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Design Notes: Magic in Saynim 3
So far, I’ve described how I took certain cues from Paracelsus’s speculations about elementals in developing the way magic works in Saynim. Everybody in Saynim has a connection to one of the classical elements, though not everyone can bring their elemental chaos to bear to produce dramatic effects.
How hard is it to do magic? Though it never makes it into the story, I thought it would be helpful to classify some basic difficulty tiers for magic. In general, the more “wrong” a working seems, the harder it is to do:
- First Tier: Spooky. Is it truly magic at all or is it the result of subtle misdirection, hypnosis, dumb luck, or an amazing coincidence?
- Second Tier: Unearthly. Supernatural effects that manipulate features already present in the environment: subtle illusions; accelerated healing; remarkable feats of strength, insight, persuasion, and so forth. Skeptics in the mortal realm will still dismiss these effects as “smoke and mirrors,” untapped powers of the mind, etc.
- Third Tier: Legendary. The stuff of legends: lightning bolts, shapeshifting, true invisibility, etc. In the mortal realm, eyewitnesses tend to experience emotional turmoil when observing this level of magic, and skeptics struggle to find rational explanations.
- Fourth Tier: Cosmic. Reality-ripping effects that defy all rational explanation. Virtually anything is possible: floating castles, dimensional portals, stopping time, meteor storms, summoning armies of demons, etc.
All of my Saynim folk characters use magic on a particular tier. Most of them operate somewhere in the second or third tier, which makes them above average. The most powerful individuals in Saynim, the Gentry, are all at the fourth tier and are almost literally forces of nature.
Of course, using harder magic puts you in the fast lane to losing your free will and becoming a living embodiment of your elemental chaos, so even if you can do higher-tier magic, you’ll probably want to try something subtler first.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the powers of the classical elements can be metaphorical as well as prosaic. Over the centuries, all the elements have accumulated cultural associations with particular mental states, cultural aspirations, or transformations. Books and websites that describe the symbolism of these elements (in astrology or what have you) have proven to be a goldmine of jumping-off points for how different characters might use their powers in creative ways.
So part of what Rune can do as a weaver of the airy chaos is to stir up breezes and even “fly” for short distances (and at great cost!) by riding the wind. But he can also influence thought, perception, communication, and rapid movement generally. Similarly, Rune’s sidekick Brack is a metal-weaver, which makes him accomplished at enhancing or changing the properties of metals but it also gives him a degree of control over such spheres as warfare, wealth and prosperity, technology, and strength.
I find this gives the magic a bit more personality that just slamming each other with fireballs or whirlwinds or what have you. The magical practitioners of Saynim have many tools at their disposal. It’s just a matter of what creative ways they can think to use them.
Design Notes: Magic in Saynim 2
In the realm of Saynim, magic is an intrinsic part of every individual. As noted previously, I’m imagining Saynim as inhabited by creatures the Renaissance physician and alchemist Paracelsus described as elementals: gnomes, sylphs, salamanders, and undines. But here I diverge from Paracelsus in three particulars.
First, Saynim is a realm where all of these beings coexist in the same medium. We can imagine a “fire world,” a “water world,” and so forth, but Saynim is where all of these elements (Paracelsus most often calls them “chaoses”) blend together.
Second, the four “classical” elements of earth, air, fire, and water are only the beginning of the options available. Far Eastern alchemy has a five-element scheme. It shares earth, fire, and water with the Western system but replaces air with wood and adds metal. Drawing from Norse cosmology, I further propose ice as an important “element” in contrast to fire, with enough distinctiveness to set it apart from water. Finally, lightning, somewhere between fire and air, completes the picture, though it is very rare.
Third, though every individual in Saynim is connected to an elemental chaos on a deep, personal level, not every individual is magically accomplished. For most, the connection with one’s chaos is much subtler. It influences one’s temperament and outlook on life, but it doesn’t result in reality-ripping powers. Think of it as something like a spiritual path or religion, but one that is at least partly hard-wired into one’s essence. Connection to a given chaos will lead you to value certain things, behave in certain ways, or make certain moral choices. It will suggest that certain ways of disposing of the dead are more appropriate than others (earth/burial, fire/cremation, etc.).
Both Western and Eastern alchemy associated various psychological temperaments with each element. For example, air is associated with intellect but is also flighty and aloof; earth is “grounded” but prone to melancholy, etc.
And these associations give me my first insight into how magic works in Saynim: the cost of using magic is tied to the psychological influence of one’s elemental chaos. In simplest terms, use too much magic, and you lose a bit of free will as your elemental chaos takes over. Usually, this loss is temporary, but there is always the possibility that someone will try too much and effectively lose themself in their element.
What this means is that using magic plunges the practitioner ever deeper into the elemental chaos from which it springs. A skilled magician can do incredible feats, but may be forever changed by the effort. As you might imagine, this trade-off enters into the picture whenever Rune, my protagonist, edges up to the abyss as he uses magic to overcome his adversaries.
Design Notes: Magic in Saynim 1
Shadow of the King began with two ideas, one about plot and the other about worldbuilding.
The idea about plot was to turn the trope of the mundane person who discovers they’re actually supernatural (a wizard, a demigod, etc.) and is whisked into a magical world on its head. What if the hero grew up in a magical world and then got whisked off to Main Street USA?
The idea about worldbuilding was to let Paracelsus and other Renaissance and early modern thinkers inspire as much as possible about who lives in the aforementioned magical world and about how magic works in the first place.
In short, Saynim—my name for this world—would reflect Paracelsus’s speculations about gnomes, sylphs, undines, and salamanders, creatures strongly associated with the classical elements.
In Occult Philosophy, Paracelsus states:
The Elementals are not spirits, because they have flesh, blood and bones; they live and propagate offspring; they eat and talk, act and sleep, etc., and consequently they cannot be properly called “spirits.” They are beings occupying a place between men and spirits, resembling men and spirits, resembling men and women in their organization and form, and resembling spirits in the rapidity of their locomotion.
These aren’t “elementals” the way such creatures are usually described, beings made of earth or air or what have you. They are beings of flesh and blood and bone. They eat and sleep. They have children. They are not spirits, but they’re not entirely human, either. What sets them apart is that they are deeply connected to one of the classical elements.
In the next few weeks, I’m going to share a little about how I envisioned these Saynim folk and how their unique existence shapes their culture, their outlook, and especially their magic.
I hope you’ll join me, and I hope you’ll share this post with others who might enjoy it.