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I was thinking of creating mage "specialists" for my medieval fantasy world, incredibly powerful and/or skilled in only a few spells, who could do some pretty Overpowered (shortened to OP) things. But some of the concepts I keep thinking of would logically break the medieval-setting, threatening to create plot holes or inconsistencies that I want to avoid. What are some good reasons why this world's governments wouldn't extensively hire, train, or conscript "OP magicians"?

To add on, it would take a mage (with exceptions) a good chunk of time (average 10 years of education or apprenticing) to be considered a "specialist" in a "field" of magic. The learning curve wouldn't be anything insane, requiring only an understanding of the prerequisites and a working brain, just like anything else. They are mainly specializing in technique or control, meaning their abilities can't be acquired by items, power-ups or any easy cop-out. If they are truly a specialist, they can use their magic without major difficulty, for less mana and in very creative and ingenious ways.

I would like to have a handful of specialists occupy every city, and at most one specialist every several villages. To clarify, I want them to be the only entities who can use magic where they live in that way, including governments. For the reason I'm looking for, governments rarely hire or conscript these specialists, and don't have programs to teach state-mages their methods. Specialists might be willing to work with secret societies or private institutions, like guilds or private schools, but mostly work at the individual level, teaching their successors mostly.

Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

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    $\begingroup$ OP? Original poster? Out-patient? Official Publication? Open Platform? ... what?!? $\endgroup$ – Adrian Colomitchi Mar 3 '20 at 23:41
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    $\begingroup$ The Gamer Context: Over Powered $\endgroup$ – James Baxter Mar 3 '20 at 23:43
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    $\begingroup$ Would you mind to edit the question and specify the acronym's meaning at the beginning of your question? $\endgroup$ – Adrian Colomitchi Mar 3 '20 at 23:45
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    $\begingroup$ You could just handwave the problem using racial or religious bigotry. This is more or less how the X-men authors solved it. $\endgroup$ – Luis Mar 4 '20 at 13:15
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    $\begingroup$ The real question is: if your mages are this powerful yet this common, why wouldn't they BE the government? $\endgroup$ – SRMM Mar 6 '20 at 10:16

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Governments and military leaders require obedience and loyalty. If they have high-powered weapons, they want the people who wield those weapons to fire them when and where they are told to, without argument or hesitation. Soldiers who disobey orders are punished harshly: dereliction of duty, insubordination, even treason. The penalties for such are strict and severe.

However, an overpowered magic user (OPMU) would be too powerful to feel any need to thoughtlessly obey the chain of command. I mean, if an OPMU can blow up an entire city with a wave of his wand, but refuses to do it when ordered, how exactly do the higher-ups punish him (without risking getting blown up themselves if they try)? You can model OPMUs on high-level academics: opinionated, self-assured to the point of arrogance, far more interested in petty disputes with other OPMUs than in the politics of the world, and disinclined to take nonsense from anyone at any time for any reason. OPMUs won't do anything unless they want to, they have too much raw power to be controlled or threatened effectively, and successfully attacking one OPMU risks incensed retribution from other OPMUs (who may not have liked the first OPMU, but thoroughly resent that 'normal' people would dare to interfere with 'magical' issues in such a coarse way).

As Tolkien put it: "Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger". OPMUs would snort in disdain at the suggestion they should behave like good soldiers and do what they are told, and no one with half a brain wants a pissy OPMU thinking bad thoughts about them.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is essentially the same problem as you have when you give a person a powerful weapon and then tell them to kill someone. They have a great deal of power and little incentive to follow the order. So you train it in until you trust them, and have power of ultimate sanction over them to ensure it. Your command structure should probably include significantly capable mages to enforce discipline if necessary.. $\endgroup$ – Ruadhan Mar 5 '20 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Ruadhan: Except why would a mage powerful enough to punish another over-powered mage be any more likely to be obedient? What we really have here is the superhero problem: people with extreme powers always have the luxury of using their own judgement. A soldier who uses a powerful weapon can be punished and replaced because the weapon is borrowed power (something given to him by the state, which the state can take away). A magic user has intrinsic power that cannot be taken from him, and that means the state loses its primary form of control. $\endgroup$ – Ted Wrigley Mar 5 '20 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ To refocus a little, I don't believe that "too powerful to control" is a likely reason for the scenario as posed. Bonds of family or friends, social reasons and favours, simple financial reward (assuming there's anything a wizard wants that they can't produce with a wave of their hands) are all good methods of convincing someone with more personal power than you to do something. They may simply enjoy being in a position of social power without having to actually deal with the daily grit of telling people what to do. All it takes is one capable mage and the rest of them can be kept in line, $\endgroup$ – Ruadhan Mar 5 '20 at 16:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Ruadhan: Convincing someone to do something is a far cry from creating obedience and loyalty. Officers do not 'bargain' with soldiers to get them to comply. Yes, you could pay a mage to do something, but you can't pay one to do anything. If you threaten them, you risk them coming after you; if they try to coerce other mages, you risk magical battles in the middle of your capital city. And what happens if a mage decides he enjoys the power, and then decides he would do a better job running the country? The question is whether you can get a high-powered mage to submit to your authority. $\endgroup$ – Ted Wrigley Mar 5 '20 at 17:32
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    $\begingroup$ If you continue this logic far enough, you get something like the Unseen University from the Discworld novels, which is very much a wizards-as-ivory-tower-academics approach to magic. $\endgroup$ – Cadence Mar 6 '20 at 18:40
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This already happens in Real Life

There are already mages among us, working in special branches of magic called applied mathematics and analytics. These folk are generally employed by the private sector, and occasionally work for governments but even then, mostly because the government engages a private sector company as its provider of such services. There are 2 primary reasons for this;

1) Cost effectiveness
If you are a bank, an insurance company, or stock broking firm, or something similar, your analysts can make (or save) you a great deal of money. As such, hiring the very best analysts is essential and you're willing to compete on the open market for them. You know exactly what your 'value proposition' for such skills is, and therefore how much you're prepared to pay for them.

Government on the other hand, usually has less tangible uses for their analysts and in democracies in particular are beholden to the people to show themselves accountable for what taxpayer funds they spend. There are some exceptions to this of course like national security interests, but generally speaking when it comes to hiring public servants, governments tend to focus on the cost and not the benefit because what those analysts will be doing is often improving the efficiency of existing practice, making services more relevant or increasing the reach of certain government programs. These are notoriously difficult to specify in terms of a dollar value to the benefit.

2) Career Pathway
Most public service organisations tend to focus on people, especially in a democracy. This makes sense, but it is also a weakness when it comes to these kinds of powers, whether they be magic or science. The end result is that most public services out there tend to see career progression as measured by the number of people who directly or indirectly report to you, meaning that unless you want to become a manager (and most analysts and technical professionals don't) you won't progress.

The private sector solved that problem years ago by providing clear career progression paths for non-managerial professionals. I can't explain why the government sector around the world has not replicated this other than to say that again, the number of people you manage is one of those tangible metrics that are easy to justify to a public eager to see their tax well spent, or less well collected.

Bottom line is that whether we like it or not, governments around the world, particularly governments of democratic countries, are far more comfortable engaging with specialists of any kind on a 'pay per job' basis rather than engaging someone full time for what the market for that skill demands. This happens now in the fields of engineering, medicine, statistics, technical skills, and just about every other profession you can think of, except perhaps for law (which after all, is their bread and butter). So, regarding your magical specialists, they would be treated no different. They would be hired on a contract basis, only when there was a role that justified the cost, and in all other circumstances the government could proudly turn over their books to the public and declare 'no unnecessary spending happened on our watch!'

Besides, cutting education costs is a known trick in governments seeking to get quick wins; the cost to the community comes with a long tail insofar as it can be up to 20 years before people notice a shortage in skills within certain industries (like magic or statistics, etc.) meaning that you get to spend the money you were going to invest in education now, and fixing the mess is the problem of whatever government is in power in 20 years time.

Yes, I'm a cynic, but that doesn't make me wrong.

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    $\begingroup$ IRL people working in applied mathematics cannot cast fireballs, cannot teleport, and cannot singlehandedly defeat the entire police force of a city. $\endgroup$ – vsz Mar 4 '20 at 10:46
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    $\begingroup$ @vsz But some people in real life can, in small groups, break a military code and make a bigger difference to a war than a whole regiment of fireball throwers would have. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bletchley_Park. $\endgroup$ – Dast Mar 4 '20 at 12:45
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    $\begingroup$ Giving a negative one for your discussion of public and private career paths because there most certainly are specializations and career paths in government agencies and you don't get forced into managment if you're good at something else (though specialization becomes more competative as you rank up than managment. Numbers of people managed is not really a factor as chain of command means you are only dealing with a group of a few managers and specialists higher up, who then give the orders to their specialists or their teams of specialists.) $\endgroup$ – hszmv Mar 4 '20 at 15:58
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    $\begingroup$ The answer doesn't take into account medieval setting. Things (and reasons for doing things) tended to be a bit different then. You can't 1:1 apply modern terms there. $\endgroup$ – Gnudiff Mar 4 '20 at 16:12
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    $\begingroup$ Look around at the US currently (probably a lot of other countries too, but I'm most familiar with the US). You're not nearly cynical enough. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Najmon Mar 4 '20 at 17:31
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Forbidden by the Magician's Guild

Most practices and businesses in the medieval time period was regulated by a guild, something similar to the modern practice of unions. If you weren't part of a guild and regularly paid your guild fees, you couldn't practice your trade. If you were a blacksmith, for instance, then you had to pay the blacksmithing guild a fee, and they would have a say in who could work where. All in the name of safeguarding the present masters of whatever the given profession was. By the way if you violated these laws they'd send goons to beat the tar out of you and use you for an example, because of course they did, it's the Middle Ages.

It stands to reason that the wizards have a guild, and seeing as (generally) the rule is you can only learn magic from a magician, then all mentors of magic would belong to the mage guild. And the mage guild would have rules, if only for the interest of the guild. And one of those rules would forbid mages from performing large scale services to governments, because the mage guild knows (from experience, even) that when that happens, it leads to an arms race among kingdoms to control the mages. And, given that these mages can play fast-and-loose with the fabric of reality, a full-scale mage war is an apocalyptic event that the Magician's Guild wants to avoid at all costs. So they sent a very simple rule into place - "No serving governments on a large scale, or the rest of us all gang up and murder you all." This would also provide a great incentive to the governments to not try to hire mages, because the last thing you want is an army of reality-warpers calling down fire and brimstone on your kingdom.

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    $\begingroup$ For an excellent example of this sort of thing, I recommend The Lies of Locke Lamora as research. $\endgroup$ – Arcanist Lupus Mar 4 '20 at 6:58
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    $\begingroup$ @ArcanistLupus I second that. And it is a bloody good, humorous read too. $\endgroup$ – Tonny Mar 4 '20 at 10:45
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    $\begingroup$ I'm very dubious how stable such an arrangement would be. Guilds were not removed from politics, they were a faction in a city, and very much involved in its government. Also, without access to mages, a state can't enforce laws against them, and it also can't defend itself against an army with mages. That makes it very fragile to any incursion, and will encourage, not discourage any state to get a reliable corps of mages for warfare. $\endgroup$ – Whitecold Mar 4 '20 at 12:36
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    $\begingroup$ This is an interesting solution, but it requires guilds to be international, which is not quite how they happened in the medieval period. They need to be more like the catholic church, in that they are often stronger than national governments and can afford to go against their wishes. $\endgroup$ – Luis Mar 4 '20 at 13:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Luis the guild and all practitioners know that the consequences of unrestricted use of magic would be akin to the unrestricted availability of nuclear technology in our world. Use of magic creates fallout, which is not entirely containable even with the best intentions. As for the worst ....(Terry Pratchett explored this in his Diskworld). $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Mar 4 '20 at 15:25
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The mages are the nobility and aristocrats.

The powerful used their OP abilities to take over, then they taught their children and generally restricted access to the knowledge and resources needed to avoid being overthrown.

10 years isn't excessive, in our reality the aristocracy trained with sword and armour for longer than this. In a world where magic can turn a battle kings are going to make sure their children know it.

The king may not be the absolute most powerful mage... but he probably is one of the most powerful and has the loyalty of most of the most powerful magic users.

Each town has a lord or baron, each village has a knight or village headman with the level of power/training/skill in magic roughly mapping to their seniority in the aristocracy. Aristocratic families have no chance of marrying well or moving up in the world unless their heirs are well versed in the a magic specialty.

As such magical knowledge is jealously guarded, families will as easily share their magical secrets as they would open their family vault.

Second sons or deposed nobles may occasionally be found willing to work for gold.

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  • $\begingroup$ This goes against the point of the question: the OP specifically wants the governments to not have such direct access to this power, but you've given them an even more direct access than if they were hiring these mages on retainer (or conscripting them, but trying that with such characters is suicidal, anyway). $\endgroup$ – Matthew Najmon Mar 4 '20 at 17:45
  • $\begingroup$ I feel like this goes very well as a "Part 2" for my answer, where the title for this answer is replaced with a transition sentence, "Even so, eventually the mages are likely to take over and after a few generations become the new nobility." $\endgroup$ – Joel Coehoorn Mar 4 '20 at 18:08
  • $\begingroup$ @MatthewNajmon OP wanted a reason for there not to be magic schools, for there to be a limited number in any one place, and for the government to not easily just conscript them all. This provides the first 2 and allows for political constraints to limit the last. $\endgroup$ – Murphy Mar 4 '20 at 18:14
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Do you want to be overthrown by a power-hungry magician? Because this is how you end up overthrown by a power-hungry magician.

Seriously.

The kind of person who will devote themselves to learning and mastering this OP magic is the kind of person with the ambition, skill, and dedication you want far away from your power center. Political control over this kind of magic is an illusion.

In other words, it's in the interests of existing political powers to outlaw this kind of thing, and when they do run across it anyway maybe just look the other way rather than poking the sleeping bear with a stick (this means it can still exist for story and character purposes in your world). They might make a note somewhere, so if an opposing political entity tries to use this kind of thing against them they can (politely) ask for help, but otherwise leave well enough alone.

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It creates an easy to disrupt dependency

The government can absolutely hire these OP spellcasters to fulfill functions in their system. But if they are the only one that can do it, then there is a gaping hole when they leave. It is that void in service that they desire to avoid.

As an example: If the government acquires an OP healer, then they might not hire as many doctors/healers. When this OP healer retires or dies, a large gap in medical services exists. Not only that, but in this case, certain researches might not have been done because it was taken care of by the OP Healer and thus trying to do it with less magic or even mundanely did not matter.

Now imagine that the government applied this to other critical areas. Now you have a lot of potentially vital sections of the government being run or administrated by a single person that has no ready replacement unless they have already trained one.

In short, it creates a single point of failure that can be easily disrupted by dealing with the mage before they could train a replacement. Much better to hire them when needed as a single person force multiplier.

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  • $\begingroup$ But when have human societies ever not gone with short-term, easy to disrupt dependencies? Example: fossil fuels, especially the oil crises in the 1970s and 2000s. People usually don't consider the long-term costs, and even when they do it may be necessary to use the short-term benefits to keep up with rival powers who also decided to take the short-term benefits to avoid being invaded. Case in point the one nation that decides to use mages is going to have an advantage over everyone else. $\endgroup$ – user2352714 Mar 4 '20 at 20:46
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The specialists do not work well with others.

Jim Carrey from Sonic movie.

https://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/jim-carrey-sonic-the-hedgehog-teeth

Your specialists are always solo acts. Despite their skills, no-one wants them around. They are insufferable, demanding, bizarre, quirky divas. They are intolerable for the government teams. Governments do not employ these specialists because the government employees cannot stand them, and do whatever they can to make sure these jerks are nowhere in the vicinity, much less calling the shots.

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    $\begingroup$ Historically it was always the case that there were insufferable people but they could do things none other could. and they were used. I don't see bad character to be enough to have that effect unless it's something like a total loss of conscience. or psychopatic/obsessive behaviour $\endgroup$ – Gensys LTD Mar 4 '20 at 9:46
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    $\begingroup$ Often, it's better to use several "second best options" that can work in team to one overskilled specialist that can't. $\endgroup$ – MakorDal Mar 4 '20 at 12:21
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    $\begingroup$ You have at least one mage every several villages. And every single one of them is insufferable? Why? This might require an explanation. Maybe if you make this an inherent flaw of the magic itself... $\endgroup$ – SRMM Mar 6 '20 at 10:49
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Specialism is inherently asocial

You've heard of wizard towers of course... well, this is generally where your specialist mages live, far removed from civilization. It's hard to say which is cause, and which effect, but as wizards delve deeper into the esoterics of deep magic specialization they refuse to countenance interruptions of basically any sort. And of course by the time they have access to this unspeakable power they can use it to provide for themselves basically anything they could ever want or need.

So in the end, governments have nothing to offer them (except distraction) and no leverage upon the wizard and they remain content to do their mystical research in remote locations, turning anyone who dares to bother them into a frog or worse.

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    $\begingroup$ "They can use it to provide for themselves basically anything thy could ever want or need." Not without trading the use of that power to others to get those others to provide that anything, or using it to intimidate others into providing. Note that the key element of this question is that they are specialists. Generalist mages who can do anything may well exist, but are not who we're talking about. We're talking about folks who have just one thing that they're amazingly good at doing magically, at the cost of all other magic being something they either can't do at all, or aren't good at. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Najmon Mar 4 '20 at 17:43
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    $\begingroup$ +1 agree. Governments have nothing that wizards want; they're occupied with another plane of existence altogether. No money or earthly power matters to them. $\endgroup$ – user72058 Mar 5 '20 at 8:30
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Overspecialisation is inherently useless

The reason your specialists are OP is because they've overspecialised, they're really really good at doing one very particular thing. That one thing is useful once in a while, but not often, and usually a long way from where your specialist is. There are people who are quite good, but generalists, they can do many things, just not as well. You want more of them.

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They don't have enough work.

It's worth emphasizing that medieval-style government (of the type modeled in many fantasy worlds) is small and poor. They don't have the money or the manpower to, say, train and arm a standing army or create a bureaucracy. If there's magic, there's probably a single court magician. (Note that this environment is hostile to the concept of exclusively performing work on your specialty. Bob the enchanter might be the best enchanter in the land, but he probably won't turn down other magical work.)

For the government to hire, say, an enchantment specialist shows that they have the ability to keep this person consistently busy enchanting items. If they only need something enchanted once every month or two, it's cheaper to just contract that out as needed.

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They are a resource that the nobility uses for power balance.

Did you hear that recently the gold mines on the west turned the recently ascended nobility really rich? I heard they helped out the King and got a metalmancer to figure out where the best deposits are.

And

We just returned from the southern front. Luteans were destroyed pretty easily thanks to the royal regiments armed with the magic armor and weapons that Duke Elrond is providing for the crown. Our losses were minimal. We're really grateful for the Crowns support in that campaign even though it was caused by a local noble house. They lost their firemancer and had to move out of their castle in the winter because of that.

Basically a balance of powers that the nobility has fought over and keeps reinforcing. In medieval times power was much more spread out so you had to have multiple powerful people in a country. Nobility uses that to make sure the king doesnt do bad stuff for them and king uses that to make sure nobility doesnt get powerful enough to overthrow them.

EDIT: As for limiting access to schools and such - the mages also compete. Being a mage to a lesser lord gives them little time to grow and not as lavish a life. Schooling is ordained just like it is for nobility - there are laws and regulations and the king may help a mage by sending them to a teacher for something they do well. Same may be for a lord that wants to punish lesser nobility and take away their asset to be relocated further. They cannot use the asset but they can move it to where they strategically need it.

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Social custom, or strongly-enforced stigma.

If these specialists are capable of overthrowing or manipulating entire nations, it is likely this has happened in the past.

A war between nations backed by specialists would have been devastating. It was the medieval equivalent of nuclear war. (This would be true regardless of whether the specialists functioned as rulers or soldiers during the conflict.)

In the wake of that catastrophe, the specialists all take an oath of non-intervention before they begin their training. Penalties for violating the oath are enforced by the entire specialist community. These penalties should be severe measures, such as exile or death---or possibly the removal of their power, if that is possible.

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Magicians are an independent nation (so to speak)

Similar to how the Vatican City operates in Rome, and how religion works in general, the mages in your world could be a part of their own independent country with limited restrictions to their ability to travel and/or live in other places. It is generally in the best interest of your city NOT to deny entry to the person who could burn your city to the ground whenever they'd like and it is in the mages' best interest not to abuse their power because they would be excommunicated from their nation. This also leaves an interesting opening in your world for mage hunters that could either be part of the mage "country" or specialized bounty hunters that would hunt excommunicated mages that continue to practice magic.

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Because they are specialists.

Suppose for a moment that your magic system was simplified down to 3 elements ("Rock", "Paper", "Scissors"), each with 3 branches ("Creation", "Destruction", "Modification"). This allows for 9 possible specialisations.

Now, if you hire a specialist then they are amazing at 1 branch of 1 element - but, at the same time, they're rather sub-par at the other 8. A generalist, on the other hand, can carry out any work you need doing. And they're cheaper

Sure, it takes the generalist longer - but you're less likely to be paying retainer for them to twiddle their thumbs (e.g. if there is no "Paper-Creation" magic to be done), and collaborative projects can be done simultaneously: if you need to erect 3 magic fortifications that require the "creation" branch of all 3 elements, you can either send 3 specialists to each site in turn, or you can send 1 generalist to each site and complete them all at the same time.

Sure, the governments will keep tabs on them, trade favours and grease their palms for those few times when a specialist is indispensable - but, most of the time, it's just not worth the hassle and expense.

If a specialist is a chainsaw, then a generalist is a multi-tool. The former may be better at cutting things, but it's pretty useless as a bottle opener, screwdriver, corkscrew, or pair of pliers...

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Specialists come with serious drawbacks.

The more powerful you get, the closer to death and/or insanity.

High level Warlocks in the Ethshar series have terrifyingly high levels of TK, the more they use it the more powerful they get until they go insane and die. The gov conscripting them would also be the gov briefly creating a group of power-mad hostile gods.

The Universe likes Balance.

This can also be every superhero creates a supervillain, or even every super mage on one team means one joins every other team, and if you're the government than can be hundreds of teams.

Mutual Assured Destruction.

We all have nukes, using them is a bad idea because everyone else will do so as well.

The gov knows it will break the resource.

Mages are free spirits and don't play well with order. Being hired by an orderly gov means getting a downgrade.

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I would expect the overpowered magicians to be the government. If they could control minds or burn cities with a wave of their hand nobody can really stop them.

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    $\begingroup$ Any of them who wanted to, would be the government, but perhaps they don't. Seems like the kinda thing where the only sort of person who becomes one in the first place is someone so obsessed with their studies that they don't have time for such petty distractions as micromanaging the lives of a few hundred thousand people. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Najmon Mar 4 '20 at 17:47
  • $\begingroup$ That sounds awfully like a computer hacker. Hiring good hackers is notoriously difficult for governments. They can do it, but they need whole organisations with a decidedly non-government structure. You may want to turn your comment into an answer ;-) $\endgroup$ – Censored to protect the guilty Mar 4 '20 at 19:25
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Two reasons come to my mind:

  1. Their teachings forbid them to

To learn magic, you must follow a series of teachings and rules written by the ancient wizards, and only those that agree to willingly follow such rules are allowed to learn magic. One of such rules can be to never partake on any political o millitar issue as their power can very much alter the balance of such conflict. Or perhaps their mission is just to guide others to knowledge, enlightenment and bonding with nature, and using their powers to support personal ideas is frowned upon. Of course you can still have one or two rogue magues here and there that want power, but those can be the exception of the rule, and can even be villains or enemies in your story.

  1. Government doesn't see magic as a good thing

You know, in those times most figures of power where both chosen and supported by church; if the religion on top doesn't like magic, governors are not allowed to treat with them. This doesn't mean they're necessarily the "enemy" or "enbodyments of evil"; just people you don't want to be around with.

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So what you've basically described is exactly the Jedi from Star Wars (basically around Ep. I, before most of them were killed off). The way they were limited is that not everyone is Force sensitive, so only a small percentage of people could be Jedis, and even then only a small percentage of those people are discovered by the Jedi order at an early enough age to go through their training.

Now there's no reason this model couldn't work in a sword-and-sorcery setting as well. People who could learn magic are a small percentage of the population, and of those who could, only a small percentage are discovered by the Mages Guild or whatever and properly trained. And even with training, some people just don't have the aptitude for it. So ultimately the number of capable specialized mages available to be used by the governments is necessarily limited.

There are analogs to this in real life. How many people are cut out to be neurosurgeons or astrophysicists or fighter pilots or Major League pitchers or judges or architects? All of these professions require extensive training but also some degree of innate talent. Hence the pool of people capable of doing these jobs is limited.

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The specialists keep their secrets from governments

This is what happens in the Witcher series (though it's a bit different with magicians). A group of people (Witchers) specialize in killing monsters, and their training and mutations make them exceptional fighters. They also know what to expect from kings around them (war, most of the time), and how attractive their skills are to said kings. Moreover, experience tells them that no matter what side they take, getting involved in politics usually ends in disaster.

As a result, they usually stay out of the way and focus on their pest-control contracts. Since they use a lot of knowledge that's either exclusive to them (chemistry, fighting techniques) or shared with other selective groups (magic), governments can't control them, only hire them for contracts like normal people.

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Lifestyle Independence

Being a Magician inherently comes with a few major bonuses.
Resistance to sickness, longevity, the ability to conjour food and water or raise shelter with a wave of the hand.

Ultimately, whatever a Mage wants, they can have without effort.

There is nothing a wizard needs that they cannot produce for themselves whenever and wherever they want.
All their needs are met.
So why would they deign to be employed by anyone else?

What could a medieval lord offer a wizard that they can't have just by waving their hand?

You might encounter the occasional wizard working for someone, but it will only be to keep their finger on the pulse of civilisation, they might perform magic for coin, but it's not because they need the money.

The only reason they stay near other people is a desire to be social.

This is part of the reason for the existence of witch-covens, likeminded magic-users congregate to work and live together, away from the non-magical mortals.

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The Nature of Magic Itself:

Magic is the ultimate expression of creativity. It defies repetition, commoditization, and control. It might derive from fae sources, or the stuff of chaos itself.

A wizard deprived of their free will or free expression will see their power decline quickly and, even despite specialization, be progressively less and less able to produce a desired result. What's more, it's inherently chaotic in nature, and has unpredictable results and/or side effects...ones that are generally manageable if the wizard himself or herself is free to "go with the flow", but makes it very difficult to reliably produce the identical magical effect for the 217th time when "your Majesty" commands.

The locals accept the wizard's eccentricities and the odd happenings because the wonderful things the wizard can do are worth it (and because the wizard usually stays in the tower well outside of the village). A ruler would be far less willing to accept these inconsistencies, unreliable results, and potential side effects...all for a power that becomes less and less useful the more it's ordered-up and commanded to be produced.

Now, SOME rulers will still get around this, but they'll do so by embracing the wonder of it and accepting the potential consequences...and they won't gain vast world-shaking power from doing so. This is why the governments that DO employ wizards do so not for the sake of controlling their power, but in the role of advisors and consultants who can occasionally do something directly useful.

Recent Memory/Consequences Too Dire:

Exactly the scenario that you bring up as why it would be bad...DID happen. Either in living memory (for some of those magic-scarred old veterans) or at the very least recently enough that everyone simply accepts that they're better off not mixing magic and politics.

If you want to tie both concepts together, then perhaps the immense amount of magical power unleashed in the "last war" damaged the nature of magic itself and made it fickle and unreliable, the way it is today.

In this scenario, there will still be visible, tangible evidences of the consequences of militarized magic in the land. Artifacts (maybe not of power...even just a warmage's uniform) will still exist in the setting. Locations will still be scarred, structures damaged or destroyed and never rebuilt, etc.

The Guild / Wizards Exist Outside the Law:

There is an over-arching association to which Wizards owe their ultimate loyalty, and it is a pledge that goes above and beyond nationality. Early users of the talent are ruthlessly sought, identified, and indoctrinated...and only when they thoroughly tow the wizarding guild's "party line" are they allowed out into an apprentice/master relationship for their true magic training and development.

Wizards are essentially empowered to do whatever they see fit, being "outside and above" the law, holding only one loyalty, to the guild, and one responsibility...the protection of humanity as a whole against threats beyond the capacity of men to face without magic. MOST wizards just accept this as a beneficial arrangement, survive their early indoctrination, and go about their business secure that they'll never have the local ruler make demands of them and the disastrous threat for which all wizardkind must remain vigilant...will never happen in their lifetime.

Only a select few are actively engaged in the maintenance of the guild itself, the indoctrination of new wizards, watching for that potential catastrophe someday, and realizing that their "deal" with all the rulers of the world is...at best...tenuous and not guaranteed tomorrow or next year. The whole law of wizardry is built upon a house of cards and some really theatrical bluffs that just might not really be a bluff after all.

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Because the people ralley against any cabal of government and magic super powered specialists. Because what looks like a unlimited consultant for special needs of powers - almost always turns out as a hidden take over. That necromancer who promised the king to bring his son back to life, if only he listend to his advice for a while. The telephatic sorceress who read the darkest secret of the kings advisors, and pressured them into even more unspeakable evil.

So once a specialist arrives, its always the start of a take-over. And once the take-over is complete, the ressource-curse is upon the country.

That warlock does not need his peasants- he can craft whatever he desires from thin air. Slowly the country ceases to be managed at all, and declines into a run down slum, where even the wealthy subsist on the breadcrumbs falling from the table of gandolph the Bright.

This happened often enough during history, that a taboo is formed, in fairy tales, popular songs and even in the rituals any ruler must perform. No wizzards. Not even sharlatans.

If you put a rabbit out of a hat at the majors birthday, you, the rabbit and the major end up on spikes, heads first. To please the gods.

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Overpowered magic “specialists” exist; why don't governments extensively use them?

If they are truly a specialist, they can use their magic without major difficulty,

Sure, without major difficulty for the magician. But outside his castle is a major explosion.

for less mana

Less is relative. In other words, less than a super whole lot is still a whole lot, and mana takes non-trivial effort to obtain.

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tl;dr While specialists can use a small amount of mana more efficiently than a non-specialist, they're also capable of consuming large amounts of mana to do much greater things. They naturally avoid each other and don't like taking on apprentices to avoid reducing their share of environmental mana.


Depends if you want a more stagnant or evolving world.

  • In an evolving world, specialists can be extremely powerful; their power can snowball and forever change the world. They'll tend to be aware of this historic power shift, which'll likely preoccupy their ambitions, leading them to have little regard for the waning bureaucracies of the old world.

  • In a stagnant world, specialists might have great power, but not enough to disrupt society nor snowball into a new world order. Instead, there are bounds on what specialists can collectively achieve, tempering their ambitions and disallowing a social phase change.

Other answers have focused on an evolving world in which specialists have great power – a situation I'd liken to today's focus on technology changing how the world operates. So, let's talk about a static Dark-Ages-esque world in which things are relatively stagnant.


Stagnant, Dark-Ages-esque world: Specialist power is constrained.

The major story constraint is that specialists can't see a realistic path toward a new world order. They seek a comfortable position in the current society rather than segregating themselves into a new society.

Possibilities:

  1. Specialist powers saturate demand.
    A specialist who can control when it rains across the entire country would be very powerful! But if one specialist can easily do all of the work by themself, would you really need a lot of them?

    • This works better if specialists can specialize in limited things. If they can specialize in anything, such that society could foreseeably have specialists optimized for every major function in society, then it'd be harder to say that a few saturate demand.
  2. Specialist powers saturate supply.
    Specialist powers draw on global leylines for mana. When a specialist does something big, they sap a lot of the mana from their part of the globe; the leylines naturally recover in time, but the limited supply of mana keeps use of specialist powers limited.

    • Natural leylines can provide power based on geographic area.

    • Human-Spirit leylines can provide power based on population density.

Option (2)'s probably the way to go. It allows individual specialists to be powerful, but also explains why they're spread out and limited in number.

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