A magic system with consistency and depth

Today I am thinking about magic systems, inspired by a link from Dave and a conversation on Twitter with @palfrey.

It occurred to me there are basically two characteristics I really like in a magic system: The first is very well thought out magic systems which feel like they actually make sense and don’t completely disrupt the world they live in when you think through the implications. A good example of an author who does these very well is Brandon Sanderson – he’s got magic down to a science. For the sake of having a good word for this I will call this “Consistency”.

There’s another characteristic which I really like – the feeling that magic is deep and significant and contains powers beyond the ken of mere mortals. The feeling that magic being in the world makes it a fundamentally different and more mysterious place. I’ll refer to this as “Depth”. It is often associated with heavily ritualized magic, though I suppose there’s no intrinsic reason why it needs to be. An example of this being done well is Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel.

These two seem to be fundamentally in tension – the more the magic makes sense, the less depth it seems to add.

One way I’ve seen this tension handled well is systems where magic is mostly fairly well understood and mechanistic but gives you access to higher powers and realms, and the more you draw on those the more mysterious and murky things get. For example, the Deryni books by Katherine Kurtz handle it this way: At the low end, Deryni magic is practically mundane, or at the very least looks like psychic powers. You can chat mentally, you can summon little balls of light, you can read letters without opening it. As the scope of the magic you’re performing increases, the amount of ritual required increases. At the grander scales of ritual you are invoking higher powers, summoning the archangels to watch over you and bless your working, and they… start to take notice of you.

Fundamentally though the two are still in tension here – it’s not that you’ve got the two side by side, it’s that you can trade off between the two of them in-universe.

So I started thinking about how you might go about getting both depth and consistency working together in harmony. Here’s what I came up with.

On the fundamentals of magic and the skills of mages

There is another realm, distinct from the world in which we live. Different cultures and traditions call it different things, and perceive it in differently. We shall call it Faerie.

Faerie is not a land of grass and trees and elves and unicorns frolicking in the sunlight. Those things are there, but Faerie is much more than that.

All our minds are reflected in Faerie, and joined to it. They shape it, and it shapes them. Faerie is a realm where our unconscious thoughts and imagination take form.

But it does not stop there. The ideas which are born in our mind linger long after we have stopped thinking them, whether through inattention or death. Some of them fade away, but some find new homes in others’ minds, or join with ideas spawned in other minds and take on a life of their own.

Many of these things which live in Faerie are wonderful. Many are terrible. Some are both.

Faerie is also extremely mutable. As it is spawned from our minds, so may it be shaped by them. When we perceive a segment of Faerie we may also shape it to our desires.

The skills required to perform magic are threefold.

The first skill is that of perception. The better you understand the world around you, the easier it is to spell cast in there. This includes both skills of observation with your mundane senses and additional ways of feeling the impression the world leaves on your mind and what it tells about you. An experienced mage can see in the dark, through walls and inside closed boxes. They can hear a pin drop and feel the heat of a candle from across the room.

The second skill is that of shaping. You must find or create a region of Faerie that is as alike to where you wish to cast the spell as possible, and differs only in the manner you wish it to differ. If you wish to summon a dragon, you must first find or create the region in which you wish to summon the dragon within Faerie. You must then shape this region, placing a dragon within it. Other minds will fight you – their perception of the world will impinge upon yours, and they will deny your dragon. You must persuade or overrule them and their wishes. This will be easier if they believe in dragons, and it will be harder if you are trying to shape something they have no familiarity with, or cannot believe would be here. In the desert it is far easier to shape Behemoth than Leviathan.

The third skill is that of summoning. You have created or found a region of Faerie which has what you desire. Now you must bring it through. This is at once the most straightforward and the most dangerous of skills. The ease with which you can do this depends crucially on how well you have succeeded at the first two steps – the more closely your region of Faerie matches the world where you want to bring it forth, the easier you will find this process, but you may not know how well you have achieved this until you try to bring the two into alignment. It is certainly possible to overcome a poorly matched shaping through brute force, but it is extremely taxing on the body and has on occasion proven fatal in its own right. Further, a failed summoning may have highly unpredictable consequences – you may lose control of Faerie as you bring it into alignment, and may bring through something you did not expect or change the world in wild and dangerous ways.

Not all magecraft involves all three skills. The skill of perception is highly useful in its own right, and the skill of shaping is the sole root of the mind skills. Summoning is rarely used on its own except by untrained wild talents, as it is so dependent on the other two, but it is not unknown for desperate or mad mages to bring things through from Faerie without proper preparation. We would strongly caution you against this, but the mere threat of it is sufficient to make most people think twice about giving a well trained mage no route of escape.

On summoned creatures

Many summoned things operate on principles that simply do not work in the world, and require active maintenance from a conscious mind to keep them in alignment with Faerie. Levitation will not sustain itself without the mage’s constant intervention, nor will magical fire burn eternal.

Many summoned creatures however are conscious entities in their own right, and many of them have a sufficient grasp of summoning that they can maintain their own link with Faerie and enforce the rules themselves. Thus a summoned dragon is not dependent on the mage for their powers of flight or fire, and a summoned demon is entirely capable of causing mischief without the mage’s consent.

On the reading and shaping of minds

Minds are directly linked to Faerie. A mage well trained in shaping can see into Faerie and use this sight to perceive other peoples’ thoughts and feelings. Further, they can manipulate these thoughts as the connection goes both ways. This sort of magic requires a great deal of skill to perform deftly and without damage to the other’s mind, but many mages specialize in just this sort of manipulation as it allows them to focus primarily on shaping to the exclusion of other skills.

This can be protected against. It is much easier to defend your mind than it is to attack it – a mage trained in shaping can erect walls and barriers around where their mind impinges on Faerie. Although they cannot cut off the link to Faerie itself, they can make it very difficult for others to affect. For this reason many people who are not otherwise interested in the study of magic learn enough shaping to guard themselves.

On healing

Fundamentally healing is magically simple – you match a region of Faerie to the body, you shape it healthy and you bring the change through to the world.

A word of caution though: Many things can sustain themselves in Faerie which are not viable in the world. The human body is good at adapting, but it has only so much capability to do so. If you do not understand the workings of the human body most thoroughly, there is a significant danger that you will merely make the problem worse.

It is much easier for a mage to heal themselves, because they are able to continually maintain the summoning and adjust it. They can perceive if they have created a problem and fix it, in the same way that a summoned creature sustains their link to Faerie themselves.

This is where the rumours of a mage’s immortality come from – it is untrue that a mage will live forever, but with enough training in the healing arts they can sustain themselves for a long time. As time goes on however an increasingly large amount of time and effort must be spent on maintaining themselves, and it is common for sufficiently old mages to voluntarily end their life knowing they will continue to manifest within Faerie.

On the raising of the dead

In many ways, the raising of the dead is the most trivial of acts. When a person’s body dies, the presence of their mind in Faerie remains. No longer routed to the world, it is now adrift in Faerie and may grow or fade or merge in a way that a living mind can not. As a result the older a mind is the less it resembles its human self, and it may indeed no longer exist in any recognisable form, but the mind of one recently deceased is present and may be readily conversed with. It is even possible to shape it to a new body and bring it through to the real world.

A word of caution: There is a question as to whether the person brought back is truly the one that died. Many religions believe that it is not, and that the person in question is an undead abomination. Many report that their resurrected friends lack some vital “spark” that they once had.

As further evidence that this is not a true raising, the same person may be raised many times, and indeed it is entirely possible to raise the living in the same manner.

On the denizens of Faerie

Many minds and beings live within Faerie. A mage trained in shaping may converse with them, and a mage trained in summoning may further enable them to manifest in the real world.

It is unclear whether these creatures are all the product of human imagination, or whether some of them arose spontaneously and indeed predate the human race (many of them claim to be this, but of course they would).

In particular many creatures we would recognise as gods or demons live within Faerie. They are unable to influence the world directly without a human being to bring them through, but they will be ever so grateful if you do so.

You should be extremely careful about granting these requests.

This entry was posted in Fiction on by .

3 thoughts on “A magic system with consistency and depth

  1. John Regehr

    Have you read the recent novels by Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind and its sequel? They are good, and are pretty interesting along the lines you’re discussing here.

    1. david Post author

      I have, and enjoyed them. My memory of the details of the magic in them is a bit fuzzy, but I agree it does seem to do well on both these fronts.

  2. Pingback: Best of drmaciver.com | David R. MacIver

Comments are closed.