Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Building a Kingdom from the Ground Up: Magic

Decisions on Magic in a New Campaign Setting

Back in my previous post on Building a Kingdom from the Ground Up, I talked briefly about character creation and how I and the players built out at the same speed. As the players grew, the campaign world grew. A player wanted a halfling, so we built a halfling village. Another wanted a wizard, and so we quickly addressed magic in the setting. I then took a moment to beat on the Forgotten Realms as that is one of my favorite hobbies.

But let's step back for a second and examine the consequences and design decisions of the various levels of magic.


Magic is one of those things that can be defined on a simple scale: None, Low, Medium, High, Extensive. This is the basic Likert scale I use to define fantasy worlds. I'll quickly give a basic breakdown of them below:

  • None: This is a fantasy world with no magic. It might have something like orcs, or goblins, but in general, there is zero magic involved in the campaign setting. Examples would include The Three Muskateers or the Count of Monte Cristo, fantasies in zero magic settings. It could also occur in D&D if you were to use an all fighter or all thief campaign, without magic items. Not necessarily the most common or favorite of anyone.
  • Low: A lot of people point to Middle Earth as an example of a low magic campaign and I tend to agree. A small handful of magical items, a heavy dependence on fighter types, and if wizards are present - they are rare. I generally prefer this setting type, though it is hard work. Magical practitioners will either practice physical magic (i.e. sleight of hand) or be hedge wizard types. Another example would be the Kingdom of the Isles in the Riftwar Saga, while Kelewan would be an example of a medium to high magic campaign setting. In general, average folk will know magic exists and they will either be hostile or neutral towards it. I generally prefer neutral, but have played at tables where it was hostile.
  • Medium: An example of this setting type would be Pre-War of the Lance Dragonlance. The distrust of magic was strong and wide spread, and while magical items and the magical gods do exist - as does an organization of mages in the Tower of High Sorcery - they are on decline. The campaign is not necessarily magically hostile - but Wizards still have to be cautious. Average folk will know wizards and magic exists, they will know it can generally be helpful, but they will have little to no practical knowledge of what magic can do. Most folk will range from nervous to generally enthusiastic about magic.
  • High: Most campaigns in the various incarnations of D&D fall into this category. Magic is pretty much everywhere and magic users can be encountered in every town and region. Although some campaigns might stop short of magic shops in the market, it is a "Just barely" kind of thing. Mystara, Greyhawk, and the Forgotten Realms are all squarely in this setting, with Mystara and Greyhawk handling it well, and Forgotten Realms handling it poorly. In general, people will have a neutral to positive feeling in regards to magic, and a solid foundation for player character wizards. In my mind, this is the default setting for most D&D campaign worlds and is the easiest for DMs to implement.
  • Extensive: The opposite of none. Pretty much magic is in every part of the campaign world from the word go. This could take the form of the Eberron where there are magical trains, to the world of Golem Arcana where even the poorest outcasts are able to assemble powerful magically forged Titans to defend themselves. Such campaigns are often built on the "What ifs..." that we all ask when we first start going through the spell lists... "What if I cast continual light on a bunch of stones and use them as street lamps?" In an Extensive magic world there is a city employee doing just that. In general average folk love magic, and probably practice it themselves. Forgotten Realms crosses into this realm every once in a while.

Thinking About Magic

The purpose in thinking about magic is to think about your long term, without planning out every aspect of your long term. In a high or extensive magic setting, for example, you have to not only deal with planning epic encounters, but also building in defenses against magic wielders as well. Magic is powerful, and it has the potential to completely derail a well thought out campaign. If you are going to go high and extensive you need to think in that dimension. You need to consider what will teleport and fly do to your campaigns. What about polymorph or wish? If you have an extensive magical campaign, what happens when bar fights start having web or summon monster used? 

Planning a magic level is something you should work on with your PCs finding a comfortable fit for what they want out of the world and what you want out of the world. At the end of the day, however, the DM makes the final call. 

Further, because random tables are fun, I threw this together as well - if you don't know what you want to do - or just think rolling dice is fun - then use the following tables:
  1. How will average commoners react to a magical spell in your campaign world? (Roll 1d10)

  2. How common do you want NPC wizards to be? (Roll 1d6)

  3. When you hear "Magic Shop" your reaction is... (Roll 1d6)

  4. How do you want players to react to a +1 Sword? (Roll 1d8)

Now simply take the results of each roll and look at them. Mostly low? You would prefer a low magic setting. Is it a mix? Take the one in the middle. You have one or more extensive results? Consider using that as your magical base. 

As a note, if you use these tables I'd love to hear your results. I am generally biased towards low settings and as a result these tables are too - please feel free to play with them!


  1. I like this. I've seen something similar before but this is well thought out.

  2. I agree magic level is an important choice in an RPG setting as well as the system used. I feel 5e for example is towards the high magic end, with at will cantrips, and magic baked into (almost) every class.