Q&A

How Can I Combine Fantasy and Science Fiction Elements?

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How do I mix magic and science fiction tech without it feeling haphazard or unbalanced?

– Anon

Hi Anon,

From a storytelling standpoint, magic and scifi tech are nearly identical except for theming. If you’re not careful with things that feel different in theme, it will give the impression that you arbitrarily put whatever you wanted in your world. But this is fixable. There are two main ways to create a world theme that encompasses both fantasy and science fiction elements.

First, you can make them feel like they’re really the same thing. Options for this include the following:

  • The magic is actually advanced technology – sure it looks like that person is casting a spell, but really it’s nanobots that are doing it.
  • The technology is built off of magic, also known as magitech. This is what happens when your high fantasy setting has its own industrial revolution, but all the technology uses magic to function.
  • Most technology is normal technology, but scifi technology is special because it’s powered by magic. Basically this is lower effort magitech for contemporary settings.

Second, you can emphasize the contrast, making it an important part of your world. For instance, some stories have the premise that technology kills magic or vice versa. You also could have two alternate universes – a scifi one and a fantasy one – that the protagonist switches between. The important part is that the difference between magic and tech is central to your story, and there’s a method behind when you choose magic and when you choose tech.

Happy worldbuilding,

Chris

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I think it also helps to have a rational magic system to begin with – because is magic follows rule, it’s much easier to incorporate with technology or science and thus a fusion is probably a lot easier.

    I know I’ve been mentioning those stories a lot, but the Lord Darcy series does very well with it – most technology in the stories is purely mechanic, whenever a power source is necessary, the technology is powered by some kind of spell or enchantment. Like this, there’s magical fridges, magical telephones etc., but things like locks or castle gates work simply with mechanical means. Trains don’t seem to run with magical means, though, so someone must have developed the steam engine – which might still have its sooth cleared away by magic, not sure.

  2. Leon

    I would recommend reading His Dark Materials and the Sword of Shanarararra and watching those Star Wars fan-fic movies set before Rogue One.
    Don’t do anything they did – they’re terrible.

    Mandatory reading; The Warhammer 40k fluff, the Final Fantasy movie (i only know the first one – I’m old), and Gunnerkrigg Court all have brilliantly imagined relationships between science and magic.
    Steal from these.

    • Leon

      Correction; the giant eels are awesome. Have those wherever you can.

    • Cay Reet

      I definitely agree with Gonnerkrigg Court and with not doing what those Star Wars prequels which were never made do.

      • Leon

        I would probably wait a few months before reading Gunnerkrigg Court, It seems like it’s coming to the end of the story but there’s many tons of foreshadowing and back story that imply an immanent struggle for nothing less than the fate of humanity – all hail Box Bot The Terrible.
        (if you decide to read anyway, there’s also retrospective videos which are funny, I think his wife made him make the videos.)

    • Adam

      Warhammer 40k is my favorite blend of fantasy and sci-fi!

      • Leon

        I don’t think it gets any more grim dark than stillborn artillery.

  3. CommissarFeesh

    Shadows of the Apt is another good example – it’s clockworkpunk, so not Sci fi in the sense of hi tech shenanigans, but they still do very fiction-tech, and the contrast with magic is crucial to the setting (literally, mages are incapable of understanding even basic mechanics like locks, while artificers are engineers are too rational to conceive of magic even being a real force).

    And then there’s another, “natural” set of totemic abilities possessed by everyone, which is neither magic nor tech.

  4. Adam

    Check out the Numenera RPG system by Monte Cook.

    “This is the Ninth World. The people of the prior worlds are gone—scattered, disappeared, or transcended. But their works remain, in the places and devices that still contain some germ of their original function. The ignorant call these magic, but the wise know that these are our legacy. They are our future. They are the… NUMENERA.”

  5. BeardedLizard

    I’d be curious to know what the Mythcreant peoples in general think of the Shadowrun (which answer the question no one ever asked: What if I added magic, elves, orcs and dragons in my Cyberpunk cake?). More specifically regarding the lore and the settings (The rules are a whole other story. I still get the vertigo every time I open the book!).

    Are you familiar with it and what do you think of their blend of sci-fi and fantasy? Would you do something differently?

    • Leon

      Awesome concept though it just hasn’t been executed well. I don’t think magic should be crunchy. If i did a game in that universe i think I’d do a very free form system and a dice pool mechanic with vague levels of success (maybe shadowrun lite) and i would also include stress meters and conditions.
      I think Bright could have been a brilliant film in more capable hands, the way magic was known of but still creepy and mysterious was very cool. The idea of something powerful and unknowable in a world where you can look inside atoms is just terrifying.

    • Leon

      Also; if you can do science to it, it ain’t magic. But using magic to do science could be an interesting thing to explore.

      • BeardedLizard

        I agree wholeheartedly with you about the crunchyness. You shouldn’t need a calculator to shoot a fireball or a couple of bullets. That whole game is sooo crunchy as to be a bit ludicrous. (Weirdly enough, I think the magic is less complicated than shooting a gun. At least you don’t need to check for recoil).

        Although, I think it’s possible to science magic without spoiling it. It’s part of what I like about the Shadowrun setting. Magic is a commodity and can be bought in a store. Every corporation try to understand it and duplicate it, but the truth is that nobody really knows how it’s work. At least, not past the surface level. I feel like it’s even less understood than a high fantasy universe like Forgotten realm where magic is absolutely everywhere. But still, people are always trying to science it and cause more problems because of it. I think you need to have a base understanding of how it work, without realising how deep the rabbit hole go.

        PS: Bright concept was so good on paper, I agree. I heard they were looking into making a series, I hope they will get it better this time.

        • Leon

          Attempting to science magic is something I could totally read about – especially if when you poke it, it gets angry – and you know humans are gonna poke it.

          The thing that gets me with most fantasy settings is that in real life, the different races would have respect and awe for each others unique talents. I mean, if I’m a flimsy magical elf and I’m going on a quest, I’m bringing a big orc and his 300 pound steel bow. And in a modern setting, I think that respect would only increase with professional athletes and Olympians pushing the limits of what they are capable of.

          • Leon

            Oh. And the writer of Bright doesn’t know that football players can jump higher than basketball players, it’s all about muscle.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I really like the specific cyberpunk aesthetic that Shadowrun is channeling, and I don’t have any inherent problem adding magic and elves to it. The main issue I have is that Shadowrun chose to use the real world, which gets into some pretty sticky issues of culture and appropriation.

      For example, I’m not sure how Native Americans feel about this, but it just seems weird to me that in this world, Native American religious beliefs are shown to be objectively true in the same breath that Tolkien-style high fantasy tropes are shown to be objectively true.

      There’s also just some believability issues I can’t get my head around. If it were me, I’d just use a fantasy world that’s advanced far enough to reach the cyberpunk era of technology.

      • BeardedLizard

        I agree with you in regard of the native Americans. On one hand, it’s nice to see them having a strong presence in the game world and a lot of screen time throughout Shadowrun many stories. At the same time, I don’t know how much of it falls into cultural appropriation or misrepresentation (especially with the earlier editions where they were pretty much all wearing feathers and machines guns). I’m guessing there must be some article on the subject somewhere on the internet that talks about it, I’ll probably check it out because I’m kind of intrigue.

      • Leon

        Some modern Maori in New Zealand still sometimes integrate feathers with formal ware, most Maori and many many other New Zalanders always wear a big piece of bone or jade (it’s never appropriation, Punamu is always a gift). Many artsy types, especially those with higher education in cultural matters do their own extravagant thing.
        Modern Maori academics and professionals even get facial tatoos

        If Native Americans had tangible power, they would have the freedom to express their culture and traditions any way they like and very few young people are immune to fashion.

        • BeardedLizard

          You have a good point. I tried looking up anecdote of people of native American origin playing Shadowrun. All I could find from my quick google search was an article on another game (Dragon Conquer America) where the author talk in her introduction about how she liked it when she was younger and play Shadowrun and how she like the fact the game push them to be themselves, angry and loud (before getting killed by a random sniper bullet). Couldn’t find anything else though, but it’s an interesting point of view.

      • Rose Embolism

        My problem is with how fundamentally racist Shadowrun is. I mean great, the player characters get to fight against Humanis who say Orcs and Trolls are subhuman. Yay.

        Except Orcs and Trolls have negative Intelligence and Charisma modifiers. And their maximums for those stats are less than humans. So this is a setting where the PCs are fighting Humanis for…being right?

        Sorry, I don’t want to play “The Bell Curve the RPG.”

        • BeardedLizard

          Yeah, that is definitely one of its many, many flaws. In universe, I don’t think it is that bad (nothing stops a troll from being a mage or university teacher), but the rules make it so that if you don’t build an optimal character, your chances of survival (or being useful) are very slim. I played a one shot once and tried to make a troll shaman, but couldn’t come up with something that would be usefull on a run (The complexity of the rules did not help either). Which is slightly worse than D&D, but not that far (At least in D&D, I managed to play a half-orc cleric who had big anxiety issues and was super meek while still being super useful).

          I think the games Shadowrun: Return, Dragonfall and Hong Kong are a bit better in that regard. Trolls and orc still are limited in how smart or charismatic they can be compared to human and elf, but the difference is so slim that I had no problems playing against the stereotype without feeling underpowered.

          But still, yeah. Shadowrun definitely got issues with how its portrays mechanically it’s races (and lorewise the real world).

      • LeeEsq

        Its even more confusing than that. Not only are Native American religious beliefs objectively true but if you read their materials on world religions, many are still going along and adopting to or denouncing the changes as Satanic. What is weird is that Elves are both implied to have their own Tolkien like culture and have Elven like names but many religions have made room for meta-humans, so you can theoretically have a Hasidic Elf Jew named David Cohen being a Rabbi in synagogue in Brooklyn even though Elves have their own Tolkien like culture.

        Shadowrun wasn’t even that specific on the cultures of the meta-humans. Elves are implied to be the most separate from humans. Dwarves don’t seem to have that distinct of a culture and appear to remain closest to humans in how they see the world, so a Dwarf of Indian origins is like a human of Indian origins with a different build. Orcs and trolls were unfortunately given a very urban underclass type culture. Lots of bad implications there.

    • LeeEsq

      Shadowrun’s greatest limitation was that it was a product of its’ time. This means that there cyberpunk version of the future looks very dated and their attempt at multicultural tolerance looks at best “well meaning but…” to racist by current liberal standards. So you have Native Americans achieve power again but the Native Americans are rather stereotypical. You have demi-humans but they follow a lot of fantasy troops like dumb and violent orcs and trolls and haughty elves.

  6. Candlewitch

    Hey OP, if you’re familiar with LoZ’s Breath of the Wild, I’d consider that an example of mixing magic and sci-fi flavored technology, though heavier on the magic side to give it more of a fantasy feel.

    On the other hand, the Myst games (I can only speak to Riven, sadly) have a lot of sci-fi technology at the forefront of the world, but the premise is based on magic.

  7. LeeEsq

    One thing that occurs to me is that very few fantasy/science fiction books spent any time looking at consumer magic, the type of magic that everyday people would use to make their lives a little easier, more efficient, and more fun. Same with how magic would effect the entertainment industry. If you had real magic at your disposal, you could get sound, color, and real good special effects in film and television from the get go. Toy companies would constantly seek to out do each other to come up with something spectacular. What would RPGs on video games be like in world where magic was real?

    • Leon

      I tried rand failed to come up with a magic economy. Consumer magic is plot breaking in most stories. It’s effectively post scarcity.
      I think a universe with consumer magic would have a lot i common with the Culture universe.

      • liber

        “It’s effectively post scarcity”

        Only if you write it that way. Electricity could be considered a magic force (by many fantasy settings) in our world and everyone knows it didn’t erase scarcity. If anything, it only shifted our needs and how they’re met.

        If you do your worldbuilding right and do a good job limiting how magic works and is adquired, you shouldn’t stumble upon story-breaking trinkets. What IS hard about building a world with domestic magic is the sheer amount of creativity and time you’d need to think of the many, MANY ways in which humans use and apply tools though. It is, by no means, an easy task.

      • LeeEsq

        This supposes that magical energy is effectively an unlimited resource. That doesn’t need to be the case. One can go the old Dark Sun setting route and have magical energy be polluting/draining the earth when used, effectively limiting its’ use or creating some serious consequences from over use. Come to think of it mass magic use as pollution/environmental issues would make for a fascinating story. Likewise, magic use can also be made more difficult than it is in a standard setting. What one wizard might be able to do in Generic Fantasy, could require four to five or more depending on the project. A magical power plant could require at least ten wizards, etc.

        I think the real reason why we don’t see a lot of consumer magic is because most authors can’t quite describe how Magic Play Station is different from Regular Play Station or why magic film/TV is better. Silent film had a real big wow factor in the late 19th and early 20th century. Imagine what it would be like if they got color, sound, and even mid-20th century special effects in the 1890s.

        Another limiting factor is that very few people might want to write about Magical Andrew Carnegie or the Wizardly equivalent of the Vanderbilts.

        • Leon

          Oh, Star Butterfly has to go to the magic mall in one episode, it’s excellent.

      • Leon

        I suppose it depends where you draw the line between inexplicable, unscienceable, magic and technology that uses a type of energy that we don’t have in this world. And also what you want the magic to do. I found that even with something as mundane as “Hot Rocks” everything fell apart. Any form of free energy is really hard to get around because if you have energy, you can get anything else you may need.
        I think if knowledge is the difference between magic and not-magic, then it is not magic. Truth is objective.

        Anyway, there’s no point arguing about matters of opinion.

        What are those books you mentioned? I’d love to see a magic system that doesn’t break the laws of thermodynamics.

        • LeeEsq

          Dark Sun was an old AD&D setting from the 1990s, not a series of books. You can find them online by googling for free to brose through. It was basically Fist of the North Star/Mad Max/Road Warrior meets AD&D. The setting was the harsh desert world of Athas. Athas started as a lush world that grew harsh through a combination of genocidal wars and the fact that magic use drains the world of energy. There were two types of wizards, defilers and preservers. Defilers just wanted power and didn’t care what their magic could do. Preservers attempted to use magic in a way that didn’t hurt the planet but everything took longer with them.

          • Cay Reet

            I think there even was an early computer RPG set in that world.

  8. Fred

    Star Wars
    Sci-fi: spaceships, lasers, droids.
    Magic: The Force

  9. Kenneth Mackay

    Larry Niven’s ‘The Magic Goes Away’ (and the other books set in the same world) offer an interesting take on magic as a limited resource. The basic premise is that the ‘mana’ that powers magic is running out – in cities the spells that used to raise ‘trolls’ (reanimated Neanderthals) as servants just don’t work because so many spells have been cast that all the ‘mana’ has been used up, there are areas where a ‘Wizard’s Wheel’ (a device used to deliberately drain the ‘mana’ from an area, used as a weapon against enemy wizards) has left no magic at all – and the magic community are just beginning to realise how big a problem they’ve got…!

    • Leon

      That reminds me of a David Gemmell book, Echoes Of The Great Song. The hero is disillusioned with his people (they literally suck life out of people from “lesser” races to extend their own lives and fuel their magic tech.
      There’s also a cool thing where every chapter has a half page prologue – the legend of the demi god who tamed 7 sea serpents to pull his chariot is the story of a journey in a warship named Serpent 7.

      Michael Moorcock does magic tech pretty well too.

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