(Non-gaming thing first: one week left to pre-order Maps to Nowhere!)
I’m playing in two Pathfinder games right now, and keep running up against the fact that nobody in those worlds ever uses magic sensibly.
This post is brought to you today by a tongue-in-cheek discussion with one of my GMs about how my PC wants to get an NPC to leave the city faster, wherein I joked about hitting her over the head with a Rod of Concussionless Incapacitation. Which is a solution to a problem we pretend doesn’t exist: in fiction people get knocked unconscious all the time, often for hours, and yet somehow wake up without concussions and permanent brain damage the way you would in reality.
But let’s take problems we do admit exist. The equipment list for Pathfinder includes a collapsible (and therefore semi-portable) bathtub, but there’s no magic item for a bathtub that fills itself with hot water — even though that would be dead easy to make. (Two cantrips would do it: prestidigitation and create water.) The GM for one campaign has a homebrewed cantrip/orison of birth control. The other campaign is Kingmaker, with its “SimKingdom” rules; those include sewer systems, but we built continuous-use wondrous items of purify food and drink into ours so we’re not just dumping our sewage into the lake. And I recently figured out that if we make a command word item of plant growth and use it on all the farms in the kingdom, we’re boosting our crop yields by 1/3 for the year, allowing us to feed our population with less encroachment on wild spaces and less risk of famine, for the low investment of a few thousand gold.
This is a utility approach to magic that you almost never see, whether it’s in D&D or novels. Even when magic is abundant in the setting, it rarely gets applied to the basics of day-to-day life. But if we really had these methods available to us, you damn bet we’d use them to make our lives simpler and more comfortable; just look at what we do with technology! Somebody would set up shop marketing self-filling heated magic bathtubs and command word items of prestidigitation to clean your house with. Sure, it’s a less lucrative market than selling swords and armor to adventurers — but your customer base is orders of magnitude larger.
You don’t see this in Pathfinder because ultimately, the game does not give a flying damn about anything that isn’t pertinent to making yourself a better adventurer. And you don’t see it in fiction because it won’t influence the direction of the plot. But there’s no reason it couldn’t be there as a background detail, a way to make the world feel lived-in and believable. For a while I was reading a serialized online story called Tales of MU, which was basically the urban fantasy evolution of a D&D-style world; that’s one of the few stories I can think of where magic really did get used in all these kinds of ways and more. But I can think of perishingly few others.
So, recs? Either of stories that do this, or other magic items D&D ought to have and doesn’t. 🙂 If I were a game publisher, I would so be tempted to put out a sourcebook of utility and luxury items . . .