Let's take again an imaginary world where, without its inhabitants realizing it, everything is physically influenced by what people thinks, by what they believe, by how they see the world. This world is more or less in a medieval stasis because the majority of people received no form of education outside home-schooling, so there is no common knowledge of physical laws upon which to build complex machinery. Every attempt to advance technology, except very small and gradual ones, usually fails.

Magic, instead, exists.

But there is a problem: if the majority of people received no form of education outside home-schooling of course there also is no common knowledge of magical laws upon which to build complex spells. But magic exists because legends are full of magical creatures and supernatural events, so people are more inclined to believe in magic than in machinery able to plow their fields. So I'd like to define some rules to solve this contradiction and make magic work, even if only under some strict conditions that practically prevent it to be commonly used.

Right now I defined something like that:

  • Magical popular belief that require none or few direct perception of its effect work without problems (i.e. hang some oak leaves outside your house to protect it from mischievous spirits). This is because there is nothing physical that should be altered by the belief, the magical effect just prevents the influence of something that doesn't physically exists to begin with and is generated by the same belief that prevent its effect from working.

  • Magical popular belief that influences physical things works only where the people that believe in it live, only if the huge majority of people believe in it, and the scale of its effect depends inversely on the direct contact those people have with the target of the magic. For example:

    • A ritual to have a good harvest usually works because its effect manifests on the seeds, that are under the earth so the people are not seeing what happens, they don't know what should exactly happen and there is no risk to have a hundred of different people with different beliefs that look every day at those seeds and think that maybe it doesn't work because it's not what they expect.
    • A magic healing potion works only if the one who made it is respected by the people as someone who is expert of healing potions. The direct contact with the sick person is usually restricted to only few people, so the belief in the healer who prepared the potion is much stronger than the direct perception of the effects of the illness (and anyway things like a wound closing does not happen when people are looking at the wound, but only where nobody is looking at it for a long time, i.e. overnight when people sleep).
    • Popular belief cannot create miracles like pumpkins magically appearing mid-air during a famine, but maybe if they really really believe in the powers of a village elder something like a rain dance can bring rain after a couple of days after it's done (like in the previous case, clouds appear overnight when nobody can see them).
  • About wizards with spellbooks and staffs able to create fireballs out of thin air...well, the magic does not work as consistently as needed to have schools that teach magic, so they are very uncommon. Studying this kind of magic is long, frustrating and with very little results, so it can be done only by few wealthy people with love for knowledge and a lot of time to spare. Basically it works like this: first, the wizard must be recognized as a wizard and seen as a figure of power and authority, so they dress in a way that makes them recognized as such; second, their spells with their words and gestures and symbols have the objective of making ALL the people around the wizard recognize subconsciously the effect he wants to invoke (i.e. instilling the idea of fire) and require EXTREME precision; third, the mage has no control on what is generated by the belief of the people (for the fire it can be everything from a little spark to a huge flame) so he needs some item to transform whatever appears in what the spell is supposed to do (in the case of the spark some flammable powder); finally, when the spell effect has the shape the people expect to and is recognized as such, it works as a spell should. This is obviously easier when the wizard has a reputation but very hard and dangerous for a beginner, so it's usually safe for a wizard to build first its reputation with small and simple tricks.

Can those rules work or do you see some flaws? Any idea on how they can be fixed/extended? And in particular for the case of the wizard, the example of the fireball is easy, but I have serious problem to extend the same concept to other kinds of spells (i.e. manipulate wind, ice, trajectory of throwed items, etc.) without inventing natural stuff with unusual properties or breaking the technological rules that force the medieval stasis.

  • $\begingroup$ You could specify that it is a follow-up of Discrimination in a world physically influenced by what their inhabitants believe, or isn't it? $\endgroup$ – bilbo_pingouin Jun 17 '15 at 10:14
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @bilbo_pingouin it's about the same world so yeah, it can be considered as a follow-up $\endgroup$ – Soel Jun 17 '15 at 10:17
  • $\begingroup$ And your question is, IMHO, somewhat unclear or too broad. Can you clarify what you expect from a good answer ? And by the way, I think your wizzard contradicts the rules you've set earlier: it happens when everyone is watching. $\endgroup$ – bilbo_pingouin Jun 17 '15 at 10:24
  • $\begingroup$ @bilbo_pingouin the question is basically if you find consistency flaws or barriers that makes impossible to develop magic based on those starting rules (or if you have any ideas about how to fix those rules to better allow the use of magic). About the aspect of nobody watching, it's not a strict requirement, just a way to reduce the external influence of contradicting beliefs. The alternative is making (almost) everyone who watch think what the magic user wants, but it's extremely difficult and it's what wizards try to do. $\endgroup$ – Soel Jun 17 '15 at 10:57
  • $\begingroup$ Sounds a little like 'Headology' wiki.lspace.org/mediawiki/Headology $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Jun 17 '15 at 13:10

Anatomy of a Wizard

It seems that the wizards really have their work cut out for them, however, if I read the question right, there was no mention about magic not changing people. With each inkling of fame a wizard (or any member of a profession) collects, their work becomes that little bit easier. It is possible that rather than simply improving the chances of each spell working, the wizards themselves are changed to match the public image, creating an aptitude in magic.

  • Pajama robes!

These wizards are going to be coated with symbols on every surface they can manage. A wizard who wishes to lob fire around will have hundreds of flame patterns stitched all over his robes. The subconscious effect may not help much, but will at least get the idea "fire" into peoples' minds.

  • Wizards are psychologists

The entire point of a wizard is to gain power through others' beliefs. That means that the effective wizards will be anyone who understands the actual factors that go into belief. A wizard can (and should) leverage moment fear to jar the immediate audience into believing, or use loyal followers strewn about that audience to instill groupthink.

  • What is magic?

If a layman doesn't often have an understanding of the mechanics of magic, give it to them. Given that wizards normally require a rich environment to steadily progress, some of their wealth could be used to fabricate a public view of magic. All it takes is a somewhat convincing "magic system" and a method of distributing the idea (propaganda posters, town criers). Also, people are very likely to believe something that (they think) they came up with, so give them A (magic is heritable) and B (intelligent people can use magic), which naturally leads to C, but let them figure out C (this rich robe guy might be able to do magic!).


In general a world changing on belief is a rather unstable one. From any kind of perspective, it seems that one thing is for sure. Everyone is spending ridiculous cash on improving PR.

  • Economy

Companies can adopt a reputation scheme as follows. Near the start-up, companies will strive to produce the best product their resources will allow, squeezing every last ounce of quality into them. Meanwhile, messengers are sent all around the known world spreading news about the "amazing X company" and of course provide accessibility to the products. If the company manages to catch on, their fame will rapidly skyrocket their product quality, but in turn they wont need to even try to improve any further. Companies will gain undefeatable monopolies.

  • People

Good King Bob the 27th is the best leader the domain has ever witnessed in many lifetimes. Unfortunately, the last 26 kings have a horrible reputation for greed, neglect of the kingdom, and jaywalking. The skeptical populous, rightfully sick of horrible leadership, often spreads rumors that a curse of the throne prevents the great line of Bobs from ever becoming fulfilling kings. Pretty soon the idea has so much gravity that it becomes true. Even if King Bob's intentions are perfect, somewhere down the line his actions are twisted into the expectations of the public. In other words, pessimism will spread like wildfire (more than usual).


Personally, i would begin by clearly defining a limit to magic.

Popular belief cannot create miracles like pumpkins magically appearing mid-air during a famine, but maybe if they really really believe in the powers of a village elder something like a rain dance can bring rain after a couple of days after it's done (like in the previous case, clouds appear overnight when nobody can see them).

Specifically, what is the exact principle that allows a rain dance to work, but not magical pumpkins. Certainly rain is more plausible, but unless magic is a sentient being capable of understanding plausibility...

And in particular for the case of the wizard, the example of the fireball is easy, but I have serious problem to extend the same concept to other kinds of spells (i.e. manipulate wind, ice, trajectory of throwed items, etc.) without inventing natural stuff with unusual properties or breaking the technological rules that force the medieval stasis.

And that is how you automatically implement spell difficulty. A fireball is a trivial spell that nearly all respected wizards can throw around, but telekinesis or wind manipulation require a bit more creativity. A wizard may be able to fake the spells at first, outside of combat of course, to trick onlookers that they can use magic. Once the idea is properly rooted, the wizard begins to see results in the form of actual magic. Telekinesis, ha. Its just a thin silk wire.

  • $\begingroup$ The principle that can allow a rain dance to work is the absence of a direct immediate correlation between dance and rain. Pumpkins out of thin air are almost impossible because the thought generates too much skepticism (if it's possible why are people farming? why nobody did it before?). The same makes impossible to have rain immediately after a rain dance. But if the ritual is sufficiently vague (gaining the favor of the sky, must not be abused, etc.) the people may be more inclined to believe in it. Not expecting to have clouds immediately appear in the sky also generates less skepticism. $\endgroup$ – Soel Jun 17 '15 at 14:31

In the real world it works like this:

  • I wonder why birds fly?
  • I think it is magic.
  • I research it.
  • Conclusion it is lift generated by pushing air under wings.
  • Science and understanding is created and believe in magic is reduced.

In your world it works like this:

  • I wonder why birds fly?
  • I think it is magic.
  • I research it.
  • Conclusion it is magic.
  • Magic is confirmed and belief in magic is improved.

In your world it is difficult to make science work, it is almost like on SE:Worldbuilding where most answers could be answered with "because magic". Strengthen since in that case would be difficult. Magic would never die (unless some religion finds it bad and people stop believing in it), because it fulfills its own existence.


To work out rules that limit and restrict the ability of magic, you must have rules that describe how it works, period. This should start with an underlying theory that describes it in detail, even though that is not known to the characters and might not be revealed to the reader.

Here is an excerpt from a previous post:

Magic, as commonly understood, would need to be driven by human brains, or the minds of gods that work like ours. Why would weather, for example, act in the manner of primate social behavior? I don't have a good answer off hand, but here are some ideas:

  • The universe is a simulation, an abandoned game filled with the decendants of in-game characters. They have forgotten their proper techniques for directing the simulation, but still have some ability.

  • The universe is created by the observers, and some can influence it more than others. It relies on intuative pattern matching rather than doing calculus (like catching a ball), so (a) things that are more teleological are more controllable, and (b) it is a pre-scientific understanding and largely rule-of-thumb or just plain wrong.

  • gods exist, like the Greek gods, which are basically how you behave humans with superpowers to act. But that's not great for modeling phenomena itself rather than appealing an authority to apply superpowers: its the rain itself that's intellegent and only powerful enough to work within its own range of behavior as an actor. What is "weather" as an object, and why would it be intelligent? That's why it needs to be the mage's own understanding that drives it.

So, in a universe where weather behaves in the manner of primate social interactions,

  1. Controlling it is like influencing a politcal figure, subtle and imprecise,

  2. It has nothing to do with pumpkins appearing.

The limits implied by point 2 is basically the case of intelligent agents and their responsibilities. If there is no sprite in charge of X, then you can't influence X via magic.

Deeper understanding might entail figuring out the catalog of spirits and elementals, how they need to interact for a given result, and how each is influenced. They will also contradict: the details needed for effect A (e.g. a worked-out plan and treaty between spirits to provide a good crop) could preclude effect B.

It looks more and more like politics: the various elementals and sprites have a sphere of influence and competition between lobbyists for what gets done.

That is certainly enough to base a setting on, and provide limits and more interestingly trade offs in usage of magic.

Getting into specifics, consider how we get good crops today using hands-on technology:

  • water
  • soil nutrents
  • pest control
  • weed control
  • domesticated species

Magically getting "good crops" means handing those indivual chores. Maybe the people have a grasp on that, or maybe yet another Athena spirit can do the planning and coordination.

Planning the right rainfall is one thing. What spirit would keep bugs away and why? What spirit would effect selective breeding to improve the characteristics of the plant?

Getting good crops might be a "high technology", not a single wish. These aspects can be solved using clever approaches that are refined over time. Keeping bugs away and preventing explosive population growth of rats might (1) require some help from people, and (2) be a rube-Goldberg of individual effects.

Also, somebody messing up the "good crops" plan with a personal spell would not be tolerated.


You've got a situation where belief is pretty powerful - but for whatever reason, disbelief is even more so, since a few people being skeptical can cancel out the belief of a number of other people. So the things that end up being successful in your world, tend to be low-level "maybeso it could happen" because it "only" has to overcome "it maybeso might not", instead of "it doesn't work that way" or "I haven't seen this work"

It might be useful to talk about, hmm, knowledge? The difference between things we know because we're told, or because we logic or reason them - and the things we know because we know them, instinct and impulse, in the body not the mind. Us, we know we walk on the ground, and people and things don't go flying off without cause... we believe it is because of gravity, and so believe in all its associated theories, until or unless something proves it wrong.

One is obviously going to be a lot harder to alter than the other - it will be a lot easier to alter the details of gravity theory (like, say, the exact acceleration downwards) than convince people that if you step wrong you might fly upwards into the air. After all, they'll look at each other and ask who has seen this happen, and not believe it when the answer is, no one. Pumpkins won't appear in midair because instinctively, impulsively, they know it hasn't happened before and it probably won't happen now, even if some fast-talking wizard (plus or minus alcohol or more mysterious intoxicants) tries his level best to convince them it might, in order to make it possible to do so.

That disbelief makes it hard to start new phenomenon, find new spells, or make things work quickly. If you want to make it even harder to play into that feedback loop, you can include non-human minds in the mix. Animals might not believe things, by being taught or reasoning, but they probably do know things, like that they always fall to the earth, and don't float off through the air. Birds know how they fly (whatever theories mere humans have), and they're really sure pumpkins doesn't spontaneously appear in midair with them. It would probably drastically cut down your wizards' ability to propaganda themselves some laws of magic.

Otherwise, I think you might be underestimating how beliefs change over time. That rain dance takes a few weeks to brew up clouds because people are unsure to begin with, but when it actually rains some will wonder if the dance is possible. A few seasons down the road, and most will "know" the rain dance pulls up clouds within a week or so - and a decade or two later, it strongly rains the next day. People are superstitious, and there's nothing they like better than to think they have influence. It just takes time for their observations to match up with what's happening, and feed belief-power back into the spells. Generations pass on the ritual of great harvests, and "soon the fields sprout" becomes the "quick sprouting" which goes to becomes "seeds sprout and quickly grow" becomes after a bit more time "plants sprout and mature so quickly you can see their fruit" and after that, it's just a jump from "the plants appear and grow food so quick it's as if they come from the air" over to "and then the pumpkins appeared in midair. Great harvest festival, yeah!". It may take generations to get there, but this is a world, and it has a history, and so it has generations to spare. And people will believe, both to think it and know it, those things they themselves have seen and experienced.

I expect wizards would latch onto groups of people, and theories of magic. Probably most would be sincere and working with what they actually believe they can do and how, but since their power depends on feeding the latter to the former, the more shortcuts and shenanigans they come up with to spread their propaganda the better off they'll be. Cults with a bunch of fanatically believing followers might be able to believe strongly enough to support more flashy effects in front of others, converting them to the power of the magic through observation (you saw it, it must be real). Others would build up bigger and more plausible effects (rain dances, harvest rituals), that will take time to build a proper belief in, but which will have a lot more power once people buy into it, because a lot believe in it pretty deeply.

Exoticism will help - it has been done in that faraway place, there is a secret from this mystic-seeming people, anything to make people believe it happened elsewhere, makes them believe its possible. Religion or calling on outside gods or forces can also help because it gives outs and explanations for failure, or mechanisms for creating stories to help fill in the gaps of what people think works, before it can be tried for real. Ritualization can be used to great effect like this because it's complex and opaque enough to let people turn correlation into causation, people don't expect to understand it unless they're specialists, and nonspecific 'changes to the ritual' could be used to change the effects (especially if planted well in advance as rumors - insta-feedback on how far you can stretch belief).

Your commoners might not know magical theories to begin with, but wizards will quickly correct that - the more people they tell their theories to, the more they find supporting proof, how about that. Possibly there will very eventually emerge some broad consensus, about what magic is, what it can do, and how the experts do it - think of it as the difference between what the experts in science say they are and can do, and what the average layperson thinks they're doing. Or, more likely, there will be multiple, competing systems based out of different groups or populations which were taught competing theories of magic, and have seen their own wizards produce results enough to know that is, in fact, how magic works. It'll turn to religious wars pretty quick.

Maybe you think I've given a lot of power to the wizards? The thing is, people have believed lots of things, and believed them pretty strongly, without a helpful feedback mechanism that makes the things we believe eventually real.

Also, if you think the wizards have power? Wait till you see how much power the storytellers have... especially since good narratives have lots of drama, which means about as much bad stuff as good stuff, as many wrong paths as right ones. And that's only the magical mechanics - if belief shapes reality, can you bear to think of the horror of the narrative-magics warping people, how people think and behave and what they're supposed to do? it'll be chaos! To think there are answers where they have dared to give wizards the powers of psychology...


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.