An authentic and believable fantasy world has to follow consistent rules. It must seem as if magic (mancery, the Secret Art) really exists, and both author and readers have to know what can and can’t happen in this world. Here are the rules I follow in my Three Worlds epic fantasy series, my other fantasy novels and my children’s books.
Basics of Magic
- Magic is a rare natural ability (the gift) in humans and a few other sentient creatures, but without study, training and self-discipline the gift is unlikely to develop usefully. Those who have mastered the use of magic are called mancers, wizards or adepts. These terms apply to both sexes.
- Magic wants to express itself. Someone with an untaught, blocked or repressed gift is liable to become a danger to themselves and others.
- A few creatures are intrinsically magic (e.g. salamanders, unicorns), though not being sentient they cannot cast spells. Some sentient magical creatures (e.g. dragons) may be able to do magic intuitively. Other sentient species, if they have the gift, can learn to cast spells, and may be stronger or weaker than human adepts, but are subject to the same general limitations.
Sources of Power
- Magic requires power. Magical theory states that power can either be drawn:
- From within the adept’s mind or body, which is limiting and exhausting;
- From an enchanted device or object if the adept has one and knows how (which can be dangerous);
- By stealing the life force of another person (even more dangerous, and a capital crime).
In my later books, from Geomancer on, power can also be drawn from a geographical source (the field around a naturally occurring node), which makes far more power available but greatly increases the danger.
There may be other sources of power – the theory of magic is poorly understood. In other fantasy realms power may come from:
- Spirits, gods, genies, demons or familiars (bound or unbound);
- A magic-suffused world;
- The life force of some or all living things;
- Natural phenomena such as earthquakes or thunderstorms; and/or
- Higher or lower planes of existence.
- An adept’s inner power can be used up. Novices may exhaust their power after casting one or two simple spells, and not even the greatest adepts can cast powerful spells (e.g. in battle) for hours without running out of power. Once an adept’s inner power has been exhausted, he/she can do no more magic without resting or sleeping to replenish it.
- Magic use is normally facilitated by an enchanted device such as a staff, wand, ring, amulet, crystal, jewel, book etc. which helps the adept to focus and control a spell. Most adepts require such a device to work magic, though great adepts may be able to cast spells without using a device. People without the gift for magic can’t use such devices, and gifted people without training can only use them poorly. In many cases, the adept must also win the allegiance of the enchanted device’s persona or spirit, if it has one, before using it effectively.
- Specific spells may also be cast via magical objects such as a spell scroll or inscribed rune, an elixir, potion or scent potion, a magical weapon, armour or tool, or enchanted jewellery, bones etc. Occasionally, ungifted people may be able to trigger the contained spell in a magical object (e.g. by using the weapon, wearing the armour or giving someone the potion or cursed item). In most cases, however, the magical gift, plus knowledge, training and willpower are all required to trigger the spell. Additionally, the adept may be required to win the allegiance of the enchanted object’s persona, if it has one, before using it effectively.
- Enchanted devices and objects can be drained of power. Once all the power in an adept’s device or object has been used, he/she can do no more magic with it until it has been recharged. Some magical objects cannot be recharged; others will be destroyed when all the contained power has been used. Even if the adept has an unlimited supply of enchanted devices, she/he cannot keep casting spells for hours because channelling such a great flow of power will exhaust even the most experienced adept.
- Devices and objects can be corrupted by misuse or use for very dark magic, and in some cases by passage through a portal between worlds. A corrupted magical device is unpredictable, and may be treacherous, and using it will be perilous for all but the greatest adepts.
- Some magical devices have a memory of how they were used in the past. This may either limit or enhance what the device can do in future.
Finding, Storing and Using Power
To wield magic safely and effectively, an adept must master three very difficult skills:
- The Use of Magical Power. This involves:
- Finding sources of power (internal or external);
- Drawing on power safely;
- Using power to work different kinds of spells, each of which will have different requirements, pitfalls and limitations;
- Blocking or diverting power used by other adepts; and
- Seeking out, identifying and locating the traces left when magical power has been used by others.
- Enchantment of Devices and Objects. This greatly increases the power available to do magic, and the magician’s control of it, but also increases the danger.
- Almost any object can be enchanted if the adept is sufficiently skilled, though in most cases the enchantment will be feeble and will not last long. Few materials can be enchanted strongly, and great and powerful devices can only be made from rare or precious materials;
- The creation of a magical device (such as a staff, wand or ring) to serve as a wizard’s focus is exceedingly difficult. It requires careful selection and rigorous preparation of materials (e.g. for a staff or wand, the right kind of wood, bone, ivory, horn, tusk or other material, plus in most cases the right kind of magical core). Staffs and wands are almost always made from organic materials. Rarely, an adept may make a staff or wand from iron, silver or other inorganic substance, though these are exceedingly difficult to prepare and require great physical strength and mental dominance to use.
- There are two kinds of magical cores:
- Organic cores derived from part of a magical animal (e.g. unicorn horn, basilisk fang, troll kidney stone, salamander skin) or plant (bloodwort, devil’s dung, dragon wort, ebony, yew wood, rowan wood, eucalyptus, carnivorous plants etc.). It is forbidden to use any body part of a human adept for a magical core, though sorcerers and dark wizards have been known to do this;
- Inorganic cores derived either from rocks with magical properties (e.g. haematite, bloodstone, lapis lazuli, moonstone, Tiger’s Eye, meteorite, fulgurite (a ‘petrified’ lightning strike), or magical crystals (e.g. opal, jade, emerald, amethyst) or fossils (trilobites, insects in amber, dinosaur parts, coprolites (ie fossilised dung) etc.).
- Ideally the device’s core will be chosen to complement the adept’s abilities and nature. An antagonistic core can only be used by an adept with great mental strength.
- The core must be compatible with the material of the staff, wand or other device.
- The core will often influence the type of magic that can be worked, e.g:
- A core derived from a unicorn cannot reliably be used for dark magic;
- A core based on a troll body part will be unsuited for clever or subtle magic;
- A core that comes from a were-beast may display very different characteristics according to the phase of the moon and the nature of the beast.
- Enchantment of a device or object may install a persona (inner spirit) in it. It is not known where the persona comes from, however staffs and wands whose core comes from a magical creature are more likely to have a persona.
- If the core comes from a sentient magical creature (e.g. dragon bone, hag hair, werewolf fang, goblin toenail), its persona will be more powerful but more difficult to work with, and is likely to have some of the characteristics of the creature it came from. This applies doubly to cores based on relics or body parts from human adepts; the persona may be full of rage, or plot revenge at being used for forbidden purposes.
- Working with the Persona of an Enchanted Device.
- A persona has a life and will of its own and may be able to communicate with the owner of the device, and others. A persona makes the device more powerful, assuming the adept can win its allegiance. If not, the device will be a great danger to its user.
- The persona may resent being trapped in the magical object, and resentment will build if the persona feels unappreciated or ill-used. It may go to sleep, withdraw its support or make the adept’s spells backfire on him or her. If the persona feels particularly ill-used, it may betray its user, even to death.
- Although the persona can be dominated by a sufficiently powerful adept, it will resent this and may hold back power, or attempt to make spells go wrong. It is far more effective to win the persona’s allegiance via a meeting of minds (or through charm or flattery). Where a device has not been used for a long time, the persona may have to be coaxed out of a comatose state.
Effectiveness of Magic
- Rare places, natural or built, can enhance magic (or certain kinds of magic) done there.
- For instance, some places may be particularly suited to the working of dark magic; other places may facilitate the creation of gates (AKA portals). The converse is also true: some places may weaken magic done there, or increase the risk of a spell going badly wrong.
- To work a particular spell, the adept may need to tailor the setting with structures, symbols, geometric markings, colours, scents or specific props (either magical or with a beneficial history).
- Time (season, moon phase, time of day, alignment of planets, stars or other heavenly bodies) and weather may also matter.
- The effectiveness of a spell depends on the person using it. People have different abilities, attitudes, passions, beliefs and prejudices, strengths and weaknesses and taboos, all of which will influence the kinds of magic they are drawn to, and how effectively they can use it. Just as in our world some people can’t do maths, and others can’t sing in tune, some adepts can only work certain kinds of spells. Some adepts (not necessarily bad people) are attracted to the dark side, others repulsed by it.
- Magic is shaped by the person using it. Every individual will work a spell differently and some spells will actually look different (e.g., a shapeshifters’).
- History matters. The present-day world has been shaped by people’s choices in the past. A magical device, object, spell or place may work differently today because of how it was used or misused in the past.
Limitations of Magic
- All magic has consequences and limitations, and all spells have weak points.
- All but the most subtle magic leaves traces. Great adepts may be able to read these traces and use them to identify – and possibly locate and attack – the user.
- Every spell can be blocked, if the defender has the knowledge, experience and power. Many spells can be reversed, though some cannot (eg, a spell that has killed the victim).
- Magic is an art, not a science, and contains an element of randomness. Sometimes spells cast perfectly will fail, rebound on the adept, or go wrong – sometimes comically, but sometimes with disastrous effects.
- Spells cast imperfectly, or by adepts who lack the knowledge or control, are likely to go disastrously wrong (see below).
- The range of magic is always limited. Some spells may require the adept to touch the target (the object or person to be bespelled); many spells will only work if the target is within sight; few spells will have a range of more than half a mile, and those that do require great power and control otherwise they’re liable to go astray. Spells required to work across great distances (such as for the creation of portals) are immensely difficult and may have a crippling cost to the user.
- Large-scale magic (eg to hide or disguise something as large as a town, castle or army) is extremely difficult and draining, and will rarely last longer than a few hours. Permanently hiding something large in a populated area is almost impossible; it may be possible in a wilderness area where few people will ever see it.
- Collaborative magic (magic involving a large number of adepts working together) is extremely difficult. Simple tasks (eg creating widespread fog or confusion) will often succeed, however complex tasks (such as repairing buildings destroyed in a battle) are rarely successful, and are liable to go badly wrong.
- The duration of magic is generally limited. For instance, attack spells such as stunning, transformations, invisibility, illusions etc may only work for a few minutes. Where such a spell is required to act for a long time, it will normally drain the adept’s power all the time it is in force. Some spells are permanent, for instance petrifaction (turning someone or something to stone) however these require immense amounts of power and are liable to cause great pain or aftersickness.
- Most spells are limited in the materials they will work on. For instance, metal is impervious to many spells; enchanting a ring, sword or other metal device requires powerful magic and rare skill. Some spells may badly affect people with the magical gift (trained or untrained) but have no effect on people who lack the gift.
- Magic always has a cost to the adept – and it can be high.
- Using magic generally causes aftersickness – pain, nausea, migraines etc. – and sometimes it can be so debilitating that the adept cannot defend herself for hours. Aftersickness is worst for novices, but can also badly affect experienced adepts if using a powerful or unfamiliar spell.
- If too much power is drawn, or the adept overreaches his abilities and loses control working a powerful spell, the result can be injury, madness or even a gruesome death (e.g., by anthracism (burning from the inside out), or bodily explosion).
- Magic can’t violate the fundamental laws of nature, e.g.
- Conservation of matter – you can’t turn an elephant into a mouse (without shedding most of its mass) or vice versa (without a source of the right mass). Transformation of people, animals or objects of very different sizes requires staggering amounts of power and only the greatest adepts can do it successfully;
- Conservation of energy – magical power can’t be created or destroyed, only transformed. If a Great Spell goes wrong, or a mighty magical object is corrupted, it is liable to create magical pollution and may contaminate the area with toxic magical waste. In such deadly places, plants, animals and even stone and earth can take on strange and dangerous forms, and power flows wildly and uncontrollably, perverting everything it touches.
- Due to the laws of physics, gates cannot be disguised. They are accompanied by rushing wind, booms or pops, bright flares or electrical discharges, and often mist or fog. This is fortunate as an unobtrusive gate would allow villains to commit any kind of crime or atrocity without fear of discovery. To a lesser extent, teleportation and summoning of objects have similar limitations.
- Not all actions are reversible, and where they are, this can be exceedingly difficult.
- It’s easy to break things but very difficult to put them back together, and the greater the damage the less likely that it can be repaired by magic. E.g., a broken cup can normally be repaired, but a cup that has been smashed to bits may be irreparable. A spilled potion can be magicked back into its container but, due to contamination by dirt or dust, may no longer work.
- A wound inflicted in seconds may take days or weeks to heal via magic. The greater the injury, the more difficult it will be to heal, and some injuries may be impossible to heal.
- Death means death. Although great sorcerers may be able to raise a dead person with necromancy, the raised person will never have true life and will long to return to death.
- Time only runs forward. It’s theoretically possible to jump forward in time, but it’s not possible to go backwards.
- Instantaneous transportation (either via a gate, or by teleportation or summoning) is incredibly dangerous.
- Two solid objects can’t occupy the same space. If an object or person could be transported into the space occupied by something else (normally impossible) a catastrophic explosion would result.
- Two portals can’t occupy the same space. If a portal is opened inside another portal, everything in both portals will be annihilated, and space in the area will be warped in unfathomable and probably dangerous ways. Opening two portals close together is also fraught.
- If the portal, or the teleportation or summoning spell fails, the person or object being transported may end up nowhere, with no way back, or may simply cease to exist.
- If part of the person being transported is left behind, he/she will probably die instantly or bleed to death.
- You can’t make something out of nothing. Objects (e.g. money, food, clothing, weapons) created solely by magic will neither sustain or last long. Normally it’s far easier to summon what is needed from elsewhere, if that is possible.
- Magic has no morality. It’s neither good nor evil, though some kinds of magic are mainly used for dark purposes by bad people.
- Social acceptability. The acceptability of magic varies from place to place and time to time. In some societies it is accepted, even cherished. More often it and its users are seen as a threat, particularly those kinds of magic that are used for control or domination, or to gain personal power or wealth, particularly when its use is not effectively constrained by other forces in society. Selfless magic, such as healing magic, is generally though not always acceptable to society. Occasionally, magic is utterly proscribed and all those with the gift, whether they use it or not, are hunted down and imprisoned, killed, or have their gift for magic destroyed.
The Main Kinds of Magic (considerable overlap in these categories) and their limitations:
- Psychic – mental attack: mind damage, mind control, & reading, changing or deleting memories; mental defence: blocking mental attacks and the reading of thoughts and memories; empathy; clairvoyant magics such as sendings, seeings, hearings and mind-linking, used for communication or spying; read the history or nature of an object; telekinesis, ie moving nearby objects. Includes the visualisation of power and the traces left by the use of magic and – very rarely – robbing another adept of their magic, or even their gift for it;
- Healing, Strength and Longevity – healing potions and balms, and healing spells; spells or potions that confer greater strength or other physical attributes; increased longevity; renewal of one’s life or the life of another (see also Chymical and Alchemy);
- Control of Animals – control and use of magical animals (may also use Charm and Illusion);
- Shapeshifting – were-creatures who can’t control it, and shapeshifters who can (mostly). Shapeshifting is extremely difficult and subject to similar size/weight limitations as Transformation.
- Divination – seeing the future, reading the past. Gaining insight to a question through signs, symbols, the stars, omens, crystal balls, reading cards, pools and mirrors etc.;
- Illusion – creation of realistic images, settings or scenes that fool the eye; also mesmerism (of individuals and groups); bewitchment and charming; and invisibility and revelation;
- Elemental Magic – controlling earth, air, fire, water and ether (also known as quintessence). Blasts of light or fire, explosions. Animating inert objects & disintegration of objects. Weather magic;
- Enchantment or Charm – putting a spell on an object (or a person or animal) to make it do something it wouldn’t normally do, e.g., make a broom fly, summon an object, create an enchanted device, put a curse on an object. Also confusion charms, memory charms on people etc.
- Transformation – changing objects from one form to another. Unless the two objects are similar in size and weight, transformation is exceedingly difficult;
- Transportation and Conjuration.
- Normal transportation: human flight; creating or enchanting objects (brooms, carpets etc.) to move and fly.
- Instantaneous transportation (requires high-level mastery and great power): Creating portals between one place and another; teleportation of objects and people; conjuring or summoning objects from a distance. All these are very dangerous.
- Chymical – alchemy (transmutation or transformation of matter and/or self; creation of panaceas and elixirs); formulation of incenses, potions or scent potions designed to affect people for good or ill;
- Herbalism – cultivation and use of magical plants. Also related to Alchemy, Healing, potions and scent potions;
- Masonry, Artificing and Smithcraft – magically working with metal, stone and other materials to make or build non-magical or magical buildings, mechanisms and other items.
- Geomancy – using the latent power in certain rare crystals, minerals, rocks and fossils, or more commonly, enchanting such items. Using the earth as a power source, e.g. fields developed around geological or geographic features such as fault lines, meteor craters, volcanoes, ore bodies etc.
- Astronomy – studying the power and influence of the heavenly bodies. May be facilitated and power (possibly) tapped via armillaries and orreries. Related to Divination;
- Mathemancy – laws of numbers, magical patterns (magic squares, circles, fractals, spirals, symmetries etc.), geometry and topology (e.g. Mobius strips, Klein bottles, trefoil knots etc.);
- Symbology – the magic and power of symbols, runes, alphabets, syllabaries or glyphs;
- Necromancy – Talking to, raising, animating and controlling the dead. Also summoning and controlling spirits or demons, and exorcism;
- Dark Magic – may include any of the above when used for bad purposes (or sometimes for self-defence), e.g.:
- Hexes, curses and jinxes (forms of Enchantment);
- Magic designed to rob, damage, oppress or cause pain, suffering, illness or madness, or ruin beauty or kill;
- Magic that draws power from pain, suffering, illness or death;
- Necromancy (see above);
- Use of human body parts, or materials derived from humans (such as corpse candles made from the fat of the dead) for dark purposes;
- Dark potions and scent potions, and destructive or corrupting spells.
6th Edition, July 7, 2017.
Near-universal Laws of Magic. Isaac Bonewits, Authentic Thaumaturgy, 2nd Ed, http://www.neopagan.net/AT_Laws.html
Kinds of Magic: http://powerlisting.wikia.com/wiki/Magic