Imagine a society where everyone controls a variation of one of the four elements: earth, fire, water, and air. What I mean by variation is some might control metal, but not rocks. Others control ice, but not water. What I mean by control is that they have full ability to move and manipulate it. This is counter by the fact that it requires practice to do bigger operations. So a practiced rock controller could lift a rock by lifting his hand, and then throw it, without touching it. But a young boy could not.

This society is the "classic fantasy society," set in medieval Europe, but the ability to control elements would have existed since all time. Please compare what you think this workforce would be like to the workforce that existed in medieval Europe. We won't get into political effects, such as how the serf system would have worked.

What would be the major effects of such a society on the work force?

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    $\begingroup$ "control" is much too vague. Also, the effect would depend on the existing nature of that workforce including societal and technological factors. $\endgroup$ – smithkm Sep 17 '14 at 8:14
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    $\begingroup$ Better, although range, mass, speed, precision, capacity to pool capability, and energy exenditure would be significant. Does control represent merely applying force and causing sheer stress in solid material or does it "animate" solid matter so that it can change shape in ways it otherwise couldn't? $\endgroup$ – smithkm Sep 17 '14 at 8:29
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    $\begingroup$ The Blending series addresses this specific question, although not in any great detail until books 5-8. Everyone has some elemental talent, although most people are only Low talents, and society has conditioned them to not use them. In the later books, they're exploring what can be done. Also, to some extent Codex Alera. $\endgroup$ – Bobson Sep 17 '14 at 14:38
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    $\begingroup$ I think The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra explore this to some degree. The police force in Legend of Korra control metal, using chains to wrap around criminals. There's probably some more examples from those shows, but that's the one that pops to mind. $\endgroup$ – CoolCurry Nov 13 '14 at 21:04
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    $\begingroup$ @CoolCurry, yes, totally agree that this is basically what the Aang/Korra world shows us (even with the variations in place) $\endgroup$ – Arturo Torres Sánchez Mar 18 '15 at 6:23

Tim B is basically that it wouldn't differ too much from any other society with sufficient technology. Where I don't agree with him is that the equivalent technology would be significantly better than those our ancestors had in Middle Ages, so it would be a lot different.

I still have a vague idea how the element control would be potent, so I'll guess. Correct me if I get totally out of your ideas.

Mining and building

For mining, I guess the effect would be roughly equivalent to modern machinery, just cheaper, if the work is undertaken by those with particular talent. With medieval technology, it was possible to dig 10-40 meters of a tunnel per year (depends on the hardness of the rock; it digging through soil, it would be much faster, even kilometers per year). Good earth controllers would be able to dig several meters a day - completely different pace, making mining much cheaper.

Underground cities like Moria were not possible in real history, unless there already was a cave system requiring only minor changes. Underground building would still be more expensive than ordinary building on the surface, but not so much. Also, with so many people digging underground, earthquakes would be much more common, so at least in mining areas, the houses would somewhat resemble Japanese architecture in their resistance to earthquake.


Fire and metal controllers would make industrial revolution possible even without blast furnaces. Metals would be cheap and used a lot. Steam engine would be easier to discover, but its invention is not automatic, so this doesn't have to become a classical steampunk. Industry can also rely heavily on water experts moving water to high ponds, from which it would flow and be used for mills and similar machines.


With air and water experts, weather wouldn't be quite easy to control. This would make good crops almost granted for those who can manipulate it well - and hurricanes and droughts frequent where the controllers are absent, inept or disorganized.


Water transport would be much faster - manipulating wind and water flows locally would be easy. Land travel would be as slow and expensive as in real history, so all goods will be moved by ships if possible.

Like steam engine, balloons or kites would be quite easy to invent, but not guaranteed; or perhaps some clever individuals would use kites or even balloons, but this technology wouldn't be commonly known. Anyway, air travel seems quite possible.


All soldiers could wear heavy plate mail (see "industry"); the only reason against this would be that they don't protect well enough against fire and are prone to metal manipulation. So another good armor is made of organic material: wood, leather and bones, or even wet algae for those not expecting the enemy to control water, or controlling water themselves. Or light plates under leather coats, if the metal controller needs to see the armor to make it strangle its wearer.

Most widely used weapon would be plain element manipulation. Otherwise, soldiers would use bows, wooden clubs, swords or weapons somehow associated with their element - like bags of ice or coal "grenades". Anyway, ranged combat would dominate over melee.

Gunpowder seems unlikely to be invented early, because fire controllers would easily outperform it. But experts on other elements want to use such powers as well, so there would be a need for it if someone provides the technology.

Mining would change the fortification: making a fortress underground would be possible, and much more resistant to air strikes by air controlling enemies or siege mining by enemy earth-controllers. Better underground fortresses would have layers of something hard to control around them, playing the same role as walls had in medieval castles - to prevent the enemy from moving in. I don't know what should it be, but there should be something solid and hard that nobody can control. It could be quite expensive (such as amber and corals). Wood would be a cheap solution, though once exposed to air, it could be burnt by fire controllers.

Underground warfare would be much less like classical fantasy man-to-man combat. It would focus on digging, producing earth-ins, striking enemy diggers with flames, trying to open paths for water to drown the enemy and trying to cut the enemy out of sources of fresh air. Ventilation shafts would be the weakest spot of any underground fortress, so they would be hidden or fortified to prevent the enemy block all ventilation shaft and let the defenders suffocate.

If flying is possible or even common, the surface fortifications would be something between classical castle and modern bunker: the roofs would be hard and with no big gaps. Otherwise there can be classical castles. Anyway, the walls would be usually wider (making a hole through a thin wall would be easy) and preferably made of materials hard to control, such as wood, leather, bones etc. The biggest castles would have several lines of defense made from different materials, so that the enemy would need several teams of different experts.

Anyway, with fortifications so cheap, the most wars would consist of several long sieges, fighting in the field could be seen as somewhat unorthodox tactics.

  • $\begingroup$ Good answer, better than mine - upvoted :) $\endgroup$ – Tim B Sep 17 '14 at 13:11
  • $\begingroup$ Wow, very impressive. Good job. $\endgroup$ – DonyorM Sep 17 '14 at 13:38

Counter-intuitively I don't actually think it has to have a major effect.

You already have the situation where some people are better at some things than others, this just increases that tendency. People with control of earth would tend to end up in jobs working with earth such as mining, earth moving. Control of metal would go to blacksmiths. Control of fire would lend itself to fire fighters, or pyrotechnics (fireworks displays), or the army, etc. This is no different from people with the right talent ending up as blacksmiths, or hunters, or archers.

You would have some people trying to go against their talents and struggling in a field they are not suited to but as in the real world most people would naturally fall into a career that lets them use it.

The major thing to think about is actually how society would view these talents. For example is someone with a metal talent automatically apprenticed to the blacksmith. Is there a air talent guild that controls the weather and all air talents are required to join, etc.

You could build a convincing society that has guilds controlling each talent and essentially ruling the world, but also an equally convincing monarchy with the relevant talents recruited into the army. Anarchy, republic, even democracy. People are people whether talented or not and will tend to act the same way they do with any other resource or ability.


If the most valuable abilities are rare you have an automatic middle class, valuable enough to demand rights and privileges but still needed to do labor, especially if it runs in families. Element control will replace technology, the use will expand slowly as people think up new uses for the element controllers and learn more about the effects of the use. you can look a t Jim Butcher's Fury saga for ideas, similiar set up. one interesting facet is they don't know how to do things the mundane way, because there is little reason to learn. All metal workers control metal becasue what would be the point of teaching/using anyone else, so people tend to specialize and not know how to do other things. why invent saws and chisels when stone crafters can just make the stone shape itself. why invent the sail and rudder when someone can just make the water push you along. currency should exist though since specialization means you need easy debt transfer. People may have trouble thinking outside their particular element, if all you have is a hammer...


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