Elemental Magic: Trope Reboot

Sometimes magic systems fail. Instead of wonder they cause confusion. Instead of building conflict they create plot holes. And instead of deepening our characters’ struggles they enable the dreaded deus ex machina. But we can avoid these issues by turning to a classic, well defined system.

It’s a trope to streamline spells. Let’s reboot Elemental Magic.

Mastery of the Elemental Arts

Most magic systems deliver the wonder. Fireballs, incantations, glowing wands and old people full of wisdom help to build a sense of mystery and power over the impossible. The arcane arts break that impossible boundary and open the door to magic without limits.

So why can’t they solve the plot already?

Magic sometimes does too much. But an elemental magic system tosses out mastery of the arcane arts, whatever that means, in favor of an elemental throughline. Earth, fire, wind and water – once believed by alchemists to lead us to the elixir of life – have always felt like magic. And in an elemental system, each of those elements, and often others, becomes a magic system of its own.

But alchemy wasn’t about magic. Alchemy, with its elements, behaved like science.

And so do elemental magic systems.

Fire behaves in a way that we understand. It burns, destroys, shoots out smoke, spreads on its own, and is doused by water. Magic based on an element like fire is a magic based mostly on physics.

What can’t fire magic do? Anything else.

But who can feel the wonder when the magic is so well defined?

So for the Twelve Trappings of Magic, the loose beginnings of our elemental system, we’ll focus on bringing the wonder back into the elements and their thematic throughline.  And we’ll start by looking under the hood of our elemental engine.

Mustering the Elemental Roll Call

Fire. Wind. Heart. Void. Clay. Normal. The traditional four elements are only the beginning of what an elemental system has to work with. Almost any substance that readers will recognize can be used as a basis for the system. While most magic systems keep to a roster of about four to eight elements, there are others which open the door for every new character to have a unique elemental gimmick.

Anyone who’s well-read, has seen the Last Airbender, or watches a bit of anime, will know that by now the main elements have been well tread, while more unique elements often come up short by comparison. Adding a touch of complexity to our system will be important for adding an element of freshness and surprise, elements which are important to a novel, if not themselves magical.

For the Twelve Trappings of Magic, let’s look less at the list of elements we’re selecting as writers and instead look at whether it might be something within the setting creating that list. Let’s see what happens if we install even a simple magic system and a rationale hidden underneath our elements.

In the great past of our fantasy world, the invisible arcane dusts sat like mud splattered across the lands, sea and air. They were dirtied, heavy and useless, weighed down by the elements they had been trapped inside. But as nations rose and fell, new minds emerged to discover and study the arcane dusts, leading them to create the great Telpan Beacon as a way to purify and harness the arcane.

Sorcerers bound to the Telpan Beacon could wield a pure mystical force that could accomplish almost any task, from moving objects to teleportation and feats too numerous to count. In order to share their magic discoveries with the world they bound the Telpan Beacon to a series of Crystal Stars, each a satellite beacon in the sky that could be tapped into for magic by those in the lands below it.

Just twenty years before any story takes place, the Telpan Beacon was destroyed, and the Crystal Stars plunged from the sky into the lands below.  But each Crystal Star had a secondary purpose, filtering the last trace of a specific element from the arcane dusts passing through it. Without the Telpan Beacon to run the system, the damaged Crystal Stars have been corrupted by the elements once filtered within them. And those connected to a Crystal Star now find their magic, once pure, to be heavied by the element polluting it from within.

And thus, with a setting of pure magic force now polluted by the elements, the name of our system changes to the Elemental Traps of Magic.

But are those elemental traps a corruption or a blessing?  How do the different nations, some that were thriving and some that were impoverished, some that were unified and some that were divided, some that were putting their magics into war or agriculture or architecture, now adapt to whatever element they find themselves paired with?

And of course, what was it that destroyed the Telpan Beacon, and how will it continue to challenge the fate of these nations?

For the rest of this Trope Reboot, we’ll focus on developing the world for just three of these elements: Fire, Ice, and to go a little out there, Emotion. We’ll also look for ways the stories created by these elements might contribute to the world’s larger plotline.

Elementech and the Philosophy of Magic

There’s an advantage for writers who use an elemental system. An elemental system works a bit like science, and writers get to use the elements a bit like technology. In the world of the Last Airbender we see fire used to run coal engines, a fortress built out of ice, and a city’s postal service run on earthwork slides. Exploring the different ways that elements can be used helps to deepen the setting.

But with our system, the Elemental Traps of Magic, we have two sides of a coin to consider.  For any person, item, building or creature that uses magic, we have to consider how it was using magic before the Crystal Star fell, and how it’s using that magic now that it’s bound to an element. A lot of places will have become odd magical ruins, while some things will have been roughly adapted to a new purpose, and others built fresh to take advantage of the Age of Elements.

And with the chosen element so ingrained into the everyday life of a culture, it’s typical with an elemental magic system for characters to have worldviews that in some way reflect their element. Water is soothing and peaceful, or else represents the rhythmic flow back and forth with the tides, or else covers everything in sadness as the skies weep rain.  But with pure magic trapped in the elements in our setting, we can explore very different attitudes towards these elements.

So let’s take a closer look at how this happens in the lands of fire, ice, and emotion.

The Great Fireball Apocalypse

Fire as an element is unruly and aggressive, and it destroys what it touches. Magic that suddenly becomes trapped in fire becomes a raging, destructive inferno.  We want to use that dramatic inferno to have a powerful impact on our story and create as many feels as possible for our readers.  We want the nation destroyed by fire to be an important one: The magical capitol that first created the Telpan Beacon.

Twenty years ago the nation of Kerolas stood as a magical research and trading hub of the world, established around their creation, the Telpan Beacon. With great libraries, arcane institutes, the centers of magical research in farming, irrigation, and construction, they were flush with magical wealth, supporting the well being of the world.  But when in the dark of night the Telpan Beacon was cut through by unknown forces, and the first Crystal Star fell from the sky, all of that magical power turned to flames, and their nation into smoke and ash. The nation of Kerolas erupted into a raging inferno as magical lighting, magical cooling, magical train rails and flowers and herd animals began leaking fire and destruction. Even sorcerers doing magic ended up burning themselves and others nearby. For survivors of the magic capitol of the world, refugees fleeing through the world, magic means death.

With the capitol of magic now a wasteland of perpetual flames, filled with animals powered by fire, crisscrossed with fiery train tracks, spotted with burning buildings, how much has been lost forever? Who destroyed the Telpan Beacon, what element did they end up with, and was this the world they wanted to create?

A Prison of Frost

Ice magic is known for its beauty, its grandeur, its strength, and its isolation. Ice magic makes things, from giant walls, to mountain palaces, to frosty little minions. Rather than explore a new facet of this well tread element, let’s lean into it as the perfect set up for a prison, and the refuge of a villain, by creating an impenetrable fortress manned by an army of frost monsters, with evidence pointing to them as the ones who destroyed the Telpan Beacon.

The great citadel of Melthick was known as the impenetrable, undefeated army fortress of the world. With towering walls stabilized by magic, with soldiers wielding steel reinforced in their construction by enchanted forges, with a careful and disciplined royal family, its people lived in security and prosperity, immune to the petty squabbles that existed between most kingdoms. But when its Crystal Star fell from the sky, all of that military power turned to frost and ice. And its young prince, an exiled sorcerer with a heart of petty icy rage, was well prepared to take advantage of the turmoil. He shattered his royal family, turned the security of the fortress walls into a prison of ice, and dominated a people defended only by an army of statues, soldiers frozen dead by their armor. But his sudden rise to power, and the speed at which he created monsters of ice, led to rumors around the world that he was too prepared for the chaos, and that he may have been involved in creating it.

In this Trope Reboot we don’t have time to do more than hint at the development of the conspiracy that trapped the magics of the world, or the heroes and villains who will fight it out. But the prison citadel of Melthink offers the unnamed heroes of our story two things: A lead on who destroyed the Telpan Beacon, and frost magic, a weapon that can be used in reclaiming the inferno that is Kerolas. But with the secrets of the Telpan Beacon so completely lost, is there any hope of ending the magical damage of the world?

A Refuge in the Mountains

If you’re alone in a dark quiet room and find yourself suddenly, irrationally afraid, what do you imagine first?  That something lurks behind you?  That a loved one is in trouble? That you’ve left the oven on? Unlike the flash and flair of our typical magic, the goal of using raw emotion as an element is to force an exploration of the characters. How is feeling a surge of joy, or rage, or sorrow, or disgust, going differ for each character? We want to use this element to create a journey that pushes on the psyche of the characters we would create.

And for the loose plot we’re introducing, it’s time to do something different with this element’s Crystal Star. A magical beacon that fell to the ground, in a land we want to make the characters to journey through, sounds like a solid MacGuffin.

Above the mountains of Therapath a Crystal Star plunged from the sky and fell twenty feet into the peak of the mountain below it, the only Crystal Star to survive intact, retaining its fully functioning magical records. The Therapath Mountains were filled with watch towers and lit up trails and bridges, fueled by a toll-driven economy with sorcerer guides helping travelers pass safely through its otherwise deadly heights. All of these magical installations now emit calm, joy, sorrow, fear, rage or disgust, a deluge of cathartic emotion upon the one entering it. A tower more frightful than a haunted mansion, a bridge crossing whose only challenge is enduring a weeping sorrowful catharsis, and a paradise of perpetual joy on the mountain peak, all await Therapath’s travelers in the Age of Elements. But with their Crystal Star intact, the lost magical secrets of the world are written out for them, but useless, unless those possessing it are willing to send away their Crystal Star and sacrifice their emotional paradise for the chance of returning to a better world for everyone.

A journey through the Therapath Mountains becomes one of emotional discovery. But a chase between the heroes and the villains through emotional hotspots now becomes one of trickery and manipulation as characters use raw terror and joy against each other to learn about their enemies, as weapons in battle, or to make a point about switching sides. And the people of Therapath, using magic to feel perpetual joy, capable of defending themselves by using it to put a person in uncontrollable terror, are now asked to make a sacrifice for the world, if they’re not too wrapped up in their own bliss to care about that world.

Do Something Creative

In a world destroyed through its flaming capitol, threatened by the armies of ice, and taunted by a journey of emotion, we have hardly begun to explore the power of the elements. A once impoverished nation fumbling to adapt to its wealth of plantlife, a great kingdom now hiding itself in the earth, an isolated sea spa archipelago haunted by decaying flesh, a navy using the winds and a stolen Crystal Star to harass the world as pirates, the small city with a single sorcerer using water to keep the world off its doorstep – what other surprises can our elemental system have in store?

We turn to elemental magic to streamline our spell system with rules that both writers and readers will quickly grasp. But while the people and cultures of any world are as mysterious as the arcane, the elements are usually as methodical and predictable as science.

So let’s do something creative and give the elements the mystery of magic.

Further Discussion

What are your favorite parts of some of the elemental magic systems you’ve seen?

What are some more unusual elements that can bring depth to a magic system?

Most importantly, what trope would you like us to reboot next? Let us know in the comments below.

About the Trope Reboot Series:

Anything can happen in a fantasy novel, but we don’t expect it to. Readers like familiar ideas, and writers want to build on the inspiration offered by others. Historic backdrops. Mythological creatures. Fanatic philosophies. Magic. Let’s do more with what we have to push our creative limits.

The Trope Reboot series tries to find creative ways to remake old fantasy tropes. All ideas presented in this series may be used freely. To nominate a trope to be rebooted in this series, post your nomination in the comments section below.

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Vivienne Sang
2 months ago

An interesting take on the elements. Some great ideas. Thank you. You’ve set me thinking.

Akira444
2 months ago

Yeah, every element has a good side and a bad side. Fire often gets a lo of crap for being naturally destructive, but it's no different from a tornado, a flood or a landslide. The elements by themselves are neutral, but it's how they are used in magic that paints a person's viewpoint on them.

Patrick-Leigh
2 months ago

Not to mention fire's illuminating properties. Flames can light your way, reveal dangers in your path, and allow you to read texts containing wisdom that will enable you to navigate the obstacles of life.

Queshire
2 months ago

I like the example in the article, but I think giving each element more than one concept tied to it needs more love.

Fire can be destructive, but it can also be the creative flame of Hephaestus' forge, the comforting hearth flame of Hestia, the primal tribal flame warding away the beasts of the night or a phoenix's healing flame.

Patrick-Leigh
2 months ago
Akira444

I've recently started taking a shine to elemental magic, especially ones that take it a different step. Avatar is one of the most famous examples of how magic can be used in society. Not to mention that elemental magic doesn't even have to differ all that much from the norm. It can be enhanced through symbolism or philosophy, or have ties to religion.

I like an elemental magic system that has a fifth or sixth element that's well thought out, like aether. If done correctly, you can even have an element to handle the more "mystical" abilities that are usually common in magic. Aether can either be displayed as the rarest or most powerful element, or it can be negated with nether, aether's opposing element.

I've designed my elemental magic system as the main system in my world, a fusion of common magic abilities and standard elemental powers. Magic is the manipulation of the elements, and all magic in the world draws from the six elements: air, water, earth, fire, aether and void. These six elements also have numerous subtypes that can be learned after mastering the core types. Aether and Void both have abilities and powers that are mystical and lend some variety and flare to the system itself. A mage can learn how to control one element, or multiple elements, and they can learn one subtype or multiple subtypes. Magic is only limited by the mage's willpower, talent, and resources at their disposal. It's a system that's varied but restrained so that nothing's too "out there".

Oh, you have nether, too? Neat! In my setting, Nethyr (as I call it) is what powers Anti-Magic. It doesn't usually exist naturally. Instead, an Anti-Mage is able to invert the harmonics of Aethyr to convert it into Nethyr, then use the Nethyr to interfere or negate Arcane Magic. Anti-Mages are part of a newly emerging class of magic users, so there's a lot about their abilities that even they are still figuring out. I'm still sorting out the details, but I know that some of them (such as my protagonist) are also able to "hack" other people's Spells, either sabotaging them so they backfire, changing their target to something else, or just scrambling their parameters so much that they don't work. I'm thinking that they can also boost other people's Arcane Spells through a similar technique – instead of sabotaging, they enhance. However, Anti-Mages are usually unable to cast Arcane Spells of their own, or at least the more complicated varieties. The idea is that they're great at either sabotaging or supporting Mages, but pretty crappy Mages on their own. I'm still not sure how Anti-Magic relates to Elemental Energy, though. Perhaps they create Anti-Elemental Energy or something. I'll have to mull that over.

Anyway, it's neat to see that I'm not the only one who thought of aether being countered by nether.

Akira444
2 months ago

I've recently started taking a shine to elemental magic, especially ones that take it a different step. Avatar is one of the most famous examples of how magic can be used in society. Not to mention that elemental magic doesn't even have to differ all that much from the norm. It can be enhanced through symbolism or philosophy, or have ties to religion.

I like an elemental magic system that has a fifth or sixth element that's well thought out, like aether. If done correctly, you can even have an element to handle the more "mystical" abilities that are usually common in magic. Aether can either be displayed as the rarest or most powerful element, or it can be negated with nether, aether's opposing element.

I've designed my elemental magic system as the main system in my world, a fusion of common magic abilities and standard elemental powers. Magic is the manipulation of the elements, and all magic in the world draws from the six elements: air, water, earth, fire, aether and void. These six elements also have numerous subtypes that can be learned after mastering the core types. Aether and Void both have abilities and powers that are mystical and lend some variety and flare to the system itself. A mage can learn how to control one element, or multiple elements, and they can learn one subtype or multiple subtypes. Magic is only limited by the mage's willpower, talent, and resources at their disposal. It's a system that's varied but restrained so that nothing's too "out there".

Don Caster
Don Caster
2 months ago

My friend just showed me this site on his computer and we read this together. I have to say I think elemental magic is too old fashioned, but still awesome in many ways. In fantasy it is a common trope and I prefer when books, movies and games take a unique spin to magic. I love what you wrote though.

Patrick-Leigh
2 months ago

This was a fun read! I really enjoyed how you showed ways that elemental magic could go awry and ideas for how it could be tied to disasters. That's something I'll have to consider for my story setting, or, rather, consider more. I've already been giving such things some thought.

In my story setting, Elemental Magic is a part of Arcane Magic, not separate from it. All Arcane Magic is powered by an energy called Aethyr. In it's base state, you can use it to do a lot of different things, including things that are part of Elemental Magic. By contrast, Elemental Magic is also powered by Aethyr, but it's Aethyr that's been "tuned" to a particular "frequency." Elemental Energy can only be used to affect certain things, so it's applications are more narrow than regular Aethyr. However, that's also something of an advantage, because you don't have to "tune" Elemental Energy toward a specific frequency. It's already tuned. As long as you're using it within its range of applications, you can cast certain kinds of Spells using Elemental Energy a lot faster than you could using regular Aethyr. Additionally, Elemental Energy tends to be easier to control within its range of applications, so it can also be safer and more reliable than regular Aethyr. Half the work is already done, so more of a magic users concentration can be dedicated to using the Elemental Energy with greater precision.

I have nine types of Elemental Energy: Earth, Water, Air, Frost/Flame, Electric, Light, Shadow, Corrosion, and Force.
Earth, Water, and Air Energy affect matter in the solid, liquid, and gaseous states, respectively, though materials in higher or lower temperature ranges can be more difficult to manipulate without the addition of Frost/Flame Energy.

Frost/Flame Energy (which is sometimes treated as two separate things by ignorant novices who haven't done their homework) manipulates heat and combustion. It can be used to freeze as well as burn. It freezes by either drawing heat out of an object or by converting the heat into another kind of energy, usually light. It burns by… well, I think we know how burning works.

Electric Energy affects and creates electrical currents, magnetic fields, and (as some Mages have recently begun to discover) some forms of matter in its plasma state. Why does Electric Energy affect plasma instead of Flame Energy, you may be wondering? Because lightning is a form of plasma. Fire only becomes a plasma if it's hot enough for the flames to become ionized. Thus, Flame Energy only affects fires that have not become ionized while Electric Energy affects flames that have become ionized (that is, are actually in the plasma state.) Electric Energy is one of the more dangerous Elemental Energies to use because it's a lot easier for things to go awry, and it's propensity for "friendly fire" means it's mostly avoided in combative situations unless none of your allies are at risk of getting electrocuted.

Light Energy affects the entire electromagnetic spectrum. It can be used to turn invisible, making things brighter or dimmer, or shoot beams of thermal energy that incinerate flammable materials. Mages have discovered that some frequencies can be used in a fashion similar to radar… and that the higher frequencies are best avoided because cancer. (This is also how they can detect if an area has dangerous forms of radiation and protect people from it, though, so while they don't understand why higher frequencies are bad, they do understand that they are bad.) Light Energy is also able to manipulate Light Stuff, which is a form of matter that mostly comes from the Light Realm. This is how you can make solid objects made of light, in a manner similar to how Green Lanterns use their rings. Light Stuff can also be conjured using Light Energy, but it only exists for a limited amount of time.

Shadow Energy affects Shadow Stuff, a material that mostly comes from the Shadow Realm. It can also be used to block electromagnetic waves (including gamma,) so it's also a great way to protect yourself against radiation, thermal beams, and lasers. Shadow Stuff is similar to Light Stuff in some regards, but different in that it can be made into a fluid that is either incredibly viscous or incredibly sticky. In other words, a puddle of Shadow Stuff will either be slicker than the smoothest oil or more adhesive than the strongest glue. And, of course, you can use Shadow Energy to cloak yourself in shadows and do your best Batman impression.

Corrosion Energy behaves as either a powerful acid or a powerful base, depending on what it's targeting. It's another Elemental Energy that's dangerous to use, especially in combat situations, but for disposing of dangerous materials, making precise cuts through wood, stone, or metal, or neutralizing acids or bases that have come into contact with your skin, Corrosion Energy is really useful. It's best left in the hands of experts, though.

Force Energy is, well, kind of complicated. What it does is determined by the skill (and knowledge) of the user. It can be used to give objects kinetic energy, perform fetes of telekinesis, levitate, fly, and do a bunch of other things related to movement. However, Force Energy can also be used to manipulate (or negate) gravity, adjust the passage of time (but not reverse it,) teleport, and move between Planes. It can be really powerful and precise in the right hands… or pathetically weak and unpredictable in the wrong hands. Force Energy is mostly used for shielding against physical threats as a result. If you can get good with it, bully for you, but most Mages (without a good grasp of physics) can't do much with it beyond defensive applications or telekinesis.

So, those are the forms of Elemental Energy I have. I'm still working out all the ways they're used, but I do know that there are limiting factors involved, such as how much Elemental Energy you actually have available, if you have a good Focus or conduit to channel it properly, and your skill level. I'm thinking a majority of the time, Elemental Energy is used for some pretty basic stuff. It's only in the hands of powerful magic users that it can be pretty amazing stuff.

Dark Lord Thomas Pie
Dark Lord Thomas Pie
Reply to  Patrick-Leigh
2 months ago

That is, needless to say, both complicated and interesting.

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