LESSON Figuring Out Magic

Discussion in 'BUILDING WORLDS' started by Peregrine, Mar 6, 2014.

  1. Building a Unique System of Magic

    “Magic” At The Most Basic

    Any machination by which we cannot explain how it functions is magic. The unknown between any cause and effect, any situation where the interim is unknown, is, in the broadest definition, magic. Any act, any cause, that has a step in the middle that remains unexplainable can be called magic. Everything beyond that point is detail, and the details are what makes different types of magic unique.

    Magic can be observed and explained to an extent. Everything is “magic,” based upon the fact that we as humans only have a limited comprehension, and every time that the details get finer there is another gap. What separates “magic” from “science” is the desire to know and understand more. If we can explain how something works, if we can be satisfied with an explanation, that makes it step away from “magic”. In our world, the ability to perfectly replicate something every time it is done makes it a fact, a law. We don’t question. We think we “understand”. The magic starts when there is something that is not understood. That “hole” in the knowledge, the difference between observation and understanding, is the home of magic.

    Building Detail

    Detail is what allows different types of magic to define themselves. The more in depth detail you create, the more complex, unique, and believable your magic will become. But, just like anything, before the fine work can begin a basic structure needs to be created.

    The Fundamental Details


    From where does the magic come? From what does it stem? In my opinion, this is one of the most fundamental of the Fundamental Details. From where the magic comes often determines, at least in part, what it can do, as well as what it can cost. Most simply, the source breaks down to either an internal or an external source, but I’ve broken it up even more into some of the most commonly used sources.

    “Energy” Magic: One of the most recognizable forms of magic, this type relies upon the energy that is present in all matter, and manipulating that energy through various methods. Because it is one of the most commonly used, it is also fairly easy to understand, and fairly easy to adapt to a variety of different styles. This type of magic would include all forms of pure energy that are pulled from another dimension, whether that dimension be related to the dimension of the story, or not. This type of magic does not usually require any physical items to perform. Naming magic would also fall into this category.

    Nature Magic: Another commonly used type of magic, this stems directly from the purity and energy in the natural world, and the natural world alone. This magic sometimes uses the elements in nature, often including pure elemental magics like fire, water, earth, air, etc, but can also involve the spiritual energy of plants and animals in the surrounding area.

    Summoning Magic: This type of magic involves borrowing power from a spirit, demon, elemental, or other summoned creature. Often times, the caster has no abilities other than the skill at summoning, and relies upon summoned creatures to do battle for them. Necromancy would fall into this category.

    Divine Magic: Magic that stems directly from the blessing of a god or other divine power. Often times, this magic will directly relate to whatever domain in which the god dwells.

    Object Magic: Magic that relies upon an object or objects, and often constrains the magic to affecting more objects. Talismanic or alchemical magic would definitely fall into this category. Any type of magic that involves taking the attributes of one object and then putting them into another object (be it animate or inanimate)would fall into object magic as well. Blood magic as well as sympathy magic would fall into this category, as they both require a physical object to perform any magic.

    Consciousness Magic: Magic that stems directly from the caster, and requires nothing present in the world to complete. The magic from Harry Potter would fall into this category. As would any sort of magic that, once learned, can be duplicated without requiring any supplies, or contribution of energy from the surrounding world. This can also include “super power” magics that never leave the caster’s body.

    Body Magic: Magic that is created by, or requires, some sort of action or movement from the caster's body. Sexual magic would fall into this, as would anything that requires dance. Qi would probably fall into this category as well. Body magic may always remain inside the caster, or it may be able to exit through various methods.​

    Of course, most forms of magic are combinations of the basic sources listed above, as well as many that I am sure I forgot. But, once you know the source of your magic, it becomes much easier to put together the other details.

    Helpful Tip: Picking a Source

    One very good way to help pick a source is to figure base it on some of the most significant details about the world you are building. What would create the most meaningful conflict? If any sort of religious war or godly conflict creates most of the tension, divine magic is always a very good bet. If you want most of the conflict to stem from other people, Consciousness or Energy magic would be a great choice, as both require nothing but people and time to become present. If you want magic to be more easily controlled by some sort of regulatory force like police or a government, Object magic makes the most sense. The fact that it requires specific items makes regulation a lot easier. Each magic source lends itself more naturally to certain types of stories. Figure out which one most easily matches your own story, and then edit until you’ve worked out some of the small kinks. Or, if you are building a world around a system of magic, build the one that intrigues you most. The more complicated the magic is, the more naturally and automatically culture and the very world itself will form to match it.​


    In almost all situations, it is essential to have some sort of price to the use of magic. Depending on what source you chose to use some costs tend to be more believable, but almost any can be used. Energy magic most often requires an input of energy from the person casting the spell, the larger the spell the more energy it drains from the caster. Other types of magic cost time, the time it takes to learn the magic, or the time it takes to cast the spell. A cost can be a sacrifice as well. Object magic sometimes destroys or forever alters the object being used. Divine magic requires faith, and often obedience, which may go against some of the user’s most natural instincts. One fascinating book I read had the cost of a spell be the very memory of how to perform the spell in the first place.

    Cost can also be linear or exponential. Does it have the same cost to do something in a series of small steps as it does to have the same effect in one casting? Does it cost more? Or does it cost less?

    What the use of magic takes from the caster is going to define who can use magic, how frequently it can be used, as well as how prevalent magic is in your world. Naturally, a higher cost, be it in time, energy, or danger, is going to mean that less people in the world will use magic. This is a great point to figure out who in your world can use magic, as those who can’t use it most likely won’t be using it because of one of your costs.


    The final piece in the Fundamental Basics, the effect determines how large of an impact it is possible for magic to have in your world, and what it can affect. Can a single spell affect the whole world at once? Or is it confined to what is in sight of the caster? Is a memory of a place or person enough to use magic on them, or does a caster need to be in direct contact with the receiver of their spell?

    Effect also determines what it is possible for magic to do. Some systems of magic allow one person to do nearly everything, so long as they follow the rules that have already been set within Source and Cost. Other systems of magic have a caster follow a particular school of magic. It is also possible to have magic not have an effect on certain things. One of the most common examples of this is that nature magic doesn’t work on metal. Or is it possible for magic to kill someone directly, or can it only wound?

    Another possibility is to have magic that can only create or only destroy. Have magic that can only be cast when the sun is out, or when the moon is full. Like the Cost of magic, the more detailed the Effect of magic becomes, the more you are going to refine who can use magic, when they can use it, and how they can use it.

    Complications within Effect

    For every rule you set, try and think about some of the complications that might arise from that. If your magic is applicable within range of sight, and a person can’t see or is blindfolded, can they still use magic? If magic goes outside of its range, what happens? Is the spell not cast, or does it hit a closer target? What happens when your rules are broken?​

    Refining the Fundamental

    Now that you have your basic details figured out, it is time to start refining your magic. This is when you look to some of the things that are more strictly dependent upon the Fundamentals you have picked. Here are a few examples.


    You have the source of your magic, and you know what it takes from the caster. But what is required to manifest the magic? Does it only take mental concentration, or does it require spoken words? Does the caster have to go through a specific, regulated ritual, where even the smallest mistake could have a disastrous effect, or is it more relaxed?

    Most forms of summoning magic involve pentagrams and circles, but that doesn’t mean you need to follow the established “rules”. So long as you know what it takes, and it fits in with everything else upon which you have already decided, using seemingly “abnormal” methods of invocation can create some very unique ideas.

    Take some time on this refinement, as it is going to be very important. Most likely, you already decided on some of these elements as you were putting everything together. It is going to be a fairly important decision.


    You know that it is possible to cast magic, you know that it has a cost and an effect. But one key piece of information that is still missing is how long it takes before each of the Fundamental pieces does take effect. How long does it take to cast magic? Does the cost come before, during, or after the magic has been performed? Is it possible to take out a “magic loan” on the cost, that need only be repaid later? Is there “interest”? How quickly does the effect of a spell reveal itself? Is it instantaneous, or does it take time for the results to become apparent? How long will the magic last? Does it fade away after a minute, a year, or does it stay forever? Often times the specific “” of a particular magic act depends upon what magic the caster will be using, but there are almost always upper and lower limits.

    Find the Things that You Decided Upon:

    A lot of little pieces melded naturally into deciding the Source, Cost, and Effect of magic. Go ahead and define those a little bit clearer, to make sure that everything still fits together believably. One thing that has not gotten a specific category yet is “who can use magic.” As essential as this is to know for the sake of plot, it was something that naturally evolved from the other categories. There were probably more of these, ones that you might not even recognize right now. You’ve already spent this much time on your magic, so running through everything once more won’t hurt.

    Building Magic “Backwards”

    In some stories, you will create magic in order to fill a very specific role or circumstance. If you have one thing that your magic absolutely must do, start there. Just as there are elements that naturally develop as other parts get defined, having one or more things that must be is an excellent place to start. Find the elements that most naturally and believably promote your goal, and build outwards.​

    Don’t Forget to Decide Upon Some Specifics!

    Now that you have a very solid platform for your system of magic, go ahead and decide on a couple of specific things, trying to follow the rules of your magic as closely as possible. Oftentimes, the small fallacies or things that you have missed only make themselves apparent once the magic is “applied”. Create a challenge that your magic should be able to overcome, and make sure it works. And then, when it doesn’t come out quite right, figure out how you can improve it. Better yet, give your system of magic to someone else, and see what they have to say about it. Inconsistencies are best found by those who have not been immersed in it, and do not have the magic living inside their head.

    Sometimes, these moments of building specifics can cause you to come up with some brand new, exciting ideas that will completely redefine your magic. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of those, and change things however is necessary to make your magic the best and most exciting it can be.

    Most Importantly

    Have fun with building your magic. The more you enjoy making it, the more likely it is that it will be enjoyable to apply!

    I will continue to refine this article as I pay stricter attention to my own methods of creating magic, and in response to any comments you may feel like offering. Magic is a complicated and potentially boundless thing, and while you should always make sure to stay consistent and limited within a story, the creation of magic can go an almost infinite number of directions. Let’s keep building!
    #1 Peregrine, Mar 6, 2014
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2014
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  2. Fabulous workshop, though I beg to differ on one small point:

    The very essence of science is that of delving into the unknown and finding some sort of meaning or explanation there.

    I'd like to point out one "archetype" of magic that is very easy to miss and something that Revision pointed out to me on my old Archetypes of Magic workshop. Sexual magic. Magic that feeds off of sexual gratification.
  3. I'm glad you liked it!

    Yes, I can understand what you are saying in your objection. I stumbled over trying to write that for quite a while, and I was hoping that the later sentences might help to clarify that a bit. What I was thinking about when I arrived at that statement comes from how I defined magic earlier. We "know" that magnetism exists, but we don't really know why it happens, except for the fact that it has something to do with moving electrons. Yet, most people would not call magnetism "magic". I was trying to clarify the difference between the two, but I'm not sure it worked. If you have any rewordings that might help to clarify what I was trying to say, I would gladly hear them.

    You are right, sexual magic is something that I did not think about. I think, with the right justifications, it could probably fall into consciousness magic, but it would be a bit of a stretch. I will definitely try and think about that, and see where I can add it in.
  4. Hmm i see magic like creating a language. As it can be compared to and noticeably is heavily influenced by language and how it changes. Looking at how language has evolved we can also notice how the way magic is being portrayed in more modern books.
    The best magic's in stories have been those that have been more like a language. And the author has been quite fluent in how he portrays it to the reader.

    It's good to read older books as they still hold the charming mystical side of magic while most modern just turn it into pseudoscience like mumbo jumbo. That often takes the edge of things and makes it more like a game rather then a world with magic.
    Which moves onto magic and science.

    Comparing magic and science is a bit like comparing Science fiction and Fantasy.
    One should often stop and ask a simple question. Am i making game rules or writing for a story.

    -Food for thought as i was given a bit reading this i give back to o,o
  5. Old things popping back up~

    Honestly, I'm a game designer, so I treat lots of things like game rules. :D Since this is about roleplaying and not about writing a personal novel, it can be important to lay down some "rules" for other players to follow, so they don't do things with magic that wouldn't fit in a setting. I consider this a great way to approach things for the sake of consistency as the story progresses, no matter how it progresses. But, as with all guides, no one has to approach things this way. It is simply one way to build a foundation, and create guidelines that other players can follow. :)
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