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How do I stop annoyed wizards from killing people all the time?

In my fantasy world, wizards are quite powerful, and they can kill anyone they know the location of with a thought. The usual methods of doing this are:

  • Teleporting a object into their brain or heart (People will know the victim has been killed by magic, but they won't know who did it)
  • Fireballs, Lightning, etc.

An example

All right, so Bob is a wizard (like level 20 in 5e terms), and Joe is a average joe; a serf to a feudal lord, so he can't afford fancy protections like Antimagic fields, or wizard bodyguards.

Joe has... I don't know, looked at Bob wrong. Why doesn't Bob kill Joe on the spot?

Extra info

  • Law enforcement might work, but remember that these are wizards who can kill people on the spot, so you might need a more powerful variety
  • It's very hard to tell who killed whom when you use magic
  • People are poor, and often can't afford protections.
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    $\begingroup$ We recommend not to accept an answer within 24 hours. This gives more time for people all over the world to see and respond to the question and answers, cumulating to possibly better answers. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Oct 20 at 13:44
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    $\begingroup$ Because if they killed everyone, the story would be over. $\endgroup$ Oct 20 at 14:04
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    $\begingroup$ because if bob keeps doing that he is going to have to start growing his own food and cleaning his own cess pit. plus Bob still has to sleep... $\endgroup$
    – John
    Oct 21 at 0:06
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    $\begingroup$ you've just invented Samurai-wizards. Instead of slaying peasants with a katana, they do so with a flick of their wands. Sheep are sheep, wizards are wizards, and serfs are very, very polite. $\endgroup$ Oct 21 at 13:22
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    $\begingroup$ The trivial response is that Power Corrupts, and the history of the world proves it. So if you give wizards power, they will abuse it. That's why gaming systems need the artificial guardrails of gods/alignment/arbitrary limits/etc. Something more powerful (and more clever) than they, but somehow inhumanly incorruptible. $\endgroup$ Oct 21 at 15:31

26 Answers 26

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If the wizards are more powerful than lords, then they form a mageocracy.

If the wizards can easily defeat a lord and their feudal levies, then they will quickly become the lords with their feudal levies. They are then responsible for the peasants. They can murder them, use them in twisted experiments, or govern them responsibly. Stopping any rogue wizards would be up to other wizards.

This will discourage the Joes of the world from looking at them wrong.

If the wizards are less powerful than lords, then the lord decides if they are worth angering.

A lord might need a wizard more, and so keep peasants away from the mage. Another might decide that they can just kill the wizard, and use a small army to put them down.

It also depends on how important the peasant is. There's several ranks of peasants.

Serfs. Essentially slaves, they are owned by the lord, and valued only for their productivity. The wizard might need to pay a price for their loss if they want to be part of the community, but this murder will not be taken overly hard by most. The peasants may stage an uprising if they are afraid enough.

Poor free people. People who are free to move around, but have less wealth or power. Their murder will carry some weight, in the community, and religious or cultural forces may push for vengeance, requiring a response.

Rich free people. Artisans, servants of the lords, yeomen. These people have connections, and are often the heart of communities or guilds. Murdering these people will invite a heavy response for the disruption it causes.

If they are each as powerful, there will be a delicate balance.

Some lords will be annexed by insane wizards, some will defeat them. This will discourage wizards from simply rampaging through peasants unless they are sure they can win, but will mean that a lot of diplomacy will be needed to make a stable society.

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  • $\begingroup$ If the wizards are few you get a balance of power situation. Vernor Vinge, The Witling, is such a world. Everyone has magic but the commoner can only teleport where he has been under his own power. The high power wizards among other things can teleport what they can scry. Since the world plays as close to honest with physics as it can this is extremely powerful. There aren't enough of them to make a viable magocracy. $\endgroup$ Oct 21 at 23:55
  • $\begingroup$ DnD wizards have a lot of options with their spellcraft to allow even a single wizard to rule a huge area. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Nov 1 at 16:08
  • $\begingroup$ One thing that would be worth thinking about is that you would eventually have wizards building defences against these 'assassinations' - creating an arms race of sorts. If you can kill someone by teleporting something, then naturally spells to prevent stop teleportation in an area would "evolve". Then magic evolves to counter that, etc. Lords would try to employ wizards to help defend themselves - creating an interesting dynamic of "us" vs "them". $\endgroup$ Nov 1 at 19:37
  • $\begingroup$ @NepeneNep D&D wizards have nothing like the offensive power of the archwizards of The Witling. $\endgroup$ Nov 2 at 3:30
  • $\begingroup$ Wilting wizards have more firepower, but dnd wizards have more flexibility that they lack, like true polymorph, wish, control weather, and clone which grant them some unique nation building abilities. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Nov 2 at 10:18
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they can kill anyone they know the location of with a thought

The wizards very rapidly kill each other.

It makes sense. Any of those bastards could kill you with a thought and probably... too late, one of them did. Because you were getting around to killing all of them, in pre-emptive self defense but you had not had your coffee yet and you were too slow.

The only wizards left will be secret wizards. And normal people everywhere will always be trying to smoke them out, because as soon as you out a wizard that wizard keels over with dog poop in his brain.

People will actually be very polite to one another and try their hardest not to act wizardly.

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    $\begingroup$ The plural of wizard is war $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Oct 20 at 13:51
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    $\begingroup$ It should be noted that this is the Discworld solution, humorously expanded upon in several volumes. $\endgroup$
    – vidarlo
    Oct 20 at 20:14
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    $\begingroup$ This was my thought exactly. You'd have a perpetual, Death-Note-esque hunt of all wizards by all wizards. The materials, knowledge or processes required to become a wizard would be the most highly guarded contraband in the world. +1 $\endgroup$
    – Qami
    Oct 20 at 21:59
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    $\begingroup$ This assumes that wizards can't protect themselves from other, less powerful wizards, except by pre-emptive attack. If they had magical protection the stronger wizards would rule the weaker wizards (and everyone else). $\endgroup$ Oct 21 at 10:29
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    $\begingroup$ @RobinBennett the question says "they can kill anyone", $\endgroup$
    – Jasen
    Oct 23 at 0:16
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Why doesn't Bob kill Joe on the spot

Well, the answer is in your question: "a serf to a feudal lord". In theory, a feudal lord isn't just there to extract wealth from their subjects, but to provide some services in exchange... typically protection.

Bob will not blast Joe with magic, because Joe's lord has their own magicians who will see what is going on and Bob risks censure at best, or smiting at worst. You don't go mucking about with the social contract by murdering people all willy-nilly and expect to get off consequence free.

If Joe's lord is weak and is unable to protect his subjects, then he is at risk of a hostile takeover.

Of course, Joe's lord just might be uncaring and callous, and Joe might just get blasted and no-one will care (or at least, no-one who matters). But someone's gotta plow those sheep and milk the turnips or whatever it is that peasants do all day, and if you can't discourage the murderwizard from blasting people left and right then eventually you're going to suffer from loss of income.


For a vaguely-related real world example, consider Kiri-sute gomen, the right of a Samurai to use their sword on some unfortunate member of a lower class who, like as not, would not be armed or trained to defend themselves (and might not even have the right to do so).

There were strict rules with both legal and social consequences for unreasonably murdering people though. It could easily be the same for your magic-users.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! This is great. $\endgroup$ Oct 20 at 12:11
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    $\begingroup$ One notes that Lords may expend superficially disproportionate efforts to take out such wizards because of the message it sends. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Oct 20 at 12:13
  • $\begingroup$ This was a great answer, but Nepene Nep's is better, sorry. $\endgroup$ Oct 20 at 12:40
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    $\begingroup$ milk the turnips if you wish, but please don't plow those sheeps :D $\endgroup$
    – Kaddath
    Oct 21 at 8:17
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    $\begingroup$ This is the historically correct answer. Belonging somewhere, with the protection it brings, was a huge thing in the middle ages. So much so that banishment was often considered worse than death. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Oct 21 at 16:55
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How do I stop annoyed wizards from killing people all the time?

People try to not upset the wizards.

Kings always had the ability to have someone head chopped off and if someone did something to upset them they got chopped.

Magic is no different. It's just power. No different to a gun, a sword or even an army.

The difference is how people treat the wizards. People bow and scrape and call them by their titles. They run to fetch them a cup of tea. They really scrub the bathroom when cleaning.

For the wizard, disintegrating needs to be worth the effort. Sure you could fry Bob on the spot for spilling your tea but then you'd have to find someone to replace Bob and teach them how to make the tea just the way you like and suddenly it becomes too much of a headache. Maybe just a short term curse of erectile dysfunction would be better for Bob so he can get on with his job.

Turning someone into a newt really is a punishment when you want your lesson to go to the unwashed masses so they know their place.

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  • $\begingroup$ "The difference is how people treat the wizards. People bow and scrape and call them by their titles. They run to fetch them a cup of tea. They really scrub the bathroom when cleaning." And every guy with a bow and arrow who finds himself behind a wizard will be very, very tempted to take a shot. $\endgroup$ Nov 7 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ And if the wizard has a magic shield in place the archer knows what will happen to him and his family, a lesson for the unwashed masses........ $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    Nov 7 at 21:55
  • $\begingroup$ The OP stated, "In my fantasy world, wizards are quite powerful, and they can kill anyone they know the location of with a thought." There is nothing said about magical shields, and the only example given is one which requires active wishing and concentration. So, how do these magical shields work when the magician does not even know the arrow is coming? If the arrow is reflected back to its point of origin, the archer merely has to step aside after he looses the arrow. Won't work at short range, but it will at long range. $\endgroup$ Nov 7 at 22:41
  • $\begingroup$ Nothing said doesn't mean they don't exist. If wizards were that weak, people would just assassinate them and nobody would have a problem with them. $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    Nov 8 at 10:31
  • $\begingroup$ @WhatRoughBeast If the arrow is launched, the archer, his family, and their families will die. Even if the mage who kill them in retribution secretly cherish the death of his/her grave enemy... $\endgroup$
    – Archelaos
    Nov 8 at 16:29
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Humans are social

No matter how powerful people are, they still abide to many social and cultural rules. Anyone wants to belong somewhere, consciously or unconsciously. Even if they are more loose with the rules for themselves, the threat of consequences still looms over them. You can see that extreme criminal organisations and even complete psychotic individuals are aware of this and in most cases aren't killing everyone they don't like.

A powerful mage could kill anyone that looks funny, but as mentioned, many layers will prevent them from doing this. When growing up, their caregivers likely have put some effort in prevent this. Friends, family, other role-models or people they look up to can further suppress these urges. Finally there's people policing about. If you kill someone, there will near certainly people asking questions and probably wanting to incarcerate you. Maybe you accidentally kill a family member of a powerful wizard as well and gain their wrath.

But you can approach this in another way. Imagine you were transported to a world where you were the most powerful, for example, because you are the only one with a big machine gun that has unlimited ammo. Anyone else has at best their fists as weapons: they can't even throw a pebble at you. Would you just kill anyone in the street for looking funny? Are you ready to live with the consequences?

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    $\begingroup$ You have significantly more faith in the average human than I do... If someone can gain enough power to no longer face consequences, I think a high enough percentage of those people would abuse that power to cause problems (E.g. In modern day: Dictators, Politicians, the ultra-rich. And none of them are as consequence free as a powerful wizard in a feudal setting) $\endgroup$
    – DBS
    Oct 21 at 11:00
  • $\begingroup$ This is the real answer. It isn't in human nature to just go around killing anyone you have a slight disagreement with. Most people would be forever traumatized by acting this way. $\endgroup$
    – kloddant
    Oct 21 at 16:11
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    $\begingroup$ @DBS Dictators and other people in power are the exception, not the rule; the selection bias inherent in the process of becoming and staying a dictator renders them unrepresentative of the larger population. Dictators become dictators because they are terrible people; they aren't just selected at random. And they are more inclined than most to be ruthless because they are scared that if they lose their position, they will be executed. The OP did not say that the wizards have become wizards in the same way that rulers become rulers; they might be a random slice of the general populace. $\endgroup$
    – kloddant
    Oct 21 at 16:17
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    $\begingroup$ @kloddant If these wizards can eliminate their opposition using magic, then as soon as a single "evil" wizard arrives, surely the exact same selection bias applies here? (Which I guess rather leads towards Willk's answer) $\endgroup$
    – DBS
    Oct 21 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ @DBS that would mean that a larger part of wizards will want to bring him to justice. If someone is prone to killing anyone on a whim, they might (try to) kill you or someone you care about in a whim. At a certain moment it can become a cascade. People would want not to be seen as a wizard, as anyone being a wizard is a threat to anyone, including 8ther wizards. Before that happens a lot of wizards are likely to act for the benefit of at the very least themselves, trying to prevent wantom killing. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Oct 21 at 20:26
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Let's also look at a slight rephrasing of the question: how can a society be stable when overpowered wizards can kill on a whim? This perspective shift is useful, since a stable society wouldn't have no magical murder, but it would be rare enough that most people could go about their daily lives, just as in our own world. How rare depends on what sort of characters and world do you want to explore, anything from a world where magical murder doesn't show up as a concern in the story to one where it's a primary theme and its affects on individuals and society is a driving force of the story (though you can get the latter even when magical murder is quite rare). Where the world falls on this spectrum depends on stabilizing factors (with no single deciding factor). While much of the below isn't explicitly cast in terms of costs, benefits and incentives, they can be identified in the list.

Generic

Some factors will exist in any world. These aren't stated as rules of the world so much as their occurrence is natural and prevalent, such as in the attitudes (and thus behaviors) of folk. The attitudes of mundanes and wizards will affect each other, which can provide additional reinforcing stabilizing (and occasionally destabilizing) affects.

Natural Consequences

Psychological Consequences

Many people, fortunately, simply have a hard time killing others. Doing so severely impacts their psyche, so they avoid it. It can take extreme circumstances to overcome this.

This only works if the other is seen as a person. Wizards might view themselves as superior to others to the point that they consider others to be a lower order, which would be a destabilizing factor (see Wizard Attitudes below).

Mundanes Assemble

If the mundanes outnumber the wizards and wizards become a large problem for society, the mundanes will band together to attack the wizards. If the wizards are so powerful that the armies are unlikely to win, it might still take long enough for a wizard to destroy an army that they'd rather spend their time on their Other Concerns (see below). It could be that there's a tipping point in the army size, beyond which a wizard isn't likely to prevail. Even if they can teleport away, they may have to leave behind their valuable equipment. This factor involves periodic instability, though it might not happen during the time of the story.

The above factor may stabilize into a condition where wizards are attacked on sight. Wizards might thus have to take care in concealing their powers to the point of not using magic. From the people's perspective, if someone is killed by magical means and you don't have a way of determining who did it, you might not care exactly who pays the price as long as someone does. This can be a destabilizing factor as not only wizards will suffer.

Even if it doesn't come to a physical fight, wizards will likely have to deal with society. This will temper their interactions.

Demographics

The ratio of mundanes to wizards greatly impacts instability caused by magical murder. If most mundanes go their entire lives without encountering a wizard, magical murder won't be a social problem. For those rare times that mundanes encounter a wizard, their behavior will likely be such that they won't give the wizard cause.

If wizards are common, or even a majority, it can be bad news for mundanes, for even if you aren't the target, you might become collateral damage (fireballs having an area of effect).

Mundane Attitudes

How mundanes view and interact with wizards will naturally contribute greatly to stability.

Fear

Mundane folk will do just about anything to avoid offending wizards who can easily kill them. Not giving wizards reasons to kill off folk around them will go a long way towards making it a rare occurrence. Just how fearful mundanes are sets the tone of the world. It might be a world that is terrible to live in for mundanes, but is still stable.

Mundane fear can drive wizards to isolation. This could motivate wizards to not give mundanes cause to fear. Alternatively, if wizards aren't concerned with being excluded from mundane society but a wizard is driven to contact mundanes, it will likely be out of need. The wizard can't then wantonly kill whomever they come in contact with, else their need won't be met. The wizard may get angry at times, but will largely keep that anger in check. Isolation results in various characters of wizard, such as great and powerful, or mysterious and reserved, or kind (so a mundane may not recognize them as a wizard at first).

Respect

If other factors make wizard perpetrated death rare and it's also perceived to be rare by mundanes, they will still treat wizards with respect because of wizards' great abilities.

When treated with respect, wizards will likely respond with respect.

Wizard Attitudes

Either due to training or as a response to experience, the attitudes of a wizard are at the core of the question.

Mental Disorders

A wizard's inclination to kill someone without reason is a destabilizing factor. The more rare that malignant mental disorders are among wizards, the more stable the society. This also ties in with demographics, as prevalence of these disorders can be offset by having fewer wizards.

Values

Any value wizards place on mundanes will be much more variable, less a matter of natural incentives than of (wizard) education, (wizard) social norms, and individual philosophies. These may be less satisfactory, as they seem more arbitrary and due to the finger of the author (and may need to be stated, rather than appearing like background radiation). However, you might be able to connect these with another factor so it doesn't feel so arbitrary.

Wizards might take a paternalistic stance, viewing mundanes as being akin to children in terms of power, and thus something to be protected (even from themselves). As with children, while wizards might get angry and even punish them, most wizards won't go so far as to cause any permanent, debilitating damage.

Even without paternalism, not all wizards would use powerful magic, or even any magic, to deal with a blundering mundane if it's not necessary. It might be viewed as overkill, which an economical wizard would avoid, or excessive force. It all comes down to what a wizard considers a measured response, and whether they have the presence of mind to give it.

Wizards might not much care about mundanes and what they do in a particular interaction (see Other Concerns). Consequently, instead of teleporting something inside a mundane and killing them, a wizard's reflexive reaction might be to teleport the mundane outside the area, such as to the street, a dung heap, a nearby lake or river, or a desert island. This can even happen if wizards view mundanes as lower orders, just as you might wave away a moth that's flying around you. Of course, some wizards might respond with a magical swat.

At an extreme of wizards viewing mundanes as lower orders, wizards might enslave or otherwise control mundanes. In this case, they would likely avoid what they consider "property damage". This sort of reprehensible value is best suited for stories where it is thematically relevant; even then, be especially careful with this one, given the potential subtextual interpretations.

Other Concerns

Wizards have their own affairs. Possibly due to other factors (see Opposing Powers below), some reactions (including murder) might lead to distractions from a wizard's normal affairs, so they avoid them.

Leaders

Where "Mundanes Assemble" concerns an individual versus a group, this factor concerns two individuals: a wizard versus a leader. The power of magic can be balanced by the power of command by leveraging the potential power of the group.

Exceptional Circumstances

While, in general, a wizard is capable of easily killing a mundane, there might be circumstance preventing this. Something might have happened in the story that creates these circumstances, the most obvious being loss of power (so obvious, it could be cliche). This sort thing isn't so much a stabilizing factor (unless wizards commonly lose their powers for periods) or way of preventing magical murder generally as it is a situation in which a mundane accosting a wizard might arise.

Perhaps the wizard is trying to create or preserve a relationship, and flying off the handle would endanger this. Going the other way, a wizard might be making use of magic (no matter the consequences) in order to impress someone.

World Specific

Magical Limitations

Just because magic offers vast power doesn't mean it's also unlimited. It sounds like the magic system in the original question might not have many limitations. This can lead to an uninteresting story. Revising this to create direct limitations on magic can result in a more compelling story. See Sanderson's second law for more.

Scope

From the description, magic can create basic physical effects (possibly others). It's hard to stop physical effects from being used for murder for the obvious reason: deadly physical effects happen regardless of intent or even agency (fire burns, cold freezes, blunt force causes physical trauma &c) unless there's something that specifically counter-acts the magic, thus preventing the effect. The question specifically wants to avoid meta-magic and counter-magic for commoners (anti-magic fields may exist, but are expensive/rare), which only leaves room at the ends: what lets the wizard cast magic, and what happens after the spell.

At one end, requirements might not be met making the use of a spell impossible or there might be interference preventing the casting. Things like conservation laws and other physical laws (if present) might impose requirements for the spell. Energy to heat something has to come from somewhere, or go somewhere to cool it. Electricity requires a difference in potential and follows the path of least resistance; if you can't get the configuration right, lightning might not hit the intended target, especially if there's a nearby electrical ground (if lightning magic is common, settlements might have lightning rods all over them). It might not be possible to teleport an object into solid matter simply because two different objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time (though this wouldn't rule out transposing a chunk of someone's body with, say, a rock, air or their fancy new shoes they wouldn't shut up about the entire coach ride). The question mentions casting spell with a thought, which might be too powerful to be interesting. If a spell instead requires saying something or making gestures or using an object, a mundane might be quick enough to interrupt the casting. Spells might have what is essentially costly or rare ammunition, so wizards won't waste them on an annoyance. Even if only thoughts are required, it's hard to think when you're beaten about the head and adrenaline kicks in. If the thought takes time, this leaves wizards vulnerable (to slapstick humor, if nothing else). While there are many ways to limit the scope of magic, the real trick is to find one that's interesting. The story themes can inspire limitations that mean something.

You could go the other direction, making it possible to resurrect the dead, but that introduces its own narrative problems by trivializing death.

Fatal Flaws

It might be that wizards are glass cannons: while their power can't be stopped, they can be killed without too much difficulty, given the right circumstances. It might take an arrow-storm. Perhaps a magical trap; contract another wizard to create a cursed item that appears as something the wizard would want (a rare tome, a powerful artifact), and somehow bring it to their attention. It might be as simple as sneaking up on them while they sleep. Your average Joe won't be able to protect themselves, but they sure can retaliate.

If a substantial part of a wizard's power comes from outside them, this source might be more vulnerable than the wizard. The wizard will try to protect it, which can be the source of tension in the story.

Supernatural Consequences

Consequences are an indirect limitation.

If magic is tied to character in the same way action is (i.e. what type of person someone is impacts their actions, and vice versa), an act of killing will also have supernatural consequences.

Magical

Killing someone (either magically or mundanely) might create a magical stain that impacts their ability to perform certain types of magic. This is easiest to explain with theurgical magic, where a wizard invokes another entity to perform a task. This other entity might be able to detect a killer and refuse to work with them. Similarly, a wizard might invoke an entity, rather than communicating with them directly, to trigger the magic, and this entity might not like it if a wizard kills in their name too often. This can create a destabilizing factor, if there are also entities that prefer to work with killers, though this only provides incentive to wizards who want to work with these entities (and will likely be considered the evil wizards of the world).

Even if magic isn't based on invocation, killing might affect a wizard's relation to the source of magic. It might not even have a direct effect, but build up over time and the behavior of all wizards. Killing and other evil acts might poison the well, eventually harming the wizards themselves. The source might be sentient, semi-sentient or otherwise have a moral code or an incarnation that will step in and deal with wizards (individually, or en masse) that misbehave, or there might be feedback from the type of magic that gets used back to the source, changing its nature.

Spiritual

Killing could attract unwanted attention from supernatural entities. Killing might affect a later life (if there's reincarnation) or an afterlife. You could even try to work in consequences that supernaturally happen before a murder, though this is hard to do sensically. Of course, this affects all murder, not only magical.

Opposing Powers

Even if average Joe doesn't have the power to oppose the wizard, other powers might exist in the world. They may be on par with the wizards, or the wizards' power might not be as effective against them.

The Foe

Wizards might be engaged in a struggle against some other, non-human power. This both constitutes an Other Concern and can be a stabilizing factor in its own right. If the opposing power is a threat to mundanes as well as wizards, the mundanes will treat wizards with respect. Society might even be structured so as to support the wizards in their struggle.

The Foe might somehow benefit from people killed by wizards. An untimely death might become a soldier in undead army, or provide some sort of death-energy (such as souls-as-fuel), or affect the worldly balance of life and death. Perhaps it's simply a matter of PR, as the people's fear will lead them to align with the foe; the people don't even need to be aware that the foe exists.

A Foe is a major world component, and so may not be suitable if you want to focus on something else for the story.

Wizard Police

For many reasons, wizards may not want other wizards to act out their whims (such as wizard-on-wizard crime). Wizard society may thus create its own police force. This is particularly common in worlds where magic is secret.

Wizard Assassins

If there's money to be made, someone will take the job. A troublesome wizard will motivate the populace to hire anyone who has the power to take down the wizard, even if individuals can't afford it (see Mundanes Assemble above). This might lead to a class of wizards that specialize in anti-wizard combat. This will prevent many wizards from creating wanton destruction, lest the town band together and hire one of these assassins. Cheesy, if done carelessly.

Magically Immune

Some entities or people might be immune to some or all magical effects. These could form the basis of organizations to police wizards.

Wizard Society

While Wizard Police are a specific, hard power against misbehavior, wizard society (if the world has it) at large may have norms against killing mundanes. Even if wizards aren't concerned with exclusion from mundane society, they likely won't want to alienate their peers. Additionally, wizards raised or educated in a wizard society will largely take on the values of that society, which likely includes precepts against killing in various circumstances.

Secrecy

Some of the previous factors suggest situations where wizards must keep their powers hidden. This will not only rule out many magical murder methods for being too flashy, but may even any method that has a hint of magic, as it will put communities on guard. It could be used as a destabilizing factor; a wizard might surreptitiously cast a few spells (or a mundane might fake their effects) to amp up paranoia in a community and watch it tear itself apart.

Conclusion

The above categories and examples aren't exhaustive, but should cover enough ground to keep you busy.

Preventing magical murder happens in larger context, both diagetic and non-. There are likely other aspects of magic, such as limitations, that might end up impacting this question as side effects. Even the most basic magical spells, such as mending or light, would in actuality have tremendous economic (and thus social) effects. See "Magic rules without logical loopholes".

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  • $\begingroup$ This is so detailed and well-thought, that I can hardly believe it can be written just like that off the head. Please, don't misunderstand I am sincerely impressed. I am just wondering where this kind of world-building knowledge comes from and if I can also tap into it? There should also be a way to bookmark a specific answer on StackExchange and not only the question... $\endgroup$ Nov 12 at 13:59
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Wizards can kill people indiscriminately with a thought - but not with an instinctive response.

High level wizards have a lot of spells to manage, and a lot of them to prepare any given day from their spellbook.

Thing is, you'll need to be clearly thinking about which spell you have prepared that you want to launch, and where to launch it at.

So magic is not like walking, or riding a bike - it's like doing math in your head. If you think of the math incorrectly, you get the wrong answer, and the magic doesn't work as intended. Either it doesn't work at all, or it's some other random spell that likely isn't as good at what was intended (i.e. lifting a spoon off the table versus teleporting a spoon into someone's brain.).

And it's not instinctive response, or something they can do unconciously.

So if Joe sneaks up behind Bob and shouts "Boo!", then runs away - Bob has the following reactions:

1.) Shock and Surprise.

2.) Anger at the person for interrupting their concentration.

3.) A strong willingness to harm whoever shocked and surprised them.

None of these are good points to actually cast a spell, and Bob has to calm down, and then think the spell they want, and where they want it.

The time it takes for them to clear their mind is, due to lingering emotions and thoughts, long enough for Joe to get out of sight and able to hide. And/or enough time for said high level wizards to decide not to cast a spell at their target, once they've calmed down enough to be able to think at all.

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CSI Wizardry edition.

Well, maybe a little more than that.

In the early times of magic research, a group of researchers discussed and created counter-procedures in case someone ended up exploiting these new powers. An anti-magic research group was founded.

This anti-magic group has created and limited research breakthroughs that affect magic particles (I shall call them, magicles):

  • The anti-magicles shield that protects themselves from an unexpected magic attack, expensive but it can be set on a large area;
  • The magicles scanner that is able to scan magicles prints left on people/objects and compare them to another sample. This one is incredibly useful since that if you want to study magic you must register your magicles print that (conveniently) is mostly unique between people. Any other kind of magic research is considered illegal.

From here, plot-wise, you can create a lawful restriction to powerful mages. An investigation force that investigates murders/attacks/threats. An interception force that hunts and intercepts unlawful criminals. A protection force that defends VIPs from those who desire them harm.

You can also add a little bit of corruption in the institutions so that this kind of equipment end up in the wrong hands, or... malfunction in certain specific scenarios wink wink... The sky is the limit.

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  • $\begingroup$ In my universe they are called threads (not magicles.), although that's not too important. $\endgroup$ Oct 20 at 14:36
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It's really not thaaat hard to find out who killed the poor serf that annoyed the only Wizard in town.

So if these level 20 wizards are rare, you just have to look at location. If they are semi-rare, you can look at motivation. If a Wizard is getting framed, you can test this by having him under observation (with his consent), so you can see if he casts or not. It's not foolproof, and there might be some causalities, but that's the best you get, if there are no ways to determine who cast a spell.

Because only other Wizards could take them down, you would need a Wizard police force.

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Self "executing" "contracts"

How does a wizard send an object into Joe's heart when he can't see Joe, let alone his heart? Magic! So if another wizard casts the same spell, he can will it to send an object into the heart of Joe's killer -- even if he doesn't see that person or know what he looks like. And it gets there ... by magic!

Your society is one where it is dangerous to stand out, and killers stand out. Of course, killing killers also stands out -- but a large organization can kill more of their killers than their killers can kill of them. (I think I wrote that right...)

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Mana / Magical stamina

A wizard can do these things quite easily, but it nevertheless weakens him a little for a while until he "recharges". Also, it's cumulative. Also, it requires weakening his defences to perform an offensive action.

This might matter a lot, if wizards are by nature uncooperative and especially if they are able to steal magical items from other wizards. For a wizard to weaken himself, even slightly and temporarily, to lash out at a mere mundane, might result in him becoming preyed on by a rival wizard biding his opportunity.

So in general they don't. If a wizard really has it in for a mundane, he will hire an assassin, as any powerful mundane would, and keep his magic, to counter magical threats.

You might even get wizards paying mundanes to try to get other wizards to lose their cool. High risk of course, but magical rewards might be enough of a temptation.

Magical combat would usually take place between wizards of matched ability, and would not be spectacular (or not unless and until there is an outright loser). It would mostly be a battle of wills, each trying to find a weakness in the other's defences. A wizard would be even less likely to attack a lesser wizard than a mundane. Greater cost, for scarcely greater reward.

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For want of a better barrier, build your world in such a way that killing someone takes a toll on the killer.

You might say the toll was always the same, or proportional to some quality of the victim… directly or indirectly, meaning killing a lesser being might cost more than killing a greater, or vice versa.

Whether that applies only to using magic, or to all killing, is also up to you.

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Magic isn't for free

Let me explain. In a world where magic isn't an effortless activity, I would think twice before wasting my time and energy in killing poor Joe. If executing magic requires a lot of energy and a lot of mental concentration, Bob will think twice if killing Joe is an action wortwhile all these efforts. Let's assume teleporting that rock requires an effort similar to lift 85kg for ten meters. It's doable, but not a job you'd do just because "Bob looked at me"

Humans are precious/dangerous

OK: Bob can kill without any effort. Then, for some reason, humans are precious and killing him would clear your bank account for sure. Lucky Joe: you're safe! Another similar option is humans are dangerous. Like a frog could sweat toxins, killing a human could result in a potentially deadly outcome (e.g., divine being shoots a good old thunderbolt to Bob or a "magic field" resonates with human brains, 'causing the sorcerer death).

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A wizard, no matter how powerful, will still need people to do tasks for them.

If the wizard kills everybody, or instead of everybody enough people to convince the survivors that emigrating is better than living under the menace of somebody totally nut, who will:

  • produce food and drinks for the wizard?
  • produce any item the wizard needs?
  • deliver any service the wizard needs?
  • be the cannon fodder to buy the wizard enough time to cast the spell wiping out those who want to harm them?

Sure, the wizard might use magic to replace the people, but that would make their day so busy with their chores that they would not be able to slap a mosquito tapping on their arm, meaning that they will become very vulnerable.

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Religion/afterlife

Wizards are taught that if they indiscriminately kill people they annoy the Wizard God and then they don't get to go to wizard heaven and will instead be sent to wizard hell.

Some suspect that they are already in wizard hell while living on Earth.

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"all the time" is the important part there.

With the setup you've provided, it's quite clear that wizards will kill people - occasionally. That's not going to make much of a difference in a world where the average life expectancy is 35 and the death penalty is common for things we'd consider minor crimes today.

But killing people "all the time" not only gets old and boring, it also makes lonely. If you want to be lonely, there's easier ways to get there, so we can assume most wizards don't want to be lonely, and they would learn rather quickly that murdering people left and right doesn't make you a fan favorite and tends to drive up the price of servants rather a lot.

So simple rational thought will keep any smart wizard from indiscriminate, constant murder and reserve his power for when it really matters.

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Not really an answer, but too long for a comment:

The movie "9 to 5" or "Nine to Five" with Dolly Parton, Lilly Tomlin, and Jane Fonda was based on interviews of women and how they were treated in the workplace. One of the question asked was if they had ever fantasized about killing their boss, to which every single one had, as per the documentary on Netflix describes.

This would be one way to root out previously unknown wizards. A boss dies, so someone in the dept. could be a wizard. Follow these people's interactions into their private lives, and see who had mysterious deaths around them, like their HOA president, school teachers, bullies, or whatever.

This could also be a plot twist, where someone is blaming others for being a wizard. The boss dies right after firing Susan. However, that same boss chewed out Charlie 6 months ago and Charlie also hates Susan, so Charlie waits to frame Susan for the murder and being a wizard. It could have been any other patsy, but Susan was just lucky timing for Charlie.

As for preventing wizards from killing people, just make the magic traceable back to the wizard that used the spell. Then the usual laws will take effect. You'd also need a kind of force shield around police, lawyers, judges, etc. so the accused can't just mass murder their way out of being held accountable.

This nullifies my ideas above, but it's the only thing I can think of to make this an actual answer. However, to make my original ideas relevant again, make it so Charles knows how to make it look like Susan cast the spell, but anyone looking closely enough can see that trail, too. Maybe Charles is framing Jacob for framing Susan for the killing. And maybe Mary put a spell on Charles to hate the boss she despises to start this all off. Quite the domino effect here, and probably not at all what you want your story to be about. Lol.

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There are many excellent answers for particular power checks against wizards, but it seems to me there's a simpler solution. People will allow their freedoms to be pushed, but only up to a point. Wizards are basically metaphors for massive power imbalances between people anyway, so just go the French Revolution route. Unless your wizards are willing to go as far as to overtly enslave civilisations, they have to be palatable enough to the society they live in to be feared and respected, without necessitating an organised response.

A wizard who abuses his power and starts murdering people on whim would get deference to their face, but would incite discontent among rules and commands. Lacking a direct avenue of retaliation, the situation would quickly evolve into a terror movement. As long as the wizard can kill people on whim, but is not powerful enough (or unwilling) to enslave an entire civilization, said civilization will eventually retaliate against whimsical murder.

There are many cautionary tales like this in our own history, as surely there would be in this one.

This is all assuming, of course, that people in your world are like us, in this sense. But if that's not the case, you can think up any number of ad hoc reasons why your society can stand up to this wizard in some capacity, e.g. they're all honor-bound to kill themselves when they disrespect the wizard, so the wizard would either have to grow a thicker skin or quickly run out of people willing to commit fealty to him. You can think up many reasons why this wouldn't be a problem, but if it is, a wizard can't survive for long in a society in this fashion.

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A wizard can only kill someone with a thought if they know where the person is, so in public, everyone wears identical all-concealing robes and changes their name to Bob, and they switch off location on their smart devices.

How do they specify the target? Do they point at them or think 'over there standing next to Fred', and magic works out what goes where and how fast?

Finding the location could be quite difficult, since everything is moving in space all the time. You'd have to know where you are and where they are relative to you. If you're moving an object into someone's heart, maybe the mass of the objects matters or the material or what it's got to teleport through besides Bob.

The closer they got the easier it would be, but if they got into line of sight or right up close they wouldn't need magic, and they risk getting into Bob's pitchforking range.

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Magical bounty hunters for psychopathic wizards.

The greatest problem is not knowing what wizard did the killing. I would suggest making the magic leave a signature trail, thus making it possible to determine who the magic came from. Perhaps registering your magical signature is required for licensed magecraft.

Unlicensed mages, and psychopathic mages that go around killing regardless, will be a huge problem for society. "Stop killing all the farmers just because they smell, you buffoon, we can't magic up fresh crops!" - killing random civilians becomes a huge problem and those wizards should be made outlaws.

When you have outlaws you'll have bounty-hunters, willing to risk life and limb to collect the bounty placed on the head of the murdering wizard for his transgressions. Wizard bounty-hunters will be well equipped with anti-magic spells and be specialized in the ways of facing magic.

alternative: magical cold war

This also requires magical death from being investigated, but if it is what is to stop the family or friends of the peasant to spy a wizard and hire another wizard a continent away to do the same thing? You can't be a wizard and live within an anti-magic field, you'd never get anything done! The moment you step out, however, you end up suffering the same fate you imparted on some random peasant.

Mutually assured magical destruction encouraged wizards to curse or incapacitate, rather than kill outright.

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You could have it that casting such a spell required a high level of mental focus, and [most] wizards just are not able to do it when angry. If they are normal (social) human beings, anything bad enough to drive them to killing someone would stir up significant feelings of anger whilever they were thinking about it.

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It sounds like what you have in mind may simply be too powerful to allow you to realistically stop it from happening.

But there are generally a few ways to stop people from doing a thing, that could potentially be applied to your idea:

  • Prevent them from doing the thing

    Have some aura covering big cities which prevents teleportation magic (like in Harry Potter).

  • Make doing the thing more difficult

    Teleportation could require a lot of effort, a extensive ritual, some internal "mana", which recharges slowly or is in limited supply, or some rare ingredients. Or perhaps it requires a sacrifice. Or perhaps it's highly imprecise, so, instead of teleporting some rock laying on a table, they could just as easily teleport their own arm.

  • Make the thing weaker

    Maybe they need to be really close to the source and destination to teleport something.

    Maybe they need direct line of sight (so basically a gun).

  • Catch them after doing the thing

    The spell might leave some trace at the destination that allows others to track the wizard. Or teleportation magic leaves a trace on the wizard (and teleportation magic is banned, so you only have to find the person with teleportation magic residue on them).

  • Make it a different thing

    To the untrained eye, it looks like teleportation. But any wizard knows teleportation is just a silly idea. It's actually time travel or time suspension. Anyone who wants to "teleport" something needs to place the object at the destination at some point in the past and then cast a spell to "suspend" an object by removing it from existence for some fixed duration, after which it will reappear.

    Now you have a situation where they need to firstly know exactly where someone will be when ahead of time, and they also need access to that place (where someone might see them or they may leave some other trace).

    There are rumours of those who can unsuspend an object at will (instead of waiting out the duration) or who can send objects back in time, but those are just rumours... right?

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Self-imposed moral restrictions

In many worlds wizards need to have some sort of formal education to be able to cast powerful spells. As part of graduating from such institution or getting a wizarding license they could be required to make a magically-binding oath to only use their powers for good, however that's defined by other wizards. And the consequences of breaking it could vary depending on the seriousness of the offense, ranging from a mild headache to being completely stripped off of magic or even death.

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The same way you prevent someone with a gun from just shooting anyone at random:
A justice system that will detect the transgression, and impose punishment accordingly.

After all, in modern society, (notably in america), just about any person has access to a very lethal tool called a gun. With this gun, it is very easy to kill someone. Not quite the instantaneous death your wizards can achieve, but a very good step in the same direction. So, how do we prevent any idiot with a gun from just killing everyone in sight? Police. Courts. Jails. Maybe even the threat of life termination.

Just apply the same principle in your world. And be sure that the courts have their own tame wizard to get rid of the criminals, but hide your wizard away so none of the other wizards know his name, or location.

Yes, i know the system is not perfect. Criminals still use guns. Mass shootings do still occur. But they are the exception, not the common practise.

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Could the act of killing a person be costly, or is it as simple as 'a thought'? Perhaps the wizard needs to concentrate intently for an hour in order to kill the person, or the wizard will be extremely fatigued and need to sleep for a day. Or doing so destroys a piece of their soul, or angers a god.

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You could think about Joe as the weight of his balance. A creature that is not affected by his magic (the magic of this specific wizard), therefore, Bob wants to keep him alive so he can learn more about it. Nothing would be more disturbing to a wizard than something that he can't understand.

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