Everyone wants to be a wizard, right? You know, the squishy caster who cowers at the back of the party and throws fireballs through every open door?
Magic is at the heart of the fantasy genre, so it’s no surprise that writers and worldbuilders spent a lot of time designing their magic systems. It’s hard.
Designing a magic system is all about finding a balance between power and plot. The magic should empower characters and in some cases it may even resolve conflicts, or cause them.
The hardest part of designing a magic system is making it feel like it’s an integral part of the world. Magic is more than just a tool, in a world where magic exists it would become an integral part of religion, culture, maybe even science.
There are many, many varieties of magic you could make for your world. But one of the first things you should decide is whether you want a soft magic system or a hard magic system.
Soft Magic Systems
Soft magic is, well, magical. Soft magic systems have few defined rules and may not have formal spells. A practitioner of soft magic might be Gandalf for example. We know Gandalf is incredibly powerful, but we don’t really know what his limits are. Much of this is because he uses magic rarely, but you get the idea.
A soft magic system might draw power from creativity, psychic energy, or feelings. The limits of the caster may be defined by their physical or mental stamina. Soft magic systems are best for settings where the magic may be rare. In order to preserve the suspension of disbelief, a small number of practitioners who appear rarely or use their power sparingly. Otherwise the magic becomes a crutch and the audience will begin to lose interest.
Hard Magic Systems
Hard magic is hard because it has hard, defined rules. You could think of these magic systems as a bunch of “if then statements.” For example, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn features practitioners who know that if they consume x metal they will gain y power.
Hard magic systems are great for settings where magic is common and will be used frequently. Set rules let your audience know what to expect, but they don’t have to be boring. Let’s say you magic has five core rules and each of these rules is used by most characters in just one way. This doesn’t mean your characters are limited to just five spells. New uses for magic can be interest by new combinations or applications of these five rules.
Which One Is Better?
I tend to prefer soft magic systems myself. I’m a big fan of The Force and of the magic of the Farsala Trilogy. But that doesn’t mean soft magic systems are the best. Hard magic can also be incredibly interesting. Just because magic has defined rules does not mean that it can’t be “mystical.” Rules don’t have to be explicitely shown to your audience. If your magic is consistent your audience will begin to pickup on what the rules are. In this case the rules are more for your own use to make sure that you do not get carried out.
In the end, whether you should go with a hard or soft system depends on your story and your story’s needs. How common do you want magic to be? How powerful? Who uses it? What is it good for?
What’s the best magic system you’ve seen? What was so great about it? Let me know in the comments below!
Elemental magic is hard to do right. The four classical elements are so ingrained in us that we all are likely to add elemental worldbuilding into our first settings, but it’s hard to do well. The four elements have been done so much that it’s hard to be original. It’s hard to make elemental magic feel like it’s really a part of the world and not just a later add on.
Yet the elements are so pervasive that the internet is full of people showing off their elemental magics systems where they very creatively include their own elements like shadow, mud, or even magma.
There is nothing wrong with making an elemental magic system. It comes naturally to us for a reason. But if you want to your elemental magic to work it’s going to take a lot of effort.
Of the very limited selection of examples I have been exposed too I have only seen two instances of elemental magic done well; Codex Alera by Jim Butcher, and Avatar the Last Airbender.
Unlike Avatar, Codex Alera has six elements, not four. Each element has it’s uses, but some elements are clearly more useful that others. To be fair, the characters are at war for just about the entire series and for obvious reasons the characters are most interest in the elements that help them to kill the enemy. In Avatar the elements have a place in daily life and each can easily contend with the other. As much as I love Codex Alera, the world of Avatar just feels more alive.
This is something that can really only be done in a visual medium, but Avatar does it so well. Not only is each of the four based in a different marital art, different styles have their own variations.
For me the most obvious example of this are the pro-benders. Their quick jabs and evasions evoke images of professional boxers, and the bending they do reflects that. They’re all about quick attacks and evasions and it shows. Against a real fighter not constrained by the rules of the ring they quickly fall short. There movements are of peoples trained to do one thing well rather than master their element.
What’s the best thing about this? For me it’s that practice gets results. In most fantasy it can be hard to show characters getting better with magic. In Avatar their magic is so tightly linked to their movements and thinking that it’s almost impossible not to. A bender’s philosophy and mindset impact their bending in a very visible way.
Elemental magic is so common that it’s hard not to have prejudices.
Earth, Water, Air, Fire. Which would you choose? Which is the best?
In fantasy that has a four element system we don’t always get an equal view of each element. Everyone expects fire to be aggression or water to be healing. Avatar may not give every element the same amount of screen time, but they each have the same amount of potential. Every element is shown to have its own limitations and strengths but none is ever made to look weaker than the others.
In fact the best benders, like Iroh, take the time to learn from the other elements and see what practices they can incorporate into their own art.
Each of the four nations is inseparable from their element.
Too often in fantasy, magic is treated as something separate from the rest of society. In the Avatar universe magic is inseparable from the larger society. The trains and mail in Omashu are moved by earth benders. The builds in the Norther Water Tribe are clearly built with the help of water benders, and the the Fire Nation could not have had its industrial base without the fire benders to power the furnaces.
This arrangement brings obvious inequalities to mind. What can a normal person do when bending is so prevalent?
It’s an important question to ask and one that doesn’t get enough attention in the Legend of Korra. What do non-benders get?
Even so, the prevalence of bending in these societies becomes even more important. What happens when technology progresses? What happens when the non-benders no longer need the benders? While not fully addressed in The Legend of Korra, it’s still an interesting question that fantasy should address. What does magic do when it can’t hide?
Avatar the Last Airbender is an amazing series. I’ve loved it since I first saw the pilot in a hotel room when I was ten. Any time I thought I might want to make an elemental magic system I’ve turned to the wiki and realized that I simply couldn’t beat it.
It’s not the magic, or setting, it’s how real everything feels. The entire world is infused with the love of its creators and speaks to the wonders that can be achieved by a few dedicated worldbuilders.
What I most love about Avatar is that the otherwise cliché elemental magic can be innovative in the right context. Any magic, any idea, can feel real in the right setting. It speaks to the strength of good worldbuilding and it has been in my mind ever since I saw the first episode.
Really though, the best part of Avatar is that the magic doesn’t feel like magic. It just feels like a part of the world.
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I began watching (several years late) knowing that fans have a love/hate relationship with the show. Nevertheless, I tried to keep an open mind and managed to make it through to the end. And I have a lot of thoughts. I struggled writing this post, I tried to write a coherent essay about the Legend of Korra. Instead have this listicle.
If I had to sum up my thoughts about what was wrong with the series it would be this. It had a lot of potential, multiple good moments, and a lot of missed chances.
If you’ve read any of my other posts you’ll know by now that I love magic systems and bending is no exception. The world of Avatar is one of the few examples of a fantasy world where elemental magic doesn’t feel like the cliche. It feels real and it’s an integral part of the setting and culture. Getting to see subsets of bending reach maturity, especially metal bending, is just great.
It was also great to see an airbending master let loose. Don’t get me wrong, Aang is great, but he never really put his airbending on full display like Tenzin does in this series.
Finally, I was glad to see the creators stick with giving each style of bending a distinctive visual. Pro Benders, the professional athletes of the Avatar world. have a very distinctive style regardless of element that shows a focus on quick attacks and agile dodges. That this style of bending rarely holds up outside of the confines of the arena is a nice touch.
The main issue with the bending in this series is Korra’s weakness. Already at the beginning of season one it’s implied that she has already mastered three of the four elements. Yet throughout the series she repeatedly get’s brushed aside by her opponents. This is especially apparant in season one when she starts Pro Bending and apparently forgets everything she knows about bending in the process. Her fights with the Equalists are filled with quick jabs like those used in the arena when she could have just brought the building down. By the end of his first season Aang was sinking entire fleets on his own. With the exception of an incredibly cartoonish fight in season 2 we never get that from Korra.
None of the villains were bad exactly, at least the ideas for them weren’t. It makes sense that non-benders would begin demanding equal treatment or that established forms of government would be overthrown or forced to change. Or that people would forget to honor the spirits and cause backlash by doing so.
The problem with these villains is that we never really get to explore their motives. In her role as avatar Korra takes for granted that the world is already the way it should be. In season 4 it’s finally said that Korra helped get better treatment for non-benders but that’s not something we ever see her caring about in the first season while she is fighting Amon.
In Avatar the Last Airbender the protagonists dealt with concepts like imperialism, war , refugees, gender roles, and disabilities to name just a few. Legend of Korra introduces its own ideas, but never really deals with them in the same way. Time and time again Korra sees the problems that gave rise to the villains she has to face and each time she turns the other way.
Not Doing the Thing
So conflicts could have been resolved if the characters had done the sensible thing. I realize that if characters never made mistakes we’d never have story, but LoK has some really spectacular mistakes.
Why for example did Suyin Beifong refuse to restore order in Ba Sing Sei after the Earth Queen’s death? Morals aside, she at the time ruled one of the most advanced cities in the world with dedicated cadre of trained fighters. She had at this point already took her forces out of the city to help the avatar and the fledgling air nomads. Her refusal to help led directly to Kuvira’s rise to power.
While we’re on the topic of inaction. Why in season four was the Fire Lady so unwilling to take action against Kuvira? Given all the work Zuko put into rehabilitating the nation’s image after the war this attitude makes sense to a point. Did she really forget that her son is a part of the army that would very likely have to fight Kuvira on its own if the Fire Nation refused to help?
And why didn’t General Iroh just order his troops to fight Kuvira? I understand that the president had ordered him to surrender but it’s not like he wouldn’t have been able to see what a terrible idea surrender was. Plus as a member of the Fire Nation’s royal family he isn’t lacking in career options. After the role he played in season one, his part in season four was just disappointing.
I actually enjoyed Avatar Wan’s story. I know a lot of people did not. But it didn’t actually contradict any of the existing lore, if anything it gave it greater context, and the different art style made it clear that the story was being told with some embellishments.
The problem I have is with how the spirits were portrayed in the rest of the series. in the Last Airbender the spirits had gravitas. They were forces of nature or strange creatures bordering on being eldrich horrors. LoK’s spirits are essentially neopets that get angry sometimes. It’s no wonder the people of the Avatar World stopped listening to them.
I do however like that Iroh was able to live on in the spirit world. It made sense for his character and as a big fan of Iroh I was glad to see him come back.
At first the huge jump in technological progress that happened between ATLA and LoK was jarring, but it grew on me. The series has a wonderful steampunk/magitech aesthetic and the ways that we see bending and technology intermingle is just great.
With all the advances in technology I don’t quite understand why we don’t see as many non-benders taking part in conflicts as we did the ATLA.
The Legend of Korra had some good moments and a lot of bad moments, but it’s still a fun watch. If you want to see powerful benders driving around in shiny cars then this is the show for you. Like most things, it helps if you watch it for fun and don’t question it too much.
If you liked the first series then you should definitely watch this one, as long as you don’t raise your expectations too high you should still be able to enjoy it. I still don’t think it at all measured up to the first series, but at least I had fun watching it.
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All good genre fiction needs its technobabble. However wacky and unreal you want to make your universe is okay so long as it is backed up by consistency and enough internal logic to make your readers suspend their disbelief for a few hours.
History is full of discredited theories and failed hypotheses. Some were just plain outlandish when they were first proposed and still are, others seem to make sense at first but fall apart under scrutiny. Even though they have been debunked or misrepresented, these five examples of pseudoscience may serve as starting points for those worldbuilders looking for a way to justify their strange tech and magic spells.
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
Linguistic relativity began as the idea that the language a group speaks influences the way that its members look at and think about the world. Forms of the hypothesis varied from declaring that language determines the way the speaker looks at the world to merely influencing a speaker’s world view. Debates about this topic have been going on since Plato’s time but for the most part the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis appears to have been discredited.
Even so, the idea that language can influence a speaker’s mind is incredibly compelling and gives us a great starting point for explaining magical languages without necessarily invoking true names. Might some industrious wizard have designed a language to shape its speaker’s mind to better accomodate to spell casting or to lessen the risk of magical misfires? What I like best about this idea is that it allows for competing magical traditions. I love magic systems built around true names like in Earthsea but they make it hard to imagine different cultures having different approaches magic. Using something like Sapir-Whorf lets us have different cultures each with their own magical languages, or schools of wizards devising languages optimized for their particular niche.
There was a time when people thought that combustable materials contained a unique element that was released when burned. They called it Phlogiston. Unlike the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which sounds convincing at first, the flaws with Phlogiston theory are immediately apparent. That said, it would provide a great explanation for all manner of steam punk goodness.
Need an explanation for why those little brass cylinders are able to power your automatons? Just use Phlogiston! All you need is for some mad scientist to find a way to extract and bottle phlogiston and you have a ready made battery for all your science fiction needs.
Unlike the other examples on this list, quantum physics is a very real but also very misunderstood part of science. I personally cannot think of anything that is misrepresented to a greater degree in science fiction than quantum physics, and I’m not sure many people actually understand it either. At a certain scale, we’re talking protons and electrons and even smaller, classical physics no longer describes what we are able to observe. Quantum physics describes interactions on this subatomic scale. That’s it.
Yet it has been used in many works (and by modern day snake oil peddlers) to explain many apparently magical effects. And if you’re writing genre fiction then that’s perfectly okay! Quantum physics has a lot of weirdness to it that is unintuitive for most and science fiction is all about science that has yet to be discovered, so don’t feel bad if you use quantum entanglement or tunneling to explain away your new warp drive. The audience wont mind.
It was once thought that light needed some medium to travel through on its journey between the Sun and Earth. In the nineteenth century there were some who proposed that some luminiferous ether existed between the planets that allowed light to travel. This was of course disproved, but like phlogiston it holds lots of potential for writers of steampunk fantasy.
What might the ether do if it could be harnessed? It could hold the key to powering giant brass spaceships, or be tamed to craft constructs from hardened light.
There was a time when it was thought that living matter was fundamentally different from inert materials. This was disproved when urea was successfully made from inorganic starting material. That said, the idea that living things contain a “vital spark” is hugely useful in fantasy fiction.
Immediately it provides a power source for spells, justification for ghosts, a way for enlightened characters to sense the presence of others, and has lots of avenues to be exploited by the villains. What happens when a character’s vital spark is stolen? Can illnesses affect their spark? Does losing their spark kill a character or just make them husks of themselves? Can sparks be recycled?
There are plenty of other examples of pseudoscience that I could have referenced here. Just one example could be the topic of an entire book. These are just a few that I personally find to be especially interesting. The point I am really trying to get at is that history is filled with misconceptions and while they turned out to untrue in our world the “what if?” part of worldbuilding allows us to explore settings where the unreal is real. Many of these ideas are specific to particular eras in our own history, most of the examples I have used would not be our of place in our 19th or early 20th century. In many cases they show a desire to better understand our world and a desire to fit classifications and causes to observable phenomena. Crackpot theories and pseudoscience show a world where science is advancing, it’s up to you the writer to decide how accurate they are.
Have a favorite superstition that I didn’t mention here? Find me on twitter @expedition_blog to let me know!
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.