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I'm starting with some background so the question can be answered in-context. Apologies if I veer into too much storytelling.

Pre-Cataclysm Setting: A fantasy civilization, essentially only humans, in the middle of a magic-fueled industrial revolution. (Rather than fossil fuels)

The civilization exists in a quite limited habitable area, about 30,000 square miles, surrounded by a larger uninhabitable region, which is inherently dangerous. People can survive in the uninhabitable region if they can protect themselves from beasties, but they can't grow food, even with magic, so they can't be independent.

Population centers tend to be in the middle of the habitable region, with frontier towns on its borders. The total population is around 10 million people. Everyone has the capacity to do magic, but it's difficult enough that only about 1 in 5 people actively practice magic.

If other habitable regions exist, they have not been found yet.

The Cataclysm: For reasons that are intentionally not fully explored, everything involving magic goes very wrong, pretty much all at once. It's worse where there's more magic, and generally worse near the middle of the habitable region than on the edges. In the less affected areas, it's mostly explosions, toxic gasses, earthquakes, and the like. Towards the more affected areas, things work their way from biblical to eldritch, culminating with some places simply ceasing to exist. (For example, a city set between a forest and a river suddenly becomes a river running through a forest)

Post-Cataclysm Civilization: The frontier towns on the edges of the habitable region avoid the worst of the cataclysm, and hunker down to weather its consequences. The worst effects die down in a matter of days, but it's decades before it's actually safe to travel. Several towns die off in this time, but enough are able to sustain agriculture that, about 100 years after the cataclysm, roughly 10,000 people have survived.

As people start to travel again, they find that the habitable region is fully habitable again, with very little evidence of the cataclysm having ever occurred, beyond the total absence of humanity. There are barely even any remnants of the pre-cataclysm civilization, and where they exist, magic is still pretty apocalypse-y, so they haven't been successfully explored yet.

Setting Goal My intention is for the vast majority of the past civilization's culture and technology to be fully lost, with each surviving town having very different cultures and beliefs that emerged, but no true connection to the society that came before. The only throughline for the towns will be a pretty reasonable distrust for magic.

I'm not sure how reasonable this is, given the events and timeline. When discussing this setting with a friend, he got pretty fixated on why everything was lost, and I don't have great answers.

Poking through past questions and answers, I see references to minimal viable populations, which the towns get close to, individually, but the towns that survive are probably in the ballpark of 500 people. Looking at posts about losing or recreating technology, I see a lot about how losing technological infrastructure can set a civilization back decades or even centuries.

I didn't find much about cultural changes, particularly changes in cultural institutions, such as religions. I don't really want to map out the entirety of the past civilization's societal structure in order to decide what would and wouldn't make it because, well, the point is that pretty much nothing makes it.

I'd appreciate any advice anyone has on justifying the extreme loss/changes in culture in this post-magical-apocalypse setting.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding, It's very difficult to identify the core ask of your post. We have a strict one question per post policy in addition to other requirements you can read more about by taking the tour or reading through the help center. Can you edit this so that it's clearly asking a single specific question? Keep in mind that we also have restriction on questions asking for help brainstorming, or generating ideas, as well as questions with many valid answers, or questions where the answers will be based more in opinion than fact. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Nov 29, 2023 at 21:09
  • $\begingroup$ Books... and memories. And not just memories of how to (e.g.) build things, but memories of all the wonderful things (including culture) they had before the apocalypse. I can't think of any way to lose vast amounts of knowledge and culture without two overwhelming conditions: extreme isolation between surviving communities and almost intolerable hardship that keeps people focused on day-to-day survival rather than reading books and remembering the good old days. And that until everyone over 30 at the apocalypse dies so there's no living memory. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 30, 2023 at 7:41
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    $\begingroup$ BTW, we've entertained the "how to lose all knowledge" question a fair number of times. They always have the same answers, which makes your question a practical duplicate of them. Here's a few I've answered for consideration [1], [2], [3]. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 30, 2023 at 7:47

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Almost all the culture will survive. This does not mean that it will be still the living culture, but most of it will be definitely known, possibly as the "old culture".

Why would most of the culture survive?

It will survive because books. The civilization was in the middle of an industrial revolution. This means that there were lots of educated people, because you cannot have illiterate workers using industrial machinery. There were lots of books, explaining how to make and operate the machines, how to use the magic fuel, and so on. And, as in any highly literate society ever, there were lots of high-brow books, dealing with philosophy, ethics, and so on. In the end, most of the people died off, but the books which were in the libraries in the border town are still there.

As a practical example, consider the Roman civilization in western Europe. It suffered its own magical cataclysm¹, which destroyed the civilization and its economic and industrial base, and most of its infrastructure. Population numbers crashed, with western Europe in the 7th century having maybe one fifth to one fourth of the people it had in the 2nd century.

But the culture survived. Yes, it was no longer the living culture. The old language was no longer spoken, the old gods were no longer worshiped, the old laws were no longer in force, the old social structure had been replaced by a new social structure. But the old language, the old gods, the old laws, and the old social structure were known, maybe only to the few elite rich people who had the means to learn about them, but still they were known.

The old language was used for international communication and for legal documents and for any serious written works. The old philosophy and ethics were studied and contrasted with the modern² philosophy and ethics. The old laws were no longer in force, but lawyers still studied them and in time the society slowly molded its judicial system on the old model.

Eventually, as the society grew richer, the old culture became to be seen as a role model. For example, images of the old gods³, although no longer worshiped, were made to serve as allegories for eternal human conditions. For another example, more than a thousand years after the fall of the Roman civilization in western Europe, when a new country was set up in a far-flung colony in a New World, they erected a grandiose building in Roman style in their new capital city, on a hill they called the Capitol hill, were the highest legislative assembly was called the Senate, just like in the old days the Roman Senate met in a grandiose basilica built on the original Capitol hill.

¹) It was not really magical, but rather a large dose of very bad luck, amplified by serious bugs in their constitutional setup. But, when we look at the end result, it might as well have been magical.

²) They called their philosophy and ethics "modern". We now call them "medieval".

³) There are at least one thousand times more paintings and statues of the old Greek and Roman gods which were made in the last 500 years than what has survived since the antiquity. Painters and sculptors still make them. And there are more than a thousand times more books written in Latin in the last thousand years than what we have from the Romans themselves.

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If the writing goes away...

First, this idea came from reading AlexP's great (upvoted) answer. Books do guarantee continuity, but what if the books and all "writing" are casualties of the cataclysm?

This requires a couple of changes to the starting conditions. First, in the distant past a magical technique was created to allow thoughts and images to be recorded in... let's call them "memory crystals" since I have no originality. Any crystal could be used for the job, even a randomly picked up piece of quartz, it required negligible magical talent (ie not restricted to the 20% of "active" magic users) and required the expenditure of negiligible physical and mental energy - less than that required to physically write or draw something. The information stored in the crystals could be reproduced into other crystals, initially through transcribing, more recently pre-cataclysm through the invention of the magical equivalent of a printing press. The information also lasted indefinitely unless the crystal was damaged.

This technique is much easier, cheaper and more durable than manufacturing paper, vellum, papyrus or other materials and writing on them. As a result it was used universally for all storage of knowledge. Then the cataclysm occurred and a magic EMP wiped every bit of stored knowledge out, along with 99.9% of the population. Magic backlash damages anyone attempting to use the technique to record the information on fresh crystals.

Suddenly a literate society has not only lost all its written knowledge, but the dangers of practising magic mean that it has lost the ability to record what is currently in the heads of the small number of survivors. Each set of survivors will be inventing its own non-magical method of writing in isolation, although they will be starting from the same spoken language, at least.

They also have very different levels of starting knowledge - each village (500 people is not a town) would not survive a century without knowing how to conduct subsisdence agriculture, but which experts survived in which communities will lead to a different emphasis in teaching. For example, one town might have had a surviving doctor or two and emphasise medicine, another might have an above-average blacksmith, another might have an industrial chemist etc.

Which livestock survived in a particular village will also create differences of character. Having a clan of horsemen is an over-used trope, but it's plausible that only a few villages may have had breeding pairs survive. Similar considerations will apply to all other domestic animals. Not all villages will have clay deposits suitable for pottery. Not all villages may have timber suitable for construction. All of the villages must have had access to something that would burn in order to cook food, but not necessarily timber suitable for construction. Some villages would have run out of metal after losses from recycling with no suitable mining locations or ability, while others were fortunate enough to be able to scavenge railway lines that no longer linked them to any other town.

Once you start looking at detailed combinations of different resources of knowledge, animals, vegetables and minerals that each village has, it will be inevitable that significant cultural drift will occur. The village of timber houses on the edge of the wide river who give thanks annually for the fish that kept them alive when their crops failed in the first years will be culturally distinct from the village in mud brick huts who harvest fields of oats and cook them using dried horse dung. (Each village needs a balanced diet to survive, but it will not be the same balanced diet for each of them.)

A century of isolation is not enough to make the survivors unrecognisable or incomprehensible to each other, but if the written word is removed and resource availability differs then they will be quite different.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 and a good idea, but cultures have survived on oral histories and experiential education for eons. The only way to really guarantee the culture and knowledge was lost would be to destroy all the books and wipe everyone's memories. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 30, 2023 at 7:50
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So, having had a similar idea myself for a setting, I also happen to have an idea for how to get the massive-culture-loss part of your question: pre-Cataclysm people could use their magic for self-improvement, and they did. Everyone from celebrities to priests to artists would spring for this, because obviously "doing good things, but better" is going to be rewarded when there's no bad side effects. And, until the Cataclysm, there mostly weren't bad side effects.

Imagine if plastic surgery made you smarter, and someone in more or less every other family could do it (your "one in five"). Getting it done would barely be a matter of "whether", it would be a matter of "when".

At least, until it turns out to be plastic explosive surgery, which everyone important discovers simultaneously at the worst possible time.

Whoever's left - either because they couldn't spring for the surgery, or because they didn't get very much of it - doesn't have very much in common with the old culture: everyone who did has exploded.

(See also: survivorship bias)

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Plenty of parallels. Consider the Pacific Islands, within a generation there was an apocalypse. They were discovered by disease ridden Europeans, lost up to 98% of their populations in some places. The survivors were hit with Christianity and their old practices outlawed and anyone practicing them was a witch that needed to be killed.

Pacific Island culture these days is just a half remembered ghost of dark times. Some tourism worthy things have been made up but most things were actively destroyed.

The same would happen with magic, it would be thought dangerous and unworthy and those delving into it and the past would be in danger. So you'd end up with almost everything from the previous culture being ignored, changed to suit agendas, or destroyed (plenty of book burnings in history).

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You ask:

why everything was lost

  • you can justify that technology was lost, because as it was concentrated in the "middle of the habitable region" that suffered the most damage, all infrastructure was destroyed. Also after the cataclysm people's "disbelief" in that technology caused people to not want to restore it back.
  • The cultural changes can be justified as a move to a different way of life; but some of the old cultural attributes must be somehow incorporated or merged in the new emerging culture.

Since central control was lost, every town started to form its own cultural structure and way of living, perhaps prioritizing different goals based on their specific environment and mixture of people.

If you have religion in the new world context, you could make religion depicting stories from the past and moral values from the cataclysm.

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