Back in the days of me trying to philosophize about storytelling separately from psychology, I thought there were four prime traits for a good magic system. I don't stand by the old philosophy any more, but I think I said enough worthwhile things that I won't scrap the article. Here are the three traits I listed that I still think are, while not true prime criteria, useful to think about:

  1. Depth. It should give rise to complex usage and far-reaching implications through relatively simple mechanics. A parallel can be drawn here to game design.

    A really good example of depth (and honestly just the best magic system I've ever seen overall) is the Mistborn books. Some people are born with Allomancy, which allows them to consume small bits of metal and then "burn" it for magical power. Each metal gives you a different effect, and they come organized in three dichotomies: internal versus external, mental versus physical, and pushing versus pulling. For example, the internal physical pushing metal, pewter, makes the Allomancer's body much stronger and more agile while burning it. The external mental pulling metal, zinc, magnifies the emotions of others, which can be used to manipulate crowds and individuals. The external physical pushing metal, steel, allows you to push metal away from you - or, if the metal object is heavier than you, pull yourself toward it. This creates so much depth of interaction when we see Allomancers carrying around sacks of coins to use as projectiles and specialized soldiers called "hazekillers" that use wooden shields and weapons and wear no metal in order to better combat Allomancers.

    Allomancy has a consistent theme: metal is power. This is built on later in the books when the Atium stash is revealed to be Ruin's body. And since the powers are organized in a rigid system of dichotomies, it doesn't feel like eight separate things magic can do. It feels more like three ideas from which eight powers follow.

  2. Transparency. The reader should be told how the magic works, so that they can appreciate how cool it is, and so that it feels fair when you use the magic to solve a problem.

    A really good example of a system that fails horribly in this area is (I bet you know what I'm going to say) Harry Potter. These books are all about magic and yet we never learn how it works. There are an unknown but massive number of "spells" and whenever the plot needs something, the author makes up a spell that can do it. This stops us from predicting what's going to happen because we just don't know what's possible in this world.

    Imagine what might happen next is part of the fun of fiction. If something happens that you didn't expect because you didn't decipher the clues, that's a good story. If something happens that you couldn't have expected because you didn't know it was possible, that's just lame, especially if the POV character did know it was possible.

    There's also quite a few instances of magic that don't involve incantations, spells or wands, such as potion making, divination (logically impossible), portable time travel devices (logically impossible), and probably others that I don't remember because it's been so many years. These things feel completely separate from the wand, spell, and incantation-based magic that wizards use directly, like Rowling had to include every trite form of magic in one story.

    We never even learn what the process of learning a spell involves, which is pretty important considering the story is about students at a magic academy. We also never learn what makes some wizards more "powerful" than others, or even what it means to be more "powerful" than another person in this magic system. How are we supposed to appreciate how cool the magic is if we don't even know how it works?

    There is an exception to the rule of transparency. Final Fantasy 13 is a good example. In this game, magic exists and we don't know how it works, but it isn't used as a plot device - instead we're quickly given the impression that it's really only useful for combat (Lightning's gravCon device is a piece of technology as far as I'm concerned), and because of that combined with the combat system being an abstraction of what's actually happening in the story, we don't really need to know how it works. But if you're writing a novel and not a JRPG, odds are you intend your magic to be more than a combat asset, so you'll need to explain it.

  3. Two-sidedness. The best magic systems, instead of giving great power at small cost or small power at small cost, give great power at great cost. A parallel can be drawn here to desiging moral dilemmas.

    Power is fun, but it's more fun when it has an interesting cost, limitation, or risk associated. In one now-scrapped story I created, magic can get very powerful, but it costs wakefulness, and the cost depends only the magnitude of the effect you achieve and not on how powerful you are. So when the characters were first gaining magic and it was weak, the effect was so small they didn't even notice, but I had planned that later in the story, when they became much more powerful, fighting for just a few minutes would sap all of their energy and they would need to sleep for several hours to recover. Much more interesting than just letting them use magic endlessly for free. It also served the plot in at least one way: it stopped the heroes from being invincible later in the story.

    Another example, from a story I have planned but probably won't be getting around to for a while, is built on the premise that each person lives many lives in many different worlds, and what's happening when you sleep is you're essentially signing out of one world and into another. People don't know about this because their memories are compartmentalized. Still, that's what dreams are - your memories from other worlds leaking a bit. So when you use magic, the barriers keeping your memories separate get a lot weaker, and you start to remember your other lives. This seems like a good thing... until you get so deep into it that you can no longer tell the difference between your different worlds. You remember things that didn't happen, try to apply knowledge of other worlds to your present one, and, from the outside, it just looks like you're going insane. You effectively are.

The next I want to talk about is stock powers: common or obvious abilities that are useful to think aobut as starting points.

I guess another thing I might as well talk about while I'm here is stock costs of using magic. Generally magic needs some kind of limitation on its use to prevent it from breaking the plot, the world, or both.

Here's another question: how do you get magic? If it has a cost like consumption of a rare substance, it might be okay to say everyone has it innately, but many stories want to limit magic to certain people.

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