How Fantasy Fails to Represent Magic

Magic is not meant to be realistic, it’s a force that is unquantifiable, unknowable, and above all: powerful and mysterious. But is it, really? Too often, magic is simply an excuse to apply modern science to a medieval setting, and often in such a way as to seem completely unreasonable.

In the last fifteen years, The Force has been shred apart by the same roleplaying games that made magic into an understandable science. It makes sense –– you have to understand a trait you’re putting on your character sheet. The problem is that, when coupled with the prequel movies and their exploration of what The Jedi Order is and was, The Force loses its appeal as a form of mysticism or magic and become something more akin to X-Men psionics. But none of that is why Star Wars did magic better than fantasy (to be sure, fantasy mages –– with their fireballs and Wish spells –– are more powerful than Jedi). Star Wars did it better because, within the setting, The Force means something.

In the Eberron setting for Dungeons and Dragons, magic is akin to science in that it is understood, quantifiable (to some degree), and everywhere. They have airships powered by trapped elementals, cities powered by magic…it’s little wonder why such a society hasn’t become modernized: they don’t need to!

But in a setting where any old Joe can learn magic, it loses its meaning as something mystical and on the edge of perception, unquantifiable and unknowable.

Now, Eberron, and settings like it, are incredible fun to roleplay in. Don’t get things mixed: I love fantasy roleplaying in most of its forms (and Eberron is definitely one of those that I’m fascinated by). But they miss the mark on magic for one important reason:

No One Cashes In!

When the internet hit, every Tom, Dick, and Harry threw themselves into the endeavor of figuring out how to make money with it. Storefronts that can blow away department stores went up, search engines were created to help consumers navigate to the most relevant storefronts, and companies like GoDaddy learned to capitalize on your very access to such commerce: by charging money for domain names and hosting.

A reality changing tool was created, and entrepreneurs found ways to make money off of, and limit access to, all of it.

Where are the fantasy entrepreneurs? Why isn’t someone buying up all of the material components of the most powerful spells and selling their wares or services to the highest bidder (especially compelling when the entrepreneur isn’t a magic-user)? This is more inexplicable when the setting has thousands of years of magic traditions –– someone would have capitalized on this by now. Someone would have limited access to it.

In recent years, D&D and others have tried to explain this away by suggesting that most people in the world know of magic but don’t touch it in any meaningful way. Then, in the very same section, they describe how adventurers use magic for everything! And this concept seems to completely ignore settings like Eberron, where streetlights are powered by magic.

How Star Wars Got it Right

While magic isn’t capitalized on in Star Wars (we don’t see any “Force Healer” shops set up to treat the super rich), the “magic” means something: you’re special. If you have access to The Force, then a group funded by the Galactic Republic will come and legally kidnap your children and force them into labor as keepers of the peace.

The Force (magic) is valuable, rare, and has consequences for the entire world: the galaxy-shattering Sith/Jedi wars that spring up every generation.

Not All Fantasy Got it Wrong

Dune has an economy built around a magical resource. Mistborn has guilds and an oppressive government that makes laws concerning the use of magic. My own Jadepunk limits magic by making the material components the most valuable commodities in the world.

Again, I’m not bashing on settings that have ubiquitous magic. Such settings are fun to play in. But there becomes a point where disbelief is no longer suspended because someone would have figured out a way to monetize nexus points and the ley lines that connect them (and why are cities so rarely built on such nexuses?).

Consider the economy and the reaction of enterprising entrepreneurs the next time you sit down to do some worldbuilding. Your readers and players will thank you for it.

24 comments On How Fantasy Fails to Represent Magic

  • One of the things that a lot of folks get wrong is that in a fantasy setting, magic is integral to the world. It is not just some window-dressing tacked onto 20th Century reality as a “get out of physics free” card. In a truly fantastic realm, if somebody cancels magic, the world starts falling apart. The idea is that just like quantum physics and cosmology there are a few people that understand magic (and how it functins) and a lot of people who just “use” magic (the way an electrician “uses” the rules he was taught in school, and tries not to get electrocuted). For me, the key is to continue to point out that the average person in an RPG setting, is kind of like the average home-owner in that the average home-owner, when his television does not work, calls a specialist, rather than attempting to fix it himself, though he is pretty certain that there are people out there who may know what has gone wrong.

  • Which is why I did not go into it, here. I figured if you were THAT interested, you would ask.

  • A corollary to Clarke’s 3rd Law: A sufficiently bad magic system is indistinguishable from technology.

    • I like that much better than “advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That, to me, is boring and too quantifiable for something so mysterious as magic.

      • What makes magic both “unquantifiable” and “mysterious” is that the average person does not comprehend the cosmological foundations of magic. Do we really think that Aristotle, or even Sir Isaac Newton, transported to the modern age could comprehend the functions of a smartphone?

        • Of course not, but that’s also boring. The fun of magic is doing the impossible. Manipulating known universal laws is a superpower, not magic.

          • Bryce Carlson

            However, a practitioner of magic has spent many years (apprenticeship, journeyman, adept) learning the “universal laws” of the fantasy realm, so that manipulation of them is like a technician making adjustments to a piece of equipment. ‘Tis very unlikely that your average joe, even if a trained thief of warrior, is going to see the utilization of this craft as anything less than miraculous. Of course, there in lies the twitch, as most players live with our modern technology and take it for granted, even if they have only the loosest comprehension of Why is works. Kind of like the average teen-ager (and some college students) with what happens under the hoods of their automobiles, or how the economy actually functions.

          • But what if it wasn’t like a technician? What if it was like a diplomat, urging the forces of the universe to work for them. A crafty diplomat will have studied its goal and opposition quite thoroughly, and can make a good argument, but there’s the chance of a misstep, a breach of protocol, an unknown drama behind the scenes that thwarts the attempt. It’s possible for such a diplomat to put things in their favor, but there are complexities and forces at work that are changing and fickle.

            That’s more interesting to me.

          • Bryce Carlson

            And there are people out there (technicians) that have a better grasp of what is actually going on than the crafty diplomat who is certainly able to ignore them, and get caught unawares by the variables he ignores. My personal feelings are that anybody can do whatever they want in terms of the magic portrayed in their fiction, however, if it is not defined in a way that makes it consistent and structured (at least to the practitioner) then we are back to magic being a deus ex machina that is completely at the whim of the GM which, to my perceptions, is like a murder mystery where when the culprit is caught, was never mentioned in the previous story and none of the clues point toward (except in the mind of the super-intelligent sleuth).

            Again, everybody is welcome to handle magic as they wish. I just prefer not to have my suspension of disbelief snapped so hard.

          • Agreed. There are people who love Sanderson’s “scientific” approach to magic, and people who prefer Rowling’s approach. There’s no bad/wrong fun. And I agree 1000% that there needs to be internal consistency, if not for what magic can do, then at least for what it can’t. And if something new is being introduced that it can do, it should be set up appropriately.

          • Bryce Carlson

            Exactly. At least having internal consistency lets everyone know what they can (or cannot) do. BTW I’m in love with “Age of Anarchy.”

          • Thanks, very much! That was a labor of love for myself and Paul.

  • Interesting read. I have always felt similar about religions in a Fantasy setting. Compared to the massive cultural, economical en political influence the various organised relegions have had on the history and development of out world it has always felt strange to me that in a Fantasy setting, were the gods and godesses reveal themself to be real through at times daily minor miracles (id est spells cast by their clerics), the influence they have on a Fantasy society is at times marginal.

    • Agreed! In a world where divinity walls among you and grants powers, why would anyone practice arcane magic at all? Or why is arcane magic not at least demonized by religions.

      Dragon Age did okay in this respect.

    • I also agree with you, when the power of the gods is felt on a daily basis, I feel that power needs to inform the culture and the moral certitude of the entire society.

  • “Why isn’t someone buying up all of the material components of the most powerful spells and selling their wares or services to the highest bidder (especially compelling when the entrepreneur isn’t a magic-user)?”

    Ha! I have a D&D 5e character (rogue arcane trickster/wizard) in my back pocket with this very ambition, if I can ever get an appropriate chance to play them. As I have conceived this character, they regard the “invisible hand of the economy” as the real magic, particularly in a world where magic could make conventional economics obsolete and where “the material components must flow,” so to speak.

  • Dragons whose flamey breath melts stone make the effort of building castles a futile endeavor. No castles exist in worlds where Dragons are rife. Instead, people live in and around narrow mouthed caves and underground. Temporal wooden towers are necessary only to scan the skies. Similarly, a ‘re-structure element’ spell does the same although it can also be used for construction. So the Wizards do indeed live in lavish palaces protected from Dragons and similar by their ‘teleport enemy to far away’ spells or at least a good force-field. Wizards rule, and anyone with no magic is sub-human by compare. Perhaps everyone has magic. In any case nobody need build anything so long as a friendly wizard is around to construct mud-huts of the sort which last a thousand generations. Nobody need eat so agriculture is as obsolete as studying any craft skill, including sewing, weaving, wood and metalwork. People become decadent, lazy, addicted to vices, until the horde of undead march upon them when the wizard goes bad or gets bored and twisted.

    When you see a fantasy world which is medieval Europe plus mythology and magic as a bolt-on added extra (and most of the fantasy industry falls into this category) you know it has not been thought through properly from root. The problem being such wonderful worlds as are possible if magic be commonplace, are so far outside the collective human imagination we find it very difficult to roleplay them cohesively without it becoming silly. We actually need those restrictions to function, to have common frames of reference. Those cliched tropes are bread and butter fantasy fare for a reason. Thus, magic and wizards must necessarily be a rare thing. There are less than a dozen of them in Lord of the Rings (Tolkien measures them in terms of colours and misses out most of those, leaving us guessing where the others went). And so it should be, because magic is special, wizards are special characters whose abilities must remain mysterious, even the wizard does not understand the full nature of magic despite being able to wield it to some extent.

  • Perhaps what magic is, it is the things we do personally, individually, uniquely, and develop our ability to the nth degree until it ‘breaks beyond the veil’.

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