The Cost of Magic

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The Cost of Magic

by John Josten

Put Your Magic Where Your Mouth Is

Many people have suggested that game masters see magic as a replacement for technology.  In an effort to do this, they suggest various ways of simulating air travel, home conveniences, and communication.  These are all extremely important industries, and in replacing our technology with their magic, worlds can come alive.  But there are two industries that are often forgotten, and they are two of the biggest industries our world has to offer:  Health Care and Beauty.

4408092034_3f4820d092_o[1]Magical Health Care

Every game system with magic has its healers.  Whether they be religious or simply learned, magical heal spells are the cornerstone of most adventuring parties.  After all, what else makes it possible for knights to battle a dragon, retreat and arrive to do battle again the next day in perfect health?  What gives adventurers the courage to stand in the front of a party while a horde of orcs is charging?  Without a doubt, it is heal spells.
But how do heal spells fit into a fantasy world?  In a city with a powerful god of healing, the religious may establish a hospital as well as aid stations around the city (depending on the city’s size).  Religious organizations typically try to keep their costs low, but the hospital will most likely serve as the funding method for religion’s local expenses.  Unfortunately for adventurers with more money than time, these priests and priestesses are in the business of saving lives, not merely mending wounds.  Anyone who walks in under his or her own power with a week old wound will not find much help.
For those attempting to receive the most vital of all healing, the resuscitation (or resurrection depending on the game system), the cost is quite high.  There should be a limited number of people capable of casting this spell, and they will not do so haphazardly.  Anyone brought to a religious hospital for resuscitation will be investigated.  Hopefully their body will be placed in a serenity chamber (a place where rotting and decomposition cannot take place).  There they will wait while the judicial system is consulted to insure that this is not a known criminal.  Having passed the security check, the spell will most likely be cast.  If the spell drains life forces from the caster, either in number of years or in mental fatigue, the caster is going to want to be compensated.  If there is any risk of the caster coming to physical injury, that compensation is going to be rather high.  Remember that the caster is going to have assistants who will also need to be compensated for their time, even if they are only there to wipe the sweat from the caster’s brow.
As most people will admit, life is the most precious thing.  Families and friends will pay huge sums of money if it means the return of their loved ones, especially if the deceased is a child or young adult.  Religious folks might not prey upon that desperation, but others might.
And what about the hypochondriacs?  Every healer in town will not be of high moral character.  There will be charlatans out there ready to make quick money “curing” the imaginary illnesses that the wealthy dream up.  These people may or may not have magical abilities, but those who do have them will be far more believable.  In some cases, casting heal spells to ease the pain of a patient may be of some help, especially if the illness cannot be cured through magical means.
1216781832_1024x768_free-fantasy-art-wallpaper[1] Which brings up one of the more important points:  Can magic cure everything?  The common cold has eluded medical technology for centuries.  Is there a similar ailment that magic cannot beat?  Many diseases caught due to combat with mystical creatures have rules about how quickly they must be cured, is the same true for more common diseases?  Can diseases resist the magical spells?  Seemingly yes.  Some diseases should simply be more difficult to cure, whether they be more resilient or “anti-magical” in nature.  In the modern age, the big question would be:  Can cancer be cured once it has begun to spread?
To answer this and the related questions that will follow, assumptions must be made.  First, healers can only heal diseases that they can identify.  This prevents a healer from casting cure spells on a person not known to be sick.  The magic may be powerful, but it must be directed.  This means that healers must have some knowledge of medicine or physiology.  The healer does not need to know the name of the disease, but he or she must recognize that the disease is there.
Back to the cancer question:  the answer is, no.  Chances are, a healer would not identify a disease like cancer in its early stages.  Perhaps the healer might be able to cure a cancer “lump” and prevent the disease from spreading, but if it were to spread, the patient would be doomed.  As the disease attacked different parts of the body, the healer might be able to cure pieces of the disease, but would not be able to keep up.  When the disease had taken hold of the bones or internal organs, the healer might not be able to identify enough of the disease to cure it.
Cancer is just an example.  Many of the medieval plagues might be much easier to cure.  Most of them were accompanied by symptoms that could be seen on the skin.  It would be much easier for a healer to see and cure the disease that causes large, red splotches than the disease that weakens bones.
Imagine, the wealthy merchant, kept at the age of 25 through expensive magical means (see below), who contracts a deadly disease, but does not realize it, until it has spread through his body.  No matter what his age or wealth, this man is going to die, but not before spending the majority of his hoarded wealth in a vain effort to find a cure.

CG_artwork_desktop_marta_dahlig_03[1]Magical Beauty

While people often deny the time and money they spend on beauty and beauty supplies, this is still an enormous industry.  In cultured regions, how you are seen is far more important than how you feel.  At the coronation of the new king, no merchant or their spouse would dare arrive without the proper look, whether that is makeup, body paint, or a powdered wig.
Cosmetics are just the beginning of this enormous industry.  Ancient legends of tricky fairies and their glamours meant to deceive the innocent are common in superstition.  This is a perfect line for alchemists to research.  Strict and wild cultures both love their cosmetics, though they use them quite differently.  The wealthy would pay large sums of money for make-up that did not rub off especially if it did not rub off for days.  In a more frenzied culture, a make-up that reflected the mood of the person and changed from one neon color to another might become the ultimate fashion statement.
Game masters should use modern science for a starting point, but not an ending point.  Magical cosmetics that can completely alter the looks of a person would be valuable both in the civilized courts and for use by the stealthy looking to avoid capture.  The cosmetics do not have to be make-up.  An amulet of facial illusions might be a far better design.  A wig of wind resistance might also be a huge seller.
Simply looking attractive might not be the only request.  Some people may wish to look horribly ugly for the intimidation factor.  Actors may wish to have the ability to change characters at a moment’s notice.  Some might even want to appear differently to each person who sees them.  Whether this is to appear as everyone’s mother or lost love, cosmetics that could look into a person’s heart would be extremely valuable.  (If certain terror spells can look into a person’s heart to frighten them, the opposite seems plausible.)
fantasy-girl---ghost-wallpapers_14943_1900x1200[1] Do mystical wizards and priests have the ability to perform the equivalent of plastic surgery?  Probably, yes.  Maybe a wizard is so skilful with his disintegrate spell that he can wipe out fat deposits in the queen’s thighs.  Wrinkle creams have been around for ages, and whether they are frauds or alchemical they will be found in the fantasy realms.  How a healer might do certain augmentations may be a mystery, but that is all right.  Game masters do not have to determine how every magical trick is done.  Just because the GM does not know how the healer did something does not mean that it cannot happen.
If modern science can produce perfume that chemically attracts the opposite sex (proven or unproven), alchemy would have certainly mastered the same technique.  A seductress out to capture a wealthy merchant would spend her life savings to get a love potion perfume that allowed her to charm her prey.  Most people, male or female, want desperately to be liked (or loved) and would willing spend a fortune for the magical short cut to get there.  Of course, once the perfume wore off or was used up, the person would be racing back to the alchemist for more.
Diseases, accidents, and battle damage can all be taken care of by most healers in most fantasy games, but is that enough?  What about the people that wish to stay young forever?  In most magical systems, there is a method for reducing a person’s age, typically with no danger to the recipient.  How much would someone of our era pay for such a boon?  Probably their entire fortune.
In a city where magic ruled over technology, the “doctors” capable of reducing age would be the cream of the social class.  Their secrets would be worth more than dragon hordes, whether they use alchemy, spells or even evil spirits.  It seems likely that a person would need to spend about what a normal craftsman made in a year to receive a year’s worth of youth (modern equivalent to about $50,000).  This price would prevent most normal people from hoping to use these services, but not place the cost beyond what a wealthy merchant or noble would be willing to pay.  Taken at its basest level, the purchaser could compare the money they would make in the extra year to the cost and decide if it was beneficial.
After the question of how much to charge had been answered, a game master will have to decide how long to allow it.  If it can be done, it will be sold.  If it is sold, what is to prevent it from controlling the world?  Acts of the gods are an easy, if somewhat heavy handed, solution.  Maybe the goddess of death will allow people to remain young for their entire lives, but when their number is up, they die, youth or no youth.  Having the person selling the service restrict its use simply does not make good business sense.  No merchant would ever cut off a good customer.  Making it harder and harder to keep an elderly person young may be a very good solution, until eventually, their body has become immune to the age stopping agents and ages at a normal or accelerated pace.
Lastly, in a combined category is the discussion of scarring.  Barbarian warriors may be expected to have battle scars and even display them proudly.  Former adventurers attempting to hold public office might want to look a little better.  Wounds healed immediately and fully by magic are far less likely to scar.  If they do, it will most likely be a thin, “silver” scar.  Any wound that healed normally will most likely leave a scar, and wounds that became infected will often leave horrible scars.
Scar removal is possible, but it certainly has its costs.  To remove a scar typically requires the removal of the scarred skin and the quick healing of that area.  This should obviously be very painful, unless some major form of anaesthesia was used.  It also runs the risk of increasing the size of the scar, if something in the treatment goes wrong.  Of course, the previously discussed cosmetics could be used, but for many people this might be too temporary a solution.


Most people will value their health over their money.  Unfortunately, too many would also value their looks and vanity above their money as well.  Spell casters and especially alchemists would want to tap into these desires to make incredible sums of money.
There are of course always methods of barter that might interest a healer or alchemist, and those short of funds are not automatically deprived of the magical effects they desire.  As many adventurers have found out, healers and priests often have work for down on their luck parties with dead friends.  Alchemical beauticians might also be in need of sword swingers, though fewer sword swingers would need the beauticians.
It should never be forgotten that adventurers are in the minority, and entire cultures ebb and flow taking very little notice of them.  Not every wizard in the world is interested in throwing fireballs.  There are those far more interested in making profits from their illusions and medicines.

Copyright November 1996, November 2010

John Josten is the lead game designer for Board Enterprises. He has created the Legend Quest game system and written numerous role-playing aides. He can be reached at and his blog can be read at


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