Even though there’s no rules to magic, there are some things to consider when adding it to a story.
A spell for every occasion: Magic shouldn’t be able to solve every problem the protagonists encounter. If you have a character who can use magic, they shouldn’t have a spell ready that circumvents any obstacle they face. There’s some leeway to this; it’s not expecting too much of a wizard to know how to unlock a door or start a fire, but in a story, if the wizard can easily fly over a river or slay a dragon, the audience will wonder why the obstacle was presented in the first place. If you need the character to be effective, set up their abilities beforehand; if the wizard has access to flying magic and has been shown to use it, it’ll seem less of a cheap method of escape/travel later on (and once you’ve set up how spells normally work, it gives you a chance to show them going wrong later). This doesn’t mean a magic user should always be caught unaware; if a wizard is off to fight a dragon and he has chance to prepare, its not unexpected that he’ll have a fireproof shield, flying spells and some dragon-killing magic. If he didn’t know the dragon was there, however, or didn’t have adequate preparation (a library of spellbooks and time to learn the right spells would be the least I’d ask if the characters have never faced a dragon before), then it’s a cop-out. Having a prepared character also allows for reversals; what if the dragon has freezing or poisonous breath instead of fire? All of a sudden the fight isn’t as one-sided as it first looked.
One-Trick-Ponies: On the other end of the magical versatility spectrum is the one-trick-pony. When you have pyrokinesis, all your problems start to look like marshmallow. One thing I’ve learnt is there’s only so many synonyms for fireballs you can use before it gets silly. If your character only has a limited set of powers (Linked to a classic element, blood of the Thunder God, child of Hyperion, etc.), try to think of more than three ways that power can be used. Any fight involving an earth-magic master that doesn’t have the ground reaching up to trap the opponents feet is missing a trick in my opinion.
Set limits...Although magic is nonsensical and potentially limitless, writing magic without boundaries quickly becomes a problem. There doesn’t have to be a downside to magic, but there should be some reasons why magic users aren’t constantly defying reality and making every other character obsolete. Figure out a power level for your characters that fits your story. Is magic consistent? Is there a limit to how much magic someone can cast in a day/week/lifetime? Is there an inherent cost? Characters don’t need to necessarily know the answers to all these, nor should they be stated to the reader, but if you know the rules and stick to them, it helps keep your story consistent and shows the audience rather than telling.
... And when to break them: Despite all the protagonists valiance and daring do, the evil Lord Wumflkamf is going to succeed! Even with magic they can’t hope to stop him... Unless... No! It is forbidden! It’s too dangerous! The first half of the book was all about how bad an idea that was! And yet... there’s no other option!Every now and then, have a character stray away from the set path. Maybe they cast too much magic in one day. Maybe they call upon the Smirking Demon of Contracts. Maybe they use the antagonists dark magic against them. Whatever they do, make sure you only do it in an emergency, or it cheapens the act. Also, show there’s some cost. If they break the rules and there’s no comeuppance, there’s no reason for the rules to exist in the first place.
Avoid System Theft: Unless you’re writing for a licensed gaming franchise (Which, if you are, congratulations! Published work is published work and I’m not going to rain on your parade), don’t copy a magic system wholesale from another source. Tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder can be used as guidelines when figuring out a magic power level, but treating a character as though they have a stat sheet leads to problems and limitations. Looking at several areas of fantasy writing and folklore, however, can give you more familiarity with concepts to incorporate into your worlds magic system. Magicians owning familiars or changing shape isn’t a new concept, so if you like a particular style of gaming magic (Druids are often depicted as owning animal companions and being able to turn into beasts), look at how else that’s been used (Navajo skin-walkers, French loup-garou, European lycanthropy) so you’re not just taking inspiration from one source.
Be inventive: One advantage of using magic in a story rather than system theft is you can use a spell in a way that was never intended. In one scene from an otherwise awful film, two wizards are arrested and taken to court. Their accuser, who is in perfect health, tells his story; he was robbed while travelling, and once his attackers had stolen his money, they tortured him, cut off various body parts, and finally slit his throat. It turns out the wizards aren’t on trail for his robbery and murder, but for bringing him back from the dead, which is considered black magic and illegal in the kingdom. Coming up with inventive things to do with magic can stop a potential one-trick-pony from getting played out too quickly; even a simple light spell can have interesting uses in a fight, and any spellcaster who uses ice and fire should get to abuse the physics of thermal shock at some point.
Example magic systemGoing back to our example kingdom, a few generations of royalty have subscribed to a form of magic called the Wild Way, while a few of the baronies also practice some vague dark magic. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll call the magic of Voka and Vola the Shadow Way.
Before we detail both these magic systems, we’ll look at some variables to considers; Availability, Reliability, Power, Cost, Speed and Drawbacks.Availability: Who can cast this magic? Is it anyone with the talent, or training, or both? Is the power a jealously guarded secret, or given to anyone who shows an aptitude?
Reliability: Does this magic always do what it’s supposed to? What can go wrong? Is it random and chaotic by its nature, or does it follow strict patterns?Power: What abilities do you get for using this magic? What sort of scale is the effect? Can it create/destroy cities? Make magical islands? Infinite wishes? Or just throw a fireball every now and again?
Cost: When accessing the magic, something has to be given in return. We don’t have to worry about conservation of energy, but magic without cost is problematic from a story perspective. The following are common costs in modern fantasy and folklore;‘Mana’: Common in computer games, mana represents a characters innate magical power. While stories don’t need to count the points, some reasoning behind how much magic a magical person can use stops the story escalating too wildly. High fantasy settings will use similar concepts (Dungeons and Dragons has ‘spell slots’ or ‘psionic power points’, which are similar enough to mana to be mentioned here); low magic settings can link mana in with a person’s physical energy, exhausting the caster and possibly leading to unconsciousness or death.
Blood: The idea of paying blood for magic is probably the most identifiable cost; it’s prevalent in various mythologies and shows an obvious price for the power. How blood is used or misused can explain why magic isn’t for everyone; how do you limit the bleeding? What if the blood price is more than you have? If you can use someone else’s blood for your own magic, how long before the character starts a slippery slope into evil? Are there good and benevolent spirits that still ask for blood? If so, why? If you use blood for magic, remember the following; drawing blood hurts, wounds take time to heal, and losing more than a pint of blood in one go has a knock-on effect to health.Sacrifice: Linking into blood, sacrifice can mean killing someone or something, but can also mean giving up something a spirit might want. It could be an expensive object, an innocuous but plot-valuable mcguffin, or even a task they want you to complete. If the cost is a task, it should be something the spirit can’t do themselves (A spirit of Fire might want his plot-rock retrieved from the bottom of a well, for example). Giving characters additional tasks (known as ‘side-quests) in gaming) might seem like unnecessary complication; if it furthers the story, however, it can be made to work. For example, a ghost might be seeking his murderer and agrees to help the hero in return for the killers identity. As the story progresses, the murderer is revealed... to be the Hero’s best friend! Now the previously off-the-point side-story of the killers identity is very important to the protagonist.
Rigmarole: On the seventh day of the ninth month, lay a goatskin over a standing stone and light a fire at sunset; you’ll have a successful hunting trip tomorrow. If you collect the three pieces of the golden table and throw them into the fountain of destiny, you receive its blessings. A special type of sacrifice, rigmarole makes you sacrifice time through hoop-jumping to gain access to magic. Rigmarole is usually a one-time effect; if it occurs reliably and with a predictable effect, its less magic and more bad science.
Speed: How long does it take to cast a spell? Is it a single word of power? Ten minutes of chanting? A day of ritual and ceremony? A lifetime? Speed dictates a spells efficiency; if throwing a fireball takes an hour, its more use in siege warfare than a personal fight. Increasing casting time might seem boring, but there’s more chance to have something go horribly wrong during a long ritual.Drawbacks: Channelling power shouldn’t be 100% safe; giving magic consequences stops it from being a skeleton key for all problems. Does magic hurt when you use it? Does it leave scars? Is there a corrupting effect to such power; does your body deteriorate faster? Does each spell cost a day of your life? Does it drive you insane? Or does it attract the attention of otherworldly beings that are best avoided? Too many drawbacks and you end up with the question of why anyone would learn magic. No drawbacks and the question of why anyone wouldn’t comes up.
The Wild Way
Availability: The name ‘The Wild Way’ suggests a freely available but potentially dangerous magic. Anyone who knows about it can practice it, but the inherent risk of it stops the average peasant from dabbling in it.Reliability: The Wild Way shouldn’t be entirely consistent. We’ve already suggested that there’s risks involved; risks big enough to stop everyone using it. If it’s a nature-based magic, it could be less about casting spells and more about communicating with nature spirits. This is a big enough cause for unpredictability; nature isn’t friendly, and talking to a spirit might accidentally offend it or cause a retaliation.
Power: Because we’re dealing with spirits, the Wild Way should lack personal scale spells, like attack or defence magic, but have access to larger scale effects. This makes it personally dangerous, communally beneficial. Calling on spirits could make crops grow, rains fall, ensure a successful hunt, protect a village from the floods- but smaller concerns may be too trivial to bother the spirits with. There might be special exceptions (finding a lost child, cure a villager of the plague) but treating the spirits as omnipotent nannies carries risks (anyone who knows folklore will tell you; if a child goes missing, the last thing you should do is inform the spirits about it)Cost: The Wild Way seems like sacrifice would be an acceptable cost. Maybe not in the form of animal or human sacrifice (exceptions may occur), but more burnt offerings. The spirits it panders to are fairly chaotic, so the price may vary between castings. This prevents it from being a consistent repeatable effect; if the sacrifice isn’t enough, the spirit won’t do the job, or might turn on the casters for the insult.
Speed: Due to the powers being larger in scale, it should take longer to conjure the spirits. In fact, it should take a day; in time the week could revolve around special days for each spirit invoked. In emergencies, the rituals could be cut down to an hour or two, but rushing the job is likely to anger the spirits.Drawbacks: Through the fleshing out of the Wild Way, I’ve talked about angering spirits accidentally. While this works as a drawback, we could go further with it as a concept. There are some spirits open to negotiation, while some will always be angered by being summoned. The Wild Way has no way of guessing which spirit will be called; it’s whichever happens to be closest and paying attention at the time. There are ways of lessening the chance of prodding the angry spirits, such as only calling as certain times at certain places. But there’s always an unquantifiable chance of something going horribly wrong, and the spirit taking its anger out on the caster. We know our shamanic magic will convert to a more formal religion, however; the dangers of direct contact are enough to stop people dabbling, but not so great as to be shunned as black magic. As we said before; personal danger, communal benefit.
Each spirit leaves a different scar; adepts in the Wild Way can identify each other by the marks of their previous contacts. If we come up with some common spirits and their signatures;Spirit of the Forest- Ivy shaped scars, green skin, mossy hair. Angry spirits leave nettle stings and turn body hair to thorns. Spirits that kill turn the caster into a tree.
Spirit of the River- Piscine scales, hair loss, cold hands and feet. Angry spirits turn fingers to fins, make skin froglike, or steal voices. Spirits that kill give the caster gills, making them drown in air.Spirit of the Sky- Feathery body hair, Dramatic weight loss. Angry spirits turn hands into talons or induce agoraphobia. Spirits that kill will float the caster away.
Spirit of the Moon- Silver hair, crescent-shaped scars, oversized eyes. Angry spirits can induce lycanthropy or an aversion to sunlight. Spirits that kill make the caster fade away with the new moon.Spirit of the Sun- Golden hair, fire-shaped scars, bronze skin. Angry spirits cause an aversion to moonlight, heat stroke and dehydration. Spirits that kill turn the caster to sand.
Spirit of Fire- Burns, scars and hair loss. Angry spirits cause severe burns, and make animals perceive the caster as an unnatural fire. Spirits that kill immolate the caster.
Spirit of the Storm- Lightning scars, aura of static electricity, shocked hair. Angry spirits cause severe lightning scars, an aversion to metal, and have storms follow the caster around. Spirits that kill send lightning bolts at the caster.
Spirit of Fertility- Youthful complexion, fecundity, thick/full body hair. Angry spirits revert the caster back to childhood, or cause an overabundance of hair. Spirits that kill regenerate every cell of the casters body, effectively replacing them with a clone.Spirit of Waste- Rapid ageing (by a number of days per summoning). Angry spirits cause rapid ageing (by a number of years). Spirits that kill cause rapid ageing (by a number of centuries)
The benevolent spirits can still be dangerous (Fire spirits always burn, while Waste spirits only ever age you), so summoning them wouldn’t be done lightly. In time, as the spirits grow in power and the Wild Way was from a collection of rituals to a state religion, the spirits could amalgamate into divine figures. We know that the royal family devote themselves to plants, rain and fire; these could be the major deities.
The Shadow WayAvailability: The Shadow Way should be a bit more exclusive than the Wild Way; as the only practitioners we know of are sisters, it could be hereditary. Voka and Vola could be descendants of an evil magician; perhaps Gramps consorted with the wrong spirits. I like this idea; we know the Shadow Way’s family became powerful and influential enough to be barons, and had to be placated through royal marriages. So the currently nameless Baron (whose daughters were married to Prince Anaven) now has an evil spirit-binder father; and an evil spirit for a mother! Mythology has a lot of mortal/supernatural pairings as explanations of magic, so it’s not too much of a stretch to say Evil Grandpa bound a spirit to a physical form for his wife. It also keeps the magic of the Shadow Way contained to that family’s bloodline; the magic their grandfather used has been lost, or maybe outlawed, so new practitioners would be rare.
Reliability: Unlike the Wild Way (which gains power through external forces), the Shadow Way is more internal; magic is innate through the bloodline. This affects reliability; it’s potentially more uncontrollable and dangerous at first, but can stabilise and focus with practice. If this form of magic can predict the future (as ‘Vola the Ash-Seer’ suggests), the effects can be subject to interpretation instead of being reliably accurate.Powers: The Shadow Way is very much personal scale; ‘my power, my gain’. More showy spells like fireballs and magic shields might be too much for the setting; a human who could master that sort of magic would have a definite advantage over horsemen and archers. The Shadow Way, therefore, should be subtle, maybe a bit ambiguous in how it works. It could have divination (foretelling the future), enchantment (magically affecting people’s minds), and some blessing/curse spells as well. All are invisible effects, making it magic you take into a casino rather than a battle.
Cost: As a low power magic rather than the big effects of the Wild Way, the Shadow Way’s cost could come from within; physical energy is transferred into magic, and the spell is limited by the strength of the caster. A special cost for the divinations could be the type of ashes used; any old ash isn’t much of a limitation, especially in a low-tech world. Ashes from a cremation, however, would be much rarer; it also gives the ashes a supernatural agent (ghost of the cremated) who’d be capable of foretelling the future. If it’s having an outside agent, however, it’d have to be someone trusted; ashes of an enemy or unwilling victim wouldn’t be believed if they foretold death and destruction. So ashes of a trusted advisor could be the magic substance used, and would be personal to the caster (which stops the cost appearing in ‘magic shops’)Speed: Most spells would be relatively fast; less than a minute for complex enchantments or curses, while some more instinctive effects (such as charming someone or frightening off an opponent) could be cast in seconds. The divination through ashes might take a few minutes; the limitation could come from the cost rather than lots of ritual.
Drawbacks: Other than being tied to the bloodline of a shadow-spirit and having to cremate people you trust to access that power? We could have it really dark magic and have casters losing something vital for its use. Perhaps a corruption of some kind? The more the power is used, the strong the spirit blood gets, but at the cost of your human side. Too much magic and the shadow takes you over; you become a human abomination in the shape of your former self. After a while, the being gives up on looking like a human and goes on a horrific rampage, but that’s a small price for accessing power, right? Besides, you’ll be dead long before that happens.So now our example kingdom has two magic systems; one communally beneficial nature magic, the other selfish and dangerous black magic. In the next part of world building, we’ll look at adding fantastic races and creatures.