Podcast Episode 31.2 – Magic Systems


Episode 31.2: Learn How to Create Magic Systems

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create magic systems. This includes a brief look at types of magic, the principles, creating limits, how to invent spells, and more.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic Systems
  • Ellefson’s Seven Laws of Magic Systems
  • Some magic types we can leverage
  • Why we need to know how common magic is
  • Principles of good magic systems
  • How and why we create limits to make more believable systems
  • How to invent spells

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Episode 31.2 Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirty-one, part two. Today’s topic concludes our discussion about how to create magic systems. This includes a brief look at types of magic, the principles, creating limits, how to invent spells, and more. This material and more is discussed in chapter 6. This material and more is discussed in a chapter 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.

How Common is the Magic Type?

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The first subject we’re going to look at is types of magic. Once we decide there are different types of magic, we can start defining each of them and separating them from each other that way. For all of them, we should consider how many people can perform each type. Generally, the more rare something is, the more valuable and feared it is. It may not make sense if everyone can do magic, but everyone fears it. But we probably could find a rational for that. Then there’s the question of how easy is it to find someone who can do something if we need that, such as a necromancer. If we only have one of them every thousand miles, that’s quite a bit different than if there’s one on every street corner.

There are a number of reasons why a particular type of magic might be rare. The more dangerous it is, the less likely people will want to do it, even if it’s relatively easy to do. The magic could also be feared. This might be because it has a consequence. What if every spell makes you a month older? Or maybe you have to deal with demons. The practitioners of this could be feared, and one side effect of that is that friends and family could also shun you if you take this on. So, do you care about that or not? Do you want to take up this practice and lose all of your friends and family?

Another issue is that training might be rare or it might not even exist. Or it might be really expensive or just something that’s really hard to do. All of these would inhibit becoming better at this. Another reason for a magic type to be rare is if it requires materials to perform spells, maybe those materials are really hard to come by, or even expensive. This is the kind of scenario where you may have the talent for it, and maybe it’s even easy to do, but you simply can’t cast anything.

Another reason for rarity is that spell books could be rare or they could be poorly done. Not all spells are created equal. Some of them may just be bad spells that are inherently dangerous. Spells had to be invented by someone, in theory, so we could have different people who’ve invented a fireball spell, and some of them are safe to cast and others are not. Maybe you know that the spell you have is the bad one, but maybe you only find out the hard way. Not surprisingly, if there are people who are good at inventing these spells, their spell books are going to be more valuable.

An obvious reason for a rarity is that the talent is simply rare.

There may also be no money in it. What if you practice something where no one wants to hire you? This is not to say that all wizards require a job because, as we all know from adventuring games, you can go out and make your fortune by picking up treasure somewhere. So, there’s that, but that may not be an option for you. What if you’re not the adventuring type and you don’t want to do that or live that kind of life? So, if you’re good at something like witchcraft, but no one needs you to do it and you’re not going to go out adventuring, then it’s not going to bring in any money. So, are you really going to devote a lot of time to this?

Then there are some reasons why a magic type could be commonplace. For the most part, these are reasons that are the opposite of the ones we just talked about. For example, if it’s very safe, then more people will be willing to do this. If it’s very accepted, that’s another reason people will do it. By contrast, your family and your friends may not shun you. Maybe they’re even proud of the fact that you do this. Maybe there’s even the equivalent of a bumper sticker that says, “My kid made the honor roll at this particular wizardry school.”

If practicing this kind of magic gets you esteemed, that’s a pretty good draw because most people want to be admired for what they do, whether they admit to that or not. So, this can be a reason why there are a lot of wizards of that particular type. If training is available, easy and inexpensive, these can all make it easier for more people to do this. If any physical materials or spell books are easy to come by, that makes it easier for more people to do this as well. Then, of course, there’s the obvious reason that a lot of people have the talent for this.

Now, with all of these reasons, whether it’s a rare or common type of magic, something can outweigh another factor. For example, maybe everyone’s got the talent, but because the materials are rare, very few people actually become this type of wizard. Try to split these up. Come up with some pros for each type and some cons for it.

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Magic Types

Let’s get into our types of magic. The first one is white and black magic. Magic can be considered beneficial or harmful to others and the environment, and these are called white and black magic, respectively. We can also think of them as good and evil, and they may have a source that is also good or evil, such as a god. If that’s the case, then the attributes of the god are probably going to influence who becomes a wizard. Naturally, if the god requires something like a human sacrifice, they’re probably not a good god. That can attract people who have certainly personality traits and willingness to undertake certain kinds of actions when they’re performing magic. Similarly, the magic that’s available to such a person might be very much restricted based on who is the provider.

One thing about black magic is that it’s considered bad because people use it for selfish reasons as opposed to using it for reasons that help other people. Not surprisingly, practitioners of black magic are often feared and shunned. One issue with both of them is that practitioners of one can be confused with practitioners of the other. Misunderstanding is a great way to add tension to our stories, and we should also consider the option of grey magic — something that falls in between these two.

Alchemy is one of the more interesting variants on wizardry. This is the practice of turning one item into another, but it’s a little bit more than that in its historical context. The changing of one item into another is thought to be an analogy for personal transformation into a better and purer state. This is what alchemists on Earth were after when they wanted to change something. They thought that changing a specific material that’s physical from one to another would cause a corresponding change within a person. For example, if I turn a piece of lead into gold, then maybe I have made your spirit more noble and high-minded. So, this wasn’t simply about switching objects into something else and, for example, just making gold so that you can get rich. We can certainly use it that way if we want, but a great thing about alchemy is that this is an analogy for personal transformation, and we can use that as a metaphor in our stories.

When it comes to witchcraft, most of us know what is meant by this, but it actually is hard to define. It can be considered bad in the sense of using the supernatural to harm people, or beneficial using it for divination, for example. A long time ago, pagans were often assumed to be witches, and this has led to some associations with witchcraft. What I mean is that we sometimes think that witches are nude or partially nude, barefoot, maybe they’re wearing loose or flowing clothing, and they’re doing some sort of chanting or singing and dancing in the woods to conjure spirits. This might be at night or during specific moon phases.

All of that comes from paganism, but it’s become associated with witchcraft. Much of that was done to celebrate natural elements. That would include base needs like sex. As a result, along with fear, this led to the assumption of things like having sex with the devil or similar figures to gain supernatural powers. We don’t need any of that to be true, and we can actually do that kind of association with other types of witchcraft if we want. There is one distinction for witchcraft, and that is the use of archaic runes and symbols that are inscribed on a target, such as a person, a building, or an item that will be the focus of the spell. It’s almost as if witchcraft cannot target somebody without that. We can either use that idea, ignore it, or even apply it to another type of magic.

Now, since witches are typically dealing with spirits of some kind, we should probably define the afterlife and any other planes of existence that we might want them to be utilizing. That might also be true of necromancy. This is communication with the dead, of course, and that may mean bringing the dead to this world, or going there, or just doing the equivalent of a phone call. It kind of makes you wonder if they have FaceTime or Skype.

Since most people fear death and the afterlife, or anything like that, that’s one reason why necromancy is often assumed to be evil, and its practitioners up to no good, even if that is not the case. So, we don’t have to do that in our setting. One reason we need to work out the afterlife is that this will help us determine how these necromancers go about contacting someone, and even whether any gods allow that, or what sort of rules they place on it.

I go into more detail in the book, but I’m going to move on to Shamanism now. We can almost say that this is broader than necromancy because that’s only about contacting the dead. Shamanism is about contacting any beings that are believed to be in another plane of existence, which could include the afterlife. Shamans often use medication, trance, or even drugs to achieve an altered state. They may also do this equivalent of a phone call or bringing beings to them. One village or culture may have multiple shamans that have different specialities. One way to decide on that is if there’s a practice that’s physically demanding, that might be something a younger shaman does. This is one reason we’d want to work out how everyone’s going about their business.

One interesting aspect of Shamanism is that someone is expected to become so sick that they risk dying before returning to life in order for them to become a shaman. After all, if they can’t make the journey back to better health, then how are they going to guide anyone else in the process of doing so themselves? Naturally, this might result in some of them dying, and it could also result in someone having a demon or a physical scar. By demon, I don’t mean literally, but maybe their mind was affected by what they went through.

Let’s talk psionics. This is a group of different abilities that we’ve all heard the names of. What they all have in common is the ability to communicate or perceive beyond the five physical senses. These are usually depicted as being natural abilities, but there’s no reason we can’t have them be acquired. One of these is clairvoyance, which is the ability to see events or people beyond the range of normal sight. That can actually be broken down even further into precognition, which is the future, retrocognition, which is the past, and then remote viewing, which is the present. It can also imply clairaudience, which is hearing, but these can be mutually exclusive, such as someone who can see or someone who can hear, but someone who can’t do both.

Then there’s empathy, which is the ability to read or sense another person’s emotion, and that might even be the ability to influence their emotions. Such people are called an empath. Then there’s mind control, which is not only the ability to read someone else’s mind, but it could be removing thoughts or memories, suppressing them, or replacing them altogether. Psychometry is the talent for gaining foresight by touching objects. Sometimes these people wear gloves so that they are not constantly picking up information that they are not interested in. That would happen every time they touch something. Telekinesis is the ability to move objects with the mind, and telepathy is the ability to read thoughts or communicate directly with another person using only your mind.

The last type we’ll talk about is elemental magic. By elements, I mean the four physical elements of fire, earth, water, and air, but sometimes people include spirit in that, as well. We can also invent other elements that exist in our setting. However, most likely, they would really fall into one of those other categories. One thing we can do with this is have a practitioner be only capable of doing one of these elements, and it’s very rare for someone to be able to do all of them, and those people are, of course, more powerful. But we don’t have to divide it that way. We could have everyone capable of all of them if they have the talent, but maybe there’s low and high magic here. Low magic would be relatively simple spells, whereas high magic would be the really powerful ones.

One thing we should decide is whether someone needs that element in order to perform magic, or if they can basically conjure that element. The only element that is really restricted here that way would be fire because, unless fire is naturally occurring, or someone is carrying around a torch or something, they’re not going to have a source of fire when they need one. But earth, air, and water are plentiful, even if it’s sometimes not apparent. For example, you could be in a desert and think there’s no water, but there still is some in the atmosphere, and there may be some underground.

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Principles of Magic Systems

Let’s talk the principles of good magic systems. This is a really important section of this, and the book. We should consider these principles before and during the creation of a magic system. You may have heard of Brandon Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic Systems, so I briefly want to cover this. His first law is that an author’s ability to solve conflicts with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands that magic. So, try not to give a character an ability unless we’ve already shown that they possess it. We should also determine how problems can be solved without magic. If we don’t do these things, then the magic can just make things seem too convenient.

His second law is that limitations are greater than powers, and what he means is that what characters can’t do forces them to stretch and make our story go in different directions. His third law is to expand what you already have before you add something new. One reason for this is that we might start adding things that can conflict with things we’ve already done. Naturally, we want to avoid this.

Something else that Sanderson proposed is the idea of soft versus hard magic. Magic that is not rigidly defined is considered soft magic. One reason we would want to do this is that it can preserve the sense of wonder in their books, according to Sanderson. By contrast, hard magic has very explicitly stated rules. The good part of doing this is that it provides structure and understanding of what can be done and what can’t be done. Therefore, we’re not surprised by the actions of characters. We know and understand that they are operating within a limit that has already been explained to us.

Now, Sanderson’s use of the word “law” led me to an interesting thought exercise that I thought added a lot of clarity to how to create a magic system. I’m going to read the definition of “law” from the 3rd New International Dictionary from Merriam-Webster.

“Law is a binding custom or practice of a community, a rule or mode of conduct or action that is prescribed or formally recognized as binding by a supreme controlling authority, or is made obligatory by a sanction. This edict or decree or ordinance is made, recognized and enforced by the controlling authority.” Laws tend to be authoritative, definitive, to the point, and the arguably avoid explanation to minimize the public arguing about them when accused of breaking one.

By calling his principles of magic systems “laws,” Sanderson has invoked a comparison to Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics in science fiction. He may not have done that on purpose, but that was the first thing that I thought of when I heard of Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic Systems. But let’s take a look at this and compare them. Asimov’s Laws were invented for a specific story, or set of stories, and societies within those stories, meaning they are actual laws there. By contrast, Sanderson has proposed three laws for building magic systems, but no world builder has to follow another person’s ideas on how they go about building anything. Even Sanderson does not mean to imply that you need to follow these laws. In fact, he admits that even he breaks his own laws.

His laws don’t apply to any society, and they also don’t apply to any world builders. He can’t enforce them. However, we can choose to enforce laws on ourselves, whether those are his, some ideas that I’m going to give you in a minute, or some ideas of your own. One thing about his laws are that they are not declarative, and each of them leaves a lot of room for interpretation. In fact, he actually has an article explaining each one of them. By contrast, most laws are relatively simple and can be stated in a single sentence. Many laws are, of course, more complicated than that, but basically it’s simple because they want to be able to put this on a sign and not have you stand there reading whole paragraph after paragraph of explanation. There might actually be that much explanation if you were to look into the law book, but generally there’s a simple version of this that the public has been made aware of. Something like, “Don’t litter.” That only has two words, the way I just said it, so it’s kind of hard to confuse what that means.

Let’s compare Sanderson’s laws to some other types of laws and you’ll see where I’m going with this. His three laws, briefly stated, would be: an author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands the magic, limitations are greater than powers, and expand what you already have before you add something new.

Let’s compare that to some local laws that might exist in something like a city. For example, magic shall not be performed on the holy day. Magic shall not be used to inflict physical harm or death on a living person, except in defense of one’s own life or that of another. Each of these is short and to the point. They’re also enforceable due to the authority.

Those are what you might call local laws, but what about laws of magic? This would mean what is possible and what isn’t due to the equivalent of physics for magic or something like nature’s laws. Rather than people enforcing these laws, it is nature or the gods. These laws of magic would be discovered and defined by the species and races through experience and observation of what usually works and what doesn’t. Here are some example laws of magic: magic cannot be performed by virgins. Black magic and white magic cannot be performed by the same wizard. And magic can only performed by spells or by items imbued with spells.

Then there are what might be called world building laws. These are the kind that we should follow when creating a magic system, and this is the kind of thing that Sanderson intended.

Ellefson’s 7 Laws of Magic Systems

I decided to invent my own laws for building magic systems, and this is one of the results of this thought exercise about what is meant by the use of the word “laws.” So, here are my seven laws of magic systems.

My first law is that world builders shall decide what the laws of magic are. In other words, the universe, or another authority like gods, has determined what works and what doesn’t. Some examples would be:

  • Elves cannot perform elemental magic.
  • Naturally occurring places exist where magic doesn’t work.
  • There is a finite amount of magic energy, and once it is consumed it is gone.

My second law is that world builders shall define what makes someone capable of performing each magic type, and how common its practitioners are. For example:

  • The gods decide who can do magic and can change their mind, granting or revoking the ability.
  • Anyone who consumes a specific item at a specific frequency can acquire the ability as long as that item continues to be consumed.

My third law: If multiple types of magic exist, world builders shall define what is possible in each, the differences between them, and whether practitioners can perform more than one type, and under what circumstances. For example, we could say:

  • There are several types of magic.
    • Alchemists can only work with materials to affect personal change.
    • High wizardry, these people can draw on magic energy in the environment.
    • And for witchcraft, they must work with spirits or demons for power.

Now, yours would need a lot more depth than that.

My fourth law: world builders shall determine what happens when an attempt to use magic fails. We talked about that in the previous episode, but here are some examples of this law:

  • A spell either works within its parameters or fails, and there are no accidental results. Or
  • A failed spell produces an unexpected result of a different nature, but not extremely so.

My fifth law is that world builders shall decide what local laws exist in each location where a story takes place. For example:

  • Use of a magic item within the city limits is solely for those with a valid permit.
  • Wizards are killed on sight.
  • Wizards are not allowed on the city council.
  • Alchemists must register with the local guild.

My sixth law is that world builders shall follow the rules they set forth. Both fantasy and science fiction audiences tend to notice our mistakes. We need to not only decide on our rules, but abide by them. It’s a good idea to use a narrative trick for some flexibility. For example, if I narrate that most wizards cannot do something, well, that word “most” has allowed me the flexibility if I decide to change my mind later and have one or two characters do something. I have a couple other tricks like that stated in the book.

My seventh law is that world builders shall decide if magical training is available, what form it takes, what is involved, limitations imposed before graduation, testing criteria and what restrictions exist, if any, on those who graduate. I consider this one to be a little bit more of a suggestion.

With all of these principles, I believe that you can come up with better magic systems that are well-defined, and I have more examples than what I just said in the book for each of these laws that I invented. This is what I follow when I am inventing a magic system, the same way that Brandon Sanderson follows his three laws when he is doing so. You’re free to follow or ignore either mine, his or anyone else’s, but you should decide on some principles that you are going to follow. I’m calling my principles laws because Brandon did and I want mine to sound as cool as his, so that’s what I’m going with.


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Create Limits

Creating a good magic system is all about limits. There are arguably two sources of those limits: the universe or the gods, and those imposed by mortals. Part of what I mean is that it might be that a person has devised the magic system, not the gods. Let’s say we have a wizard named Kier and he has discovered and developed a series of spells that are now known as Kierzardry instead of wizardry. Maybe there’s another wizard, a woman named Taria, and she has invented Tariandry. Obviously, both of them are a little bit egotistical to name their wizardry after themselves.

Now, both of them had talent, knowledge, inventiveness, some research ability, and access to materials that they used to experiment. They also both ran into some problems creating their spells, and some of these they solved, others they didn’t, and they may have reached the conclusion that they had found a limit, even though that may not have been true.

This could result in two very different kinds of wizardry, and we should use their environment to help determine this. For example, if spell components are needed and Kier lived in somewhere that was the equivalent of the Amazon where there are tons of plants, he might have heavily used all of these in his spellcraft. But maybe Taria lived in a desert, and for her there wasn’t that much to choose from, so hers doesn’t rely on that. Maybe hers uses things like runes, gestures or words much more. This is one way to go about thinking of limits that exist in system.

Every system needs its pros and cons, and we talked a little bit earlier about some of these. One of the things that we really want to focus on are the benefits of doing this kind of magic because that’s what’s going to draw someone to it. But they may not have a choice, if they are only born with one type of talent, and talent cannot be acquired somehow, then that’s the only one they’ve got available, and either they choose to develop it or not. Some benefits of becoming a wizard, of course, would be the obvious ones like power, prestige, wealth, personal safety and maybe even gaining advantage over other people.

But there’s another reason. What if they can cause things to happen by accident, and they want to prevent that? They’re going to want training. For our story, we should think about the problems our characters can face and why and how this type of magic would be able to benefit them. We should also think about things that could go wrong. Any magic type that allows us to interact with something like the dead or beings from another plane of existence is inherently more dangerous.

Decide what can go wrong when someone loses control of those they’ve contacted. Those who are doing something like clairvoyance may hear information and get it wrong, or maybe nobody wants them around because it is believed that they’re in their head all the time. There may even just be misunderstandings as a basic problem with this type of wizardry. Someone might practice good witchcraft and be assumed to be doing black witchcraft.

The thing about these problems is that these are limits because anyone who devised a magic system may have imposed limits to avoid these problems from happening. So, spells might take into account this side effect and not allow that to happen. This is one of the things that we are after by defining these problems. It’s just like when you’re trying to decide how to invent a law. The reason a law exists is that something happened and now this law is designed to prevent that from happening by telling people they’re going to be punished if they do it.

Part of what we’re after with all of this is that we want to be organized about our magic systems. We just need to define things, and we don’t even need to explain them to the audience if we don’t really want to, such as in a soft magic system. But we should still have some understanding of what everyone can do and why.


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How to Invent Spells

Let’s talk about how to invent spells. As we all know, a spell is a combination of words, gestures and ingredients. One thing we can do here is define the role that each of these is playing in spells. For gestures, they could technically mean anything, but maybe we want to decide that they assist with determining the width of a spell, or even the distance from the caster. A more subtle gesture might be a smaller effect, and a more aggressive gesture might be a much bigger effect. We could also decide that this determines the power level of the spell. This can even help us figure out which gesture someone is making. A missile spell that’s targeting individuals might allow me to point at them, but one that’s supposed to affect a wide area, maybe I’m gesturing outward with my arm. What I mean is sweeping from left to right, for example.

When it comes to ingredients, we should look at these kind of like a recipe. This is a helpful way of deciding what is going into the spell. With any recipe, each item is there for some reason. For example, warm water and flour creates dough. Dough is typically a container of some kind for the rest of what we are putting in there. So, we would want to substitute some sort of liquid on our world and some sort of ground up plant. That’s where flour comes from. When baking, yeast makes the dough rise. We might want to do something similar with yeast. For a yeast substitute, we would do something like a ground plant that will alter or accentuate the ingredients. Water is often used to cook items, and it can be used to sanitize or breakdown or congeal the ingredient. Therefore, we might want to substitute some sort of liquid that is also doing boiling or purifying or, again, breaking down and causing the ingredients to bind together.

As we all know, spices are added to taste, so we could do small variations in the amount of power based on the amount of materials that are being added. Someone could be using any plant that has been ground up. Many recipes have some sort of meat, fruit or vegetable, and those are in there for nutrition or taste. Well, maybe any sort of meat in our spell is for strength, and the plants or other elements can be used for shaping the results. Naturally, we often use pots, pans and other containers of glass or metal, so we can do the same, sometimes with unique materials, as part of our spell-casting. This is obviously more true for something like potions or even creating a magic item.

Then, of course, there are certain tools that might be needed, such as tongs or spatulas, to handle hot items. Again, that’s going to imply more to potions and magic items. The point here is that all of these things have a purpose, and they are a tool to achieve what we are trying to achieve. So, when inventing a spell, we can look at it the same way.

When it comes to words, there’s a certain mystery to magic because we don’t understand what the wizard is doing, and this includes when they are speaking in a magic language that, of course, we do not understand. We can think of words as being the thing that brings everything together. Without the words, we just have some gestures and some ingredients. The words could be what activate magic. This could be how we start the process of summoning magic power, molding the items to do what we want, and then expelling that power out towards the effect that we want. It seems that much of the major control in a spell would be the words, and things like gestures might be a kind of fine tuning of the results. We don’t have to look at it that way, but I feel like breaking it down helps us envision good magic, and even the resulting magic systems.

Getting Started

So, where does all of this lead us? There are ways to invent magic systems, and what I would do first is figure out what types of magic we want to include in the setting, and then how prevalent each of them is. We also need to know the source and whether mortals need spells to do it or not. These choices will guide everything else. We should also decide what sort of cost there is to doing magic. We need limits on each type of magic, and of course the pros and cons of why someone would want to do this or avoid it. Then we can decide on the training.

Finally, we should start crafting some specific spells, although we can start with this. And just like with many things, there’s no right or wrong way to do this. These are all different things that we need to keep in mind when inventing a magic system. The last thing that we might want to focus on is inventing laws that exist in local places, and then any crimes and punishments. Hopefully, all of this information has helped you figure out how you can go about building a magic system.


All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from Serenade of Strings called “The Joys of Spring.” You can hear more at RandyEllefson.com. Check out artofworldbuilding.com for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!