Tonight, I read a fascinating article on io9.com with a breakdown of the magic systems in fantasy novels, television, and movies. I had the idea to take a crack at telling you some of the specifics from my world, using the system in the article. You can read it here, if you’re interested. You might find it helpful to answer the same questions if you are writing fantasy and building your own magic system.
All right, so here goes. The rules of magic from The Wolfglen Legacy. Hope they’re not too confusing. If you have any comments, please do let me know. I’m editing the book, after all, and would love any input on making the rules understandable for the reader.
Where does magic come from?
It was given to mankind by supernatural creatures called Founders, who in turn serve The Maker, who created them and the universe. They have allowed a dormant kind of magic to flow through the world itself, like a strip of cloth on the underside of a tapestry. Reserves or “pools” of magic can be found primarily in certain crystals and minerals (created by Founders), the bodies of magic-workers (people who can use magic), and in a few species of plants and animals (also created by Founders).
Magic in Wolfglen is very physical and tangible. Think of alchemy, as opposed to astrology or prophecy. For the most part, it’s predictable enough to be its own kind of science. It can best be described as energy pouring out from another plane of existence. When you cast a spell, you are trying to get the result of properly channeled energy — movement, sound, heat, cold, light, magnetism, currents, etc.
Before it manifests itself physically, it needs a “tap,” something through which it can flow. If an object has a regular and simple molecular structure, magic can flow through it quite efficiently, which is why crystals are such an ideal method.
Most spells are quite temporary and snappy, like fireworks. But there are some forms of limited magic which can linger in an object or place for longer times, like the flame of a candle.
How do you wield it?
Magic-workers use carved wooden staffs with metal tips (merfolk are an exception – they use carved whale ribs). The metal has been imbued with magic that makes the wood a conductor for their spells. Crystals are placed on the staffs, and the magic-worker “flexes” their abilities like one would flex a muscle.
Using mental discipline and the ability to focus, a magic-worker essentially becomes a conduit, mentally channeling the spell through crystal and staff, and allows a certain amount of the world’s dormant magic to flow through him/her. (More talented workers have learned how to put less of their own energy into the spell, and more of the dormant magic) To be released so the spell may take effect, the magic requires some physical jolt. The most common way is to simply hit the staff’s metal tip against the ground.
To make an elixir (various elixirs have different effects and most are very temporary), one may cast a spell over a liquid mix of magic-imbued plants and mundane ingredients, and the occasional pulverized Founder crystal, sprinkled into the mix.
What limits does magic have?
a) Life Force. Spells cannot directly affect living tissue, aside from that of the magic-worker casting them. For instance, you can temporarily change the size of your own ears, but no one else’s. There is a saying that it “stops at the skin,” which is quite literal. You can cast a charm to pick up a book, but not a living creature. So, you have two options to use magic on a life form: the imbued, indirect magic of elixirs or objects with a spell already over them, or you will have to rely on the physical effects resulting from a spell. You cannot kill anyone by cooking them from the inside out, but you can create fire to burn them. In this case, it is the fire and not your spell that…dramatically affects your target.
b) Weight. At any given time during a spell, you can only affect your weight in material, or less. Let’s say you weigh 170 pounds. That means you can only move/heat/burn/magnetize up to 170 pounds of stuff. If you try to affect more, you are dead. As in very dead. As in “your body instantly rips apart cell-by-cell” dead. Even that 170 pounds, though, is something only the most powerful magic-workers can do. Most people can only affect a few pounds at a time, and it gets increasingly difficult to deal with more weight. It takes exponentially more magical energy to, say, lift an 80 pound rock in the air than it would to shove a book across a table.
c) Duration. The longer your spell lasts, the more taxing it is. Normally, you will feel physically and mentally strained after all but the most minor spells. Let’s go back to creating a fire to fry your archnemesis, perhaps by igniting his clothes. If he stops, drops, and rolls, you’ll have to keep igniting it to make sure his burns are too severe to live through. After that kind of fire has been created and maintained, if you are a middle-grade magic worker, you will be physically and mentally exhausted. Think of cramming for your math finals, while pedaling a bike for half an hour. Better make sure you only deal with one archnemesis at a time.
Duration is also an issue when you are creating an elixir, or trying to put magic in an object. Magic has a half-life. A very short half-life. This is true whether you seek to make an elixir that can change the colors of someone’s eyes (great for disguises), or trying to give a lantern a spell that ignites its wick when someone picks it up (very handy, by the way). A relatively weak version of the spell can be cast over the elixir or object if you need the magic to last an hour. For a full day, a much stronger version is needed.
d) Distance. Normally magic-workers need to be incredibly close to whatever they’re trying to affect, though some spells can be thrown over a distance, like hurling a ball. Otherwise, the farther away an object is, the more exponentially powerful your spell needs to be.
Is there good and evil magic?
Not really, but there is “stable, smooth, and light” magic, as opposed to “unstable, rough, and heavy.” Like any technology, magic isn’t good or evil except in what you use it for and why. But if the Founder who created the crystals you’re using has been cut off from The Maker and from other Founders (which is the case with Farhauk, the novels’ main antagonist), his magic will undergo a fundamental change in how it flows, even though the principles and limits are roughly the same. The wires are still connected at both ends, so to speak, but are tangled and knotted around each other. This makes the magic less predictable, and will increase the raw energy it releases. This makes for rough, violent spells that are more akin to pounding a drum than delicately tapping the keys of a piano.
Is magical ability hereditary, or can anyone learn?
Neither. 2%-3% of the population are born with the ability. It seems to be a random selection, across all classes and demographics, and across all the races (humans, elves, nymphs, etc.). In most cases, their abilities become apparent after puberty, but some magic-workers began using their talents in early childhood. Most of the races are pretty equal in strength at similar stages of training and mental discipline, except for nymphs (an all female race of immortals). Up to 4% of all nymphs can be born with magical abilities, and they tend to be faster learners.
Certain elixirs can affect anyone, while others work exclusively on magic-workers.
What’s the secret to defeating magic?
The aforementioned limits can be used against magic. Other spells might also be used, or in some rare cases, the blocking of a magic-worker’s spell is possible. It’s also handy that you can stop a magic-worker by killing them or knocking them unconscious.
Is magic a secret from a primarily non-magical world?
No, decidedly not. It’s pretty much out in the open. There are differing levels of tolerance, though. In countries where they are well accepted or needed, magic-workers usually are thought well of and held to high standards, like monks or nuns or knights in medieval times, and they are very well-paid for their services. Other communities might outlaw them for political or religious reasons, or discriminate against magic-workers of a certain race.
Sorry about the length of this post. I hope you found it at least somewhat interesting, and maybe a little inspiring with your own projects. Again, I welcome comments and criticisms. Take care, and God bless, everyone!