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In a world I'm creating there is a web of "Mana" across the universe that isn't the same density everywhere creating areas where magic is possible and areas where it isn't. I'm trying to come up with a reason why civilizations that develop in high mana areas would have less technological development than those that don't.

What I have so far is that the basic of all technological development is the ability to replicate experiments. Without that it's impossible to determine natural laws of the universe (that is if there are stable laws in the first place) and would limit the level of technology you can make. In short Mana causes reality to warp making things very uncertain the more mana there is limiting technological development by increasing the amount of randomness around certain phenomena.

Example: if mixing potassium nitrate and sulfur doesn't always make an explosive substance gunpowder weapons wouldn't be in wide use as it would be uncertain if they would work. This would limit a society to cold weapons.

What I want: Is there a way to explain why reality is warping due to the presence of Mana. Doesn't need to be hard science but some physical constant that could be changed increasing randomness.

Current Ideas: Something related to quantum weirdness or the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

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    $\begingroup$ If mixing potassium nitrate with sulfur (and charcoal, don't forget the charcoal) doesn't always result in usable gunpowder, how come that the much more intricate chemical processes commonly called life work reliably? Which is to say, there is no possible way to reconcile this world with real physics; so don't even try. After all, S. M. Stirling wrote an entire hugely successful series based on a world incompatible with real-world physics. $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 10 '18 at 21:09
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP hits the nail on the head. More plausible explanation might just be that you don't need to develop advanced technology if you have magic. What civilization is going to bother scraping crystalized horse piss off the timbers of old stables in order to manufacture gun powder when you've already got wizards that can shoot fireballs from nothingness. This is probably how technological development has worked in our own world: no one bothered with agriculture until all the large game was killed, no one bothered with food preservation until moving to cold/dry climates, etc. $\endgroup$ – Pink Sweetener May 10 '18 at 21:31
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    $\begingroup$ Or... you could just go the cultural route and note that necessity is the mother of invention: if magic negates the necessity of an invention, it will not be invented. Conversely, areas where mana is absent create the need for invention in order for societies to thrive (at least, geologically speaking, in the relatively short-term). $\endgroup$ – KernelOfChaos May 10 '18 at 21:43
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I agree that a certain level of uncertainty would slow technological development, but I don't think you need to turn to atomic-scale physics to justify that uncertainty. Maybe magic could bestow a form of consciousness in mana-rich planets or biomes, so they actively resist large scale changes. Now the inhabitants can't strip mine, redirect bodies of water, or deforest lands to grow more crops. This could be compensated for with magic, but they still wouldn't think to invent factories, aqueducts, or tractors.

Or maybe it the opposite, where the mana-infused lands are in an constant state of flux. An acre of land might be supernaturally farm-able when a unicorn herd is passing through, but all the nutrition is magically extracted by a five-ton mushroom frog a few months later. Building a city is tricky when a dragon might claim your land or a earth-elemental rise from under city hall. Without any way to put down roots, its very difficult for a civilization to perform meaningful acts of development.

Lastly, and this should apply for both of the above, if a magic person can do something themselves, they wouldn't need to invent a tool to do it for them. If you can craft a golem, why build a plow? If you can summon a spirit to aid you, why domesticate a dog? If you can cast magic missile, why even bother inventing a bow? That being said, it might be a good idea to give these people some level of technology. Maybe magic is tied to individual skill, so stuff like bows, wagons, and ovens get made cause no one has time to go to school to get degree in pyrokenesis just to be able to cook dinner. This could defiantly be used to justify a medieval aesthetic, but keep in mind these people could have figured out how to teleport mass before they got the hang of plumbing.

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There is this tabletop RPG that I love, called GURPS. It stands for Generic Universal Role Playing System. The creator tried - and IMO, succedded - in creating an RPG system which can model any setting and scenario, from fantasy with elves to cyberpunk to FTL science fiction.

The initial GURPS system in general, and its offsprings GURPS Fantasy and Gurps Magic in particular describe the way magic interacts with the world in a way similar to what you seek.

In these settings, mana is a term for both an energy source and a type of energy that can be accessed by living beings, and mages are people who are more sensitive to it. Every area in the universe has a level of mana, from absent to very high. When mana is absent, no one can cast magic. When it is low or normal, only mages can cast spells. High and very high levels of mana allow anyone to cast spells as long as they have the knowledge to do so.

The basic system stops there. GURPS Fantasy describes a world where some creatures (such as dragons and gryphons) are mana-dependent - they will get sick and possibly die if taken to areas with low levels of mana. In areas where mana is high in concentration, animals suffer mutations that would make the movie Anihilation seem mild. Another aspect of its high mana areas is that they are random, and sometimes boost one type of magic while weakening others.

Very high concentrations of mana have two aspects, though, which can cause large scale "natural" disasters:

  • First, the amount of energy available for spells is, for all practical purposes, unlimited. Even the most unskilled mage is able to summon and control a category 5 hurricane, if they have the patience to keep channelling mana for a few hours.

  • When doing magic, skill checks are required. In GURPS dice rolls, critical errors happen less than 2% of the time, (compare with 5% of the time with systems such as Dungeons & Dragons). So consider that for every fifty spells cast a day, one will fail. Well... A failure in a very high mana area is a very spectacular thing. The caster may loose control of the spell, the spell may be cast in reverse, the caster may lose a limb, a hostile demon may be summoned... And the intensity of the mess will be proportional to the energy being chanelled.

So if you are channeling a Cat 5 hurricane and you trip, you may end up throwing a large chunk of the planet's atmosphere into space, messing up the whole planet's weather system for a few months.

In the story of GURPS Fantasy, elves once tried to perform a ritual in an area with a large concentration of mana to banish all orcs to another dimension. They failed, and as a result:

  • A range of mountains turned into sand and formed the world's largest desert, destroying a dwarf kingdom in the process;
  • The whole area occupied by the desert became devoid of mana;
  • Instead of banishing the orcs, the spell brought an uncountable amount of fantastic and mythological creatures from other dimensions to their world, including every fantasy race and monster that is neither orc, elve or dwarf. That is how humans, centaurs, giants, goblins, gnomes etc. made it into their world;
  • The effect above never stopped and has been going on for centuries.

Drawing inspiration from GURPS into your world: even the slightest act of magic in an area with a lot of mana may produce a doomsday scenario, so magic would be outright outlawd in such areas, and access to them would probably be controlled with an iron fist by that world's nations. Without access to magic, anyone on those areas would have to resort to technology instead.

On areas with no mana, magic is not possible, so reliance on technology is also common.

But in areas with moderate amounts of mana, where failing to perform a cantrip will not cause a volcano to sprout from beneath your house, magic is tolerated and even used daily. Since it makes things easier, there is little to no demand for technology in these areas.

Make mana concentrations vary through time for interesting effects and seasonal chains of migration.


Edit: as for how mana could interfere with physics more directly: mana could cause the ground to vibrate at frequencies humans cannot detect, for example. This could cause buildings to collapse. Or mana could make the air more viscous, so sailing would be completely different while still allowing animals and people to breath. Mana could change the thermal properties of ores.

If every area with high mana concentrations has a different effect, some things which quite easy in some places might become quite hard in others. Without anything to explain such differents other than , science would be a far more complicated thing in this world.

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Religion.

Rather than the mana itself preventing technologic advancement, the mana makes possible organized religions of great strength. These prevent technologic advancement.

“Note, to-day, an instructive, curious spectacle and conflict. Science, (twin, in its fields, of Democracy in its)—Science, testing absolutely all thoughts, all works, has already burst well upon the world—a sun, mounting, most illuminating, most glorious—surely never again to set. But against it, deeply entrench'd, holding possession, yet remains, (not only through the churches and schools, but by imaginative literature, and unregenerate poetry,) the fossil theology of the mythic-materialistic, superstitious, untaught and credulous, fable-loving, primitive ages of humanity.” ― Walt Whitman, Complete Prose Works
https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/science-vs-religion

Organized religion is often vilified as opposing progress and especially progress based on science and technology. It is debatable but definitely plausible and a position held by many. Organized religion is plenty strong in our real world where miracles are few and far between. In a world full of mana and miracles, one might imagine that organized religion would be even stronger - and its impediment to science, free thought and technological discovery nearly insurmountable.

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Because the scientific method isn't reliable.

You don't need mana to interfere with physics. You only need the (human) mind.

A definition of magic is that it is intent realized by an unknown force. In areas where magic (mana) is prevalent, you cannot exclude it from processes. In the scientific method, repeatability means that if an experiment is repeated under the same circumstances and does not produce the same results then the theory it was devised to prove is probably false. But in a world where a random thought can evoke a mystical, unseen power to change the results of an experiment, this process cannot be relied on. You just cannot know whether the experiment succeeded because the person doing it wanted it to succeed or failed because the person doing it did not want it to succeed.

It further complicates the situation if not only humans can do magic but also any living being. Imagine a tiny bug crawling between the gears of a machine and not wanting to be crushed causes magic to stop the machine working.

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Terry Pratchett touched on this in "The Colour of Magic" where the main character "Rincewind", a magician, ponders briefly on what it would be like to live in a world where they didn't have magic but used science and technology to solve the problems of existence

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