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The magic works like this:

  • It must not be performed in public, meaning with more than a dozen observers (regardless of the means). It will fail, spectacularly
  • It must not be performed in private, meaning that if you do it alone, it will also fail fatally
  • The optimal setting for it to work is in a group of less than or equal 13 - the more participants the stronger it is
  • The caster will have to come up with the ritual on the spot without consulting with the others. The ritual must invoke a specific sceptical reaction in other participants. Namely, their reaction must be: "That will work?" and not "That will work!" nor "That's brilliant!"
  • If all other participants think that "That will work", the ritual will fail
  • Magic is a ritual that can be performed by anyone - nobody is special, anyone can do it
  • The one who performs the ritual decides the effects of the ritual. The details of the ritual could be anything, varying from dancing naked to counting stars or riding a cow upside down..
  • The effects of the ritual is limited by what could happen in nature however improbable it is. One could call down a meteor or create tsunami, recover from cancer.. but not make water flow upward or create a black hole out of nothing

So, the main obstacle is the unpredictability. One could do some stupid things to call the rain the first few times, but then it get repetitive and lost the scepticism. Lost the ritual, and get a backlash (fatal).

How do I weaponize this magic reliably? If my army (say medieval) went against another and I dig a few holes to hide the "magicians" to do their magic. How to get them to keep spamming spells without losing their scepticism and get a backlash that kill both them and my army?

edit 1 To clarify how this magic affect the world:

  • If you called down a meteor, the meteor won't just appear out of nothing right after you finish the ritual. The meteor is actually already coming, your ritual is just coincidentally happening at the right time. So the meteor won't just drop on your enemies, because it takes time for a meteor come from 'not clearly visible in the sky' to 'suddenly on their head'. It has to travel from somewhere to earth.
  • If you called a tsunami, the same thing applies. The tectonic movements or some geographic activities are already there. There will be an earthwake or something in the ocean and then a tsunami will form, then it will come for both you and your enemies of course.
  • You called a storm of frogs, a hurricane somewhere fished some frogs and dumped it on your face at the right time.

That's why I said the effect must be possible in nature.

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    $\begingroup$ There are contradictions here like; "optimal setting is 13 or less" yet the spell fails in public ("a dozen"[12] or more). Then they can create a meteor or tsunami out of nothing but not a black hole, that's a contradiction. $\endgroup$
    – anon
    Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ If the magic works only when witnessed by skeptics, regardless of the ritual changing between spells wouldn't they stop being skeptics? Once you see some random acts work to produce magic a few times, wouldn't you believe ANY random act could logically produce magic? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 17:07
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    $\begingroup$ @anon: Pretty sure the "13 or less" includes the caster while the "dozen or more" is just counting observers other than the caster. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ I dabble a lot in various magic systems. This is one of the more clever and well balanced (or even self balancing) systems I've come across. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 20:10
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    $\begingroup$ The "happen in nature" bit is a big problem. A meteor appearing out of nowhere is far more strange than water flowing up hill. It might be better to say that any changes the magic makes need to be hidden such that their results could have happened naturally as far as any observers are concerned. This could actually be one of the few cases where an antagonistic relationship between magic and scientific and technological advancement could make sense as more than an application of magical thinking to technology as it takes away hiding places. $\endgroup$
    – smithkm
    Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 20:42

9 Answers 9

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Magical drugs that erase your short term memory

Someone has to create a drug to, possibly through the use of magic, erase the short term memory of the people present. With this drug they won't realize that they have already seen magic being performed and you can use the same ritual with the same effectiveness as often as you want.

Training camps where people are taught that magic does not exist

Furthermore you would probably train people, maybe little children, in a special camp. Away from magic. If they were taught that magic does not exist and is not possible by any means they will distrust it.

Just imagine you were suddenly called to the battlefield and someone was running around naked, screaming that meteors will come down to smite your enemies. You would call him crazy. Which means the magic would work. Then someone gives you the magical drug and the process can begin anew.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ninja’d again! Curses! $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 8:04
  • $\begingroup$ This is genius! $\endgroup$
    – DonQuiKong
    Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 21:55
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    $\begingroup$ It has both indoctrination, brainwash, child soilders, and destruction. This, I like. $\endgroup$
    – Ngoc
    Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 4:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Shadow shouldn't be hard to put the penalty of death on leaving the ritual, or just brainwashing the kids to watch it so they can make fun of the ritualist later. $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 8:25
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    $\begingroup$ “I am Clara Oswald, human. I have agreed to this memory wipe of my own free will. Do I really have to touch that worm thing?” $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 18:44
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Think big. Do strategic defense, end scarcity

With this kind of thing you need to think big, because you are using up a resource: the number of people that have not yet seen this magic (however, see the end for a trick). So while using it for short-term gains is appealing, you need to go big and strategic.

Obviously this cannot be used on the fly to respond to a tactical situation, i.e. to a specific battle. Use this as strategic defense. Keep the enemy out by flooding ingress paths for armies, drying out vital areas and/or scaring them with your awesome magic. So your first order of business is: keep the enemy away by using the environment to your advantage.

Second, and this is the really important bit: eliminate the need for war all-together

War happens in order to gain control over resources. War happens because you need water, food, metals, energy, grazing land, et cetera.

With this magic, your nation can put an end to all drought, end all famine, discover valuable metal deposits whenever they need it, make soil turn fertile, cure people of all disease, make everyone live long happy lives, make everyone absorb education perfectly, and all the other boons that makes a nation thrive.

Offer your neighbours this, and they will think it more valuable to have you as an ally than as their enemy.

Watch out for Pratchetting and Munchkins

The problem with rules is that they by their existence and human nature invite to abuse. In your case the trap is: recursion, using the magic to affect future magic.

Wishing for more wishes

Is it possible that a human will forget about the amazing things they have seen? Improbable, yes, but not impossible.

So you can use your magic to "reset" people you have used so far. That might help you keep going forever.

Ensuring success

Is it impossible that an observer will have a skeptical reaction to something that seems mundane? Again: improbable, but not impossible.

So you can use this magic to prepare hordes of helpers to always be skeptical when witnessing a ritual.

You will need to deal with this somehow.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hmm, this will work? $\endgroup$
    – Ngoc
    Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 4:25
  • $\begingroup$ Not all war is about scarcity, and not all wars that are about scarcity are about environmental resources. Wars also occur due to ideology. $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 4:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Ngoc What kind of answer did you expect to an inane question such as that? $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 5:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Corey No there are also wars about control over population and so on. The point is that environmental factors can stop an army from waging wars effectively (ask Napoleon's army and the Wehrmacht). $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 8:28
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelK I'm sorry. I was joking. I like the direction you're going. Clearly yours are a better way to use the magic. But some people just want to watch the world burn. And I really want to use this to burn the enemies. $\endgroup$
    – Ngoc
    Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 9:21
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Random failures, almost all of the time.

It is no big thing to get together a group of 12 over and over again. If you told me you would make pigs dance I would be skeptical. But in a world where magic is known to exist I would be a lot less skeptical.

So: my skepticism cannot be because of the premise of magic. It must be that I am skeptical about your abilities and proposed path. I am not skeptical that a basket can be sunk from full court. I am skeptical you can do it on the first try, because I know you have never picked up a basketball in your life.

There must therefore be a track record of repeated failure on the part of all members of this magic cabal. Fatal failure will not work because then they cannot get back together. No, this will be humiliating or ridiculous failure, possibly dangerous or expensive failure. Each member of the magic group must have such a terrible track record at successful magic that the other members are skeptical that any given individual can put his pants on leg side down, much less accomplish magic. Failure will be met with smug smirks and deprecatory guffaws. Occasionally magic endeavors might be purposefully sabotaged by others in the group to enhance the hilarity of the expected failure.

I envision this group as much like a role playing game group, in which much time passes with ostentatious boasting and smug displays of knowledge. Ideally, and for narrative fun, the 12 members should be total incompetents in many other ways. Each individual's skepticism and contempt for the abilities of the other 11 is exceeded only by his or her own pride and colossal self esteem. My own failures at magic do nothing to scratch my own self esteem but are attributed to factors outside my control, interference by others, crossbreezes or "I fooled you chumps! That is really what I meant to do!".

The 12 are suffered to continue their incessant bumbling by the military group that they are a part of because of the very (extremely) occasional stellar results that this cabal manages to accomplish. Among group members, success by any individual is attributed to pure luck or possibly the theft of techniques developed by others in the group, although to their employers the 12 take credit as a group because they know what side their bread is buttered on.

I envision the scene where one of the members successfully manages a devastating rain of fire upon the enemy. The other 11 are struck dumb as they watch it come down. Then: "Well, even the blind squirrel sometimes finds a nut!"

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Memory loss. Or possibly just drugs.

Have your practitioners imbibe a root/mushroom/herb before beginning their ritual/being told what to try and achieve. If the herb has the right properties then they won’t be able to remember what they did or how they did it, naturally maintaining a level of ‘wait, that will work?’. If they’re not told what events in the War they’re responsible for your little enclaves of wizards will never be able to match action to deed, so they’ll always be sceptical that it can be achieved

The flip side to this is that your drugs can’t be too good, or instead of molten lead raining down upon your enemies you might instead end up with a rain of psychedelic paints. Or frogs.

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Patter

At least 90% of stage magic is how well the performer pitches the trick, if a talented talker tried to present a failure it may convince people. If the magician whiffs his lines, trips on his flying wires, steps on the hidden bunny or whatever an audience otherwise pretty sure magic works might still be convinced this time it wont.

kill people

If people know magic fails they will expect it to.

The mage does a spell for a small group. It is explained to them, and each of them then is invited to repeat the trick in front of a large audience. Each audience member is then available to be a small group participant.

Promote anti-inductive reasoning

"It worked every previous time therefore it logically must fail this time."

Anti-induction is as self consistent as induction, but it seems anyone with even the slightest connection to the real world prefers the latter.

So you need test all professors of philosophy, math, or theology for the capability to truly believe in anti-induction. These are now the most important people in the world. With them a wizzard can limitlessly preform their magic without needing the overhead of meta magic tricks or time consuming recycling of people, presumably allowing a higher throughput of effective magic.

By using specialists you can preserves a general ignorance of magic that could still allow one time use of random observers if you are desperate.

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Make it widely known

If everyone knows how this magic works, then everyone will know that the magic will work the first time if people are skeptical of it. However, since people now know about the magic, then in fact it will not work since they know magic exists. They cannot be skeptical about a phenomenon they understand.

And that's what will make it work. Gather 12 of the top magic researchers who understand this magic and have them gather around a practitioner of the art. Since they know that the magic works, they know that in fact it will not work. All silently believing to themselves that the magic won't work in turn will cause the magic to succeed. And thus it becomes an endless circular logic. They know magic works, but they also know that will cause it to not work, thus it will work for them except if they know that it won't and so on and so on. They'll constantly be skeptical of whether it will truly work, they'll never know for sure, and thus it will always work because that is the basis on which the magic works.

The most intelligent of these magical researchers will run into battle with their jury rigged magic and when asked if this will work, they'll be the ones saying "I have no idea." The side effect is that occasionally it might actually rarely blow up in their face if they get a bit too confident in it working all the time, though this would be a necessary sacrifice to instill the fear in others that it will not in fact work continuing the logic loop and constant skepticism of whether it will work or not. But a determined enough military would probably be okay with a few sacrifices.

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  • $\begingroup$ That circular logic is the problem. It may works or it may not. It's a huge risk to gather 12 of the top magicians (in case they all turned into explosive chickens). And 1 group of practicioner is not enough for reliable warfare. $\endgroup$
    – Ngoc
    Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 4:44
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A pretty well covered topic, one thing I can add though.

Place your performer and observers where they cannot see the effects of the magic being done. That way the skepticism is never interrupted. It would work better than memory loss drugs since there would be less down time and generally memory loss is a destructive process. It would suck if your observers started going brain dead...

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 14:52
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Even if the participants know how magic works, if they don't know how many participants there are, they won't be able to know if it's going to work.

An example of a scenario which uses this (if group failure doesn't need to be avoided at any cost):

A number of blindfolded people gather in a room, preferably not much greater than 13. There is also a supervisor who is not blindfolded, and that will effectively give instructions to the group. The group will be informed beforehand what desired effect the magic must have. The supervisor can communicate with the people in two ways: he/she can tell a person to leave the room (with one tap on the shoulder), and he/she can tell a person to be the main performer of the ritual (two taps on the shoulder).

Now, the supervisor will randomize a sufficiently small number of people to remove from the room. Thus nobody (except the supervisor) will know how many people there are in the room (assuming communication is forbidden). Then the supervisor selects a person to perform the ritual. If the ritual succeeds then they end. If it doesn't, repeat the process again until it works.

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Dress the ritual up as something else, like a technological display or marketing research. The caster can tell them it will do something completely different than what they are trying to achieve. This way the observes will expect it to fail and they will be right even if the magic succeeds. You could say you are going to levitate a metal contraption, when you are really dropping a meteor on someone (you can even change what the thing is "supposed" to do on the fly to keep the ritual changing) . You can do this at mall around the country just like normal marketing research so you have a nearly inexhaustible supply of skeptics. Not the optimal level of skepticism but you can always pre-screen to improve it.

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