Thursday, 30 April 2015

Magic Is Not A Tech Crutch

Dominic Matte
I've seen a few interesting thoughts on the interaction between magic and technology. A common argument is that advanced technology would not develop in a world with magic because magic works as a sort of crutch that negates any need for scientific advancement. If you can shoot fireballs and beams of force from your fingertips, why would you need a gun? If you can teleport not just between towns, but between continents or worlds or planes, why would you need cars or trains?

Personally, I'd argue the opposite: a world with magic would develop technology at a faster rate.

Wizards are often portrayed as very academic. They spend days studying tomes, researching methods, memorizing formulas, and creating new spells through experimentation, trial and error. 

That sounds awfully scientific, doesn't it? If the greatest minds in a fantasy world are employing the scientific method to magic, then why would anyone think that same method would be applied nowhere else?

Alchemy has also been a staple of fantasy worlds since forever, and it's even more scientific than spell creation. Potions and solutions are created by mixing specific ingredients and substances in precise quantities to generate the desired result. That's literally just chemistry, and the most common alchemical weapons are completely plausible in the real world. Alchemist's fire? Napalm. Thunderstones? Flashbang. Alchemist's acid? Well... acid. The only difference is that fantasy alchemy goes a little farther than real-world chemistry - we don't have potions that turn people invisible or give them dragon breath.

To show just how absurd the idea is that the existence of magic impedes tech, let's look at a specific example: guns.

People argue that firearms would never need to be developed in a world where people can shoot fire from their fingertips. Well... why not? We've already talked about how alchemy is real-world chemistry, but more powerful. So in a world where adventurers can buy a napalm grenade with pocket change, is it really so implausible to imagine that someone would realize that sticking explosives in a tube focuses the force, and that sticking something else in the tube will make it go fast?

The invention of firearms seems like an easy bet in that kind of world, but how about usage? Why would anyone use a gun when they can toss fireballs? 

Actually, that's another easy answer. I have never seen a fantasy world where magic is so easy and commonplace that anyone can shoot fireballs. Powerful, effective combat magic is almost always a rarity, and while individuals exist who can blast armies into ash, they're far from common. Just like in the real world, a gun is something that your typical farmer could - and likely would - have on hand for hunting or protection.

And this is exactly the same reason that any kind of technology would become as common in a fantasy world as it is in the real world: magic isn't easy or accessible to the common folk, and while armies or guilds or wealthy nobility can afford to get their hands on magic, they still don't necessarily have magical ability themselves, and might want something cheaper as an alternative.

On that topic, low cost sounds like a good niche for non-magical technology. In a typical D&D setting, anyone could feasibly become a wizard with enough time, resources, and study, but not everyone has or is willing to spend those resources. As long as the tech to reproduce a spell effect is cheaper and easier than the spell itself (or the training to cast the spell), there will always be a market for non-magical technology, even if it isn't as reliable.

There's even more application in a world that treats magic as a branch of science. If magic is another type of physics, then technology might be able to duplicate, block, or even counter the effects of magic.

And we still haven't even talked about anti-magic application! A wizard can kill you with a Magic Missile from two hundred feet. How do you protect yourself from that? You could become a wizard yourself, or you could buy fancy protection spells or magic armour. 

Or you could shoot him with your rifle.

Magic isn't a crutch that excludes technology. Treating magic as an academic or scientific discipline only encourages technology, as the same methodologies will create scientific discovery. There's plenty of room for technology in any fantasy world where not everyone can use magic - and even if magic is super common, there's still room for tech if it's cheaper or easier than magic.

Don't use magic as an excuse to ignore technology when the implications of having both are so much more interesting!

P.S.: if you're interested in worlds with advanced tech and magic, some do exist - for RPG examples, check out Shadowrun or D&D's Eberron. Both are excellent, well-developed, interesting worlds that consider the implications of the coexistence of magic and tech.

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