This one’s been a long time coming.
I was flitting about the internet, watching posts and forums as I do, and I saw a bunch of folks discussing high vs low magic describe 5e as being high magic, even very high magic. I’d only been playing 5e for one or two years at the time, and this struck me as absurd! That is until, of course, I saw their definition. They defined High Magic as how many people could use magic, and if you take the player race bonuses as being universal representation of said races, that would be correct.
Their definition didn’t strike me as being terribly useful for discussing anything of real importance, though! I think any reasonable DM starts off with “Yeah these are adventuring Tiefling stats, the entire race doesn’t have access to Hellish Rebuke for when a mosquito bites them.” Then you have magic items in 5e, which are apparently supposed to be rare in the system. It’s supposedly a counter to how “powerful” 5e PCs are, but 5e PCs aren’t these juggernauts by design. By the time the PCs get access to anything interesting by way of character abilities, spells, or magic items, the monster manual falls behind. Is that a definition of a powerful PC? Well maybe, I’m Godzilla compared to a 5 lb weight. Once you get to that scale, you start looking at what’s supposed to counter the PCs, rather than look at the PCs as being powerful. I think it’s one of the reasons homebrew is so prevalent in the 5e community.
Back to the point, though. So we have some adventurers who specifically start off with magic, and we have the occasional introduction of magic items. What about spells? Well, cantrips can be fired off every turn. I guess that’s pretty easily accessed magic, right? Look at the majority of the spell list, though. Are there any spells of consequence beyond a battle or two? Yep! They’re few and far between, and the 5e system takes great pains to discourage you from combining them absent a few oversights.
Spells of consequence is the key to that question. You can play 5e disregarding the split between adventurer and the race as large (which I don’t advise), throw magic items at your party (and indeed you should). You can flood your campaign with the stock magic the core rules provide. Just one problem; none of that stuff is consequential. Ok, maybe it isn’t a problem. Plenty of people get by on it.
Shouldn’t “High Magic” be defined as magic having a strong impact on the world, though? Or at the very least, shouldn’t we update our classifications for a grid or some other visualization to place our games on? Take Avatar, for instance. Not everyone is a bender, right? Would you say bending is of little consequence, though? Has everything progressed as our medieval world did, plus a few fireballs being thrown around? Nope. Goodness, bending is incorporated into all fashions of technological development. Earth bending is probably the most obvious example, they have entire modes of transporting cargo and people around that rely on benders and engineering working in sync, and it’s done in a plausible fashion. There are more benders than any given edition of D&D assumes there are mages, but still.
The magic system of Avatar changes the development and technology of the world and empowers its users not just to change their immediate circumstances but also events and circumstances in the long term (I need a stronghold, time to bend one from the earth). This is an axis of evaluation quite different from “how many mages are there?” How different would D&D be if its magic system matched these qualities? You’d have more opportunities to impose on the world, explore new frontiers, push boundaries, get into the sort of swords and sorcery pulp adventures true D&D was built on, or at the very least, create the situations pulp heroes then explored. The prequel to those stories, I can only assume, all began with some wizard saying “oops”, after all.
But I digress (again, damnit).
Point being, starting these discussions of High vs Low Magic, we need something better. We need an axis of Frequency crossing an axis of Consequence. Frequency is the percentage of relevant people in the setting who have access to magic or someone else who can cast it . Consequence is the ways in which the setting can or should deviate from the world as it was (or as is), and the capacity for its users to impose upon the world beyond a single day’s events.
Avatar, for instance, would be classed as High Frequency and High Consequence. The “default” of 5e (whatever that is) would be classed as Medium Frequency (plenty of low level spellcasting going around, not many magic items) and Extremely Low Consequence, for the near-total lack of anything provided as possibilities for altering the world as is.
It’s just a thought.
Are there more sliders or categories to add to this?