In fantasy, there is a general consensus to the amount of magic present in a setting, demonstrated as no magic, low, moderate, or high. This is also applied to technology as if the two function on the same level of existence. Normally I have no problem with this, it has been an accepted part of fantasy writing for many years. Despite it’s many obvious magical elements, Lord of the Rings remains a low to moderate magic setting since spells are slung few and far between, while Piers Anthony’s Xanthe novels magic is so common place that not having it is seen as a social stigma. While commonplace, I feel that this shows a strong bias towards nature over nurture.
I propose that magic is not a function solely of the enviroment and is not determined by arbitrary levels of ambient magic. Instead, like technology and other human endeavors, that magic is a product of intelligent (human or otherwise) experimentation, exploitation of a natural resource (ambient or internal magic essence) and a continual process of change.
Paradigms of Magics
The terms high magic and low magic are paradigms, perceived modes of magic that are set not by the environment but by humans/humanoids who exploit magic. In the given structures of game writing, there is never change in a system of magic, and most have schools of magical thought that trace back thousands or even tens of thousands of years into the past. This makes me think of a cold and dead system, moribund in it’s own veneration. There is little room for growth or experimentation as with such a setting, most such magics would have already been extrapolated, compiled, archived and lost during the subsequent end of the previous culture.
Like technology, magic would have primitive beginnings with the witch doctors and tribal shaman of nomadic peoples and tribes. This would later branch into the dichotomy of the arcane and clerical branches of magic while one followed the spiritual aspect of performing magic, while the other moved into the technical aspect. This primitive sort of magic would have many limitations and be bound tightly in bonds of superstition and chimiage to patron spirits and gods. There would be a certain level of refinement of the magics available, but this would be limited by the dogmatic elements of spiritualism and the practitioners of said magic.
Breaking the Paradigm - Breaking out of the tribal system of magic is a function primarily of technology and the shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural civilization. As per Evolutionary Theology, the tribal system moves if faith from a wide pantheon of little gods and elementals to a fixed set, moving the shaman into the role of early clerics that will eventually organize into a coherent faith. Freed in extent from the dogmatic demands of the tribal faith, magical researchers will begin to expand their understandings of the tenets of magic.
The Low Paradigm
The Low Paradigm is the general area of most fantasy fiction, spells and magi are present but are by far a minority among the populace. Magic exists but it is wrapped in a massive amount of occluding mysticism, written in secret languages, and bound in insular traditions and steeped in it’s own strange lore. There is little to no concerted magic development and with rare exception magic is practiced by mentor-apprentice relationships.
It might be noticed that there is no Medium Paradigm, this is not an oversight. One writer’s medium fantasy is another reader’s high magic, or vice versa. Finding a middle ground is a difficult proposition, though I would consider the average fantasy RPG to exist between this range. Anyone can play a magic user, though not everyone will, magic items are fairly common, and spells while commonplace are not omnipresent.
Breaking the Paradigm - The end of the Low Paradigm comes with social innovation, as the previous paradigm shift came with the advent of iron and organized agriculture. In mimicry of the Renaissance, many social organizations will see their secret inner workings revealed and be opened to more popular attention. Many crafts lose their mystic trappings, such as the sorcerers of the forge, blacksmiths, and the societies such as the Freemasons become social instead of craft based groups. Magic breaks out from individuals huddled in hidden laboratories to schools of sorcery, where magic is explored as well as being taught.
The High Paradigm
Considerably more rare than medium or low paradigm, high Paradigm magic is the realm where all persons have magic to some extent. Magic is as present as modern technology, and things like teleport spells and the like are standard fare. The ugly side of the High Paradigm is the shout of Munchkinism, or blatant displays of mega-power.
Breaking the Paradigm - There are two ways to break the high magic paradigm, one is to go back to square one ala a catastrophic end of the world event, or to enter into the Transcendental Paradigm. While the end of the world reversion to primitive magics has been done, the Transcendental Paradigm is much less explored. While in High Magic, magic and its usage is commonplace among the population, in the transcendental paradigm, the populace literally ‘becomes’ magic, a sort of flesh and magic hybrid. These would gravitate away from the commonality of the main realm of a setting and move out into stranger and more esoteric pocket realms of their own device.
The Atlantis Mythos
Within the Atlantean mythos, the elder culture ascended after the destruction of their material homes. Their legacy remains behind after they pass beyond the borders of creation for future generations to find and attempt to follow. Magic is grown anew from the seeds left from the apparent fall of their culture.
The Chthulu Mythos
Whereas the Atlanteans moved on to a celestial utopia, the adherents of the Chthulu mythos found their transcendence to be much more dystopic. Their terrestrial culture removed, the Chthulians found themselves residents of the more demonic and hellish aspects of the realms of spirit and magic. When discovered, the ruins of this culture lead to a magical bloom that dead ends in the destruction of those who exploit it.
Paradigm Shift versus Mythos Shift
Magic could change in it’s perception, such as sorcerers becoming reviled and magic demonized, and not change paradigm. I call this a Mythos Shift, borrowing from the Lovecraftian glossary. Bound along social lines, a mythos shift would be the magical equivalent of a fad or popular trend that might be long lasting, doesn’t change the level of active magic. In the above social backlash, while magic and it’s adherents are persecuted, the paradigm level would remain largely unchanged. I say this since such persecutions would happen in a medium to low level paradigm, since a high level paradigm would make such a minority relatively harmless to the status quo, much like modern Luddites. Alternate Mythos shifts would be the adoption of a certain aspect of magic over another, such as the ouster of unwholesome Necromancy, the mass adoption of illusions for entertainment and the like.
But human endeavors are often bound to the constraints of their environment. While the premise of this article is the importance of nurture over nature, nature would certainly have it’s own impact on the development of magic and the current paradigm. Terms like wild magic zone, dead magic area and like are frequently tossed around, for the sake of keeping some semblance of logic, I will assume that such phenomenon are isolated and rare.
Ambient Essence and Spellworking - working under the assumption that magic draws upon a latent and intangible natural resource which I will hence refer to as ‘essence’, this ambient energy would certainly limit the amount of magic that can be done. Unless this unbound energy is very very low, primitive and low level paradigms would be able to develop, and rituals could be created for sacrificial works to free essence from bound forms. While the ugly version is human sacrifice, the cleaner side is the usage of spell reagents and components that are consumed in the casting. Most tabletop RPGs have some sort of system much like this in effect.
Internal Essence and Spellworking - An alternate form of magic is that essence is drawn from the caster to cast magic. In this setting, much higher paradigms can be reached by the universal presence of magical essence and capability. Most console RPGs use a system like this, where the character has an essence battery that once exhausted ends spellcasting unless the character replenishes his essence through potions, or rest. Tabletop RPGs also borrow an element of this as spells do require material components, but a mage is limited to how many spells he can cast regardless of how many 100 GP diamonds he has.
Divine Essence and Spellworking - More of a side note added for the sake of completeness, clerics and other divine spellcasters draw their magic essence not from their environment or themselves, but instead from the essence of their patron deity. While initially more flexible in choosing magics and not limited by environmental concerns, said magic users are bound by the ethos of their patron and must work in their favor and name or loose access to their ability to work magics.
Environment and Mythos
The environment of a culture will have a massive impact on the mythos of said culture’s magic, no matter it’s level of paradigm. A seafaring culture will have magics that strongly involve water, navigation, weather and the like, while a desert culture will be geared more towards survival in the harsh desert and dealing with or summoning the dangerous creatures that dwell there. Changes in environment can cause mythos and paradigm shift, often abruptly. A seafaring culture that abandons the sea will have a mythos shift as sea based magics are no longer needed, and the trapping of the sail-mage will be replaced by the mage that epitomizes the new mythos.
: In the Falhath setting, the Ozian people were originally a seafaring culture who found themselves shore bound following the Nightmare War. Faced with death on an unprecedented scale, from environmental change, swamp borne disease and a long period of constant war with with Sangreal to the north, they adopted a necromantic mythos. The paradigm did not shift as the relative number of magi did not change, but rather changed in area of specialization.
Environment and Paradigm
The most obvious example of environment changing paradigm is the end of the world catastrophe. This is basically a ‘reset’ event that much like the nuclear war and post apocalyptic aspect of the genre moves man, society, and magic back to it’s primitive setting. Once the basic knowledge of magic is gone from popular memory, those who still know and practice the arcane arts regain their shroud of mystery and become the witch doctors and shaman that the common folk turn to when things get bad and common heroes alone cannot defeat the new menace.
An alternate example would be the environment changing for a positive setting, a desert region begins to green from more rainfall, the realm of fire and chocking fumes enters a long period of geologic quiescence, or the barbarian hordes at the gates wander off after their homes on the plains are no longer squeezed by drought and hunger. Better crops and less work would encourage the growth of a middle class that could begin to exploit magic where previously it was dominated by mystics, hermits, and court sorcerers.
Magic is an evolving and changing force. It can increase or decrease in prevalence (paradigm) or can move laterally to abandon old forms to embrace new ones (mythos). Ideally in a fantasy setting, magic should also have the appearance of flexibility and change, even if spell lists and the function of magic do not themselves change in the game.