In which Magic is made boring by Economics

Megan McArdle (aka Jane Galt, aka Asymmetrical Information blogress, aka The Economist blogress [we think]) writes about the annoying economics in Harry Potter:

But this actually presents a problem for authors. If magic is too powerful then the characters will be omnipotent gods, and there won’t be a plot. Magic must have rules and limits in order to leave the author enough room to tell a story. In economic terms, there must be scarcity: magical power must be a finite resource…
Yet in the Potter books, the costs and limits are too often arbitrary.
A patronus charm, for example, is awfully difficult – until Rowling wants a stirring scene in which Harry pulls together an intrepid band of students to Fight the Power, whereupon it becomes simple enough to be taught by an inexperienced fifteen year old. Rowling can only do this because it’s thoroughly unclear how magic power is acquired. It seems hard to credit academic labour, when spells are one or two words; and anyway, if that were the determinant, Hermione Granger would be a better wizard than Harry. But if it’s something akin to athletic skill, why is it taught at rows of desks? And why aren’t students worn out after practicing spells?

This is why I was dissatisfied with the online game World of Warcraft. Competence in the game’s magic meant that you knew all ins-and-outs of character abilities and special powers of different sorts of equipment. To be good at magic, you need to read hours worth of online forums about how to customize your players abilities just so. In the end, there was a few (i.e. two or three) cookie-cutter character layouts that would squeeze the most bang from your key pounding buck… Boring!

My idea for a magic system in a game would be something like this:

  • players can invent new schools of magic or they can join another character’s school
  • the power of a school of magic depends on the number of members in that school so those that evangelize their school best have more power… this is the first form of scarcity
  • a school of magic would consist of spells that are also developed by the players in that school
  • like schools, spells are more powerful if more people know them… the second source of scarcity
  • but, and here’s the interesting public goods twist, spells are more powerful the less they are used by the player and the less they are used by all those that know the spell

Whatcha think?

7 thoughts on “In which Magic is made boring by Economics”

  1. The setup would be very sensitive to the form of the function giving the rate of decrease/increase of spell power/school size. — With a concave increase in spell power due to school size and a linear or convex decrease in power due to number of uses, you should be able to get a number of schools that’s less than the number of players but greater than 1, I guess.

  2. Asheron’s Call had a vaguely similar mechanic. Spells could be invented, but they lost effectiveness as more players learned them.

    On your proposal – without the last clause, it seems like the game world would develop one or two dominant schools, and all other potential competition would starve. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

    It seems like your system would hit an equilibrium at some point as the repertoire of spells in the world expands. If everyone has the same twenty “fireball” spells at their disposal, and all have similar effects, wouldn’t the population tend to use them equally? The last rule seems to be a negative feedback that would cause a tendency toward homeostasis.

    I start up the “Oxford School” and get a few friends on board. My first instinct is to mass produce spellbooks and hand them out at every tavern and town gate. My roster of followers tends to go up. I’m best served if a few other guys do the same thing. I help the “Princeton” and “Yale” schools get up and running, and pretty soon every new player has complete copies of all of our works. We all share the same “big roster” bonus. It seems like players would tend to use our spells equally, though.

    I think there needs to be one more element of scarcity: within the practitioners. Limit the capacity of a player’s repertoire, and maybe grant a scaling “tenure” bonus the longer a player stays with a school. If new players have to choose between “Oxford,” “Princeton,” or “Yale,” there will be competition between the schools to recruit members. However, schools will hit diminishing returns as their rosters grow, because of the “overuse” penalty, so that limits runaway growth that would otherwise poison attempts at starting new schools. A longevity bonus could work as an incentive both to help found new schools, and to defend existing schools.

    Scenario: Oxford, Princeton, and Yale are well-established on the server. They’re wary of accepting new members, since they risk losing standing through overuse. Enterprising new players form the “DeVry School of Magic” and experience rapid growth. Junior members of the other schools may be tempted to defect, since they have less tenure to lose by switching.

    One point though: you really don’t want this system to freeze at any sort of equilibrium. Games are supposed to be interesting; players thrive on conflict and intrigue, not maximum efficiency.

  3. Random wanderings on how this might play out in a real-virtual game world.

    All magic wielders have both the Flaming Balls and the Burning Phallus spells, but Flaming Balls is by far more commonly used. By your ruleset, this makes Burning Phallus more powerful. How much truly interesting variation can happen in a world of “me first” where players don’t tend to put off using one spell in the interest of making another more powerful? Some players may think this way, but it seems unlikely enough would to offset the PVP-minded folks who just want to hammer away with their massive Burning Phalluses, sinking the effectiveness of the spell and stealing any reward for the players who actually try to beef it up.

    As for Harry Potter, undoubtedly Hermione was the superior magic wielder. Rowling deals with this issue quite effectively in her explanation of the prophecy. Harry may have significant in-born talent, but the real reason he’s the “hero” of our story is that Voldemort “marked him as his equal”. Basically Harry’s true special ability is that Voldemort thinks he’s special. Yeah, students should probably be more tired after class. I imagine practicing magic would be something like learning to use those experimental brain-controlled flight simulators. Intense mental calisthenics.

  4. In a video game environment, I don’t see how the level of variety you seek is obtainable. in a traditional RPG setting I don’t see how the tracking o users of a school of magic could be possible. If a fictional story if might work though.
    The only games where I’ve seen anything close to what you’ve described were custom maps in Warcraft III, one called spellcraft, and another called elemental tower defense. In those maps you could pick certain elements (Fire, water, void, earth, shadow, mana, ect.) and mix them in order to make either spells or buildings that cast spells. They allowed a wonderful variety and were very popular for this, but I noticed most people who played it did not want to invent new spells, they wanted to ask people which ones were the best and just use those and win. In some games, people would taunt me because I was loosing, saying I know nothing, when I would point out that I was on the hardest difficulty, and they were on the easiest, and I was using an odd element combination. They seemed to think winning on easy was better then loosing on hard.
    Scott nailed it on the head in his article I think. Many people value winning so much they don’t want to do the other methods, so it would lead to everyone copying the most efficient method, which in this case as he said would probably be everyone haveing 30 copies of a similar spell that all have a big following, and alternating between those.
    I myself have always like the idea of limiting the power of magic by it’s energy source and time. This is also the most common method so it’s not very original, but teh magnitude you limit it is where things get interesting.
    In the pen and paper RPG’s I’ve seen two takes on magic, in one it’s energy source is your own mental will, when depleted you loose all focus and concentration, are stressed and have a headache, so forth. In the other it comes from your living energy, but that same energy can be siphoned form other living things, and the earth itself, but all in limited quality based on your experience. The second way it is limited is my favorite tough, casting time. They have this to a degree in WoW, but not to the level it was in the RPG’s I’ve played. Most practitioners of magic have a variety of spells with a large range of power. There are spells that that seal a door shut, or do a blinding flash of light, but then there are spells that will call down a ball of fire capable of destroying a whole barn. The difference between these was casting time (and also energy) If all these had the same cast times and the same or no energy costs (Like in harry potter) why would you not use big spells all the time? But if it takes you fifteen seconds for the incantation for the big spell, some dude with a gun could have shot you several times by then, so it is absolutely crazy for you to even attempt that spell. So how things end up in that game, is most people end up using a gun (or sword, whatever) themselves but will also throw in plenty of simple spells that can be simply cast like the blinding flash one, or the one that can seal the door between him and you. Only in situations where there are several casters or they have the jump on someone, or when someone is protecting them can they bring out the big guns. I like this idea. I don’t want people just running around with sticks and robes taking down legions with huge spells, I want them to have to be smart, use clever combinations of simple spells, and break out the big guns when absolutely necessary, and at great risk. if this existed in a game, players could not simply use the most powerful spells, they would have to run around casting little ones that might maybe set up the opportunity to use one big one if they play their cards right, so much more skill would be required. Oh and BTW if any of you want those warcraft maps I mentioned email me at and I’ll sent them to ya.
    /end rant

  5. >You wouldn’t allow “pvp-minded folks” into your school.

    And how exactly do you manage this? Do you set up forums where snitches post screenies of members using the most coveted spells when they shouldn’t be? Do you then have someone else police those forums issuing turkey points and expulsions to rule-breakers? Do you really want to create such a management nightmare that people find it not worth the bother?

    I think MMOs, by their very vast and public nature are actually extremely restricted in how much flexibility they have. The systems and ideas you guys have are really interesting, but I think could only be practical in single player and limited cooperative multiplayer environments (ala Diablo).

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