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Altearth magic system?

Discussion in 'World Building' started by skip.knox, Sep 13, 2019.

  1. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Six years, four novels, and I've managed to avoid creating an actual magic system for Altearth. Just hints and allegations. But I'm game to make a run at it now, mainly because in The Falconer there will be definitely, truly, rilly, magic, so I have to get this sorted.

    First, everyone's magical, but not everyone's a magician. That is, phlogiston is everywhere, in everyone, but in most people the levels are so low we would call them non-magical. Call it 80%. Of the remaining 20%, most can do only very low-level, limited, or unreliable things. Of them, most wind up in a trade in which a master teaches them a technique or two--strengthening rope, softening leather, some small marvel of silversmithing. That sort of thing. I call it artisinal magic. Gnomes are famously good at this.

    Those who can will go to school--only a very small proportion. In grammar school they learn only basic principles, not specific magicks. In addition to reading and writing and numbers, they learn breath control, concentration, physical postures and movements, memorization techniques. Those with potential go on to a second level where they learn the history of magic, great practitioners, morality lessons and cautionary tales, and so on. Schools are tough. They winnow, for the reputation of the school's graduates affects the school's own reputation.

    Of this minority of a minority, still fewer go on to study under specific masters, rather like graduate work in the late 19thc-early 20thc where the person was both student and assistant. There are other ways to study; I've only sketched the most common path.

    What gets studied? Rather than fire magic and plant magic and the like, I'm thinking to concentrate more on methodologies. Here are the ten types--ten paths, ten schools, ... something. I'm presuming that an individual could follow more than one path, but that this would take more time and that most people would not excel in multiple areas the way they would if they specialized. The tiny few would be great at several; they are the stuff of legend.

    Potions and powders - this is proto-chemistry, really
    Runes - inscribing a symbol, letter, or phrase; wards
    Charms - the making of priapts, amulets
    Enchantment - adding magic to an object; or extracting, I suppose
    Conjuration and abjuration - summoning and banishing of spirits or animals
    Spells - spoken
    Incantations - sung
    Mancery - using natural objects (e.g., crystalomancy)
    Arcanology - the study of things such as stars or numbers or physiognomy
    Hex - magicking a person or animal

    I can see some overlap, but I like the throw the net wide before hauling it back in again.

    Comments?
     
  2. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    So, the magic is the same, but the methodologies are different? Different methodologies are able to achieve the same effects, but in different ways. Some methodologies are more suitable for certain effects, and some students are more suited for different methodologies?
    A bit like music instruments, where you can play the same song on piano and guitar?

    I like it, and I think it will work for the setting.
    I don't see a problem with there being an overlap between the different methodologies, rather the other way around. It'd be a natural way to introduce some conflict/tension between practitioners of different methodologies.
     
  3. Slartibartfast

    Slartibartfast Dreamer

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    That looks like a well thought out system. It's left me with a couple of questions which may or may not help you (and please forgive my lack of familiarity with your world):

    If the proto-science/natural philosophy works, does it have a natural cause as it would in our world, or is it actual magic that just happens to look like science to us? I like the idea of playing with this to show contrast between our way of thinking and alternatives. Most of us nowadays would draw a clear distinction between a chemical reaction, a prayer, and a superstitious act like throwing salt over our shoulders. Four hundred years ago we probably wouldn't understand there to be much of a difference.

    Also interested in whether they have a model for how any of their magical technology works or whether they concentrate on technique without really understanding it? That would have a bearing on research and the pace of advancement (and there seems to be a very formal education system which makes this quite relevant) - I think a solid model allows for more rapid and steady development whereas not having any understanding of how any of it works caters more to far slower development punctuated by random and unfocussed jumps in the disciplines.
     
  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Good questions, SlartibartfastSlartibartfast (can't believe I actually typed that).

    One thing about Altearth is that it covers about 1500 years, and over that span of time the understanding of what's going on changes. So, in say 500AD (to use Real Earth dates), there individuals who had exceptional powers that no one else seemed to have. Drawing on very old language, what they did was called magic or sorcery or wizardry or any number of other words. In the 1900s, the language used to describe what they did would have been very different. At the same time, any given "wise person" in any given century might have been a fake, might have been deluded, might have been able to produce a magical effect sometimes but not others, or might have been what most readers would call a wizard--reliably producing consistent results. But an observer or chronicler might have reported it all as being the same. In story terms, it doesn't really matter and I'm not too concerned to suss out what was "real" and what wasn't.

    Four hundred years ago ... oh, let's make it seven hundred, to get back prior to the Reformation ... people then had a pretty clear notion as to what was prayer, what was superstition, and what was "natural." It's just that their notions weren't our notions. People in most any time had, or believed they had, a good handle on what was natural and what was supernatural, what could be explained and what was beyond explanation.

    As for the model ... yes. Lots of them. I have a pretty good notion of how dwarves view "magic" and how gnomes view it. I'm still working on elves. Orcs believe magic is deviltry and that "miracles" come through prayer. Trolls believe something similar but they're polytheists while orcs are monotheists, and that flavors a good deal of their understanding. It's really the humans that present the immediate challenge for me, because my WIP is going to have to have humans doing magic. So I can't dodge it any longer.

    Edit: I should add that the "scientific" explanation of magic comes along in the late 18thc. That's when pure phlogiston is first refined. Then, in the 19thc, there's experiments that at least support the theory of aether as being the medium through which phlogiston operates. It's not until the 20thc that "phlogistics" is taught in the schools as being the one and only true understanding of all magic everywhere.
     
  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    SvrtnsseSvrtnsse, different methodologies but not always same results. For example, astrology isn't going to produce fireballs. But, for another example, one person could make a powder that produced an explosion while another cast a spell with similar effect. I'm fuzzy on that, as per usual.
     
  6. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    My observation is that at least two of those categories - 'Potions and Powders' and 'Arcanology' is likely to lead to actual science, comparable to that practiced here.

    Which brings up another issue - magic, in your system, as in most others, is something few people can manage. Work done with magic, and trinkets made from magic, are therefor going to be rare, valuable curiosities. Science, though, unlocks alternative approaches to much of what was once the dominion of the mages. It makes a great many things widespread. And once science and technology become established enough, then magic's role diminishes. Vaccines instead of Cure Disease. Firearms instead of Lightning Bolts. Aircraft instead of flying carpets.
     
  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Actual science. I like that. Goes with true facts (obscure reference to a Jefferson Airplane album)

    In Real Earth there's plenty of connections between what we consider science and what we consider pseudo or proto-science, as I'm sure you know. Alchemy's the obvious candidate there. I think there's room in Altearth for a similar development--specifically, for the empahsis on measurement and observation, the importance of experiment and reproducible results, and a community of shared knowledge. All those would be a shift from what went before, but there's no reason all that could not be applied to the practice of magic. Most of my writing is firmly in the Middle Ages, so I have only the vaguest notions as to how the modern world would develop once phlogiston could be isolated.

    And you're quite right on the second point, though only for humans. The history of magic among the fae runs a somewhat different course, is more or less unchanging for dwarves and gnomes. And I've not worked it out for orcs. They're still somewhere on the back burners. But for humans, the Steam Revolution (approx Industrial Revolution) did indeed bring magic tech to the masses. I'm not sure I'll ever get that far in my stories. Into the Second World takes place in the Steam Age, but we leave the surface by Chapter Three, so that era is barely scratched.
     
  8. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    You might need to rethink that, at least with regards to dwarves and elves. Mundane technological possibilities are going to hit them like a sledgehammer, possibly to the point of ignoring magic.

    The historical example that leaps to mind is Japan's isolation from the world for a protracted period, essentially remaining a oriental medieval culture until forcibly presented with things like firearms and telegraphs. Then they advanced in a hurry.
     
  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I appreciate the comments, ThinkerX. I didn't give enough information on those other peoples. Each of my peoples have their own peculiar kind of magic. Gnomes, for example, make small objects of wood and metal that no other people can reproduce. Gnomes will humbly assert they do not do magic, and that other peoples cannot make their "magic boxes" simply because they don't have six fingers. Dwarves simply have their crafts. An outsider would say that dwarf imbued my warhammer with magical strength, but the dwarves would merely assert that this particular dwarf was employing the knowledge of his ancestors. Which, of course, no one else can do. Elves, when they do magic at all, employ the use of their True Eye, their third eye, but for most of the Middle Ages they assiduously avoided that. Bad memories that evolved into cultural taboos.

    As for the mundane technological possibilities, gnomes were indeed devastated, for they were mostly agricultural and mechanization threw them out of their vills and into the cities, with unfortunate effects. Dwarves found employment in the new factories, mainly as specialists. Elves are a more complicated story, but in time they became high tech gurus, especially once electronics and computers come along. Once they began again to open their True Eye, they flourished, eventually to become navigators and engineers on phlogiston-powered spaceships.

    Even the gnomes recovered eventually, though not without paying a terrible price and becoming a profoundly different people.

    One of the things that often bothers me about magic systems is that they often lack any history. Magic is always the same. It might be forgotten and recovered, but not only does magic not change over time and place, neither does the relationship between people and magic. In Altearth, *everything* has a history.
     
  10. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    For the most part I like your system. It falls into the standard fare without quite feeling like a copy of anything. It's got all the ins and outs squared away. But, almost too much so. I would say it needs a wrench. A twist. Something to give it more personality or make it more surprising. I don't know what that would be.

    Artisinal magic is a nice touch. But don't skimp on the ramifications here. Can it strengthen a rope to be a strong as a cord? Can it make iron as bendable as steel or as tough as titanium or as durable as stainless steel? Even if the answer to these questions is "sometimes maybe a little" you have the workings for a very unique technological system even before the rest of your magic system comes into play.

    Don't skimp on the implications here either. What does a magic school dropout do? He or she falls back on artisinal magic and teaches those techniques to their coworkers. How much this happens, and how free they are to do so openly without defying some kind of a guild, could be one of the ways that history has changed or that education and technology levels differ by region. A group of solid artisinal ropemakers who know all the proper magical techniques develop rope as strong as cord. Before this they were fumbling to figure it out on their own.

    So here's where I'm going to say, stop and really think about your organizational paradigm, to borrow a phrase from a sitcom.

    For example, you have spells and incantations - spoken and sung - in different groups. But you have stars, numbers and physiognomy lumped into another together. You've got charms and runes separate, even though the earliest charms were just beads or bones inscribed with runes. Isn't inscribing a rune the same as "adding magic" to an item like enchantment? And "conjuration and abjuration" comes straight out of the D&D player's books.

    Maybe some of that's fine. When I studied marketing at the business school I still had to take classes on business law, organizational analysis, and finance. Maybe you've got to study eight credits in Runes before you take Charms or Enchantment, like taking Calculus before learning Statistics or Economics. Maybe Arcanology lets you study seventeen types of divination, but the research on your thesis requires you to specialize in just one.

    It would be nice to see some of that built into the system. The real world isn't balanced. Geology is an easier science to learn than physics. There's a reason Dentists are pulled aside from regular healthcare (at least in the US). Tackle your magic system the way a university would for a moment, and I think you'll come up with some interesting results.
     
    Heliotrope likes this.
  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >your organizational paradigm
    I had that once. Took pills for it, and I got better.

    What I offered up was more of an artist's sketch. Almost certainly insufficient to the task as it stands (unless I get famous, in which case sketches on napkins count as Art). I appreciate all comments. One common theme I can discern: people do love systems.

    As for the schools, _eventually_ they'll come to that. For much of medieval Altearth, there were no schools at all. When they did develop, their aims were modest and their curricula limited. But the elaborate system DevorDevor and others talk about can form the "modern system" toward which those earlier developments stumble.
     
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