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In a story I'm about to start, magic is an inherited ability to manipulate energy and matter. Mages use mage sight to see elements, compounds etc. as different colours and energy as distortions, then manipulate them to 'cast spells'- but they don't have to understand the physics, chemistry or biology to do so, they just know how to do it(they know how to use oxygen and energy to create fire, how to use water in the air as ice-blades by turning heat energy to light+kinetic, that kind of stuff).

In this setting-with all laws of physics- how would shapeshifting work? In my head, all mages need a dna 'scan' from several species and have three distinct alternate forms-aquatic,aerial and terrestrial- while Druids(one of many variants, like mindreader or illusionist) can add more, with greater variance(amphibious, half human, that kinda stuff)

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    $\begingroup$ Just a slight thing: you're going to need ALOT of colours in your mage sight/synesthesia just to cover all the elements (118; assuming there are absolutely no more than what we have already discovered, which is unlikely). I mean, identifying the difference between Navy Blue and Ultramarine isn't a vastly important skill for most people, but for your mage it would cause absolute havoc if they got it wrong!! I don't know what the alternative is, though. Greyscale with a darkness based on atomic weight? $\endgroup$ – eharper256 Apr 25 '15 at 10:45
  • $\begingroup$ I've removed the science-based tag as while you are building off physics a magic system is by definition not scientific. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Apr 25 '15 at 10:52
  • $\begingroup$ Related: Is there a credible way a shapeshifter could gain/lose body mass when changing forms? $\endgroup$ – a CVn May 27 '15 at 21:12
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You've stated that these mages are able to edit energy; if so, why not use that skill to shapeshift?

The mages could just warp and bend light around themselves, which would make it appear that they have changed shape (like looking into a curved mirror, or through an oddly shaped lens.)

And, to change colors and such, all the mages have to do is change the wavelength of the light around them to get the desired color.

This isn't proper shapeshifting, as their actual shape doesn't change, but it would certainly appear that way to any onlooker.

Based on another answer, and my comment there, true shape-shifting would be encumbered by conservation of mass.

That is, when transforming into a mouse, what happens to the leftover mass? A mouse is much smaller than a person.

Well, what could happen is that the mage uses their energy manipulation powers to convert any matter into energy, thus changing their actual mass.

This would mean that, when changing into a mouse, the surroundings would be superheated, or a lot of light would be produced, and when changing into something bigger, like a bear, the environment is supercooled, because the mage is absorbing a lot of energy (most ambient energy is heat) to convert back to matter.

I think that that would be pretty cool, because shapeshifting could inadvertently freeze an ocean, or burn down a forest!

Or, another, less exciting route would be to just shed the expended mass as another, gaseous compound: you've stated that your mages have power over compounds as well.

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    $\begingroup$ "shapeshifting could inadvertently freeze an ocean, or burn down a forest!" You might want to learn to do the math. Converting a one pound mass to energy is the equivalent of a 10 megaton bomb. Just as a reference, a 10 MT ground burst will have a fireball nearly 4 km across. "Cool" does not begin to describe this. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Apr 25 '15 at 19:29
  • $\begingroup$ Then I stand corrected. So why do you refer to energy releases in the hundreds of megatons as "the surroundings would be superheated, or a lot of light would be produced"? Why would this remotely be considered survivable by a hypothetical shapeshifter? $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Apr 25 '15 at 23:44
  • $\begingroup$ Illusion is actually an entirely seperate skill, and the plot kinda needs them to literally shapeshift-they need wings and stuff. $\endgroup$ – Molua Young Apr 26 '15 at 15:46
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    $\begingroup$ @MoluaYoung Yes, after making themselves look like they have wings, use energy to make themselves fly. There is no difference between perfect imitation and actually doing something. But I see what you mean; the second half of my answer talks about expending matter. $\endgroup$ – theonlygusti Apr 26 '15 at 15:48
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Conserving mass is going to be a slight problem, if you want to keep it somewhat science based. Think of the size difference between a man and a rat. 180lb vs 2lb. Where does the extra mass go? Does he just become a really big rat?
That might be a way to solve it. All creatures have basically the same organs, with a few differences here and there, but those differences aren't obvious without an autopsy.
So if he becomes a cat, it has to be a big cat. If he becomes a bear, it has to be a small bear.
I think the best thing to do to avoid problems is to not explain how it works.
It's good for you too have an idea of how it works so it stays consistent, but you're readers don't need to know how, just that it does.

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

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  • $\begingroup$ Or, he uses his manipulation of energy to throw away mass (transform it into energy) or gain mass; changing into a rat would generate a tonne of heat/light, changing into a bear would freeze the surrounding landscape. I think that seems much cooler. $\endgroup$ – theonlygusti Apr 25 '15 at 15:58
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I think there are many problems you would have to solve with shape-shifting. However, nature has a way to do it already mapped out. If you look at the life cycle of a butterfly. It is your realistic path to a process you can use to mimic, how it’s done. They start off as eggs that turn into caterpillars. Then they will create a chrysalis and inside the shell their body will liquefy and change into a butterfly. I have ideas on how the magic could be applied to deal with many details of the process. However, it is quite a great place to start. Lol great question, I am going to have to steal it for my podcast. Thanks  cycle of a butterfly

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Maybe take advantage of their ability over matter, to give them some control over their own matter - including the ability to adopt or abandon mass.

Most flesh-and-blood beings are made of mostly the same sorts of things (on the level of compounds and elements, anyway). So if your mage can rearrange them, they can easily make a crude shift into those beings of roughly the same mass. The better they know the beings, obviously, the better the final form looks, moves, and feels.

Maybe give a couple of cheats - like if they shift into something while actively using mage sight to analyze it - and DNA makes sense because it is a blueprint - the copy is pretty good even if they've never been it before... but if they don't have a copy, they better have a pretty good memory to make the form work right, because incorrect anatomy can really mess things up. Maybe your 'three types' of beings are something from basic education - every kid is taught to have several sets of DNA memorized, in case they can't find anything nearby to copy. So a young or inexperienced shifter would have to be a really specific copy ("this" cat, down to DNA), while advanced shifters who have a lot of experience in how bodies move and work, can be a more generic example (cats are kinda like this), can remember more forms, or can try more extreme modifications like between shapes without crippling themselves.

So that takes care of things nearly the same mass, so what about things of different mass? Well, they can control matter and control themselves, so let them add or abandon mass to make it work. Maybe it's hard, or painful, or tricky and takes lots of skill so only advanced shifters do so, depending on how available you want the ability to be. There has to be a (probably subconscious) mechanism for adding mass to a mage's control, or removing it from control, or recently eaten food wouldn't get transformed (messy). A small difference might work by converting energy, but for larger amounts - borrow mass from a nearby tree or rocks, or drop off extra as a pile of bones or for a big discrepancy just transform part of the body and leave the rest behind vulnerable... with or without consequences if they don't lose or reacquire that mass after a while.

Maybe if they're shifting into something that does have a significantly different makeup, it's better if they acquire whatever compounds or elements they're missing - whether its more calcium so their new bones are strong enough, or trace elements to make the critter's venom work. Maybe with enough practice they could edge into forms that are really different, like seemingly-inanimate objects. Depends on how far you want to take it.

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Maybe your mages can have unique birth marks. Then each of your mages with the three distinct alternate forms-aquatic, aerial, and terrestrial can split like a "zygote" into a pack of identical fishes, birds, or mice each bearing part of the unique birth mark of the original mage. To reverse the effect their smaller identical forms with parts of the unique birth mark fuse back to the mage's original form with his or her unique birth mark. For example a pack of birds with parts of the unique birth mark fuse back to the aerial mage's original form with his or her unique birth mark.

For creating larger forms like an orca whale, a dragon, or a bear, the "alike" mages fuse their bodies together. For example several aquatic mages fuse their bodies to form an orca whale bearing markings that are all of their birth marks. To reverse the effect they split apart to return to each of their original forms with single unique birth marks.

The druids were formed when mages of two different alternate forms mate and reproduce. For example an aquatic mage mates with a terrestrial mage to produce the amphibious druid with the new trait of mindreading.

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Making fire and ice are pretty much just telekinesis and energy transfer, indeed I imagine telekinesis could be used to redistribute thermal energy with a kind of Laplace's demon sorting mechanism.

But the complexity of rearranging molecules from one complex arrangement into another (e.g. an uncut diamond into a prism) would be hard enough let alone the transmutation required to turn one creature into another, and that's assuming you're exchanging mass with the surrounding environment.

By sheer complexity I think shape changing would have to be a subconscious process, also there's the Star Trek teleported issue to contend with, if a bunny bursts out of a mage's chest (he didn't need all that mass) couldn't said mage just as easily turn himself into a bunny while leaving the original (possibly lacking a few kilos of fat and muscle tissue) intact?

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