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I am thinking about magic in humans and the long term effects on humanity. This is normally handwaved in magic-using stories everywhere, be it Marvel Superheroes or Fantasy. This handwaving is bothering me.

For example, if magic is easy, I guess that any magic user will become tribes leader or at least rich and of great social status and thus have more surviving kids than the average person... and a few thousand years later magic will be everywhere, people without magic will be looked at like they're disabled.

The other extreme, think of dangerous magic coming uncontrolled out of wizard babies each time they get angry or hungry, certainly the higher death rate would lead to no magic at all after just a few thousand years.

I would like to have a world like a typical fantasy story world, where big cities have a magic University or Tower or such, so think of 20 or 30 people who are able to use magic among 10 000 people. They are mostly not the Kings or tribe leaders. There should be enough of them to let politics among them happen and stories be told, certainly more than the 5 magicians worldwide in Lord of the Rings. But they shall be rare enough so that magic is... well, mystic and magic and not "normal".

Evolution is not only about genetic inheritance. It is also about habits. Look at the transition from hunter to farmer - there was no change in the genes, but the farmers could sustain 10x more people than the hunters; so they were bound to win most of the conflicts and they took over the world in a few thousand years.

Question

How could or should magic be so that magic users don't have only advantages and procreate unchecked and take over the world, at the same the magic be harmless enough for the magician so that it is not eradicated and effectful enough to be worth a story?

What is it in the magic or the humans or the world that could keep the magicians rare but surviving and not extinct?

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  • $\begingroup$ so does the magic doesnt require spelling or chanting to activate? $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Jun 3 '20 at 9:40
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    $\begingroup$ oh yeah also most of the time magic user is abstain from sexuality, like you can use magic after you remain virgin over 30 years and getting more power the longer you keep your chastity. hence wizard depicted as oldman, at least most asian wizard is like that, like most religious myth depict as. $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Jun 3 '20 at 10:08
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    $\begingroup$ Any magic could more or less be this if you set the worldbuilding correctly. The more shallow takes of the genre don't focus on this, but a lot of epic fantasy (i.e. Wheel of Time) carefully sets it boundaries when it comes to magic and how it affects the world. It's the author's job to establish this - and there's unrestricted freedom to do so when staring at a blank world. $\endgroup$
    – Halfthawed
    Jun 3 '20 at 13:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Matthew I don't see any problem with that. Nowadays it's speculated that IQ is conditioned by genetics to some degree,as are conditions like immunity to HIV, increased muscle mass, etc. Why can't an ability to manipulate reality too be conditioned by genes? It's magic, it can follow whatever rules he wants to. In many other questions here magic was treated as a genetic trait as well. $\endgroup$ Jun 3 '20 at 14:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Halfthawed I think he's more interested whether such a scenario could be viable, assuming the rule of magic powers as a genetic trait. This isn't just about whether the almighty writer wishes so, but if such a situation (a population in which an advantageous trait is not widely transmitted nor wiped out, but restricted to a small percentage of the population) is possible to exist realistically. $\endgroup$ Jun 3 '20 at 14:25

13 Answers 13

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Since most of the other answers are pursuing genetically inheritable magic, let's explore a more academic scenario.

Magic is like extremely intricate music. Anyone can perform it but for most it will take many years of study and practice to achieve. And like music, much of the initial subject matter has no direct application outside the magical arts. Before you can even attempt to cast the first spell, you must learn the magical equivalents of scales and musical notation and finger placement. You must learn the sharps and the flats versions of each note and learn to recognize when a note fits or when it is just wrong. None of these learnings will ever help you at all outside of the performance of the art, but all of them must be mastered before you can even attempt to perform at any real level of competence.

Of course there will be exceptions to this long and arduous journey, prodigies who have a natural affinity for one style of music or an easier time learning all of the styles. There will be retired professional casters who teach children the basics to bring in extra money. There will be schools for the rich and apprenticeships for all and self study is always an option.

In other words, to make magic use rare and too keep its casters our of leadership roles, all you have to do is make it really, really hard to master. Make it vast enough that a life time of study only scratches the surface of what is possible. Then those who choose to study it will have to dedicate themselves so completely to the task of learning, that ceasing governmental power or earning riches will be unwelcome distractions from what they are passionately learning next.

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  • $\begingroup$ They might even lose their abilities if they try to be the necromancer king of the world, just because they are too distracted to keep up with their studies. Use it or you'll lose it. Thanks for that suggestion. One could add: For music, we have a kind of natural feeling. If we don't have that feeling for magic at all, so we have to learn it all the hard way, that way might lie the danger which kills all-too untalented magicians early in their career and dissuades rich families from giving their heirs to become magicians. Nice one, thanks! $\endgroup$
    – Anderas
    Jun 5 '20 at 10:09
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There is no suggestion that magic is an inherited thing. Like technology or art, some people may have more aptitude than others, but anyone can use it.

More likely, as so often happens, the teaching of magic (as with literacy) will be limited to only certain wealthy powerful families or castes who will insist that any other transmission of magical teaching is illegal/immoral/dangerous to the state, so it will be confined to a self-selecting 'elite'.

This immediately gives you the set-up for politics and power-plays within the wizard community. Who should be given access to what powers? Should magic be made more widespread for the common good, or is that destabilising for society...?

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    $\begingroup$ +1 - This is, in fact, how many "classic" fantasy worlds work. The common trope of "forbidden magic" arises from the idea that it's a learned behavior, and thus you can try to suppress / forget magic that is deemed too dangerous. But if a book describing the forbidden magic survives the initial purge, then you have a Macguffin. $\endgroup$
    – codeMonkey
    Jun 3 '20 at 21:07
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    $\begingroup$ What stops people from selling magic teachings illegally? Marijuana was illegal for a lot of years in my country but kids, actual children of 10 years were selling it and almost everyone was smoking it In their teens....eventually it became legal because the state realized it didn't stop anyone. $\endgroup$
    – user58388
    Jun 4 '20 at 11:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Kek Setting fire to a plant is a lot easier than learning a new language or skill. $\endgroup$ Jun 4 '20 at 12:02
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    $\begingroup$ Clearly you have to have a ruthless magic police force (armed with scrying spells) rooting out any illegal magic teaching or use. IIRC there used to be secret schools where slaves where taught to read and write in the US, which was apparently illegal $\endgroup$ Jun 4 '20 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ The problem with the "certain wealthy powerful families" limit is that the next thing you know, you've been overrun by the next kingdom, which encouraged everyone -- or at least a larger group than yours -- to practice magic and so has a lot more wizards than you do. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Jun 5 '20 at 2:53
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Assume that magic is like sport, only that it takes better magical performance to achieve an observable effect at all. The rest are parallel. There are some people who practice magic, maybe less than doing sports, because some are unsure about the effect, or are unsure whether everyone can do it at all. There are special magic schools, but like sports high schools, they are private schools and only richer families, or those who have a sponsor can afford it because it's a bit off the mainstream. And then there are the professional magicians. I have no idea what they would do right now, but maybe they would just do magical competitions, so a lot of their sponsors are betting shops. Perhaps they work for secret services, governments, film and television, weather services, ... depending on their individual qualifications.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like that suggestion because it delivers a solid reason and is consistent $\endgroup$
    – Anderas
    Jun 3 '20 at 18:29
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Why not simply make magicians less fertile or even completely sterile?

This will NOT necessarily make magicians Tolkien-rare!

There are tons of traits among organisms that hampers the individual's capacity of reproduction, but that lives on because of the positive effects on the population as a whole. These positive effects could roughly be divided into two types.

First, we have the genes that are beneficial when you get one copy, but harmful when you get two. A real world example is sickle cell disease: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sickle_cell_disease If you inherit the gene behind it from one of your parents, you get some protection against malaria and thus will likely spread the gene further. If you get it from both parents, however, you risk all sorts of complications. This way, the spread of the gene will regulate itself to some equilibrium level where positive and negative effects sort of balance each other out.

Second, there are genes that harm your reproduction but make you better suited to help your relatives. The most extreme example is probably social insects, where infertility is common among workers. There has also been some debate about traits of this type in humans though. According to some theories, the reason so many of us are homosexual is that a certain amount of gay is beneficial for a community, either because of other traits that go along with homosexuality that make up for the tendency to reproduce as much, or precisely because of that tendency. The logic goes that without children of your own you can help the rest of the group, including your relatives, and thus better the chances of your genes spreading without spreading them yourself.

There are similar theories about various "disorders" like ADHD, Asperger etc: If everyone has it it's probably not good for the group, but if a certain proportion has it maybe it is. These cases are not technically about reduced fertility, but the mechanism are related I think.

Regarding magic I think it's better to go with reduced fertility, and either variant could work.

In the first case the "magic gene" maybe means that you have some slight advantage with one copy, but with two you become a (semi) sterile magician. This would fit with the nature of the magic being dangerous to the carrier and the surroundings. If you get a magical child you give it away to the Order as fast as you can, or leave it in the forest if you live too far away. Keeping them would risk setting your house on fire or worse. The advantage of a single copy could be anything, but you want to keep it slight if you don't want it to spread too aggressively throughout the population. Maybe you're just a little more resistant against magical influence, maybe you have some weak magical sense for detecting something, or maybe it's something as mundane as having pretty eyes.

In the second case, a magical child could be a blessing which helps your family even if they can't reproduce on their own. Some families would grow powerful this way, by planning marriages to get a large number of magical people. This could backfire though, if they grow too many, as they will not spread the linage themselves. This would still work well with having magical orders, either as schools where people send their children to hone their abilities, or as refuges for magicians who grow tired of being exploited by their families.

The mode of infertility is up to you. Maybe they just have a really hard time conceiving children, with a birth rate of 10, 1 or even 0 %. Maybe their children are born but so sick and deformed that child baring is avoided. Maybe, if you're feeling controversial, all magicians are gay. I would personally not go with this as it would be hard not to let this fact totally take over and make your work a political statement which distracts from the rest, but it's possible.

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    $\begingroup$ Simply less fertile magicians would die out in few generations. We would develop to Lord of the Rings, with few magicians on the world. Genetics is like that. But there are some interesting ideas in your answer, thanks! I like the idea that all the magic traits are disadvantages, only combined is there some positive effect, and if those combine you have disabled kids. Vampires? $\endgroup$
    – Anderas
    Jun 3 '20 at 18:32
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    $\begingroup$ I'm glad you liked it! I'm afraid you misunderstood my point thoug: Infertile magicians DON'T have to die out. Genetics isn't like that. I give examples of traits in real life humans which clearly lowers your fertility, which nonetheless survives without becoming very rare. The gene for sickle cell disease thrives and, in some regions, is carried by over 30%, although getting double copies makes people sick. The percentage of homosexual humans is a bit controversial, but it's very hard to argue that this trait doesn't decrease fertility, just like it's hard to argue that it's exceedingly rare. $\endgroup$
    – EdvinW
    Jun 3 '20 at 20:57
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    $\begingroup$ Absolutely right, @EdvinW. For the record, this concept is technically known as "heterozygote advantage", and it's one of the major mechanisms by which deleterious variants persist in populations. Amusing to think of magic use as a harmful mutation, but in the strict context being suggested, it could be! en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heterozygote_advantage. $\endgroup$
    – Jenn D.
    Jun 4 '20 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ @EdvinW One reason that the gene for sickle cell sticks around is that being a sickle cell carrier actually gives a protective advantage against malaria. The areas where sickle cell carriers have a high frequency are generally also malaria-endemic areas. $\endgroup$ Jun 4 '20 at 17:08
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Magic might be an inherited trait and that trait might also come with disadvantages. For instance there is a gene mutation that provides a limited degree of immunity against malaria. So this might be a bit like the good effect of a magic gene. But the catch is if you have two copies of that gene you end up with sickle cell anaemia which is very bad. So the prevalence of the gene is limited by the seriousness of the negative effects v the advantages of the beneficial effects.

In a magical world it might even be possible to arrange more complex arrangements. For example 2 recessive genes which have mostly negative effects in isolation but if they encounter each other generate some magical effect. Such genes would be fairly uncommon and suitable double genetic encounters very rare. The degree of rarity can be adjusted by the degree of the negative effects and the strength of the magical effects.

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    $\begingroup$ Magic is often depicted as dangerous - maybe most people with the magic gene tend to blow themselves up or attract eldritch abominations with their first manifestation. Only a tiny fraction of mages actually survive to reproductive age. $\endgroup$ Jun 4 '20 at 11:00
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Hmm, I feel like this problem has already been tackled by Robert Jordan in his Wheel of Time series. In them it seems like magic powers are genetic (magicians tend to have magic babies), however they are still extremely rare, so I suspect that the particular genes are quite recessive and while widespread, it takes a special combination for them to become active. Also, they start manifesting only in teenage years, so no danger of explosive magic... before then.

As for why magicians don't become great leaders and get better chances of reproduction - the public in general mistrusts them. They are tolerated because their powers are useful and, well, nobody wants to fight a magician head on - however they can still be overpowered by ordinary people. No magic spell will save you from a crossbow bolt if you're not casting it at the right time and the right place.

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    $\begingroup$ Even if they are recessive they can still spread through a population if they provide a selective advantage. The gene for polydactyly is actually dominant over the gene for five fingers/toes that most of the population has, it just has such a cost that it has gotten weeded out of the population. $\endgroup$ Jun 3 '20 at 22:04
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    $\begingroup$ Well, a general mistrust from society would nullify the selective advantage. $\endgroup$
    – Vilx-
    Jun 3 '20 at 22:20
  • $\begingroup$ Slight spoiler for books 4-5ish of the Wheel of Time, but the various pre-cataclysm flashbacks imply that there was a significant breeding population of mages back then, and they were largely running things. So many Channelers have been removed from the breeding pool (by circumstance or systematic purges) that they should be practically extinct in the present-day - the fact that they are still quite populous (cross-culturally, at least) implies that the trait is fairly genetically common. $\endgroup$
    – MandisaW
    Jun 5 '20 at 5:15
  • $\begingroup$ @MandisaW - I didn't quite perceive it that way. Yes, there were more of them and they were in charge, but I think they were still pretty rare. There were just a lot more people back then so for that reason alone there were also more mages as well. $\endgroup$
    – Vilx-
    Jun 5 '20 at 7:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Anderas - still, there are plenty of ideas there that you can adapt to limit your own magicians. :) $\endgroup$
    – Vilx-
    Jun 5 '20 at 11:56
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Charles Stross has a good answer for this in his Laundry Files series. Magic is essentially algorithms which allow you to channel energy from other dimensions. If you "run" those algorithms in your head, magical stuff happens, sure. But those other dimensions are not empty, and they contain predators.

The larger predators will generally find it hard to spot a magic user immediately, which is the good news. The bad news though is there are also the magical equivalent of bacteria or microorganisms, and they are everywhere. So every time a magic user thinks magical thoughts to invoke some "spell", a lot of little interdimensional beasties take a lot of little bites out of their brain. And that's assuming they don't get unlucky and attract the attention of something more malignant.

The result is that there is no such thing as an old magic user. An active magician is lucky to manage double-digit years before they succumb to something akin to vCJD from having their brain literally eaten away, or before something eats them more seriously. This seriously limits their potential for building vast empires.

A king can certainly hire magicians, and if they're lucky they'll be pensioned off before things get too bad. Top-level magicians who quit while they're still sane can teach too, of course, and can be kept in reserve for desperate measures like a tactical nuke suicide bomb. But any individual magician doesn't have a long enough career to make an impact on their own.

(In Stross's world, this is where running those "spells" on a computer instead of in your head becomes desirable. This is probably not relevant for your typical high-fantasy low-technology setting though, although there is an interesting idea in one novella about magicians encoding their work into chess-like rules where the chessboards become the spell-executing platform.)

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  • $\begingroup$ This - any natural system has its own form of self-correction. The writer's job is just to choose what form that correction will take. $\endgroup$
    – MandisaW
    Jun 5 '20 at 5:20
  • $\begingroup$ Wow, if they have difficulties achieving double digit years, they'll certainly die out by evolution in a two or three hundred years. But the general thought is nice, getting sick by using magic would certainly limit the number of people who want to do this. If it is like a heavy influenca, two weeks straight in the bed, it's sufficient that you don't really like to do it often. $\endgroup$
    – Anderas
    Jun 5 '20 at 10:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Anderas There's no evolution - the magic algorithms are something anyone can learn. (Or stumble upon; the lowest-level responsibility for the Laundry initially is tracking and co-opting anyone who finds these themselves, and the protagonist is drafted after inventing a graphics algorithm which would have, quote, "accidentally relandscaped Wolverhampton"). Some people may have more aptitude for it, sure, but in Stross's world that's the same aptitude which suits people for careers as mathematicians and scientists. The key part is just that they start writing it down to teach the next guys. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Jun 5 '20 at 10:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Anderas Once stuff is written down, the next guys can build on what their predecessors achieved. (Even if their predecessors have predecessed - the conceit of the Laundry books is that they are all the private logs of each book's protagonist, written so that the next guy at least has a heads-up on what killed the last guy.) So a magic-using community can grow and succeed, even as individual magic users fall by the wayside. Top-level magicians who quit while they're still sane can teach too, of course, and can also be kept in reserve for desperate measures like a tactical nuke suicide bomb. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Jun 5 '20 at 10:48
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If magic is genetic then the mages will take over the world simply by competition. When a country, a village or a small town overpopulates, you know what happens?

Sons are sent alone, or maybe with their spouses to find new land and live there....this is how new cities were created. But when the world population is too high, it just happens that your sons will only find occupied land, occupied by other people who are not related to you.

So how do you defend the survival of your overpopulated village and your sons? With war.....killing who took the land and stealing it, or enslaving those people and making them work for you.

it is clear that villages with mages would slowly domanite the world.

This is what happened with romans and the Japanese empire, but their "magic" was limited to better warring strategies which helped them win regardless of having less numbers, less resources and equal technology.

But with magic, it would be even more extreme.

solution

So your only option is to make magic something that everyone can obtain, but not everyone has the time or chance to do so.

examples

Everyone can be a Buddhist and reach the ability to perceive full peace of mind, but few monks are able to obtain it, and the ones who do, usually kill themselves in symbolic ways by setting themselves on fire, starving to death or meditating to death.

Everyone can be a world record sprinter, but only those with the best training, with the right steroids,the right sponsors (in Olympics sponsors can decide whether or not some roided athletes can participate) and the most experienced will obtain the world record. It doesn't matter If subject A is naturally faster if they trained for 15 years while subject B trained better and for 25 years, since they were 5 years old. (also no sprinting is not genentic, there are only 2 genes that makes people natural sprinters and and the other one gene makes people natural power athletes with explosive strength, theoretically 66% of people have one of sprinting genes because ALL HUMANS DESCEN FROM RUNNERS)

Everyone in the world can have a healthy romantic relantionahip, but it is clear that this thing is incredibly rare and only happens in Hollywood. Why? Because in countries where divorce is real, it's incredibly high and getting higher every day whilst in counties where divorce is not legal we see the most abusive relationships ever. Also cheating percentages vary between 40% to 87% of men depending on the country and age, and for women, whilist it is half as much, its still a high number.

You see? Many things are possible in the world but are really hard to obtain.

In your world, everyone can achieve magic...in theory but just like all the examples I have given, it is ridiculous to even hope to do so because it's incredibly unrealistic.

The user @[Li Jun] gave you a perfect idea, only those who reach a certain age as virgins become mages.

This might seems stupid and easy, but I remind you that in the modern era in the majority of the planet age of full consent is set between 13 years old to 18 years old, and childrend can consent to have sex with other children since the age of 11 or 12 in some countries.

Also teens are hit by an avalanche of hormonal changes so it is actually unlikely for people to even reach legal maturity 18 years or 21 years in some countries and still be virgin, and it is also considered natural for teens to explore their own sexuality.

Even monks who are forced to live alone and not have any sexual activity fall to their carnal desires and in absence of women have sex with each other.

Even prisoners become gay.

Even soldiers in ancient Greece were having sex with each other, some historical sources suggest it was actually a ritual.

So it is really hard to not only maintain virginity until a certain age, but it's even harder forcing it.

Some Christian women have oral or anal sex to maintain their " virginity" so it also depends what do you consider being a virgin ( I actually had a few girlfriends who tought they were still virgins because they only had anal or oral sex)

Also numbers match up perfectly, you asked for 30 out of 10 000 people to be mages....well guess what? 0,3% of humans remain virgin to the age of 40 as suggested by this link

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/03/on-late-in-life-virginity-loss/284412/

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Their are many good answers here, but I thought it would be nice to mention some of the answers that have been used in published works:

  • Wheel of time : Here magic is hereditry in an imperfect way (think Harry potter). Female magic users may have all the advantages you describe that might allow them to have more children (they live and remain fertile for hundreds of years), but males are dangerous, in constant danger of going mad and killing those around them (so are usually killed off when found).

  • Warbreaker : Everyone, every last person, is born with exactly 1 magic "breath". This is exactly magic to acheive nothing-at-all. But people can give their breaths away. Trade and selling results in some people carrying thousands of breaths inside them, a thousand-odd is the bare minimum needed for any real magic. This removes the genetic component altogether, while still requiring a magic-usng population that is only a tiny fraction of the total population.

  • Way of Kings : (SPOILER ALERT) In this setting people gain magic by bonding with magical spirits called "spren". A spren might choose to bond to you or not. The number of magic users is theirfore limmited to the number of spren that want to create a bond with a human - no matter how many people their are.

  • Warhammer 40k : This science fiction setting contains psykers, who are basically just wizzards by another name. A trained psyker who knows how to control their powers will probably not go mad, get possessed by demons or have their head explode by accident, but its still a significant hazard. Without training your chances are basically nil. A lot of the time psykers are just killed when discovered: too dangerous.

A unifying theme of all the above works is that they are fairly "pulpy", kind of action-world settings of "blam explosion". That makes sense given that it is a list of settings that go into depth about who gets to be a mage. Storys and settings that are less action focussed usually feel no need to explain this kind of thing (eg. Bas Lag books). Its also worth bearing in mind that this sort of thing is only an issue that even needs considering in the "modern fantasy" genre - which is (at its worst) characterised by people in a setting that looks medieval (plus magic) with a modern mindset. Even if the characters have a more scene appropriate worldview the narrator is often given too much modern thinking.

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  • $\begingroup$ Could you add a little bit more about this modern thinking? I didn't fully understand that. You mean things like equal rights and scientific method and such transplanted to medieval characters? $\endgroup$
    – Anderas
    Jun 5 '20 at 10:34
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The world is still young.

The gods of the setting created it in the not-too-distant past; last Tuesday A.D.

The ability to use magic might provide a tremendous advantage over time, or humanity may simply be replaced by a race of Fourth Men when the gods get bored. But from the creation of the world until now, there really hasn't been enough time for evolution to affect anything.

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  • $\begingroup$ The mistborn trilogy had something like this. "The world was made to be like this". It feels very handwavy indeed. $\endgroup$
    – Anderas
    Jun 5 '20 at 11:30
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Magic/superpower is kind of a metaphor. In The Incredibles it is a metaphor for those with great talents, and the story suggests that average people will try to discourage talented people from achieving excellence. In The Watchmen superpowers are a metaphor for worldly political power, and the story is cynical about how unchecked power can corrupt those who wield it. In The X-Men superpowers are a thin metaphor for race, and the story is generally about how white villains oppress the minority mutants. In other stories magic may be a metaphor for religious faith, or for making deals with the devil, or any of a number of other things.

I think what you need to do is, figure out what kind of story you're trying to tell, i.e. what's your metaphor? Then look at how the-thing-magic-represents-in-your-story affects heredity in the real world.

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  • $\begingroup$ You're right, that's one way of using it. Continue to Lovecraft, and you'll see a typical conspiracy myth that may instill first fear and then hate for strangers (Oh those strangers use magic against us! You can't see it but it's there, these harmless looking people mean us harm!). No, I don't want to use it in that way. While "The Watchmen" is one of my all-time-favorites, I am more after some fairy-tale mystic ingredient that I can use without repelling any non-nerd adult from the story $\endgroup$
    – Anderas
    Jun 5 '20 at 11:38
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What happens to magic-users that get too good, or don't get good enough?  There's a number of Darwin award prizes for such things, aren't there? 

Magic is dangerous.  Magic involves changing yourself.  Magic means risking yourself. 

All that ivory-tower training is about self-control and self-mastery and detaching oneself from one's passions and from the world at large -- everything that's opposed to becoming more powerful.  For the talented, it's far too easy to summon too much power, and then not be able to channel it usefully or discharge it safely.  Some become monsters, like gnarled, twisted, bloated trolls, unfit for human company.  Some go up in smoke and flames, utterly consumed by an energy too strong for them to withstand.  Some merely slip the bonds of this world, inhabiting the Shadows and the Aether, unable to find their way home. 

Magic is frightening.  Magic comes at a steep, strange price.  Magic means facing hazards. 

By the time you're 60 you might look twice that age.  Mystical energies take their toll, making your flesh swell and stretch while you hold them and harness them, leaving you empty, gaunt, and weakened once they're channeled and released.  If you're talented enough, lucky enough, trained enough, then you need not find yourself suddenly separated from humanity by some thunderbolt from the sky or the slashing claws of a chaos demon.  Even so, you'll find yourself inevitably separated from humanity.  You can have the respect and even admiration of your fellow man, certainly.  But, understanding?  Affection?  Companionship?  For that you need to go back to your tower and to your own kind.  The common folk just can't think of you as being one of them anymore. 

Magic divides. 

The talent itself might be common enough, with many ordinary folk casting the occasional cheap cantrip.  What makes you different is that you work outright wonders, you do things that take far more energy than those cheap parlor tricks.  You do things that take more energy than what you started with.  You've let yourself become something uncommon.  You've embraced that change and that pain.  You've left your community behind you.  So very few of them, even among the most talented, will ever choose to join you. 

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  • $\begingroup$ I like this answer because it goes into the "magic is art or sport" direction, but different from art or sport you don't get admirers, you get fear and exclusion. So nobody except the strangest loner would choose this career, which would also explain why they become necromancers or other evil beings sometimes. And, in a short side note, your answer explains the appearance of the occasional Troll, Ghost or other unworldly being. They are mishappened magicians! :-) Very cool. $\endgroup$
    – Anderas
    Jun 5 '20 at 10:30
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. I offered it because you can get more than just a small ivory tower collegiate of wizards and sorcerers from this idea. You get the kindly witch of the wild woods, who left her home village to keep it safe while she learns and practices her magics alone. You get normal people using a spell that cures warts, but no normal person daring to try that kind of spell on smallpox. You get that one Ice Queen, in all her terrible and inhuman beauty, without having magical princesses popping up in every kingdom. You get a dying man's curse, because in that moment it's worth any price. $\endgroup$ Jun 5 '20 at 15:28
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I'm partial to just treating it like computer usage today: Everybody can use one, but few take the time to learn how to program them.

Going to magic, everyone can do simple but useful little things like making a ball of light to see in the dark, or mustering up some short-range telekinesis to grab that spanner that slipped out of your hand down the crack which you can't quite reach normally (for some reason I have Victorian tech on my mind right now).

Anything impressive, like using magic to bend the bits of an exploded boiler back into shape and weld them together, would be the domain of those who've been to university and gotten a Bachelor's Degree in Magic, though you might treat it as a field of science, with the degree being "B. Sci. (Magic)".

Just as the Prime Minister has a Chief Scientist to advise him on scientific matters, he'd probably also have a Chief Magician for that field, if the two positions aren't held by the same person.

There's no need to worry about all the leaders ending up as powerful magicians, simply because there's very little overlap between those interested in magic and those interested in governing.

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  • $\begingroup$ And to compare further - once it is easy enough to learn, masses of people will do so... $\endgroup$
    – Anderas
    Jun 5 '20 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ I guess once it is understood that this is just a learnable skill, states with universities get stronger than the others. Finally, arriving in the 21th century, it will be everywhere. A mobile phone implementing a magic function via an app. $\endgroup$
    – Anderas
    Jun 5 '20 at 15:44
  • $\begingroup$ If you can figure out how to generate magic artificially, sure. You could base a whole story around what happens when someone figures out how to artificially generate and control magic and how society changes as a result. $\endgroup$
    – Rohan
    Jun 6 '20 at 6:02
  • $\begingroup$ Hehe, imagine a bug in a magical app, accidentally invoking a deamon that comes out of the screen and bites in your ear next time you take a call. :-D This can be dangerous indeed. $\endgroup$
    – Anderas
    Jun 7 '20 at 8:41

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