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Elemental magic systems - is there still some fire left in them?


I wasn't sure whether to put this in Writing Questions or World Building, but as you can see, I eventually went with the latter. I figure this is a question about world building, so yeah. Excuse the appalling pun in the title. ;)

We've all seen them, haven't we? Maybe the fact that they independently sprouted up in the mythologies of about five separate ancient civilisations had something to do with it. Or maybe it's because that as a theory of what constitutes the universe, they weren't credibly disproven until the discovery of the atom barely a century ago. Whichever way you spin it, the idea of an "elemental" system - that is, fire, earth, water, air (maybe metal, wood, aether or whatever if you're so inclined) - is well-ingrained in popular culture.

It's natural that such an important part of mythology and metaphysics would be co-opted by the fantasy genre at some point. Using these elements as the basis of a setting's magic system is rife in the genre and has also seemingly been adopted by RPGs and anime.

However, it's such an old idea and it's so frequently used by so many authors that I fear it has become something of a cliché. Have any of you written anything with such a system before? Did you go the traditional route with it or did you attempt something ambitious and inventive with this tried-and-tested tool? Do you think there is still room to do something interesting and original with it? Do we need to, or does it work fine as it is?

I ask these things because I've realised that the setting I'm working on, which already has mages called Pyremasters and Windspeakers, might logically include such a system. In truth, I'm already in the process of writing it up. But I'm being a little self-conscious about it, and I'm wondering what my fellow Scribes have to say on the subject. :)


For me the four elements (which four of the five elder gods in my setting have domain over) also have parallels in the seasons, the time of day, the cardinal directions, celestial objects, and magical power. In fact, the symbol that represents the five elder gods and the other "lesser" gods is a clock, a calendar, a star chart, a *world* map, and a compass all at the same time. The four element-esque gods are thus in the four cardinal directions on the edges of the "compass" (I need to come up with a better name for the symbol/device) represent "raw" chaos while the god in the center of the compass embodies a more structured order that is the source of consciousness, creativity, wisdom, and civilization. Thus this "fifth" element (not the movie!) relates to magic that pertains to those more ordered aspects.

So elemental magic tends to be a little more chaotic and dynamic in nature with certain "special" aspects tied to them (divination is the domain of the east/autumn/wind/dusk/moon goddess, for example while deception and illusion is the domain of the north/winter/ice/night/sky god) while the "center" god's magical influence is more structured and rigid (and tends to be the "glue" that keeps the more chaotic magics from spiraling out of control).

Not exactly the most original approach, but one I enjoy because it ties together so many elements.


I will NOT forgive you for that pun!

I will congratulate you on it. :)

And yes, I think the classic Elemental system still has plenty of life left in it. I love it dearly, myself. If you look at a number of human cultures, many of them came up with the same four basic separations, and that's an incredible example of convergent evolution (of ideas, that is). I never find it hard to believe that other cultures in other worlds would do the same.

Too, the 'elemental' system is easily extensible with other facets. There was a wonderful game called Lords of Magic that had 8 'elements.' Order and Chaos, Life and Death, Fire and Water, and finally Water and Air. Robert Jordan's Power system (still the best magic system I've ever read) introduced the Spirit element. There's no end to it!

In one of my books, I explain the elemental system away as being not so much the actual reality of the world, but simply the way that humans perceive and make use of it. Magic itself is far more varied and complex than a mere four interwoven elements, but the humans make use of it in that way because that's the way they were brought up to understand it, just like any primitive culture might have a tangentially correct - but vastly oversimplified - view of natural phenomenon.


I sort of have an elemental system in my world. The "elements" being Fire, Water, Stone, Wood, Light, and Dark. They are so named not because the magics use the elements but rather they describe how the magic works. For example, Light magic is characterized by the revealing of new properties, and Stone magic is characterized by enduring.

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I am a fan of elemental magic because it's something we all already grasp. However complicated you choose to get, you have to make it plausible and readable. I went to a sci-fi convention last fall, and met one author who was selling his book there. Without giving too many details, (I don't want to bash someone else's art) he had written much of his book in another language of his own making, and given a sort of Rosetta Stone on the back cover. Okay, I applaud his creativity, but that book would have lost me about the third time I had to take out the cryptography tools, you know?
Creativity can go too far......
Magic is the same, I think. When I hate how magic works in the world, it sort of loses me, but there are a lot of successful "Different Magic" examples. There's a sort of mana point like Final Fantasy, or Robert Asprin's force lines that mages tap into, or Piers Anthony's one talent per person.... you have to really think about how balance can be achieved, and how to make it readable, I think, yet keep it true to yourself and how you tell a story.
BTW I use spheres of magic in my current world. I guess it's sort of like a RPG, Element is one sphere, and encompasses Water, Earth, Air and Fire, and then there are other spheres, Illusion, Life, etc. I retain balance by making the limitations not only based on personal potential, but also on devotion of time to study and practice, and also mental focus.


I don't know. Where ever I go it says that the fire/water/earth/air system has been used so often that it's cliche but I've only actually read one story using it and it did it really, really well.
As you might be able to guess, I see no reason not to use it. Most other magical systems are common in many stories as well such as divination, necromancy or what I call "universal magic" where magic has replaced technology such as in Harry Potter. Necromancy is the only one I'd prefer to see less of because it's always something for the cliched evil villains and a means to create monsters for the heroes to exterminate without moral qualms.
In my opinion, there are so many different things that can be done based on the historical ideas about the four classical elements that there's no need for two of these stories to be the same and there's still room for plenty of interesting stuff.
Another interesting aspect of the four-element-system is that it allows a writer to have different groups of magic users without dividing them into good and evil or into powerful and powerless groups.

I haven't used it myself because I'm using chemical elements ;) but I'd read a good story with this system any time.

Not exactly the most original approach, but one I enjoy because it ties together so many elements.
Was the pun intentional this time? :D
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I enjoy necromancy, but I don't necessarily make it evil. I have a culture that is loosely based on ancient Egypt where necromancy is considered a sacred art, given the fascination with the "life beyond ours". Necromancers (who are rare and often royal) are mystics that walk the pathway between this realm and the next. They can communicate across realms, enter the world of the dead, and even bring others back from it whether temporarily or permanently. Their greatest mythic hero is basically a lich who raised the army he was interred with in order to stop the encroaching empire that threatened their land.

While other cultures think this practice is taboo, it doesn't necessarily make it evil or even sinister. I like to keep that perspective going because I'm not much of a fan of moral absolutism anyway.
My two books that I'm writing, though vastly different in style, use, well, approximately the same style of elemental magic. But it's far from limited to the the base four, in fact those aren't even the most powerful. My urban fantasy's more complex than this so I'll just explain my epic fantasy.

Elemental magic is tied directly to emotion, that's what makes it powerful. Each person (should they have the gift at all) is graced with a certain element(on rare occasion two) Sure there's Fire, Water, Wind, and Earth(or Xexia as I call it, because that's the name of the planet), but there's many more. Life and Death. Ice. Lightning. Body. Mind(I guess this is what others have referred to spirit, I refer to them as Psychics throughout the book. They have powers ranging from precognition to Mind-over-matter type feats of strength) Light. Darkness. Destruction. Creation(Creation magic is a rumor, since every magic has an opposite, but no one is known to have ever wielded it save for the god Vesna)

Anyway. I've rambled enough.


I've thought of using a possible elemental system. My world is sort of a Post-apocalyptic, mutant fantasy creature, type of world. So I was playing with a mutation giving people... Superpowers, for lack of a better term. I guess a type of Elemental-telekinesis. Different people are better at different aspects of holding the elements. I'm still really in the development stage. But it'll probably sound like a basic elemental magic system in the end.


I have a book that uses elemental beings, but goes way beyond to have sun beings, night beings, shadow beings, season beings, plant beings, dream beings--you name it, someone probably is it. They are single points of energy tapping into the overwhelming source of energy--a great sea beneath the facade of reality.