5 Tips – Magic Systems

5 World Building Tips (Vol 3, #6): Magic Systems

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is magic systems. You can read more in Chapter 6, “Creating Magic Systems,” from Cultures and Beyond, (The Art of World Building, #3).

Tip #1: “Are Unpredictable Results Possible?”

In some worlds, like Harry Potter, spells that aren’t cast correctly still “go off” but with unexpected results. Is this possible in your setting? Or does the spell fail? The latter seems more believable; the ability to so easily screw it up makes magic so absurdly dangerous that it’s likely forbidden pretty much everywhere.

Tip #2: “Decide if Spells Are Needed”

Do people need to recite memorized lines, make gestures, or use physical materials to do magic? Or can they do it by force of will, like a god? In theory, spells are to achieve a specific result within a range of possible results, meaning limits are built in. The caster’s skill and strength determine where in the possible range their spell falls. But if willing things to happen, there may be fewer limits and more inherent danger. What makes sense for the story?

Tip #3: “Have a Good Name”

While we can just call it “magic” and keep it simple, this doesn’t work when there’s more than one type in the setting. Invent cool names for each to increase audience attraction. We can also call the practitioners a related name instead of the generic “wizard,” for example. This distinguishes our setting, too.

Tip #4: “Sanderson’s Laws Are Not Laws”

Author Brandon Sanderson proposed three “laws” of magic systems that are not laws but guidelines that should not make us feel restricted, but they’re worth noting. They amount to making the reader understand the magic before using it to solve problems, creating limitations on magic, and expanding what you have before adding new ideas. Sound advice!

Tip #5: “Decide What Training is Needed”

What can magic users do without training? Anything at all? Do they need formal training to become powerful, skilled, or even be allowed to perform magic? Refusal to accept training is an easy way to make someone an outlaw. Decide what sort of training is available and from who (person, group, guild, university, sovereign power). Defining this allows us to create distinctions between wizards who received training from one or another.

Summary of Chapter 6—Creating a System of Magic

Magic systems can be simple or complex, but they should always be consistent. This chapter discusses the methods and principles of good systems and how to create them. This includes the importance of naming them, deciding if spells are needed and what those are for, whether spells can go wrong and how, and different types of magic we might want to include in our settings. We’ll also look at how much training someone might need, what forms that training takes, and learn how to decide what’s right for our setting. And no discussion of magic is complete without a look at how to invent spells.

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