RogerBW's Blog

Given by the Mighty Hand of God 17 December 2014

The players in my Second World War campaign have gathered various information about the interaction of atomic power and magic. Here's a quick summary of what they think they know.

The party does not consist of atomic physicists, though they've brought one into their circle (Nicholas Kemmer, who historically co-named neptunium and plutonium, among other things).

Very broadly, it seems to work like this. An ongoing magical effect, a Stoletov (Soviet psychic) machine (when they were available, which they aren't any more), or a creature with magical powers (including human magicians), has a magical field associated with it, which exists at least a little further from the source than the effect itself – something like ten feet, in the case of a human magician.

Within the field, an unstable substance does not experience nuclear decay, but (at roughly the same rate) instead generates a negative magical effect, detailed nature unknown, power roughly proportional to the decay energy and rate. In the case of an enchantment cast on an object, this cuts down its duration; in the case of a mage, it causes nausea and general debility. (Call that a "stage 1" effect.)

When the magical field is removed or ceases to exist, decay resumes normally.

(This led to the "Unhappy Mage" weapon concept: a simple critical mass of reasonably enriched uranium, assembled in a magical field, and kept there until it's time for it to go bang. The magical field could be provided by an actual magician, or by a Stoletov machine. But this was not aggressively pursued before Stoletov machines were no longer available.)

High energy proton and electron physics still seem to work the same way: an X-ray machine doesn't interact with a magical field at all.

This much has been verified by experiment. The Knight-Fuller Document, written some time in the 1960s of what now looks like an alternate future, asserts that when Chicago Pile 1 went critical in December 1942 magicians all over the world died or suffered major debility ("stage 2"); and that atomic explosions produced even bigger effects ("stage 3"). The document is frustratingly incomplete; it appears to have been written for an audience in around 1900-1910, with the aim of keeping Britain out of the damage of the First World War, and its descriptions of the Second and of what happened afterwards are more cautionary tales than useful history.

Due in part to actions by the player characters, the Chicago Pile 1 experiment led instead to the total destruction of Chicago (by an angry godling, though this was not obvious to observers); as far as the PCs are aware American atomic research has somewhat stalled since then. (There's a bit less information-sharing across the Atlantic than there was historically.)

Possibly related: when the team tested a salamander-enhanced uranium bomb (the salamander claimed it could "let out all the fire"), they did not experience more than a stage 1 anti-magical effect (though they weren't very close by, the UK was warded, and there was certainly a ripple in the magical field, persisting for a couple of weeks and noticed as far away as Germany though the test was in mid-Atlantic). This experiment used about a tenth of a gramme of enriched uranium, and produced a yield around a kiloton of TNT – distinctly more than you would get purely from atomic fission, getting near the total mass conversion level of efficiency.

The party is still deciding what can be done, and indeed what should be done. Comments welcome, though I won't answer speculation.

(The title is from a song by the Buchanan Brothers and not intended to be a hint.)


  1. Posted by John Dallman at 01:30am on 20 December 2014

    As one of the players, the idea of aggressively pursuing an Unhappy Mage bomb always seemed to carry large risks, and
    the situation never justified it.

    You didn't mention that a Stoletov machine could be used for uranium enrichment, and about a bomb's worth of material was produced before Stoletov machines stopped working.

    I'm assuming that setting off a large Salamander-enhanced bomb will cause Stage 2 or 3 effects, but I'll be happy to be surprised if it turns out not to do so.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 09:01am on 20 December 2014

    As to the last item, Kemmer will immediately note that you only have one data point and the effect wasn't really observed in any sort of detail. Two would be better; three would be much better.

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