Podcast Episode 31.1 – Magic Systems


Episode 31.1: Learn How to Create Magic Systems

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create a magic system, including whether we need to create them, sources of magic, whether spells are needed, a look at the life of wizards, and more.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • When we don’t need to invent a magic system
  • The difference between a source and origin of magic
  • When spells might be needed
  • Why spells might not be needed
  • The potential consequences of not using spells
  • How to imagine the life of wizards so that it’s fully realized

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Episode 31.1 Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirty-one, part one. Today’s topic is how to create magic systems. This includes whether we need to create them, sources of magic, whether spells are needed, a look at the life of wizards, and more. This material and more is discussed in chapter 6 of Cultures and Beyond, volume 3 from Cultures and Beyond, volume three in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

Do We Need a Magic System?

Before we get started, I want to mention that you can buy transcripts of these episodes from Artofworldbuilding.com or Amazon.com, and you can actually buy the episodes themselves as audiobooks.

Many people may assume that magic systems are only going to come up in fantasy, but even if you write science fiction, this can still be there right alongside the technology. One reason for this is that it’s possible for planet-hopping characters in science fiction to end up on a planet that does not have this technology, and instead they’ve got magic.

The first major thing I want to talk about is whether we need a magic system because we don’t always need one. One reason we should have a system is that we want to be consistent, and we also don’t want to suddenly give someone an ability that they need, right when they need it, when we should’ve given it to them prior to that, and possibly shown it to the audience so that the audience isn’t surprised later when they can suddenly do this.

It’s also possible, if we’re writing something like a series, to end up contradicting ourselves because a later book does something where we said earlier, in a different book, that it’s not possible for that to happen. Keeping notes is a good way to go about this, but so is creating an organized system. Another reason we might want a system is if we have more than one type of magic. This would allow us to contrast two different types. On the other hand, if we haven’t worked out a system so that we know what’s possible in one versus the other, this is harder to do.

But one reason we wouldn’t want a system is if we are only writing a short story. In that context, we’re probably not going to forget what we’ve previously done, and the story is short enough that there’s only going to be so much magic showing up anyway. If magic is very limited, that is another reason we may not need a system because so few people will be able to do it that it’s just not going to come up often. On the other hand, if magic is really prevalent, we’re definitely going to benefit from a system.

Just like with technology, we have to determine the prevalence of, in this case, magic. Anything rare is going to be more special, valuable and feared, while something that’s very common may get taken for granted much the same way that we take technology for granted. This is important for establishing people’s attitudes about magic, and we don’t really need to explain why magic is either rare or common. We can simply decide this is the way life is, and that’s the end of it. Most people are not going to question it.

The one time when we might want an explanation is if the prevalence has suddenly changed, such as everyone can do it, and then, suddenly, it’s very restricted or vice versa. In that case, we’re going to want an event of some kind, and that’s probably going to figure into our story.

So, how do we go about deciding the prevalence? Well, one way is to consider the impact on the setting and the stories, and what we really want. The more common magic is, the greater the impact is going to be. Do we want it everywhere the same way that technology is everywhere on Earth as I dictate this? We will have a sense of whether we want magic to be that common, so sometimes we don’t really need to think about this so much as make a quick decision.

When magic is common, we’re going to need to spend time thinking about how it could be used by society, and we’re talking about really mundane uses for magic. For example, if someone can simply cast a spell to make their dinner, then the entire restaurant industry might go out of business and not exist. On the other hand, maybe the wizards who can cast really good recipes are the ones who are operating these restaurants. One point I’m raising is that we can envision things in various ways. But, one way or another, it is going to have an impact on the way people go about their lives.

On the other hand, if magic is very rare, then life is basically happening without it, except for a few individuals. This is arguably easier to imagine because it’s similar to Earth a few hundred years ago. That’s not because magic showed up, but of course, technology did. And technology is one way to go about figuring out what people might be doing with magic. However, we should resist doing something like having an oven that basically works from magic instead of electricity. Ovens are a good example because if you think about what’s in your house for cooking food, you probably have a microwave, you an oven or even a double oven, a grill outside, and a stovetop. You might also have something like a crockpot.

A poor use of magic would be to decide that magic is powering each one of those devices. What may be a better idea is if there’s only one device and magic powers that and can produce food different ways in that same device. Try not to just use magic as if it’s electricity. Some of these obviously don’t depend on electricity, but you get the idea. You don’t want it to just be a power source or a replacement for an existing component of an electronics device. We need to reimagine such devices.

Now, aside from devices, if magic is really prevalent, then it’s possible that wizards are simply casting spells all the time rather than using magic items. An interesting example of this would be something like a teleporter where there are two people, two wizards, standing there operating this teleporter by casting spells in real time rather than doing the equivalent of turning on a dial or a power button, for example, that sends people from one place to another. They actually have to cast the spell. There may be people who do this for a living and employers that they work for. Imagine what kind of insurance they must carry because they might cause people to cease to exist because they don’t show up at the other side of the teleportation device. We can really have a lot of fun with this if we are so inclined.

A related subject is the social aspect of wizardry. Whether magic is rare or common, there will most likely be laws about whether it can be used. We can invent entire areas of law, crime and punishment for this. Laws often originate from problems that have already occurred, so all we really need to do is think of things that people have done wrong, and then come up with a law that tells people, “Don’t do that.” This can allow us to create laws that are either local or all the way up to the federal level, at the sovereign power level. This helps us create some history and some infamous incidents, and even perpetrators. We may also have famous victims.

Of course, one question is how can we inhibit a wizard from doing something if wizards are so powerful? There are always ways to do something like this. For example, they can be imprisoned in a place where magic doesn’t work. Or maybe there’s a kind of device that can be put on them that stops them from doing magic, or maybe even the talent can be removed from them permanently. Put on your thinking cap and imagine something.

There are bound to be laws about the use of magic. For example, if I cast a spell on myself ahead of our date, that might be considered okay, but if we’re going on a date and I cast a spell on you, that could be a crime. Generally, casting spells on other people without their permission is probably frowned upon. Another angle we can use to our advantage is the power disparity that exists between wizards and non-wizards. Not surprisingly, the people who can’t do magic will probably want to place a lot of restrictions on those who can. What if we’re playing a sport and I cast a spell to make sure that I do well? That’s not fair. Maybe sports are played in places where magic doesn’t work because people can’t be trusted.

Some communities might reject the use of magic altogether. Sometimes religious beliefs might be behind this, or maybe conservative values where people are resisting change and magic is becoming more common, or the more likely one is that magic has caused a major problem here in the past and, therefore, people are not trusted if they can do magic. That’s not really fair to people, but people, often, are not fair to each other. We certainly have words for it, like discrimination. If we like this somewhere, all we have to do is create some sort of past incident. If we want wizardry to be viewed positively by a community, then we can just have a wizard have saved the day, for example.

We can certainly have both good and bad wizards, or good and bad incidents have happened in this location and, therefore, people don’t decide that wizards are all one way or the other. If you’re doing a story with a basic battle between good and evil, you might want them to have a viewpoint one way or the other, but if you want a more realistic setting, then I would suggest having a mix of people.

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Sources of Magic

Another subject we should talk about is the source of magic. Where does it come from? The case can be made that there’s a subtle difference between the origins of magic and its sources. For example, the origin of magic is the answer to the question, “Where does magic come from?” One answer would be the universe. Another one would be the gods. There really aren’t too many other options than this.

Now, when it comes to sources, what I’m talking about is to perform magic, where does the wizard draw that energy from? For example, the universe might have provided magic as a point of origin, but when I go to cast the spell, where am I getting the magic from? Some options might be the planet or elements in that planet, like earth, water, air and fire, or it could be coming from magnetics. Or it could be coming from another body in the solar system, like the sun, the moon, a ring system around a planet or comets. It could also be other realities like the astral plane or a parallel dimension. Maybe I’m getting the magic from beings like a god, a demon, aliens or even regular things like plants, animals and humanoids — and possibly even from souls. Or we could have something like the force from Star Wars.

Part of what I’m getting at here is that when a wizard goes to summon this magic power from somewhere, it’s got to exist already in order for him to draw it from that place into himself, and then expel it outward as a spell. This is what I mean by a source of magic rather than the origins. If you’re wondering why this matters, well, let’s say that you’re an elemental wizard and you do things with water, and that’s all that you can do, but you find yourself in the desert where, in theory, there is no water. I say in theory because there is still going to be water in the atmosphere; it just may not be apparent to normal people. If you’re this elemental wizard, you may have the ability to sense it. But there can also be water underground and it just isn’t apparent to most of us.

This wizard might be able to draw the water from there and then do something like fill up everyone’s canteens so they have water to drink. Now, technically, that’s a source of water, but this person’s ability to do magic is related to water, so it would seem plausible that without a source like that, this wizard’s power doesn’t really work. They’ve got nothing that they can do. It doesn’t have to be that way, but part of what I’m thinking is a scene from a book I read a long time ago where a character who was a novice wizard, but very powerful, drew a lot of rain down on the opponents, the people who were trying to kill them, and the problem with this was that he caused a drought that lasted for something like a month after this. The people who knew better were yelling at him that he had done this, and he was offended that they were mad because he had just saved them. And they’re trying to tell him, “Yeah, but you caused this problem, or you’re about to cause this problem,” because they knew from experience that this was going to happen.

So, this is optional, but we can decide that magic has a source and it’s got to come from somewhere or the wizard can’t do anything. If magic is being drawn from living beings, then we have the ability to inadvertently kill them. Let’s say I want to draw water from your body. Well, I could kill you, of course. That may not be my intention, but maybe I was trying to do something else. Let’s say you were poisoned and I was trying to extract that liquid from your system, but instead I pulled out a bunch of water and now you’re really dehydrated or, worse, I actually killed you.

Now, some could say that this is not really a source, it’s just the element, in this case, that you’re operating on, and that’s a perfectly valid viewpoint. It doesn’t really matter what we consider it to be. What I’m after here is getting you to think about where wizards are getting the energy from, or what’s being affected by their ability to draw this magic to them, and then expel it outward. We always think about that expelling outward part, but do we think about where people are drawing this energy from in the first place? And is that supply inexhaustible? Is it forever? Is it something like the Sun where the odds of someone drawing all the power from the Sun and extinguishing it are pretty slim, even though they basically did that in one of the more recent Star Wars movies.

A related subject, and one that you’re probably familiar with, is the idea that there is a cost to magic. This is typically done partly because it’s believable, but it’s also a way to prevent wizards from having way too much power. One of the most plausible things is for magic to be physically draining, just like any other activity. I would recommend this as your default option because we have so many things that we need to do in world building that we might as well make this one simple unless we have another idea.

But we can think of other costs. For example, what if every time you do a spell, it makes you slightly more crazy than you used to be? Another limitation I remember is that if a wizard casts a spell, they’ve got to relearn it from scratch as if they’ve never seen it before and it’s difficult for them. We can also make wizardry cause premature aging. Take some time to think of a reasonable limit for your wizards.

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Are Spells Needed?

One of my favorite subjects about magic systems is the question of whether spells are needed or not. It may seem obvious that they are needed, but that sort of depends on our definition of the words “spell” and “magic.” Magic is considered to be powers that don’t exist on Earth, but, of course, in our fictional world magic is real. But this definition still holds up for us. The reason is that our audience is on Earth. Spells typically mean doing some combination of words, gestures and physical materials. And, of course, the point of all of it is to perform magic.

If this all seems obvious, there is a reason I am making the distinction here. In a fantasy setting, the gods are considered real and they are doing things that don’t occur on Earth. So, we could say that they are causing magic. But that raises the question, are they doing spells? We don’t usually show them using physical materials, for example. They might use words and make gestures, but it seems kind of like they’re just channeling their willpower rather than trying to summon magic from somewhere with a spell. If a spell is a kind of recipe for doing magic, it doesn’t seem like the gods are doing that, does it?

So, you may disagree with this, and that’s fine, but let’s say that there are two ways of doing magic: with a spell, like mortals, or by force of will, more like a god. Well, what if mortals can also do magic without a spell? That’s what we’re going to take a look at.

Let’s first start off talking about the option where spells are needed, since that’s what most of us are familiar with. Naturally, a spell would harness magical energy, but if the spell is performed wrong, we have two options: Either nothing happens at all, or magic still happens but in unintended ways. These are equally plausible. Failure could mean that the energy wasn’t harnessed at all, and that seems the safest bad result of a spell that didn’t work. But failure could also mean that the energy was harnessed and it is just improperly disposed of.

In a series like Harry Potter, they often go for a comedic result by having the spells doing something other than what they were intended to do. This has often bothered me because I always felt like the whole point of a spell was to achieve a specific result. If he didn’t do it right, why does something else happen? One thing to consider here is that spells were invented by somebody somewhere. It could be gods or other beings like them, but it could be more fun to decide that mortals are the ones who devised these spells, and since mortals are fallible, so are the spells. Someone who’s good at creating spells might have put in there some sort of failsafe so that energy is dispersed in a safe manner if the spell is done improperly. This would certainly make magic less dangerous.

In a setting where spells can still go off if they’re done wrong, it’s more plausible that there’s going to be a lot of law and fear about this. On the other hand, magic is going to be more respected if it is more controlled. Now, if I’m someone inventing spells, maybe I put the part of the spell that harnesses energy first, and then if someone messes up a later part of the spell, like the discharging of it, I’ve got that failsafe in there that kicks off. But maybe I’m a smarter creator of spells and I do that harnessing at the end, and the spell never even gets to that point if the earlier parts of the spell are done poorly.

We can decide that all of these options exist on the world because there’s obviously going to be more than one person who has created spells. We can also have a situation where these failsafes are considered limiting, naturally, and that some people feel like that’s a problem. They would like to cast more powerful spells, and in order to do so, they’re going to have to cast a version that doesn’t have that kind of failsafe built into it because that is taking some of the energy that could go into other parts of the spells. Naturally, it’s probably going to be the more dangerous wizards who are interested in doing such things.

Now, let’s take a look at the other scenario. The one where spells are not needed by mortals. All of those safeguards that we were just talking about are not going to exist. A wizard won’t really have this idea that, “Hey, if I do this, I’m going to get this result.” They may cause side effects each time, and one time they remember to safeguard against that, and another time they don’t, maybe because they’re distracted or they’re in a rush. So, maybe they know how to cast a fireball, but each time they do it there is something different about it, and sometimes it’s more significant than others, and that’s outside the parameters that they might be expecting.

Technically, without a spell, they’re not going to have any parameters, but you get the idea. There is a range of results that they’re expecting, and because there’s no prescribed way of going about achieving that result, the results are going to vary. And maybe more so than someone who is doing it through a spell. Naturally, this could make any magic they do more dangerous, and if they are drawing energy from beings that are around them, well, they may draw away too much because there’s no spell that limits how much is being drawn from people around them.

It would seem that doing things by a force of will is inherently more dangerous and uncontrolled. This would be one reason to reserve this only for gods or some other supernatural beings. For all of these reasons, a wizard might still use spells even if they don’t need to. In other words, the spells are optional. In this scenario, spells are placing limits on magic, not making the magic possible. Given this, does it make sense to cast a spell but have it go wrong and still do something when the whole point of that spell was to achieve a specific result? It seems like the answer would be no, and that this should be a pass/fail kind of scenario. This is certainly one option on our world. You’re going to have to decide for yourself which option makes the most sense to you.


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The Life of Wizards

The last thing I want to talk about in this episode is the life of wizards. One of the things I mean is making a decision about how the ability to do magic is gained and lost. A seeming default is that it is like talent, and either we’ve got it or we don’t. People sometimes don’t know that they have a talent, and they may not until they reach a given milestone. This could be an age or an event, such as losing your virginity or having a first period if you’re a female, or maybe the first time we kill someone or draw blood. Maybe we even need to die and be reborn first.

And what about the option to lose the ability to do magic? If a God has granted the ability, maybe they can take it away. The same kinds of events that caused us to gain the ability can also cause us to lose it. Maybe as long as you’re celibate you can do magic. That sounds like a hard choice to me.

If the ability can be gained and lost, we should decide if this is permanent or not. We all like stories of redemption, so someone losing the ability to do magic and having to do some sort of penance to get it back might be something to do.

Training is another element we should consider. This might be especially important if magic can be done without spells because training is going to be needed to control yourself and what you are causing to happen. On that note, someone without the training is going to be more dangerous, but maybe they aren’t as powerful because they have not learned how to capitalize on their strength. If magic is common, then we may have schools that teach this, or at least guilds. But if it is feared, then we are probably going to have a kind of master and apprentice scenario. There may be entire countries where magic is not allowed, but other places where it is, and as a result, people with magic talent travel to that place to gain their training.

All of this can be used to develop good character backstory. If we have the time and are interested, we can even come up with a curriculum similar to what might be studied in college. We can even use the Harry Potter books and movies as inspiration, although try not to rip off anything. Another element of training is what sort of tests are required, and what most be passed. What happens to people who have talent but can’t pass any of the tests? Are they restricted from doing magic? If that’s not possible, are they killed? Maybe people don’t want them going out into the world and doing all sorts of mischief.

Think through each of these scenarios in your setting, and what kind of life awaits those who do pass all of these tests? Are they able to practice magic lawfully? Are they respected or are they still going to be feared? Once someone graduates and goes out into the world, they are arguably at their height of power. This is not to say that they’re not going to be more powerful in 10 or 20 years, but they are in their prime now. Are they able to live in the open or are they someone who is still being shunned despite their training? Much of this is going to determine how their life is being lived.

This can certainly circle back to the social aspects we talked about before where if they are accepted, then this is a positive to becoming a wizard, but if they know that being a wizard is going to get them feared and shunned, maybe they don’t want to let on that they have this power. Maybe they’ve got the talent, but they never develop it. Imagine being really good at something, and it’s the only thing that you are good at or you have a talent for, but this will get you hated. This could certainly have an affect on your outlook in life. What if the opposite is true and you’re not good at it, but everyone else is and magic is very accepted? This could also make you very resentful that you can’t be like everyone else.

Something else to consider is that when someone gets older, in their later years, they’re not going to be as powerful, and they may have caused enemies that are now after them. This seems like it would be a good reason to have joined a guild when you were younger and made friends, some of whom can now, essentially, protect you. We often see the stereotype of the really old wizard who’s all powerful, but this isn’t really that realistic, especially if magic is physically draining. Are wizards really like wine and they just keep getting better with age, or do they eventually go bad? Which, by the way, does happen with wine.

The last thing I want to mention about all of this is that this idea of being viewed poorly or well might be reflected in the attire that people wear. This is obvious, but if wizards are hated and they’re required to wear a robe and carry the cliched staff, then this is a bit of a problem. On the other hand, if they don’t have to do this, then why would they? We can decide that such attire is something that is worn for formal occasions, but when they’re out in the world and they’re trying to do something like ride a horse, a robe is not exactly the most comfortable thing to be wearing.

Try to find more practical clothing for your wizards to wear. Now, when we do this, we may lose the ability to immediately identify someone as a wizard, but that might be something they want, especially if they’re going to travel somewhere where wizards are feared and maybe killed on sight. But there are other ways to give them a distinctive outfit, especially in a visual medium. For example, in Star Wars, everyone can tell what a Jedi is just that from their clothing. Despite this, some of their clothing is much more functional than in the original Star Wars Episode IV. In that, we see Obi-Wan Kenobi wearing a robe. That appears to fit with the lifestyle he’s living where all he does is walk around. He’s not doing something like riding a horse. But it still does evoke the cliche of someone who is kind of a wizard, an old man and wearing a robe. In some of the movies, like Episodes I, II and III, the Jedi are shown wearing much more functional clothing. They are also shown doing much more active scenes, flipping around and all sorts of stuff.

There’s an old cliche that we should probably try to avoid, and that is that wizards cannot wear armor for reasons that are usually not very specified. I think the primary reason people do this is that it’s one way to make a wizard more vulnerable. But one excuse that I have seen is that the metal somehow interferes with the ability to perform magic. That’s fine, but it would seem like wizards would go out of their way to have some sort of armor fashioned that does not have that side effect. Regardless of your decision, try to find a way that wizards can alternate between being recognized on sight as a wizard, and easily obscuring the fact that they are one.

Now that we’ve covered some of these basics to keep in mind with wizardry and systems of magic, we’re going to get into a lot more interesting detail in the next episode.


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