Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Vagueposting- Elements + The Three Elements

So I talked about elements before; if it be a sort of five elements thought experiment, elementally-challenged undead, or magic items often relating to the elements. I like elemental systems, in video games or tabletop settings. You can infer a lot about a fantasy world based on its elemental systems, if these elements be purely for a combat triangle just for game mechanics, or if they're actually a part of the world itself as the building blocks of everything.

Now most elemental systems fall either into the sort of “magical combat flavors” thing, at least in video games, or a sort of world and magical context thing. In a lot of games, elemental damage is pretty much exclusive to magic spells, which is the primary way that magical people or beings tend to fight. Other magic tends to be “typeless” or be like death damage or whatever, but elemental is usually its own set thing. In these types, elemental damage is usually just tied into specific skills, powers, or effects. In some every single elemental attack is almost identical, you start with a basic fire spell that is the same as the basic ice spell and they just deal different kinds of damage, or your weapons just deal different elemental types as bonus damage. This makes sense and adds granularity to a game's system, but it's kind of boring.

Then you have magic system which encompass all kinds of magic, trying to combine elemental basics into a wide-reaching magic system. Something like the game Magicka is a bit like this, or you can go for the obvious other example with the Avatar anime. In these examples, magic relating to the elements is more holistic, air magic can be used to fly or knock away projectiles, it doesn't just shoot lightning bolts or whatever. These systems can also include things like mixing two or more elements together to create sub-elements, which could theoretically do practically any magic effect you can think of. I tend to like these elemental systems, but moreso when they have that kind of magical realism or mythological feel; the magic of elemental fire isn't JUST fire, but also heat, light, maybe passion and rage somehow tied up in there a bit too. Ars Magica is a nice example of this, as is the Dominions game series; though both of these are not strictly all elemental magic systems.

Elemental Triangles/Quadrangles/Pentagnles
Fire, Frost, Lightning
So in a lot of games, Elder Scrolls and Path of Exile come to mind here, you have the three basic elemental types of Fire, Frost, and Lightning. I like this, it's simple and there is plenty of interplay. The issue here is they don't really have counters. Of course, they don't NEED to counter each other in a combat triangle, but a lot of media does this already and it works well for establishing a sort of basic, easy to understand system.

So for starters, you could say that Fire melts Ice, but Ice doesn't really “counter” lighting, unless it's in water form. Water as a magical element is more common in fantasy media like books and shows I feel, since in video game form it's harder to justify why splashing someone with water kills them. For this reason, I think ice is used as a stand in, though many settings put both under the same umbrella (or annoyingly, they are two separate categories.) Even if we say that Fire melts Ice, Ice absorbs Lightning, we're a bit stuck because Lightning doesn't beat Fire really. Unless you want to get really abstract and say that because Lightning creates fire, it's the master or creator of Fire. I could only see that working in something very hands off, more metaphysical then anything, not a spell or element based magic system- it just doesn't make enough gut-sense to work.

Then we could do it the opposite. Ice extinguishes Fire, but Fire doesn't really beat Lightning on its own, though the Ice/Water element makes sense to get beat by electricity. I think Pokemon starters may also be a good way to establish it; changing out lightning or electric for grass/plant/nature here could work really well. Fire burns grass, Grass drinks/absorbs Water, Water puts out Fire. Easy. The only problem here is you don't get evocative ice magic (unless once again, Water/Ice are the same element) and you lose out on lightning. Grass or Nature doesn't “feel” like blasty elemental magic in the same way as the other ones do.

Fire, Water, Earth, Air
The classic Greek elements. I like these. They're very common and everybody knows them, they shit inspiration. Characters can easily be tied to the elements, you can imagine a lot of useful utility spells and magical blasts based on these, the “bending” of these elements makes for great combat magic or just general flavor. These tend to fit under the second type of “system” that I described above; a sort of holistic magic system where all kinds of effects are made by these elements or by mixing them- pure Air or Water magic (just the element) tends not to lend itself to combat as well, and “Earth” magic as a combat school or class doesn't feel as satisfying since it tends to be “physical” damage and feels like the odd one out. Of course if this is the only way for mages to deal physical damage then it could be cool, but typically a magical wizard or elemental blaster guy should be doing some kind of specific elemental blasts against enemies that they are weak to.

Also I feel like mentioning here is most appropriate; I really like the concept of an “elementalist” conjuring or using all elements of nature. The term “elemental” here referring not to the vague, somewhat modern interpretations of the elements as abstract forces but rather as “the elements” as in the natural world, being outside, all that stuff. Ties in with nature magicky stuff a bit but this is one of my pet favorite interpretations that I see only extremely rarely. Stuff like making the sun beat down on the enemies or conjuring up mists to obscure vision not because you have power over abstract fire and abstract wind, but because those are the elements of nature that you can command. Also allows for more abstract elements that don't FEEL like cherrypicking as much as other elemental systems do; it feels less special-snowflake to have a magnetism wizard if they are channeling the magnetism as an “element” of the world, then if it was a side ability of a generic “metal elementalist”. This is an incredibly specific thing, I'm not giving any examples or explaining it well, but this is Vagueposting so you'll just have to deal with it lol

Fire, Frost, Lightning, Acid
This is a bit of a combination of a traditional four element systems, except with Earth replaced with Acidic or corrosion. Now pretty often you'll see this done but with Earth being “Poison” instead, a bit like Legend of Grimrock, but I have a few problems with it. First I think it works well in a video gamey sort of way, but it doesn't work on everything- you couldn't be much of a venom mage against things immune to venom like zombies, golems, and lots of other stuff that is common in fantasy. Secondly, being immune to venom is a lot more common then fire/ice/lighting at least in terms of average animals. Like there's no normal animal that is immune to fire, it would be something kind of rare like a demon or dragon, but most fantasy settings would have all snakes just conveniently immune to poison, or even entire races like snake/lizard people immune to it. Path of Exile sidesteps this by making their poison element “Chaos” which I kind of like, but it's a little vague in theme. As such, I think acid or corrosion works a little better. Also note I'm using poison and venom interchangeable, I know there's a difference, it's just the name the element is most commonly given.

However, one problem with Fire/Water/Air/Acid systems is that there's no easy or obvious triangle or what beats what. I do like using the more video game adaption for this, hence Fire, Frost, Lightning, and Acid all as damage types. I think this fits well since, as stated previously, “water” doesn't feel as aggressive as Frost and Earth is more physical damage then something like Acid would be, Acid or Corrosion or whatever you want to call it is pretty unique for that reason. However- what bets Acid? And what does Acid beat? One kind of minor interpretation is that Acid beats Fire and loses to Lightning. I personally like this because it implies that Acid could be in a liquid or smoke/dust form, which smothers the fire, but it's not a good fit. Even though there is no real reason this should be how it is, I have a sort of weird fascination with Lightning being the counter to Acid. Maybe in a fantasy world electricity or thunder just somehow gets rid of Acidic stuff. It fits the best in my mind; imagine dipping copper cables into a vat of acid and charging them up, the electrical shock causes the acidic stuff to change color, fizzle, suddenly losing its alkaline properties or even 'shocking' the acid back into pure water? 
I could see Lightning being the best element to kill slimes at least, which are commonly associated with corrosion. The electricity causes the slime to jiggle, sizzle, shrinking and size and hardened into useless left over minerals as the moisture was just boiled out of the poor thing. Why would that work better then an equally hot fire? Like I said, it's not a perfect fit but it is one I like.

The Fifth (Or Sixth) Element
This is a sub category of the above elemental system. The classic Fire, Water, Earth, and Air BUT with the fifth element. Typically, this element is Aether, Void, Prime, or some other ur-element, typically typecasted as “Arcane” damage or perhaps the divine alternative to the other elements. This usually has the rules of the fifth element being able to beat all the other elements, or does shit that none of the others can do, like messing with time, fate, magic iteslf, or the nature of souls. Under this category, we could also include the final element as being “Light”, sometimes with a “Darkness” counter. Sometimes one of them beats all the basic elements, but loses to the other weird element, which in turn loses to all the normal elements. The counter to the counter, if you will.

Eight Elements
Then, some people extrapolate the Four elements into 8, the combinations of each of the basic four into sub elements. Water + Earth = Mud element, Fire + Water could be steam or acid, you get the idea. I don't like this one as much as the other ones, mostly because there are to many elements and it feels a little too mathematical. I'm the type of guy who loves the idea of a “Mud” specialist wizard and would totally give them like magical healing sediments in holy mud they slather on people or summon mud golems and stuff, but sometimes the element is just the element, it's bending but a little less cool, playing a “Steam” wizard would just be lame unless you tied in technology and magitech into it to otherwise bulk up their boring moveset. (Pretty good idea for a GLOG Wizard class though.) Some people instead put in totally different elements into the Octagonal system- Lords of Magic with Order/Chaos and Life/Death along with the four elements is a good example.

Two Elements
This one is a bit of a wildcard. It's less common, most games aren't going to have two elements for something like a combat system, but a game setting or fantasy world might. This harkens back to stuff like the yin and yang, light and dark sides of the force, the light and dark worlds in Metroid or Zelda. It creates a duality. Once again, it's less for something you'd use in a game purely by itself, but in terms of a magic system that encompasses everything it works and is pretty inspired, though it can make a fantasy world feel a bit claustrophobic in a sense. I'm also intentionally avoiding very vague uses of this; you could argue that “man vs nature” or “technology vs magic” or “law vs chaos” could also count as two “elements” for our usage, but I'm keeping this to stuff that is usually conjured by magic or has a sort of chemical/physical/mathemagical properties in the world, less so vague elemental allegiances.

The Three Elements Idea (Background)
This is a concept of a three elemental system. My primary inspiration is coming from The Secret World- my favorite MMO. In that game, the basic materials you used to craft stuff were Metal, Fire, Water, and Dust- there were also glyphs and runes, but these enchanted items with specific effects and go beyond the scope of this essay. Metal was mostly just used for weapons and barrier potions though, the materials you used to craft your charms (equipped gear- since your clothes were all cosmetic in that game to fit with the modern theme), were the three elements of Fire, Water, and Dust. I'm going to extrapolate these into something greater then it was in the game.

Sidebar: I also just want to say I really liked that system for materials because it felt mystical and magical and occult in a way; perfect for that game an atmosphere. I love the high fantasy aesthetic with weird power crystals and I also love the mythological aesthetic of elemental energies being locked in objects that represent them, like still warm embers being infused with fire magic and the like. In TSW though, the materials went up in grades; Base, Imperfect, Normal, Sacred, and Pure. You had to combine 5 of a lower tier to get one of the next tier up. Most shitty enemies dropped Base and Imperfects of course, so it took a bit of grinding since each weapon or item took between 8 and 12 to fill an item in a slot, but it made sense since there wasn't a specific high end material you needed to craft these; you could just use any of the base materials anywhere.

I really like this crafting system and kind of wanted to use it in a game. Mostly because of how mystic it feels; for example you just have generic “Water” but with enough of it of a certain quality you can make magic charms that make people harder to kill. The “Fire” in your inventory never goes out, so is it like an ever burning cool flame or is it like an ember? Is it sealed away in an Orochi-Group container that somehow keeps it in perfect stasis until the time is right to use it? You obviously just can't pick up a handful of dust off the ground and use it for magical purposes; perhaps “base” dust means exactly that, the “base” element is just the stuff you'd find in the real world to some extent, and finding it on enemy drops and not having an unlimited amount of it is just a gaming abstraction.

But anyway this sidebar was just here to talk about how much I loved those tier names. It really gets a vibe going for me; even if you found PURE Water you'd hardly even know what it was, it would just look beautiful and entrancing, somehow cleaner then any other water you've seen, despite it just being water. Despite it just being a literal bit of dirt, the magical “Dust” you have is actually enchanted or infused with some kind of power somehow, and “Pure” Dust is extremely potent indeed. All of this is just very cool mental imagery.

I also like to imagine how the characters are actually purifying these; smashing them together with some sort of magical ability that destroys most of the matter to keep only the best stuff? Are they picking apart the best pieces or sifting through the elemental bits with greater and greater filters or magical methods to keep only the most pure pieces; slowly ascending in overall purity? Or is it some kind of magical combining ritual, where the parts are simply melded together and it reaches the next platonic ideal of its elemental type? Super cool.

The Three Elements
There are three elements that make up the cosmos. They were the first things; it was the three storms. The mighty typhon, the terrifying inferno, and the relentless dust-storm. Once these were calmed by the powers above, their distribute element was scattered and made into the world we know.

Fire burns Dust away, but is extinguished by Water.
Water chokes out Fire, but is lost to the Dust.
Dust absorbs and drains away the Water, but is burnt by Fire.

Fire represents all fire, celestial fire and worldly fire. It can be held in the form of a candle flame, a hot stove, a raging bonfire, and so on. It can also appear in gaseous forms like fumes or hot steam. It's pretty standard here, but is highly tied to things like aggression, offense, damage, and weaponry.

Water is water, obviously, both stagnant and flowing. The more pure water is, the more powerful it is in regards to elemental magic. Water can appear as mist, streams, or blasts as well as be magically potent just in its liquid form.

Dust is where things get interesting. It appears as a cloud, pile, or strewn about as a light covering. It tends to be very neutrally colored and easy to miss, but has magical powers all the same. When a Dust-user conjures Dust, it creates a cloud of swirling particles that may crackle and spark with electricity between them, or it could be blown outwards as a corrosive or blinding mist.

Dust is a quasi-element, a combination of Earth and Air in our normal four piece elemental system. Why? Because I think it fits better in our three element system, and here's why. For one, Fire needs to be beaten by Water in any elemental system, that's a given. It's easy enough to argue why Earth or Grass or Lightning beats water, as discussed above, but finding something that gets beat by fire that isn't a living thing is tough. Fire just likes to kill wood, basically, not much unliving fears the flames. However dust can kind of sort of be a mix of life elements; but with some more obvious offensive powers that don't dip into things like poisons or generic “physical” damage, though physical could also be used in the form of dust ball, dust wind, dust storm, throwing rocks around or getting hit with a tornado, etc.
Also the other reason I think Fire is a good fit for beating Dust here is things that are often considered dusty, like dusty furry creatures in the desert highlands or an ancient mummy, seem pretty flammable, even if that dustiness is just a side effect and not really the root cause of their counter.

Where is Air/Earth?
In this case, Dust IS Air, or rather a combination of Air and Earth. I really like this concept because, to me at least, I can see it in a video game or whatever. I can see the particle effects in my head; a swirling cloud of dust with electricity zapping between particles, just daring you to go inside. In my mind, I think a cloud of particles being able to be electrified makes sense enough, PLUS it makes enough sense that Fire burns it away. Of course realistically, dust or dirt isn't exactly super flammable, but it kind of fits in with that preteaching part of a human mind that knows that fire consumes things faster the smaller and more surface area they have. You could think of elemental dust a bit like a cloud of generic video-gamey dust particles, maybe made of saw dust or finely ground flour, which ignite or even explode very easily. Also; if you're on the fence about dust being tied in with electiricty, I've noticed a trend in games about having the desert level also be electrical themed for some odd reason. Maybe that's just my Breath of the Wild experience talking, but there's some kind of cultural spillover there.

You could also imagine the three elemental system as the “base” elements, with air being equivalent to the aether/void element in other games or worlds. Air is the element where all other elements came from, hence why I references it in the start of this blog post.

Why is 'Dust' so vague?
This is partially to cover up for the inadequacies of other elemental systems I have been writing about and, secondly, because it's kind of cool. Gives it a mystical edge. Water is already hyper varied and probably one of the most attractive choices for elemental magic stuff, Fire is strong but a bit straightforward. I will admit I am imagining this elemental system more in a video game context then a tabletop one, you can just imagine in a tabletop game “oh you conjure fire, ok whatever you want to do with it go ahead”. But in a video game things are more set and can be designed, discussed further down below. Another reason is to give it a wide angle to compete with both Fire and Water, which both have a lot of uses if a bit straightforward ones off the top of your head.

Second, I wanted Dust to be a combination because of how limited air magic tends to be. That may sound a bit crazy, but honestly it's true. The main powers of Air in most games or media is creating wind or air blasts, blocking arrows/air shields obviously, flight, and possibly controlling the weather; this is the capabilities of pure air with some thinking. Compared to fire which can cook food, work with metals, heat up cold people and many more air seems lackluster. Air is often tied in with lightning or storm, and while this is a good addition you'll notice that lightning is almost just as sparse. Beyond shooting enemies with it, lightning can only really be useful in a modern fantasy setting can make use of it, or often the lightning power has teleportation and/or telekinesis (magnetism usually) hooked into it somehow. Earth is a bit TOO all purpose since it's literally everywhere, but in this case we're limiting the earth-power of Dust to just dust, sand, that sort of thing.

How would you present the Elemental Attacks/Spells/Combat Moves(Video Games)?
You could imagine a bunch of different ranges, area of effects, damage upfront vs damage over time, and forms or appearances for Fire magic. Low level red and orange flames, shooting out in arcs or orbs. Higher level blue or white flames that are thrown as big fireballs or can raise walls and shields made of fire. The super endgame fire would be like bright yellow to gold or something- a type of hyper hot and powerful energy.

Water is a little trickier. As mentioned before, Water just splashes people and isn't really dangerous, and any magician or entity that can conjure a huge amount of water at once, enough to hurt or kill someone, could probably sweep away small buildings or flood big areas, making it very dangerous for lots of people or causing huge damage. Water's power doesn't really “scale down” well in an elemental system; Fire, Lightning, and Ice all can be imagined to be dangerous on an individual level, but Water? Not as much. Of course this is only counting the combat potential of these magic systems; water could be the worst in combat because it offers protection, healing, movement, or other various buffs or useful travel powers for people who master it.

Dust is the one I kind of made up for this article, though I will admit some inspirations of course. Wind and lightning attacks are of course closely related, as are generic “dust attacks” from things like Dwarf Fortress forgotten beasts, but usually these have to carry poison or something to make any kind of sense. It doesn't really have to make sense obviously, a video game boss could just flap a wing and deal damage if you're anywhere close to it and it makes enough sense and people accept it, it just isn't super satisfying or obvious the way the other elements are. I think a combination of the above works best; a character does an attack animation and lifts their arms, creating a cloud of smoke that flies at the player character. Maybe it deals damage or stun on a hit, or maybe it just passes through your harmlessly, but electrical energy will start to zap you if you move through it once its set up, or the magician swirls up a bunch of dust around them dramatically before unleashing a powerful chain lightning bolt, which leaves little particles in the air along its trail. It's pretty much the same as lightning as in every other game, but with some added utility.

This idea was mostly based on TSW and my desires to reinvent the wheel. Of course, I do think it's an interesting take on the subject, but I sort of would rather use this as a background for my fantasy setting instead of hard and fast rules. Instead of an elemental system, you are just told about the three ur-elements. But what do you know, a player steals some Sacred dust and is looking for more to find some pure; magical and spiritually cleansed dust they will no doubt use for some holy ritual... or perhaps for an unholy magical ceremony.

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