330 – High Magic Settings
You know how the old saying goes: sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from a broken setting. Pretty sure it’s something like that. Anyway, this week’s topic is high magic! Specifically, how high magic will affect your world and what problems to look out for. We discuss flight, fireballs, mass communication, and how messenger pigeons don’t work the way fantasy authors think they do. Plus, a philosophical discussion on what exactly constitutes a face.
Generously transcribed by Diane. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. With your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle [opening song].
Wes: hello and welcome to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host Wes. And with me today is Chris and Oren. And today we’re talking about high magic, the high art, the highest of the highs, none of the lows, which is to say that by high, we mean so much magic You can cast flying on yourself with a thought and launch yourself into the clouds, that’s how high this magic is and how high we’re going to get today.
Oren: 04/20 was a month ago, Wes, I think we’re a little late on that one.
Wes It’s okay. I’ve got the magic. I can make it happen anytime.
Oren: Yeah, you got time magic. It could be 04/20 every day!
Oren: So there isn’t a strict definition of what a high magic setting is, but it’s, you know, a setting that has lots of magic. It’s a continuum, if you will. Some settings are higher magic than others. On the really extreme ends, you got Dungeons and Dragons or The Way of Kings or The Name of the Wind, which are all extremely high magic. It’s everywhere, and lots of people can use it. And on the other end, you have stuff like Game of Thrones, which has almost no magic, and it’s all hidden. And then in the middle you have stuff like Lord of the Rings and Narnia, where there’s magic around, but not a lot of people can use it. It’s all kind of bound up in ancient stuff.
Wes: Why do you think it’s HIGH magic though? Like, why not BIG magic?
Oren: I’m..I’m not going to call it BIG magic… (laughter) You answered your own question…!
Wes: …but there’s bigger magic out there, Oren. We just have to find it!
Oren:…to achieve maximum BIG magic…
Wes:…to achieve maximum big spells, these are great…
Chris: Does it come from high fantasy?
Wes: I guess that has to be it: high fantasy, high magic. And if it’s high fantasy, it is high magic. Right?
Chris: Generally that’s the association. Of course, it could be qualified as high fantasy in other ways, but not be that high in magic.
Oren: Yeah, I mean, Lord of the Rings is typically considered to be high fantasy, but we were just talking about it being, like, medium magic. There’s the question of: to what extent high fantasy and second world fantasy are the same thing.The point is that there are a lot of different terms for this.
Wes: Lord of the Rings is a tricky one. Like, in The Hobbit, Gandalf magic missiles some goblins, that’s it. in Lord of the Rings…I guess there’s The Balrog and he kind of magics that.
Chris: Yeah. There’s also some more magical stuff, that’s easy to forget because there’s nothing to do with the plot with, like, Tom Bombadil…
Oren: …and, I mean, there’s some magic, like, Gandalf has various powers of some kind. Saruman has powers of some kind… in the movies it’s Arwen makes the rivers rise— in the books it’s some rando who we never see again so— good choice on that one movies… but these are generally fairly confined. Like, there are a set number of wizards. Gandalf can’t train someone to be a new wizard in Lord of the Rings, because the wizards are basically angels.
And the elves have magic, like Rivendale is magically warded somehow so you can’t find it unless they want you to. And they have their cloaks that turn into rocks, sometimes. But again, that magic is kind of going away and it’s unclear how much the elves can even use it anymore. And also Sauron clearly has a fair amount of magic, but he’s the bad guy. So, we’re not too concerned about him.
Chris: What’s interesting as far as the legacy of high magic being attached to high fantasy is the fact that, you know, Lord of the Rings came out and Tolkien put in a lot of work setting up his magic to be mysterious by not introducing tons of magic in the opening with all the hobbits.
But then as soon as we had people start to copy Tolkien, they wanted to copy like the cool parts, right? So all of the things that are derived from Tolkien, like D&D, have so much more magic in it than the Lord of the Rings ever did.
Wes: Yeah. Because now if were to tell me, ‘Hey! This book just came out! It’s high magic!’—I don’t know if you would ever describe a book like that to me, but if you did— I would expect that several of the main characters can cast some basic spells, or something, or at least they know people who definitely cast spells, not just one person. Like, there’s mages. They exist. Everybody knows about them. Like it’s not, it’s not a secret.
Oren: I have a hypothesis that part of a problem with the settings that are very high magic, especially a lot of the books that came out between Lord of the Rings and, I don’t know, the mid-nineties, is when this started to seem rarer and, not gone, but rarer, a lot of these books, they want the Lord of the Ring aesthetic, right? So they want a setting that while not actually medieval feels medieval, right? Everyone is in castles and rides horses and fights with swords and the most advanced technology you’ll see is maybe a catapult and people’s daily lives don’t seem to be affected by magic that much.
But then they do stuff like (mocking) every king has a court wizard and the court wizards get trained in the Capitol to do it wizard stuff.
And that’s not in Lord of the Rings, right? Like Gandalf is called a wizard, but his definition of a ‘wizard’ is very different than what most fantasy authors use. And so you end up with, “I want my story to look like Lord of the Rings, but I also want there to be more wizards.” Because ‘wizard’ seems like it should be a job now, and I don’t know if that’s D&D’s fault or if D&D got the idea from somebody else. But I’ve definitely…I’ve been reading some eighties and seventies fantasy recently and that has definitely been a consistent theme.
Chris: Yeah, just to rephrase that, magic is basically a form of technology because you can do technology-like things with it. But high fantasy settings that usually have high magic are defined in a large part by having a low-tech. So, you’re adding more tech to your low tech setting, and you want both of those things to co-exist, and normally you could do it by restricting magic in a lot of ways. It’s just that one of the main ways to keep magic from impacting a setting is to make it really rare and expensive.
And if you have high magic, you’re basically eliminating that option.
Oren: And, looking at more recent fantasy, I at least feel like authors, like prose authors, are starting to realize that, because more and more books that I’m seeing that have a lot of magic are also clearly taking the time to be like, “well, how would this magic effect the setting?”
And, clearly Brandon Sanderson is a famous example of that, but I’ve seen a number of others whereas the only book I could find that I’ve read that has the kind of traditional, “this is a high magic” setting but everyone lives as if magic didn’t exist is The Name of the Wind. Like, every other book I saw that was like that was in the early nineties, at the latest, whereas— The Name of the Wind definitely feels very anachronistic where it’s like: ‘there’s a wizard school where everyone goes to be wizards, but everyone else lives like a medieval peasant’ that’s just how it is. And when you compare that to more modern feeling stories like Broken Earth, or Mistborn, or Avatar for that matter, those just feel a lot more dynamic. Like, there’s more of an understanding that magic would actually change things. You can’t just plop magic into the setting and then just be like, ‘yeah, but the rest of it is just, you know, War of the Roses era.’ (Laughter).
Wes: So specifically, if somebody hasn’t really given too much thought to their world building, but they want magic in there, you might think that you want to put in an offhand spell where somebody snaps their fingers and the fire lights. How does that domino effect out into the real world, Oren? Chris?
Oren: Well, it depends on how closely your readers are looking. If your readers are like me, then even small magic can cause a big difference.
There are think pieces out there about how prestidigitation would radically reshape medieval society. If it existed the way it’s portrayed in D&D as a zero level spell that costs nothing and that you can cast forever, right? Because, you know, in real life, cleaning was a huge part of a person’s day, especially of the woman who was overseeing the house and just cleaning stuff took forever. And that is not even a particularly old trend cleaning takes a lot less time now than it used to because we have these machines that wash our clothes. Right?
It’s like, “Nah. Prestidigitation, clean that right up!” Or mending, the mending spell, would be huge. Like you’re basically putting, you know, most craftspeople out of work because once you make one thing, you can now fix it forever.
Chris: on the plus side, if you want women to be part of the normal workforce, you could just be like, ‘well then they got presti…’ [falters]…I’m not even trying to say it [laughter]. Then they got magic to do all of the housework and then they started doing other work and became craftspeople.
Oren: Yeah. I would not be opposed to that. I think that’d be a pretty good use of [pointed over-pronunciation] ‘prestidigitation’. [Laughter].
Chris: Um, but there are certainly some frequent culprits, in fantasy, where it’s not likely to happen anymore, which is too bad. A big one, I think. is castles in a lot of settings. It’s sad, but you have to think about how much investment a castle takes and the fact that when castles were built, they were the latest defense technology.
And it can take 30 years to build a castle and the locations you can build a castle in are also very limited. You have to have a quarry that’s like right next to where you’re building the castle. Otherwise, it’s too hard to move the stone. So the cost, the time, the limitations that come with castles… if you have everybody riding dragons, that can just drop boulders on top of it or other forms of magic that can easily blast holes in walls, nobody’s going to want to invest that amount in castles anymore. That’s too impractical. You might as well just build some, you know, wood fences at that point. [laughter] Because they’re just much cheaper and faster.
But we all love castles. We love the look of castles and the aesthetic of castles. It worked in Game of Thrones because there were only a few dragons and they had been gone for a long time and they were just coming back. So it makes sense that there are already castles in place, but in a lot of settings where there’s just dragons everywhere, nobody would want to build castles anymore.
Wes: I do love the idea of a Regent saying, “I need a new capital and it’s going to be built over there and it’s going to be a magnificent castle.” And then, you know, the court wizard is like, “well, that won’t work. There’s dragons and fireballs and magical catapults” you know? It’s “oh, well, can’t you protect it?” “Well, sure. I can like cast wards on it. No problem.” He says “Very well. We shall build a castle” and he’s like, “well, you know, I can do that to a tent.” [laughter].
Chris: I will say, if you have magic that makes building easier, maybe you would still have granite buildings. They would just not look like castles because they wouldn’t be for defense purposes. They would be to show off, just like you said,
Oren: I mean, armies in general are like one of the first things to go if you start increasing the combat potential of magic, just because if fireballs are common, then it’s going to be really hard for someone who isn’t magic to contribute to the battle.
Now, of course you could have an occasional, rare wizard, but like even then you’re going to see different tactics, right? Because even if wizards are rare enough that they don’t completely replace infantry, you’re still going to be really careful bunching your infantry up in close formation, because then if your opponent does have some wizards, you’re gonna lose all your guys.
Wes: Yeah, that was very much like the end of The Witcher. There were how many mages, like ten?
Oren: The part of the show that I actually liked! It was like: ‘yeah, this is definitely what it would look like if a classic melee-based fantasy army attacked a bunch of wizards!’ It would not go well.
Chris: That was actually one of the few things with the show that was impressive. And that’s rarely done right. And it’s like, yes, this is exactly how magic would work in a battle. That was very good. Another one that you might want to think about is horses. Typically you have knights riding horses, but just as an example in Aragon, there’s a character named Arya (who I have referred to as ‘fake Arwen’ on the blog because she’s obviously modeled after Arwen), and in the prologue of Book One, she’s riding in on a horse before she’s taken captive by the Big Bad, but then—and I get I haven’t read thoroughly through these books—but then you learn that she can actually run as fast as a dragon can fly because she’s an elf.
And it’s like, why was she riding a horse? Horses are expensive. They have to, you know, they need expensive feed. They have to rest a lot. They have to drink lots of water. Humans are better at endurance than horses are. So we use horses purely to speed ourselves up and get the advantage. And so if you have like, magical wizards flying around and people are running really fast or you could definitely change the dynamics so that horses are no longer practical.
Oren: …or at least certainly not super common. Maybe if you have to do Olympic level training to run really fast, maybe normal people would still use horses, but that particular elf seems to be able to do it. No problem. Maybe it’s a status symbol. It’s like: ‘yeah, I’m rich enough to just have a horse for no reason.’
Of course, then she gets attacked. I would imagine the first thing they would do is get off their horses.
Chris: And if you can enchant things to move, right, can you enchant carriages to move without horses? Because then you would never have horses pulling them.
Wes: Or better yet you have a rogue Druid slash ecoterrorist slash militant vegan, who casts ‘awaken’ on pretty much all domestic animals so that they have human level intelligence, and then they rise up, take back the cities.
Oren: That’s extremely grim dark, not ready for that setting.
Wes: …It’d be great…
Oren: Another kind of magic to really watch out for is crafting magic. This has both societal and immediate character-level consequences because once you establish that your characters can make permanent enchantments that lasts forever, not only does that have all kinds of implications for how that would change industry and everyday people’s lives, but also just in the moment, your readers are gonna wonder like: “Well, why doesn’t he just make more of those magic items? And then just like, everyone is just covered in magic items and they just roll into the main villain’s headquarters with a whole bunch of plus five armor?” Right? You have to be really careful with those. Again, you can put limits on them, but if we’re dealing with a lot of magic, there’s a good chance that your limits are not going to be sufficient.
Wes: Definitely enchantments and conjuring anything…if those exist, you’re going to have a problem. You just will.
Oren: Being able to make food or water, that also has huge implications, that one is less of an immediate plot problem because people tend to focus more on magic swords than they do on rations.
But if you care about the consistency of your world, then you really want to think twice about whether or not people can just summon huge feasts when they feel like it. Weather control is another one. A weather control is huge. Like in real life, weather has a huge impact on literally everything we do and being able to control the weather.
I was so mad in Strange and Norell, when Strange goes to Spain during the Napoleonic War and he talks to Wellington, one of the foremost military minds of the age and tells them like, “well, I could make it rain.” And then, Wellington he’s like, “that’s useless. How could rain be useful?” And I can think of a million ways that rain would be useful to Napoleonic commander.
If nothing else, have it rain on the bad guys! If it rains on the French their muskets won’t work, their rations will get ruined. They’ll get sick, because their camps will be muddy. It’s perfect. And it’s just like: “no, I can’t think of a way to use it.” And it’s just like this bizarre scene where it’s trying to convince Strange that he’s useless despite having godlike powers. And it drove me up the wall. I had to stop and take a couple hours to wait to let my system reset before I could continue reading at that point. [laughter].
Wes: He just wasn’t convincing enough. By ‘rain’, you know, the guy heard ‘a light drizzle!’ “Pah! that’s nothing!”
Oren: Who knows? [laughter].
Chris: Communication. We haven’t talked about communication yet. That’s very easily disrupted. I mean, think of all of the magic settings where there’s like scrying or other…like pretty soon there would just be a magic internet, which frankly, I wouldn’t mind seeing a fantasy setting with a magic internet. I think that would be fun!
Oren: I definitely noticed that some authors—they want the convenience of everyone having cell phone type tech, because they’re kind of used to that. And it’s also kind of obnoxious to have to try to remember which character knows what and when they can know it, and it would just be easier if they could just learn it whenever you needed them to. So they introduced these message spells. But then there’s this same way that it tends to happen in stories set in modern day where everyone’s cell phones kind of mysteriously stopped working at a certain point because they’re too convenient. And now you need to make sure people don’t know things.
The same thing happens with rapid communication technology. So, you know, again, be careful with that! Because that’s another one of the things that, beyond simply the industrial ramifications, your readers will definitely notice if in one scene, the characters can communicate by casting a spell and then later on don’t do it.
Chris: also in many fantasy settings, people like having messengers or just like the aesthetics of doves or ravens—which never work like that. [laughter].
Oren: Yeah. For the record, the way that messenger pigeons work is they will return to a single spot, the spot that they think of as home. And that’s usually where they are fed. So you can’t send a pigeon to somebody else. What you do is you take a pigeon from a location and you ride it out in like a little pigeon hutch. I forget what they’re called. They’re a mobile pigeon house. And then you take them to somewhere else and then you can release them and they will fly back to their home with a message attached.
Chris: So they’re for faster communication in the event of an emergency. Not for actually, like, efficient communication
Oren: Or, I mean, if you’re between two set locations. So you sometimes could have regularly delivered pigeons. And if you were rich, you could afford to then have a message sent quickly because there would always be a supply of new pigeons arriving from the place you wanted to send the message to.
Chris: But the point is that somebody had to already travel that distance to bring the pigeon. You’re just releasing the pigeon to send it back. Unlike in Avatar the Last Airbender, where they have Hawkee and they set up Hawkee with a message to—was it to their father or something? Or some character somewhere that the Hawk has no way of knowing… it’s like across the world. [laughter].
Oren: Even if that Hawk has human level intelligence, how is he going to find that? “Now go find our dad.” And it’s like, “okay, I’m not sure you even told me your dad’s name. And also I’m a Hawk. I can’t ask people where this guy is.” It’s okay. In Avatar, they have the Shirshu, which has, you know, basically magic divination powers that they pretend are based on smell. For reasons…it is so goofy! It’s like Avatar is a pretty grounded show most of the time. And then the Shirshu shows up and it’s like, “I can find anybody anywhere. Just give me a piece of their clothing”. And it’s like, this would make more sense if you said it was sympathetic magic.
Chris: While we’re on Avatar, I was thinking one of the ways to try to keep magic under control is by just specifying what it can do as opposed to what it can’t. Because there’s so many stories where it’s like, “oh, magic just does everything I want, but now we’re going to specify it can’t heal people”—for some reason. Whereas if in the beginning you stick to: these are the things that can do and you just don’t let it do everything. Then it’s a lot easier to keep it under control.
But even elemental systems where that’s usually where it is specified the most, for some reason people can never help giving an element extra powers. For instance, in Avatar, waterbenders can heal, right? And it’s like, I guess humans are mostly water, but we’re not just water. So why can waterbenders heal?
Wes: …moving around the water in our body…it makes us feel good!
Oren: How is that going to fix my broken bone? How does it fix Katara’s burned hands?
Wes: More water. That’s the answer.
Chris: Of course, when Katara learns to actually waterbend blood, it’s like, no, that’s creepy. It’s like, well, how is she healing?
Wes: Oh, that’s a good take blood magic is healing magic. Oh no.
Oren: A little magic goes a long way and making your magic limited in what it can do will still give you lots of opportunities for cool magic stuff. Right. And part of this is just that, you know, we all grew up reading fantasy stories where the authors didn’t really think about this too much and magic could basically do anything. And if we were lucky, they would establish that a certain spell existed before they used it to save the day. Right. And that was about as good as we got for consistent magic settings. But, you know, expectations are a bit higher now is all I’m saying.
Chris: But, going back to the healing, that is where a lot of stories get in trouble because they both want the convenience of magically healing somebody who’s injured, but they also want people to actually get injured and be in danger and die, or die after saying a few dramatic last words. And this happened in the Netflix show, Shadow and Bone. It was so weird because we have this mage character—they’re called Grisha in the setting and they insist it’s not magic, but whatever, it’s magic—the number of works that are like, “no, it’s not magic., it’s science” or it’s something…I don’t know, it’s just magic. So we have this character who was established to just be a bodyshaper. And she can remove scars and do all sorts of manipulation. And she changes one character to be a decoy of another, by just completely changing her face. So she gives her a face, resembling another character.
But then when this decoy gets her throat slashed and that bodyshaper is right there and is there listening to her last words, doesn’t even try to just, you know, close up the throat wounds? It’s just like we could have gone around this. I could believe that, okay, she’s bled out so much already that the bodyshaper, the healer could, you know, close the throat, but she’s already lost too much blood and she doesn’t have the ability to put the blood back in her body.
Right? We could maybe do something like that. But there was no explanation, it was just like: OK, just forget about all of the body magic this person has while she just lets her friend die.
Oren: Yeah. Or we could have said the guy used a poison knife and that she can’t cure poisons that at least would have been better…like part of the reason that scene is so irritating is that she doesn’t even try to save this woman because there wasn’t time for that in the scene, I guess. And it’s like, you know, in this setting, technically the kind of magic she has is called ‘tailoring’. And that’s technically different than healing in this setting. Those are different magics, but A, being able to change the body is being able to change the body. If you can change someone’s face into another face, you can probably change their face into a face that doesn’t have a giant slash in it,
Chris: …especially since she can remove scars…
Oren: Right? So we have actually seen her heal. She healed a cut that the main character had in an earlier scene. And again, you could argue that maybe the wound is too intense, but the rules of healing were never established. So all we have is a character who we know has some healing ability, just kind of being like: “Oh, whatever, I guess you’re dying”.
Wes: Yeah. I don’t do throats. Sorry.
Oren: I’m exclusively a face doctor. You were slashed below the face. So I got…I got nothing for you.
Chris: Or, The Magicians had this,,, again…this weird…[Oren, guffaws] [aside]: Oren is already laughing because he remembers this entire sequence in The Magicians where magic can do just about everything but then they carve out exception where it can’t…heal? For some reason, they can transform into other animals, but no, healing somebody who has cancer…that’s just: ‘no.’
Wes: Can’t do that…!
Oren: That was so annoying, because they told us that after the sequence where he had turned into a goose…just straight up transformed him into another animal but no, not cancer! Mage: The Ascension has this incredibly complicated explanation trying to explain stuff like that…about how like: “well, the cancer becomes part of your pattern and that can’t be changed.” I was like: “yeah, sure it does.” [laughter].
Chris: Yeah, just like Star Trek transporters can’t be used to get rid of cancer. They definitely can! [laughing]. I’m not even going to Star Trek transporters, the fact that it, it could have made people immortal. “Do you want to be young again? Transporter?” We just take a backup of Buddy there, their transporter pattern. And then, import the brain scans that we apparently regularly take on Voyager.
Wes: That’s like the plot of that Arnold Schwartzenegger movie Sixth Day. Verbatim, dead serious.
Oren: Oh, here’s a weird thing to think about that a lot of people I think probably miss: if you are making a setting with lots of magic, one thing I would be careful of is making technology that outdates your magic, which is usually the opposite problem.
Usually, people have the issue of magic that would be just super useful and would change everything. But occasionally people make magic that seems cool but in reality, is actually less efficient than whatever technology exists at the time. And guns are the most common example of this.
This was also a problem in Shadow and Bone where I guess they thought they were being clever by making the point that like: “Aah! The mages are less useful now that we have guns!” But in reality, what they actually showed us is that the guns are way better at killing another human being than the magic that they have, because the magic that they have takes this kind of complicated hand motion thing to do.
And with a gun, you just have to pull the trigger. It’s very simple, and it’s also impossible to dodge because it’s a gun. I don’t think I need to explain how guns work [laughter]. Whereas the magic, the Grisha magic is dodge-able because it’s pretty slow or it just throws you around if it’s the wind magic. Or what have you. So what they’ve actually done is create a setting where there’s cool magic fighting, but actually those mages should be using guns and their magic should be turned explicitly to non-combat roles where it would still be incredibly useful. But like, I want to see cool magic fights. That’s why I’m watching the show, right?
Chris: It’s like, if you introduce guns to the Avatar setting…
Oren: Ugh! I don’t want that!
Chris: Right? That would just, you know…we want people to do the martial arts moves. We don’t really want to see them just get shot.
Wes: You don’t want to see them be bullet vendors or gun vendors…? [laughing].
Oren: And this is another reason why I’m actually not interested in seeing the Avatar universe advanced technologically any further, just because I don’t want guns in Avatar, but like Korra was already past the point where I could take certain things seriously without guns. Because they wanted all of the aesthetics of technology that requires guns to work. And that was when they started having like, you know, battleship guns, which are just tubes you firebend through and planes that shoot ‘bulla’s’. And I get why you’re not putting guns in here. And that was the right decision. But the more advanced this gets the harder it’s going to be for me to suspend my disbelief that they haven’t invented guns yet.
All right. Well with that as a good final lesson, you know, in addition to making sure that your magic doesn’t break your setting, make sure your technology doesn’t outmoded your magic, unless you’re doing a very specific kind of story…in most stories that isn’t what you want. And it’s usually an accident.
So we’re going to end with that. But before we go, I’m just going to cast a thank you spell for a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory and Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and the connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo and she firstname.lastname@example.org.