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World Building:

NPC Mages: Where Are They?

One of the things I see a lot of GMs struggle with is how they handle NPC magic users in their game. Improper handling of magic can easily make your campaign world feel off and break the suspension of disbelief, especially in a high-magic campaign. Unless you are playing in a campaign world with no magic—or so little as to be virtually unknown—magic is a real and tangible force in the world. Even commoners who may not come in contact with magic in their daily lives will have heard of magic and possibly seen it performed in their presence. Magic-users (wizards, sorcerers, witches, mages, clerics, druids, etc.) not only exist as individuals but also as possible professions for those with talent or training. 

All too often mages are kept scarce due to a fear of making magic too readily available.

Depending on how prevalent magic is in the world, the number of magic users that exist in the world should be equivalent. However, all too often, GMs make them far too scarce or unreachable. They are usually relegated to small niche roles due to the fear of making magic too readily available to the players. Low-level magic users are generally portrayed as hedge wizards and apothecaries, providing minor magical services to the few adventurers that may need them. High-level magic users are often placed as advisors to royalty or lone shut-ins spending all of their days researching more powerful magic. Outside of these generalized roles, you may find campaign worlds that boast an arcane university of sorts, with low and high-level magic-users as students and staff. These roles tend to ignore mid-level mages, aside from the players or occasional allies or enemies.

So, where are all these mages? No matter how difficult it is in the world to become a magic user, magic is a commodity. Mages have basic survival needs just like everyone else in the world, and unless they can conjure food and shelter with their magic, they will need to pay for it somehow. Likewise, research is expensive. Books, materials, spell components, and other necessities add up in cost, especially with multiple failed experiments before hopeful success. Unless mages all come from wealthy families or manage to build up a fortune somehow, they’re going to need to sell their services like any other tradesman. Not every mage can gain a king’s patronage to support their research, so where are they?

It is necessary to look at how magic users would fit into society with magic as a tangible commodity. If they are selling their services, who are they selling them to, and exactly what services are they selling? The Queen’s mage advisor is likely required to be available to the queen at all times of the day, with the Queen and her court dictating the majority of their prepared spells. Such a position leaves little time for personal research. It probably requires specialization in divination (e.g., seeking truth from subjects, surveying the domain, or spying on rivals) or other specializations that specifically serve the realm. It would be rare to find a powerful battle-mage as a royal adviser in a kingdom that has been peaceful for hundreds of years.

In almost any industry, there’s a place for a magic user with the right spells.

Mages that are not wealthy, do not work as teachers, and do not manage to become advisors will need to find a way to sell their services to survive and to further their research. The standard trope is the enchanter that crafts rare magical items for adventurers, but how common would this be in reality? Adventurers, after all, are likely just as rare as magic users. It’s far more likely that a magic user sells their services to those best able to use them regularly. A wizard with access to a spell that can move or shape the earth is highly likely to work with a mining company or builder where their abilities can do the work of dozens in minutes. Messenger services may employ mages with communication spells for messages that are urgent or must remain absolutely secure. Shipping magnates may contract wizards that can control or manipulate the weather to ensure safe and rapid shipments. In almost any industry, there’s a place for a magic user with the right spells. However, this does mean that the magic user’s spell selection and capabilities will center around that job.

The most frequent interaction we see with players and magic existing in the world is in the form of magic items. Magical items in games are rare, expensive, and found only while adventuring or in the very rare curio shop. The fear is that if the players get too many magical items, they’ll become too powerful and throw off the balance of the game. While this is a valid concern, too many GMs take the approach of making magic users just as rare to stem the flow of potential magic items. Let’s face it; if a mage could make a backpack of holding, they could quickly sell a lot of them and fund their research. Everyone from smugglers to merchants would see the benefit, and it would be hard to keep up with demand unless the price was exorbitant. However, if the price is that high, every mage with the capabilities would start making similar items to get in on the market. Supply and demand would eventually set a stable price, and such bags would become common. To correct this, we usually make magic items so expensive that only wealthy individuals (which includes mid- to high-level adventurers) can afford them, and just as costly to create. That is one way of handling it, but we can also decide that making magical adventuring gear is not worth the time and cost as the demand is quite low.

Many adventuring magic items are likely to be made for the personal use of the mage or a specific commission. Mages with the capabilities to do so may decide to start making magical items for sale. Still, there’s a balance between high-priced items for wealthy adventurers that sell rarely or lower-priced magical items for artisans and simple luxuries that can sell to anyone. A chisel that never dulls would be a great boon to a master stone carver. Sending stones would be extremely useful to merchants and shipping companies for staying in communication and tracking shipments. A forge that never goes out would save a blacksmith thousands in wood or coal. A tinker with a mending spell can work faster and better than a tinker without such ability. Magic as a commodity would flow into daily life, visible, but not overpowering. 

Mages are unlikely to cater specifically to adventurers.

There’s nothing wrong with making mages and magic items more prevalent and visible in the world, but they are unlikely to cater specifically to adventurers. In this way, you can keep magic-users present and available in a high-magic campaign without overpowering your players. Sure, the local enchanter might be able to make a +1 sword, but he usually only deals in minor enchantments on common tools. An apothecary or alchemist may have healing potions but is far more likely to trade in salves that cure common ailments. Think of all the philters and concoctions hawked by charlatans of the past, but that truly work as advertised.

It can often be difficult for us to fit magic users into the world because we don’t have a real-world corollary. We understand how to fit blacksmiths into the world because we know the services they offer and can draw from real-world comparisons. We know that they are likely to apprentice, working at the direction of another smith to learn the trade. Then as a journeyman, they continue learning and honing their skills, maybe setting up shop somewhere. They likely spend all of their time working on commissions for customers, leaving little time for personal projects or creating a stock of items that may sell in the future. The master smith has more time to work on their own projects between custom orders because they make so much more on their custom work. However, even a master smith is unlikely to spend time crafting exquisite swords if they live in an area with little demand for blades.

If you think of magic use as a service industry, or as a trade, it becomes a little easier to fit them into the world in a way that makes sense. You can still keep them uncommon and rare (just treat them as luxury services) yet believably integrated into the world. You may also end up with some interesting mundane magical items that, while not directly tied to adventuring, can be used in interesting ways by players who manage to acquire them without overpowering the campaign. Have fun with it.

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Roger Soucy

CFG Founder 
Roger Soucy

Roger is the founder of Crystal Forge Games and has been creating, playing, and running tabletop role-playing games for more than thirty years. As an artist, programmer, and writer, he is using his passion for gaming to create unique accessories, tools, and resources for the gaming community.

  • AD&D (2nd Edition)
  • Call of Cthulhu
  • Champions
  • D&D (3.5 Edition)
  • D&D (3rd Edition)
  • D&D (5th Edition)
  • D20 System
  • Magic: the Gathering
  • Palladium RPG
  • Pathfinder
  • Pathfinder 2E
  • Shadowrun
  • Star Wars RPG
  • Vampire: 5E
  • Vampire: the Masquerade
  • World of Darkness

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