Many GMs like to play in existing campaign worlds. One of the most popular was/is Forgotten Realms, which has all but become D&D’s de facto setting. Others play in an alternate version of the real world, such as is the case with many World of Darkness games. Then there are the ultimate crazies: the world builders. Count me among this bunch.
I’ve been preparing to run an original sword-and-sorcery game of late (using GURPS), set in a fantasy world of my own devising. In researching for the daunting task of crafting an entire planet, I did a fair amount of reading on what makes something fantasy as opposed to historical fiction, science fiction, et cetera. The resounding answer: magic. Magic regarded as the universal defining characteristic that sets fantasy apart from its peers.
This made a lot of sense to me, since the real question one must ask when tampering with reality is this: what ramifications will the thing I’m changing have? This is the core idea behind science fiction, for instance, with the “thing I’m changing” usually being a piece (or many pieces) of technology. I think that it’s often overlooked in fantasy, though. Magic just “is” in a lot of fantasy, without the ramifications clearly thought-through. D&D, my favorite whipping dog, is guilty as hell of this. With as many wizards are running around hurling fireballs, D&D societies are often far, far too similar to a romanticized modern-day medieval world.
Thinking through the ramifications of magic was one of the key questions I first tried to answer. I found that I had a crystal-clear picture in my head of what I wanted…but the task of articulating that picture was arduous. The details are irrelevant to this post, but suffice it to say that I wanted magic to be difficult, limited without serious investment, and completely impossible to “alter the world” (i.e. D&D’s Wish spell). The result: a world left largely unaltered by magic, but altered just enough that it was no longer ours.
I then seasoned this with the idea that there was prevalent low-key magic, more akin to ultra-effective herbalism. I didn’t want to deal with the realities that people faced in medieval life like poor sanitation, rampant disease, poor medical understanding, and so forth. All that is handwaved away by “peasant magic,” which is powerful in its own right, but too limited to result in a shift in the balance of power.
Everything else — the arrangement of the society, the types of fantastic creatures, and so forth — comes after this critical decision is made. In truth, these subsequent pieces may dictate what picture it is you paint, but the decision about magic is the canvas, the medium, the type of brush, and the technique you use.