Encyclopaedia Arcana #7: Divination Magic (Part One)

The first type of magic this Encyclopaedia will look at is divination, a type of universal magic.  A mage who can use divination magic is called a diviner, a seer, a probability mage, or (if you want to annoy them) a fortune teller.

Divination is one of the most limited of all magics.  It does one thing and one thing only:  it allows its user to see the probability of future events.  It can’t change those probabilities, it can’t change those events, and it can’t affect the material world in any way.  All it can do is provide information.

How Divination Works

A regular person introduced to a new situation doesn’t know what’s going to happen.  When you’re faced with a machine you don’t know how to use, you don’t know what pressing any of the buttons does.  Over time, you start to learn how the thing works.  Eventually, you might even learn why it works.  And once you know the how and the why, you can figure out what’s going to happen whenever you mess with the thing, subject to the vagaries of chance and a certain amount of legwork.

A diviner gets to shortcut that.  When he looks at a situation, he sees possible outcomes:  he knows the what without understanding the how or the why.  Every diviner develops his own sensory code for this, but most do it visually, ‘seeing’ the potential futures unfold.  In general a diviner’s visions are limited to his own senses:  he can only see the outcomes that he would be able to perceive were he to actually live through them.

Learning Curves

For a novice diviner still unfamiliar with his powers, divination is strange and terrifying.  His visions come in random unpredictable flashes, sometimes showing him nothing at all and sometimes overwhelming him with an insane rush of information as he experiences dozens of futures at once.  All apprentice diviners have at least a few episodes where they quite simply go batshit crazy.  Over time they learn to master and control their visions, ordering them to their will, and as a result nearly all experienced diviners develop a high level of mental discipline.  The ones who can’t manage that give up their power or go insane.

Once they’ve learned the basics of control, novice diviners start learning to direct their visions, exploring the consequences of simple actions:  what happens if I press this button?  How about if I turn this card?  What if I jump off this bridge?  (They quickly learn not to look too closely at the last one.)  Over time they learn to explore more complicated futures, comparing multiple courses of action against each other and picking a single future out of many.

The Two Limits

Divination magic can predict anything that can be predicted.  The two things it can’t fully predict are chance and free will.

Chance is the simpler of the two – some things are just random, although at a human scale truly random events are actually much rarer than most people think.  More common is a sort of emergent unpredictability, where the cumulative effect of millions of tiny events adds up to something that isn’t completely random but is chaotic enough that long-term prediction is impossible.  Diviners can’t predict pure chance but they can analyse it in terms of probability, interpreting it in an ordered framework.

Free will is more complex.  Philosophers argue over whether free will exists but diviners know it does, even if they don’t understand exactly what it is.  If someone genuinely hasn’t made a choice, diviners can’t see beyond it.  The most they can do is see the most likely choices, and the consequences.

Aside from those two limitations divination magic can predict just about anything, subject to the skill of the diviner.  Part 2 of this entry will explore what that means.

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