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There's three mighty countries in this part of the world. In each country, one finds magicians. They are very rare: about one in ten thousand babies is born with magic, and it doesn't matter whether their parents were kings, priests or peasants. If two magicians marry, their kids have a slightly higher odds of being born magical, but for the most part it follows no pattern.

Well, except political boundaries. You see, in Country A, the magicians have a form of telekinesis. In Country B, the magic is mind control. And in Country C, it is magical healing. What could be causing this distribution?

The magic border follows the political border closely, although there's a band of a couple tens of km on either side where both kinds of magicians may be born. One day, a small city-state declared independence from Country A, and over the next few years their average rate of magicians started dropping significantly. They later became a vassal of Country B, and more magicians were born again; but now they had mind control and not telekinesis.

The society is early medieval, so the countries do not have shared water systems or anything like that. The magicians are well-respected but they are not the ruling class, there simply aren't enough of them for that.

I have considered a magic radiation emitter located in the centres of each country, with different magic caused by different radiation, but that requires circular countries. And making it purely genetic doesn't work for the city-state example, where the shift in magic-kind took years, not generations.

I am looking for rational explanations for this phenomenon. It doesn't have to be science-based but it should be logical, based on the features of the world (not some god waving their hands making it happen).

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    $\begingroup$ As always: if you close-vote, please let me know why with a comment. I asked this, clearly I think my question isn't flawed. Ergo, if you don't let me know what is wrong with the question, then I haven't the slightest chance of improving my question. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    May 6 at 14:54
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    $\begingroup$ It has happened to many questions today already. There's a chance the one behind most of them is a user who's recently gained the privilege to cast close votes in questions. $\endgroup$ May 6 at 16:41
  • $\begingroup$ Your question contains some wrong assumptions about the relationship of most of the population to countries. Nation-states weren't really a "thing" until the post-medieval period, so any peasant or townsman was a citizen of their estate or town, nothing more. And their noble leaders often switched royal alliegances at the drop of a glove, given the chance. Your fantasy world could look different, of course, but that makes it much less based on medieval Europe. $\endgroup$
    – FuzzyChef
    May 6 at 22:24
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    $\begingroup$ @FuzzyChef Your comment contains the wrong assumption that my point of reference is feudal, high medieval Europe. I said early medieval, which was before feudalism ever became a thing at the local level. Take the post-Charlemagne Frankish kingdoms: they divided their territory into gaue, each lead by an appointed count. These kings reserved the right to dismiss those officers at any time, say because they wanted to give that land to Vikings instead. It was not until a few centuries later that through intermarriage and weakening royal authority, these counts became caste and feudalism was born. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    May 6 at 23:33
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    $\begingroup$ @FuzzyChef There are examples of longer lasting borders from that time, particularly between stable empires as in my case, e.g. Byzantines and Persians. And I have covered border change in the question: the magic distribution follows the border change, at a couple year lag. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    May 7 at 0:35

17 Answers 17

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Being exposed to and be able to speak a certain language is one of the conditions for triggering the magic in the bearer.

Local language influences the type of magic that can be used, because each magic type requires specific sounds to be triggered/activated.

And it is also the case that close to the border people end up knowing both languages, and that when switching to a different language different activations are triggered.

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    $\begingroup$ Ooh, I like that. It makes incantations an integral part of the magic, and an ambitious grammar reform could doom the country. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    May 6 at 12:13
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    $\begingroup$ This is a nice idea but I'm not sure how well it fits the 'Early Medieval' setting. In this time period on Earth, it would be very unusual for political and linguistic boundaries to neatly map onto one another. This was centuries before nation-states, and kingdoms were defined by the personal sway of the ruler rather than by culturally homogenous groups. For this reason I think Mary's suggestion of a mystic bond between monarch and land suits the period - and its emerging ethos of sacral kingship - better. $\endgroup$ May 6 at 19:38
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    $\begingroup$ Magic should be tied to the language in which the person thinks, not talks. It prevents people mastering magic easily just by learning another language (and allows mute people to cast). About Montefeltro's remark, I think a fantasy world in which the language you talk is so important would makes things very different than in our world. Cultures with strong magic would very easily spread and the people conquered would learn the new language fast in order to get more powerful. The language that changes the colors of flowers would very quickly disappear in front of the one that cast fireballs. $\endgroup$
    – Echox
    May 6 at 23:17
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    $\begingroup$ You could refine this further by tying it to the official languages of the major powers. If language ties in to power, then it’s likely the major powers are the ones who not only developed magically powerful languages but (intentionally or not) kept the best control over their evolution. Speaking perfect Académie Française french takes a much greater significance when it might be the difference between developing magic and staying mundane $\endgroup$
    – Pingcode
    May 7 at 4:13
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    $\begingroup$ in addition to languages frequently crossing political boundaries in the early medieval era, most people would have been multilingual from a very young age (possibly to the extent of essentially being native speakers in multiple languages). In fact, this has been the norm in most of the world up until the rise of centralised state education systems in the last couple of centuries $\endgroup$
    – Tristan
    May 7 at 12:34
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Local Deities

Centuries ago each country used to worship their own deity, these deities were in competition with each other and have the ability over certain powers, just like greek mythology, So each of them presented a boon to their worshippers to bear these specific powers to compete, over time, the competition is over but the fraction of boon still lives. And yes the boon was for the people associated with a specific country instead of their genetics.

Yearly Festivals

In yearly festivals, all the citizens of a country receive grace from their king/government, in the forms of holy ritualized water or food, or anything consumable, No one exactly knows what it is, not even the king/government, but its a tradition that they follow based on their faith, this ritual secretly embeds the specific magical properties into the citizens, and because the festival is political boundary specific, it works

Magic evolved through training/rituals

This control over magic requires specific training/ritual, one can identify a baby to be a magician, but need to provide specific training and rituals to activate the magic. These are provided by the locals, and the locals only serve the countries.

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What if we are perceiving an inverted cause-effect?

Maybe it's not the border that affects the magic, but the other way around: the magic affects the borders!

Nobody knows it but the magic spreads like some thick air, its borders are very different than a circle.

When the magic retreats from some place, the enchantment that bonds this place to a kingdom wears off. When another magic reaches a new place, an enchantment bonding that place to the respective kingdom wears in.

Some special events, like a birth, is able to concentrate some of the magic around. If the magic around is already thick enough, this concentration crystalises some magic in the baby, and a magician is born.

There's a way to measure the thickness of the magic around, but it's long lost: the shinner.

The shinner had 5 stones, each stone shone in the presence of one of the 5 ancient magics - 2 of them are maybe lost forever.

In the old times, powerful mages were born in places where the shinner shined most. In some places, more than one magic were concentrated, and also the presence of mages enhanced the thickness of each kind of magic.

All the shinners were destroyed after a very powerful mage, able to cast all the 5 magics, tried to rule this part of the world.

Mages of the only 3 magics known nowadays joined forces with non-mages to fight against the Great Sorcerer and his followers (the mages of the other 2 magics).

Centuries after, here we are: There's three mighty countries in this part of the world. In each country, one finds magicians. They are very rare...

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The king and the land are one.

There is a magical bond between the monarch and the land. The enchantment involved is so old that no one remembers when it was cast, and possibly even that it was cast. Its original purpose was to secure the land to the royal line and prevent breaking away. (There's a little slop that produce anomalies around the border.)

Those who cast it were original wizards -- very rare -- and their powers were intimately tied to the spell they cast, and now emerge in children born in the land.

What other effects are passing unseen are unknown. Those who learn about the kingdom spell sometimes fear that if the dynasty died out, the kingdom would collapse into desert and wasteland through catastrophes.

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    $\begingroup$ Or kings are meta-magicians and becoming a king requires a secret meta-spell. $\endgroup$
    – Stephane
    May 7 at 16:32
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Blood Pact with a Patron Entity.

The magic works similar to Divine (as opposed to Arcane) magic in D&D. Each country has a go-between patron entity that channels part of its power into its followers, allowing some of them to do magic. Since each country has a different entity the types of magic vary between countries.

This patronage is maintained by a secret blood pact between the patron and the rulers of each country. Being the rulers, they are entitled to create a pact that effects their citizens -- even without their consent. The patrons are not powerful enough to grant all citizens powers, so they focus only on the few with stronger magical potential. This requires less effort for the patron.

What the patron gets in return is up to you. The standard example is privileged access to the citizens' souls after they have died. Evil patrons might enslave or devour the souls. Good ones might send them to their own afterlife and maybe occasionally rally them against the forces of darkness.

This does not rule out the existence of arcane magic -- the type that comes from years and years of careful study -- in your world. Perhaps this is what the patrons ultimately use? After all a dragon/sphinx/Elder Evil has much more time to study the arcane arts than a mere mortal.

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  • $\begingroup$ This one is nice. I should have read it before posting mine. Basically a specific application of this more theoretical answer $\endgroup$
    – Kii
    May 7 at 17:53
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Each territory has their own kind of money, which comes from major mines. Mines closer to each other have similar magical radiation, and this radiation mutates people to have a particular brand of magic. The magic follows the borders of the kingdoms because the built up central hubs of the kingdom produce the most ores and so most coins are from their mines.

This makes debasing the currency especially risky, as if you debase the currency you might debase the wizards.

Border regions have a mixture because trade means that locals have a mixture of coins from both sets of mines.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like it, but doesn't this imply that the rich should have the most magicians and the poor should get few or none? Instead we have magic found in all castes in roughly equal amounts. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    May 6 at 15:13
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    $\begingroup$ Holding a single coin near your genitals in a pouch or pocket may be enough to give them the power, with greater radiation having no effect. There could even be local traditions encouraging this, like an idea that you need to carry a coin to pay the reaper. Cultures that lack traditions that make you carry coins don't become dominant powers. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    May 6 at 15:21
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You might go with something as simple as diet.

  1. Assume that there is a particular food (fruit or herb or grain) that occasionally produces magical ability in humans
  2. Assume that this food — like wine grapes — takes on different properties depending on the soil and climate it is grown in

Each nation would have its own varietal of this food, grown in certain specific regions such that the food develops different characteristics and produces different abilities. As national borders change, local populations would be exposed to the new varietal (the one provided by the conquering country), and so the type of magician born there would gradually shift.

It's up to you to decide whether people know that this food creates magical abilities. If they don't know, it would have to be a food that people eat fairly regularly: perhaps a minor luxury food or a mild intoxicant. If people do know that it creates magical abilities, then you'd have to build a culture that intentionally tries to create magicians, that tries to sabotage other nations' crops, etc.

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  • $\begingroup$ A pretty good idea, but the magicians occur in roughly equal amounts in every caste of society. I don't know of many regional foods that rich and poor eat in equal amounts. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    May 6 at 15:12
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    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm: Well, that problem disappears under two contexts: (1) if the government intentionally distributed the food in order to produce magicians, or (2) if it isn't a cumulative effect, but merely a threshold dosage (thus, a popular spice generally used in birthday desserts would be enough to expose the entire population). Your problem is that you need a 'natural' (magical) boundary to conform to a sociopolitical boundary; you need a social behavior that makes that so. $\endgroup$ May 6 at 15:24
  • $\begingroup$ @TedWrigley (2) is inconsistent with the OP's statement that babies are born with magic. Perhaps, altering the diets of pregnant women would work better. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    May 6 at 20:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Otkin: I just presumed whatever-it-was would cross the placental barrier, but yeah, I should have made that clear. $\endgroup$ May 6 at 20:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Otkin Not if you consider it as priming epigenetic changes in the parents which then unlock the potential to produce a child who is a mage. $\endgroup$ May 6 at 21:19
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Magic is complicated. Transmittal of information is slow. I am assuming magic potential is variable per person, but needs to be trained like any other skill like sewing or smithing.

Regional differences are the historical normal

We have historical analogues of different regions having different textile patterns, different textile qualities (depending on food of that animals, grazing heights etc, what dyes available, cultivars). Different pottery shapes, patterns. Different weapon, armor patterns shapes. Never mind local decoration/paint schemes of clothing armor buildings etc. Different places have different gods, or at least local interpretations/flavors.

Guilds

Compounding this is clans/guilds/societies that would deliberately keep secrets. So that learning particular techniques would be easier if you were a member of a particular group that had the technique mastered.

Modern lens

I suspect the questioner is thinking in a modern lens where entire continents mostly speak one language, from a historical perspective this is very abnormal.

In the pre-1500 time frame analogue, I would fully expect regionally specific magic. I would argue specific justification would be needed for magic to all be the same everywhere. That is, having regional magic practices should be the expected default. To not have local variation would be a mistake.

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    $\begingroup$ The issue of the question is not the existence of regional variation. I am a European, from where I live in two hours driving I can witness through three language areas. The issue is the variation of magic - something associated with nature and culture - precisely following political boundaries. Political borders do not necessarily reflect culture, so it would be odd for magic to follow it. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    May 6 at 18:31
  • $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm Are you arguing the instant a region is conquered the magic changes? That seems highly unlikely. I have seen maps where when a region is looked at the political, language, religion, ethnic and cultural boundaries are all only loosely coordinated. why would magic be any different? $\endgroup$ May 7 at 1:08
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    $\begingroup$ That is what the question is about :) Also, not the instant, it follows the border changes with a couple years of lag. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    May 7 at 12:10
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Nurture over Nature

Magic isn't so limited as to only manifest in one way.
All mages can in theory do any kind of magic.

however

Magic is also very hard to learn.

Each kingdom has its own magical schools specialising in different areas of magic, and the different kinds of magic require quite distinctly different methods of spellcasting.

Telekinesis, Mind-control and Healing are all very very different skills and training on one is not particularly applicable to another.

Externalised Willpower and raw magical force for Telekinesis. - Requiring brute magical force as an archetype.

Internalised Willpower for mind-control - The art of suppressing someone else's will to make them do what you want, a more insidious approach, but requiring more of your own willpower to get it right.

And then there's Healing, which requires much more anatomical knowledge and finesse than the others.

Roughly analogous to Strength, Will and Dexterity respectively.

A wizard from one school could in theory go to another to learn their style of magic, but may struggle to apply their existing ability to it.
The kingdoms being so distinct and their magical schools being quite selective would prevent this entirely.

Someone trained in brute force telekinesis might lack the dexterity to perform healing spells, and inverting their approach to apply their magic to someone's mind might be analogous to writing with your off-hand. Possible with practice, but uncomfortable and difficult until you get accustomed to it.

The result is that there hasn't been any formal effort to combine the disciplines of magic. Perhaps the occasional person has learned in one school and then gone abroad and tried learning in another school with some success, narratively that'd be an interesting story in itself!

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Natural Evolution

Each territory has different needs. A territory whose main biome is cold and snow would end up with people that used fire magic to be more comfortable. A territory full of different animal species would create magic that would be able communicate with nature. Or the contrary, if most of the animals were aggressive towards humans, it would be reasonable to think that humans needed health expertise to save most lives in their every day life.

I guess you would need to find reasons for that specific magic in those specific countries.

If you combine this with @L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica♦ answer. You might be able to build something interesting.

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  • $\begingroup$ this explains why there are different magic systems, but not why the boundaries between different magic systems align perfectly with political boundaries $\endgroup$
    – Tristan
    May 7 at 12:38
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Changes over time

Its the same thing as having a different languages. They're all speaking, they're all speaking a language of some kind, but over the centuries these languages have split off from one another so much that they've become totally separate.

Once upon a time all the magic was one type, but the people using it started to make changes to it that went along with the changes in their cultures, not on purpose, but over the course of... life. So just as the Romance Languages all stem from one origin (and you can still catch the similarities) the magic has deviated enough that it seems like totally different types.

So, can someone learn all of them, the same way that someone can learn many different languages? No. Why? Because in making changes they've also made changes to how a person takes in the magic. You have to be part of said culture to learn that cultures magic.

But what if someone knew the original "language" that all the magics stemmed from? Still no. The new magics have changed enough that it wouldn't help you. Knowing Latin doesn't mean you can learn French from it.

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  • $\begingroup$ but why do people only get the magic of their nation? This explains why there is variation but not why it aligns precisely with political boundaries, something that is decidedly not the case for languages $\endgroup$
    – Tristan
    May 7 at 12:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Tristan, Excellent question. Once a person starts down the path of learning a specific countries magic it changes them so that magic from other nations is like poison to their bodies. it is included in the spells for the same reason that spies might use codes, so the enemy cant decipher it. My languages analogy is just an example. The magic in this case is more complicated than just learning a new language. Language just communicates information. Magical spells carry out actual functions. $\endgroup$
    – Len
    May 7 at 13:37
  • $\begingroup$ but why do people only ever start learning their nation's magic? No other technology works this way $\endgroup$
    – Tristan
    May 7 at 14:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Tristan, because that's where they are born and raised. If you're born and raised in Italy you're going to learn Italian. Also, if your parents are Christian you're probably going to be Christian. You're inculcated at an early age. And no other technology works this way, because it is no other technology. Its magic. The ultimate handwavium. $\endgroup$
    – Len
    May 7 at 15:38
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Clans, not Borders

Given the infrequency of magical talent, it's entirely likely that born magicians are part of the same family or clan, and are related to each other.

You've said "1 in 10,000 people" are magicians. A medieval country's population, at least in European history, is between 10,000 and 700,000, so you're talking about a tiny number of magicians. Denmark would have had 60, and Venice only 6. It thus makes complete sense that such magicians would be all related by blood. Unless you're talking China, of course, but then you don't have lots of separate countries.

If all the magicians are clans, then it makes sense to have 1 country :: 1 clan :: 1 type of magic. Throw in magical skills being taught in secret, and the idea that learning one type of magic makes it harder to learn a second one, and you have a self-sustaining system.

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  • $\begingroup$ The countries in question are a bit larger than average, comparable to Bulgaria in your link, so that's a couple hundred magicians per country. Also how do you make all the magicians related when we observe a 1/10000 ratio for every layer of the population? What I meant is that for a given newborn, there is a 0.1% they have magic. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    May 7 at 0:47
  • $\begingroup$ Nothing in the real world is evenly distributed through the population; why would magic work that way? $\endgroup$
    – FuzzyChef
    May 7 at 18:06
  • $\begingroup$ I would say that most talents and forms of intelligence are distributed pretty randomly; it is pretty problematic to consider one kind of human more intelligent than the other. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    May 7 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ But they're not, at all. For example, specific kinds of musicality run in families. This is due both to inherited traits (like, it's very useful for a pianist to have long fingers) AND because kids who grow up with musical parents have a huge advantage in becoming musicians. It would make complete sense for magic to work the same way; you have to be exposed to a certain kind of magic from an early age to pick it up. $\endgroup$
    – FuzzyChef
    May 7 at 22:40
  • $\begingroup$ My goal is to make the magic potential an intrinsic part of each country, ignoring class or background. Training is going to be useful for any magician but the untrained kids that happened to be born with magic are going to be pretty powerful on their own. Justify it however you want but that is what I am going for: equal magic baby potential for everyone. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    May 7 at 23:10
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Magic is a way of thinking.

Look at sports. Even though fans of two teams might be looking at the same sport, with the same people and the same actions being taken they can still be heavily opposed to one another simply because they support different teams.

With magic it is the overall feeling of unity and nationalism that shapes the magic that develops. Only a select few people are born with the ability to connect that feeling to their country or leaders and use those same neural pathways to power their magic. In fact, potentially everyone in the world could use magic as long as they have the right feelings for their country, kinsmen and leadership. Its just that only a few get born in the right type of country. This immediately explains why a new state will have a different amount of magical people being born inside.

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I think the kind of magic you seek could be something like Flag magic associated with something like Oath magic.

Swearing an oath to the political entity possessing the Flag would then unlock the powers of the Flag magician to use it's Mana for this specific Oath.

The basic idea is that a political symbol or object carries a set of skills, while pledging allegiance unlocks it.

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The Mandate of Heaven

What does it mean for one state to rule over a particular area? A government is a social construct, an abstract thing. Laws, rules, customs, and institutions have no inherent physical existence. But when people agree, collectively, to recognize their existence—to follow the rules, to enforce the laws, to honor the customs, and to respect the institutions—states become very real and powerful indeed. The recognition of the people allows the state to alter reality. A strong state can build great cities, or burn them to the ground. It can dam torrential rivers, and build large and complex irrigation canals. It can richly reward its most loyal servants, and put criminals and traitors to death. The state can do all this, because its citizens/subjects agree that it can.

And, if the people agree that, in this most fundamental sense, their government is legitimate, and that its power is real, why should Heaven doubt them? Specific forms of magic are the result of the Universe recognizing the legitimacy of a state's claim to rule a particular area, a legitimacy which follows automatically from de facto rule itself. Under such a system, the nature of magic in a particular realm would reflect the nature of that realm's society and government. Maybe Country A (with telekinesis) has a society focused on trade and industry, with bustling markets full of merchants from many lands, and where inventors and craftsmen are highly respected. Country B (with mind control) might be ruled by a particularly tyrannical regime, where rules are meant to be followed, and sedition and heresy will get you burned at the stake. And Country C (with healing magic) could have a more pacifist culture; the army is small, violence is rare and anger is frowned upon, people leave their doors unlocked and will always be glad to host a weary traveler in need of food and rest.

Under such a system, radical changes in a country's culture and political system could lead to an overhaul of their magic system. A change on the scale of the French Revolution, Russian Revolution, or the rise of Communism in China would definitely lead to this. And a major civil war or other internal conflict could leave magic unstable until the situation settles. However, the mere replacement of one dynasty by another, or a similarly small change, won't necessarily have large magical effects if the basic values that support the social order remain unchallenged.

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Your question is clear. But your fear of a close-vote is justified. It is inherent to the "Lord of flies" way this free forum is governed. Go figure!

But the answer is also clear. It is intrinsic to magic/religion/mysticism to be culturally delimited.

Well, except political boundaries. You see, in Country A, the magicians have a form of telekinesis. In Country B, the magic is mind control. And in Country C, it is magical healing.

What could be causing this distribution?

Culture!

Jews circumcise their children on the eighth day.

Your three countries magicians children are being submitted to three different kinds of biological, magical - or both - surgical intervention.

Is it a state secret? Why not?

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Through oaths of fealty

If the setting is medieval then the borders of countries will be defined by which Lord controls the land. Medieval lords often demanded oaths of fealty from lesser lords, from knights and from serfs. This oath is what defines which kind of magic you stand a chance of developing.

For the purposes of your scenario, lords must insist on everyone swearing fealty. The process of swearing in a whole country takes a few years, which explains how long it takes in your example to switch from one magic to another.

This implies that a type of magic comes from a particular noble house: swearing fealty to a particular family gets you a particular power.

Imagine if swearing loyalty to the Starks gave you a chance of developing werewolf powers, but a peasant down the road who had to swear oaths to the Lannisters instead has a 1% chance of being able to magically defecate solid gold.

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