Throttling magic in your game setting.

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?

2 thoughts on “Throttling magic in your game setting.”

  1. It’s very unlikely in most game worlds for Arms to ever dominate magic, or even get one realm banished. Suppose a monarch tries oppressing wizards. One mid-level Magician with scrying, Shielding, Teleport, and Fireball takes care of that monarch while he sleeps; a Sorcerer or Evil Magician is even more terrible, it may be the end of that line or entire kingdom. Mortals can’t really defend themselves against someone with that kind of out-of-context power, and can’t be guarded 24/7. A Nightblade, my favorite profession, can’t be stopped or caught by anything they have.

    In fair combat, casters do need meatshields and Shielding spells to prevent being annoyed before their spells go off, but those can be Arms who understand which side’s going to win, or summoned/controlled monsters. And once the spells go off, a group of only Arms is going to be extinct.

    As you note, Channelling vs Essence, or Mentalism vs Essence might be possible, their defensive abilities are at least on par, but I don’t see how you’d convince multiple religions to band against wizards, or get Bards, Mentalists, Monks, Nightblades, and Seers to all agree on anything.

    Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni stories are about Mentalism dominating Arms everywhere, until two centuries ago. Then a “religious” (with no magic) revolution takes over with a drug that inhibits Mentalism, the Deryni are persecuted and all but exterminated, until a more reasonable king takes power and makes them not anathema. That revolution depended a lot on treachery, and the Deryni being arrogant but insufficiently cruel. More competent leadership with a psychic secret police would’ve taken only a few losses and crushed the rebellion by turning them against each other.

  2. I agree that taking magic out of the “super-power” realm and into the real functioning of a civilization/society is a tough nut to crack.

    Urban settings frankly wouldn’t allow Essaence use willy nilly, certainly not without major limitations. There are plenty of examples of cities “Peace Bonding” weapons, essentially outlawing outward showing of weapons except (maybe) small daggers. With a ‘hidden’ weapon like magic, there would have to be a highly visable, outward showing of the “Scarlet Letter” idea.

    In the city based adventures I’ve been developing, there are multiple layers of ‘Peace Bonding’ as applied to magic. The first is individuals who can smell out Essaence users. I say ‘smell’, but you could also use items with embedded spells similar to the Mage Hunter “Power Lore” list from RMSS Arcane Companion. “Detection Master” (Op Ch) or “Detect Power” (Thieving Law/Dabbler) lists have similar effects. Stationed at the entrances (city gates, etc..) they simply evaluate people coming in. Similarly, others patrol common areas (taverns, marketplaces, etc..) to detect non-complying Essaence users.

    Once detected, they are required to be evaluated by town/city mages, and must OPENLY wear devices which register any Essaence use. Similar to “Arinyark”, but (depending on the License) it will show Any Essaence use by the individual. Usage while within the city/town area carry enormously serious consequences. Of course some powerful families may have more unique ones that only report certain types of spells, versus all spells. Similarly society-sanctioned Essaence users (say Elite Guards) might have looser restrictions.

    Thirdly, there is widespread usage of small devices which emit audible/visual alarms in the presence of Essaence use. And yes, Essaence Storms cause havoc on them. Certainly wealthier merchants, city officials and official marketplaces would have them.

    Lastly, if the Essaence user is high enough level, they might be able to override or hide their casting abilities. Perhaps via the use of something like “Void Laws” ‘Hide Power’ spell. Of course there is a chance that they won’t be successful, so… they’d best be prepared.

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