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.
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?