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. 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?
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
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?)