Worldbuilding

How to Create a Rational Magic System

Azula propels herself with blue flame.

Magic systems vary from colorful bears with tummy badges to ritual blood sacrifices. Magic isn’t real, so it can be anything we want. But that doesn’t mean all magic systems work equally well for stories. Some feel cohesive; others feel random. Some are carefully planned; others contradict themselves and lead to plot holes. Creating a rational magic system allows you to add realism and depth to your world while still leaving room for new and interesting changes.

What Is a Rational Magic System?

A rational magic system is one where every spell is guided by the same metaphysical laws. To the audience it will feel like every part fits together, even if they’re not precisely sure how.

Not Rational: Harry Potter

In the Harry Potter universe, magic works in several different ways:

  1. Wizards cast spells by waving wands and saying incantations. But once characters learn about the spell to disarm and the spell to block, they can’t extrapolate that there’s also a spell to dodge. Students learn all of the spells by memorization, because there’s no logic underpinning how they operate.
  2. Some plants and animals have magic inherently inside them, creating a variety of results. Wizards aren’t included in this; as far as we know, you can’t just simmer a wizard in a pot for a few days and end up with a magic potion. However, you can mix pieces of magic plants and animals in a pot and get powerful effects. While characters can invent some potions, it appears they only do it by trial and error, not through a formula that guides what goes into a potion to create specific effects.
  3. Old magics can occur without any intent. Harry’s mother inadvertently casts a protective spell on him by dying for him. It’s unclear whether there are any other self-casting old magic spells besides this one.

These three sets of rules don’t appear related to each other. Learning about one doesn’t give a better understanding of another. Even within one category, there’s no way to extrapolate new spells because the rules are so eclectic. That means the stories can’t foreshadow spells prior to their explicit introduction, and when a protagonist has to face a tough problem, they can’t get out of it by inventing new spellwork. The audience has no idea what they can do other than what they’ve been directly told, so if they do anything new in a crisis, it will look like a deus ex machina.

For instance, the Patronus Charm is a spell that is critical to the plot of multiple Harry Potter books. It worked well, but it had to be named before it became important to the plot. Readers could not have guessed that Harry might create something like a Patronus, so if it hadn’t been explained in depth, using it at pivotal moments would have felt cheap.

In addition, there are no boundaries on what magic could theoretically do in the Potterverse. That means Rowling doesn’t have any guidelines to keep her from contradicting something she’s already invented or from creating a spell that makes the plot pointless.

Rational: Avatar

In the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender, magic (called bending) is embodied by the four elements of air, water, fire, and earth, plus spiritual energy. With the exception of the Avatar, people who cast magic are only attuned to one of the four main elements. By adopting a specific mentality and pairing that with martial art forms, they can move and manipulate their element.

It’s easy to extrapolate all the basic uses of this magic system. When an earthbender is blocked by a mountain, we know that with enough effort, they could create a tunnel through it. This is true even if we’ve never seen anyone craft a tunnel before. We’ve seen them move and break rock, so it follows that they could make a hole through a mountain.

In The Last Airbender storyline, Waterbending, Firebending, and Earthbending all have elite applications that not all benders can achieve, while air doesn’t. However, we can only identify that it’s missing because the system is logically consistent as a whole, even if it isn’t perfect in every depiction.

Almost all of the magic in Avatar: The Last Airbender is clearly linked to the same rules. For instance, some animals can also cast magic, and they do it pretty much the same way people do. The main exception is “the avatar state,” which isn’t clearly linked to bending. It’s no surprise the avatar state causes plot holes during Avatar: The Legend of Korra.

The Difference

The magic of Avatar feels like the natural result of a different set of physics, whereas the magic of Harry Potter feels like the arbitrary inventions of an author. Occasionally you may want an arbitrary system – it adds humor and entertainment to Harry Potter. However, in most cases a rational magic system works better.

Rational Magic Can Still Be Mysterious

It’s easy to mix up rational magic with what’s often referred to as hard magic. Both Harry Potter and Avatar: The Last Airbender are hard magic systems, because they explain magic and its rules to the audience. The audience must know the rules, because the heroes use magic during the story. While both of these magic systems have mysterious aspects, in general they don’t invoke wonder because they are understood.

Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, on the other hand, use soft magic. Viewpoint characters don’t use magic and the audience doesn’t understand how it operates. It’s mysterious.

While it’s more difficult to tell whether a soft magic system is rational, I suspect Game of Thrones is using a rational magic system. It’s the subtle way magic leans toward fire or ice.* When Jon Snow kills a white walker with Valyrian steel, it makes sense even though we haven’t been told that could happen. That’s because we know dragon glass can kill them and both weapons were forged by dragon flame. Even without understanding the details, it feels like it all fits together. If George R.R. Martin or the show writers lean hard by revealing how it works, I think they’ll reveal something that’s logically consistent.

To keep your magic mysterious like in Game of Thrones, hide how it operates. Most often, your audience should see the effects of magic but not the cause. Obscuring the rules is easier if the cause and effect can be separated by space and time or the cause isn’t directly observable. In Game of Thrones, the red woman throws leaches into a fire, and later several lords die far away. The audience isn’t sure if burning the leaches actually caused these deaths, making it mysterious despite having witnessed the magic ritual first-hand.

Crafting a Basic Framework

The first step is building a metaphysical framework for how and why magic works. The best frameworks have limitations inherent to the way they operate. For instance, if speaking is an essential part of spellcasting, then characters can’t cast spells if they can’t speak. If you choose a framework that is broader and vaguer, you’ll need to add less obvious limitations to it.

To craft your framework, just answer these questions.

What’s the source of magic?

Pick just one source; I’ll discuss how to add variety to your magic system in the next section. Here are four common categories you can consider.

Energy

Many systems treat magic as energy similar to heat, magnetism, electricity, or movement. In many worlds such as Star Wars, this force is generated by living things. It could also be from astral radiation or human emotion.

Energy-based magic is easy to use because it comes with limitations. We know it takes more kinetic energy to move a big rock than a small rock, so we can imagine it requires more magical energy too. Spellcasters can’t blow up planets, because obviously that would take too much energy.

Higher beings

In some magic systems, gods or other powerful beings are the source of all magic. This is harder to work with, because the divine are technically spellcasters themselves, and incredibly powerful ones. You’ll need to set guidelines for how these beings operate so that you can explain why they do or don’t answer prayers whenever they’re asked. For instance, in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion Series, the divine cannot directly influence the world with their magic. They can only work through people that do their will voluntarily.

Substances

In Dune, those who are exposed to spice develop powers over time. In Brandon Sanderson‘s Mistborn Series, characters acquire magic by imbibing small amounts of metals and burning them once they’re consumed. Substances like these make it easy to put limits on the amount of magic used – just limit the substance. However, set guidelines for how people react to exposure. If one person grows wings and another teleports, your system will feel arbitrary.

Shifts in reality

Used by the Matrix and Mage: The Ascension, some magic systems are based on the idea that reality is more malleable than it seems, allowing some to bend it out of shape. If you use this source, decide why reality is so malleable – is everyone in a dream or a virtual reality game? Your answer could have huge ramifications for your world.

These systems usually adopt limitations from physics, even though physics is no longer a limiting factor. In the Matrix, lifting something huge is harder than lifting something small. Technically, the limitation is actually the mind’s belief that lifting huge objects is difficult. That works for just Neo, but if you have many spellcasters over long periods of time, someone will be able to smash two planets together. Magic that powerful would leave a large fingerprint on the world, and if you don’t avoid ultra-powerful characters, it can also break your plot. Or just feel ridiculous.

How is it accessed and directed?

It’s not enough to have a source of magic. That source has to be available to a spellcaster, and that spellcaster needs to direct it to accomplish specific goals. The source should give you an idea for how it might become available. A substance can be traded on the market, gods can be prayed to, and individuals might be sensitive to magical energy – or maybe everyone has machines that do it all for them. Don’t be afraid to try something novel.

Directing magic can involve a range of activities, but it commonly includes these aspects:

  • Thoughts & will: Character thoughts provide an easy method of directing spells, but unfortunately it comes with few limitations to keep spellcasters from summoning a deus ex machina.
  • Communication: Characters might need to communicate what they want to the gods or program it into a computer. This adds the opportunity for translation errors or for results that technically fit what they said but aren’t what they wanted.
  • Recipes: Perhaps characters almost never ad lib their desires; instead they follow specific directions hoping for specific and hopefully reliable results. Rituals generally fall under this category.

The more elaborate your direction method is, the harder you’ll need to work to make it feel rational. If a character casts spells with a combination of substances, dance moves, and symbols drawn in charcoal, assign a role to each component. You should understand why some spells have symbols in common but different dance moves. Just knowing how everything works can go a long way.

What are the constraints of the system?

Now it’s time to decide why magic can’t do anything and everything the spellcaster wants, whenever they want.

First, think through what magic is capable of doing in a theoretical best case scenario. It could range from absolutely anything to a single effect such as moving objects or pausing time. In Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker, magic is powered by a life force known as “breath.” Sanderson could have made breath do anything, but instead it’s mostly limited to animating objects and improving the caster’s senses. It can’t summon rain or make someone invisible, for instance. Limiting what magic can theoretically do will dramatically cut down the number of plot-breaking scenarios you might have to deal with.

Second, look through all the essential pieces of spell creation and casting, and think how the casting process might fail at each step. For instance, let’s say magic is powered by a substance found within the soil. Humans access it by eating a special plant that bio-accumulates it. Once eaten, the magical substance builds up in their systems until they focus their will to cast magic. Here’s how this system might break down:

  • Availability of substance: Access to magic requires pairing the magical substance in the ground with specific vegetation. Only some areas would have the substance, and those places could have the wrong climate for the plant, or the ground could have been salted to keep anything from growing.
  • Edibility of plant: Perhaps the plant isn’t good for you. People could get sick by eating a lot of it at once or by eating a lot over the years. It could taste terrible and perish quickly. Drying or pickling could weaken the effect.
  • Amount in system: Before anyone can cast a spell, they need to have eaten the plant previously, building up magic in their system. The power of their spell would be limited by how much of the plant they’d eaten since the last time they did magic. If they run out, they have to eat and then digest the plant before they can do any more.
  • Strength of will: A person’s ability to cast a spell could be compromised if they’re tired, drunk, or simply feel conflicted about their task. To make the spell work, they might have to understand the scientific details of what they want their magic to accomplish instead of giving it vague goals.

A long list of constraints will make it much easier to craft conflicts in your story. Something as seemingly insignificant as a casting time that’s five seconds longer has a huge impact on whether mages can handle unexpected problems. If spellcasters can run out of magic, it’ll be easy to put them in a tight spot when you need to.

Adding Variety

If rational magic systems only had a basic framework, they might get dull. Here’s a couple ways to mix it up while retaining a consistent feel.

Splitting into categories

The elemental magic of Avatar is a great example of splitting the same form of magic into different types. Most often, the source of magic itself comes in different types that create different effects. However, you can also experiment with different techniques for accessing and directing the magic, each with upsides and downsides.

To avoid adding a sense of arbitrariness, your choice of categories must feel natural. Here’s what you need to think about.

Completeness

When you look at all your categories together, you shouldn’t find any large gaps where a category should be, and two categories shouldn’t be unusually similar. For instance, if you have chaotic magic, dark magic, and lawful magic, your audience will wonder where the light magic is. If you actually have light magic and you’re just not telling them until later, then great; you’ve foreshadowed without even trying. Otherwise, your categories will feel contrived.

You can get away with a strange assortment if you have mechanics that explain it. Let’s say powers are granted by a changing lineup of gods, and the ocean goddess has three children that control the wind, waves, and depths. Then it may not feel weird that there isn’t a god specifically of dirt, because the earth goddess hasn’t had children yet.

If you’re having trouble, you can say there are many more categories but knowledge of them has been lost.

Symmetricality

While your categories wouldn’t be any fun if they were identical, they do need consistency. Generally that means their strengths and weaknesses will be roughly equivalent. You could use a rock-paper-scissors relationship where earth beats air, but air beats water, water beats fire, and fire beats earth. Or you could simply say that air is good for dodging, while earth is good for blocking. You wouldn’t add that fire is good for creative thinking, because that wouldn’t fit.

Again, you can have variance if there are rules that explain it. Let’s say magic is generated by the vibration of continental plates, and each continental plate vibrates at its own frequency, creating different effects. The size of those continental plates and their placement on the planet would be an arbitrary effect of nature, and so the magic they generate might reflect those arbitrary characteristics.

If you’re at a loss, take a page from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. To make an arbitrary assortment of abilities feel like they fit together, he gave them a strong theme. Each ability corresponds with role in a gang of thieves. The list includes a “thug” who burns pewter and becomes stronger; a “tineye” who burns tin and enhances their senses; a “soother” who burns brass and can calm others’ emotions; a “seeker” that burns bronze and can identify other magic works; and a “smoker” that blocks a seeker within a certain radius. Since the main character of the series starts as a member of a gang of thieves, the choice of theme is very appropriate.

Adding special abilities

Naturally, you’ll want a few people in your setting with powers that are unusual among magic workers. You can have that, too, while still retaining rationality.

Extrapolation

Start by looking for further implications of what you’ve already established. How might someone with an unusual background or extraordinary dedication take magic either a step further or a step in a new direction? What unusual methods and applications might they attempt?

In Avatar, most benders can only manipulate pure water, earth, air, and fire. However, a few benders can bend their element when it’s in a different form or less pure. There are Waterbenders that Bloodbend, Firebenders that shoot lightning, and the occasional Earthbender that Metalbends.

In my example of magic that is acquired by consuming a plant, a clever alchemist might distill and concentrate the plant down to an elixir that is digested more quickly. Someone could gain double the magic in half the time. On the other hand, there could be a group of people allergic to the plant. Eating it makes them very sick, but because of this immune reaction, they can cast more powerful spells.

Exception

Your story may also include a chosen one that’s extra special. To give them an exceptional ability that stands out from the masses, change or break one rule you’ve established for your magic system. Only one. Once you examine all the implications of this change, you’ll discover their powers are different indeed.

In Avatar, there is one person every generation who violates the rule that people can bend only one element. This person, the Avatar, bends all four plus spirit energy. Because the setting is divided into nations that correspond with the elements, the Avatar is the only person who symbolically belongs to all the nations.

In my plant-based system, there could be a lineage with the biological adaptation to absorb the magical substance directly, without using the plant as an intermediary. An entire category of limitations would no longer apply to them. Magic would be cheaply acquired from soil the plant can’t grow in, and they wouldn’t have to worry about getting sick from overeating it.

Further Reading

For more inspiration and guidance in creating your magic system, I recommend these articles and resources.

Four Ways to Limit Magic & Technology – Those limits are important! Here are more ideas for them.

Know How Your Magic Works – Here we discuss considerations outside the scope of this article, such as the effect magic has on society.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality – This fun fan fiction explores rational explanations for how the Potterverse might work.

Brandon Sanderson is fantastic at crafting magic systems. He has three great articles on building them, named after what he calls his three laws. You can also read his books to see his systems in action; personally I recommend Elantris.

Sanderson’s First Law
Sanderson’s Second Law
Sanderson’s Third Law

Last, here’s a fun chart showing the details of magic systems in the most popular works.


If you think about it, you’ll realize there’s no reason not to have a rational system. You can make it mysterious just by hiding how it operates. While it can be fun to have wacky spells, wouldn’t it be even cooler if you could reveal how your wacky spells all click together? The only downside is that these systems require thought – thought that will make your setting stronger.

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Comments

  1. juli

    This has been extremely helpful! I know some of the basics for the magic in my world but have been having a hard time making them cohesive. This article helped me go back to the basics and think about what the rules would have to be to make the magic make sense.

  2. Rand al'Thor

    Tech in Sci-fi also counts as magic!

  3. Kate

    Reading this made me realize a plot hole before I even put it on paper, I can’t thank you enough for the editing time you’ve saved me!

  4. David MacDowell Blue

    I’m going to flatly say your premise about the HARRY POTTER magic system. That more than one type of magic exists in a generally complex way not thoroughly understood by anyone feels very real, very much in fact like science.

    However, I think vital your point about how a magic “feels.” Tolkien’s magic confuses people who are looking for rules because no one sits down and says what the rules are–to really understand what’s going on that one has to delve into all his works (including letters and unfinished stories). But it feels as if it all fits together, not least because Tolkien himself had a clear notion of what was going on.

    • Lithp

      I agree. That was confusing enough that I have difficulty figuring out what the post’s premise is, but I THINK Disney Magic would be a better example. In most, if not all movies, there clearly aren’t rules for magic, or if there are, there aren’t many. Maybe there are a few things that the sorcerer can’t do, but basically it’s just whatever they want to happen, happens.

      If they are limited, it’s usually not by some universal magical law, but rather a handicap in their source of power. A glove that gradually eats away at their flesh, or every spell they cast they have to pay a price to a demon, or something.

      • Cay Reet

        That’s because Disney movies are based on fairy tales and fairy tales don’t write up rules for magic. It happens as the tale sees fit. Different for the TV series, of course.

        Isn’t that glove from the Aladdin TV series? Used by the guy who commands sand zombies or something? The Taran movie also would provide examples for limits through the source with both the magic kettle (stops working when a living thing is sacrificed) and the crystal ball which doesn’t work for the villain for some reason, although it’s owner does well with it.

        Another limit would be limited ability of the user, like Gummy Bear who uses magic, but half of the time can’t remember the spell, doesn’t find the right one, or just does it wrong.

  5. Faith

    You should take a look at Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality….Google search it; it’ll come right up. It’s crazy long but definitely adds logic to the system and it’s a nerdy heaven.

    • H

      While the Harry Potter system certainly isn’t perfect–will be checking out the linked article!–I don’t think the points raised in this article have much weight.
      First of all, why would there be a spell to dodge? You could just, you know, move out of the way? Like actually dodge the spell physically? This proposition sounds like a video game idea–useful in an environment where you’re controlling an avatar with a remote/keys and don’t have a quick reaction time. But in the real world, moving out of the way would be easier; since spells have straight paths when cast, why use magic when there’s an easier non-magic method of avoiding harm? In addition, the spells available for use aren’t completely based on nonsense, or taught completely irrationally. Examples of rationality in spell design include: 1) There’s a spell for emitting light from one’s wand (lumos, which is connected to the Latin word for light) and there’s a spell for extinguishing your wand light (nox, which is literally the Latin word for night). Not that hard to extrapolate. Other examples include alohamora and colloportus, reparo and diffindo, accio and depulso (learned but not named in-series, as I recall), etc. Accio and depulso, for example, are taught one-after-another: pretty straightforward. There are also spells and counter spells, and characters know when to use them–take for example when Harry accidentally levitated Ron (using levicorpus–not hard to figure out the root for that one). Harry realizes what he’s done and looks for a counter-spell, instead of just hopelessly thinking “Oh no! What do I do now? The system makes no sense so I can’t possibly reason that there’s a reversal of this!”
      Yes, it’s arbitrary which items have magical powers (though many plants have historically been said to have magical powers and Rowling obviously researched these). But magical things do have specific uses–Harry writes essays on the uses of different plants in potion-making, for example. And, by the way, you actually can use parts of wizards in potions, and they’re used in pivotal parts of at least 2 books: the Polyjuice Potion uses part of the person you want to transform into, and the potion used to give Voldemort a body has “bone of the father… flesh of the servant… [and] blood of the enemy”.
      The old magic is, of course, pretty coincidental, and used in specific ways that drive the plot. But it’s repeatedly said in the series that spells can be cast when the user feels strong emotion, so it could possibly be connected in that way to the old magic. (For the record, though, “strong emotion results in power use” isn’t actually a element I like in a system.)

  6. Skylark

    Been developing a magic system for a story of mine that’s in its early development stages. Reading this made me realize that while I’ve got the source pretty nailed down, I don’t actually have much else figured out yet! o_o

    If you’re curious about the source…
    Basically, the magic in my world all comes from spirits, which exist in a dimension parallel to our own. The most common form of magic is to make a contract with a specific spirit for a specific outcome, and then the spirit uses its power to reach that outcome (level of cooperation varies). Some people make a long-term contract with a particular spirit to channel its energy themselves, with the spirit becoming the caster’s familiar. This allows for more ready, flexible use of magic, but one has to be careful how much they use at once or risk damaging both the spirit and themselves. Finally, there are magic uses who seem to draw magic from the earth itself. In fact, they are drawing on residual energy left behind when a spirit interacts with the human world.
    The differences come into play when various factions go to war. If one side summons up a lot of spirits, they inadvertently give more available energy to those who channel it from the surrounding area. Spirits that become familiars don’t affect ambient energy levels, making casters bound to them potential weapons, but also wild cards (whether they’ll help you depends on both their own desires and their familiar’s).

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      When a mage makes a contract with a spirit, what are they paying with? What do the spirits get out of it?

      • Skylark

        And this is why I post my ideas on places like this – someone will ask the really obvious questions I forgot to ask myself.

        Originally I was going to go with “energy”, but that’s way too vague. Second thought was the good ol’ blood sacrifice, but a) kinda dark for what I’m going for and b) why would spirits want blood anyway? Blood is messy and sticky and gets in the carpets and really why would anyone who doesn’t consume it like a vampire want it as payment?

        After giving it some thought, I think the spirits will take memories as payment. Basically the spirits want more knowledge of the human world, to experience it through human eyes.

        So a Mage might give as payment a concrete memory, like their first day of school or attending a particular play, or something more abstract like the taste of chocolate cake or the pain of stubbing one’s toe (spirits are interested in all experiences, even if humans see them as negative). The value of the memory is determined by how much it affects the mage, and whether it’s repeatable or replaceable after the original is given up. (“A quiet lunch with my friend” is much more repeated/repeatable than “when I first met my best friend”).

        Of course, like any contract, value is relative and subject to change based on circumstances. Summon up a spirit to help you move a piano, and you can spend hours debating over price. If your loved one is dying from a gunshot wound, you’ve a lot less time to bargain. Sympathetic spirits will take pity, accepting minor payment (maybe even the painful memory of seeing said loved one get shot). Vindictive/less scrupulous ones will take the opportunity to ask for more than you’d normally give. Ones that haven’t made many contracts and don’t know much about human emotion yet will be much more objective.

        This also gives some spirits incentive to become a mage’s familiar – they get much more experience of the human world by being there than collecting random memories.

        I also had the idea that there would be some very powerful, old spirits who have long-standing contracts with humanity as a whole. A mage activates the contract by speaking the spirit’s name, with the price being the spirit experiencing everything the mage does while using the spirit’s power. The issues with this idea are a) adding more complexity to my magic system and b) giving more power to the side of the war that directly contracts spirits. Since the protagonists are on this side, it would remove a lot of tension. Maybe if their contact to spirits is limited, or the spirits themselves have goals that don’t line up with the protagonists’ goals. Will have to give it some thought.

        If you’re still reading, thanks for letting me ramble. And thanks to Oren for asking the obvious question and fueling my train of thought. If you’re curious about setting/technological era, it’ll take place in two time periods; one in what would be Victorian times in our world, one in WWII time period. Though after reading the Mythcreants article about the effects of high magic and how it might speed up industry, these two time periods might be much closer temporally.

        • Skylark

          Oh wow that turned out to be a lot of text. My train of thought was a bit of a runaway train.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Oh wow, that’s a steep price for magic. I love it. If you go with that, I really hope you’ll have a scene where your mage character (or one of them) sees the empty shells that older mages have become, their very last memory bargained away in exchange for a little power.

          Side note, can anyone contact the spirits, or does it require a special ‘gift.’

          • Skylark

            Re: “hollow” mages – this is the fate of the previous mage who had the protagonist’s familiar – she traded away bits of her life in order to extend it, until she ends up functionally immortal but with very little of her original self left, (she breaks the bond with her familiar in the process in order to make deals with more powerful spirits).

            Haven’t figured out the second point quite yet. I’m thinking at the beginning it requires some basic training to “attune” oneself to contact spirits, and from there it’s more a practice/strength of will thing. Post time-skip, with my second protagonist, magic is rarer due to shifts in the spirit world and how humans access it.

            I’m finding that my worldbuilding and plotting inform each other more in this story than others I’ve worked on. New ideas in how my magic works have given me plot ideas, but I think I’ll need to develop the plot more to refine how my magic system works within it.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Oh oh, is she an enemy?

          • Skylark

            Hm, I had not planned on it, but it might be interesting. As mentioned, I’m still working on the plot details, but I was thinking the decrease in magic availability from protagonist 1’s time to protagonist 2’s time had to do with spirits withdrawing from the human world and not dealing with mages. Maybe the mad mage could be a catalyst for that, tampering in magic that drives off spirits (or becoming one herself? Many possibilities…)

            I’m working on setting up a writing blog on WordPress, mirroring it to tumblr. If you’d like I can send you a link and you can follow along as I figure stuff out (don’t want to clog up your comments section).

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Sure, go ahead. You can either post it here or use the contact page.

    • Kim N

      I know this comment was published a long time ago… But oh my God, this idea I’d fantastic. I really hope you go through with it!

  7. Annoyed

    Harry Potter’s magic is not irrational. Waving around a wand isn’t as simple as you bang it out to be. The plants aren’t like people, the magic doesn’t just happen to them. They are infused with magic, it’s part of their genetic makeup. And there are laws to the magic, they may not be as strict as some novels and series, but they are there. Hermione explains this to Ron in the seventh book when he mentions bringing food out of nowhere.

    • I, User

      Just because there are rules doesn’t mean they’re rational. The law of magic that makes it so you can’t summon food out of thin air feels like something invented by JK Rowling for plot purposes, not the logical result of a different set of physics like in Avatar the last Air bender.

  8. D.A. Hansen

    This has been extremely helpful! I just finished the entire creation story because of these questions as well as creating a more refined system of magic in my book!

  9. The Gneech

    Actually, the elite technique for Airbending is straight-up flight a la Superman. The villain in S3 of A:LoK achieves it.

    -The Gneech

    • kevin

      air benders can also create a vacuum around the head to suffocate some one (same guy did this in season 3). Taking this further would logical lead to even more powerful techniques, using vacuums to burst eardrums, rupture lungs, and using air pressure to launch objects in ways similar to the people that build vacuum cannons that launch ping pong balls at supersonic speeds. a creative air bender could do a lot with access to elite skills.

  10. Madden

    Hey! I know this is an old article, but it inspired me to create my magic system. I was wondering if any of you could give your thoughts on it.
    So, early on in our history, humanity was deemed too dangerous to stay in the greater multiverse. All other alien races find our violent behavior disgusting and, honestly? Terrifying. We were ripped out of the (literal) fabric of reality, shaped into a forbidden-to-visit pocket dimension. The twist? Humans have no idea.
    The story looks like a fantasy story at first, with characters manipulating “threads” or ley lines. They “weave” certain spells out of the fabric of reality. When the spell is done, the deactivated “knots” simply float around, unattended. However, some fear that all is unraveling. The thread is being used up at such a rate that the next generation may have none at all. The knots must be undone, causing the reverse effect as the original magic, and rewoven into the fabric of reality. Otherwise, the humans’ world will fall apart.
    There are hints throughout the story that it’s actually sci-fi. Broken cities, old equipment, enchanted odds and ends from modern society. It’s implied humans discovered the thread and abandoned technology altogether, becoming more and more dependent on magic over the next few hundred years. Practically everyone uses it in their daily life.
    My protagonist would be one of the “paranoid” who wants to conserve the thread. They’re part of a task force to reweave the knots. The job is dangerous. They’re more afraid of the death of their world than their own personal death, however.
    My main question is whether you think the weaving should be specialized; i. e., should I break it up into different types of thread/weaving style/knots? Otherwise, how can the effect of the knot be decided?

    • Chris Winkle

      That’s really cool. If I get this right, magic workers are using pieces of the infrastructure built to support their world for magic instead, at which time it is no longer helping to sustain the world, and by putting these pieces back in place, the protagonist is strengthening that infrastructure.

      So you already know that unraveling a knot has the opposite effect as weaving one. Are you looking to define what weaving one can and can’t do? I would start with some metaphysical idea about exactly what functions these threads are performing to hold the world together. There could be just one type – your system is already very interesting – or more than one. Maybe they are all for structural integrity, without them the world explodes outward into the vacuum of nothingness. These structural integrity threads can be used to apply physical force to something. That can have a lot of applications. Or you could think of the world like a house, a house has wood beams to hold the roof up, pipes to run water, electrical lines to power appliances, etc. If you figure out exactly what each type of thread is doing to hold the world together, you can not only extrapolate what magic they can do when woven, but also predict the damage that the world will suffer when too many of them are used.

      Certainly using more types adds complexity that might be a burden in shorter stories, but I think you could start with the type of thread that is most prevalent, and explain more rare threads as the story progresses. So if you think multiple types would be cool, go for it, if you want to keep it simple, don’t.

      • Madden

        Thank you so much for the reply!
        I think I’ll go for having multiple types of thread that rule certain areas of magic. The problem would lie in too many types for an already-complex magic system. Though this is all tentative, I’d probably categorize it into two types: warp threads (like the structural threads you mentioned) for physical spells and weft threads for nonphysical spells. In actual weaving, warp threads keep tension during weaving and are the main structure of the fabric. Weft threads are what complete the fabric, what is woven through the warp to add the unique characteristics of the fabric (e. g., a 3/1 twill for denim or a satin weave for silk). Do you think the metaphor works when stretched so far?
        Oh, and thanks for the compliments! This is only my second serious piece of writing, so it’s really encouraging to hear stuff like that from someone like you.

        • Chris Winkle

          *someone like me* – well don’t I feel important!

          Yeah, I think your fabric metaphor works great. You’ll have to figure out exactly what characteristic weft threads are adding, but that’s completely doable.

          I’m glad you’re feeling encouraged! Just remember that great ideas are only the start, solid implementation has to follow, and learning that takes a lot of time and practice. Don’t expect to put out a perfect draft, having to do revisions or rewrites is disappointing, but it’s a normal part of the process that helps us strengthen our skills.

          Good luck! It’s a solid premise, and I’m sure you’ll do amazing things with it.

          • Cay Reet

            Yes, first drafts are for your eyes only. Rewriting and revising is what turns the idea into something worth reading. Don’t feel discouraged by the problems of your first draft, remember that you will solve them later.

        • boy

          weft threads could determine the properties of the warp threads, i.e. sheer warp threads create plain physical structures such as a ball and weft webs can add fire and velocity to that ball.

  11. Sophie The Jedi Knight

    In the TV show I’m writing, there are dryads, nymphs, and naiads, which are all parts of nature. They each have powers, but only relative to what they are. For example, a tree nymph can make a leaf tornado appear, but can’t work with other materials. The water creatures, dryads and naiads, are rarer and more powerful (because water has been around for much longer). They can do things with water, and also move farther away from their source (something other nymphs cannot physically do). There is a bit more magic involved in the storyline, but just for that part, do you think that all makes sense? Does it seem too unpredictable?

    • Chris Winkle

      The dryads control water? Dryads are usually depicted as tree spirits, or tree nymphs. Regardless, having nature spirits of various kinds that have power related to their aspect of nature is completely reasonable. However, if they’re asymmetric, I think it’s important to establish why. Why are naiads more rare and powerful than tree nymphs? Then use the answer to characterize all of your nature spirits. So, for instance, let’s say you decide water spirits are more powerful than plant spirits because their aspect is more basic and elemental, whereas plants are more complex organisms that feed off of water. If that’s the case, you’ll want to make animal spirits more common and less powerful like plant spirits, and air spirits rarer and more powerful like water spirits. You just need a set of guidelines that all of your spirits/nymphs follow.

      • Sophie The Jedi Knight

        Awesome, thanks! And I had trouble writing with what nature aspects nymphs, dryads, and naiads would relate to, so I went with that. Thanks again for the advice!

        • 3Comrades

          Sophie, if you’re having trouble with elements here’s a few ideas but no need to add them. Oreads are nymphs of Mountains. If you want you can also make a difference between Nyads and Nereids the usual river and spring nymphs and large powerful Sea nymphs. Dryads represent trees but usually can move about unless they are hamadryads which are locked to a particular tree than a tree type. Aurai are wind nymphs. All are well known for changing things they’re associated with into other things or even changing other women into one of them, so that can be fun.

  12. Matt R

    I went through this process recently with an RPG I’ve been working on. I originally wanted a free form system where just about anything was possible. Then I really thought about the setting and that would break…well, everything. Figured out the important themes and used them to craft something that fits more within the setting. Spell lists ala D&D can be fun, but spell creation in a limited system can be very flavorful.

  13. Renee

    Interesting perspective on the Harry Potter magical system. I see where you are coming from on a few of these points but perhaps since I’ve read the series so many times I think they miss the mark.
    First, the magical “system” is based off European history and mythology. In the series Rowling shows that wands and spells channel the magic within an individual so witches and wizards are not without magic if they don’t have a wand. There are a number of times during the series when Harry performs magic out of anger or fear. Moreover, there are clearly references about people performing experimental magic that can have deadly consequences, for example Luna Lovegood’s mother dies from experimenting with magic and there are parts of the Ministry of Magic that regulate magic and how it is performed.
    As far as the potions issue, again, these are based off historical ideas about magic and potions. Mandrake, which is featured in the second book, has historically been associated with witchcraft.
    Toward the last point, I think the inclusion of “old magic” – in reference to Lily’s motherly love protecting Harry – I believe is more for the benefit of the themes of love and goodness triumphing over evil and hate (Rowling was dealing with grief toward her own mother’s death while writing).
    Lastly, I think the magical structure and logic might not be as fully fleshed out because the focus of of the story is not on that. If it was merely about Harry learning magic more of that logic would be needed.
    Hope I don’t sound like a rabid Potterhead but I don’t think it’s irrational!

    • Cay Reet

      There is a certain logic to the magic in Harry Potter, too, but it’s never completely explained, because the magic only serves the purposes of the story.

      Wand movements and spells serve to direct the magic, to tell it what to do. It’s said more than once that really powerful wizards and witches can do wandless magic or even do magic without saying the spells. It might be argued that the wand and the spell serve to put the mind of the caster in the right mood so they can command the magic.
      That would then explain why ‘accidential’ magic can happen when someone is enraged or otherwise under emotional pressure – it’s triggered subconsciously. That also means that magic is an entity of its own, hence experimenting with it can be highly dangerous.
      ‘Old Magic’ might easily just be a reference to magic used on a more instinctive or subconscious level – hence Lily’s sacrifice can create a protection for her son, because she wanted with all her heart to keep him protected.

      As far as the potions are concerned – specific plants have always been said to possess magical properties, which is why they are used in the potions. Actually, one of the principles of old-time portions-making was that a plant which looks like a certain body part is good for curing that body part (actual results may vary). The mandrake has been considered magical, because its roots do look vaguely like a human being. There are medieval books detailing how to pluck a mandrake from the ground because it was thought that they screamed when unearthed and could kill everyone who heard the scream.
      Potion-making probably would make more sense, if there was more talk about the properties of the ingredients and what they do.

  14. ScWall

    Hey Y’all!!

    Just dipping my toes into this whole “writing” thing for the 1st time, and as I’m sure most of you have experienced, I started out vibrant and full of ideas… but am quickly beginning to feel overwhelmed.
    I just wanted to run a few things past eyes that aren’t mine – any feedback/critique/comments would be hugely appreciated!!

    So, in my story world there’s a plague spreading among the populace known as the Grey Death (somewhat analogous to the Bubonic Plague). Untold masses dead, fear, uncertainty… you get the idea…. Anyway, an Order of…Mages (haven’t thought of a proper name yet) is working in overdrive to contain the outbreak, taking the dying, destroying corpses, etc to prevent the spread of the blight… Or so you think…
    In actual fact, some of the infected survive the Grey Death. More so they come out on the other side… changed…
    In my world, magical ability isn’t something you’re born with, or ordained – it’s contracted, and the Mage’s Guild, who hold tremendous political sway, (as their magical abilities provide a fundamental key to the functioning of the expansionist Empire that serves as the primary backdrop/Antagonist) is whisking people away in an attempt to stop that fact becoming common knowledge and keep their power consolidated.

    The second Twist to my setting is that the “magic” in my world is in fact technological in origin

    Yep, I’m doing the whole “forgotten tech” trope

    The Grey Death is in fact a invasive form of Nanotechnology, accidentally released into the public.
    Those that don’t meet the selection criteria die screaming, but in a chosen few, the nanites alter and enhance their hosts, granting abilities that are perceived as mystical by the ignorant population – which includes the majority of the Order of Mages themselves – as generations of information suppression have led to them buying into their own lies, the truth being known only to the mysterious “Council of Nine”…

    Now, it’s VERY early days for me with this thing, but I’m wondering:
    Should I divide my Mages into sub-classes (similar to Sanderson’s Mistborn)?? I feel that doing so, would provide some much needed structure as I go through the worldbuilding process – but I’m worried that it could make my Mages feel less “wizardy”, and more like X-men?
    Perhaps Mage’s can use all the “magical” abilities, but CHOOSE to specialize?
    Perhaps they only manifest 1 (or 2?) powers, and the there’s a Chosen One, who has all the powers? Too Trope-ish??

    The Mages don’t rule, but merely maintain a “beneficial relationship with those that do”, but the Empire’s form of transportation (and thus commerce) is almost entirely dependent upon magical means…So what does the Imperium bring to the party? what could they have that the Mage’s need/want? suggestions?

    Like I said, it’s early days – but any feedback or suggestions would be super-welcome!!

    • Chris Winkle

      Hi ScWall,

      Very interesting system you’re developing, I really like that it comes from a disease. However, I’m not surprised you’re getting overwhelmed, you’re mixing a lot of different stuff together:
      – lost nanotechnology (difficult to justify how that would be forgotten)
      – a disease caused by the nanites
      – some sort of selection criteria the nanites have
      – a conspiracy to hide everyone selected (difficult to justify how they manage this)
      – powerful mages who control transportation but do not rule (again, difficult)

      If I were you, I would make sure every complication you have is something that’s important to you. It’s easy to get excited and bite off more than you can chew, but you’ll do better if you focus on fewer things.

      I wouldn’t use categories of magic to add structure – that’s just adding more complexity. Instead, I would work on getting the rational rules for how this nanite magic work nailed down really well, and make sure you have lots of limits, and ways in general for that magic to stop working. That will tell you what the Empire could have that the mages can’t just conjure for themselves.

      Best wishes!

      • SunlessNick

        – lost nanotechnology (difficult to justify how that would be forgotten)
        – a disease caused by the nanites
        – some sort of selection criteria the nanites have
        – a conspiracy to hide everyone selected (difficult to justify how they manage this)

        If I may make a suggestion as to how to tie these four together, have it not be the first time this has happened. When the nanites were first created, their creators – by which I don’t mean their society, but their specific inventors – failed to contain them, resulting in a plague similar to the Grey Death. This was long enough ago to be remembered as an advanced society falling, but its manner of advancement being conflated with the “magic” that exists now, and most specific knowledge of it lost. Meanwhile, most people “selected for magic” by the nanites didn’t know what was happening – they might have been able to make better guesses than people now, but next to surviving the end of their world didn’t devote a lot of thought to it. A few generations later, some of them did discover the truth, but kept it secret for fear of being blamed by association for the fall, and of people fearing a magical plague happening again. Now the fall is a far more distant memory, and one less likely to be associated with mages, but the habit has become too ingrained to change.

    • The Mad Friar

      Im not sure if this will help ScWall any, but I experimented with something very similar a number of years ago. I’ve since abandoned it and am working on something that, while in a similar vein, is quite different.

      In this world i was playing with humanity had long ago developed nanotechnology as a means of improving quality of life; whether that meant cleaning up the environment, being used for medical purposes, or for body augmentation didn’t really matter. The machines were built in centralized factories embedded with instructions for their specific purpose and packaged up and sent out around the globe.

      However, as we are all well aware humanity and its constructs are fragile things and some event happens that upsets the norm; war, a terrorist attack on these factories, solar flare, etc… Regardless this event causes a change within these factories, the main computer systems get a little bit fried, perhaps even gain a modicum of self-awareness. Humanity loses control of the system, the factories start belching out nanites into the atmosphere, these new nanites containing instructions that are corrupted, missing a few bytes here and or even having added a few. These small but significant changes in their functionality causes untold chaos; billions die and the climate is thrown off by the massive amount of metal particulates now in the upper atmosphere.

      but humanity is creative and designs massive jammers that are able to disable the nanites that enter within ‘X’ radius of them. In time cities arise around these safe harbors, and ever so slowly life begins again.

      Cut to hundreds of years later; whatever advanced technology there was has fallen into disarray, with no one knowing how to use the few operable devices left. The jammers are slowly getting weaker, and the nanites, while the have mostly settled in these past centuries, slowly encroach upon the population.

      The nanites of this future continue their work, though they are many generations after the initial outbreak and the AIs have “calmed” them. But these machines are still not quite able to understand what it means to better humanity; many still die, while those that survive have varying effects placed upon them (perhaps there’s some genetic basis, idk).

      Certain effects that were considered:
      Entire body effects::
      Many receive horrible mutations, the nanites only know that they are to better humanity but they have no notion of what being a human means, some are physically melded into grotesque shapes, some lose their minds becoming like feral beasts.

      Others get a bit more pleasing mutations; sensory enhancements, enhanced reflexes, strength, bone density, accelerated healing.
      —————————————————————————————
      Nanite clustering effects::kind of dangerous though, they’re a lot like tumors, and have a tendency to grow.
      Depending on where the clusters are and how they are structured different effects emerge:
      mental enhancements, the nanites acting as auxiliary brains.
      man to machine interfaces, nanites cluster on nerve ending allowed some individuals to easily interact with ancient tech, or even graft it into their bodies.
      “Magic” certain individuals acquire the ability to issue new instructions to existing nanites, whether in the environment or within others bodies.

      That wall of gobbldygook was as far as i got (there were a few story bits though; going to one of the factories and contending with the burgeoning AIs, people with unflattering mutations being exiled or outright killed, fear of the outside and of the disease, the worry that the holy artifact gifted by the gods(the jammers) is growing dim, whatever). And i ain’t going to be touching it ever again, so if you or anyone else finds some sort of use from it, have fun.

    • Ryan R

      I like the fact you’ve got a cool new way people gain magical abilities- FAR FAR FAR to many high fantasy novels just have it be the usual they’re born with it (there’s nothing wrong with that way- heck I’ve even used that, it’s simple and the easiest way to have it)- but I love seeing unique ways besides just being born with it.
      Also I like the fact that the Mages of the world are very politically influential feels so real because that’s what would happen! In real history governments & monarchies & over influential groups typically only become so due to Power, which they get from either, Food, Armies, Technology or Money (and usually one of those can help get you any of the others)- but in a fantasy world Magic would be on that list (the extent of which would depend on it’s abilities but regardless a group of Mages would without a doubt. Be hugely important In politics.
      I also like the conspiracy, there’s not many like that in high fantasy which makes it cool.
      Also I think the name Grey Death is cool, especially if there’s some in world reason? Like something to do with the changing of the victims skin? Or some effect it has on the world?

      I know it’s been a whole since you made this post, so I was just curious to how things have developed since then? I’d love to hear more about what the magic can do.

      • ScWall

        Hey Ryan R – I’m still plugging away at it (when Life lets me anyway!), revising, scrapping, re-revising…

        Because I never seem to do anything by halves, my original idea for my book has spiraled out of control into a series, set in a “Sanderson-esque” system of loosely connected worlds…

        But to elaborate a bit further – The name “Grey Death” was inspired by the Bubonic Plague pandemic of the 1300’s, known as the “Black Death” – because, let’s face it, that’s a kickass name!
        But it also refers to the effects of the nanite “plague”. By the time of my story, the nanites have taken up residence pretty much EVERYWHERE. Luckily for the majority of the population of the Voden Imperium, the nanites are happy to sit mostly dormant, quietly replicating away. When the nanites detect the presence of something within a host, the nanites become active, forcibly altering & rebuilding the subjects body from the inside out. Those that survive the process emerge as a member of the “Exalted” (believed to have been chosen by a higher power)… those that don’t die screaming, bodies horribly twisted and in extreme cases, even dissolving into silvery, grey goop.

  15. ScWall

    Hey everyone! thanks for the feedback!
    Just a quick note to let everyone know that I am still here, just had some of that icky “Life” stuff get in the way. Update/thoughts soon…

  16. Norlin

    Hey,

    At first – thanks a lot for this article, it helps to organize some things in my head.

    I’ve found this post while looking any information about making own magic system for an cRPG. I want to make it rational, just didn’t thought about it from this point.

    And after reading this article, I’ve found there is one important question missing: How exactly magic affects the world?

    This is where I’m stuck for, to the moment.
    For some systems it could be obvious: for example, as I understand, in the Avatar those guys can control existing non-magical things (water, air, fire, earth).

    It’s easy to handle in books, because author can just describe the effects. But in case of computer game, need to implement those rules somehow.

    If anyone interested, here is description of my magic system:
    1. There are multiple types of energies floating around everywhere in the world (some of those energies similar to Elements of nature – Air, Water, Fire, Earth; plus Mana, Life, Mind and, probably, more…)
    2. These energies are not strictly bound to non-magical air, water, fire and so on, but definitely could affect each other: real fire produces fire energy, in water there are lot of water energy and so on. From the other side, putting lot of fire energy into single point will produce real fire, moving air energies will make air blows.
    But, in general, all those energies are more-less equally distributed everywhere.
    “Mana” is the “clean” energy, without any attunement.
    “Life” is responsible for, well, life and health.
    “Mind” is represents consciousness
    None of those energies could be stored by characters themselves, so they can only use energies from environment. The only difference is Life energy contained in every living creature, and every creature has own “Mind ball” in place of real brain. (Obviously, if character will try to use this energy, he probably will die).
    3. Characters could control those energies by some kind of telekinesis (“Thoughts & will”) plus Mana energy. Mana could be used right from surrounding world or produced from other types of energies.
    Character’s ability to control/convert each type of energy goes from some skills which could be improved and basically limited by amount of energy which the character can control at any single spell.

    All those rules are allow to create literally any “classic” spell, except teleportation/portals.

    For which I’ve added some more rules:
    – Each “blob” of energy could be bound to the other “blob” of the same type of energy and it will result in kind of quantum entanglement from real physics – everything what happens with on “blob” will happens with other “blob”.
    In case if something enters inside such bonded blob it will exit on the other side of the bond. So, basically it will be a portal (or teleportation, in case if anyone makes the bond from surrounding air blob, for example).
    – Mind energies are bit different: they could be bonded with any type of energy. For example, a character could bind own mind blob to a fire blob – and basically then he will control those fire, while his body will unconscious.

    So, that’s it, in general.

    But here is the problem – since those energies are not strictly relates to the non-magical substances, I’m not quite clear how exactly my energies will affect characters…

    • Cay Reet

      I think the easiest way to explain how magic (any kind, really) affects the world is through will. The willpower to make changes, no matter what kind of powers or tools are needed in addition.

      Avatar is, essentially, based on elemental magic – which is the ability to control one or more elements. You can find that kind of magic partially in a system like Magic – The Gathering (which has earth, fire, and air … I think … it’s been a while). Sometimes, as in the example I made, other natural processes, such as life and death (or decay) or day and night are added. Nature as a such comes in every now and then as well.

      Whether with words, gestures, complicated rituals, or just pure thinking, the idea that someone can control reality with their mind is at the base of every magical system. The questions which I usually ask myself are ‘how difficult is it to inflict changes’ (which means does it take a two-day ritual or just a thought) and ‘what are the costs’ (because if magic doesn’t have a bad side, like the cost for a spell, there is no limiting it).

      • Norlin

        That’s not exactly what I mean… I’m talking about low-level “How”.

        In your case, how exactly the “will” affects something:
        Does it just move objects/parts of object?
        Or does it speed up molecules/atoms to heat up an object (if we have mostly realistic world)?
        Or some other options?..

        • Cay Reet

          I would say on a molecular level. The four elements are chemical states: solid (earth), liquid (water), gas (air), and plasma (fire). That means every control over them would be on the molecular level, manipulating the molecules and atoms to speed up or slow down or (for changes) change their configuration. Decay would be speeding up entropy, life would be slowing it down or trying to instill some kind of ‘anti-entropy’ into the world.

          • Norlin

            Sorry, I’m not quite understand this… Could you please describe some spell example with such system?

          • Cay Reet

            I wouldn’t work with spells with such a system. Gestures could be used to move molecules (that would be how Avatar does it). Or it could indeed be a matter of merely thinking things into existence – specific ability necessary.
            You would ‘paint’ specific patterns in the air in front of you while at the same time your mind involuntarily forces the molecules to obey and move into a new pattern, speed up, spread out (going for solid to liquid or liquid to gas), heat up (going from any other state to plasma). Reversing entropy would be a matter of gestures as well as speeding it up.

            If you want spells, you shouldn’t work with elements, but work on the premise that magic is real and a power like light or sound which can be guided with the voice. Or you go back to the idea that words shape the world, which is why we have the word ‘enchantment’ which comes from chanting.

          • Norlin

            I’ve used term “spell” in a broad sense, I mean just an example of what you can do with such system… So, basically, you mean just the same system as in Avatar (roughly, just moving the substances physically) plus transformations between substances (earth to water to air to fire and so on)?

          • Cay Reet

            I’m using the elements as chemical states and even nature transforms between them (ice to water, water to steam, or the other way around for water). Real transformation would be something like lead to gold, influencing the molecules to give up their bonds and settle into a new configuration (gods, it has been ages since my last chemistry lesson). Everything is made up of atoms and molecules, so someone with the power to influence those could, theoretically, create new stuff in a heartbeat. Which is why you need to attach a heavy price.

            Technically, you could link influencing the elements (moving earth to create a wall for instance) to the way Avatar handles it. Then you would have to decide whether someone can use all elements that way or just one (as everyone safe for the Avatar in the series). An elemental mage could probably use several elements, if they trained for it. Perhaps they’d have to choose two which are not opposites (fire/water or earth/air would be opposites). You could add the principle of ley lines to that, meaning a mage would have to gather power from his or her element(s) first to use them. A water line would provide energy for a water mage, an earth line for an earth mage, and so on. That way, it would mean using that energy to influence an element. It would also bring a limit, because the ley lines don’t exist everywhere. Robert Asprin’s MYTH novels actually do a good job limiting magic in a similar way. Some dimensions have a lot of energy and a lot of lines, others have few. Mages trained in a world with little power usually are very strong in one with more power, because they can make a lot out of a little. Since the MYTH adventures are all about dimension travelling, that is an important thing to know.

            Or, stepping away from the elements as a such, a mage needs to chant specific words to achieve a specific result (‘classic’ spell work). Perhaps, a ritual needs chants which will take most of the night. Perhaps, the basic power influenced by the caster is stronger at a certain time of the month (new moon or full moon for instance) or of the day (noon, midnight, sundown, sunrise).

            Whatever you figure out, it should have an internal logic. That will keep your characters from going deus ex machina at you (meaning suddenly doing something they shouldn’t be able to, just because you need them to). If an elemental mage can only use elements which are not opposite, they have to choose between the four elements when they start training. If they need to gather energy beforehand, they can’t just build a wall of ice without any preparation (which limits their powers). If they need to rely on chanted rituals, they can’t do something in a few seconds and they can’t start a ritual while the enemy is looking for them, because the voice would lead the enemy to the hiding spot. If they need hand gestures to do magic, they can’t do it while tied up.

    • ScWall

      Hey Norlin!

      This sounds intriguingly cool, although if you’re designing it for use in a computer game, might I ask how are you handling the problem that (I would imagine) you’d have to assign EVERY object/environ in your game world a “energy” attribute/variable, dictating how much player the Player can draw upon, and what happens when the Player hits that limit?

      Anyway, just to throw MY 2 cents in – A while back, I was trying to design a magic system for a Skyrim Mod some friends of mine were attempting… That ultimately went nowhere. I shall now splurge it out here – If you like it, and you think you can bend it to fit your idea, then go for it!!

      *** Splurge begins here: ***

      So the idea was born out of the fact that in a lot of computer games, playing a Mage just doesn’t feel very… Magey. More like you’re a easily broken, magical gun (Aim, shoot fireball, repeat.) SO, strangely inspired by a Looney Tunes skit, staring Daffy Duck (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xi_hcwB8i64 ), I came up with a system of Runes that could be strung together to create different spell effects – that way, through their understanding of the Runes (and the underlying mechanics, which was NOT immediately revealed to the Player), Players could effectively “reverse engineer” opponent spells, Counter-spell and undertake other such “wizardly” endeavors.

      Of course, there had to be some in-world lore and stuff to go with the system, but the system / idea in a nutshell…

      The idea, when broken down is comprised of:
      “And the One became Two, Two became Three, and Three became All Things…”

      Prime (Mana)

      (Realm)
      Order Chaos

      (Aspect)
      Mental Physical Spiritual

      (Element)
      Aether Air Fire Water Earth

      (Target)
      Area Item Creature Self

      (Actions)
      Absorb Project Summon Dispel Protect Destroy Restore

      Players cast spells by arranging corresponding runes in different configurations to express the Spells intention, With the Runes inter-playing off each other in a “Rock/Paper/Scissor” manner.
      As the Wizard unravels the Great Mysteries, and gains understanding of the Universe, they unlock additional rune slots, allowing for more complex, refined spells.
      It’s important to note, that the “Elements” don’t just represent their Physical Aspects, but also their Symbolic and Conceptual inferences as well (Through their Mental/Spiritual Aspects), for instance: Water is often associated with the concepts of Healing & Nourishment. (somewhere I have a document outlining Philosophical associations between Elements…).

      Prime / Mana worked a little differently, in that each rune slot had a certain number of “Mana-Points” that could be applied, up to a value equal to the Player’s skill/level. This was implemented to further refine (/complicate?) the interactions between spells of opposing Wizards.
      ie: Water beats Fire, but MY level 5 Fireball beats YOUR level 3 Ice Wall.

      .: SAMPLE SPELLS :.

      Project | Fire
      Simple Fireball

      Project | Fire | Destroy | Item
      Fireball that damages a character’s weapons/armor, while leaving the character unharmed.

      Dispel | Spiritual | Fire | Creature
      Calm Creature. (In this case, dispelling the Spiritual (Emotional) aspects associated with Fire – in this case Anger/Passion.)

      Given how late it is, I hope this makes SOME sort of sense… :-S

      • Norlin

        Hey!

        Thanks alot for your thoughts, it looks interesting! Roughly, looks like extended “noun+verb” system, right?

        > how are you handling the problem that (I would imagine) you’d have to assign EVERY object/environ in your game world a “energy” attribute/variable

        This is the easiest part from technical point of view in my current design. For now, I’m thinking that the energy will be a 3D field spreaded around (basically, just a math function). So, for each point in environment will be possible to calculate the energy value.

        Also I’m thinking about the idea when none of characters can store those energy. E.g., player can only use some energy from the environment, depending on available amount and the player’s skills. It will allow to make some zones where one or other magic will not work, or – otherwise – where will be much easier to cast specific spells.

      • LazyOrangeGirl

        My magic system is based off of good and bad. Both have always existed since the beginning of time and revolve around each other in order to exist. Demonic magic is based on bad and Angelic magic is based on good.

        I’m currently working on subtypes to it but I am miserably failing. My major problem is that the subtypes don’t connect with the main types of magic (demonic and angelic).

        How do I come up with subtypes that would suit the main types of magic?

        • Cay Reet

          I would take a step back from ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ first of all. Angelic and demonic can stay, but don’t over-simplify things. Angels are not incapable of doing bad things and demons can be nice every now and then.

          You need to make your sub-types of magic logical parts of the main type of magic. Now, I haven’t seen anything about your system, apart from what you’ve written here, but one easy distinction to make would be to give the angelic side healing magic and the demonic side something like destruction or seduction. Use attributes or abilities you would connect with angels or demons and make them sub-types of the magic in question.

          First of all, you need to figure out what both types of magic can do. What kind of defensive and offensive things can they do? Can one person wield both of them or only one? Do people get to choose their side in this case or are they born with the ability to wield one side? Do you want to bring in some elemental control? If you do, how will you split the elements between the two sides? If a person can wield both kinds of magic, do they influence the person? Does the wielder have to be careful not to tip to one side to much? What limitations does the magic put on the wielder? Is it connected to religion or religions of your world (since something based on the principle of good and bad [if you have to keep that, use evil instead of bad] should have a connection to religion)? Do users of demonic magic face persecution? Do users of angelic magic have to join some kind of religious group? There’s a lot to figure out about the basics, before you can think about sub-types.

    • LazyOrangeGirl

      My magic system is based off of good and bad. Both have always existed since the beginning of time and revolve around each other in order to exist. Demonic magic is based on bad and Angelic magic is based on good.

      I’m currently working on subtypes to it but I am miserably failing. My major problem is that the subtypes don’t connect with the main types of magic (demonic and angelic).

      How do I come up with subtypes that would suit the main types of magic?

      • Ettina

        Maybe incorporate the Lawful Chaotic axis, too?

        Or maybe have subtypes based on the seven deadly sins and heavenly virtues?

        Or just think up what you want to have be things that good and evil magic can do, put them in categories, and decide which good magic categories are opposites to evil magic categories, and create new areas to fill holes.

        For example – do you want evil spellcasters to raise undead? And good guys to heal people? Maybe death magic is evil and life magic is good, and both fit the theme of controlling people’s lives.

  17. Anna123

    I love your blog a lot, but I’m annoyed with your bashing of the Harry Potter series in almost every article.

  18. James David Hensley

    I have recently, but have wrote before, in my world created a new magic systems. It may sound similar to Avatar but it is growing. In this world, soon to be named, certain people have access to an energy that is the personification of nature. Humans have it too, but they are a small piece. Probably best if I give you an example.

    Varren slumped into his chair, a curse leaving his lips as he had forgotten to blow out the torch in the hallway. The flickering flame casting irregular patches of shadows against the wall was the evidence. He shrugged and complained, feeling too tired to trudge away from comfort. His thoughts compiled into a fortified plan to use his skills to accomplish it, without leaving his comfortable chair. He focused his will and the energy that boiled in his mind, letting it out like smoothly flowing water into the air. The mingling of the two forces became one and allowed him to harness the energy of the wind, one face of the energy of nature. A single push, that turned out to be a shove, pushed the still air into a rising gust of air. The air swirled out into the hallway, successfully blowing out the lit torch but haphazardly knocking it off its supports. A curse rang out as he knew he should of just got up instead of trying to weave when he was too tired to focus.

  19. I disagree. I’m not a novel writer, but I am a worldbuilder. This article is very normative and I think it’s furthers cliché.
    I think rule based magic is important for worldbuilding, not novel writing. The Soft-Hard magic divide is much more useful for writers and if you listen to Sanderson, he is much more careful not to state hard magic is inherently better than soft magic. There are pros and cons.
    What I really don’t like about this article is the formula on how to create a magic system. There is no formula; you are just fueling the clichés.
    Why should I only have one source of magic? Why do I need spellcasters? Why should the magic be complete or symmetrical? If you are not creating a game, where you want a firemage be as powerful as a dark wizard for balancing sake, your magic doesn’t need to be symmetrical. And if you use an elemental magic system be creative, inform yourself what elements are overused already.
    There are many assumptions in this article, it only focused on a small, known part of magic. I want to encourage writers and worldbuilders to stray from this formula.

    • Cay Reet

      Why you should create a rational magic system as a writer? Because people tend to be put off when your story changes rules in the middle. When you suddenly decide to change the way magic works – or it looks like it, because you’re winging it with the system – readers get unhappy.

      You can have several sources of magic, but you need to bring them together in a way that makes sense – at least in the novel. It doesn’t have to make sense in our world, but in the world of the story, it does.

      It’s the same way you need to build your world logical for a novel. If travelling to the tower of the Dark Mage takes three weeks on horseback, there should be a good reason if you tell the reader the way back only took a couple of hours. Mistakes as huge as that one turn people off reading your stories. That goes for magic as well as for everything else. You need to think it through and you need to make it understandable for the reader, because otherwise they can’t imagine your world and they can’t dive into it – which is why people read stories.

      • I’m sorry. I don’t write often in English or at all. So this sentence:
        “I think rule based magic is important for worldbuilding, not novel writing.” was really misleading. I just think that Sanderson hard-soft magic divide is much more useful for novel writers. Sanderson recognized that the hard magic system is a fashion, just like soft magic was before and this article doesn’t acknowledge this. It tries to convince the reader the newly defined “rational” magic system is what every fantasy writer should strive for. I think that is arguable, but fine I personally want to read hard magic systems anyway. So that’s where the other two paragraphs of my previous comment come in. I don’t like giving writers a formula for magic systems. It is pretty lose, yea, but it is still there and we have seen magic systems like this a thousand times.

  20. Tumblingxelian/Vazak

    A very interesting and well laid out post, though I don’t quote agree with all the recommended reading.

  21. Colour

    Maybe I’m just saying this because I’d defend Harry Potter to the ends of the earth. Or maybe growing up with it has shaped my perspective. But I don’t necessarily… want to read about rational magic systems. Because that makes it much more obvious and harder to forgive if you do need to break a rule for plot. I’m now looking for consistency. So I’d rather go science fiction, or full-on, “it’s my world, I make the rules” magic.

    • Cay Reet

      If you’re doing the system well, you don’t need to break a rule for the plot … or you can make it shine through beforehand that under specific circumstances rules can be broken (or at any rate bent very far). It depends on how you build up your magic system.

  22. Ettina

    In one of my worlds (an urban fantasy kitchen sink setting where many mythological creatures from many different cultures exist), the rules are:

    Creatures can either have magic or be magic. The only ones that blur this line are possessed – ie they’re two organisms in a symbiotic or parasitic relationship with each other. Possession can only occur between a creature that has magic and one that is magic.

    A lot of magical effects can only affect creatures that are magic, or affect them much more strongly. These effects all involve either draining, manipulating or sensing magical forces, including the stuff that runs the internal workings of magical creatures. Silver drains magic and therefore hurts all creatures that are magic.

    The magical effects that affect the physical world all manipulate one of the four fundamental forces of physics. Magical creatures all have an innate connection to one of the forces, which they can use in ways dictated by the kind of creature that they are. Vampires are electromagnetic, which is why they are hurt by sunlight (photoelectric effects), are solid but turn to dust when killed (they actually are dust, and their solid form is a magnetic shell), have superstrength (they can easily lift metal objects, and can use opposing magnetic forces to move their own body quite forcefully). Shapechangers all use either the strong or weak nuclear forces, and telekinetics and poltergeists use gravity.

    In another world (a fantasy high-magic setting), I haven’t fleshed out quite as much, but I do know that magic is powered by your soul, which is also needed to run all brain activity. Vampires are commonly believed to be soulless, but in reality their human soul was replaced by a vampire soul, which alters their personality, gives them vampire powers and renders them incapable of casting any spells. Human variation in magical ability is determined by how much excess soul they have, after running all of their brain activity. Skill also plays a part, and is determined by both intelligence and creativity.

    All spells require a minimum level of power to run, though many can be empowered further. If you don’t have enough power to spare, the spell fizzles. Casting also generates colors based on how much power you drew upon to cast it. (Yellow is weakest, purple is strongest.) Spells that affect another person’s soul are the strongest and are pretty much all purple level.

    In addition, exposure to sea water improves magical ability for humans slightly, especially childhood exposure, so the strongest spellcasters are all in coastal areas.

    • Ryan R

      Hi there, I really like the sound of your magics (especially the high fantasy one)- I like the idea about the colours representing the power levels. And the whole thing about souls & vampires! (And I LOVE the idea of sea water improving magical power- it’s like a psudeo science in the sense that you could say that the Sea Water makes the magic (like electricity) conduct better and so being around it over long periods would wear off on you and make you more powerful?)

      I’m just really curious to know more about your magic! What can your high fantasy magic do as in abilities and can’t do like limitations? For example my magic is about energy- but you can’t control energy like Motion in the traditional telokinies way (you think & point and it moves anywhere)- instead you can only increase the speed of a moving object or decrease it’s speed (to a full stop if your skilled enough) or create movement in a static object (only in one direction as if you hit it- and only that single inital pow of motion)

      So if you’d like your magic to be one of the driving forces in the conflict of your story then it’ll be great to know what you can and can’t do with it and understand if there are any limitation to the magic which may make it more rememberable, interesting and unique- plus create a challange for your protagonist who has to use their wits to work around the limitation and solve a problem

  23. Ryan R

    Hi there, I know this blog was posted a while ago but I’ve only just found it and it’s exactly the kind of thing I’ve been looking for, plus I’ve seen more recent comments here so hopefully they’ll be some people still interested.

    My magic system is tied in with a lot of the religions and science of my fantasy world. Basically at the begining of the universe the two forces (or gods) Chaos & Order struggled over which would have dominion over the world- Order appeared to win with the natural world as it is ordered and follows laws of physics ect. But Chaos is discovered to still exist and actually controls the inner workings of our universe (similar to a pusdeo quantum physics where laws aren’t followed and anything can happen at anytime) This (called the Ether) rarely affects our natural world but when it does the laws of physics are broken in the form of magic. Magical properties are randomly given to some creatures and elements (eg: Fire breathing dragons, Gem stones that aren’t affected by gravity)- this type of magic is Irational but still has rules (depending on each specific example)

    But the most common form of magic is the one humans can control- this is a rational hard magic that is all about Energy, our ability to create & manipulate it. There are 7 types of energy that all link with one another (the first two I made up as a pseudo science which explains the workings of Life & Sentience in a pre-modern scientific age)

    – Sentience
    – Life
    – Electricity
    – Light
    – Heat
    – Motion
    – Sound

    These are the 7 forms of energy this magic affects. A person can use their mental conviction to create any of these energy forms by channeling the Ether (Breaking the law of Conservation- Something from Nothing). For every energy type, there are only 3 things you can do with the energy. You can CREATE new energy into an object that wasn’t already producing that same energy (Eg- Can make a static ball move in any direction). You could also INCREASE existing energy in an object (Eg- Can make a Moving ball move faster) Or you could DECREASE existing energy in an object (Eg- Can make a Moving ball slow down and even stop & become completely static). This works the same for all energy types.
    But usually a person can only ever do one of those three (create, increase or decrease), and only do it for a certain energy type. It is not genetic, and it depends on the persons’ natural ability to feel/ ‘synchronise’ with the energy type and become familiar enough with it that they can produce their own from the Ether. One type usually comes naturally to you (depending on your personality and familiarity) but through practice you can learn other types. (Note- it is a lot easier to learn the Other Methods of Create, Increase & Decrease of the same energy type than it is to learn how to use other Energies- but if you work hard enough it can be done)
    The only other limiting factor to the magic is that in order to produce the energy in the first place, is that you need ‘Inspiration’ to help channel your thoughts & familiarity. Eg- In order to make the static ball move with your mind you need something around you that you can either see or feel is moving to help focus you. The more practiced & skilled to are then the less and less the Inspiration needs to be- if you’re unskilled then you’ll need a person running by or a tree falling over to Inspire you. But at extremely high levels (Demi god level) the breeze might be enough.

    Skill in this magic system is all about how little inspiration you need to produce your own energy; How many methods of create, increase or decrease you can do & How many energy types you can work with; and how much energy you can actually produce at once. Eg- How fast you can make the ball move (The heavier the object the slower it moves)
    Everyone has their own ‘power level’ amount of energy they can produce in one go.

    Really sorry about the length but I’m really happy with this magic system and am wondering what other people might think of it- and the people here seem like they know what they’re talking about and are enthusiastic to hear more.
    What do you think? Are their any parts you’re confused about? There are 2 other different types of magic to do with – Time/Space & – Meta Magic of you’d like to hear more about the magic from the novel I wrote.

  24. Maggie

    Just a drop in, but your explanation of the plant use in relation to magic should be credited to Robin McKinley’s use of it in the Hero and the Crown when the MC eats the Surka plant.. it almost seems like this is your reference base.

    • Chris Winkle

      I just made it up, I had no idea there was a magic system out there that was so similar. With so many spec fic books, it’s not unusual to have such coincidences. Few ideas are original at this point.

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