Q’Rith: The Underpinnings of Magic

22:41 Tue 25 Jan 2011
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Magic exists in, and is very important to, my fantasy milieu of Q’Rith. But what is it and how does it work[*]?

For something like magic to exist, it has to be some fundamental force in the universe. So in this fictional world, that’s exactly what it is. It’s there alongside gravity, electromagnetism, the weak force, and the strong force—and, perhaps, another force related to the gods of the universe.

Magic interacts with, and can transform, those other forces, and matter. In that way it’s unlike any of the others, and has none of the restraints upon it that the others do in reality.

On the other hand, it is more passive. Put another way, the rest of the mundane physical realm would continue to work if magic abruptly disappeared.

It’s also reactive to consciousness in some way. This is why it’s relevant, since it doesn’t play with the other fundamental forces much.

This is slightly problematic in that consciousness is not a form of energy. It’s an emergent property of the physical matter of the brain, and not an externally-observable phenomenon. In Q’Rith, consciousness is rooted in the physical just as it is in reality. The difference is that in Q’Rith, magical energy pools around it[†].

So, it reacts passively to consciousness, and is a form of energy that can become other forms of energy and affect matter. To combine those two, to make it react actively to consciousness and alter circumstances in the physical realm, is sorcery.

There are two aspects to this. The first is the “energy” required to make the connection with the magical force and bring it to bear; the scare quotes are present because it’s unclear whether or not this is actual energy expenditure or the demands of highly intense concentration that may make unhealthy demands on the brain. In any case, physical suffering and illness are well-documented effects of sorcerers continuing to use magic beyond their limits.

The second aspect is the way in which the magical force is directed by the sorcerer. Its effects have to be shaped, but it’s something that can barely be perceived directly. It is clear that consciousness has to be in some very specific configuration in order to achieve the desired effects, but these configurations are difficult to achieve and harder to describe. It’s like trying to conceive of a particular shape that isn’t a shape, a word that isn’t a word, a color that isn’t a color, a number that isn’t a number, a note that isn’t a note.

Worse, to achieve anything significant, these “configurations” must be layered on top of each other and done in precise sequences, sometimes with shading and nuance. At the same time, the concentration required to keep the energy connection must be maintained.

Aside from the difficulty of executing the casting of a spell, there’s the issue of determining what should be executed. Magic, at least in the way it’s understood in Q’Rith in the era of my game, is not at all improvisational. The only successes come when the instructions are followed precisely. Deviations result not in unpredictable phenomena (except under certain circumstances) but in nothing at all.

So where do these instructions come from?

Q’Rith, like most fantasy realms, has a long, and only dimly remembered, history. At some unknown point, well before the beginnings of any of the recorded histories, some sentient being put some of the pieces together and cast some cantrip, and through an extremely long process of experimentation and fumbling research the current significant body of known spells has been accumulated.

This requires that magical knowledge be transmissible. Given that there’s no way for the required forms to be literally depicted, various symbolic methods have been tried. Their effectiveness has been limited by the fact that the learner must grope around trying to conceive of the correct form based on representations that are merely culturally-dependent suggestions of what’s required. Students have to learn a symbolic language and how to translate that language into the correct configurations of consciousness.

The symbolic languages used are not spells themselves, but rather spell formulae, spell source code.

The actual incantations and gestures seen when sorcerers cast spells are not magical in themselves, but merely helpers to aid in structuring consciousness as desired. This is not to say that they’re not essential—they are, because that consciousness-structuring is so specific that the methods learned for it cannot simply be put aside.

There is no universal “language of magic”, written or spoken. Each magic-using culture develops or inherits (or both) some system for communicating arcane knowledge, and that system is intertwined with the rest of the culture (especially its language). A sorcerer can learn another culture’s system, but it’s difficult—not as difficult as learning the first system they learn, and easier the closer the cultures are. For example, the Q’Resti Empire has a standardized system that is derived largely from Issilath, with strong Elven influences, and so a sorcerer trained in that system would find it relatively easy to understand Issilanth magical texts.

It is possible for skilled teachers to directly “show” students the required forms of consciousness, but this is quite difficult in itself and only works for simpler ones. In order to effectively learn, students must be able to grasp the relationship between the taught magical language and the forms; many students fail at this point. In rare cases, students who have failed to grasp one system have gone to another culture and had success there.

All of the modern systems require understanding of written magical language, with varying degrees of dependence on symbols. The prevalence of written symbolic languages of magic has made ubiquitous a “read magic” spell that all students learn early. This does not allow the reading of unknown magical languages, but rather allows the caster to gain an understanding of what the spell does even if they don’t know it and/or can’t cast it—if it is written in a magical system they already understand. What it actually does is something like executing a simulation of the spell’s casting that doesn’t do anything but gives the reader a sense of what it would do.

Discussion of the implications, particularly economic, of this model, as well as the magical force’s apparent division into three “spheres”, will have to wait for later posts.

[*] At a theoretical level, not in terms of game mechanics, which are outlined here.

[†] In theory, advanced scientists on Q’Rith could attempt to detect consciousness by detecting certain patterns of the magical force.

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