Magic as Technology III: Fallout

One thing I touched on yesterday was the possibility of arcane fallout; the pollution and other hazards that might come with a world where magic serves the purpose of technology. A friend of mine, Angeline, wondered what fallout would mean in this kind of context – wild magic, some kind of harmful radiation, or something else?

From the standpoint of simple high fantasy, wild magic zones look like they might be a valid solution to the idea of what an arcane fallout area would look like: too much magic in too small a space makes magic go haywire. In practice, however, wild magic tends to be little more than a nuisance. Yes, your spells go awry in strange ways that may or may not turn out hilarious, and there may be amusing side effects, but it lacks something important. Fallout from magic is dangerous, while wild magic tends to just be  odd.

A damaging field might be a better match, but it only holds true if you want to make a fast and dirty hazard to keep players from taking advantage of your magic system. It’s fine to have some like this, but to drive the point home that magic as a whole is useful but needs to be kept controlled, much like we need to control the impact on our societies of technology with potential health risks, you need something more complex.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to be using the breakdown of magic that will likely be the most familiar to people: the schools of magic from the D20 system. This should give everyone some ideas on how to expand the forms of magic in their favorite system to account for areas of magical pollution and fallout from arcane disasters.

Evocation is where I’ll start, because it’s the favorite school of most PCs; flashy spells of destruction are the evoker’s specialty. Arcane fallout from this school is going to be painful – contaminated areas might manifest bubbling pools of liquid energy and clouds of elemental power that drift on the breeze, laying waste to anything they cross. You’re not going to be able to miss one of these areas, as much of it will be blasted and ruined by the radiant magic. Things that live here will have resistances and immunities to the damage types involved, and you’re likely to get mutant critters that can channel those powers. Nothing like a swarm of fire-breathing squirrels or an alligator that generates a damaging field of electricity, right? You might find PCs venturing into it after those pools of liquid energy and other exotic phenomena to experiment on.

Necromancy is the next one, because we all know how popular necromancers are as villains. A necromantic fallout zone is likely to manifest as a straight-up blight – the earth growing barren and anything living in the area slowly sickening and dying. Don’t expect those corpses to stay dead for long, though – the ambient necromantic energy will animate them and have them going through the motions of their lives like usual, just with a newfound desire to murder the living and drag their corpses back to be animated. This is probably one fallout zone that slowly expands; undead trees dropping seeds, skeletal squirrels hauling them to the edges and burying them, and the tainted seeds growing into more jagged and leafless trunks that push the boundaries a little farther. On the other hand, undead wood is probably great for building structures – it’ll crumble forever without actually collapsing, and isn’t likely to care of you cut it up, it’ll just keep repairing itself while crumbling away.

Transmutation is likely the strangest and most horrific of all the possible fallout results; the ground itself roils, everything that lives there melts and transforms, and if any place is going to be likely to give you cancer, it’s this one. Chaos beasts and gibbering mouthers move in because it feels comfortable, and it probably needs fenced off with powerful wards to keep it from casually spreading. Even though you can almost certainly find exotic materials here found literally nowhere else in the world, there’s the question of how much you want to risk getting eaten by a mouth appearing underfoot.

Abjuration would seem like one of the safer fallout zones, second possibly to divination, until you factor in that abjuration fallout is likely to be a shifting maze of planes and arcs of force as well as areas of repulsion and malformed magic circles that might trap anyone crossing them. Creatures infused with the fallout form this zone are probably going to be well-protected and might have nasty tricks like innate freedom of movement. Those same creatures are exactly why you’d want to venture into ones of these zones – guard pets that can’t be subdued with magic and organs that can serve as a focus of power for defensive spells are nothing to sneeze at.

Enchantment – Enchantment is normally dangerous because of the mind behind it; a zone of enchantment fallout, on the other hand, will try to snare the mind of anyone who enters it and either leave them standing there with their free will sapped away or inflicting them with erratic half-formed compulsions and commands, which may conflict with one another. Unfortunate victims may live out entire other lives in their mesmerized state, locked inside their own minds. Most likely, this kind of fallout is the one that gets state-level use – push your criminals in and extract them once they seem completely mesmerized, ensuring that escape attempts are unlucky.

Conjuration – This zone is almost certainly one of the worst to live near; the fabric of the cosmos is torn to ragged bits, with entities from other planes dropping through the shining rifts in the air without warning. Elementals, fiends, celestials, and stranger simply turn up, and people who wander in may find themselves stumbling into a sudden rip for a one-way trip to the planes. For those willing to take that risk and able to talk to the extraplanar visitors, however, this kind of fallout is a great place to make pacts and bargains, or acquire the kind of muscle that no amount of gold can pay for. Just read the fine print carefully and try to avoid signing anything in blood.

Illusion – Hands down the most visually dazzling fallout zone, illusion is also one of the few likely to cause trouble beyond the bounds of the contaminated area; many illusion spells rely on line of sight, and the fallout is unlikely to be any different. Walls would need to be built around it to keep hapless citizens from becoming enthralled by waves of rippling color and eerie, otherworldly sounds. While little direct use is likely to be had in terms of materials, powers, or deals, some cities might use elaborate sequences of mirrors to project the dazzling lights into the sky for festivals, or arrange to let invaders tromp into the illusion field to entrance their forces and make them easier to defeat.

Divination – You’d think that this would be relatively harmless, until you consider how much sensory overload can cripple a person. Piping all manner of answers to unasked questions into the head of whoever enters the area, a divination zone is a full-on screaming assault on the mind of anyone that enters one. Mostly of use to oracles, archivists, and others who seek to know more without worrying too much about the content or source, there may be entire buildings that encompass a divination fallout zone, with scribes taking turns to stand inside and furiously record what streams through their brain before retiring to try to make sense of their feverish writings. Expect damage to your Intelligence and Wisdom if you try to tap into the zone.

These, of course, are just example – the dangers and rewards of a given fallout zone depends on the magic that comprises it. I’m sure you can come up with plenty of your own opportunities for such terrifying areas of arcane pollution.

That’s all for today!

Magic as Technology III: Fallout

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