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.


Anonymous said...

My dear queen, have you read the Recluse series by L.E.Modesitt? It's based on Order/Chaos, with black being the color of Order (no colors) and white being the color of Chaos (all colors).

Order magic is used to build things and make them stronger, Chaos is able to weaken and destroy. In a stand up fight between mages, Chaos usually wins, but Order can win in the long run. Order is also valuable when working with technology.

There are interesting uses of balance and limitations, using magic has potentially big side effects in the world. There is also an effort to tackle Grey magic, where Order is used to focus Chaos.

It's all quite interesting from a technical perspective, you should give it a read.

Anonymous said...

Hi Marian,
Hi Marian,

Personally, I dislike any, "this is good magick!". "This is evil magick!"

I think it matters more how something is used.

Take water. Obviously, we can't survive without it. But it can also kill us through drowning. So it would be interesting to have magicians use the same element for different ends.

Anonymous said...

argh- wish I could edit my own comments. Didn't notice I greeted you twice. Makes me sound like a parrot!

Anonymous said...

Hey there.

Since you like to see prices paid for magic, what do you think if there's not much price (although there are plenty of limitations to avoid things getting out of hand) and therefore everyone to some extent uses magic? I've always found myself a little partial to Magitek settings.

For example, Steven Brust's Draegara setting has everyone using magic at fairly little cost (at least, for the simple spells), right down to peasants using it to help their crops grow and keep pests away. What do you think of such a setting? Could it cotton to you?