from neighbors.

    Shit like that wouldn’t fly in Europe which was a boiling pot of conflicting cultures locked in endless one-upsmanship match. If you fell behind technologically, your kindly neighbors were more than happy to steam-roll you with their better armed troops and annex your territory to theirs.

    Typical fantasy settings usually have warring kingdoms, different sentient races competing for primacy and usually at least one doomsday scenario in progress. That sort of thing suggest all these forces should be in a progressive arms race just to keep up.

    @ Morghan:

    This sounds eerily familiar, but I can’t figure out where I’ve seen it. Perhaps I simply had a similar idea at one point or another. :)

    Oh, do your players call them tech-tards? Cause now I think they will start. :)

    @ FX:

    Sounds interesting. Reminds me of the Dune universe which got a similar technology downgrade, but for the opposite reason. It was actually the escalating arms race that became the limiting factor. At some point they invented and perfected force fields. They were able to miniaturize them to the point where you can wear one on your belt or wrist and it would stop any high speed kinetic projectile, but still allow for normal interaction. So when most people worth killing started habitually wearing these nearly 24-7 conventional guns went out of use.

    Beam weapons on the other hand went out of use because they had a nasty ability to glitch out and short circuit these fields creating nasty force feedback shock wave equivalent to thermonuclear detonation. So these types of weapons got banned for obvious reasons. Suddenly the most effective way to kill a man was to use a knife at short range. Either that or poison.

    Why knife and not a sword for example? Well, swords, sabers and rapiers need to be swung or trusted with considerable kinetic force and so most of killing blows would get nullified by the shield even at the close range. You can’t really jab, stab or slash someone wearing a shield – the only thing that works is slowly and gently skewering them.

    Which is why Paul Atreidies initially gets his ass whooped by Fremen in crysknife combat – he was trained in shield aided combat which emphasizes slow, methodical movement and strategy, whereas the Fremen would be fast and ferocious with their blades.

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  8. StuartB UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    Excellent! And now I have some new books to read and much to ponder…

    Also, I’ve appreciated the progress in the Shannara books, although I’ve noticed most fantasy fans don’t like that series all that much…

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  9. FX FRANCE Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    StuartB wrote:

    Also, I’ve appreciated the progress in the Shannara books, although I’ve noticed most fantasy fans don’t like that series all that much…

    Ah, yes. Shannara. My main complaint about that series was that it was too similar to a lot of other books. It didn’t seem to have a particular identity, and there were far too many books for it to stay interesting. I can be okay with a single book or maybe a trilogy that is not really original. But Shannara spans truckloads of volumes with that…

    Luke Maciak wrote:

    Sounds interesting. Reminds me of the Dune universe which got a similar technology downgrade, but for the opposite reason.

    I tried Dune once when I was little, I was maybe 12 or 13. Obviously I didn’t finish it, and never picked it up since. Everybody tells me I should give it a real try, maybe I’ll go to the library and pick up the first one ;)

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  10. Dave Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I always imagined that the world is whatever the collective consciousness believes it to be. So in the past, there was magic and the earth was flat because thats what people believed it to be.

    As the world changes and new stories are told, there is a inertial shift in the collective minds and the world changes. The monsters and fairies disappear, and the earth becomes a globe and is ruled by science.

    We shape the world we live in just by thinking about it.

    You could also follow up that maybe the reason we are having so many wars and earthquakes and storms is because there are a lot more people now, and a lot more discord in the collective, and the world is being torn apart and re-shaped because of it.

    Would be cool if a good fantasy writer picked up on this and did a story.

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  12. The article makes a really good point, that fantasy worlds are generally stagnant for no good reason. However, the assumptions about the nature of the progress outlined here I take issue with.

    It’s well and good for settings like D&D and the like where magic is just a tool or an inborn talent. But I’m not sure such a thing would happen. To start with, knowledge of magic and how it works may be incomplete, meaning that it can’t be standardised and prepared for “production” in the way you suggest. However, my biggest bugbear with the “tool” approach is that it disregards how magic is procured, and how people think about it. If it’s considered a gift of god(s), then there are likely to be taboos and social rules governing its use. If it’s a more “secular” thing, then there may well be a practitioner community with its own (potentially looser) rules. If it only comes at the cost of binding spirits/demons or making pacts with them, then there’s a whole different way of practising it to the hand-waving, word-muttering paradigm.

    The best example of how this works is seen in reverse in Warhammer 40,000: technology is the province of priests, who carry out maintenance and production of machines as a form of worship and ritual. This completely stymies technological progress, as R&D is thought of as heresy. A society that sees magic in a similar light would not use it to progress or outside a narrow set of rules, which limits progress. While this seems similar to the “conspiracy theory” of your article, it’s one where no one complains about the conspiracy and is complicit in it; society is structured around the assumptions that reinforce the restrictive use of magic, and so no one but outcasts would question them, and the only people who know enough of the “rules” to break them do not want to. Not because of them wanting to preserve their self-interested position, but because they wouldn’t think to step outside the traditional uses of magic.

    Think about how your society functions, particularly for things that people assume and don’t question. Your fantasy society should have similar assumptions, according to different “axioms”. It’s not entirely down to the nature of magic, it’s now society considers it. And that consideration shouldn’t necessarily be as utilitarian as you make out.

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  13. I was asking a similar question, “why no guns”?

    A gentleman from the GURPS forum suggested that perhaps gunpowder and similar explosives were like crack to fire elementals. So I ran with it, and call it the “salamander curse”. Now my fantasy setting has guns, but beyond a certain level of use they have to either take terrible risks, or use expensive alchemical concoctions that reduce the likelihood of a fire elemental manifesting and explosively dining upon your artillery’s powder supply, or your own personal powderhorn.

    I submit the following entry for your amusement.

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  14. Mordes CANADA Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    My usual solution for a stagnant world is magic ubiquity … there is magic in everything and there is a finite amount of it that continually gets re-used over and over again… there are massive reservoirs of magic like god’s and wizards but every sword and every gear contains magic… so the world could evolve if the large reservoirs would share their power by giving up some… or if people could all agree in investing their efforts towards a certain goal but as it is everyone is squabbling over the use of this resource so things will evolve to a point then will stagnate as there is no free magic to keep it expanding… this leads to conflict over who and how… and the few that know this is how the universe is ordered capitalize upon this knowledge.

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