Physics, Technology, and Limits in Fantasy Universes:
Quite a few game-worlds use some version of “Elemental Physics” – some combination of magic and the “elements” of Fire, Earth, Water, and Air. Most also include a dualistic pair of spiritual elements or forces, whether as a single entity with two aspects or as an opposing pair. They may call them Life/Death, Positive Energy/Negative Energy (or Chi), Void/Shadow, Light/Darkness, Purity/Corruption, Good/Evil, Spirit/Abyss, or Creation/Destruction – but the general trend is clear: you have good stuff and bad stuff. Composite elements like “Wood” or “Metal” usually get tossed out because they’re too easily transformed into other things.
A few systems throw in some weird magical or extradimensional forces which corrupt the natural order of reality, and a vague principle of “purity” which counteracts such corruption, but that isn’t really required.
Nevertheless, there are strong similarities between such worlds and reality. After all, the basic mechanics of the world have to be familiar enough to play in. At the most basic level, the seven Fundamentals of Physics pretty much invariably apply:
Fundamentals of Physics:
- Matter can be broken up into very small independent bits.
- The bits may stick together fairly firmly or move around, but they don’t normally pass through each other.
- You have to push or pull on it to change what it’s doing at the moment.
- If there’s twice as much matter, you have to push twice as hard to get the same amount of change.
- Pushing on the same side adds up. Pushing on the other side subtracts from the push on the first side.
- Gravity affects most matter; it pulls/pushes down hard enough to make most materials fall at the same speed.
- Matter that is being pushed on from both sides gets squeezed; the forces don’t just disappear.
In more “technical” terms these rules cover the particulate nature of matter (1), it’s basic physical properties (2), inertia (3), mass (4), vector forces (5), gravitation and the equivalence of inertial and gravitational mass, at least for basic situations near a planetary surface (6), and pressure/impact (7). All the apparent complexity of Earthly Newtonian physics is due to the fact that the number of little “bits” involved is extremely large. Trajectories, hydrodynamics, friction, leverage, et al, are pretty complicated to describe from the “outside” – but arise automatically from these seven basic rules.
So the physical basics – the rules governing trajectories, impacts, weights, levers and pulleys, pneumatics and hydraulics, sailing ships, whirlpools, friction, gears, springs, and other clockwork – all work perfectly well.
It’s in chemistry and higher physics where things start to break down. In Elemental worlds there are no conventional “atoms”, no “electrical forces”, and no “subatomic particles”. There are no elements other than the five or six basics. All the various metals and materials of the world are simply combinations of those basic “elements”.
In such worlds “Chemistry” – or more properly, Alchemy – involves awakening the elemental energies of materials and changing the proportions of the fundamental elements that make them up.
Materials do not “burn” in elemental worlds: the elemental Fire within them may be more or less eager to escape, and adding more Fire to an item may stir up the Fire within it and start the process, but Air is not required. It’s simply that Fire likes mixing with Air more than it likes mixing with Fire and Water. Water, of course, tends to enjoy company. It will absorb quite a bit of the other elements, but readily takes on some of their properties in the process. Earth doesn’t really pay attention, and tends to retain it’s own structure regardless of the presence of the other elements. Air mixes readily with almost anything, but separates out again readily as well, while the spiritual force of choice permeates and links everything, but is usually passive or reactive at best.
Corrosives (“acids” and “bases” do not exist) are simply over-aggressive Water. The various metals can be transformed into each other fAirly readily (although it is very difficult to achieve the delicate elemental balance of gold and silver). The skill of the smith is far more vital than the raw materials in achieving a metal appropriate to the use. Gemstones are simply Fire – or sunlight, the purest form of Fire – caught in Earth. None of these things are of that much value compared to craft and magic.
Explosives are simply Fire-rich materials from which the spirits of Fire are eager to escape – to the point of being frantic. Explosives, matches, and similar items and materials produced in n lands where the elements are fairly quiescent are touchy and occasionally offensive to more active spirits. Explosives produced in lands with active spirits, or where frequent meddling has kept the spirits more wakeful, are horribly unstable – 10 to 20% likely to go off at the slightest chance or provocation. Those who want to use explosives in such lands are well advised to invest in importing less touchy stuff, rather than risking the use of unstable home brews.
Electricity does not exist. Lightning is simply a manifestation of over-excited Fire spirit, messages within the body are carried by the element of Air – which is why a constant supply of it is needed to sustain life – and light is simply a weak and diffuse (if very fast-moving) form of Fire. Friction “wears away surfaces” and “produces heat” because it stirs up the Fire within the substances involved and encourages it to come out. There is no static electricity. Amber may glow when rubbed on silk, but its because Fire from the cloth – which will degrade a little when a bit of its Fire is drawn from it – has been drawn into it.
Refraction does not exist in the conventional sense. Water twists and distorts light passing through it because Water absorbs a part of the light and because it is it’s nature to conceal its depths and offer alternate possibilities. Lenses, sheets, and pieces of glass and crystal may reveal things, but it’s because revelation is the nature of crystal, not because of light refraction. A crystal lens could reveal personality traits, strange energies, lies, or glimpses of the future, let you see through people’s clothing, show what is far away, translate what you view through it, or magnify small objects, all depending on the type and quality of the crystal and on the skill and knowledge of its crafter.
Unfortunately for would-be industrialists, heat in elemental worlds is not a measure of energy. It’s simply a measure of how much raw unbound Fire is in something. Rising temperatures will cause materials to expand and drop in density a bit – simply because the Fire takes up some room in a gas or liquid (it usually occupies the tiny hollows in a solid) and is virtually weightless – but there is no great increase in pressure or expansion-cooling effect to drive a steam engine, internal combustion engine, or turbine. The only viable sources of power are muscles, wind, Water, descending weights, and magic. Theoretically you might be able to tap into the tensions between life and death or creation and nothing – the rough equivalents of fission and fusion power for elemental worlds – but those energy sources usually seem to be reserved for the elemental lords and Gods respectively.
Secondarily, while industrial and assembly-line processes are possibly, they are limited by the spiritual natures of the elements. Alchemical results – such as the creation of acids, explosives, and alloys and the extraction of compounds, drugs, and poisons – are achieved as much by spiritual communion with the materials as by physical manipulations, and cannot be effectively scaled up. Alchemy is doomed to remain an art, rather than a science.
A similar communion is involved in the production of other items. In such worlds, even items of ordinary quality are invariably well- designed for their purposes, nicely-balanced, of well-chosen materials, and of what citizens of the world today would call expert- to master-level craftsmanship.
Remember: when you’re comparing skills, in most such worlds people routinely achieve levels of skill even without formal “magic” which anyone living in the real world would consider blatantly magical – physicians capable of swiftly and flawlessly repAiring major wounds are the most blatant example, since – in almost all such settings – the widespread prevalence of combat virtually requires it.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t use muscle- or power-driven mills, looms, lathes, sewing machines, hammers, presses, and assembly lines. It just means that early industrial processes with limited human and spiritual involvement produce items of substandard quality. More modern systems – with virtually no spiritual involvement – produce greatly inferior items.
Only a master craftsman, working from the beginning with his own hands, can stir the spirits of his materials enough to create a true masterwork, suitable for building legends around. Using aides and simple muscle-driven machines – or magic – to reduce the time and effort required limits the possible quality of the results to one level below the maximum (on whatever scale is in use in the game) and makes it slightly harder to achieve even the lower levels of craftsmanship. Using aides and simple power-driven machines to (greatly) reduce the time and effort required reduces limits the quality of the final results to two levels below the maximum and makes it notably more difficult to achieve any level of craftsmanship. Using more advanced power-driven machines, such as duplicating lathes, limits the results to three levels below the maximum level of quality and makes achieving even that quite difficult.
A spirit-mage willing to perform regular rituals of appeasement could reduce or negate most of these penalties, but mages usually have better things to do than hanging around to conduct appeasement rituals (even if they aren’t inclined to simply recommend that you stop annoying the spirits in the first place).
Similar problems apply to agriculture, wherein a personal relationship with the spirits of the land, plants, and animals increases production and quality more than “efficient” – but impersonal – “modern” techniques. It’s not that industrialization is impossible, its simply that – under the usual circumstances of sufficient production and an obsession with quality – it doesn’t pay.
There’s room for mechanization-without-penalty in basic materials processing, such as picking the stones out of clay for pottery, grinding flour, removing the seeds from raw cotton, spinning thread, and in similar occupations where even the spirits aren’t expecting anyone to really pay a lot of attention.
On the biological side, plants take in Fire from the sun, use Earth to define their structure and store the Fire, and Water to drive their slow movements, healing, and growth. They use virtually no Air and those in an area usually share a collective spirit, linked by their traces of the spiritual force – the catalyst which allows them to bind the other elements together.
Animals use Earth to define their structure and to resist external forces. Without it, they would be nothing but soft masses, like seaweed. They use Water to grant their bodies flexibility and to absorb the signals of the outside world. Without it they would lack motion and senses. They use Fire for energy and speed; without it they would fall into stasis and their spirits would depart. Sadly, while Earth is stable, Fire and Water slowly leak away, and must be resupplied regularly if the body is to continue to function. Animals use Air to communicate, both with each other and to carry the commands of their spirit through the body. However, since Air is unstable and readily leaks away, without a near-constant fresh supply they will become paralyzed, lose awareness of their bodies, and their link to their spirit will fail. In animals, the Spiritual Element is passive, leaving them reactive and inclined to live for the moment, but in intelligent beings it is active, giving them full consciousness. In some worlds, some or all intelligent beings can tap into their spiritual power directly, but that’s an optional extra.
“Biochemistry” does not exist. Poisons and diseases thus operate somewhat differently: they either destroy vital tissues and organs directly or create elemental imbalances. Diseases and poisons which paralyze by disrupting Air, transform the victim into stone, dissolve them, or cause them to burst into flame are all possible, and may result from either physical or spiritual causes.
While there are occasional messy cases when a spirit goes wandering – usually in dreams – or is otherwise detained, Death is usually straightforward in elemental worlds; when a spirit can no longer maintain an active link to its body, the creature is dead. Up until that point healing virtually any wound is relatively simple: get the pieces lined up and tucked together properly, provide a bit of the appropriate elemental forces – whether via magic or by judicious use of appropriate herbs – and watch the wounds close up. Scarring or incomplete healing may occur if the pieces are not-quite properly lined up or if some malevolent magic warps the process, and amputations may occur if you can’t find the missing piece or can’t get it lined up properly (the liquid contents of the eye are especially prone to this sort of problem), but even these problems can be overcome with active (or occasionally even passive) magic and enough effort.
Energies derived from other realms represent both a corruption of the natural order and a link with the realm in question. Creatures must be reasonably tough and of some consequence to sustain the strain of hosting such energies. Those which are too weak will be killed by the strain and those which are of no consequence are insufficiently anchored in the world to resist the pull of another realm. Mosquitoes, small birds, and similar creatures can be touched by the other planes, but are simply drawn into them rather than being changed or corrupted by them. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, most realms are finite; their energies may corrupt regions, or large numbers of people – but they cannot corrupt the entire world without exhausting themselves. If such a realm wishes to take over the world (common enough, since the usual role of corruption in a setting is to provide opposition), it must target and claim powerful creatures, who can mold the world to its liking without forcing it to expend its own resources. There is little point to gratuitously corrupting powerless farmers, areas beyond a sufficient base, and similar grandiose stunts. There may be occasional special stunts, but they usually simply aren’t cost-effective.
Alien energies are usually static, but can progress like an infection when an active link to the source realm exists, whether due to some blood relationship, to foolishly calling on such energies to work magic, or due to the presence of some gateway or artifact.
Finally, while Inertia, Mass, and Forces are all simply minor characteristics of the elements, and are easily manipulated by magic, Gravitation is not: it’s derived from the structure of the planes: it is the nature of an elemental realm to draw to itself what belongs to it. Rise high enough, and you will pass beyond the reach of the local realm – and likely into another plane. Tunnel deeply enough, and gravitation will reverse – attempting to draw you back, either towards the center or before you pass into a deeper realm. Draw enough of the energies and matter of one plane into another and you will establish a bridge between them – what Earthly scientists might describe as a “gravitational bridge” or “wormhole”. The investigation of such things lies, fittingly enough, at the borders of physics in most elemental worlds.
While the great elemental events of elemental realms – large-scale weather, earthquakes, currents, volcanoes, tides, mountain-raising, and other large-scale geological, meteorological and hydrological events – are under the dominion of the great elemental spirits, they are theoretically manipulable. Still, mages capable of influencing events on such a scale, or over the lengths of time that manipulation on such a scale would probably require are few and far between in any realm if they occur at all.
Celestial events, such as the movements of the sun, moon, stars, and planets, and the great cycles of day and night, are often reflections of events in independent realms, and are beyond the direct reach of the inhabitants of other realms. Attempts to reach those celestial domains by simple travel are usually ineffectual, whether due to the failure of magic and technology between the realms, due to being unable to control where you arrive, due to interference by local powers who don’t want visitors, or simply due to their extreme difficulty. Still, occasional great heroes are usually reported to have succeeded.
So what can and can’t you make?
You can make precision watches and clocks, mechanical reapers, cotton gins, spinning jennies, sextants, dishwashers, production mills, fountain pens, vacuum cleaners, zippers, bolt-and-tumbler locks, bathospheres, babbage engines, gas masks, printing presses, crayons, gas lighting systems, compressed gases, hot air balloons, blimps, and dirigibles, pneumatics, hydraulics, and better ships. You can even make weak steam engines powered by external air pressure and the partial vacuum produced by condensing steam – but they’re very low-powered and use tremendous amounts of fuel for the amount of power they yield.
You can’t make electrical and electronic devices (from light bulbs and batteries on thru telegraphs, telephones, motors, computers, radios, and x-ray machines), conventional compasses (there are magical equivalents), telescopes, microscopes, eyeglasses, cameras, and other items depending on refraction, internal combustion engines, automobiles, effective tanks, nuclear weapons, or industrial chemicals.
If you do decide to start an industrial revolution you’re going to have to settle for lower quality and nurse it through a lengthy initial stage where it costs far more than it produces. If it was easy, it would have happened already.