Top Five Magic Systems

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.

Snake Oil

The sudden jolt brought Maynard out of his reverie and into the present. All at once he was aware of the muggy evening air, the hard bench beneath him, and the incessant squeal of a wagon axel in need of grease. He had hit a small hole in the road, he realized. His horses May and Bay had avoided stepping on it. Maynard on the other hand was nowhere near as attentive as his horses. Silently he praised the horses and cursed himself. The wagon’s rear axle was bad enough without him breaking it further. That last thing he needed was to become stranded on some mountain trail. But that would be a problem for later, he still had a long way to go until the next town.

In the west, the setting sun was of far greater immediate concern. Wolves, he knew, prowled the mountains, and might see a lone traveler and his tired horses as a rare opportunity. But his worried were dominated by a far greater threat. He feared that the shotgun he carried across his lap would deal with them as effectively as it did wolves.

There had been four of them, each with a mean look in his eyes and a six shooter on his belt. Maynard had come upon them while they were resting on the side of the road sipping whiskey. All four had given him cold looks as he had passed by. For his part, Maynard had tried find a balance between looking non-threatening and looking like he’d put up too much of a fight to be worth robbing. The shotgun in his lap had been held is as confident and non-threatening way that he could manage.

Soon after he had seen them following him. Always just beyond the last bend, just barely in sight. He had thought they might be planning to rob him. So far they had not. Still, he was worried what they might do after dark. And so he was in a hurry to get to the next town. If he could at least camp at its edge it might discourage them from attacking. He ran through a few quick scenarios in his mind, and none of them looked good. He was a soothsayer, a man with a magical gift for persuasion. But it was always hard to persuade someone who had already settle on aggression. Violence turns off the reason in men’s brains, and Maynard knew better than to test it. At best, if the men decided to rob him, he might be able to pay them to leave him alone. But with the valuables stowed in his wagon he thought that unlikely. They’d shoot him and take what they wanted.

As the sun finally set over the mountains, a number of distant farms came into view. Their locations were given away only by the dim light of their hearths that shined through the windows. He glanced nervously behind the wagon. If the men were going to attack, this would be their chance. Lights from the town ahead were beginning to come into view. Soon he would be surrounded by more witnesses than most bandits would care for.

“You there. Hold!” yelled a voice from the darkness.

Maynard jumped in his seat and brought the horses to an abrupt stop. The four men? Come to stage an ambush? He considered running. But he had already stopped, and four riders would easily out pace his wagon. No, his best option was just to stay calm, wait, and hope.

An armed man came out of the shadows on horseback. He was only just barely visible in the moonlight. Maynard could barely make out the outline of the carbine held in the man’s hands.

“Your business?” asked the figure.

“Just a travelling merchant looking for a place to set up his store,” answered Maynard. The figure shifted, and Maynard saw moonlight reflect off of a silver star on the man’s vest. He let out a sigh of relief. Not an ambush then.

The deputy was silent for a moment. “Alright,” he said finally. “But don’t camp outside of town. There have been some unfriendly folks on the roads lately. Go to the village green, next to our office. You can make your camp there.”

Maynard thought of the men he had seen earlier. “Thank you kindly, sir,” he then added a bit of magical weight to his words. “Might I set up shop there in the morning too? I have many wares and little coin.”

The Deputy’s eyes narrowed. “What’re you looking to sell?

“Oh, a bit of everything,” said Maynard. “Medicines, tonics, tools, books.”

“Candy? Toys for the children?” asked the deputy.

Maynard put on a smile and nodded. “I have some, yes.”

“You can set your shop up for the day. But no hassling anyone. These folks have had enough trouble.”

Maynard thanked the deputy and urged the horses forward. As he did he saw other figures standing behind the deputy. Militia? He thought again to the riders he had passed. Fugitives? No. Why would they have been following him towards town. Perhaps the deputy was looking for someone else.

It was quiet when he finally reached the town. A few patrons were still visible through the windows of the saloon, but no music was playing and there was none of the usual raucous that Maynard had learned to associate with such places.

He soon found the sheriff’s office, which occupied one corner of a building that appeared to also function as town hall. The village green in front of it hardly lived up to its name. It was instead a patchy quilt of mud, gravel, and dead grass, tamped down by cart wheels and foot prints. He hitched his horses to a post in front of town hall and fed them from a bag of oats he kept in the wagon. Then he turned to making his own bed. He decided that a campfire and tent would be uncouth, as he was in the village green and not out in the mountains. So he elected to instead create a small sleeping space for himself inside the wagon. There, squeezed in between stacked rolls of cloth, sacks of flour and boxes of trinkets, he did his best to get a decent night’s sleep.

The sun woke him as it did most mornings. His breakfast consisted of a piece of bread and some dried fruit that he had stashed in the wagon, which he ate while he set up his stall. He first unfolded two light tables that he places in front of his wagon before placing his selections of trinkets, pocket knives, cloth, and tonics out on the tables. He only paused when he put his hands on a box of odd artifacts. Most of them were worthless trinkets, although judging from his admittedly week second sight he had surmised that some of those trinkets might hold some magical potential. Even then, to most people they would be worth little. They were things he acquired in the course of his travels and kept because they took up little space and might be of interest to a collector or two. Nothing in the box was of any real interest to a bunch of farmers, but he set them out anyway as curiosities; something to attract the public’s interest while he sold them other things.

When he was done he stepped back to admire his work. His wagon was hardly impressive, with its peeling red paid and worn gold lettering, but it certainly drew the eye, and he felt that the wares he had laid out would be of suitable interest. Just then he remembered that he ought to know the town’s name before he tried to make any money off them. He cast his eyes about the green, before finding it. Its letters, which were peeling like those on his wagon, read WELCOME TO ACRE.

With his stall set up and no customers yet in sight he decided to brush the horses while he waited. The morning was off to a slow start for a farming town. He would have expected to see more people in the streets, but so far his only company seemed to be the saloon owner whittling on his porch down the street. Maynard thought back to the deputy and the riders. Something had the people of Acre spooked.

By the time he saw the posse return it was nearly mid-day. The unlikely assembly walked past him without a word, although he attracted a few glances. Most of them went on down the street to the saloon where they were greeted solemnly by the owner. The deputy did not go with them. Instead he hitched his horse beside May and Bay and went inside the sheriff’s office.

An idea came to Maynard’s mind after seeing the exhausted looks of the men. He quickly brought out his camp stove and started a pot of coffee to serve as bait. Eventually the deputy emerged from his office and leaned on the porch railing to watch Maynard. His eyelids sagged, and he leaned on the railing in such a way that Maynard suspected he might collapse from exhaustion at any moment.

“Want some coffee friend?” asked Maynard while he filled a tin mug and held it out to the deputy. The deputy eyed him suspiciously for a moment before accepting the cup. On his face he wore an expression of both simple tiredness and defeat. “Rough night?” he asked after the deputy had taken his first sip.

“Been a few of them.”

Maynard nodded sympathetically. “I saw some riders on my way here. They had mean eyes. Those the folks you’ve been looking for?”

The deputy was suddenly alert. “Where?”

“Just before I ran into you,” answered Maynard. “They followed me for a ways. I thought they might try to rob me until I found you.”

The deputy stared into his coffee. “I reckon they were Pauling’s men.”

“Pauling?”

“Small time cattle farmer. Lives up on the north end of the valley,” answered the deputy. “A few months back he found gold on his neighbor’s land. Now he’s trying to muscle his way into owning half the valley. He’s brought in a few brawlers and third-rate gunfighters from Dorster too. Lot of people have been robbed or otherwise roughed up lately.”

“Is that you reason for your patrols?”

The deputy nodded. “Enough of that. You’ve got customers.”

Maynard looked away from the deputy and his coffee. Coming down the street were the men from the night patrol. Each looked like he was on the verge of collapse. When they reached Maynard’s table they picked through his merchandise in silence. Normally he would have launched into a sales pitch, but he could tell the men would have no patience for it, and he suspected the deputy would notice if he attempted to enchant them into buying something.

A few of them picked simple things; boxes of matches, rolls of cloth. A few were looking for children’s toys, and Maynard made a point of giving those men free candies to take home. An action that he though might have brought a brief smile out of the deputy.

One member of the militia hung back until the others had found what they were looking for. The man was dressed like any frontier farmer. Rough spun clothes that showed years of wear, and calloused hands that were well acquainted with hard work. He had stood to the back of the posse, holding an old pepperbox in his hands that were well acquainted with hard work but unfamiliar with violence. While the others had looked through Maynard’s wares he had stood staring at a single point. Maynard followed the man’s gaze and saw that it led to a box of old trinkets.

Only when the rest of the group began to disperse did he approach the table. As he did, Maynard could see signs of a recent beating on the man’s face. The bruising around his eye had faded and was now a sickly yellow, and his nose looked like it was still in the early stages of healing.

From a box on the table he drew a small necklace and held it up. “How much?”

Maynard took the necklace from the settler, who seems to cringe as it left his grasp. He did not remember where he had picked up the trinket. It was a worn, carved piece of gray stone tied to a leather strap. Hardly larger than a button. Etched lines circled the stone starting on the outside edge until they reached the center. Looking at it he felt as if he could trace the lines for hours. Impulsively, he opened his second sight as far as he could and it instantly overwhelmed him. He felt as if he was standing on the edge of a precipice and about to fall into the amulet’s swirling lines. He panicked and shut his third eye before he could be drawn in any further.

“You know friend,” he said with his charmed voice. “I have many more splendid trinkets available if you would like. Ones that are much finer than that old thing.”

“No. This one will do.”

Maynard was not quite sure how to respond. Every rational thought he had screamed at him not to sell the amulet. Whatever was drawing the man to it couldn’t be good, and it was enough to allow him to resist Maynard’s magic. A man in as weakened a state should have been easy to charm. He looked again with his second sight. This time he was careful to avoid looking at the amulet and instead directed his gaze at the man.

An aura of black storm clouds writhing with lighting enveloped the man. From the hand holding the amulet radiated a sickly yellow light that was slowly intertwining itself with the storm clouds. To his horror, Maynard realized that there was nothing that he could do for the man. It would require a far greater Talent than his to dispel whatever curse had been laid on him, and his charms were clearly too weak.

In a last attempt at dissuading him. Maynard resorted to the only thing he knew to have absolute control over men’s hearts. “Two crowns,” he said finally.

“Done.”

Although not entirely surprised, Maynard was saddened by the man’s response. Two crowns was no small sum. He had a strong sense that whatever the amulet was it might very well ruin the man. Still, he knew better than to deny the sale. Whatever had its hold on the man wouldn’t let a shopkeeper like Maynard get in the way of obtaining the amulet. Reluctantly, he wrapped the amulet in a bit of tissue paper and sent the man on his way.

As soon as the farmer had gone out of earshot Maynard turned to deputy and asked who that had been.  The deputy told him that the man was a farmer named Ernest and was one of Pauling’s neighbors who had been pushed off his land. “He’s lost,” said the deputy in reference to the trinket. “People get desperate sometimes. They fixate on things. Maybe he wanted it for his wife. These times have been tough on her too.”

Maynard nodded noncommittally. He had a bad feeling in his gut. But there was nothing he could do.

By then it was well past the time that the town should have woken up. People should have been out on errands or working. He saw business owners like the saloon manager and gunsmith out, but by all accounts, it seemed that business was slow and the owners didn’t stray far from their front doors. Meanwhile the deputy went about brushing his horse, still sipping the coffee that Maynard had given him.

Maynard could not help but admire the man. It was well past noon and the deputy was still up after having spent the night patrolling the valley. As he sat there Maynard began to feel a strange sympathy for this man that he hardly knew.

“I think I know something that will help with the exhaustion,” he said carefully.

“Pardon?”

“The exhaustion,” said Maynard. “You’re obviously tired, I think I’ve got something that will help.”

The deputy narrowed his eyes. “I ain’t looking to buy anything.”

“Cost to you is nothing,” Maynard replied and started digging through a box full of tonics. “It’s a gift.” He held up an unbranded glass bottle with ALERT written in uneven block letters on the label. It was one of the tonics he mixed himself as he travelled, and he was quite proud of it. “Nothing quite beats sleep. But if you’re not going to be getting any, then this will keep you much more alert than just coffee.”

After a moment of hesitation, the deputy accepted the bottle. “How am I supposed to take it?”

“Just add some to this,” he said and handed the deputy a second cup of coffee.

The deputy nodded his thanks but stopped short of adding the tonic. His eyes narrowed as he focused on something down the street. “Looks like our friends have found you,” his hand went to the revolver on his hip.

Approaching them on horseback were three of the men that Maynard had seen the night before. Those who we in the street hurried to go back into their houses and shops as the trio rode down the road. Maynard noticed that members of the deputy’s posse had returned to town and were watching the riders carefully from the alley ways. Most of them held rifles or shot guns at the ready and were looking to the deputy for guidance. Maynard felt the urge to grab his scatter gun from the wagon, but he realized he didn’t have time for that.

The lead rider dismounted and walked up to Maynard’s stall. “We don’t want any trouble deputy. Just need to buy something from this gentleman,” he turned to Maynard. “You got anything for snake bites?”

Maynard stared at him blankly. “Oh, yes!” he said as he regained his composure. “I’ve got something right here,” he produced a small jar of salve from the same box he had stored the deputy’s tonic in. “Simply apply to the wound and then cover with a bandage.”

“How much?”

“One crown,” Maynard said. As he spoke another idea came to him. Adding magical weight to his words he went on to suggest that the men purchase a tin of coffee, then new bedrolls, additional tonics, and so on until he had sold them his entire stock of wilderness supplies. By the time they rode off he had convinced them to spend the equivalent of a laborer’s monthly wages. As they finally left town Maynard caught the deputy smiling openly for the first time that day.

The next morning Maynard packed up his stall and rode out of town. He was escorted by the town’s militia past the point where they expected there to be any danger from Pauling’s men. After all that he had seen of Acre; the gunfighters, the patrols, and the amulet, he was happy to get out. He couldn’t help but feel that the Dorster region was like a powder keg, and he wanted to be as far away as he could when it finally blew.