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In our non-magical reality, feudal nobility is postulated to have evolved from warlords - an armed man in charge of a group of armed men. Since they can intimidate less-well armed or trained people, they are effectively in charge. Then, as they must defend their territory against other warlords, they must gain the cooperation of the people they rule (or they might defect), hence the social contract between vassal and lord, and when a stronger warlord comes along that both know that one cannot defeat the other, the lesser warlord becomes a lieutenant to the stronger, hence chains of fealty.

Now, suppose that we have a world where magic exists , and magicians (very similar to the magi in the Ars Magica RPG, who are quite rare due to some semi-random magical factors that only combine fortuitously in a few individuals) must study for many years to gain their powers. An apprenticeship is 15 years long, and is typically begun at ages between 4 and 7. To gain in power noticeably, a magician must study for months, and the greatest typically spend the majority of their lives in study - think of them as being like research scientists in that respect.

However, these magicians, once they become sufficiently powerful, can achieve many things. They can extend their own lives to as much as a couple of hundred years or so. A combat magician could devastate an army without magical support single-handed. They can control the minds of others, build and destroy rapidly, control the elements, create illusions or go unseen, all with only a few limitations, based on the amount of study they have put into each area.

In the Ars Magica RPG, which is based on medieval European history, these magicians are explained as not being interested in temporal rule, and are all members (on pain of death for refusing to join) of a secret group that enforces this secrecy and detachment from mundane society, as well as their magical abilities making most of them just feel wrong to mundanes to a greater or lesser degree.

However, how realistic a scenario is this? We have a small minority of people with great magical power who certainly have the ability to rule effectively, more so than some thug with a sword and delusions of their own self-importance. They can use their magical arts to divine the will of the people or alter it, and can reliably get to the truth of a situation regardless of the lies the mundanes might try to tell unless another magician has interfered.

However, to achieve these capabilities, they must first have studied for as much as half a mundane lifespan - probably on the order of 30 years from age 5 or so - and must continue studying around 90% of the time if they want to continue advancing their skills.

So: Would these magicians want to be in charge, given that the demands of governing would detract from the time they might otherwise spend in study, and that if they spent any significant time governing, their advancement would suffer and leave them open to conquest by a magician who had studied more? What might government look like in this scenario?

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    $\begingroup$ Replace "magic" with "science". Who governs? Not the scientists! They're busy doing sciency stuff. $\endgroup$ – Octopus Jan 7 '15 at 8:14
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    $\begingroup$ Usage of magic is not explicitely allowed by Geneva Conventions and Hague Conventions. More seriously, replace "magic" with "nuclear weapons" and you get our world's situation. $\endgroup$ – mouviciel Jan 7 '15 at 8:28
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think that magic and science are good analogs here: science is mostly used (from a warfare standpoint) to make a good weapon/tool that someone else uses. It's not used by the scientist, because it doesn't need to be, and introduces the problem that your scientists will now die off too easily, since they're front-line soldiers. Magic is different though, you have to be there to cast the spells to fight. Only the very skilled, or very careful, would survive long enough to rule, and that sounds very similar to the warlords of old. $\endgroup$ – Tim S. Jan 7 '15 at 12:50
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    $\begingroup$ my answer was "Havelock Vetinari" as soon as I read the title! $\endgroup$ – MD-Tech Jan 7 '15 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ There are already great answers, but just to add a simple reference: Jedi. It could give you an idea how things could be organised. $\endgroup$ – bilbo_pingouin May 22 '15 at 8:40

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Magicians will rule by proxy.

Might keep the thugs in power, but tell them what to do. "Get me more research materials/subjects." "Get me some good eats." Etc. And "Don't bother me with trivial BS, I'm studying."

Probably have a lesser caste of magical enforcers, or make the apprentices do it, as part of their service: which they'll do so they can learn from you (assuming there's some value, like in ARS magica, to learning from people who've done work before you instead of studying being something that each individual mage needs to do himself (recreating the wheel) - hermetic texts vs., say, studying from vis)

Truth detection, and grill your proxy leaders and/or charm them into slavish obedience. Come out every once in awhile to win any wars your vassals/proxies are waging to expand/defend your kingdom/magedom.

Probably sumptuary (thx Monty) laws, with strict enforcement: nobody dresses like a wizard, or suffer dire consequences. Nobody harms a wizard (who is identified by their dress) or suffer dire consequences. Nobody tells a wizard "No".

Probably need some investigatory wizards, to track down any assassins. But that should be easy for powerful wizards, and will quickly stomp out any of those tendencies in people/alternative power structures.

Everyone gets tested for magical powers. Everyone. And they all work for the mage(s) in power.

Mage in-fighting, who's the controlling in-power mage? Run it by council, and you'll have politics. Wizard-war amongst mages, when you can't settle it otherwise (assuming you can't enslave a wizard; if you can, first wizard to power charms every other mage to work for him, and apprenticeships never end). Escalation of power: magical-nukes, dead-man switches, MAD, etc.

Also, I'm assuming that this:

Simply put; what can ruling a regular kingdom offer them, that magic cannot offer them more easily?

is not completely true. You do have a time in a wizard's life when he's not that powerful (apprenticeship) - so during that time period, a regular kingdom can offer him things; like food, candles, and a place to study: that he can't get himself. In addition, even after he's become powerful, he's got to take time to study to do each of these things: ie: he can't transmute gold, and raise towers, and make amazing food, and do every other thing - since each one is going to require some study (and/or magical energy/time to cast spells). He's going to work on some things, and not work on others. And he's probably going to want to spend time on learning to defend himself from other mages, and to attack them. As well as to control regular humans (keeps him out of fights with strong dudes who're quick with a sword), and protect himself (sucks to fall into a lake of lava, must do something about that).

If a wizard can do all of the things himself (or get them done by magic: ie: summon up a genie) relatively quickly in life - and doesn't need social interaction with other humans (wenches/poolboys, friends, lovers, families) - then they don't need to be in power of a social network of other humans/run a magedom, unless they want to. But in that case he's not really a mage, he's just a demigod. The assumption of a mage is that there are some limits to his power/power-use.

So, I agree with Serban - we need more information on how magic works in your world. Strictly the magic system as defined by ARS Magica (which edition?)? Or roughly like ARS Magica? Or are there other dissimilarities? How does the power-level go up, and how long does it take to acquire new abilities?

Also, I disagree (a bit) with Serban about gerontocracy (unless it's descriptive: ie: Communist China & Korea are descriptively gerontocracies, but that's not their form of government) if there's natural talent, or if a mage can specialize heavily in influencing / killing other mages. Only the old ones in those categories will be in the running for power.

And, it's kinda relative. If they're living to 300 years, and you're comparing them to mayflies (I mean, norms), then yes, of course its a gerontocracy. But compared to other mages, maybe not.


Since it seems like (perhaps?) you're playing an ARS Magica world, you should note the kinda cool thing they did in (kinda) limiting magic-families: taking a life-extension potion/treatment makes you sterile. Of course, as a beginning mage (playing RaW, for at least the editions I'm familiar with), you're unlikely to be able to get access to such stuff until fairly late in life - and you can start pumping out kids at ~14, and was done so in the Medieval period (maybe a bit later for men who don't have a place in society/still apprenticed). Anyways, nobody has said the Gift is not heritable, just that they've not found it to be so. Of course, they don't show mage families. I always have my characters pump out a few babies before taking their potions. You can even get those kids through the childhood death period too.

There are also some hard-ish caps on power in ARS Magica. Twilight, especially in the versions I played in, would get you if you studied too much magic (Vim). Every 5 (or 10?) levels in Vim you got a twilight point. Which will rapidly put you out of business.

Another problem is that the wizards get dotty. And very powerful. Kinda need a council to take down those wizards, just out of self-preservation.

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  • $\begingroup$ Consumption laws? The European laws about clothing etcetera and who could wear them were Sumptuary Laws (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumptuary_law) $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Jan 6 '15 at 22:47
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    $\begingroup$ Politics is a dirty business. Any mafia don knows it's wise to let others do your dirty work for you! $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jan 7 '15 at 3:39
  • $\begingroup$ This answer seems to presume that the mages are both already in power and plentiful enough to operate a government. Otherwise they cannot enforce many of the controls you propose. The question states that mages are "quite rare" and must spend about 90% of their time in study to achieve and maintain their powers: mages in general so not have the resources to control even a single nation, let alone maintain enough world control to ensure their safety. $\endgroup$ – Asher Mar 29 '18 at 19:35
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If a single mage can nuke an entire army, obviously they will rule, if only to keep other genocidal powerhungry mages in check.

Motivation to rule
Think about it. Why do these magicians study magic? For the sake of learning alone? Or out of greed for power? If you study continuously for 200 years and then you die of old age, what have you accomplished? Unless the study of magic is so rewarding as to be addictive (i.e. mages wake up every morning thinking of nothing but learning more magic, morning after morning after morning, their entire lives), then the accumulation of magical power will be (also) a means to an end.

There is an obvious heterogeneity of preferences and circumstance among regular people (some choose to become criminals, other mercenaries, others to be doctors). If the genetic (or whatever) factors that make one into a mage are randomly distributed in your population, of course you'll get mages with a variety of interests. There will thus inevitably be some ruthless psychopathic power hungry mages that will literally try to take over the world. Since it's unlikely that the very first powerful mage will have been a psychopath (or is it?), presumably the devastation wrought by the powerhungry will have forced even the less politically inclined into action to stop their rampage (if only out of sheer self-preservation).

How does magic start?
Since any noticeable magic requires serious study and experiment over decades, it's somewhat unlikely that you would have mages come into their powers in pre-agricultural societies, since among hunter-gatherers you don't have enough specialization of labor to afford a class of people dedicated to such (slow payoff) lifelong study. So the magi would be an outgrowth of the shamanic (part-time specialist) and priestly (full-time specialist) classes in ancient society, or if magic requires a quasi-scientific method, they would start off even later in human history, perhaps initially a subset of monks and court scholars.

Does the first mage control all others? It's easy to imagine that with a century's head start, the first mage would be able to dominate the minds of secular rulers and younger mages alike, if they were so inclined. However, I find it more likely that magic starts off in a similar fashion to the scientific revolution, where a wide array of distant scholars enthusiastically correspond on their initially small discoveries ("Treatise on the Magickal Lighting of a Match"), so effective magic emerges in many locations with near peers.

Political organization
How you go from here depends on how magic scales with age and learning. You have to decide. Is your average 170 year old mage exponentially more powerful (godlike) than a 70 year old, or simply a bit stronger (once or twice stronger)? Are power limitations in any way innate? Is there such a thing as extraordinary natural talent? That will determine whether you get a Gerontocracy (where the oldest mages rule), an Aristocracy (where the strongest mages by talent rule), or some general direct democracy or Althing (if none has an overwhelming advantage, it is a stable arrangement if each mage has a near-equal say).

Obviously, they will have administrators and non-magical keepers of the peace (possibly magically enhanced with weapons and amulets if the setting allows it to give them an edge), to allow themselves to dedicate more time to study.

Now let's look at the three cases:

Gerontocracy (exponentially more power with age and study)

The oldest mages, when not lost to the world in some incredibly abstruse quest in the higher dimensions, are so powerful as to tear a younger mage to pieces with nary but a bat of their eyelashes. One does NOT anger an old mage. Some of the grumpier have been known to set villages aflame for poor service in a bar. Especially among the eldest senile ones, the older and younger apprentices alike tread with care, and even their strangest whims are fulfilled in full. There is little of politics, since no one outside one's (tiny) age cohort is anywhere near in power. There is a rigid age-bound hierarchy of power, and any deviations are met with severe rebuke and even binding (preventing the mage from studying). Hierarchies mean most will know exactly their place, and complex ceremonies are there to facilitate and ease interactions, and diminish the room for errors and miscommunication. The rare wars of the Elders (the latest is slanderously rumored to have started over a mistake in a tea ceremony) can devastate entire lands, leaving them dead and barren for generations.

Aristocracy (power is in the blood)

Power is in the blood, and only unlocked by study. Mages are painfully aware of this, and guard their bloodlines jealously. Genetics has been worked out talomere to talomere. In the Great Game, marriages are planned generations in advance, assassinations and byzantine schemes are rife, and you have a near-feudal system with the powerful families of Magisters at the top, Maiors in the middle, and the barely magical Compulsors tasked with keeping order among the plebs. Under the Lex Sanguinis, genetic modification is forbidden under penalty of death, and Questors are tasked to seek out and destroy all who trespass. For the powerful, however, the law is respected more in its universal breach, and all the great houses who do not wish to fall behind secretly engage in extensive genetic manipulation. After generations, their offspring are so monstrous as to barely be recognizably human.

Althing (power is rather evenly distributed after serious study)

Since the power of any one mage is no match for the combined power of the Althinghouse, the Commonwealth of Magi, a majority rule system is in place, where politically skilled mages strive for power and influence, while most mages simply don't care enough to be bothered, and would rather transmute earthworms all day than attend a general meeting. For this reason, full meetings are rarely held, and an informal council (the Guyde) handles day to day business, but remains subject to the will of the full Althing if such is called. A force of Lawreglans acts as police, subduing unruly mages and those overly abusive towards the Commoners.

TL;DR version: In a world with magic, who would rule? MAGES. Wouldn't they be shy, or recluse? NOPE, out of fear of, you guessed it, other MAGES. Gotta fight fireballs with fireballs, man.

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  • $\begingroup$ Since it doesn't appear that you've looked at the Ars Magica RPG rules (free at warehouse23.com/products/ars-magica-4th-edition-core-rulebook), The Gift (which makes a person a potential magus) is rare and is not necessarily heritable - a maga may give birth to a mundane baby, or her child may have The Gift. Exposure to magic seems to be a strong factor. As for power, old magi are pretty powerful, but every magus either has a specialty and is weak elsewhere, or is a generalist who can be outclassed by a younger specialist in the specialist's area. It's not black and white. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Jan 7 '15 at 0:29
  • $\begingroup$ Well, sounds like an Althing kind of world, then. I was simply putting out options based on game theory and your description. If you feel strongly you must be bound by Ars' Magica rules and canon, you probably already have your answer there in the manual. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Jan 7 '15 at 0:35
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not using Ars Magica canon, just the spellcasting mechanics, which was the point of the question - is the Ars Magica setting realistic? I find it interesting that you've so closely duplicated Ars Magica's Order of Hermes' tribunal structure in your Althing part of your answer. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Jan 7 '15 at 0:40
  • $\begingroup$ Well, as I said, "if a single mage can nuke an entire army, obviously they will rule, if only to keep other genocidal power-hungry mages in check." $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Jan 7 '15 at 0:45
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I think they would not want to be in charge. Simply put; what can ruling a regular kingdom offer them, that magic cannot offer them more easily? Unless such a magician gets some sort of kick out of bossing people around, there's nothing to gain from having a kingdom.

Want a sweet tower to call your home? You can either spend two years having some schmucks build it for you, or you can magic it together in an afternoon. Want to have riches? You can build mines, dig the earth bare, make smelters... or you can just conjure it up. And the same goes for just about anything a wizard would want.

There's no real point in terms of raw power for a wizard to have a kingdom. It is much better for them to work on their research, because it'll be a more efficient path to whatever it is they are looking for.

(Unless, again, they like bossing inferior folk around, in which case they would probably want a kingdom, and it's not like anyone (except other wizards) would be able to stop them really.)

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  • $\begingroup$ As a rough parallel, how many of the Forbes 400 run for public office? $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 7 '15 at 4:59
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    $\begingroup$ As a parallel, no 2012 congressional candidate in the US was elected without a donation from one of the 31,385 people who were responsible for the 28% of all disclosed (no longer required in the US) campaign donations in the election-cycle. Btw: their min: 13,054 and median: 26,584 donation amounts. (why can't I use a dollar sign?) $\endgroup$ – user3082 Jan 7 '15 at 7:24
  • $\begingroup$ Remember that even these super wealthy people cannot summon things from thin air like wizards can. Perhaps a more valid comparison is how many of these wealthy people got involved in the determination of alpha male status in bands of roving chimps. That's more how far a wizard is removed from a non-magical human in my opinion. $\endgroup$ – Erik Jan 7 '15 at 9:10
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There are many reasons for wizards to stay out of human politics

If Magic Is Real, So Are Magical Creatures

This has been covered in both the J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series, as well as Jim Butcher's "Dresden Files" series.

Short version: if wizards are real and magic is powerful, wizards might be more concerned about whether dragons are leaving their reservations or giants are coming down from the mountains because those things can do some real damage. The whatever of mortals is just really not as important, and generally wizards that get tangled up in mortals run afoul of other wizards with mortal entanglements and wizard government may expend a not-insignificant effort to keep wizards from inflicting breathtaking destruction in a tug of war over the kids.

Wizards May Be Competing for Influence With Their Peers

Similarly, if other magical creatures exist, wizards may be competing in hot or cold wars for influence with peers in power. Getting involved in the goings on of the mundane - beyond a certain hygiene level of mortals not being a threat - may just seem like a waste of time when there are much bigger concerns at play.

In Dresden Files, the wizard council mostly stays aloof. Partly because it is in a power struggle with other magical groups (such as vampires). Their involvement mostly comes in the form of enforcing laws against the kinds of things that may turn a wizard evil. The main character, Harry Dresden, has been innovating by mentoring hedge magicians - mortals that haven't completed the half lifetime of study required to be potent, or just lack that special something to ever become a peer in the magical community. The hedge groups are controlled on-ramps into the magical world.

In Harry Potter the wizarding government checks in with the mortal government. But the wizarding world has it's own problems to deal with.

Wizards May Have an Agenda Too Big To Waste Time On Anything Else

You mentioned Ars Magica, so I imagine you are familiar with Mage (by the same company and part of their World of Darkness). In Mage, and partly in Ars Magica, what was really valuable was putting your stamp on reality : creating spheres of belief where the way you wanted to see the world work (technology, theophany, mentalism, weird science) was the way it worked. If you tried West End Games' TORG, that idea of a struggle between competing visions of reality was put front and center. TORG did a good job giving you an idea of why winning the reality war might be appealing enough prize that highly intelligent people would seek mastering reality over mastering people.

Wizards May Be Barely Concerned With This World

In Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" the Raven King, and later our wizards, realized that what was going on on Earth was much less important than what was going on with magic itself. Similarly, Lev Grossman's "The Magicians" are concerned about the state of magic more than specific mundane concerns. In both cases, Earth is a small provincial town in a much bigger magical universe.

Mutually Assured Destruction? Already Done It

In Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman's "Deathgate Cycle" wizards literally tore the world apart contending with one another for the influence of mortals. The book presents you with the post-apocalyptic worlds several generations later when wizards starting building up to tear the worlds apart again for the same reason. They realized there was no gain in killing everyone (possibly including themselves) and settled, it seemed, on living separately from the mortals.

Art for Art's Sake

In another Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman series, "Dragonlance", wizards were preoccupied mostly with advancing the art. To the extent they policed themselves, it was to keep the weak/corruptible weeded out and to keep gross atrocities against the mundane to a minimum. Seeing as your wizards spend most their lives in study, it might fit that the community of capable wizards is mostly content with doing what it's always done - advancing the art.

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It seems to me that the answer would depend on the characteristics of whatever magical world we're talking about. The original post and most of the responses so far refer to Ars Magica, but as far as I can tell (not being overly familiar with that RPG), the role of magic in that realm is not quite the same as in, say, J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth, and certainly quite different from the world of Harry Potter. Being the greater contrast from Ars Magica, the Potterverse is the one I will discuss here. (Not having the books handy at the moment, I'm using the Harry Potter wiki as the source for what follows.)

In the Potterverse, being a magical or non-magical person (i.e. a wizard/witch or a Muggle) is a matter of hereditary genetics (though mutation in either direction is apparently possible as well, as exemplified by Muggle-borns and Squibs). Not surprisingly, at some point in the distant past this led to the notion - espoused by Salazar Slytherin and his namesake house at Hogwarts - that wizarding society ought to be basically a caste system based on blood purity, with pure-blooded wizards on top and Muggle-borns at the bottom.

Notice I said Muggle-borns at the bottom - not Muggles themselves. In the Potterverse, wizarding societies occupy the same real estate as their Muggle counterparts, but the former, under longstanding international wizarding law, maintain a strict separation and self-concealment from the latter. Why would they do this, you ask? It turns out that for all of their power, wizards still had to contend with Muggle prejudice against them - as exemplified by real-world historical practices like witch trials and burnings at the stake. That wizards responded by going into hiding en masse suggests that magic alone, no matter how powerful, wasn't enough to win over Muggle hearts and minds, much less conquer them outright.

Furthermore, despite their fantasies of superiority, pure-bloods proved to be no more capable of subjugating other wizards than they were with Muggles. As a result, wizarding governments came to resemble republics and parliamentary democracies - complete with Prime Ministers (or "Ministers for Magic" as they are known), bureaucracies, law enforcement agencies, court systems and the sorts of banal political maneuverings one might expect to see in a Muggle government - a far cry from the traditional-style monarchies one might expect to find in other magical realms such as Tolkien's.

TL; DR: The Harry Potter saga suggests that, absent any significant differentiation of magical ability and skill levels, it would be very difficult for any one individual or class of wizards even to lord it over Muggles, much less other wizards. Indeed, it took the greatest evil genius in that world's history to even come close.

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    $\begingroup$ I'll take issue with your last comment. While magically gifted, he really didn't come across as especially smart. He certainly thought he was, and his sycophantic followers apparently believed so. The only real magical abilities he was uniquely "skilled" with was a willingness to use the forbidden spells (Adava Cadavera etc) and being sociopathic enough to easily create Horcruxes. $\endgroup$ – Michael Richardson Apr 22 '16 at 20:16
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I would expect some to want to rule first hand, however, I think they would be more like the Catholic church during the middle ages. They would be a power unto themselves. Making 'suggestions' on how things should be done or not done.

When someone has the power to destroy you it is unwise to upset them much. They could influence things much more by not actually being the administrator. They don't need to make all the everyday decisions and deal with the problems of running the country or keeping vassals in line.

They can be advisers and shadows influencing the masses through those in power. Likely (like the church) there would be a LOT of politicking going on between the different members of the magicians guild. If they are all tied together, that is where the real power struggles will be going on, and it of course will spill out onto each of their 'vassals'.

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One more factor to mix in: If magic were real, it would be fascinating to study, with subtle variances in technique yielding vastly different results. There are strong parallels in current day fields such as medicine and technologies, where research and practical use struggle for the minds of the learned. As with those modern day disciplines, there would always be wizards who left the hard arts for the power and prestige of management (or its political corollary, leadership). And among these former practitioners-turned-managers, there might be great nostalgia and regret, for the good old days when they were cutting edge magi.

Would wizards sit in the seats of political power? Probably. But they would never sit comfortably in those seats. They would always long for, and often return to, their magical roots, where they had simple access to power instead of complicated political relationships and responsibilities.

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Historically, anyone who is perceived to have supernatural powers is killed. While we might like to think of ourselves as "enlightened", so have our forbears. They too looked on the mistakes of their progenitors with detached distaste, and claimed they wouldn't stoop to such lows.

Given your description, most children showing any sort of magical ability would likely be killed, or controlled and used as tools. Given the amount of training required to become even marginally proficient at protecting oneself and those one loves, a nascent magician, or her parents, would likely try to keep it a secret, hidden.

Given that it's very rare, I wouldn't expect them to govern, not as a group. Individual magicians might gain enough power to become small tribal leaders, but their subjects would be pawns in larger magical skirmishes between magicians.

More often than not, magicians would die through intrigue than open magical fights - there are fewer of them, and people who crave power below them will use them if they can, and kill them if they can't.

If you changed the rules so that they were more common, or their powers were significantly less devastating, they'd have a better chance at living long, full lives.

As it is, they would likely have a short average life span, and would typically lead lonely lives, mostly in the shadows.

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Mages are powerful yeah but before that they have studied for like 30 years. That means that while a mage can be a bless, can be a hazard too. When the first mage with all his power tries to conquer the world, every magic and non magic being will try to stop him and maybe succeed with the time. All this will take us to the point that people will decide that mages can't rule so they might study in institutions build by the government where they will be taught obedience and then magic. There gonna be anti-illegal-magic agencies to enforce this too. In any scenario the non magic beings will try to regulate the mages for having more power.

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You make the assumption people want to rule. In society, people rule for the power it gives them but wizards already have power.

The day to day effort of ruling stops a wizard from studying magic which is actually his/her true source of power. It would be a distraction.

Better to let the mundanes rule themselves and only use your power to stop them from interrupting you with their wars and famines and other petty concerns.

If you read the Rift War Saga by Raymond E Feist, the magicians of Kelewan answer only to the ruler and ruler alone. They have their own society and their word is law. They basically are all powerful but they don't have to bother with the day to day problems of ruling.

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One thing that's often not considered is that incredible skill must be maintained. If Lebron James was elected president, he couldn't play much basketball for the next 4 years; he'd be too busy. When his term is finally up, he will be nowhere near as skilled as he was before the election. So perhaps your mages need to practice their spells for a prohibitively large amount of time just to maintain a competent skill level, not to mention improve. This will lead to a kind of magic cold war. Instead of the US and USSR competing to see who can have the most and most effective nuclear missiles on standby, you will have Cyrodil and Elsweyr competing to see who can keep the most mages adequately trained and ready for war. The nations will be ruled just like any mundane nation, while the master mages spend nearly all their time practicing for Armageddon. They're too busy to rule a country.

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It depends on the type of person your mages are.

I believe that had magic existed, it would have evolved similar to our technology. The first things will all be about food, shelter and sex (which contains everything from getting mates to supporting and teaching your children as they grow). So in effect, mages would be the fittest, healthiest and best looking people out there with the best houses, food, clothing and most beautiful spouses and children who benefit from the magic.

Now a warlord can't trust his vassals if he doesn't make a deal with them, so the warlord needs to be trustworthy and not have bandits, possibly his own men, rampage across the countryside or his vassals will turn against him.

The mages need to be the same: if the mage can make crops grow, someone will also assume he can make crops go bad and he/she'll be blamed for it regardless of what caused it. This means the mage needs to help his community or have to deal with mobs and stabbings in the street (or his sleep). So the more open a mage is in a community the more of a leadership role he needs to take to prevent people from turning against him. This is in all likelyhood also where the combat magic will originate: mages incapable of the social cunning to deal with the unfairness of the accusations (or the complete fairness if its an A-hole who loves to mess with people) will have created defensive and offensive magic to deal with them. These mages are less likely to survive as long as the "benevolent" mages. I write benevolent between " because they are pretty much forced into the role if they show their power.

Because of all this it is not a stretch to say that mages learn quickly to hide their power of they want more normal lives, and magical communities to start being build so they dont have to deal with mundane people's problems and woe's, not to mention the higher ease of teaching/learning from eachother. Eventually such communities could go all the way: we want nothing to do with the needy short-lives mundane people so we'll hide our existence from them, and heavily punish any mage who doesnt cooperate.

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