Building an Epic Fantasy World: Magic, Science, Art, Scientific Method, and Technology

In my previous post, I went into detail on how I designed the physical geography of the world and what considerations I had towards the setting. See the last post here. This time, I’ll go into what makes a fantasy setting, well, fantasy. Strapping men with bare chests and scantily clad women… er, no not that kind of fantasy. Magic, we’re talking about magic. Because that scene where the hero(ine) is about to cut loose and slay their foe is so much more impressive when they do so swinging a magic sword, right?

I’ll pause here and mention that I essentially shelved my entire writing project for years while I designed a magic system for it. This is not me tooting my horn, this is me warning you, as a reader, that it can be a process that takes over, that there are hazards in world building.

Like anything else in writing, magic should not be the end-all-be-all of the story. I spent years developing the rules of my magic systems and what it all boils down to is that it works best if it’s in the background of the story rather than front and center. The reader doesn’t want a ten page explanation of how the conjuring functions. Nor do they want the down on their luck adventurers to have the day saved at the end of the story because… well, it’s magic! Establishing rules for it is a good way to avoid the latter, while the former is something to avoid through improving your writing craft. Personally, I’m of the mindset that it’s better to have details that the reader doesn’t need than to leave the reader feeling that they were ‘robbed’ by the ending of your story.

All that said, what do you want to accomplish with the magic in your world? For me, I’m irritated by magic in books and movies that has no price. I’m an engineer by both education and trade, I know that energy has to come from somewhere… so when the wizard cuts loose with beam of purest light… where’s he getting the juice? Matter can neither be created or destroyed (energy too, they’re exchangeable). The answer, for my world, is that there are tons of power sources. Heat and light are the most common, and obvious, sources of power. Those are what our current technology relies upon to produce electricity. So, creatures and people who use arcane power do so from stores of energy they converted from heat or light… or other ‘free’ sources of energy.

This then led me to categorize what forms of magic we’ve heard of and to develop practical methods for them. I won’t go exhaustively into detail, but I developed rules for wizards, witches, gods, demons, priests, mages, and sorcerers, all based off of different methods of transfer, storage, and usage of that available energy. From here, I also applied different methods of each. Some wizards would approach the use of their magic in a scientific method, exploring the capabilities and potential through experiments and gradually refining it over time. Others, in turn, would approach it like an art form, eschewing crude or clumsy spells for ones that serve multiple purposes or accomplish a task with greater subtlety. Lastly, as far as magic, I figured knowledge would be powerful. Knowing about thermodynamic processes would give a spellcaster advantages. Understanding complex geometry when drawing a rune would improve their efficiency. Wizards, therefore, would need to be both well educated and smart enough to apply their knowledge of science. Mages and Sorcerers, whose magic is focused on biological constructs and modifying living creatures, would need to know exhaustive details of biology, chemistry, botany, and medicine, to better practice their arts. This in turn, also applied to the cultures of the world. Some cultures would approach magic in scientific measures, experimenting and pushing the boundaries, while others would develop it to an art form. Still others would encourage the use of horrific biological experiments and creating monsters, while others would use the same forms of magic to prevent the spread of disease and heal.

The next step, for me, was why did humanity utilize magic instead of technology? At its simplest level, technology is sharply distinct from magic. There is a sharp cause and effect split. Praying to a spirit to put out a fire is far different than filling a bucket with water and dousing it. Some levels of technology would have to function or else the world wouldn’t make much sense. Muscle powered things such as weapons, tools, and the like would need to work. But why wouldn’t more complex things, like gunpowder, steam power, or even clockwork devices?

My solution to this issue was twofold. First, I’d already established that power had to come from somewhere. What if beings seeking power could take it from available sources? Steam power requires a heat source, and if an educated wizard can drain the heat out without the use of a steam engine, why would he want to build one? Furthermore, if there are energy beings in search of sources of power, items like steam engines would be targets. Energy beings would feed off of them, passing the heat to the outside air and gaining power in the energy transfer. The same would work for combustion engines. The same effect would work for chemicals such as nitroglycerin and gunpowder. Energy beings would see the potential energy in such items, and for a slight cost (a spark) they could harness the latent energy in one jolt… having catastrophic results for anyone in the area.

The second part, for me, was what would stop more advanced technology? In my planned background, the people of Eoria were descendents of multiple colonization waves. They lost their technology as it failed over time. The answer for me was a low grade electromagnetic field generated by the magnetic field of the star. This would cause electrical differences that would cause sparks, static welding, and other issues that would slowly cause failure on most technology. Everything from circuit boards to metal gears would be affected over time, gradually failing. Combined with the voracious energy beings of the planet, any high tech civilization which visited would have power cells drain rapidly, parts break, and would generally see a systematic failure of their equipment. Would there be a work-around? Of course, but the easiest method would be to adopt the local magic forms and once the transfer was made, then why try to rebuild a technology base when the infrastructure for magic is already in place?

That’s my method of designing magic and technology in my world. As you can see, I focused on what I wanted and then set the circumstances that would create that. Along the way, I established rules for the magic system, to limit the capabilities and explain what would work and what wouldn’t. Next post I’ll talk a bit about how I designed the cultures and societies of Eoria.

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