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How to create a fantasy magic system

Updated: Feb 24, 2023

As a world builder or RPG player, you hold a tremendous amount of power. You have the ability to create entire worlds, craft intricate systems of magic, and design characters that capture the imagination of those who experience them. But with that power comes great responsibility. To make a fantasy world that is interesting and believable, you need to plan it out carefully and know a lot about what makes a story or game interesting.


That's why we're here to challenge you to create a fantasy magic system that truly stands out. Too often, fantasy stories and games rely on lazy cliches or vague hand-waving when it comes to magic. But with a little bit of planning and structure, you can create a system that is both internally consistent and fascinating to your audience.



Introduction: Setting the Stage for Your Fantasy Magic System


Whether you're creating a soft magic system with few rules that can't be amended or a hard magic system that operates more like an arcane science, the magic users in your fantasy novel or world are wielding magical powers that have to have a logic and coherence of their own. Fantasy writers who create their own magic system without giving it an internal logic risk committing the most heinous of all writing sins: confusing the audience.


In this article, we'll guide you through the process of creating a fantasy magic system that will keep your readers or players engaged and invested in your fictional world. From defining the rules and limitations of magic, to exploring the sources and types of magic that exist, we'll provide you with the tools and knowledge you need to create a system that feels both authentic and unique.

But this isn't a task for the faint of heart. It requires careful consideration, attention to detail, and a willingness to challenge yourself and push the boundaries of what you thought was possible. But we believe that with the right mindset and approach, you have the ability to create a world that will captivate and inspire others.

So, are you ready to take on the challenge? Let's get started.


Defining the Rules of Magic: Establishing the Limits and Boundaries

So , let's dive deeper into the importance of defining the rules and limitations of magic in your fantasy world. Without clearly established rules, magic can become a crutch for lazy storytelling or an easy way out of difficult situations. It can also undermine the sense of tension and conflict that makes a story truly engaging.

By establishing clear limitations on what magic can and cannot do, you create a sense of realism and believability in your world. This doesn't mean you have to limit your imagination or creativity, but rather to establish the boundaries within which your magic operates.


A great example of a writer explaining the limitations of magic and weaving it into the lore of the world is of course J.R.R. Tolkien, who explains in the Lord of the Rings that in the Third Age, magic is far less prevalent than in previous eras. Actual spell casting is mainly done by characters such as Gandalf of Rhaderghast who are Maiar, or the equivalent of angels in human form. It is intimated that fallen humans like the Mouth of Sauron have spell casting powers, but this is as a result of the perversion of the song of Eru (meddling with and corrupting the universe), than actually being created with innate magical ability. Similarly, terrifying forces of evil like the Nazgul aren't so much spell casters who have learned magic through study, rather than fallen beings who have been ensnared in Sauron's magic via the nine rings. Galadriel, similarly, has almost demigod like powers by the end of the Lord of the Rings, perhaps because of her connection to the ring Nenya.


One way to approach the different effects magic can have and its limitations is by creating a list of rules or guidelines that govern how magic works. These rules can be as specific or as general as you'd like, but they should be consistent and adhered to throughout your story or game. For example, you might decide that in your world, magic requires a specific incantation or gesture in order to be activated, or that certain types of magic can only be used in certain locations or under specific conditions.


Another important aspect of defining the rules of magic is to consider the consequences of using magic. In many fantasy stories, the use of magic comes with a cost, such as physical or emotional exhaustion, or a loss of control over one's powers. By establishing these consequences early on, you create a sense of tension and urgency that can drive the plot forward.








Sources of Magic: Where Does Magic Come From in Your World?


Once you have established the rules and limitations of your magic system, the next step is to consider the sources of magic in your world. Where does magic come from? Is it a force of nature that can be harnessed, or is it something that can only be accessed by certain individuals or groups?


This is an important consideration because it can help to define the power dynamics in your world. If magic is something that can only be accessed by a select few, then those individuals may hold a great deal of power and influence in your story or game. On the other hand, if magic is widely available, then it may be a more common and everyday part of life in your world.


In addition to the sources of magic, you should also consider the different types of magic that exist in your world. Are there different schools of magic, each with their own specialties and strengths? Are there elemental or nature-based magics, or is magic more focused on manipulating energy or matter?


Again, the key here is to establish consistency and believability in your magic system. By considering the sources and types of magic in your world, you create a sense of depth and complexity that can enrich your story or game.


It's also worth considering the cultural and societal attitudes towards magic in your world. Is it widely accepted and celebrated, or is it viewed with suspicion and fear? How do different groups and factions use and interact with magic? These are important questions to consider, as they can help to create conflict and tension within your world. A good magic system should exist within a wider social context. Is magic even known about at all and if it is, who knows about it? In our world, the things that a visitor from the 17th Century might assume are 'magic' (vaccines, AI etc), are common knowledge to most people but how many people understand how they work? How many, of those people understand how to use them? How many people understand how to create them?


How is magic learned?


Another important aspect of creating a fantasy magic system is to consider how magic is learned and practiced in your world. Are there specific schools or institutions that teach magic, or is it something that is passed down through family lines or through secret societies?

This is an important consideration because it can help to define the culture and traditions of your world. If magic is taught in formal institutions, for example, then there may be a hierarchy of students and teachers, as well as a system of exams and certifications. If magic is learned through secret societies, then there may be a sense of mystery and exclusivity around the practice.

It's also worth considering the time and effort required to master magic in your world. Is it something that can be learned quickly and easily, or does it take years of study and practice? Are there certain individuals who are more naturally gifted at magic than others, or is it something that anyone can learn with enough dedication and hard work?

By establishing the learning and practice of magic in your world, you create a sense of depth and complexity that can help to immerse your readers or players in your world. It can also provide opportunities for character development, as characters may struggle to master their powers or face challenges and obstacles in their training.

Overall, the key to creating a compelling magic system is to consider all the various elements that make up your world, from the rules and limitations of magic, to the sources and types of magic, to the culture and traditions surrounding its practice. With careful planning and consideration, you can create a magic system that feels both authentic and engaging.


How do science and magic meet?

Another important aspect to consider when creating a magic system for your fantasy world is how magic interacts with technology and science. Star Wars is a classic example of how science fiction and fantasy interact, the Force is a form of magic in effect that defies a physical explanation (despite George Lucas's best efforts with medichlorians), but it is entirely compatible with science fiction. In the Marvel Universe, the powers of Doctor Strange are compatible with the wider super hero franchise because of the sheer audacity of Marvel. After eighty years of throwing together billionaires in power suits, gods, heroes and wizards, Marvel have earned the right to smash any genre together and have us all nod along. In Avengers Infinity War, Doctor Strange was no more powerful in a fire fight with Thanos than Tony Stark, but his ability to magically manipulate the Time Stone ensured that he learned exactly what the Avengers had to do, but couldn't tell them; a perfect use of a character's ability to support the actual story telling.


Deciding on how magic interacts with technology in your world can have a significant impact on the plot and themes of your story or game. For example, if magic and technology are in conflict, you may explore themes of progress versus tradition or the unintended consequences of technological advancements. On the other hand if magic and technology are integrated, you may explore themes of innovation and collaboration.


In a high fantasy setting, there might be no need for much actual technology. If special powers are widespread among the general populace and magic serves the purpose of making everyday life function then it would take a lot of explanation for non magical technologies to have emerged. A fantasy story's magic system is a bit like the engine of the world you are creating, a simple idea about magic (everyone has it, virtually no one has it) can have profound ramifications on how your world and story telling develop. Planning it now will avoid plot holes or undermining the story's core theme. If in about 1750, everyone in Britain had acquired magical powers, would an industrial revolution have happened?


It's hard to see why it would have. The point of the industrial revolution was to replace the muscle power of human or animal labour with steam power, but if we could levitate objects or summon fire from the air without the need to burn coal, why would we have invented coal mines or steam trains? Technologies emerge to solve problems that humans can't solve on their own (the calculator, the duvet, the fridge), but if we have innate powers within us then the only technologies we need are the devices required to channel and adapt it. This already sounds like a really dull premise and this is why worlds were magic is limited in some way are often more compelling. To make a magic system work and support the story's message (one of the most important things), this unique magic system shouldn't be allowed to annihilate all other forms of human or non human activity. Specific spells shouldn't come in front of the creation of social structures and should always have interesting limitations.





What does magic cost?

Another important aspect to consider when creating a magic system for your world is the cost of magic. In many fantasy stories and games, magic comes at a cost, whether it's the physical toll it takes on the user or the price they must pay to access it.


The cost of magic can be both a plot device and a source of conflict, adding depth and tension to your story or game. Characters who rely heavily on magic may struggle with its negative effects, and may be forced to make difficult choices in order to continue using it. Additionally, characters who are unable to access magic or who are unwilling to pay its cost may be at a disadvantage in a world where magic is prevalent.


When considering the cost of magic in your world, it's important to be consistent and avoid inconsistencies or plot holes. The cost of magic should also make sense in the context of your world and should not feel arbitrary or contrived.


By considering the cost of magic in your world, you can add depth and nuance to your characters and your world, while also creating opportunities for conflict and tension. It can also provide a sense of realism to your world, making it feel more immersive and believable.


The source of magic is another important aspect to consider when creating a magic system for your world. There are many different sources of magic that can be used in a fantasy story or game, such as elemental magic, divine magic, or arcane magic.


The source of magic in your world can help to define the nature and limits of magic, as well as the lore and mythology surrounding it. For example, if magic is derived from nature, then it may be closely tied to the natural world and have limitations based on the environment. If magic is derived from the gods, then it may be highly dependent on faith and belief, and may come with a set of religious or ethical guidelines.


It's also worth considering how the source of magic affects different characters and factions in your world. For example, if one faction has exclusive access to a particular source of magic, they may hold significant power and influence over the other factions. This can create interesting power dynamics and opportunities for conflict and intrigue.


By considering the source of magic in your world, you can add depth and complexity to your magic system, as well as create opportunities for world-building and character development. It can also help to make your world feel more unique and distinctive, setting it apart from other fantasy stories and games.


The Limitations of Magic

The rules and limitations of magic are also essential to creating a compelling magic system in your world. Defining the rules of magic can help to prevent inconsistencies and plot holes, as well as make your world feel more immersive and believable.


The rules of magic may include the types of magic that exist, how magic is accessed, the cost of using magic, the limitations of magic, and the consequences of misusing or abusing magic. These rules can vary greatly depending on the source of magic, the culture and history of your world, and the story or game you are creating.


It's important to be consistent with the rules of magic in your world and to avoid breaking these rules without a compelling reason. Doing so can break the immersion of your readers or players and leave them feeling unsatisfied with your story or game.


By defining the rules and limitations of magic in your world, you can create a more cohesive and immersive experience for your audience, as well as create opportunities for conflict and tension within your story or game.


Magic's social context

When creating a magic system for your world, it's important to consider the cultural and historical context in which it exists. Magic can be a significant part of a culture's identity and may be intertwined with their traditions, beliefs, and values.


For example, a culture that reveres nature may have a magic system that is heavily based on elemental magic or that requires a deep connection with the natural world. A culture that values technology and progress may have a magic system that is integrated with their scientific advancements.


The history of your world can also play a significant role in shaping the magic system. A world that has a long history of magical wars or conflicts may have strict regulations on the use of magic, or may have developed ways to counter or nullify it. Alternatively, a world that has a history of peaceful coexistence between magical and non-magical beings may have a more relaxed attitude towards magic.


By considering the cultural and historical context of your world, you can create a more nuanced and realistic magic system that feels grounded in your world's lore and mythology. This can also create opportunities for character development and world-building, as characters may have different attitudes towards magic based on their cultural or historical background.


Finally, when creating a magic system for your world, it's important to consider how magic interacts with the other elements of your story or game. Magic can be a powerful tool for storytelling, but it should not overpower the other aspects of your world.


For example, if your story or game has a strong emphasis on character development, then magic should be used to enhance and support this aspect, rather than overshadow it. If your story or game has a strong focus on action and combat, then magic can be used to create unique and dynamic battle scenes, but it should not dominate the action at the expense of the other elements.


Additionally, the use of magic should be balanced with the non-magical elements of your world. Non-magical characters and abilities should still be relevant and useful in your story or game, even in a world where magic exists. This can help to create a sense of balance and fairness, as well as provide opportunities for character development and world-building.





Conclusion


In conclusion, creating a compelling magic system for your world is a challenging but rewarding process that can enhance the immersion and believability of your story or game. By considering the source, structure, rules, cultural and historical context, and integration with other elements of your world, you can create a unique and engaging magic system that enhances the overall experience for your audience.


If you're looking for inspiration or guidance in creating a magic system, there are many resources available, including books, online tutorials, and community forums. And, if you're interested in learning more about the Arcverse's system of magic, you can download the core Arclands books and discover the intricacies of Spellforging via the pop-up when you visit the home page.


Remember, creating a magic system for your world is an opportunity to explore and showcase your creativity and imagination. With careful planning and attention to detail, you can create a magic system that is truly magical and captivating for your audience.

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