Tag Archives: magic systems

Fantasy World-Building: Magic Systems

One task a fantasy writer faces during the process of world-building for his world is developing a coherent magic system. I use ‘coherent’ with a grain of salt, for what is magic but something that doesn’t exist in our own world that does not follow the normal rules of logic and science. Still, most fantasy writers today would argue that a good fantasy magic system is one that follows its  own inherent and consistent set of rules, much like science does. In a way, a fantasy writer’s magic system is his or her own “parallel science.” The purpose of any magic, be it a spell or potion or something altogether different, is to accomplish some end more quickly and efficiently than normal means allow. In that regard, it is similar in function to technology. Indeed, I believe it was Arthur C. Clarke who said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Why is this so? What is the connection between the two? Basically, both provide either a shortcut for a mundane effect or, even more intriguing, the only possible means for something more spectacular. You wish to dig a hole? Technology gives you a shovel and then later a shovel truck (if that’s what it’s called—can’t seem to recall a more technical name); magic gives you a snap of the fingers and the deed is done. Magic also allows other feats, some of which might be deemed impossible—at least, as far as our current level of technology allows. Teleportation, demonic summoning, fireball … all these are outside the normal scope of the mundane. Actually, a fireball could be managed with technology, and teleportation is, I think, currently being studied and developed, but demonic summoning, at least, is not on the radar anytime soon (we’d need proof of demons first).


Basically, current thinking is that the best magic systems are those that adhere to and follow rules. That way, they don’t provide an “easy fix” if the writer happens to write himself into a corner. If the magic system is clearly delineated, he can’t just summon up some random spell to get his character out of a fix. The magic system will not allow that if it has rules and, most importantly, limitations. That said, I’m not sure I agree. Some days I do. But some days I feel very contrarian: who are we to say that some enterprising author cannot develop a magic system that defies easy encapsulation? Perhaps, it embodies pure randomness or is the “system without a system” or something else equally provocative and mysterious. I leave to some enterprising writer to buck the trend and do so.

Thoughts on World-Building

A critical component of modern fantasy writing is the process of world-building. You have a story to tell. Where will it be set? What are the unique characteristics of this world that separate it from Earth or any other? What kind of creatures and people live there? What is the culture of each of these? And a host of other questions must be addressed.

I’ve been involved with world-building for a good portion of my life, though for many years, my world-building was limited to a pen and pencil RPG environment. The needs of RPG world-building are somewhat similar to the needs of literature world-building, but I think the RPG environment requires more extensive work. After all, in an RPG game, the players decide where to go, not the gamemaster—no, the GM must be prepared for any eventuality. In writing, however, the author decides on everything. If the main characters of the novel are not heading into the arctic region of the world, there is no need to develop that region. I think this is a lesson I was a little slow in learning. For a while, I was spending one day out of the week on world-building while I wrote my next novel. The problem was: I was generating more material than I needed. I had several evil races and creatures in the area of Drisdak, but as it turns out, I will have difficulty working in just one. I think a more focused approach is called for.

What are the essentials? Well, I think geography is critical. I do have maps of my world (but I don’t have access to a scanner, so I can’t include them in my books yet). In any event, the maps I do have keep me from placing Drisdak north and south of Ansellian at the same time. That will prevent any number of embarrassing slip-ups like that. Additionally, you need to have some thoughts and ideas in place for the cultures of each of the main characters. Details of their religious orders, and what have you. This helps in developing the characters, their conflicts, and their beliefs. However, the main characters will require work beyond that. You shouldn’t limit their development simply to the confines of their culture. Just begin there. Start with culture, move on to religion, and then, ask what makes them unique and go from there. In my own world of Athron, the majority of the characters come from the same feudalistic society based largely on medieval Europe of Earth. There are exceptions, but that’s where I began.

Another critical component of world-building is the magic system. How detailed do you want this to be? Will it be as simple as a single magical talent like in Piers Anthony’s Xanth, or as complex as Brandon Sanderson’s Allomancy in Mistborn? In my world, magic entails an involved study with many different subfields. I began with the standard four elements that appear in a great deal of other literature—earth, wind, sea, and fire—and went on from there. I also have alchemy, and the study of runes as separate, but related disciplines. So, for example, a wizard might be skilled in flamecraft which gives him access to fire spells, but he also might know fire-based alchemy, and fire-based runes. A lot of this is actually crossover from my RPG development and it was intended that way.

So, to sum up, these are the essential elements of basic world-building for a fantasy world: geography, cultures and religions of the main characters, idiosyncrasies of the main characters, and last, but not least, the magic system. Start there and you are on your way.

And remember: you don’t want to befuddle the reader with too many details (I’ve seen that happen in other’s work, and it is something I’d personally like to avoid).