It seems that if magic and technology are not mutually destructive (Arcanum) and the magic is not powered by a random number generator to produce inconsistent dangerous results, some form of magitech and magiscience are to follow, since mages are already a kind of scientists if you'll squint your eyes.

But I'm writing a world that should be with magic in it (Well, technically, ancient alien klarketech networks that can be "queried" to do things - but for all intents and purposes it's fantasy magic), but also a relatively grounded realistic steampunk society in the middle of the industrial revolution and the plights of the wild unrestricted capitalism - basically Victorian England. Magic is there, but while it can make some relatively impressive feats, it shouldn't affect the society (power is authority, if you can shoot lightning bolts from your fingertips, your kin will become a ruling class) or technological progress (If you have healing spells, why develop medicine or pharmaceutics? If you can create balls of light from thin air that last for days, why bother with the electricity?) and it should really take the "exotic with the tint of mythical" seat in the narrative.

So far my broad solution was: there are no spells and no mana. Magic is accessible through the various ancient artifacts that only can be found in the world and not made, and most of them can do only a specific thing or set of things, and overall they're a finite resource, there's only that much of them out there. At the first glance, this seems to fix a lot of issues by making the magic to be impossible to industrialize yet still be reliable and useful.

However, this solution poses a problem that the governments and rulers will naturally seek the artifacts to keep it to themselves, and will outlaw their ownage to keep their monopoly on power. This also returns to the problem of making the people in power to be essentially jacked-up supermages who can only be challenged by other supermages, but it seems this would be a thing with any kind of magic. Any kind of restrictions putted on who can use the magic seemingly only restricts the pool of ponential rulers but doesn't eliminate the basic fact that it's way easier to usurp the power when you can lit whole city blocks on fire at will. While "all mages are royal tyrants" is a fun idea, I'm not sure it's a direction I want the story to move in.

Also, while this helps with putting the magic into the "rare and mythical" camp, it is possible that eventually and relatively soon all artifacts would be locked away in the treasuries of nobles and kings, essentially removing them from the world at large. Maybe one solution would be for the kingdoms to fall and be abandoned periodically, which would allow for their treasuries to be sacked and looted over time, returning the artifacts into "circulation" (with the side effect of creating all those treasure caches and lost cities that those adventurers are always seeking out and escape daring traps within), but I'm unsure about how well that would actually work.


9 Answers 9


Humanity already has the ability to heal naturally, so why invent bandages?

Humanity can, in fact, do a lot of things. We can talk to each other over distances by shouting. We can write on paper. We can run. So why invent telephones, typewriters, and automobiles? Because there's always a reason to do something faster, better, or for longer periods of time, etc. Magic might (maybe) slow the march of science, but it wouldn't stop it unless your magic is godlike — but that's really boring and you seem to want a story that incorporates both magic and science.

So really, it's all about developing a consistent magic system that has practical limitations: such as humanity's ability to heal not being particularly good at fixing compound fractures or the desire to develop vaccines because the natural method requires a honking boatload of death before immunity sets in.

1. Just as using your muscles tires the muscles and using your mind tires the mind, using magic tires the magic user

Your magic system requires a method of exhausting the magic user. Why develop agriculture in its most primitive form if a wave of your godlike finger provides all the food you need whenever you need it or shields you from climate when it becomes inconvenient? That way-too-overused concept of "mana" helps us conceptualize the consequences of effort — but you needn't be so detailed if you don't want to. All you really need to do is create a basic chart of spell complexity and spell consequence vs. level of exhaustion. And remember, human muscle use leads to needing food, water, rest, cleanliness... it has several consequences that all represent some form of consumption necessary for restoration. A well-designed magic system will do something similar.

2. Magic shouldn't be magic, you really can't do everything with it

I'm fond of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Who isn't on this Stack? But there are lessons to be learned. None of the magic users or magic-using species could do just anything. Using only Gandalf (much less the Elves, etc.): he couldn't build buildings or just kill the Balrog or feed his troops or guarantee anyone's safety. He was presented as incredibly powerful, but also incredibly limited. In fact, the more mundane the task, the less likely his magic has any significant benefit at all.

Your magic system should do the same. Frankly, every magic system must do the same. Remember, godlike characters are boring. Nobody can relate to them and there's no way to develop a serious crisis around them. Why do you need shovels? Maybe it's because magic can't form a trench in anything resembling a straight line.

3. Who wants to stand around for hours while others use the consequences of magic?

I've once thought that the most valuable use of a superpower that opened portals to other locations would be to get a job at FedEx. Think about it. You'd be worth millions... billions... saving time, maintenance, equipment, fuel... what an asset you'd be. And then I realized that it would be the most boring career you could possibly have. I mean, you can open gates to other places... and what are you doing? You're sitting on a chair sipping protein shakes and Red Bulls day in and day out while forklifts move pallets of boxes to and fro. Blech.

Perhaps more to the point, why would you invent a telescope? Because asking a magic user to stand there for hours losing sleep while you look at the night sky might cost you more than a couple of beers. And if you could use the magic yourself, then you're concentrating on that spell while you're also concentrating on using that spell and scribbling down your findings. Headache!

4. Everyone cannot use magic equally.

Humans all have muscles, so why invent pallet jacks, dollies, or wheelbarrows? The obvious reason is to move more material more conveniently than any muscle-bound Adonis with rippling pecs ever could. But tools such as those are also equalizers. They allow people of many levels of strength to accomplish the same basic task.

In reality, your magic-using peoples won't be capable of using magic equally. It's entirely undesirable that they could (godlike...). Children must learn skills while talent grows. Adults may be proficient at one type of magic but not another. One individual may be capable of moving the proverbial mountain while another has trouble pushing a spoon. That diversity of capability will drive the desire to develop science that equalizes what people can do.

And that assumes that you don't have some people who simply have no skill for magic. My sister can play the piano. The got her college degree in it. She's amazing. While I... I've either been taught or taught myself to play three times. It doesn't stick. I have no natural creativity behind what I do and can't use the skill for any practical purpose (or even an impractical purpose... other than to make people laugh, maybe). You'll have magic users in these kinds of groups, too.

5. Magic has an ecological price

When you're a young society plowing the ground with horses and clearing trees with axes you don't need to worry about the fact that you're the reason the soil is eroding with every rainstorm and being depleted of nutrients with every crop. You don't realize that a herd of wild cows periodically culled by wolves doesn't poison the ground with too much dung but keeping dozens or a hundred head of cattle in one spot all the time does. I'm not a fan (or an advocate) of the "Bad Human!" political agenda — but I'm not a fool, either (at least not often, I hope).

Newton's third law has an amazing number of applications. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every effort to rise above nature there's an equal and opposite consequence to nature. Agriculture leads to erosion. Animal husbandry leads to soil poisoning. All of it affects the natural carbon cycle. Etc. Most authors never bother to mine this potentially useful consequence of magic to fill their stories with purpose — using magic to overcome nature negatively affects nature.

Obviously the more impressive the magic the more disastrous the effect, and you'll need to develop your magic system so that there are a variety of effects great and small (if you're thinking, "Star Trek warp speed limitations!" you're on the right track).


Magic has limitations. It must or your stories will be two-dimensional and boring. Your characters will feel like cardboard and be unrelatable.

And because it has limitations — there will be science.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Re your FedEx example, that's exactly what the worldwalkers in Charles Stross's The Family Trade do. Teleport to a less occupied world, move stuff, teleport back. The kicker is that they've worked out who'll pay most for that kind of guaranteed delivery - and it's drug cartels. And every worldwalker has to do their shift moving stuff, because that's how they get to afford to live. Of course this totally does affect a lot of things, so it doesn't quite solve the OP's problems. :) $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Oct 20, 2020 at 23:08

If you squint, this sounds like the Strugatzky' brothers Wayside Picnic - inscrutable aliens visit the earth and leave wrecked zones behind, in these strange artifacts can be found. While the governments try to monopolize these zones, a semi criminal culture of stalkers exist who sneak into these zones to retrieve artifacts. One reason the govvernments fail to monopolize the zones is that being near or in them takes a toll on anyones mental health (most stalkers would agree that they are not entirely normal, but don't see it as a bad things. They just love the zone), while normal people have a harder time understanding these zones. Read the book, it's good! Or watch Tarkovskies movie version, very slow and a bit puzzling but also very good.

How to transplant these ideas into your setting?

  • Artifacts are discovered in heaps and troves, every now and then a a new bunch is discovered over the period of a few years or decades and upends the political power structure. Or rather your story or game is set during interesting times.

  • Artifacts work better for people, or are easier understood by people who are somewhat ouside rigid power structures: It turns out 'magic' is more an art than a science and requires a creative impulse

  • this is so because the artifacts are not endowed with intelligence, but with a sense of taste and aesthetics, both of which change.

  • alternatively, sane people are just plain bad at magic, and the type of insanity it takes to be good at it makes it hard to take and hold power for long - if you trust yourself to do neurodivergence justice in your writing.

Now that I've written this, im 99% sure there's an urban fantasy with a witch who does Abramovic style performance art out there, somehwere.


Horrible side effects

Magic has a cost. Namely, using the artifacts and, to some extent, merely being close to them harms you. Notably, the harm does not necessarily have to be obvious to the users. Perhaps the alien magitech artifacts run off of highly radioactive power sources or have a similar but different effect that fits your story better.

So you will have certain people using magic for some purposes sporadically, either because they don't know better or have a purpose that outweighs the costs. But these won't be very powerful people for long because they will die an unpleasant death sooner than later. There won't be a hereditary class of powerful magic users, because even limited magic users who stopped using magic will be infertile at best or have dead or dying children killing the mother as well. And you won't have select few people collecting all the artifacts, since one artifact is bad but many of them together are much worse.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting variety of this: The cost is unpredictable and incomprehensible (its magic, not science, after all). Someone burnt down an army and later slipped on the stairs and broke his neck. Someone made a fortune with selling Everlights™ of her own magical creations but was never happy as the love of her live developed severe depressions. Someone used intensive mind reading and manipulation to reach presidency but lost all interest in power. Someone employed mages to conquer the world for them, only to be annihilated by a hitherto unknown enemy of equal strength. Magic takes a toll from you. $\endgroup$
    – Perseids
    Oct 21, 2020 at 11:36

You could make all the artifacts have a level of intelligence. They would die if they don't get used and don't think of things as right or wrong. I.E if they weren't being used they would kill their masters and run into the wild or to someone they think would do better. As an added layer you could make it so some people can use the artifacts better than others so it would make it feel better about staying. This way the government wouldn't have the artifacts because they wouldn't show them love, or they wouldn't have them for long before the artifacts grew restless.

  • $\begingroup$ If they die when not used, they would probably die off as the kings let them, to avoid complications. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Oct 20, 2020 at 12:56
  • $\begingroup$ This was going to be my answer except more. The artifacts have their own agenda. It is not at all clear what that is. The upshot is that they might not perform, or might turn out to have extra abilities, or might disappear for other locales without notice. Or one that has been missing for many years might turn up. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Oct 20, 2020 at 14:08

Artifacts have minds of their own. Apparently. Alien, inscrutable minds.

If they aren't used by a wizard, they do their own thing. This may entail walking through the walls of your treasury -- even without feet. This may just be seeking out a wizard, but may be the start of magic that just is insane, not particularly useful or harmful -- your roses turn blue, random pathways are longer or shorter than they should be in Euclidean geometry, rain falls up occasionally.

Likewise they accept only certain people as wizards and perform only certain types of magic for them. Perhaps they were meant to be lowly, commoner artifacts -- all the royal and noble artifacts got destroyed in war -- and will do only mundane things, useful, but not for power-mongering. Perhaps royalty and nobility consider using them to be like going into trade; you might even be stripped of your noble or royal status by becoming a wizard. Still, you need some wizards around to channel this artifact before it turns wayward.


Some easy rules for your scenario come to mind:

  1. Artifacts interfere with each other. Trying to use the Staff of Power while wearing the Ring of Awesome will cause one or both to backfire. So no one person can become all powerful. Your tyrannical rulers may keep a particular nasty artifact for themselves, but they must also employ armies of goons to have widespread influence.

  2. Many artifacts in close proximity interfere dangerously. Trying to fill your vault with a bunch of artifacts and at some point, they all explode or otherwise cause some terrible catastrophe. Authorities trying to store them away will have to do it many small vaults, which makes the job much harder. There is a much higher chance that thieves will steal them, and a higher chance that the authorities will try to keep them safe by putting them in the hands of their agents for active use instead of a vault.

  3. New artifacts are found frequently, and from many sources. So while government expeditions are trying to find them, freelancers will too. So artifacts end up on the free market whether the government wants it or not.

As an aside, I'm not fond of "magitech" or "magiscience". It's magic to us here in reality, but if casting lighting from your hands is a real thing people can do in your fictional world, then that's not "magiscience" to the inhabitants, it's just science.


I think, that technology developement would have problems only if magic can do everythig cheaper, more reliable and there is enougth of magic for nearly everyone.

So if there is something, at which magic does not work better, then technology can address that. If there are some limitations to magic, technology can complement it.

If magic items are of many different kinds, but not actually destructive, there is no reason for making me king, if I have one and somehow discover a way to use it at least for something.

Say I have "magic artefact" which is "solar powered cellphone able to reach even celphone-less peoples" - I can use it just for few hours total a day (then need to recharge it more hours on sun), I can talk to distatnt people all over the world (but I have to know their number, or just try some random and look, where I got connected). Soon I would have address book of lot (randomly placed) people, I can connect with and send messages there. Now there should be some couriers to get the message to its intended recipient in the city. Local wired phones, telegraphs of flag signalling would be good technology to get more use of this artefact. And if I have some battery left, but none actual customer, I could "poll" my contacts in distant cities, whether is there some message for our city waiting, to get more use of todays energy. Which means to build post-offices around people I found numbers for.

Also if there is a lot of similar "phones" (so it is not exclusive), there is no reason for king to own and guard each one, instead of having me to make the work with building the whole net and just tax me for the money I get and had right for priority servise anytime.

If I get the same target when I somehow "dial the same number" (maybe it needs some magic words like "Hey Siri call this number!" and as it is alien technology, I am not able understand the number system and my pronounciation is not perfect, so the artefact have to guess, what number I am trying to spell ...) but the target have to be awake, somehow accept the call (no thinking "it is the spam again for sure, I reject it") and be in relatively silent place and not hard working, to uderstand me - it looks more like magic and may prevent me from scanning all numbers. (And if there are millions of numbers, I could not discover all in my life anyway).

There could be unlimited number of types of artefacts, each working some different way (and maybe even one artefact may work different way for different users, as the activation spells depends not only on sound - which nobody repeats in totally identical way on full spectre from infrasound to ultrasound - but also on some other quality of user - say brainwaves, or some sound in heartbeat or who know what - so what is cellphone for me may work as colorfull torch for my brother - because of our difference it hears something more like "Hey Siri, glow with this color!" - and somebody else could be able invoke even two totally different effects).

Maybe I could use this artefact only for few years, and then it would wait for another user. (Technically something in my body changed over time too much and it no longer can uderstand me what I am trying to say - which would usually "degrade in reliability" before definitivly stop working).

Also not all artefacts look the same way and work the same way - and even similar artefact can have different sensitivity for all they degraded a little in differnt ways over millenia.

This way you can

  • have lot of artefacts
  • which are not hoarded by nobility (or make nobility of their owners),
  • which do not suppress technology (even in fields near their use) but even inspire its grow to complement that.
  • which do a lot of spectacular or usefull magic
  • in some locally consistent way

There can be many totally different effects some small, some bigger ("Hey Siri, start a rain!" which works only if there are clouds near, but incredible for farmers - as well as prevanting rain when is time to collect crop), just "sadly" no fireballs so far was discovered.


Most answers are along the lines of somehow nerfing the power of magic/the artifacts. That's really the way to go so that people still have a reason for pursuing technology and not just hoarding what magic there is. If the magic can be counteracted with technology then there's even less reason for it to be hoarded.

Some more suggestions to add to the pile:

  • Magic doesn't play well with iron, or some other easily accessible material. Sort of like the DnD principal of putting anything you want to keep hidden in a lead box to make it scry proof. I legitimately know people who always make sure the character has a lead box, just in case they want to keep something hidden from magic detection. To expand this, some artifact may make you invisible but walking through a loop of silver will break the invisibility. So now basically every building where there is any reason to be concerned about security will have thin silver wires embedded in the door and window frames. Its a known issue with a widely implemented solution, making your invisibility artifact largely useless in many instances.

    For a more historically drawn example, medieval people thought cold iron didn't play well with magic. Hence putting horseshoes over the doorframes, wearing necklaces made of iron nails, etc.

  • They're only situationally useful/usable. An artifact is really powerful, but only works on the night of a full moon. Or must be wielded by a prepubescent girl/a blind man/whatever. It requires some ritual or a specific list of components to work, which take forever to get together. If the circumstances have to be just right for it to be usable then people are going to start looking for alternatives that require less hoops to jump through. There's also little use in hoarding a thing that you may not ever be able to use.

  • Magic is not good for you. In one of her novel's Kresley Cole had a ring that granted wishes. It was really good for about 3 uses, and then it started going into monkey's paw rules. The wish was still technically granted, but you wish it hadn't been. You've only got a few uses of the artifacts before things start going wrong. Or magic may just legitimately be bad for you. In BioShock the Lutece field and tear device can do amazing things. And its overuse caused Comstock to age rapidly and become infertile. Since these devices are alien in origin it may work similarly. You've maybe got a few free uses, after which your health starts to decline. Ditto for anyone around the artifacts being used. Ergo not something you'd want to pull out all the time and quite possibly not stored anywhere near you out of fear that even inert proximity may be shaving years off your life.

  • This last one would be tricky to implement (by which I mean it'll mean more work building it into the world) but you could have a societal or religious reason for people reacting like the things are infected with cooties. The major religion says the things were made by demons and you forfeit your soul by using them. The tools were widely used by a culture that the current dominant culture views as abhorrent for whatever reason (ranging from perfectly reasonable to plain bigotry, whatever) and therefore magic is something those [insert slur]'s use. Or there's a prevailing belief that they cause insanity, because there were in fact some famous examples of people who used them going coo-coo for cocopuffs. In reality it was unrelated, but the general populace doesn't know that. General misinformation and/or flawed conclusions can create plenty of reasons people wouldn't want to risk it (Like people not eating tomatoes for a long time out of the mistaken belief that they were poison). All this wouldn't deter everyone obviously, but there would be enough societal pressure that people would think twice about using or even openly owning these things.

I hope one of these ideas can work for you.


Credits System

I'm taking this answer from a real life equivalent used already in the electricity industry. Each power plant is given a certain amount of "carbon credits," that is, permission to produce a certain level of pollution. There are a finite number of carbon credits allowed by the government, but businesses can buy, sell, and trade credits to compensate for their pollution. As more and more plants are added, the amount of credits available to each gets smaller and smaller, thus forcing businesses to pollute less. Electric providers hold auctions to buy and sell their credits, which end up functioning as a type of unofficial currency...

...So to tie it to your story.

Since there are a limited amount of artifacts, the market for artifacts would work in generally the same way. At first there might be a couple supermages who hold the artifacts. But the artifacts are also valuable- for instance, an alchemist who can make 1000 pounds of gold from lead is going to be happy to exchange his power for 1001 pounds of gold. He might also be willing to give a smaller spell, let's say immunity to fall damage, which he doesn't use often, in exchange for the lead he needs to make gold. As technology increases, the amount of people with the resources to be able to trade for artifacts will also increase, creating a virtual currency, where magic and technology can be traded equivalently. As long as your story doesn't include a dictator who holds all the magic before technology can catch up in terms of value, your magic and technology become a glorified barter system, and magic merchants or technology brokers become a valuable resource separate entirely from mages themselves.


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