Magic and tech: medicine

Human history is very much a history of medicine and medical technology. You can even make the argument that the very reason we’re able to have the advanced society we have today is because of medical breakthroughs. Increased life expectancy, decreased infant mortality, hospitals, vaccines, antibiotics—I can go on for hours. It all adds up to a longer, healthier life, and that means more time to participate in society. The usual retirement age is 65, and it’s entirely likely it’ll hit 70 before I do, and the quality of life at such an advanced age is also steadily rising. That means more living grandparents (and great-grandparents and great-uncles and so on) and more people with the wisdom that hopefully comes with age.

Not too long ago, things were different. The world was full of dangers, many of them fatal. Disease could strike at any time, without warning, and there was little to be done but wait or pray. Childbirth was far more often deadly to the mother or the child…or both. Even the simplest scratches could become infected. Surgery was as great a risk as the problems it was trying to solve. (Thanks to MRSA and the like, those last two are becoming true again.) If you dodged all those bullets, you still weren’t out of the woods, because you had to worry about all those age-related troubles: blindness, deafness, weakness.

Life in, say, the Middle Ages was very likely a life of misery and pain, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t medicine, as we’ll see. It was far from what we’re used to today, but it did exist. And there is probably no part of civilization more strongly connected to magic than medicine. What would happen if the two really met?

Through the ages

Medicine, in the sense of “things that can heal you”, dates back about as far as humanity itself. And for all of that history except the last few centuries, it was almost exclusively herbal. Every early culture has its own collection of natural pharmaceuticals (some of them even work!) accompanied by a set of traditional cures. In recent decades, we’ve seen a bit of a revival of the old herbalism, and every drugstore is stocked with ginkgo and saw palmetto and dozens of other “supplements”. Whether they’re effective or not, they have a very long history.

Non-living cures also existed, and a few were well-known to earlier ages. Chemical medicine, however, mostly had to wait for, well, chemistry. The alchemists of old had lists of compounds that would help this or that illness, but many of those were highly toxic. We laugh and joke about the side effects of today’s drugs, but at least those are rare; mercury and lead are going to be bad for you no matter what.

Surgery is also about as old as the hills. The Egyptians were doing it on eyes, for example, although I think I’d rather keep the cataracts. (At least then I’d be like the Nile, right?) Amputation was one of the few remedies for infection…which could also come from surgery. A classic Catch-22, isn’t it? Oh, and don’t forget the general lack of anesthesia.

What the earlier ages lacked most compared to today was not the laundry list of pills or a dictionary of disorders. No, the thing that most separates us from earlier times when it comes to medicine is knowledge. We know how diseases spread, how germs affect the body, how eyes and ears go bad. We’re unsure on a few minor details, but we’ve got the basics covered, and that’s why we can treat the sick and injured so much better than before. Where it was once thought that an illness was the will of God, for instance, we can point to the virus that is its true cause.

And then comes magic

So let’s take that to the magical world. To start, we’ll assume the mundane niceties of medieval times. That’s easier than you might think, because our world’s magic won’t be enough to let its users actually see viruses and other infectious agents. Nor will it allow them to see into the human body at the same level of detail as a modern X-ray, CT scan, or ultrasound. And we’ll short-circuit the obvious idea by saying that there are no cure-all healing spells. Real people don’t have hit points.

But improvements aren’t hard to find. Most of medicine is observation, and we’ve already seen that the magical world has spells that can aid in knowledge, recall, and sensory perception. An increase in hearing, if done right, is just as good as a stethoscope, and we can imagine similar possibilities for the other senses.

Decreasing the ability of the senses is another interesting angle. In normal practice, it’s bad form to blind someone, but a numbing spell would be an effective anesthetic. A sleeping spell is easy to work and has a lot of potential in a hospital setting. And something to kill the sense of smell might be a requirement for a doctor or surgeon as much as the patient!

The practice of surgery itself doesn’t seem like it can benefit much from the limited magic we’re giving this world. It’s more the peripheral aspects that get improved, but that’s enough. Think sharper scalpels, better stitches, more sterilization.

Herbal medicine gets better in one very specific way: growth. It’s not that our mages can cast a spell to make a barren field bloom with plant life, but those plants that are already there can grow bigger and faster. That includes the pharmaceuticals herbs as well as grain crops. Magic and alchemy are closely related, so it’s not a stretch to get a few early chemical remedies; magic helps here by allowing easier distillation and the like.

Some of the major maladies can be cured by magical means in this setting. Mostly, this goes back to the sensory spells earlier, but now as enchantment. We’ve established that spells can be “stored”, and this gets us a lot of medical technology. An amulet or bracelet to deaden pain (pain is merely a subset of touch, after all) might be just as good as opium—or its modern equivalents. Sharpened eyesight could be achieved by magic as easily as eyeglasses or Lasik surgery.

In conclusion

The field of medicine isn’t one that can be solved by magic alone. Not as we’ve defined it, anyway. But our magical kingdom will have counterparts to a few of the later inventions that have helped us live longer, better lives. This world will still be dangerous, but prospects are a bit brighter than in the real thing.

What magic does give our fantasy world is a kind of analytical framework, and that’s a necessary step in developing modern medicine. Magic in this world follows rules, and the people living there know that. It stands to reason that they’ll wonder if other things follow rules, as well. Investigating such esoteric mysteries will eventually bear fruit, as it did here. Remember that chemistry was born from alchemy, and thus Merck and Pfizer owe their existence to Geber and Paracelsus.

Chemistry isn’t the only—or even the most important—part of medicine. Biology doesn’t directly benefit from magic, but it shares the same analytical underpinnings. Physical wellness is harder to pin down, but people in earlier times tended to be far more active than today. For the most part, they ate healthier, too. But magic won’t help much there. Indeed, it might make things worse, as it means less need for physical exertion. Also, the “smaller” world it creates is more likely to spread disease.

In the end, it’s possible that magic’s medical drawbacks outweigh its benefits. But that’s okay. Once the rest of the world catches up, it’ll be on its way to fixing those problems, just like we have.

Magic and tech: defenses

Last time, we looked at how magic can augment a civilization’s offenses. Now, let’s turn to the other side of the coin and see what we can do about protecting ourselves against such force. It’s time to look at defense.

In the typical fantasy setting, sans magic, the common personal defense is, of course, armor. Sword-and-sorcery fiction often throws in some sort of spell-based defense, anything from walls of force to circles of protection to arrow-deflecting fields. And it’s a fairly common thing to give most potential offensive magic some sort of counterbalance. (The spell that can’t be blocked or resisted usually has a very good reason, and it’ll probably be a superweapon.) First, though, let’s look at what the mundane world has to offer.

Real-world protection

For personal protection, armor of various sorts has been around for millennia. Just about anything can be used as an armor material, as long as it does the job of preventing puncture or dissipating kinetic energy. Cloth, leather, many kinds of metal, wood, paper…you name it, somebody’s probably made armor from it. Exactly which material is used will depend on a civilization’s technological status, their geography (mo metal deposits means no metallic armor), their cultural outlook on warfare, the local climate, and many other factors. In general, though, pretty much everybody will use some armor, stories of naked Viking berserkers notwithstanding.

In the time period we’re focusing on in this series, the later Middle Ages, the best armor tended to be made of metal. But metal was relatively expensive, so not every single levied soldier is going to be running around in full plate. The best armor would be had by those with the means to procure it: nobles, knights, and the like. A well-equipped army will have better protection, naturally, while hurried musters of villagers will net you a company of men in whatever they could find, just like with weapons.

Remember that armor is designed as protection first, and most of its qualities will follow. The main type of injury it was protecting against was puncture—cutting and stabbing. Blunt trauma a very distant runner-up. We’ll take a look at medicine in a future post, but it’s helpful to think about how deadly even the smallest open wounds were back then. Without antibiotics or a working knowledge of sanitation and antiseptics, infection and sepsis were far more commonplace and far more dangerous. The best medicine was not to be wounded in the first place, and most armors show this.

Armor evolves alongside weapons. That’s why, once gunpowder spread to every battlefield in Europe, the heavier types of armor began to fall out of fashion. When fifty or more pounds of plate could no longer render you impervious to everything, why bother wearing it in the first place? (In modern times, materials science has advanced enough to create new plate that can take a shot, and now we see heavier armor coming back into vogue.)

Shields, in a sense, are nothing more than handheld armor. Some of them, depending on the culture, might have specialized defenses for a particularly common kind of attack. Others will instead use more of a weaker material, like your typical round shield made of hardwood. Again, guns tended to make most shields obsolete, at least until science could catch up. Today’s riot shields would make a 14th-century soldier salivate, but they’re based on the same old principles.

Larger-scale defenses work a different way. The usual suspects for city protection are walls, ramparts, moats, killing fields, and the like. Each one has its own purpose, its own specific target. Some of them fell by the wayside, victims of progress—how many modern cities have walls?—and some were remade to keep up. Most of them represent a significant allocation of materials and labor; bigger cities can afford that, but smaller towns might not be able to.

Magically reinforced

When the world becomes more dangerous as a result of weaponized magic, it stands to reason that new defenses will be developed to protect against such threats. One of the best ways of preventing injury, as we know, is never being hit at all. A spell to sharpen one’s senses lets a soldier react more quickly to an attack, meaning that there’s a better chance of dodging it. But that’s a waste of magical talent. Armies can comprise hundreds or even thousands of soldiers, and there’s not enough time (or enough mages) to enchant them all on the eve of battle.

Our “easy out” of stores of magical energy won’t help much here, so what can we do? Since personal defenses are, well, personal, and we’ve already said that very few people are mages, it doesn’t seem like we have a lot of options. Enchanted materials are the best bet. Armor can be fortified against breaking, making it harder to penetrate. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good start, and it will take a lot of heat off our soldiers.

It’ll also have a secondary effect, one that will come to the fore in later years. Harder, stronger materials push back the date of gunpowder-induced obsolescence by quite a while. A fortified plate across your chest won’t make you not feel a bullet, but it’ll stop that bullet from piercing your skin and hitting something vital. Like Kevlar jackets today, these would cause the impact energy to spread out, which lowers the pressure on any one spot. That’s enough to save lives, especially if the enchantment isn’t too costly. And it wouldn’t be, because it’s valuable enough to research better ways of doing it.

Fortified shields benefit in the same way, but there we get a side bonus. Shields can become stronger or they can become lighter. The second option might be a better one, if mobility is the goal.

Protecting against magical attacks is far tougher. Wards are the best way in our setting, but they have a severe downside: one ward only counters one specific type of attack. We’ve seen that magic gives us a bunch of new weapons. Warding against all of them is inconvenient at best, impossible at worst. This is a case for good espionage (another post idea!) and scouting—if you know what to expect, you’ll be able to defend against it. Still, armor can hold a few different wards, and those who can afford it will likely invest in a bit of extra protection.

On the large scale, we see the same ideas, just bigger. Wards can be made on walls, for example, and a gate can receive a fortifying enchantment. The increased size makes these ludicrously expensive, but can you put a price on the lives of your citizens? Moats, however, become practically useless, and drawbridges are little more than a degenerate case of a gate.

Picking up the pieces

Besieged settlements in our magical setting are far more perilous than anything medieval Europe knew. In pitched battles, too, the advantage will tend to go to the attacker. That isn’t too far off from what happened in our own world, from the Renaissance to the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Once gunpowder reigned supreme, defense took a back seat.

It’s the strategy and tactics that will change the most. Protracted sieges are less of a risk for the offensive side, as you can always bomb the city into oblivion. Staying in one place will only get you killed, so guerilla warfare becomes much more attractive for an outnumbered foe. It might be better for a defender to give up the city and work from the shadows as an organized resistance movement.

Magic, then, creates an asymmetry in warfare. This little bit of it gives the offense the edge. Defense needs a lot more help. Of course, it’s said that the best defense is a good offense. In our magical world, that won’t be so much a witty aphorism as a standard doctrine.

Magic and tech: weapons

It’s a given that, no matter what the setting, many people will want to know the available methods for hurting someone. In RPGs (whether video games or old-school pen and paper), that’s especially true, since combat is such a major part of the most popular role-playing games. Even written works require conflict, and military conflict is the easiest and most familiar form.

Weapons go back almost as far as humanity itself. Any culture can make spears and knives, even before the advent of metalworking. (And don’t neglect those older materials. Mayan obsidian blades could be sharper than any contemporary European sword.) Bows, bolas, blowpipes, and a hundred other “ancient” weapons can be used in a perfectly mundane world, and there’s no reason why they wouldn’t also exist in our magical realm. But they won’t be the only options…

The true path

Not everybody used swords. I know that’s a common trope in fantasy, but it’s just not accurate. Swords were expensive, requiring skilled craftsmanship, quality materials, and more than a bit of time. It might be feasible for a company of 100 men to all be armed with swords, but not an entire army.

Spears are a good alternative. They’re cheap—nothing more than a point on a pole. Unlike swords, which you needed at least some training to use (“Stick ’em with the pointy end” only gets you so far), spears are user-friendly. And, in a pinch, a pitchfork or spade can fill in. Something like a spear would form the backbone of a mundane army. There would be swordsmen, of course, but they’re more likely to be officers or other leaders.

Most other melee weapons are situational. Pikes are great against cavalry, for example, but cumbersome when fighting foot soldiers. Axes, polearms, and all the other nifty items in your favorite RPG’s weapons section have their own ups and downs. They’ll have their uses, but they won’t be widespread. However, armies of this era were anything but regular. Even trained forces could end up using weapons they weren’t overly familiar with, and the peasant rabble might turn up with whatever they could find.

On the ranged side, things aren’t much better. Bows are ubiquitous, particularly in medieval Europe. (English longbows, as we know, were a game-changer.) Crossbows are another option—and they go back a lot further than people think—but they have the problem of being slower and more complex. Other choices, like slings, have situations where they’re useful; a bit of thought should help you come up with something.

And don’t forget artillery. The catapult, trebuchet, scorpion, onager, and so on all have a long history. Every single one of them has been wholly obsolete since the first cannon, but most fantasy is set slightly before the invention of gunpowder, so they’re all you’ve got. Some are siege weapons, intended to wreak havoc on a walled city, while others are what we would now call anti-personnel weaponry.

And the other side

With magic, more efficient and deadly means of attack are possible. We’ve already decided that there aren’t mages running around throwing fireballs, so that’s off the table, but all that means is that the magical weaponry will be more subtle, yet no less devastating.

Magical energy in this setting, as we know from earlier entries in this series, can be converted to force. We’ve used that to great effect to provide motive power, but we know how force scales: F = ma. The same energy that pushes a magical “car” up to a few miles per hour could send a tiny ball of, say, lead, to a seriously high velocity. Who needs gunpowder when magic can do the same thing? That one was almost trivial, and mages worked it out a while back. Now, every regiment has an assortment of what we might consider magic-powered guns. They’re too expensive to be given to every common soldier, but they’ve all but replaced crossbows, and longbows have been relegated to sieges. (Unlike the real world, where cannons mostly came first, the rules of magic mean that handguns are much easier to make.)

But it doesn’t stop there. Magic helps with humble bladed weapons, by means of sharpening and endurance enchantments. Artillery gets an extra oomph from magical power, but its true value there lies in shot varieties. Burning and smoke are a cinch for the greenest of mages; in a catapult, the effect is better than any boiling oil or barrel of pitch. And, of course, any soldier can benefit from a stamina boost.

What does all this do to the battlefields of our magical setting? For the full answer, we’ll have to wait and see the other aspects of fighting, such as defenses. We can say quite a bit now, though. In general, our magical kingdom’s battles will tend to resemble those of a couple hundred years later. Think more Late Renaissance than High Middle Ages, except without the cannons.

Not everyone has guns, so the largest part of the fighting will still be hand-to-hand, with swords and spears and all the rest. In place of a contingent of archers will be magical gunners, armed with ever more powerful dealers of death. They won’t match today’s high-powered rifles, but they wouldn’t be out of place in the American Revolution, in terms of their effect on the enemy.

Artillery will look more medieval, but there are a few differences. With magic replacing the…ancillary supplies for shot, artillery forces will be a bit less exposed. That means they’ll be free to take more risks, to advance more quickly. Oddly enough, they won’t be as much use in a siege, at least until they get right up to the gates. Circumstances converge to make artillery very good at distance (because it’ll still out-range anything else) and up close (because it can do the most damage), but not so great in the middle.

Other uses

As we know, weaponry isn’t limited to the battlefield. Personal weapons are a feature of any culture, as are the rules governing them. For everything except the magic-powered guns, little will change in this regard. Openly carrying a weapon is still a symbol of ill intent, drawing it more so. Hidden weapons will be harder to find, because they can be smaller or disguised as something innocuous, but mages can point out magical items.

Assassination is easier in the magical kingdom. That’s unfortunate, but not unexpected. With the greater power available, not everyone will see the need for greater responsibility. It’s almost self-balancing, since everyone knows how easy it is, sort of like Mutually Assured Destruction. Blood feuds can erupt into a war in the streets, but that’s not too different from the real world of that time.

The original use for many weapons was killing animals, and this is only helped by magic. Ask any hunter: guns are far better than bows. That’ll be true even when the bullets are powered by the invisible force of magical energy. (This could have environmental issues—hunting to extinction is much easier—but that can wait for a later post.)

All told, adding magic to weaponry has nearly the same effects as adding gunpowder. The world becomes more dangerous, but many new possibilities appear. New avenues of research open up. To fight the growing offense, the mages will be asked to create new defenses. And that will be the subject of the next post in the series: how to protect oneself.

Magic and tech: power

One of the great drivers of technological innovation throughout history has been the need for power. Not military power, nor electrical, but motive power, mechanical power. Long before the Industrial Revolution transformed the way we think about power, machines were invented. Simple machines, complex machines, even some that we don’t quite understand. But every machine requires an input of force to get things started.


Today, we have electricity, obtained from a vast array of methods: solar energy, fossil fuels, nuclear fission, all the way down to wind and water. Many of our modern forms of power generation, however, are, well, modern. They rely on technology developed relatively recently. Man-made nuclear reactors didn’t—couldn’t—exist 80 years ago. Although the mechanism that makes solar panels work was worked out by Einstein, we need present-day electronics to actually use it.

Go back not all that long ago, and you miss out on a lot of ways to generate power. Solar and nuclear are less than a century old. Coal and oil and natural gas have only been used in industrial capacities for two or three times that. For a large majority of our history, power was hard to come by, and there weren’t a lot of options. Yes, earlier generations didn’t use anywhere near as much power as we do, and they didn’t use electricity at all—except maybe in Baghdad—but you can argue cause and effect all day long. Did they not use power because they didn’t have as much of it, or did they not produce as much because they didn’t need it?

However you come down on that argument, the truth is plain to see: all the way through the Renaissance, at least, there weren’t a lot of ways to produce power. You could use human or animal power, as many cultures did. It works for travel, but also for machines that require an impetus, such as millstones, potters’ wheels, pulleys, and most other things that the people of a thousand years ago would need.

Wind and water provide a better path to power, and this was figured out some two thousand years ago. Since then, the technology has only been refined. A blowing breeze or flowing stream can spin a wheel with far less human intervention than muscle power, and they’re cheaper than beasts of burden in the long run. Even the first windmills and waterwheels, built backwards by the standards of our imagination (horizontal blades for wind and undershot wheels for water), nonetheless freed up the labor of both man and beast for other, better things.

Now with magic

This triumvirate of wind, water, and muscle was enough to get us through the ages. But what can our little bit of magic add to the mix? We’ve already seen that magical stores of energy are available to our fictional culture, and they can be used to propel a wheeled vehicle. Hook them up to any other type of wheel, and they’ll do the same thing. For a relatively small price, the people of this land have a magical alternative to wind and water. That’s not to say those won’t be used; it’s more likely that the magical means will complement them.

Even this is a huge development, but let’s see if we can do anything else before we look at how it would transform society. Most magic involves manipulating natural forces, especially fire and water and air. So why not lightning? Now, that’s not to say that mages can summon thunderbolts from the sky, no more than they can call a tidal wave or shoot fireballs from their fingertips. This is more subtle.

Static electricity is pretty easy to discover. We encounter it all the time. In the winter, it’s even worse, because the air’s drier and we tend to wear thicker clothing. I know that I cringe whenever I go to open a door this time of year, and I’m sure I’m not alone. The small shocks we get don’t have a lot of energy (on the order of millijoules), but you can ask anyone who’s ever been struck by lightning or hit with the discharge from an old CRT about the potential power of static electricity.

Electric current is a bit harder to get, but that’s where the magic comes in. As of now, it’s in its early stages, but mages have begun to store an electric charge in much the same fashion that they store mechanical power. Charging is easier, for those who know the proper lightning-element spells, and some truly massive containers can be built, resembling globe-sized versions of those plasma balls that used to be all the rage. Using the current requires some way of interfacing with the containing sphere, typically by wrapping a lightly infused bit of metal around it. This, for all intents and purposes, creates an electrode.

The first uses of this magical technology were purely medical. “Shock therapy” was briefly considered a cure-all, until it was found that it didn’t really cure much of anything. A few practical uses came out of the earliest generations: an easy spark generator, handy for starting fires (if far more expensive than sticks and rocks); a way of creating better magnets than any lodestone; electroplating metals. For a decade, the fashion among mages was to find a new and exciting way of using this captured lightning.

Then somebody figured out how to make an electric motor. This was very recently in our magical society’s history—not just within living memory, but within a generation—and it’s mostly a curiosity right now. Small electric spheres can’t provide enough current to produce a significant amount of power, and the larger versions are too costly for practical use. However, that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Some very rich individuals have contracted higher mages to develop a mill powered by this new source of energy, but no one else thinks it’s a viable replacement for the motive spheres…yet.

A few mages are traveling down a different path. Instead of trying to harness the lightning they have imprisoned for mechanical power, they are investigating the possibilities of using the electrical energy directly. They’ve made some interesting discoveries in doing this, like the fact that some materials conduct electricity, while others stop it. Small mundane devices can store tiny amounts of energy and dissipate it slowly—capacitors. And, of course, our mages are learning about the intimate connection between electricity and magnetism.

In the end, our magical society can be said to have the beginnings of electrical technology, although they came about it by a different route. As of yet, they haven’t been able to do too much with it, apart from toys, scientific experiments, and a new form of lighting that aims to be better than the old oil lamp in every way. They have, in our terms, early batteries, motors, and light filaments. Once these get out of the mage’s laboratory, they will have the same effect as their Earthly equivalents had on us.

The development of magic-powered propulsion, however, is much more of a culture shock. With the storage of mechanical energy, most repetitive labor can be automated. Looms, mills, mints, forges, nearly every aspect of medieval-style living benefits from this. The need for workers (or slaves, for that matter) has decreased severely in our fictional society’s recent times. People still need to be able to feed their families, but the unskilled masses are finding new jobs.

And they won’t remain unskilled for too long. The machines have already taken over the roles once relegated to child labor, but the children have to go somewhere. Why not school? Trade schools, whether operated by guilds or skilled craftsmen, are beginning to appear in the cities, a supply coming into existence to meet the demand. And many of these trades must teach the basics of education, as well.

Power to the people

Just by giving the populace a way to move things can we transform a people. Muscle power is very limited, and it’s tiring, even with the endurance spells we’ve already said this society has. Waterwheels need specific conditions to be productive. Not everywhere is lucky enough to have the sustained winds to make that form of power practical. But magical power levels the playing field.

Historically, the increase of power with technology has had the immediate effect of giving the affected segment of the population more time to spend not working. They naturally find ways to fill those gaps. Art, hobbies, education—the same things we do in our free time. Some of those spare-time activities end up becoming full-time jobs of their own, and so the cycle continues.

But it’s a positive feedback cycle. Each time the power available to a society increases, that’s that much less work that has to be done by its people. As we know, the less time you spend doing what you have to do, the more time you get to do the things you want to do. Greater power, then, leads to a higher standard of living, even if it’s hard to see the tangible benefits.

Magic and tech: information technology

In our modern era, we are well and truly blessed when it comes to information. We have the Internet, of course, with its wealth of knowledge. In only a few seconds, any of us can call up even the most obscure facts. Sure, it’s far from perfect, but it’s more than people from just a hundred years ago could dream of. To someone from the Renaissance or earlier, it really would be magic.


Since the written record is often all we have of older cultures, it’s fairly easy to trace the development of information technology. The Internet is only a few decades old, as we know. Telephones, television, and telegraphs (notice a theme there?) preceded that. Radio transmission goes back only a hundred years or so; before its invention, your choices for communication were mostly limited to the written word.

Writing dates back millennia. It’s the oldest and most stable method of storing information that we have. From clay tablets and inscriptions, we can follow its trail through the ages. Papyrus and parchment have been replaced by paper, which is now giving way to LEDs and flash memory, but the idea remains the same. Although the form modern writing takes would astound anyone from earlier times, its function would be familiar in an instant.

In those older days, what options do you have for information and communication? If you’re literate—not everyone was—you can write, obviously, but there’s only so much that gets you. The Chinese invented a printing press about a thousand years ago, but they didn’t really find it useful; if you look at the Chinese script, you’ll probably see why. The Western, alphabetic, world loved it when they got it four centuries later. Copying by hand was your only option for most things before that. (Seals and stamps had limited use, and block printing didn’t show up in Europe until a couple of generations before Gutenberg.)

The form of a written text also changed through history. That’s mostly because of the conditions. Scrolls work better for some materials, but the codex (books like ours) is more compact, and it’s a more natural fit for paper. And letters can be written on anything handy, even bits of other works!

Add the magic

So, in the era we’re covering, the printing press hasn’t been invented. Woodblocks are a new innovation just now trickling in. Most work is done on parchment, some on paper, and it’s done almost exclusively by hand. Scribing and copying are important professions, and their services are always in high demand. And, thanks to the relative lack of supply, the written word is expensive. Can our magical society improve on this state of affairs? If so, how?

A general copying spell (like D&D’s Amanuensis) is too much to ask for, but that hasn’t stopped some mages from trying. But our magic kingdom does have a few information innovations that have become commonplace. One isn’t connected to writing at all, but to speaking: a spell that increases the volume and clarity of a speaker’s voice. In other words, it’s a PA system. In real life, before the invention of electrical amplification, you had to use natural means, mostly in the form of architecture; amphitheaters aren’t built that way just for looks. In this magical land, though, a good acoustic setting is no longer so vital. Anyone can make his voice heard, anywhere, no matter how large the crowd.

Long-distance communication also isn’t as big a problem. Historically, conversing with someone in another city was hard, involving a back-and-forth series of letters. With the upgraded travel abilities of this society, mail delivery gets a boost, too, but that’s not the only option. Through use of a hand-sized glass ball (essentially the same as a crystal ball or Tolkien’s palantír), direct communication can be achieved. It’s highly limited, however. For one, there’s the expense of creating and imbuing the spheres. Then, it’s only a one-to-one system, as speech is transmitted in something like telepathy. No conference calls or broadcasts, unfortunately.

But even this is a huge step up from couriers. Every town of more than a few hundred people has at least one dedicated connection, usually staffed by junior or washed-up mages. For a small fee, short messages can be sent over the spheres to loved ones, acquaintances, or tradesmen in nearby cities. Longer distances can be covered by a relay system, and the biggest cities are set up as centralized “hubs”, with dozens of connections to their neighbors and the most important places.

The overall effect is a society where people are more likely to be aware of what’s outside their locale. Like the telegraph systems of the 1800s (which directly influenced this idea), communication in this world has become more “real-time”. Unlike telegraphs, the magic spheres are wireless, so they can also be taken aboard ships and to foreign lands. No more waiting two years to hear from sailors at sea, not when they can give you daily updates. True, they may only be a few words in length, but Twitter only gives you 140 characters, and people love it.

More magic

So that’s communication improved by magic. What about the storage of information? We can’t do too much better than printed books without some serious technological improvement, and I’ve already said that these guys don’t even have printing. Can we do better than hand-copied manuscripts?

By using the same endurance spells as before, scribes can work longer and faster, increasing their output. Memory-aiding spells, which have near-infinite uses, can give a true photographic memory that would mean fewer books are necessary; high wizards are their own libraries. (That also cuts down on spell thievery and protects the secrets of the arcane from outsiders.)

A path recently explored involves an enchanted plate of glass. That’s already a hard sell, due to the higher cost of plate glass—magic helps this somewhat, as we’ll see later on—and the further expense of the enchantment. But this particular spell “freezes” an image in the glass for a time. The mage holds the pane between himself and the scene he wishes to capture, and he invokes the spell. Almost instantly, the image is frozen. It’s not permanent (it lasts a few years at most) but it does record in clear color. The downside is that one piece of this glass can only “hold” a single picture. The first use of this particular advance in magic has been in art, strangely enough, capturing images that painters can then use as models.

The wizards do have a few other minor aids to information technology. Invisible ink is known in our world, but they have a variant that really is invisible to anyone other than another mage. Short-distance voice transmission spells are easy enough that they’re mostly used by young adepts for pranks. Writing materials are not limited to parchment and paper; “burning” pens allow one to write on wood, metal, or just about anything else. But the more traditional materials are also easier to make, thanks to spells that speed the fabrication processes. And when printing does come, magical propulsion will quickly make it as fast as Industrial-era presses.

What do you know?

In the end, the magical society doesn’t have much that can top handwriting…yet. That doesn’t mean they’re stuck with medieval-era information tech, though. The magic-based telegraph and photograph are some 500 years ahead of their natural counterparts, and they both help to create a populace more aware of its surroundings, of its setting. On top of that, scribes can work harder and faster (and with better eyesight!) than their Earthly kin, meaning that they make more books. More books means more opportunity to read, which encourages a higher literacy rate. The final result: a well-read, well-informed people.

It’s far from modern, granted. It’s not even that close to Victorian, except for our magical answer to the telegraph. But the larger amount of information available is going to have a ripple effect, as we’ll see in coming posts. Everything from espionage to economics changes when people know what’s going on.

Magic and tech: travel

Let’s start our look into the intersection of magic and technology by focusing on travel. It’s an important part of life, communication, government, and far more; indeed, it encompasses much of what makes a civilization possible. So how would it change in the presence of magic?


In our mundane world, in the timeframe we’re discussing, you had a few possible modes of travel. Foot travel (walking or running) is, of course, the oldest and most reliable. It’s also one of the slowest. On foot, you’re lucky to cover a few miles an hour (2-3 is common for walking; running can get as high as 15 or more, but only for relatively short distances), which translates to a rough maximum of 15-20 miles per day. And your feet are going to be awfully sore.

Riding, usually on horseback, is another possibility. (It wasn’t an option in the New World, but we’re making a decidedly Eurocentric culture here, so that’s okay.) This is a bit faster, with less physical exertion on the part of the traveler, but it comes at a cost: animals are expensive, they need their own care, and there are places they can’t go. None of these problems is solved by the other forms of animal-powered travel, ranging from carts to sleds. All in all, animals might get you double the travel, maybe averaging 30-40 miles per day.

Boats are another good option, if the terrain allows them. You need rivers, and they need to be able to support craft. That means no rapids or waterfalls, no dams, no seasonal drying, and so forth. But where it works, it’s worth it. Going downriver is easy, and you can cover vast distances quickly. Sixty miles in a day? Not that hard, especially since the current will keep you moving while you take a break from the oars. The downside, though, is obvious: you can only go where the rivers go.

All this is a far cry from what we’re used to today. In modern times, it’s easier to measure distance covered per hour, not per day. We have cars (about 30-60 mph, depending on speed limits), bicycles (anywhere from 10 mph up), and airplanes (200 mph is on the low end). All of these contribute to a cultural cohesion that didn’t—couldn’t—exist 600 years ago. People tended to stay close to home back then, and one of the reasons was because it was just so hard to go anywhere else. We think nothing of a fifteen-hour flight to another continent or three days of driving on a road trip, but earlier societies were much more limited in their mobility. The next town over might be a couple hours’ ride; going from your farmstead to the big city might be a weekend’s journey. And you’d only go far if it was worth it.

Just add magic

In our magical society, however, things are much more familiar, because magic helps alleviate some of the worst restrictions. Our wizards don’t have haste spells—not for lack of trying—but they have plenty of ways of increasing physical stamina, removing exhaustion, and healing general aches and pains. All of these can be used by foot and animal traffic, and they have a huge effect. Sure, you still need to eat, and so do the horses, but you don’t have to stop to do it. That already adds maybe 50% or more to your total coverage for a day, taking that 15 miles of walking and turning it to as much as 25.

But we (rather, our wizards) can do better. A recent invention in our fantasy kingdom involves something like the magical equivalent of a perpetual motion machine: a stored “pool” of magical energy is slowly released to turn a wheel or gear at a relatively constant speed, much like a flywheel. Once started, inertia keeps the wheel spinning, with small losses for friction countered by the stored magical power. (Flywheels, in principle, may date back almost a thousand years, so it’s reasonable to suggest that our magical culture might be playing with them in its later Middle Ages.)

Where this gets interesting is when one industrious mage connected this fairly well-known device to a cart by a system of gears, shafts, and the like. The resulting contraption moved forward, accelerating to a walking pace. After a decade or so of refinement, thanks to generous grants from interested nobility, the wizards of our budding nation have a self-propelled vehicle that can run for about 24 hours, with a top speed of 10 mph on flat, level ground. Rougher terrain drops this by up to half, and “refueling” the storage pool is expensive (it’s easiest to retain the services of a mage to ride with you), but the upsides are obvious.

Put simply, it’s a car. It doesn’t have much range, its speed isn’t great, it’s exorbitantly priced, but it compares well with some of the earliest attempts at automobiles. Going up against traditional modes of transit, it’s a no-brainer. Even with only the nobility being able to use them, these magic-mobiles radically alter the nature of society. The king’s decrees, courts, justice, benevolence, all of it can be delivered much faster than any other way. Soldiers can’t be transported, and only small amounts of goods can, but information transport is much more efficient in our magical world.

Such vehicles would also create the need for infrastructure to accommodate them. High-quality roads are a priority, to maximize the magic-mobiles’ power output; the ultimate goal is to connect every city with them. This causes a demand for great amounts of low-skilled laborers, with the knock-on effect of low unemployment in the traditionally slow summer and winter seasons. Rest stops have begun to spring up on the roads, mostly in the form of inns and taverns founded by enterprising merchants. And novice mages have both an extra income source and a way to practice one of the more complex spells: the storing of magical energy in an artificial vessel.

In addition to our magical cars, the wizards have a few other tricks up their sleeves. Human flight, they have found, is essentially impossible even for the greatest mages. But something like it can be approximated. A simple jumping spell can be augmented by more experienced magic users so that it flings them up to 500 feet into the air. An equally easy slow-fall spell keeps the mage from descending too fast (and getting hurt). Given a running start, each bound can cover about the same distance horizontally as vertically, and the whole process from one jump to the next takes about a minute. It’s not much faster than walking (6 mph, give or take), but it also brings the advantage of aerial scouting. Problem is, it’s individual; only a mage can work the spells, and he can only cast them on himself and maybe a person he’s carrying.

Movement in the water benefits from the magical motor above, and in exactly the same way, but some parts of the kingdom have another option. Weather control is beyond the best archmage, but most adepts can summon a concentrated jet of air or water. The former makes sails usable even in the calmest conditions, and at smaller sizes than otherwise needed. Water jets, on the other hand, help all watercraft, from the smallest raft to the biggest galleon. By Newton’s Third Law—the wizards don’t know it as such, but they’ve figured out the important part—the vessel is moved as a reaction to the propulsive force of the jet. It’s not that much of a force, but it adds up over time, which makes it worth it for longer journeys. (The same reasoning applies to the ion engines of modern spacecraft.)

Where do you want to go?

With their magical cars, Superman-like leaping wizards, and jet-powered boats, the high people of our kingdom have easy ways to move around. Even the poorer folk can benefit from the endurance spells. Together, the magical additions at the ends of the class spectrum combine to create a more cohesive society than any in Europe’s 14th century. Knowledge of current events diffuses throughout the realm at a much faster pace. Authority is much closer to hand.

Cargo transport, unfortunately, doesn’t yet have a magical panacea. River travel is still the best option, at least where it is an option. The increased speeds, however, mean that fresh foods are more commonly found in cities, among other luxuries. (On a more martial note, naval warfare is completely different, though we’ll look at that later on.) Travel upriver is far easier, too, if you have a mage on your craft.

Our magical kingdom won’t be completely modern, but it will have reached a kind of transitional stage of travel. It’s reminiscent, in a way, of the early railroad days, when people were first exposed to the idea of higher-speed transit. Indeed, given time, something like a railroad may develop. All it would take is more incremental progress in the magic motor, allowing it to provide more force. That would enable higher speeds, larger carrying capacities, or both. Once it gets to the point where even poorer peasants can afford a ride to the next town, they’ll soon stop being peasants at all. But that’s a tale for a different day.

Magic and tech: introduction

Now that the New Year’s pleasantries are out of the way, it’s time to get back to the work of worldbuilding. It’s work that never truly stops, you know. Worldbuilding isn’t just a rabbit hole, it’s a bottomless pit for your spare time. But it’s undeniably fun, in that creative sort of way. In that sense, these are my favorite posts to write.

Anyway, this post is going to serve as an introduction to a new series of worldbuilding articles. These will be about the “regular” length for my posts (about 2,000 words), and they’ll cover a very specific subject: the interaction of magic and technology. Look around the fantasy section of your favorite bookstore, whether physical or virtual, and you can find plenty of examples of worlds where these two forces coexist. It’s a staple of certain subgenres, after all.

But many of these worlds are just our own, only viewed from a different angle. So much fantasy (I’m not only talking about books here, but games and movies and TV, too) takes the classic D&D approach of “medieval, but with wizards“, and that’s really a shame. Why? It’s simple, if you think about it. Magic changes the game. With magic, the rules of history don’t apply.

Now, I’m not saying all fantasy is this way. There are plenty of stories out there that take a…nontraditional approach to magic and technology. The “magitech” and “technomancer” styles are good examples of this, but not the only ones. Any segment of fantasy has its highs and lows; to me, great worldbuilding is definitely one of the highs. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a good sword-and-sorcery romp as much as the next guy, but I do find more fulfillment out of a detailed setting that feels real. It’s hard to describe, but depth and logic play strong parts.

And I especially love good magic systems. More importantly, I want to see a world that understands its magic, a world that reacts to it. I can suspend my disbelief for things that are physically impossible, but not those that are logically impossible. Throwing fireballs, summoning demons, reviving the dead—and, for sci-fi, add in FTL travel, teleportation, and so on—those are all fine, as long as there’s a reason for them. It can even be a literal miracle, if that fits the setting. Just don’t make it a deus ex machina, that’s all.

The intersection

So let’s get back to this whole “series” idea. Remember that? Here’s what I’ve got in mind.

First, this is an irregular series. It won’t be every week, and it doesn’t have a definite end. I could write about something like this for an eternity, but I won’t. Instead, “Magic and tech” posts will be interspersed with the more regular worldbuilding and literary articles on Mondays. I’ll try to do one a month, but don’t hold me to that.

Second, I know I’ve spent the last few months talking in generalities. This will be different. I’m going to take a specific example and work it to the ragged edge. The setting I’m making will have a few built-in assumptions, and I’ll go over the basics in a moment. Almost everything else I intend to flow logically from those assumptions. My logic doesn’t always work the same way as everybody else’s, so feel free to call me out when (not if) I screw up.

Third, the setting will be mine, but don’t let that stop you from swiping bits and pieces of it for your own. Maybe the assumptions are altered slightly, or history took a different path. Who cares? Change the names and a few of the details, and it’s yours.

The assumptions

There are, to a first approximation, an infinite number of possibilities for combining magic systems, technology development, cultural development, and historical circumstance. That won’t do. We need to narrow things down, so I’ll be starting from a known origin point. The core assumptions I’ll be making are:

  1. Magic exists. That’s a no-brainer, if you read the title of this series, but it bears repeating. Specifically, magical aptitude is a function of a few different factors, not all of them scientific. All we really need to know, though, is that about one out of every 80 people has the talent, and about two out of three of those never realize they have it or give up trying to harness it. Actual mages make up about 1/250 of the adult population.

  2. Magic is known. People understand that some among them have a power unexplainable by natural laws. To them, it’s taken as a given, the same way some people can write songs or make statues from marble. It’s a gift, yes, but no more than any other creative gift.

  3. Magic is fairly predictable. Sure, there are a lot of possibilities for thinking outside the box, but most mages in this setting are conservative and low-key. They’ve made something like a cross between art and science, and most of them don’t mind keeping it that way.

  4. Technology is at a level roughly comparable to the High Middle Ages. No steam engines or (technology-based) electricity, but a few peripheral countries are lacking in mages, and they have developed the earliest gunpowder weapons as a defense.

  5. Technology stagnated earlier in history, due to the conservative nature of most mages. Within living memory, however, things have started to progress again. We’re not talking a millennia-long Dark Ages—A Song of Ice and Fire, I’m looking at you—but about 400 years of the status quo.

  6. Religion is…complicated. The supernatural is generally agreed to exist, but there is no single faith that unites a vast section of the world. Most religions do favor magic over technology, but some are the opposite, considering magic anathema. A couple eschew both, feeling that magic is too powerful for mortals, but technology is too soulless.

  7. The inhabitants of the world are otherwise modern humans. This is almost an afterthought, but it helps to be clear on this point. We’re working with people like us, not aliens or elves.

More to come

So that’s the rough sketch. Now it’s time to fill in the blanks. As I write this series, I’ll fill in a table of contents down here. (The hardest part will be remembering to do it!) As always, comments and constructive criticism are most welcome, and I’d love to hear about your own creations. Other than that, there’s nothing left to say but this: strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.


  1. Travel
  2. Information technology
  3. Information
  4. Power
  5. Weapons
  6. Defenses
  7. Medicine
  8. Heating and cooling
  9. Construction
  10. Art