Economics and Magic
July 12, 2014 7:54 AM   Subscribe

Has anyone ever attempted to realistically and fully work out what the economic and/or sociological implications of a world where dungeons and dragons or lord of the ring-style magic exists? For example, how it would impact the feudal system and so on. In any form, essay, fiction or otherwise.
posted by empath to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I don't recall Tolkien really talking about money much in LOTR or Silmarillion. Actually, don't recall it at all (except for Smaug's hoard), though it seems obvious that the world of men at least uses money, and it's implied the hobbits do too. Dwarves don't actually care about riches, they care about the fashioning of gems and such.

Game of Thrones actually uses money, but like LOTR there's not actually much magic qua magic in the books (barring the dragons and the White Walkers, plus a couple more). In Westeros at least they spend money the way one might expect a medieval society to, and have the concepts of banking and interest and so forth. Essos also seems to have--except for the Dothraki--a functional economy that with a little handwavium and the addition of slave labour, might be relatively realistic (you might want to look up what the US economy looked like during slavery for a comparison). You may want to try this and this for GoT economics, at least for starters. Spoilers abound.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:18 AM on July 12, 2014

Response by poster: To be more specific, I'm mostly thinking of things like: What the impact would be on the economy of a small subclass of people (wizards) being able to turn lead to gold or throw around fireballs or create illusions, etc.
posted by empath at 8:22 AM on July 12, 2014

Reminds me of Solidarity is Illusion: The Political Economy of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, which has been mentioned on MeFi a few times before.
posted by Alterscape at 8:27 AM on July 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

The classic d&d 3 essays on this are the Dungeonomicon and associated pieces.
posted by inkyz at 8:32 AM on July 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality has some discussion of the implications of magic on the economy, as well as some deconstruction of the problem of basing your economy on gold coins. From Chapter 4:

So not only is the wizarding economy almost completely decoupled from the Muggle economy, no one here has ever heard of arbitrage. The larger Muggle economy had a fluctuating trading range of gold to silver, so every time the Muggle gold-to-silver ratio got more than 5% away from the weight of seventeen Sickles to one Galleon, either gold or silver should have drained from the wizarding economy until it became impossible to maintain the exchange rate. Bring in a ton of silver, change to Sickles (and pay 5%), change the Sickles for Galleons, take the gold to the Muggle world, exchange it for more silver than you started with, and repeat.

Wasn't the Muggle gold to silver ratio somewhere around fifty to one? Harry didn't think it was seventeen, anyway. And it looked like the silver coins were actually smaller than the gold coins.

Then again, Harry was standing in a bank that literally stored your money in vaults full of gold coins guarded by dragons, where you had to go in and take coins out of your vault whenever you wanted to spend money. The finer points of arbitraging away market inefficiencies might well be lost on them. He'd been tempted to make snide remarks about the crudity of their financial system...

But the sad thing is, their way is probably better.

On the other hand, one competent hedge fundie could probably own the whole wizarding world within a week. Harry filed away this notion in case he ever ran out of money, or had a week free.

posted by damayanti at 8:40 AM on July 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

I have an economist friend who is working on this as a hobby for the Pathfinder system:


According to the skill rules, a craftsman practicing his trade earns half the result of a craft check in gold for the week of work. On average, the PC’s earnings in a week will be (10.5 (mean of d20) + skill modifier)/2 in gold. If a steady income and output of product were desired, taking 10 would yield nearly the same results. Out of his earnings, a craftsman must pay his cost of living. For the sake of evaluating aggressive assumptions, I assume that the PC is living as thriftily as possible with the “Poor” cost of living 3gp/month. A fourth level PC can earn 8.5gp per week without spending any feats or being particularly smart, saving 35.25gp in a 4.5 week month. The craftsman will have manufactured more than this in valuable goods; but, as will be discussed in more detail later in this series, the craftsman only manages to receive a portion of the value he creates.

I think the an appropriate comparison of these earnings is against the potential money to be gained by adventuring instead. The crafting rules are quite clear that you cannot do on the same day because killing orcs is hard work, and would leave you unable to properly apply yourself to your day job. Anyone using official Pathfinder materials may have noticed that the Golarion is a very wealthy and magic-rich world, and indeed the rules on character creation for characters beyond first level show that a PC’s expected earnings per level are generous compared to the home-grown campaigns I have played in.

The figure shows how many years it would take three hypothetical PCs of differing craft skill levels to earn the amount of treasure appropriate to gaining the wealth commensurate with the next level. The red, blue, and green lines represent PCs with a craft skills of +3, +7, and +11 above their levels, respectively. Only at first level would it take these PCs less than a year (between 4 months and 8 months depending on skill level). The time requires increases exponentially and is measured in decades even at low levels.

posted by Balna Watya at 9:01 AM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

The D&D books explain how much money various kids of people have and typical costs to craft and buy magic things - presumably the commercially-minded wizards make the difference less selling and general administrative expenses.
posted by michaelh at 9:08 AM on July 12, 2014

The father of D&D, Gary Gygax, wrote a lot in the eighties trying to rationalize a world where recognizable medieval concepts like feudalism and manorialism existed alongside wizards with near-unlimited power and goblin armies hoarding thousands of gold coins. I suspect he, his supporters, and his opponents produced tens of thousands of words on the topic in Dragon magazine back in the day; a search for 'Gygaxian naturalism' will probably give you some starting points.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:27 AM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

The classic d&d 3 essays on this are the Dungeonomicon and associated pieces.

The links there are dead, by the way -- they all go to the Wizards of the Coast home page.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:30 AM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Larry Niven's series that began with "Not long before the end" gets into that. It's probably best handled in "What good is a glass dagger?"

The fundamental conceit is that mana, the power source for magic, is actually a natural resource and a finite one, which doesn't regenerate. If a lot of magic is performed in a particular place, the mana is reduced and thereafter only low power spells can be performed there. In the extreme case it may be reduced to zero.

The story series is placed in a time when the mana generally is running out everywhere.

(Atlantis suffered particularly badly. The island was tectonically unstable, and the wizard-kings had been renewing a spell that held the island above the water. When the mana was depleted too far, the spell stopped working and Atlantis sank beneath the waves.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:29 AM on July 12, 2014

Heinlein's Magic Inc. deals extensively with the kind of thing you're talking about. Magicians are common and magic is used heavily in business in various ways.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:31 AM on July 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

A more usable link to the Dungeonomicon (look particularly at the Economicon, although the whole thing discusses economics).
posted by jackbishop at 10:31 AM on July 12, 2014

posted by verstegan at 11:27 AM on July 12, 2014

Brust's Taltos series does this to an extent. The magic goes away for a while, so you have a greater need for labor. When it comes back, not so much.

Holly Lisle also did this in one of her books, but I can't find the title. Basically, the people were the source of magic. So you had some living like kings and siphoning off what they needed from the rest. The people were essentially a raw material.
posted by cjorgensen at 11:47 AM on July 12, 2014

One of the posters on the Order of the Stick d20 forums has put together something he calls the "Tippyverse". He's mostly concerned with the security and military implications of high-level 3rd edition D&D magic, but deals with economics, as well.
posted by riotnrrd at 3:02 PM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure whether The Last Ring-Bearer is the sort of thing you are looking for, or its exact opposite. Written in 1999, it is a novel set in Middle-earth, after the War of the Ring, which looks at the place through a modern ecological and economic lens. It's recognizably the same place but it feels very different.
posted by Mars Saxman at 3:26 PM on July 12, 2014

I don't think it can be done... that is, combine D&D magic with a medieval society. Niven and Rowling are right: extensive magic is high technology, which gives you a modern lifestyle. Teleportation and telekinesis = automobiles = modern transport; magical messages = telephones = corporations and modern governance; fireballs = gunpowder = modern warfare, etc. If you have all that, you're not restricted to subsistence agriculture and feudal lords.

LOTR can get away with it because it barely uses magic. (But Tolkien has very little interest in economics anyway... the Shire is basically the English countryside with no London, while Gondor seems to be a city-state without a hinterland.)
posted by zompist at 6:07 PM on July 12, 2014

Can't speak to Game of Thrones or D&D but the Lord Darcy mystery stories by Randall Garrett are set in an alternate history kind of like Heinlein's Magic, Inc (although they take place in England, instead of America).
posted by Rash at 7:44 PM on July 12, 2014

Joel Rosenberg's "Guardians of the Flame" series explored the effects of magic on the one hand, and introduced technology on the other, on the economics and power structures of an initially slaveholding feudal society.
posted by mef613 at 8:28 PM on July 12, 2014

D&D's Eberron Setting embraces the "magic = technology" trope. The setting features Lightening Rail (trains powered by elementals), air ships (also powered by elementals), telegraphs via magical sendings, Teleportation via circles, heavy magic use in warfare, Magical street lighting, AI Walking robots, etc. Of course Humans aren't by far the only sentient species and many of the other sentients are magical. And fantasy, magical and mundane monsters abound.
posted by Mitheral at 8:53 PM on July 12, 2014

I think zompist raises an interesting point, but magic is often conceived of as something difficult to undertake, hard to reproduce perfectly every time, liable to backfire in negative and unexpected ways, and limited to a small elite. In this conception, the "technology" level afforded by magic might be more akin to crossing the Atlantic by sail in the 16th century, rather than by air in the 21st, or using a medieval cannon rather than a modern rifle.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 10:50 PM on July 12, 2014

I don't think it can be done... that is, combine D&D magic with a medieval society. Niven and Rowling are right: extensive magic is high technology, which gives you a modern lifestyle. Teleportation and telekinesis = automobiles = modern transport; magical messages = telephones = corporations and modern governance; fireballs = gunpowder = modern warfare, etc. If you have all that, you're not restricted to subsistence agriculture and feudal lords.

But there are many places in the world today that have access to all of those technologies, but don't have the societal stability, rule of law, and institutions to prevent power from settling entirely into hierarchies of interpersonal loyalty and cronyism.

An interesting take that hasn't been mentioned is China Miéville's Bas-Lag setting.
posted by XMLicious at 3:20 AM on July 13, 2014

I'm surprised nobody mentioned Terry Pratchett's Discworld books yet. He works the idea of a "Wizard's Guild" into a real economic sort of model, albeit in a goofy fantasy context.

The book Making Money in particular comes to mind (discussing how economic structures arise in a medieval world), although I don't know how much it touched on magic. But in general he describes a world where wizards are a sort of regulated monastic structure.
posted by zvs at 5:32 PM on July 13, 2014

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