20 Questions About Magic In Your Milieu

Good questions are a tool you need when building a fantasy sandbox campaign. It is one thing to have a cool concept and drop it into your sandbox. It is another thing to understand what the cool idea implies and how players might interact with it.

In fantasy role-playing games, magic is one of the most important pieces to consider in your world-building process. Magic is the ability to alter reality. Things that would be impossible by any other means can be achieved through magic. Magic and its use by players can completely alter the direction of a campaign. It can make your campaign a glittering jewel or a charred cinder.

You need to ask a lot of good questions about magic when you are building your campaign setting.

Nothing exists independent of itself. 

One of the most useful questions a worldbuilder can ask themselves is, “What does this imply?”

Example: What does the existence of guns in a fantasy setting imply?

Even simple matchlock, muzzle loading gun require prerequisite technologies and organization to produce. Iron mining. The logistics to get the iron from a mine to a workshop. Sophisticated smelting and forging techniques. Skilled smiths and craftsmen. Facilities. Tools. Large quantities of charcoal for the forge. The knowledge and facilities to make and store gunpowder safely. Lead and casting works for projectiles. All those things require money.

Those of you who have played Civilization video games will be familiar with the tech tree. This is the same concept.

Guns also have social and political implications. States equipping and training military units armed with guns. A group of peasants armed with guns and a few days of practice can easily take down an armored knight with a lifetime of martial training. That changes the power dynamics quickly if commoners can get their hands on large numbers of arms and ammo. Guns come with religious and cultural implications too.

What does magic imply?

Not considering the implications of magic messes up a lot of campaigns. This a major reason many old school campaigns fail after progressing to high levels or stop before progressing into high levels. If you don’t think about the implications of high level magic in your setting before the campaign starts, you are going to have some major issues if your player characters get into those double digit levels.

A party of high level characters with a by the book complement of spells, scrolls, potions, misc magic items, weapons and armor can take down an army of normal soldiers who have no high level wizard and no magic items of their own.

If the referee hasn’t created a setting where generals and kings are aware something like that can happen, have defense and offense prepared for it; several inconsistencies with continuity (if you care about that sort of thing) will creep into your campaign.

It will help you to avoid embarrassing situations like, “How is it possible that three dirty adventurers were able to use three spells and a potion to break into the bedchamber of the emperor? Didn’t someone expect that fly, invisibility, knock and a potion of human control would be all it would take to get past 3rd level guards and assassinate the most important person in the realm? Don’t we have a court wizard to put some wards and protections on the doors and windows? Couldn’t we have spent some of our fabulous wealth to buy a few magic devices to protect the sovereign?”

If magic is so available in your setting that there is “Ye Olde Magick Shoppe” on the main thoroughfare of a city, wouldn’t the wealthiest merchants be going around blinged up with Rings of Protection +2? A small mercenary company could be a real threat to even large cities if they invested some coin in a few mid to high level wizards.

You need to think about the incredible game changing power of magic before you get your campaign going.

20 questions about magic in your campaign milieu.

Here are 20 questions about magic in your campaign to get you started.

You could ask 100 questions about magic in your world and not exhaust all the “What if’s?” Give it some consideration and keep it in the back of your mind as you create your setting and as you place treasures in your adventure locations. You’ll do better simply by being aware that magic has many implications for your setting and how your campaign will play out.

  1. How do non-spell casting rulers protect themselves from powerful spell casters?
  2. How do important people protect themselves from assassins using magic devices and weapons?
  3. How is access to magic controlled?
  4. How are wizards and other spell casters trained and educated?
  5. What social status do spell casters hold?
  6. How do victorious armies use magic on the battlefield?
  7. What governmental institutions are affected by the use of magic and how?
  8. What architectural wonders have been created by physical labor combined with vast magical power?
  9. What fortifications and protections have been created to counter rock to mud and earth elementals?
  10. What happens when a monster that can only be harmed by magic attacks a village, town, or city?
  11. What prevents wizards who can create automatons and constructs from putting the craft guilds out of business?
  12. How do cities defend against enemies who can fly?
  13. How do powerful people protect their secrets, plans, and other sensitive information from scrying and divination?
  14. How do the wealthy protect their possessions from thieves aided by magic?
  15. What keeps wizards from ruling every major polity?
  16. How is magic used to bolster the well being of normal citizens and peasants?
  17. How has magic caused a major catastrophe in the history of your setting?
  18. How is agriculture, long distance trade, craft industries, and resource extraction impacted by magic?
  19. What lingering societal problems have been created by abuse of the wish spell?
  20. How do spell casters contribute to and fight against criminal activity in a city?

I’ve included a PDF for you to download and keep in your campaign creation materials.

I’m currently working on revising and rewriting a series of essays on creating sandbox campaigns. Click this link, if you would like to have access to the essays, join my email list and I’ll send you a link to the files on my Google drive.

4 thoughts on “20 Questions About Magic In Your Milieu

  1. Chris Nason

    Thanks for this list! These are very important considerations when designing any fantasy campaign. I’ve often struggled with just how much magic should be in a campaign setting. Having all kinds of high magic spell casters creates quite an arms race and, to me at least, makes magic mundane because it’s everywhere. That said, I have lately gravitated toward the lower magic systems from Beyond the Wall and The Hero’s Journey 2e. Those systems have more flavor to me and have less of an overwhelming effect on a setting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting set of considerations.

    The problem with magic is that if it’s powerful, affordable, reliable, and available, then it’s not “magic” any more, it’s technology, and the whole society would reshape itself around it.


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