How to pick your pop culture for pop culture magic

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

I’ve recently started playing a game called in Inquisitor-Martyr, set in the Warhammer 40k universe, which a is a dystopic universe where humanity has access to advanced technology, but also a medieval mindset about technology. At the same time, humanity is beset by various alien menaces and the forces of chaos. I enjoy the game, but I would never create a pop culture magic working or system based off the Warhammer universe.

In this article, I want to share some thoughts on how to pick your pop culture for pop culture magic and also demonstrate why a viable option for pop culture magic may not be ideal, for other reasons. At the same time I’m going to compare and contrast the 40k universe with that of Kingdom Hearts (for purposes of pop culture magic), which is on the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to pop culture based off fantasy.

Both Kingdom Hearts and Warhammer 40k are viable sources for developing pop culture magic. Both pop cultures have some type of magical or psychic powers and explanations of how such things work. Both pop cultures have some type of spiritual system in place, as well as spirits that can be worked with. Both pop cultures have pop culture artifacts that can be worked with as magical tools. Both pop cultures have a mythology that can be accessed, which informs why the given pop culture universe is the way it is.

So what would stop me from working with one and yet leave me open to working with another?

In the How Pop Culture Magic works series, one of the principles I discuss is that the mythology of the pop culture you work with and the spiritual rules and systems of that pop culture will significantly guide your approach to developing pop culture magic. Recognizing that necessarily informs the magical work you’ll end up doing and the forces you’ll deal with. So let’s look at both examples of pop culture from those perspectives.

Warhammer 40k is a bleak, dystopic future, where humanity is in constant conflict with itself, the forces of chaos and aliens. The spiritual/religious system of that universe is based around the mythic emperor who’s essentially become a Christ figure, and in fact what strikes me about the overall spiritual/religious system is that it is very reminiscent of Medieval Christianity. In contrast you also have the opposing forces of chaos which are focused on subverting humanity. The dark gods of chaos make bargains with humans in an effort to be worshiped and be provided additional power. Magic itself is treated as a dark corrupting force and people who can practice magic are treated suspiciously.

Could you develop a pop culture magic system from Warhammer 40k? You certainly could. But I wouldn’t advise it because the pop culture mythology is ultimately bleak and hostile. The potential forces you’d be working with wouldn’t have your best interests at heart and might be hostile overall.

Now let’s look at Kingdom Hearts. This is a series of videogames that was created by a collaboration of Disney and Square Enix, and it combines the Disney mythology with the mythology developed around Kingdom Hearts by Square Enix. Despite being heavily influenced by Disney and drawing on the characters and world of Disney, I think Kingdom Hearts has its own distinct spiritual system, which revolves around a couple key concepts of the light and dark, as well as around the heart and the capacity people have to connect with each other.

The dark and light are treated as being polar opposites of each other initially, but the mythology becomes more sophisticated and it could be argued that the dark is really just the formless entrophic chaos while the light is the order of manifestation. In Kingdom Hearts you also have the heartless, which are spirits comprised of the emotions of people who have lost their hearts, and nobodies, which are the resultant skins of the people when the hearts are taken. You also have keyblade wielders who can either use their ability to heal worlds and hearts or hurt worlds and hearts. And you have the Disney mythos as which brings its own flavor to the entire story and adds some complexity to a potential pop culture magic system.

Could you develop a pop culture magic system around Kingdom Hearts? You definitely could and I would consider it. The reason I would is because the overall system is very workable and while there are certain aspects you might be careful with, there’s enough room for interpretation that you could develop some variables for your system. Additionally Disney provides further useful mythological information to draw on that can also be helpful.

Of course why you work with a given pop culture is ultimately up to you. You might ultimately choose to work with a pop culture such as Warhammer 40k and not Kingdom Hearts and that’s viable too. What’s important is that if you do choose to work with a given pop culture, you do some research into the mythology and world around that pop culture and make an informed choice that helps you build a better pop culture magic system.