Podcast

287 – Magic Systems

The Mythcreant Podcast
With a snap of our fingers and an abracadabra, we summon this podcast to appear, as if by a system of magic. That’s right, it’s time to talk about magic systems, something your story has the moment you decide to include supernatural elements. Not all magic systems are created equal though, which is why we’ve invited Fay Onyx over from Writing Alchemy to help us figure things out. We discuss the qualities a magic system might have, what its purpose is, and how to prevent exploitable loopholes. Plus, do all magic system roads really lead to bending from Avatar: The Last Airbender? You’ll have to listen and find out!

Download Episode 287  Subscription Feed 

Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Writing Alchemy

Brandon Sanderson’s Magic Systems

Rational Magic

Bending

Middlegame

A Song of Ice and Fire Magic

Lord of the Rings Magic

Chirrut

The Turnip Princess

Turning Points

Flyest Fables

Dresden Files Magic

Eclectic Magic

Dragon Prince Magic

Superhero Magic

Super Powereds

Jump down to comments ↓

Transcript

Generously transcribed by Yzsekh. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]

Chris: This is the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris and with me is…

Oren: Oren.

Chris: And our special returning guest host, Fay Onyx from writingalchemy.net.

Fay: Hi!

Chris: So, this time we are talking about magic systems, which are kind of world building and that as soon as you make a world that is different from our own, you are world building whether you like it or not.

So, as soon as you, for instance, declare that I am floating right now in this podcast, our podcast now has a magic system [chuckles]. Even if nobody else, including Fay or Oren wanted our podcasts to have a magic system. It’s too late. It’s here now to stay.

Oren: I was not consulted.

Chris: I want to see if it stays consistent in future episodes of this podcast.

I mean, we’ve already established, we have a deity, Podcastia. Maybe Podcastia gave me the power to float.

Oren: I do think that definition is important just because people sometimes seem confused. Like, I see people on Twitter railing against magic systems and I trace back what they’re talking about, and they think a magic system has to be a Brandon Sanderson level of extreme detail and explained to the audience and no, that’s what’s called a hard magic system, and a very complicated one.

A magic system is just something you have the moment you put magic into your story. The question is, is it good?

Fay: I think also it’s the whole like video games, role playing games, those systems inherently have to be explicit and codified. And so that’s what people think of first.

Chris: So there is definitely an advantage to getting organized about your magic system. Just like there is for world building instead of just having it happen as you make decisions in the moment. It just helps you stay consistent. It helps you avoid plot holes. And it just helps create something that feels memorable and real to the audience. So if you are putting magic in your story, I definitely recommend just putting some basic thought into how your magic system works ahead of time. It’ll make it a lot easier for you to make your magic work with your plot and have satisfying resolutions to conflicts.

Getting back to hard magic, there’s a lot of different terminology that we use to categorize magic systems and various places in the jungles of the Internet, we’ll use a lot of these terminologies differently. So I do think it’s a good idea to just clarify the Mythcreants terms in our space of the Terminology Wars.

Fay: New reoccurring segment, huh? [laughter]

Chris: First talk a lot about rational magic. I have a blog post on creating a rational magic system. The thing that really distinguishes a rational magic system is that you can extrapolate what a character could do, because you know how the magic works. It has to follow consistent rules, but there’s usually some boundaries on what magic is capable of doing and what it can’t do in addition to that. And because you can extrapolate what a character can and cannot do, you don’t actually need to foreshadow any of the magic, your character uses ahead of time, because, if it’s following those rules, it won’t feel unexpected. And the example that everybody uses for this is Avatar: The Last Airbender, which is a really great example. We know that it’s an elemental system. We know that characters need to be able to do some sort of movement in order to control their element. And we already know, basically, what they can and can’t do with that element without setting it up.

Now, there are some times when they do set up things like blood bending, right? When they decide to add something extra complicated to it. But for the most part we know that you can crack open rocks. We know that you can lift rocks. We know you can throw them. It’s kind of intuitive that you could create tunnels. [chuckles] You can extrapolate that. So that’s what we call rational magic. And because you don’t need a foreshadow, it is easier to use, and it’s easier if you have a long running series and you have no idea what your characters are doing in the future. It makes it easier to not have to plan out your entire series to make sure that the magic doesn’t get out of hand. So that’s really useful.

If it’s not rational, the term we use for that at Mythcreants isn’t irrational [laughter]. Some people have gotten really mad at us, for calling [oh dear], some stories, irrational. We call it arbitrary, you know, which maybe does not have the most positive connotation, but the idea is that every time there’s a spell, the writer had to make up that spell. And so there is an inherent, arbitrary judgment call that comes into every single spell and the way its cast. And it’s not really planned out. You can’t extrapolate. Sometimes it does follow consistent rules of casting spells and that’s often good. But the point is that the audience can’t predict what a character can and can’t do with their spells.

So you have to foreshadow it before it’s used in particular to solve conflicts. And if you don’t do that, like Middlegame [laughter] doesn’t do that. Yeah. We had a recent podcast covering Middlegame. I would love to talk more about Middlegame. And then Oren talked about hard magic, which is the idea that you understand how hard magic works.

And that’s what you want if a protagonist is casting magic, right? You have to understand how the protagonist solves problems. And so you need a hard magic system, to watch them use magic to solve problems. Whereas if the protagonist is not casting magic, you could potentially also have soft magic, which is the idea we just don’t know how magic works. It’s super mysterious.

But you can’t really mix that with protagonist’s magic casting. It doesn’t go well. Game of Thrones or Lord to the Rings would be soft magic. Right? Where were you mostly have, you know, mysterious entities, casting magic.

Fay: I will say you can sometimes get away with protagonists using magic, If you have magic items where there’s a very clearly delineated, like, there’s a way people who don’t have an understanding of magic can interact with it in a limited way. That’s clearly defined in the story.

Chris: Yeah. That’s kind of interesting. Cause at that point we know how the protagonist interacts with the item, right? If the Protagonist has a magic item that effectively cast a spell and we know how the protagonist uses the item to cast a spell if that’s almost falling more into hard magic, like, yeah, maybe that’s a magic box and we don’t know what’s happening inside the magic box, but we know how the protagonist can invoke that spell from the magic box or can’t.

Fay: I’m not sure how hard magic it would be though.

Like for example, there’s fairytales, which I think is kind of the epitome of undefined magic, which would be like a soft magic, which, it doesn’t have to be small magic to be soft magic, classic fairytale patterns where you have basically a scenario where, like there’s fairytales, where, “Oh, the stepmother’s a witch and the stepdaughter steals her magic wand and then uses it”. And every time the wand is used, it creates a very specific scenario. So it’s like each time it’s specific, but, it does end up having that, like it saves itself by having a very specific pattern, then it follows each time it’s used, even though the audience isn’t led into how the magic works.

Chris: I guess I would classify that as arbitrary hard magic. Cause we’ve established that this item can do a very specific thing, right? So we foreshadowed that, and Oren, do you wanna…?

Oren: I’m well, I’m going to use the classic dodge and say, it’s a continuum [laughter]. It’s not all one way or the other, man. It’s all on a spectrum and you can have a mostly soft magic system, but once your main character starts using a little bit of it gets a little harder because now you saw how your main character used it.

Fairytales are all weird because fairytales, in particular, tend to have characters who do things that don’t make any sense, because these are fairytales that have been distilled down through multiple retellings and been changed and are following weird tropes that don’t make sense to us anymore. And you know, you have a character who has a magic item. They use it once and it like, you know, turns their dad into a peach. And they’re like, all right, well, that’s the end of that magic item. I just needed it to turn my dad into a peach so the fairytale could happen.

And that would probably not work super well if you tried that in a modern story, cause people would be like, “Hey, aren’t you interested in the wand and how it turns your dad into it? Where did that wand come from? Let’s go on now”. But regardless, the more your audience learns about how the magic works, the less soft it is. And that’s fine. That’s just how a lot of these stories happen. I mean, we talked about Game of Thrones before, towards the end of the books, that because you know, there probably aren’t going to be anymore, towards the end of the existing books, our characters have learned a little bit more about how magic works. And most of it is still mysterious, but not all of it. We know some of it works now,

Fay: Would that be a soft magic system with a little pocket of hardness? [chuckles]

Oren: Yeah. I mean, you know, it gets a little harder as you go on. It’s just how it is.

Whereas as opposed to something like Lord of the Rings, in which other than the ring itself and even with the ring itself, what exactly the ring does other than make you invisible is extremely vague. Like Sauron will get it, and that would be very bad [chuckles]. It’s is mostly what we know. It’s not really clear what that does.

So Lord of the Rings is, even by the end, has made very little progress on explaining how the magic of the world works to us.

Chris: And I think you could have like a rigorous, well thought out rational magic system that works in a very specific way and still make it feel like soft magic if you just don’t, show people how it works. It’s almost like hard magic and soft magic isn’t really inherent to the way magic functions, so much is about what you show or don’t show the audience.

Oren: and there are a lot of advantages to soft magic systems. They’re mysterious and weird and wondrous, and they aren’t utilitarian, which tends to happen with magic that you explain a lot.

One of the reasons I really like Rogue One is that it brought some mystique back to the Force. Like the Force hadn’t had any of that for a long time, it’d become very dry and like a set of video game powers. And now you have this guy and he has the Force in like a weird way that I haven’t seen any other character do.

And we’re not sure when the Force is helping him when it’s not. And that’s cool, it’s heckin mysterious, man. I like it. The main disadvantage, of course, to a soft magic system is that if you haven’t explained how it works to the audience, it’s harder to have it be part of a satisfying conclusion.

Fay: So as someone who loves fairytales and stories with a fairytale feel, one of the really common ways to make this kind of soft magic, often magic that is happening to the characters or they’re interacting with, that just feels mysterious. A way to make that have a sort of coherence; a kind of something they can interact with and manipulate in a satisfying way is to hook it up to a value or a metaphor. So there’s this kind of extra thing layered onto it, which is, part of what people like about fairytales is you have that generosity is rewarded.

Kindness is rewarded. You have this kind of thing that we wish would happen in the real world becomes something that’s almost like a force unto itself, but you have that value layered onto it, of like this person was generous, this person helped a bunch of things, animals, and then the animals come back and help them.

So you have this kind of value system that’s hooked into it and it gives it more of a sense of naturalness and weight, and it makes it easier to understand how to interact with it.

Chris: I’ve read a lot of folktales where magic is just used in a very like, okay, I want this to happen, and I’m not sure how to get it to happen. So wizard did it.

And so for this time, it’s like a dwarf randomly appears in front of the travelling character and magic, go! No? This character is trying to woo the hand of the princess. Or something because, uh, because a dwarf did it.

Fay: I will say that a lot of original fairytales, the Grimm’s ones, they edited in more plot and more coherence to it. But I will see that the original folk tales, if you go to like the Turnip Princess, which is a book, that’s a collection of unaltered folk tales, they actually read in some cases like dreams, the Turnip Princess, the titular folktale, literally reads like a dream. There is no logic whatsoever. It’s barely connected sequence of images and events [chuckles].

Though, other ones are just, you almost can kind of imagine a storyteller, just plugging in little chunks of story where it’s almost like, Oh yeah! So all of your audience know these certain patterns from knowing fairytales, and so the narrator is actually just trying to plug in story chunks, in specific, new patterns just to like, “Oh, you thought we were going towards this story thing, and now we’re on this other story element”. And it’s almost like they’re trying to surprise their audience by making something new.

But there is that kind of quality of surrealness that comes out of it. When the magic is less explained, when the magic feels less rational and understandable. It does create a surrealness. So you have to kind of want that quality.

Chris: Yeah. I also think surrealness is often is created when it’s just, weird magic permeates everything, like even just basically looking around everything is different. You kind of end up with a very surreal atmosphere.

I actually want to go back to what you’re saying about the common fairytale trope, where you have a main character that like helps out some animals and then the animals come in back and kind of magical way help the protagonists, right? Like a bunch of birds, a flock of birds that the protagonist fed will like come down and pick out some magic seeds or, you know, whatever task the witch has given the princess to do. What I like to think about that as how you create a story where you’re not just placing magic in place of what needs to be the turning point to make a satisfying ending. That specific trope of the main character, helping the animals, and then the animals coming back later to help the protagonist is a prior achievement turning point.

So what happens is that the character does a good deed, right? That is, doesn’t seem like it’s going to be appreciated or roared at at the time. But then at the critical climactic point is rewarded. And we revealed that at the climax. And so that’s a way you have magic, but the magic isn’t replacing the character earning their ending, which sometimes, especially when we have arbitrary magic that is not foreshadowed, and will feel like a deus ex machine, can, if you’re not careful with your magic and have your protagonist use magic to solve a problem and you don’t foreshadow, the magic just does it, it feels like you are missing that turning point, and the protagonist hasn’t earned their ending.

This is an issue that we just talked about in Middlegame, which [chuckles] there’s some issues with the magic system in the Middlegame. But one of the things that happen is that, towards the end, when the characters become more competent in magic, they just start to like magic babble. It’s like the magic version of technobabble their way through a problem.

And the audience doesn’t understand the rationality behind it doesn’t understand the magic system or the rationality behind it. So it doesn’t actually feel satisfying when they manage to solve a problem with magic, because it’s just, a bunch of arbitrary made up magical technical terms.

Oren: I mean, it’s exactly like what happens in Star Trek, when instead of solving a problem in a satisfactory way, they just shunt reverse polarity, tachyons through the main deflector dish. And that solves the problem. And it’s really boring. We all hate that. And it isn’t actually a matter of the terminology, I see some people get really hung up on the terminology; it’s actually more how everything is established. There are Star Trek episodes that use those exact same terms in far more satisfying ways.

Fay: I think that’s part of why having a metaphor connected to less well explained magic can help, because if the character’s like trapped in a certain part of the metaphor, then they can have an internal revelation and change how they’re interacting with the metaphor. And, you have that turning point still, because they changed how they were approaching the situation. And the nature of the metaphor gives coherence to what the character’s doing.

Chris: Or provide some sort of structure or internal logic where the audience can maybe understand what’s possible and not possible in this situation, which otherwise, again, if anything is possible, and we’re an arbitrary system, and we don’t foreshadow, then everything’s to deus ex machina.

But if you have some kind of logic about what is acceptable to happen, and what’s not, then it’s more reasonable when the right thing happens. Or again, if you have random magic, but the protagonist still just has that turning point we see how the protagonist has to earn that ending, whether it’s what we call the battle of will, which is overused. But let’s say the protagonist has to show a bunch of courage, right? Work past their fear of a situation to solve something, that can work as a turning point. That I’m a little cautious with just because what happens in so many stories. Is the protagonist does something. “Nope, I couldn’t work past my fear.” And then it’s just like, “okay, I’m gonna try again, but with more spunk this time”.

Fay: Right, there needs to be an actual change in the turning point.

Oren: Not to continually bring up Rogue One. That’s a lie. I love to continue to bring out Rogue One, but that’s what happens at the end when the character with the stick, cause I can’t remember any of the characters names in Rogue One, even though I love it, when he has to cross this field of fire to pull a lever, that’s like a turning point and that’s a kind of prior achievement turning point because he’s been living his life, you know, devoted to the Force and basically asking nothing in return.

And now he’s at this point where he’s like, okay, I need help. And the Force, you know, guides him to where he needs to be. And that’s very satisfying, even though we have no idea how the Force works and neither does he for that matter. You don’t get the feeling that he can just do that anytime he wants. That’s something that a mystical energy field, which may or may not have some kind of consciousness did, to reward him for all of the hard work and sacrifice that he put in. And it just feels good to watch that happen.

Fay: I do have a good example of a fairytale scenario situation, where there’s kind of a metaphor and that’s how you can understand it.

So this comes from Flyest Fables, which is an audio drama by Morgan Givens. To give you a little bit of context, this is an interconnected fiction anthology. I think he uses the term hope punk to describe them. It’s kind of like a new hopeful mythology with deep roots in African American histories and culture.

I do highly recommend it. So this is going to be a mild spoiler for the first three episode arc, but there’s a princess who, she needs to get something to cure her mother. So she’s on the quest and she’s trying to get through this desert, to this mountain where there’s a flower that she needs to get.

And it’s basically like she’s traveling and she’s not getting any closer to it. And then she falls asleep facing home. And the next day she’s at the gates where she started. And she has no idea what’s going on and she keeps trying, harder and harder and harder. And you start to realize that there might be something about looking behind her that is what’s causing her to return to where she started, and she starts to realize it.

So she has no idea what’s going on, but this metaphor, like looking back versus looking forward, we get a turning point where she’s like, she’s going to fixate completely on her goal, the place she’s going to, she like, focuses herself a hundred percent on that. And all of a sudden she’s there. We didn’t know that was going to happen.

We thought maybe she would just not go backwards. But the turning point is this internal change of how she’s relating to her quest and focusing less on what’s behind her and more on what she’s there to do.

Chris: But I wouldn’t even call all that irrational magic system because you can extrapolate, she was looking back, and so she appeared back home. So you can extrapolate that she could look forward and go forward. And then we just took it one step further.

Fay: It’s a little pocket of rationality.

Chris: Right? Pocket of rationality, because otherwise the storyteller would have to take that situation and say, okay, in order for this, not to seem like a deus ex machina, I have to foreshadow that if somebody concentrates really hard, that they can cover a long distance.

But that wasn’t necessary in this case because we could extrapolate that from what had happened already. We can see how it works and there’s a logic to it. And you couldn’t go like super far. There’s a forward and back as almost kind of a binary system. And maybe we could extend that a little bit, but within those bounds we can extrapolate what is possible.

Fay: So having the metaphor help create a pocket of rationality and give satisfaction to the turning point, cause there’s an internal change in the person that makes them feel like deserving of the reward.

Chris: Yeah, definitely that. It sounded like that was like a willpower type turning point. Whereas that could have also been like a clever deduction. Where the character was like, “Hey, I’m going to put the clues together, you know, and realize that maybe if looking back takes me home, maybe looking forward”. Right? It sounds like this was framed more as the internal, like focusing in putting the feelings in the right place and in that kind of willpower type struggle.

Fay: Yeah. And that change in how she approaches the situation is what makes it a satisfying willpower situation.

Oren: I did want to talk briefly about one of the big obstacles to designing a functional magic system.

Which is trope expectations, because a lot of stories have magic that features things that frankly don’t go together, they just don’t work well together, but they are so common that people kind of expect them. Like it would be difficult to do an urban fantasy magic system that was rational, but also had the things that everyone wants in it.

Like people want, they want their werewolves and their vampires and their wizards. And if you have a wizard, they want you to have a spell book and it’s like, does it really make sense to have a spell book in this system? Like, are you writing down in the spell book? How does that work? You know, the Dresden Files runs into this problem a lot, where the Dresden Files is basically taking a bunch of urban fantasy tropes and making stories out of them.

Which is fine for the most part, but after a while you start kind of start to notice that these things don’t really fit together very well. And Chris has an article on the site about making an eclectic system, which can help with that. But I do think that in some circumstances you kind of have to decide if you want to have the satisfaction of a magic system that actually works with itself, or if you’re more focused on using some of those tropes.

And if you decide to go the trope route, you have to be ready to try to mitigate some of the damage that can do.

Chris: Yeah. I mean, my eclectic magic system process I think can help, but there’s only so much you could probably throw in there before it completely falls all apart. And I also think that making something 100% rational with that system is probably a little harder than the reverse.

So just to clarify, when I get directions for creating a rational magic system, it was very think from the bottom up. Like where does magic come from? How do humans access it? Now, how do they direct it? Whereas the eclectic system is well, you already know we want various things to be included in this magic casting process, like spell books, for instance, maybe we want a wand because our setting came with all of these aesthetics and they have to be somehow important to magic.

So we start from there and try to build a magic system from that. And basically that process means: you list all the things that you want to be involved, and then you list a bunch of functions that things could perform in a system. Anything from choosing the target, to the magic, to directing the effect to the magic, to protecting yourself from evil spirits that will consume you if you don’t have protection [laughs] while you’re casting magic, and you make a list and then you try to like match those things to each other, and it’s kind of a messy process, but it can get you a consistent way working magic system.

But yeah, I do think that it still has its limits. And if you have, okay, here’s a good example like in the Dragon Prince. Okay. Dragon Prince is like Avatar, another elemental system, but it feels much more arbitrary than Avatar: The Last Airbender does, because in addition to the elements, we have this dark magic and it has a structured set of rules.

You need to get a specific ingredient. And a bug or a plant and crush it up or sacrifice it to take its power. And depending on what that ingredient is, you can cast a spell and technically that’s predictable and reproducible. Once we get most of this one bug can be crushed to do X, we know we can do it again.

But because there’s such a wide variety of ingredients, they each have their own sort of arbitrary effect. What we end up, is still feeling like, and we can’t, especially in a show, right? It would almost be easier in a  longer narrated work. We can never keep track of what a character has on them and what they can do or not do it any time.

It doesn’t feeling like, well, no, we’re going to have to, again, foreshadow the spells. And before we use them, even though there is a consistent set of rules with the elements and the ingredients involved, it’s also just pretty complicated for what fits in like a half an hour animated show.

Oren: Yeah. I really don’t get why there are like eight types of magic and then also dark magic, which is  its own thing with its own subdivisions. It’s like, I don’t think, I don’t think there needed to be that many kinds of magic guys. I think maybe two would have been fine.

Fay: One thing I am curious about how you interpret is that specifically for things with large casts, that all are supposed to have special abilities, there’s kind of the superhero system where it’s like each person has a superpower.

And it kind of gets around the sort of aspect of having to explain each specific thing where once you’ve explained a characters super power, then there is that rationality of you can kind of predict what they should and shouldn’t be able to do with it, roughly speaking, but it can also be very eclectic, which is why it supports large casts in the superhero genre.

Chris: So I called it like a super power or an individualized system, and I actually got a lot of questions from our Q&A feature on how to make systems like this rational. So I ended up writing a post about it and in a system like that, generally, each person has a different spell, right? Instead of other systems where spells are generally shared between groups of people. Every person has one specific spell that they can cast. And usually you just established what they can do, and then people remember that. And so we don’t necessarily have a lot of deus ex machina as long as we followed the rules of each spell.

The one thing that those ones struggle with is actually making a theme that’s good, because probably as a legacy of just being in an urban fantasy type modern day environment, it just tends to be like very eclectic and arbitrary what all of these different powers are. And so it’s really easy to end up with powers that are just, you know, plot breaking. You know, you always end up with some characters that are way too powerful and your world often just doesn’t feel very memorable, because there’s nothing distinguishing it.

And so my recommendations for that are to actually choose a theme that are powers well, for instance, maybe you have an animalistic theme where every person gets an ability that relates to a specific animal that they relate to, like one has a stinger with venom in it and you know, like another, whatever, but you can see how that gives you some framework for choosing all of their powers that makes your personal setting and your magic feel different than everybody else’s. It helps you stand out and it gives you something that allows variety, but constrains you a little bit, so it stays memorable and it gives you some framework for making choices. You still have to be careful that your characters don’t get overpowered.

Oren: You also just really want to do that because frankly, if you write a superhero story and you use the MCU or comic books as your base, you will run into some unsolvable problems very quickly. I read a superhero book recently, that’s actually fairly well received, called Super Powereds, which is an odd way to spell that, it has to do with a thing in the book, but anyway, that story has so many problems because in the MCU we are willing to suspend our disbelief about like, why Iron Man can’t just shoot all of the villains who are vulnerable to bullets. Cause in one movie, Iron Man has an anti-human shield gun that he never uses again. And we’re just like, whatever, it’s the MCU, it has $400 million for special effects, it’s fine.

But when you put that in a book, it’s just really frustrating. It’s like, “Hey, I’m a superhero. And my power is that I can shoot lightning out of my hands, cause that’s like an established super power”. And I’m like, alright, but like that guy has a gun and a gun is actually better in this situation than your lightning powers.

Or like that guy can mind control you. It’s like, well, the fights just over now. Cause he mind controlled you. And the book has that problem a bunch of times and he just doesn’t know how to solve it. And so the fights are just really uninteresting because he’s trying to model MCU fights in text. You don’t have those beautiful visuals to get swept away in. So instead you’re sitting there being like, well, why didn’t you use that thing you did earlier? What about that? Why couldn’t you use that? And you know, you can, avoid that if you exercise stricter world building controls.

Chris: And it’s hard because everybody’s, again, trying to copy Marvel right now, but, if you want your story to stand apart and be memorable and iconic and be more interesting, cause it’s going to be really hard to compete, and you have just another Marvel type superhero story, it really does help in a number of ways to just again, choose a theme that all of your powers fit. So they feel like a set and they give your, your story a strong atmosphere.

Fay: I would also say that I think it’s harder if there’s a specific plot you’re trying to make, to fit things into then if you’re just exploring what would a person do if they could shoot lightning out of their hands, it’s like, “Oh, maybe they would do like stealth missions where they go around zapping all of the light cameras and electronic locks”.

And maybe all they can do is destroy tech because a magic tech hacking would be like a different power, but they can still burn out delicate tech and just do a stealth mission where they’re just zapping things from around the corner to get into a facility. But then once they’re in a fight, they’re like, “Oh crap, bullets not good”.

And it would actually change how the fight scene happens in an interesting way that’s new where it’s like, “Oh crap, I need to be behind cover, all I can do is electricity stuff. Okay. Well, can I make my electricity art to the thing behind them while I’m around a corner”, and it starts to become interesting again.

Chris: You bring up a great point. With any type of magic system it’s so much more interesting if you take magic that is less powerful, and then make your characters be inventive and clever and how they use that magic because humans are very clever and frequently, if you start with something too powerful, you know, you have to end up ignoring the implications of how it could be used by clever humans who have plenty of time to think about it and the plot breaks. Whereas if you start with something small, and just think a little harder in take a little more time with the inventive ways people could use it you’re less likely to break your plot, but it also just will be much more interesting.

Because stories are gripping when challenges are difficult. And we love seeing a protagonist have to come up with clever ways when they are outmatched. And that just makes for a better story than having a character with a huge, awesome power

Oren: Yeah. A little magic goes a long way, it turns out.

Yeah, I think that’ll be our, what we’ll end the podcast on a little magic goes a long way. Everyone remember that.

Apparently a little magic goes a long way in podcasting terms [chuckles]. So thank you Fay for coming on and talking with us about all this stuff.

Fay: Absolutely.

Oren: Those of you at home, if anything, we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website Mythcreants.com. Before we go. I want to thank a few of our patrons.

First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber who is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Denita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com. But we’ll talk to you all later.

If you have a story that’s not quite working, we’re here to help. We offer consulting and editing services on mythcreants.com

[closing theme]

Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself, by Jonathan Colton.

Enjoying our podcast? Thank us with a review on iTunes or Stitcher.

Read more about

 

Comments

  1. LeeEsq

    To expand on what Oren said about people expecting certain things, so they show up even if they don’t make sense or work in that series, is that many magic systems end up kind of the same in how the function and what they can do. An interesting challenge would be to create a magic system that is really different in what it can accomplish compared to other magic systems.

  2. Kim

    So the continuums of magic, as laid out in this podcast are: rational/arbitrary, hard/soft, and eclectic/themed. And you can just mix and match. Are there other continuums you can think of? Do some mixes always go better together? Do some mixes clash or are more difficult to make work?

    • SunlessNick

      Tool vs Influence perhaps? Maybe not the right words, but magic that’s just something you can use like anything else vs magic that affects or depends on your personality. Like, bending in Avatar doesn’t seem to imply anything about the personalities of its users – but magic in the Dresden Files is described as only working for those who believe deep down that it should, and the dark side of the Force corrupts people who use it.

      • Jeppsson

        Oh, that’s a good one! I can think of one more dimension that at least arguably can be separated from the others: Magic as continuous with science and tech, vs magic as completely different.

        Suppose, for instance, that we have a system like in Harry Potter. Magic is hard, arbitrary and tool (right?). It can go either way on my proposed dimension.
        Continuous with science: The narration and characters will think of the arbitrariness as a frustrating, hard nut to crack. They might draw parallells to the search for a grand unifying theory of physics, except the need for more unifiying theories is more dire in the case of magic. If there’s no masquerade in the setting, universities and companies might host interdisciplinary research projects that include both mages (or scholars/scientists of magic) and, say, physicists.
        Completely different from science: You simply can’t expect magic to follow similar rules and be as systematic as the natural world! Any cooperation between scientists and mages will be difficult or hopeless, since their subject matters are so different they can hardly understand each other.

        A rational magic system can pretty obviously be presented as continuous with science, but I also think it can be presented as very different. Narration and/or characters might say it’s mystical in nature, it’s about other dimensions and what-not, and these features supposedly make it completely different from tech and science. Scientists are presented as utterly stumped by magic. (The combination of rational and different-from-science might not hold up that well to scrutiny, but I’m pretty sure it’s a combination that exists in fiction.)

        • SunlessNick

          That’s a good axis too.

          Regarding rational and non-scientific, if magic requires the intercession of other beings to work, it might be rational in that you can begin to predict which requests will be granted and which not. But you couldn’t approach it like a physical science – a social science, yes, but that’s a different set of methods.

          • Jeppsson

            I think both, in that case. You’d both have a social science of how the divine pantheon (or spirits or what-have-you) work, and a physical science of how they do it. Even if humans cannot do anything directly with magic or the divine realm, all we can do is ask the gods, we might still be interested in figuring out as much as possible about how it works on a “physical” level.
            Lots of real-world science don’t really have any practical applications, not now and not in the foreseeable future. It’s about gaining pure knowledge rather than figuring out how to do anything or how to manipulate some force. You could, e.g., try to figure out whether the light gods and the dark gods manipulate the same or different kinds of magical “energy”, even if doing anything with said magic is completely beyond us mere mortals.

          • Jeppsson

            Still, if you couldn’t do regular science experiments on magic since only gods can DO anything with it, your “physical” science of magic might be very speculative, that’s true. But you could still have a sort of scientific attitude to it, I think. As opposed to “wooo… mysterious maaaagic… sooo different from everything else…”

  3. liber

    I don’t agree with their critique for the Dragon Prince’s magic system. It’s true that it has too many elements for the story it’s trying to tell, but dark magic fits perfectly. What you do there is sacrifice a magical creature (or some of its body parts) to do a spell that creature would be able to do on its own. It goes well with the conflict of magic-less humans against magical elves and dragons, and turns it on its head with the humans taking their power and using it against them in horrifying ways.

    Dark magic is also more nuanced in that by combining different “ingredients” you get potentially more complex spells, but this is something I’m extrapolating from what I remember the show telling me, more than a canon fact.

    I didn’t particularly like the story or the worldbuilding, but the magic system was one of the highlights for me. I would like to see it explored in more detail, but instead we’re stuck with our pov mage refusing to use dark magic. Not a fan of this premise…

  4. Rob

    I’ve been a lurker in a community made to discuss magic systems, and just quietly eye rolling for my duration there. Most are big Sanderson fans who read his essays (supposedly), and want to create a hard magic system, but when I ask them about it, I get very vague, weird responses like “there is a distortion in local reality” to which I say “wtf does that mean?” And then the response is “the energies of the Ethereal are more prevalent” and then I ask “Wtf. Does that. Mean??”

    I think it’s so important when developing your magic system to start by asking what magic will actually be used for in a scene, in a conflict, in your story. Not the holy scripture text definition of what magic is in your story, but how we, the reader, will encounter it. If you can’t clearly describe what is actually happening in regards to magic in your story, you don’t have a magic system problem, you have a writing skill problem.

    Take that “distortion in reality” answer above. The writer could focus on the conspicuous, observable effects magic has that makes it stand out. “Distortion in reality” could mean cracks in the sky, all moving objects and people in the area stuck in a loop, sounds and images from different times glitching into the present. I think how magic is written is an oft forgotten aspect of developing a magic system; whatever medium we’re experiencing the system in is important to making it clear.

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy (updated 03/28/20) and our privacy policy for details on how we moderate comments and who receives your information.