Dresden Files Exploration

There is an easy way to avoid the problem of historical magic.

I said making it our world but magic the whole time is basically impossible. The closest you can get would be having people know there’s magic and it just ended up in a very similar place as our world at this point in time – Sunshine did that, and while there still ended up being a lot of secondary plotholes spawned from it, it worked pretty well overall. But this creates a tissue-paper world, because the moment you start trying to explain how you got to this point, it gets complicated or you realize that there’s just no decent handwave for why we aren’t currently chattel owned either by the fairies or vampires. Plus, if established magic, it’s hard to make your character special.

This story is built around the idea that the modern technological world is opening up contact with the magical one, and Harry is the first openly magic practitioner. That means magic needs to have started mattering recently, because societies generally don’t decide to just ignore the things murdering them.

No one’s sure what exactly determines magic – alignment of the stars, fluctuating levels of aether passing through the planet, a giant dragon that lives in the center of the earth – but for whatever reason, it comes and goes, and it doesn’t even have the decency to taper off gently. At some point, the magic polarity flips and BAM MAGIC.

During the no-magic periods, magical creatures like vampires are completely inactive. I’d go with them just being regular moldering corpses (ooh, plot point – you know how sometimes they fail to move the cemeteries when they flood a place? There’s now a bunch of ancient vampires who came back long after that happened and are now trapped beneath the water rapidly going mad from starvation. You could try to rescue them, or you could leave the damn bloodsuckers – but then you’d better oppose the environmentalists two years later who want to tear down the outdated dam and let the salmon use the river again before their tree-hugging KILLS US ALL!) but apparently whatever the hell the Nevernever is, they hang out there. So, there’s a magic world too, and while no one’s sure if it’s cause or effect, during times of high magic the barrier between the two is almost nonexistent.

This is why people forget about magical creatures – for generations, they actually are just stories. And because they’re just stories, each area’s stories end up changing in different directions, which is why actual vampires are different in such and such a way.

Now, magic survives even in the low-magic periods. There’s still one or two places left fairies can pop in on a full moon every thirteen years, vampires manage to slither in now and again, and wizards can still do some minor magics with a lot of prep work, a group, and maybe a few virgin sacrifices. And from there comes the culture of secrecy, as well as why magic doesn’t seem too advanced – each transition from high to low magic involves a lot of torches and pitchforks. (It’s also why wizards don’t immediately take over the world when the magic turns back on. They need a while to build their power and numbers up again, and get a handle on how magic works now that it’s at full power.)

But, and here’s the fun thing, wizard power is special, because they’re magic users who are otherwise native to the mundane world. It isn’t determined just by what state the worldwide polarity is set to. The reason Harry is a big deal is he’s a young wizard, one born after the magic had kicked in again. The older wizards have gotten a big boost by magic working again, but Harry and any other newbie wizards will be able to outclass them with minimal training.

Harry is special for living at this point in time – because the new kids will be so much stronger than them, wizards aren’t too motivated to give up their secrets, so there’s almost no other people like him.

Where does technology come into this? For whatever reason, when magic returns, it screws with any technology invented after this point. It’s like each contact updates its grasp of physics. Some wizards theorize that it’s actually replacing the laws of physics around magic users with a sort of stripped-down emulation of how things are “supposed” to work as recorded at initial contact. Things that are updated versions of something that existed will screw up (like modern car radios). Things that didn’t exist, like cellphones, just stop working on the spot. Research into this is limited by the fact wizards rarely have any training in scientific rigor, and the three who did only managed to show the community that trying to combine known and brand new technology to see what happens makes charred corpses.

To make it worse for Harry, the date for magic kicking in and the date for new kids born with boosted magic don’t match up (they don’t know why because they already lost their researchers trying to wire cellphones to radios), which is why he’s stuck using stuff from half a century before he was born. This also explains why wizards would be willing to start taking new apprentices at all – the time period immediately after magic kicks back in is a great time to try to restore their numbers, but eventually you hit the superbabies and incentive switches to hoarding your secrets to try to hold on to your power.

That’s right, Harry murdering his teacher is in fact the horror story everyone lived in fear of! (Or maybe they didn’t even realize this would happen and it was only the murder that made them even realize this was an issue and go into lockdown mode.) And that’s why they seem to behave so irrationally about the whole thing, and why to Harry they just look like a bunch of crazy old guys, because like hell they’re going to say that by the way his magic-fu trumps theirs. It also is the closest I can think of for making stalking Harry with a giant sword make any sense, they really really really want him dead but they’re also scared of him coming after them.

This also lets us have other newbie wizards be dangerous, which I think is really important. The new generation of magic users popping up should upset the status quo, they should be a huge unknown, and an untrained newbie finding a book and trying to teach themselves should be a big deal, because books like this should be about living in interesting times.

Since we’re assuming a lot of stuff is lost in the low-magic period, most layman’s knowledge of magic isn’t true. This lets us just avoid the whole question of what original owners of Chicago believed before we killed them and named the place Chicago. If Harry is feeding fairies milk and honey, it’s not working because they like milk and honey, it’s working because they like food in general and Harry doesn’t know better because his education didn’t cover fairies very well, and in fact real wizards know they’re not “fairies”, that’s just what the Europeans called them. (Bonus: by having Harry not always know the difference between story and reality, we can see it actually play out and lead to adventure rather than him announcing that haha, dumb muggles thought they knew shit that’s cute, maybe I’ll lay down some exposition about the reality or maybe I’ll just repeat that you’re dumb.)

And better yet, Harry not knowing much about magic would give him a legitimate reason to be cagey when the police call him. He’s smart and can work stuff out, but he doesn’t directly recognize most magic. He needs the job and he knows they need him (because a novice wizard is better than no magic consultant at all) so he pretends to be way more experienced than he actually is. This also lets us more easily section off any bullshit like “oh man totally a witch” as actually just being his opinion.

What happens is Harry tries to add a bunch of magic justification onto his guesses because they don’t think anything of his actual detective skills when they’re licensed cops but will take his magic explanations semi-seriously, and we end up with him claiming witches hate better. Harry, who’s studying about detective stuff to supplement his magic knowledge, looks at the situation and pegs it as done by a wife or girlfriend. It’s a spell that requires a ton of magically-charged hatred, it’s hitting a guy in the middle of having sex with a prostitute, and it’s killing both of them. If this involved a gun, spurned lover would be top five easy, and the hatred requirement makes it practically certain. And it does seem intuitively true that witches would be meaner than wizards, I mean, you don’t hear about any wizards luring kids in with gingerbread houses! Plus when he made that joke last time the witches just gave him these nasty looks, so obviously they’re a cranky and hateful bunch.

Harry’s a lot more sympathetic if he’s trying to do his best with his limited knowledge. It’s also the best way to keep him from being too overpowered or too outclassed – as the scale ramps up, Harry learns more to meet the challenges. That’s why every shonen manga ever has the main character have a huge amount of natural talent and no actual experience.

(Incidentally, sorry, but no magic skull AI. Harry writes his potion recipes down on paper like a normal person. This also explains why he doesn’t always have great potions on hand, he only knows how to do the ones he’s worked out so far. )

Edit: Also, if we want to have a clear magic vs technology divide, make magic unable to scale. Magic concentrates enormous power in a single person, but it can’t be done assembly-line style, so it’s impossible to have the equivalent of an industrial revolution.

One obvious limiter is inborn magic talent, but you don’t need to go that route.

Take luck charms. Say the amount of energy it takes to make a minor luck charm is about half the amount it takes to make a major luck charm, but a minor luck charm means you probably won’t stub your toe and a major luck charm means a dozen machine guns on full throttle can’t hit you. Wizards therefore make the max level of whatever magic item they’re capable of, rather than dividing their power to make a dozen at once. Magic can never be properly manufactured and distributed. It’s always a haves/have nots setup unless basically everyone has magic, and there’s no incentive for the magic users to open schools for everyone and try to get to this point because then everyone else has the magic and doesn’t need them for it.

A society could democratize magic, and such a society would probably do way better than the ones being assholes about it, but you can say the same thing about training ordinary people to fight, and plenty of societies chose otherwise. The magic flipping on and off makes it practically impossible, because the old guard setting the standards each time are a bunch of power-grubbing babymurderers living in constant fear of a peasant mob – but it’s always possible that one time, a set of the new supercharged wizards they’re afraid of might overthrow them and teach magic to everyone.

18 Comments

  1. Roarke says:
    Excellent post; there’s some really great worldbuilding stuff in all of your analyses.

    “(Bonus: by having Harry not always know the difference between story and reality, we can see it actually play out and lead to adventure rather than him announcing that haha, dumb muggles thought they knew shit that’s cute, maybe I’ll lay down some exposition about the reality or maybe I’ll just repeat that you’re dumb.)”

    This is why 99% of the time it’s best to start with a protagonist that knows nothing. Rowling, despite the other flaws in her writing, at least had the sense to start with a wide-eyed kid new to the world of magic. Of course, a lot of the proper worldbuilding for worlds of magic gets directly contradicted worldbuilding for worlds of noir. Experienced protagonists are the rule there. All noir stories are implicitly sequels to unwritten autobiographies of dudes hard-used by life.

    “Harry’s a lot more sympathetic if he’s trying to do his best with his limited knowledge.”

    And fallible narrators are more sympathetic in general, especially those who will openly admit their mistakes. So far I think the only person Harry’s openly caved to is Skully McRapeface, soulfucking from TigerSoul aside.

    “This also lets us have other newbie wizards be dangerous, which I think is really important. The new generation of magic users popping up should upset the status quo, they should be a huge unknown, and an untrained newbie finding a book and trying to teach themselves should be a big deal, because books like this should be about living in interesting times.”

    This is actually one of my favorite things about the “magic fades in and out of the world” narrative. The reemergence of magic is being done pretty damn well in ASoIaF, at least. You have old people whose lifelong obsession with magic is suddenly paying off, and young people who are getting caught up in it. It’s as though the stocks for some company on the verge of folding increase in value one thousand-fold, and the schmucks who were holding on to the dregs are suddenly rich.




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    1. illhousen says:
      “This is why 99% of the time it’s best to start with a protagonist that knows nothing.”

      Well, you don’t have to do it. But the more experienced your protagonist is, the more exposition is required to explain what’s going on. Some authors are able to provide the exposition without being obnoxious about it, others… not so much.




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      1. Roarke says:
        I mean yeah, I’m aware of that; that’s why I said 99% instead of flat-out 100%. Generally there is at least one character who doesn’t know much of what’s going on, and it is usually the protagonist – someone who has an excuse for being onscreen the majority of the time weird stuff that needs explaining happens.



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    2. Farla says:
      ASoIaF’s amazing in that way. It seemed like every damn fantasy story I ever read, even the high magic ones where it didn’t actually matter, had everyone mention that by the way the world is in decline and all the cool stuff will get less cool over time, and not even fast enough to do anything interesting in the process. Then along comes ASoIaF and it’s HEY SUDDENLY OUR AWESOME BURN EVERYTHING FLAME IS SUPERCHARGED AND SUPER EASY TO MAKE BTW DRAGONS!!!!



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      1. Roarke says:
        Yeah, Magic-In-Decline had its heyday for the last uh several centuries at least (was it because the world was steadily growing secular or what?). But now the magic is coming back, because seriously, fuck fantasy without magic.



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      2. Roarke says:
        “HEY SUDDENLY OUR AWESOME BURN EVERYTHING FLAME IS SUPERCHARGED AND SUPER EASY TO MAKE BTW DRAGONS!!!!”

        I love the way that scene was presented, too. Tyrion (I think it was Tyrion) was like “what the fuck, how’d you produce so much, don’t tell me it’s diluted.” And the pyromancer is like “no, no, not diluted, it’s just, uh, for some reason the old recipes are working better and… you wouldn’t happen to have any dragons lying around?”




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  2. Eilonwy_has_an_aardvark says:
    Love it. Want to go explore that world.

    Witch hunts would take place in the early stages of a magic recession: magic is “off,” but “witch” is a potent symbol of fear, so tossing around the accusation gives a good way to get permission to burn and drown people who never had anything to do with wizardry at all.

    “On” cycles would start with a wave of charlatans who can suddenly do the things they’re pretending to do — and well-meaning believe-in-fairies second-sight types whose intuition and herbal preparations suddenly work more-or-less reliably. Neither have any idea how much trouble that can get them into. Nor do the more daring cosplayers who’ve been claiming to be vampires all this time. Some muddle through and find mentors; others make very messy corpses. Mysterious disappearances go up, but some forms of crime may go down as vampires use those people for snackies.

    Magic would helpfully be on a cycle like stock market bubbles, where at the point that EVERYONE believes in it, it goes away; while at the point when nobody except crackpots takes it seriously, it comes roaring back.




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    1. Farla says:
      tossing around the accusation gives a good way to get permission to burn and drown people who never had anything to do with wizardry at all.

      Plus if you’re one of the surviving wizards, it’s a great way to cement your cover. (And maybe take out some people who might be able to out you in the process.)




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  3. sliz225 says:
    This reminds me of one of the things I like best in modern fantasy stories–characters fumbling through magic stuff because they’re working off legends and stories. Can only be killed by sunlight? I guess they mean UV light. Potion requires water from the Aegean sea? Well, that was the only salt water source for the civilization writing this stuff down, so any salt water should do it.



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    1. Farla says:
      Can only be killed by sunlight? I guess they mean UV light.

      Or maybe it depends on the beast. This one is weak to UV, this one can handle weak light and only sunlight was bright enough at the time, this one is weak to a shade of light torches don’t produce enough of, but slap some colored plastic on your flashlight and you might as well be swinging around a lightsaber…

      Maybe vampires aren’t even weak to fire, it’s just that lighting them on fire was the only way to generate sufficient brightness to cause any damage.




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  4. illhousen says:
    Ah, yes, the magic comes back narrative.

    Yeah, it’s a good one, with themes about times changing and society facing problems it has no reliable way of countering.

    One thing to address is how governments look on magic. It’s a direct threat to their power, after all. Do they know of its existence? Do they try to incorporate it into existing system and make a part of life or actively oppose it?




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    1. Eilonwy_has_an_aardvark says:
      Within the U.S., the California cities that license psychics and fortune-tellers (I am not making this up) are quick to extend the licensing requirements to actual magic-users, and there’s pressure for a single state-wide license.

      Arizona and Florida deny the existence of magic-users (because new construction dominates) and aren’t interested in licensing (because they don’t regulate anyway). Nevada decides to regulate but legalize, as with casinos — but due to preponderance of new construction, can’t keep any wizards.

      A segment of Southwesterners blames apparent “magic” on illegal immigrants (saying it’s just trickery) and demands more border vigilance. This isn’t as whackadoodle as it might seem, as the ill-maintained barrios in SW cities are the best places for wizards to live.

      In older parts of the country, there are sizable factions that blame “magic” on drugs or terrorism, along with a movement (centered in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and Vermont) for witches’ rights. “Witch Studies” hits the more liberal college campuses before mainstream politics acknowledges magic as a thing, and there is MUCH fussing in the gun-control-vs.-NRA debate over whether guns offer necessary protection against wizards or no protection at all.

      By the time the federal government acknowledges the issue with more than a committee to study it, magic is gone again.

      Outside the U.S., it’d similarly flow into the existing channels of political disputes.




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      1. actonthat says:
        People in New York sigh heavily and just keep walking.



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        1. Farla says:
          Until they realize how old their sewer system is.



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      2. Roarke says:
        At some point before the magic fades again, there is an eerie preponderance of sketchy vice-presidents who clasp their hands and make ominous statements, who may or may not be mind-controlling the presidents.



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  5. guestest ever says:
    “Magic goes away” narrative was done famously by Tolkien, so everyone and their mother copied it, rendering it cliche and lame. Plus loss is pretty easy to write, just copy aftermaths of big economical collapses and world wars.

    “Magic comes on” is very much harder to do, depending on how you’re defining it, since new things appearing is so much more alien and unpredictable. Sure we’ve seen computers/cell phones/internet change the world, but none of these gave us the personal power to untracably kill whomever we like or blow shit up willy nilly. Closest anology to “traditional fantasy magic power appeared” would be the proliferation of easy to use firearms, which was pretty long before any of us were born so you’d need a whole load of research to get it right; or the invention of nuclear weapons, which isn’t something people have access to on an individual basis and also requires a bit of research.

    Ofc, if you write magic as a more intangible, immaterial, information/communication based thing, effects of technological progress would be a good inspiration but in my experience the masses prefer their magic showy and explodey and hollywoodmoviey. Nobody wants to read/watch how the collapse of medicine and insurance industries wholesale after the emergence of magical healers caused a wave of mass unemployment and civil unrest worldwide. Therefore deathrays and fireballs and zombies and cool dudes with sunglasses fighting sexy vampires with trenchcoats.




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    1. Farla says:
      I don’t think it’s just that Tolkein did it, but that he did it together with historical fantasy, so everyone got the idea that fantasy worlds are “supposed” to end up as mundane when as they approach modern times. If he hadn’t given a reason, maybe some of it would’ve been staved off, but because he did, anyone wanting to copy that part of it had to copy the magic disappearing as well. Lots of stories about knights killing the last monsters and all that resulted.

      Sure we’ve seen computers/cell phones/internet change the world, but none of these gave us the personal power to untracably kill whomever we like or blow shit up willy nilly

      Well, drone strikes.




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  6. Savanah says:
    This idea remembers me a lot of Shadowrun, they have the same basic idea of cyclic magic



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