Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Fantasy magic systems: what I’d like
1. Less of the good/evil preconceptions.
I’d like to see a Light/Dark magic system where there was no good or evil distinction applied in advance. Maybe the two kinds of magic could complement each other, like the two sides of a coin.
So practitioners of light magic could be strongest at noon, their powers waxing with the amount of natural light. As the sun set, though, users of dark magic would come into their own. As a result, magicians always work in pairs; that way, someone is always there to watch your back when you’re vulnerable.
Stepping away from the good/evil mindset opens the field up and can rejuvenate the cliché.
2. A price to be paid for magic.
In Holly Lisle’s Secret Texts trilogy, the principle was that a magical action had an equal and opposite reaction. So a fierce magical attack produced an equally strong backlash, and some scapegoat on the attackers’ side had to absorb that. In Orson Scott Card’s Hart’s Hope, magic had to be paid for with blood.
This can lead to a lot of interesting setups and scenarios. What other prices would people pay for magic? Their appearances, so that they ended up supremely powerful but also gut-twistingly hideous? The years of their lives – or their children’s lives? What if the price was a renewable resource? The Dark Sun campaign setting in Dungeons and Dragons used a world stripped of most water and metals through the use of magic.
3. Realistic limitations on magic.
In most stories, magic is limited in that only certain people can use it, but I’d like to see better checks and balances on those people as well. Otherwise, there’s nothing to prevent the hero from annihilating the entire enemy army with a barrage of fireballs, or to stop the antagonist from simply reading the minds of everyone she distrusted.
In the first story I wrote, the power of magic decreased with distance, so while a magician could control anything he touched, there wasn’t much he could do to the enemy army ten miles away unless he wanted to get up close and personal with them. I still use that idea, but I also have magic turning on people who overuse it, driving them insane or reshaping their bodies. As a result, they don’t use it constantly, and are always aware of what will happen if they push their power too far.
Magicians who need objects to produce or channel their power could be helpless without those objects – wizards in the Potterverse can’t do much without their wands unless they’re naturally talented, like Animagi.
4. Realistic spells.
Doug Douglason: Yield to me.
Raymond Ractburger: Not while I still draw breath!
Doug: A mere detail that shall be remedied shortly. Magic Missile!
Raymond: Aargh! Berserker Rage!
One reason I like the spells in Lawrence Watt-Evans’s Ethshar novels is because they’re scientific in their names (Ellran’s Immortal Animation, Felshen’s First Hypnotic Spell), requirements and effects. As a result, they’re consistent. A Watt-Evans wizard isn’t going to pull a deus ex machina never-heard-of-before spell out of his, er, hat when in a tight spot. A witch won’t be able to do so at all.
I appreciate being aware beforehand of what magic a person can do, and if they can’t do it, there has to be a good reason why. If a mage previously used a Shield Spell against his enemies, but they corner him anyway through sheer force of numbers, I want a good reason for why he can’t use another Shield Spell and buy himself time to run. The writer wanting him to be a martyr at that point doesn’t count as a good reason.
That was fun to write.