“If you want to write a fantasy story with Norse gods, sentient robots, and telepathic dinosaurs, you can do just that. Want to throw in a vampire and a lesbian unicorn while you’re at it? Go ahead. Nothing’s off limits. But the endless possibility of the genre is a trap. It’s easy to get distracted by the glittering props available to you and forget what you’re supposed to be doing: telling a good story. Don’t get me wrong, magic is cool. But a nervous mother singing to her child at night while something moves quietly through the dark outside her house? That’s a story. Handled properly, it’s more dramatic than any apocalypse or goblin army could ever be.”
-Patrick Rothfuss, Author of Name of the Wind & The Wise Man’s Fear (Alan 2011)
When Magic Is More Than Dressing
Magic Systems are the very thing that makes fantasy worlds unique to other genres. Regardless if in video games, novels, or roleplaying games; fantasy is defined by the presence of metaphysical principles different from our own. While it can be easy to look at magic as a source of spectacle ( a kind of glittering coat of paint to drizzle onto the story for flavoring); in doing so, many works have lost the potential magic systems offer. Magic systems allow for unique relationships between characters and create original plot points that only work within that world. Magic should not be a tagged on aspect to a story or roleplaying game. In fantasy, the magic system is the lifeblood that creates a unique framing of that world. Magic can be flavorful and it can be a tacked on, listless part of a world. The latter is a tragedy in my opinion by virtue of not making full use of the genre. So what is the difference? Let’s take a quick look at magic systems (rather than just magic) have done for various series.
- Horcruxes & Patronas. In The Harry Potter Series, by J. K. Rowling, immortality is a pursuit by many wizards as the afterlife is still a mystery even to Wizards and Witches. From the first book, the pursuit of immortality through ghosts and even the philosopher’s stone is shone to be a major pursuit for those willing to delve into secretive and dangerous magics. Even the benign philosopher stone has to be hidden away as it attracts unwanted attention. It is in this pursuit of immortality that the main antagonist of the series developed Horcruxes. Horcruxes are objects, people, or animals that are bound with a part of the soul for a caster. Spreading them out allows a user to exist as long as the Horcruxes exist. Making these objects is apparently such an appalling act that even J. K. Rowling has not disclosed the process. Not only do these phylacteries create McGuffins, but also set up the main twist of the series of a person who is a Horcrux and how that affected his relationship to everyone they know. Patronas also carry a similar function in characterization although they are not as important to the overall plot. A patrona is an ethereal animal summoned that embodies a caster’s most cherished happy memory. When a patrona at a certain part of the series resembles that of another person’s, it implies a few things about that character. In both instances, the creation of a system either created plot or characterization. Harry Potter is filled with unexplained magic, but the plot and characters are richer for the two times when the series explore two grounded elements of its magical world.
- The One Ring. Known to most people familiar with fantasy, the One Ring is a classical magical item that corrupts user’s will and has powers of foresight, invisibility, and authority over other magic rings. Why use this now cliché example? Because it is the best piece of magic in Lord of the Rings. It is a ring made to corrupt the other nations, which implies something about the maker of ring. The ring is established as something devolves a wearer to want it above all else and turns them into a monster willing destroy anyone to keep it. It says something about different characters in how they interact with it: one after his old age gives in and assaults a child he helped raise for it, one offers to give up the ring after enduring its influence for an extended time, and another denied taking the ring in order to stay loyal to their friend even being fully aware of the power it could grant him for the current situation. The Ring characterizes the cast one by one based on their relationship to it and its bearer due to the simple rule of “he who wields the ring, becomes corrupted by it.”
- Dragons in Eragon. Eragon is a world where magic comes from dragons. This bond of users who siphon magic from a dragon creates a long-lasting relationship between the main characters. Making dragons a vital source of magic means the protagonist, Eragon, and his partnered dragon, Saphira, must keep them together for their goals to be achieved. This not only creates natural ways to threaten a character, but also creates a relationship the author could expound upon. All of this setup is simply by creating the rule that “casting costs energy which dragons can supplement.”
In all of these popular examples, a system in place for the magic (no matter how light that system is) creates opportunities for unique stories, characterization methods, and conflicts. These are by no means the only examples. Sometimes magic is an allegory for weapons of mass destruction and warfare (Wizards in Howl’s Moving Castles by Studio Ghibli & Balefire in The Wheel of Time Series by Robert Jordon). It can also be used to signify certain events in a person’s life or where they are in the world (Gunslinger in The Dark Tower by Stephen King & Illegal Magic in the Land of Oz Series by L. Frank Baum). Magic can influence the very make up of the world itself (any work by Brandon Sanderson). A magic’s rules create dynamics of play for games, plot points for narratives, and points of development for characters.
We knew we wanted the “magic” in our show to be different than the typical wand-wielding spell-casting fare. For us, it had to be natural and physical, with a source and rules and limitations – and most importantly it had to be a skill rather than just a power, something that a practitioner had to learn and strive for.
-Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante Dimartino, Makers of Avatar: The Last Airbender (Vasconcellos 2007)
Starting with Visual, Visceral, Thematic Magic
When starting a magic system for a story or game, it is wise to consider two fundamental things:
- What does magic look like? What makes it fundamentally recognizable to people in the world and to an audience?
- What themes is this piece of media exploring? How does this magic system expand on those themes or forces characters to interact with them?
Aesthetics of your magic are the feedback, visual indicators, and overall style of that magic. All magic can be a slightly transparent blue glow, it can be transforming physical properties of blood, or ripples in reality that slowly tear open over time. Visuals make the magic easy to follow and more recognizable. Themes are the questions your magic asks of it’s wielders and society at large. A system about making pacts with ghosts is dangerous in a fantasy world where the pervading religion believes the body and soul no longer exist after death; this setup is excellent for exploring ideas of crises of faith or religion sheltering people from dangerous forces. If a computer roleplaying game is about tragedy of loosing those close to you, a magic system can expand on that theme by having magic slowly worsen the stats of and eventually kill characters while making magic a requirement for certain fights. Themes make magic meaningful to the world and characters. as well as potentially relatable to the reader.
The look of the magic (aesthetics) and the meanings of the magic (themes) go hand in hand. Consider Avatar: the Last Airbender as a prime example. Magic is a visceral manipulation of four elements of nature through martial arts. The four nations each have a style of “bending” (element manipulation) to themselves, which means each bending style represents the nation and general philosophy from that style’s country of origin. The story of a mediator learning all four types of bending then represents the reestablishing of peace between all four nations; or rather, someone capable of learning all four elements represents the hope for bring together all nations those style originate from. The visuals and their general meanings are tied inherently together. A simple question best summarizes this principle: If your magic means something (themes) and there is physical thing that means magic (visuals), wouldn’t that mean for that culture x physical thing means y theme? Basically, tying your magic to a meaning and a visual to your magic makes that visual a symbol. If a person lived in a world where blood is used for summoning familiars and creatures, would someone bleeding not be seen for as an opportunity for life rather than a loss? In a world where ripples in reality allow for pacts with ghosts, how would a culture view ripples in bodies of water or heat-waves in the air? The visuals of the magic and the themes of magic are entwined. Magic makes a visual (elements) and makes it a symbol of a story’s themes (nation, culture). Magic is symbolic and its important to detail what kind of symbol it is when making a piece of media.
- What symbols does this magic system create?
“In epic fantasy books, it’s not the number of powers that creates immersive and memorable worldbuilding—it’s not even the powers themselves. It’s how well they are ingrained into the society, culture, ecology, economics, and everyday lives of the people in the stories.”
-Brandon Sanderson, Author of the Mistborn Trilogy (Sanderson 2013)
Adding Muscle to the Skeleton
Brandon Sanderson is an author whose based his career on writing complex magic systems he uses for his narratives. The Sanderson Laws of magic (principles he learned by writing so many systems for novels) state that magic is in general more interesting based on its limitations, weaknesses, consequences, and costs due to their usefulness in worldbuilding and problem solving (Sanderson 2012). While consequences are more implied rather than included in the 2nd law, they are no doubt directly mentioned several times throughout Sanderson’s posts (see above quote). In short, making systems of magic interesting is more about these four factors than the actual powers in question. This is the meat of the system. Themes and Aesthetics establish the foundation of the magic system where as limitations, weaknesses, costs, and consequences ground the system into something you can add narrative and mechanical (in gaming) weight to. These are not a checklist, merely tools to add think about when constructing a system.
- Costs. Loosing something important to a character is not old to literature or even games. Sacrifice of sanity in the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game for instance (although comical in some versions of it) grants a long-lasting impact of the character/player; it creates moments of development for characters as they choose to lose themselves for small glimpses of power. Costs in material is another well used fantasy trope: materials that can create resources wars between factions or create crisis such as being a component for a powerful spell also being a limited medicine ingredient in a disease nation.
- Limitations. Hard rules of what magic can not do is basis for building a society around that magic. How can a person guarantee public safety or government’s sovereignty in a world where someone can gain powers greater than they could handle by chance? If magic does not work in all circumstances or situations, then those situations can be exploited to keep magic in check. It creates ways for taking out an overwhelming antagonist and allows for challenges to be developed for a protagonist based on the rules in play.
- Weaknesses. Magic can and, depending on the work, should have a something to nullify or exploit. A weakness could be as simple as it being weakened by the phases of the moon or is resisted by iron. Similar to limitations, it creates exploits for characters and setting elements to use in conflicts. This allows for conflict to resolved in a satisfying way as long as the weakness is established prior to the conflict.
- Consequences. By far the most important to character building, consequences are what magic does to the environment, society, etc. around you. Some are not necessarily negative. A life magic system could say killing someone with it gives life to someone at random and extends their health; this could be positive and negative as serial killers and saints are all eligible to be that person. Consequence can create new plot threads and expand on how/why a society treats magic the way it does. A particular type of magic can be persecuted for what did to the soil in that land. A person bearing a type of magic could attract creatures wanted and unwanted depending on where they go. How a character lives with the consequences of magic allows for simultaneous worldbuilding and development.
There’s no shortage of ways to make it work; for magic to live up to both its potential and its hype. Many of them have problems to overcome, especially given how much fighting RPG characters tend to do compared to their equivalents in other works of fiction and the industry’s current dislike of the player ever ending up in a particularly negative state due to poor decisions made hours earlier, but they’re problems well worth overcoming. Magic should be more interesting. It should be exciting. It should be a little bit dangerous, even in the right hands. What it shouldn’t ever be is boring, which at the moment, it pretty much is. Flashy and boring, yes, often, but still boring – a complete waste of potential, begging to be restored to its rightful awesomeness.
– Richard Cobbett, Writing Consultant on Games like The Long Journey Home and Sunless Sea
Implications: Magic as Story and Game Mechanics
Video Games and Tabletop Roleplaying Games are trapped in a cycle of generic magic systems with a wide array of effects. The importance of that system to the worlds, the characters, and the stories they tell are often over looked. This division between magic and what it means for the worlds is source of disconnect from the play experience and the alleged narrative taking place. But as we see in fantasy works in movies and books, the things that make magic systems interesting are its consequences and rules. The very mechanics of a magic system in a game could also be the very rule with which a narrative experience is told. In his RockPaperShotgun article,The RPG Scrollbars: The Lost Magic Of Magic , Richard Cobbett notes several preliminary examples video games that make use of magic in their narrative experience (Cobbett 2015). These examples include Witcher 3’s use of the Geralt’s (protagonist) feeble magic abilities compared to the mysterious powers wielded by true sorcerers to create problems and a sense of mystery. He also cites The Cowled Wizards from the game Baldur’s Gate 2, noting how their aggression towards the players if they openly casted spells around them gave flavor to that game locale.
Tabletop Rolepaying Games have a few great examples of this. Legend of the 5 Rings has magic revolving around communicating with elemental spirits that only shugenja (priests) can. This allows players to take on a very specific role of mediator (spiritual duty of the samurai class), experience the spirituality of that world through the magic system, and create moments of roleplaying between the GM (playing the spirits) and the players. Shadowrun bears a lot of specific processes mages have to go through in order to cast spells and give themselves power. Since casting a spell could kill a player, it puts the player in the character’s shoes to make the decision if a spell casting is worth losing their life over. Shadowrun also thinks through important society questions about magic in modern times such as coming up with a court approved version of forensics for spells and requiring all known wizards to be licensed in order to legally exist. There are plenty of examples of games that make use of these principles well for those looking. Clever uses of magic abound in many media.
- Penalties or Bonuses can be given to a character when socially interacting with a faction based on their alignment with a particular magic.
- Magic can be a long process, creating the need for strategy and preparation. This can lead to these skills to be a sorcerer’s core requirements in apprentices and values that countries seek to breed into their populace.
- Magic can be tied to a particular link to a creature that is immune to its own magic if its ever encountered.
- Magic requires the player and the character to perform specific terrible acts. This mean encountering a character with x magical ability says something about their history and their reaction to magic says something about their ethics.
There are any number of uses a person can think of. Everything listed in this article is merely the beginning. As a brief example of the possibilities, the very same principles in this article apply equally to other power systems such as the recently saturated Supers genre. Building a magic system to mechanically and narratively parallel each other has a huge potential for games. Plots benefit in similar way when magic system and plot notes lineup. Fantasy has lost its luster to some. This is merely a reaction to the saturation of uninspired, undeveloped fantasy works that don’t take the time to really think about what makes the genre special: magic. Its limits, its consequences, its weakness, and most of all its symbolism have no limits to their combinations or the amount of works they can produce. Its a matter of simple matter of knowing how to do it.
Margritte, R (1928). The Mysteries of the Horizon [Painting]. Retrieved From https://www.renemagritte.org/the-mysteries-of-the-horizon.jsp
Allen, P. (2011, January 21). Exploring the Edge of the Fantasy Map: PW Talks with Patrick Rothfuss. Retrieved from https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/interviews/article/45944-exploring-the-edge-of-the-fantasy-map-pw-talks-with-patrick-rothfuss.html
The RPG Scrollbars: The Lost Magic Of Magic. Retrieved from https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2015/09/14/the-rpg-scrollbars-the-lost-magic-of-magic/
Sanderson, B. (2012, January 16). Sanderson’s Third Law of Magic. Retrieved from https://brandonsanderson.com/sandersons-second-law/
Sanderson, B. (2013, September 25). Sanderson’s 2nd Law. Retrieved from https://brandonsanderson.com/sandersons-third-law-of-magic/
Vasconcellos, E. (2007, September 6). Interview: Avater’s Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante Dimartino. Retrived from http://www.ign.com/articles/2007/09/06/interview-avatars-bryan-konietzko-and-michael-dante-dimartino?page=2