This is a bit of a broad question, but I will try to narrow it down to this:

When GMing a medieval fantasy, and conflicts arise between the medieval times and the magical world (mostly D&D and Pathfinder universes) which side should the GM be most loyal to?

To specify, here are some examples:

Water supplies and spell crafting

My heroic party arrives at a town, and one of the players is greatly wounded. They seek out a cleric in the city, and he heals them back up. Grateful, they ask if there is anything they can do in return, and the friendly cleric reels them into a plot point about the city well that has been poisoned, and they need to find out who, how, and why.

Then one of my (more min-maxed-minded) players suddenly asks a golden question: instead of having a well, why not have this guy cast Created Water once a day into a big container, and have people take the water from there?

We had a lot of laughs about the situation because that idea would actually rule out the need for a well in all decent cities.


Another problem I keep hitting is the use of military tactics in a fantasy world. Concepts like shield walls and tight formations are bizarre to use when spellcasters and cleavers are involved, and the more you stand in formation, the more damage a spell would cause...

But these are concepts I love, and I would hate ruling them out just because they can be easily broken. In my campaign, I let it pass, since the world is very low magical, and the civilian NPCs are simply not familiarized with magic...

But where do you put your "loyalty"? Or do you have some clever way of solving situations like this?

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 great question. For this specific situation, were I a commoner in a medieval town, I may not trust this so-called "magic water" created by some cleric of god_I_don't_worship. Once desperation sets in, maybe... \$\endgroup\$
    – dpatchery
    Jul 1, 2011 at 13:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ Formations should probably be a different question, really. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 1, 2011 at 13:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ Check the area of effect of Create Water vs what the city will use. Then go find who is messing with the well. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 29, 2013 at 4:55

10 Answers 10


Looking at the cleric as a bundle of resources for a moment:

Both wells and clerics generate water. A well accesses underground aquifers* and can generate larger and smaller volumes of water depending on local circumstances. Furthermore, most liquid intended for human consumption is vaguely alcoholic as a purifying measure.

A human will consume 3-4 liters of potable water per day and some more in other activities. A cleric, therefore, can't make all that much water relative to a village's needs in a day where 0th level spells are restricted. Therefore, from a practical matter, it's much easier for the cleric to cast "purify food and drink" on the well or on a locally drawn reservoir than to create water.

However, this is not an interesting case. The interesting case comes from economies of scale and opportunity costs.

Treating a cleric as a well means that for every "well-like interaction" the cleric cannot be doing other things. Therefore, if a cleric did serve as the village's water source (cleric-as-well) they would start the day by filling a container with water and then go about their normal business.

Therefore, if you want a poisoned well scenario here, you must poison the cleric.

From a more practical matter, this one interaction costs a minute or two of time and doesn't place much stress on the cleric. It does, however, increase the villages' dependence on the cleric and reduces the overall food supply of the village (see purify food and drink, which is an "I can't believe this wasn't stored in a fridge" spell that does enormous amounts to increase food efficiency by preventing spoilage. Thus, it's the cleric's best interest to see that the well is purified since more people will benefit.

There is also a single point of failure here, given that the cleric quite literally has the capability to deny life to anyone in the village by simply choosing her spell choices differently. The villagers may not like to be so dependent on the caster.

Creating an economy in a 3.5 world is interesting, depending on the social constructions you have available. I recommend reading the various tomes here by K as to why Feudalism. Considering that the new world expedition was funded just to have easier access to pepper, entire plots can hinge around finding likely students who can learn to cast purify food and drink. Poisoning the well could be literal (causing starvation) or figurative (magical well of energy that powers divine links, etc...) or political (a new cleric's in town, and she says that casting these spells defiles the miracles granted by the gods.

Given that this is not a post-scarcity society, resource deprivation is always possible. It's just may attack different links in the network.

For an interesting thought experiment, consider the destabilizing potential over a hundred years of a wondrous item of fabricate, a wall of fire made permanent, and a wall of iron spell.


@Cross notes:

"The difference is that in Pathfinder Cantrips and Orisons are effectively "At Will". This means you can create water till the cows come home."

Then you get into the relative utility of time and economies of scale. Every round spent producing water is around that isn't being used to, for example, purify food and drink. (I hope I made that point clearly enough in my answer) In the grand scheme of things, one cleric preserving a village's food supplies across winter means a whole lot more accessible food from their environment. Probably far more than the consequences of refrigeration. Farming patterns shift to high-calorie crops instead of preservable crops, and villagers can start achieving remarkable efficiencies.

For one thing, the average calorie intake of each villager goes up tremendously. Which produces healthier villagers who are more able to meet their adventuring capacities, which produces more clerics. This sounds like a virtuous cycle that will quickly strip the lands of reasons for Feudalism, which means that some counter-force is required to remain "expected authenticity." Don't even get me started on the consequences of rings of sustenance on a village's production capacity.

* Aquifers do not generate happy thoughts in dwarves.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that Create Water only does 2 gallons/level at a time, and that water doesn't last more than a day. So it's basically one casting per person around minimum for routine drinking and other use, and the local hunters can't fill a canteen and wander off for a couple days - their water disappears. It could work as a short term workaround. My money's on the cleric poisoning the well to drive people to him for water. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Jul 6, 2011 at 12:39

Most everybody else is focusing on the cleric creating water; I'll focus on the military tactics then. Especially since I played not too long ago in a 3.5 campaign that heavily used -- in my opinion -- rather clever and realistic tactics that made use of spell casters.

Basically, it all boils down to one simple principle: Think of offensive mages as siege weapons. A mage can hurl fireballs into enemy formations and shudder the foundations of enemy defenses -- not unlike a catapult, eh? An entire lance of charging knights could be obliterated by a single rock from a catapult, or a Roman legion -- no matter how well "turtled" -- wiped out by a well-aimed jar of burning pitch.

And yet the existence of these things didn't render such tactics obsolete. Why? Simply put: Scale.

Sure, a catapult can end an entire unit of troops, but there's a hundred more rushing to fill the gap. Siege engines like this certainly could tip a battle, but they can't fight one on their own -- at the end of the day, it's the line soldiers that ultimately carry a battle.

But replace a catapult with a mage and there's two distinct differences:

  1. A catapult takes considerable time and effort to re-arm, re-load, re-aim, and finally fire; a mage, on the other hand, can hurl a fireball every 6 seconds (or two if he uses Quickened ones...).
  2. A catapult's stone is too heavy, and moving too fast, for pretty much anything to stop it; a mage's fireball, on the other hand, can be fizzled with minimal effort by a simple counterspell.

So we have more fireballs than stones (assuming a one-to-one replacement of mages for catapults), but we can more easily counter those fireballs. So yes, tactics change here, but only very slightly -- embed a mage in each unit who's sole purpose is to counterspell enemy spells aimed at the unit. Give him a Ring of Wizardry to improve his potency. Give him a partner in case two fireballs are aimed at the unit in a single round. Have him take Still Spell so he can wear armor without impacting his ability to counterspell (assuming Counterspell even has a Somatic component to begin with -- been too long since I played this edition). And finally put a heavily armored dude with a real big shield next to him to help defend him further. The rest of the unit carries on as normal.

Heck, if your embedded caster is good enough, you might even be able to defend against those catapulted stones now!

But this is ignoring a key weakness in the offensive use of mages: Range. To get close enough to use most offensive spells, a mage has to have been within range of enemy archers for quite some time already (don't have my books, so I can't quote exact ranges). Even with Extend Spell, a mage tossing fireballs can quickly be felled by a skilled archer (especially one with Far Shot and a bow with the longer range enhancement -- no doubt a regular part of any army that could field mages, if for no other reason than to do exactly this), or even a lucky shot from a less skilled one -- a trivial feat to accomplish if you have an entire unit of archers all launching arrows at a single caster. 1 in 100 odds is better than a sure thing if you have 200 chances...

Something they doubtless would do against an enemy target that is that dangerous.

So, yes, magery does have a very real potential to greatly increase the offensive potency of an army, but don't forget that there are always counters, both magical and mundane.

And as a parting thought: What do you think would happen to the potency of a mage's fireball hurled against a unit of enemy troops if another mage is standing in the center of said unit and maintaining an Antimagic Field? If the unit's purpose and means are primarily mundane, they have no need for magic within their midst. You could even have a Wondrous Item or 3 instead of a mage for this purpose!

Edit: More to the point of the question, you put your "loyalty" as a GM to your game world. If you have a high-magic world where powerful casters are as common as popcorn, then remember that there's always another powerful caster to counter him. If you have a low-magic world where powerful casters are as hard to find as President Bush during a crisis, then no army would regularly field them, and anti-magic tactics wouldn't be necessary. If you're somewhere in-between these extremes, well, just keep in mind that there's always defenses to any offense, you might just have to put a little thought into it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, most of the "effects of magic" fail to take into account actual cost and scarcity and assume that certainly every battle will have 1000 fireballs tossed... The water thing just requires a level 1 PC class which is rare but still somewhat of a commodity, level 5+ mages are not so. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Jul 6, 2011 at 12:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ There's more to mages than blasters. The mages you describe are extremely low-op, which is to be expected of the majority of people in most worlds, but they are certainly not a complete picture in themselves. You also have to account for the occasional mage who actually knows the good spells, and how to use them in the ways that make them the good spells. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 24, 2014 at 5:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MatthewNajmon Sure, but the same principles still apply. It's impossible to be absolutely completely comprehensive without becoming interminably long; like you say, though, this covers the majority, and the rest would follow along in a similar pattern. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kromey
    Jul 24, 2014 at 14:40

How much you allow magic to shape your world is ultimately a stylistic choice. Worlds where the impact of magic is largely ignored will feel more like traditional fantasy. Worlds where magic actively changes daily life will feel a bit more "magic punk."

For the most part, traditional fantasy is maintained simply by ignoring much of the potential impact of magic. Treat it as a genre convention... Because that's precisely what it is.

If you want to create a more internally consistent traditional fantasy world the best tool available is to limit the number and level of NPC spell casters, particularly low level ones. If the cleric is the ONLY cleric for several villages, he might be able to keep one limping along with a poisoned well... But it will prevent him from completing other duties in nearby villages and put him in a position where he can't respond to further emergencies (because he must be in THIS village every morning, conjuring water).

Likewise, military tactics will be shaped by the availability of mages and their typical use. If mages are used for offense, then tactics will change quite a bit. On the other hand, if mages are used primarily to counterspell opposing mages, then tactics will change very little.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "traditional fantasy is maintained simply by ignoring much of the potential impact of magic. Treat it as a genre convention" -- perhaps, and certainly fueled by lazy or unimaginative authors. :/ \$\endgroup\$
    – ExTSR
    Jul 1, 2011 at 16:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ExTSR Lazy authors certainly fall back on this technique more than others, but it is not something to be brushed off purely as a crutch. In traditional fantasy the goal is to evoke a place the same as one that was described in myths and legends, when "magic" was a fuzzy plot device prior to being codified down to the gallons of water a miracle can produce. We have added knowledge and power to a closed system, and we can either forsake the story we were trying to tell and go where it takes us (places such as Eberron), or we can gloss over the details. \$\endgroup\$
    – AceCalhoon
    Jul 1, 2011 at 18:06

I think it comes down to how many magic users (etc) there are in your world. The rare the ability to create water from nothing is, the less likely that people would just do it.

For example:

  • If there is only one car in town, it is going to cost a lot to get a taxi from one side of town to another and since it is probably owned by the richest merchant in town, he is not going to hirer it out. So in the case no cleric would just make water for the town as they would think there power too important to waste on trivial tasks.

  • If everyone has a car then everyone drives and taxis are unlikely. So in this case every house would have there own water but where the Cleric/Father (*) would fill it up once per day.

  • Some people have cars, then taxis are populous as there is good money to be made driving people around. In this case wizards and cleric would make money from doing stuff like this. A rich family might pay a cleric to give them clean water so that they do not get ill, but most people would only use there services as a rare event. Priceless jug broken get the local wizard to fix it, family illness get the local priest to cure it etc.

(*) like in a lot of small tribes where the chief was the priest.


It's all about the supply of and demand for water:


Simply put, water is necessary for life. I found a claim that says you need at least 30 liters (or 8 gallons) of water per day to survive/maintain sanitation. 8 gallons is what prevents dehydration/sickness in the middle of a drought. I figure 15-20 gallons per person per day would be a better bottom number for healthy living. It also said that in the developed world we tend to use somewhere around 400 liters (or 100 gallons) per day. 100 gallons assumes the use of water-flush toilets and daily bathing. I figure 50 gallons per person per day would be on the high side of reasonable estimate.

Using the above numbers, I think it's safe to say that the average Medieval citizen needs between 20 and 40 gallons of water per day.


1 casting of Create Water yields 2 gallons of water per level.

Assuming a small town has around 1000 people (factoring in any animals as people to make the math easier), that would mean that you need 20,000 - 40,000 gallons of water per day.

Assuming 10 rounds per minute, that's 600 rounds per hour. A 10th level cleric makes 20 gallons per casting, or 12,000 gallons of water per hour of uninterrupted casting. Let's round down to 10,000 gallons per hour to make the math easier (and give our poor overworked cleric time to mop his brow as he does this, or take a sip of water). This means that 2-4 hours of dedicated casting time is needed to create water for survival.

I would think the cleric's Deity would want the cleric to do other things than create water for a good chunk of the day. Clerics have power because they worship daily and spread the faith. Think of the Cleric's other duties: Marriages, funerals, baby-namings, healing the sick/wounded, preparing for Sunday's service (or whatever day the god wants to be worshipped on), subsistence farming (since I recall most of the monastic orders in the Medieval times were expected to be self-sufficient, and be able to care for travellers and the indigent on top of that). I think the cleric is too busy to be the water source for a village, unless it is some sort of emergency.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Those claims seem mighty high to me. I would guess they assume running water, flush toilets, and modern sanitation in a modern urban setting. I've been camping and survived indefinitely on a gallon of drinking and maybe a gallon of washing per day. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Jul 6, 2011 at 12:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Dude, you've got an extra zero or so on pretty much all of your numbers for how much water people use and need to use. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 24, 2014 at 5:00

instead of having a well, why not have this guy cast Created Water once a day into a big container, and have people take the water from there?

Well for one why expend magical power and risk angering a diety when there is a plentiful sources of water avialable through non magical means. Second a city would be required to have many many sources of water because followers of Zeus do not want to drink from the fount of Mars... Third if something were to happen to the clerics then the town would be out of water. The townsfolk are not going to want to be forced to rely on a cleric to provide for them when they can easily provide for themselves. After all the cleric is going to want a tithe each time you take water.

Likewise, military tactics will be shaped by the availability of mages and their typical use. If mages are used for offense, then tactics will change quite a bit. On the other hand, if mages are used primarily to counterspell opposing mages, then tactics will change very little.

These tactics are just as valid with mages as they are with cannons. If you have enough mages to make a real dent in the line then morale checks are going to be tough. If magic users are common enough then there will be counters to them. If they are uncommon sure the mage can make a hole in the line but when the mass arrives it will be closed once in close combat controling the area of effect of mass effect spells is going to be dicey at best. Try to remember you are talking about THOUSANDS of troops. The roman legions worked because of this. Napolean had 30k troops at Waterloo. So a fireball takes out 30 or 40 thats not even a dent in the troop total. The military mind set of these tactics is not to look at them at lives just numbers.

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    \$\begingroup\$ One thing commonly forgotten when looking at the more verifiable old faiths is that they followed the pantheon, not a specific deity most of the time. A follower of Zeus/Jupiter was a follower of Ares/Mars. We tend towards thinking of a person following a single deity because that's what we are used to in this day and age, but the average person worshiped the whole pantheon. Only very specific people favored a single god. They were either 'cults' or cities that had a particular patron. Note that cult isn't a negative term in this connotation, merely a descriptive. \$\endgroup\$
    – Aviose
    Jul 23, 2014 at 19:05

Which side should the GM be most loyal to? Change that to could and you have three basic options:

a) go Fantastic: accept that fantasy elements will radically change most or all of the social, financial, political, and other aspects of life, either slowly or quickly. For example, most people will see how magicians (mages and clerics in many games) have and gain power via their magic; therefore, more people will pursue that life-path. This alone will produce huge changes over time.

b) go Medieval: suppress the power of magic (often through rationalizations for scarcity), and preserve the semi-historical setting. (For a pure approach see the Medieval Mystery RPG by S. Washbourne, from 'Beyond Belief' games.)

c) Synergize: carefully extrapolate from both precepts and create a new fictional environment containing the logical extrapolations of both forces (historical medievalism & magic) in a proportion with which you and your gaming group are both comfortable. The result can and will reflect your personal bias, of course, and the many choices made in the course of this creative experiment will result in no 'right' or 'wrong' result, merely one possibility of many.

Do I have a preferred solution? Well, C... but then, I'm a game designer with time to do it. ;>


Irrelevant for PathfinderCreate Water has a limit -- 2 gallons of water per cleric level. Purify Food&Drink also has a limit -- 8 gallons of water per cleric level. How many level-0 orisons does this cleric get? I can't imagine him being higher than level 3, so 4 orisons. That works out to 24 gallons of created water, or 96 gallons of purified water. That's not going to be enough to satisfy a town's needs, particularly if water is needed for animals or crop irrigation.

Or maybe the local water has some quality in it that's necessary for e.g. baking the local bread or brewing the local beer, and water created or purified by cleric skills doesn't have this ingredient, making the bread/beer bland.

Or maybe the local cleric is of a domain that doesn't get Create Water/Purify Food&Drink.

Or maybe the local cleric has something else that he has to use his orisons for, and thus can't spare all four for purifying water. is taking up all his time, and he can't spare enough time to create or purify enough water for the town.

There's tons of possibilities. You just have to think creatively, know the rules and their implications. (Someone else had asked, why would a plague ever spread, given that clerics have Cure Disease? The answer is that the amount of disease they can cure is limited, and there's not enough clerics to go around, so only the wealthy and influential will end up getting cured.)

Similar thoughts can be applied to other issues, like formations. Maybe the battle is taking place in an area that causes area-effect spells to go awry. Maybe the soldiers have equipment that does the same. Maybe there aren't enough casters around to seriously disrupt things, so the commander is willing to tolerate some losses to gain the tactical benefits of formations.

My philosophy of DMing is: Think of what you want to happen, then think of actual reasons why it will happen that way. If you have time, think of the most obvious ways to thwart what you're doing, and if you don't want to be thwarted that way, think of a reason why.

  • \$\begingroup\$ In Pathfinder, orisons can be cast indefinitely. \$\endgroup\$
    – AceCalhoon
    Jul 1, 2011 at 13:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ I can see the argument lying in this: The Cleric, while having good intentions in occasionally supplying pure water, wants the town to be self-sufficient in case something were to happen to him/her. Otherwise, if the Cleric suddenly kicks the bucket, that town who has only received water from him/her for the past 20 years is going to likely be dying of dehydration. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 1, 2011 at 13:48

GM'ing the area of magic in a medieval setting has for me, and I am guessing many other gms too, been a long time problem of perception. How do I as a gm best work magic into everyday medieval life, when I have never really experienced medieval life or real magic as it is represented in the 4e/3e/2e/1e/0e/Pathfinder/D20 genres?

What I have done is approach it from the point of view of simplicity and availability. Keep in mind that magic in these games is almost always combat/conflict oriented. We play games to set up conflicts and then resolve them. This makes it a bit difficult to alter the magic to fit the common, everyday needs.

First I determine what is the availability of magic. The commoner far out numbers the Heroes and leaders in the world. In a world where magic really exists it would make sense that there would be a larger area of magical activites centered around them. Even if this magical activity is of a very low level or even rare it would still be there. Aks the questions: How can I as a commoner feed/cloth/protect myself and my family? How can I as the local leader/merchant/business owner better manage my business or protect the people. The spells in these games, in general, don't sufficiently address these questions. So, you as the gm would have some latitude to make up things that would benefit the people. These would be almost like hedge wizard style cantrips that maybe one or two people in the town could do. This puts more burden on you as the gm, but can make your campaign world much richer. Even if magic is scarce, a commoner could master 1 hedge cantrip or ritual and sell that service as a very profitable business.

Second there is the point of simplicity. Remember that water and people tend to take the path of least resistance. Is it simpler to use water from a well dug by magic or create water by magic? In the case of a poisoned well the people would likely, remove the poisoning agent or item, if they can, and then just pump out all the water a few times and let the incoming fresher water purify the well fairly quickly. Simplicity. If it is poisoned in such a way as to be unusable for a long period then the players get involved.

My thoughts over all would be that the populations would tend toward easy solutions that they could do and support. So most likely these populations would do mundane things instead of magical things for their normal activites, but would use magic for the unusual or labor intensive things. I have never played my npc populations as weak, stupid or ineffective. I feel that it is unfair on my part to treat them as such instead of letting act like a people who would have the ability to be self-sufficient.

As for combat, I have never met a military organization of any size that didn't use the best they could afford or control. If one side only has magic, then the battle should be short or never happen. But likely the local leaders would have a plan to minimize the affects of magic on their troops. It is amazing what a low level druid or wizard can accomplish if all they are trying to do is disrupt an attack. The locals would have a magic using NPC of some type that they could call on if needed. It might be expensive to do so, but so is being defeated in battle is even more expensive. Also a long term ocal threat, a dragon for instance, would generate defense thinking that would create dragon resistant defenses.

Instead of seeing a conflict between magic and medieval living, I suggest that there would be a synergy instead. Armies have horses and so do farmers and both benefit from them in different ways. So why wouldn't magic be treated the same whether it is common or not?


I realise this isn't a system specific question, but have you considered looking at two settings for D&D?

Forgotten realms is the longstanding setting, which has fairly low level of magic across the board, with some/few high level casters. The setting is definitely more "traditional".

Ebberon was designed witth magic in mind, with urban lighting transport and everything else possible with magic in abundance. Adventurers are by law registered.

This two settins will give a good idea of the two different "magical world" ideologies.


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