Two weeks after a major book release, and here's a status update: I'm already back to work on Of Killers and Kings / Of Kings and Killers (books #3 of the Elder Empire series), Uncrowned is still selling unbelievably well, and I am finally over that cold I had on release day.
Seriously, it was bad. A day or two after release, I was basically in bed all day, responding to comments and emails on my phone and sniffling.
But now that I've returned to health, I'm going to share with you something I normally don't: my notes!
During my Subnautica stream for the Uncrowned launch, a few of you expressed interest in how I develop magic systems. Well, I recently started developing a few for fun, so I thought I'd walk you through what I did!
This particular system is my attempt at a general all-purpose magic system. I wanted to see what I could do with a magic system in which magic could theoretically do anything, like in Harry Potter.
First, the system as I wrote it out, followed by an explanation:
Name: All-Purpose Wizardry
—Wizards can do anything that could be done naturally, skipping the time and energy cost involved. The more time and energy it would take to do manually, the more it costs.
—A wizard can cast a spell to clean a room, and it will be cleaned as though he did it by hand. Teleport items across the room. Start fires instantly, strangle a target, lift objects without touching them, remove a tumor, stitch a wound shut, see distances far away, etc.
—I’m thinking each spell is highly individual, meaning you don’t have schools of magic or categories of spells, but should there be styles of magic? Does a spell that builds a house have certain rules that are different from a fireball spell?
—Wizards concentrate on mentally building the complex architecture of a spell, which takes a few seconds to a minute of intense visualization and concentration. Then they cast the spell, which takes effect directly, ignoring the method in between.
—Wizards can then see or sense a price for that spell and choose to pay it if they wish. The price is in energy; not in physical effort or time, which are precisely what spellcasting saves, but in magic points/tokens/slots.
—When the spell is defined and the price paid, the spell is cast and takes effect.
—Concentration. You have to hold in place the arcane architecture of the spell.
—Definition. You don’t have to define the spell as precisely as programming and defining every step, but you do have to define it to some degree, as in “Clean this room.” Intentions, not precise definitions, are what matter in magic; you therefore don’t have to lawyer the magic by defining your terms explicitly.
—Price. You have to be able and willing to afford the price, then you have to pay it.
—Action. I haven’t quite decided what, but there should be some external action associated with casting a spell; either a somatic gesture or a verbal component.
—Wizards cannot do anything inherently supernatural like shoot ice beams or reverse time or raise the dead. Spells can only accomplish things that are physically possible. Healing wounds quickly is fine, starting fires, controlling weather, etc.
—The more time and effort an action would theoretically take, the more energy the spell takes. “Theoretically” because distance, for instance, is calculated as the crow flies. Not about how many mountains or walls are in your way.
Spell slots = Points?
Spellcasters = Wizards
Spells = Spells
(Mostly standard terminology here.)
—Either the act of paying the price should be tangible or there should be some clear action associated with the spell.
—The price/point/slot mechanic is the biggest gray area here. I think it’s important to have the resource be clear and distinct and spendable, not just a pool like mana or madra.
—How do you earn points? Do they passively recover over time, or do you have to perform actions? Does everyone have the same number of points or recover them at the same rate? How do you increase your maximum MP?
—Here’s a usage structure I like for the spell architecture: like Lincoln Logs or Legos where you’re building them a piece at a time and you have to mentally connect two targets. So for instance, to teleport a remote control over to you, you have to build a bridge between where the remote is and where you want it to be.
To turn someone into a frog, you have to surround them in “bricks” and then build a frog (NOTE: not sure I like that element of it, because it contradicts the “intentions not detailed instructions” doctrine).
As you can see, this is only a thought experiment, but it shows how I start and organize my thoughts about magic systems. Now that you have an example, I'm going to go over the sections quickly.
Abilities: What the magic can do. Strangely enough, I find that a lot of new writers working on their own magic systems fail to define what their magic can do, focusing only on what it can't do. It's important to establish what your magic can do, because that's what makes it cool.
Categories: Schools of magic, elements, etc. How are magic-users or spells categorized? This is the weakest area in the example magic system, because by nature it's hard to separate this particular system into categories. However, in many systems categories are important, because they provide a logical structure that the reader can follow. For instance, if you see an earth sorcerer and a water sorcerer in a story, you can logically infer that at least wind and fire sorcerers also exist.
Usage: How, practically speaking, is magic used? Asking this question can help you picture the process of casting spells or using magic more vividly, which can help you ground it in the world and think of rules or limitations you hadn't considered before.
Requirements: What you need to be able to cast magic. Someone else can prevent your magic from being used by preventing your ability to fulfill one of the requirements. People often lump this in with Limitations, but I think that's a bad idea. Requirements are what you need to cast magic and Limitations are the things magic CAN'T do. They should both be present, but are entirely separate things.
Limitations: What your magic cannot do. Sometimes this is lumped into Requirements because the cost of a spell is often in both categories. For instance, if a spell costs mana (or a technique costs madra) that is both a Limitation of the magic system (you can only do magic until you run out of fuel) and a Requirement (you need fuel to cast magic). However, if there are no ice spells in your system, that's a Limitation and not a Requirement.
Terminology: This is usually a lot more complicated than in this example. What do you call magic itself? Magic-users? The use of magic? The source? Is there a term for certain magic that isn't used for others? I normally spend a long time developing terminology, but this example uses the standard terms: wizard, spells, casting, etc.
Suggestions: This is where I include my own notes on what's missing from the system so far, ideas I have for the future, weaknesses that I'd need to shore up in the story, etc.
I make these for fun sometimes, and I'm sure a lot of you do something similar. Raise your hand if you've ever sketched out a magic system in your notebook.
Now never lower that hand. It's stuck there now, permanently above your head.
I hope this gives you some sort of insight in the process I use to at least brainstorm and think out magic systems. People ask me for this sort of post from time to time, so I could do some more here and there if you find it interesting, so let me know! If you don't, then let me know that as well. No skin off my teeth.
And let me know what you'd like to see me blog about next week! I have a few one-sentence ideas for future stories that I might one day get around to writing if I live long enough, I have other magic systems, and I'm certainly capable of talking about anything else.
Of the Cradle series
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