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A painted miniature of a wizard in red cloak.

It's A Kind Of Magic... Or Physics

novel worldbuilding Oct 17, 2023

by Philipi Schneider

In recent weeks, I've played a lot of Elden Ring. I had tried Dark Souls 3 but gave up after just a few minutes — being a PC gamer since the dawn of time, I felt slighted as a player by not even having interface tips with keyboard and mouse button indications. And yes, I played Elden Ring with a keyboard and mouse.

In the game, you can adopt various playstyles. You can focus on close, medium, or long-range combat, using weapons like katanas, swords, maces; you can use spells and enchantments, each with its own requirements in terms of status levels like intelligence, faith, and arcane; each enemy had its resistance to each type of damage, with percentages of attack absorption, and so on. In short, Elden Ring is a complex game. And me, being the noob that I am in soulslike games, adopted what seemed to be the best strategy: instead of learning attack patterns and refining my combat responses against bosses, I super-leveled my character.

Where am I going with this? Magic in Elden Ring — and in RPGs in general — is a system that adheres to clear advantages and disadvantages, criteria, and conditions for the player. It's predictable, it's calculable. It's the Physics of fireballs.

If Magic is entirely predictable, calculable, and obeys laws, where a secret power invocation works as flawlessly as Newton's three laws, how do Magic and Physics differ?

These were the questions I grappled with when dealing with the magical and supernatural in the stories I wrote. Somehow, I wanted the magical and supernatural to reflect metaphysical issues and concerns and to truly consist of esoteric knowledge.

Note that I used two terms originating from Aristotle. The name Metaphysics came from the book of the same name by the Greek philosopher and means "After Physics." This name was given simply because, in the organization of Aristotelian works by Andronicus of Rhodes, this book came right after Aristotle's Physics. However, coincidentally, the book deals with topics that precede and transcend Physics, such as the nature of Being, the essences of things, notions of cause, etc. And since Metaphysics also means "Beyond Physics," the name fit perfectly, naming an entire field of Philosophy. The term "esoteric" was coined by Aristotle, referring to the duality between two types of knowledge, which he called "esoteric" and "exoteric." Exoteric knowledge was publicly available. Esoteric knowledge was taught only to initiates in ancient Greek philosophical schools and was kept out of public access.

One of the most persistent metaphysical problems is the question of universals. Are there universal forms, common essences to similar things, or are there only particular specimens that we group by using collective labels? These two opposing views are called realism and nominalism. Realism says that universals have objective existence. Nominalism says no, there are only the names we apply to group the particulars. Obviously, it goes without saying that this is a very crude summary of the issue. Good texts, written by those who truly understand these matters, can be found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (here and here).

And when I say I intend for the Magic of the Flesh of Gods world to reflect these issues, it's mainly in terms of inspiration. From a universalist perspective, I wonder: what if these universal, abstract entities, inaccessible to perception and glimpsed only by the mind, were elevated to protagonist entities in this universe? How would knowledge of these entities be? How would they exert power over the perceptible world of particular things? And how would this knowledge be scattered throughout the world? Obviously, it shouldn't be easily accessible knowledge. It should be esoteric science. Esoteric in relation to the characters, esoteric in relation to the reader, and... why not?, esoteric in relation to the author himself.

"But what trickery is this? Saying you don't know what you're creating?", the reader might say. But in my defense, I argue that not knowing how the elements of the world I describe work isn't my invention. After all, claiming ignorance about my own creations is a tradition that comes from Tolkien himself, and it would be an honor to continue.

"But you're no Tolkien," others will say. And they'd be right. I lack the talent of the great master, I lack the encyclopedic knowledge of languages, and I lack the firsthand witness of the horrors of a world-scale war. I tread the paths paved by those who came before me, advancing hesitantly along the trails of imagination, trying to discover, more than create, the magic of this world. But if there's one thing that redeems me, it's that the act of creation has a touch of magic, and more than just solitary rumination, it's a synergy between the vast array of events, dramas, comedies, encounters, and mismatches of our world and the wild ideas fluttering inside an artist's skull.

Therefore, I invoke the magical power of this synergy through the world's oldest recitation: the question. What do you expect from magic? When does magic become magical in a text? What fantastical experiences have you had? What's magical to you? I await your guidance and insights on this journey of discovery.

Until next time!


PS.: the amazing miniature painting you see in this post's image was done by Alizarin Pierce. The miniature is called The Shadow Wanderer and we released it back in December 2022