When people think of spells in Dungeons and Dragons, they think of flashy Fireball or the classic Cure Wounds. What most players and Dungeon Masters don’t realize is that the spells in the Player’s Handbook have the potential to completely reshape the politics and economics of a medieval D&D world.
Low Level Magic (OR, A creative guide to farming)
Many low-level Dungeons and Dragons spells would transform the lives of commoners. Take Mending. This cantrip is one of the easiest to cast spells in the game, and can repair most common items. During the Middle Ages, repair of tools, vehicles, and other necessities was one of the most important trades. Mending would make all that unnecessary.
From an economic standpoint, the most powerful spell in all of Dungeons and Dragons is Plant Growth (3rd level). The spell enables the user the double the productivity of a land area equal to 506 acres. Since the typical level 3 spellcaster can cast a level 3 spell twice per day, a single person working full time could double the productivity of about 350,000 acres each year. That’s equivalent to 550 square miles. A medieval acre of grain could produce about 7-15 bushels a year, enough to feed a single person for roughly a year. Doubling that output over 350,000 acres would mean that a single spellcaster could grow enough food for 350,000 people! We might expect to see a feedback loop of more spellcasters leading to more food which in turn leads to more spellcasters being born. The only limiting factor is the amount of land on which you can grow food.
A less efficient, but even stranger spell could also improve productivity. Animate Dead (lvl 3) allows the caster to indefinitely control up to five zombies per casting. If they were employed on a farm or in some other kind of manual labor, they could work for 24 hours a day. A permanent force of undead laborers could be a viable method of agriculture. The big question is how religious groups would feel about seeing people raised from the dead to become workers. Zombies might create more efficient production, but peasants might not be happy about being replaced by what is effectively free labor.
Magic might also provide health benefits for the public. Lesser Restoration is a level 2 spell that can cure any disease. While the low numbers of spellcasters mean that people in a D&D would still die from disease, the fact that spellcasters can cast a spell multiple times every day means that a single low-level caster could cure more than 700 people of disease in a year.
What would be the net impact of all these spells? Farmers would be far more productive, and tools would be very easy to repair. People would also live longer, since fewer would die of disease. However, this would not necessarily make everyone’s life easier.
In the long term, higher agricultural yields do not usually lead to everyone going to bed with a full stomach and a happy heart. Instead, it typically leads to population growth, which in turn eliminates the food surplus. So instead of everyone living like kings, you might instead expect a D&D world to be far more densely populated than was common in real history, but conditions for each individual peasant to be about as bad as they would have been without magic.
All these magical improvements would also lead to another potential long-term problem: lack of technological change. If all it takes to repair a broken tool is a few magic words, and any disease can be cured with a simple spell, there would be little incentive to develop more durable tools or an understanding of the human body.
Many fantasy worlds exist in a state of limbo, where technology and society never really changes. In real history, by contrast, technology changes constantly across the entire world. But with D&D magic, that limbo makes sense. Why develop more efficient farming techniques when you have an effectively unlimited labor pool in the undead?
High Level Magic (OR, Why cloning is overpowered)
All magic requires practice and training to use effectively. Even Sorcerers, who get their magic from innate ability rather than study and learning, develop their stills slowly. The only institutions with the resources and expertise to train magic users, then, are the government, nobility, and powerful groups like the church. Contrast this with something like weapons and armor. Weapons are relatively easy to make, and most weapons require relatively little training to use. That’s why medieval rulers had so much trouble with rebels and bandits. They did not have a monopoly on the use of force. In a D&D world, however, the upper classes have total control over the use of powerful magic.
Why is this important? Well, high level magic in D&D is mostly used for combat, and indeed, a high level wizard or sorcerer might be as powerful as hundreds of regular soldiers. From a government’s standpoint, however, magic has many more interesting uses. Take the spell Clone. Cloning can theoretically enable an individual to live forever through multiple bodies. If such an option were available, you can bet that any important ruler would take advantage of it. Just think of all the historical rulers, from Qin Shi Huang to Pope Innocent VIII, who went to incredible lengths in the hope of finding the secret to immortality.
If rulers had the ability to live forever through cloning, medieval society would change dramatically. The rules of succession and inheritance would become meaningless, and ambitious young people would have no path to advancement except by somehow killing those in power. The powerful magic users capable of cloning would be priceless assets, and some of them might be tempted to seize power for themselves. The clones themselves might be stored in elaborately guarded tombs filled with wealth, much like the pyramids of Ancient Egypt.
Immortal rulers would also create a static world. Most leaders would keep the same worldview they had grown up with, and their immortal status would paradoxically make them risk averse. Let me explain. An immortal ruler plans to rule their kingdom or guild forever, and they are only able to remain immortal because of the power and influence that comes from being in charge. So the only disastrous outcome for them is the destruction of their power. Contrast this with mortal rulers who know death is inevitable, and want to achieve as much as they can before they die. The net result is that immortal leaders are likely to fight hard for the status quo, and take few risks.
Other high level spells would reshape how rulers operate. Dungeons and Dragons has a number of communication spells like Sending, which allow the caster to communicate with people anywhere else in the world. Similarly, Scrying allows the user to see anywhere in the world. This would not be a particularly useful tool for high level espionage, since other spells can block it, but it would be a superb tool for rulers keeping an eye on their non-magical subjects.
All these spells would have the effect of accumulating power into the hands of the ruler and the cadre of powerful spellcasters. They would exert direct control on their realm and subjects, quite possibly turning their realms or guilds into medieval quasi-police states. Given enough time, these rulers would become legends, whose names are synonymous with the realm itself. Some might become figures of worship, others the center of totalitarian systems. Overall, it’s hard to imagine the longevity of these rulers having many positive effects for their subjects.
Ultimately high level Dungeons and Dragons magic creates the perfect conditions for unchanging worlds and immortal, authoritarian government structures. The highly exclusive nature of magic reinforces this. It’s easy for peasants to create an army to challenge their government, but you cannot conjure a high level magic user out of thin air. The big moral is that in any world with mighty heroes, equally mighty despots will inevitably use their power for selfish reasons.
One other important consideration is how many magic users live in a typical D&D world. The exact number is, of course, up to the Dungeon Master, but a decent ballpark average is that 1 in every 100 people has some level of magical ability.
Most magic users are probably pretty weak. To simulate the drop off in ability, I estimated that only 40% of magic users advance to the next level of spells. With this model, a small kingdom of one million people would include 10,000 magic users, with the following casting abilities:
Cantrips (lvl 0) or higher: 10,000
1st level spells or higher: 4,000
2nd level or higher: 1,600
3rd or higher: 640
4th or higher: 256
5th or higher: 102
6th or higher: 41
7th or higher: 16
8th or higher: 7