Magic Between Cultures

I’ve noticed that in many of the books I read, magic is rather similar to physics, in that it works the same way no matter where you are and where you came from. Sure, you might get cases where it seems to work differently due to other factors, rather like the way gravity differs between planets, but in the end, all the same rules apply, and if they don’t it’s probably because there’s a main character involved. It’s useful, but it loses one of the major advantages of fantasy—that one actually can allow for cultural variation. How might you get multiple cultures with different sorts of powers?

One way is that they all work approximately the same, but there’s local flavor. One of the more interesting examples (particularly since it managed to spawn balanced game-crunch, a major weakness of a multiple-magic-system setup) I’ve seen is used in the Dresden Files and spelled out effectively in the spinoff RPG’s mechanics—elements divide not by a set pattern like just about everywhere else, but for each wizard by whatever pattern their cultures use, so one’s choosing between the Greek elements, another between the Chinese assortment…. It’s still mastering one element at a time, but which, and how what you can do with them comes across, varies.

There’s also, if you’re willing to work with it that way, magic by bloodline—unless they’re intermixing pretty freely, magic of one type really isn’t going to show up all that often in another’s culture. The problem with that, though, is that there’s a sense in which it’s still all going to be similar, and then you have to deal with the question of what happens when you cross two bloodlines worth of hyper-powered mages from different countries.

Another popular route is that some cultures just know about means of magic use that others don’t. It might be that nobody’s bothered to learn the other route, because they don’t see the relevance or don’t have the time, or that each group jealously guards the secrets of their own magical practices. Magic could require a specialized mind, rather like the way that a parrot who learns to talk won’t be able to solve “pull the string to get the food” puzzles—once you commit to one, it makes it impossible to learn others.

What about power sources? It might be that one type of magic is constrained by the ability to acquire the power necessary, and not all places necessarily have compatible sources. Often, power sources end up being things found in nature (components, ley-lines, what-have-you) and are thus regionally dependent, but you can shake it up—what if the power source is something that a civilization’s put together and figured out how to link people at a distance? Or one or more pseudo-omnipresent entities that listen to one set of people and not another for whatever reason?

Just because it’s easier to create magic that’s the same everywhere doesn’t mean you have to create it that way; why not try to shake it up a bit?

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