Manu's Magic System Creation Guide


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on: January 12, 2018, 11:40:58 AM
I'm not entirely sure whether this should go to worldbuilding or here, but I think it's a ressource, so I'm posting it here. This came up yesterday in the brainstorming channel on the Discord, so I'm typing up my notes on building a magic system here.
Disclaimer: This guide is mostly the result of research I did, not stuff I invented. It's just a summary of the things that resonated with me, and how I build magic systems.

Creating A Magic System

Do I Need Rules For The Magic In My Story?
Whether or not you need rules for magic in your story depends on what you want to do with it. Magic that doesn't follow rules has its advantages - unpredictable magic is great at adding humor and entertainment to a story, it doesn't restrict the writer in what can or can't happen in the story and allows spontaneous inventions of new rules or magic effects, and ultimately it is less work. If magic only serves setting the atmosphere in your story, you're probably fine without rules as well. There are probably a few more cases that I can't think of right now.

However, if magic doesn't follow rules, the reader won't know what magic can or can't do, and if you introduce a new and unpredictable spell to solve a plot problem, it can easily feel like a cheap deus ex machina to the reader.

I'd like to quote Sanderson's First Law: An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
Sounds complicated, but all it actually says is: If you want your characters to solve plot relevant stuff with magic, the reader needs to understand how that magic works, or they will easily feel cheated. Making the reader understand how magic works is quite a bit easier if you set rules for it.

The advantage of a magic system that follows a set of rules is that it can feel like a different set of physics to the reader. All the pieces fit together nicely, and it feels consistent. So working out a set of rules for magic can be worthwile, even if you want to keep magic a mystery and keep the rules hidden from the reader.

Here's the questions I ask myself when I create a magic system:

1. Where does magic come from?
Does it come from higher beings/gods, is it some form of life energy that can be used to craft effects, does it come from substances that need to be consumed, or does it maybe come from a parallel world or different dimension?

2. Who can do magic?
Can everyone use magic? Or just a certain fantasy race, ethnic group, members of a certain family? Is it inherited, does it randomly appear in individuals? Can it be induced by something and aquired later in life, or you need to be born with magic?
How common is magic? Is knowledge about magic wide-spread and have most people seen or met a mage before, or is it so rare that people don't even know whether it's real or just a myth?
Are there magical plants and animals, or is magic only found in humans (and/or other fantasy races)?

3. How do you use magic?
Is it intuitive, like an extension of the body and as easy as moving an arm? Does it require concentration and effort of will? Do mages need to speak, chant, or make gestures to create spells? Do they have to draw magical runes, maybe even with their own blood? Or does it even require a complicated ritual?
How much preparation does casting magic need? Can it be used to spontaneously react to an unexpected situation, or does it require hours of preparation?

4. What are the limitations of magic?
What can and can't magic do, by what is it limited? Is availability of magic or a substance limited? Will the higher being your magic comes from deny you magic if you molest them too often? Is magic somehow channeled through the mage's body, and will it injure or kill them if they use too much of it at once? Do spells and rituals simply get too complex at some point, and does that complexity limit the effects you can create with magic?

5. What are the costs of magic?
Does it have negative long-term effects, like making you age faster or do you slowly go insane if you use magic too often? Will it make spirits or demons come after the mage? Is magic forbidden and will it make authorities come after the mage?
High costs of magic are not necessarily needed, but if the mage has to sacrifice something, it can make using magic more meaningful and dramatic.

Some links:
Sanderson's first law
Mythcreants:How to create a rational magic system
tvtropes: Write A Functional Magic System
Patricia C. Wrede's Worldbuilding questions about magic and magicians
« Last Edit: January 12, 2018, 11:52:22 AM by Manu »
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Reply #1 on: January 12, 2018, 11:41:24 AM
Hope this is useful to someone!
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Reply #2 on: January 12, 2018, 11:45:03 AM
This looks really useful! I try to find ones online but they're always way too in depth, but this is just right. Thanks.


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Reply #3 on: January 12, 2018, 11:51:45 AM
Thank you Manu :) this looks really helpful :D


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Reply #4 on: January 12, 2018, 05:26:07 PM
This looks great. :)

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Reply #5 on: January 12, 2018, 09:40:04 PM
This is awesome! Like @SecretRock the ones online are always way too in depth and I barely ever even bother trying to respond to them, but these are great! Thank you for posting them!
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Reply #6 on: January 14, 2018, 07:35:48 AM
Aah, the moment I saw the title I thought to myself "I hope someone references Sanderson's guide"! Thank you for the very useful resource and the helpful additional links! :D