On the Necessity of the Four Classical Elements

I wanted to make an elemental magic system, and tried to deviate from the four classical elements. It's a lot more challenging than I thought.

If you go with random stuff, like trees, birds, and rivers as your basic elements, then you end up with a multitude of items.

We could divide the world into larger pieces of course - perhaps 'small' vs 'big'? And have a small-o-mancy wizard?

No - clear nonsense.

Perhaps chromatic wizards who take colours as elements?

...and have every mage 'painting the roses red', because he's a 'red mage'.

So I took the states of matter: solid, liquid and gas. But nobody wants that on their character sheet.

What are you playing?

"A mage. It says I have gas"

So maybe "wind" instead? But it doesn't sound much better, and the magic sphere now sounds like it doesn't affect air which isn't moving (no poison gas spells, no air-bubbles, only different 'wind' spells).

And we have no forces - no light, electricity, heat, or fire.

So we need something to cover light, heat, and (burning, crackling) lightning. There's only one choice that doesn't sound like a modern science-word.

So we have 'liquid, fire, solid, air'?

No. This is clearly the knock-off brand Greek Philosophy.

Perhaps one could get away with 'sky, land, sea, and light', but each one will have to be explained and clarified.

Do spells targeting birds come under 'sky'? If you want to blow wind into a sail, is that the 'sea' sphere?

It all looked so arbitrary and random. I guess there's a reason the Chinese system is nearly the same: earth, air, fire, water, and metal.

Of course, World of Darkness managed a fully-new and coherent magic system, but then they also needed a chonky book just to explain the in-depth weirdness of 'spirit', 'entropy', 'forces', et c. They also didn't really make an elemental system - their spheres covered so much that most spells simply used one sphere. 'Combining spheres' could never be a simple affair with so many combinations, so instead of letting mages add 'Earth + Fire', they ended up demanding 'Life 4 + Force 3' to do certain actions, and if you don't have just those spheres, then you can't do the effect.

This puts the cart before the horse, at least when one wants to build spells from more fundamental elements.

So here I am with the four classic elements + Fate (for mechanical reasons). It looks a bit funny, but I kinda like Fate. I feel like my world now runs with Pratchett's 'narativium' as an elemental particle.