Book Review: GURPS Atlantis

5 out of 5 stars. This is 128 pages of fact, history, speculation, multiple worldbuilding scenarios, and bibliography. Yes, a reasonably extensive bibliography in a game supplement. That’s what I appreciate about GURPS; their writers do the research, and it shows.

Two specific reasons I’d recommend this to aspiring writers. First and obviously, it’s a great sum-up of what we know about Plato’s Atlantis and its possible origins, and what people have speculated since, including the possibility of ancient stories passed down of the drowning of Doggerland in the North Sea about 6500-5900 BC. Second, if you’re trying to build your own fantastic world, whether urban fantasy, SF, or fantasy, you’re going to do what Phil Masters did here. You’re going to research all kinds of things that may or may not be related to your story, winnow it down to what fits, then put down the sources and build the world of your dreams. This book lets you get a feel for how someone else did it. It’s a roadmap you can follow, and when you’re trying to do something as utterly outrageous as dream up a whole world, a starting map helps.

Another plus is that because it is a gamebook, it’s meant to be used to give characters adventures. So you can look at scenarios that are supposed to be “game balanced” such that a group of heroes can win through and succeed… if they work together and don’t do anything too idiotically stupid. You could think of it as guideposts on how to do a satisfying story: not so easy it’s a walk in the park, not so hard that all but one of your heroes dies horribly by the end of the book. GURPS’ point system lets you compare monsters and characters across wildly divergent settings, and get a feel for, “do these characters have matching power levels, or is one side going to obliterate the other?”

Yes, this is crucial when writing crossover fanfics. But it also comes into play in series books, since you’re often introducing a new Evil of the Week in each succeeding book. Better to figure out if the new Lord Necromancer is going to crush your heroic Sir Knightley into a bloody smear before you’re a hundred pages into the rough and stuck, with visions of the readers screaming at you.

Back to Atlantis. This book covers magic and myths, archaeology and science, and the practical aspect of getting to a sunken land in the first place. It also proposes scenarios for Atlantis making contact with the outside world… or the other way around, with at least 3 different Atlantis versions based on various myths and fantastic fiction. I am amused by a bit on orichalcum in one of the more magical versions: “This is a fantasy setting; players who demand to know where it is on the periodic table should be ignored.” I could wish Stargate had taken that approach.

Note, this was originally published in 2001, so a paper copy might be hard to find. But if you want to poke worlds of watery destruction, it’s worth looking for.

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23 thoughts on “Book Review: GURPS Atlantis

  1. One thing I try to keep in mind (it’s not always easy) is that arbitrary power levels are arbitrary.

    If someone has hydrokinesis, that could be anything from a cup of water splashed in someone’s face to holding it together so it’s “infinite hardness” and launching it at 99% of the speed of light.

    Trying to stay consistent, or true to source material, is nearly impossible since they’re invented powers and very few authors calculate out every interaction to make sure they’re all even within the same order of magnitude.

    So if you decide A beats B, as long as it “looks” consistent, most readers won’t scream too loudly.

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    1. Even that’s making some basic mistakes. If it works on entirely an different set of principles, then “within the same ballpark” may _look_ like “in a totally different ballpark”. Take a conceptual power, for example, and it may find stuff “easy” that by the normal rules of physics should be difficult and expensive, yet find something that normal physics says should be easy to actually be nearly impossible… and yet at the same time still be consistent as to “what’s in the same ballpark”. Your mistake is measuring the ballpark by normal mundane physics, not by whatever means are actually being used, tho I admit your basic argument other than that has a point.

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      1. *snickers*
        One word:
        “Unlock.”

        **********
        Part of the problem of sciencing the magic, besides that folks usually don’t have THAT good of a grasp on the science part, and that science is a variety of educated guess selected for ability to make accurate predictions, is that magic isn’t science.

        I don’t object that much to they-call-it-magic-it’s-science, but magic doesn’t have to make the same kind of sense. If anything, it’s more likely to be poetry than math.

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      2. Honestly I think that’s part of what’s driving this current Idea with A’akinesh; the plotbunnies are a bit fed up with the current UF trend of “magic follows the rules of physics!”

        No. No, in this case, bunnies say, it does not. Oh, secondary effect like things you light on fire with your Fireball spell likely will, but the Fireball itself? Nope.

        In fact, somewhat cranky plotbunnies are positing that as part of the difference between modern magic and the Old Stuff that could take mountains down: Modern mages think everything works with physics….

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      3. In fact, somewhat cranky plotbunnies are positing that as part of the difference between modern magic and the Old Stuff that could take mountains down: Modern mages think everything works with physics….

        Oooh, I _like_ that.

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      4. Bunnies say you do need a good grasp of math to design spells/modify them on the fly. But most people get by with set spells tweaked after long (potentially lethal) practice.

        There’s also a Problem with pulling on the kind of power that breaks mountains; it just might attract Things….

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      5. I have bunnies telling me to do ‘magic as physics’.

        Largely because I was reading some histories of mathematical physics as I was in the process of losing my mind.

        Bunnies: “First, you need to study the real world PDEs so that you can actually understand them. Then you invent more PDEs that describe your magic system. Then you work on solution techniques, and calculating applications.”

        This is basically not a very productive use of time. At best, if you do a humanly possible amount of work, and produce some stories around a sucessfully designed set of magical PDEs coupled with real world physical PDES, you will find that the sort of reader who wants to read about that will include people who are able to see the flaws in your PDE solution techniques. It is almost certain that interested readers will instead discover serious defects in the PDE design.

        But yeah, that particular sort of fantasy story is a very narrow slice of the genre, and for most fantasies, you will want a magic system that works by entirely different sorts of logic. And picking an appropriate magic system is a better answer to ‘magic as physics is often done poorly’ than setting out to do it right.

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      6. What Ars Magica does for its main magic system (and several of the in-setting rival systems) is that they have different effects (I call them ‘effect seeds’) at different levels of power/difficulty for each cross of technique and form. Yes, that means 50 different lists of effects, given the five Techniques and ten Forms of the in-setting ‘Hermetic’ magic system.

        Once you select the effect you want, which involves detailing the precise application of the effect with the DM, you have to choose the range, duration, and scope of the spell, which influences the final level of it.

        Thing is, the effect seeds (again, my personal term for them) can be as blackboxed as the DM wishes. You can be extremely skilled with Creo and Aquam, but if there isn’t an effect seed for ‘Create Tidal Wave’ in the list of generally known Creo Aquam effects, you’d need to find someone who knows one and will teach it to you, research one for yourself, convince a supernatural patron (probably kami-tier or above, not that the game uses Japanese mythology) to grant it, undergo a mystery initiation with a secret society that knows it, etc

        (Next time I get to run an Ars Magica campaign, I’m probably going to have a number of effect seeds hidden in pre-Christian pagan lore and whatnot. Give the Church reason to be uneasy, give the magi reason to want to search the lore, put plenty of booby-traps for overly-curious interlopers in the lore.)

        Anyway, a given effect seed could be black-boxed however an author wishes, even if it turns into physics as it interacts with the mundane universe.

        -Albert

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      7. My personal issue with most Magic vs Physics (not science) debates is that they jump the gun in declarations.

        *Gasp* “That violates physics!”
        “No it doesn’t.”
        “Yes, it does! It violates conservation!”
        “We don’t know that. We have absolutely no measurements on the forces involved. Even if we did, it would be more likely that we’re missing something than ‘physics broke’ being the explanation.”

        There’s also the issue of a transfer function.
        Most authors want to play around in something superficially resembling the real world (people, things, directions exist).
        If you assume physics mostly applies in most cases, but magic functions differently, then somewhere there’s a border between “things work” and “things explode forever.”
        How does that border function?
        How do they interact?
        Can things cross the other way?
        Is the fireball releasing heat? Light? Radio waves?
        Can light, or heat or radio-waves influence the fireball?

        Once you define the border, it’s fine and everything is “defined by physics.”
        There’s plenty of situations where physics is very different and we aren’t entirely sure how they all connect.

        The entire field of Control Theory is just taking a complex system and looking at inputs and outputs, then applying modifiers to it. It doesn’t matter if it’s physics, chemistry, psychology, economics or magic. If it has input and output, you can make an equation for it.

        Magic vs Science runs into a different issue.
        Science is about sorting out cause and effect, no matter what the causes are.
        If a spell depends on a hand gesture, the position of the stars, and the number of people in a 50 mile radius thinking about cheese, then a sufficiently rigorous study will come to that conclusion.
        Albeit, it would be *really* difficult.

        Anything a person can do, influence, or work with can be scientifically studied.
        If for some reason “magic” is intrinsically “un-studiable” then that means the actions of the caster aren’t causing it, and it’s just coincidence, and therefore not magic.

        Ultimately physics is open-ended.
        If an event happens, physicists will study it.
        Saying that magic is really, really difficult to study could easily make sense.
        Saying that it is controlled by external forces (like deities) would also make sense.
        Saying that magic doesn’t connect with physics just feels like nobody is taking proper notes.

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      8. I’d argue that several different factors are being conflated here in all the arguments.

        “Science” is _not_ results, it’s a _method_. “Repeatedly try the same thing in the same conditions to make sure the results aren’t different this time.” It doesn’t in and of itself actually figure out _why_ stuff works, it just figures out that it does work. And yes, this would include “every time we pray in this particular way to this particular deity, we get these specific results” or “every time we wave our hands in this particular way, and say this particular phrase, we get a fireball flying in that direction”.

        Figuring out _why_ it happens is the next step, and involves designing variant tests to the above example, to try to narrow down which factors are actually important. “Oh, apparently it doesn’t matter if you stick your tongue out of the corner of your mouth and stand on one foot while trying to cast a fireball, the only factors you can’t do without are the hand gestures and the spoken incantation.” But even then, you’re still working in the dark. This is what Occam’s Razor is useful for, “when you don’t _truly_ know why the thing works, and you’ve got two different ideas that both _could_ explain it, choose the one that’s less of a Rube Goldberg machine (because it involves less headaches).” But the point there is that it’s still _potentially_ possible that it’s actually the more complicated explanation that is correct (ie: you can’t _prove_ that atoms aren’t actually held together by a host of teeny tiny angels, but it’s generally easier to assume “actually, there’s just some attractive forces”).

        There’s actually a good quote that applies to this in the blog you linked about iron, yesterday: “As with many ancient technologies, there is a triumph of practice over understanding in all of this; the workers have mastered the how but not the why.” Modern scientists are much better at designing the secondary tests to cut out as many possibilities as they can so that they are known to be not-true, leaving a much narrower possibility-range for “what might be the actual ‘why’ behind this”.

        The next word that’s being misused is “physics” (and the associated “laws”). Physics is the study of how stuff “works”, and its “laws” are _descriptive_ not _prescriptive_ (despite almost everyone taking them as _prescriptive_). Ironically, the closest approximation to “the laws of physics” that I can provide for analogy is a case where they are prescriptive; the mechanics/rules of an rpg are the “laws of physics” of the rpg’s setting, with their purpose nominally being to cause the stuff described in their fluff text to come to pass. In real life, “stuff works because it works”, and the laws of physics are just _descriptions_ of “how stuff appears to work”. If the setting of the world is different, then the “laws of physics” would be different (just like you have different rulesets for different rpg settings), but you don’t get “magic breaks the rules of physics” any more than you get “my elf wizard breaks the rules of the game” (it might break the rules of a _different_ game, but you aren’t playing a character built on one game’s rules in a different game). It doesn’t matter that one game’s rules don’t work the same way, if you’re playing a different game.

        The only time “breaking the laws of physics” matters for stuff like this is in crossovers (including “crossover with reality”, like in “historical AU with magic” or similar). And even then, “magic isn’t breaking the laws of physics (of that story’s reality)”, even if it does require work to make it fit with “the real reality that we live in”. And even then, go back to my example about angels holding atoms together; science has been used to achieve a “best guess” about a lot of things, but even most scientists forget that they’re actually testing “what” not “why” (trying to guess “why” by cutting out as many potential “why’s” by removing the “what’s” that those “why’s” would have allowed), but unless it has been actually tested directly, there’s usually still a range of “really improbable but technically not disproven” possible alternative ways stuff could “really be working behind the scenes”.

        This last bit is actually a critical worldbuilding choice in Tolkien’s main setting. Humans can only see the Seen (Plato’s “shadows on the wall”), while Elves can see the UnSeen (the things casting those shadows). To Humans, much of what the Elves do is “magic”, while to Elves (as when they were asked about the cloaks that hide people) “that’s just skilled craftsmanship, nothing ‘magic’ to it”. In an analogy, Humans are stuck in SAO as players in their world, while Elves are like Yui, able to see the variables behind stuff while still being stuck in the game too, and neither is at the level of Kayaba, able to change the hardware the game is running on. Being able to interact with the game’s variables can produce results like “magic”, that seem divorced from normal cause/effect, but there actually _is_ still a cause and effect (if the variable is changed, the stuff that relies on that variable has different results). Being able to change the hardware (or the root code) lets you change the “physics” itself.

        The problem for stories is that most authors get all of that wrong, and it’s those things that were “gotten wrong” that are so annoying to see.

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      9. “Science” is _not_ results, it’s a _method_. “

        Strictly speaking, the method is called “the scientific method.”

        That which is discovered using the scientific method is (depending on the dictionary) a secondary or later definition of science.

        The primary definition is generally some variation of ‘the systematic study of the physical world’.

        And yes, this would include “every time we pray in this particular way to this particular deity, we get these specific results” or “every time we wave our hands in this particular way, and say this particular phrase, we get a fireball flying in that direction”.

        That is the ‘sciencing the magic’ I mentioned. Terry Pratchett did a hilarious version that involved something like 2ccs of mouse blood, rather than a virgin sacrifice…..

        Traditionally speaking, magic didn’t work that way, though you could get edge cases where poisoning/herbal medicine came in.
        More like, “every time we pray in a particular way to this particular deity and he feels like it, we get these specific results.”
        It worked more like social engineering than raw code-hacking.

        Physics is the study of how stuff “works”, and its “laws” are _descriptive_ not _prescriptive_ (despite almost everyone taking them as _prescriptive_).

        Specifically, physics is the study of the interaction of matter and energy (term of art definition).

        That is, the natural world.

        Which the supernatural is explicitly outside of.

        This last bit is actually a critical worldbuilding choice in Tolkien’s main setting. Humans can only see the Seen (Plato’s “shadows on the wall”), while Elves can see the UnSeen (the things casting those shadows). To Humans, much of what the Elves do is “magic”, while to Elves (as when they were asked about the cloaks that hide people) “that’s just skilled craftsmanship, nothing ‘magic’ to it”.

        As Tolkien was making a philosophically Catholic world, of course it was; his wizards are angels and he was a rather systematic thinker, building a mythology for a post-scientific, English population.
        That he did a really good job of it doesn’t mean everybody else has to do the same.

        Liked by 1 person

      10. Narrowing “physics” down to “just the natural, not the supernatural” is a modern change, specifically as part of the change that included “the natural is real, the supernatural is false/fake/not-real”. The change in definition is itself a faulty change, and part of a circular reasoning fallacy: “natural stuff is real > the supernatural is not natural > the supernatural must be not-real > if something is real, it must be natural > if something is natural it can’t be supernatural” (thus my rejection of the “it specifically excludes the supernatural” and at least part of the movement behind the change of definition was anti-religious, not because it actually made it more precise).

        Also that “term of art” you mentioned isn’t the only way it’s defined within the field, both because of differences in individual schools’ preferences on the exact shade of meaning of terms, and because the use to which the knowledge is being put affects which way you look at the same details. Most of them can be simplified to the form I used, “the study of the way things work”, in the same way that while you _can_ use fancy-talk to say ‘the feline’s inquisitiveness was prodromic to its demise’, it can be simplified to ‘curiosity killed the cat’ while still containing the same essential meaning. Tho I’ll note part of this is covered in how the term changed over time (it used to specifically involve the study of moving things, then was expanded to “moving” things like electricity and light, and finally to “interaction of matter and energy”) but _knowing_ that is _why_ I contend that it’s “the study of how things _work_” (work as in “do stuff”, not as in “exist in an operable state”).

        As to “how wizards traditionally worked”… no, traditionally the blacksmith has been a worker of magic, as has the doctor, or the master swordsman, or any of a host of other “this person has studied stuff so much he knows stuff that normal people can’t understand”. Even the standard words for it note that it involves advanced knowledge and understanding (sure, there _are_ words for other cases, but those are the common ones like “magic” and “wizard”). And it wasn’t “Tolkien created it this way because of catholic philosophy getting into his worldbuilding” (tho that was there too), it was “Tolkien created it that way because it was historically that way, then he reverse-engineered worldbuilding to explain how it actually managed to work as it was historically taken”.

        I’ll concede that traditionally you didn’t find out the “how” behind the magic working (as noted above, it was a case of “the [wizard] knows stuff beyond the understanding of normal people”, so of course normal storytellers couldn’t explain to normal audiences “how it worked”), but that’s not the same as “it didn’t work through normal means”. In fact, taking this a step further, “science” is almost invariably used in modern fiction in _the exact same way_ that “magic” was historically used. “The wizard/scientist looked into the abyss, and through long study and experimentation learned arcane/scientific means of working his will on reality… but of course we haven’t studied that much, so we can’t actually explain it, but you just have to accept that there is an explanation because it’s magic/science.” But, because they’re using a different term now (calling it “science” instead of “magic”), and because everyone’s been taught “magic deals with the supernatural, and therefore with the not-real, while science deals with the natural, and therefore with the real”, everyone’s perfectly willing to accept without question that the fictional “science” works “by natural principles that we could all use if we only knew enough” while looking at the “magic” and going “eh, it just works because the author said so, it shouldn’t actually make sense because if it did make sense then it’d be ‘natural’ and thus science”.

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      11. Narrowing “physics” down to “just the natural, not the supernatural” is a modern change, specifically as part of the change that included “the natural is real, the supernatural is false/fake/not-real”.

        The idea that the “supernatural” is fake/false/not real is an extremely modern idea, in direct conflict with natural philosophy and its young offspring, science.

        It is a rather strange assumption, that only those things which can be measured by the scientific method are “real,” and not an especially rational one as it requires accepting a fallacy– “this is explicitly outside of the area which can be measured using a specific method, therefore it does not exist.”

        The term of art that I mentioned is because of the probability of ‘energy’ being used in a non-science/physics-manner.

        As to “how wizards traditionally worked”… no, traditionally the blacksmith has been a worker of magic, as has the doctor, or the master swordsman, or any of a host of other “this person has studied stuff so much he knows stuff that normal people can’t understand”.

        “These people were believed to work magic” =/= “what these people were doing was what was generally viewed as magic.”

        There are definitions going back quite far into history showing what people believed magic was, and how they believed it worked– we have curse-tablets that are hundreds of years older than Christ, in such numbers that they are not amazing treasures.

        It was a larger than life form of flattering the nearest tough guy to get him to hit the guy you were mad at.
        The magic workers had connections. They’d brag about who they could call on, or bribe, to get the desired results.

        Which is worlds away from sciencing the magic.

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  2. Generally, “magia” was the use of natural properties to do freaky stuff, and thus was supposed to be part of natural philosophy studies. In practice, you got a lot of “theurgia” (I can tell gods or minor supernatural beings what to do, or I can sorta become one myself, or anyway I chat with them and get results — very popular with the neo-Platonists), “goetia” (dealing with evil supernatural beings, or cheating in some horrible unnatural way with natural properties), and “maleficium” or “veneficium” (evil witch magic, poisons, evil potions, etc.) You also might count shamanic stuff of certain kinds.

    Beyond that, though, there is a lot of association of magic with law, music, and poetry, in that one tells the universe how it should be behaving, and of magic with smithcraft and weapons, in the idea of arts acquired with great difficulty.

    I suspect that one of the big worldbuilding differences between cultures is, “Where do you draw the line?” Are doctors shamans, or mages, or craftsmen, or men of learning, or men of art, or healing saints, or what? Who are they most like? Where do they get their knowledge?

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    1. Which was part of my argument with Foxfier. There were _other terms_ for the other things. The terms that are currently used (magic, magician, wizard, etc) were the terms for the category involving “being sufficiently knowledgeable and skilled to get results normal people can’t”. And while some of the other options being discussed may have been more common concepts in some cultures, they didn’t use the same terms either. Nowdays, people may ascribe “magic” as a general overarching term for “all of that supernatural stuff”, but historically they split it up into different terms for different categories of the stuff (besides the differences in terminology because of different cultures having different languages, and also having different ideas of what possible categories there were). And even when modern people do split those things into different categories with different names, they frequently use the wrong term for the wrong thing (like Albert commented on the use of the term ‘sorcerer’ in rpgs a few blog-posts back).

      Of course, I’m all for splitting terms apart again, so instead of having a bunch of terms we use interchangeably and using all of them for any one of several very different things (thus leading to confusion about exactly what’s being discussed, until several paragraphs of explanation of details), we actually have separate terms for separate things (even if related-but-not-the-same “separate” things). Then when a specific term is used, you actually know what’s being talked about without needing to follow up with multiple paragraphs of caveats and details to specify where the edge cases are, what it isn’t, and what it is. So I’ll admit I do focus on the intersection of “words used” and “meaning applied”, especially when complaints are brought up about the application of the word (especially if the complaint is one that crops up because of not keeping the history of the word in mind).

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      1. Which was part of my argument with Foxfier. There were _other terms_ for the other things. The terms that are currently used (magic, magician, wizard, etc) were the terms for the category involving “being sufficiently knowledgeable and skilled to get results normal people can’t”.

        Except that no, they weren’t.

        Same way that your preferred definition of physics, or science, were not the primary much less only definitions; the word magia was not even mentioned until Banshee pointed to it, the discussion was on the word magic.

        The word “magic” is explicitly supernatural. Now, and when it was introduced to the English language in the 14th century.

        The various other terms– including magia— can be related, depending on the setting, and are really freaking cool to study, but having this history:
        Middle English magique, from Middle French, from Latin magice, from Greek magikē, feminine of magikos Magian, magical, from magos magus, sorcerer, of Iranian origin; akin to Old Persian maguš sorcerer
        (Merriam Webster)
        does not thus redefine the word to what the root was used for. The other terms are for getting precise in what is being discussed.

        As I previously pointed out
        :
        “These people were believed to work magic” =/= “what these people were doing was what was generally viewed as magic.”
        Rephrasing. Using spells, calling on the supernatural, praying for powers to step in and do stuff for you– was just what you did. The mental shift involved in going from a magic-based world view to a science based one is major– the infamous Islamic idea that all things are the whim of Allah is normal, if scaled up, historically speaking. The idea that there are rules, which we can discover, which won’t change– that is strange.

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      2. And in regard to physical laws that don’t change, try “magic may not have to apply the laws of motion, the laws of thermodynamics, or several others that we know apply to the normal physical world”.

        Hence, “magic in this (fictional) world does not have to conform to the rules of physics”.

        I did not say the study of physics. I said the rules – as in the currently known physical laws.

        There may be someone conflating terms here, but it’s not me.

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      3. Actual magi/Zoroastrian priests were pretty scientific and observational about their astrology, although their Zoroastrian religion was very complicated and not always friendly to Jews, Christians, etc. (depending on Persian politics). Generally, though, they associated their gods with sensible natural laws, etc. (Technically, some of the earlier Iranian/Persian religions also had priests called “magi.” There seems to have been a whole tribe of priests at one point, also called magi; or the tribe may have become the Resident Experts On Religion.)

        The funky thing is that outside Persia, “people who know stuff because they memorize, study, observe, and educate their kids, and live structured caste-like lives while serving the gods” was almost universally turned into mysteeeeeeeerious people with mysterious knowledge.

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      4. Vathara: that’s why I add the caveat “of our world” to that phrase. Usually when I see the phrase “magic doesn’t follow the laws of physics” or “magic breaks the laws of physics” being used by someone _without_ the caveat, they go on to show that their actual argument is “therefore, it can do whatever, with no limits, because we mean that phrase in an absolute sense for _all possible laws of physics in all possible settings_, and we can just turn our brains off”. I agree with your position here, since you are describing something that includes the caveat (even if you didn’t actually include it in words), but that caveat is a critical component for making the phrase valid.

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