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High vs. Low Magic Fantasy

Papa_LouPapa_Lou Member Posts: 264
Hi all.

I made a discussion here not long ago regarding how magic should/could work in fantasy universes, and it opened up a whole new can of worms for me when it comes to the horde of different universes out there.

I've ultimately come to the conclusion that I personally enjoy worlds with low magic as compared to high magic. However, what everyone considers high and low magic seems to differ drastically, depending on which part of the internet you scour for such information.

When I think of high magic, I think of the Forgotten Realms, or the Elder Scrolls, where magic is fairly easily accessible, understood, and most importantly; common. Magical items are sold in adventurer's markets like food at a grocery store, and it's entirely possible for a single person to take down a massive dragon if they know what they're doing, or perhaps wield a weapon enchanted specifically for slaying dragons. High magic universes are usually the place to go when you want to read/play/watch some epic journey where anything is possible.

Low magic, to me, would fall along the lines of Conan the Barbarian. I've also heard Game of Thrones would fall under this category, though I've never read/watched it myself (I know, I'm a terrible person). In a low magic world, the use of magic exists, but is so rare and dangerous that those who wield it are often perceived as evil sorcerers, or untrustworthy folk dabbling in things they shouldn't be. Things like teleportation and telekinesis are usually out of the question, and something as simple as a broken leg can act as a game-changer for an adventurer, no matter how many religious figures he may or may not travel with. I feel as though these settings offer a more realistic approach to the usual fantasy stories, focusing more on the trials and tribulations of a dangerous world.

I thought it might be interesting to discuss this, as I'm sure there's a significant number of us that are familiar with different fantasy worlds. I've recently started reading an old Conan the Barbarian novel I had sitting on my shelf, and so far I feel myself a lot more intrigued by the more gritty nature of the setting as compared to the more fantastical setting a lot of my D&D novels are set in.

Which do you prefer? Do you even agree with my own definitions of high/low magic? I find myself really interested in this sort of thing, and someday hope to write my own books in my own setting once I can settle on something I feel satisfied with, so hearing other people's opinions is very important to me.
ShikaoArtonaKamigoroshijjstraka34batoorZaghoulsemiticgodGusindaAerakarNonnahswriterBelgarathMTHtypo_tilly

Comments

  • ArtonaArtona Member Posts: 713
    I love your threads, @Papa_Lou. :) I'll try to elaborate after work on the subject, but just to throw it out here: I'm more interested in high-magic worlds, but not high-fantasy.
    Papa_LouAerakartypo_tilly
  • SquireSquire Member Posts: 433
    edited August 9
    I'm very much in the low magic camp. Settings like that feel more believable, and makes the idea of magic more of a scary, mysterious thing, as well as making it more believable when there are millions of people whose names are simply "commoner". :D

    I mean, if magic is prevalent and widely available, why does anybody bother to work at all? Surely a carpenter can create whatever he wants just by thinking it into existence. Actually, why work at all? Why even have an economy? Surely there's no demand for stuff when anyone can create anything they want/need without having to spend anything. So everyone can just indulge themselves all day, and end up spawning Slaanesh... ;)

    Lord of the Rings would also fall into this camp, as would Dragonlance, the first Dragon Age game, and possibly the Warhammer FRP setting. Even - dare I say it - the setting from the D&D films (although the first film was terrible, it still had magic purely in the hands of an elite society of spellcasters).
    AerakarPapa_Loutbone1typo_tilly
  • abacusabacus Member Posts: 1,289
    @Squire makes a good point with regards to the economics of magic... we get told that the Weasley family are poor, yet they're (almost) all talented magic-users... why are their robes shabby and why is their house dilapidated? Seems an easy fix with wand in hand...
    AerakarPapa_LouThacoBelltypo_tilly
  • ArtonaArtona Member Posts: 713
    I think you can draw a line between two distinctly different understandings of law/high magic thing - "high magic" may mean "highly present", or "highly influential". By High Presence I mean constant or nearly constant ocurrences of magical, supernatural incidents in the story, and by High Influence - effect magic has on society as a whole. So HP is in regards to storytelling, and HI to world-building. Both can overlap and easily exist in at the same time. Dragon Age: Origins seem to be highly magical both storywise and as a world, and the same is with Baldur's Gate, and, obviously Harry Potter.
    GoT (or aSoIaF, to be precise), doesn't seem to be HI, but the story itself is very HP (especially in later chapters) - we have fairly mundane world, but heroes often witness some magical events. On the other hand you can easily imagine campaign in fantasy Warhammer world, that would be very HP low (despite taking place in HI world).
    To make matters even more mudded, fantasy writers very often find themselves in world that *should* be both HI and HP, but at the same time they want to save illusion of good, old, Tolkienesque quasi-medieval world and either sweep those issues aside, or come up with some vague explanation why magic can't solve all problems - but that last thing is a different story altogether. :)

    typo_tilly
  • Papa_LouPapa_Lou Member Posts: 264
    I totally agree, @Squire. The seemingly endless possibilities of magic in some universes always struck me as odd, and they seemed to provide more plot-holes rather than plot-solvers due to how many things magic is capable of accomplishing with a simple flick of the wrist.

    As you said yourself, why waste time working to earn money when you can literally summon money from thin air? In fact, why would you even summon money, when you can just summon whatever it is you needed the money for, for free?

    Of course, many fantasy worlds tend to put some kind of obstacle in the way of spellcasting - some worlds make it illegal unless given proper authority (such as Fereldan in Dragon Age) and some make it that magic is so difficult to understand, that only those who study it for decades can do things such as give themselves endless stashes of gold and whatnot. But, I always felt that it was more interesting to put limitations on magic itself, rather than try and build the world around the seemingly endless uses of magic.
    typo_tilly
  • DreadKhanDreadKhan Member Posts: 3,514
    edited August 9
    Lower magic settings are more easy to relate to, so imho a less talented (or new) author will have an easier time to write low magic, but with high magic you can make a more 'cool' setting, where fairly amazing things are ordinary. Its hard to balance higher magic though, to make it consistent and reasonable. For example, why isn't literally everyone a spellcaster in a high magic setting, since its likely that magic will be powerful and accessible. Why do anything without magic? Incidently, Harry Potter kinda just embraced the entirety of high magic, so magic is used for nearly everything it feels like, which is very effective if it works.

    I think its easier to tell a story in low magic, so I think I don't actually prefer it, I simply am more likely find a good story if trying a new author. Still, low magic tends to be grittier, like hard sci-fi, which I also like, but I'm certain its easier to write soft sci-fi, so how weird is that!

    Iirc, high magic and high fantasy are not intrinsicly related. LotR is high fantasy, yet pretty low magic; even Gandalf rarely uses magic. High fantasy iirc is more about thr tropes used. Could be remembering wrong though!
    Post edited by DreadKhan on
    Nonnahswritertypo_tilly
  • OlvynChuruOlvynChuru Member Posts: 1,490
    edited August 9
    I think there are two different "high magic" issues here. One is when magic is very powerful and can do basically anything. The other is when magic is common and widely used.

    The former is a very bad idea to put in a story. If people in the story solve all their problems easily with magic, that ruins the conflict in the story. On the other hand, if they choose NOT to solve all their problems with magic, that creates all sorts of plot holes, because why WOULDN'T they use magic?

    However, I do think that it is actually a really cool idea to make magic common, as long as it can't solve all the problems in the world. It would make some interesting settings. For example, what if there was a setting where all humans or maybe all sentient beings could cast the Prestidigitation cantrip from DnD 5th edition at will?

    (Prestidigitation lets you choose from one of the following effects:

    * You create an instantaneous, harmless sensory effect,
    such as a shower of sparks, a puff of wind, faint musical
    notes, or an odd odor.
    * You instantaneously light or snuff out a candle, a
    torch, or a small campfire.
    * You instantaneously clean or soil an object no larger
    than 1 cubic foot.
    * You chill, warm, or flavor up to 1 cubic foot of nonliving
    material for 1 hour.
    * You make a color, a small mark, or a symbol appear
    on an object or a surface for 1 hour.
    * You create a nonmagical trinket or an illusory image
    that can fit in your hand and that lasts until the end of
    your next turn.)

    This spell can be used in many different ways, and the ways that different people use it in the setting could help flesh out different cultures. What kinds of sensory effects do different people like to create with the first ability? What flavors do they make with the fourth ability? What symbols do different groups create with the fifth ability? What are the creative uses different people have for the sixth ability? I think that by giving everyone magic you could make a really cool setting as long as the magic wasn't too powerful.
    Post edited by OlvynChuru on
    semiticgodtbone1Papa_Loutypo_tilly
  • BelgarathMTHBelgarathMTH Member Posts: 4,414
    edited August 11
    abacus said:

    @Squire makes a good point with regards to the economics of magic... we get told that the Weasley family are poor, yet they're (almost) all talented magic-users... why are their robes shabby and why is their house dilapidated? Seems an easy fix with wand in hand...

    In the Harry Potter world, the use of magic is highly regulated by the Ministry. There's a danger in trying to use magic to create personal wealth or for personal gain, as pointed out in the story of the creation of the Deathly Hallows. This is a common theme in high magic franchises, present in not only the Harry Potter universe, but also in high magic universes like Once Upon a Time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, and even Bewitched.

    Thus, the Weasleys and other lower socioeconomic class wizarding families are likely forbidden by law to use magic to create wealth. There is also the concern with relations with Muggles. The existence of the magical world is to be kept a secret from the mundane world and its people.

    When high magic universes are done right and take these kinds of themes seriously, I very much enjoy them.

    Which is not to say I don't also enjoy well-done low magic settings like Game of Thrones, because now that they've set up a fascinatingly complex mundane world with its mundane problems and politics, the arrival on the scene of full-grown dragons and armies of undead is all the more interesting, exciting, and powerful.
    semiticgodabacus
  • scriverscriver Member Posts: 1,501
    I personally disagree very strongly with the notion that the low- or high-ness of a setting has anything to do with whether or not it is set on Earth/in history or not. Harry Potter and Supernatural is definitely not low fantasy - the former is just set up in a way that gives it a strong "everyday" wine, and the latter... Well, the show might have started out as a pretty lowish monster/mystery show, but it has had it's magic level inflated to such ridiculous degrees over time I wouldn't call it even middling magic any more. I guess one could call it a "lowish setting but with soap-operafication of plot and use".

    Like @DreadKhan said though; I also think it's important to separate Low/High Fantasy and Low/High Magic. They're not completely partable, however, and I don't think it is surprising that they tend to coincide.

    One could also measure the magic-ness as it applies to, say, plot, setting, and characters. For example, A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones has a High Magic plot, somewhat Low Magic setting (it is pretty much at the upper end of Low in this regard, as I see it), and mostly Low Magic characters. Dragon Age, however heavily it might draw from GoT, I would place as a High Magic plot with High Magic characters, in a mostly Low Magic setting.
    typo_tilly
  • DragonKingDragonKing Member Posts: 1,162
    edited August 11
    @Kamigoroshi basically pointed out what I would've said between the two. There are definitely much more concrete descriptors for the two fantasies that go far beyond the free use of magic. The biggest separations tend to be a high fantasy story is usually not just about magic bit tends to be completely creating a new world as a whole.

    Low fantasy isn't necessarily creating a new world but greatly or minimally editing the one that already exists so it's still.more relatable to us to an extent while veering into new territories.


    As far as the free use of magic, that's ultimately a personal opinion. I personally hate the idea, whether done by games or movies, that magic is this force that only a few people can do and everyone else is -beep-. I prefer when magic is treated like any other field, there are people who are good, people who are bad, people who are talented, and people who just aren't talented in it. But, if all these people picked up a spell book and cast a spell, something would happen! It makes no sense why magic would be prejudice especially on worlds where it is tied into the very fabrics of life and creation!

    Those who choose to study it (not everyone would care to study it or like it despite what magic is capable of; just like with the sciences of the real world. Science is capable of some scary and amazing things but not everyone is interested in it or care to study it), those who work the hardest, face and overcome the dangers/risks are those who gain the rewards.


    Also just because magic flows freely, like say in series such as the elder scrolls. Doesn't mean that it is easy to control or it takes away the dangers of some idiot who understands nothing of magic trying to manipulate it,
    Post edited by DragonKing on
    Kamigoroshi
  • abacusabacus Member Posts: 1,289

    abacus said:

    @Squire makes a good point with regards to the economics of magic... we get told that the Weasley family are poor, yet they're (almost) all talented magic-users... why are their robes shabby and why is their house dilapidated? Seems an easy fix with wand in hand...

    In the Harry Potter world, the use of magic is highly regulated by the Ministry. There's a danger in trying to use magic to create personal wealth or for personal gain, as pointed out in the story of the creation of the Deathly Hallows. This is a common theme in high magic franchises, present in not only the Harry Potter universe, but also in high magic universes like Once Upon a Time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, and even Bewitched.

    Thus, the Weasleys and other lower socioeconomic class wizarding families are likely forbidden by law to use magic to create wealth. There is also the concern with relations with Muggles. The existence of the magical world is to be kept a secret from the mundane world and its people.
    Fair enough, the Ministey need to maintain a stable economy. But that shouldn't make any difference to the state of Ron's robes/books/other items... which could be bought cheaply 2nd hand or passed down and then refurbished to "as new" with fairly simple magic.
    I guess my question is why is their poverty so obvious?
  • ThacoBellThacoBell Member Posts: 3,503
    Not to mention that wizards in Harry Potter seem to forget very critical spells that save much headache with disturbing regularity.
    Zaghoul
  • SquireSquire Member Posts: 433
    @abacus yeah, I seem to remember them learning a simple repair spell in one of the early books. This is a spell that anyone can cast any time with no cost, so why not keep using it to maintain everything in good condition? You could cast it as soon as you spot a loose stitch or a bit of fraying... hell, you might as well cast it every time your robes go for a wash, even if it doesn't need repairing. It costs nothing, so why not?
    abacusZaghoul
  • ZaghoulZaghoul Member Posts: 1,689
    Heh, the old 1st lvl mending spell. Unseen servant as well, for that matter, why wash it yourself?

    I am a fan of both versions, high and low, as long as it does not exist in a vacuum, with one thing not relating to another. Consistency in the time period (of whatever fantastical land or period imagined in history) I find helpful to get the feel as well.
  • Papa_LouPapa_Lou Member Posts: 264
    Happy to see this thread got more traction while I was slaving away at work all day. :D

    Earlier, I was mulling over the various fantasy worlds I've run into over the years, and came to a realization. Many of the settings I'd consider low, or at least on the lower end of the spectrum, tend to have much darker, heavy subject material in their stories. Not always, of course, but I've seen it far more often with low fantasy rather than high.

    For example, many high fantasy stories, such as the various novels set in the Forgotten Realms, tend to lean toward the classic good vs. evil. Not to say that's a bad thing, and it actually suits the setting very well. For example, I recently read The Adversary by Erin M. Evans. It's a part of The Sundering series of novels, for those who don't know, and pits the main character Farideh (who is arguably a pretty good person, all things considered) against an evil wizard holding hundreds of people captive. I won't go too far into the plot, as some people may plan to read it, but suffice to say, its pretty standard good vs. evil type stuff.

    Again, that's far from a bad thing, and it fits into the Realms about as snug as your aunt's pug in his pink frilly sweater she knit for him.

    However, some low fantasy stories I've read tend to involve plots that get much more personal, and heavy. There are themes in low fantasy that are hardly touched in high fantasy. But again, it works nicely.

    For example, a favourite novel of mine in the Conan the Barbarian universe (which I would consider on the lower end of the fantasy spectrum) is Conan the Formidable by Steve Perry. Now, similar to The Adversary, this novel features an evil sorcerer who has taken people against their will. In this case, the sorcerer runs a freakshow-esque fair.

    However, throughout the book there are themes of rape, where the sorcerer forces one of the women to sleep with him against her own will, and also a point in time where the sorcerer (or perhaps one of his lackeys, I can't quite remember) gets uncomfortably close to a sexual encounter with a very young giantess. Sure, she's a giant, but she was still a child. Now I'd be more than wrong to say such things don't exist in the Forgotten Realms, but I haven't seen them addressed quite as bluntly as this.

    Slavery and racism are also significantly prevalent in the Conan universe. Sure, these two aren't out of the ordinary for high fantasy settings as well, but I find them to be, again, addressed much more bluntly and directly in low fantasy.

    I think the reason for this is because in high fantasy, plots can be much more fantastical. The idea of a sorcerer capturing hundreds of people without anyone taking notice, while he lives in a massive tower, nearly untouchable, isn't out of the question, nor is it out of the ordinary. It doesn't feel out of place to read about that in The Adversary, knowing the book is set in the Realms.

    However, something like this just wouldn't seem feasible in a low setting like the world of Conan. In Conan the Formidable, the evil sorcerer instead holds power only less than a dozen of his freaks, and travels the countryside making money by showing them off to the townsfolk, and offering any services they may need through his abnd of slaves, for the right price. As a result, the plot requires that little extra oomph to keep the reader interested. Making the sorcerer a rapist and potential threat to children gives the reader a solid reason to hate him, and keep reading so they can experience his downfall.

    Since low fantasy settings tend to be more realistic (for lack of a better term) I think these darker themes make a little more sense than in high fantasy. Evil people like the freakshow sorcerer could potentially exist on earth, minus the supernatural powers. There are people out there like him, unfortunately, and it gives the reader something to familiarize themselves with, while also being engulfed in the more unrealistic aspects of the setting. In a high fantasy setting, there are much more fantastic and magical things the reader can occupy themselves with, like flying, egg-laying lions, or even your typical invasion of orcs and goblins.

    Just some thoughts I've thought that I thought I'd share with you all. ;)

    Again, I know some people may consider Conan to be a high fantasy setting, but I think we've come to the conclusion that there isn't really enough of a solid definition to properly differentiate the two. Debate away, though. That's what this thread is for. :)
    ZaghoulShikao
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