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PostPosted: Fri Jul 13, 2018 7:20 am
by Kappa
Spellfray is a fairy-tale world, originally put together to facilitate a Sleeping Beauty plot although it certainly has room for plenty of variety.

The central premise of Spellfray is that magic, while easy to attempt, is a fundamentally uncooperative phenomenon.

If you do tiny spells, they might work fine, or they might go wrong in small subtle ways that don't affect very much. If you do bigger spells, you're more likely to fail, and the failures are likely to be bigger. If you do very large spells, they will almost certainly blow up in your face and if they do it will be spectacular. As the magnitude of the spell increases, the relative magnitude of the extra magic also increases: a tiny spell might only do half a tiny spell's worth of unintended effects, but a huge spell might do ten huge spells' worth.

This phenomenon of power going awry is, of course, called spellfray.

Magic is pretty intuitive: if you try it, you'll quickly start to get a feel for how you might attempt any particular spell you could think of. This sense of how to do magic improves with practice. As you practice bigger and bigger spells, you'll also find that you learn how to control them more successfully - but when you lose that control, the failures are correspondingly more catastrophic.

Not all spellfray necessarily has directly destructive effects, and even at its worst the effects usually include or are at minimum somehow related to the thing you were originally trying to accomplish. If you attempt a healing spell, it's almost never going to kill or directly harm whatever you were trying to heal. But it might go out of control and heal more than you intended it to, or go off-theme a little and cause plants to grow uncontrollably nearby in addition to the healing, or make the person's hair grow to an inconvenient length, or de-age them somewhat. It won't give them cancer, because that's relevantly thematically opposed to healing them, even though you could argue that it's in some ways healing-like.

The bigger a particular instance of spellfray, the likelier it is to pick up its own theme that's only somewhat related to what you were going for and then start elaborating wildly on that. This is where cursed cities come from: someone tries to do a really big spell, and they get permanent or semipermanent effects that build on whatever they were trying to accomplish but take it in a new and highly inconvenient direction. For example, someone trying to end a drought turned their city into a vast column of water with drowned buildings floating in it, populated by sea monsters and adorable animated boats. Someone trying to make a girl go to sleep for a little while so he could magically conquer her city and force her to love him ended up trapping her in an enchanted sleep inside a magical castle which was loyal only to her and turning himself into a dragon who couldn't fit through the door, and also filling the city with terrifying monsters.

Spells are likelier to fray if they are similar to other frayed spells you have recently cast. If you cast a fire spell and nearly let it get away from you, then cast another fire spell five minutes later, you'll probably lose hold of the second one too. For this purpose, spells aren't divided into discrete categories like "fire" and "ice" and so on; instead it's just a matter of how much the intended effect of each spell resembles the other, in concrete functional terms. A spell to turn the pages of a book by direct telekinesis will not be the same thing as a spell to turn the pages of a book by enchanting the book into a self-paging artifact, but a spell to destroy your enemies by direct magical annihilation will be relevantly similar to a spell to carve a block of wood by selectively annihilating it.

Once a spell is finished - once you're done casting it, and its frayed parts are done with their initial rampage - its nature is pretty much settled, quirks and all. Leaving it alone for a while won't make it go any more wrong than it already has; it might fade away and lose power over time, but it won't get worse.

It's possible to come up with clever workarounds for the spellfray problem. Spellfray energy is tangibly distinct from ordinary magic - it even has a particular smell, poetically described as "honeyed thunderstorms" - and you can use that distinction to do things like craft a magic sword that eats spellfray to power itself. But there remains an underlying principle that the better you get at avoiding spellfray, the bigger it'll tend to be when it finally catches up to you. Spellfray-mitigating artifacts can still be a net benefit, but it's rarely worthwhile to try to get good enough at magic to make one in the first place, unless you're a real prodigy who is just naturally very good at keeping control of your spells.

The actual skill of casting and controlling magic is somewhat kinesthetic in nature; you'll tend to be better at it if you are better at things like dance and sports and martial arts. It doesn't literally involve moving your body in specific ways, but it is more like body-moving skills than it is like skills of mental focus or abstract analysis. There's also something of a willpower component, but willpower alone won't get you all the way there, you also have to actually win the metaphorical wrestling match.

Spellfray effects can sometimes be outright beneficial, either to the caster or to someone else involved. For example, the original Sleeping Beauty figure got a magical castle she can control with her thoughts, and when the local Serg tried to usurp his father's empire and accidentally cursed the entire continent, a solid majority of the power output of that whole fiasco went into making him personally immortal.

As you might imagine given the premise of the setting, magic users are generally treated with wariness and suspicion. Some things might be worth consulting a powerful spellcaster for, but you still wouldn't want to live near one - much too high a risk that one day they'll cast something and you'll catch the edge of the mess and get trapped in a sparkly rock for a century or eaten by rampaging land sharks or turned into a frog. Minor spellcasters are tolerated pretty much everywhere, as long as they stick to small stuff that wouldn't have a chance to ruin the lives of innocent bystanders if it went haywire, but major spellcasters occupy a social niche a little like habitual drunk drivers, if drunk driving could be more or less relied on to probably cure terminal illnesses and restore blighted crops on demand.

The background tech level is Generic Fairy Tale Fantasyland, and not super well developed because all Spellfray threads so far have taken place inside cursed cities.

Cursed cities aren't that common, they just tend to accumulate gradually over the centuries and they're very memorable. It would be unusual to find two cursed cities within a few days' travel of one another, particularly since having a cursed city nearby is an excellent reminder of why you shouldn't play with magic. However, the well of human experience is deep and wide, and there's probably somebody out there who grew up in the shadow of an ancient ruin haunted by a nightly chorus of screams and nevertheless decided that they just had to be a wizard.

A cursed city, being nearly always ultimately a single spell, will tend to have a fairly unified theme to it overall. This varies with the complexity of the original spell, and can be affected by other factors such as how fast and how badly the caster lost control of it, but if you are inventing a cursed city it's a good idea to think about what its deal is and how it got that way and the relationship between the caster's intentions and their result.

The magic of Spellfray is not literally a sapient entity, but like many of my settings it often kind of acts like it has opinions. If something were to somehow 'wake it up' in-universe, it would be receptive to arguments that it should take more care to avoid harming people, but it would still insist on fraying spells according to the approximate principles it currently uses. Also, if an outside force comes along and tries to halt or mitigate spellfray on a wide scale, the magic will tend to respond by finding some way to make that go awry: for example, in the Key/Siran thread, Key's curse tried to mitigate spellfray and the magic system saved up all that spellfray-mitigation and then dumped it on Siran's attempt to mitigate Key's curse, causing the first effortlessly perfect major cast in the history of the universe and leaving poor Siran very confused about what had just happened.

If I were issuing recommendations about how to mitigate spellfray overall, I'd suggest adding another layer, so that in addition to the original spell and the frayed effects you have a third thing that pulls the frayed effects in a more benign direction and adds further magic that offsets, reverses, or nullifies its damage. That's the sort of thing that the magic system would tend to respect.

Re: Spellfray

PostPosted: Sat Jul 14, 2018 8:48 am
by Bluelantern
However, the well of human experience is deep and wide, and there's probably somebody out there who grew up in the shadow of an ancient ruin haunted by a nightly chorus of screams and nevertheless decided that they just had to be a wizard.

Temperance: It me.

Is the magic skill such that one can get really good at a very specific subset of magic? Could someone get really good specifically at healing but not at artifact creation?

Re: Spellfray

PostPosted: Sat Jul 14, 2018 9:41 am
by Kappa
Yes, you can practice different subskills, but, hmm...

There's a casting skill and a spell design skill. They're related but different. The casting skill is more generalized: you need to be able to handle power well in order to cast spells at all. The spell design skill is more specialized: the more you learn about how to put together a healing spell, the better you'll be able to do healing spells in particular. And because there are differences in how the power moves depending on what you're making out of it, there's a little bit of specialization available in casting. You can get really good at casting one specific kind of spell, to the point where you find those spells much easier to hang onto than any others.