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I've been going back and forth on my modern setting's magic system for a while now, but I've settled on a power-set that's closer to psychic powers than traditional magic, because of a couple of reasons:

  • It's closer to my theme (the source of "magic" in this world is basically a psychic field generated by humans to protect them from invading creatures from other dimensions, with "mages" being humanity's white blood cells);
  • It has more natural and obvious limitations (I always feel like open-ended magic systems like the Dresden Files are awesome but whenever I start to write them I'm boggled by the sheer possibilities for spells - like, where is the natural stopping point? If there's a spell for fireballs, why not flight? etc.).

Now, here's the thing though - I think it would be fun to be able to justify pyrokinesis / cryokinesis, because it's always fun to have an offensive power-set, right? Something for people to fling around and do damage with.

The problem is, those powers have never really felt like they naturally belong in the psychic power-set to me. I can't quite articulate why, but I feel like they stretch belief in a way telekinesis for example doesn't? Or perhaps are just not on theme? Is that just me?

In any case I would like to come up with a reason why they work. I've been reading up a bit on how fire works and I've read the pseudo-science explanation on pyrokinesis (it's about exciting the atoms in an object to ignite it), so what I was thinking is doing an huge handwave-y leap. Something like "They need something to ignite, but once they've done that they can manipulate the fire using air, like a fire whirl."

Does anyone feel like this works? Would you be willing to suspend disbelief if you saw this in a story, or is there a better way to think about it?

Thanks in advance!

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In the tabletop RPG system G.U.R.P.S., pyrokinesis is included as a subset of telekinesis. According to the author, Steve Jackson (yes, the guy from the Munchkin game), this is using telekinectic power to make molecules vibrate faster instead of moving them from one place to another.

Do that in reverse and you have cryokinesis. A similar form of cryokinesis is seen in the animé Saint Seiya (Knights of the Zodiac in some countries), where characters with ice-based powers lower the temperature of objects by reducing the vibration of molecules.

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    $\begingroup$ Same answer I would have given the important thing to note though is that this form of 'pyro'kinesis can only directly produce heat not actual fire - of course there are a lot things that will start burning if you heat them up enough. $\endgroup$
    – Nicolai
    Feb 6, 2020 at 13:21
  • $\begingroup$ @nicolai heat air enough and you have fire ;) just not combustion. This is how meteorites catch fire since they are not flamable. $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2020 at 13:25
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks folks, this is helpful! I'm aware of the "vibrate molecules" idea for pyrokinesis, my only concern is how you justify moving the fire - i.e. from the thing you ignite to somewhere else. How do we justify say a fireball if the fire has nothing to burn when you conjure it or "throw" it (i.e. over the intervening distance between you and your target, the fireball is just flying through the air, without a fuel source - could it be sustained by oxygen alone?). $\endgroup$
    – DanB
    Feb 6, 2020 at 13:53
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    $\begingroup$ @DanB if you've got both pyrokinesis and telekinesis, you can heat a mass of air and then move it. Kinda like the firebenders in avatar. Maybe due to a limitation of pyrokinectic heroes they can only use proper telekinesis on heated air. This is similar to other forms of limited of telekinesis, i.e.: Marvel's Magneto is a powerful telekinectic character, but his power only works on ferromagnetic materials. $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2020 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ Awesome thank you. I guess I didn't realise heated air could catch fire on its own! $\endgroup$
    – DanB
    Feb 6, 2020 at 15:08
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I'll put this here to summarize things: The explanation of particle vibrations is as good as any from an in-universe attempt to explain things. However, you should think hard about how such an ability expresses itself so as to avoid issues in regards to what the characters can do, due to the vast amount of things one could do with such an ability as-is outside of creating/manipulating fire or ice/cold.

When it comes to Telekinesis, for example, different depictions vary wildly in regards to what they are capable of and what their limits are:

From characters that can lift a city's worth of material with their eyes closed, to those who can assasinate people by cutting off their arteries from afar, to those who can accelerate a grain of sand to hypersonic speed near instantly. Or, on the other end, those who can't use their TK on people and can barely life more than 100 pounds.

That said, I believe it depends on how far you are willing to extend the definition of "Psychic" powers. After all, from a real life perspective, Psychich powers and Magical powers might as well be the same, since there's not much difference between "Magic" and "Psychic" powers. The most commonly used "difference" comes from Magic using external energy while Psychic powers use internal energy and relying on the user's willpower.

As I said before; from a Watsonian perspective, people might reach a reasonable conclusion of what is happening when a Pyrokinetic manipulates fire, but it need not be exactly how it manifests. Good power systems focus more on a power's limits than the opposite, and it is often such limits that make magic/power systems memorable and satisfying.

Perhaps Pyrokinetics can only create/control fire/plasma as a whole rather than the ultra-accurate atomic manipulation, yet in-setting people can't explain beyond "He/She makes particles vibrate faster". Maybe Cryokinetics can only expland/guide a certain state of matter that is essentially "Frozen Solid" with only enough control to make things a tad colder rather than instantly freezing them.

Maybe the fire they create isn't burning physical fuel but the inner energy of the Pyrokinetic to stay alight.

Who knows?

Again, if you look really close, all answers will lead to "Particles are moving faster/slower" because at the end of the day that is what Heat and Cold are. What matters is presentation.

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You mention the Dresden files, and that alone gives you some important take aways.

Dresden can call fire, but in one of the books he does explain that once he calls it, it still has to do business with the laws of physics. You can set something on fire, but once you do, thermodynamics takes over and entropy reigns supreme. Likewise with cold. Freeze something, and it will eventually thaw. This gives you a finite set of limits. Once your mage quits concentrating, for something to burn it will still need heat, fuel, and oxygen or the flames will go out.

Now for the mechanisms. I would keep this as a telekinetic type of power. That is the simplest and most rational explanation. Instead of gross telekinesis like lifting rocks, this involves the manipulation of tiny particles over an area. Here you have the opportunity to put an additional limit. Say a typical mage can only do molecular vibration over an approximately 3 cubic meter area of water. Anything denser gives you less volume. You may be able to heat 3 cubic meters of water to boiling, but to heat gold to 100 degrees c, you can only do an amount proportionate to the difference in density. You can change the numbers as you need, but that might be a baseline.

For the sake of consistency, I would have your mage be able to do both. It's all based on molecular vibration after all. Maybe one guy can do heat easier than cold or vice versa, but they should be able to do both.

Like in other magic systems, how your mage applies this talent and what imagination they bring to bear is going to show how powerful they are. If a mage is capable of killing someone by boiling their blood and because that is a very small volume, they can do it again and again, they would be scary as heck when compared to the guy who is only really good at setting the roof on fire.

So a pyro/cryo mage would be more properly called a heat mage, I guess. But you have some fertile ground to play in.

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All of a sudden, Michael was on fire. For a second he could resist the sensation, but the knowledge that none of it was real was quickly being snuffed out by every nerve ending in his body screaming about stopping, dropping and rolling. He crumpled to the ground, hacking and coughing, as his lungs and brachia sent frantic messages of an unusable gas mixture.

Michael tried to will his watering eyes to focus, and clambered to his knees. He finally saw his adversary, a man, lost in concentration, obscured in a shadowy spot across the narrow pathway. Obscured by the shadows that confirmed the psychic origin of the bonfire that was searing Michael's flesh. He closed his eyes and focused on a defensive escalation.

A raging solar fusion engulfed him.

"Heat sink on an overclocked processor"

A fissile device reaching critical mass went off around Michael's left ear.

"Pressurized gas passing through an expansion valve"

A squadron of firebombers over London dropped their payload on him.

"An inclination in the planet's axis"

The flare dwindled further. Internal combustion in a freight ship's diesel engine now, and fading.

"The vacuum of interstellar space"

Michael was winning the dogfight, he knew it. The images themselves weren't important, they were simply framing devices for these exact situations, edging out your opponent. Now he had fallen into a campfire, but it didn't even feel real. Where was the smell of s'mores? Michael grimaced and turned his thoughts to a basic counter-attack concept.

"Glaciers rolling unstoppably down a mountain"

The flames died off abruptly. Michael dusted himself off with shaky hands and walked over to the heap of a man that was moments ago attempting to stop his heart with unimaginable pain. The old man was lying nearly motionless, clutching his left arm in silent agony.


Just because it's strictly psychic/illusionism doesn't mean it's not a fun plot device, and it can also help keep the magic restricted and avoid plot holes that tangible magic easily causes. In my opinion, the more hoops magicians have to jump through, the better.

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