How to Design Magic Systems

Souldancer of FIre
When two magic systems love each other, sometimes they hug.
A speculative element is what sets the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror apart from literary fiction. There's no element more speculative than magic, and it's become a common term of art to speak of an SFF universe's "magic system". By reader request, here is my philosophy of magic in genre fiction--with advice on how to handle magic in your secondary world.

Changing depictions of magic in SFF
Historically, there have been two general approaches to depicting magic in speculative fiction.

  1. The old-school way: Magic is mysterious, ineffable, and unpredictable.
  2. The new-school way: Magic works like a technology that we can systematize.
The first way can be seen in works as late as Tolkien and going back to the Matter of Britain and before. Tales like these make little if any effort to explain where magic comes from--other than perhaps hinting at divine (sacramentality; not magic) or infernal origins. Nor do they define any explicit limits on what magic can and can't do.

Wizards in these stories are almost never central protagonists. Instead they pop into the narrative at key times to aid and advise the main protagonist before exiting the stage for lengthy intervals. Think of Gandalf and Merlin, and you'll get the idea.

In terms of story mechanics, the reason why wizards like Gandalf and Merlin don't protag much  is due to the needs of dramatic tension. A well-made story should elicit suspense in the reader over how conflicts will be resolved. Being on the edge of your seat wondering how the hero will get out of this one is the main ingredient for good pacing.

The difficulty with old-school wizards in lead roles is that there's no inherent reason why they can't just magic themselves around obstacles. Sure, you can set limits on a wizard's magic to set up situations he can't just cast his way out of, but you've got to establish those limitations early on to avoid cheating the reader.

And if you do set limits on what magic can accomplish, guess what? You just systematized it a little.

That's why Tolkien's wizards are kind of old and new-school hybrids. Gandalf is a superhuman spirit, but he's explicitly forbidden from drawing upon his angelic power. Instead he's got to work with the skills available to his human form. That's a pretty big limitation!

New-school, aka Sandersonian magic
No, Brandon Sanderson didn't invent contemporary SFF magic. But he is the most prominent advocate for new-school, systematized magic, so I'm sticking with the "Sandersonian" description.

A better candidate for the father of new-school magic is the venerable Jack Vance (though yes, others did it before him, but again, he's more popular). 

If you've ever played D&D, you know how Vanceian magic systems work. Magic spells are 5th dimensional formulae of such complexity that a human mind can only hold a limited number of spells per day, and when the knowledge is actualized, i.e. a spell is cast, it's totally purged from the caster's mind. If a Vanceian wizard wants to cast that spell again, he has to memorize it all over again.

The upshot of this system is that it allowed Vance to use his transient amnesiac wizards as protagonists while maintaining dramatic tension. A Vanceian wizard can still use magic to escape from sticky situations--but not if he's used all of his daily spells or memorized the wrong ones.

Categories of Magic
I like to put the various types of magic systems into a few broad categories.

Actual Magic: the original meaning of the term "magic", using preternatural powers to achieve natural ends. In its archetypal form, magic means asking demons to do stuff for you with their superhuman powers. Old-school authors usually meant this when they wrote about magic.

Technology: this can be anything from Clarke's sufficiently advanced tech to methods of turning invisible or making things go boom that are otherwise indistinguishable from actual magic. The key difference is that the users aren't petitioning demons but manipulating "forces".

Here;'s the tech vs. magic litmus test: if your characters are channeling and shaping created or emergent energies, they're dealing with an esoteric technology; not real magic.

The vast majority of "magic systems" these days are actually cosmic force-driven technologies. The Force and Sanderson's allomancy are examples of technology-style magic systems.

Superpowers: this category is rather nebulous and tends to overlap with technology-based magic systems. I distinguish between the two as follows: technological magic is a skill that can be learned. Superpowers are abilities beyond the natural powers proper to humans which are intrinsic to a character.

Super strength, invulnerability, psychic mind-powers, super intelligence, unaided flight, eye lasers, etc.--all are commonly recognized as superpowers. But like I said, sometimes this category overlaps with technological magic systems, such as Star Wars characters who are born with Force-sensitivity (an innate superpower) that lets them learn Jedi skills (a technology).

Designing your own magic system
To design an original magic system for your book, ask yourself these questions:
  • How do I want the presence of magic to affect my story's mood and tone?
  • Will there be magic user-protagonists?
  • Is my cosmology purely material, or are there beings that transcend the natural?
  • In my world, is magic the result of a pact with preternatural entities, a skill which harnesses natural forces that anyone can learn, or innate to certain characters?
The answers to these questions, in light of the info we already covered above, should give you a basic starting point for setting up your own magic system--if you want a system at all.

It's also perfectly fine to have multiple magic systems. The Soul Cycle series features all three categories of magic, because I'm greedy that way.

Priests and Teth disciples deal with gods and demons.

Factors learn how to draw on cosmic prana energy to fashion Workings.

Nexists are born with the power to directly affect the world by will alone.

And because clearly delineating these systems would be too simple, there's considerable overlap between all of them.

Here's the takeaway: in magic as in everything else, make it fun for the reader. Dramatic tension is a key ingredient of fun, so if you're going to put magic users in lead roles, make sure to give them obstacles they can't just magic their way out of. And if you're going to limit their magic, make sure you clearly lay out what magic can and can't do as early as possible.

I wouldn't ask you to do anything I'm not willing to do myself. See these principles in action in my award-winning Soul Cycle.

And the Soul Cycle tie-in short story "Elegy for the Locust", available in the new best selling anthology Forbidden Thoughts!


  1. Of course, there are going to be those readers who like to try to figure out what the limits, what the system is, whether it is something like "Sure, Gandalf can actually do quite a lot more, but has moral/ethical reasons that he does not, and let's explore the moral/ethical framework and how it relates to power in Lord of the Rings" or "Um, Thera's a Souldancer, but so are the other nine that got carved up to put her soul together. So how is Aistlin different in nature from Vaughn Mordecai? And what were all the nine souldancers linked to, anyway? Is there a White Well souldancer?" Things like that.

    I am one of those readers, and I actually do not want answers to those questions outside the stories. I want to take the stories and figure out what I can.

    My current guess as to what the nine souls that went into Thera's were linked to: White Well, Fire, Air, Middle, Water, Earth, Void, Kairos, and Heaven/Hell (the soultrap, domains of the gods and demons). Of those, we have met Fire, Air, Water, Earth, Void, and Kairos.

    1. Well said, D.J.! You and I are cut from the same cloth :)

      Nice deductions, too. More than one reader, including someone very intimately connected to the material, didn't realize that each "little 's'" souldancer was fused with a different Stratum/realm.

      Since I respect your wishes, I'll refrain from confirming or refuting your speculation ;)

  2. Heinlein tried to bridge the gap between magic and technology in Glory Road. The magic/tech had rules, but they weren't delineated for the reader (beyond the need for a beautiful naked blonde to be involved) much. It was definitely tech though, a very high order of mathematics.

    1. Yeah, higher math is how my Workings...work.

      Nothing new under the sun!

  3. Very good observations, with your own personal touch. (And I am absolutely unsurprised you love mashing them together as much as you love bashing genres.)

    A large component of how an author should handle magic is what the author personally finds interesting or cool.

    Orson Scott Card argued heavily for magic systems based on rules, because he felt they were more interesting. Other writers claim that detailing your magic makes it less mysterious and Awesome.

    How to do magic 'right' is extremely subjective, just pick what you want to do, write it well, and then try to get in front of an audience who wants the same cool thing you wrote.

    Why yes, I did just essentially steal Larry Correia's two step writers advice, and mash it into being about magic systems.

    I'm now going to steal another real author's advice, that I alluded to: Like Jeff Duntemann says (though I'm paraphrasing badly) The first member of an author's audience, is the author.

    This may sound like useless advice, so I'll flesh it out a little. While I was in high school I sat through an hour long argument about dragons. One of my friends was absolutely adamant there was no such thing as brown dragons, and that any author that included brown dragons in their dragon stories was doing dragons wrong. The other friend was a big Pern fan, and argued for brown dragons. My unvoiced conclusion was that dragons can be whatever color you want.

    If you want a world without brown dragons, then write that, if you want a world with brown dragons, then go with that. Once you have chosen what you like then write around that. Magic is one of those areas that people are very passionate about, but I personally wouldn't worry about the 'right' or 'wrong' way to do it, and focus more on the tale you want to tell, and the way you want to tell it. Of course being aware of the various ways it's been done in the past may very well help your research, and final product, think of it as a guide. The author in the end should be the final judge of how he is going to write (and the editor, beta readers, etc, but I digress.)

    1. "And I am absolutely unsurprised you love mashing them together as much as you love bashing genres."

      I have a problem! :D

  4. I'm developing a fantasy world with another author and we're currently writing the story bible. So far the intention is for the magic to be subtle. We've nailed the source of power, but we're still brainstorming how this power can be harnessed and what rules should apply. I still like my magic to be mysterious and have an arc on it's own.

    1. Sounds like you're building on a firm foundation. Keep at it!

  5. Sorry, wanted to add, once you start digging deep into the mechanics of a magic system, it gets really interesting. No power is without limits and placing limitations on how you use it, even on the magic itself, makes for splendid tension.

  6. One interesting aspect of magic to me is always the Source. Where does it come from, and what is its purpose?

    When someone includes different styles of magic, that question can be pulled in multiple directions, and lead to a lot of intriguing places.

    What I'm not found of is the "it's just science, okay?" explanation some authors use. Mostly because it feels like an excuse to not delve deeper into it. I mean, magic can totally be science-based, but I don't want the implications of the origin to be waved away just by that.

    Magic shouldn't just be a prop or checkmarked box for Fantasy stories, it should be . . . uh, Magic. Treating it only like a tool sucks out a lot of the mystery.

    I've always been more interested in the "whys" than the "hows" I suppose.

    1. "I've always been more interested in the "whys" than the "hows" I suppose."

      That alone makes you a truly exceptional individual these days ;)

  7. Very nicely done. The first argument I ever had with a girl I cared about (the little girl down the street, who had a typewriter and knew what to do with it) dealt with whether magic was strange, moody, and completely dependent on the quirks of peculiar minds, or whether magic could be systematized and taught like computer science. (Guess who was arguing which side.) There's probably some room in the middle, which I can appreciate now that I'm not 14 anymore. (I haven't been 14 for 50 years...)

    I think you ought to write more about this, using the details of your cosmology as examples. I don't think this necessarily implies spoilers.

    1. This post definitely isn't my last word on magic as it pertains to world building. If folks want a more in-depth look into the Soul Cycle's Mysteries/Workings, nexism, and priestcraft, I'm happy to oblige.

      Out of curiosity, did that girl go on to become a published author? If so, I'll have to look up her books.

    2. Alas. I wish she had. But...


  8. Another thought, and rather belated, but...you say that magic is asking/coercing preternatural entities to intervene with creation while manipulating forces (by whatever effect) is technology.

    So from the supernatural entity's point of view, would what a mortal considers magic be considered technology? That is one of the nephilim or a cambion would essentially be using technology while a sorcerer that bargains daemons, a magician that coerces elementals, and a priest that asks of angels perform magic to do the same ends?

    1. Intriguing question. The answer is no. The preternatural being (not "supernatural" like only God is, for the following reason) performing a service for a human sorcerer is exercising its natural powers; not manipulating external forces.

    2. So it is neither performing magic, nor manipulating external forces, but instead using an innate power that is natural to it.

      And this sort of thing is what having a mathematical education will bring one to: look at general statements and try to find discontinuities and see what happens. It has certainly molded my thought processes--I wonder if it could be classified as damage, except that I think we are supposed to use this type of thought (logical, seeing where things lead, looking for incogruities and errors to make better understandings of things) in philosophy and theology as well, yes?

    3. Also, yes, the daemon/elemental/angel is using an ability natural to it. What of the case where it is a hybrid of preternatural and mortal, like the half-angel or half-daemon doing the same thing innately that the regular person uses magic for? Still using an innate ability rather than technology? Magic? Something else?

      Does it raise the point of human vs inhuman as something to explore in the setting?

      It's getting late, and I should think of questions more, maybe write up an essay on them to ask better.

      Still, this is fun!

    4. "...we are supposed to use this type of thought...in philosophy and theology as well, yes?"

      Yes. "theology" = "theo" + "logos": seeking greater understanding of God through logic. It is no less a true science than physics or chemistry; more so, in fact, since unlike natural science, theology can arrive at knowledge of its object with certainty.

      "What of the case where it is a hybrid of preternatural and mortal...?"

      You know how physicists groan at certain instances of technobabble in Star Trek, like tachyons being able to due absolutely anything? There are widely used SFF conceits that theologians find just as suspension of disbelief-straining.

      human-angel/human-demon hybrids are one of those things :) Since both angels and demons are pure spirits, they lack the powers of generation that are natural to biological beings. For a pure spirit to have a hybrid offspring would itself require invoking a higher power. That wouldn't be magic, but a miracle--a suspension of natural law.

      But to answer your question, if the hypothetical hybrid is exercising a power innately, it's not magic or tech anymore than you breathing or thinking is.

    5. What of the nephilim, the giants of the antedeluvian era? How do you interpret the 'sons of God' and the 'daughters of men'? (Yes, I ought to be asleep, but headache is keeping me awake.)

    6. I interpret the nephilim as the offspring of Cain's daughters and Seth's sons.

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  10. Please forgive these late comments, but this post touches on things I have thinking deeply about for some time.

    First, I would argue that 'magic' and 'technology' as used above are not so much opposites as ends of a continuum. What we today call 'science' and 'technology' used to be considered 'natural magic' for example.

    Second, even if we choose to write about 'magic' that is bargaining with preternatural powers; angels, demons, spirits, genii, fey, etc, there would still be rules and limitations. Things the powers won't do, things they don't want to do, things you can't afford to ask them to do. As they say, there is always a price.

    Lastly, theology has not always considered angels to be pure spirit. Before St. Aquinas, it was commonly held that since Angels could change (for what else was the fall of the rebel Angels from Heaven) they must have a material component of their being. However since Angels change much less than Men, and do not die the death, for example, this matter cannot be the matter of everyday common occurrence, but rather some different, subtle matter.

    And of course the idea of Angel/Demon and Human hybrids is rather old in mythology, folklore, and mysticism. Beside the Nephilim, there is of course Merlin.