Zumbs' Blog

The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head

Fantasy Worldbuilding: Magic

Posted by Zumbs on August 24, 2013

Magic is one of the great difficulties to handle when building a consistent fantasy world. Why? Well, because it is the one thing that does not exist in our world. Pretty much everything else have real world equivalents.

Fantasy worlds are often inspired by our own world, and it is possible (though sometimes challenging) to find a lot of information on different societies in different time periods with different levels of technology. To some extent, the different humanoid races can be viewed as different human cultures, and monsters as bandits, hungry predators or even natural disasters.

Magic, however, has a profound influence on how a world works. As a world builder, it is necessary to consider how magic works as well as the consequences of these choices. The most basic question is where magic comes from. However, in terms of building a world, the following must also be considered:

  1. How powerful is magic in terms of what it can and can’t do?
  2. How easy is it to learn and use?
  3. How safe is it to use?

These questions are crucial, and the following sections will try to give some ideas on how the repercussions of the answers to those questions can be found.

One very interesting notion is that in a magical world, magic can be everywhere, in everything, in particular if its real world counterpart can seem magical, strange or eerie. It could be music, creatures, faith, tools, spirits or whatever.

Easy and safe

Imagine a world where magic is both easy and safe to learn. Assume it is possible to heal wounds and diseases by whispering a few words and doing a hand gesture. If it is easy to learn, healers will not take the time to learn how to get the body to heal naturally; they are going to use magical healing instead. If the afflicted person survives until the healer can get to the scene, disease and wounds will be little more than an annoyance. And healers are likely to be nearby as it is so easy to learn magic.

This world will have no need to know anything about anatomy or disease, and these sciences will be the province of the curious. One could require a certain anatomical knowledge to be able to use magic for healing, making it somewhat more difficult, however, healing would be nigh instantaneous, not the long drawn-out process of natural healing.

If is possible to shape rock and stone with relative ease, the need for common laborers will also decrease, and much of the technology to get buildings into place will simply not be needed. Knowledge and understanding of geometry and architecture is still going to be needed, unless magic is being applied to keep the structure standing.

In such a world, magic ability is likely to be as common as being able to hammer a nail into a plank. Even if magic were jealously guarded, all it would take is a single person to let the genie out of the bottle. It would happen eventually.

Magic is similar to technology, so one could liken common usage of magic as having modern (or even future) technology in a much less technologically developed society. What sort of an impact would it have on the everyday life in this world?

Hard and dangerous

If magic is hard to learn and dangerous to use, it is much more likely to be the province of secluded mystics. Secluded because magic is dangerous. Usage of magic may also come with a hefty personal cost in terms of (in)sanity, biological transformations or expensive equipment. One could take a look at Lovecraftian horror and Conan stories for inspiration.

Production

The central focus of any society is how it produces the goods needed to maintain and expand its current population and wealth. Humans (and likely whatever other intelligent creatures that exist in your world) are very adept at using whatever they have handy to improve their own situation. Naturally, that will also apply to magic and production.

Agriculture

Many fantasy worlds are situated in feudal middle ages or earlier. In that time period everything was centered around land and agriculture. Power and wealth grew out of cultivated land. Cultivation caused land to degenerate; bad weather or crop/cattle disease could cause the harvest to fail. Magic could be used to ensure good weather or stop the spread of disease. Or to cause bad weather and spread of disease on a competitor. In both cases, a class of highly specialized magic users could be trained to manipulate the climate. These magic users could be tightly coupled with the nobility, with a religious organization or even an autonomous group of great power.

Even if it is extremely difficult or borderline impossible to control the climate, someone would try to figure out a way to use magic to improve agriculture, simply because agriculture is so important. So, if magic is not used to improve agriculture, the worldbuilder should consider why. Who tried? Why did it fail? Did it have nasty side effects that caused natural disasters or war?

Industry and Construction

In most societies industry and construction play a significant role. As the society becomes more advanced, the focus shifts from agriculture to industry. The usage of magic in industry and construction can have profound influence on how a world works. If a handful of wizards can construct a castle just as fast as 1000 laborers, why not use the wizards? If wizards are able to transport large quantities of goods or people almost instantaneous, why go through the dangers of the high roads? Would large roads even be needed, or would they be replaced by a network of portals?

Health

As noted earlier, magic can have profound influence on health care in a fantasy world. If magic is not as easy and safe as considered above, magic will most likely only be used to aid the rich and powerful. But even then the effect is profound: The rich and powerful will not succumb to plagues and the effect of poisons and war are likely not as devastating to the ruling class.

As the rich are safe, it could even mean that research into natural healing would suffer, causing regular people to have an even worse health in the magical fantasy world.

Politics and Trade

The ability to read someones mind or even some basic empathic ability to read their state of mind give an extreme advantage during any negotiation. Knowing if someone is telling the truth, how much they will concede or reading their deepest secrets can be used by a magic user to gain tremendous political power. As such, a magic user could be used by a ruler or another powerful person to increase their power and/or to protect them against similar use by rivals.

However, why would the magic user want to be wielded? Why not do the wielding, becoming the real power, possibly behind the throne? If knowing this type of magic is the only way to protect one self, rulers would need to know this kind of magic or become pawns themselves.

The sections below give some ideas on how magic can influence a world, but each magical ability should be taken under consideration. How can this be used? What sort of advantages would this give someone? How can it be used with other powers?

Seers

In some stories magic users are primarily seers, that is, they are able to see things that regular people cannot. This could be things that are hidden, someones personality, feelings or thoughts. Or even possible futures of some person or group. This would allow them to apply a little pressure at specific points in time to create the future they want. Using magic to directly changing the world could be very taxing, e.g. like Merlin in Excalibur (1981) or Asimov’s End of Eternity.

Security

It should be clear that any ruler should consider magic and magic users potential security risks that must be addressed. Even if the ruler is a magic user. However, if rivals use magic the ruler will need magic for defensive or offensive purposes. If the ruler is the only one with magic users, the ruler has a clear advantage, that should be pressed.

Magic users are potentially dangerous, so rulers may want to enact laws to control magic users. This could be compulsory registration of magic users or even internment of magic users for use in the service of the government. This could have all sorts of (unintended) effects, e.g. if the interned magic users are grouped in one organization, said organization would become very powerful, and is likely to try to grab power at some point. Rulers could also order brain wash or even brain surgery on magic users, causing them to lose any notion of self, becoming human appliances. Nasty, but maybe effective.

Rulers may also construct a special police force to deal with magic users who are criminal or a danger to their rule. There will most likely be laws to deal with usage of magic to do crime. The punishments could be minded on stopping the magic user from performing magic, similar to the maiming punishments committed in medieval societies against thieves or poachers.

Use of magic to get evidence for a trial should also be considered. Is it admissible? And to what extent? If magic can be used to read thoughts, it would be pretty definitive to judge guilt. If the magic user can be trusted and it is impossible to doctor memories, that is. An alternative is to use magic as an aid during an investigation. There could also be all sorts of regulations, e.g. to protect the privacy of the citizens. But remember: Most rulers will have their continued rule as their central motivation, and are likely to only give those rights to their subjects that said subjects push the rulers to give.

War

If a wizard could destroy an army, wars will be fought between wizards. The role of armies will not be to invade or to defend against invaders, but to keep the population subjugated. If walls can be destroyed by a wizard, walls would be unusable to protect against an invading force. They could be used against bandits, to control trade and population.

Even if magic is not powerful enough to do that, it should still play a significant role in war, e.g. by smuggling a little elite force into the draw bridge control tower at a crucial moment, fast communication in the field (can it be intercepted?), gathering intelligence (magic user in bird form) or something similar. Countermeasures are needed. Defensive magic need to be considered as well.

There could also be international agreements on how magic can be used in war.

Overland spells

Overland spells are those powerful spells that change the face of the world. This could be an earthquake that cause a large city to collapse or an island to be eaten by the sea. Changing of weather patterns could be in a similar category. Magic users able to do such tricks are extremely powerful, and likely to be considered extremely dangerous, possibly even divine. Comparable to nuclear weapons in the medieval era: Likely to be used only as long as the other side does not have one.

Anti-wizard sentiment

Given the power of a wizard, it is very likely that some wizards will end up in a very bad light. Not to mention that the public will consider wizards dangerous. Rulers may even try to blame bad events on wizards, sparking anti-wizard sentiments and even outright attacks. Their practical ability to follow through depend a lot on alternatives to magic, as well as the ability to use non-magic users to combat magic users. In general, the view of the public on magic users hinge partially on the history and what magic users are capable of. But only partially: Jews were persecuted in Europe for a long time even though they didn’t do anything.

Religion

It should also be considered how religion views magic and magic users and why. They may think that magic defiles the perfection of creation and should be banned, that magic is a religious miracle and should be limited to priests, or something else entirely. Different religions and priests may very well hold different views.

Music

In the real world, music is a powerful means of expressing feelings, spreading stories and even to manipulate the mental state of the listener. In a magical world, music could be magical as well. Skilled minstrels could use music to manipulate the masses, be that to support or overthrow the ruler, spread lies or uncomfortable truths.

Magical resources

Similar to iron or oil in our world, a magical world could have magical resources that can be extracted or produced in some fashion. There could be a tremendous profit involved in extracting, selling and using these resources, not to mention environmental destruction and slave labor. Similar to our own world, these resources would become a matter of contention between the powerful. Wars are likely to be started over them. These resources could even be necessary for the magic user as well, causing addiction or other nasty side effects, e.g. like melange in Frank Herbert’s Dune. Magic itself could be an exhaustible resource, only regenerating itself slowly.

Capitalism

Most fantasy is set in the preindustrial era. However, you may want to make a magical world in the industrial era, with an industrial atmosphere, like e.g. steampunk. There are a number of interesting options for magic in the industrial era. One is to have magic and technology be two distinctly different world views that are at odds with one another. After all, magic is about breaking the laws of nature, and technology is about exploiting the laws of nature, so mixing the two could be a recipe for disaster. This is explored in the computer RPG Arcanum. A profoundly different approach is to apply the scientific method to magic, measure it, make inventions based on magic, like in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. In such a world, magic and technology are intermixed in a powerful synthesis.

Specialization and Tools

Smiths make hammers and chisels that are used by masons. A mason does not need to know how to make hammers and chisels, only how to use them. Similarly, smiths do not need to know how to use hammers and chisels, only how to make them. This encourages specialization which increases the quality of work as well as the productivity of the workforce.

In a magical world, the person that makes the magical tools may not be the person that uses them. It may call for different skill sets. The user may not even know anything about magic. The classic examples are weapons, armor or items that allow the user to do wondrous things.

However, why not use magical items for more mundane tasks? One argument against could be the cost. If a 10% increase in productivity costs 20% of production the cost is not worth it (unless there is a time limit involved). Still, with determination, one might be able to lower the costs to such a degree that it is worth it.

Enchanting

Some items may be easy to enchant – some may even have magical properties of their own. A plant may be able to stop bleeding, a metal may become nigh indestructible after being tempered and a crystal may be able to receive and transmit sound. Skilled craftsmen may be able to expose and manipulate these properties, or they may require the help of magic users.

However, if such items can be constructed, they will have a profound influence on your world, unless they are rare, e.g. difficult or expensive to construct.

Magical items can also come at a high cost for the magician. Maybe the magician must sacrifice some of his or her own life force in order to make a magical item. It could also be very, very difficult to learn how, or just plain time-consuming.

But as noted earlier, some materials may have magical properties. Mixing iron with carbon creates steel, a very strong and durable alloy. For the smiths and alchemists at the time, it must have seemed like carbon had magical properties.

The Magic Shoppe

If magical materials and enchanted items exist, someone will consider buying and selling them. The easier these items are to produce, the more common such shops will be. If it is extremely easy, these things may be available at regular merchants.

World history

Whenever magic became available, people will have been using it to further their own agendas. For this reason alone, magic is likely to have had a profound influence on the history of your world. However, the influence does not have to be from direct use alone.
Like earthquakes, volcano eruptions, floods, hurricanes or even asteroid impacts can suddenly turn the tide of events, magic can play a similar role. Think of magical storms causing sudden leaps of evolution or some other wondrous/strange/nasty effect.
The power of magic could ebb and flow wreaking havoc on the status quo. It could even appear and disappear due to some strange alignment (like in Shadowrun).
Given the existence of magic, there is also likely to have been natural selection due to magical properties of the world, e.g. affinity for magic, resistance to magic or natural magical abilities. Some creatures may even have developed the ability to sense magic being used.

Research

In a magical world, there is bound to be a lot of research into magic. How does it work? How can it be manipulated? How can it be used? Can it be made easier? Time spent trying to make better technology would be used trying to make magical technology, relying on the magical properties of the world.

In the early periods, magic could be difficult and dangerous, limited to the selected few, who could do marvelous things. But as time progresses, it could become easier and safer. Items that allow commoners to use the magical effects could become available for purchase and even mass production. As they would require magical resources that are not readily available, this could lead to all sorts of nasty competition to get those resources.

The inventions may need some source of power, e.g. life force or even magic currents drained from the world. Similar to the fossilized fuels of our modern world, one could consider fossilized magic that could be dug out of the land, with their own environmental issues. The real world can be quite inspirational!

Due to research into magic, the usage of magic will likely change as your world ages, as noted earlier. You may want to consider how this can happen in your world, what type of expression it can take. One option is to add abilities that entrepreneurial elements (e.g. players) can use to affect the infrastructure or production of your world. If they do not figure it out, you can always let an NPC do it. Or maybe have a race to modify the ability to be truly convenient.

Research into magic could also be used to construct adventures for magic users. You could create a theory of how magic works that is actually wrong, giving the players clues to that effect, leading to new discoveries as secrets are pried from the hands of the Universe.

How and why does magic work?

There are many types of magic in literature. Some examples are:

  • A magical resource (melange in Dune)
  • Alchemy
  • Celestial bodies
  • Divine intervention
  • Life force of the magic user
  • Life force of the world(Dark Sun), possibly created by all living things (Star Wars)
  • Manipulation of spirits (shamanism)
  • Mind over matter
  • Pacts with demons or other powerful entities (witchcraft)
  • Soul force or Mana of the magic user (very common in RPGs)
  • Speaking words of power (Wizard of Earthsea)

Often the different types of magic are mixed. Some magic effects can be gained by speaking a few words or making a gesture, whereas others require complex rituals or particular objects. Use of magic can also change the magic user physically, e.g. in Buffy the Vampire Slayer where eyes turn black while casting magic. Some of these effects can be permanent and cause magic users to be easily distinguished.

The specifics may also have other effects, like the long/short-term effects of using magic. Is it like radiation, that cause people to die slowly? Does it extract a price from the magic user? Some effects may be due to using magic the wrong way, e.g. an assumption that you must drink a little vial of poison before casting magic, that really isn’t necessary, or a vow of celibacy. Often the world builder will start with limitations, and will need to find explanations for it.

Education of magic users

How much can a magic user do after 3, 5 or 7 years of training? What sort of support skills are needed (language to read musty tomes, anatomical knowledge to heal, geometry to build etc)? Where and how is this training administered? What sort of facilities are needed to teach magic? In essence, it is a reflection of how easy magic is to learn and how powerful it is.

There can be some limits as to who is able to learn and use magic. This could be a matter of:

  • Coincidence, like being born under a certain celestial sign.
  • Genetic trait, such as faint traces of elven or even dragon ancestry. In this case, the ability may come “naturally”.
  • A particular mind-set.
  • Continual drug use, like the spice in Dune.
  • Or something else entirely.

One could also let everyone learn magic, but some simply has better talent or flair for it. There could also be a rite of passage or graduation, where the student becomes the master.

If this world is to be used as an RPG world, the role of the player magic user must be considered. Magic must be useful for a newly created character. The character may not be very powerful, but should be able to do something. It is also important to have some sense of progression; that the character is getting better. On the other hand, the magic user needs to be balanced with other character choices. If not, everyone will want to be a magic user. An alternative is to simply bar players from being magic users.

Rules

There are many, many different rule systems to handle magic. Depending on your choices on how magic should work, you may want to create your own. Most RPGs require the character to learn a spell before it can be used, even though some also allow characters to create their own.

In the early days of RPGs, the magic user memorized a number of spells (the number depended on the level of the magic user), and once cast, the spell had to be memorized again, but only after a nights sleep.

One reason for this system was to limit the amount of spell use, enforcing some sort of balancing. However, the system were very restraining, and gave way to the usage of a Mana system, where each spell cost some amount of Mana to cast.

Many Mana systems also require some sort of skill check to cast a spell, or change the Mana cost depending on skill; others view each spell as a skill. A middle way between these options would be to partition spells into a number of groups, e.g. fire magic, where each magic skill allowed casting of spells inside that group.

Conclusion

Deciding on how magic works is no easy task if a consistent world is the goal. It is my hope that I have sketched some of the issues, and given you something to help you figure out how you want magic to work in your world. Hopefully, you will anticipate the consequences before your players. Thanks for reading!

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