Tag Archives: writing magic

Q&A: Guns and Magic

In the story I’m writing, the overall feel of the setting is mid/early 1800s, technology-wise. There’s magic, and given the time period I’m having trouble justifying there not being guns, but I’m not sure how to have them present in the story without ‘just shoot the wizard’ killing the tension. My initial thought was to make them less advanced than guns were at the time, and expensive enough that they would be less common, but I’m not sure how believable that would be. Do you have any advice?

Well, one problem with simply shooting the wizard is being able to actually put a bullet where you want it. The 19th century covered a lot of technological development. When the century began, smooth-bore single shot, firearms were still the norm (though rifles did exist). While firearms did get steadily more accurate over time, flintlock muskets are not an example of that. Additionally, any missed shot means your character will be facing a long reload before they can fire again.

There’s also a lot of considerations with magic that can make firearms as much of a detriment as an advantage. First, gunpowder is exceptionally flammable. If your characters are using firearms, they’re carrying around a supply of improvised explosives, that a pyromancer could use to kill them on the spot.

If you have mages that can manipulate metals, then that’s a pretty serious threat for anyone trying to use a gun. (Or metal weapons and armor, for that matter.)

If your magic interacts with the physical world (which, honestly, magic in most settings does), guns are going to be physical objects, subject to magic in one form or another. You don’t need to fully remove them from the setting, but simply understanding this can give you options which can make firearms another tool, and challenge, for your characters to work around.

A lot of the fantasy genre today draws heavily from Tolkien’s work. He defined the genre, and his setting has become the base most writers work from. To the point that the phrase, “standard fantasy setting,” has inherent meaning. Modifying off of that template offers you opportunities to discuss things, or evaluate concepts, that you simply can’t otherwise use.

Modifying a fantasy setting with a specific technological threshold opens up a lot of technology you otherwise wouldn’t have. If you want a standard fantasy setting in the 1890s, you’re opening the door to things like revolvers, steam engines, trains, telegrams, photographs, electricity, and “all the wonders of the modern world.” That’s kind of the point.

Once you’ve done that, the best route is to ask yourself, “what would magic do to this technology?” For example: “how would magic have affected the creation of the telegram?” If your setting is one where magic allows for instant telepathic communication, then the telegraph is redundant. You could already go to a mage, and pay them to relay your message. But, that’s not quite the same thing, is it? It could be open to manipulation, or surveillance. Business interests who operate networks of telepath mages may work to discredit, or undermine the development of telegraphs as a viable technology, even if their own service is inferior.

On the other end of this is the basic firearms question. Would magic allow for more advanced firearms? It’s certainly possible. Mages may be able to concoct alchemical propellants that are more efficient, and cleaner than real world firearms, allowing for more mechanically complex weapons than the real world supports. It’s also possible that magic would allow for additional defenses against firearms. A spell that was originally designed to protect against incoming projectiles may be equally effective at stopping a bullet. These potentials may even interact with one another, where conventional bullets will stop, but (exorbitantly expensive) alchemical rounds will blow through the shield, hitting the mage.

Another possibility is that, where you have mages, you also have magical abominations, wandering the wilds. When dealing with things like that, it’s entirely possible that conventional firearms are ineffective, requiring something special to deal with the creatures.

If your fantasy setting has a legitimate reason to include firearms, my recommendation is to look at those as a challenge. The danger that someone could gun down one of your characters if they do something stupid, or don’t think through their actions is a fantastic motivator, and something that’s worth keeping around as a credible threat.

If your fantasy setting looks like it should include firearms, then, probably should. This is a technology that reshaped the world, and having to account for it challenging your setting’s history and traditions is entirely reasonable, and something you probably want to play into, rather than avoid.

-Starke

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In my setting, there are people with fire magic who can heat up metal till it’s red hot and basically fry people wearing armor. Would it be believable to have metal armor not have become a thing? Or would people have just found ways to eliminate the fire mages?

It would depend on a few things. How effective is the ability? How common
are the mages? What kind of precautions could negate this ability? What else can you do with this?

We’ve talked about how you build armor around the threats you’re most likely
to encounter while using it. If this is an extremely common ability, and one
that can affect entire groups of enemies at once, then, yes, it would seriously
affect the role of metal in combat. Though, it might not mean abandoning metals
entirely.

So, let’s pick apart those questions and talk about what the mean for your
setting, and your question.

The biggest question is about how well the abilities work. Both the speed of
the ability, and its scale will directly affect how the ability needs to be dealt
with, if it does at all. If it’s on a large scale, torching an entire army at
once, for example, then the casting time (or the speed that the spell heats
metal) only matters if it’s long enough to find and kill the caster.

If the scale is small, one or two people, then the biggest threat would
(probably) be during combat. In that context, we’re back to kill the mage. This
is especially true if the mage needs to be in direct contact to make it work.
Even if they can simply zap whomever they see, they’d be limited to an area
denial role. That is to say, they could prevent hostile forces from rushing
corridors or streets that they’re watching. This also assumes there’s little to
no strain on the mage. If casting this is a strenuous action, and they’re
limited to a couple of zaps, it’s entirely possible they wouldn’t affect
warfare much at all.

If fire mages are exceedingly rare, either because it takes years of
dedicated training, because most people simply don’t have the ability, or
because mages suffer serious attrition during training, that means even large
scale burns won’t affect much.

Think about it this way, if there are five people on your world who can
instantly charbroil an enemy army in their own gear, that’s simply a threat to
be carefully tracked, and neutralized, before you start a battle.

As you add more (and the abilities become more common) it becomes harder to
keep track of enemy mages until you get to the point where it’s functionally
impossible to track them individually. Depending on your setting, that number
could actually get pretty high before you reach that point.

Also, with larger numbers, the smaller scale versions of the ability would
have more of a chance to affect how warfare works. If you’re able to field one
or two mages in your average army, and their primary role is as snipers, that’s
not going to affect how people fight, for the most part. (Though, it could,
seriously, alter how nobles behaved on the battlefield, or even if they’re
present at all.) But, if you can field entire squads of pyromantic infantry,
then those small, “reach out and torch someone,” abilities become a lot more
threatening. At that point, eliminating them before the fight is basically
impossible, so your setting would need ways to deal with them in the moment.

The hard part about introducing magic to a setting is establishing its
rules. To an extent, you need to build an entire set of metaphyics for why
magic works the way it does, before you start getting into specific abilities.
In the absence of that, you have a setting where people will (or, should) work
to counter the threats they face, and magic becomes the convenient answer for
all of life’s problems.

With fantasy, this isn’t automatically a problem, but it is something you
need to keep in mind, when you’re building your world. Look for systems to limit
how your magic works, and what it can do. Or, be ready for a setting that is
very difficult to work with, because the answer can always be, “magic.”

People are creative. When faced with the prospect of being cooked to death
by an enemy mage, the immediate solution is to find a way to prevent that, or preemptively
return the favor. This could be as simple as booby-trapping your soldiers (or
their gear) with spells that will redirect pryomantic magic back at the caster,
or enchanting their gear with some kind of thermal negation effect, so when the
pyromancers try to flash fry them, all they manage to do is give their foes
flaming weapons and armor.

This could also lead to armies making extensive use of divination, allowing them
to better track enemy mages. Which in turn would lead to mages looking for ways
to create decoys, moving around forces that don’t exist, in an effort to
confuse anyone scrying for them.

It could also result in the creation and enhancement of other materials that
are magically immune to pyromancy, or made from something the pyromancers can’t
affect. Such as impossibly durable resins, or unmelting, super-hard ice plates.

It’s also worth realizing that these kinds of powers would radically change
the way metallurgy developed as a technology. When you have mages that can replicate
forge technology that wouldn’t “naturally” exist for centuries. There’s a lot
of potential for changing the way it evolves. You could very easily see much
higher quality steels than the real world ever produced in its analogous era,
and potentially even alloys that simply aren’t possible in the real world. I’m
not sure what 12th century battlefields would have looked like with space age
alloys, but it’s not outside the range of possibility for your setting.
Especially if your pyromancers can participate in the refinement process as
well. This also leads to the potential that they may have materials that are
centuries ahead of their technology, (because magic allows them to work with
the mater directly).

When you’re creating a world, and you come up with an idea, usually, the
best thing to do after that is sit there, and see if you can find all the ways
people would react to it. An ability like being able to instantly heat metal to
forging temperatures would be dangerous in combat, but it would also have many other potential applications.

-Starke

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My story has blood mages, who require their blood to work magic. What are the best places to lose blood and be able to survive? Preferably it needs to be more than just a drop that fingers give. Thanks in advance!!

The best place to get a lot of blood when you need it fresh is from someone else.

Here’s the thing, blood magic is a form of human sacrifice. The idea is a life is more powerful than drawing on or channeling the ambient energy which surrounds us in the universe at large. That is the actual magical theory. It’s sacrificial magic. You’re sacrificing your (in this case, literal) life energy in order to empower or gain the power to cast your spells. The logical choice from a survival and concentration standpoint is to use someone else’s life, especially if the spell calls for a lot of blood.

You don’t want to be losing blood in vast quantities, but you can pretty much cut anywhere to get blood. Your body is full of veins. If just a dash will do, these mages can cut pretty much anywhere so long as they don’t nick a major artery.

The problem, however, with using your own blood for spell casting is that blood loss causes dizziness and a loss of concentration. This is pretty much the perfect storm of terrible ideas when it comes to attempting to fundamentally alter reality. Reality bending is definitely the best time to lose concentration and, possibly, pass out in a dizzy haze of confusion.

In most magical systems, the magic will just keep taking if the mage leaves the spell open ended. Without safeguards, even a potentially minor spell can be deadly and cause a bleed out. That’s the problem. It’s magic, you could just bleed indefinitely in a spell gone wrong until you die. The bigger and more complex the spell, the more likely this is. If the injury won’t clot because the spell is drawing on blood inside the mage’s body, they will eventually bleed to death. It doesn’t matter where. If the volume lost exceeds the volume generated then they will die.

So, consider the operational costs. Sacrifice someone else.

That’s what cultists are for.

-Michi

(And never cut across the palm of the hand. It’s not deadly in a blood loss sense, but it does suck and involves your character giving up their hand for a few weeks. The back of the hand is better, the top of the forearm, etc.)

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I’m trying to figure out a form of magic that isn’t Elemental, and all I can really think of is something like telekinesis. What do you think of avoiding cliche ‘elemental’ magic? Do you have any advice for doing so?

fixyourwritinghabits:

Well, almost anything can be reduced to the elemenst if you think about it, but why being a reductionist? That could be your starting point.

Taking what I just wrote above, not everything is matter, why not use energy as a source of magic? Not only telekinesis, think of Magneto, the guy can control magnetic forces, Flash was given the Speed Force, Black Canary uses the Canary Cry, which are sonic vibrations, and so on.

There are other forms of magic, not necessarily related to an specific energy, healing, for example. What kind of energy or elementat form is magic healing? What about electronic devices? There can be magic related to them. What about opening portals to different worlds, or teleportation? These can be considered superpowers instead of magic, that’s where your imagination has to step in.

To avoid the elemental magic cliché, give it a twist. What if everytime you use earth magic, let’s say create a wall to protect yourself from an attack, you create an earthquake somewhere else? What if, in order to use water magic you have to be hydrated  otherwise you can’t? (There’s a scene in The Incredibles where Frozono can’t use his powers because the air is too dry).

Here are some links to guide you through

Hope this helps you.

L.-

I probably should have slapped this into the “Top Ten Coolest Magic
Systems” post, but here’s another, slightly oddball example, that might
get you thinking.

Mage: The Ascension split magic into nine “spheres,” or kinds of magic.

Correspondence was magic based on location. This ranged from a mage knowing exactly where they were, to being able to find anything, or anyone, to teleportation, depending on the power of the mage.

Entropy was the ability to predict and affect random events, or the natural decay of things. A mage versed in entropy could predict the future, prevent objects from wearing out.

Forces was the basic “elemental” magic sphere, with a significant twist. It did include things like fire and lightning, but it also affected other physical forces, like electricity, kinetic energy, magnetism, and gravity. A mage versed in forces could track an electrical current, or even prevent a security alarm from triggering. A master of forces could potentially initiate a nuclear detonation or extinguish a star’s nuclear fission.

Life was the ability to affect and alter living objects. It included sensing life, healing, harming, and shapeshifting.

Matter was the companion sphere for Life that affected inanimate objects. This included things like transmutation, but also allowed a mage to determine an object’s exact composition.

Mind was telepathy and psionics. It also allowed mages to manipulate memories or even someone’s identity.

Prime was a kind of metamagic, interacting specifically with magic. Prime could make magical effects permanent, or effectively defend against another mage’s attacks. It also allowed a mage to detect magic being used, regardless of the sphere.

Spirit specialized in interacting with extra-dimensional beings, “spirits.” This tied directly into the setting’s cosmology, but the basic idea should be fairly self explanatory. As I recall, at higher levels it would allow mages to enter the spirit realms (The Umbra).

Time was the ability to sense and manipulate time. This ranged from a mage being able to always know exactly what time it was, view past or future events, enter “bullet time,” up through being able to freeze time or step outside of it.

There was some intentional overlap, the Spheres were designed with the idea that mages could mix multiple spheres together to create a desired magical effect.

Additionally the setting operated under a consensus reality system, where overtly magical actions would incur severe backlash. So there was a very strong incentive for mages to come up with inventive ways to deal with their problems. It was flat out better to deal with an attacker by giving them a heart attack or cause their weapon to fail catastrophically, than to start throwing fireballs around.

-Starke

I need some help, in my novel my main character has a lot of skills with swords but people on my fantasy planet have powers, so when my main character battles the villian won’t it seem usles to use swords when they can use powers?

Okay, I think you’ve mentally ended up in a rock, paper, scissors conflict. Which is it goes round and round until you decide one is inherently superior to the other so there’s no point in using it like rock or paper. Everyone chooses rock, right? So the best choice is paper! What’s the point of using scissors if it’s always smashed by rock? Even though scissors are still a viable option as they cut paper, they get ignored because they’re seen as less useful.

Except, scissors cuts paper. If someone comes to a match expecting their opponent to throw rock and think the best move for them is paper, then you change your move to… you guessed it. Scissors.

Right now, you’re thinking of those swords like some people think of scissors. Useless because everyone else has a rock. So step back for a moment, if your character is surrounded by people with powers and but has none of their own, they put their time in training with swords (or a variety of different weaponry, give them some credit here) then wouldn’t a part of their training also focus on dealing with people who have powers? Wouldn’t that be part of what they’re preparing for as it’s an eventual inevitability?

You have a character who is an underdog. They are absolutely at a statistical disadvantage, which is sort of the point of your story. However, if your characters are at a disadvantage, they don’t need to enter the conflict as if it’s on an even keel. If your hero cannot fight your villain then they must find a way to either:

A) Find aid to defeat them, some way to bring themselves up to their level by way of a friend helping them or through some other means. (If you’re writing a love story then it’s often the lover combining their powers with the hero to empower them.)

B) Find a way to bring the villain down to their level.

C) Subvert the villain’s advantages through some other means.

D) The hero goes to certain death, intentionally playing for time on the hopes or plan that someone more capable is going to defeat the villain.

If you can’t defeat someone conventionally, you find alternatives. If you want a “man to man” kind of fight then you build your hero and antagonist as equals where the skill difference between them is manageable or can be managed by the story.

You can build a very interesting story around a hero going on a quest or finding a way to subvert the villain’s magical powers. They might start feeling that it’s impossible and then through their journey with a side of character development realize that they either 1, don’t need to go through it alone (power of friendship), or 2, they figure out a solution to their problem that they can handle by themselves.

You have to decide that though and you need to come up with it yourself.

What you’ve created for yourself is the old analogy:

“Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.”

And now you’re gotten stuck on it. Your hero brought a sword to a magic fight. It seems impossible when you look at it from that direction. He’s totally outmatched, right? Magic beats swords. Guns beat knives.

However, the fact is that the knife can be quite dangerous in a gunfight, most people who do don’t stand opposite at ten paces and wait for the go signal so the other guy can shoot them. They start close and attack before the guy with the gun has time to draw. Can’t use a gun if you can’t get it out of your holster. It takes time to aim and fire. If the guy with the knife starts within grabbing distance as most muggers do, already has the knife out, and closes the distance then it’s over long before it gets started.

Funny, isn’t it?

Not so much, actually. The knife/gun thing happens in real life and people have died as a result of it. A large portion of people who choose to carry a gun as a form of self-defense get caught up in the same idea you did with magic. That so long as you have the gun, it trumps other weapons. All the hours put in at the shooting range don’t help much if they haven’t been practicing point shooting, quick draws, and learning to be aware of your surroundings.

Statistics, advantages, and conventional wisdom all have their place but when they’re keeping you from stopping, sitting down, and problem solving your situation. If you’ve hit a dead end then it’s time to go back to the drawing board and your setting’s magic system. Powers and magic needs limitations, it’s easy to make it so that they can do everything but not only is that unhelpful, it’s also boring. Sit down and think about limits and weaknesses that you can put on the setting’s magic system. There’s Vancian systems like in Dungeons & Dragons for wizards where they can only perform a certain number of spells per day or ones they’ve memorized. There’s Fullmetal Alchemists’ equivalent exchange.

One of my favorites is from L.E. Modesitt Jr’s Saga of Recluce where the forces of Order and Chaos meant that you could only perform certain types of magic certain ways with nasty side effects such as headaches, backlash, and extreme hunger just for doing it, much less doing it wrong. Chaos mages, though far more aggressive and actively destructive, for example were all doomed to die young and turn to ash. Their magic aged them rapidly. Those who totally immersed themselves too much in chaos could be killed simply by coming into contact with an object created by an Order wizard and even metals commonly associated with Order could be toxic such as an iron arrowhead. Order wizards, meanwhile, build. They can live for a very, very long time if they maintain their rigid orderly lives, but order is also extremely dull. Their creations can be actively destructive, but they themselves are limited to protection. They can only work magic through objects such as a staff whereas Chaos wizards just channel. Both groups need to eat a substantial amount of food or they start to waste away as the magic they use has a direct effect on their bodies equivalent to performing strenuous exercise. They can be blinded or even killed by overdoing or channeling too much magic.

One of Starke’s favorites is Mage: the Ascension (note: not Awakening) an urban fantasy/punk rock RPG system from White Wolf which features a concept called Paradox. Mage’s world is built on a consensus reality and the power of will, if everyone believes that there is no magic then there is no magic except for that one guy over there with a lot of willpower who decides there is and is now overriding everyone else. The trick with magic and paradox is that you can do magic, so long as you don’t get caught. If you get caught doing something that shouldn’t exist according to the consensus then you receive reality backlash that makes the spell go awry. Paradox doesn’t care about your intentions, it only cares if you did it.

This brings us to the “Threefold Law” in Wicca which firstly a real religious tenet and secondly is similar in concept to karma. It also appeared in Gerald Gardner’s 1949 novel according to the Wiki:

“Thou hast obeyed the Law. But mark well, when thou receivest good, so
equally art bound to return good threefold.” (For this is the joke in
witchcraft, the witch knows, though the initiate does not, that she will
get three times what she gave, so she does not strike hard.)

If you use a fantasy magic system in line with the Threefold Law then it’s an ethical test for your mage. You do good with your magic then you’ll receive good, but do bad or selfish acts and you will receive bad in turn.

You may not want something that costly for yourself, but it’s worth going through the fantasy section at your local library and making note of the different magic systems, the costs, and what they affect.

I’m not the biggest fan, but Jim Butcher’s Furies of Calderon starts with a protagonist who has no powers and has to live by his wits. (The first (few?) books anyway.)

So, instead of pondering your hero, ponder your setting and your villain. Once you know how both work, it often becomes easier to see the path out.

-Michi

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