Take the 2-minute tour ×
Role-playing Games Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for gamemasters and players of tabletop, paper-and-pencil role-playing games. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Good evening! I hope this isn't too vague, this is my first post on RPG Exchange (I see some cool conversations here, I'm happy to be a part).

While doodling about with a magic system I'm developing, I had a thought: what if magic-wielders divided the mind into four "elements," rather like the old air, earth, fire, and water? I'd love to hear some ideas on what these four might be.

I don't want to pre-dispose anyone to what I've come up with, but for what it's worth, here are my first notions:

  • Insight - awareness, introspection, pure thought, meditation, agape, sadness; air
  • Perception - empathy, sensation, imagination, reactions, physical pleasure, curiosity, fear; water
  • Desire - need, greed, lust, addiction, driving urges; similar to the Freudian id; fire
  • Will - control, direction, denial, organization, satisfaction; earth

For example, a spell that puts the Will element into overdrive might cause obsessive-compulsive behavior, as the mind tries to hammer down every stray thought and perception into perfect order. Doing the same to Insight could trigger depression, as the victim sinks into endless circular negative thoughts, divorced from reality.

I'm wide open to better names or a different set of elements. Ideas? Thanks!


I'd like to clarify slightly: while the humors and personality traits are close, I'd like to steer this away from personality and emotion, and emphasize the cerebral. That's a fuzzy distinction, I'm not sure what the right words are.


locked by mxyzplk Mar 16 at 14:46

This question exists because it has historical significance, but it is not considered a good, on-topic question for this site, so please do not use it as evidence that you can ask similar questions here. This question and its answers are frozen and cannot be changed. More info: help center.

closed as not constructive by SevenSidedDie, Oblivious Sage, Simon Withers, wraith808, Joe Jan 27 '13 at 5:53

As it currently stands, this question is not a good fit for our Q&A format. We expect answers to be supported by facts, references, or expertise, but this question will likely solicit debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion. If you feel that this question can be improved and possibly reopened, visit the help center for guidance. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

10 Answers 10

up vote 7 down vote accepted

If I had to pick four, I'd probably crib a bit from Magic: the Gathering and end up with something like this:

  • Instinct -- Things which you react to at a gut level. Enhancing instinct would lead to atavism, suppressing it leads to either decision overload or hesitation. Opposed by Reason.

  • Empathy -- Awareness of the thoughts and feelings of others. Enhancing empathy leaves a person open to suggestion. Suppressing it leaves them self-centered. Opposed by Emotion.

  • Emotion -- Personal emotions. Love, hatred, happiness, sorrow. Enhancing it leads to emotional instability. Suppressing it leaves a person seemingly numb and listless. Opposed by Empathy.

  • Reason -- The ability to make logical decisions, and infer conclusions from data. Enhancing Reason leads to a person who values logic above all other inputs. Suppressing it leads to a person who simply does whatever "feels best" without the ability to think through their actions.

I'm curious, did you start with Magic's five colors? Do you mind telling me how those five became these four? –  Jon of All Trades May 7 '11 at 14:02
So many great answers, but I think this one fits my goal best, as it avoids personality and focuses more on the roles of the mind. I find the opposition between Empathy and Emotion interesting; having Instinct and Reason at opposites is fairly opposite, but Empathy <> Emotion is a more subtle distinction. Cool stuff! –  Jon of All Trades May 7 '11 at 14:02
@Jon Yeah, it's based on the colors. Instinct is green, Empathy is white, Emotion is red (with a touch of black) and Reason is blue. I cut it down to four for a couple of reasons: Firstly because having strong polar opposition is closer to the classical elements than the "don't like" relationships of the original color pie. Second, because the colors of Magic are separated more by personality than type of mental process, and they started to run together when they were trimmed down to this level. –  AceCalhoon May 7 '11 at 16:12
I know magic also has black. What does that represent? –  Pureferret Jan 9 '12 at 10:08
@Pureferret In Magic black is about selfishness/independence, and (personal) power at any cost. But I shifted things around a bit to create this list (see my comment from May 7, above). There's a bit of an explanation of Magic's five colors at the ending of this article: wizards.com/Magic/Magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtgcom/daily/mc3 –  AceCalhoon Jan 9 '12 at 21:06

You may find this interesting...

I once took a type of personality test that had four "axes" of classification:


(I was taking a paper version, but it looks like the same test.)

The categories are:

Extraverted (E) or Introverted (I)

Sensing (S) or iNtuitive (N)

Thinking (T) or Feeling (F)

Judging (J) or Perceiving (P)

So, for example, I was classified as an INTP.

Based on that, I guess I'll suggest the following 'elements':

Projection - One's force of will, the ability to project one's character. Might be used for direct mental combat, or mind control magic.

Sense - One's view of the world, and also the "inner eye". Good for divination, and perception spells.

Empathy - One's ability to connect with others. Charms, enchantments, and spells involving connection and closeness to others.

Order - One's adherence to structure. Illusions might fall into this category, and spells which enhance one's mental capacity.

That's the Myers-Briggs type indicator; more detail at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myers-Briggs_Type_Indicator . –  MadHatter May 6 '11 at 9:36
Thanks. I couldn't find the name of the test. –  RMorrisey May 6 '11 at 13:54
+1 love me some Jung. –  LitheOhm Jan 19 '13 at 19:36

From an Ars Magica and Aristotelian perspective, mind is divided into five elements. (Doing this bit from memory) Common Sense, Imagination, Memory, Cognition, and Estimation.

The 5 wits are: Common Sense (The ability to perceive the world), Imagination (The ability to composite images over time and store them) Memory (the ability to store concepts), Cognition (the ability to make reasoned judgements), and Estimation (the ability to make instinctive intuitive leaps and the connection to the emotions)

If you eliminate one of them or merge some of them, they could make a good correspondance to the physical elements, simply because a philosopher has already made those links.

There's also the virtual elements of Duncan: Love, Death, Time, Chance. He articulates them beautifully in his stories and they hold up quite well to a philosophical inspection. From a pragmatic point of view, his typing of a personality into a real and virtual element is a mapping to a Meyers-Briggs mapping. Looking at these as elements of mind, they can be framed as the "Dominions of Cognition" to make it more anthropormorphic. Only humans can conceve of these elements, which is why they originate from mind.

Here's a somewhat incomprehensible link to Taoist Alchemy.

Here's link to wikipedia elements. Thinking about it, mapping alchemical symbols to mind is a natural link, and you can draw out the properties of matter as metaphor for mind.

Tibetian philosophy suggests (ibid):

physical properties are assigned to the elements: earth is solidity; water is cohesion; fire is temperature; air is motion; and space is the spatial dimension that accommodates the other four active elements. In addition, the elements are correlated to different emotions, temperaments, directions, colors, tastes, body types, illnesses, thinking styles, and character. From the five elements arise the five senses and the five fields of sensual experience; the five negative emotions and the five wisdoms; and the five extensions of the body. They are the five primary pranas or vital energies. They are the constituents of every physical, sensual, mental, and spiritual phenomenon.[

It feels like it maps very well to what you want.

Personally, I'd go with the 5 aristotelian elements, because then I could do something of a sephiroth style hierarchy of elements and mind with "Creator" at the top and something of number 7 at the bottom. The kabbalistic tradition is so ... involved that you can cherry pick interesting stuff, tie it together with a "tree of life" and explain it with something like this. As a fun side note, it suggests an awesome divinatory methodology: set up a triangle of metal posts, drop ball bearings in, note what posts the bearing hits, and explain it from there. No similiarty to any kinds of games there... nope...

For extra fun, take a page from In a Wicked Age and perform one of those divinations in session. The results of the divination directly impact the actual plot.

On your Tibetan one, the five elements are associated with five buddhas who embody all these qualities. It's not the easiest of materials to get to grips with, but Googling "five buddhas" throws up some useful pages. –  Dave Hallett May 7 '11 at 8:09
+1 I really like this answer - lots to check out. –  LitheOhm Jan 19 '13 at 19:35

You could look at the theopry of the four humours which were the old model of understanding health and personality.

I think this one, with its ties to the classical elements, would be very on point for your average medieval-fantasy game. –  mxyzplk May 6 '11 at 13:27

You could base the division partially on cognitive science. One of the clearest distinctions that exist within mental capabilities is that between declarative memory (subdivided into episodic memory--memories of events--and sematic memory--explicit knowledge of facts) and procedural memory (skills of all sorts; things where you get better despite not knowing exactly what you're doing at every step). Another very interesting distinction is that between processing that happens when you pay attention and that which does not require it. (There are all sorts of psychological experiments that show that people are sensitive to stimuli that they are not aware of and cannot attend to.)

Furthermore, although very many systems use something like "willpower", that's so heavily determined by the player that it's always struck me as a not-so-useful stat. Few people bother to play willpower or desire or whatever that is not their own.

So, taking this as motivation, we have:

  1. Knowledge (declarative memory--how much do you know and how easy is it for you to remember)
  2. Adeptness (procedural memory--how easily do you learn skills and rote actions)
  3. Deduction (attention / working memory -- how fast can you take what you see and know and deduce things from it)
  4. Awareness (subconscious processing -- do you take in all of the environment and learn useful things from it)

This is not a traditional way to break up mental attributes for games, but that might be a strength, depending on what you're looking for. In a magic system, all sorts of detection and empathy and communication spells would depend on awareness; movement and mending and targeted attack spells could depend on adeptness; spells for lore and divination and which take advantage of specific properties of the target could depend on knowledge; and deduction could be used for spells that adapt to the current situation or as a stat that measured how well the caster could adapt their spells (if you provide that level of flexibility in the magic system).


Well, if you want to go Freudian there's the id, ego, and superego, which have some provenance from AD&D psionics stuff. You mention the id in one of your four groupings already.

You also have the soul/spirit/mind division many groups use.

Goth girl and friend of my blog Erin Palette has an ongoing project to create a game world called Pellatarrum in which the elements are the driving factor and she has done a bunch of work linking them to mental states. See this post and related. Borrows a little from structuralism I think.


Psychology has some great answers to this. Other posters have discussed Myers-Briggs and Freud.

You could also try Costa and McCrae's OCEAN model: Openness to Experience (how creative are you?), Conscientiousness (do you follow through on tasks or get distracted?), Extraversion (do you like the company of others?), Agreeableness (are you easy-going?) and Neuroticism (do you worry about things?). To this, you might add attractiveness and religiosity. There's some debate over what is personality and what isn't.

For even more factors, try Cattell's 16PF. Just pick the factors you like.

Perhaps the most interesting, though, is Eysenck's model. He thought there were three factors of personality: Extraversion, Neuroticism and Psychoticism. He believed these were embedded in the structure of the brain. (There is, indeed, some evidence that personality has a physical component: if you're interested, look at the Lemon Drop Test).


Take a look at Jonathan Tweet's Everway, whose game mechanics are structured in some correspondence with the Greek classical elements that Brian mentioned, which in turn lie behind the theory of the four humours that Steve mentioned in his answer.

While Air is associated with intellect especially, each of the four elements has mental and character trait aspects in Everway, which are worked out in a series of cards.

Some links:

  1. A DIY Everway card set
  2. Shannon Appelcline's Brief history of roleplaying has some context on Everway:

    Then in 1995 Wizards released Jonathan Tweet's Everway, an entirely innovative RPG design. It introduced a visual randomizer, the Tarot-like Vision cards, which were used to determine the results of character actions. They meant that the gamemaster had a tremendous free hand, and the result was nearly as freeform as 1991's Amber Diceless Roleplaying, by Phage Press. It was another step in the branch of storytelling games, which placed story first, before game or character. However, the freeform system required a very good gamemaster, and not everyone was a Jonathan Tweet or a John Tynes (who had been running playtests for the Wizards crew).

  3. If you are familiar with Glorantha, you will surely like Neil Smith's adaptation of Everway to the great tribes of Prax
Neil Smith's Praxian Everway drops the Greek elements, and goes for elements based on the character of the great Praxian tribes (here I give their mental attributes):

  1. Authority, associated with willpower and intellect, and with the far-seeing Alticamelus tribe
  2. Beast, associated with honesty and stubbornness, and with the burly Bison riders
  3. Storm, associated with the passions, spontaneity and violence, and with the impetuous Impala riders
  4. Spirit, associated with the emotions, empathy and intuition, and with the man-eating Morokanth


It occurs to me that your first four stabs at mental attributes are in a flawed correspondence with Neil's Praxian mental traits: your Desire element matches Storm very well; your Insight is pretty much covered by Authority, but Authority also covers some of your Will; the empathetic aspect of your Perception matches Spirit. Beast does not correspond well with any of your elements, but some of the traits from Perception (e.g., sensation) and some traits from Will (control, denial) fall under Beast; Beast also embraces honesty, which I'm not sure where you would place in your scheme.


I’m gonna just throw my thoughts in the ring:

  • Emotion: Covers gut reactions, empathy, passion, etc. Not entirely but often subconscious. In a sense, the “input” to the conscious mind from the subconscious; emotions prompt a response from the consciousness.

  • Reason: Covers analysis, most intentional conscious thought, as well as things like language and mathematics. Not opposed to Emotion, but rather is often the internal response to emotion (e.g. “I feel scared, but I know it’s just a trick,” or “I love her, so now I have to do XYZ to win her heart.”).

  • Memory: Things you have experienced, and how to relate them to current circumstances. Informs the other three aspects.

  • Imagination: Things you have never experienced, and what might be. Largely the “output” of the rest of the other three aspects.


Wow! What an interesting topic. The four elements of mind? I think that raises all kinds of question about the divisions of self to other, conscious vs. unconscious, and identity vs. personality. The previous comments are all well sourced and I think you could very easily delve into any one of the aforementioned philosophies as guides to cognitive elements.

But I'm going to give you mechanics perspective on this concept, Jon. I like that in your edit you've stressed how you'd like to "emphasize the cerebral" but you aren't sure how to phrase that distinction. The truth may be that there is no way to isolate the cerebral and that is why its difficult to phrase.

Alticamelus has mentioned Everway in his response and I own that game and have experimented with its mechanics on several occasions. One thing to clarify about that system is that it doesn't use mental/emotional elements and physical elements; the two are linked, with character strengths and weaknesses indicating personality traits and vice versa. I bring this up because that system actually does more to blur the lines between physical and cognitive statistics, which may be a more accurate representation of person according to some.

Essentially I think that trying to establish distinctions between a character's mental abilities and his/her personality is going to cause you all kinds of trouble in game play. In a game style like role playing, which is already prone to debate, these distinctions will inevitably raise questions of overlap. As in your four element example, if a caster were to suppress an enemy's Desire (need) then would that enemy still maintain Perception (curious)? I think you'd end up with a lot of superficial barriers to magic effects that players would have no trouble arguing endlessly. Thus, I would think twice before trying to employ a mental elements mechanic. I love your question as a thought exercise, but I can't picture it being successfully systematized.

I appreciate the comments, Vestrik. You're quite right that any division will be a little fuzzy and arbitrary; the mind is indeed fundamentally inseparable from the personality. I'm trying to put a fresh spin on the concept of mind magic, but this angle may well be a blind alley. –  Jon of All Trades May 10 '12 at 4:32
You're welcome, Jon. I like that you are really going in-depth with your design. Just wanted to be up-front with you. –  Vestrik May 11 '12 at 1:39

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.