We’ve all heard the saying that goes “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” made by the incomparable Sir Arthur C. Clarke.
I would ad a corollary, especially in the worlds of world building (and perhaps in an age of mind hacking and psychological techniques, our own). “Any sufficiently organized magic is indistinguishable from technology.”
Because when you world build, you’re getting things organized in your head to explain how they work. In the case of Magic and Technology, they’re really the same thing most of the time. Not entirely, but mostly.
Now you may wish to argue with this, but for the sake of building a setting, magic and technology are no different. I would state that magic and technology are the ways characters manipulate themselves and the elements of their settings to achieve results fitting a specific goal – and thus really no different.
Vaccum tubes and potions, ethereal forces and electrical energy, it’s all about Making Stuff Happen. So for the rest of this essay, I’ll just call it MaT since I can’t figure any other word to encompass the two of them, and I won’t call it MT as it invites innumerable jokes.
As a world builder, you just have to figure out what it all means. That’s when it gets complicated.
So where does MaT fit into everything in world building? Actually that’s the thing – it does fit into everything
Intelligent Life – If you have intelligent life, you usually have MaT. Intelligent life almost inevitably alters itself and its environment while trying to survive and prosper inside of it. Intelligent life is the source of MaT or at least it’s use.
Ecology – MaT affects and is affected by the ecology of the world – be that an ecology of hard science or supernatural forces. It’s basically when Intelligent life takes whatever makes the universe go and decides how to make it go in a given direction – and because much or all of that power comes from the ecology, it brings in many limits and other factors.
Origins – MaT builds on the foundations of the origins of your setting, from hard science to timeless gods whose power can be called on.
Culture – Culture lets MaT be passed on, enhanced, remembered, used – or corrupted, forgotten, and misused. MaT also affects culture because it can be used to establish cultural elements, build places, transmit information, etc. In many ways culture is inseparable from MaT.
Economy – Cultivating plants, building roads, or transforming gold by calling upon sea spirits all involve the economy. MaT is usually inseparable from the economy as well because MaT affects – and is affected by – the economy it exists in (or that it influences or just plain destroys).
MaT is pretty much part of anything you’re creating setting-wise. In your own worldbuilding endeavors you’ve probably been designing a lot of spells, starships, or super computers anyway. This is just a good reminder that it may go even farther than you realize.
So with that being said, how do you design it? It gets pretty overwhelming when you look at all you have to build – even though most world builders probably dive on in. What I do is recommend asking questions to get your mind moving – or to move it in the right directions.
MaT solves a problem, or is at least assumed to do so. So, in your setting ask why a given spell, gizmo, or discipline was ever made in the first place? What problem does it solve for your characters, civilization, or culture?
In plenty of cases, the reasons something exists are obvious, from a spear for hunting to a psychic discipline to stop predatory entities. In other cases some things may not be so easily explained or sensible – so thinking about why something was made helps thoroughly understand it.
Remember, when asking this question what your cast and culture things are the reason something exists isn’t always the reason others may think it exists. Things are repurposed, MaT fails at one solution but is applied to another, or simply some inventor is just scamming people.
There’s why, what it’s used for, and what it was originally designed for.
OK so who makes the computers, builds the starships, creates the spells, and so forth? Where does it come from.
This is extremely important as MaT has to be produced or made in some fashion so people can use it. Does it take craftsmanship or can you go to a store? Are spells wrung from ancient grimoires or do you download a file off the internet? Are starships made by automated factories or is technology lost and all are repurposed?
Asking how something comes to be tells you a lot about how hard it is to get, how it is regarded, and what the effects are of a piece of MaT existing. It’s core to understanding how the magic and/or technology of your world exist.
MaT can’t be used unless it’s passed on (voluntary or otherwise) and how it is passed on is also going to affect how it is used, regarded, and procured.
Is there hidden technology or are spells publicly available? Are there professors and engineers, or are secrets passed on in darkened rooms among a select few? The dissemination of MaT affects how it gets to people, how those people are treated, and how people react to it.
It also affects how long a piece of MaT endures. If important inventions aren’t disseminated they may be forgotten, which less impressive creations remain.
It answering this question, it’s important to ask how information flows in your Settings. If everyone is literate, written plans/spells/etc. can spread easily. If a secret psychic technique can only be learned telepathically, then it might be a bit harder to pass around.
Of course this is also where culture plays a big part in understanding how MaT works in your world.
You have MaT. You have a solution to a problem – but who can use it?
A magical discipline may only work for a limited set of people. Social mores may prevent a technology being passed around. Horrible side effects of a strange spell may mean only a few suicidally brave souls even use it. Culture, ecology, biology, and more come together to make the use of MaT very complicated.
This requires you think about a lot of elements in your setting, from culture to inherent limitations and advantages of the intelligent races in your setting. But then again, that’s part of world building . .
Nothing comes without a price – if you’re lucky, it’s just a price you don’t mind paying. That’s a core part of MaT
MaT requires resources, time, discipline to use. There may be upkeep, from repairing a device to retaining psychic discipline. Teachers have to be paid, smuggled technology requires untraceable currency to buy, and the Wood Wizards of Arborath won’t appreciate someone dealing their spells.. You don’t get something for nothing.
The cost of MaT is going to factor into how characters use it, economic impacts, cultural attitudes, and even ecologies. What happens when your sorcerer discovers spells produce toxic waste magic – let alone our own confrontations with the impact of modern technology.
In fact, this can be a core of many a tale.
Not all magic or technology scripted equal nor regarded as equal. People like one thing and dislike another, forms of MaT may fall out of favor for various reasons – some good some not.
So in designing your world, remember that MaT is something people have opinions on and cultures develop rules around.
Such regard and opinions aren’t necessarily rational – a spell that can save the day may not be used because some supposedly evil wizard invented it. A great technology may be used as the inventor was famous – but in can turn out his creation is terribly flawed.
Asking what people think about MaT and specific elements of it in your setting is important.
MaT changes. Technology isn’t static. People find new ways to use spells (“i’ll throw the cloudburst spell inside his helmet”). Humans like to tinker, and my guess is most intelligent life probably would as well.
So MaT is going to change in your setting.
Are people trying to improve the MaT they have? Apply it in new ways? What are the results and repercussions? What are the social implications of these attempts to improve? What do these improvements cost in time, money, accidents, etc.?
You may find your world isn’t as static as you seem – but that’s part of the fun.
Writing MaT takes effort. Spells and starships are not dead things or plot devices (at least when done well) but a vital part of your world and the lives of your characters. There are repercussions to every invention and every conjuration, and things are always changing.
But when you askt he right questions and think ahead, then your world comes to life even more – and because MaT is used to change that world, it may get very interesting story-wise . . .
The more you introduce, the more the technology differs from what you know, the more work you’ll have ahead of you. However, that also means a richer, more detailed, and more believable world.
– Steven Savage