Coded azure.

Monday 30 August 2004

Screenshot Morrowind

Pic of the day: Distinctly pre-modern village. (Screenshot from Morrowind.) But add the printing press and basic literacy ...

Magic modernity

You saw this coming, I bet. I've been thinking about my imaginary magical world, still codenamed MoM2000. How did it advance from the Middle Ages to modernity, and how similar is it to our own?


As I mentioned last August, the world contained four great empires, each ruled by a wizard, but there was a certain "floor" of civilization all across the globe, even before and outside the reach of these wizards, implying that some older civilization had once spanned both of the interconnected worlds before it collapsed, leaving only ruins guarded by magical monsters.

Over a fairly brief period of time, the four empires grew, then three of them were defeated and the fourth lost its leader who (according to rumor) ascended to some higher reality. The empires fell apart and the world faced a Dark Age where stranded mercenary troops harried the countryside in competition with monsters that had been bound to the service of the wizards. The triumphant wizard had for the most part employed white magic, so his empire was less devastated than the rest ... angels are generally less inimical to human settlements than armies of zombies or giant stag beetles. Even so, things went downhill for a while.

The force that kept society from collapsing utterly was in this world not a church but the Mages Guild. Recognizing eventually that no one individual had the talent of the Great Wizards, the guilds encouraged cooperation and sharing of knowledge to make sense of the magic tomes that were left behind. But only to a certain extent. Knowledge was for mages. The common people continued to live in the same way as their ancestors centuries or more ago. Magic was for mages, farming was for farmers. Common people might know enough magic to start a small fire or make a crystal shine in the dark, but not much more. Elves were somewhat more competent, but still, magic was external to daily life for the most part.


Combining the laws of similarity and contagion, one mage discovered the process of automagic book copying. By applying ink to scrolls randomly and doing a spell of similarity and contagion, the new scroll would take on the text of the nearest scroll. While not exactly a printing press, it was a pretty fast and easy way to copy scrolls. Equipping not just all guilds but all mages with essential tomes now became a simple matter of procuring enough parchment and ink, and perform the spell near a source of magic, such as a temple or a node. Several scrolls could be made at the same time, in a matter of minutes rather than week, and without the errors and omissions typical of human loss of concentration. If the spell worked at all, it worked perfectly. If not, it was pretty obvious, as the text would be garbled beyond recognition.

At this point, it was still taken for granted that this knowledge was for mages only. Having a near monopoly on magic, they were basically the ruling class of every society which had a mages guild, that is to say the civilized parts of the world. And this is how it stayed for a while, and might have stayed forever, if not for a certain small duchy (name not yet revealed). The Mad Duke, as he was called at the time, decided to open schools and teach everyone to read. The Mages Guild normally would be discouraging such things, as it threatened their own privileges. However, the duchy was kinda cornered at the time by stronger neighbors, and desperate measures were called for.

It is amazing how ingenious humans can be when given tools to improve their own situation. In a matter of a few years, the tiny duchy saw an amazing growth in economic as well as military strength, and the neighboring provinces could not help but notice. Of course, literacy in this world did not just allow people access to abstract knowledge, but to very real magic spells. Thus empowered, the people became a force to be reckoned with, demanding their say in governing the country. This might not make much of a difference in a small duchy where everyone already knew each other, more or less, but on a larger scale the change was dramatic. Revolutions and civil wars ensued as literacy spread, but on the other hand the provinces that cracked down on books found themselves stuck in the Dark Ages while their neighbors, once the dust settled, left THEM in the dust. In a world where knowledge is immediate power, literacy and democracy were even more intimately connected than here.


After the Time of Turmoil, a new era of relative peace dawned as the established nations (really more like empires) were reluctant to go to war against one another, as is the case when the people rules. There were still dark areas on the map where barbarians of various sorts ruled, but in the long run these could not resist the power of civilization. Around the same time, first one and then another nation broke through the dimensional towers to the alternate world (popularly called "Myrror") which was much richer in magic and without any unifying civilization. The expansion into Myrror still continues as of this writing.

Democracy is still fairly young in the world, and is not really known by that name. Many of the old institutions still exist, only the power has shifted. Also the concept of "nation" does not exist in the same way as here. The cultures forged by the original wizards each think of themselves as a common people, despite often being comprised of different races. But the individual cities have a lot of freedom, and the central government is weak and largely symbolic. This is starting to change as magic roads now bind the cities together, and magic gadgets make it easier to communicate over distance. But the unity is still mostly cultural.

With the increased importance of magic in daily life, more and more people have left the farms and sought to new cities built on sources of magic, such as magic nodes that were reclaimed from the monsters that guarded them, and natural seams of magic crystals. In older cities, towns and villages there has been frantic building of magic-producing facilities such as temples and alchemist towers. Finally, the latest generation of magic paths, called Brilliant Roads, also conduct magic energy over vast distances, balancing the load of magic among the connected cities.

The world, or at least its civilized parts, is filled with a boundless optimism, much like our own world was a century ago, before being jaded by the world wars. Hopefully these wars will never happen on Arcanus, since democracy has so rapidly become a fact of life. But there are elements of very fierce competition between the civilizations, especially as regards the expansion into Myrror and getting control over power sources on this magic-rich world. The treatment of the indigenous races on that world also leaves something to be desired, although the Elmani have somewhat better relations with the natives than their competitors. But will this help or hinder their quest to gain control of more magic power?

Yesterday <-- This month --> Tomorrow?
One year ago: The end of another world
Two years ago: The good life
Three years ago: Rant day
Four years ago: Darwin & I
Five years ago: Admiring the stupid

Visit the Diary Farm for the older diaries I've put out to pasture.

I welcome e-mail:
Back to my home page.