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Background

The world of Phrelle is Earth, but many thousands of years after an unspecified calamity. I would like to use Phrelle as a home brew setting for a D&D campaign, populating it with creatures analogous to those found in the Monster Manual but that have plausibly evolved from those we know in our current world. I want to use the magic and religion of D&D-- but I want the power of that religion and magic to have a basis in the world we know today. The bottom line is that I want my PCs initially to have no idea that they are, in a sense, adventuring in their own back yard-- I want this realization to slowly dawn on them as they work through the campaign.

Question

I have done quite a lot of world building in preparation for the campaign-- but I cannot settle on the answer to the all important question which will be be its main engine: what is the source of power in Phrelle that drives the magic? How did we get from a pre-calamity 21st century Earth to a post-calamity Phrelle infused with divine power, magic, and fantastic creatures? This is the mystery my PCs will solve over their play-through and, in doing so, obtain ultimate mastery of Phrelle. In order for me to guide them along that journey, though, I must know everything about it. And that starts with defining the source of magical power.

Example Ideas

  1. A natural evolution from people to goblins might be based on a nuclear calamity that resulted in radiation fueled mutations. The power of magic may be the result of divine intervention.
  2. The calamity may have been an alien invasion that resulted in the fusion of humans and aliens into myriad races with paranormal powers driven by a technology still present but no longer understood.

Campaign Intro

My life can be divided into two natural eras: my time as a child, before the untimely death of my father, and my time as a man afterwards, when I was forced to grow up far too soon.

In this respect, the world of Phrelle and I are similar. Like me, Phrelle had a birth, followed by an adolescence cut short-- a time of potential, the possibilities astounding in their variety. Something happened, though, that collapsed these avenues of potential to a discrete number that is, for better or for worse, now countable.

As you make your way through this beautiful and terrible world, these avenues will reveal themselves, sometimes subtly, sometimes starkly. Something is guiding the story of Phrelle to its ultimate conclusion. Fate? Blind chance? Divine providence? Whatever it is, one thing is certain: you are its instrument.

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    $\begingroup$ I fear this is too story based / idea generation. You're basically asking for us to develop the entire core of your campaign world. Magic is a very broad topic. Off hand, I can think of six or seven completely unrelated answers to this question. Can you narrow it down? Perhaps pick some traits of the magic that you need to have in your campaign, making it easier to identify good ideas from bad oneS? $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica May 4 at 5:40
  • $\begingroup$ Hi Cort. The most important thing is that I want to have the freedom to build my own world-- but within the context of Dungeons and Dragons so that I can use its system of mechanics. I want to use D&D as a crutch to tell my story. I understand your point about broadness, and I feared that would be the immediate response I got here (it usually is, alas). The source of magic is a small but important piece to the story I already have fixed-- it just so happens that the story can be almost agnostic to the source of magic. $\endgroup$ – Trekkie May 4 at 5:44
  • $\begingroup$ Would it help if I specified the calamity? $\endgroup$ – Trekkie May 4 at 5:53
  • $\begingroup$ I would agree with @CortAmmon that this question is too story based and it is essentially fishing for ideas so unfortunately i’ll have to VTC:OT:TSB. However, there is a meta post that tells you where to go if you’re looking for ideas and there is also a list of resources for inspiration on main, both of which i’ll link: worldbuilding.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/7304/… worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/143606/… $\endgroup$ – Liam Morris - Reinstate Monica May 4 at 7:03
  • $\begingroup$ I noticed you have just accepted Cort Ammon’s answer, whilst it is an exceptional answer, as a general rule its best to wait 24-48 hours before accepting an answer. This is so international users all get a chance to answer, if you accept an answer it may discourage them from giving their own answers. Admittedly, i’m not sure you’d find a better answer but its still a good idea to wait just in case : ) $\endgroup$ – Liam Morris - Reinstate Monica May 4 at 7:09
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The first thing I would recommend is reading my answer to What's the smallest change to physics required to allow magic?. Any question about fitting magic into our existing world benefits from being grounded in that sort of a mindset.

The second thing I would recommend is to invert the question. There are literally countless sources of magic you can pick from. Any one of them will meet your needs. The hard part is not picking a source of magic. The hard part is explaining why, for millions of years, we don't see magic playing a part in the world. Strange that it would be silent for so long, only to suddenly rear its head with goblins and fireballs (and all that jazz). You need a reason why magic is so muted in our world that we need answers like the one I linked above.

Even with that, there are myriad ideas you can pull from. So many, in fact, they bead like dewdrops in the morning:

I have no shortage of ideas. They are like dewdrops, distilling from the atmosphere onto my leafy green brain each morning. I'm fairly sure your brain is the same way. If you don't think you have any ideas, you probably just need to know how to look for the dewdrops. They're tiny, they're fleeting, but they glisten. (Howard Tayler)

Today, of all days, I happen to be exploring gongs. What is it that makes a gong sound like a gong? The particular curiosity I was looking at is why one "warms up" a gong before playing it. One lightly taps the gong several times to get vibrations going, at a very low volume, before a final strike which makes the wonderful splashing gong sound. If you warm the gong up before striking it, it sounds "brighter."

So why not pick this idea and run with it. Let's create the characteristics of a magic source that meets your needs with a gong like feel. Why choose a gong? Merely because that's the idea at the forefront of my mind today, so I feel like using it!

Gongs are nonlinear percussion instruments. This means they are instruments which depend on their nonlinear behaviors to create their sounds. Contrast this with a piano or a trumpet or a violin, whose sound is primarily grounded in its linear behavior, generating nice clean harmonics.

Fortunately for geeks like me, a great deal of the behavior of a gong has been worked out mathematically. We can even synthesize their sound with reasonable success. I like it when someone has worked out the math, because then I can steal the ideas they had, and apply them elsewhere.

One of the interesting behaviors of a gong is that its sound comes in three regions. At low amplitudes, the gong is mostly linear. It sounds like a bell if you play it quietly. This holds up until a particular amplitude where the vibration modes bifurcate, and we suddenly get a rich set of harmonics, creating a wonderful sound. If we raise the amplitude further, we enter a chaotic regime which is associated with the "splash" noise of the gong.

This is interesting to me for purposes of this magic system because there are clear phase transitions. There's a reason for there to be one behavior on one side of the fence, and a different behavior on the other. I also know, from experience, that one can make this transition by striking the gong. There's so many things which can be thought of as striking... a nuclear war comes to mind, but there's plenty of others. A powerful leader demonstrating his ego on a world stage could be sufficient to qualify as a "strike."

This analogy also has a convenient grounding in the opinion of many that the world wasn't this complicated in the past. If we've been ramping up the amplitude of our actions for a long time, it may have been that we were in the linear region for some time (where the world was simple and clear as a bell), and only recently entered the weakly non-linear region where all those complex pesky harmonics show up. This still leaves room for a truly chaotic sound that could be the foundation of magic.

So we've got a shape. Now all we need is a source of energy. I find magic systems which ignore energy to be pesky, because they don't play well with physics. Fortunately, we have a source of energy: the sun. I can guarantee you, without having ever met you, the wildest fanciest magic you have ever drempt of calls for energies that pale in comparason to the raw output of our Sun on any given day. Unless you are an astrophysicist, you have no concept of just how much energy that is. (For a glimpse: every second the sun releases more than 1000x times the sum total of all fossil fuel and nuclear energy reserves on the entire planet!)

So all we need to do is excite our gong with this energy. This is relatively easy to do with resonators. Helmholtz Resonators are a great source of prior art, which turn a stream of air into a resonator, but you can do anything you like with this.

So you have a system which was fed by resonators. For the most part, the system was forced below the weakly non-linear region, so it always responded simply. In the late 20th and early 21st century, we found a way to "warm" this gong up with the energy saved in fossil fuels. Finally, an event (such as a nuclear war), drove the gong into the chaotic regime, generating the "spashy" chaotic effects which quickly got named "magic" because they didn't fit with what we expected.

Well the system is slowly dying down now. Small transient pockets sometimes appear where the chaotic systems start to act merely weakly non-linear. Some of those whispers of the 21st century come through (at the same time, magic weakens).

From there, play with things. What if a group tried to make more resonators, keeping the gong chaotic, keeping magic alive. What if a group tried to silence resonators, driving it back to the 21st century? What if a group cut holes in the gong, creating regions of weakly non-linear behavior surrounded by substantially more chaotic magic? What if a group sought to make the gong larger and thicker (click the link for some samples of what that might sound like). Draw anything you like from the physics of a musical insturment, and see how it plays out in your world.

It's just an idea. But its an idea with an image. You can test if your magic system "sounds" right by seeing if it has the feel of a gong being struck. And yet, it can have the full backing of physics and mathematics needed to interweave it with 21st century physics.

So go use it... or other ideas. But the pattern I recommend is the same: come up with an idea for magic with an image, then explain why we didn't have it until after the event.

I picked a gong, because it happens to be fascinating to me today. Find something fascinating to you, figure out why it could have been around this whole time but not matter until after the Calamity, then just explore what it could become.

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  • $\begingroup$ You are amazing, Cort. A framework was precisely what I was looking for-- now, feel free to close my question as "too broad," because I believe that you may be right. However, your beautiful answer should remain. I was a little lost at first with the gong metaphor, but it is actually quite beautiful. For the record, this is an example of an overly broad question generating an amazing response worthy of record on this site. So thanks. :) $\endgroup$ – Trekkie May 4 at 6:37
  • $\begingroup$ This is a fascinating answer, i would not have thought a gong could be used as an analogy for a magic system, it felt very confusing at first and the gong felt out of place. However, your answer made a gong seem like a perfect analogy for a magic system, +1. The only thing about your answer is its quite a large block of text but, after reading through it all, i can say it was well worth the read. $\endgroup$ – Liam Morris - Reinstate Monica May 4 at 6:48
  • $\begingroup$ While I agree phase transition is the correct basic model to use, I think metastability is better direction for the explanation than the gong. We can assume that world as we know it is actually a metastable state and when a suitable trigger happens it falls to its actual stable state that happens to include magic. Or the energy released in the transition is what temporarily (Million years? Few nanoseconds? Something in that range.) powers magic.. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi May 4 at 9:03
  • $\begingroup$ @VilleNiemi I love it! Your comment shows one of the fascinating things about using an analogy like this: word choices matter. In the paper I linked, they used chaos-theory terminology, and talked about bifurcations. I used "phase transition" and focused on the feel of the transitions and a system that is continuously fed energy. You used "metastability," and focused on the time to relaxation and looked to the triggers that might upset this balance. I expect that, were you to run with "metastability," you would come up with a world very different than I come up with using... $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica May 4 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ @LiamMorris I agree. It is a wall of text. Part of me rationalizes it as it was late when I typed it ;-). I blame that part for the introduction of all sorts of terminology without proper explaination =) The other part of me wanted this to treat this as more of an improv thing, because the whole point is not "make a world like a gong" but "pick something that interests you, and use it as inspiration." (Did that come through? Oh bother... probably should edit more). That part of me didn't want it too polished.... and that's my excuse! $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica May 4 at 15:59

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