LESSON Elemental Magic

Discussion in 'BUILDING WORLDS' started by Jorick, Feb 5, 2015.

  1. The most common form of magic is probably the manipulation of the elements. As such, there are a lot of variations on the idea and it can be difficult and confusing to get it all sorted out. This workshop is meant to help you figure out what the hell elemental magic will do in a system of your own creation by breaking it up into small, manageable parts. Rather than going into topics like the source or method of using magical power, this workshop is all about what effects elemental magic can create in the world and how the various elements interact with each other. If you're looking for a broader look at magic system creation, I covered it in painstaking detail in Part 2 of my full worldbuilding guide, or you can check out Peregrine's Figuring Out Magic workshop.

    Anyway, let's get on with the magic.

    1 - Creation and Manipulation

    The first thing to consider for elemental magic is if it can only create elements, only manipulate them, or do both. They may end up being able to achieve a lot of the same ends, but the means will probably be different. To understand what I'm saying here, consider the classic magic of throwing a fireball at someone and how it could be countered with magic. A creation only magic system would require a magic user to pull energy from whatever source they use and conjure a fireball from nothing; countering it would require an opponent to do something similar and conjure elements of their own to block the fireball. A manipulation only system would require fire to already exist, and the magic user would take control of it with magic, form it into a fireball, and toss it at the desired target; countering it would be a simple matter of manipulating the fireball to move enough to miss or perhaps fully turning the thing around. A system that uses both could allow a magic user to grab fire from a torch or even just the heat from the air and add to it to make it into a fireball, then send it on its way; countering this fireball could be done by manipulating it directly to redirect or completely extinguish it, or perhaps manipulating and amplifying the water in the air to make a liquid shield.

    Creating elements is getting something from nothing. Manipulating elements is controlling what already exists. I mentioned some things above about amplifying or weakening the existing elements, and that's sort of a grey area. Some elemental magic systems that seem to be about creating the elements from nothing will allow a magic user to fiddle with another spell caster's summoned elements to make them more or less powerful. Some systems that seem to be pure manipulation will let a magic user pull the heat from the air and manipulate it into becoming a fireball, or will allow them to completely extinguish another spell caster's fireball. Similarly, total removal of elements is allowed in some systems, often as a counter to purely creative elemental magic. It's more like a spectrum of possible choices than a simple multiple choice question. However, it's important to know the mechanical constraints of your elemental magic before trying to decide what exactly it can do, so make some decisions on that before moving on.

    2 - Traditional Elements

    I find it useful to figure out the standard elements and their capabilities before branching out to anything fancy. They act as a very familiar base for elemental magic, and getting them sorted out can help you decide which exotic elements you may or may not want to include. The four traditional elements are exactly the ones you ought to expect: earth, fire, air, and water.

    Earth is a little bit of an oddball among the core elements. Unlike the other elements, you have to actually consider what they can create/manipulate. Maybe it can only interact with stones, or maybe just dirt, or maybe both. Sand is sometimes kept as a separate entity, and sometimes it's just rolled in with dirt manipulation. What about metals? They're technically part of the earth too, so could someone fiddle with them with earth magic? Most systems say no, or make metal an exotic element in their system, but it's all up to you.

    Whatever you decide for those things, you ought to decide what exactly can be done by earth magic users of different skill levels. Three points I find useful to use are novices who have just finished their basic training, the average magic user, and a master magic user. Defining what exactly those three levels of earth magic users can do will give you nice framework for deciding what each individual character can actually do, such as making an earth magic prodigy better than an average earth mage despite having much less practice. For earth magic, you should consider things like how much earth material they can create from nothing (if your system allows such) before becoming totally exhausted (be it physical exhaustion or draining their magic reserves or something else, however your system works), how much they can lift before becoming exhausted, how far they could throw/shoot varying sizes of rock/earth/whatever before becoming exhausted, how large of a hole they could dig or a chasm they could create before becoming exhausted, and anything else that may be relevant (like differences between rock/dirt/sand/metal manipulation).

    Fire is fairly simple. It doesn't usually do anything other than create or manipulate plain old fire, though some elemental magic systems might let them use lava or lightning (such as seen in Avatar/Legend of Korra, although honestly that never made sense to me since they're not really related at all) and not count them as being separate from fire manipulation. Whatever you choose to do with those things, you should figure out the capabilities of various levels of fire magic users, preferably at the same level increments you used for earth mages. Since fire is so straightforward, there are only two major things to consider: how large they could make a single instance of flame before being exhausted, and how long they can keep up varying levels of flamethrower and fireball style attacks. Add similar questions in there for lava, lighting, or any other fire specialties you may have chosen to use.

    Air is simpler still. You might sometimes see weather shenanigans mixed in with air magic, and sometimes they'll get lighting/thunder use in relation to that, but that's not very common. If you want to do it, go right ahead. The major things to consider for air magic users of various skills are how large they could make a single blast of wind, how long they could go with various levels of lesser air attacks, and if they can make themselves fly and if so how long. As with the previous two elements, add in similar considerations for special subsets of air magic you want to use.

    Water is pretty close to fire in level of complexity. It may have some variations based on temperature, such as ice magic or steam magic being mixed right in there with the normal water magic, and some elemental magic systems let water mages do disturbing things to blood or directly to people's bodies due to humans being made of over 50% water. Figure out whatever you want to do with those ideas for the moment, then on with the same thing as the other three elements. Consider how much water they can create/manipulate at once, how long they could keep up barrages of lesser attacks, and anything to do with variations of water magic you're using.

    3 - Exotic Elements

    This is where you're going to be able to get into some originality with elemental magic. Everyone does the core four, but there are plenty of other things you can use a elements. Some possible candidates are things I already mentioned as potential specialties for the core elements: sand, metal, lava, lightning, ice, steam, and blood. Aside from those, some common elements include some kind of human element (spirit or heart or similar), light, darkness, wood/plants, and smoke. I've also seen some elemental magic systems include things like soil and stone (being separate things rather than part of earth manipulation), mud, clay, dust, ash, fog, poison, acid, specific types of metal, glass, crystal, plasma, specific elements of the periodic table, and various colors of flames with different powers and effects. Trying to list absolutely everything that can be used would be an annoying and extremely difficult task, so I'll stop myself there. Pretty much anything you can justify as being a distinct element of the natural world (which may include fantastical things like the rainbow fire, because magic can be counted as part of nature) can be used as a part of elemental magic if you feel like it.

    Some of the exotic elements are things that may make sense to include only as the product of combining two attacks of other elements (earth to create dirt, then hit it with water to make a bunch of mud), or maybe you want to make it so your elements can fully merge to create new elements (fully combine earth and water to create and manipulate mud), but that's what the next two sections of the workshop are for. For the moment, you should put together a tentative list of what kinds of exotic elements you want to include in your system and then go through each of them and decide what can be done with them at various skill levels, just like the core elements. It might be beneficial to do some research into existing worlds that use elemental magic to get some inspiration, but that's all up to you.

    After you figure out the baseline power of your individual elements, it's time to figure out how they work together.

    4 - Complementary Effects

    Complementary effects are boosts or secondary effects caused by using two or more elements in tandem, but not exactly merged together. That might sound sort of complicated, but that's probably because of phrasing; to put it a simpler way, complementary effects are special things that happen (aside from damaging a target) when you throw one element at something and then throw a different element at it. In the Exotic Elements section I gave examples of two ways you could include mud in your element system; the first way, using earth magic to get soil and then hitting it with water, is a complementary effect. An earth or water mage may or may not be able to actually manipulate that mud after it's created, depending on how your system works; maybe they can use it just fine, maybe it's less effective because it's not a pure element, or maybe they have to pull the soil or water out on its own and can't do anything with the other part of it. This is mechanically different from someone who can use both earth and water magic combining them and creating mud from nothing without needing to hit dirt with water, because logically they absolutely should be able to manipulate the thing they can create. These kind of effects are often used as clever tricks that help magic users get an edge over less savvy opponents, but you can absolutely use them as common knowledge things if you wish.

    Mud is neat and all, but here's a list of other complementary effects I can think of:
    • Set something on fire, then hit it with a steady stream of air to fan the flames and make them stronger.
    • Toss some water in the air and then hit it with fire to create a cloud of steam to scald and blind enemies.
    • Cover an enemy in water or metal, then shoot them with lightning that can be played off as being much stronger due to the conductivity aid.
    • Use earth magic to make or grab a bunch of soil, then hit it with air to make a dust storm to blind and irritate enemies.
    • Get some sand, then hit it with fire to make glass to make solid projectiles or maybe even trap something in glass.
    • Grab some metal and throw it at someone, then toss fire to melt it and cause it to be extremely painful molten metal that will sort of cling to the enemy.
    • Create lava, then throw water at it to make obsidian.

    There are all sorts of ways elements could interact. I'd suggest going through your list of elements in play and for each element think up what might happen if you use it and then follow it up by one of the other elements. Lots of them might lack any coherent complementary effect (lava followed by sand, for instance, seems kind of pointless), but that's fine. Nonsensical combinations like that can still have some use if you want them to, but I'll go over that a bit later. For now, just focus on the logical combinations.

    5 - Merged Elements

    Merged elements are full on combinations of elements that create a new element entirely. At the risk of beating the mud example completely to death, a magic user combining their earth and water magic to shoot mud out of their hands is making a merged element. It's a pretty simple concept. A lot of them will be the same kind of things you can make with complementary effects, but see the explanation in that section on how they tend to be used differently.

    Here, have another list of possibilities:
    • Earth plus fire creates lava.
    • Earth plus air creates dust.
    • Earth plus water (optionally plus light) creates plants or wood.
    • Fire plus air creates lightning (again, I don't personally care for relating lightning to fire, but this is a common explanation of lightning as an element).
    • Air plus water creates fog.
    • Water plus fire creates steam.
    • Water plus air could make ice, with the explanation of air having a cooling effect.
    • Sand plus fire creates glass.
    • Wood plus fire creates smoke or ash.

    This is probably not an exhaustive list, but it's everything I could think of off the top of my head. I've seen a lot of these merged elements used as a specialty ability of a single person or exclusive group. I've also seen them used almost as commonly as the core elements, with the simple requirement that a magic user must learn to use their constituent elements before being able to make the new one. Decide on whatever merged elements you feel like using, then figure out their general capabilities if you didn't already do so in the exotic elements section, and then it's time for some nonsense.

    6 - Freeform Combinations

    There are combinations that cause a nice effect, and there are elemental merges to create new elements. Then there's the third class of elemental combinations: complete nonsense combos, which I'm graciously calling freeform combinations. This is extremely prevalent in anime and worlds styled after it. Ever seen things like darkness flames, fire and lighting combined to make a much stronger attack, or any element mixed with spirit/heart/whatever the human element of the system is and that turns it into a mega attack? Yup, those are freeform combinations. Basically, any combinations of elements into a single attack that don't cause a complementary effect and don't make any sense to create a merged element can fall under this category. The basic formula here is Element A + Element B = MORE POWER!!! There's nothing fancy about it, it's just a way to allow for stronger attacks for those who can use more than one element.

    The main thing to do here is decide whether or not you want to allow such combinations. If so, then you might want to consider how powerful such combinations are compared to normal element use. For instance, if someone is a master of the elements of fire and darkness, and you know how strong they can be with each element by its lonesome, how crazy strong can they make a freeform combination attack with them and how much does it fatigue them compared to using a single element? If there's not some significant benefit to a freeform combination attack compared to a single element attack, then maybe you shouldn't bother allowing them at all, unless you just want them for aesthetic purposes. That's always a legitimate reason for including things that are seemingly pointless, because let's face it, throwing lightning imbued lava at someone is kind of badass even if it makes no sense.

    7 - Elemental Match Ups

    One final thing to consider is how each of the elements would fare against the others in direct combat. The traditional elements can be sort of a headache by themselves, because there are all sorts of different interpretations of them. In some systems they're all relatively equal. In some systems fire and water are equal opposites, but in others water absolutely trounces fire. In some systems air will be pretty much useless against earth, but in others they're equal opposites. Sometimes water destroys earth, sometimes air just makes fire stronger, sometimes fire can't really do anything to earth. There's no obvious answer to it, because it's magic. You can decide your magic flames are so awesome that they beat the crap out of magic water every time. You'll get some funny looks and confusion if you do that, sure, but you can certainly roll with it anyway.

    The thing to decide on here is whether all elements are basically equal or if there are strengths and weaknesses that come into play. If everything is equal in power, then you're done here and you're probably going to end up with magical duels being decided by who's more clever or skilled with their powers. If there are strengths and weaknesses in elemental match ups, then you ought to go through and decide what those are like for all your elements. I would suggest taking a page out of the Pokemon playbook here: keep most match ups neutral, only apply defined strengths and weaknesses in a way that makes sense. There's no real reason why poison should be useless against or totally dominant over lightning, for example, so don't try to force such a thing. Keep it simple, don't try to make it into some ridiculously huge game of rock, paper, scissors where every match up is pretty much a foregone conclusion because you know which element has the obvious advantage from the start.

    8 - Revisions

    Making revisions is always the last step to creative endeavors if you give even the tiniest crap about quality. Cut things out or add things in as desired, and go over everything to make sure you didn't do anything silly. Rinse and repeat as necessary until you're happy with the final product.

    That's really all there is to it. Figure out what elements you want to use, figure out what they can do, and figure out how they work with or against each other, revise as needed. Good luck with your elemental magic endeavors, which were hopefully made somewhat easier to deal with thanks to this workshop. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to post them here in the thread.
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