"An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic."And if the reader is to understand magic, then the author has to understand it better.
— Brandon Sanderson's First Law of Magic
If the last post in this series felt a little scattered, please accept my apologies. The idea was to establish the real-world basis for fantasy magic. In this article, I'll introduce the steps I'm using to build a functional magic system and delve into the first of those steps.
This isn't just about roleplaying games. Though what I'm building here is an alternative to AD&D's Vancian nightmare, I'm hoping to apply it to my various non-RPG stories as well.
A Recipe For Mysticism
- What is magic?
- And what powers it?
- Who can use magic?
- How common is magic?
- How well known is magic?
- How do people view magic?
- How is magic accessed?
- And how is it learned?
- Why use magic?
- What power levels are there, if any?
- What are the benefits?
- What are the costs?
- What are the side effects?
- What can't magic do?
Let's Make Some MagicMost stories written in the last few decades assume that magic=energy. That works, I guess, considering how many stories make that assumption, but to me it's a bit like saying electronics=batteries. There's a lot more to it than that. Sure, you need a power source for your radio. You also need capacitors, receivers, and a few other items along with enough knowledge to tell whether you're making a radio or a television.
Another problem is where the magic comes from. TVTropes' So You Want To Write A Functional Magic System page lists a number of possibilities including "Magic comes from god/s."
If the god in question is a stand-in for the Judeo-Christian God, that's one thing. He is, after all, the origin of all creation. However, most magic systems based on this idea have a pantheon of gods with domains ranging from 'all living things' to 'that one tree over there.' Do these gods generate magic within themselves?
Chances are the answer is 'no.' Take Norse mythology for example. Obtaining magic cost Odin an eye and a few uncomfortable days hanging from Yggdrasil. As far as the Norse were concerned, magic worked the same way for the gods as it did for mere mortals.
So, rather than magic being power, my starting assumption is that magic is knowledge of how the world works and the ability to manipulate it. This still requires fuel, but at least now we won't mistake gasoline for an automobile.
Gas, Diesel, or E-85What does magic run on, though? Just about anything you want. Life energy, emotions, electromagnetism... You aren't even limited to a single power source. Maybe different magical disciplines rely on different fuels. Here are a few popular options with a little commentary.
Life-force is probably a lot more common than most people think. As an example, Final Fantasy VII's magic comes from materia, which is crystallized Lifestream. The name is kind of a give-away to its nature. Life-force also seems to be what limit breaks and 'desperation attacks' in other games run on.
One can argue that a god that requires a living sacrifice to bestow magic on his followers is using life-force.
It's also the basis for the tropes Cast From Hit Points and Cast From Lifespan. Note that both of those tropes are typically last resort techniques. Draining hit points from other living things to replenish your own also counts.
By the way, am I the only one kinda creeped out by that last one? It's a fairly common spell type in Final Fantasy and Elder Scrolls games, and can be very useful, but I just feel dirty using them. Very dirty. To the point that I actively avoid spells and most weapons with that effect regardless of the disadvantage that puts me at.
Psychic energy is a slightly-less-likely-to-kill-you variant on life-force. The sci-fi staples of telepathy and telekinesis are obvious uses of this energy source, but it has many more applications in both sci-fi and fantasy.
Taking Final Fantasy VII as an example again (it's one of my favorite games, can you tell?), using the spells stored in materia requires MP. What MP is exactly is left fairly vague in the original game, but a few pieces of the Compilation strongly imply that its a representation of mental stamina.
I rather like this approach as it comes with a set of real world consequences and limitations. Ever burned out your brain studying for an exam? Ever tried to hold a coherent conversation while drunk or recovering from anesthesia? Heck, just having a cold can adversely affect your mental abilities. The possibilities are hilarious.
Mystic Electromagnetism is what things like The Force and any system involving 'ley lines' sound like to me. This energy source is everywhere but may be more heavily concentrated in certain locations. It's also a lot more vague than real world electromagnetism and a whole lot easier to abuse. There aren't any built in limitations here, so if you do decide to use it you better make sure to set up some serious limitations on how it can be accessed and used.
I'm going to say it again. Setting up limitations is very important! Just look at the Star Wars expanded universe.
My recommendation for this brand of power source is going with something more along the lines of chemistry or general physics. There's potential energy everywhere, the trick is getting the right sort going in the right direction.
So, there are a few basic power sources for magic. I haven't covered every possibility, of course, but this is good for a start.