A way with worlds: 05 - Magic and Technology
by Steven Savage of Seventh Sanctum
Page 1 of 1
We've all heard the saying that goes "Any sufficiently
advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
Now I hate to disagree with Sir Arthur C. Clarke (yes, he's
the one responsible for the quote and some of the greatest SF
literature of our time). Magic and Technology to me are the same
thing as far as I'm concerned - a way of interacting with one's
environment to achieve results and to alter things.
In short, "magic" and "technology" to me
are ways of doing the same thing, and the dividing line is fuzzy
at best. Is alchemy magic or technology? Where do psychic
abilities fit in? The terminology you use is largely a judgment
call - so focus on developing your technology/magic instead of
shoehorning it into simple concepts.
From here on I'll refer to our subject as
"technology." By this I will mean "the ability to
affect the environment or oneself that involves creating an
object or method to do so, and that can be passed on physically
or mentally." A way to blend a potion, genetic engineering,
psychic disciplines, martial arts - all would fit under this
And with that said, lets take a look at what questions to ask
when you think about the technologies in your world.
QUESTION 1: Why was it made?
First of all, technology solves a problem (or is at
least thought to). So, what problem does the technology in your
world solve? Why is it there?
In many cases, the reasons for something existing are obvious
- tools for hunting, psychic disciplines to resist possession by
evil spirits, housing to avoid the elements. However, a
technology can solve more than one problem, and not necessarily
the one originally intended - or it ended up being used to solve
The solution a technology provides may also affect the social
structure: "oh, but that's only for doing that one
thing." Needless to say, your heroes may have to break
convention to save the day.
QUESTION 2: Who made it and how?
Where does the technology in your setting come from? who
built it? Who is building it/passing it on now?
This is very important as it will affect how technology is
distributed, created, and developed in your world. A particular
technology may be a well-kept secret or public knowledge. The
people who developed it may or may not fully understand what
they've done - or perhaps the dangers of what they're doing.
QUESTION 3: How was/is it disseminated ?
Technology wont do much or be relevant unless its passed on -
voluntarily or otherwise. How it is passed on is also important.
If the technology ages quickly, can't be duplicated easily, is
hard to write plans for, etc. it will die off or great pains must
be taken to pass it on. If the technology is not particularly
important, it may die off very quickly or keep being
This will also be affected by methods of information
transmission in your setting. If everyone is literate, writing
things down is an easy way to store information, and also
guarantees that written information can easily be put to use. If
a psychic discipline is transferred telepathically, the ability
to transmit it and record it is obviously very limited.
QUESTION 4: Who can get to it/use it?
You have a technology. You have a solution. So who can
actually apply it?
There may be limitations on gender, culture, race, intellect,
physique, etc. that affect the use of the technology. This may
give whatever group can use it advantages (and disadvantages),
and affect what they do in society. If there are differences in
who can use it and who makes it/passes it on/etc. that can
produce interesting and unusual alliances and dependencies.
Some of these limits may be purely cultural, and exist for
rational or irrational reasons. A very fearful culture is not
going to quickly disseminate powerful technology - a culture at
war may want the best weapons and fighting techniques spread
QUESTION 5: What cost is there?
Nothing comes without a price - if you're lucky, it's
just a price you don't mind paying. The same goes for technology.
A technology may require resources, time, discipline, etc. to
use. There's upkeep to consider, from repairing a device to
retaining a mental or physical discipline. You don't get
something for nothing.
This is very important to consider in designing the
technologies for your world, otherwise things happen for no
reason at no cost with less believable impact. A gigantic war
machine of advanced weapons requires trained users and resources.
A magical discipline that requires concentration is not going to
be employable by everyone.
QUESTION 6: How is the technology regarded?
Not all technology is created equal, nor is it regarded
as equal. People take time to adapt new technology, and may have
fears or enthusiasms that aren't rational concerning it.
Technologies are not always understood or employed purely for
their uses. There are repercussions ethically, socially, and
psychologically. A technology may be invented by someone with a
bad reputation and thus not used, or a poor or dangerous
technology may be used because it was produced or implemented by
Also, remember what people use technology-wise is usually
something they know. Technology takes time to be understood and
employed. The technology of the internet is far older than the
web page you're it is.
QUESTION 7: How is it improving?
Technology is rarely static. People improve it and find new ways
to use it, and try and use it in ways no one ever intended or
should try to use it. People are curious after all.
Are people trying to improve the technology they have? Apply
it in new ways? What are the results and repercussions? What are
the social implications of these attempts to improve? What do
these improvements cost in time, money, accidents, etc.?
Technology, obviously, is not a dead thing or a plot
device - its a part of your world, part of who your characters
are and what they do. There are repercussions you'll have to face
about the introduction of (or loss) of a technology - or magic -
or whatever you call it.
The more you introduce, the more the technology differs from
what you know, the more work you'll have ahead of you. However,
that also means a richer, more detailed, and more believable
Take a trip to my own alternate world, the Crossworld of Xai, at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/xai/
Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Steven Savage, sffworld.com. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.