Magic systems

Some thoughts about what makes a good magic system.


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

Depth in 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.

Mistborn review

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.


The reader should be told how the magic works, so that they can appreciate how cool it is, and so that it doesn't cause failed foreshadowing.


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.

Harry Potter review

In 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 didn't expect 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 the writer 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.


The coolest 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.

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. 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 to non-magical enemies later in the story.

Another example, from a story idea I thought of but never wrote, is based 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. A side-effect of magic is that the barriers keeping your memories separate weaken, 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 and people that don't exist, 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 thing I want to talk about is stock powers: common or obvious abilities that are useful to think about as starting points.


This is one of the most obvious and straightforward powers of magic: the ability to apply force to an object remotely. Although the power itself is unoriginal and uncreative, there's still a lot of cool stuff you can do with this.

An old novel I wrote when I was 19 used a simple restriction to make things a lot more interesting: you can never telekinet a living person's body, not even your own. So even though powerful mages fly, they have to do so by standing on wooden platforms with their ankles strapped in and telekineting those. It meant if they were ever caught without their platforms they might have trouble getting off the ground (although I never used that). It also meant *no Force-push* (you couldn't circumvent it by telekineting someone's clothes).

Another rule that novel had was that you can't telekinet something already being telekineted by someone else, no matter how much more powerful you are. That solved the problem of why you don't just push back any projectiles a weaker mage throws at you. I also used it for a (I like to think) clever plan where the protagonist killed a much more powerful mage by collapsing the ceiling on him.

Time travel

Bug off, okay? It's logically impossible.

Some sort of obvious attack

This is extremely common in RPG magic systems (and RPGs are legitimate storytelling in every way), and can come in the form of fireballs, lightning bolts, or straight up "magic blast". While it's the pinnacle of uncreative, that doesn't mean it's inherently bad. Not all stories need a super creative magic system. One way I could think of to make this more interesting is to say that shooting a fireball makes the caster extremely cold. Not only does this prevent the caster from just incinerating all their enemies, it gives the power a sort of theme: not creating energy, but transferring energy. It would be interesting to build on that if there were other powers in the magic system. (Hm... I might've gotten inspiration from Mistborn for this...)


This is an incredibly useful thing to have plot-wise in a fantasy setting. Without it, injuries are rather permanent, which leaves you with two options: either the heroes miraculously never get injured (which will be unbelievable if the story contains a lot of combat), or no single hero ever has to fight more than a couple times throughout the story, which crosses off a lot of possible stories. Having magic be able to heal seems like an easy solution, but it brings with it a lot of its own issues. For one thing, if magical healing is easily accessible, it changes the world dramatically: doctors probably won't exist, nobody is sick, etc, and also, sometimes you *want* to give a character a lasting injury, which becomes difficult to do.

As with other unruly powers, healing can work fine if it's harder to access. Maybe you can heal injuries but it shortens the patient's lifespan by several years, or maybe you have to hurt someone else *who consents* in order to heal.

I guess another thing I might as well talk about while I'm here is 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.

The consumption of a special substance

Allomancy is an example of this. It didn't work out very well: it ended up mostly equivalent to unlimited magic since the substances weren't hard to come by except for atium.

If I were to do this in a story, I'd give the heroes a practical limit on the amount they could get so it would actually matter.


This is kind of generic but I've never seen it done. A downside is that it's kind of "opaque" in that the audience can't easily imagine it; describing pain well is hard.

Memory loss

Here's a more serious cost. Everyone will think twice before using magic now. I'm surprised that I also can't remember seeing this used anywhere.

One idea I thought of that I really like is the ability to *heal at the cost of memories*. More significant memories would be more powerful: to heal a mortal wound, you might have to forget how you met your closest friend. Also, if anyone reminds you of the memories you gave up, your wounds reappear.

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.

It's genetic

Some people are born with it and others aren't. A problem with this is that magicless characters usually end up getting dwarfed by the magic-wielding hero and villain. Even Mistborn does this; almost all of the heroes are rare Allomancers, and it's the three with the most powers who drive the plot. (Two of them are POV, but I think that's *because* the magic system makes it inevitable that they'll dominate the story, and not vice versa.) Later on in the story, the writer even contrives a way to turns the most important magicless character into a Mistborn because I guess it was too hard to keep a magicless character relevant in that story.

One way to avoid this problem would be to have being magical not be a strictly good thing. Obviously, if being magical just gives you the *option* to use magic, then it will always be a strict positive (outside of rare "kill yourself to avoid capture and torture" type of situations). But if there are some consequences to just *being* magical even without using your magic, that can get really interesting, as well as give non-magical characters a way to still be useful.


This is fine in theory, but you have to answer what "studying" to become a mage involves. Harry Potter, again, is the perfect example of failure in this area: a book *about* students at a magic academy that doesn't even try to answer this question. I've never seen this one done well, and never tried it myself either. I'd like to at some point but I just don't have any ideas.

Endowment from supernatural beings

This is a lot like the "it's genetic" answer but without the problem, since you don't have to cheat to give it to people. It also gives the opportunity to explore what you have to do to get one of the gods to make you magical. Do characters have to worry about losing favor? Is it possible to trick them into giving you power you can use against them?

One thing I like about this answer is that it gives you the possibility to create people and factions with goals that don't otherwise fit the nature of human motivation, because they have to do things to stay in favor with their deities.

An experience

Actually, Mistborn uses this one too: even if you're born an Allomancer, you have to "snap" - which involves a near-death experience - to unlock your powers.

This seems like the most useful and versatile of the solutions here. It lets you limit magic, not just to a random subset of people like the genetic answer does or to people with specific ancestry, but to people with a certain common thread. For example, maybe the only people who can use magic are those who have killed someone. Lends itself easily to evil being more powerful than good, and by placing so much pressure on good people to do something normally evil, it could present a juicy opportunity to force them to think about exactly what they consider a justification for killing, and how this incentive could encourage them to sacrifice their innocence.

That's just one example of what you can do with this. It's a broad solution with a huge design space. Not only that, but this option allows you to give magic to whoever you want throughout the story without needing to send them to magic school for years or come up with an explanation of how you can go from being born without magic to having magic.


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