I have an idea for a specific fantasy-world and setting (for a pen&paper RPG), but I would like some thoughts of others on it. In particular, how such a world would lead to the formation of different kinds of societies and political/economical systems. What would they look like? How would they have evolved over time?

The basic setting

In this world magic is abundant and the human-like inhabitants (call them humans In from now on) of the world are the only creatures capable of casting/utilizing magic and, naturally, are dominating the world as a species.

The magic is a form of energy which a human possesses. It can be willingly 'used-up' by casting magic of all sorts, but a certain amount of magic energy is simply 'used up' by living, nurturing the body. (This can replace eating/drinking but does not have to.) If a human has used up all his energy, it means death. (If there is death before that, the remaining energy is released chaotically in a burst of light. However, usually a human would use all his magic to protect/heal as long as possible...)

Where does the magic come from?

Small amounts of magic can be 'harvested' from the world's sunlight similar to photosynthesis in plants. This process on average yields slightly more energy than a human would need on a daily basis, so that humans 'low on magic' (and hence near death) would usually become catatonic and 'stand around' (in the sunlight) until their magic is restored to certain minimum level. Over time, 'excess' energy accumulates which gives the ability to cast magic.

Every human is also born with a certain amount of magic - taken from the parents (both) at time of creation. The amount of transferred energy is somewhat related to the intensity of the action. However, transfer - and hence creation of new life - can only happen if both partners willingly participate.

Money system

This is now the crucial bit. In ancient 'pre-historic' times during evolution - when humans developed their magic abilities - they at one point learnt how to 'transfer' that energy between themselves. Similar to the evolutionary developed transfer during reproduction, this transfer can only happen if both participants willingly cooperate. One can neither steal nor force-feed magical energy.

This magic transfer enabled the 'social animal' human to be cooperative and steadily become the dominant species on the planet. Already early in history, 'magic transfer' started to play a similar role like money in our world. Just that it literally is a transfer of power (and life).

The question(s)

Giving this as a pre-text, I wonder what sorts of societies would have grown over time and how their inner workings would be. What would 'poor' and 'rich' mean? How 'balanced' would an economy be? Note that magic can not be stolen and people would generally not kill themselves by becoming unreasonably poor. On the other hand, these humans would not necessarily be 'good' in their nature - they are as fallible to darker emotions and motivations as we are. So greed, power-hunger, envy and the lot will be part of this world, as well as social mechanism (working or not) to keep those in check.

In my RGP setting I'm aiming at a world which has historically evolved to the equivalent of the medieval times - so not a fully modern society (yet) - but I'm highly interested in how the 'history' of such a world would have developed from the beginning to this state, and how this 'medieval' time therefore is structured.


closed as too broad by bilbo_pingouin, bowlturner, Green, Serban Tanasa, James Jul 28 '15 at 14:02

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  • $\begingroup$ Your setting is interessant, but I am afraid that the scope of your question is too broad. You could consider to split it in different linked questions. $\endgroup$ – bilbo_pingouin Jul 28 '15 at 9:54
  • $\begingroup$ How is this really different from the modern monetary system? $\endgroup$ – Erik Jul 28 '15 at 10:06
  • $\begingroup$ Define "willingly". If I hold a knife to your kids throat can you "willingly" hand over your stored magic. If I manipulate the economy in town so that your son will starve to death if you don't hand over your magic at the company store at inflated prices can you? Where's the line between "willing" and "willing to do so in preference to the alternative". $\endgroup$ – Murphy Jul 28 '15 at 10:38
  • $\begingroup$ Also, how long-lived at these people? can someone heal away the damage from old age with enough magic? Can people get sunburned? does napping with a load of mirrors focused on you help? Do people get less magic in winter and hence have to save up stores to survive the winter? $\endgroup$ – Murphy Jul 28 '15 at 10:42
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    $\begingroup$ FYI, this is similar to the (future, not fantasy) premise of the 2011 movie "In Time" (imdb.com/title/tt1637688). Beware, it has Justin Timberlake in it, but IMO it's nothing like as bad as you might expect. In the movie you can take time from people against their will, but it might still give you some relevant ideas. Even if it doesn't give you relevant ideas, it's worth knowing about other fiction in the area... $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Jul 28 '15 at 15:01

This is in no way a complete answer but I can think of a few effects of the rules you lay out.

1: The poor will have a lot less children. It's very similar to only being able to have a child if you can first afford to put 50K in trust for them.

2: Far fewer illegitimate children if both partners need to willingly choose to spend the energy to make a child.

3: The rich are going to have a far larger portion of the children.

4: If magic can prolong life as well then your society is going to have a lot of downward mobility but very little upward mobility. There's lots of farms with very few peasant farmers to work the land and lots of nobles with big families where those in least favor will eventually end up sliding to the bottom of the pile and ending up as peasants themselves. Expect it to look like the society from Pride and Prejudice on steroids. When the king has a new child everyone moves to a set of rooms one position along that are slightly lower status and one family gets kicked out of the manor and has to become lowly farmers. Everyone desperate to slow their slide down the ladder because wealth is life.

5: Sunlight and shows of wealth. In modern times a tan means you can afford to travel somewhere sunny and spend your time on the beach and so was high-status. In olden days pale skin was a sign that you could afford to not work outside in the fields. In this society being under a roof rather than taking every moment you can in the sunlight is going to be a sign of wealth. Expect great manors to be dark as a show of wealth while the servants quarters would have big windows.

6: Banks. A great old family isn't going to want to risk losing everything if the head of the household is assassinated. Power can only be stored within humans and so the richest are likely to have individual "bankers" who act as vault and security themselves who don't go out in public, avoid risk and simply act as a store of great families wealth inside well protected vaults. they're also powerful mages if they need to defend themselves. They're likely to be well paid themselves but expect there to be something to make sure they don't use the stored power to cease control such as a hostage held in another location.

7: Source slaves. This one depends on your definition of "willing". If magic is valuable enough expect the underclass to be kept in conditions that minimize magic expenditure, use of power to be punished and all excess magic collected by their masters in exchange for food, water and they and their relatives not being tortured.

8: There's going to be a lot of snake oil salesmen claiming to be able to enhance/boost your magic.

9: You're going to need some way to quantify magic as it's transferred and some way to prove that a certain quantity has been transferred otherwise there's going to be a lot of disputes along the lines of "He said he'd give me 5 fireballs worth of magic for my goat but he only paid me 2!", "oh no I didn't, I paid him in full!"

  • $\begingroup$ A lot of good suggestions. I particularly like "P&P on steroid" :c) but also #5. Your vision of the world is rather... dark. I wonder if a (stable) society could/would grow to be "good". Thanks for all inspirations. $\endgroup$ – BmyGuest Jul 28 '15 at 11:32

There is one major change: the lower classes are now the source of all money. In our world, they are technically the source of a lot of wealth, in the sense that it's their labour that produces the food/goods/buildings that society spends money on, but usually they've been in a position of providing labour to their superiors in exchange for food, shelter and other necessities (or money to purchase said necessesities) - in essence, trading work for life. In this world they have life already, and their superiors want them to give some of it up. That means that a lot of the classic scenarios - poor people working in hard jobs on farms or in factories because it's the only way to survive - suddenly make no sense at all. Only the upper classes earn any kind of income - the lower classes are expected to provide money, not get it. That means that having the equivalent of a low-ranking 'job' actively decreases your ability to survive. Persuading anyone to give you money is therefore going to take something fairly significant - either offering attractive enough perks that it's worth the deal, or having enough leverage to make 'an offer they can't refuse'.

How that will play out depends heavily on whether a leonine contract is considered 'willing cooperation'.

If it is, it seems likely that you would see fairly similar social and political development up till something like the early feudal system, since the basic driving forces remain the same. Those with the strength and inclination to exploit others will (try to) do so, meaning that offering payment to some individual or group who can defend you from marauders is a worthwhile investment. Those defenders (and their children) then have both the resources and free time to concentrate solely on the business of being good fighters, which then solidifies their position, and fairly quickly you have the equivalent of knights and/or warlords.

This is where things get a little more interesting. In the real world, there are essentially two ways* to become a member of the upper classes - an ability to enact physical violence (see: King Arthur, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, etc.), or through owning something that makes you money (see: Louis XVI, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, etc.). Most forms of nobility start out as the former, and gradually move towards the latter over time, as they use their capacity for violence to get control of the majority of the wealth and then their heirs decide that all of that rough-and-tumble stuff is below their dignity.

In this world, however, there will be far fewer options for 'permanent' wealth. The traditional one is land - but historically, 'land' really meant 'farmland'. It was so important because it was the source of food, and therefore the means of survival... but in this new world, humans don't need food to survive. That means they can't be tied to the land in the same way that they were in our world.

If some ambitious warlord tries to start exploiting his position, and taking more wealth from the people under him than his protection is really worth, he's going to find himself faced with some... difficulties. He must be expending magic constantly - both in order to enforce his will on the populace, and to maintain the proper level of lifestyle (even if he's willing to be frugal himself, any enforcers he's got working for him are likely to be in it solely for the perks... so he'd better provide those perks, or lose his position). The only source of magic is people - and it's a slow process, so he needs lots of people. But he has no way of making them stay within his reach. If they live in the farms and towns where his enforcers can find them, he can bully them into handing over their magic - but they don't have to do that. An entire town can get up and flee into the mountains/forests/swamps, or anywhere else that they can hide out and dodge his enforcers. Alternately, they can defect en masse to the lord in the next county over, if he's willing to give them a better deal - without having to worry about his territory not being able to support that many new inhabitants. In the real world, only small numbers of people can do that, and usually only out of desperation, because it's so much harder to find food, shelter, etc. - but here, magic can cover all that. As long as there's enough sunlight, any number of people can survive anywhere.

All of that implies that we have a situation where A) a person's wealth is directly proportional to the number of followers/vassals they have and B) it's relatively easy for those followers to change their allegiance if someone else makes them a better offer. That means that noblesse oblige is going to be a big deal in this world - any noble who doesn't take his responsibilies seriously enough is going to find himself alone and powerless sooner or later, as he suffers a steady hemorrhage of underlings. On the other hand, a competent, honorable leader who really does offer his followers a better life will find his power growing steadily.

Combine the facts that 'good leader' = 'more power' and 'enough power' = 'immortal', and you get a very real possiblity of a long-term golden age. The old adage about power corrupting might throw a spanner in the works, of course, but that's not necessarily inevitable. There have been historical examples of people who are both good and powerful - it's just that they inevitably die, and sooner or later one of their heirs is a spoiled brat and/or an idiot. Whether any individual could resist the corruption of power indefinitely after becoming immortal is an open question, since there's a distinct lack of real-world immortals available for testing purposes. I'd suggest that in this case - where we've selected someone with an exceptional level of leadership ability, honesty, and sense of responsibility and then placed him in a society where people in power are expected to not abuse that power by their peers, as well as the lower classes - it would at the very least take a long time for any corruption to set in.

  • $\begingroup$ I was under the impression that eating food+water freed up energy so anyone living purely on magic would have a smaller disposable income. Also locations of castles/fortresses tends to be optimized for protecting farmland in our world and areas too poor would be ignored. In that world anywhere you could live comfortably would end up with local lords as well even if it's a dusty mountain with little farmland. Hiding somewhere dark away from sunlight is also likely to be deadly making it hard to hide large numbers. $\endgroup$ – Murphy Jul 28 '15 at 13:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Murphy I'd expect that eating does free up magic - but losing some disposable income is far, far less scary than starving to death. Food would be useful, but it's very much not essential. As for your second point, you're half right. There will be local lords anywhere you can live comfortably, but mountainsides and swamps are still going to be places where you can only live UNcomfortably - not worth settling permanantly, but still attractive for a runaway serf. The point is that owning land is no longer valuable enough to make you a lord in-and-of-itself. $\endgroup$ – Toby Y. Jul 28 '15 at 14:12
  • $\begingroup$ The land is only valuable because of the people living on it - and the people don't need the land enough to be forced to stay there. It's a luxury, not a necessity. $\endgroup$ – Toby Y. Jul 28 '15 at 14:21
  • $\begingroup$ Very much like the line of thought you've laid out here. It lends itself to a classical RPG situation: Countries of good vs. a (suddenly) spoilt brad trying to get everything and ruining everything he touches. $\endgroup$ – BmyGuest Jul 28 '15 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ How can you have vassals? There is no way to force people to hand over magic! It has to be voluntary. $\endgroup$ – Mathmagician Jun 27 '17 at 4:21

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