Determine Supernatural Impact - The Art of World Building
Jan 252021

The influence that the supernatural has on a setting can be enormous unless the supernatural is rare. In fantasy, places are often presented as if they’re medieval-like with a smattering of wizardry thrown in. Theoretically, this only makes sense if magic can only be performed by a small group of people. By contrast, if everyone is capable of performing a degree of magic, this would impact society, depending on the nature of this magic and what people can do with it.

Let’s imagine a world where most people can perform simple spells. First, we should define what is meant by “simple.” There are many options, but what if we can move small objects? Wouldn’t we use this ability to clean our homes? Who wouldn’t like the ability to cast a spell or two and have everything put back in its place and wiped down? This could eliminate the entire housekeeping industry, plus the tips we leave after a hotel stay (unless we’re too lazy to cast the spells and hire people to do it for us). What if we can cast a spell to prepare food? This might eliminate the restaurant business and the concept of dining out. But maybe some recipes are too complicated and only people with more power can pull them off; restaurants and “chefs” still exist. If I can cast a spell to style and color my hair, then I never need to visit a barber, eliminating another industry, unless, once again, some choices are too advanced for me. If we can cast a spell to dress ourselves, perhaps we have no wardrobe, or closets in our house, and there’s no such thing as department stores. In a world where all of this is possible, does anyone even have a job? Doing what?

If we can make food for ourselves, do we have it have it appear on a plate or right into our mouth? Why not go one step further and have it in our stomach? Imagine how easy it would be to lose weight if we could transport the food into our stomach and bypass the tyranny of the tongue that tempts us to each too much due to loving the taste. We could use magic to brush or repair/replace our teeth, eliminating the dentistry profession.

A more advanced spell might be teleporting between locations, which would eliminate the need for vehicles and parking, not to mention fuel. But it might cause other problems, such as someone appearing in our bathroom when we’re not wearing anything. Perhaps there’s a law against such a thing, or spells to prevent that by protecting a certain room. We would have no need of roads either. This would suggest that the path between one home and another is grass or whatever naturally grows there, if anything. This also makes it possible to have a house in unusual locations, assuming one can be built there, because getting to it isn’t an issue. Magic can be used to construct one and there’s no issue with builders needing to reach our chosen spot. Maybe magic can be used to alter the shape of a home at any time, or simply move the entire house from one location to another. That might make finding someone difficult unless there is something in the house that acts like a location beacon, which can be turned on and off for privacy so that no one can find us if we don’t want them to.

This thought exercise can get us thinking about how just magic, not to mention other supernatural issues, can influence life. What if supernatural creatures can appear at any time? How would this change us and our environments? If the gods can appear and smite us, then would anyone swear with a god’s name? If there are magic paths available and a doorway near us, do we purposely live farther away so that nothing nasty comes out and wreaks havoc on us? How do people compensate for the existence of each supernatural element in our world, and are these issues positive, negative, or a little of both? We must decide the prevalence of each element and where it occurs.

We should also consider the limits on each, including the toll that performing magic takes on people. Are there restrictions, and are they natural or imposed by laws or preventive measures that others have taken? For example, if I can teleport myself, then, in theory, I can send you somewhere as well. Presumably, this is frowned upon when done without your permission. But if there were no witnesses, how can someone prove that I sent you somewhere? Is there a class of police investigators who can determine what happened? If not, then what’s to stop me from teleporting myself somewhere and claiming that you did it, getting you arrested (if that’s a crime)?

Unless we want to invent an entire system of laws and methods to investigate crimes of magic, we may decide that teleporting another person is not possible, for example, or go one step further and decide that magic has limitations to prevent this from happening. This seems to be the default approach for many world builders, and it works when those limits exist. The problem is when everyone can do some magic and we haven’t considered how this would realistically change a setting.

We can’t cover every scenario here, but these examples should get us thinking about how much impact the supernatural has on our world and what elements can be eliminated, altered, or replaced by it.


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