A recent POST in the RM Forums asked for advice about handling “secular” /non-magic combatants against spellcasters. While the scope of the question was defined to the poster’s specific setting, the responses and scope touched upon issues that we have discussed before: low magic versus high magic settings; technology in a fantasy world; settings and rule systems; and the ubiquity of casters in a setting, among other topics.
So in no particular order I wanted to put some thoughts down on paper.
Combat: non-casters versus spell-casters. The primary questions the poster raised, is how can a non-magic using society/group fight against magic-users. What general techniques or plot devices can be utilized to allow “fighters” to prevail against “magic-users”? I think we have all had experience using RM with this exact situation and the question answers itself. Arms Law criticals, combined with the casting limitations makes combat against spell-casters quite easy–especially in situations with numerical advantages. In the poster’s situation, the war is already won–the winning “non-magic using” side (the Steel Rebels) is in charge. There is no need to explain how the Rebels originally won. It could have been superiority in numbers, luck, subterfuge or a combination of factors. At this point, keeping the diffusion of magical knowledge is a combination of identifying potential M-Us at an early age and destroying the knowledge base of magic (books, schools, tomes, etc). Basically the destruction of the Library at Alexandria. Certainly this is a great start pointing for a spellcaster in a campaign. Not only do they have to survive against a magic hostile regime, but they also have to uncover lost bits of magic to advance their skill.
Faith vs Science. One of the common tropes in fantasy literature is the battle between religion (channeling) and secularism (magic). Obviously this mirrors our own social tensions between faith and science. In fantasy literature, one side dominates the power structures and attempts to suppress the other. A religious sect has the “inquisition” to root out the evil of magic or a Magic-User cabal banishes faith and clerics from their domain. Rolemaster’s division of magical realms makes these possibilities interesting; especially when realm spells are more distinct from one another and gives Channelers strengths and weaknesses that are different than Essence users.
Science vs Magic. So how can technology nullify or overcome magic in a fantasy setting? Certainly much advanced technology mirrors or is indistinguishable from magic; but unlike magic, can be utilized by non-spellcasters. That’s a huge advantage. But technology doesn’t have to be sufficiently advanced, it can merely be an advantage: better alloy armors, tactical communication systems, battlefield intelligence etc. In my SW campaign, “alchemy” is used to counter battle magic with explosive munitions. Sure it’s not that reliable, but can be used by regular soldiers.
Prejudices and social biases. Being a magic-user can be problematic in a society that fears, hates or discriminates against spellcasters. What can a caster do if the entire populace refuses to talk to, trade with or provide services to them? Casters can be turned away at borders, refused entry into gated cities and harassed and mocked in public. What if casters are required to wear a “scarlet letter” or other visible symbol that “marks” them to the rest of the suspicious populace? Imagine a city or society that requires a caster to wear a Kregora collar to prohibit casting while in city limits? Social constraints alone can make spellcasters challenging to play.
Those are just a few thoughts on limiting magic without relying on tweaks to game mechanics. What have you used in your setting to constrain spellcasters?