Writing Excuses Episode 14: Magic Systems and their Rules

Does magic need rules? Sometimes yes and sometimes no; our intrepid podcasters talk about how to know which situation is which, and explore the pros and cons of each method. We’ll also yak for a while about the differences between Superman and Gandalf, which makes us, if nothing else, huge nerds.

Liner Notes:

Sanderson’s first law

This week from our sponsor, Tor: The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two B ,by Ben Bova (Editor)


84 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 14: Magic Systems and their Rules”

  1. i think to an extent ‘sandersons’ law is flawed. i think it should be based on the permiation/use of magic in the story. the hobbit and lord of the rings have relitivly little magic use in them despite the magic races, really only gandalf, the rest of the wizards sauron and arguably galadriel and elrond are actually capable of using magic itself. thats the total in the ‘known world’ the rest is all object related, and thus heavily rule based. sting for example is a really good blade that glows near orcs. nothing else.
    magic works without clear explanation because magic is kept out of the reach of most characters and out of day to day life. we don’t need to know what makes sting work we need to know HOW sting works, and that Tolkien told us. if however the story where in tolkiens first age based around the smith who made sting we would need to know what he thinks makes sting work, and at least a level of magical knowledge equivalent to a laypersons understanding of electricity.
    to put it another way if magic is a part of day to day life we need to know as much about it as we know about electricity. there are experts and there is ‘common knowledge’. a romantic comedy does not need to know how electricity works exactly, it just needs to have it operate in loosely defined rules[which do not need to be explained unless your audience is unfamiliar with electricity]. if the story is called ‘the electrician and the circut breaker of doom’ then you had best explain a few things, especially if you are talking to tribals.
    perhaps as well there should be a distinction between ‘existent’ or ‘passive’ magic and active magic. i need to what makes an ent work less then how some one threw a fireball, despite the fact i’ve never seen a full grown tree get up and walk, but i have thrown fireballs. if i know what an ent is, can and can’t do i’m good. if ents can suddenly fly i need to know why.

  2. We were watching Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark tonight, and it made me think of Dan’s comment about Superman forgetting his laser eyes. That sort of thing will toss a reader right out of a story.

    So, the famous scene where Indy is confronted by the swordsman. If I remember correctly, the swordsman practiced for weeks, and the scene was supposed to be a prolonged fight. However, something wouldn’t work right, or they couldn’t film it as planned, and we ended up with Indy taking care of the situation just as he should. Personally, I think any other way would have been Indy forgetting his “laser eyes,” and it wouldn’t have been the same.

  3. First a disclaimer: I don’t know all of WoT. In fact I only got through the fourth book, but I really liked the magic system.

    And I think at least the elemental magic of teh Aes Sedai (And Rand and …) is very easy to understand for readers. In short:

    * There are five elements, four physical and one magical.

    * Mages can manipulate them.

    * Men are better with fire and earth (iirc), women are better with water and air. More exactly: In the beginning they can only grasp their respective elements, not the others.

    * You can only change what you can sense.

    * Stronger mages can weave more magic without tiring than weaker mages (in fact it scales massively upwards).

    * There are some exceptions and extras which make it more interesting – and which allow for Rand learning it.

    * Somehow artifacts where created and exist now, which can do about anything but are rare (I assume there are rules about them, but I didn’t get to the point where they get explained).

    I tried for years to put it into well working RPG rules, and I think I succeeded with finding a working base only about two months ago.

    The “cost goes down as you get stronger” prompted me to create too complex systems at first.

    So I think, that the books might not explain everything, but they hint at very many things, and readers can get a deep understanding of the basics of the system.

    And I think much works simply because of one well established assumption: “Rand is stronger than anyone else.”

    With that he can break down barriers without making the reader feel cheated.

  4. I lingered some time on my own post, and I think I have to take back a part of it.

    The basics of WoT magic are very clear, but what exactly they can do with it, the patterns they can paint with their four elements, aren’t that easy to fix.

    But while reading the books I got a feeling for it and for what it can do, and that goes well as far as saying the reader can understand it.

    “If it feels right, then it’s right.” In the words of the Cast: I don’t feel cheated, when what happens in the book feels right. the question which still remains is: How do writers manage to make the magic feel right?

    Normally it’s important for me, that a magic system feels “real” but stronger (yes, that’s really as wacky as it sounds, but many writers do seem to have a very strong grasp on it), and WoT didn’t quite get that.

    But with its simple basic rules, it still was a lot of fun to read.

  5. (sorry for posting thrice)

    And if I recall correctly, most of the rules laid out in the beginning had already been broken in the fourth book, but only for the powerful ones, not for the norms.

    And with that, the main characters had many tricks up their sleeves if they had to go against regular magic users.

    “I’ll just use that trick I learned from Gandalf and combine it with the one I learned from Sauron, then I can solve this.”

    Somehow this feels terribly like “use fork with doorknob” right now *gg*
    But that’s fun, too.

  6. I don’t think that magic should fill the same role as science and technology. To use it in that way strikes me as boring and unimaginative. Magic should be something /different/.

    If magic is just another set of deterministic physical rules, then all your doing is introducing a new physics (quantum mechanics aside) to your universe. Very few authors take this to its logical conclusion of university systems and entire levels of academia devoted to magic research. This entire view of magic strikes me as very limited.

    I think magic should be something entirely other. Unlike science, it shouldn’t be reproducible or systematizable. It shouldn’t be describable with a set of mathematical laws.

    Magic should have a will and a personality. It should depend on who and where and when you are, what you want, what you lack, what you’re striving toward, and it should do all of that in a way that’s not fundamentally mathematical. It should be driven by the hands of the fates or the gods or the cosmos.

    As such, magic shouldn’t merely be a “tool” used to resolve a plot. It should be a wild, dynamic plot device, perhaps even a character in itself. If you want to solve problems, don’t bring in the magicians, bring in the engineers.

    Instances where I perceive that this is being done:
    -The Circular Ruins, by Jorge Luis Borges
    -Professor Trelawney in Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

  7. Just a quick offhand comment . .

    I see Clarke being quoted as saying:

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    Later, Barry Gehm said:

    “Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.”

    Logical, but I don’t agree 😛

    Florence Ambrose/Mark Stanley finally said:

    “Any technology, no matter how primitive, is magic to those who don’t understand it.”

    That seems to sum up a lot of this podcast. If your reader doesn’t understand the system, or doesn’t -think- they understand the system, then it’s just Deep and Ancient Magic, not the ‘technology’ style of magic where you can reproduce results by reproducing conditions, or can plan out ahead of time what will happen if you do things just so . .

  8. Two more quick examples –

    Lord of the Rings, by Tolkien
    The Bible, by various

    I guess I’m saying that I think magic should work more like prayer. I don’t like magic as a new science because I feel like it’s a cop out. You take science, change a few details, and call it magic. That’s not a new system, that’s a new paint job on an old system.

  9. George, from what I understand, you’re still following Sanderson’s first law. You don’t know that the magic will solve your problem the way you want it to because you don’t understand it. It is out of your control, so solving plot problems with it is unpredictable. It’s not dues ex machina. Take, for example, Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn:

    Schmendrick, the bumbling magician, tries to use magic on several occasions to solve problems. We don’t understand what he’s doing, and for the most part he doesn’t either. He complicates things more often than not because most of the time, when he does get magic to work, it’s by pulling a “magic, do as you will” sort of attitude. But even when he finally does understand how to use magic, he only solves one plot problem: the unicorn being stuck in a human body (which was *caused* by his magical incompetence). That is the only problem he can solve with it. The greater problem, the one of the unicorn’s imminent imprisonment/death-like occurence, is solved through completely unmagical means.

    But in the end, even Schmendrick’s mistakes (turning the unicorn into a human) are found to help the characters go through their character arcs and brings the story to a fully satisfying close.

    This doens’t violate what these three are trying to say. Schmendrick doesn’t solve plot problems with his magic. The podcast focused more on rule-based magic than on non-rule-based magic, but they fully acknowledged that both sorts exist, and that both have their merits. I love both sorts, but for different reasons. It seems that you prefer a magic system that isn’t rule-based, but that probably just means you like magic for different reasons than some other people might. That doesn’t make them wrong and you right, or them right and you wrong. It just means you have different tastes.

  10. George: We weren’t suggesting that magic be “another set of deterministic rules.” We were stating that if there aren’t rules, the magic can’t effectively be used to resolve conflicts in the story.

    The difference lies in what you consider a “rule.”

    Sanderson’s 1st Law is, as Martin stated above, easily understood in the context of Chekov’s Law. If you pull a gun in the third act, you have to show it in the first.

    If the wizard needs to turn a bad guy into a frog in the third act, he needs to be experimenting with amphibious transmogrifications in the first.

  11. i listened to the pod cast again. and i would like to say my previous post is almost categorically wrong, with the exception that magic in lord of the rings is more rule based than most believe. and that the reader needs to be given any common knowledge the characters have. much like if you where writing an american story for a nomadic mongolian audience, they understand much, but some things need explanation. the rest is trash. sorry to any one who read it.

  12. I had a revelation recently, regarding the most rule-based magical system I know of: the D&D system. Fact is, it never made sense to me that you’d forget a spell after using it; that little quirk always bugged me. But I’m a full-time programmer and developer now, and damned if I don’t use an API and then forget the whole damned thing as soon as I fill my head with a different API. The Google Ajax API I could explain to you right now in detail, but I can’t–at the moment–think of too much to say about, oh, building a Joomla component or using Lazlo despite the fact that I’ve studied and worked with both a lot. My brain just doesn’t have room. And when I think, Oh, I can remember books worth of cr*p, why can’t I remember this? I realize that I CAN remember it, I just need to spend a few hours before bed tonight refreshing my memory.

    Right. Do I get a Level 10 dork, anyone?


  13. First off, let me say as a Game/Dungeon Master, This podcast does make quite a bit of sense.

    Now, just so it is out there, I saw this podcast and it immediately appealed to me for a unique reason – I run a Star Wars/DnD Crossover game at the moment, and have seen firsthand what technology and magic have for parallels. They may not be the same, but it is a way of introducing something different into a medium (whether it be book, game or story) without making it unbelievable. For those that are looking for perfect examples of this? I shudder to think of how much flaming is going to go into this one, but look at the Die Hard trilogy. The technology in that is used to perform things that normally could not be done. Rational or not – it is a power that the character uses as a tool. Which brings me to a point that was not brought up in the podcast, and surprised me as such… In any situation, giving a character magic in any foundation is like giving a set of tools to someone – with the right working, those tools can do anything. If you have a rule-based magic system (DnD is my example of choice), then you need to figure out either combinations of spells or other uses of said spells within the rules. If you have an open system (nods to the Tolkien reference – great point, one of which I shall use now.) then you will have established either a cost to the person, or some sort of balance as to why the characters have that power. Limiting the tools so you do not gain Superman Syndrome is important in most cases – the perfect example of this is the Sword of Truth series…the main character has magic, but regularly is not using it for fear of the magic getting away. Just a geek thing I noticed while listening to the podcast.

    Look forward to more!

  14. since I’m sitting here and reading Jim Butcher’s Dresden Series I can’t help, but why it appeals to me so much. One, it is our world. Two, it utilizes the rule based magic system and also a magic cost system. I do not know if you have read the series, but it seems to fit your discussion to t.

  15. While I do enjoy many stories based on the “soft” magic systems, the magic is neccesarily a peripheral element to a character driven story. I think that is exactly what we like about systems like that. Unexplained magic is a great wild beast lurking in the shadows just beyond the firelight. We can readily identify with the poor folks huddled around the cookfire wondering if the rustling in the brush is a wounded elk that saves us from starvation, or a snarling bundle of teeth and claws intent on making a meal of US.

    I should also point out to those who feel that a tech/engineering/mechanic type magic system lacks will, personality and character, that anyone who has worked for a long time with any given result of advanced sciene (be it automatic transmission or A.I.) will begin to speak of these simple results of methodical tinkering as though they do have a distinct personality or will of their own.

  16. Is there a middle ground here? I think it’s important for an author to understand how magic works in their world, and revealing parts of how magic works to the audience allows the reader to get an idea of the way it works and what limits there are, but if hold some of that information back (i.e., the author adheres to the rules but doesn’t clue in the reader as to all of them) you can still tap into the “wonder and mystery” element.

    One of the things I always liked about The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (of all books) was Aslan’s description of the “Deep Magic” which the Witch didn’t fully understand, and which prevented Aslan from STAYING DEAD (because he was making a sacrifice for someone else) — sure, in terms of the book it was all analogous for a Judeo-Christian Theological concept, but in terms of a story it hinted at rules that governed very powerful events and something like that could conceivably allow an author to have the best of both worlds…

  17. @Christopher B. Wright: I don’t think you’re necessarily describing a middle-ground. Sanderson’s First Law is a sliding scale, in which the more you reveal about your magic’s rules, the more magic your characters are allowed to use to resolve plot conflicts.

    In the case of Aslan (note: it’s been a while since I read the books…) we don’t know the Deep Magic rules that he does (not until after the fact), but we do trust him IMPLICITLY. We believe him to be as close to all-knowing and all-powerful as characters come in Narnia. When he agrees to exchange himself for Peter, we don’t know how he will make this come out for the best, but we believe that it will because Aslan=Always Right is one rule we know.

    For all that, Aslan isn’t a perspective character, so he’s ALLOWED to break Sanderson’s first law. :-)

  18. I have a comment for Sanderson, which may throw different light into his First Law.

    I recommend the reading of the comics “The Books of Magic,” and its three sequels that bear the same title, with “Summonings,” “Bindings,” and “Reckonings.” Some information on them can be found a this wikipedia article.

    Sadly, my copies are in new jersey, or I’d be able to reference them more directly.

    The particular feature I want to call to attention is that the primary PoV character, Timothy Hunter, is a mage in what I think would be classified as a “soft” magic system. It’s unclear what he can do, and what the limits of his power are — and even to those who “know” how magic works in the world, he has a distressing tendency to break the rules (From “Reckonings,” paraphrasing Leah: You can’t do that. You can make golems, and you can unmake them, but nobody’s ever remade a golem before.)

    One of the latter three actually lists the “rule of magic” that dominates the Books of Magic explicitly: for every external change, there is an equivalent internal change. This is probably another view on your statement about the costs of limitations of magic. I think you might view this as the engine that fuels the conflict.

    The series follows, in it’s magic, my own pet definition of what makes Fantasy Fantasy: internal, emotional, and metaphorical truths are transformed into external, physical, and literal truths. Tim’s relationship to his father, to Molly, to the strange people he encounters, and to himself change and grow, and his magic changes and grows with and because of them.

    In an odd twist, I might state that, although there aren’t any hard and fast rules limiting what Tim can do (and there are often very interesting ways in which he screws up) the reader still has a sense of the sort of places where magic will work, and what sorts of effects it will have, intuitively — through emotional identification with Tim, and observing the personalities of the characters. Magic is an outflow of meaning, and follows the narrative of the story in intuitive ways.

    I’d also like to point out the RPG system Nobilis, ref here, which has limited, very general rules, with an endless outlay of specifics to combine the effects of “Rules” and “Wonder” — there are five different type of miracles that can be performed (Divinations, Preservations, Creations, Destructions, Transformations) and a Greater and Lesser varriant of each, but each noble has their own Estate, which they can (preserve/create/destroy/transform/divine from), meaning that each Noble has a distinct set of powers all their own. It’s a playstyle that favor success strongly, focusing not on the difficulty of actions, but on the ramifications of different ways of solving them — a nice example of a mostly soft system in an RPG.

  19. Synthesyzing (sythesizing? sithesyzing? blast it, I need a spellchecker…) a few points above from (way) above:

    Karl notes the Deryni novels as an example of a Hard magic system. It’s indicated, however, that the “hard” magic of the deryni needn’t follow the fairly “psionic” rules that it does. In particular, there are magic artifacts of past ages, which seem to follow a much more “sorcerous” paradigm, particularly the cubes and the altar. There’s lingering wonder working in from the fact that there are rules, and they are followed…but it’s pretty clear that they’re incomplete, just one way of making the “magic” work.

  20. I have another great reason for having magic rules in your books: Breaking them.

    In the Anita Blake series, for instance, Laurell K. Hamilton spends a lot of time clearly defining the “magic” that the vampires, werewolves, and necromancers are capable of. She adheres to them very closely. Then without warning she’ll totally break those rules. The result of this is both the reader and characters going “No way!!”

    It’s an odd but really powerful effect. When you place rules on magic to the point at which they become totally explainable and commonplace, much like the rules of gravity or physics, breaking them makes the magic *really* feel like magic. Unexplainable magic.

    Of course, she is always sure to explain exactly what happened after the fact, and those rules *do* carry on to each subsequent book, thus making even that “magic” commonplace. Only to break it again in a further book, etc. In becomes a bit redundant after a bit, but the initial effect is very powerful.

    As a side note, I call this the “Dragon Ball Z magic system”. Those familiar with the anime probably know what I’m talking about.

  21. In the discussion about Gandalf, you mentioned him not being the the main character because he could do magic that we couldn’t understand. Then it was brought up that Harry Potter’s wands are just “magic guns”. It was then that I realized that I have seen these two concepts combined in the character of Dr. Who. You have a character that is magical in that we don’t understand how his highly advanced technology works. Most of the problems he faces are solved by shining a fancy flashlight at a computer or a lock and presto! In the end though, this is fine, because we are seeing him from the viewpoint of his companions.

    P.S. I know Dr. Who is not a book, but it was the first thing that came to mind. And I’m referring to the newer Dr. Who series, I’m not going to apologize for being born in the late 80’s. I also google searched Gandalf to make sure I spelled it right, for fear of the wrath that would come if I made a typo.

  22. I know I’m late to the party, but this was a great cast. I enjoy having magic systems, but I never really thought about it before.

    But more important than praise, I want to ask, do you any advice for how I can introduce and explain a magic system without having an apprentice character?

  23. A bit late to the party, but I was listening to this podcast on my way to work, and I realized something. While I completely agree about the wands in Harry Potter being effectively magic guns, I think Harry Potter does, for the most part, follow Sanderson’s Law, in that Harry solves relatively few of his problems with magic, and when he does, it’s usually with well defined spells (Accio and Expeliarmus being the most common). In seven books, Harry only really solves the final conflict with magic three times, and in two of them, it’s a specific bit of lore Harry has found out earlier in the books.

    Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire does break this rule, with laws of magic showing up with no prior hints at all (slightly justified in that Harry himself had no idea this would happen, but it’s still not following Sanderson’s Law).

    The podcast did make me realize that I need to quantify my magic system a bit more thoroughly, but since my main character cannot cast magic, I’m not in that big a hurry.

  24. I just discovered this podcast recently so this comment comes after many. I really like this podcast and especially this episode because so much of the advice is based on common sense. “Magic needs rules…” to me, that’s common sense.

    I thought of something while listening to this podcast while working on a Magic System for my own work. Maybe this is a new can of worms; maybe it just restates something someone else said somewhere else multiple time or maybe I’m completely off-base, but I’d like to mention it anyway, I think there is a Third Law of Magic with a Corollary. I want to mention it because it’s how I’m approaching my Magic System and Worldbuilding.

    Sanderson’s First Law: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic

    Sanderson’s Second Law/Taylor’s First Law: Magic doesn’t happen in a static white box. (I would word this, “Magic doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” but anyway).

    Proposed Third Law: A character’s ability to solve conflict with magic and its impact on the world around it are directly proportional to how well the character understands said magic.

    Corollary: A character’s ability to solve conflict with magic and its impact on the world around it are not proportional to how the character chooses to use said magic

    Explanation: Magical ability almost never comes with an instruction manual (like the Handbook For The Recently Deceased). Throwing that first spell did not also give Harry Potter a book entitled, “How to Use Magic”. Using The Force to help blow up the Death Star did not also teach Luke how to pull Star Destroyers out of the sky. Vin would have never learned how to use the other metal abilities… you get the point.

    Even if a Magic system exists and functions in a world, its biggest limiter is the people using it. When building a Magic system, think about how people learn to use it and how much they can learn about it on their own.

    Is it User-friendly? How much of a learning curve does it have? How much of the system can a character learn about on their own without instruction? Does gaining magic automatically conjure a handbook for the recently ensorcled?

    Let’s say your magic system is represented by a desktop computer loaded with all the fixings. Even if the character figures out how use word pad, the computer by itself doesn’t mean the character will figure out on their own how to code in C#.

    Another way to look at it: Throwing a Baseball is easy. Throwing a fastball is hard and if you try and figure out on your own you may just end up with serious injuries.

    Also, how well known is the Magic in the society(The Second Law)? If so, it comes to the corollary:

    Corollary: A character’s ability to solve conflict with magic and its impact on the world around it are not proportional to how the character chooses to use said magic

    If Wizards choose to use their Magic to affect every facet of life, say goodbye to the faux medieval world and welcome Magepunk. If Fireballs & Lightning Bolts exist in a world of knights on horses without any real defense against it or restrictions on its use, the mass formation battle between the Knightly Army and the Wizard Army will look like less like the Battle of Gondor and more like the Battle of the Somme.

    If Wizards choose to stay in their little towers, then the Magic system affects nothing outside of that tower. If the local religions deem Magic to be the stuff of demons, devils and ultimate evil(Even if it isn’t) that Wizard won’t make an impact on the world, being too busy getting burned at the stake.

    When making a Magic system, ask if there are any social limits on its use. Is Magic a sacrilege or a sign of divinity? Is it fashionable or the sign of eccentricity? Is it illegal to turn lead into gold or are people doing it and gaming the system? Are people abandoning its use or pushing its boundaries?

    I hope this line of thought somehow contributes and I look to forward to more podcasts on writing.

  25. This is speaking as a devout Harry Potter fan, so my opinion may be a little biased, but where does it have inconsistency in rules?

    But my bigger concern is drawbacks from using magic. I don’t think there has to be any huge immediate cost, because the consequences of your actions can be cost enough. You don’t “lose energy” or whatever if you use a machine gun, but the consequences can be catastrophic enough without having to have any kind of physical cost. Otherwise the immediate cost gets a bit annoying for me. Eragon DEFINITELY annoyed me, but I thought Harry Potter did a very good job with taking care of the consequences of your actions in using magic.

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