By Atticus Hogan
A common question I see from aspiring fantasy writers trying to build their worlds is how to integrate technology into a world of magic. This difficulty likely comes from two places, one is how fantasy is often associated with ancient eras, swords and sorcery, etc, a world where you won’t find anything more advanced than a shovel. The other point of contention is if magic exists, why would a society ever need technology? I can think of a few answers to both these questions. While I am quite an amateur myself, I would like to share some world-building ideas or why a society in a world filled with magic might still develop technology, possibly even more advanced than our own.
First, you need to ask yourself these three questions about your magic system.
How hard is magic to learn?
Who can even learn magic in the first place?
What uses does magic have?
If magic in your world is hard to learn, and it takes weeks to just learn how to cast a simple spell, then many may want a quicker way to do so. This is the primary reason given for technological advancement in the world of Full Metal Alchemist. In this world, society has advanced to a technological state similar to our late 1800s or early 1900s. Though anyone can theoretically learn alchemy and craft any item in an instant most don’t for the same reason most people in our world don’t become nuclear physicists, it is just too hard and complicated to learn.
Furthermore, if only certain people in your world even have the capability to use magic, those without, (assuming they aren’t a part of an oppressed group) will probably develop ways to match their magical peers. This is one of the reasons given in the film Onward, a movie all about bringing a magical fantasy setting into the modern day. In this world, in addition to magic being very hard to learn, only some people even have the ability to use magic in the first place. Consequently, those without magical capability found ways to perform acts just like people with magic abilities while also managing to make the acts quicker and easier than with the use of magic.
Sometimes though, magic does not provide much in the way of utility, and only has a very limited set of uses, thus, technology could pick up the slack where magic fails. A world that is a prime example of this and all the other presented ideas is that of Avatar. In this world of four elemental magic systems, bending is more than anything, a martial art for combat. Sure, each type of bending does have its utility uses, but since only some are benders, and with one exception all of these benders also are limited to one of the elements. Meaning that whatever utilities the different forms of bending do have, are limited to a portion of a portion of the population. So, the beginning of a technological boom seen in the Last Airbender followed by a full-blown industrial revolution makes sense, people were never able to fully rely on their magic.
But these are all just the ramblings of a single aspiring author. These are not rules, just ideas for the directions you can take worldbuilding with your magic system. And even then, all these ideas were ignoring the possibility of magical technology, or hidden world urban fantasy settings. So don’t take any of this as gospel, just maybe consider these ideas when deciding how technologically advanced your world should be.