Magic Versus Technology In The Modern World

Today it’s another offline question – basically “how do you maintain some sort of balance when you want to throw your favorite magical creatures of choice (Aesir, Noldor, Dragons, My Little Ponies, Genies, whatever) into a modern earth setting?”

Now, you can just arbitrarily decree such a balance if you want. That’s a bit unsatisfying though, and tends to leave all kinds of inconsistencies lying about – which isn’t good for your setting, game, or story. So lets talk about the basis of Magic/Psionics/Whatever-You-Call-Your-Settings-Reality-Altering-Power(s) for a moment.

  • Is it a fundamental property? Because if it is, and yet projected magical fields (“spells”, “disciplines”, or whatever) can have complex interactive effects, those fields have to have a lot of structure to them and carry a lot of information. How much structure or information you can have is related to the variety and number of components you have. That’s why the structure of gravitational fields tend to be fairly simple in comparison to the structure of electromagnetic fields. For complex interactive spell structures… you’ll want at least two values in both positive and negative flavors. Call them “A” and “B”. So scientists – even if they can’t measure, detect, or work with “magic” – will be seeing nine kinds of electrons (A+B+, A+B0, A+B-, A0B+, A0B0, A0B-, A-B+, A-B0, A-B-) with their own exotic interactions – and pretty much every bit of physics, engineering, and biology will be completely different building up from the atomic level. Worse, particles with “A0B0” won’t interact with magic at all, while anything with an “A0” OR a “B0” value will do so only partially. All those classical transformations and such… will simply scramble matter, resulting in instant death.

OK, so it’s an emergent property associated with some level of complexity. That allows us to keep atoms and the periodic table and a lot of basic physics intact.

But if magic is an emergent property, then it won’t interact with things below the necessary level of complexity – so magic will not directly affect gravity, electromagnetism, plasmas (“fire”), electricity (“lightning”), or radiation, among many other things. Spells affecting such things will have to be complex, inefficient, and indirect. Complex materials will respond to magic in various ways. Some will be anti-magical (Iron perhaps?), some will disrupt magic, some will respond to magic, and others will have magical properties – but if the complexity level required to use magic is high enough, that might be able to pass unnoticed for quite some time – possibly up to our current technological level. It will be very hard to justify the existence of immaterial magical spirits, who lack the underlying physical structural complexity to support the magic however. They’d have to be anchored in some sort of “heart” or talisman – which at least explains why ghosts tend to be bound to very limited areas.

  • Is magic simply highly advantageous, or is there some sort of limitation or “price” for using it? Because if it’s highly advantageous, it’s not going to be a secret for long. The magic using variant will rapidly spread through the population (of humans – or of magic-using animals, plants, or fungi) and the non-magic using segment of the species population will soon be reduced to isolated, relic, and soon-to-be-extinct clusters. There have been millions of years for that to happen in. Yet if the world looks like ours, then it hasn’t happened in all that time. Ergo… magic is either not worth bothering with (which makes it a lousy game or story element) or there is indeed some sort of major, unavoidable, price or prices for using it. Something bad enough to more than cancel out whatever advantages it offers, leaving magic use as a rare, recessive, trait. Reduced fertility (perhaps it burns out the souls of your potential children so that most can never be born…)? Massive childhood mortality due to magical diseases and immaterial predatory menaces that don’t affect non-magical creatures? Huge biological opportunity cost (leaving all magic-using things stunted, weak, and sickly compared to non-magical ones)? Drastically limited habitat (perhaps they can only survive at rare springs of magic)? Magical backlash (using magic does hideous things to you)? Karmic Backlash (using magic causes horribly bad luck, so magical creatures get killed a lot?). Perhaps using magic causes you to be sucked into dimensions of elder horrors?

We can reduce the problem by adding special requirements to the use of magic – but each requirement also restricts our options. Does manipulating it require a complex biological or technological mechanism? Forget “natural” or “environmental” magic such as Ley Lines, Magical Pools, and so on. Conscious Thought? Forget magical plants and animals. “Life Force” or a “Soul”? Forget most magical artifacts, wands, and similar. Special foci or power sources? Then no magic when those aren’t available – unless there are possible substitutes.

  • Finally, of course, even limited magic will have had immense social effects – leaving the world looking very different – unless something is keeping it a secret. Sadly, while “Witch Hunts” are a popular excuse, they really won’t do. After all, in reality, there are (and have been) swarms of practicing psychics, astrologers, dowsers, witches, shamen, alchemists, spiritualists, and other figures claiming supernatural powers who have done just fine. If they can get away with that while having no actual powers to sell or to defend themselves with (save, perhaps, force of personality, suggestion, and intimidation) why can’t people who actually have magical powers manage it too? While there were some classical “witch hunts” (if far fewer than in popular legend), they were mostly directed at powerless social outcasts. Going after targets with actual political, financial, or military power didn’t work so well outside of a few cases of kings and such (who had plenty of military and political power of their own already) using “witch hunts” as an excuse to loot a group – and there’s no reason to think that going after people who actually had magical powers would work any better.

So you’re going to need a much better reason than THAT. All kinds of other obscure phenomena have been documented and examined. Perhaps magical resources are limited, and there are not enough to share? Does having magic vastly penalize all social interactions for some reason? Secrecy (the classic meaning of “occult” is simply “hidden”) empowers magic, so revealing its reality weakens it or causes it to vanish entirely or restructure itself? The eldritch beings who provide the power (or magic itself) demands it? If too many people in a region know about true magic, they start going mad and killing each other off? Does humanities racial mind recognize the perils of magic and cast a veil over it, refusing to let normal people become aware of it?

The magicians themselves do not actually have to know why they keep it a secret. There just has to be a reason why either magical societies that do not maintain secrecy get eliminated with 100% reliability – (which simple prosecution will not do) or why non-magical people are 100% unable to become aware of magic – which no reasonable mortal intervention can accomplish.

In any case… we’ve got our first set of restraints. If you want to cram some magic into a world which looks a lot like the (no apparent magic) real one…

  • It must be an emergent property associated with a very high level of structural complexity to maintain physics.
  • It must be limited enough to not be an overwhelming advantage, otherwise it would spread very rapidly through the population
  • It must be associated with a fairly high level of conscious thought, otherwise it would have grossly distorted the evolution of life.
  • It must be self-censoring, maintaining it’s own secrecy from the world.

This is the line of thought that – whether consciously reasoned out or not – leads to the “hidden magical world” or “urban arcana” sort of settings. Elves in racecars? Buffy The Vampire Slayer? Harry Potter? Charles De Lint? It’s an entire genre of fantasy.

The trouble is, that you then have to follow the rules. There won’t be an abrupt flowering of magic, rediscovered ancient atlantean techniques won’t result in a new golden age, and if there’s an “upswing in the availability of magic” like in Shadowrun, the cycle is going to have to be long enough to avoid interfering in evolutionary time (something Shadowrun casually skips by, but given the authors various other misunderstandings, why not?). You won’t have races of magical beings around – or dropping in either.

  • So what if the magic – or the magical beings or artifacts – are from another dimension and obey its rules, not ours? Or are encased in some sort of dimensional bubble? Can’t they at least affect themselves with their magic then?

The trouble there is that our universe is very limited. It’s quantized. That means that it’s only capable of interacting with stuff that exactly matches its quantum values and forces. That’s why Dark Matter – with the same quantum values but differing force-interactions – goes right through everything and only interacts via gravity.

If you want an “extra-dimensional” being to interact with anything in our universe, it has to have essentially identical physics of it’s own or to be adapted to match the local physics in the transfer – and if it’s adapted to the local physics… then what it can do in its own universe is no longer relevant. It has to play by the local rules.

And that’s why “magical visitors come to visit technological earth” stories are so often a mess, with one side or the other (usually the magical side) coming off as being grossly overpowered. It’s because the “technological earth” side is limited by what actually works and to what little “magic” can be worked in via Urban Fantasy – and the magical side has essentially been given divine authority to restructure the universe to accommodate it’s own powers. Worse, you can’t effectively balance that by letting humans learn to do it too. That just means that – in defiance of every observation and the fact that all that technological stuff still works – you’ve just let your humans start ignoring physics too. Humans have tried to work magic in all kinds of ways for thousands of years. Other races in the universe have presumably tried it in their own ways too. It has never worked very well or we would – at best – be citizens of the magical cosmic empire. Visitors cannot teach stuff that won’t work here. Visitors who are reliant on stuff that won’t work here will be in big trouble. They’ll probably die.

And that is the answer to the original question – about why “Magical Beings On Earth” stories tend to have a REALLY hard time balancing things. It’s because the magic used by such beings tends to be powerful, almost wholly advantageous, blatant, and so simple to use that there are simple, naturally-occurring, rocks with magical properties – as well as magical plants, bugs, and diseases.

If magic like that functions in a setting, it’s not going to look anything like the real world. It might, at BEST, look like the magical earth of Operation Chaos, where – in a fairly modern world – a special forces unit of a Werewolf and a Witch are fighting  a resurgent Islamic Caliphate which is attempting to unleash one of the Genies sealed by King Solomon as a superweapon.

So if you want to introduce your magical entities to a recognizable “earth” without leaving major plotholes, you either need to tone them down to the Urban Arcana level or to insert a reason why the rules of the universe are abruptly changing – which people WILL take advantage of to rapidly make your setting completely unrecognizable. Simply stating that “well, the magic was there, but people just weren’t using it for some reason” doesn’t really work if anyone thinks about it too much. You can get away with that in a novel fairly easily – the audience rarely spends all that much time considering “how things work” when they’re reading a fantasy novel – but it’s a lot harder to get away with that sort of thing in a game, where you’re going to have a bunch of clever players trying to figure things out and take advantage of them.

And I hope that helps!

7 Responses

  1. There are some other weird ways to implement the censoring like magical ability being totally uninheritable (though you probably still need a few others to get it fully through).
    I mean, it isn’t that hard to say that an alien visitors have some really complex totally divergent mechanism that never really occurred on earth, and that they can impart a ‘magical factor’ on people, but I get what you mean on the training point.

    • True enough – but unless you just go the “alien powers” route and completely discard traditional notions of magic, you wind up with an equally intractable problem; why does some alien development with no relationship to anything ever seen on earth, conform to human notions of what “magic” looks like?

      I suppose you could go the “ancient aliens” route, but that just makes for more questions. My personal favorite is “If these ancient aliens taught all these marvelous things… why didn’t they mention that “giving your kinds a piece of liver every so often will keep so many of them from going blind”? Or a lot of similar bits of practical advice?

      (OK, I’ll admit it… conspiracy theory programs make me ill. That’s one reason why I got rid of TV long ago).

      • I do find conspiracy theory media to be rather entertaining so long as I don’t think about it too much. I will freely admit that they can be a proverbial goldmine for interesting ideas, such as the guy who kept insisting that mountains are actually tree stumps of giant silicon based trees. The fact that someone believes this is distressing, but the idea and how he managed to twist facts to “support” it made for a fun fantasy narrative that might be worth stealing some day.

      • I suppose. After all, I use fantasy and fanfiction for the same sort of thing. In fact, for a session for Margaret I wound up lifting the plot and some of the dialog from one story pretty much wholesale (she read it afterwards). It was just too perfect to pass up. What really bothers me is that so many other people will nod along sagely, say “that makes sense”, and add it to their view of the world with never a thought given to the underlying blatant idiocy of the ideas they’re accepting because they saw them on TV. Oh well.

  2. To answer an offline question – “Why can’t you just discard all that quantum stuff in your setting? What difference would it make?”

    Well, you could do that. The problem is that the Pauli Exclusion Principle, Electron Orbitals (which provide chemistry and stable atoms), stellar physics, fusion reactions, and a lot more all depend on quantum effects. How technology, evolution, stars,and planets function depend on the fine details of those effects. You can make such a setting, but making it look like modern earth just isn’t happening short of “god says so”, and it’s hard to come up with a setting explanation that’s less interesting than THAT. There’s a reason why Dues Ex Machina plots are so unpopular.

    • The one trade-off I would note is that you can potentially do away with all of that quantum stuff, so long as you accept that the setting can’t be more advanced than a steampunk level. Now that would still leave some weird edge cases like the nature of electricity, the speed of light, and what are stars burning (which coincidently are the loose threads that led to quantum mechanics), but leaving those as strange phenomena that were outside the known laws of physics is a lot easier when you don’t already have a mountain of science and technology that is utterly dependent on the understanding of the underpinnings of those phenomena.

      But then again, you’d no longer be building a modern fantasy setting.

      • True enough! But crossing Crossing Steampunk, Wizards, and Alien Tech can be quite entertaining. Say… Mounting a dimensional-scattering cannon on the front of your train to turn it into a tunneling system so you could investigate an underground anomaly (that you did not know was a partial gate), accidentally tunneling into space many thousands of miles above a parallel earth, and having to rig the dimensional scattering cannon as a dimensional portal generator so as to take advantage of the velocity-matching function of dimensional portals to allow a relatively-safe re-entry and less-than-fatal crash landing.

        That was a fun session.

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