Magic Systems

OK, this is geek time now. What are some of the choices in creating magic systems in fantasy?

For originality, Steven Erikson’s idea of the Warrens was really something different. I enjoyed his Malazan books of the fallen, but they eventually got a little bogged down in the storyline, or maybe the characters didn’t grab me as much as some of the earlier novels (Gardens of the Moon is a classic). The originality in the magic did not abate though.

As much as I liked David Gemmell, his magic was pretty straightforward and fairly familiar from the SFF spectrum.

I guess as fundamental distinctions go, one of the most basic is Innate Magic Vs Learned Magic. For example in the Earthsea books, or Wheel of Time series, the talent was there from birth, whereas in other books – I think one of the Lawrence Watt-Evans’s books comes to mind – it is a skill that can be learned, a bit like learning what needs to go into a science experiment in our world to make it work according to our physical laws.

I remember a great little scene (not sure what book this was from) – this skinny, white-bearded, yet very fit Mage, pounding away with his feet on some sort of platform to generate the energy for his spell. The idea here was a sort of conservation of energy, where the Mage had to first generate the energy with his own sweat before he did the spell. That was kind of neat. He also got to burn off lots of calories.

You can have a blend as well. In my fantasy novel The Calvanni, there are innate magic-users (Sorcerers) who are quite powerful, yet rare, while most others can be trained in other less powerful forms of magic (Druids, Priests and Priestesses). The premise was that the Sorcerers came to dominate their world and formed a magic-using nobility. The power in the upper classes – feared and hated by many – waned over time and the Druids took control, forcing a purge of the now ‘evil’ Sorcerers and monopolizing magic.

Another fundamental distinction is just how Powerful is Powerful? Is the pinnacle of magic the ability to obtain a vision, or perhaps influence a person’s thoughts – as in shamanism – or can an ‘Adept’ wipe out armies with the wave of a hand (Pug from Fiest comes to mind)?

I think some books take the ultimate power of the Mage way too far. I like it better when the magic-user is limited, and has to pay for the use of his power.

What magic systems from fantasy literature take your fancy?

Cross-posted at chrismcmahons blog.


  1. Another difference in magic is Ritual Magic vs “Just cast a spell”. Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni can “Just cast a spell” to do something but also use Ritual Magic for major magical tasks.

    By the way, many “Innate Magic” folks still require training to reach their greatest potential.

    1. Ritual magic can be a lot of fun. I often really enjoy reading about characters who employ ritual magic, although rarely have the patience to recreate that level of detail in my own work:)

  2. I like the contrast between systems in Lois Bujold’s two fantasy series. In one, it’s all from the Gods, with an occasional escaped demon. In the other, the “magic” is a natural attribute of all things which some people can affect and use, and others cannot.

    Making the magic wielders too powerful is a constant danger for the writer. With mine, I’ve allowed them the use of exterior power sources, but require that anything done also expends their own energy, so there is a limit to how much they can do. I limited the range, the number of things they can do at once, and I limited the number of magic users. Then I set the various groups to bickering. Had some of them law abiding and basicly nice and some of them quite nasty. They can act in small groups and magnify their abilities, so a “compass” of eigfht so-so mages can defeat a powerful wizard and so forth.

    I like stories with imaginative magic systems rather than those that try to follow the magical methods from myths or fables. But some historical fantasies need to stick to historical practices, but have them work. Druids and Voodoo, for instance, as known terms with at least some public background of knowledge _need_ to be accurate, or they are just pathetic. Accurate, except they work, rather.

    1. Hi, Pam. It’s interesting how popular novels like Lord of the Rings become, even though there is very little overt magic.

      I read a very interesting SF novel many years ago (can’t remember the name or author damnit!) that had three bloodlines that had particular mental powers. They had to work together to effectively use & not be destroyed by their powers. That always stuck with me.

  3. I enjoy Wen Spencer’s system in the Elfhome novels. They combine genetic manipulation with an instinctive knowledge of quantum physics to produce the desired effects.

  4. I think either innate or learned can be done well, although I also tend to like the notion of dual systems, as mentioned above. One, perhaps, where someone with innate ability can do things without relying so much on external components, but where one without innate ability can use rituals to harness the energy of other things. This leads to an obvious conflict: dark magicians use the energy of living things, either through killing them, or with the result of killing them by draining them dry, while ethical ones only harness the energy of nonliving components.

    1. I like the twist on that in Weber’s Bahzell series. All magic – with minor exception – is the same: it utilizes the fundamental energy of matter (dept. of redundancy dept.). The difference lies in the acquisition of that energy. Living things are easier to use than nonliving; sentient easier to use than non. And since the energies release by people in extremis are easiest – and most focused – evil wizards typically torture and kill young people to power their spells. On the other hand, a truly disciplined good wizard could get just as much energy by tapping the meta-juice in a pebble. There’s also a learned/innate dichotomy, and a couple of truly strange exceptions, but it makes for a very interesting system.

    2. Hi, Wayne. I like that idea too. I often have the bad guys essentially doing blood magic, at the expense of the innocent, with the good guys having to go the extra mile to find a purer source of power – which of course put them at a disadvantage. I love the underdog:)

  5. I’m working on a new series (“The Affinities of Magic”) as soon as I finish my WIP with just this sort of background issue. I’ve decided magic will be an innate property of all living things (sort of like mitochondria), but the use of it is all over the place. Sentient beings can harness it both in themselves and from other life (with limits and with consequences), but non-sentient beings still find it useful, in a Darwinian sense. E.g., a tree that can selectively control air to filter out harmful pathogens will out-compete one that can’t, all else being equal, even if the tree doesn’t do it “deliberately”, just as a tree that can follow the sun with its leaves may have an advantage.

    “All living things” includes micro biota, including your own co-inhabiting bacteria. Different bacteria have different “powers”, for evolutionary advantage. Hence the “Affinities” of the series title.

    Darwinian magic.

    1. What a fascinating situation. Now I’m picturing trees that can magically split Nitrogen to fertilize themselves. Some might repell oxygen and attract CO2. A grove of them could be deadly to animal life, again, growing better in the CO2 enriched environment, and gaining valuable organic fertilizer.

      1. I’m kinda liking it myself… 🙂 Endless ramifications. Taboos on mixing magic-user types because of mysterious contamination (which is based on micro-biota interchanges,ill understood.) Diversity of “affinities” vs expertise in a pure strain, etc. How about boulders that weather preferentially based on the micro-life inhabiting their cracks? Poor people can “enslave” themselves by hiring out as intelligent batteries for large projects. Use anti-biotics to breed stronger survivor strains of specialized magical micro-life.

        The trick will be not to get too carried away with the world-building so I can tell good strong stories in the series.

        The key kickoff will be the sudden rise in “technology” of innovation in magic use based on a better understanding of first principals in a pre-industrial guild-based society. The MC will start young (15 or so) and hold a pseudo-internet pioneer role. Wizards, yes, but bio-chem and physics-based.

        1. I started my world with magical exiles from a modern non-magical society. It was fun thinking up how they could rebuild a society substituting magic for machinery. Who needs a pump, when you can lay a charm on a pipe to move liquids, but in only one direction?

          1. Hi, Karen. Sounds like a fascinating world. You will certainly have your hands full on the worldbuilding, but that sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun:) A lot of possibilities there.

  6. In an essay somewhere, and I can’t find the book easily, Larry Dixon gave the engineering background for the Valdemar magic. There’s a huge amount of effort that he and Lackey put into making the system work, including things like dealing with waste “heat” (excess energy) in a balanced system. Orson Scott Card, in his “how to write sci fi and fantasy” volume talks about a magic system based on life potential, and all the dark places it can take the characters. (Judging by the reviews on Amazon, the novel with that system it is least popular of his books and gives lots of people the creeps.)

    I tend to use a combination of innate and mechanical systems. Mechanical in that “magic” is purely based on energy transfer and manipulation, and (in theory) anything or anyone could do it. The innate part is the sensitivity to certain spectra of energy and the genetic capacity to manipulate said energies. Some people need a mechanical or biologic booster in order to take the sensitivity to the use point. For example, the MC is sensitive to temporal energies, but she can’t use that unless she works with a certain symbiotic creature. Together they can travel through time and space.

    1. This stuff is really fascinating. It’s amazing what people can conceive when they let their imaginations go. I personally also enjoy it when scientific principles like conservation of energy etc are worked into the mix. I quite enjoyed the idea of Sympathy from the Pat Rothfuss books as well.

  7. The cost is one key. The potential for conflict is the other. The rest is just trappings, albeit delightfully interesting ones. Fortunately, just about any system of power carries with it the potential for imbalance and abuse. “Only the pure of heart” kind of systems are … less helpful. The other side of the coin is equally fraught with danger for the writer. Depends on the market, really. If your magic system is truly systematic, you’re writing more SF, despite the swords and robes and armor. Is it one of Foglio’s Corollaries to Clark’s Law? “Any sufficiently investigated magic is indistinguishable from science”? I’ve heard it said that the writer should know every detail of her magic system, even if the reader doesn’t ever learn it.

    And yet I think about faerie tales (where the focus tends to be more on the wonderment of magic) or Middle Earth: magic happens, but it’s unclear how, and the reader is given almost no indication of the rules for the system. (Disclaimer: never made it through the Silmarillion, let alone the various other ME publications.) Do the Istari require their staves in order to work spells? How did the elves forge the rings, and the swords? How does Tom Bombadil remain inviolate and completely untouched by evil in his little corner of the world?

    Part of this is focus: we don’t need to know any of these answers to grasp the thrust of the story. I imagine Tolkien had an idea how it all worked together, regardless of what we’re given as readers. For one, the Wizards were beings of great personal power before coming to Middle Earth. The elves were created by the ersatz gods of Arda, so who knows what abilities they were imbued with before they awakened.

    Pat Rothfuss and Brandon Sanderson were on a panel at WorldCon a couple years ago specifically about magic systems. Ser Rothfuss said – and Mssr. Sanderson concurred – one of the most useful things was submitting his work on the systems to clever, trustworthy people. People who then kicked them around, cranked the cranks, pushed the buttons, and waited to see what fell off: get somebody who isn’t you to poke holes in your system. So, y’know, just like regular writing. Get somebody who thinks in systems to make the connections you didn’t. “Well, on page 312, why didn’t Heroic Jim do *insert action*? They magic system seems to allow it, and it’d mean the Eeeeevil Dark Lord could be defeated immediately, instead of when the prophecy does its thing.” Oops, there goes my conflict. Time to refit that system a bit.

    For one of my own works, I’m setting up a system where the gods control magical power. They dole it out to their own priests for the benefits of their worshippers, but there isn’t learned wizardry or innate sorcery. At least not yet. Turns out the gods weren’t ever supposed to be gods, per se. They stole that energy from the Creator, and have used it to keep their egos, their personalities alive. But now they’re dying and almost dead. What happens now? Haven’t quite figured that out yet, but it’ll reshape the world when it happens.

    1. Hey, I would have loved to have been in the audience for that panel with Pat Rothfuss and Brandon Sanderson, two of my favourite authors:)

      Your gods certainly seem to have held all the cards in that world you described. I guess they are running out of power now? Does that mean there are no more sources of magic? I would imagine they would be starting to duke it out amongst themelves for the last remnants of power.

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