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TL;DR:

In a fantasy world full of magic, i want the elemental forms of magic to be strong against one another in a symmetrical way (meaning every element has the same amount of weaknesses and strengths). I do not specify how many strengths and weaknesses they should have, even though i would be happy to let each one be strong and weak against two others respectively. The elements are (fire), (earth / rock), (water), (air), (ice) and (metal / ore). Feel free to rearrange and reconnect them in any way that fits.

Full-length question:

I am currently rebuilding an elemental magic system in a game i am playing, but i am having problems justifying some of the elements being strong or weak against some others.

First, the setting: If anybody knows it, i am building custom rules for The Dark Eye, a tabletop-rpg game that comes with its own setting. It is high fantasy, there are elves, dwarves and much of the other stuff you would expect from a tolkien-like setting. If thats any help, the backstory of magic becoming part of this world is a certain goddess breaking the rules and also a hole into one of the borders of dimensions and letting the power of magic flow into the mortal plane. It manifests in many ways, but the wizards guild is teaching the way of controlling it by weaving the flow of magic through willpower, gestures and incantations. Elemental magic is just one kind of many, but it is the one i am most interested in in this question. It allows the wizards to summon the element in form of attacks or elementals.

Because i do not want to rework all of the games rules i am bound to the choice of elements that exist in this world. I already tried my best thinking up how they relate to each other, but there are some connections that i am having trouble with. I drew up a chart of the elements and how i think they could relate to each other:

Draft of how the elements relate to each other.

The direction of the arrows means "is strong against", e.g. "Water magic is strong against fire magic" (for obvious reasons). Giving each element two others which it is strong against resulted in a nicely mystic hexagon shape, but there are a few connections i am not sure about:

Fire -> Air - I maybe thought about air providing more fuel for the fire, thus increasing its strength while trying to attack or defend against it, but that sounds a little bit like an excuse. It's ok compared to the others, though.

Air -> Earth - Now, air could dry out earth to turn it into dust and blow it away, but rock also belongs to the earth element and really makes me unsure about this connection.

Earth -> Metal - This is one of the real bad candidates. I have no idea how to explain this, apart from metal not being too good at destroying earth and stone in a medieval world. This is true the other way around too, though.

Metal -> Air - This, too, gives me a real headache. I mean, metal is kind of immune to wind, but it is not particularly strong against it, either. Maybe attacks and elementals made from wind get disturbed by the solid structures metal forms? But then, earth would need to be strong against air, too.

Ice -> Earth - Frozen earth is more fragile? This one is not as bad, too, i guess, but could be a lot better.

Air -> Water - Honestly, i can not think of anything better than air "cutting more sharply" than water. I am very much not happy about this one either.

I kept rearranging and reconnecting these elements, but i just could not find a constellation that was satisfying. I am looking for someone to help me fix this constellation or provide an explanation that removes my doubts about my solution.

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  • $\begingroup$ Can I make the suggestion that you switch [Earth/Rock] to [Wood]? The classical four are Fire, Water, Wind, Air, but if you want to use the Chinese five, it's actually Fire, Water, Air, Metal, Wood. You've added Ice to make a sixth, but I think you might have an easier time if you make the swap. $\endgroup$ – Halfthawed Feb 24 '20 at 21:44
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, i could try that... swapping one element for another might be easier than removing it from the rules. You could turn this into a pretty good answer, too. I could imagine merging earth into metal and adding wood to create a complete six element system. $\endgroup$ – WhiteMaple Feb 24 '20 at 21:52
  • $\begingroup$ Lithium elemental magic is strong against uranium elemental magic but weak against fluorine elemental magic. Only superhuman entities can wield up quark magic which isn't elemental at all! $\endgroup$ – John O Feb 24 '20 at 21:58
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnO Should i add a requirement for it to be simple enough that an educated, yet medieval wizard can understand it? Also keep in mind my players not being physics or chemistry students ;) $\endgroup$ – WhiteMaple Feb 24 '20 at 22:00
  • $\begingroup$ @WhiteMaple I'm not trying to tell you how to run your game. Hadronic magic probably shouldn't be messed with anyway. Just pointing out some simple implications of the periodic table of elements and the standard model. Stick with molecular magic (that at least gets you water magic). $\endgroup$ – John O Feb 24 '20 at 22:04
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To provide an answer that uses the six elements as provided:

Note: I am not at a place where I can make nice pictures, so I apologize for not having a lovely infographic of elemental relationships.

To summarize, there are three cycles of each element having strength over the next one. The three cycles (which do make a nice mystic circle thing when drawn out) are:

  • Air -> Earth -> Fire -> Air
  • Metal -> Ice -> Water -> Metal
  • Metal -> Earth -> Water -> Fire -> Ice -> Air -> Metal

And to summarize the logic of these, or at least my logic of these are below.

Air -> Earth: Air can erode the earth into sand and dirt, objects that while they are still earth, are less solid than the element suggests. Air can do this and remain untouched by the earth by virtue of flying over it. Air is also quite capable of just flowing around earthen barriers when wind power can't just knock it over.

Earth -> Fire: Dirt is known to put out fires by suffocating them. Likewise rocks are used around campfires to hold heat to be released when the fire dies out. This indicates that Earth should be able to take the punishment by Fire without losing effectiveness

Fire -> Air: Fire requires air to burn and unless one uses enough air pressure to actually blow out a fire, all blowing on a fire will do is stoke the flames. Air magic is not just wind, it is also contains magic that provides fire magic with additional fuel that the winds of the spell feeds.

Metal -> Ice: Ice is less durable than metal and can be chipped and broken apart by metal tools. While the cold can make metals more brittle, cold alone cannot turn metal back into earth on its own.

Ice -> Water: Instead of thinking in the traditional way of frozen water versus liquid water, the logic is the liquid phase of matter versus the cold. Cooling liquids will solidify them, depriving of them of their ability to flow freely1. We call the elements Ice and Water because it is the most common expressions of these elements as opposed to the only ones.

Water -> Metal: Water can be surprisingly good at corroding untreated metals and with enough pressure, water can even pierce metals. Also, water is good at getting into the cracks in metal tools and corroding them from the inside.

Metal -> Earth: Metal, most likely being processed Earth, is used to break apart earth in the form of tools. From a magical perspective, Metal magic is harder and/or more solid than Earth magic, and that is what is reflected in this relationship

Earth -> Water: The ground absorbs water and interferes with its desire to flow. The mud that results is controlled more by the earth's stability than the water's flexibility. If you go this route, then things that spawn from the earth like plants also take in water, further denying its ability to flow.

Water -> Fire: Water, like earth, is also used to extinguish fires. While yes, there are some fires that can't be put out by dousing them, the classical way in which we view fire is susceptible to water, and this water magic will trump fire magic.

Fire -> Ice: On a pure physical level, fire melts ice. On a slightly more metaphysical level, fire magic usually puts more heat into something than ice magic tries to remove. The result is that fire will beat ice by the fact that it takes less magical effort to heat something through magic as it does to chill it by an equal amount.

Ice -> Air: Like with Water, the cold magics that ice actually represents cause the gaseous Air to slow down. Eventually with enough cold, the air itself liquefies and is no longer really air anymore. On a more physical level, when ice is created, it can entrap air into little bubbles. The physical part is a bit of a stretch, but it is something that can be observed.

Air -> Metal: Air, like water, is good at corroding metal. Oxygen, which makes up about 20% of air, is really good at it and is why one does not find iron in its natural state. Likewise many other metals oxidize in air and part of gold's appeal is that it does not do this. Also like with Earth, air can do this and remain untouched by metal by retreating into the sky again.

1Yes Helium, we know you don't solidify that easily. You can now stop laughing from your corner of the universe.

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  • $\begingroup$ This constellation works far better than mine and your explanations fit better, too. The "three cycles" result in the same hexagonal shape as mine, if you align them like that $\endgroup$ – WhiteMaple Feb 25 '20 at 9:04
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Step 1: As per my comment, swap [Ground/Rock] with [Wood]. It still lines up with classical elements, it's more distinct, and it makes our lives easier when it comes to knocking these off.

Step 2: Swap the position of 'Air' and 'Wood'.

Now, let's knock these out of the way. Most of them are easy, but we wind up with two tricky ones.

Fire beats Wood, which makes sense. Fire burns Wood.

Air beats Fire, which also makes sense. Air puts out Fire.

Wood beats Water, which makes sense. Trees absorbs Water.

Wood beats Air. Strong oaks can withstand strong storms. Yes, hurricanes can knock down trees, but that's a gargantuan blast of wind. Normally, Wood is fine.

Metal beats Wood, because Trees can't grow on metal.

Now, for the tricky ones.

Air beats Metal. This is a case of 'mobility vs stability'. Metal is inanimate, thus wind can just fly around the metal. Or, to put it another way, metal can't stop the wind and wind doesn't need to stop metal.

Ice beats Air. This is because cold makes things heavy, i.e. wind included, and cold heavy air will die down. This is more cold dampening air's power than outright beating it.

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  • $\begingroup$ This routes around the requirement for the six specified elements, but gets close enough to solve my underlaying problem. I'll wait some time for other answers, but this one definitely gets +1 $\endgroup$ – WhiteMaple Feb 24 '20 at 22:02
  • $\begingroup$ Storm systems rely on Warm, Moist air which Cold innately defeats by reducing moisture and being cold. Ice Beats Air $\endgroup$ – IT Alex Feb 24 '20 at 22:09
  • $\begingroup$ Continuing the Air being symbiotic with water, Air beats metal because it can cause corrosion via other elements. Storms use water for rusting, Sandstorms use sandblasting. Elements can feed off each other as well as dampen each other. $\endgroup$ – IT Alex Feb 24 '20 at 22:13
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    $\begingroup$ Going further down this line, air usually includes lightning. And metal conducts electricity. $\endgroup$ – Jan Dorniak Feb 24 '20 at 23:12
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Elementals are strong or weak according to their environment.

You choose your elemental according to your environment and needs, not according to your opponent.

  • Deep in the ocean, water elementals will be huge and powerful, and will appear strong and strange. Earth will also be strong on the ocean floor and metal too until it corrodes. Ice and air will float away and disperse and summoning a fire elemental down there is just mean.

  • In an open grassland it might depend on season, and the presence of an elemental could shape circumstances to strengthen it. Grasslands are where tornadoes happen which would delight an air elemental. A fire elemental can set the grass ablaze and grow in strength as that happens. Ice would do well in the winter and earth will be OK there all the time. Water elementals would not be at their best in the grassland and metal would struggle.

  • A mountain would be great for earth and good for metal and ice, with ice preeminent if there were glaciers. Air would be ok and fire not so much - unless it were a volcano which would be ideal for a fire elemental.

  • Metal is a thing of smelting and artifice. Metal elementals are the most intelligent and would be most at home (and extremely useful) in made environments like foundries or mines. A fire elemental would also be loving a foundry and an earth elemental would love a mine. Air and water would not do well in the foundry or the mine.

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    $\begingroup$ There actually are rules in this game about elementals appearing naturally and being stronger in some of the places you mention. I wanted to add to that by making the elements relate to each other in a system similar to pokémons elemental strengths and weaknesses. But despite not really hitting the heart of my question, this answer still adds to it, so +1 $\endgroup$ – WhiteMaple Feb 25 '20 at 7:44
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It might be down to Balance rather than one beats the other.

The first step might be to eliminate some of your elements. Ice is really just Water in a different phase. Wood is just biologically structured Earth. In a similar fashion, Metal is just a ultra-homogenized Earth. So you might want to go to the classic alchemical square of Water, Earth, Fire, and Air. You can then create another square around them as you combine the elements. Water and Air for Ice. Fire and Earth for Metal, Earth and Water for mud or clay, and so on.

On the order I gave them, you can see and logically explain the opposition. You don't necessarily have a clear situation of one being greater than the other, but you do have a balance. Water will not always beat fire. If you throw water on a fire, you get Steam. The fire is put out, but the water is also consumed and changes phase into something that burns. Not enough water on a fire, it just keeps burning. Too much, and it gets snuffed. Same thing with Earth and Air. A Stone column stands fast against the wind, but will get ground down or toppled by that same wind over time with erosion.

So you can draw a small square with the primary elements in the center with the logical oppositions to create the order. Then an outer square with the points of the inner at the midpoint of each side. The points of the outer will be the combination of the two core elements and will have an equal opposition across the way. In my example, Fire and Earth create Metal and Air and Water make Ice. Good metal may damage ice, but get metal too cold and it can become brittle and shatter. Earth and Water can be clay, but when you apply fire and air to create super intense heat, you get Ceramic, which will block the same super intense heat but is brittle and can also crack and explode it there are impurities. Just try to keep balance between them instead of just thinking of it like an elaborate Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock kind of thing.

Keep in mind as you get elaborate with your diagram that you can also create strange stuff when combining three elements even though two will be in opposition. Take some plants from the Earth category, add Watter, and then fire. The result is soup!

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  • $\begingroup$ That is exactly what i thought about, too, but as i tried to meddle with the games rules i soon realized that changing the system in this way would mean rebuilding nearly everything from scratch. So, sadly, i am bound to the choice of these six elements or at least something similar to it. $\endgroup$ – WhiteMaple Feb 25 '20 at 7:37
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    $\begingroup$ @WhiteMaple Well that's a bummer. I never really liked the addition of wood or metal or ice to an elemental magical chart, because those are just other elements in a slightly different form. $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Feb 25 '20 at 13:54

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