How Many Wizards?

When I’m creating a campaign for Swords & Wizardry one of the first steps in my process are to define the groups that exist in the setting. I start with very broad strokes and ideas. In the beginning…there is swirling Chaos that becomes more clear as I make progress.

My process for creating a campaign setting is a little unusual. I make my maps last. A lot of referees recommend that you start with the map. I start by thinking about the major groups or factions in the setting. I then proceed with the most powerful NPCs, most powerful monsters, and who/what are the most powerful forces of Law and Chaos. These will just be concepts written down on a blank note card.

As I get to the moment I need to detail an NPC, the card gets more notes.

“Ancient Dragon”

“Demon Lord of Chaos like Arioch from Elric”

“High Priest of the temple of the trickster god”

“20th level wizard”

That last one, the wizard, is the focus of my post today.

Starting with the people?

What is important for you in your game? For some referees, there is a desire for their setting to be a medieval fantasy simulation. For others, that there is a city of 100,000 people and no apparent means by which it is fed, provided water or sanitation is of no concern. That there is a place where adventure happens and the player characters can sell their loot is all that matters. Most of us fall somewhere between the extremes.

For myself, I want the setting to feel real without the need of spending hours with spreadsheets to make sure that each domain has at minimum a plausible economic, demographic simulation of fantasy medieval Europe. I’m not saying YOU shouldn’t do that or that it isn’t an exercise worth the trouble if that’s what you are into. I’m saying that it isn’t high among my priorities.

Delta published a blog post about an easy rule of thumb for demographics.

Delta’s table or something like it is probably good enough. The emotional experience of the game is the most important thing to me. That the game world feels real enough to the players that they aren’t distracted by something that seems implausible is what I’m looking for.

Depending on what kind of game you want and how much you geek out on stuff like this, it’s not a bad way to think about your demographics. A simple system to populate your world without spending a lot of time hand wringing if you’ve got it right.

If you want to dig deeper into demographics and what it means for your setting, here is a good article by a demographer.

Magic complicates everything.

What is magic?

My definition: Magic is the ability to alter reality and break the laws of nature that constrain non-magic using creatures.

Through magic; the dead can live again (or be animated as undead monsters), buildings that are impossible can be raised, people can fly, walls of stone crumbled, armies smashed, forests grown, roads built and on and on.

A question to ask is how do the wizards in my setting use their magic? Is magic expensive? Reliable? Rare?

With magic, a lot of our assumptions about how the world works go out the window. It doesn’t take a deep imagination to start realizing how magic changes everything. All you have to do is go through the spell list brainstorm how you could use or abuse a spell or magic item in the real world.

What is the value of magic?

In my campaigns over the last ten years, I’ve assumed that the people who have political power in the setting possess or control magic.

A mere glance at world history from the time of the first civilizations on has shown that those who have authority over others manage achieve that by concentrating as many forms of power as they can get in themselves. Empires in particular require the concentration of military, economic, religious, and political power. In an attempt to avoid being overly cynical, even benevolent rulers have recognized the reality that in order to serve the people they had to collect and assert their authority by application of violence and coercion even when they were loath to do it.

“Make sure you’re not made ‘Emperor,’ avoid that imperial stain. It can happen to you, so keep yourself simple, good, pure, saintly, plain, a friend of justice, god-fearing, gracious, affectionate, and strong for your proper work. Fight to remain the person that philosophy wished to make you. Revere the gods, and look after each other. Life is short—the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.”

Marcus Aurelius

It is only common sense that a ruler is going to either possess or control the application of magic for their own purposes. If magic is the ability to alter or ignore the constraints of nature, ambitious people will use that power. Never ever forget the asshole rule. It applies to all things.

What value does magic have?

If I can sweep aside an army, smash my enemy’s walls, kill his heir with a thought, feed my army, make a wall, create buildings and monuments declaring my greatness, live for centuries, travel to the ends of my empire with a word… It’s quite valuable.

Going back to the demography, to make things simple, I decide that 90% of the population are peasant farmers. At least half of the remaining 10% are artisans, craftsmen, merchants, and clergy. A relatively small number will be professional soldiers, Noble lords and ladies will make up no more than 1% of total population.

A very small number will be adventurers. The smallest percentage will be magic users.

How many wizards?

If you have a realm of 4,000,000 like in Delta’s table, then how many wizards will there be?

1 per 1000 of population? 1 per 10,000? 1 per 100,000?

Since magic is sought after, controlled or suppressed by those seeking political power, the number of wizards in my game is something I want to decide early in the process.

If I’m running a high magic game where there are a lot of wizards, then maybe I go with a ratio of 1 wizard per 1000 of population. That would mean every minor barron would have at least one low level wizard in his entourage.

If it is more like 1 in 10,000 then that would mean there are maybe 2 wizards in a large city and only kings or important dukes would have a wizard in their household.

The frequency of wizards in your campaign has a significant effect on what the setting looks like.

What spells are available in your setting and how might an asshole use them?

If there is a wizard per 1000 people, then magic could be a problem.

  • A gang of bandits have a 1st level wizard who knows three spells and one of them being sleep.
  • A con artist wizard with charm person goes from city to city using his spell on innkeepers and merchants.
  • A high level wizard is a criminal boss. A local merchant owes a lot of money and can’t pay. An invisible stalker shows up to collect.

Since I am using Swords & Wizardry, I know that there are wizards of varying levels. I know there are fewer high level wizards than low level wizards.

Knowing how many wizards there are in total gives you an idea of how many high level wizards you want in your campaign. That brings us back around to the second stage of my campaign building process. If there are few wizards overall, and very few of them are high level, then I can use that in my world building.

I decide that there are 10 wizards over 10th level in the entire setting . I can name them, decide what their long term goals are, give them a few quirks, decide who they are allied with, and write that down on a note card for later development when I need a high level wizard for piece of the campaign I’m building.

If there are more, then how are they organized? How do they deal with an overabundance of summoned monsters, animated undead, conjured demons, and the inevitable arms race of more powerful magic items being produced for kings and emperors?

How many wizards?

4 thoughts on “How Many Wizards?

  1. Shannon McMaster

    Thanks for this. I expect I’ll come back to it fairly often. I have been getting your posts in my e-mail since June & find them reliably engaging and thoughtful.


  2. Eric

    Most helpful, and the resource links greatly appreciated.

    It is good to imagine reasonable limits on the commonality of magic — it is said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and we do live in a world where machines can peer inside our bodies to see broken bones .. but who here has an MRI machine in their home?

    Even without political control and consolidation of magic, the practice could reasonably assume a good deal of expensive paraphernalia and support infrastructure.

    And that’s without arguing that since technology exists therefore we must perforce all have flying cars.


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