Saturday, January 26, 2013

Creating a Magic System: Randomness, Sourcing, and Range - syndicated from @thefourpartland

The following is syndicated from The Four Part Land and is posted here with permission.

Over the course of the series, I've looked at how Strength and Prevalence affect a magic system and a setting, how Style and Powers shape and define that magic system, and finally how Magical Interaction and Items and Artefacts impact the setting and system. Today is the last of the posts in this part of the series, and I'll be looking at a few bits and pieces that have cropped up during the course of writing. I won't be marking them as choices, because I don't think they're on the same level, but I do think they are rather important all the same.

Randomness – Is magic in the setting random? If so, how much? Randomness can be outstanding fun as an author, because it allows your mage to try killing the villain with a massive spell, only to have him turn in a small cuddly penguin instead. But it can also be a crutch, because it allows the writer to conjure wildly improbable effects to rescue the protagonists from trouble, rather than intelligently writing the scene.

The other way in which random magic can be used is in a grim manner, wherein the casting character is begging and pleading for things to work, but knows that they will not, that most of the time, the magic that he is calling upon will either do nothing or actively harm him in some way.

It is important to note the distinction between random spellcasting and random spell effects. Random spell effects are usually used in a humorous manner, although this isn't always true. Random spellcasting often endangers the life of the character or those around him, and is generally the method of choice for grimmer outlooks on magic.

Sourcing – Where does the magic come from? I've spoken about this a little before, but it needs going into in further detail. Is the power a gift from the gods, dependant on that god still being ascendant, and upon that god's whim? Is it from blood sacrifice, where only the death of a living creature will call the forces to the caster? Is it from infernal sources, a dark pact with a demon?

Each of these affects the way the magic is portrayed, and also the reliability of that magic. In general, sources that come from nature (the character, the elements, even blood sacrifice) tend to be stable in usage. Their strength and powers are repeatable. Whereas demonic or religious power often depends on the whim of a malevolent outside force, one who would be all too happy to see the character fail.

This often ties into randomness, for certain sources are more likely to be random than others. Likewise, it impacts how the character is portrayed. If the power is within him, it is entirely and exclusively his own. If the power is external, he is a conduit for a source greater than himself. If it is demonic or blood related, the character is usually, but not always, evil in nature. Or at least straddling that line. On the other hand, elemental and natural powers imply a close bond to the land, to the outdoors, and so on.

Range – How far can the magic reach? At first this sounds like a bit of an odd statement, but it's a rather important one. If a magician can cast a spell hundreds or thousands of miles (say, through a looking glass), then the writer has created a character who has godlike powers to a greater or lesser degree. He can look in upon characters and curse them, slay them, or bless them as might be his wont for the day. This generally means that there has to be a way to avoid the omniscient gaze, and often much of the story revolves around hiding from sight.

The other aspect that comes into play frequently is teleporting. If it is that easy for a character to cover great distances, then it is disruptive to the world as a whole, because there is very little information lag, and there is no great need to journey through wilderness. It is an even faster method of transportation than aeroplane, and think of how international flight has changed the modern world. It's certainly something to consider when designing a magic system and a setting.

That wraps up my advice on Creating a Magic System. The next two posts will be me exploring the choices raised herein as I design a new magic system as an example.


Bringing life to a new captivating world of literature, James Tallett is the innovative author behind the fantasy series, The Four Part Land. The first installment of this provocative new series, Tarranau, was published by Deepwood Publishing in July 2011.

Delving into the trenches of a perplexing world far beyond our imaginations, James also created the Splintered Lands anthology project. The fantasy realm of the Splintered Lands takes readers on a mythical adventure and introduces readers to an assortment of colorful and endearing characters. Bringing together four outstanding writers, James Tallett led the birth of a dynamic literature collaboration for the Splintered Lands project.

James Tallett, an avid global traveler, infuses his passion for hiking and cultural exploration within his writing. He whimsically incorporates his most beloved travel destinations into his vivid storytelling.

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