I’ve written about magic and its function before, most notably in my Merely Magical and Mix and Match Magic articles. I’m a scientific fellow by nature, but magic is so useful for fiction that I’d be remiss in ignoring it. Beside that, it’s fun to think of the intersection between magic and science. Cue Arthur C. Clarke’s quote:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
So lately, I’ve been wondering… how do magic spells with conditions work?
I work with computers all day long, as an artist, true, but I understand a little bit of programming. There are programs that are constantly looking for input that is then acted on. The computer has to constantly run routines that ask “is anything happening now?” and “how about now?” or “maybe now?”… it’s always paying attention, ready to spring into action. This takes processing power.
How about magic?
I’ve been watching the Pirates of the Caribbean movies again lately, so I’ll use those as an example (here there be spoilers!). In the first one, the Aztec curse is lifted when the gold is returned and the blood debt repaid. Is there an ancient Aztec spirit checking DNA? Maybe it’s just checking with its fellow spirits in a vast Aztec post-mortal spy network. They are always watching, dun dun dun… The gold would be a bit easier to explain as it’s a simple count… but how to know if they are the right coins? Again… Aztec ghost spy network, or maybe just a ghostly assayer working with the DNA specialist.
What about the whole Davy Jones myth (in the movies)? He was cursed because he wasn’t faithful to his ladyfriend… but how did she know? Maybe that one is easy to explain with a bit of mindreading and/or scuttlebutt, but what of the apocryphal Will Turner variant? According to what I’ve read online (yes, I was curious, hush), Will isn’t stuck on the Flying Dutchman at the end of the third movie because Elizabeth was faithful to him, and he to her. Who checks on these things? Who or what is watching, and how does one get privacy in such a world?
Perhaps magic itself has a level of sentience? At least enough to run simple “pass/fail” monitoring checks at a low level all the time? If so, how much does magic think? How smart is it? Can it be fooled? How much power does it take to run these checks? Are there limits to its perception, whether temporal, spatial or something else? Can it be blinded or deafened?
And what if the rules change? Is magic capricious? In The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, why could Balthazar and Dave drive through their own reflection to escape a magical mirror trap, but Horvath needed external help to escape the same sort of trap? Does one need a certain velocity to just blow out of the trap (shades of Back to the Future, where the tech may as well be magic), or some other quirky condition?
The Looking for Group webcomic is one I’ve wondered about lately in that regard as well. The first minor arc in that comic has our central hero incinerated (into ashes!) and then revived by a local priestess, whole and healthy. Later, that same priestess can’t revive her adopted father, merely because he had suffered some sword slashes to vital arteries. Similarly, she couldn’t fix her uncle’s lost arm (though an artificer managed to make a perfectly functional magical metal one). Did she lose power? Are ashes easier to revive than a whole corpse (albeit minus some blood)? Did magic’s function change? Is this just the Power of Plot changing the rules in the name of Pointless Drama?
I know, this is overthinking things, but I believe there’s merit in having consistent rules that magic function by. That sort of logical underpinning can make a world more interesting. It need not be boiled down to a quantifiable science (though that might be interesting), but a bit of logic and consistency can go a long way in selling something as fantastic as magic, something that inherently goes against our intuition. Even if the end player/reader/viewer doesn’t get these rules explained explicitly, just the fact that they are there and that the creators use them is a boon to the presentation.
On the other hand, capricious, chaotic, unpredictable magic has its place, too. I just think that authors, game designers and worldbuilders should put a bit of thought into how and why magic does what it does instead of just making random stuff up and changing the rules as they go. Maybe that’s a level of Batman-crazy preparation that we typically only see in someone like Tolkien and his linguistic and historic backgrounds of Middle Earth… but I think it’s worth it. It seems to me that having that sort of underlying superstructure makes a magical world cleaner and more interesting, if only because it’s easier to be immersed (you’re not always asking “wait, what?” as you play along) and easier to expand (known rulesets are easier to follow, or break as occasion demands).
If nothing else, looking at how things work can provide story hooks and opportunities to delve into a fictional world and issue exposition in new and interesting ways. It’s a good thing to have readers/players/viewers wondering “how” and “why” if the answers exist and help build up the world… and it’s a bad thing if those questions just lead to plot holes and lazy craftsmanship.