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Obviously, this would depend on how prevalent magic was in the world. It would also depend on not only how prevalent magic itself was, but how prevalent are people who are able to perform it. There is definitely a distinction, as you could have a world where anyone and everyone is capable of wielding magic, but it is only present in rare locations, or at certain times, or whatever it is you decide.

If you had a world then, of a roughly medieval setting (say 13th-15th century maybe), and suddenly someone discovers they can cast a spell. Likely this would happen somewhat by accident, the same way that likely people first discovered how to actually start a fire. I imagine this would happen in multiple locations around the world, probably with very different results. For example, one person might accidentally cast a spell that cursed someone, while somewhere else in the world someone might cast a spell that caused their crops to grow twice as fast. These two people's views would likely be vastly different in regards to this newly discovered magic, as would the views of the people around them who might have witnessed it, or be aware of it.

Given all of this, how long do you think it might take before magic developed to some sort of form approximating what most fantasy settings have (e.g. a wizard who can shoot flames at someone or something similar)? What milestones in the development of magic might happen, or need to happen, for this level of magical development to be reached?

I'm thinking scientific methods, what was known of them at the time, would be applied to study magic. Would it reach a level familiar in most fantasy settings while the world was still in its medieval period? If not, how long before that would magic have likely needed to be discovered to reach that point?

I'm building a world where magic is still somewhat unknown, people are still figuring out. The setting, time-wise, is a medieval one, so I'm trying to figure out how long before this might magic have needed to have been discovered. Also, how rapidly it might develop further, as that and the previous question significantly impact any discussion of magical origins and workings within the game. For instance, I can't say magic was discovered only 5 years ago, if it is likely that the best most of the world could manage in that time frame is the magical equivalent of mixing two fluids to cause them to change color.

I'm sure people will want to know ore info about the magic system, but rather than include more of a wall of text than I already have, I'd rather include that info if/as it is requested.

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  • $\begingroup$ I can't really answer this question without knowing how difficult it is for a single person to use magic. After someone accidentally casts a curse, perhaps all that is required to throw fire is to follow the same process, concentrating on something different. Or perhaps it will take ten years of contemplating fires. Or perhaps to use magic intentionally, one needs to understand the behavior of fire at whatever level one hopes to control it, and it will take centuries, and fast computers. $\endgroup$ – Obie 2.0 Sep 25 '15 at 1:05
  • $\begingroup$ Let's say then for the curse. You couldn't think "I wish that person would die a horrible death," and it result in a spell. Nor could you get a result from say, "I wish their blood would turn to poison." You could, however, get a result, if you truly willed it to happen, from something like, "I wish their blood would turn to sulfur." This would kill the, and pure sulfur for blood would be poisonous. The difference is the specificity. The difficulty in studying it would be if two people performed the same curse 1 person would die immediately, the other perhaps a day later at home. $\endgroup$ – Johnny Glogowski Sep 25 '15 at 2:12
  • $\begingroup$ The reason one would die later, being that it wasn't specified, but perhaps one really wanted to see the person die, and while thinking consciously about the curse, was subconsciously thinking how they want to see the person suffer. The other person perhaps, wanted the person to die, but subconsciously had no desire to witness it. It wasn't specified in their willing of it to happen, but their subconscious still had an impact on the outcome. Ensuring you concentrated on the right thing, without interference, would be the difficulty in repeatable and predictable results, and thus study. $\endgroup$ – Johnny Glogowski Sep 25 '15 at 2:16
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, OK. Now I have a better understanding of how it works. $\endgroup$ – Obie 2.0 Sep 25 '15 at 2:23
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From reading your response to my comments, I gather that the two components to casting a spell are the specificity of the thought and lack of any interfering thoughts. It seems like a spell must reference some specific, desired physical result. So I suspect that to shoot flames at someone, the wizard would have to think something like, "Fire, appear in front of me now and immediately move until you hit that person over there." Also, as you said, the magic-user would have to exclude competing thoughts and desires, such as not really wanting to create a fire, not really wanting to kill someone, not wanting the fire to appear in front of them, wanting to purchase a beer at the tavern, that sort of thing.

It seems like the first element is something anyone could master fairly easily, if the other problems didn't kill them first. Excluding other thoughts, though, is hard. I suspect that most people simply could not do it at all, or at least not sufficiently well to cast a spell reliably. Of course, if you can't reliably use magic, it is probably best not to mess with it. However, some small percentage of the population would, with sufficient practice, be able to exclude other thoughts from their minds, and thus reliably cast spells up to whatever power level the magic permits.

I, therefore, think that magic could spread quite rapidly. There are two key factors: how flashy was the initial magic? And how disciplined was the original caster?

If the initial spell was very obvious, and the caster was disciplined:

A local monk wishes that the blood of some enemies would turn to sulfur. The caster will know as soon as the spell takes effect that they did it. In the case of the monk, the person targeted will smell of sulfur and die essentially instantaneously. The monk will absolutely correlate his or her thoughts with the incident. In circumstances like this, your proposed method of casting spells is what the caster will try first. If they are sufficiently disciplined, like the monk, they will succeed in casting other spells in days or weeks. After that, if they choose to share the secret, it is just a matter of how quickly information could spread by horse or ship. Five years for magic to become widely known within a range of several hundred miles, and known in cosmopolitan locations within thousands, would not be unreasonable under these circumstances.

If the initial spell was subtle, and the caster was disciplined

A local monk makes some crops grow twice as fast. It is very possible that the caster will never realize what happened. If they do, it will take years of subtle spells working, after which the caster will probably try bigger things. The situation then proceeds as in the first case.

If the initial spell was obvious, and the caster undisciplined

A local farmer turns the blood of some raiders to sulfur It will be obvious to the caster what happened, but they will be unable to reliably replicate it. Because they have no way of proving their abilities, the knowledge may never spread. There are several ways it could. If the caster tells someone better at blocking out distracting thoughts, we might then have a situation similar to the first one. If not, the story may become a local legend. Over decades or centuries, someone might be able to piece together a coherent theory from similar isolated events, and thus begin an era of systematic magic.

The spell was subtle, and the caster undisciplined

A farmer makes her crops grow twice as fast. Forget about it. The caster will most likely not figure out what is happening. Even if that does occur, they will not be able to convince anyone else, at least not reliably. I suppose they might be able to convince some villagers to burn them for witchcraft because their crops grew too quickly, but this is not going to convince anyone from out of town. If all, or nearly all, incidents of magic are like this, it won't be until reliable statistical methods and censuses are around that people will be able to discover magic.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you, this was an excellent answer! As I said initially, it is likely multiple people in multiple locations would discover magic around the same time if it were suddenly introduced (read: possible to use in the above manner). This means all of the scenarios you described are possible. In other words, some areas would rapidly have a good understanding of magic, while others might not for generations. Of course, areas that progress rapidly might then spread that knowledge to other areas that fit more with the final example. $\endgroup$ – Johnny Glogowski Sep 25 '15 at 5:30
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I think the speed of how quickly your new magic will spread will depend mostly on socioeconomic factors, and not how easy people will be able to master it. While I think what Jonah said in his answer is mostly true, I think that the spreading of this new 'technology' will happen at speeds much, much slower than the actual learning of spells or teaching new 'magicians'.

As such, the spreading of this new technology would differ vastly depending on how progressive/conservative the society is, how well organized it is, and how it looks upon technical advance - which for the sake of the argument I'll just assume models this quite accurately.

To illustrate what I mean let me give you two examples, which try to show the possible range of how fast or how slow your newly emerging magic could spread through your world.

Example 1: Roman empire (ca. 0-100AC)

The roman empire was governed centrally, they had strong hierarchies in place and, for the time they lived in and the means given to them, were organized spectacularly. Due to the empire spanning essentially all of Europe and parts of Northern Africa and the Middle East the Romans were also fairly experienced in dealing with all kinds of societies, cultures, new technologies, different religions, etc.

In such a setting I think it could well be possible that some Roman generals or other officials recognize the immense value and power this new magic presents. (One fireball wielding wizard in each Centuria? Hell yeah!)

If they invest some resources and immediately begin to institutionalize it, I think it is realistic that magic will spread through the core of the Roman empire in maybe 5-10 years, with some additional time until it reaches all the remote provinces.

Example 2: remote European region during the dark ages (say Scotland/England ca. 800 AC)

Compared to the first example this society literally lives in the dark age. At best we have a localized feudal system in place governing the region, quite possibly in conflict with other surrounding feudal systems. People, including their leadership, will be poorly educated and quite frankly ignorant towards most topics outside their immediate sphere of influence. Also it is likely that the people have a very conservative (probably Christian) mindset.

This mindset will realistically prove to be a strong factor working against the quick spreading of magic. It could take a very long time for magic users to convince the Church that what they are doing is not actually the work of the devil (is it though? ;))... People were burned for far less - like knowing about herbal remedies. Suddenly being able to shoot fireballs or turn your neighbors cow into stone will not help your case.

In the face of the mentioned obstacles, the first magic users could be forced hide their knowledge, only passing it on in secret. It could easily take 50 or 100 or more years until they are able to 'go public'. To actually institutionalize magic and the training of new magicians they will also likely have to relocate to the biggest and most prosperous political/economical cities of the time.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is very close to what I would have said. Excepting that it does not address the 1300-1500. During this time frame in our history new technologies (lens making as an example) where considered so valuable and useful in both military and economic conflict that knowledge of their use became the sole property of the King/Queen. Knowledge was not shared. It became the focus of espionage and bribery attempts. $\endgroup$ – PCSgtL Dec 10 '15 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ This is essentially what I was aiming at. 1300-1500 AC gives us a huge span on the scale I mentioned above... On one end we have a quasi renaissance including gunpowder weapons, merchant conglomerates, science and astronomy. On the other end we have high medieval feudal system with power split up amongst small local lords and knights. $\endgroup$ – fgysin reinstate Monica Dec 10 '15 at 15:58
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If a caster depends only on their accumulating skill, then the magic growth could be linear. $P=kt$

But, magic can be used by a caster to impose discipline on themselves. Magic would grow in relationship to its current power, thus it would grow exponentially. $P=ke^{jt}$

The actual rate of growth hardly matters, since with exponential growth all arrows point upward at an ever-increasing pitch.

If magic can be used by a caster to entrain others to focus and dismiss unrelated thoughts and distractions, then the number of minds involved in casting each spell could also increase exponentially, perhaps yielding hyper-exponential power to spells. $P=ke^{je^{lt}}$

In an arms race of such magic, an undetectable initial advantage would grow to be insurmountable. One magic force would survive and dominate all.

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