Whenever we create a magic system, we have to choose how it ends up in the hands of our characters. While this comes in an unlimited number of flavors, acquisition generally falls into five basic methods. These methods determine who has magic, who doesn’t, and what it takes to use it. That, in turn, has large ramifications for your story and your world. Let’s go over the options and discuss the pros and cons so you can choose the best one for your situation.
1. Being Born With It
This means some characters inherently have the capacity for magic from the time of their birth or creation. Most commonly, this type of magic is like eye color or height – just something a person gets from their genes, or their midichlorians if you wanna get all fantasy about it. Or maybe magic workers in your world are like Gandalf – angelic beings created with power and a purpose. Regardless of the details, with this option you can’t teach magic to someone who doesn’t have that special spark.
Explaining the distribution of magic through an accident of birth makes it easy to limit magic in your world. Why doesn’t everyone just teleport instead of travel? There aren’t enough mages to teleport everyone! This way, you don’t have to change a real-world setting much. High magic doesn’t have such big consequences if almost no one can do it.
Similarly, you can arbitrarily decide not only which characters have magic, but also what type of magic they can perform. Like in Avatar: The Last Airbender, some spell-casters might control fire, whereas others control water. While they can dabble with each other’s moves a bit, the categories will stay separate because a fire mage doesn’t have the potential to control water.
This option is also strong on wish fulfillment, if that’s what you’re going for. People like the idea of being born special.
Because this option for magic has been done so often, it might be seen as cliché, or at least, it won’t make your magic interesting. It’s best paired with other magical aspects that are unique.
Compounding how unoriginal it is, this option can have troubling implications. A character that saves the day with a special magical ability didn’t do anything to earn their status as a savior, and that can be grating for some audience members. In real life, the idea that some people are just born “better” is the uniting philosophy of white supremacists and other hate groups.
If you establish that magic is tied to bloodline or is otherwise inheritable, it creates certain eugenic implications that aren’t fun to deal with. If people can reliably breed stronger mages, it’ll be hard to explain why people aren’t doing that, even though it’s really gross.
2. Receiving It as a Divine Favor
With this option, characters get their power from otherworldly beings. To those beings, spells might not even be magical. After all, it wouldn’t seem magical to us if a two-dimensional being requested that we move a brick out of their way. This covers overtly religious systems like D&D’s divine magic, along with darker stuff like the summoning of Great Old Ones found in Call of Cthulhu, or even magic systems where you commune with the spirits of nature.
This option makes it easy to set limits on how many spells magic workers can cast, along with what type of spell. The otherworldly beings might be picky about who they work with, or they might be demanding. It’s not that useful to have a healing spell that requires a human sacrifice in payment.
Depending on what flavor the beings take, this option allows you to explore themes of faith and devotion or cast your sorcerer as a kind of magic negotiator. Every time your magic worker casts a spell, you have an excuse for some deep personal development or witty repartee.
It’s also easy to make your magic creepy with this option. Superpowerful beings handing out power for their own purposes? It gives me the shivers just thinking about it.
If you have actual divine magic in your setting, some thorny theological issues could stop being merely theoretical and become quite literal. For instance, if you have a world where a benevolent god will just hand out powers, why doesn’t everyone worship them, live well, and get sweet powers? And since those gods have no issue with handing out magic, why do they let bad things happen?
The magic negotiation that can be so fun can also get in the way. If you want your characters to cast spells a lot, after the tenth time a spell is cast, you’ll probably struggle with ways to keep the interaction with the magical being fresh. However, if you start neglecting those interactions and let your characters cast whatever magic they want whenever they want, it could feel lazy or contrived to the audience. Gods are not vending machines waiting to give power in exchange for quarters, or at least they shouldn’t be.
Last, this option isn’t so great for wish fulfillment. People daydream about throwing lightning bolts, not about asking some higher being to throw one for them.
3. Learning It
This is the scenario where anyone can learn magic; it just takes a lot of study and effort. A wizard’s magic comes from their knowledge of runes and diagrams, not any inborn spark. While we associate this option most with an academic environment, it also applies to a world where anyone can learn to control the elements through sufficient mastery of martial arts.
Because magic workers aren’t born with a gift, it’s much easier to make it feel like the protagonist earned their heroic status. Even if they have some natural talent, there’s no way they could get ahead of all the other people studying magic without putting in lots of hard work.
Given that, it’s easier to create an egalitarian setting with this option. Anyone with access to the right educational materials can do magic, regardless of how they were born, what resources they can afford to buy, and what personal connections they have.
Since knowledge-based magic requires a consistent set of actions that result in magical effects, this option also lends itself well to creating a rational magic system.
There’s only one significant disadvantage for acquiring magic this way, but it’s a big one. Why doesn’t everyone learn magic? Storytellers wouldn’t be so fascinated with magic if weren’t incredibly useful, but having everyone wield it will make it feel like another mundane piece of technology. Not to mention, not everyone wants a setting steeped in magic. Storytellers end up threading a needle, making magic useful enough to be fun, but not so useful that learning it is always worth the time invested.
4. Using a Special Substance
Another option is for magic to come from some kind of material substance. It might be a special plant that mages ingest to unlock their abilities, or it might be a weird crystal that powers spells. While it may still require special training to use magic, spellcasters can only cast as much magic as they have medicinal plants or battery crystals. This resource becomes magic’s biggest limitation.
The rarity of the special substance provides an automatic cost and limit on magic, which is really valuable for keeping magic from getting out of hand in your setting.
This option also provides a limit on individual mages. To take mages prisoner, a captor just needs to take away their magic substances. This might seem insignificant, but capturing mages is a real problem in many stories.
Because it’s not used as often as other ways of acquiring magic, this option also has more novelty. For instance, you can also create all kinds of fun economic parallels with it:
- Is there not enough to go around? Who gets first crack at the limited supply?
- Is extracting it damaging or dangerous in some way? What are the consequences?
- Do mages who can’t get the real thing resort to low-quality knockoffs? What are the dangers?
You can go on forever with this idea.
The advantage of using common magic conventions is that audience members become so used to them that they often accept them even if they don’t make much sense. Because this option isn’t used very often, people are more likely to examine it critically. That means you have to work harder to make your magic system feel consistent and intuitive. Otherwise, you may end up with a system like Mistborn‘s, where the pairings between metals and the powers they grant feel arbitrary to many readers.
While substances provide a handy limit on a character’s magic, it takes some logistics to get them spellcasting again. A character who’s been imprisoned can’t whip out a spell until they get their hands on something that can’t be found at the nearest corner store.
Last, basing magic on a commodity can imply economic consequences even if you aren’t interested in them. If the magic source is so rare, can only the rich use it? Readers may feel disappointed if you don’t cover how the magical market works.
5. Undergoing a Strange Procedure
In this last option, characters get magic through an operation, experiment, or other permanent or semi-permanent alteration done to them. This is an especially popular means of granting magic in superhero stories, whether it’s a radioactive spider bite or the effects of a shady government program. An alteration could also be caused by new eye-opening experiences such as in The Matrix, in which people gain special abilities after being unplugged for the first time.
Like bestowing magic on birth, this option puts a hard limit on how many people can have magic, but it also allows the greater agency granted by other options. Depending on your needs or tastes, characters can be “chosen” for their power, work to gain their power, or something in between.
This also provides an easy way to hand wave the existence of magic in a modern setting. Having ancient powers opens up a lot of questions about how magic stayed hidden rather than changing the course of history. However, magic powers created through some procedure can be the result of cutting-edge technology or science.
Like magic that is learned, it can be difficult to explain why the experiment isn’t repeated often enough to give much of the population magic. While medical procedures could be quite costly, the type of magic featured in most stories would give a great return on investment.
If a scientific procedure is rare and its results highly varied, it can come across as contrived. Scientific innovations typically require a lot of groundwork by a sizable community of researchers. You don’t want your audience to feel like a scientific breakthrough popped into existence just to bestow a random power and then disappeared again.
For extra limits on the magic in your setting, these options can be combined to good effect. Adding a learning requirement gives any hero a way to earn their powers, whereas having to maintain divine favor can provide a way to remove powers from those who have it. Doing some thought experiments can help you find the combo that makes conflicts easy to generate without putting too much burden on your setting.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?