LESSON Jorick's Fantasy Worldbuilding Guide - Part 2

Discussion in 'BUILDING WORLDS' started by Jorick, Jan 3, 2015.

  1. Part 1 - Categorizing Your World
    Part 2 - Creation and Fundamental Forces
    Part 3 - Mapping and Populating Your World
    Part 4 - Crafting Cultures

    Part 2 - Creation and Fundamental Forces

    From here on out we'll be working on details of the world; specifically, part 2 of the guide is about how exactly your world formed and how things like physics and magic work to shape it. This is as good a time as any to bring up an important point that isn't exactly a world building issue, but might strongly affect your process anyway. A major mistake that a lot of authors and roleplay creators make is that they overload readers/players with specific details about the world right out of the gate, and this information dump bores them or drives them away. This is a fairly understandable impulse, a desire to immediately share all the awesome stuff you've created, but in the end it's more often detrimental than anything else. I like to separate all my details into two categories: the invisible information (ie the stuff players/readers won't see) and the visible information (ie the stuff they will see). The categorizing decisions you made in Part 1 will naturally show throughout the world without needing to be explicitly stated, assuming you maintain consistency, but these specific detail choices are different. Players/readers won't know that Fortingar the Originator used his godly hands of light and darkness to fill the void with substance and create the world as the balancing point of those opposing forces unless the creator explicitly tells them so somewhere. You'll have to make a decision on what exactly is absolutely necessary to be visible information, what can remain invisible until such a time that it becomes relevant, and what will never need to be visible information.

    The reason I bring this up now is that I find it very helpful to sort my details into three categories as I'm making my world: invisible, unsure, and visible. For instance, if Fortingar made the world and then left and never bothered with it again after it was up and running, then the whole creation thing is unnecessary information and probably gets sorted as invisible; if Fortingar is still around and influencing things quietly, then maybe he should be visible information so it goes in the unsure pile; if Fortingar is still around and is very openly active in influencing things that go on in the world then he very likely goes in the visible category. At the current step in world creation your unequivocally visible information should mainly be stuff that is so important that it would be a disservice to readers/players to not tell them about it up front, the kind of stuff that ought to at least be mentioned in an interest check for a roleplay or a plot summary for other things. For instance, if magic exists and is common and super important to how the world works, keeping it invisible until the player/reader runs into it face to face is probably silly; consider how odd it would be for the general description of Harry Potter to make no mention at all of magic, such as if the description for the first book just said "Harry Potter is a horribly abused child who is forced to live in a small cupboard under the stairs, and his birthday is coming up soon." See how that makes it sound like a very different story? Imagine how you would have felt if that was the description given, so you went into the book expecting something depressing or darkly humorous about a poor abused child, and then you read it and got to the abnormal things happening and Harry being told he's a wizard. Blindsiding people with very important basic information about your world will end up making people feel like you've suddenly changed the rules in the middle of the game, and that tends to piss people off. Making people angry with you for your presentation choices is not very conducive to making people like your fantasy world.

    That sort of thing isn't all that will end up being visible information, of course. A lot of things will become necessarily visible knowledge based on your plot (the existence of Hogwarts could have remained invisible information indefinitely if Harry had lived in France instead, for instance), but for now keep an eye out for extremely important things as you make them, which includes anything that makes your world special and helps it stand out from the crowd, because that'll act as a hook and get people to check out your cool fantasy world instead of some other person's fantasy world. The general rule of thumb you should follow when dealing with visible/invisible information is that everything is invisible information unless there's a good reason why it should be visible; Harry Potter's shoe size is not something the reader needs to know, so it can remain invisible. In relation to this, invisible information that you know will remain forever invisible does not need to be as highly detailed and fleshed out as visible information; there is no real reason why the author needed to decide what Harry's shoe size was in the first place, because it wasn't ever going to be relevant. These two rules fall under the heading of the commonly referenced acronym KISS: keep it simple, stupid; while you're going through the initial worldbuilding process you want to keep it simple and focus on consistency, because complex crazy stuff is really easy to add after you have a stable foundation to build on. It can be nice for the creator to know all these kinds of little tidbits like Harry's shoe size, but if it will never see the light of day then you probably don't need to agonize over it to get every little detail right. The intended use of your world has a lot to do with these choices as well, since a casual high school roleplay probably won't need anything more than one town to have a lot of detail whereas an epic fantasy exploration roleplay will need a lot of details sitting around in the invisible information vault for whenever the players get around to exploring new areas or seeking information about them. Focusing on the minimum scope of whatever bits of your world need to be highly detailed in order to accomplish your goals is one of the best ways to keep it consistent, because the fewer details you add from the starting line, the lower the number of possible consistency clashes that exist.

    So, basically, don't get too hung up on any of this detail work if you don't think it's going to be important to the concept and goals of your world. Skip parts that are irrelevant for you, use simple and lazy answers for unimportant stuff to make it easier on yourself, whatever works. So long as your end product is consistent and suitable for your purposes then it's perfectly fine as is, no matter how detail rich it is or is not. Speaking of details, let's get on with the actual guide now that I'm done with the rambling introductory bit.

    Part 2A - Genesis

    Okay, assuming you went through the first part of the guide, you're currently sitting there with a bunch of category classifications but you still don't have an actual world to tinker with yet. How does your world come into existence? I'm not asking you a rhetorical question here, I just very purposely phrased it to trick you into thinking it was rhetorical. Damn I'm clever. Seriously though, this is step one for the details portion: where did your world come from? There are three main ways you can answer this question: no answer, science, or god(s).

    The first and easiest plausible answer harkens back to my introductory ramble: the answer is "it doesn't matter," because the players/readers experiencing this world will never need to know. If the nobody will ever need to know and you don't care to decide on the specifics for your own purposes, then you really don't need to bother with it since it would be permanently invisible information anyway. If you think this answer is best for your world, congrats, you're done with Part 2A, look at you making quick progress with your world details, I'm so proud of you. Skedaddle on down to Part 2B and we'll meet up again there after I'm done with these slowpokes who insist on getting complicated.

    The second likely answer is "uh, idk, science?" or something thereabouts; maybe you're familiar with the scientific theories involved with planetary formation and your answer will be slightly more sophisticated, but either way you end up in the same place. Deciding that your world formed under the laws of normal science can work for any kind of fantasy, and it does not mean that your world cannot have gods of some kind. However, generally speaking, the science answer fits best with high realism worlds. It can totally work for crazy high fantasy worlds with gods popping up all over the place like fungi, but it would feel incongruous to a lot of people because of their own biases about how magic should be etched into everything to do with high fantasy worlds. Conversely, it may come off as unfitting if your science-crafted world ends up with all sorts of crazy geography and fantastical plant/animal life and super powerful wizards, even with the "but magic" explanation at hand, because people can be kind of weird about what they're okay with when it comes to mixing realism with the fantastical. Whatever your world plans may be, if you're choosing the science answer then you're pretty much done with this section since it's just about deciding on the origin. You might want to do some research on how planetary formation works in reality at some point, because it might be important for keeping your world realistic and consistent when you get around to deciding on the actual geography of your world; alternatively, you could skip it and just stick to realistic geography as found on Earth, because that's a lot easier than looking at what kind of crazy stuff is possible for planets at large. There are some guides here in the Worldbuilding Guild (which I'll link to in a later part of this guide that deals with your world's geography) that aim to help you make your world realistic as far as geography goes, so you might want to take a look at those as well. For the moment though, you can move onward to Part 2B and get into the physics stuff, you big ole science nerd.

    The third answer is potentially the most complicated one: "god(s) did it." I know, it's ironic that the easy answer from reality is the hard answer in fiction, but such is the life and struggle of a creator of worlds. If you're going with the divine answer then that means that you'll need to decide on some mythology stuff long before you get down to the brass tacks of religion. The exception to this is if you decide that god(s) made your world but the players will never know the truth of it, so you can just shrug off the whole burden of deciding on exactly what entity did exactly what things (such as Fortingar with his fancy hands) to make your world exist. If you want to use the god(s) answer and come up with stuff for it right now, feel free to do so; here are some basic questions to help you get started. How many gods took part in the creation of the world? Are they the only gods that exist, or are there more? Did anything exist before the creator god(s) came into power? Where did these gods come from, or have they always existed? Are these gods still doing things with your world, or did they leave or die or something? You've got pretty much free license to go crazy with what your gods are like and how they operate, because they're supposed to be beyond the comprehension of puny mortals, thus crazy nonsense is kind of par for the course. You can see this at work if you take a look at various mythologies from around the world, so take their example and do whatever you want as long as it fits in with your choices for things like tone and your world goals. You can get into decisions about things like whether or not there's an afterlife or what (if any) rules the creating god(s) laid down for the inhabitants of the world to follow if you feel like it, but I would suggest holding off on deciding anything more about religion for the time being, because we're just concerned with how exactly your world came into existence at this point in the guide. Religion is a whole separate matter, and you may not want to just stick to what is absolutely true when making it. Once you're done fiddling with divinity it's time for physics, because mixing religion and science is fun.

    If you think you've got an idea in mind that doesn't fit into any of the above answers, you probably just need to get a little abstract with what I've already given you. Anything along the lines of "natural forces at work formed the world" falls under the science definition, you just might have different laws of science going on in your fantasy world so you can simply adjust to account for those. Anything along the lines of "sentient beings created the world" falls under the gods definition, just substitute the word 'god' for 'creator' and most of the points and questions in the godly creation paragraph will still apply. If you've got something way too creative to fit into the above sections then you're on your own... or you could adapt the ideas and questions from my provided answers to fit your super crazy idea. You know, whatever works. Do whatever to get the idea fleshed out into however much detail you feel you need, then onward to physics. Try not to keep the creativity in check there though, else you might make scientists cry.

    Part 2B - Physics

    Yes, physics. Stop groaning, most of you people reading this. It doesn't involve any math unless you really want it to, you'll be fine.

    Now, the reason why physics is important to your world is very directly related to the realism of your world, because it's a major element of realism. It's a consistency sticking point, and it's one I've seen some world creators mess up pretty badly. Physics in the broad sense is the study of nature and how it works in order to understand all the rules behind it (such as gravity and magnetism); for my purposes here, I'm going to use 'physics' to refer to those rules of reality rather than the study of them. In the real world, and thus also in realistic worlds, there are some hard rules about how objects and energy behave. For instance, a small caliber pistol shot to the head will not make it explode like a watermelon smashed with a hammer (I couldn't find a good, short Gallagher video :cry:). There simply is not enough force spread out over a large enough area to cause the head to straight up explode, because physics says so. Physics also has a big impact on human limitations, such as jumping height/distance, carrying capacity, striking strength, and how much force it takes to break bones. In reality you just won't find some guy who can carry many hundreds of pounds/kilograms of gear with ease and jump to the top of ten story tall buildings and punch a guy so hard that it shatters his entire rib cage, all because of physics being a huge buzzkill.

    So how is this important to your worldbuilding? That depends on what level of realism you're going for and what your concept is for this world. If you're making a very realistic world, then you'd better make sure you're being realistic about physics things. This means you ought to be prepared to do some research if you want to include things that you're not extremely familiar with, such as how mobile someone can really be while wearing a full suit of armor or how fast people can travel by horse or how large of an explosion a stick of dynamite would actually make. If you try to be highly realistic in terms of plot and how people behave and what level of technology exists but then do crazy physics-defying stuff all the time your world is probably going to feel very inconsistent. It can work, but it takes a lot of juggling and balancing to pull it off well, and even then it'll be an extremely niche thing that most people see as weird.

    For worlds not hewing to realism, well, you can basically ignore realistic physics if you feel like it. The further you are away from the realistic side of the spectrum, the sillier you can get with physics. High fantasy worlds can basically ignore them entirely and still be fine and consistent. Ever watched or read something where a burly dude in armor with a big weapon was basically a siege weapon by way of breaking through huge stone walls with no problem? That sort of things makes physics cry, but low realism worlds just lap up the tears and gloat. If you were considering having any such shenanigans in your world but you claimed that it was high realism, haha, no, try again. Unlike mixing high realism with unrealistic physics, you can totally get away with low realism but real physics and most people won't bat an eye. In fact, using realistic physics as it pertains to what the human body can do is one of the common ways that high fantasy worlds make it so magic users aren't unstoppably powerful, because an arrow in the noggin will kill them just like anyone else.

    It can get a little bit muddy when you throw magic into the mix. What realism level is it when you have a world with magic as an active force, but it operates on pseudo-science mechanics and doesn't violate physics (such as maintaining conservation of energy, must put energy into the spell equal to the energy of the result you want)? What about if magic is just full on bonkers and ignores physics as far as energy goes but once the spell is cast everything behaves like normal according to physics (like fire spreading as normal and requiring air and a fuel source to keep burning)? What about it magic totally ignores physics in both energy and effects, but it's the only thing that violates physics and people still have the realistic levels of physical capacity and such? Odds are pretty good that means your world sits roughly in the middle of the realism spectrum, and you're going to have to be very careful about maintaining whatever balance you struck.

    The whole point of this here section is to get you to decide just how realistic you actually want to be. Decide how real you want your physics to be, make sure it jives with your overall realism level choice, and set boundaries for exactly how far from realism your world is allowed to stray as far as physics is concerned. Make sure you stay within those boundaries when you get to deciding things like sentient races and technology levels and so forth, because the Almighty Consistency demands it. If you're going to go crazy with physics for the sake of exciting action, then you'll need to decide if you're also saying screw physics as far as things like gravity and inertia go; if an average guy can punch through a stone wall, why must things fall when they're dropped and why can't someone make a perpetual motion machine for infinite free energy? You don't really need a complex answer here and you don't need to try to build a new set of physics from scratch, just decide what sorts of things you're going to go crazy with in the physics department. Start off with the physics of reality, then list the things that will differ in your world. Everything on that list should count as a basic rule of how your world works, and as such it should be something players/readers are made aware of fairly soon into things (be it explicitly stated somewhere or just shown through things happening in the story), else you risk that thing I mentioned in the introduction ramble about people feeling blindsided by something they view as a sudden change.

    Part 2C - Magic

    Magic is pretty damn important for a fantasy world. However, unlike dealing with important but tedious things like your level of realism and how you want to treat physics, it's also pretty damn fun to think up. Magic is one of the core elements of fantasy, and it's so important that there's a reasonable argument to be made that a fantasy world without magic isn't actually a fantasy world at all. There are of course counter arguments to be made, and I happen to agree with them, but the point stands that magic is super important. If you have a fantasy world with a half-assed magic system that you barely even thought about, odds are good it's going to be a huge blemish on your fantasy world that will make it look shoddy even if everything else is fine. Seriously.

    Okay, so, now that I've impressed the importance of the magic thing on you, I can tell you that that was the bad news about it. The good news is that it's actually really easy to make a decent magic system as long as you use your head. One big thing to keep in mind is your overall realism level: having super crazy nonsensical magic in a world that's otherwise supposed to be highly realistic is going to make your world inconsistent, thus you made a bad magic system for your world; having extremely strict rule-bound magic that's more a science than anything else in a world that is otherwise bordering on complete nonsense would make your world feel inconsistent, thus you made a bad magic system for your world. This is not to say that the magic system is just bad and would never work, rather it means that you have to tailor the magic to the world in order to make it work.

    Yep, that's right, the apparent quality is your magic system is largely determined by its consistency with the rest of the world (I hope you're starting to appreciate why I make such a big deal about consistency, or else this guide is probably really annoying for you to read). A large reason for this is that magic can and should influence the hell out of the development of your world. If you have a world that's exactly like medieval England but you have mages running around that can throw around magic as devastating as a nuclear weapon, that looks a bit fishy. Why didn't magic radically change the way technology and society developed? Think of magic like electricity and fossil fuels. How much did the real world change after we harnessed electricity? A lot. How about after we started using fossil fuels? Also a lot. The majority of modern civilization depends on electricity and/or fossil fuels to exist as it does. Why wouldn't magic do the same thing if it was a known and accessible power source? You can get away with having extremely powerful magic in otherwise highly realistic worlds, but you have to explain why magic didn't dramatically change things, otherwise your fantasy world is going to feel strange and inconsistent. If you choose to have magic play a part in your world then you need to take it into consideration in everything you make from here on out, because (depending on the rules of how your magic system works) its existence might require you to rethink things like what kind of societies exist and what technology is like.

    There's something further to consider if you're making a fantasy world for the sake of something other than a roleplay or tabletop game. If you're making a fantasy world for something that is going to be viewed or read rather than directly interacted with, you have to take into consideration how magic works as a storytelling device. With games you can get away with magic that makes for crap storytelling because it's a mechanic everyone can interact with and the plot is driven by player action. For a self-contained story, if done improperly then magic can end up feeling like a lame deus ex machina all the time instead of a solid story element. I highly recommend reading Brandon Sanderson's three Laws of Magic articles on the subject (#1, #2, and #3), because they're the best explanation of the concept that I've ever come across. Hell, even if you don't care about the narrative functionality of your magic system, they're an interesting read that might give you some cool new ideas about how to make your magic system intriguing and fun.

    Alright, I've prattled on about warnings and considerations for long enough, so it's time to get down to the business of how to actually make a good, consistent magic system. This bit is involved enough that I originally planned on making magic a whole part of the guide unto itself, but screw it, I'll do it here with subsections. Oh, by the way, as you go through these subsections you should keep in mind the fact that you can absolutely have a complex magic system with mixtures of different options from each subsection present (like a system of wand magic with its own rules and a system of rune magic with its own different rules coexisting in the same world), but the more complex the overall system is the harder it will be for readers/players to understand it and get into it.

    Soft Magic vs Hard Magic

    Please take a moment to get all the immature giggles caused by phallic thoughts related to the words hard and soft out of the way now. Let it all out, then take some deep breaths to compose yourself. You good to go? Alright, on with the show guide.

    This is the first place to start when developing a magic system, because it's one of those meta choices to make before getting into the details. The soft/hard magic distinction is something I got from those Brandon Sanderson articles I mentioned. It's sort of like the Mohs Scale of science fiction hardness (which Lstorm wrote a technology guide on, if you're not familiar with the term), but for magic. Instead of the spectrum being about how realistic things are, it's about how well the rules are understood by readers. I'm adapting the idea for roleplay magic systems as well, so I'll add roleplay specific explanations to make it clear in any cases where confusion might arise.

    Soft magic is the kind of magic that doesn't really have the rules explained, it just does cool things because... reasons. This is the kind of magic that can be explained away by saying "shut up, it's magic, it doesn't have to make sense." For example, Lord of the Rings magic is very soft in that we're never really told how it works, we just see enigmatic figures like Gandalf and Saruman and Tom Bombadil (only in the books, sadly) making things happen because they want it to happen. As far as we know there literally are no rules to how magic operates other than wanting it to be so. That's what the far end of soft magic is like, no rules explained, magic just works because the author says so. For a roleplay, a full on soft magic system would just say "okay, you can do magic, here are your limitations, have fun" and the players would simply write out things saying they've done the magic and it happens, no need to mention any kind of mechanics unless they feel like it for the sake of personalizing things or lengthening their posts.

    Hard magic, on the other hand, gives a firm set of rules for how exactly everything works. There are rules that must be followed to make the magic happen, and if you don't follow the rules then you either don't make magic or you get bad/unintended consequences. For example, Harry Potter magic is pretty far on the hard side of the scale because readers know that to perform it a person requires a compatible wand and must say the word exactly right while making the correct motion with the wand; it even shows us things like people trying magic without a proper tool and without performing the action correctly, and they make weird things happen. Harry Potter magic is not on the far end of the hard scale however, because there are some things that aren't really explained in the rules of magic, like where exactly magic power comes from and wand compatibility stuff and the ephemeral power of love that influences magic. Something fitting on the far end of this side of the spectrum would be a system where the rules are clearly defined and nothing ever violates those rules. For a roleplay, the far end of hard magic is basically what all tabletop game magic systems are: you have a specific set of rules for what you can do and how often you can do it and you literally cannot do anything with magic outside of those defined boundaries; dice being used to determine success or failure falls on the hard magic side of things as well, because it's a specific and understood rule even though it's not technically an in-world thing.

    So, what you need to do here is decide whereabouts on the spectrum you want to go with your magic system. For fantasy worlds intended for things other than roleplays, your major consideration here should be how the soft vs. hard magic thing affects the way magic can be satisfactorily used as a narrative device (again, the Brandon Sanderson articles cover this way better than I could, seriously read them if you're writing a fantasy story and you want a good magic system). For roleplaying fantasy worlds, your major consideration here should be how much limitation you want to put on your players. If you want them to be able to go crazy with magic as they please, you'll be going for the softer side of magic. If you want it to be a tool that needs to be used intelligently to be effective, you'll be going for harder magic. Keep this choice in mind for the other parts of magic creation, as your intention for the magic should influence what decisions you make and how much work you really need to put into some sections (because for soft magic some things will never need to be explained, thus it's invisible information).


    Now for the actual details of the system. First off, where does your magic come from? This is sort of like choosing how exactly your world came into being: it might have a heavy impact on later stuff, it might not. It might seem like there are a dizzying number of possibilities out there, but they can be grouped pretty easily. As far as I'm concerned, there are only five archetypes of magic sources that exist, and every magic system I can think of ever seeing fits into one of them. If you can think of one that doesn't fit in my archetypes, please share it and I'll update this section if I can't explain why it fits already.

    Inner Power - Magic is energy taken from within the body of the magic user. They draw upon this power source to cast spells. This can be the soul, chi, life energy, a magic producing organ, an intangible magic well that refills over time, so on and so forth. Whatever the actual mechanic of it is, magic users take their power from inside their own being rather than from an exterior source. The most common limitations placed on this kind of source are a requirement for a suitable mental state (such as totally calm, or certain emotions for certain uses) for magic use or a physical/mental toll magic use takes out of the user, so they can only do so much before they require rest.

    Ambient Power - Magic is energy that is generally present everywhere in the world in some way. Magic users gather the power from the area around them in order to cast spells. Generally this is stuff like magic just existing as a force all over the place in equal measure, though I've seen variations where magic is a force that is kind of like an invisible ocean of power all over the place, meaning it's deeper and more powerful/plentiful in some places. However you explain the specifics, it's basically just another force of nature that is around and can be used to do incredible things. The most common limitations on this kind of source are a maximum amount of power that can be drawn in at once or making it so that magic is a limited resource that takes time to be renewed in an area.

    Intangible Source - Magic is energy that exists in some source form that cannot be interacted with via normal senses. Magic users must make a connection to this source and draw power from it to cast spells. One intangible source is differentiated from another mainly by how it came into being and how exactly the connection is made. Because this is the most abstract kind of power source, an example of it in use is the magic in The Wheel of Time series, so if you're confused about the idea go read about the One Power/True Source intangible magic source from that series. The most common limitations placed on this kind of source are a maximum limit of how much magic can be drawn in at once, some special requirement for how exactly the source is accessed, or making it so that a connection to the source can be blocked or severed by other magic users.

    Tangible Source - Magic is energy that exists in some physical source form. Magic users make a connection (be it physical contact or a magical link) to these source objects and draw power from them to cast spells. This tends to be the most diverse archetype of magic sources. The tangible source could be the life energy of other living things (be they plants, animals, people, whatever), or some mineral that you have to possess to do magic, or crafted objects/artifacts of some kind that spew out magical energy like an invisible gas, or something else entirely. Really, the sky is the limit here. Some tangible sources let you tap into them from afar, some require you to be within a certain distance, and some require you to actually be touching them to do magic. There's a fine line between tangible sources of magic and enchanted items, especially if the sources require physical contact to work: tangible sources are like a battery, they give you energy that can be used for a variety of purposes; enchanted items are like electronic devices, things crafted for a specific purpose that require a source of energy to work (though usually they're made such that they basically come with an infinite lifetime battery already inside it). Common limitations placed on this kind of magic source are the already listed proximity things, scarcity of the tangible sources, or making the source object(s) a non-renewable resource.

    Borderline or Multiple Sources - There are some fairly common magic sources that may not fit cleanly into one of the above categories because they have aspects of two or more. For instance, magic power granted by gods might be a tangible or intangible source, depending on how gods work in your world, or it could be that the gods created a well of inner power in some favored mortal, or maybe they gave the mortal an inner power source that can only be refilled by making a connection to the godly intangible source via prayer. Leylines are also a bit odd in that they might be counted as ambient, intangible, and/or tangible sources depending on how exactly you decide to make them work. In the end these kinds of things could be labeled by the above source types with total certainty in any given fantasy world, but I like having a sort of catch-all archetype for the weirdos, so here it is.

    So, pick a source archetype and decide on the specifics of it. If you want to have more than one source available, go for it. Plenty of fantasy stuff has two or more sources of magical power, such as mages using ambient power for most magic stuff but also having an inner power pool for emergencies, so don't feel like you absolutely must pick just one. Decide on whatever you want for sources and move onward.


    Now that you've decided where your magic comes from, time to figure out how it's actually harnessed and directed. I prefer to go with systems that require magic users to gather the energy first, then tell it what exactly it's supposed to do and where to go, so that's how I'll explain this bit. You can absolutely have it the other way around though, such as writing out a huge spell formula and getting a personal possession of the target to determine the spell's form and target, then gathering the magical energy up and pouring it into the prepared spell. Whatever works for you, as usual.

    How magic users access the magical energies will be largely determined by what kind of source you're using, but since there are variations within all of the archetypes it may not be an obvious choice for you. For instance, inner power type magic may require meditation or focus of some kind to tap into the power, or the person might have to go through a set of martial arts forms to build up their chi, or making use of their energy might require an emotional trigger, or it might just be ready to go at all times with no gathering or preparation step needed. Decide what the actual mechanical process is for how a magic user gathers up energy to cast a spell; this is not what they do to shoot a fireball, this is what they do to prepare to shoot a fireball. It could be something as simple as getting ready to do the physical thing to make magic happen, or it might require them to eat some of the tangible source material, or it might just be a gathering of focus/will/whatever. Having an energy preparation step in the process is one easy way to limit how powerful and convenient magic is in combat situations, the longer it takes making it harder to use well in a fight, so consider using one if you don't want characters to be able to just throw magic out instantly.

    Once you've done that, next you have to decide how the power is directed. In other words, what must a magic user do to go from having their power at the ready to actually shooting that fireball? What physical or mental actions take the prepared energy of magic and make it actually do something? One of the most common ones (particularly in soft magic systems) is that simply thinking about the desired effect and wanting it to occur will make it happen, and in those ones there may not actually be any separation between preparing and using the magic. Similarly, as already mentioned, maybe just doing a particular physical act is what makes magic happen, so magic users just move their arm a certain way and boom fireball, no special preparation required.

    If you want to get more complicated with it, you've got plenty of options on that front. Magic words are a common one. Special movements made with a focusing object (staff or wand, for example) might do it. Maybe the magic requires a rune to be draw and then have the magic user fill the lines of it with their gathered magic energy. You could have it so a magic user has to prepare an old school magic circle with tons of details that require exact precision to work, then they just unload their gathered magic into the circle and the spell happens. Perhaps a magic user has to go through a series of martial arts forms to release the energy as a spell. Prayer infused with the magical energy could be the way it's done, though that borders on the magic words thing. Hell, maybe the magic user has to gather up the magic and then ritually sacrifice a virgin while chanting the target's name in order to activate any spell they want to do, who knows? There's no right or wrong answer here, and you can easily combine methods (like Harry Potter combines magic words and special movements with a focus object), or you could make it so there are multiple methods that work and an individual magic user just has to pick whatever they like the best. You can do whatever you feel like doing here, just keep in mind how hard or soft the magic system is supposed to be and the fact that more complicated = harder for players/readers to enjoy. Also, the more complicated it is to actually cast a spell, the harder it'll be to use it in combat or when caught unawares, so take that into consideration as well.


    You know where magic comes from and you know how the energy is put into use. The next thing to do is to decide what exactly magic can accomplish. I like to start with the upper bounds of possibilities, the craziest stuff that magic can do, and then work down from there. You'll likely be coming up with the highest capabilities and the impossibilities are at the same time, and that's perfectly fine, just list those limitations separately for the moment. Consider what things an entity existing in this world with infinite magical power available to them and no limitation on how much power they can use at one time could do. Maybe the answer is "anything," maybe there are certain things that it just cannot do; for instance, no matter how much electricity you use you can't bring someone back to life after they've been dead for a year. Below is a list of questions that might help you decide on what magic can do without any limiting factors.

    Could they create a whole new world out of nothing but their magical power? Could they create sentient life? Could they create non-sentient life? Could they return the dead to life? Could they mind control people? Could they pick up a mountain and hurl it out into space? Could they cause all volcanoes on the planet to erupt at once by manipulating the magma at the planet's core? Could they grab all the water in the world and move it as they please at once? Could they take all the air in the world and compress it into one little area? Could they grab the entire planet and "throw" it with magic? Could they kill gods (if your world has them)? Could they create gods? Could they utterly annihilate something so that not even microscopic pieces remain? Could they destroy the entire universe? Could they create an entire new universe?

    This is by no means an exhaustive list of crazy things that could be done with magic. Go wild with it, think up outlandish possibilities and decide whether or not you want your magic to be capable of it. A thought exercise that might help you here is to consider a magic system where anything that a magic user can imagine will happen (AKA omnipotence). Consider all the things that such a magic user could do, and decide if you want an infinitely powered magic user in your world to be able to do those things too. You don't have to make a completely comprehensive list of all possibilities for your magic system right this very moment, because you can always come back as you think of new things and add them later, but you ought to have a good general idea of the highest capabilities of your magic system before moving on.


    While you were deciding on what magic could do, you almost certainly thought up some things magic could not do. I'm not talking about things that are considered evil, or things that are banned, I'm talking about things that magic is literally incapable of doing no matter how powerful the magic user is. List those things out in some level of detail now. For some examples to get you going if you're stuck, some things commonly made impossible in magic systems include bringing people back from the dead, altering a person's personality, reading/altering a person's mind, flight, teleportation, and time travel/manipulation. It's totally fine to have a magic system with zero concrete limitations for a magic user of infinite power if you so choose, because there are other ways you can limit what can be done.

    Blatantly obvious segue time! Another aspect of limitations on magic use is placing some kind of physical or mental limit on what someone can accomplish. It could be a limitation on how much magic someone can gather and use at once, or maybe it's some toll magic use takes on the mind or body that means a magic user can only do so much before they're exhausted. I already listed what I thought of as the most common limitations imposed on magic from certain source archetypes, but there are plenty more. Things such as time required to gather energy and actually cast the spell also count as limitations. Basically anything that helps to prevent magic users from being omnipotent counts as a limitation, so include it in your list of limitations. As with the capabilities, an exhaustive and finalized list is not required right now, just a good idea of what is off limits.


    Weaknesses are things built into the magic system to make magic not just infinitely beneficial to the magic user. You might have already thought of some of these in your limitations, but I consider them to be different enough that they merit their own subsection. You needn't have any of them, but weaknesses make magic more strategic rather than being the obvious answer to solve every problem. I like to separate them into three different types of weaknesses: drawbacks, vulnerabilities, and failure results.

    Drawbacks of magic are any negative side effects that might be tied to using magic. A drawback could be something like using fire magic burns the caster, or speeding up time makes the magic user age at a much faster rate than they would have in that time (say they speed up a whole hour and it makes them age a whole year), or creating matter out of thin air takes away part of the magic user's soul, or transforming into an animal makes the magic user lose part of their humanity and risk becoming stuck as a beast, or using pure energy blasts of magic causes the caster to get radiation poisoning and maybe get cancer because they're actually shooting powerful radiation at people. So on and so forth. Whatever it is, it's not a matter of things that the magic user cannot do or physical limitations on how much they can do at once; drawbacks are bad things that may (or always) happen when someone uses magic, and usually they're bad things that happen to the magic user directly. If you want to have any drawbacks for magic use, decide on them now. It's not at all required to have these kinds of drawbacks, but it can make magic more interesting by turning it into something people have to think about using instead of just blasting people at will.

    Vulnerabilities are points of weakness in magic, either the source or the method, that can be manipulated to either cripple or remove someone's ability to do magic. To decide on vulnerabilities I ask myself a few questions about each source and method I'm using. How exactly can a magic user be prevented from doing their magic? Can their link to their source of magic be cut off by someone with the right skills or objects or their own magic? Can a magic user be interrupted in the middle of casting a spell to prevent it from happening? Basically I think of what options I want to give people who are going up against enemy magic users to prevent that hostile magic from coming into play against them. Having some kind of vulnerabilities for magic is almost required if you want it to be reasonable rather than totally overpowered. This is especially important if you're making this magic system for a roleplay in which magic combat will happen, doubly so if not everyone in the action will be magic users, because not having options to neutralize enemy magic in a roleplay is going to make magic feel unfair.

    Failure results are pretty straightforward, the results that occur when someone fails to cast a spell, and I have another set of questions for each source and method available to decide on these. What happens if someone tries to cast a spell but they don't gather enough energy to make it happen? Does it just fizzle out and nothing happens, or is there some kind of overload or backlash, or does it cause some kind of unintended weird result? Does the magic user still experience any limiting effects like physical fatigue or harmful drawbacks if they fail to cast a spell in this manner? Also, what if someone gathers enough energy but does the method improperly? Does it just make the spell weaker or does it result in a fizzle, an explosion, an unintended result, or something else? How does this kind of failure interact with the limitations and weaknesses of the magic system? What happens if someone both fails to gather the needed energy and does the method wrong? Ditto the questions about the result and interaction with limitations/weaknesses for this kind of failure. This is all just deciding what happens if a magic user screws up, rather than their magic attempt being purposely prevented or sabotaged by another. You need to have answers for all of this stuff unless you're going with a super soft magic system where there's no such thing as failure in magic because there are no real rules, in which case I'm not sure why you would even be bothering to read the whole magic section in the first place because it's all about rules for magic systems.

    Wrapping it Up

    Alright, if you've gone through all of the above stuff then you're basically done with creating your magic system. This is the part where you go through it all again to make sure it makes sense. Go through everything you've got and make sure you're happy with it and that it's consistent with itself and the rest of the world so far. As with other things, this doesn't have to be the final product, you can always come back and tweak it later if you feel the need.

    The way I like to wrap up my magic systems is to make a scale for magic users of different levels, to be able to compare how strong two different magic users are in a more or less objective fashion. This is by no means necessary in the magic system creation process, but I find that it helps to clarify what things I want my magic to be able to do and to enforce consistency throughout the system, so I use it as the final step after I've made sure everything is consistent with the rest of my world choices up to this point. I usually start out with the following list of entities: god(s), the most powerful mortal magic user ever, an average master level magic user, an average intermediate level magic user, an average novice level magic user, and an average person who has no magical education or training. Then I remove any that don't apply to my world (particularly gods for godless worlds) and add in anything else that I already know I'll want to have (like an extra set of answers for each of the differing sources/methods of magic use that I'm putting into the world and tiers of gods and demigods and such if I decided to have those in my world creation account). Then for each entity on the list I'll go through and outline their specific capacity, limitations, and the effects of any weaknesses their magic use might have (including stuff like average cumulative damage done by drawbacks that cause lasting harm like permanent aging or burns or whatever). You might want certain limitations and weaknesses to only affect people until they get to a certain power level, and that's totally fine, include it in the scale.

    I'll usually come back to this scale and expand it later on if I choose to have more than one sentient race that can do magic (assuming they have different natural proficiency levels, which usually means a full set of everything from greatest user ever down to peasants for each race), if I add in any monsters or creatures that can use magic, and to reflect any changes I make to what already exists on the list (like maybe while deciding on races I decide I don't want necromancy to be possible after all). When all is said and done the scale might be fairly large, but on top of the clarity and consistency assistance it also makes it easy to determine how much of a threat various entities are to a given character; perhaps an Elf considered to be of intermediate skill is way better than a human master of magic (maybe due to longer life span, or differing weaknesses between races or magic types), so they wouldn't be intimidated by the threats of a human master practitioner. That kind of thing tends to be super helpful for making sure confrontations are scaled appropriately for how tough or scary or whatever they're supposed to be.

    Part 2 Afterword

    Welp, that does it for the second part of the guide. Did you see how at the end of the first part I said that it would likely end up being the longest of them all? Hahahaha, no, Part 2 is more than half again as long as the first one. This is the result of me thinking I could fully explain magic system creation briefly; that section by itself is longer than the whole of Part 1, actually. Whoop.

    Okay, enough masturbatory talk about how big my penis post is. Part 1 was all ambiguous meta level choices, and Part 2 leaves you with basically a rock floating in space that has physics and magic kind of just hanging out and waiting for stuff to interact with. The future parts of the guide will let physics and magic have some friends and a real social life by way of putting tangible things in your world, such as creatures, societies, and technology. No spoilers, but they'll probably be really long and kind of anal retentive in how everything is explained. That should really come as no surprise to you if you actually read both parts of the guide so far, heh.

    Thanks for reading along so far, and feel free to ask questions or comment on any of this stuff if you feel so inclined.
    #1 Jorick, Jan 3, 2015
    Last edited: Jan 20, 2015
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  2. ... Now you tell us. ;]

    While I personally have little difficulty in the creation of worlds—at the very least, insofar as it pertains to the domains analyzed in your first two guides—I'm still finding it entertaining to read over your excruciatingly long-winded discussion of the subject.

    I may actually use your guide as something of a test to see how fully developed some of my magic systems are. Well, one in particular. Each world I create I base off of one aspect—the characters, the plot, the magic, the races, etc. At this point, only two of my realms are founded upon the magic system—with maybe eight others in which there is magic but the system isn't the focus—but only one I've actually strongly looked into.
  3. Yeah, it was a little bit late to say something like that, wasn't it? :lol:

    I never really thought of my guide being used in that way, but I suppose all the painstaking creation details and questions could make for a pretty good way to test how robust an existing system is. If you get around to doing that, I'd be interested to hear if it was of any help in finding any flaws or lack of information in what you already had.
  4. Late reply because I wanted to be certain I had fixed the issue before commenting on it.

    While I was going through the questions in the "capabilities" section, I came across one I was having difficulty answering. Namely, the one about bringing people back to life. It was possible in my system—it had to be for plot-related reasons—but I realized I didn't know why it worked.

    In the end, it was a lack of consistency between the method by which magic is used, the source, and the limitations. Eventually I managed to fix it, though. As such, I declare your guide useful for auto-analysis!

    Also, now that I've discovered your other magic thread, I'll probably work on displaying my system there for the hell of it.
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