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tl;dr

The typical fantasy setting is just Earth with "magic" tacked on to let the wizards cheat nature. There is absolutely no attempt to integrate magic with nature. Trees, lightning, birds and so forth run on real science, but magic is its own self-contained thing that never really interacts with nature except to make possible things considered impossible in reality.

I recommend the article "Breaking out of Scientific Magic Systems" for an excellent breakdown of this problem. The article is specific to RPGs but the basic gist is applicable to fantasy genre as whole (especially that inspired by RPGs). While a great article, I have been unable to find any more detailed guides for building a rational magical/natural physics system since the assumption that "fantasy settings run on real physics with magic tacked on" is so pervasive.

What can I do to adjudicate a rational set of physical rules that treats magic as part of nature? What pitfalls should I look out for? Are there helpful examples I can look at? Etc.

Examples specific to RPGs

RPGs like D&D are massive offenders. Magic is not simply excessively systematized for practical usage by players, but treated fundamentally separate from nature even though that is not remotely necessary for play.

  • There are effects like "detect magic" and "anti-magic" which only affect things considered magic without affecting anything non-magic.
  • Any animals which do not exist on Earth are considered magical and unnatural, even though that makes no sense since Earth doesn't exist in the fantasy world. For example, a giant ant that spits acid is considered a "magical beast" or "monstrosity" despite having nothing paranormal about it if it was seen in reality.
  • Magic is considered transient and even simple effects like "speak with animals" are given very precise time limits.
  • Crafting magical swords involves a wizard adding a property of magic-ness to a normal sword and the aforementioned anti-magic would turn render said sword non-magical without otherwise reducing its effectiveness.

Example: Classical elements versus periodic elements

For another example, a typical fantasy setting has elemental beings composed of the four classical elements, yet this is only relevant to elemental beings since the rest of the universe is composed of the elements on the periodic table. This despite the fact that alchemical traditions that gave rise to the concept of elemental beings were based on the assumption that the universe really was composed of the four classical elements.

For a specific example in fiction, the anime No Game No Life at one point has a character win a game by taking advantage of the fact that an opponent with encyclopedic knowledge of magic is completely ignorant of atomic theory.

Why this sticks out and how pre-modern fantasy was different

This makes absolutely no sense to me. Whether the universe is the result of order spontaneously arising from chaos or intelligent design, if magic has always existed then it should be just as fundamental to existence as any other fundamental force. It should not be possible to say something is magical or non-magical any more than you can say something does or does not contain electrons, or to have two completely different sets of classical and periodic elements that only apply to magic or non-magic matter respectively.

It feels to me like writers who grew up in modern times are projecting their knowledge of the modern world onto fantasy concepts without understanding the originating pre-modern context. You see the unification of magic and nature all the time in mythology, fairy tales and folklore. Magic is omnipresent in these stories even for non-wizards. Perfectly ordinary people who are not designated as wizards are able to perform feats we would consider magic, like talk to trees or place curses with their dying breath or come back from the dead. Much of the time this happens without their conscious consent or knowledge. (Cross-reference magical thinking in anthropology studies.) You could even say that nature is depicted as running on magical rules. Meanwhile, most modern writing seems to treat magic solely as a means for wizards to cheat physics and do cool stuff rather than a basic part of nature.

What are the ramifications of fantasy physics?

Using this conceit in world building requires thinking about magic in a completely different way. Rather than the purview of reality-warping wizards, magic becomes something that makes the fantasy world fundamentally different from reality. The fantasy reality is reactive, alive and sentient in some way. The physics of the fantasy world are different and allow things impossible in reality. Conversely, this means that things possible in reality may not be possible in the fantasy world because the supporting physics do not exist.

In reality we can build electronics because our physics allow that, but do the physics of the fantasy world even have atoms? If the classical elements of earth and fire and air and water and quintessence are real physical constants, then clearly atomic theory is wrong on that world. Are diseases caused by viruses and bacteria, or by evil spirits and imbalances of the humors? Is gravity a physical manifestation of the emotion love? These sorts of questions and their answers have huge ramifications on how the fantasy world works.

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closed as unclear what you're asking by Renan, Ash, Aify, Frostfyre, JBH Jul 24 '18 at 20:24

Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ Humble request: please bold (or otherwise highlight) your actual question, and the restrictions you want applied to potential answers. I fully appreciate your rant, but it would be nice to be able to quickly locate the important bits! :) $\endgroup$ – Qami Jul 24 '18 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, um what are you actually asking for here? $\endgroup$ – Ash Jul 24 '18 at 18:28
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    $\begingroup$ "There is absolutely no attempt to integrate magic with physics." If those were integrated into one it would be either physics or magic, but not both. $\endgroup$ – Renan Jul 24 '18 at 18:33
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    $\begingroup$ Etc? What do envision falls under that umbrella? Also "Clearly the existence of wizards who can trivially teleport around security to assassinate kings, spy on everyone through animal servants or create their own private universes renders the traditional pseudo-medieval setting impossible" no it doesn't, in fact in some ways it reinforces a feudalistic culture and arguably removes any impetus towards scientific thought or methodology. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jul 24 '18 at 18:45
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    $\begingroup$ "Magic" is, by definition, only magic if it's not explained by the physical laws of the universe in question, if you can explain it then it's technology, what you're asking for is a contradiction in terms. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jul 24 '18 at 19:07
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Evolution

Simply put, magic should be present on every part of the natural realm, it must be as common to see a bird using arcane currents to produce a lightning bolt as it is for us to see birds banking in thermal currents to gain altitude.

These animals will have evolved in a world full of magic and so they will have evolved to make use of it, even the most common animals like cats and dogs should have some measure of magical abilities. Even your plants will probably be able to use and store mana in some way.

Food Web

One of the biggest problems in fantasy is the food chain, if you have a giant Wyvern on the forest, where are the prey animals they feed on? What kind of prey would have required the Wyverns to have evolved such a powerful venon and flight?

Most RPG bestiaries are usually concerned only about the big and flashy predators of the world, most of the time living in complete isolation. There are no food chain going around, almost no prey species to fill the niches.

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    $\begingroup$ I really like this perspective! I've never really thought of magic this way, I'll have to work this into my next world! $\endgroup$ – TheAverageCanadian Jul 24 '18 at 19:25
  • $\begingroup$ I like the idea of animals use magic it reminds of the demon cycle. I think this would be a good way to intergrate magical creatures (unicorns Thunderbirds) in to your story. $\endgroup$ – Bryan McClure Jul 25 '18 at 0:19
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It seems like you're trying to come at magic from a first-principles perspective – which, bravo for thinking big! If I'm understanding you correctly, you want to know how you can set up a magical system that has had magical influence in the development of the world, if not the universe itself.

The laws of nature

First: there is a limit to this thinking, and the limit is pretty mundane. Since we, in the real world, don't actually know everything about how the universe works, it's nigh impossible to say how changing the fundamental equations to allow some form of magic would affect everything.

Like, if General Relativity is optional, what does that say about Noether's Theorem? If gauge symmetry doesn't mean conserved quantities, then your universe cannot work on the principle of least action (because math). If it doesn't, what are the principles it does run on? What are the consequences of those principles, and are you willing to spend decades dealing with tensor calculus to figure it out?

On the other hand, if you introduce a new physical force, let's call it 'magic,' say, then how does that interact with electricity? The strong and weak force? How does it fit into the standard model? Does it have a boson? We barely understand how these things work in real life, so how can you invent a system that appropriately incorporates additional complexity?

At some point, your physics has to reduce to the normal stuff, otherwise your world will simply be too foreign, as in, there won't be any planets, or light, or time. So if you want to have a magical world that's interesting to read about, you have to 'tack on' magic haphazardly somewhere – the question is where, and I think that's something we can work with to help overcome your frustration.

The sweet spot

I, too, have sometimes felt like in some fantasy worlds they expect us to believe everything developed just about the same as the real world – except magic. That goes for everything from societal power structures to evolution. I think the key to resolving your frustration is deciding what you want to cause magic – and having it be more closely connected to advent of living beings.

Some options:

  • Is it that the gods created this world like a computer program and wizards are just altering the code? Then you can do like @TheAverageCanadian suggests (which is super cool!) and make an ancient language that controls reality. (Maybe you could challenge assumptions that the language is spoken – who says the gods were human-like? Tons of intriguing possibilities here!)

  • Is it that living things give off a magic field? Then you can do things like what @Sasha suggested and have animals with magical powers as well. This could also address your question about sickness and bacteria: perhaps microbes give off a field that interferes with our own.

  • Is it a specific element that gives off magic? Then you could localize the affects in the last paragraph to specific areas, which could be tons of fun and allow for a world pretty similar to ours – except some places, where it gets super weird.

Other questions to answer when you've decided what causes magic:

  • Is magic a strong influence on reality or weak?
  • How long do magical effects last? How far do they reach? (Is this a reverse square law deal, or is it a substance that decays?)
  • When did living things develop the ability to use magic? How did that affect human evolution? How did animals evolve in response?
  • Is magic a finite quantity? Can it be grown or manufactured?
  • Who/What has access to it? What determines how much magic something has?
  • Are there certain laws of nature it affects and others it doesn't? Why or why not?

Really, the choices are all yours! Sometimes it's neat just to pick something and see where it leads you. But at the core, if you want to take this approach, you need to figure out what you want to be the cause of magic. Following the logical chain of consequences from that one decision can lead to a relatively consistent world with many, many intricate layers that will be fun for the reader to unravel.

Just don't try to go too far back, or nestle magic too deep in physical laws – our universe is an incredibly delicate balance, and trying to incorporate magic too fundamentally is leading a bull into a china shop. Figuring out the consequences of that would require a far better understanding of the current universe than we currently have, and would probably require the invention of several new fields of mathematics.

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One of my favorite interpretations of "Magic" is thus:

The universe that we know has a sort of "language" far above our own understanding. When a human (or animal, or other creature, your choice) speaks in that ancient language, the universe has no choice but to obey the will of the speaker. This is similar in nature to the concept of a "true name", where everyone has a name given by the universe, and anyone who learns that name has total control over the person.

If you frame the elements of life typically thought as "inanimate" as if they were alive, then this makes sense. Most beings do not know how to speak the language of the universe, so the don't have "magic".

Basically, I would frame every atom of this universe as living, and the art of magic is simply figuring out how to speak to the universe and convince it to do what you want. This way, you can explain the normal effects of these things, what we consider to be "the laws of the universe", to be their own free will, which can be affected given the right methods.

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  • $\begingroup$ Are you taking inspiration from the Eragon system? I recognize the phrases "Ancient Language" and "True Name." Great series. $\endgroup$ – TheAverageCanadian Jul 24 '18 at 19:03
  • $\begingroup$ @TheAverageCanadian Earthsea uses the same concept. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jul 24 '18 at 19:04
  • $\begingroup$ Honestly I can't remember where I got the idea from. I think I have seen it in a few places. $\endgroup$ – Cubemaster Jul 24 '18 at 19:10
  • $\begingroup$ I think it may have been from The Chronicles of Prydain $\endgroup$ – Cubemaster Jul 24 '18 at 19:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Cubemaster The concept that magic is simply "the true language" is found in dozens, if not hundreds of books, to the point where it's practically a cliche. $\endgroup$ – Ambrose Winters Jul 24 '18 at 20:06
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My all-time favourite system for Magic that is as scientific and systematic as it can be, with costs and balances has got to be the magic system from Eragon and the rest of the series.

If you haven't read it I would highly recommend it.

The way it works, summarized shortly is:

  • Magic is Innate and is somehow linked to your brain, somewhat like Telekinesis.
  • You direct your "magic" with your thoughts and the magic interprets what you're trying to do with it. You direct the flow of energy towards a certain task, and the energy does it to the best of its ability. The "magic" is often funneled through the use of a so-called "ancient language" that can focus the user and prevent their thoughts from straying. The more specific they are with the language, the lesser the chance of something going wrong.
  • The amount of energy required to perform a certain piece of magic is the same amount as it would take to accomplish that task without magic. This cost increases exponentially as the distance increases.
  • The "energy" that powers the magic is the same energy that powers the magic-user's body. The more energy you use, the more tired you become. Use too much energy and you will die.
  • Combining both previous points, if you were to try to move a rock with magic, after you moved it you would feel as tired as if you had just moved it with your arms and legs. The further the rock is away from you, the more energy it requires. If you push yourself too far and dump too much energy into it, you will use up all of your energy contained in your body and die.
  • The Eragon system also has a system of people's minds interacting and powerful casters can break into the minds of others if they don't protect themselves. It's fairly complicated, I won't get into it. Read the books!

The key highlights to this system are:

  • The law of physics and thermodynamics apply. Energy is never created nor is it ever destroyed.
  • Magic users are not omnipotent, they are limited by the amount of energy in their body (although powerful magic users can transfer energy from themselves or others into gems to be used later).
  • The system keeps a sort of "reality check" on the typical magic systems that hand-wave away a lot of physics and etc.
  • The system of mental interaction, reading minds & etc is really cool.

There's a lot of nuance to this system that I can't go into without going on for pages and pages, but this should give you the general idea. I would highly recommend reading the books, I can't say that enough!

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  • $\begingroup$ "The amount of energy required to perform a certain piece of magic is the same amount as it would take to accomplish that task without magic." How exactly do you measure how much energy would be expended without the use of magic? I would use more energy carrying a heavy object than if I put it on rollers and pushed it. $\endgroup$ – Starpilot Jul 24 '18 at 19:39
  • $\begingroup$ Right, so if you wanted to push the rock horizontally across rollers, it would take less energy than if you were to try to levitate the rock and move it that way. It's far from an exact science insofar as the characters understand it, but the system itself keeps itself balanced. Energy in = Energy out. I can't explain it as well as the author can, I would recommend reading the books if you haven't yet. $\endgroup$ – TheAverageCanadian Jul 24 '18 at 19:54
  • $\begingroup$ I don't see how the Eragon system is somewhat relevant to this discussion. Magic is just an extra gimmick some chosen people have (and, uh, dragons?) and not something well-integrated with the enviroment. $\endgroup$ – Liquid Jul 24 '18 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ I agree, the Eragon system overall doesn't fit a modern environment, but the magic system could be used as a base for what OP is asking for. Looks like his question changed quite drastically since I posted this but the original idea was that he wanted ideas for a magic system that wasn't "The world and then magic shoehorned in" violating the laws of physics and just hand-waving everything away. $\endgroup$ – TheAverageCanadian Jul 24 '18 at 23:33
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A very nice concept of magic I encounteted in a book once was based on the energetically linking of objects.

The link is established by the thoughts of the magician. Everyone can use magic to the extend of their concentration. Professional magicians basicly train to concentrate on one or several thoughts without their concentration wavering.

The link follows a principle of similarity. The easiest trick is to break a branch, magically link both pieces and let one fly by moving the other. Equally simple links are those between similar objects (like coins). If you want to accomplish a powerfull magical link, you have to find an object that shares some similarity with the object you want to influence. One example given in the book was causing a natural lightning to strike a tree by linking several metallic objects to the tree (since electricity runs easier through metal than through wood). Or think of Voodoo...

The cost of magic is your life energy, more specifically the chemical and thermal energy stored in your body. Like thinking, magic uses your natural energy. Using too much magic would cause "casters frost" and extreme hunger by depleting the magic user of their thermal energy.

The energy required to establish a magical link increases with the distance of both objects and with the diffetences between both objects.

Some examples of increasing energy consumption for magic:

  • two pieces of the same object

  • two objects of the same kind

  • two objects of the same material

  • one objects of a material and a piece of the raw material

  • objects of the same material but in different aggregation states

  • two objects of similar, but different materials, like an iron nail and a copper tube

  • objects of diffetent materials

One link can only be established between 2 objects. To include more objects, you would have to concentrate on several links at the same time - an extremely difficult task that only trained magicians can perform.

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