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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

How to Create an Eclectic Magic System – For those who want casting to look or work a certain way, I created another method that starts with the casting and works backwards.

Creating a Magic System for Superpowers – If the magic you’re creating varies from person to person, this article is for you.

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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  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!

    • Lews Therin Telamon

      Hail to the dragon reborn

      • Kurt Anderson

        Let the dragon ride again on the winds of time…

    • S.T. Ockenner

      Plot-wise, yes. But it technically isn’t magic if you put yourself in the character’s shoes.

  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.

    • frakk

      Just because the system has volumes of lore and backstory to support it doesn’t make it a rational system, though it does help to make it more believable. Rowling has cherry picked her source material from myths that cross many cultures, Irish, Celtic, Greek, Welsh, Slavic, etc. and much if not all this her non original content that she is taking from is founded in actual fairy tales with absolutely no magical or rational system. I’d classify it as being more rational than say Disney’s Aladdin, but it is still in a category of high fantasy where the limits as to what is possible are still a bit fuzzy.

  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.

    • Kurisu

      Another elite bending technique is Astral Projection since their are the most spiritual of benders. Jinora does it at some point. I forget the episode but Aang (obviously) and Zaheer do it also. Korra did it but that was more so of Avatar state then an Airbending technique.

  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.

    • frakk

      I love your idea Madden, however if i may point out one significant flaw that you will very quickly need to address. If every spell casts creates a knot that must result in the opposite effect happening then the incentive to kill becomes too great. If I knew that I could kill every jerk i know unapologetically and without remorse, and be assured that someone would be returned to life as a result of that action then what’s stopping me from just killing indiscriminately all the time?
      It sends a positive message to the reader when the magic being performed is a positive being paid for by a regrettable negative but sends the wrong message when its a cheat or lethal act that is only being rewarded or reinforced with a positive.
      As fascinating and logical as this system is I think it loses points on merit and morality and doesn’t set a good example to children.
      The only way around this that i can see is if killing Voldermort brought Hitler back to life. A damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario.

    • David

      If you’ll allow my humble but informed opinion. If you’re working with leylines and the fabric of reality you should model the whole earth as a living thing(as it is)but not necessarily conscious, although that could add tension and the leylines and threads could be like vains in an interconnected system that gets clogged from the knots relating to all manner of natural and unnatural disasters/phenomenon and just like any living thing this system would naturally resemble a circulatory/lymphatic system with currents and nodes to regulate and cleanse said currents. OK that was alot and I totally understand if you choose to use none of my ideas or stopped reading halfway through, these are just my thoughts based on my research on how our world works physically and metaphysically. Good luck with your universe.

  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


    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 ( ), 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)

      Order Chaos

      Mental Physical Spiritual

      Aether Air Fire Water Earth

      Area Item Creature Self

      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


        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.

    • Jama

      You mentioned Mana, Life and Mind as the “elements” of your magic system. What about Time? Light? Money? (oops, forget this one!). Spirit? Could perhaps some or all of them be elements alongside the classic four?

  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.

        • GustavKuriga

          Neither hard magic nor soft magic are a “fashion”. You’re deluding yourself if you think that. They’re both perfectly legitimate forms of doing magic in a story IF DONE RIGHT. This isn’t a “formula” for magic systems, but a guide for those not sure where to start or what exactly is a magic system.

          I would point to Ancient Magus Bride as an example where you have both soft magic such as that used by both creatures of myth and the various magi, as well as the more grounded “hard” sort practiced by sorcerers. The difference between the two is obvious as soon as you watch the show. The former is more mysterious, dangerous, and “wild”, able to do far more but without much control by those who have little experience. The latter, sorcerers, actually do not have magic ability. They instead study the laws of nature and learn to manipulate them.

          And boy, rational magic systems aren’t new. What did you think alchemy was?

  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.

  25. Alice Shard

    I’m creating a story set in a dragon-people city, but humans do exists. I have three ways to get magic, and four types of magic, and several races of dragon.
    Magic types:
    Hydro (water)
    Combustial (fire)
    Shocker (electric)
    Eco (plant life)

    Ways to obtain magic:
    BORNE: obtain magic through genetics. Magic is a dominant trait, but rare in some races. Using magic is physically draining. You just “feel” the spell, you don’t need to recite anything.
    LEARNED: obtain magic through studying. It takes decades to master a Type of magic, and some mages (any magic user, human, dragon person, whatever) spend their whole lives perfecting one spell. Incantations are used, and using the magic is mentally draining.
    GIVEN: obtained magic through an illegal potion or spell cast by a very powerful mage. Powers are similar to Borne, but are not very draining. The person who got the powers is called the Given. Both the caster and Given are in prisoned if police find out, but the caster is normally in for 10-30 years. The Given is normally in for 3-7 year. Both are checked on periodically by officials after. Givens get the “Twisted” magic Type, parallel to the caster
    Caster is Hydro, Given is Ice
    Caster is Combustial, Given is Earth and rock
    Caster is Shocker, Given is Air and Weather
    Caster is Eco, Given controls animals, which is basically mind control.
    Because the powers are not very hard to control, Givens are feared and supposedly “taken care of” by the government. If you are the child of a Given and you are born with magic, you are called a Twisted mage, and have the same powers as your Given parent. Your powers will be just as draining as a Borne’s magic. These people are often social outcasts.

    Dragon “breeds” or races (this is with Borne magic):
    SWAMP, kind of based off of iguanas in design, rare chance of getting magic. Weak to medium Hydro, very rare chance of getting weak Eco as well, Learns magic more easily than other races.
    WESTERN VOLCANO, based off of western dragons in design, very likely chance of getting weak to strong Combustial magic, very rare chance of getting another type of magic as well.
    VINE DWELLER, based off of forest nymphs from folklore in design, moderate chance of getting medium to strong Eco magic, extremely rare chance to get weak magic of another Type as well.
    EASTERN THUNDERER, based off of Eastern dragons in design, likely chance of getting weak to strong Shocker magic, rare-ish to moderate chance of getting magic of another Type as well, Learns magic a bit more slowly than other races.
    Hope I did well!

  26. Daniel

    Hello to anybody that see’s this.
    I’m on my first crack of trying to writing and my magic system feels too simple to me and not sure if it’s good enough and would like a little insight.
    First, if it’s similar to someone else’s that is purely coincidental.
    So it goes like this, everyone in the world can use magic though alot choose not to because they don’t want to get caught up in the conflict with all that do use it. Everyone is also born with it. Now the magic is tied directly to one’s own life force, the more magic they use the weaker their magic becomes and the weaker they become, with rest their strength will come back but their magic will not and if they run out means they used up their entire life force so they die and the only known way to regain all their magic and life force is to take the life of another completely consuming their victims life force\magic.
    All people that use magic are split up into different yet powerful factions. The Sorcerer’s faction includes wizards and witches and then there’s sub factions with in the faction that include the like of temptresses, necromancer’s and others I can’t seem to remember though I have them written down somewhere. Sorcerer’s tend to specialize in offensive magic except the temptresses, necromancers and spell book readers. Offensive like elemental magic and short time manipulation magic etc. The more powerful the magic used the bigger the chance of them dyeing in battle cause either they became tired and was killed or the spell was more than the magic\ life force they had left.

    And the other main faction (don’t have a name for them yet) use mainly defensive magic like using a shield just strong enough to protect them from immediate danger and phasing (though still thinking about what that would entail) and others I can’t think of at the moment and still trying to think of more.
    Other magic that is extremely rare is healing lethal injuries or bring someone back that was just killed (only have a certain amount of time to do it). It’s a life for a life type meaning it will kill the caster to save the person their healing, that’s why nobody even bothers to learn it.
    Another rare one is magic transference, my idea of that one is gaining an ability that an extinct race once used, examp. would be for instance the power to congure spectral weapons like a sword or bow and arrow, though they are powerful magic and would be taxing on one’s body and life.
    That’s all I can think of at this very moment and I don’t want to make this comment any longer. So I would greatly appreciate some constructive feedback back. And sorry about the length of this comment.

    • Chris Winkle

      Hi Daniel.

      I see the basis of a rational magic system there, and you have good limits. However, it sounds like there’s a gap between the rational aspect and the large assortment of different things your magic casters are doing. You might need more development in the “how magic is accessed and directed” area. Why are some people spell book readers but not others? Why can only some people do time magic or elemental magic? Your different factions have magic that feels very different, and that’s hard to put into a rational system.

      If you haven’t seen it yet, I also recommend looking at my other post on magic systems: – it’s better suited to creating effects that are varied and complex.

      • Daniel

        You make good points about the gap between different kinds of magic. What I was thinking but forgot to put it in my original comment was that it could be because of their bloodline, their ancestors used that kind of magic so it comes easier to them. And the way they fight has to do in part what magic they use.
        Such as the Sorcerers have staves and other magical items that are extensions of them selves(of course most people already knew that). The spellbook kind of magic is more of a preference, like if they don’t want to be apart if any of the fighting and just rather hang back.
        The other faction I mentioned that mainly used defensive magic was based on the fact that they get into more close quarters combat situations so would need magic that would keep them alive and in one piece, if they can help it.
        All magic can be learned by anyone, it’s just that the magic they didn’t inherit will be harder to learn. With very little people learning magic outside of their respective faction but it’s not a common practice.
        Another way to look at it is evolution. Like species in our world evolved so did the magic in their world, with their ancestors using a specific type of magic and pased it down it just became a part of them.
        I will admit my system does need more development to round it out some. And I did read the other piece about magic but my system sounded alot simpler in head head so I didn’t think it applied as much.

  27. cerabobble

    I’ve been working on a magic system in my head, but would like help on a few things. This system was mostly me being annoyed that magic usually violates the Law of Conservation of Energy, so I made a system built around that principal (until it spiraled out of control)
    So I know a few things. There are two types of people in this world, Conduits and Interferers (though Inteferers prefer to be called Whisperers). Conduits take magic energy from their surroundings, and Interferers take energy from Conduits to do magic by adding a bit of energy to the system (making a gust blow harder than it would, for example). Interferers can’t “store” energy like Conduits, so they have to use all of what they have in a few minutes or it explodes out of them randomly. Most everyone is either a Conduit or an Interferer, and it is genetic.
    Bit of background on the names, also random worldbuilding you can skip: Conduits were though to be channeling the energy of the gods, as when they are “full” they glow slightly – but Conduits can’t do anything with their energy by themselves. When an Interferer discovered their ability to pull power from a Conduit and affect the world, they were shunned for interfering. That Interferer found others like them and went around killing the common people in revenge for shunning them and taking Conduits prisoner (to use them for power). The Interferer group split apart eventually and the two factions warred and almost killed all of the Conduits, but reached a treaty saying that they wouldn’t kill anymore Conduits (Interferers need Conduits to do anything), but Conduits are still rare and fought over. [end worldbuilding]
    SO, questions: where is the magic energy coming from in the environment? Wind, or life, or just movement? If an Interferer and a Conduit have a baby, can it do both, or just one? Should I make what Interferers can do more specific (not just adding-energy-to-system)? Do you guys have questions?
    Sorry about the comment length and the long worldbuilding paragraph. Does that all make sense?

    • Chris Winkle

      I think I mostly understand, but I’m not exactly sure what Interferers can’t an can’t do. Can they absorb a gust the then use that to start a fire, or can they only use it to create a stronger gust? And if they can add energy to it, it sounds like they have to absorb that energy like a conduit. If they can do whatever they want with it, it sounds like conduits being a battery is the only real difference between them. Knowing what spell-casting is capable of is pretty important, if you haven’t decided that, I would think on it.

      If most people are one or the other, and Conduits are rare, then most Conduits will also be the children of Interferers. So when it comes to babies, you probably want to pick “just one.”

      Other than that, most answers are really just “what do you want?” However, I will say that if magic uses up energy in the environment – putting out fires and stopping movement for instance – that would probably create some interesting scenes. In general, creating a system that is more limited in effect and creates more problems with casting makes for better stories.

      • cerabobble

        I made myself wait until morning to reply…
        *squeals* Chris you are my hero and your articles inspired me to try writing and you are very, very, very awesome *squeals*
        Okay, now that that’s our of the way…
        Conduits can technically slow movement down because they pull energy from the environment, but they pull from all around them equally so the effect is minimal. Interferers can make things happen because when they add energy to the system, it is concentrated in one place.
        For Interferers to use magic energy, they have to maintain physical contact with a Condit, and if they lose contact they have to use up their remaining energy quickly, as it will burst out of them randomly otherwise (in a few minutes). They’re bodies can’t store energy, that’s a Condit thing.
        Examples of what an Interferer could do that I’ve though of so far: make a gust blow faster (maybe carrying something along with it), making something fall/rise faster, increase the air pressure in a certain spot (very useful for strangling or pressure-point pushing!)
        Are there other applications that would make sense?

        • Chris Winkle

          Wow, thanks. I am blushing.

          Oh, I see what I missed last time. Conduits gather energy but don’t cast spells with it, Interferers can’t gather but they can cast, so the two types of magic users have to work together to cast spells. That’s cool.

          It sounds like you’re going the scientific route with energy. I would think about the ways that physicists would classify energy – kinetic energy (movement), electrical energy, heat – and let your characters manipulate those. Stoking fires sounds like a natural fit. I would skip chemical energy though – opens up too many things.

          For your world, I take it the reason most people are magic users is that the “common people” were all killed. Dark, but if it works for the story… however, I would say that rather than the Interferes having been oppressed and retaliating, it seems a lot more likely that they were the oppressors and committed genocide. Like if in Harry Potter, wizards murdered all the muggles. Muggles are not going to have much luck oppressing wizards. However, certainly Interferers might be rewriting history to make themselves look better. On the other hand, it definitely sounds like Conduits could be oppressed now, because they can’t cast magic to defend themselves, and Interferers have a strong incentive to control them.

          Cool system, sounds like it has great story possibilities.

          • cerabobble

            Thank you the idea about energy. I’m going to have to find my Physical Science notes… my goodness, that class was boring.

  28. Bubbles

    This is a pretty nice article, and it has inspired me to think more about the magic systems I create. I have two things to talk about. One of them is how I believe that the tips given may not be universal. The other is one of my own magic systems, as I want to hear what others think about it, especially in terms of this article.

    When I say the tips may not be “universal,” I’m referring especially to how you state that rational magic is based on a single, coherent metaphysical framework and describe things such as categories and symmetricality. The thing is, I believe that what seems “natural” in these cases can depend on culture and perhaps even species. I have read an anecdote in which members of a certain tribe classified an orange with a knife, rather than an orange with an apple as the Western researchers expected, reasoning that a knife cuts an orange so they belong together. Nonhumans might think in ways that make little sense to humans. For just one example, Magoroh Maruyama describes several different possible paradigms of science, which Robert A. Freitas Jr. mentions in the book “Xenology” in relation to extraterrestrial minds. And of course, if magic is viewed as an alternate system of physics – there’s no reason why physics has to match the naive categories of intelligent beings; think of how weird quantum physics seems, for instance.

    While I have thought of several different magic systems, I’ll present the one I conceived of first. I still have hopes to use it someday, but I’m not sure for reasons I’ll give soon. Anyway, the original inspiration came when I read an article about the philosophy of mind which claimed that interactionist dualism (the idea that the mind is immaterial and the body is material, yet they interact) couldn’t be true, with one reason given being that such an interaction would violate conservation of energy. I thought, “What if energy isn’t conserved after all? Maybe each thought produces a tiny amount of energy that allows for sending a nerve signal to, say, cause a body part to move.” I don’t think that interactionist dualism (or psychic powers existing) is likely to be true in real life, but if I were creating fiction…I could include that.

    As I said, I was also inspired by depictions of psychic powers in fiction, so I used this idea to explain telepathy (immaterial minds were the same substance, so they could have a way to directly communicate with each other) and telekinesis (if thoughts could generate energy, then maybe they could create enough energy to affect outside objects as well). Telekinesis was also handy (pun intended) for explaining nonhumanoid creatures without hands or similar developing and using technology, because I am interested in the possibility of aliens very different from humans. Some extra stuff: There could be plots in which some would try to exploit/affect this source of energy – but there could be a mental cost, such as suffering and being unable to think straight, for those who had to provide it. Because minds were immaterial, physical brain damage wouldn’t really affect thoughts, personality, and so on, instead mostly things such as the ability to move and regulate basic bodily functions. And finally, I was thinking about a story involving space travel, so FTL would be convenient to explain how the aliens managed to meet each other in a relatively short amount of time. So then, my idea was that even though minds were separate from bodies, they were normally closely tied so they could interact, which was why telepathy and telekinesis had things such as limits based on physical distance. But, with the power of enough minds, things and beings could be transported to nearly any location instantly, as long as that location was also in the proximity of many minds (Minds were always at least somewhat tied to the physical world during life, so there would still be a range limit, but a vastly larger one for this teleportation, spanning many light-years). This would involve a preferred reference frame, breaking relativity (for a specific class of phenomena only) but disallowing time travel (I don’t have anything against time travel stories; I just didn’t feel like including it in my universe).

    To me, it seemed like I had everything figured out and I could write a story now. However, then I realized a key problem: Could I make this a logically consistent system? Of course, I wasn’t interested in my universe following all of the laws of physics in our universe. However, it had similar things to our universe, stars and planets and lifeforms that could look somewhat like ours, so it needed to follow most of them, at least, the ones that allowed for these things. But creating a consistent system that allowed for both these laws and my magical exceptions without, say, having the laws of physics change so much that there are no stable structures, or allowing for time travel, was difficult. Maybe it’s impossible, and I don’t know, although I’ve tried to figure out. See the LessWrong articles “Universal Fire” and “Universal Law” for one explanation of how all physical laws are tied together. I don’t want to write something that turns out to be nonsensical. What do you think?

    • Cay Reet

      I think you’re overthinking things a little in your example.

      People will accept that magic exists in a universe like ours, even though magic doesn’t exist (as far as we know) in our universe. At least not on earth, as far as we can tell. We accept that our universe works the way it does without necessarily knowing which physical law is at work at any given time in any given thing happening. But we know some things. Stuff falls down, not up, for instance. So if stuff suddenly falls up, we know something is wrong. As long as you don’t change fundamental things in the universe, there’s no problem with making enough changes to slip your magical or psychic powers in.

      A rational magic system follows rules, that’s what makes it a rational system. Those rules shouldn’t be arbitrary, like ‘fire magic doesn’t work on Tuesdays’ or ‘you can’t cast an illusion spell in months without an R in their name.’ The rules need to make sense within the system. If you want conservation of energy, you could show those who use specific powers, magical or psychic, having to replenish that energy in some way (through food, meditation, or something similar). Remember that energy doesn’t dispense when it’s used – it only takes on a different shape. If I use strength to push a boulder, that boulder gets the amount of energy while moving (with a little bit of entropy when it comes to friction, of course). The same is true, if I use telekinesis to move that boulder. I transfer energy into the boulder or to the air around it to move that boulder. Movement demands energy and that I deliver, either with my hands, with a machine, or with telekinesis. Feats of telekinesis should leave your characters a little exhausted – the more energy needed, the higher the exhaustion. When it comes to telepathy … have you considered that connecting to another mind might simply mean making changes in their neural system (which runs on small amounts of electricity created by the body)? As long as your explanation isn’t a slap in the face of physical laws we all know, there’s no problem from that side.

      A rational magic system is supposed to be understandable. The readers should, after reading a bit of the story, develop an understanding for how people do magic. They should be able to deduce, if they want to, what a magic user (or a psychic) can or can’t do and you shouldn’t suddenly throw someone in who can do something that should be impossible by the rules you set down and showed before.

      • Bubbles

        Sorry for the late reply – I had went out for the past few days.

        Anyway, before I get onto the reply for this comment, I’ll briefly reply to your other comment (the one which mentioned an alternate magic system for Harry Potter at the end, which I couldn’t reply to in that comment thread). I’ll give you a specific example of the cultural dependence I mentioned. Chris Winkle mentioned Avatar as an example of a rational magic system, because its elements (fire, water, air, and earth) are natural classifications. However, they are actually Ancient Greek classifications and not modern science-based, so they aren’t really natural. (Unless you take the “elements” as actually solid, liquid, gas, and plasma, but this isn’t mentioned in the show itself, might make magic too powerful, and there are some states of matter that don’t fit into these groups). The Chinese traditional elements are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water, a different classification scheme that is equally arbitrary. One world I thought of involves magic based around Life, Metal (mostly magical machinery), Water, Mind, Soil, and Dragons (the rarest), and many in-universe cultures consider these natural divisions, but I suspect Chris Winkle would consider this system non-rational.

        Now, for your first comment about my magic system, it is true I might be overthinking it (people have told me that before). However, while I do hope to write something that others enjoy, it is also for myself, and I like thinking about things and would not want to write something logically impossible. There are others who feel this way as well. I have seen several people on StackExchange Worldbuilding, for instance, and commenters on the HPMOR fanfic, talk about how changing natural laws can cause problems and criticize many writers’ lack of thought about this. I also specifically mentioned that I was not including conservation of energy in my system, but you assumed it in your comment. Nevertheless, I will go with your assumption for what follows for the moment, as it does involve fewer changes to known physical laws and is easier to discuss (plus, I already mentioned some of the consequences of lack of conservation in my previous post).

        Telekinesis: You mention psychics using their own energy for telekinesis. However, humans actually have relatively little energy – I don’t have the precise numbers, but I have read that using only your own energy, you wouldn’t actually be able to lift very much at all. So, if we want to maintain conservation of energy, we need to assume another power source. External energy could work; however, instantaneously moving energy from one place to another causes problems. It violates local conservation laws and relativity (what’s simultaneous in one reference frame is not in other frames). Another option is that there is a “background magic field” (see the TVTropes article) present everywhere that psychics draw on. However, I’m not sure whether adding a new field, force, particle, etc. would even mathematically work, as all existing particles and forces seem to be related by deep mathematical symmetries. Also, how is this energy directed to a specific object and not blocked by everything in the way (including air?) I’m definitely not saying these problems are insurmountable, just that I do need to think a lot about them.

        Telepathy: You mention detecting the electrical impulses of the nervous system. However, those impulses are weak, and air is not a good conductor, so I don’t think such a detection would work (I’m not even sure in water). Also, I read that chemical changes play an important role, and those probably can’t be detected externally at all. Furthermore, nervous systems and brains have different structures and encodings, even merely among humans – how could someone understand all the different people? Electronic telepathy, involving artificial devices that transfer neural information, could work, as scientists are already developing them. However, they seem to require non-biological properties, so they probably wouldn’t evolve naturally. I was actually thinking of “precursor” aliens having set everything up, but that raises a lot more questions of motivation and the ability to remain undetected. Perhaps the background magic I mentioned earlier could be involved. And after all of this, there are still problems of how the signals don’t get mixed up when a lot of beings are around and why organisms haven’t already evolved impenetrable defenses against mind-readers and how the information is processed and how the telepath knows what to find…

        On top of this, there’s teleportation I still need to consider, which comes with its own host of issues. (I won’t deal with it here and now, as this reply is getting too long already and you never mentioned it in your comment). I will say that I do enjoy thinking about all of these issues. In that, I will agree with what Chris Winkle said that putting thought into your magic system is a good idea. I do hope that this comment will help you understand the angle I’m coming from.

        • Cay Reet

          To the Avatar thing: the point is not using a scientific system for your magic. Avatar works with four definite sources of power, which happen to be fire, water, air, and earth. You could just as well do the Magic The Gathering approach and use stuff like decay or nature as base for the magic (which would give you ‘white’ magic based on life/nature and ‘black’ magic based on death/decay). It’s important to define what the magic user can manipulate and how/why. All benders in Avatar, safe for the Avatar themselves, can only control one element, one source of power. A waterbender can’t control air or earth or fire. Iroh or Azulah are already pushing it when they control lightning (which could qualify both as air or fire). Like this, the Avatar system makes it clear where the limits are, for everyone but the Avatar. Elements are a system which people understand easily, other systems would have demanded more explanation.

          As far as your magic/psychic system goes, I can understand why you put so much thought into it. And if you plan on writing a whole series of novels about this, you need to work out how it works beforehand, so things stay balanced.
          Nevertheless, you will always introduce something which, as far as we know, does not exist in reality. Telekinesis, telepathy, and teleportation are not something people can really use in everyday life, so you will find it hard to justify their existence through science alone. You will always need to ‘wing it’ there, because you introduce something which has no base in our world’s reality.

          Human muscles actually can produce more energy than our brain allows for us to use – because if we used the full force our muscles are capable of, we would risk injuring ourselves. That’s why in emergencies, people have moved cars by pure muscle power to save someone. So there you have a source of energy for your telekinesis.

          The brain does use relatively weak energy for thinking, so that would not reach far. Here, you would have to add something else, perhaps a boost a telepath receives (again, remember the unused potential of muscles, if you want to), which allows for them to reach out and tap into another brain. Or make your telepath one who can only read minds when touching someone else (Vulcans from Star Trek work telepathy that way). Then they could connect to the energy of the other brain.

          Teleportation is hardest to work out, because it includes the idea that you can pull a body apart and put it back together without any consequences. It’s not just about the energy needed to transform a body into energy and then back into mass, it’s also about controlling where the second transformation takes place (splicing would be a problem or manifesting through matter – it’s what cost Heimlich from the Brian Helsing series his right lower arm). Therefore, it’s probably a power you should consider not using – unless it’s absolutely plot relevant for you to have a character who can do that.

          Or you blame all psychic powers on quantum and be done with it, but I doubt you want to take that way out, otherwise you wouldn’t have been plotting that much already.

          • Bubbles

            Thanks for the reply!

            About the Avatar thing, what you are saying makes more sense to me now. In fact, I suspect it might make more sense than what Chris Winkle says in the original article. While she does talk about how it adds limitations, that doesn’t actually seem to be her primary focus. As just one example, she talks about choosing only one source of magic – but I think it’s possible to have multiple sources and still have well-thought out and limited magic systems. It could make for some interesting stories – devout priests who get power from their deities versus irreligious wizards who use their own will as magic, bio-mages who draw upon the weak but flexible power of living organisms versus geo-mages who draw upon the mighty yet unsubtle power of the land itself…

            Incidentally, all examples you have given, Cay Reet, are about how (most) magic-users cannot use all types of magic; do you think that a system in which magic-users could learn all possible magic (at least theoretically) but what is possible for magic in total is strictly limited could work? (For example, no effects that cover too large an area or are too far from the caster or use too much energy…)

            For your points about my magic system: yes, I know magic isn’t real, so I will have to break some physical laws in my fictional world. (As a side note, I mentioned teleportation because it would help get the various alien species in my universe together quickly so there could be stories based on interaction between them. It isn’t strictly necessary, as I could probably write something interesting without it, but it is extremely convenient). My point was that this would essentially entail creating a new set of physical laws, and I wanted to find out whether this could be done in a consistent way while still keeping most things in that universe somewhat similar to our universe if the magic did not affect them (for example, having stars, planets, space, Earthlike life, etc…) It turns out that there are some things that are mathematically impossible, so I have to be careful.

            Take Noether’s Theorem for example. It’s a very complex mathematical theorem, but the really basic idea I understand is that conservation laws and symmetries are connected. One example is that because the laws of physics are invariant with respect to time translation (they don’t change over time), energy is conserved. Note that this does NOT prove energy is conserved (at least I don’t think so), it means that if energy is not conserved, the laws of physics must change over time – this applies even if magic is involved. You can’t have conservation of energy violated by magic that also keeps the laws of physics the same over time, any more than you could have magic that makes 2+2=5 (unless, perhaps, the laws of physics in a universe don’t involve Lagrangians, but then that would likely be a universe totally different from our own). Also, this is just an example: even if conservation of energy applies in my system, there are other things that could come up.

            There are a few online articles about this: the ones I remember off the top of my head are “Universal Fire” and “Universal Law,” found on LessWrong. You might want to read them.

          • Cay Reet

            It does seem likely that humans, with their limited lifetime, would not master all elements in a system of elemental magic, but it is, of course, possible for humans to use different types of magic or magic from different sources all at once. Limits then usually come from the strength of the effects (a limit to the area spells can target or the number of spells a mage can use before resting). Some kind of mana system (where mana is the energy the mage uses to cast spells) will make the system rational in that case, because it will give natural limits – a mage can only cast as long as they have mana left and they need to regain it afterwards (through rest, rituals, or whatever pleases you). That’s what I mean when I say Dumbledore and Voldemort should have ‘paid’ for their enormous use of power at the ministry of magic in Harry Potter. In a rational system, their powers would have come from somewhere and they would have been close to or even broken through their limit, which would have consequences.

            Magic should be limited when it’s used by humans or other mortal beings – as opposed to being used by divine or other immortal beings. Otherwise you have near-god mages with no limits, who will hurt your story more than they will serve it. If a mage has no limit to what they can do, why not simply find one who solves all the problems for your hero with the snap of a finger (or a well-conducted ritual)?

            There’s a reason why RPGs with team-based fight systems (I use those when playing around with the RPG Maker myself) are often based around the Tank/Damage Dealer/Buffer principle. You have the tank, often a warrior, who has great armour and a lot of health and will draw attacks and take the damage. You have the damage dealer, usually a mage, who can deal out a lot of damage, but has weak health and often limited choices in armour, making them vulnerable in a battle. And you have the buffer, often a rogue or priest, who can either buff the own group (healing, boosting skills) or debuff the enemy (lowering attack or defence most often). This adds a bit of strategy to the game, because you need to figure out how to use the different skill sets best together. If the mage could deal great damage, at the same time protect themselves, and had no limit in the form of mana, either, why have any other party members at all? It’s the same with a story. If your mage has no limits to their powers, where would the conflict be? They could solve all problems with a snap of their fingers.

          • Bubbles

            That’s a neat trick you used for replying even when the thread space has run out. I’ll have to remember I can do that if necessary.

            I think your point is that in a story, there needs to be limits to magic, which I agree with. What I don’t agree with is the idea that there is somehow an objective way to determine whether the rules of magic “make sense” or not, as magic isn’t real and what is considered “natural” is culture-dependent. As we don’t seem to be focusing on that aspect much, however, I won’t try to continue arguments about that part.

            I just thought of something related to teleportation, however. For telepathy and telekinesis, you mention sources of energy. However, even if we have energy available, there is still always the problem of directing it. How does the energy reach an object (including a brain) without affecting and potentially being dissipated by everything in the way (including air)? This suggests that telepathy and telekinesis (at least if I go with something like your suggestion) imply some form of teleportation. This then leads to the problems with conservation of energy and relativity I mentioned earlier – of course, we’re working with magic, so these may not be insurmountable issues, but they need to be considered, as I want this universe to be mostly like ours in situations in which magic is not involved.

            Another possibility is that some kind of complex structure is involved that can navigate to a desired destination. Perhaps then these powers could actually be based on nanobots or even totally new forces and particles that are not visually detectable. The main question becomes who set this up, and why? Having the users of this power (some of whom actually are human) be its creators wouldn’t really work, as I was going with a technology level around modern times for my main setting and this would require extremely advanced technology. Furthermore, it is meant to be mysterious in-story and something that not everyone has.

            Someone else is needed. Precursor aliens might do the job if they had certain motivations (such as wanting to set up a certain situation to see how it develops), but this raises questions of how such a large group made of many different individuals could all stay hidden for such a long time. This may or may not be an insuperable obstacle.

            An even more interesting idea may be that the aliens are actually made of an alternate kind of particles I mentioned earlier. This would mean that they are naturally mostly hidden from beings of “normal” matter, but perhaps they could find ways to interact. Their technology and motivations could be very different from human ideas. The flavor might be of magic based on communication with spirits, although these “spirits” do have to obey at least some physical laws.

            To do this, I would need to work out whether adding the sorts of new particles and forces needed for this scenario to what exists in real life can be done in some mathematically consistent way. I suspect it might be possible; after all, there are plenty of mathematically worked out theories involving new particles and forces, but I’ll have to do quite a bit of research.

          • Cay Reet

            ‘Making sense’ in case of magic means being constant. If your mage has a limit on their powers (and having a human with unlimited powers is probably going to break a story, at least with that human being the hero), the limit must always be the same or you need to give a reason why it is different (the character is exhausted and thus can’t muster as much magic or the character took a specific potion which boosted their powers, for instance). If you only specify one source of magic, you can’t suddenly drop someone into the story who uses something different. At the very least, you need to foreshadow that. This is what ‘making sense’ means when it comes to magic. You need to lay down rules and follow them (which is where both Rowling’s use of magic in Harry Potter and Lucas’ use of the Force in the original trilogy fail). The reader needs to be able to understand the basics and rely on that understanding throughout the story.

            As far as using body energy outside of the body is concerned, this is something you will have to wing. Whether you use the force, a principle like Yin and Yang, some nano-bots, the aether, or something different, is up to your kind of story and what you like most. Relocating energy (in telekinesis or telepathy) is, however, less of a problem than dissolving a body and recreating it at another place, to it’s not the same as full teleportation. If you send out powers, your brain stays in one piece and in the same place. If you teleport, you have to control that energy while your whole body is nothing more than energy, too. That is, I guess why telepathy which requires touching is easiest to explain, since you can direct your energy into the other body through your skin. Telekinesis and teleportation require an explanation as to how you direct your power outside of the body. You could explain telekinesis (telepathy, too, I guess) with having invisible ‘energy arms’ which are connected to your body and ‘grab’ the object in question (or create a connection to another being for telepathy). Some kind of energy tentacles, if you want a picture. I remember a HP fan-fiction where Harry developed two spells into some kind of magical arms he could call up at will to help with magic or protect himself by picking up half a dozen objects he could throw into the path of a spell or weapon. You could use something like that (being able to project and harness energy) to give your psychics telekinesis by them having those invisible ‘arms.’ Which, of course, means someone could develop a force field to protect themselves from those ‘arms.’

  29. bjorn

    actually…dragon glass is NOT made from dragon fire…it’s just some rock that forms naturally: obsidian.

    • Bubbles

      I checked it out, and indeed it seems to just be another name for obsidian. Unless obsidian in Westeros is formed by dragonfire instead of volcanoes (or volcanoes are tied to dragons somehow, which I don’t think was ever even hinted at), it wasn’t actually forged by dragons. With that said, lava could still count as “fire,” so the point about magic being based on fire vs. ice might still stand.

      With that said, I wonder why no one has replied to my previous comment on this article. One of the things I noted in that comment is that what seems to “make sense” differs between individuals, cultures, and even species. In real life, cold is not a “thing” but just the absence of heat, and ice and fire don’t seem to be fundamental opposites. Now, of course, this is magic and doesn’t have to follow real life – but by the same token, as in real physics, it doesn’t necessarily have to seem sensible to humans (think of how weird quantum mechanics is). If there are intelligent creatures with thought processes different from humans in your story, it would seem especially weird that magic must follow rules that conform to human divisions precisely.

      • Cay Reet


        I just replied to your last post, but about the ‘different cultures have different ideas of what makes sense,’ the point about a rational system is that it must make sense to the reader. If you can convey the rules of your system in a way the reader can understand, you have a rational system. If you use magic (or psychic powers) like a Deus Ex Machina, enabling your magic users (or psychics) to do whatever the story needs, without any understandable reason why they can do all this, you have something else.

        As an example, look at the Force the way it’s used in the first few Star Wars movies (episodes 4-6 nowadays). The Force can do precisely what is needed. If Luke needs guidance to hit that exhaust port, the Force can guide him. If the story needs someone to tell Luke and the others on the Falcon something terrible happened at the other end of the galaxy, the Force can provide Obi-Wan with the necessary information through a vision of sorts. If Luke needs to suddenly call out for help while he’s hanging below a floating city, he can make contact with Leia (without their relationship already being an item). And if you’re a goddamn god with a controller, it can pull a star destroyer into a planet while at the same time swatting aside oodles of TIE-Fighters (still the only sore point in The Force Unleashed 1 for me). That’s not a rational system, because there’s no understandable rules to it. It wasn’t meant to be a rational system (although the EU developed it into one – and, no, I’m not going into the midichlorian desaster), it was simple old-fashioned fairy-tale magic, the kind which does exactly what the heroes need it to do.

        • Bubbles

          I understand your point. However, the authors seemed to specifically distinguish between “rational” and “hard” magic. Hard magic is one where the audience knows about the rules of magic, so it seems to me that your mention of “convey[ing]” the rules of your system” might actually be referring to hard magic. Using the Harry Potter example, the rules of what magic can and cannot do are defined throughout the books – new things are added throughout the series, but there is some structure in the form of spells, potions, etc., and a few laws that are hard limits (such as the no true resurrection one), yet the author of this post states it is not rational (although hard).

          One more thing to keep in mind – what if there is an underlying principle, but the characters don’t know about it? Perhaps magic-users know what magic can be used for but are not concerned about why it works that way; for all we know, that could be the way most wizards and witches feel in Harry Potter. (Arguably, before the development of modern science, many people had similar attitudes towards technology! And the HPMOR fanfic mentioned above is about a Harry who does want to find out this “why” – although I don’t think it succeeds at conveying this particularly well in the story itself.)

          I’ve also seen your above comment. However, I am suspecting my response to it will be pretty long, and I have other things I need to work on. I’ll respond to that one later.

          • Cay Reet

            Like the Force in the first Star Wars Trilogy, which I used as an example, magic in HP is pretty malleable. It does what it needs to do in the books. There’s hardly a limit, every wizard and witch (once adult) seems pretty much capable of using all spells (although experience and practice sure play a role). There’s no balance, nothing to sacrifice for the use of magic. There’s things like creating food out of thin air, which means magic can add something to the world which wasn’t there before (alternately, some people have all the rotten luck and their fridges are constantly empty and they don’t know why).

            Rational magic means magic with understandable rules which hold up to logic. Internal logic, that is, otherwise there’d always be that ‘magic doesn’t exist’ bit to fight against. ‘Magic does exist and it follows rules’ is the first rule of a rational system. Those rules are established within the story (unlike underlying rules with Rowling might have for her magic or Lucas might have had for the Force), so at least one character must know them or learn about them as the plot develops. This allows for the reader to know what is or isn’t possible.

            In the HP books, the only reason why Harry can’t do everything is that he’s still learning. Were he an adult already, there’d be hardly a limit for him, apart from morals. Look at the fight between Voldemort and Dumbledore in the fifth book/movie – the one in the Ministry of Magic. Their powers go far beyond what has ever been shown before and there’s no repercussions for them. They don’t pay with utter exhaustion or even by losing several years of their life, because of the power they wield. In a rational system, there would be an explanation for how magic works – where it comes from, what limits there are, how it is used. And those explanations would make sense within the story’s universe and would always be true.

            If Rowling had, for instance, done more with the four houses, things might have been different. Each house is limited to one type of magic and students are not sorted by their character at the age of 11, but by what magic they have an affinity for. Slytherin still could breed dark wizards and witches – perhaps they have a tendency towards dark magic. That would make Harry’s choice important in two ways: he’d be the odd one out who can control all powers (like the Avatar controlling all elements) and he would be limited in what he learns to control by the house he chooses. It would foreshadow his powers at the end of the story, when he faces off against Voldemort controlling all types of magic. Then the fight between Voldemort and Dumbledore (both of which also have that trait) would be a glance into the future of Harry himself. And it would explain the ‘marked as an equal’ thing, too. But that’s not the way Rowling goes. All students learn the same (unless it’s an elective) and can use the same types of magic. The houses are merely there to spark rivalry, they have no deeper meaning for the magic or the story.

  30. Tifa

    This article was extremely helpful to me in figuring out my magic system. Thanks a million!
    [The post scarcity podcast was also very helpful.]

  31. Micah

    This is super helpful, thanks so much for taking the time to write it and to provide examples.

    I was literally thinking “How can I make a magic system that’s as good as Avatar?” and this article answered that question nicely. And along the way you provided a lot of good supporting material. I’ve currently got 11 tabs open that I need to look through. Thanks!

  32. Dvärghundspossen

    I really like all the terms you use on this site, they’re so helpful and clarifying. I really like the distinction between on the one hand the rational-nonrational scale, on the other hand the hard-soft scale.
    I’m going for rational semi-soft… I hope I pull it off.

    • Chris Winkle

      Thanks! Terminology is pretty difficult to deal with, because there isn’t a big enough shared vocabulary for storytelling to have the discussions we need to have on the site. We make up terms when we think there isn’t an existing one that will do, but we do try to use existing terms when we can. In this case, rational, soft, and hard come from Brandon Sanderson. I generally call the opposite of rational “arbitrary,” and that one I just chose – arbitrarily, you might say.

  33. Person101

    Thanks to this article I have been able to advance my magic system up from the basics and I just want to run this by someone who is not me:

    My magic system is called Paint. Paint is everything and everywhere. It flows through all life and can be controlled by any sentient object.
    It’s origin is with the creation of all life itself and the first humans: Black and White. Over time more Blacks appeared and White got lonely so they split their body into seven colours.
    Around this time Paint is able to be used freely until the children of White wage a war on the Blacks causing their power to be sealed away until further notice.
    Fast forward a couple thousand years and some genius manges to find a way to control paint by collecting it into a special bottle. From this point onwards paint is incorporated into science and technology.
    Further into the future two young men of solitude manage to unlock the greatest fighting potential by breaking mental barriers making them the strongest people to exist since Black and White but they have a fight on morality causing a great war.
    Fifty years after the war ends the younger generation make massive breakthroughs. Strength no longer depends on physical brute force but many new factors make it so much more complex.

    Paint can be collected from the surrounding area into your body and be channelled through your bloodstream. Your body can hold a fixed amount of paint (This is the same for everyone but full capacity is rarely reached). Imagine your body is a magnet and the paint in your body is evenly spread out making it weaker, well stimulating your power can make your magnet stronger resulting in a finer concentration of paint.
    Paint can be placed on any object and 1 in 15 people can use paint on something they aren’t touching. In order to fully capitalise on paint one must find a weapon they work well with and a fight style that suits your body. The younger generation tend to favour unconventional weapons. For instance: a person who has long hair could pluck a strand and send paint through it causing it to straiten making a weapon hard to see or maybe if you can use paint on something you aren’t touching you could carry a bag of sand around and channel paint into it giving you the power to manipulate it a will.
    Paint can carry genetic qualities as well. For example: Your mum had speed enhancing paint – you will have some form of it or Your mum had paint that could carry poison within it, your dad had paint that could take the physical appearance of slime and your grandma had paint that floats – you now have floating poisonous slime paint. These properties can give limitations but also make some stronger.

    Now paint may sound op but it has very risky limitations.
    – Paint can depend on someone’s mental state and will
    – There is a cap that only the two young men of solitude have managed to break
    – Paint can hold curses that are also genetic (curses can make a person stronger but the price is extremely high)
    – Paint is a very volatile substance that if held can burn off skin
    – Since paint depends on your mental state and will, if while using paint you have a sudden elevation of toxic emotions (extreme anger, fear, wish for destruction, narcissism, grief, blood-lust) your paint will go against the body causing a complete collapse (your senses null forcing you into a coma), a clear breakthrough (all thoughts and feelings stop and you focus on one thing with a slightly heightened power), a poisoned mind (you attack friend and foe alike as the paint starts to corrode your mind) or a transformation (into a monster).
    – Extreme focus is needed for complicated attacks
    – The duration for using paint is limited and if your paint bottle runs out life will slowly start to sap out of you

    Once you master the flow of paint in your body you can change your appearance temporarily.
    Willpower is ultimately the deciding factor between to evenly matched opponents.
    One way to get stronger is to give your paint a will creating a contractor.
    Advantages: you can summon a physical form of your paint to help fight with you, you can make deals with your contractor sacrificing parts of your power to gain special moves or stronger attacks, becoming closer to your contractor makes your flow stronger
    Disadvantages: it makes your paint harder to control, if your will is weak your contractor could go against you, your contractor gets to present you with the deals and if you don’t like them there is nothing you can do about it, harm to your contractor results in harm to your soul.
    Paint can be metaphysical meaning that 0.0005% of the entire population can dabble in spirits though most choose not to.

  34. Nicolas Garcia

    Hey, don’t know if anyone’s still commenting on this but here goes. I wanted to try my hand at creating a really fleshed out magic system for fun, and never planned on making a story or doing anything with it. I’ll give a quick(ish) rundown of the basic foundation that lays the groundwork that I have so far for the magic system, I’ll go into more detail if anyone’s interested. Apoglies if it comes off as confusing, I’m not very good at conveying my thoughts and ideas, will explain in greater detail later.
    So the way the world works is that this physical world we see and interact with is one of an infinite number, which exists on one of the 12 Planes of Existence. Our physical universe is merely the extent that we can see with our mortal Perceptions limits. The way it goes is that the universe of our perception is just a projection, an illusion if you will, of the real World, the Sea of Energy. Our Plane falls on the 3rd Dimension, being far away from perceiving the World. Other beings and worlds exist on the other higher planes, essentially are in a higher state of Existence, or State of Being, determined by Spiritual Awareness, beyond what a mortal of our Plane can even fathom.
    If you think of the Sea of Energy as like the actual ocean, than the Planes of Existence can be compared to the different depths, and the deeper you go, the more pressure that exists. As such, a being of the Physical Plane cannot exist in a Higher Plane, as their Consiousness isn’t on a high enough leven to be able to sustain itself, you wouldn’t even be able to think of yourself as an actual being, and so you just, cease to exists. A being of a higher Plane has the opposite effect, their presence and consciousness being far too much for the Universe to handle, and so it would just collapse on itself wherever the being would go. We have a knowledge of these beings, many of them exist in our mythology as gods, angels, demons, etc.
    And the thing that makes up all of the energy is spiritual Vibrations. They are responsible for all the phenomena that occurs in our world, from the spark of a fire to weather changes, to the Four fundemantal forces of the universe, atoms, and even concepts such as Time and Causality. Vibrations function is fundamentally the same as electric signals in the brain, in that there are millions upon millions of different signals being sent and working together to achieve something, even something as simple as moving your arm. There are a few keys differences, in that the forces that determine a Vibration are its Wavelength, Frequency, Harmony, Color, and Ripple(subject to change). Each of these works with each other and the level of each step determine how much oomph the next step has to produce an effect in our world. The definitions for these are as follows:
    Frequency: The core strength of a Vibration, determines how far and fast it travels
    Color: the type of color determines what kind of effect the Vibration will have on the Physical World.
    Wavelength: Determines how strong the affect it has
    Harmony: how multiple different vibrations intermingle and interact, depending on the previous too, some Vibrations can overpower another one
    Ripple: The last step. After all the Vibrations have finished their process, they Ripple and then whatever combination the Vibrations have will affect our world.
    If one were to observe the Vibrations and the way they Flow(this is another process, different from the other Four Laws) it would seem whacky, but they are extremely intricate and complex. and not to be messed with lightly, as they can have devastating effects.
    Lastly is the effect both our Perceived World and the World of Energy have on each other. The World we perceive and interact with all stems from the Energy, called Aether, and the Vibrations that come from it, all make up our world. And the Aether is born from our Thoughts and Actions, more specifically, our Souls. Now we go back to the Beginning. All of Creation is born from a single point in time, that exists both Space, Time, Existence, or Consciousness, what we call The Sephirot, or The Spark, or the Egg of Creation, it goes by many names. Some theorize, that the Sephirot is an aspect of God, but our understanding of God is just one aspect of it, you could say the projection of its Will, in simpler terms. Another aspect of it are the Akashic Records where all the information of Creation is stored. All of the Aether and Souls stem from the Sephirot, and at the same time are all one and the same. The cosmic balance is set up to where the Aether and Souls rely on eachother, Aether creates and maintains the World and Aether flourished and continues to exist through our Actions. Every action we take, even the most mundane has a profound effect on the Flow of Creation. Souls allow us to exist as Individuals, separate from the Aether. Each soul has its Sephirot, which are both original and separate from the fist Sephirot.
    Alrighty, its late and I’m tired. I gave the most basic rundown I could. Some ideas are more fleshed out than other, if that’s saying much. Cant help but feel it’s lacking in creativity and complexity, but that’s for another day. I haven’t even gotten to the actual magic yet. If anyone wants more detail and is interested to see the actual magic just comment and feel free to critique.

    • Angel

      Please, please, please tell us more!

  35. Alexis

    My magic system is based on the Netflix show, The Dragon Prince, because I really like how dynamic and diverse its magic system is. The system I created is very similar, with some differences. Oh, and the fantasy series I’m cooking up is called Fantasia.
    Basically, all magic in the world draws power from six Primals, vast entities of the natural world: the Sky, Sun, Moon, Earth, Ocean and Stars. All life on Terra (my world) is born with a connection to one of these Primals, and what magic they can perform depends on the Primal they’re connected to.
    Mages draw energy from these Primals to cast spells, but are limited by the amount of Primal energy drawn, mainly from environmental factors. A mage’s magic can be stronger or weaker depending on how much access to a Primal they have at a given time.
    Sky: Sky magic draws power from the vast sky, movement of the winds, and from thunderstorms. Forms of Sky magic include air magic, lightning magic, and weather magic. It’s at its strongest during a thunderstorm and is the most dynamic of the Primals, as the mage is always connected to the Primal at a given time.
    Stars: Star magic draws power from the vast expanse of the cosmos, and is primarily psychic in nature. Forms of Star magic include telepathy, telekinesis, mind control, astral projection, and precognition. It is the rarest of the Primals to be connected to.
    Ocean: Ocean magic draws power from the ocean, and by extension the rivers and lakes that are born from and eventually lead back to it. Forms of magic include water magic, healing magic, potion making, and purification. Ocean magic is strongest during winter.
    Earth magic: Earth magic draws power from the energy of the land itself. It is divided into two domains: the stone, minerals, and metals of the land, and the flora and fauna of the natural world. Forms of magic include earth magic, metal magic, plant magic, and animal communication/manipulation. Earth magic is strongest during Spring.
    Sun magic: Sun magic draws power from the heat and energy of the sun. It is dual-natured-representing the life-giving light of the sun that all life relies on, but also the destructive and fiery nature of its power. Forms of magic include fire magic, light magic, healing magic, and transformation magic. Sun magic is strongest at noon and weakest at night.
    Moon magic: Moon magic draws power from the spirit and energy of the moon. Forms of moon magic include illusion magic, shadow magic, and spirit magic. Moon magic is cyclic in its strength, strongest during a full moon and weakest during the new moon, and is also weak during the day.
    Mages connected to certain Primals are sometimes more common in parts of the world than others. People connected to the Moon and Star Primals are the only two that are common in a single place and can be found in any nation or culture. Though a country can have a large number of a certain Primal (such as the Sun or Earth Primals) that doesn’t mean that people of other Primals cannot be born in that area.
    Furthermore, mages can form contracts with faeries (another race in my world) to harness their powers. If a mage forms a contract with a water faerie, they can use water magic, even if their Primal isn’t the Ocean. This type of magic is tricky and potentially dangerous, as the faerie in question could seek out loopholes that benefit them and take more from the person than what was agreed. Some prices for their cooperation can even be steep, such as sacrificing something precious or offering up one’s soul.
    All magic is fueled by mana, a form of energy found in all living organisms. Before learning magic, a mage must first learn how to control their mana until they are capable of creating energy bolts and forming energy constructs. This is the first step in learning magic, for depending on what Primal they’re affiliated with, their magic may not be useful at all times (a Sun mage’s magic is severely weakened at night, and an Earth mage is practically useless out at sea) and they need to rely on their mana for defense and offense.
    Magic can be taught and learned, but like the Arts or sciences, whether someone is good at magic or not depends on their inherent skill, talent, and dedication to their training. Some people are good at magic, others are not.

  36. Alexis

    Also, I have another magic system that sort of more on the traditional side that I’ve been wrestling with for my story. This version of my story’s magic system is like a combination of magic in the Marvel movies and in The Magicians.
    Magic is the practice of harnessing energy to manipulate aspects of reality. Magicians draw on their inner energy, called mana, to cast spells and perform magical techniques. Though there is an international standard for magic spells, certain cultures practice magic in different ways pertaining to either their culture, beliefs or lifestyles. No matter what magic they practice, it all centers on the manipulation of their mana to connect to the natural forces they want to control. Magic can be taught and learned, though whether or not a person’s good at it depends on their study/training, and their innate talent for the practice.
    Mana manipulation is a basic form of magic (though anyone can learn this ability through time and training without doing magic at all. Novice mages are taught how to bring out their mana to create energy bolts, shields, weapons, and constructs. A basic form of mana manipulation is cloaking their bodies in mana to protect them from harm (sort of like Aura in RWBY).
    There are hundreds or even thousands of magical techniques and spells that a magician can learn. Magicians are taught to learn about the natural forces within magic if they want to better control them. There is a set science about how magical techniques are performed, and knowing about the what and the how behind these techniques is important.
    Magicians train to control different aspects of reality, but a magician is also constrained to the limits of reality. There are clear limits of what they can do, and things like resurrection and time manipulation are some of these limitations. Trying to do anything that involves pushing against or even breaking natural law will require aid from outside forces.
    Aside from this, the only other limitation a mage has in magic is their stamina. Using mana is no different from using up stamina, the more magic you use, the more energy that is used up. Though a mage’s mana reserve grows as their body gets used to their energy loss, certain acts of magic that require large amounts of mana can leave a mage drained of energy and will require them to rest and recharge their energy. Pushing themselves past their limit can lead to exhaustion and have them pass out, or in extreme cases, using up too much mana can kill a person through over-exertion.

  37. Justin Wou

    Late to the party, but I wonder what is your take on the magic system in Type-Moon franchises such as the Fate series and Tsukihime? (Known collectively as the Nasuverse after their writer, Kinoko Nasu) Namely, by this article’s definition of rational magic, would the magic in the Nasuverse count as an example of a rational magic system?

  38. aaron grey

    this is all super helpful! also just a thought, you also could have mentioned the Eragon series which uses language as the limitation for casting, and physical energy for fueling spells. ;P

  39. Fallos Talofa

    I doubt anyone will read this, but I had this flash of inspiration on my commute home today for a magic system for a book that’s been spinning in my head for a while. I guess it’s similar in its outward effects to the Avatar magic system, but you’ll see that it’s actually quite different.

    So the magic system is based on balance in nature. It isn’t a common thing among people of this world, but it is an esoteric art comprised of ancient secrets passed down through generations within a tribe of acolytes. They worship and revere the Living Mother (what we might call Mother Earth) in her role as custodian and bringer of balance. The first to discover this art was a man who observed that water disappears on its own and returns later as rain. He was inspired with the observation that this is the Living Mother who is removing water and redistributing it to restore a balance. Water was taken and later give back. Life is movement and if part of nature isn’t moving (even the earth) then it resembles death and not life. Water constantly replenished in its cycle, rising up as vapor and plummeting down as rain. Fire born and living in constant motion, generating heat that is eventually extinguished, restoring the balance. the frequent earthquakes that break up the surface of the earth and reshape it releasing gasses from below. All of nature is in motion and all of nature’s motion serves to restore its own balance.

    How does this constitute a magic system? This ancient Wise One observed the nature’s tendency towards self-balancing and saw it as an Eternal Law. He learned that as long as a person eventually restored the balance towards which nature is always striving, he or she could be enabled to have control over the elements. A puddle could be vaporized at will, only to have the water redistributed at a later time, again at the will of the one controlling the exchange.

    There are, of course, drawbacks. The Living Mother dreads chaos and wants balance. That’s what it’s all about. The farther an individual cause the needle to drift towards imbalance, the more force shall be exerted on that individual until the balance is restored through redistribution. When a person deliberately causes an imbalance that person becomes the cork plugging up the hole, so to speak. He exerts his own living will in opposition against the tendency towards balance. For a small redistribution of energy or matter, this is hardly a large price to pay. The Living Mother may hardly notice a tiny imbalance such as this. Create a crater-sized hole in the earth to later redistribute the soil, though, and you might have some problems. Mother won’t take kindly to that. That’s a larger imbalance.

    So far, the types of energy that can be manipulated in this way are:

    – Air/wind (although due to its constant motion and near-intangibility, air cannot in most cases be held, but is almost always instantaneously redirected. Despite that, it can still be used to many different and wonderful effects, think like some of the stuff Aang does.)

    – Fire/heat (fire is a more fickle form of energy and as it is intangible, it is harder to hold on to, though not as hard as air. Since the universe as a whole tends towards entropy, where this world uniquely tends towards balance, fire doesn’t always behave as expected)

    – Water in its various forms (liquid, gaseous, solid; in redistribution it will always revert to its most common form in nature, that of liquid. Because water is more tangible than air and fire, it is likewise easier to hold on to. But think about trying to hold water cupped in your hand; it’s still difficult. Easier than fire/heat and air/wind, but it takes training.)

    – Earth and earthy minerals/materials (Since earth is firm, solid and tangible, and since man walks and sleeps on the ground, eats what the ground produces, and has a beneficial relationship with the earth, earth is easy to hold on to for longer periods of time, assuming you don’t try to control too much of it at a time).

    – Motion/kinetic energy: you stop an object in its tracks. (The more kinetic energy in the object, the harder it is to stop, as remember, you are the cork and you are the one who must withstand the energy that you are withholding from the tendency towards balance. As this energy is formless and intangible, it is naturally attracted to your body and stored there. For this reason, it is particularly dangerous to withhold kinetic energy and should be redistributed as soon as possible else you risk dismemberment from energy escaping randomly)

    If I can find a way to make it work, it would be cool if sound can be harnessed and redistributed as well. Maybe as a counterpart to motion? Because when you move, there is an accompanying sound?

    – Though some have tried since the beginning, it has been deemed impossible for a human to harness and redistribute sunlight. Every person who attempts this dies, without fail. Their eyes are blinded and their organs fail. It has been decided that the human body is too impure of a vessel, being asynchronous with the rhythms of nature, to successfully accomplish this with sunlight. It’s true that fire produces light; but any attempt to harness this light merely results in harnessing and redistributing heat, for the source of that light is not the sun, but the fire, and it is temporary and dies, restoring balance. However, scholars and Wise Ones know that harnessing sunlight is possible, for virtually every plant known to this world is more than capable of harnessing sunlight, and does so continuously, every day. It is believed in this world, at least by this group of acolytes, that the nighttime is caused by plants absorbing the sunlight, and the dawn only comes because the Living Mother has taken it into her hands to manually restore the balance and takes back the light. The cycle of plants harnessing sunlight and Mother taking it back everyday is no longer considered a mystery, but an accepted fact of life. The mystery is in the water that the Living Mother leaves behind on the plants when the sunlight returns again. Some consider it Her gift, a compensation for taking back the light they harnessed. Others say that this is blasphemy; for a gift of water, if not taken from somewhere, would disrupt the balance, however little, and Mother would never stand for it. No, the water is surely a curse and warning from the mother, who draws the water from the plants themselves as a punishment for stealing the most precious of energy, sunlight itself. This same punishment theory may explain why humans are killed for trying to harness and redistribute sunlight. An explanation for the seasons has its roots here as well. It is an epic drama that, year by year, is played out before humanity. In spring, the plants are young and green, and they begin to steal sunlight. They grow larger and in summer they enjoy the fullness of a mature plant life. But the Mother eventually grows tired of such a long and drawn-out abuse of the balance, with the plants greedily hoarding the sunlight for themselves each day; in autumn she begins to draw water out of the plants, more than just the droplets that form on leaves in the morning. The plants begin to die, and in dying change color and surrender the rest of their water to Mother. Mother takes away the gift of sunlight and its heat and sends all of the water down upon the plants to punish them in their death. Because there is no sunlight and no heat, the water is frozen and white, and blankets the ground. Eventually, after many long and cold nights, Mother returns the sunlight and the heat, for even in just anger she cannot maintain an imbalance.

    …. I know it could use some work, but a lot of this came out in the very act of me writing it in this post! So what do you think? What obvious flaws are there? I’m sure there are phenomena of nature that are plot holes in this magic system. I think natural disaster can be explained in this world as terrifying manifestation of the imbalances in nature, things that the Mother wants to avoid by seeking to restore balance always. Give me your thoughts!

    • Pearl Fields

      I love this so much!!

      • Fallos Talofa

        Thanks! Do you have any feedback or glaring flaws that you noticed?

        • Malcrow

          Hey! I’m probably a little late, but I saw this post and couldn’t help but respond.

          First off, I’d like to say that your idea is amazing! It’s really creative and for the most part completely logical (and since the people in the story are acolytes, there is no scientific explanation needed since it all seems to fit within your model).

          Though I have some questions mainly concerning what allows some to manipulate this balance for a certain time? will you include other living beings that conduct photosynthesis like phytoplankton or algae? What is the development of science, your description of kinetic or thermal energy makes me think the inhabitants have some scientific knowledge, but if that’s the case why is it that they haven’t studied transpiration? (plants take the water from the ground and transpire it at night, so it’s balanced in some sense) If that’s not the case(scientific understanding of the world), how do they explain a fire dying out or lightning? What about their views on the consumption of food and water? (The amount of waste we produce is naturally less than the amount of food or liquid we consume, so again do they have a non-scientific explanation, or if they do have a scientific explanation, why do they not consider the same thing happening in plants?

          Those are just considerations, however, when it comes to flaws I only really see one. What about pine trees and the like, since they are always green what explanation could be given for why the mother does not retaliate against them?

          Those are the things I thought about, let me know if it helped you improve!

    • Orsidan

      This is really good! Balance being an essential figure in most fantasy pieces, this works on many levels! Could you perhaps link the tides and the moon? Maybe something with an eclipse? This could also link in nicely culture and tradition (festivals on summer or winter solace to celebrate the Mother).

  40. Locke

    I’ve been thinking about a system of magic that was born of 6 Tower, stationed at the poles and in each of the cardinal directions. These Tower appeared out of thin air, bringing with them a curse. This curse infects at random, leaving those infected without the memories of their past selves. But the curse also leaves behind a power that is unique for the person. The power can be anything reasonable, but behind its use is an action that they used to love. Without this action, the person is consumed by the power, turning into a brute beast, only wanting to destroy those with more power then themselves. Most of the time, this yearning leads them to the Towers, where they are never seen again. Those who do contain their power are called Gluttons, based off of glutton for punishment (could someone help me with the names, i’m horrible at naming things). Those who are consumed are called Specters (i’m going with an evil theme for this one). And that should be all, if anyone can help me with the names of the entire concept, please do. I’ll be checking this site for updates everyday, so thank you in advance of letting me share my crazy idea with you all.

    • Cay Reet

      I would use something else than Gluttons. Without the explanation you added (glutton for punishment), that sounds more like someone who consumes a lot. That might work as well, but it’s a completely different kind of image in people’s minds. Spectres might do for those who are consumed and become ‘ghosts’ connected to that energy.

      If you want to go with something necromantic (as spectre and ghoul suggest), you might be able to find something more fitting in that area. Wraith, lich, or revenant for example. Lich could do for those who contain the energy, as liches go on living long after they should be gone, so essentially containing life energy past their due date. The lich controls the power and consumes it, the specre is consumed by it.

      • Locke

        I think that I’ll change the names to be about the Towers, instead of what I have now. The Towers will 3 pairs of contrasting ideas. They will be, Time and Space, Light and Darkness, and Mind and Body. Anyone who uses the “magic” of these Towers will have a name that corresponds to the pair, not just the Tower they draw from. Those who don’t contain their power are simple called Unchained, with the name of their source before or after the Unchained, if you want to designate it further. Now, to those who contain their power. For Time and Space, Keeper will be the name. For Light and Darkness, Shade will be their name. And for Mind and Body, Distorter will be their name. To have the power of the Towers, one must have originated from them, or been taken to it by someone from the Towers. Either way, the recipients of the power lose whatever memories gained before or during their stay at the Towers. I’ll be talking more about it in another post, if someone wants to here it, of course. Thank you Cay, for making me think more about what i want my theme to be. I think that should cover it, and I hope to get more advice to help me become a better creator.

  41. Locke

    I forgot to mention the Towers :(. The Towers radiate an energy that interferes with circuit boards, so the only expeditions have been with primitive tools. These expeditions have all been disaster, as the concentration of Ghoul (better then Specters at least) is much higher in those areas. The expeditions that have come back tell of fantastical landscapes, filled with mystic flora and fauna. But those who have returned have never been inside the Tower. Now I think I covered everything, please comment, I accept anything you want to contribute, thank you.

  42. Sage

    Thank you so much! This helped me separate my thoughts and put them into their own categories.

  43. A Perspiring Writer

    Did a comment get deleted*? If so, why?

    *I noticed a notification in a tab I hadn’t refreshed in a while about a new comment, but when I checked, there wasn’t one.

  44. BLAKE 1001

    What about RL systems of magic?

    Thelema, Goetia, Gematria, Thaumaturgy, Alchemy, Hermeticism? Get into religion and the systems of magical belief and practices really explodes. You needn’t appropriate any that have extant adherents, of course, but looking at what people believe can be a touchstone for how an invented system of magic could work…

    ….and It would probably look a lot less like the X-Men than a lot of fictional magic systems do.

    • BLAKE 1001

      Oh! I forgot Theosophy! If you read up on no other system of supernatural beliefs, check out that one. It’s been a tremendous influence on pop culture, especially conceptions of ghosts.

    • Cay Reet

      You can certainly use that, even though information might sometimes not be easy to find.

      Remember the problem with any kind of existing lore: someone out there who’s reading your stories is an expert in it and will be pretty annoyed if you just wing it and your version has next to nothing in common with reality.

      I would also like to point out that alchemy is not a religion, but an admittedly partially superstitious precursor to chemistry.

  45. Kulie

    I’m working on a story that has 3 magic systems. Notes on the world: humans are at a hunter-gatherer to city-state level of development, gods are real but you can never talk with them, spirits are everywhere and run on fae logic, and demons are corrupted spirits that will ravage towns/cities and curse people.

    𝙳𝚒𝚟𝚒𝚗𝚎 𝙼𝚊𝚐𝚒𝚌:
    Divine magic comes from appeals to the gods. Your success depends on your knowledge of the gods, your relationship with the god, and your ability to make an appeal. For example, the Goddess of the Hunt will give a blessing that will increase the accuracy and strength of your bow, as long as you don’t eat after dark. If you eat after dark, she’ll take away the blessing. As for the God of Storms, he likes dances in his honor. He’ll make it rain if your rain dance impresses him, but he won’t strike someone with lightning no matter how impressive your dance is. That is, unless you have a good relationship with him. One of my characters is able to beg the Storm God for help without making a proper appeal because they danced nearly every day for 5 years.

    𝙷𝚘𝚕𝚢 𝙼𝚊𝚐𝚒𝚌 (𝚗𝚘𝚝 𝚜𝚞𝚛𝚎 𝚠𝚑𝚊𝚝 𝚝𝚘 𝚌𝚊𝚕𝚕 𝚒𝚝 𝚋𝚞𝚝 𝚞𝚜𝚞𝚊𝚕𝚕𝚢 𝚙𝚛𝚒𝚎𝚜𝚝𝚜 𝚞𝚜𝚎 𝚒𝚝 𝚜𝚘 “𝚑𝚘𝚕𝚢“):
    Technically, anyone can use holy magic, but it takes years to become proficient. You can take the time to practice it yourself, but you’re better off finding a teacher. However, most societies don’t have the resources to crank out wizards. Being a priest (a magic user in service to their village/town) is a full time job; but sometimes you need a hunter, not a demon slayer. Things holy magic can do include lighting incense, putting people to sleep, and pacifying demons. Honestly, I can’t think of a reasonable or cohesive cap on what it can do so I hope the limitations will balance it out. The biggest limitation is the training. Even with a teacher it takes years to become proficient. There might be countless possibilities, but it will take countless years to figure it out. Another limitation is that you have to touch whatever you’re casting a spell on, e.g. you have to touch the person you’re putting to sleep or touch the demon you’re pacifying. Last limitation is that the caster has to concentrate on what they’re doing. If they’re distracted, panicking, drunk, or otherwise unable to focus the spell won’t work.

    In my mind, rituals are the middle ground between divine magic and holy magic. Anyone can use it, the power doesn’t come from the gods, but you do have to follow a “recipe.” It doesn’t take years of training. All you need are the right ingredients, follow the right steps, and have the right mindset. The steps of rituals are based on hearsay, so it’s hard to know what’s actually necessary. Do you need sage, or can you use oak leaves instead? Do you really have to hop 3 times on your left foot? Who knows! However, most people won’t deviate from what they know to work to avoid wasting their time on a failed ritual or potentially hazardous consequences. Some rituals are inherently harmful, like the ritual that’s typically used to find missing persons. You need to place incense in a semi-circle in front of you, drink fresh blood, paint your face with the blood, and focus on the person you’re looking for. You will see through their eyes, feel what they feel (emotionally and physically), hear their thoughts, and even have their memories. Usually you can figure out if they’re alive, where they are, and how they’re doing; but it’s hard on your brain to process information for two people at once. It’s not uncommon for people to have phantom sensations or memories weeks later.

    𝙼𝚒𝚜𝚌. 𝙼𝚊𝚐𝚒𝚌:
    • Divine gifts are enchanted items (like swords, hats, necklaces, etc.) that were made by the gods. They’re usually gifted to devout followers, but anyone can use them once they figure out how it works.

    • Like gods, you can ask spirits for help. They aren’t all knowing like gods so you have to talk to them directly. You can negotiate with them about services and prices, that is, if they listen to you at all.

    • Curses are basically magic diseases. Some get better with time, some get worse. Sometimes you just get turned into a chicken. Humans can’t curse (or maybe they just didn’t figure it out yet!) but gods, spirits, and demons can. The most well known curse is the Demon’s Mark. It will first appear has a reddish purple mark that will slowly spread across the whole body. Those affected will suffer from chronic pain, skin lesions, and become prone to violence; but they will also gain super human strength. These symptoms will get worse over time.

    • Kulie

      Because I have 3 systems and they all lean soft-irrational, I’m concerned that I have glaring problems that I overlooked. I want the magic of the world to feel whimsical (or horrifying) and ever present, but not the cure all to every problem. I also want the systems to be distinct, but relatively balanced.

      Holy magic is more reliable, but hard to learn.
      Rituals are easy to execute, but can be dangerous.
      Divine magic is often more powerful/useful, but isn’t always reliable.

      • Cay Reet

        I would suggest that you make it so your gods just randomly interact with the world. There’s no way to please them or ask them for help, they just do stuff because they want to (very much like the Greek/Roman or Norse pantheons we have). That means that divine intervention is a possibility (a deus ex machina in the true sense of the world), but there’s no way your regular human MC can rely on it.

        I’d especially suggest that, because your ‘holy magic’ is used by priests, so it, too, is tied to the gods. Have holy magic as something humans can gain through service to the gods, but have the gods as some random element that cannot be influenced at all.

  46. Kulie

    Thank you for commenting! I like your idea about the gods randomly interacting with the world. It’s way too easy for me to make everything very logical with a specific and predictable reaction to every action, which is why I’m trying to challenge myself with a more whimsical(?) magic system. I definitely have more work to do.

    I think, some of the gods will be more random and chaotic than others. The Goddess of Exchanges would be less random, but you wouldn’t be able to reliably make exchanges with her. Everything is what she deems fair. She might exchange one person’s hand for another’s, but she might not deem two lives equal. The God of Parties, on the other hand, would be very chaotic. He’s also known as the God of Mischief. Anywhere there is festivity or drinking he might try to have some fun, which could make for an epic night or a lot of destruction; he’s the bane of every tavern and bar. Now, I think I was misleading about the Storm God. My character doesn’t get him to throw lightning at foes, but he does send a giant bird to carry off my character to relative safety, but they end up getting separated from the rest of their group. (Storm God = sky domain = bird ? Sounds right to me)

    I really need a new name for the holy magic. I’m only using that as a place holder name because mostly priests use it… but priest carries its own connotation that’s probably also misleading. In my world, priests aren’t like “Catholic priests” and all that. They don’t lead sermons or pray for people. It’s a generic job title for people whose main concern is to maintain relationships with local spirits and practice ‘holy magic’ so they can pacify demons. Most priests wouldn’t be any more concerned with gods than the average person.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, that kind of priest would merely be concerned with problems with the locals, then their ‘holy magic’ can be far more generic and not tied to a god.

      Little fun fact: the Greek god Hermes was, among other things, the god of thieves and of merchants. I’m sure there’s a deeper meaning in this.
      In the Norse pantheon, Loki is sometimes also referred to as the god of fire – despite the fact that he’s a frost giant.

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