This is the fourth article in a limited series that we’re gonna call “The Elements of Worldbuilding,” and it’s going to go through a variety of concepts (building blocks) that game masters, writers, and developers can use to craft their worlds. This should come with the understanding that between these initial articles it is not a total and comprehensive list – as listing every concept that makes up a world would be near impossible – but the goal is to provide inspiration and a jumping-off point for the world builder’s out there. (Hell, we might even do a follow-up article or two if there are some other areas readers would like to explore with us.)
This article is going to be a bit different than the other three, as Magic and Technology have the potential to drastically alter or change the natural order of things and will probably be the primary means by which your world will differ from reality. That being said, this article will discuss the ramifications of both magic and technology framed through each of the other three elements of worldbuilding – through the lens of the physical world, the people living in it, and the societies that those people make up.
From the elemental bending of the Avatar universe to the traditional pointy-hat wearing wizard inspired by the likes of Merlin, magic provides an element of the fantastic to any setting and can drastically alter the peoples, societies, and even the shape of the world itself. Conjuring fire, animating the dead, or turning lead to gold – each example showing how magic can drastically alter the rules that govern the physical world. Generally speaking, this world-altering power can only be gained after years of intense study, which potentially limits the number of magic-users across the world, hopefully limiting the number of cataclysmic magical events (maybe).
When it comes to crafting a believable world effected by arcane winds and magic-users – consistency is crucial. Maybe magic is seen as an unnatural addition to your world, and it warps the land around the caster as it’s used (like in the land of Athas, from the Dark Sun campaign setting), or perhaps its use twists the user into an abomination the more the mage taps into his arcane reserves as with the magicks in the Warhammer universe.
For the sake of clarity, when we are talking about magic we referring to the arcane and mystical arts (paranormal magic) – not the performative art utilizing sleight of hand and distraction used by pick-up artist douchebags.
Magic Shapes the World
The power of magic can drastically alter and shape the physical environments that magic user’s find themselves in. From creating floating islands in the sky to creating a verdant paradise from the desert sands (or vise-versa) – there are innumerable ways magic can be used to create interesting environments and settings.
The civilization of the Netheril from the Forgotten Realms campaign setting from Dungeons and Dragons is an example of a society that used magic to drastically change the world in which they lived. Through the use of grand magical items known as Mythallar, they were able to create massive floating enclaves miles in diameter that soared gracefully through the clouds. In fact, so great was the Netherese’s power, many of their highly regarded mages could cast spells greater than ninth level, a feat that is unable to be matched due to Mystra’s reworking of the rules of magic in response to the fall of Netheril.
Another example of magic impacting the physical world is the post-apocalypse setting of Athas, from the Dark Sun Dungeon and Dragons campaign setting. Once a brilliant blue world full of life, Athas was turning into a harsh and unforgiving wasteland due to arcane magic’s defiling influence. Now the setting is one of deserts, desolation, and savagery, with great sorcerer-kings defiling the land with their cursed magic and reigning over the scattered populace with absolute power.
Magic Affects People
In addition to drastically altering the physical environment, magic can also have an effect on the populace of your world to varying degrees. One important aspect to the people of your world is how magical proficiency is determined in your world, is it a hereditary trait – passed down from parents to offspring? Or is it just a random occurrence, popping up sporadically in children soon after they are born? If the latter is the case, what happens when a child starts showing a propensity towards magic? Are there secret societies that will come and collect the children and train them in the ways of mysticism, or is it up to the child to find a master to apprentice towards? All of these questions directly impact how family structures would need to adapt to a world familiar with magic.
Other times, certain schools of magic may permanently alter the physical form of the user. In the Warhammer fantasy setting, dark magics like daemonology or necromancy have a chance to afflict their users with disabilities or physical deformities – and that’s not to mention the mages of Tzeentch, the changer of ways, who drastically warps and alters his gifted followers with a changed and mutated visage.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are magic users in the Ravnica setting (first in Magic: the Gathering, then in Dungeons and Dragons) that makeup one of the guilds known as the Simic Combine. These wizard-scientists use magic and science to graft creatures into one-another – creating hybrid monstrosities. Their goal is to further the evolution of the populace of Ravnica through these bio-magical experiments. This also means combining sentient races with animals to create, what they see, as a superior race. Many of these scientists also experiment on themselves, improving their stamina, and giving themselves other unnatural abilities.
Magic Changes Society
One thing that frequently gets overlooked when adding magic to a world is how that power would fundamentally alter how society is set up and organized. If, when given current American society, magic was added – do you think people would still be pulling oil out of the ground when you could just conjure fire? Would power plants be necessary if a wizard can just throw lightning bolts? What would a magic hospital look like? At a basic level, everything in society would be different and that’s not to mention all of the changes that would have taken place over the course of history. A modern magic society would like completely alien to the society we see today.
The governing bodies and society’s hierarchy would definitely be changed by the inclusion of magic. Typically those that are in governing positions are those individuals that are obsessed with the gaining and retaining of power – and what is arcane magic if not another source of power. Usually, these governing bodies will place strict limits on the magicks used within their realms (to preserve order), one such example of these would be the Cowled Wizards of Athlanka, from Balder’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn. These wizards control the use of magic throughout the city of Athlanka, appearing quickly if any (illegal) spells are cast.
But what about Magic Hospitals, I hear you asking. Well, remember those Simic fellas from before that use magic to graft creatures together to create nifty super critters? Well according to the history of the Simic Combine, they were initially founded as the medical experts and scientists tasked with preserving the natural world (basically magical ecologists and doctors). So I guess you could say magical mad scientist with mutant super-creatures is the logical progression for a magical biologist in a magic hospital.
The raw power of magic is also a destructive force if left in untrained hands (if you don’t believe me, look at the wild magic table in the Player’s Handbook – there are some wacky side-effects for raw magic spellcasting). And those that don’t understand something will fear it, meaning that in some worlds magic-users are shunned and cast from a fearful society. This is especially true in a world like Athas, when magic pulls energy from the surrounding world – leaving it a barren husk. Obviously, the people in the Dark Sun setting have some very negative feelings towards magic and the folks that use it.
Technology has the ability to change the world in a similar way as magic, drastically altering the landscape, people, and societies of the world. In fact, there is an entire subgenre of culture and cosplay around this idea in the form of Steampunk. Steampunk seeks to answer the question that, what if in Victorian times steam technology became the dominant tech over the use of oil and electricity. That idea has sparked countless pieces of artwork that depict the fantastic technology of a steam-powered world and has even influenced retellings of H.G. Well’s classic, “10,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
In table-top roleplaying games, there are many examples of worlds that have been built with a particular focus on unique technology. From the magic and steam-powered warjacks of the Iron Kingdoms setting (of Warmachine), to the sprawling technological cityscapes of Carbon 2185 (by Dragon Turtle Games), unique technology has the means to drastically alter the world and make it tons more interesting that regular ol’ reality.
Because let’s be real folks, people are playing an escapist tabletop roleplaying game to escape the relatively bleak reality 2020 has to offer, am I right?
Technology Shapes the World
World-shaping technology sounds a bit like terra-forming a nonterrestrial planet in some far off solar system to mine unobtanium – which is true if you’re building a sci-fi world for your space opera gameplay (looking at you Esper Genesis), but there are definitely some more “earth-grown” tech that shapes the physical world. Man-made reservoirs and dammed rivers drastically alter the landscape while providing resources for civilization are some pretty straightforward examples – add some steam technology in there and you’ve already got some foundational elements of unique world-shaping technology.
From there the technology altering the physical world starts to become more fantastical. From steam-powered modes of travel that make the world feel considerably smaller to fantastical technology that can control the weather, and finally the technology to explore the stars – each can drastically alter (or create anew) physical spaces that the sentient races of your setting can utilize.
Technology Affects People
From the augmentations and transhumanism in cyberpunk universes to the dangers of steam-powered tech – technology has the power to drastically alter how individuals exist within a world. Technology has the power to drastically alter the way individuals view work as well, why would a farmer need to do twelve hours of back-breaking labor when a steam-powered robot can do the same without breaking a sweat?
Transhumanism (as defined by Google) is the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations through the use of science and technology. So, obviously, it makes a lot of sense to talk about in this section of the article, no? Transhumanist themes come across in pretty much all cyberpunk literature and tabletop games. In Eclipse Phase (by PostHuman Studios) the player’s play as consciousnesses that can be transferred to different bodies (or sleeves) – similar to how it works in Altered Carbon, the Netflix show, but with less of a focus on human sleeves. However, in Eclipse Phase characters have the ability to sleeve into any number of different bodies, from human to android to nanobot swarm. It makes for some truly interesting and unique roleplaying experiences and an exciting world to play in.
Another example of technology changing people’s lives is the reduction of the need for direct physical labor. In the Iron Kingdoms setting, there is a variant of equipment called “mechanika.” This mechanika equipment utilizes steam / magical technology to create wondrous effects around the weaponry and armor. From a worldbuilding perspective, one can assume this same technology could be applied to everyday equipment, drastically reducing the need for strenuous physical labor. Of course, all of these things drastically change life for an individual, but they also fundamentally change how society works as well.
Technology Changes Society
With any great technological change, there are implications that ripple through society. In the modern world, this is why automation is seen as a somewhat fundamental threat to society. This is because, in American society, one’s value is tied to the labor (and therefore capital) they generate, and if many of the labor-intensive jobs are replaced with automatons (robots) a huge subset of the population would be considered “worthless.” Pretty bleak, right? Obviously, the answer is to think of people in other terms than just their ability to generate capital, but the people in charge kinda prefer the status quo. But, I digress, as seen above, the implications for technology altering a society can be pretty drastic.
For example, in cyberpunk dystopias, corporations are generally seen as running the world, usually through puppets in the government (eerily similar to America now…), or by just outright replacing the government as in the Outer Worlds. One can imagine that this is because those corporations have the technology that ostensibly makes them “in-charge.” For instance, if a corporation was in the business of collecting data and it was the best-in-class at collecting said data, eventually that corporation could have enough information on any individual that would make both blackmail or outright extortion fairly easy. But wait! I hear you say, blackmail and extortion are illegal! When you have more money than God, illegal and legal are just words that poor people worry about.
What about the ways cities and architecture change due to technology. Indoor plumbing and sewers were hugely beneficial to the overall wellbeing of society – in addition to the fundamental advancements in agriculture and medicine that meant people were eating healthier and able to get vaccinated for deadly diseases, in turn, people lived longer and contributed more to society. All of these advancements in technology can be altered or adjusted and you suddenly have a very different world from which we all live in now.
Magic and Technology
Combo for the Ages
Now I hear many of you nerds out there shouting at the top of your lungs, what about the best DnD setting out there? The one that was introduced in the third edition and knocked everyone’s socks off with its awesomeness!? Of course, all these nerds are shouting about Eberron, by Keith Baker. Eberron is the techno-fantasy setting for Dungeons and Dragons that features technology crafted through the use of magic. It combines the two elements of this article into a fantastical setting of mage-lightning powered monorails and flying, windswept pirate ships. Where dragonmarked houses vie for power amongst themselves in a continent broken by the last war. Eberron as a setting is a great primer for DM’s looking to see a world that has been shaped by fantastic forces of both magic and technology.
When building a world and wanting a quick way to differentiate it from reality or other fantastic locations – through the combination of magic and technology, the possibilities are relatively infinite. Exploring how those changes ripple out and affect the greater systems of your world are what make your world unique and fantastical.
So, aspiring worldbuilders and DMs out there, those are the initial elements of worldbuilding. Finding ways to create unique settings by looking at these ingredients and tweaking details – then perform the thought experiment of how those changes spiral outward from the initial idea. Eventually, you’ll have a world that looks nothing like anyone has ever seen, and hopefully, one that your players will remember for years to come.
Worldbuilding – Wikipedia
The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding. Kobold Press, 2012
Worldbuilding Questions – Science Fiction Writers of America
Dark Sun – Setting Wiki
Warhammer Fantasy – Wikipedia
Netheril – Forgotten Realms Wiki
Magic – Warhammer Fantasy – Warhammer Fantasy Wiki
Cowled Wizards – Baldur’s Gate Wiki
Esper Genesis – 5e Sci-Fi Setting
Carbon 2185 – 5e Cyberpunk Setting
Iron Kingdoms – Setting Wiki
Eberron – Setting Wiki
Hero image – Photo by Artem Maltsev on Unsplash
Magic Hands – Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash
Little Book of Spells – Photo by Paige Cody on Unsplash
Floating Islands – Copyright Andreas Rocha
Warmachine Image – Copyright Privateer Press
Cyberpunk Image – Copyright Dragon Turtle Games LTD.
Simic Hybrid Image – Copyright Wizards of the Coast