By Writing Excuses | May 18, 2008 - 7:09 pm - Posted in magic, Season 1

This week the Writing Excuses team discusses magic again, this time focusing on the cost of magic. Whether or not your magic system has internally-consistent rules your readers can follow (per Sanderson’s First Law and last week’s ‘cast) you need to consider the ramifications of using magic in the worlds you create. Or at least, that’s what we think. Have a listen and find out why.

Also, this week Howard attempts to create “Tayler’s First Law” using a donkey. It can’t have gone too well, since by the end of the podcast he’s willing to give the donkey away.

This week from our sponsor, Tor: Jack: Secret Histories , by F. Paul Wilson

This entry was posted on Sunday, May 18th, 2008 at 7:09 pm and is filed under magic, Season 1. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

60 Comments

  1. May 18, 2008 @ 7:23 pm


    One point I really wanted to make in the podcast, but forgot to…

    The manner in which the experience-point system in D&D is used to govern the creation of magical artifacts leads us to a fascinating conclusion: ALL magical items in the game are, at their very core, necromantic in nature. After all, the only way to regain the XP lost to item creation is “go out and kill more orcs.”

    Even if you’re Lawful Good.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  2. May 18, 2008 @ 8:59 pm


    Another great podcast. One thing that really struck me was the following idea. Magic shouldn’t just be the really cool special effects in you novel it should also create conflict. The costs the ramifications of using magic help create your conflict.
    Howard: I think the “donkey rule” has a better name then Sanderson’s rule:)

    Posted by B.E.
  3. May 18, 2008 @ 9:16 pm


    One idea that occurred to me during this podcast was the concept of one-shot magic: during a person’s lifetime in a given magical world, he or she is able to cast a magic spell of some kind only once in their entire lives. After it’s expended, they’re just regular folk. That’s maybe not a cost so much as a limitation, but it could be interesting to explore. Maybe someone who actually writes fantasy should do that. :-) Or maybe it’s already been done and I’ve not come across it.

    Posted by Darren Landrum
  4. May 18, 2008 @ 10:09 pm


    Howard, the donkey rule finally articulated what makes me dislike so many magic systems. A grundle of gratitude to you, and to the donkey.

    Posted by Conyngham
  5. May 18, 2008 @ 10:17 pm


    Great podcast. Your discussion led me to think of Paolini’s Eragon series, which I think exemplifies both the cost/ramifications of magic as well as Howard’s “donkey rule.” Paolini’s magic system has the standard elements of “necessary” skill requirements (i.e. training), both of technique and knowledge of “words of power,” as well as fatigue costs, but the magic has additional internal and external ramifications which lend it weight and importance and depth.

    Externally, the “words of power” used can and do have multiple meanings/implications. Thus, the magic when used may lead to unintended consequences. At the very least, this means Eragon needs to approach magic with more caution and forethought. Internally, magic in combat becomes very personal. Magical combat may take place at a distance, but it is not throwing lightning bolts or fireballs at random enemies. Rather it is very intimate. The wizard is actively trying to snuff out the life force within someone else. This seems analogous to medieval combat versus modern rockets fired from the safety of off shore ships. Eragon is much more psychologically affected by his actions than the fire control officer pushing a button in a control room.

    Where “Eldest” was most surprising has to do with the “donkey rule.” In Paolini’s world, magic seems to be primarily a “higher art” focusing on healing or combat, communing with nature, etc., but it was not used for mundane work, like it was a taboo. But in “Eldest,” when the rebels need funds, the magicians are directed to use their magic skills to create extra fine lace at a fraction of the cost for the homemade stuff, thus massively undercutting the market by flooding it with superior lace at a fraction of the price. This has yet to play out, but Paolini seems to be taking the “donkey rule” to heart by laying out the social/economic consequences of magic poaching on the little people’s territory. This seems to be kind of a magical “Rubicon” within the story. Now that this magical commerce line has been crossed, the economy and its people must adapt.

    Posted by Jon W.
  6. May 18, 2008 @ 10:28 pm


    @Howard

    Experience in D&D is also earned by gaining treasure. So, if you’re a REALLY good thief, maybe you won’t have to kill too many orcs and so feel (relatively) good about yourself in the morning. But in all honesty D&D, or a lot of fantasy, or most action movies for that matter, operate under the justification that the world is better off with out ‘em. As best stated in True Lies, “Have you killed anyone?” “Yeah, but I swear they were ALL bad!”

    Posted by Jon W.
  7. May 19, 2008 @ 12:13 am


    Haha! All magic items are necromancy? Love it. Though I’ve gotta agree that it’s not entirely true. Role-play XP and all that kinda stuff. (Plus, isn’t there some rule or something about non-violent resolutions?)

    Annnnyway. Relatively new to the podcast, but definitely enjoying it. Both helpful and entertaining, so please do keep it up!

    Also: Bingo. The two things that annoy me most about magic systems, in general – that the use of magic doesn’t seem to have any cost on the character using it, and that its use doesn’t seem to have any effect on the world at large. Rar.

    That being said… I’m all for raising the bar as far as originality and original “costs” and such, but I must say, while “thinking of something nobody’s ever thought of before” is theoretically a wonderful idea, it’s also an utterly crushing responsibility. XP

    Posted by Raethe
  8. May 19, 2008 @ 12:42 am


    what i want to say is that failor to explore the repercussions is most often what gets me to close the book and not open it back up. there is a wheel of time series. at first i liked it then as time went on the world and its magic seemed more and more at odds with each other. i couldn’t suspend my disbelief any more and i gave it up. that and a group with no contact came back after what was it 3000 years and spoke common with only a heavy accent. bear in mind that they had had no form of communication with each other, and did not have any form of radios.

    as a side note. games are limited by their technology, and what they aim to do. a program cannot come up with proper repercussions for when i figure out how to whip the donkey (howard, i think your first rule will be known as the donkey law/rule). a game needs rules to define what i can and cannot do, but the mechanics do not nessesaraly reflect the ‘reality’ of what happened. for example it is unlikely that i hit a guy five solid times with an axe before he became ineffective. if you filmed it would be parry block doge and a few shallow cuts, then the killing blow. what i’m saying is that in writing you can explore the implications of magic use thouroghly, but your strict rule system is not nessesaraly what you wright. despite the fact that many of us experienced fantasy through gaming, gaming is a different genre, take advantage of the difference.

    Posted by red
  9. May 19, 2008 @ 5:48 am


    Okay, here’s one: let’s say we have some magical means of transport. In a game you might race them, for example. What about in a story? What are the costs? These magical vehicles would probably have a fairly substantial material requirement to create them, and a further material requirement to use them. Fairly standard limitation, right? But what is the material requirement to use them?

    Let’s say it’s a mineral found mainly under a few dictatorships. Massive political consequences.
    Let’s say the mines are getting depleted. Massive economic consequences.

    Throw in Tayler’s First Law. Let’s say that, even with those costs, it *is* cheaper than letting the donkey do it. Guess what happens to the economy? It’s not medieval anymore. You’ve got modified versions of these vehicles carrying crates around on loading docks, and horses and donkeys are relegated to a few niche roles.

    Let’s throw in some more costs. Say using it pollutes the air, for example. And maybe if too many people use it… oh, let’s say it screws up the weather.

    Dangers? Sure. If you’re moving around at high speed, you’ve got to be careful not to crash. And because people *aren’t* always that careful, it kills thousands of people every year.

    Psychological and social costs? Let’s be subtle here. Maybe the magic has no *direct* effect on the user’s mind, but the vehicles are enclosed, and so people feel anonymous in them, which makes antisocial behaviour psychologically easier.

    Another social cost: cities become structured around it. Houses are located so far from markets that people *need* magical transport to get there in a reasonable amount of time. And not everyone has it – even if they could afford it, not everyone’s trusted with it because it’s dangerous. And it’s not just markets – it’s pretty much everything, so children can’t go anywhere interesting without an adult. So some of them form gangs, and look for someone to beat up, because what else is there to do?

    I think most people recognised what I’m talking about somewhere around the second paragraph, right? My point is that technology’s just a subcategory of magic. I think it’s pretty much taken for granted that science-fiction writers need to consider the knock-on effects of technology. Fantasy writers need to do the same with all the magic in their worlds.

    @Howard: I can picture Redcloak (from OOTS) asking how many “Good” magic items are made from goblin women and children.

    Posted by Sam
  10. May 19, 2008 @ 7:03 am


    As for the question “Why aren’t the mages conjuring gold up all day long?”:

    Because they understand inflation.

    The Native American mages missed this point when they made so much gold that they could construct El Dorado with its golden buildings and streets. They devalued gold entirely. (Of course the city was abandoned in the end, because none of the mages had figured out how to conjure CORN, which proved much more valuable after too many farmers turned to conjuration before the collapse of the gold standard.)

    (“Oh, great. I finally level, and my choice of 10th level spells is Wall of Gold or Mighty Golden Relic. Man, I could go for a burrito right about now.”)

    Sad, but true.

    Posted by Randy Tayler
  11. May 19, 2008 @ 7:50 am


    The ‘donkey rule’ is one of the reasons I appreciate the Eberron setting for D&D above most others. Keith Baker thought out the ramifications of magic being everywhere, and built the world around it. There are lots of inexpensive minor magic items, and skillfully produced items, because of the many low level wizards and magewrights. It does change the world; the more money is around, the more you have a ‘magic-punk’ type setting with travel by magically levitating elemental-powered trains or flying airships, whole cities lit with magical lamps, etc.

    Posted by Alkiera
  12. May 19, 2008 @ 7:52 am


    I still think that magic has to be divided in two parts. One, as an equivalent to modern science. It comes at two major costs. First , the training, where you have to have some training, be it a means of taming inner powers, or learning how to aquire powers (like sorcerer vs wizard magic in DnD) and then the actuall cost of the magic it self in terms of energy needed. And I think this is the magic described in these podcast, the ”donkey” magic as Howard put it.
    And then there s the other sort of magic, where things just happen , be it from gods, Deus Ex Machinas (I use that term alot I know) or any other plot elements that are there to bring a solution with no cost to our hero/world/universe.Thats the Wondrous magic that personaly I hate to use, because it deprives our hero from the ability to pay for his own sins, overcome his own fears or whatever we have him doing.It makes for lovely children stories, but it leaves little to no room for my characters to evolve and become better.

    Now as for the Donkey magic, I believe one of the best kinds of magic I ve read, was on the Robin Hobs books , especially the Farseer and the Tawny Man trilogies.
    What was so briliant about it, was that it had bits from both worlds.Magic was available to some, where it was very taxing to use and difficult to learn (the donkey got fed) and at the same time, everytime someone used it, it was like diving in an endless river where the sense of person rapidly eluded you , and you could easily get lost in it, and in that river you could sense great beings with tremendous powers that actually knew what this river was all about, and the human magic was like flies in a storm to them, so they never cared(so Hobbs could use those being as Deus Ex Machina’s without ”cheating”)

    To wrap this up, I believe that despite the social limitations you can put to make your magic system ”expensive” , making it a tabboo or whatever, if you re using donkey magic, make sure that you keep the energy balance.Everything must have an energy cost , and magic can only help you reduce the losses of energy (moving a mill with your mind means you dont get the friction from the donkeys roped or whatnot).
    That way you are sure that your magic does not end up invalidating your economy.

    Posted by Thanos M
  13. May 19, 2008 @ 8:07 am


    @Randy
    You should take into account that mages are usually utter and cocky b*$@rds and think that the threat of turning you into a toad or a smoking pile of ash is a much better currency than gold. And when it comes to that, animal transmutation, big explosions and fire are much more fun that …accounting which is boring and should be left to accountants.

    Posted by Thanos M
  14. May 19, 2008 @ 8:40 am


    On the subject of necromancy, wouldn’t Schrodinger’s Donkey actually be a lich rather than a wizard? After all, in the quantum sense it is both alive and dead.

    Now I want to write a book about an evil donkey who rules both living and dead from within his dark box. This is why so few of my books are publishable.

    Posted by Dan Wells
  15. May 19, 2008 @ 10:50 am


    One Major Rule With Writing Magic Or Tech:

    Unexplained Magic Or Tech Is Better Than Poorly Explained Magic Or Tech.

    Not Mine, But I Follow It All The Time

    Posted by Zac O
  16. May 19, 2008 @ 2:27 pm


    some time ago i wrote a fantasy novel in a universe where i tried my damndest to lay down the law for the magic there. sorcerers were very rare people born with an inate ‘will’ to command the winds of magic (which worked like background radiation, there would always be some there, it would be created/replenished by some kind of radiance from people’s souls) while wizards were ordinary folks schooled for decades to learn the craft, leaving them in dept to the mages guild for decades to come while they worked off their ‘student loans’ to the guild. sorcerers in return wouldn’t be able to do as much magic, but they could do it faster and easier, while wizards, having learnt the ‘science’ of magic, could do more complex stuff. a bit like the self taught craftsman versus a university degree engineer, one guy will fix your roof in a week, while the other can build your an appartment complex over the course of six months.

    As per costs then I introduced two main elements to counter any overuse of magic: first i made the “Order”, religious people who opposed secular magic, claiming it to be the nasty stuff of Chaos (Order and Chaos being like ying and yan type gods in my universe) – and indeed, the second cost was Chaos, being a ‘god-concept’ reveled in fuddling up complex patterns n stuff… especially in spells… which meant that as the magic increased in complexity and power, so would the chance of cataclysmic failiure.

    an example of this in my story is the order ritual of “a call for restoration” which in theory should restore all living beings in the mortal realm to true path of order – but, unbeknownst to the mortals envoking the ritual… then in envoking it chaos automaticaly steps in, being drawn to the titanic magnitude of the spell, changing it fundamentally and.. well… plot stuff happens

    ok, damn… tl:dr right there! loved the podcast

    Posted by webkilla
  17. May 19, 2008 @ 2:47 pm


    I liked what Brandon said about the limitations of magic being more cool than it’s possibilities. It reminded me of “Well of Ascension” when Vin
    *spoiler removed*

    .

    I had one of those “wow, that’s cool” moments. Much more so than when as a reader I was introduced to atium.

    Posted by Lauren B
  18. May 19, 2008 @ 5:29 pm


    The allagory to games was great, especially toward magic. But Brandon had a side line on the mechaninics of fighting. Now, I have heard the advice that a character should show action rather than what they are thinking. How, or should we, over come this conflict? Will fighting styles/mechanics be covered in othe podcasts? Thanks for the time you all take to do these ‘casts!

    Posted by Ben
  19. May 19, 2008 @ 5:46 pm


    Wonderful podcast! Taylor’s Donkey Rule is a real gem! I have a thought to add to the mix:

    I think doing something magically (say unloading a ship) should “ALWAYS” “cost” more than doing it by more mundane means. Otherwise, magic is too “easy”. I think the only exception to this would be if EVERYONE could do the magic, in which case it would just be “technology” and everyone would be unloading the ship the same way. Another way to say it is that by making a magical method easier or cheaper than a mundane method, you’re cheapening your magic.

    Unless magic is so easy that anyone/everyone can do it, then those few who can use magic should have much better things to do with their time than unloading ships.

    Also (this was mentioned in the podcast) I believe that magic should still (at least somewhat) follow the laws of physics. ie you cannot create energy or matter, only change its form. If you follow this, then that energy to unload the ship has to come from somewhere–there’s your cost. I think it is natural to think the energy would come from person using the magic (weakening or aging them), or it could come from the land itself (like in D&D’s Darksun world). The point is that it has to come from somewhere. Also, another rule in physics is that you always lose some energy when you change it from one state to another. (another cost) So using a donkey should be more efficient than using magic. Now I suppose you could have your magic break this law, but again, there would be consequences of that. It would also tie into the last podcast on whether your system is rule-based or not.

    Posted by Darrell Walker
  20. May 19, 2008 @ 9:05 pm


    Bah! I am about 2/3 through the Well of Ascencion. I realized too late there was a spoiler in a post above!

    Argh!

    Posted by Hezekiah
  21. May 19, 2008 @ 9:12 pm


    I wish that posts could be edited.

    Anyway, regarding Darrell’s comment that magic should follow the laws of physics. That’s cool and all, but what if the laws of physics in your world differ from the ones in my world? What if magic is a law of physics that transcends all other laws of physics? What if in our real world here we only have a cursory understanding of the most rudimentary aspects of physics, and there are so many laws that we don’t understand or even hand inkling of, that it’s terribly limiting to say that we must limit our magic to our current understanding of physics?

    In short, if I want to create a world in which one of the rules is that magic makes it possible to destroy matter (heck–destroy matter at a very low cost), and it makes sense in that world and obeys the rules of that world, why not?

    Isn’t that part of the point and appeal of fantasy?

    Posted by Hezekiah
  22. May 19, 2008 @ 10:28 pm


    Not all costs need to be so literal.

    Consider what H.P. Lovecraft would do: mage looses his tenuous grip on sanity. Or the fish-eyed chick calls back for a second date.

    Consider what Robert E. Howard would do: mage gets his entrails drapped decoratively around the temple by a smelly barbarian who doesn’t trust mages.

    Consider what Roger Rabbit would do: the handcuffs only come off if it’s funny. And by the blessed toes of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery, let’s hope no one taps out ‘shave and a hair cut!!’

    Posted by Karl
  23. May 19, 2008 @ 10:37 pm


    Yes, folks *please* think about spoiler warnings! I hit “burning atium…” and came to a dead stop fortunately! 8-0 :-) I’m in chapter eight of “Mistborn.”

    Yes, editing posts would be nice.

    Bravo on Tayler’s First Law aka the Donkey Rule. Dune is a spot on example on examining ramifications. I’ve not read much Charles Stross yet, but from what I understand from reading interviews with him, he thinks a lot about the economies of the technologies in his SF.

    It occurred to me during the podcast why a lot of vampire/werewolf/etc. type of stuff turns me off, particularly as presented perhaps in movies. Those characters are inherently so powerful, and often their limitations/costs are worked around too easily by plot writers. I became a vampire in the game Oblivion. It was a pain trying to get anything done! Sunlight *hurts*. Not to mention the facts that the gods didn’t like you anymore….

    Costs, limitations and ramifications really are an important key to both magic, and to technology in SF. Look at what Howard did with the teraport tech in Schlock’s Mercenary. Great stuff, fun stuff, and again, spot on example of the interesting things you can do when you stop and think about a particular technology’s or magic system’s impact.

    Whoops, I plugged Howard twice in one post. Does someone keep score? ;-)

    There’s more I thought of, but it’s after midnight, and my mana bar is down.

    Posted by Guerry Semones
  24. May 19, 2008 @ 11:42 pm


    I think it can be interesting to have a Magic system where any or all of your limitations are societal more than anything else. The system in the Castle Falkenstein RPG has mages who can do pretty much anything if they have sufficient time. What prevents these people from destroying the world are two things:

    a) Certain spells are known only to certain groups. Said groups don’t generally mix (and are often in conflict with each other), so it is impossible for any given mage to cast every spell in the book. Thus you may not have both the power to destroy the world and the power to defend yourself while you cast your world destroying spell.

    b) Other wizards would prefer not to have the world destroyed right now and they can do something about it. There are also lots more of them than you.

    What does everyone think about having the limits of magic be primarily societal as opposed to inherent?

    Posted by Michael B.
  25. May 20, 2008 @ 12:09 am


    Hezekiah: Thing is, it really depends on what you want your magic system to do – and I mean that in a narrative sense. Depending on what a story is and how it’s executed, there’s no particular reason why one can’t have a magic system that allows for destroying of matter at relatively low cost. If it’s something that works within the context of a story, and doesn’t feel implausible or like a cheap plot device, then go for it.

    That being said, I think that – if I may make some sweeping generalizations here – most of the time, a magic system is most interesting if it has limitations, costs, etcetera associated with it. As pointed out in the ‘cast, a magic system that can just do ANYTHING is going to sap tension from a story pretty quickly, and once that’s gone so’s your audience. And although the wonderful thing about fantasy is supposedly that anything is possible, a world where anything is possible is horribly implausible. I think that suspension of belief is pivotal to that sense of wonder that’s so important in fantasy – and if I can’t get past the implausibility of a world and its magic system, I’m sure as heck not going to feel much wonderment at the system. Again, though, if you can make it work somehow within a narrative… *shrug*

    Alternatively you can get pretty creative with the kinds of “costs” involved, if having people falling over from exhaustion or whatever after destroying massive amounts of matter doesn’t work for you. There are a lot of subtle physical or pyschological things that could affect a character casting said magic; or adverse affects could be inflicted on the world around the character. It could be as simple as: People have the ability to go around destroying massive amounts of matter with little-to-no effort. Problem? I think so! (See, I actually think that something like that would be a lot of fun to play with, but then I’m twisted like that.)

    So I guess the short version of all this is “meh, whatever works”. Sorry for rambling. My excuse is that I’ve been attempting (unsuccessfully) to teach myself javascript all day; I’m pretty sure it’s melted my brain. Seriously, I can feel grey matter trickling out my ears.

    Posted by Raethe
  26. May 20, 2008 @ 6:33 am


    @MichaelB

    What does everyone think about having the limits of magic be primarily societal as opposed to inherent?

    In the real world that seems to have worked. We haven’t annihilated ourselves with nuclear weapons yet, and we seem to be curbing some of our other self-destructive tendencies. “Checks and Balances” has served American Government well, though sometimes the pendulum swings back and forth across generations. States like mine (Utah) allow just about anybody to carry a handgun, and yet we don’t have bullet-wizards forcing their will upon society at large.

    These sorts of examples will serve a writer well.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  27. May 20, 2008 @ 7:17 am


    First of all, another excellent pod cast. These are really helping with my own writing projects.

    I have to call Howard on something though. Although the Donkey Rule is an excellent one to keep in mind while designing a magic system your example of the Light spell from D&D putting candle makers out of business is questionable.

    Light only lasts 10 min/level. A standard candle in D&D burns for an hour. It would take a 6th level wizard to equal the duration of a candle. Most of the casters in the world will be lower than that. And of course Bob & Marry Peasant can’t cast a lick of magic. Now continual flame will give you a light forever but it’s a 2nd level spell at minimum and requires 50gp worth of ruby dust putting it far out of reach of an average citizen in D&D.
    Not to mention candles can supply heat and flame which can be useful in many ways.

    So, even with magical means of light in a world there can still be a need for candles.

    Although this brings up a point; even if you can do something with magic in a setting, it may just make more sense to do it the mundane way.

    Posted by Joe
  28. May 20, 2008 @ 11:40 am


    Lauren B:
    I edited your post to remove the spoiler, but I think your point is a very important one: the limitations of magic are often the most interesting part of it. The reason for this, as with virtually everything in the realm of storytelling, comes down to conflict. Conflict is what interests us, conflict is what drives plots and characters, and conflict takes place at the borders between one thing and another–between two characters who don’t get along, between two difficult choices, or even between magic and not-magic. That border is usually the most fascinating part of a magic system, where something mundane becomes magical, or someone normal begins to learn magic, or some wizard starts to lose her magic power, or a magic person must try to solve a problem without magic or use their magic in a different way.

    Posted by Dan Wells
  29. May 20, 2008 @ 2:46 pm


    I am so sorry! I didn’t even think about the spoiler issue! I can’t apologize enough to those who have not yet read or finished reading Mistborn! The thought just popped into my head and I posted it without even thinking about it.

    My sincerest apologies. I’ll be keeping my mouth shut in the future. Thanks for editing that Dan.

    Posted by Lauren B
  30. May 20, 2008 @ 4:53 pm


    Something I’m curious about: magical items, for example the Ring from LOTR, Green Lantern Rings, or any number of items in the Harry Potter series. Are there any specific rules for considering costs, ramifications, and limitations for magical items as opposed to say, spells? The most logical thing seems to me to define an object’s powers with limitations, but in the case of Green Lantern, this clearly doesn’t work very well. “Yellow” is not a weakness. Just flood the area with green light so the yellow objects don’t reflect properly and you can do whatever the heck you want. In absence of yellow, you can just do whatever the heck you want.

    Posted by Pang
  31. May 20, 2008 @ 6:44 pm


    Two words about the energy costs of magic: Mentat Famine.

    (About the only coherent thing I got out of Heretics of Dune. It might make more sense on acid, but I haven’t tried that).

    Posted by Jen
  32. May 20, 2008 @ 9:52 pm


    A more-or-less summary is now available at

    http://mbarker.livejournal.com/71079.html

    Posted by Mike Barker
  33. May 21, 2008 @ 2:58 pm


    Okay, during my traditional third listen to the podcast…should I explain that? I listen to the podcast twice on my drive home Monday afternoons (OCD-R-US :-). Then that night, or the next day, I’ll peruse the forums here, and read them for a couple of days. Finally I’ll listen to the podcast again in light of the conversations, and take down written notes from the cast, as well as anything I’ve gotten from it, the forums, etc. This all pretty much ingrains the ideas that I liked in my brain, and brings up insights, sometimes unexpectedly. Not to wax to much about this, but I find these podcasts and the discussions here quite rich and helpful.

    Sorry to go on so. Anyway, another good SF/Fantasy author that represents the ramifications side of magic and technology (the magic side of his writing was mentioned in the podcast) is Larry Niven. Niven wrote “The Magic Goes Away,” and “The Magic May Return,” and “More Magic,” and with Jerry Pournelle “The Burning City,” and “Burning Tower.”

    On the SF side, Niven has written bunches of short stories, etc. that look at technological ramifications on society. He wrote about what would happen if society became dependent (and obsessive) about organ transplanting as a way to live longer/forever. This leads, of course, to a huge black market for all organs, including skin, bones, etc. He called it organlegging and explored it quite a bit. Consequently, he then examined the ramifications of what would happen when that society suddenly had machines that could fix/heal you of most anything. Along the way he touches on “corpsicles,” people that freeze themselves to be healed later, only to find out…. Just look up Larry Niven on wikipedia, and you’ll find his bibliography, or look up organlegging and skip the text (SPOILER WARNING) and look for the story references at the bottom.

    @Lauren B:
    I hope you don’t mean you won’t be posting here in the future? It’s great to get a wide range of insights, so I hope you continue posting.

    Posted by Guerry Semones
  34. May 21, 2008 @ 5:38 pm


    I have three comments after listening to the podcast.
    First, the consequence of Magic in the Lord of the Rings is emphatically *not* the death of the wizard. Tolkien doesn’t end up developing either the limitations or rules of his magical system a lot, but he does make pretty clear what the limitations of magic are for the fellowship – when Gandalf uses his magic, he makes anyone else with any power aware of him. Since their only hope is stealth, this turns out to bea Bad Thing. (sorry, I realize this is a bit nitpicky, but it does seem kind of important to me.) (Note, the death of the Wizard Who Can Do Cool Things is kind of important for the storyline, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms :)
    Second, for a really interesting take on the cost of magic being the life-force of the wielder, I would suggest C.S. Friedman’s Feast of Souls. It’s an excellent novel with exactly that premise.
    Finally, thank you for articulating how completely Herbert broke melange and reshaped a world around it. I’ve been searching for a while for why I like Dune so much, and I think that’s a big insight I’d been missing.

    Posted by Jonah
  35. May 21, 2008 @ 7:38 pm


    I must agree with Guerry Semones: Lauren B–don’t stop posting.

    I wonder what the ramifications of a magic system without costs or limitations would be. Probably something extremely jacked up.

    Posted by Hezekiah
  36. May 21, 2008 @ 10:55 pm


    I don’t think you can have a magic system without some limitations.

    I mean, if more than one person has access to it, believe me, they are going to work out some rules for using it amongst themselves (or kill each other until only one remains).

    If only one person has access to it, well that is a limitation right there (as well as the foundation of a ‘kill the dark lord’ story…)

    Posted by Michael B.
  37. May 22, 2008 @ 9:23 am


    I suspect, carried to its logical conclusion, the main ramification of a magic system without costs or limitations is the complete and utter destruction of everything. But I’m kind of a pessimist.

    Posted by Dan Wells
  38. May 22, 2008 @ 10:59 am


    Yeah, that’s the conclusion I reached. The first nut-job to come along would pretty much spell the end of everything.

    I don’t think that’s pessimism. Just realism. Oh, wait a minute. Are they different?

    Posted by Hezekiah
  39. May 22, 2008 @ 1:17 pm


    Pessimists unite!

    Posted by Dan Wells
  40. May 22, 2008 @ 10:59 pm


    Any magic that is permanent would be very very worthwhile, and thus in need of balancing against a harsh cost, even something as simple as the stereotypical “light” spell that is often the first thing that a novice wizard learns, if it were to give off light forever.

    Thinking about permanent magic vs. what cost could balance it out has made me realize that I would love to read a story where the cost of the magic IS that its effects -never- go away. In the same example of a permanent light spell, you would get light building up, if you cast it, to get back a peaceful darkness you would have to hide it or bury it, and others casting it would eventually cause light pollution. More powerful magic effects, if irreversible, would cause even worse problems (magical fire that once created, would be unable to be extinguished,

    So I kinda think that there are two approaches to magic: Constrain the magic to keep it from breaking reality, or USE the magic as the vehicle that is inevitably breaking reality. After all, maybe that is why magic doesn’t correspond to the physical laws, because it is actually breaking those laws down.

    Posted by Tchalvak
  41. May 23, 2008 @ 4:07 am


    Note: I usually hang out at places like The Gaming Den, where breaking D&D’s “Medieval” feel is a past-time, so my perceptions are colored from that.

    @Howard Tayler

    Quite the opposite, really. I refer you to the American Revolution and ethnic cleansings in Africa and the Middle East today-massive wars between different groups of “bullet-wizards.” Really, any “government” today could be considered a massive group of “bullet-wizards” who’ve banded together.

    Plus, we don’t have people who are tough enough to take baths in lava and survive.

    @joe

    A Continuous Magic Item of Light is only 1,500gp-less than 10% of a 7th-level character’s Wealth by Level (DMG P.135).

    Posted by NoDot
  42. May 23, 2008 @ 8:24 pm


    You guys gave a great couple podcasts @ CONduit in Salt Lake today. That was a great idea to bring Mike Stackpole and Eric Stone (and Bob Defendi) into the conversation. In addition to the on-air podcasts, the off-air chat was EXTREMELY interesting, especially the electronic media discussion. I have been wondering how well various authors/publishers are doing with the shift toward e-book sales.

    Your podcasts are just as entertaining in person as they are while listening to them on iPod. Keep up the great casts.

    On a side note, I was wondering if you guys had plans for a podcast on contracts/royalties/world rights/etc.

    Kirk Shaw

    Posted by Kirk L. Shaw
  43. May 24, 2008 @ 12:31 pm


    What I think is worth mention is a limitation of magic through a lack of tactical utility. Zelazny did a pretty good job of this in the Dilvish the Damned series. Here you’ve got a character who has literally fought his way back from Hell after centuries and while he was there he taught himself magic. Only problem is the magic he taught himself was what he thought would be useful on his quest for revenge, various “Awful Sayings”. He can use them only once each, they are pretty universally dark spells, and the majority of them do things like level cities. When he gets back to the world he’s left with very few options in-between fighting with his sword and nuking the ground he is standing on.

    Posted by Nullcast
  44. May 25, 2008 @ 7:39 am


    I’ve had a few series which I felt had very interesting costs involved in them. Rick Cook’s Wizardry series dealt with a world where, initially, magic was powerful and without significant cost (IIRC, it depended on magic inherent to the environment, but it was a wholly renewable resource) but was unpredictable in that the more powerful of a spell, the more likely it would have unexpected effects and the more it would be dependent on specific factors. The powerful wizards are basically those who are observant and methodical enough to be able to figure out all of the little environmental factors so that they can perform a spell the same way over and over again. Anyhow, Wiz, transplanted computer programmer, finds that there are simple spells that aren’t effected significantly by environmental factors, and builds a functional magic compiler. Cue in numerous jokes about demon processes… the later books largely deal with the consequences of this power spreading, with amateur hackers dreaming up highly destructive spells with unintended side effects until Wiz (ROT13) vagebqhprf n oravta ivehf gb pevccyr gur choyvpyl ninvynoyr pbzcvyref gb yvzvg gurve cbjre. To me, the series embodied a lot of the issues that would arise if powerful magic became available to the common people.

    A second series which I found fascinating was Lawrence Watt-Evans’s Ethshar series, particularly the warlocks. Tremendous power and the warlocks actually grow stronger the more they use their power, but the more they use their power, the sooner they go insane and fly off on a journey towards the source of their power from which they never return. It’s also impossible to become a warlock in any other way than having been one of the people who was given the ability during the Night of Madness, so its power is limited that way.

    Lastly, a frightening cost I found was in the second Neverending Story. The one character had unlimited wishes, but lost a memory every time he used one. Could you imagine being able to use magic but never knowing what you might lose, and worse, never knowing what you lost? ^_^ I could just see such a system, complete with wizards who live lives of excess, trying to pack in as many memories as possible, apparently senile elder wizards who’ve bartered away all of their memories, and tales of some wizard who accomplished a great magic, “but the poor fellow lost a very important memory, how to breathe… I think he was almost figuring it out near the end, but he was a little too late.”

    Posted by Sean Duggan
  45. May 25, 2008 @ 2:08 pm


    “One idea that occurred to me during this podcast was the concept of one-shot magic: during a person’s lifetime in a given magical world, he or she is able to cast a magic spell of some kind only once in their entire lives.”

    Been done, with twists and stories.

  46. May 25, 2008 @ 8:09 pm


    The BareNaked Ladies have a song about that. Aptly titled “It’s All Been Done”.

    *koff*

    More seriously, while I’m all for originality, I think that worrying about it -too- much can be paralyzing. ‘Cause honestly, your original idea probably HAS been done before. That, and it’s possible to use an old idea without being derivative, I think.

    The memory thing: Very cool. Actually, I think they had something similiar in Final Fantasy VIII. They failed to make anything of it, which is unfortunate, but it still has the potential to be cool.

    Someone suggested a podcast on book contracts/rights etcetera. If we’re taking a vote, I second the motion. :)

    Posted by Raethe
  47. May 26, 2008 @ 11:30 am


    I am late for the party, and I am to lazy to ready every previous post (there’s a lot of them you know ;-)) word by word, so some of this may have been said before:

    Don’t just apply the “donkey rule” to check if your magic system breaks the non-magic aspects of the world. Make certain your magic system doesn’t break itself. For example: If you have shapeshifting, spells or powers that allow people to change their eyecolor, sex, whatever… when would they need a healer? Losing an arm or a leg might be one case, but what would stop a shapeshifter from using his powers to replace burned flesh with perfectly good new skin, or turn cancerous cells into non-cancerous ones? And that’s just one possible example.

    Consequences don’t have to stem from casting a spell, they can also come from how you acquire your spellcasting abilities. Suppose there’s a character who strikes a bargain with demonic powers to become a spellcaster, someone who sells his soul to the devil. Casting spells may be something he does at the drop of the proverbial hat, but now the demon hunters are after him, he runs into the father of the virgin he sacrificed to the devil, and so on. There can be direct rammifications of magic, and indirect ones – storytelling consequences. And I think the latter are much more interesting to explore, even if there is no “direct cost” to spellcasting.

    Posted by Andreas
  48. May 27, 2008 @ 10:32 pm


    While hearing this and reading the comments, I kept thinking about the World Tree RPG. It uses “everyone can do magic”, and plays it out fairly well. For example: there’s a Healer’s Guild, who do heal by magic. But the effectiveness of the healing spells comes from the caster’s knowledge of medicine.
    It’s written as a RPG, but also working in stories: one of the authors has, for example, an in-character livejournal (Sythyry’s Journal). Sorry if this sounds like advertisement, I’m in no way associated with the authors or publishers. :)

    Posted by mad
  49. May 28, 2008 @ 6:06 pm


    Find something anything that hits your muse and write but, do it “Originally”

    Posted by Ben
  50. June 16, 2008 @ 2:45 pm


    Hiya great podcast, I’m not sure whether anyone’s mentioned the Warhammer world in this thread before (I’m just popping on don’t have time to read ALL the other comments sorry) anyway the point is Warhammer is a war scale tactical tabletop game similar to D&D anyway the way they implementaed ramifications is with miscasts, basicly if you get the wrong role something bad happens to you, this ranges from not being able to cast magic for a while to having your head explode! Anyway what my point is, is that sometimes games CAN bring in good things like this (although I think it was probably brought in to expand gameplay rather than the universe.)

    Posted by Andrew
  51. June 16, 2008 @ 8:38 pm


    Pessimists unite!

    Nah, that’ll never work…

    Posted by Doug
  52. July 9, 2008 @ 1:10 pm


    Late listening to this, but I want to say that I think the focus on limitations and ramifications excellent. However, I’ve found the word “cost” to ultimately be counterproductive because “cost” often leads people to think ONLY of magics where you trade x thing for y power. Blood, memories, vitality, years of life, etc. Magics that use fuel (cost things) are all great, but there are so many magics where there isn’t any cost.

    For example, Heroes shows a lot of magic without cost. What does it cost Hiro to time travel? Nothing. It’s free. What about the painter? He can do it at will. The guy who goes invisible. The cheerleader who regenerates. Same with all the other characters there. What about the magic in Elantris? It costs nothing to draw the runes. What was consumed? Nothing. What about Orson Card’s Hatrack world? Alvin can doodlebug until doomsday. There’s no fuel required.

    Some may say it’s semantics, but it’s not. It affects the paths taken in the invention of the magic. Don’t trust me, do a group magic brainstorm session where you ask this question and then another where you ask about limitations instead.

    I’ve found that it’s more helpful to ask these questions.

    –What is a cool power?
    –What are the limitations to it? (Here we can use costs or MANY other types of limitations like genetics/bloodlines, intelligence, sources, morals, geography, times, etc.)
    –What are the ramifications and conflicts of using it?

    Posted by John Brown
  53. October 2, 2008 @ 3:54 pm


    One hint which worked perfectly for me so far: When you are finished developing your magic system, write it down as a concept paper, go to your local RPG circle and give it to the most notorious powergamer/munchkin. These guys are geniuses in breaking magic systems to create omnipotent characters.

    So even if your magic system doesn’t fail catastrophically you can still get some nice pointers on how your protagonists/villains in the story could exploit magic to give them an edge.

    As mentioned in episode 14 – this is actually the most fun part: Establishing a ruleset the reader can relate to and then surprise him by an application he hadn’t considered yet.

    Posted by Hadeen
  54. November 18, 2009 @ 11:29 am


    […] Writing Excuses podcasts (I recommend checking out their other podcasts as well): This week the Writing Excuses team […]

  55. December 10, 2009 @ 7:25 pm


    one thing i thought of to do with my magic system was to make it a common factor in the book. If everyone has magic than its not really special anymore. This allowed my world to be more developed than it would have been otherwise AND give my characters all some fun talent.

    Posted by Lisa
  56. January 26, 2010 @ 2:11 pm


    I’m late to the party, but im catching up!:P This chapter really helped me with a story im writing. At the start of my notes it was just they used their own magical, then physical energy, and if they used to much they died. Now i’ve kept that, but it also bleeds energy from around you. So things start to dull, rot e.t.c.. The more magic you use the worse the affects. Okay, bit of a tangent, but just to say thanks for writing excusesXD

    Posted by Mrblah3
  57. December 1, 2010 @ 6:14 pm


    […] Writing Excuses podcasts (I recommend checking out their other podcasts as well): This week the Writing Excuses team […]

  58. March 1, 2012 @ 5:23 am


    […] Writing Excuses Season 1, Episode 15 […]

  59. March 10, 2012 @ 10:47 am


    The first ‘cost of magic’ that popped into my head when listening to this was not ‘makes you tired’ or anything like that. It was actually… the Hemalurgic spikes from the Mistborn trilogy. (The fact that the author is the one talking probably helped steer my thoughts in that direction, but still.)

    Posted by Vicky