For me the best part about the fantasy genre is the magic. I love reading a book with a well-designed system, one that’s believable and is full of possibilities, and by possibilities I don’t just mean those shown on the screen. In my mind a good magic systems should also be one where the audience can imagine new uses not seen “on screen” based on the mechanics they are shown.
1. Codex Alera
It’s hard to beat the appeal of a simple elemental magic system, but it’s very easy to ruin one. In the Codex Alera series Jim Butcher manages to make an elemental magic system that feels natural, is incorporated into the society seen in the books, and doesn’t fall victim to its creators desire for originality. Instead of the normal four elements, this systems has six, making it more closely resemble the chinese elemental system instead of the greek. For each of these elements there is a countless number of nature spirits called ‘furies’ of varying degrees of strength. Most human characters can manipulate all six elements to some degree, but are only particularly skilled with one or two. High Lords, the nobility of the setting, are distinguished by their power over all six.
I love this system because it is intuitive and because it has been completely integrated with Aleran society. Social status and political power are linked to a person’s magical talents and the power of furies is used in place of many technologies that we enjoy in the real world. This integration is so complete that characters have difficulty imagining ways to accomplish tasks without the use of their furies, putting characters who lack a connection to furies at a severe disadvantage in Aleran society.
The differences we see in urban versus rural perceptions of magic is another facet of this system that I really enjoy. Rural inhabits more readily anthropomorphize their furies by assigning them names and personalities, whereas urban residents are more likely to see their furies as merely useful tools. In my mind different interpretations of the same system lends a does or realism to the setting. Real people have differing thoughts and approach the same situations in different ways, and this is nice to see mirrored in a fantasy setting.
2. Full Metal Alchemist
FMA’s alchemical magic, with its strict rules of equivalent exchange and lip-service to scientific principles, is a perfect system for science-enthusiasts. It’s a system with clearly defines rules and ways to break them, which is important in any high fantasy setting and keeps hand-waving to a minimum. Most importantly, it is a system where the costs are clearly shown; an important consideration in high fantasy settings.
Most of the examples of alchemy we see in the series consists of reshaping matter, but we see from the more specialized alchemists practiced by characters like Mustang and Kimblee that much more is possible. From alchestry’s practitioners in Xing we learn that this is another system that is also open to some interpretation.
Unfortunately we don’t get to see many alchemists outside of the military, but from Shou Tucker’s home and the brief glimpses of civilian alchemists attempting to repair damaged buildings we see a little of what every day life is like for an alchemist who has not been completely absorbed by the military. From the reaction of Leto cultists in Reole and the distrust for alchemy held by the Ishvalens we see that the practice of this magic is not as wide spread as the other systems listed here, but admonishments from characters who believe that alchemists should work for the people and the prominent role given to alchemists in Amestris’ military shows the importance of magic to the rest of the setting.
3. Wizard of Earthsea
The magic of true names that Ursula K. Le Guin shows us in Earthsea is a bit more philosophical than the other systems I’ve chosen to include. In this system words have power and people jealously guard their true names. Names are power in this setting, and fully trained wizards dedicate years to learning the true names of everything around them. The consequences of having this power come up several times. The balance of the world puts an inherent limit on what a wizard can do. Many spells are in fact illusions because creating something from nothing would upset the world’s equilibrium.
With the exception of the Kargish lands, magic is thoroughly integrated into the society of Earthsea. Practitioners of magic range from hedge witches, to weather control wizards on ships, to royal advisers. In the first book we are shown the importance of magic when Olgion, a sorcerer, is present for Ged’s naming.
4. Powder Mage
Brian McClellan created multiple magic systems for his Powder Mage series. Normally I am hesitant to embrace a setting with multiple distinct types of magic but these books are the exception. Privileged, Power Mages, and Blood Mages are all relatively rare and we get the sense that magic has changed over time. This sense of evolving magic makes a great fit for the themes of revolution and change often seen in gunpowder fantasy. The practitioners I’m most interested in here are Knacked; people with a single magical talent that can be anything from never needing to sleep to making crops grow in just minutes.
According to the author the Privileged make up a pseudo-aristocracy within the setting, and Powder Mages have obvious military applications, but the Knacked have the biggest influence on the every day. Knacked abilities can make a person rich, and because both men and women are equally likely to find themselves possessing magical talents the sexes are shown to have equal opportunities available to them. We regularly see female heads of state, generals, and soldiers, all of which would be rare in many other settings.
Most importantly for this list, the powers of the knacked best fit my preference for magic that is integrated into every day life. With abilities ranging from mundane to extraordinary the knacked fit into a wide range of niches whereas this setting’s other practitioners are mostly shown employed as either super soldiers or living artillery.
5. Dungeons and Dragons
On first glance this is the most rigid system that I am listing here. Each spell has specific guidelines for who can use it, what it costs, and what it does. The systems also requires players to prepare their spells ahead of time. At first this need for planning and preparation might seem limiting compared to looser systems where spells can be made up on the fly, but D&D players are (in)famous for reading the fine print and coming up with new and creative uses that stretch the limits of what is actually allowed. Go on any D&D forum and you will find users sharing and debating uses for popular spells like Prestidigitation and Thaumatugy. That this system can be interpreted so differently depending on play styles is one of this system’s strengths.
Just how integrated magic is with the rest of the setting will depend on the setting and your group’s DM. Even so, the need for spell components and the utilitarian applications of many spells allows DMs to create settings with entire magical economies with spellslingers on every corner if it suits their campaign.