Guest Post: Casting a Spell

I asked Rob if he would be willing to do a guest post for us, as he has a recently released book I wanted to help him promote. I also wanted his post because he’s a professional historian and a fascinating conversationalist and writes at a dedicated level that… well, you’ll see.

I’m going to continue with this thread of posts going under the hood of my writing process with None Call Me Mother and the now-completed trilogy, The Kreisens, with a discussion of my magic system and what thoughts went into its creation.

By the way, if you want to see the first two of what is becoming a series, here they are. On Monday I talked about improving my production process at: On Tuesday, I went through my thoughts creating three of the characters in this series at:

Also, I want to take this moment to thank Cedar Sanderson and the crew at Mad Genius Club for cross-posting this as a guest post over there.

Anyway, back to this topic. I’m quite pleased with my magic system. I wanted to have a system that was easy to write, made every mage a little different, and forced wizards to make choices. It also had to have limitations and it couldn’t be pure handwavium. At the same time, I wanted to have something that connected with traditional magical depictions and expectations.

The roots of this system go all the way back to 1980 when I first played D&D. I was always a guy who enjoyed breaking things down and I had always wanted to design a magic system that was plausible and powerful.

The first challenge to me came from looking at the huge spell lists of various RPGs. From the standpoint of a game, discrete spells are a great thing. They allow for the kind of immediate choice needed for any turn-based system.

But I don’t like them from a writing point of view. I’ve enjoyed  various game-related books over the years like DragonLance and the Forgotten Realms books, but I’ve always struggled a bit with the prose describing these discrete spells in action.

So my system had to be a little more free-form from a writing point of view. On the other hand, that vast list of spells does includes just about every magical effect one could want, so I had to consider it.

I also didn’t want to break things down the same way as D&D. The divine/arcane magic system works great from a game point of view, but I just sort of think magic should be defined by its processes, not its source.

So what are the processes of spells? Not the idea of components, but how does a spell do the thing it does?

The first, and possibly most important, set of spells I broke down were the cure spells. I started with them because there has to be healing, if only because I tend to hammer my characters.

Now, hit points are a simple concept that handwaves over a bunch of stuff. Is a person harder to kill as they gain skill? Undoubtedly. Does the amount of physical trauma required to kill that person increase dramatically as their skill rises? Well, that’s a different question. I don’t want to dive into that philosophical discussion, but it’s useful to remember this question here.

The easy thing, and first to come to mind, is the concept of Life Magic. From a healing standpoint, it’s obvious. But it’s just as easy to harm. Excellent. I’ve now got a starting point for magic to be just a tool to be used as a character wants, good or bad.

But “life” is such a huge word, and I started spinning off idea after idea. I still do, by the way. Magic traditionally assigned to druids like controlling animals and plants, for example, is easy.

Yet there’s even more. I said I wanted something that made each wizard a little different, and Life Magic ended up being about variable as them all. Some cure well, but can’t hurt and vice versa. I’ve got Life Mages who really can’t do either, but can do other things really well. One essentially talks to bees. Connection to a single animal like a familiar. Some plantlords.

And I’ve got fun ways I can describe all of this. One of my standard things is for healers to step in and stop the bleeding and minimize the chance of infection. Obviously, they don’t have the same basis of medicine that we do, but people have known about infected wounds long before germ theory.

I also use Life Magic in a forensic way, having some Life Mages specialize in tracking traces of evidence off bodies. This is great for my Edward books, which are fantasy/mystery/PI hybrids. Again, they won’t know DNA per se, but they can track bits and pieces that give some clues. Great from my perspective.

Every aspect of life has its own calling, so I’ve hit on one magical process that works great. Life Magic works with life in every form but is individual to the mage. It can’t, however, deal with inanimate objects unless it can get a life form to do something to it, like say having a tree push its roots to destroy a rock.

That’s a great start, but clearly, I needed more types of magic.

Again, the question of cure spells guided me. How does one increase morale with magic? I’ve seen it happen with a group singing a song or following a banner. With speeches and theater. With rewards and gifts.

All of these things had effects as symbols greater than their intrinsic value as things. Magic, then, could push these symbolic effects to even greater heights and we’ve got so many traditional things to draw from here.

Bardic spells, so music and song. Religious ceremonies. Any kind of ceremony, actually. Runes and arcane scripts. Banners. Flags.

These things can influence just about any endeavor. I have never come up against a limitation of what symbolic magic could do. Heal, harm, teach, warn, refrigerate, heat, attack, whatever I wanted.

That’s a great thing, but from a story standpoint is a problem. All of the wizards had to have limitations, and so did Line Magic, which is what I ended up naming symbolic magic.

Fortunately, the limitation for Line Magic is fairly obvious. Symbols and morale *are* limited. You can be Rudy all you want, but you still have to have a certain level of size, speed, and skill to make the NFL. So Line Magic became the most versatile, but least powerful of all my spell types.

The next spells I looked at were Fireballs and the like. They don’t really fit with Life or Line Magic, but we need something like this.

I don’t talk about it much anymore, because I’ve integrated it so fully I don’t really think about it at this point, but I have a physics layer underneath my magic system involving Shijuren’s geodynamo.

Now, I handwave a jump or two, like the old cartoon with a math equation that has in the middle, “and then a miracle occurs.” However, it’s important that I keep it in mind and make sure those miracles aren’t too miraculous.

This concept of a layer of physics underneath the magic provided the answer to the fireball. I created a magic process that is basically e to m and vice versa. A fireball is just liberating a tiny fraction of energy from matter.

But again, this gave me a whole slew of possibilities. Heat, sound, light, and so much more. Stones that warm things or refrigerate them. Stones that create light or lock doors. Listening to mountains.

So now I have Land Magic. Here’s where I made the most handwavium decision in the whole process, though. One could make the argument that since living creatures have mass than Land Magic could affect them just as easily. I decided Land Magic could only work against inanimate objects. That life, for whatever reason, resists this sort of manipulation. Yeah, it misses a bit on the logic, but it creates a distinct limitation that works well to differentiate mages.

By the way, yes I went through and came up with “L” words for each type of magic. Stupid maybe, but it seemed like fun at the time.

OK, so what am I missing? Let’s look at charm spells. To a great extent, these rely upon manipulating emotions. Love Magic! Perfect. Magic that manipulates emotion can be extremely powerful, but only with humans and some more intelligent animals.

I’ve extended this a bit as I’ve gone along, by the way, to the study of the amygdala and how humans create emotions. It’s a strange process that we don’t really understand as far as I can tell, but that’s perfect for my purposes. I can adapt as needed.

I’ve also used this as forensic magic in the Edward books, as emotions presumably spike during murders and such, leaving a residue that can be tracked.

For ease of description, I say emotions flow from a person in tendrils. Then I use Pluvchik’s Wheel of Emotion to give me guidelines. To step from one emotion to another is one degree of difficulty, as does going up and down in intensity.

From a magic standpoint it’s fairly versatile. From a writing standpoint it’s fun to describe. However, this magic system tends to lead to fewer differences between wizards since there’s only so many different emotions. There are some differences, though, as each Love Mage has their own preference. Some work best with love and some with hate. So far, this has seemed to be enough for my purposes and I’m coming up with more, like those specializing in forensic magic.

That’s a pretty good collection of magics, but I got to this point still thinking I was missing a process. Living things, non-living things, symbols, and emotions don’t allow for what D&D calls the divination school. Also, we really don’t have a that traditional long-bearded knows-everything iconic wizard. I mean, you could have that from each of the four we’ve described, but knowledge itself should have power.

This was especially important to me as a historian, by the way.

Lore was an easy L-word to use here, but it took me a while to figure out how to make Lore Magic work.

Somewhere along the way, I stumbled across the Greek concept of kairos. This gave me a kernel of an idea, especially when I considered the concept of how so many wizards in other stories often don’t do D&D style magic but instead just happen to be at the right place at the right time and do the right thing.

So maybe I have something here. The more you know and research, the more you can pick out those kairoi, which means you can influence them to come out the way you want. A Lore Mage, then sees a series of kairoi as butterfly points of potentialities. They then shape the potentialities to fit the desired result.

Wow! What a fun concept, though I will say it’s been proven hard to write with. How do you shape potentialities on the fly? This magic has to work over time, not really in the heart of a conflict. To shape a battle, a Lore Mage has to anticipate the fight then put themselves into a stronger position to win.

OK, this actually isn’t so bad from a writing perspective. I now have a way for bad guys to shape a plot and I have ways for good guys to respond. Best of all, each Lore Mage is limited by what they’ve studied, so there’s a differentiation built into it from the beginning. Plus, not every Lore Mage views how to manipulate kairoi in the same way. Veikko, for example, manipulates kairoi not be using his magic to change them but to put people in the place where they can change it for him. Nebheshu has a much more direct and arrogant approach.

In the end, Lore Magic became the single most powerful magic one can do in Shijuren. It can do just about anything. However, it requires time, often lots of time. I’ve had mages create spells that are centuries long. Of course, the shifting of kairoi can be undone by the shifting of other kairoi by an opposing mage.

Lore Magic is the hardest to write, but the most fun, when I get it to work.

We now have my Five Streams of Magic, each with limitations and options.

I then decided that those humans capable of magic could only do one of these types. I did allow for a very few exceptions, though, in part because it fits some of the hidden backstory of the world, but these are incredibly rare, in part because they are extremely powerful. Their ability to mesh magical concepts means they can do more with each because of synergistic effects.

In any case, this means that mages in Shijuren have a very limited toolbox. They essentially have a hammer and they have to figure out how to make that hammer work in the situation they face.

This has been awesome for me as a writer. I’m constantly trying to figure out ways to do this or that, based on the tactical situation and the wizard’s set of skills.

More importantly, my spells haven’t really broken down into routine from wizard to wizard. They’re not all blasting away with a fireball or healing with cure light. Sure, an individual wizard might do the same thing multiple times, like Egill and his runes, but each has a flavor and an individuality, just as I had hoped for.

There’s my system. It might not be perfect, but it’s been magical for me and my stories.

Speaking of my stories, I will take this moment to talk about None Call Me MotherDid I mention it came out on Tuesday? No? Well, hey, just to let you know, it came out on Tuesday!

In a way, it’s almost like I released *three* books on Tuesday, because None Call Me Mother finishes up a trilogy. I also took the time a week ago to clean up the other novels in the Kreisens trilogy.

And if you want to go straight to the first book, I Am a Wondrous Thing, it’s here.

Finally, if you’ve gotten this far, I might as well just link to my Amazon author page.

Thanks for reading this post, and I hope you enjoy my stories. Best wishes for a great holiday season to you all.

8 thoughts on “Guest Post: Casting a Spell

  1. I just want to point out that this magic concept is used in your other series The Adventures Of Edward. I’m not a high fantasy kind of guy so the Edward Magic/Fantasy Noir tales are much more my thing, well written too

      1. Actually, what I should have pointed out I’m doing an Edward-ish story for Songs of Valor. The theme is Unlikely/Reluctant Hero. Bonus points if you can guess the POV character from the Edward stories I thought was most unlikely and reluctant 😀

  2. I suppose I should have mentioned I’ll be writing another Edward story as soon as I finish my next 4HU novel, so at some point in the spring, I think.

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