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I am writing a fantasy story, set in a period that is, technologically, much like 15th century Europe. Warriors still ride horses, swords are used in combat, and the occasional plague often hits a city. In my fantasy realm, magic exists and is known as fact.

Magic users, known commonly as sorcerers, have powers that come directly from God. They have the ability to conjure up spells, change weather, strike people with directed lightning, and, more advanced wizards can enchant worthy people with good luck, and tell the future.

I want the sorcerers in my world to stay a quiet group, that don’t interfere with politics or people above ground. (The wizards live in underground caverns.) But, it would make sense that at least a few wizards would want to use their powers to gain riches, fame, women and power.

So: What would be a good reason why sorcerers wouldn’t use their powers to take over kingdoms?

  • God can’t remove wizards' powers once they're bestowed.
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    $\begingroup$ Powers from God = Don't do things God won't like. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Jun 22 '18 at 1:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Menlo God can't take back the magic, but he can of course punish or kill people who abuse it. Just make "using magic for personal wealth / power" fall under the section 'Abuse Of Magic' aka 'god will get angry'. $\endgroup$ – CompuChip Jun 22 '18 at 9:12
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    $\begingroup$ Because Walt Disney owns the Magic Kingdom and he is a far more formidable wizard than anyone else out there...... $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Jun 22 '18 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ Merlin was celibate, so there goes "women". He had (real) "power" and therefore had no desire for "riches" or "fame". Why do you think a few wizards would want to use their powers to gain riches, fame, women and (political?) power? Those are all pretty paltry compared to the ability to manipulate reality. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jun 22 '18 at 22:38
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    $\begingroup$ God can’t remove wizards' powers once they're bestowed. - but I suppose a/the god could still easily remove the wizard $\endgroup$ – quetzalcoatl Jun 24 '18 at 21:27

31 Answers 31

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Once you take it over, you have to run the blasted thing. Leave running the kingdom to those who enjoy that work, whilst the mages play with magic and create special effects that would make George Lucas call his lawyers.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes. Unless you're obsessed by power for the sake of power, you can use magic to get just about anything you want, without all the bother of actually running the kingdom. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jun 22 '18 at 5:14
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    $\begingroup$ This was gonna be exactly my answer. What would they even want a kingdom for? Too much trouble for... what gain? Yes, there is always that guy. That guy that wanted a kingdom for the sake of having a kingdom. He got it. Two years later, he regretted everything and left it, along with a wise note for future wizards: "Don't bother. Just... don't." $\endgroup$ – xDaizu Jun 22 '18 at 10:03
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    $\begingroup$ This depends on the tone of the story really. There are characters who seek power for its own sake in fantasy worlds of all kinds. Some people just have this deep seated need to make as many people grovel before them as possible. They might not represent wizards as a whole, but it only takes a few bad apples to give the rest a serious public perception problem. $\endgroup$ – nullpointer Jun 22 '18 at 16:46
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    $\begingroup$ This is the same reason technical people don't take over companies/countries. Think about how easy it would be for a company's engineering or IT departments to hold a metaphorical knife to their throat. If we ever get fed up and organized, we'll execute the world's first peaceful, non-military coup. $\endgroup$ – Cristobol Polychronopolis Jun 22 '18 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ @nullpointer this gives all the other sorcerers a reason to stop that jerk who wants to take over a kingdom. If most of them just want everybody to leave them alone so they can play with magic, it's easier to stop one other sorcerer than to have armies knocking at your door every few years because you're perceived to be dangerous. $\endgroup$ – Gryphon - Reinstate Monica Jun 24 '18 at 0:21
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"But, it would make sense that at least a few wizards would want to use their powers to gain riches, fame, women, and power."

Riches? You can just summon up wealth or make a philosopher's stone to create gold from lead. Who really needs it? What can you buy that you can't summon?

Fame? Again they're wizards. People already know who they are

Women? No woman can compete with the toe-curling pleasure of a summoned succubus or compelled angel.

Power? Well, they already have power. They're wizards. Why would they want the headache of ruling?

Wizards are all about power and their power is from learning magic and new spells.

You'd actually have a hard time convincing a wizard to care about mortal issues.

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    $\begingroup$ Brilliant, although there would be some low-level magicians trying it anyways. [But given that they are low-level, some silver (or other somewhat anti-magic) armored Defenders could stop him. $\endgroup$ – Hobbamok Jun 22 '18 at 10:02
  • $\begingroup$ Also, if their focus is on gaining knowledge or serving God, they might just not even think taking over a kingdom is beneficial. $\endgroup$ – Jammin4CO Jun 22 '18 at 16:40
  • $\begingroup$ This world wizard have real power of Gods, why bother to be king when you are already a king without any royal responsibilities? Totally make sense. Although a handful wizards may develop empathy towards a poor mortals living under tyranny. $\endgroup$ – Hariz Rizki Jun 23 '18 at 7:21
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for summoning a succubus. $\endgroup$ – Rui F Ribeiro Jun 24 '18 at 17:56
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    $\begingroup$ @RuiFRibeiro ...or incubus, let's keep an open mind ;) $\endgroup$ – xDaizu Jun 25 '18 at 6:52
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The involvement of God does make things easier. Here are several options, which aren't mutually exclusive.

A Gift and a Curse

You say the wizards were promised their powers wouldn't be taken from them. That doesn't prevent God from inserting other caveats though. If magic is used for 'unrighteous' reasons, the power could turn against the user for example. A wizard could find himself incinerated by his own fireball or struck by the lightning he was trying to channel. The curse could also work in other ways, like an obvious Mark of Cain appearing on the bodies' of the errant mages.

Disciplinary Committee

Straightforward enough. The wizards have a code of conduct to be followed strictly. Any violations will be handled by a Magical Affairs Investigation Department, who implement extremely harsh and creative punishments.

No One Expects the Spanish

Magic comes from God, but does the common populace know that? You can have a Vatican-equivalent that hates the sorcerers and are just waiting for the slightest opportunity to incite the masses against them. Any attempt to dominate the smallfolk would result in an armed uprising and the wizards would have to resort to genocide to keep the peasants in line, maybe not even then. If the monarchs of the realms are threatened by the mages they would mobilise their armies to hunt them down too.

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    $\begingroup$ If you rearrange it to the Magical Affairs Investigation Department, you could have the Wizards afraid of the M.A.I.D. $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Jun 22 '18 at 5:28
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    $\begingroup$ @EveryBitHelps Your comment maid my day. That little bit helps indeed; I've edited my answer accordingly $\endgroup$ – nullpointer Jun 22 '18 at 5:46
  • $\begingroup$ You final point is similar to what happens in the RPG Ars Magica. In that the authors deal with question of why the (very powerful) mages don't just take over. The answer is that there are three forces in the setting that balance each other. The nobility, the church and the mages. The church and the nobility can both raise armies if they are provoked enough and there are far too few mages to stand against that. The church and nobility are very wary of being usurped so even the start of an attempt to gain temporal power by the mages would likely be met by open war. $\endgroup$ – Eric Nolan Jun 22 '18 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ Oh the second point just made me remember Baldurs Gate 2 where people using magic in the open were put away and at a later point you saw what they did to them... $\endgroup$ – Arsenal Jun 25 '18 at 11:20
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Make their power incompatible with rulership

Monarchs do not directly rule any kingdom bigger than a small tribe. They rule through key supporters - their treasurer, generals, administrators, spymaster etc. The game of politics requires balancing the wishes and needs of these key supporters to maintain their loyalty. Foreign ambassadors representing powerful neighbours are also important players that must be placated.

This means that a monarch must be willing and able to spend the majority of their time dealing with these key people, even if they are isolated from the majority of the populace. So let's look at reasons why sorcerers may be unable to meet this requirement:

The mindset necessary to be a sorcerer is incompatible with the social interactions necessary for ruling. The mental characteristics that allow someone to use magic may also mean that the person is psychologically unable or unwilling to speak publicly. Glossophobia (fear of public speaking), social anxiety disorder and/or autism spectrum are all conditions that would make a person want nothing to do with ruling a kingdom in an age where personal contact was unavoidable. If sorcerers all inherently have one of these conditions then they will not be rulers.

Sorcerer comfort is inversely proportional to the number of people in the vicinity. Sorcerers are telepathic (since they can assess whether people are "worthy") and receive unwanted mental pressure from nearby minds within a certain radius (eg Buffy Season 3 Episode 18 - Earshot). They can control their own mental emanations - thus allowing them to form communities with other sorcerers - and shield against a certain number of nearby unshielded minds. However, the mental pressure will make them increasingly uncomfortable in the vicinity of significant numbers of non-sorcerers. Given this constraint sorcerers will avoid population centres, which they cannot do if they want to rule a kingdom.

Interesting question - good luck with the project.

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    $\begingroup$ Love the telepathy idea. Poor sorcerers. $\endgroup$ – Stig Hemmer Jun 22 '18 at 10:36
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I'll just throw this out there: Let some of them rule.

You're doing a what-if-magic-were-real parallel to 15th century Europe? Well, the mages—esp. ones getting their power directly from the Almighty—are just stand-ins for the promises and threats of the clergy having been accurate.

The nobility are going to give them lands and titles for favors.

You don't need to sabotage or sugarcoat that.

There were church states; they tended to be tiny basketcases.

So long as wizards are asexual, homosexual, or impotent (carrying over the church's demands regarding celibacy and/or trad. magic's ideas about harnessing male potency), (a) they're usually not leaving heirs and (b) never leaving ones recognized as legitimate ("You can't his heir. Wizards don't do that." "Me dad did." "Sod off."); (c) their apprentices can tend to kill them (d) when their experiments or (e) quests don't and (f) they can never get power until they're already very powerful themselves (g) which tends to happen in old age (h) when they're already about to croak anyway.

Other realms would be able to exploit disunity among the mages during succession crises, which would happen, oh, every six months or so.

The most powerful wizardly realms would have to be run by uneasy cooperation of factions, who would—like the medieval papal states—usually have to compromise by electing elderly moderates or factionalists with a foot already in the grave. You'd get a few like Innocent III able to compel emperors into token submission but competent emperors would assemble their own (in this case more pious) clergy to uphold orderly human civilization. They'd also fight tooth and nail to limit bequests that limited their manpower or taxation and support pauperist movements to limit the church's worldly presence. The majority of your wizopes and wizhops are just going to rush in like Roman governors or Soviet apparatchiks to exploit their position and grant favors to toadies as quickly as possible, creating chaos and lowering the prestige of this 'institutional' arrangement.

You don't need to go that way, but it could be an excellent entrance into the era's worldview; in any case, you should deal with the dynamics that would push your society in that direction (noble favors, bequests, nonfamilial succession, &c).

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for they tried it and it didn't work out for "reasons" $\endgroup$ – Jammin4CO Jun 22 '18 at 16:42
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Just another possible reason:

To keep magic, you need to devote time
For example, perhaps a sorcerer needs to meditate hours per day to grow/maintain his power. Ruling a kingdom can take a fair amount of time, and just meditating hours ins't viable.

Culture
Perhaps the sorcerers have sort of seperate society - they actually look down on kings, because those poor sods dont even have magic. Also, do you know how much work running a kingdom is ? Ain't nobody got time for that. Those non-magical people just aren't worth investing that amount of time into, at least for daily life purposes non-magic people like kings have to do.

For wars and emergencies of course, they could still be available. And in exchange for that help, they're normally supported by society. Lets say that all farmers give 1% of their crop to the sorcerers(depends on sorcerer rarity of course, but in most worlds with magic this would mean that sorcerers have an abundance of food), and in return the sorcerers guarantee that there's no natural disaster, so that there WILL be a crop....lets just say medieval farmers would appreciate such an arrangement. And for the sorcerers it means an easy life, your basic needs taken care of, and you only have to actually go do something rarely.

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Wizard Law prevents them from interfering

You said the majority of wizards stay away from mundane politics, and this can be the basis of our solution. As the society has a larger number of Wizards that choose to abstain rather an interfere, then the larger group can establish a law against interfering with the mundane world.

No sane wizard would dare challenge this law, as they would risk antagonizing the entire kingdom of wizards. While the law would be enforced in a slightly different way to how mundane humans would enforce it, the principles would be the same.

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Fear

Yes, your sorcerers are quite powerful. But they have to sleep sometime. They have to eat. They have to trust that walking through a nearby village or town isn't going to be a constant struggle to not get assassinated by the non-wizardly folk.

Sure, those commoners aren't wizards; they have no real power. But it is kind of like a nest of hornets: one sting, while painful, isn't life threatening. But you don't just wade into the nest and let them all sting you.

There are too many of the normals. If they rise up in revolt, they would at least disrupt your real operations and plans and at worst would destroy everything you've worked for and possibly you as well.

Disinterest

Have you ever seen what a ruler actually does all day? They put on uncomfortable clothes, sit in an uncomfortable chair, and listen to uncomfortably dull people whine about their uncomfortably dull problems.

Sorcerers have better things to do with their time than get sucked into politics and solving people's problems. Dreadfully dull stuff. A few years of that, and anyone with any sense would want out.

More important things to do

Who knows what plots any one sorcerer has in motion at any one time. Research projects, long-term plans, wheels within wheels, always turning, always something in motion. The gears in a high-end clock have nothing on the plots and plans of a sorcerer.

These plots don't leave sufficient time for sitting around some throne room, listening to the problems of subjects.

Puppet Master

Perhaps some sorcerers are ruling kingdoms. They don't waste their time with the day-to-day stuff. No, that's no fun at all. They have figurehead kings and queens to manage the minutia.

But they are the puppet master. They pull the strings that guide the king(s) and queen(s). They whisper in the ear of the kings and get what they want. They are Wormtongue in Rohan by Tolkien or Flagg in Delain by King.

Higher calling

Perhaps your sorcerers are aligned with one or more "secret societies" or hidden powers. This places them above and outside the powers of kings, and therefore they have no interest in such petty affairs.

Think of this like Medieval Europe's Catholic Church (Cardinal Richelieu, either the historical version or the Three Musketeers version, for example). Or the Istari of Middle Earth (of which Gandalf is one). They are not part of the political order, but have influence and power within it because of that.

This also makes them exempt from the typical feudal rules. They don't pay taxes, they don't have to supply troops or materials for armies, they aren't required to obey the laws of the local nobility. They are a force unto themselves, and this makes them ineligible for noble titles and ranks.

This might mean that their role is more of a defender of the realm (as Gandalf was), or perhaps their goals span such long periods that humans can't really grasp the goals at all.

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Soft power and chain of command

Yes, a strong magic user could kill the king and threaten whatever the equivalence of parliament in your setting is.

In the same way, in our modern world a trained special operative with an assault rifle could defeat any politician in combat. So why do politicians make the laws if they are not the strongest ones in combat?

The thing is, if the society is any larger and more complex than a tribe, then in order to hold power, it's not enough to be able to defeat any member of your nation in combat.

So, why can't a US army general just gather his troops, waltz into the White House, kill the president, and declare himself emperor? He has the military strength to kill all members of the congress. We might ask this on politics.se or history.se, but that answer would be very similar to the answer you are looking for.

And indeed, there have been historical cases of the above thing happening. However, the country needs to already be in a state of disarray and/or rampant corruption for this to happen.

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  • $\begingroup$ To state the obvious: Let him who would seize power fear the people. $\endgroup$ – Joshua Jun 22 '18 at 21:11
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Sorcerers self govern. This is the first and easiest method of ensuring there are no rogues. If a sorcerer attempts to take over a kingdom, or use their powers in a way that runs against prevailing morals, the other sorcerers could punish them themselves. Unless your magic is incredibly unbalanced, a group would be able to easily overpower a rogue individual, hopefully before they do too much damage. Commoners could also report those they think are misusing their powers. Either way, the sorcerers take care of their own. Bonus points if they form a guild or organisation that would do this for them.

Have an easy method for dealing with sorcerers. Consider putting in a simple, overpowering weakness for all sorcerers. Perhaps magic doesn't work in the metal silver. Wear silver, you can't be enchanted or affected by spells. A silver blade will always kill a sorcerer, or prevent them from using magic. Silver chains may also bind their powers. The rarity or difficulty of utilising this weakness can balance your wold. Maybe it's gold instead; then only kings and nobles will have protection, while the commoners are defenseless. Or perhaps it requires sigils etched in precious metals, requiring a great deal of careful work. In this case, such anti-magic items are not used regularly, but preserved for necessary occasions.

Restart the Inquisition. Just because magic comes from God doesn't mean that the public knows this. Even if they do, religions have a way of evolving like a living organism (ironically). They adjust their beliefs to protect themselves. If sorcerers are a threat in any way, then expect an organised resistance from the commoners. Unless you have about equal sorcerers and Muggles, your sorcerers are at a numbers disadvantage. If magic is an abomination, any young sorcerer will be killed as soon as they manifest powers. If magic is not an abomination, then perhaps rogue sorcerers are. Perhaps the public considers sorcerers who use their powers for personal gain to be akin to spitting directly in God's face. They won't react well, and it'll probably involve violence.

Limit the power of evil sorcerers. If God can't take powers away, then perhaps go the other route: faith is required for anything above parlor tricks. You want lightning? You have to follow God's moral code. Otherwise you might manage some sparkles. Want to discern the future? Better use your powers for good, otherwise you're only going to be able to see a coin flip in advance. In this way, you can easily limit the powers of bad sorcerers naturally.

These are a few ideas of the top of my head. I can think of some more if you wish.

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  • $\begingroup$ Your point about limiting the powers of evil sorcerers is good. Since the magic powers are God granted, then it is plausible this magic can only be used for good. Taking over kingdoms is bad. So to do so, their magic powers will simply fail to work. Therefore, no chance of any takeovers. $\endgroup$ – a4android Jun 22 '18 at 5:28
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They're not very good at it

In classic fantasy, magic is often a shorthand for intelligence. That suggests that we can come up with a good explanation by answering this question instead: why aren't the smartest people running things in the real world?

I would suggest that the simple answer is that being in charge of things takes skills that most wizards don't have and may be incapable of recognizing as important. Politics and statecraft don't benefit much from being able to direct lightning, but that's a hard thing to recognize if you can actually direct lightning.

A few would want to try anyway, but stories of it going badly would quickly become legend and discourage others from trying. Here's a parable: a mighty wizard decided he wanted to rule the kingdom so he assassinated the king and took over. To earn his court's loyalty, he lavishly rewarded faithful service. One day, after a particularly good deed, he enchanted his most trusted adviser with a powerful spell of good fortune. That night, a jealous member of his court snuck into the wizard's bedroom and killed him in his sleep. With no heir, the trusted adviser was named king. So lucky!

Wizards who can see the future could foresee their own downfall. Wizards who can't could simply be aware of their own limits, or be aware of all the ways things can go wrong.

Magic isn't the hard part. The hard part is dealing with people.

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  • $\begingroup$ not being very good at ruling a country has never stopped people from trying to do it anyway, to the great dismay of those being ruled... Not giving examples as that'd go into politics, but I'd venture to guess that in fact the vast majority of those who ever ruled a country weren't the best people for the job to put if mildly. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Jun 25 '18 at 5:17
  • $\begingroup$ The question isn't whether the people do DO rule are qualified. It's why the smartest people aren't in charge. In the real world, why aren't more countries run by scientists, doctors and engineers? Why aren't they organizing coups? I'm suggesting that it's because those professions take intelligence but don't nurture the skills that it takes to lead. Lawyers are an exception - practicing law DOES nurture those skills. Wizards are basically medieval scientists. If they wanted to be in charge, there are easier ways than studying to be a wizard. $\endgroup$ – Graeme Thompson Jun 26 '18 at 13:38
  • $\begingroup$ That's part of it. Another part no doubt is that the mindset of people flowing into some professions is more conducive to seeking power than that of people flowing into another profession. Wizardry might well appeal to those seeking power, if they think they can use their powers as a wizard to control the world. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Jun 27 '18 at 4:30
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They have better things to do

In many martial arts, the perfection of self is essential. In other martial arts, the perfection of balance is what is sought. In both cases, that which is within is far more important. And, in the case of martial arts, the practitioners simply have human bodies to perfect. In the case of your sorcerers, they actually have the force of a god to master.

There is one rule which all nations submit to: they all fall. They may take a long time to do so. They may be able to say "The sun never sets on the English Empire," but one day they do fall.

What's the power of a god? Do we really think the power they give is merely things that are immediately evident in our little ant-like lifetimes? Gods craft planets and push forward the whole of evolution. Would a sorcerer really waste their time on silly things like controlling a government? There are more subtle ways to move the universe forward, ways which waste less energy.

Of course, the challenge with such a mindset is that it's hard to tell a good narrative. After all, the reader is one of those ant-like creatures scurrying about within a nation. Such characters might exhibit a certain bemused stillness when interacting with the ants, and you can portray that. Why waste energy moving when you can be still and let the ant move you as they please. Your focus is a much higher calling. One of my favorite renditions of this ideal is seen in the Ip Man series. If you look, you can find it in plenty of other places as well.

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Maybe they aren't interested in that at all. I can think of several ways:

  1. The path of a sorcerer is an ascetic one. Although they all gain power, it is provided to them in raw form, difficult to control and even understand for a simple human. They must dedicate most of their life to really learn it, perhaps lots of meditation. Perhaps it requires mastering a certain mindset and way of life to truly get the secrets contained within it, similar to a Buddhist monk. The greedy or ambitious ones simply never get very far with magic and those who achieve great power are so far away and above all of these mortal concerns that they can't even understand all those desires.

  2. Sorcerer nations are better. They have their own nation or nations, perhaps hidden from non-mages like in Harry Potter. The nations of non-mages don't interest them at all. Although many do spend time among non-mages, all ambitions that they consider relevant and worthwhile lie within their own world of magic. Perhaps they feel seeking power among non-mages is like a human trying to dominate wild animals. Formal laws within the sorcerer community can be enforced on any outliers.

  3. Higher goals. They all have some higher goal that is infinitely more worthwhile. Like ascension, meeting with the god, traveling to another world, some sort of evolution. They're only spending some time in this world but all of its concerns seem trivial compared to where they're going as mages.

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There is no problem if a sorcerer wants to exercise their power for temporal gain. They just do it, no much anyone can do to stop it.

The big problem comes when two or more sorcerers have the same goal.

A thousand years of escalating magical warfare between competing sorceror-lead kingdoms resulted in near extinction of the human race and there are still vast regions where no life can thrive due to the high levels of background dweomer. The eventual result was the formation of the self-regulating Society of Sorcery, which makes sure any individuals with demonstrated magical potential gets indoctrinated from an early age against inadvisable use of their powers, and take swift justice to correct or eliminate any threat to the peace.

tl;dr: some sorcerers tried and ruined it for everyone.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like this idea, mostly because it makes magic like an anti-material rifle: if you got one, the only meaningful threat is other people who have one. So the most logical thing for a wizard to do is avoid stepping on other wizards toes to avoid "drawing fire", so to speak. Basically, its much much easier to kill with magic then avoid being killed with magic, so even wizards don't draw the ire of other wizards. That means no raising armies or claiming territory. $\endgroup$ – Pinion Minion Jun 23 '18 at 3:52
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Mutually Assured Destruction.

Pterry Pratchet basically setup the system which you describe and took it one step further, in that the wizards don't even really do that much magic.

Pratchet basically analogised magic to nuclear weapons. Once one wizard starts letting off hostile spells, then other wizards will retaliate, with all sorts of magical fallout and collateral damage...

So, the reason no wizard makes a power grab? Because the other wizards will smack you down.

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If they truly do not want to take over any kingdom, the best thing you can do for them is...keeping them away from society. After all, these wizards are powerful and congregate in a society upon themselves. Let them build their own reign, shield it from the external interference and live happily with their powers and means.

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Taking a leaf from Borges' 'The God's Script' (pp154-157) once you have such abilities, you're not human anymore, and simply are no more interested in managing a kingdom as we are of managing an ants nest.

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Magic is exhausting

Well they could forcefully take over the kingdom, but the constant use of magic they would need to use to do so (from when they go to war with the magic-lacking) ages the sorcerer much faster than normal. Or maybe after a battle they have to rest too long, etc.

Few Sorcerers

To build off my first point, even though magic is known in the world, there are not many sorcerers. During a war they would be massively outnumbered. Striking down ten or a thousand with lightning they still could not withstand the tens of thousands of arrows coming their way.

They are outcasts

A king is only a king, if their kingdom considers them a king. If the magic users are not accepted as the kings/queens of the kingdom, then there is nothing for them to take over and run. On the off chance they do, it would be a terrible society doomed to fail.

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What if magical knowledge is readily available due to hundreds of years of studying how Wizards do what they do. The reason Wizards are rare is that anyone can learn the runes necessary to cast magic but people who can actually touch a source of magic are rare people chosen by the gods and you need both to cast magic.

Why would this make Wizards secretive? Because certain scholars know how to make mundane runic items that can turn a Wizards magic against him. Once under control of a person with sufficient magical knowledge, the magic of the Wizard can be controlled. This means that people with power would be constantly on the lookout for Wizards to use as weapons.

A Wizard just starting to accumulate power and acquire followers to make a go at ruling anything of significance would have to deal with endless numbers of people trying to capture and sell them to the highest bidder.

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If the problem is only a few wizards who may try to upstage the current ruling class, it may very well be that a large group of powerful wizards have aligned themselves with the ruling class. After all, that's a much cheaper way of gaining power than battling for it. And the wizards which have aligned themselves with the ruling class can swiftly deal (possibly in a deadly way) with any youngster wizard who is trying to upstage the power structure.

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Human Nature:

  1. Humans are hostile, jealous, and want to feel superior. Ruling a kingdom for humans is a sign of power. Wizards already have magical powers and will make the humans outraged which may lead to a genocidal war between humans and wizards.

  2. Humans are quite mundane creatures. Wizards already have magical powers and need not to dwell amongst “lowly” people.

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There are many very good answers here already, but I would like to call attention to the approach taken by Ars Magica, a pen and paper roleplaying game revolving around covenants of sorcerers. In this setting, some aspect of the magical gift makes others unconsciously suspicious and/or hostile (this doesn't apply to other mages). This would mean they would have a difficult time dealing with other non-magi, and there are enough of them to pose a serious threat to the magical society even with their spells to help them.

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Instability

Suppose someone right now gave you magic powers. Are you going to go on a rampage and take over the government? Probably not. Even if it is by mind control, would you still want to? Even if you were totally power hungry that would get boring really fast. But besides all that, the issue is that even if you had the best intentions you'd wreck everything. You'd be practically overnight changing leadership for no apparent reason. You'd have no experience in the matter and no knowledge on science, agriculture, education or anything really. You'd also be horrible at warfare. This could be avoided by taking over all the kingdoms, but now you've got to find a way to travel constantly to keep the leaders under your spells. If you use force to take over there will be collateral damage which will just end up destroying whatever you're wanting to take over. After a few years you'll probably just end up with nothing. If you hypnotize the masses you might tell them to do bad ideas. They might farm day in and day out with no rest because you're that greedy. Well guess what? You just worked your whole country to death. Sure you're the leader of an entire country... of one.

And maybe if you're a genius you can avoid this, but it would likely get boring quickly. Even if you mass-possess the entire country to avoid needing to spend time with poltics... it's just like.... why? What purpose would it solve?

Easier Methods

Say your country is starving and under corrupt leadership. Well you don't have to get rid of them to handle the problems. You can just magically make the crops grow and feed all the people. If the crops are that plentiful even a corrupt king won't care if they are remotely intelligent. I mean there's no point in making people go out and work farms if the food is that plentiful. Suppose even more so that there is an enemy kingdom and they're constantly under threat of siege. Just put up a giant barrier to keep the other country out. Nobody is going to be stupid enough to attack such a country.

I should point out here that doing these things is going to make people very happy and the wizard will have great respect, but there's really no reason for them to be greedy. Greedy would imply they want to steal from others, but unless they actually enjoy bringing pain to other people for its own sake (a true sign of absolute insanity) they're going to take the simple route.

Being picked by God

Let's think this out. If God picked wizards and it wasn't a completely random draw, He would certainly have some reasoning to it. He wouldn't pick wizards that wouldn't likely get along and He probably wouldn't pick people likely to become Adolf Hitler. Sure they might be lazy and selfish and keep their magic to themselves, but conquest has been primarily over the years been either about forcing ideologies onto other people, racism, two rulers getting angry at each other, or a need for limited resources. Sure greed may have been a motivator, but that was in already established kingships. I would compare it more to a nationalism rather than just greed. They wanted their team to be on top. Getting magic doesn't immediately make one stop being loyal to a truly benevolent leader because why should they? It's their king that they grew up hearing amazing stories about. He's the boss and they have no reason to think otherwise.

God didn't explain it as being made a wizard

Sure we think magic = wizard. I mean that is actually true unless the term "wizard" isn't gender neutral or something or only refers to advanced magic-users. Regardless, what if God didn't say "I'm making you a wizard.", but instead said "I'm making you an evangelist. Please go preach.". I mean sure there is the deal that the powers won't be taken away and no punishment will be dealt for misbehaving other than the normal punishment of being a mortal human being. However, that doesn't prevent God from sending them to Hell for disobeying or at the very least being generally unhappy with them and scolding them for not doing what He asked. This is God telling them to do this, and not some king or a religious figurehead in some church. They are literally being told by an all powerful being to go do get something done. Even better would be to work it in that God doesn't just grant powers but rather asks if someone would be willing out of courtesy. That way people aren't just randomly forced into it. There's no reason for them to even consider using them for wrong doing on a grand scale... because it would just pervert the entire nature of what they were tasked with. It would be an evil far beyond simply using normal magic to try and take over a kingdom. It would literally be slapping God in the face. Nobody is going to be that idiotic.

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Why would army generals not overthrow presidents? Pick your own reasons but overall, it achieves nothing but chaos

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What if they are already considered the equivalent of kings

People normally try to overthrow those above them, sometimes they might take on an equal if they are in competition, but almost never do people try to overthrow those below them. If magic users are considered to be equal or greater in status to kings already than why would they try to overthrow one. Take away the status and all that is left is the power to tax and the management of resources. Wizards probably would not be to interested in wasting their time overseeing the peasantry, and if they are, well most medieval kings weren't, so probably not to big of a problem to find a king who would let them. Medieval kingship was normally based on divine right, so it should be easy enough to say that some who was given magic by God would be at least their equals.

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Paraphrasing Lex Luthor, "Do you have any idea how much power I'd have to give up to be king?

Being a ruler - at least, being a good ruler, and most intelligent wizards will quickly conclude that it's much more pleasant and convenient to live in a society that's being ruled well than one that's an anarchic hell-hole - takes a significant amount of regular work time, which is going to badly cut into your studying-the-manifold-mysteries-of-the-universe time.

Let someone else worry about making sure the garbage gets collected and the roads are repaired. You have important things calling for your attention.

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The threat of the council of elders

The gods can't remove power from people once bestowed... but for the most part they bestow it upon their most trusted faithful who want to do their gods will.

As such the vast majority of sorcerers are people who enforce the laws of their god, including the law against sorcerers seeking secular power or abusing their powers.

They're effectively a monkhood of sorts with their monasteries in a series of underground caverns.

If a sorcerer is judged to be abusing their gifts then they may be hunted down by some of the most powerful members of the order.

"But, it would make sense that at least a few wizards would want to use their powers to gain riches, fame, women and power. "

The council comes down hard upon those who break the rules ... but they are willing to turn a blind eye to some who bend the rules as long as they don't bend them too far.

Just as monks can withdraw from the monkhood some sorcerers withdraw from their order. While not completely banned from using their powers there are limits and any sorcerers found to be breaking them may find enforcers from the order on their doorstep.

As such sorcerers who abuse their powers are rare for their either need to be powerful enough to hold off the council... or secretive enough to not be found out.

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I've been researching this very issue for a while. I just finished the first draft of the novel I'm writing where this is important.

In places where there are a lot of magicians, maybe they do rule

There is a lot of fiction about magical kingdoms (not including Disney). For example, typical Elven kingdoms were ruled by powerful magicians, with magic replacing technology and even bending time (going into an Elven kingdom for a night and coming out a generation later).

However, there was typically a weakness to their power. Most of the time this was iron. Even putting a small piece of iron at your door would prevent elves from entering in some legends and stories.

Magicians are still mortal

Steven Brust is quoted as saying “No matter how subtle the wizard, a knife between the shoulder blades will seriously cramp his style.” I believe that this was a quote by Vlad Taltos at a time when he rarely used magic and one of his professions was killing people, often powerful sorcerers.

Where magicians are rare, ruling may be dangerous

In most fantasies, the rulers are mortal and the magicians are advisers at best.

Think on the various versions of the stories about King Arthur and his knights. While there are small places where magicians rule, such as the place where Lancelot grew up in (he was raised by the Lady of the Lake), these places were not a major part of the story.

Usually if a castle was ruled by a magician, this magician was a villain. And usually one of the knights of the round table was good enough to kill them.

The most famous magician in the story was Merlin, who was one of the most, if not the most, powerful magicians in the story. And mostly he was Arthur's adviser, though he occasionally tried to control things from behind the throne. But he never ruled.

Numbers

If magicians are rare, then there may not be enough magical help to rule a kingdom safely. Even if these magicians have a lot of personal power, a revolt by the army or the peasants might be able to kill the magician, even if a lot of them die in the process.

Religion

This is a two-edged sword. It's been talked about in many answers as a counter to the magicians' powers. This is logical and good.

However, if the gods grant power to the magicians, then do they grant them to random people, or do they grant them to some of the better or perhaps more fanatical priests? That might make the churches a place that is ruled by magicians. There could be a church that is ruled by people who actually have been chosen by god and might believe that their personal beliefs are those of the gods. After all, he was chosen by the gods and allowed to channel their powers.

Magicians have better things to do

If you could see the very secrets of the universe, would you be interested in the day-to-day aspects of ruling a kingdom? This has also been used in answers. I also think that such powers might make magicians more careless around mortals, which might leave them vulnerable. Better to just create a tower by magic, wherever you wish, and just live your life, coming out only for more supplies or entertainment.

The belief that mundane lives matter

If these magicians believe that mundane people (those without magic) matter, then they may not want to risk hurting them. And ruling a kingdom will cause them to hurt mundanes. For example, they would probably have to kill people in order to take the kingdom. And they would probably have to kill people to defend it.

And with magical powers might come heightened senses such that they could feel the souls of those who are killed. Or even a mild telepathic connection to nearby humans would be horrifying in the middle of a war.

Learning from mortals

In a sequel to my current novel, two of the most powerful halflings (demigods, powerful magic, near-immortals) are married and are now the king and queen of both courts of the fey. This story is set in the late 1960s in the US. Our king and queen live in a van and are sort-of hippies. This is a more modern version of a magical tower.

They're doing this for a couple of reasons. First, their kingdoms are spread out over the world and this way they can go to where the little people are (sometimes literally). And second, they are learning from the human society without interfering in it. They pretend to be mortal, and only those who know them or can use magic can tell otherwise.

These protagonists believe that human lives matter and don't want to kill people. After all, humans live such short lives...

The magical creatures stay hidden from normal humanity because humans outnumber them. Even my protagonists are cautious about being found out. They are powerful, but they aren't all-powerful. And who wants to be locked up and possibly vivisected for years until somebody makes a mistake or they get help to break out?

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There is the Witcher series. (I am only at book 5, so later on what I'm about to write might be contradicted) But, there mages are nigh immortal (eg.: don' die from old age, most diseases and weaker poisons don't work on them). They have a council, meet every year (or every few years?), their training takes decades, and they need to gather power to perform spells. Also it tires them out, some spells just need words and hand movements, others ingredients, etc...

  1. given that they become semi immortal through some ritual or spell, and the training takes decades, there aren't a lot of them.
  2. alone they can't hold be an army (here a 100 peasants with pitchforks works just as well as a 100 knights in full plate)
  3. some of them are actually advisors to kings, hence they can have influence without actually ruling.
  4. when you have an infinite amount of time to live, you want it to be interesting. They are humans after all. Trying to rule a kingdom, dealing with politics, the needs of the common folk, etc... takes time.

Yes, most of these were said already, I just wanted to give you a good source material if you are interested.

TLDR: Limited power (easily overcome by superior numbers), limited numbers, because of semi immortality they have a different view of life/desires, powerful council to keep them in check, they distrust one another

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, Szabó Balázs! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. You may also find Worldbuilding Meta and The Sandbox (both of which require 5 rep to post on) useful. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – FoxElemental Jun 25 '18 at 14:52
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Wizards on retainer

Why not have some wizards willingly work for kingdoms? Otherwise non-magical kingdoms will quickly put put the call for sorcerors looking to live a life of luxury, and the kingdom will ensure the sorceror is well taken care of for as long as they serve the kingdom. There is little for them to do other than relax in the lap of luxury, until a power-hungry sorceror comes along, and then it's time to bring out the big guns.

While a one-on-one duel would be anything but guaranteed, larger kingdoms might retain multiple sorcerors, and even smaller ones will still have their non-magical army to come to their sorceror's aid -- the attacking sorceror will have to deal with the defending sorceror first lest they be stricken down, and while they're distracted with that you have archery, calvary, and possibly even artillery making runs at them... not good odds for the attacker really.

The gods are wise

Alternatively, since these gods who grant the power are... well... gods, why can't they see a person's true nature when they choose to bestow the power upon them? Perhaps they simply look into a person's heart and can see whether the power will corrupt them; if it would, then no magic powers for them.

You could have occasional instances where a sorceror is granted power under these circumstances, but then some event happens in the future that drives them to destruction: say a sorceror loves a nobleman but he's assassinated by a rival duke -- the sorceror goes mad with grief and anger, and goes on the warpath. Well, that duke signed their own death warrant, but either a) the kingdom's army kills the sorceror while they're single-mindedly focused on pursuing the duke, or b) the sorceror kills the duke, then, revenge attained, finds themselves empty and unsatisfied. Perhaps ashamed of the destruction they've wrought, they impose exile upon themselves and live a reclusive life, perhaps trying to atone for their destruction using their magic secretively to help the less fortunate (summoning rain during a drought for the farmers, or driving away a swarm of locusts, or sneaking through sick wards in the middle of the night, curing those afflicted with a virulent plague).

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