From the Ground Up – The Nature of Magic Part II – Biological and Elemental Magic


Last week, I talked about the way that Foundational, Primal magic would be explained, in a general sense, in a campaign world. Now, I want to take a look at two additional primal methods of magic, the Biological and the Elemental

Where Fundamental Magic permeates the world and gives nature its characteristic magical traits, biological magic does that for creatures. Without biological magic, many of the creatures would have no explanation and not feasible way to exist, even within a standard, no explanation world. Here, though, where we are trying to make sure the world makes sense, there needs to be some sort of definition that we can fall back on to make these creatures feel like a seamless and integral part of the world.

The first things we have to do is to figure out how the creatures in the world became suffused with magic. There are two pretty basic answers to the question, though I happen to find one a bit more satisfying than the other, unless specific reasons are given in the creation of the world. 

The first, and least immersive reason, would be that creatures were infused with magic long ago by wizards or other powerful beings. These beings tinkered with the normal forms that our mundane world would understand and turned them, through experimentation, into the creatures we know today. The griffon doesn’t simply seem like the combination of a lion and an eagle, it is. This explanation holds some value in a world that would be pretty bog standard if it wasn’t for the agency of some larger organization of other beings that made the world as it is. While this is a pretty easy to use answer, I find it lacks the substance to really be the type of solution I would reach for.

The more satisfactory solution is that of the evolved and naturally magical beings. Surprising, right? That the natural and complicated way is the one I choose more often. In this situation it is especially difficult to figure out the origins of certain creatures. Chimera, Chull, Rust Monsters, and Sphinxes are some of the most bizarre to try and figure out, and creatures that are part human or humanoid give us pause as well. While the creation of many  beings would come down to a need and a space in nature that only these creatures can fill, finding some of them may be difficult, but that is where the magic of the world takes up the task. Lets take the Griffon, for instance. That creature fills a niche that an eagle would fill, but it is much much larger. This would require it to need to consume more prey, which is why it has the lion-quarters and the quadrupedal shape. It is clearly to heavy to fly, but its the bones are harder and lighter than normal biology will allow, suffused with the magic of the world, allowing its simply, normally heavy form to fly. You could also go in a direction that makes its form unusually light for its size, making it less of a muscle dense predator and more of a powerful, striking predator.

Beyond the standard fare of simply explaining away unnatural body types, you also get to the portion of the natural world which causes incredible effects simply by the fact that the creature is that creature. Catoblepas stare causes death and rust monsters consume iron. In the real world, that would be difficult at best. Here, in the fantasy realms, it is possible to explain in fairly simple terms. The catoblepas causes heart failure by being so terrifyingly, hideously ugly that it legitimately causes your heart to stop in fear. The rust monster contains a concentrated oxidiser that it salivates onto iron and metallic products to dissolve them into rust and consume them. The ideas, if you think about them, come fairly easily.

This brings us back to the human portion of the creatures we had discussed earlier. These creatures, these beings, are much harder to justify in a world where normal biological laws still hold sway. How do centaurs, Lamia, Sphinxes, Mermaids and other partially humanoid beings actually exist. For me, in my world, I would strive to stick to a natural cause. These creatures would be the dire offspring of the gods,  polymorphed beings,  or terrible encounters with monsters. While in our world, most creatures are not possible of interbreeding, the terrible and uncaring magic of a suffused world could have a dire change on that simple biological truth. It is clearly evident in the half dragons and half elfs that permeate the world as it is. 

By making sure that you have a strong argument for the biological component of many of your fantastic creatures, It will enable you to craft a stronger story by continuing the suspension of disbelief through to every portion of the tale.

Elemental Magic 

The third and final aspect of Foundational magic is that of elemental magic. This is often tied into the other two magics, both Fundamental and Biological, but is also separate in its own existence. What elemental magic brings to the world is the animating and guiding power of the elemental forces. Air, earth, lightning, fire, water and ice are all fundamental powers of the universe, but they are still subject to the whims of magic. 

On a given world, elemental magic will be differently addressed. Some will have a plethora of elementals roaming around, defining certain areas and creating a powerful sense of natural elementalism. Volcanoes and deep lakes alike will be the home of power elementals, as would the dark caverns and the hearts of thunderstorms. Others, though, will simply demonstrate the power of elemental magic through the power of the element itself. 

In either case, we have to define what primal elemental magic is, and again, there are two fairly common solutions, thought both have the same end result. It is either a trapped spirit from another plane, confined to the elemental form, or it is a fragment of the spirit of the element itself, confined to the form it is currently in. 

My personal preference is for it to be a fragment of the element itself, given spontaneous sentience by the ley lines magic. While it seems fundamentally similar to an extraplanar spirit trapped in the element, which I would still allow from time to time, it does give the elementals a bit more agency. In this situation, it grants the spirit the desires and the motives of the element brought into form. Fire elementals will be temperamental and hot headed, earth elementals will be dauntless of thought and slow to action, ect. Each elemental is allowed to act in a manner that the element would find pleasing, furthering what few goals that element would have and be but barely aware of itself and others. The elementals as free-born spirits also provides for spontaneous creation during a session or story without there being a malevolent force behind it. While many elementals will be driven by their own esoteric goals and desires, they will not be burdened with the goals of the spirit they once were in their other existence, whatever that happens to be. . 

with these two covered, we have a basic set of Foundational magic to work with, with rules for Ley Lines, the Spirit world, Elemental Magic and the magical biology of creatures. Next week we will start looking into how the above magics, and maybe even something different, are manipulated by Magic Users in the world to create the effects they so desire.