Worldbuilding: Fire Magic

This is going to lean heavily on the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism, the Sliding Scale of Silliness vs. Seriousness, and probably a few others lurking in the shadows. There are two undeniable things about the control of fire by human technology and will.

First, it is just about the coolest thing ever. It’s flashy, it’s attention-getting, it’s edgy and dangerous. It is the ultimate special effect. Explosions are good, explosions are impressive – but controlled fire is amazing. Partly because it has the implicit threat of “break the control and Bad Things happen”.

Second, it is one of the most horrific death-dealers known to humankind. To the point flamethrowers as banned weapons of war rank up there with poison gas, and worse than minefields. Burns do massive damage to fragile flesh and bone, healing is long and painful, and if the burns are extensive or in the wrong place, your odds of dying through fluid loss and infection are high, even in a modern hospital.

Realistically speaking, a character that can control fire would be considered armed, dangerous, and possibly too lethal to let walk around unsupervised. You can get a license for a gun. Getting one to use pyrotechnics is much, much harder.

This does not stop fire from being a useful and effective power in realms of magic and superheroes. But it does mean that if you’re trying for realism, or at least verisimilitude, you need to do serious research on how easy it is to set things on fire, how hard it is to put them out, and what are the likely reactions of the average Joe when he realizes the guy next to him is a walking flamethrower. Generally speaking, it would not be good.

That’s always been one of the things that bothered me about portrayals of the Fantastic Four. The Thing gets a bad reaction from crowds in the street, while the hotheaded Human Torch gets all the positive attention. This only seems like a plausible reaction if you’re talking about people who’ve never dealt with the nitty-gritty dangers of welding, forging, making steel, fighting fires, and so many more dangerous things. People in the blue-collar trades, who work with things that can injure or maim if you get careless, would much rather deal with a strong, rock-hard Ben Grimm than a flaming glory-hound.

So if your character manipulates fire, what are their limits? What do people think those limits are? What measures has society come up with to counter them? Because setting cities ablaze has been a threat as long as cities have existed, and no government is going to stand by without precautions.

Giant snowball spells, anyone?

22 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Fire Magic

  1. There’s also the flip side, fire might be the most effective way to deal with something like undead.
    So they’d have a constant struggle for rulers that really don’t want fire mages wandering around their wooden cities, and the need to have enough on hand for when they’re needed.

    Another quirk is when you compare it to the other classical elements.

    Thematically people like to treat them all as the same type of magic, but when they look closer they start saying things like “earth magic uses existing material and fire magic creates its own.”
    Then they arbitrarily declare that they are all equal and do equal damage.

    What if they were generated the same, and different output?

    Air is common, cheap to manipulate, but very difficult to deal damage with.
    Earth is common, costly to manipulate (especially breaking out pieces) and does lots of damage.
    Water is mid-range cost and damage, but you might have to carry it with you.
    Fire is high damage, low cost, but requires special preparation to have at hand and it’s easy to run out.

    It would turn every fight into a balancing act of preparation and finding the best tool for the job, instead of just using the same spell over and over.

    It would also mitigate the danger of fire mages, since they wouldn’t just be blowing fireballs every time they sneeze.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. There are two things every responsible instructor in fire magic needs to convey right away: 1) Any time you use fire magic at another person, they _know_ that you are willing to threaten them with a horrible death. 2) Once you know the essential basics of fire, the single most important thing to learn to do without needing voice, gesture, consumable, or casting tool, is how to put fires _out_.

    (See Embers, Zuko instructing a young firebender, for our hostess’ take on him giving that lecture.)

    -Albert

    Liked by 3 people

    1. *Nod* It’s something that’s going to come up in Ace of Flames (idea sketched out, writing hopefully will happen once I’m not trying to handle 3 disasters at once). The fire mage comes from a time when, if he was in combat at all, his foes were already on the “horrible grisly death” list.

      Granted, he’s had some time to learn… moderation. But the baseline attitude he was raised with remains.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. In some ways that’s a safer attitude.

        Really there’s no such thing as “non-lethal,” just less likely to kill in most cases.

        Someone using a technique that’s 95% non-lethal would need to be aware that it won’t always work out that way.

        And coming at it from the other direction, someone who’s never seen someone die from a given method might not recognize the danger when it does appear or how to compensate.

        “What’s that smell?”
        “Burning human flesh. You might want to ease back on the fire magic… unless you like your enemies ‘well done’…”

        And thinking about it from the opponents perspective, if they think you’re using a lethal attack, they will escalate in return.
        They might not believe you when you say “don’t worry, this fire will only singe you a little bit!”

        Liked by 2 people

    2. Water, earth, stone, wood, and wind, they can all be dangerous. But a lot of the time you can touch them without peril. Fire _is_ dangerous, simply by existing, because to not burn is to stop being fire.

      I have to wonder what kind of sheltered life a person would have to live, to never have burned a finger on a hot stove or campfire.

      Of course, depending on how broad the definition of ‘fire’ is, when it comes to fire magic, you may be able to develop less-lethal varieties. Instead of a stream of sparks to cause pain all over the target, you might conjure motes of light that only _look_ like tiny bits of burning agony as they arc towards their destination, threatening to burn out the eyes of the targets but really only dazzling them.

      -Albert

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The way I thought about it when I was working on a fantasy universe was elemental energy, sort of like colored mana in Magic: the Gathering – certain areas have more energies of type x and less of type y, and having more the appropriate energy floating around makes certain types of magic easier to pull off. most mortals are stuck with whatever energy happens to be available in the area, but some more exotic types like dragons and elementals typically have some sort of an ‘internal generator’ to power them.

    In this example your fire mage trundling through the streets of snowy Helsinki in mid-winter probably would have trouble getting around to more than, say, lighting his cigarette without a lighter, but drop him in the middle of the Sahara Desert or the volcanic ranges of Iceland and he’d be a terror to reckon with.

    (Of course my system stole the Age of Wonders circles and went with seven elements – fire, water, eart, air, light, shadow, and cosmos/aether – the latter manipulating pure magical force and the weave of magic itself rather than the elements..)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. If you’re interested in the history of flamethrowers, I can recommend “German Flamethrower Pioneers of World War I” and “Flamethrower Troops of World War I: The Central and Allied Powers”. They’re a tad expensive though; only available in hardcover and running ~$60/ea.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. If you think about it, fire is both more and less dangerous than conventional attacks.

    It’s more likely to cause secondary problems like infection, shock, dehydration, that can easily kill the person a few hours later.

    It’s less likely to cause the more random possibilities, like a broken bone that cuts into an artery and kills someone from a broken leg.

    So in theory, if there was an available source of healing, fire magic could be used as a “non-lethal” attack because there’s a very good chance they will survive long enough to get healing.

    The ironic part is that to justify this benefit, you have to dive deeper into the Cynicism and Serious scales, where people are more likely to want to use fire magic as non-lethal on the Idealism and Silly side of the scales.

    It kinda loops around.

    The other thing that’s often skipped over is using ice or water to counter fire.
    Water and fire create steam, which is if anything, more dangerous than fire.
    Hot enough fire makes ice explode into steam, which is usually not how it’s depicted.

    Obviously each author has to decide what horrors they inflict on their characters, but it would be funny to see someone discovering that they don’t “cancel out.”

    Liked by 3 people

    1. In my opinion, the opposite of Fire should be Air… or rather… the lack of Air. The reason Water is seen as the “opposite” of Fire isn’t because it’s Water… it’s because it cuts off the air supply of Fire. If there’s not enough Water to completely smother a Fire, the Fire will come back… even worse then it was before sometimes because of things like super-heated steam, etc.

      Anyone who could… deprive Fire of Air in a “classical elements” setting would be the natural bane of Fire users.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. >>That’s always been one of the things that bothered me about portrayals of the Fantastic Four. The Thing gets a bad reaction from crowds in the street, while the hotheaded Human Torch gets all the positive attention. This only seems like a plausible reaction if you’re talking about people who’ve never dealt with the nitty-gritty dangers of welding, forging, making steel, fighting fires, and so many more dangerous things. People in the blue-collar trades, who work with things that can injure or maim if you get careless, would much rather deal with a strong, rock-hard Ben Grimm than a flaming glory-hound.<<

    You kind of answered your own question there. Those sorts of blue collar jobs that would prefer Ben to Johnny are rather sparse in cities, even back then. More so now.

    Dollars to donuts most of the people who would actually have those jobs or those backgrounds are steering clear of the areas that Ben might wander around in because even as the designated "Salt of the Earth" guy in the team the FF are still celebrities and hang around the celebrity neighborhoods and areas when they aren't doing their Science Adventurer thing. And when the fights are going on in city those are also the kinds of people that aren't going to be standing around oohing and aahing especially right after the fight's over and the dust is settling.

    They're trying to get hired on to FIX the mess left behind. There's some damned good money involved in that and they're going to want their piece of the pie.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. It depends a ton on the city and what type of diversity you’re talking about. My city has a ton of cultural diversity but not a lot of ideological diversity. There’s a staggering range of economic situations and jobs… but most people are atheists/agnostics. And the different kinds of diversities a city has will effect how the city “feels” to a large extent.

        Like

      2. City-folk tend to be the most narrow-minded and provincial, because being forced into contact with so many people means you can’t evaluate them all as individuals, so almost everyone you deal with is out-group and you have to rely on the mental shortcuts we use to emulate how we Dunbar Set a small number of people, to be able to treat out-group people of the right sort as pseudo-in-group.

        (This is a dangerous mental habit to form, because someone who can get into a trusted pseudo-in-group can get away with all sorts of fraud on the basis of ‘a fellow XYZ wouldn’t take advantage of me!’ thinking.)

        -Albert

        Liked by 1 person

  7. As someone who grew up and still lives in Southern California… Fire is the reason people where I live feel tense when the temperature climbs up into the 90s, humidity drops and the winds come. There might be a fire, there might not… but all it takes is one misplaced spark and a hillside will go up in flames in a matter of minutes.

    Once a fire gets to a certain size (and heat), you can see water turning into steam before it gets anywhere near the fuel. The worst factor is by far the wind. It pushes fire around and gives it oxygen and worse, makes the most effective means of fighting fires (helicopters) much harder to use. What makes it even worse is that fire can create its own weather patterns that usually result in more wind and more obscuration of the fire itself which just makes it harder to put out. It’s even possible for a fire to make huge thunder-head-like clouds with it’s heat.

    It’s… incredible… how much high heat will swing what will help put a fire out in a small-scale setting into something that will help it in a large-scale setting. Even something like rock will be effected by high heat when something like a volcano is involved (amusingly, hot water turning into steam is something that also happens often in volcanic eruptions and it’s never a good thing!).

    The thing that will always cause a fire to die is it’s (lack of) fuel supply. A fire can have all the heat and oxygen it wants but once it uses up all it’s fuel, it will die. And depriving a fire of fuel is a very old way of containing fire.

    For all the dangers of fire though, it is amazing. It is the oldest source of portable light and heat for a reason and it is very pleasing to the eye. In more modern times, what fire is (and why different fuels burn in different colors) is linked to some very cool quantum mechanics findings. However, there is always the edge of still needing to respect what fire can do if you aren’t careful in a way most other “common” substances aren’t.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Interesting. In what I’m working on, the MC’s race can breathe fire. They’re not from Earth, and on their home world breathing fire is like shining a light. It might be warm, but it’s mostly bright and is used to blind their opponents. When they ended up on Earth, what was a flash bang ends up being much worse.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. The original Human Torch was an android with the power to burst into flames when exposed to oxygen… and yep, the whole storyline was about public outcry and the danger he posed, versus his own gradual desire to be able to help humans and live a human life (under his secret identity of the police officer “Jim Hammond”), as well as being able to help people. In Marvel continuity, he killed Adolf Hitler in the bunker, after Hitler refused to surrender.

    Johnny Storm is basically the opposite. He’s a human. His powers were gained in midlife. He’s able to damp his flames’ heat to make them harmless. He’s naturally attractive and outgoing. People are disarmed by his charm, and mostly do not fear him. (Although he’s also reckless at times, and I’d be more nervous about him than the original Human Torch.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. See, that’s what makes me so nervous about him. “Charm” is a verb. It’s something someone does TO you.

        Maybe that’s why Garak is such a fun character to watch, from a safe distance– he’s so open and gleeful about slicing his flattery and he’ll flatly tell you he’s trying to charm you into bad ideas, don’t trust him.

        It’s refreshing, especially compared to the folks who are upset if you notice they are charming you.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Johnny Storm has a very long long storyline. He’s done some bad things, but he’s also been ridiculously loyal and kind to girls he’s dated. Including the alien shapeshifting spy.

        But yeah, he’s also the youngest of the Fantastic Four and the most likely to do something stupid. Although he was a teenager for a good chunk of his continuity, so it’s hard to blame him.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, technically he’s not damping his flames; he just has such fine control over the fiery plasma surrounding his body that he can carry somebody, while using his power to fly, without burning them. Which is pretty darned control-y.

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