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I am thinking about a story in a setting similar to today, where there are some magical creatures (all of them human-like, such as different forms of sorcerers and witches). They keep their existence hidden as they are afraid to mingle with human business and have that lead to some sort of catastrophe like the 'ancient catastrophe' -- and that catastrophe is where I want to get some flesh on the bones:

  • In ancient times, such as the Greek or Egyptian time, there had been a race completely dependent and sustaining on magic and thus very powerful, living on some continent (such as Atlantis, however cheesy, but you get the point!)
  • they started seeing themselves as gods to the humans, so they revealed their existence and started to take control over mankind. That hubris made their whole race go extinct (except very very few, that got dispersed with time)
  • Concerning their magic, I would not give you too many limits; nothing temporal, but all sorts of manipulating elements, pure energy and to some extent minds.

So, how could this extinction have happened?

  • The humans developing their own powers, sort of evolutionary, and then dramatically destroy them all? This seems unlikely, as I imagine tens of thousands of these ancient Atlanteans be around, all of them quite powerful?

  • The humans inventing some sort of superweapon, even while technically not very advanced?

  • Or internal quarrels, leading to the Atlanteans turning against each other?

I'd be glad for any cues or hints into all directions! It needs to be something large, destroying a whole species, their continent and still being present as very tangible mythology, to warn magic-users of such hubris.

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closed as too broad by March Ho, Hohmannfan, Separatrix, DaaaahWhoosh, AndreiROM Mar 18 at 14:20

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Extinctuion sounds like a subtitle to some poorly translated anime game :/ – Jon Mar 17 at 23:31
I'm confused, you imagine several ten of these ancient Atlantans around? – XandarTheZenon Mar 18 at 3:21
@XandarTheZenon I think it means ten thousand. Many people use a dot in place of a comma. – Mohammad Ghazanfar Mar 18 at 4:46
@MarchHo As with the 'imperial system' you'll find that in fact, outside of the US and UK very few countries use the comma separator. Most countries simply separate number groups by spaces, while some use dots. According to it would seem Germany and France don't actually use dots. – Cronax Mar 18 at 8:09
This definitely feels too broad at the moment. In particular there is no way to rate answers against each other. See this post:… – Tim B Mar 18 at 13:12

14 Answers 14

up vote 18 down vote accepted

In Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away series of stories, magic used a non-renewable resource. Intense magic spells used up that resource in local areas, sometimes with deadly consequences for the wizard(s) involved. Eventually wide areas were depleted of magic, with disastrous consequences for magical society.

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A straightforward title if there ever was one – Kys Mar 18 at 13:42
'The device that first proves this effect, and later becomes the most dangerous weapon in the world, is the "Warlock's Wheel", a simple copper disk with two spells on it: one that makes it spin ever faster without limit, and a second that makes the disc indestructible so long as there is mana available. This rapidly uses up all of the mana in the area. ' – Murphy Mar 18 at 13:57
We shouldn't encourage "too broad" questions by answering them, even if it is fun. Please famliarize yourself with the scope of this site. Cheers!… – AndreiROM Mar 18 at 14:45

I can think of various answers, but first it's necessary to discuss the nature of magic.

The current most common view of magic among fantasy readers (and writers) sees magic as just another talent, rather like the concept of psi powers in the 60's. In this view, magic conforms to at least the outline of conservation laws as expressed in the physical sciences. As Terry Pratchett put it (approximately), "Wizards have to be careful about using magic. If a wizard tries to levitate too large a body, he may drive his brains down into his boots." So, for instance, a good deal of discussion is given to the accumulation of energy and the energy needed to produce various effects. Your own phrase "all sorts of manipulating elements, pure energy" suggests that your own ideas run in this vein.

This is wildly different from the more traditional views of magic. The oldest paradigm, as far as I can tell, is the calling up of demons, of djinns, or whatever you call them. These supernatural beings are of various degrees of puissance, and once you master them by using the proper ritual, their power is at your disposal. So a djinn can build a palace in a night, or provide you with an enormous treasure of gold and jewels. Calling up such beings has its risks, of course.

A somewhat later conception of magic has the rituals themselves as the source of power, for reasons that are never well-defined. Speaking the proper spell in the proper manner produces the desired results. A modern example is the Harry Potter series, in which ritual is critical, but it must also be accompanied by magical talent. This approach also has the peculiarity that everybody's magic is somehow the same, since the rituals (including potions, for instance) work the same for everybody. It's perfectly possible to posit that each individual must develop a ritual vocabulary unique to herself. This would make the development of each magician an idiosyncratic process, and would eliminate the concept of schools of magic. One consequence would be that the development of a strong innate talent would be extraordinarily hazardous.

With these older versions in mind, a few possibilities present themselves.

1) As H.P. Lovecraft put it, "Do not call up that which you cannot put down." Summoned beings are often rather disgruntled at being put to work, and eventually the Atlanteans called one up which they could not control. It was not happy about being interrupted at its normal routine.

2) Magical beings have, shall we say, a robust sense of humor, and like nothing more than to fulfill the letter of a command while disregarding the spirit. There are any number of short stories along this line, dealing with contracts which blow up in the signer's face. Some bright boy in Atlantis wasn't quite as bright as he thought he was.

3) Ritual must be precise. The greater the results the more precision is required. Somebody in Atlantis got over-ambitious, and flubbed a really major spell. He wanted, for instance, sunny warm dry weather across all Atlantis for the King's birthday. He dropped a syllable and got dark and cold and wet, as the surface of Atlantis dropped and the sea rushed in.

4) Magic, which violates the natural order of the physical world (which is why it is called supernatural, or above natural), is subject to a different sort of conservation law. It draws order from chaos; but chaos, like entropy, can only be locally decreased. Continued magic use produces a local condition which is increasingly unstable, and the Atlanteans were eventually overwhelmed when the chaos which they had excluded came crashing down upon them, and the larger balance was restored.

5) There exists among the supernatural community a sort of ecosystem, and the ecosystem (like all ecosystems) contains some remorseless predators. These predators ordinarily ignore our mundane existence - it has neither flavor nor nutritional value. Acts of magic, however, are rather like throwing blood in the ocean when there are sharks in the area. Eventually, Atlantis attracted one of the supernatural world's Great White sharks. Or, if you prefer, a school of piranhas. If it really were a Great White there would have been nothing left of us, so we got lucky that we only attracted the piranhas.

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A Magical virus

Magical creatures are especially more powerful and dangerous, they can grow and move faster than normal. What if a virus or bacterium fed on the host's magical energy, to cast spells. It could be freakishly dangerous.

Imagine a virus that consumes a hosts magical energy to cast "summon 500 new copies of virus" on every magical being. It could grow at speeds that biological systems have never seen before, infecting and killing all magical creatures on the planet in seconds. Imagine a virus that could cast disintegrate, or fireball, all magical creatures appear to just vanish or explode spectacularly one day.

Non/low magical creatures would be resistant, since the viruses in out bodies would have no energy to feed on, they would be no more dangerous then the flu. It would also be odd that the magic civilization's cities would be completely intact since everyone would have died to fast to react.

For your setting you can also choose if the virus was created deliberately as a weapon or evolved on its own.

A key and scary question for later mages is did any of the virus survive when it ran out of hosts?

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I was going to offer an answer like "magical transmitted disease" (mtd), but you did it already. But as an alternative, I would had offered an explanation more complex: that disease causes the magic aura due to aura-amplitude-modulation to program the others aura to recreate the virus at its own (or opening a protal), so every big group of magic users would infect each other pretty quickly. All who are left are people that didn't had contact to their fellows. Still, how do so a small number of individuals upkeep the magic humans up to today without dying out? – Confused Merlin Mar 18 at 8:02
We shouldn't encourage "too broad" questions by answering them, even if it is fun. Please famliarize yourself with the scope of this site. Cheers!… – AndreiROM Mar 18 at 14:46
@AndreiROM I had answered it before it was decided this is "too broad". It might be more useful to reserve this statement for posts that come after a close decision starts. Though in principle I agree with you. – sdrawkcabdear Mar 18 at 16:34
@ConfusedMerlin Magic humans survive today because the virus died off after it killed off all available magical hosts. Since V hour (virus hour) humans with out magical ability have since been trained/ evolved. – sdrawkcabdear Mar 18 at 16:37
I wasn't trying to make you feel guilty/target you or anything. For example, you might have noticed the closed votes but decided that you don't agree with them (which is your right). I'm only trying to raise awareness about the meta conversations around close-cases and "too broad" questions in general, which we've been getting a lot of recently. – AndreiROM Mar 18 at 16:42

You might consider looking at the extinction of the people on Easter Island, who built larger and larger stone moai as their society disintegrated. If your highly magical race sunk more and more resources into building giant magical structures, particularly if they believed, in their hubris, that a magical structure large and powerful enough would secure their future, not only can you starve them to death when the wind change, or there's a low ebb in the amount of available magic or what have you, but you also have ways to work in known landmarks as secret 'magical structures'. (For instance, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon was a last-ditch effort to ensure the now starving society had enough food; it consumed so much magic that when a magic drought came, it collapsed and was destroyed, dooming the residents who'd stopped regular farming and had stopped trade to protect their garden.)

The key is that their society has to re-orient itself around something other than survival, and in that vulnerable state, it cracks.

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Totally off-topic, but I think I recently read on article about somebody actually looking at the Easter Island story and finding out it simply wasn't true. The error IIRC was that explorers assumed that the island used to have a much larger population that was then decimated by ecological devastation when in fact the population never was much larger than it was when the explorers arrived and island never was capable of supporting much larger population. Explorers just were too impressed by the moai and overestimated the needed labor, I guess. – Ville Niemi Mar 18 at 13:05
"Degenerate" may be a better word than "extinct". Not an immoral or decadent society, but as one that lost abilities or information. Unlike other South American cultures, the people of Easter Island had complex writing that no one could read when explorers arrived and that no one has been able to interpret since then. – Michael Richardson Mar 18 at 13:27
We shouldn't encourage "too broad" questions by answering them, even if it is fun. Please famliarize yourself with the scope of this site. Cheers!… – AndreiROM Mar 18 at 14:46

Destroy Atlantis

To keep with your comparison to Atlantis, you could merely destroy them with natural disasters. During th great festival of magic, when "all" magic users gather to the magical city and eat cake, their island is destroyed, whether it sank into the sea, burned, or was buried in the nearby mountains, there will be few survivors. Those who were are cursed, and no one will want to have children with them. They will eventually die out.

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Yeah that's actually what happened in the story of Atlantis, it just got flooded. Mankind always believes they're above the laws of nature, but they're not, even with magical abilities. – Pierre Arlaud Mar 18 at 10:25
Yes, I know this is what happened... – XandarTheZenon Mar 18 at 12:34
We shouldn't encourage "too broad" questions by answering them, even if it is fun. Please famliarize yourself with the scope of this site. Cheers!… – AndreiROM Mar 18 at 14:46
Don't mean to patronize, simply getting frustrated with the many, many broad questions which are getting a lot of user attention. Of course you may disagree, or answer, or vote to re-open, etc. I see no need to get upset :) – AndreiROM Mar 18 at 15:14
Don't worry about it, that seems a little harsh looking back on it. I can understand, this one might be a little broad, it is on the border. Some questions, though, that are obviously too broad get several answers almost immediately then are closed. – XandarTheZenon Mar 18 at 15:56

Magic does not mean invincible or immortal, unless you decide it does in your world.

Magic carries its own risks.

  • As others have mentioned, magical parasites might be bad.
  • As others have mentioned, the source of magic might be tricksy or evil.
  • As others have mentioned, the source of magic might be limited or fading away.
  • Rather than a permanent loss of magic, some great but removable antimagic could have arisen, or the source of magic could have been temporarily cut off (depending how magic works; for example, if it's astrology based, a negating planet or conjunction could come into the magical sphere).
  • Magic users who become too dependent on it and then have it unavailable would have poor survivability, particularly if their lives were artificially extended, they lived in floating cities, they were served by magically bound demons, etc.
  • Some authors have magic use be vulnerable to technology and science, and magic be harder to use in our real world because science exists. I have always found this deeply unsatisfying, since it in essence says that science -- and hence, mere reasoned thought -- is magical. A less offensive form of this is to have magic be dependent on belief ("I believe in fairies!") and the magical creatures weakened by disbelief.
  • Magic is powerful and allows one to easily destroy one's own civilization (kinda like nukes would be if everyone had one).
  • Magic might (again like radioactivity) cause sterility, either directly or because magical longevity would lower the urgency of reproduction (qv western society today).
  • Magic users would become a rich, powerful society, which means they are ripe for invasion and plundering.
  • Magic does not protect from natural disasters, which can wipe out an entire society.
  • Magic does protect from natural disasters, so some great natural disaster or attack could have been averted by magic, but only at the cost of burning out, or draining, all magic users.
  • Magic could allow moving to a new state of being. Everyone could one day just sail off to the West; or just depart their bodies and float away in spirits, leaving their husks behind. This makes for great scenery when adventurers come to their city and finds mummified corpses.
  • Magic use could make you susceptible to magic effects. If you are sensitive to magic, then a devastating magical disaster or attack could deafen or cripple you but leave non-sensitives unaffected, and even unaware.

In general, it seems more interesting to me to have the vulnerabilities caused by magic be the cause of the downfall, rather than have it be something completely unrelated like a meteorite impact or something. Because those vulnerabilities make for more depth to the magic, which can be explored and exploited in the story.

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I can think of a couple of ways this could have happened. The first is similar to the virus route. In my own story, magic has its own system in the body, similar to the respiratory or cardiovascular systems. There is a virus that specifically attacks this system, causing any use of magic to damage the body and speed up the virus' effects. Over time, the virus corrupts and corrodes the system and since this magic system is also life sustaining, the infected would die. If the magical beings couldn't find a cure for an epidemic of it, they die out, especially if they are really reliant on magic. Much like a plague.

The second idea would be to introduce a predator that feeds on magic. Using magic on it only makes it stronger. It comes, destroys their civilization, then goes into hibernation because it's food source is gone, or nearly gone; fading into legend and myth. I don't know how your story is going to play out, but it could be a potential plot point that descendants of this civilization accidentally awaken the beast, who is hungry after 1000's of years of hibernation.

Tying this into human interaction is the tricky part. You could perhaps have a especially silver tongued human in the past. He/she had a severe distrust and hatred of the magical beings because he/she wasn't blessed with the same powers. Discovering a legend/admonition about this magic attacking creature/virus he/she decides to trick some poor soul into releasing it on the unsuspecting culture. Using lies and deceit he/she makes his/her way into the good graces of an especially powerful magical being and playing on their curiosity, they convince them to (open a portal to another dimension)/(resurrect an ancient city)/(insert cause here) allowing the (magic eater to slip through)/(resurrecting the untamed virus) and releasing it to wreak havoc on the magic world. Ever since, all survivors of the magic race have distrusted the humans, remembering the betrayal many millennia ago...

Or something like that. It's really up to you.

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"The second idea would be to introduce a predator that feeds on magic." Whatever you do, don't lesnerize. – WhatRoughBeast Mar 18 at 3:26
We shouldn't encourage "too broad" questions by answering them, even if it is fun. Please famliarize yourself with the scope of this site. Cheers!… – AndreiROM Mar 18 at 14:46

While there are many ways to have a magical apocalypse, I think that your main requirement is that the future generations of magical beings will believe that it was the arrogance and desire to reveal their power and rule that caused it.

The easy solution, especially if they claim to be gods, would be to have some sort of deity that will consider their actions hybris and smite them. Of course, it doesn't have to be a real god, it could just be beings of greater power. And they might also fear that they need to eliminate a potential threat.

Alternatively, you can have somewhat more benevolent power that will intervene to save regular humans from oppression; perhaps a race with superior technology but no magic that sympathises because they faced something similar (potential for chicken & egg problem)?

Note that those beings can live in different planets or planes depending on the setting.

Something more interesting would be having the magical race grow extremely arrogant over the centuries, which allowed humans to defeat them. Something similar happened in the Stargate universe where an extremely technologically advanced race, the Goa'uld, posed as gods and enslaved human populations.

Perhaps they focused too much on appearances instead of raw power (think fireballs shaped like dragons) and flashy things that proved detrimental in actual battle. Or maybe they stored powerful spells in objects that could be stolen and used by (some) humans. Then when the humans started winning they could have panicked and unleashed a devastating blast of arcane might that backfired and destroyed them.

As a sidenode, it doesn't necessarily have to be true that the race's hybris caused their defeat: this could have easily been exaggerated (e.g. by the victorious humans) or outright mistaken (it might make for an interesting plot twist).

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We shouldn't encourage "too broad" questions by answering them, even if it is fun. Please famliarize yourself with the scope of this site. Cheers!… – AndreiROM Mar 18 at 14:47

Maybe the Gods (who granted the magic powers in the first place) became angry with their arrogance and wiped them out. (Or maybe took away their magic and the mundanes took the opportunity for revenge)

There were several who didn't try to take over mankind as the others did and they were spared the divine punishment. These are the few (or their ancestors) who live to this day a quiet life of humility, knowing all too well the consequences of arrogance.

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Civil war - Your magical society develops magical weapons of mass destruction and destroys itself.

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In White Wolf's RPG Mage: The Awakening Dragons send calls to men, willing to teach them arts of Magic. There's nothing that Magic can't do - from casting fireballs and conjuring food, to creating multidimensional alternate realities and trapping other people in their own minds. One day Dragons disappear.

Men, filled with false sense of unlimited power, create mighty city-state of Atlantis (sic!), where they start to build Celestial Ladder, for they wish to reach Heavens and attain higher Ascension and more Power. During their ascension of the ladder, the conflict breaks out on how to rule the world.

Conflict escalates to battle, during which Ladder is shattered. Dramatic events happen. Atlantis sinks. People lose their Power.

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We shouldn't encourage "too broad" questions by answering them, even if it is fun. Please famliarize yourself with the scope of this site. Cheers!… – AndreiROM Mar 18 at 14:47

Electronics. For these creatures, electrosensitivity is not all in the mind. Microwave radiation interferes with their magical abilities and gives them terrible headaches as well.

It was manageable back when it was just airstrips and communications masts they had to stay away from. But now just about every human being has a mobile phone.

Over to you for the story.

PS you said "like today" so the "ancient times" were the early 21st century and your story is set in the further future where humans are rediscovering electronic technology.

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We shouldn't encourage "too broad" questions by answering them, even if it is fun. Please famliarize yourself with the scope of this site. Cheers!… – AndreiROM Mar 18 at 14:47

We have a short gestation period and get pregnant more easily. Add time.

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Too short to upvote IMHO, but you have a good point. Even small differences between populations add up to have huge impact over generations. – Ville Niemi Mar 18 at 13:08
Forget the size, feel the quality! Just applying Occam's Razor. – rougeExciter Mar 18 at 13:10
@rougeExciter +1 from me if I see you have expanded it a little when I come back. – Hohmannfan Mar 18 at 13:28

They killed all the midi-chlorians? I am so sorry...

Seriously, the way to think about this might be by thinking about the fish in the sea. Fish used to be abundant, but as commercial scale fishing spread it started to impact the ability of the fish stocks to replenish. Which resulted in the current much lower levels of fish in the oceans and a real risk of the fish stocks actually collapsing.

Similarly if you think of mana as a naturally replenishing resource then as long as your people stayed on a relatively restricted area the mana they consumed would have been replaced by inflow from elsewhere without any real impact on the ability of the mana to replenish itself. But when they spread into larger area, there would have been first a magical boom caused by the increase in the amount of magic available to your people. They would have continued the same patterns of usage but on a larger scale.

But now there would have been no place for an inflow of mana to come and replenish the stock. Instead the mana levels would have dropped on a world wide scale. You can reasonably assume that lower level of mana means a lower amount of new mana being generated. This would have continued until the level of mana becomes lower than the past levels of consumption. For a civilization dependent and built on magic reducing the level of magic use enough to allow for the mana to recover would have been even more difficult than managing the fish stocks is for us. (You can look up Tragedy of the commons for the background of how this kind of collapse works.)

Since the collapse would have been self-accelerating and reduction of mana would have caused the society and possibly even the health of the people to collapse and they had subjugated servant races with a grudge... Very few survivors, I think.

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