How Fantasy Fails to Represent Magic

Magic is not meant to be realistic, it’s a force that is unquantifiable, unknowable, and above all: powerful and mysterious. But is it, really? Too often, magic is simply an excuse to apply modern science to a medieval setting, and often in such a way as to seem completely unreasonable.

In the last fifteen years, The Force has been shred apart by the same roleplaying games that made magic into an understandable science. It makes sense –– you have to understand a trait you’re putting on your character sheet. The problem is that, when coupled with the prequel movies and their exploration of what The Jedi Order is and was, The Force loses its appeal as a form of mysticism or magic and become something more akin to X-Men psionics. But none of that is why Star Wars did magic better than fantasy (to be sure, fantasy mages –– with their fireballs and Wish spells –– are more powerful than Jedi). Star Wars did it better because, within the setting, The Force means something.

In the Eberron setting for Dungeons and Dragons, magic is akin to science in that it is understood, quantifiable (to some degree), and everywhere. They have airships powered by trapped elementals, cities powered by magic…it’s little wonder why such a society hasn’t become modernized: they don’t need to!

But in a setting where any old Joe can learn magic, it loses its meaning as something mystical and on the edge of perception, unquantifiable and unknowable.

Now, Eberron, and settings like it, are incredible fun to roleplay in. Don’t get things mixed: I love fantasy roleplaying in most of its forms (and Eberron is definitely one of those that I’m fascinated by). But they miss the mark on magic for one important reason:

No One Cashes In!

When the internet hit, every Tom, Dick, and Harry threw themselves into the endeavor of figuring out how to make money with it. Storefronts that can blow away department stores went up, search engines were created to help consumers navigate to the most relevant storefronts, and companies like GoDaddy learned to capitalize on your very access to such commerce: by charging money for domain names and hosting.

A reality changing tool was created, and entrepreneurs found ways to make money off of, and limit access to, all of it.

Where are the fantasy entrepreneurs? Why isn’t someone buying up all of the material components of the most powerful spells and selling their wares or services to the highest bidder (especially compelling when the entrepreneur isn’t a magic-user)? This is more inexplicable when the setting has thousands of years of magic traditions –– someone would have capitalized on this by now. Someone would have limited access to it.

In recent years, D&D and others have tried to explain this away by suggesting that most people in the world know of magic but don’t touch it in any meaningful way. Then, in the very same section, they describe how adventurers use magic for everything! And this concept seems to completely ignore settings like Eberron, where streetlights are powered by magic.

How Star Wars Got it Right

While magic isn’t capitalized on in Star Wars (we don’t see any “Force Healer” shops set up to treat the super rich), the “magic” means something: you’re special. If you have access to The Force, then a group funded by the Galactic Republic will come and legally kidnap your children and force them into labor as keepers of the peace.

The Force (magic) is valuable, rare, and has consequences for the entire world: the galaxy-shattering Sith/Jedi wars that spring up every generation.

Not All Fantasy Got it Wrong

Dune has an economy built around a magical resource. Mistborn has guilds and an oppressive government that makes laws concerning the use of magic. My own Jadepunk limits magic by making the material components the most valuable commodities in the world.

Again, I’m not bashing on settings that have ubiquitous magic. Such settings are fun to play in. But there becomes a point where disbelief is no longer suspended because someone would have figured out a way to monetize nexus points and the ley lines that connect them (and why are cities so rarely built on such nexuses?).

Consider the economy and the reaction of enterprising entrepreneurs the next time you sit down to do some worldbuilding. Your readers and players will thank you for it.