Creating a Setting from a Magic System: A Fantasy Brainstorming Session

As far as my writing goes, narrowing my focus has been difficult. I have too many ideas, and not enough faith in the ideas I have to be able to pick one. I want to have it all: an idea I can use for future stories that is also good for rpg writing, where I can focus on contemporary issues while also just having fun. Maybe its less complicated than I'm making it out to be. Maybe it's a fool's errand. Maybe it's time to answer than age old question: if I could only write one story, what would I write?

That's a tall order. Only write one story my entire life? It'd be like choosing my favorite finger. I'd prefer to write all the stories I have ever come up with. Still, i need to focus my efforts, so maybe it would be good to write down some basic ideas and go from there. If I could only write one story:

Building the Bones of Magic

First of all, let's define where magic comes from. In Hermeticism, there is a concept represented by the phrase “as above, so below.” The idea is that what happens in the macrocosm of the universe (above) is reflected in the microcosm of the individual (below) and vice versa. So we can think of magic as the magician transmitting their will to the greater universe. So how does that work? Lets suppose there is the physical world and the astral world, and that the two are connected. The magician transmits their will into the astral world to effect changes in the physical. Sounds good so far.

So now that we know where magic comes from, what forms might it take? In keeping with our hermetic theme, lets create two branches based on the main branches of Hermetic practice: alchemy and theurgy. Alchemy was the grandfather of chemistry and modern science, while theurgy dealt with summoning and speaking to spirits, specifically angels. So going off that, let's think of alchemy as dealing with the physical world and theurgy with the astral.

It would be simple to think of alchemy simply as “magical chemistry,” where you mix a couple of things and something cool happens. But everyone does that. And alchemists didn't just mix potions; they were metallurgists and tinkers as well. Lets take it a step further and consider the four classical elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Taken together, these can be seen as analogous to the four states of matter: Earth for solid, Water for liquid, Air for gas and Fire for plasma. Combining these ideas with our general theory of how magic works from earlier, we can come up with the following definition of alchemy: alchemy is the art and science of imbuing inanimate matter with one's will.

This has several implications for the setting. First, it implies that alchemists don't just work with potions, but with metals and machinery as well. This in turn implies that there might be pieces of technology within the setting that approach the workings of modern day technology. There might be telephones, trains and even airships powered by alchemical workings. There might also be people who use alchemy to transform our bodies, paving the way for nonhuman fantasy characters.

Moving on to theurgy, here we have the art of working with spirits. But how does one work with them, and what kind of spirits should we have? Should they be material or immaterial? I like the idea of them being immaterial but able to make their presence known n the material plane. This enforces the idea that So how does one work with immaterial spirits? In Libre Null and Psychonaut, Peter J. Carroll uses the term “invocation” to describe the act of bringing a spirit into oneself and “evocation” to describe binding a spirit to an object. These terms are already used in fantasy fiction in a number of ways, but lets use them like Carroll did. It'll confuse the hell out of DnD players, but it will make the setting stand out bit, and its in keeping with our theme of boring from Western Esoterica.

As for the nature of spirits themselves, it would be easy just to leave them as “spirits of everything,” but that doesn't give us any real implications to build a setting off of. Calling them “totems” would be appropriation, and is also done to death. We could call them “faeries” or “wights,” but those have their own implications which I'm not sure I like for this setting. So lets go with “angels” and “demons,” which have also been done to death but are at least directly related to Renaissance Hermeticism.

The existence of angels and demons implies the existence of a church that is vaguely Christian in nature. It would be too easy to go the way most such stories go, with the church not using magic at all and considering it an abomination. So lets have the church use magic, but balk at the summoning of demons. They might be perfectly content to let alchemists make whatever they want, and may even use invocation in some of their church rituals. The main character might even be a former member of the church who left after being pushed out by rivals.

Putting It All Together

So, taking a look at the two basic parts of magic, we have a way of working with physical matter and a way of working with metaphysical entities. Alchemy has given us ways to incorporate magical technology into our setting, and theurgy has added a religious and philosophical aspect. So now we have a general idea of what the society might look like, and a basis for themes within the work. All in all I'd say I'm off to a pretty good start. Now I just need to get to work on writing a story.