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"Ages" of Magic

Started by Kilor Di, April 04, 2005, 03:31:24 PM

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Kilor Di

I don't know if this is the right forum for this discussion...

Most of the games that deal with technology also deal with (or at least refer to) the ages of technology (specifying whether that technology is modern, futuristic, steam-punk, etc.).  However, most games that deal with magic simply treat it as something that exists.  I believe that, like with science, technology, art, et al., magic can be divided into different ages.

1) Discovery- This is the age when magic is first discovered.  The first mages may not even know what magic is or how it works at this point.  At this age, magic is at it's strongest and most powerful.

2) Socialization- In this age, the first "schools" of magic are created.  This is where groups of mages meet together to create the first actual spells.  Magic is still pretty powerful in this age, but not as powerful as when it's first discovered.

3) Refinement- This is where mages start refining spells, making them easier to cast.  While this makes using magic easier, it also weakens the actual power of magic.  

4) Renaissance- This is the "high" age of magic.  Almost everything about magic has been discovered, and mages have a higher understanding, both of magic, and of the universe itself.  Magic is never easier to cast as it is in this age, allowing a mage to cast multiple spells within minutes.

5) Decline- This age does not necessarily take place in all worlds.  In the worlds where it does take place, magic is either forgotten or fades away.  In some cases, the source of magical powers is either drained or destroyed, or otherwise ceases to be.

I feel that there are games that can be placed within certain ages.  DnD can probably be placed either in the age of Refinement or in the Renaissance age, while Arcanum is in the age of Decline.  I'd like to see what everyone thinks about the "ages" of magic, as well as what games fit in what ages.

On a personal note, I think Terrae Novae is in a transition phase between the age of Discovery and the age of Socialization.
A good game knows how to pull you in time after time.  A great game never lets go.


As the old saying goes, magic is not subject to reality checks.  The outline you give is one possible way to have "ages" of magic... but there are infinite other ways as well, limited only by one's imagination.

For example, I could envision a world that goes through elemental cycles, so that there is a "water" age, an "earth" age, and so forth.  Each one affects how magic works.

Several games have magic "go away" for a time, then come back -- e.g., ShadowRun is based on the premise that magic returns to the world during a cyberpunk era, and its sequel EarthDawn is the "prior age of magic" of that world.  Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away is the classic dealing with a group of mages trying to prevent a "fall of magic".

You can have magical discoveries.  Rick Cook's "Wizardry" novels (Wizard's Bane, The Wizardry Compiled, The Wizardy Cursed, The Wizardry Consulted, etc.) are based on the premise that magic is amenable to the techniques of computer programming.  In dire straits, a wizard tries to summon someone to help deal with magical threats... and gets a computer programmer.  He makes a "magical revolution" with new techniques of magic.

Changes in how magic works are another possibility (or rather, set of possibilities).  The elemental cycle above could fit under here.  In a magic system based on dealing with entities (demons, elementals, etc.), a change in "spirit politics" could cause changes in magic.  A few RPGs have done such things in their game worlds to explain differences in magic systems between different editions (e.g., Dragonlance: Fifth Age for the differences between AD&D and its own system, and I believe Forgotten Realms did something for the change between 1st and 2nd edition AD&D...)

Some real-world mythologies have different "ages", usually having to do with which god(s) are in ascendance, or how much the god(s) reveal themselves.  The Austrialian aborigines "Dream Time" is one of the more famous of these, and some parts of HeroQuest magic resemble it strongly.


This is a good model for RPG magic systems evolving over time:

QuoteThe Psycho-Historic Mechanism of the Aeons
by Pete Carroll

A superficial examination of the paradigms which have dominated aeons of cultural development indicates that three major world views have arisen to dominance in succession.

These are the magical, transcendental, and materialist paradigms. A simple picture of these views rising successively to prominence has a certain descriptive use but it lacks explanatory or predictive power and cannot account for the persistence or resurgence of a particular paradigm at some other point in cultural development.

For this a more sophisticated model is required which includes a consideration of the various opposition philosophies which invariably complement the prevailing cultural paradigm.

If the linear time frame of materialism and transcendentalism is combined with the cyclic or recurrent time frame of magical philosophy a graph can be derived which represents both the dominant and opposition paradigms in a form which exhibits considerable explanatory and predictive power, the Psychohistoric Model.

The Psychohistoric Model
(Imagine these curves round and smooth...)

Mat. .      .  *   .      .   +  .      .   -  .      .  *   .
(-)   -          *          +   +          -  -        *   *
      -    *      *      +       +      -     -      *      *
                       +          +   -        -
    .  - * .      . * +  .      .  +-  .      .  - * .      .
       *-           +              - +             -
         -         +  *           -   +          * -
Magic.*    -       +              -     +            -
(*)         .     +.     *.    - .      .+     .*     .      .
            -   +         *  -                       -      +
             - +            *            +   *        -    +
              -             - *           +            -
    .      .+   - .      .-    *.      .   +* .      .  -+  .
                 -                        *           +  -
          +       -      -       *      *    +       +    -
Trans.+   +          -  -           *  *        +   +        -
(+)  .  ++  .      .   -   .     .   *  .      .  +   .      .
     Animi- Spiri- Pagan   Mono- Athei- Nihil- Chaoi-  ???
     st     tist           theist st    ist    st

This model is qualitative, a quantitative treatment would imply a non-linear calibration of the time axis with dates specific to particular cultures. At the time of writing, various human cultures can be identified as passing through a particular aeon and it can be observed that cultures have varied considerably in the length of time they have to progress from one aeon to the next. In cultures where aeonic development has been rapid it is usual to find both remnants of previous aeonic paradigms and evidence of impending aeonic paradigms amongst various individuals and sub-cultures.

This is particularly noticeable in western industrial nations at the time of writing. The ebb and flow of the magical, transcendental and magical paradigms appears to be partly due to competition between them and partly due to certain features of the paradigms themselves. Each has a tendency to become an awesome tyranny at its zenith whilst at its nadir its absence creates such difficulties that it inevitably persists as a ridiculed, barely tolerated, or outright illegal opposition philosophy.

Each paradigm expresses itself with a particular physical technology. Thus the shamanic aeon is characerised by hunter-gatherer technologies, agrarian technologies characterize the religious aeon and the rationalist aeon is characterized by industrialism. The paradigm of the coming aeon will complement post industrial cultures.

There seems little value in extrapolating the psycho-history model backwards in time beyond the shamanic aeon for animistic beliefs appear to characterize the earliest forms of anything that can be called human culture.

The aeons tend to divide quite neatly into two smaller phases each as the paradigms underlying them gain or loose ground relative to each other. The animist phase of the shamanic aeon is dominated by magic and materialsm.

Magic supplies the insight that all phenomena embody a particular power or mana which can be transfered or used to manipulate or anticipate the actions of those phenomena. The system is a perfectly rational extrapolation from the initial mana hypothesis and it is entirely empirical.

Certain magical procedures are performed and certain results usually follow, apart from that the world is conceived in a simple materialistic fashion, as it presents itself to the senses. Transcendentalism plays no part in pure animism which has no pretences beyond assisting its practitioners through this life.

There would appear to be no purely animistic cultures left on this world but anthropologists have observed a few remote cultures in the spiritist phase of shamanism into which animism is prone to decay. In this phase magical theory becomes baroque as the decline of rational empiricism leads to a progressive divorce between magical procedures and their desired effects.

Magical theories and procedures tend to proliferate for a time as their effects and explanatory power become less certain. Thus ritual, myth, fetishism and taboo come to the fore and begin to accrete transcendental overtones.

Pagan or polytheistic cultures arise with a more settled agricultural and city state civilisation. Magical theories and practices decline as the powers recognised in shamanism become anthropomorphized into human deities, synonymous with an increasing transcendentalism as the shamanic view of personal power becomes elaborated into a personal soul.

Ritual negotiation with the gods comes to replace direct magical procedures. Materialism is largely absent from pagan metaphysical thought wherein the world is conceived in largely magical and transcendental terms. Such technical progress as occurs develops on a trial and error basis and any advances are more often given a mythological rather than a rational interpretation.

The limited materialist theorizing about the world that does occur in pagan cultures invariably begins or ends with mythic premises. It is frequently a proscribed activity and not a few pagan philosophers paid dearly for their speculations if their conclusions differs from priestly orthodoxy.

Paganism tends to decay into monotheism during the religious aeon as magical theories are replaced by transcendental ones. A number of factors are at work here. Monotheism equates with the growing sense of individual self that transcendentalism stimulates. At the same time monotheism readily allows for more widespread and effective social control. It is also far easier to train a monotheistic priesthood or maintain a monotheistic theocracy.

For the magic often expected of pagan priests is inherently difficult and unreliable except in the most talented hands and is not generally expected of monotheistic priests. As the monotheist phase progresses there is some increment in materialistic theories of nature but except where these are heavily circumscribed by theology such researches are conducted at great peril.

Indeed, because both material and magical theories are in opposition to the prevailing orthodoxy, science and sorcery are often inseperable both to their practioners and to the priesthood which persecute them in this period. Peculiar hybrids of materialism and magic such as alchemy are frequently found in opposition to monotheism and magic often disguises itself as theurgy partly as protective camouflage and partly out of pure metaphysical confusion.

The gradual ascent of materialist philosophy towards the end of the religious aeon is coupled with technological developments. These in turn lead to a further decline in the mythical aspects of religion. Thus in the first atheistic phase of the rationalist aeon transcendental theories are giving ground to material ones. Such cultures usually remain nominally monotheist as religion recedes in the face of technological achievement and the ascendancy of material descriptions of reality.

Purely magical theories virtually disappear during this phase although some spiritualist occultism often rears its grotesque head. This phenomena bears little relationship to magic. Any magic which manifests within it is explained away in terms of the transcendental materialism of which spiritualism consists.

Freemasonry is characteristic of the increasing materialism and declining transcendentalism of this sub-aeon. Whilst nominally monotheistic, freemasonry seeks a mild transcendence through reason in its virtual worship of the rational archtect of the material universe.

It is essentially a child of the old European enlightenment and persists on a clubbish basis although its original anti- clerical and anti-monarchist purposes are long forgotten. The philosophies of humanism, communism and capitalism also have their roots in the material transcendentalism of this aeon.

Atheism is prone to decay into nihilism as the rationalist aeon progresses. Transcendentalism becomes progressively less sustainable as a world view whilst the explanatory and technical power of materialism grows. As the materialist paradigm peaks it becomes sterile and tyrannical in its attempt to quantify all things in material terms.

At the time of writing, many of the world's current problems are due to large segments of the dominant Western culture entering their nihilist phase. The initial optimism of capitalism, science and socialism is fading as faith in the products of these systems diminishes and no alternatives seem to present themselves as we accelerate into global ecological squalor.

Magic and transcendentalism exist in opposition to the dominant materialist paradigm and often become confused for this reason, much as magic and science were often confused together in their opposition to monotheism in the religious aeon.

Magical theories tend to proliferate partly in response to the tyranny of materialism and partly because although materialism is self evidently incomplete, the holes cannot be patched with a transcendentalism that is tinged with increasing absurdity.

Thus in opposition to nihilistic materialism we find the remains of a monotheistic transcendentalism which is on the way out and a purely magical view, manifesting, for example, in the growth of parapsychology, which is on the increase. Strange admixtures of magic and transcendentalism in various proportions arise at this time.

Neo- paganism, witchcraft and white light occultism are characteristic rebel philosophies during the cultural dominance of nihilism.

Charismatic revival movements on the fringes of a decaying monotheism attempt to perceive and invoke the supposed magical powers of their deities in an immediate way to bolster a transcendentalism which is inexorably fading into obscurity. Similarly in the initial phase of the revival of magic, transcendental or neo- religious themes tend to become mixed with magic.

However the psycho- history model predicts that they will part company and that the surviving magical traditions will be those with no religious components. The model further predicts that the nihilist phase of the rationalist aeon will give way to a new aeon in which the relative strengths of the three paradigms will be in a similar configuration to that of the shamanic aeon.

Materialist and magical beliefs will dominate the culture of the new aeon initially and then magic alone will come to dominate. The new aeon has been dubbed the Pandaemonaeon and its first phase the Chaoist sub-aeon in recognition of the non transcendental magic-materialist theories which will characterize it.

From the standpoint of the popular rational materialism which dominates the nihilist phase it may appear absurd that the philosophy of magic will arise first to complement and then surpass that of science and materialism. However the most advanced scientific theories are already beginning to exhibit magical features in their new descriptions of reality. Both in particle physics and cosmogenesis a fundamental acausality, indeterminacy and observer dependence is now ascribed to reality.

These are, properly speaking, magical theories, not material ones. It also appears that in biology, psychology and medicine materialist theories of strict causality must give ground to some form of emergent vitalism for organisms are evidently more than the sum of their parts. This co-emergent vital principle or morphic field is equivalent to the intrinsic power or mana of magical theory.

The prevailing orthodoxy of the coming chaoist age will represent something of a truce between magic and science; although the magical aspects may take on heavy scientific camouflage first to make them more acceptable. Transcendental theories will virtually disappear and magical phenomena will no longer be acknowledged as proof of anything spiritual.

The word "God" will be both objectively and subjectively meaningless except to a few cliques and cranks; although towards the end of the pandaemonaeon new forms of magical transcendentalism will arise but it would be premature to speculate on their precise manifestation. The model does not predict the nature of the characteristic post-industrial technology of the impending aeon. The decline of materialistic theories throughout the aeon does not in itself imply the loss of advanced technology.

As technology becomes progressively more complex and less comprehensible there is a tendency to conceive of it and use it as though it were a magical phenomenon. Devices incorporating quantum mechanical or direct psi-interactive components may well make any distinction between magical and material systems meaningless in any case.

So the impending pandaemonaeon may be characterized by an extremely complex yet rationally incomprehensible high technology. Alternatively the model will equally well accommodate a post catastrophe technology sufficient to support a new hunter gatherer tribalized society resembling the first shamanic aeon when the relative strengths of the paradigms were similar.

At the time of writing it is too early to speculate on the character of the second phase of the pandaemoneaon which has been left nameless. It remains to be seen whether humanity will spend this phase out amongst the stars or squabbling over tinned food in the smoking ruins.

Yet any credible form of stellar travel will have to be based on principles more akin to those currently under investigation in magic than in science. Some form of machine enhanced teleportation might suffice, reaction-thrust vehicles plainly will not.

The magician's stance towards the aeonic cycle depends on his attitude towards change. Progress is merely the mechanism whereby humanity exchanges one set of problems for another, often larger, set. To campaign for or against change is necessarily to draw oneself into strife and conflict. Yet it seems that by nature we find it more stimulating to engage in turmoil and contention than to abstain.

The advantages of having history on one's side are that one may enjoy the company of radical rather than conservative minds and one may even enjoy the satisfaction of being proved right in one's lifetime.

The satisfactions afforded by the defense of orthodoxy and the bittersweet appeal of vainglorious defeat should not, however, be underestimated. Politics, being a mere squabble over the secondary codification of the primary values of a society, has little effect on the aeonic cycle.

All it can do is effect the timing. Democracy for example is entirely due to industrialism, military technology and the weaking of monotheism; it is not something which arises out of politics itself, nor is it by any means the ultimate form of social organisation. If there is a tide in the affairs of men then it is caused by deep changes in our views of self and reality and politics are mere eddies and ripples on its surface.

Armed with the Psycho-historic model of aeonic change the magician can readily see what factors he should work on to hasten, impede, or reverse aeonic development in a particular culture or sub-culture. For example it is necessary to encourage both materialism and transcendentalism and to undermine magical theories when engaged in monotheistic missionary work with pagans. Conversely to help combat the effects of such missionary work or to revive a pagan cabal within a monotheist or atheist culture one should do just the opposite.

However, one hopes that the primary concern for contemporary magi is to ensure the safe and speedy birth of the pandaemonaeon from within nihilist culture. To assist in this transition, magical philosophy must strive for three things. Firstly, it must strive to eliminate any remaining transcendental or religious concepts which still contaminate it. These are destined for the dustbin of history for a long while and when they eventually re-emerge it will be in a completely different form anyway.

No useful part of magic ought to be thrown away with them. Secondly, it must seek to present its ideas and techniques using maximum camouflage. Magic must enter popular consciousness using a series of Trojan horses. Thirdly, as a precautionary measure magic should attempt to undermine the decaying remnants of monotheism without offering itself as a target in the process.

For example, parapsychology presents an enormous and unacknowledged threat to fundamentalism; although the existence of various idiotic satanisms is surely a great comfort to it.

Dangerous times lie ahead. Millennial apocalyptic beliefs present in monotheism may still yet trigger disaster during the death spasms of transcendentalism. A fierce rearguard action may be expected from materialist philosophies as they slide further into a nihilism whose adherents will, for a while, demand ever more of what is not working, ever more luxury and sensationalism in an ecology unable to support it.

The birth of the pandaemonaeon as a generally accepted paradigm could be a long and bloody business. If things go badly it could be preceded by a catastrophe which precipitates us into a new stone age rather than an interstellar age. Although there will be important niches for magicians in either situation, I would prefer my descendants to perform their sorceries amongst the stars, rather than huddled in the ruins.


Eastern Traditions in the Psycho-Historic Model
The origins of Buddhism lie in rebellious speculation during the late pagan sub aeon in the orient. Similar developments during the first millennium B.C. led to Taoism in China and certain allied pre-Socratic speculations in Greek civilisation, notably those of Heraclitus of Ephesus.

The core principles of these essentially non-theistic metaphysical systems have some relevance to an emerging magico-meterialist synthesis. However, during their subsequent histories, both Taoism and Buddhism have been heavily coloured by competing philosophies whilst the Heraclitian philosophy has faded into obscurity. Taoism has exhibited a strong tendency to regress into mere superstitious ritual whilst Buddhism has, at times, appeared in monotheistic guise with the Buddha as a de facto God. At others it has presented itself as a form of virtual paganism overlaid with abstruse transcendental theories, whilst the Zen manifestation of Buddhism attempts to recover the original teachings by severe austerity measures.

In Tibet the fusion of Buddhism with indigenous Shamanic traditions has led to a graded system of beliefs called Tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism. At various levels this incorporates features from most of the aeons. Within it one can find sorcery, shamanism, polytheism, transcendental monotheism, doctrines of material causality and nihilism. It is presumably the benign ethical system developed in response to the harsh Himalayan environment which has prevented any one of these traditions from violently asserting itself over its rivals.

The rigours of climate and geography seem to have the development of a high technology; yet the monastic tradition and the endless winters allowed the flowering of an extraordinary culture in which the influence of all the aeons exists simultaneously to some degree.


Gods & Monsters has two major ages of magic; research into metamagic (spells that affect spells) led to a new way of learning spells; while the newer one is the most popular the older still exists, especially outside of the major population areas.

Discovery: The notion of discovery fits the Gods & Monsters model fairly well; however, I think it assumes an evolutionary model that does not have to exist in a fantasy world. That said, myths surrounding the discovery of magic are fairly common in the real world; no reason why those myths can't be real in the fantasy world. In this sense, though, "discovery" does not have to follow an evolutionary model but can also come from a dialogue with mythic forces.

Socialization: In Gods & Monsters, the schools of magic are inherent to magic itself; there are a few spells that do similar things but draw on different schools, and so have somewhat different effects. What you're describing appears to be more like what Ars Magica (I think) calls Houses of magic. Sorcerors form orders and share their learning, and so each house ends up with knowledge that other houses don't have.

Refinement: Unless you meant to say that refinement weakens the mystique of spellcasting, I don't see how learning more about magic would *necessarily* weaken it. I can certainly see some world-based explanations for why it might happen, but it's not a given, any more than it is a given that learning more about technology weakens technology.

Renaissance and decline as ideas work just as well for technology as for magic. They're a given only insofar as we assume that all cultures eventually fall. I don't know that this is a valid assumption, or quite what you meant.

Gods & Monsters