5 Questions to Ask About
Magic and Power Dynamics
in Your Fantasy World
Written by Peter Chiykowski
Magic is one of the defining features of the fantasy genre because it lets writers and readers escape the grind of mundane reality and ask “what if?”
For some writers, this means leaning into the escapism of magic: running wild with the ideas that transport us into worlds that look nothing like our own. For others, magic gives an opportunity to transmute, reflect, and provide commentary on society and its problems—old concepts explored through new lenses.
I’d argue that some of the best fantasy achieves both. It gives us new and magical worlds to get lost in without glossing over the way that real-world problems like war, poverty, prejudice, and social inequality might manifest in those worlds. After all, where there is magic, there is power. Where there is power, there is conflict. And where there is conflict, there is usually a wrong to be righted and a story to be told.
As the designer of a deck of worldbuilding prompts and culture-building questions, I started asking myself about the different ways that magic might express itself in the systems of personal, social and political power at work in a fantasy world. Whether you’re worldbuilding the backdrop for your epic fantasy novel series, or just laying down some setting notes for your homebrew D&D campaign, I hope these questions help you think about how your magic system or systems could shape the balance of power in your world.
Who has access to magic?
This question always fascinates me.
In your world, does magic require special training? If so, what does it cost? Who can afford to pay? Who can’t? If knowledge, education or time to practice are barriers to accessing magic in your fiction, then the same kinds of inequalities that plague our world are bound to plague yours.
Rowenson’s Note: he’s talking about more than prevalence or ease of use. This is about overall access to the power and the implications in your world
Even if the mage’s college in the high reaches of the El-Dregador Mountains is free to all who walk through its doors, the luxury to travel or embark on a moonshot quest to reach it is a massive barrier that will impede some people more than others. A detail like how near someone lives to a teacher of magic could make or break a character’s story as a spellcaster.
In worlds where magic is an innate gift, just as many questions arise.
Is magic tied to bloodlines? Cultural practices? Mutations? Religion? Do different cultures support or suppress magic differently? If magic is forbidden, do some segments of society have more resources for hiding it or getting away with abusing it? If magic users’ services are socially accepted, who can afford them?
And perhaps the most challenging question: when you think about the people who can freely access magic in your world, do they match the demographics of the rest of your world? If not, then what accounts for the gap? Understanding who gets to use magic in your world is essential to understanding whose interests it represents and what it gets used for.
What does magic get used for?
In some kinds of worldbuilding, magic is bound by specific rules that dictate a narrow range of uses for it.
Let’s imagine the magic in your world is based around projecting illusions that become fleetingly real through concentrated willpower. You’re more likely to see magic used for deception, intimidation, influence, and other social ruses, rather than for warfare or construction.
In other magic systems, magic isn’t limited to specific uses and can be wielded as a free expression of the mage’s willpower. In these cases, the way magic is used reveals the desires and anxieties of those who wield it (in the same way someone’s google search history can tell you a lot about what they want and who they are).
If one social group has special access to magic, consider how their struggle to maintain power might influence the kind of magic they study and practice.
Who/what does magic replace?
The application of magic could radically change the fabric of your world’s society and economy.
Consider “Plant Growth,” the 3rd-level Dungeons & Dragons spell that can double crop yields over an area equivalent to 509 acres of land for a full year. You might not need to develop industrial agriculture if an annual visit from Daria the Druid can turn your farm into a land of plenty. Heck, you might never bother with even small-scale farming if magic can maintain wild fields and forests rich in foraged foods.
What other industries, technologies or societal roles might be replaced by magic in your world? Do clerics replace doctors, or are there some health problems magic can’t solve? Understanding the gaps that magic fills (or leaves) in your world is crucial to understanding the world itself.
What is magic’s relationship to political power?
Can a mage become president?
It might sound like a silly question, but the rules that allow or forbid the intermingling of magical power and political power will have a huge impact on how magic shapes the power systems of your world.
On one end of the spectrum, you have worlds where magic users always openly hold the highest seat of power. (Think of Sith Lords ruling as galactic emperors and supreme leaders, beholden to no one.) On the other end, you have worlds where the stigma of magic is so strong that it cannot openly align itself with political power. (A great example is C. L. Clark’s The Unbroken.)
Between those extremes you have worlds where magic-users can appear as:
- individual advisors (like Melisandre in A Song of Ice and Fire)
- guns for hire (like witchers in Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher saga)
- mage councils working in tandem with traditional government (like the Jedi Council and the Republic)
- some combination of these (like the orogenes in N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy)
The closer magic can get to centers of political power, the further its social impact can reach. And the more those in power can access the magic, the more they may use the power they have to prevent others from challenging them.
What do your power systems say about the real world?
Whenever we add an element to our fictional world that differentiates it from the real world, we’re essentially asking “what if?”
What if too much power ended up in too few hands? What if political leaders could bend magic-users to do their will? Or what if magic users could bend politicians to their will? What if true power came with a terrible price? Worse still, what if it came without one?
The answers to those questions don’t have to be simple or complete. After all, our understanding of the real world we live in is messy and flawed—why should our fictional worlds be any different?
But even if we don’t have the answers, it’s important we spend some time sitting with the questions. After all, it’s in the act of wondering that the real magic begins.
PS: If you’d like some help asking questions to refine and explore your worldbuilding, consider taking a look at The Story Engine: Deck of Worlds, my new deck of remixable, open-ended worldbuilding prompts. If you build worlds of magic and imagination, I think you’ll get a lot of mileage out of the main deck, fantasy expansion, and culture-building questions expansion.
Peter Chiykowski is the designer of The Story Engine Deck and Deck of Worlds, and the author of three books of microfiction, the latest being The House of Untold Stories from Andrews-McMeel Publishing.