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I'm creating a world where magic exists but can be used by its inhabitants only in a very weak and inefficient form. Those who want to use it cannot just snap a finger and cast any spell they want. They must spend decades studying rituals and symbols and chants and learn to reproduce very long combinations of them with insane precision if they want to be able to conjure some magical effect. Unfortunately, any effect they might be able to conjure is really underwhelming. The best that a fire spell can create is a spark. Conjuring wind can only move a leaf for a couple of seconds. Invoking lightning can only give them some static electricity on the palm of their hand. Basically nothing particularly useful. Just something that rich people with thirst for knowledge and a lot of free time can study for personal interest through the books written by the sorcerers before them.

In this world technology is not in a good position too, because the world is locked in a sort of medieval stasis and complex machinery just doesn't work. By combining the situation of magic and technology, I wanted to delineate the figure of some sorcerer/inventor who considering the limitations of both approaches is able to create some sort of efficient magic and working technology by making them compensate their respective flaw.

For example, a complex crossbow cannot be built for technical limitations and a spell that makes an object chase its target is only able of changing the trajectory slightly and depends a lot on the strength of the throw. But engraving the spell on the object and using a simple spring mechanism to throw it faster than a human allows for an efficient ranged weapon.

That's the basic idea, but I'm having problems generalizing it aside from a few examples. I can think of explosives using the spark spell and some gunpowder, but nothing more that's really significant. At the same time I'd like to avoid creating imaginary chemical materials or physical laws, because it kinda destroys the whole approach by allowing overpowered effects in a non-realistic way.

So basically the question is: do you think it's possible to generalize this idea or do you see some fundamental flaw that makes it incoherent?

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closed as too broad by Xandar The Zenon, Hohmannfan, Burki, Separatrix, Gianluca Mar 22 '16 at 9:17

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ my personal feeling is that "Magic" and "Reality-check" don't go together. But I don't feel strongly about it. If I were creating such a world, I'd make the "magic" be manifestations of advanced technology that the wielders didn't understand but still obeyed physics. To me it sounds more like you want a system that's self-consistent but doesn't necessarily obey physics. Those are much harder to create :( $\endgroup$ – Jim2B Mar 21 '16 at 16:08
  • $\begingroup$ If a crossbow doesn't work (tie a sturdy rope to the ends of a piece of sorta-flexible metal...bend the metal, put a piece of wood on the string, and let go) then it's hard to think of what else you could get to work if such basic physics fails. If Tensile Strength and Flexibility don't exist...your world is pretty much screwed as is...since a good number of biological processes rely on those too. $\endgroup$ – guildsbounty Mar 21 '16 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ As a point of reference, never call a crossbow complicated. If your world technical limitations prevent even the use of an antique weapon (as in "it was used in the Roman Empire and during early Chinese Empire around -200") then your world technology prevent even the simplest wells and mills. $\endgroup$ – MakorDal Mar 21 '16 at 16:21
  • $\begingroup$ Honestly...that's the biggest problem with trying to 'limit' technology. You might be able to block electronics by declaring that semiconductors don't exist...but gears and complex (mechanical) machines run on the same basic physics that allows the human body to function. $\endgroup$ – guildsbounty Mar 21 '16 at 16:22
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think it works very well as described. If magic only produces weak phenomena (a spark, a tiny breeze, etc.) then how could technology multiply those phenomena but not the same natural phenomena? Why not just use a natural spark with technology to create an explosion? What does magic actually add? This is before considering the problems with limiting technology. $\endgroup$ – user16107 Mar 21 '16 at 16:24
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Based on your limitations, no.

You stated that a crossbow is too complex. Simple machines (lever, pulley, wedge, wheel, etc) are what make up rudimentary technology. In fact, muscles, ligaments, bones, and joints operate exactly like simple machines to make humans work.

If you can't even get combinations of machinery to work, then assuming your humans can even live, the amount of magic that's available to you isn't useful enough to "combine" in order to produce useful work in your society, which is your goal here.

For each magical advantage you inquire about, I could come up with a non-magical equivalent.

  • Magical spark --> Rub two objects together.
  • Magical wind --> Wave a giant fan at it.
  • Etc etc.

This is the fundamental flaw in your story.

Here's a little logical syllogism to illustrate it:

  1. You have two systems: m magic and p simple machine technology.
  2. You want to do work, which presumably requires a combination of m and p.
  3. Complex machinery (Combinations of simple machines) cannot arise from any number of p.
  4. m is functionally equivalent to rudimentary p. (See above.)
  5. Because of 3 and 4, you cannot create complex machinery (or produce more useful work.)

If you want it to work, you either have to boost magical powers (reduce the prerequisites, make them stronger, make them automatable somehow) or boost the physical side of things (allow for better machinery and augment them with magical powers.)

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  • $\begingroup$ Or a kind of Resonance. 2 small waves can combine to form one large one, even if only for a second. 5 is however dead on, if the limits are Set, you can not surpass them no matter what you do. Rather, what we need is a way for each one to have limits that do not intersect, so that each one covers for the others weaknessess, but as is, that is not really possible. These things can not resonate if both are limited by the same rules, a Celling Stops all growth so long as it exists. $\endgroup$ – Ryan Mar 21 '16 at 17:11
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The simplest solution both to why this world is locked in a technological stasis and why magic might help fix it is that the technological stasis is, in itself, magical, and the magic being a bit pants is a technological effect.

The crossbow string always snaps, so nobody bothers to use it. The gunpowder is always damp whenever people go to test it, so they assume that it will never work. metals rust, mortar crumbles, and generally anything made by mankind is doomed to fail in very short order. This is because of a great druidic magic worked in the depths of history.

Magic fizzles out, fire spells are sparks and wind spells can be rivalled by flatulence. This is because of a high tech damping satellite network that shorts out magical workings shortly after they manifest.

What your magician has discovered is not actually that impressive a piece of magic. All it does is makes the magic that keeps mankind down a little bit weaker. That lets his technology work that much better. His arrows go further, his forged metals are stronger, and eventually his discovery of the Greater Faraday Circle rite allows him to actually get on and build things.

Similarly magical workings on physical objects are harder for the MageSat network to damp down, especially when there's interference being thrown off by leylines across the land as they try to destroy the low technology.

In this manner the magician is enhancing his own power by breaking through aeons of both magical and technological lockdown, using each side against itself in order to make it that bit easier to use it's opposite. Magic fights magic to let technology be that bit better, and technology fights technology in order to let magic back into the world.

And the ancient forces that put the two systems in place start to take an interest...

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For your world, you could define an effect, either magical or mundane, in this fashion:

$\text{Effect} = \text{cross section}( \text{Energy, Idea, Direction} )$, where

  • Energy is the capacity to do work (scientific definition) or, more generally, the potential to effect change;
  • Idea is what you want the effect to be, the end goal of your efforts; and
  • Direction is the path from the present state to the end state (whatever that may be).

(I use cross section here to allow some freedom on your part in choosing how these factors interact with each other.)

With this definition in mind, let’s take a look at some examples and see how the result comes about.

Crossbow

  • Energy – Potential energy found within the spring or strings
  • Idea – None (no one ever accused a crossbow of being smart)
  • Direction – None (a crossbow doesn’t know how to change its own state)

Effect: You have a device with lots of energy but no ability or interest to use it; the crossbow quarrel falls to the ground a short distance away.

Fire Spell

  • Energy – Some (presumably provided by the spellcaster)
  • Idea – Create a glorious ball of fire to hurl at your enemies
  • Direction – Lots of crazed hand motions and incantations

Effect: You have this grand idea of what you want and the energy for it to happen, but all that energy is going into the hand motions, incantations, rituals, and other effects you were told were correct (but are mostly unnecessary); a brief flicker of light and a wisp of smoke are the marks of your efforts.

Magic Crossbow

  • Energy – Potential energy found within the spring or strings; energy provided by spellcaster
  • Idea – Hit opponent with quarrel (enchantment links user’s idea with crossbow)
  • Direction – Unleash quarrel at opponent (enchantment links user’s direction with crossbow)

Effect: You have a semi-intelligent device with lots of energy and the capacity and desire to use it; crossbow self-guides to point at user’s opponents and fires the quarrel

Life (for completeness)

  • Energy – All cells have energy
  • Idea – Continue to function
  • Direction – DNA

Effect: Life continues


This formulation suggests that spellcasters are going about their use of magic in the wrong way. The ancient mage Geoffrey Humdinkle III discovered that if you hold three fingers up in front of you, hop twice on one foot, and turn 30° to the right, you can conjure a flame. All that is really necessary, however, is a small subset of actions naturally produced by those three motions. Energy that would have gone to the magical effect is instead wasted on pointless gestures.

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