Worldbuilding: Eyes on Magic

I know it’s not how the xianxia genre works, but realistically? Any government should keep a wary eye on cultivators. Some amount of your empire’s or kingdom’s spy network should be devoted solely to making sure you have info on all the scary magic-users around. Who they like, who they hate, who they have friendly brawls with that level whole villages. What can they do? What won’t they do? And at any given point in time, where are they?

In short, your fantasy empire ought to put as much effort into keeping track of cultivators as they do military generals and major religious leaders. After all, a sect leader might qualify as both.

I think you can square this pretty well with the background of the jianghu, everyone having a rep and a Name. Obviously, people talk. It wouldn’t take much for an empire to station undercover scholar-officials in a few choice disreputable taverns to pick up intel. Granted, there’s a risk of sudden horrible death in a jianghu brawl, but that’s what disposable scholars who can’t get a government post are for…. Maybe worse, there’s a risk of recruitment, if you survive that brawl.

(Of course, if you survive and turn down being recruited – and survive that…. Looks like the empire lost another spy anyway, because you’re likely to be very busy. Dodging assassinations, or being dragged along on some damnfool idealistic crusade as the Scrolls Guy. Possibly both.

(…Make that definitely both.)

As for what governments do when they have this information?

Smart politicians will mostly leave the lightning-throwers alone, outside of noble appeals to defend the country from invasion, other evil magic-users, and maybe floods, droughts, and plagues depending on their skillset. Smart politicians will keep what they ask for reasonable, and in everyone’s best interest. What sect can’t use a little good PR from clearing a canal vital to trade and irrigation?

…I know what you’re thinking. When’s the last time you met a smart politician? Worse, a smart bureaucrat? Because every government has its paper-pushers, who have access to all the info politicians do; maybe more, since they’re the ones who filter “what’s really important”.

And the more petty the bureaucrat, the more viciously they defend and try to expand the power they have. If part of that power is access to info on a magic-user said mage would rather not have spread around….

Yeah. Things get messy.

But it also means things can get interesting, if a magic-using person tries to disappear. Some nobody potion-maker or guy who curses people with warts, if they try to fade out of sight, it should be easy. The sect leader who can bring down a dragon with one mighty blow? Yeah, no, people are going to notice. And be looking for him. After all, too many people tend to think, if a person is innocent then why are they hiding….

Conversely, this means that if a Dread Necromancer appears out of nowhere and starts raising a zombie army, someone’s spy network has failed. Heads should roll.

…Okay, maybe not this minute, we don’t need to give the necromancer more bodies….

Magic is showy, flashy, and fun to put in stories. People who can do it are the stuff of legends. And in a more realistic world, of gossip and espionage!

Just imagine the tension, as a sweating advisor reports to the emperor, “One of our cultivators is missing….”


30 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Eyes on Magic

  1. If it is a high-level one, it should be said in the same way we would say”One of our Nukes is missing”. If low, then it’s more like a tank or ship, still alarming, but not to the same level.

    My headcanon is that most of the ninja/spy haremettes are honeypot traps. Probably sent to steer the cultivator to places that the empire needs and Out-of-context-solution to a problem.

    I’ve actually got a plot seed with one of those that decided to actually join a sect, rather than be a honeypot. Just because she wants a true relationship without crazy cultivator Faceslapping*©.

    Liked by 8 people

    1. The difference being, of course, that the nuke doesn’t have ideas, opinions, likes, dislikes, or agendas of its own.

      Of course, in this era, the concept that gaining powers makes you property, such as the Marvel universe wrestled with in Civil War, is not a problem, because it’s more like gaining powers does not STOP making you effective property — at least legally. In practice, those with powers will win barring a lot of things favoring the unpowered side.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. “The difference being, of course, that the nuke doesn’t have ideas, opinions, likes, dislikes, or agendas of its own.”

        Unless you’re in the movie “Dark Star,” which had a very ’70s scene of someone trying to talk down a depressed planetbuster nuke….

        It’s a movie to fast-forward through, but the conversation with the bomb over existential angst is at least mildly entertaining.


  2. It also depends how close your setting is to Mythic Fantasy levels of power. And timescales. ‘Cause if your cultivators really *are* managing to attain immortality… keeping track of someone for centuries if that person mostly just studies will get boring. Or if they get called up to heaven by members of their pantheon for some reason… well… good luck trying to spy on the gods. Trying to track shape-shifters would also be a pain…

    For context, I’m currently reading “Journey to the West”. Most of the main characters are walking natural disasters in terms of the scale of damage they *could* (and usually do) cause. They’re also working on the timescales of centuries and decades instead of months and years. I can only imagine being the group responsible for keeping an eye on that one shiny mountain with a monkey under it that never does anything for 500 years… the boredom!

    Of course… the entire trip is okayed by the Emperor… so the government does know what they’re doing and where they’re going. Still, I wouldn’t want to be the guy spying on Guanyin’s favorites… image what she’d (and the rest of the group) do to you once you got caught!

    Liked by 7 people

  3. Yeah, ouch. This sounds like a genuine nightmare in the making.

    I mean, it could all be very interesting stuff… I just can’t stand politics… Trying to write it causes me headaches and writer’s block on top of that.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Just imagine the tension, as a sweating advisor reports to the emperor, “One of our cultivators is missing….”

    Oooh, that’s a GREAT reason for #localgovernment to hate a specific guy, while letting you have them GENERALLY be really well loved.

    “This guy is ALWAYS going missing for some stupid reason, and then we find out he was out trying to find new ways to grow wasabi, or wanted to know if blue ring octopuses actually exist.”

    Liked by 9 people

  5. In the Xianxia (Unlike wuxia) the Emperor himself is a cultivator, and a very strong one. So they only bother to take notice of the cultivators above a certain threshold of power. with those below it, being passively kept track of in paperwork, but not actively followed – after all why follow the juniors when you can make mendatory paperwork as part of signing into an annual tournaments for them with rewards that would be insufficient to attract the strong cultivator, and the competition too much to have a weak culticator in..

    Liked by 3 people

  6. For Wuxia, the Emperor and various factions will have small groups of experts they can order around and generally harass protagonists.


    For Xianxia, the Emperor is usually a cultivator using some combination of resources and divine right to advance above the other nobles, but still only mid-range for cultivators.

    So you’ll have the protagonist joining some low-tier sect, being ordered around by the emperor, then advance to the High-teir sect and the Emperor is begging them for favors.

    Ultimately it’s very rare to have political power directly exercised by the highest level cultivators simply because they’re busy cultivating in a cave for a 1,000 years.


    The trick is how you want to keep track of them, because a mortal trying to send messages isn’t going to be able to keep up with a cultivator flying on swords.

    Especially when the cultivator can use super spiritual powers to instantly identify all informants in a room and control their perceptions.


    It might also be worth looking into the historical roots.

    From what I understand, there were actual martial arts sects that basically wandered into the mountains to form their own communes, and were basically out of the reach of the Emperor, but didn’t openly rebel.

    Frankly when you have a population in the millions, it’s relatively easy to lose track of entire counties, much less a few villages.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. “It might also be worth looking into the historical roots.”

      Or the literary ones. One of the hilarious realizations I’m having from reading Journey to the West is that it’s probably one of the inspirations for what “cultivation” is in pop-culture. Only the immortals in Journey to the West would wipe the floor with pop-culture cultivators.

      We’re talking things like *not* needing any physical apparatus to travel long distances quickly… or to actually cultivate at all. Cultivators (Daoist ones esspecially) come across more like mad scientists looking to use alchemy so they can become immortal (to escape the
      transmigration cycle) than martial arts experts or monster hunters… although trying to defeat a mad scientist who is immortal goes about as well as you’d expect it to…

      Come to think of it… throwing a bunch of the Journey to the West characters into your standard Wuxia/Xianxia would make for a very entertaining read…

      Liked by 2 people

  7. One thing to consider is that cultivators can do the implausible in many ways. Content creators and content consumers tend to think in terms of flashy displays, striking down mountains, standing alone against an army, and so on. That’s certainly something that a government would want to keep an eye on, but what about other kinds of cultivators? What about the healers that can deal with poisons or diseases that no one else can help with?

    What if, just like so many times in our world, a powerful heir is sickly or looks to die young? How many times would the local ruler(s) want a cultivator-healer on hand when their wives, daughters, or sisters go into labor? (Answer: every single time.)

    Got that firmly in mind? Now imagine the Best Healer In The World decides to go on vacation and just vanishes off the face of the map. What is that going to do to the mental stability of rulers, merchant princes, and other powerful individuals that suddenly lost their one-person health care system? Particularly if they haven’t had to deal with something as “crude” as mundane health care ever in their lives..

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Well… *how* does the government track these individuals? In a world with medieval communications tech, vanishing is easier.

    No tracking someone by their credit cards. No easy way to produce and copy high-fidelity photos to distribute (via 12th-century fox, hah hah) to the national web of cops, informants, and information brokers. No bazillions of cameras to comb through looking for a facial-rec hit.

    No social media for people to give themselves away on by writing in recognizable style on a “safe” sock-puppet account.
    (wait, no social media? Can I move there?)

    Lots of territory that’s thinly populated, or unpopulated. And how fast can government messages travel compared to a cultivator who doesn’t want to be found?

    Unless the government can hire its own cultivators to overcome some of these issues, tracking them is going to rely heavily on RUMINT, with all the risks that entails.
    “Cultivator X? Yeah, he was here last fall, killed off some MegaWolves and headed North.”
    “No, you drunk moron! That was Cultivator Y! You know, with the hair! X passed through in the winter, wiped out that bunch of bandits that tried to rob the bathhouse and vanished in the middle of the night, no tracks, nothing!”
    “Ahh, you’re *both* daft! The Agent here is looking for that young travelling pharmacist that came through last spring — *he* matched the description!”
    “What?? He wasn’t even a cultivator!”
    “Just because he didn’t *do* anything cultivator-y–!”
    (Longsuffering Government Agent’s suffering intensifies….)

    Liked by 6 people

  9. Also apropos of nothing, have you seen the latest drama going down over AI? Apparently there’s an open source writing AI that’s doing to text what art AI have been doing for years. A lot of people are locking down on AO3 over it, not wanting their writing to be used to train the bots. Other people are saying that just because an AI can tell what words go together, it doesn’t mean it can plot or create the soulful narrative people truly enjoy and remember. (Personally, I think having an AI write show plots would only improve what comes out of Hollywood these days. Definitely more coherent!)

    What are your thoughts on the issue?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. At this point… AI would probably be better than most of Hollywood. Especially if you fed whatever plot algorithm with TvTropes entries… that might help the more problematic tropes get avoided…

      The one thing is that things like “plot” and “character development” are a product of peoples’ abilities to use and spot patterns and then combine them in interesting ways. There’s a lot of high-level concepts involved in that that AI simply aren’t good at doing.

      It’s like how people are amazing at picking out *whose* face a very pixelated portrait is of but an AI can’t. People just “know it when they see it” in a way computers can’t do.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Ah, that is what is happening.

      Frank Fleming tested the AI against his humorous substack postings. His version of ‘Dirty Harry in the modern San Francisco PD’ is much more hilarious, and you can see exactly why.

      A few years ago, someone showed me a debating AI video, of something IBM had done. I was /not/ impressed. The initial set up of premises was clearly pap formed by mining a bunch of consensus articles, and hence vulnerable to an attack denying those common assumptions.

      AI isn’t that great.

      It is simply that news journalists and a lot of academic ‘experts’ have so abused their natural abilities by training them into uselessness that a digital filter is more useful and productive.

      Liked by 3 people

    3. That it’s hypocritical. My dad was just reading an article to us a couple days ago about human authors writing to a formula. Specifically how Lester Dent (Doc Savage) wrote an essay for Reader’s Digest about how he kept selling his editor “the same story over and over”, because he just used a simple formula for all of them. And the numbers quickly showed that using the formula he described, lots of other authors started selling huge numbers of stories. (The article dad was reading also noted that a similar formula was independently developed for tv/movies)
      Sure, that was for pulp novels (tho looking at Amazon or airports romance novels, that’s not really a thing of the past), but the point was that many authors already use air to make their job easier, so they’re being hypocritical to claim that this is new.


      1. If I had access to a computer program that would write prose based on the outlines I gave it, I would use it in a heartbeat. Writing prose is the worst part of the writing process for me.


    4. Have seen, heard, and am trying to follow latest developments on Tumblr.

      I have to admit what I feel is a weary, less than coherent rage; because if mainstream publishers can use this to get books “for free” without paying authors, of course they will. And publish them, in floods, which… because AI-written stuff, so far as I’ve read, has the same “soulless” quality of the art, is going to turn even more people off reading. And the idea people would put fanworks – written for fun and NOT profit – through a grinder for their own profit is infuriating.

      OTOH, as one Tumblr poster commented, plundering AO3 may end up a bridge too far for AI. After all, if you train your AI on those succulent, ought-to-be-profitable HP fics, and after that every mention of a Harry in AI writing is associated with certain other names in a school of magic….

      Then what you have is a serious IP infringement case. Of people who, unlike fanfic writers, have the money to do something about it. *Cracks knuckles* I’m-a gonna watch this.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m barely on Tumbler, but this, this scares me as a fanfic writer who is trying to go pro.

        Unfortunately, a book or movie doesn’t need to be AI-written to be soulless husks that could be interesting.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Using Ao3 as a data source to train the AI on would be shooting the AI in the foot. The typical Ao3 fic is a Slash romance fan-fic without any really interesting characterization going on. Ao3 already feels like most of the stories on it are written by bots because most fic writers copy the low hanging fruit they find rather than doing anything interesting with actual story plots/characterization.

        The real trick with Ao3 is figuring out how to avoid all the copycatting going on and find the interesting fics on there. Fortunately it’s tagging/search engine is one of the best implemented search engines on the internet. The site wouldn’t be worth the time spent on it without it.

        So no, I’m not that worried about AI writing stories… that might as well becoming on already from where I’m standing.

        Liked by 1 person

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