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New Worlds Theory Post: Principles of Magic II

The New Worlds series is brought to you by my imaginative backers at Patreon! www.patreon.com/swan_tower

I originally thought I could fit all the “common principles that crop up in many, though far from all, magical traditions” into one essay. More fool me! No sooner had I posted that piece than I began thinking of all the things I hadn’t included in it. So let’s continue onward in that vein!

(To recap, since the fifth-Friday scheduling of these theory essays means it’s been a few months: my aim with this piece and the last one is to propose an alternative to the “magic must have rules” school of thought, and instead approach it from the angle of “magic often has underlying principles.” The two mentalities are similar, but not quite the same.)

The first thing I want to discuss got briefly touched on last time, but it deserves a more in-depth look. I said before that real-world magical beliefs rarely have the degree of codified “source of power, which can be temporarily or permanently used up” component you tend to see in games — in fact, that in many cases the source of power is left completely unaddressed. But one semi-exception to that is when magic calls explicitly on some supernatural entity, be it divine, infernal, or other (e.g. fairies).

As you can see just from the options I list there, this takes us rapidly in the direction of religion. What’s the difference between religion and magic? Depending on the tradition, there may or may not be one. “Working magic” may just consist of beseeching the divine, whether that be a god or some subordinate figure like an angel or a saint, to intercede on your behalf; the magician may be indistinguishable from the priest. This type of magic theoretically shows up in games like Dungeons & Dragons, but since those games often do a miserably bad job of making the religion actually seem like a practice of faith, clerics and other divine casters wind up feeling like wizards with slightly different mechanics.

The flip side to this coin is infernal power — and that points us toward where magic and religion may start to part ways. The view of medieval Catholicism was essentially that divine alteration of the world was a miracle; by contrast, magic was anything people did outside the auspices of the Church. And, being outside those bounds, it was blasphemous and bad. So whatever external power you might be invoking, and whatever your purpose might be in doing so, its positioning in cultural thought may have as much to do with questions of orthodoxy and the like as anything metaphysical.

But from a worldbuilding perspective, the key thing to note here is that the actual performance of supernatural effects is being achieved by a supernatural creature. The skill of the magician or the miracle-worker lies in their ability to get those creatures to respond. And although these inhuman entities are the source of power, they’re not generally a depletable resource, liable to be drained for the moment (much less permanently) by doing too much. If they stop performing on command, it’s more likely to be because the magician has annoyed them with too many requests in too short a time, or because they’re not being paid enough to keep going — infernal entities and fairies both being notorious for demanding some kind of compensation for their work. But that kind of interpersonal interaction is ill-suited to the mechanical demands of a game, and so we tend to see more numerically codified limits on how much magic somebody can do in a certain span of time . . . limits which then show up in our fiction, too.

One of the forms that restriction takes is mana — which I’ll use here for any concept of “there’s a pool of energy you expend in order to perform magic.” (Functionally speaking, it doesn’t matter a whole lot whether that pool is somebody’s innate energy, a drug they consume to power their work, or anything else consumable and refreshable.)

We’ve discussed mana before, back when the concept of taboos came up in Year Two. The term comes from Polynesian beliefs about the spiritual power of individuals, but its generalized fantasy manifestation is quite different. In many ways, I think the Chinese concept of qi (often rendered as chi, or ki in Japanese) might be a better analogue: energy you can deliberately build up within yourself, then expend in certain contexts.

Clearly this is a concept that does exist in real-world belief — but once again, what it looks like there is often fairly different from how it shows up in fiction and games. Qi is not simply a resource bar that drains and fills up as a person does magic and then drinks a potion or rests; it’s integral to ideas about health, sustenance, activity, and more. In Chinese folklore, having sex with a ghost (a profoundly yin creature) is a bad idea because it drains your yang energy. Consuming or avoiding certain foods can affect the balance of those forces within your body, thus causing or curing disease. This corner of the belief system isn’t “magic” in the sense that we tend to think of it . . . but that’s because the underlying principle is far more holistic in nature.

And, in my opinion, more interesting. If you approach the design of your story’s magic purely from the perspective of questions like “how can I limit the amount of magic my characters can do?,” you’re putting mechanical considerations ahead of the verisimilitude and integrity of the world. Obviously not everybody foregrounds setting to the extent that I do — but given the focus of this Patreon, you’re probably not surprised to hear me advocate for a world-first approach!

Especially because that approach may ultimately lead you back around to answers to those more mechanical questions. If the powers your characters are beseeching demand a blood sacrifice to perform magic because the metaphysics of your world mean that blood is the precious substance that bridges the gap between mundane reality and the divine — a very Mesoamerican-flavored view — then the limiter on effects might well be how much blood loss your character can endure and still function. (Speaking from personal experience, be careful with starting down the blood magic road: once you embed yourself in that mindset, it’s hard to ever get out of it again! Years later, I am still prone to thinking the solution to every. magical. plot problem. is to have my protagonist spill some of their blood.) But there’s still a difference between building a setting where blood is metaphysically important and deciding that the mana equivalent for this story is blood: the former is more likely to produce a world where blood has lots of other significance besides its magic-powering function, whereas the latter risks remaining thin and irrelevant to the rest of the setting.

But that’s leading us toward a later essay. And before we get there, I have one more category of principles I always intended to address separately: the role of the personal in performing magic. Look for that on the fifth Friday of December!

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1 thought on “New Worlds Theory Post: Principles of Magic II”

  1. The difference between magic and religion is that magic is coercive. You can beseech God (or a god) to grant your prayer, but magic compels God (or a god, or a daemon, or an angel) to obey. This is why not only Christians regarded it as bad. Greeks and Romans would prosecute it as impiety.

    Egyptians regarded it differently. The Greek magical papyri, from Hellenistic times, freely threaten the gods with punishment if they fail.

    And what do you call a lead curse tablet at a shrine, declaring that you dedicate the goods that were stolen from you to the great goddess, and she should arise and claim them, lest she be scorned among the gods?

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