4 Reasons Planned Magic is Better Magic
I don’t care if you’re a creator (writer, game designer, or dungeon master) or a consumer (reader, gamer, or whatever), a planned magic system is a better magic system. That’s right, I went there. Undoubtably there are people out there that disagree with this statement, in fact they might be adding my name to the list of unmentionables as we speak, but I stand by what I said.
Why should you care?
First and foremost, because magic is AWESOME!!!
Besides, consumers can tell when a system possesses a certain level of consistency. Even if little information is given beyond displays of power, a good system will provide a feeling of… completeness.
If you couldn’t tell, this is important to me. I love magic of all kinds, but I also want it to be good magic. Plus I’m an engineer, or an “enginerd” as my friend likes to call me, and planning gives me a sick thrill. I know you’re here for your four reasons,— and we will get there, I promise— but there are a few important things I need to cover first.
What is “Magic” anyway?
Magic is a far more pervasive concept than the classical definition might imply. I’m sure that some people have already clicked away thinking “Bah, magic is stupid. I only read historical fiction with wombats as the protagonist.” There’s not a lot I can do for them, but since you’re still here, allow me to explain.
As far as I’m concerned, magic is anything enabling actions beyond our current understanding or ability.
This definition covers your classic witches, wizards and spellslingers, but it also includes everything from comic book superpowers, racial traits in games, and even, here’s the clincher, technology.
Don’t believe me? Let’s look at some examples.
- X-Men: Telekinesis, weather manipulation, telepathy, regeneration, and laser-eyes. No explanation necessary. X-men = Magic.
- Dwarves in D&D: In 5th Edition the dwarves have darkvision, allowing them to see clearly in dim light and poorly in near darkness. It makes sense for underground folk and it’s not difficult to imagine, but it is certainly something beyond my capabilities, so magic it is.
- Elves in D&D: Not only do the elves of 5th edition have darkvision like the dwarves, but they also have a racial resistance to mental magics such as “Charm” and “Sleep.” This trait is clearly something we would never see in our world, because, you know… magic.
- Stargate: Supposedly functioning off the principles of wormholes, the Stargate from SG1 and Stargate Atlantas tethers to the much larger concept of faster than light travel. Scientifically possible? Maybe, but we can’t be sure, making this another form of magic.
- Lightsaber: This iconic weapon has become a staple of western Science Fiction. I’m not a particle physicist, but I know that light doesn’t behave like that on its own. There’s more here than we can understand, which means the term “magic” pops to mind.
“But that can’t be right?” I hear you say. “Sure some of these seem a bit like magic, but they all have explanations… Right?”
That’s exactly my point. Magic and logic don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, barring some crazy complex magic where the creator manages to make everything completely random, I don’t think you should ever have one without the other. This holds true whether it relates to arcane energies or the extrapolation of scientific principles.
Don’t get upset. I’m not trying to destroy the principles on which your sanity rests. I just wanted to show that this discussion on developing magic systems can be applied more broadly than you might first think. Please stop crying. Look, let’s just move ahead.
4 Reasons Planned Magic is Better — For Creators
Whether you are building magic for your epic fantasy series, your future SciFi novel, or designing that race of demon-hamsters for your tabletop roleplaying game, here are four reasons you should consider planning it in advance.
Reason 1: It makes you look smart.
People can sense when something isn’t agreeing with itself. They don’t always know what the inconsistencies are, and they might not even recognize what is causing them distress, but they will feel it. The brain is the most advanced pattern recognition software currently available. Don’t underestimate it.
Besides, nothing makes you look more intelligent than a solid, robust, and logical design. It doesn’t matter how long it took you to develop, if you manage to anticipate your consumer, you will look like a genius. Why do you think engineer’s get such a good rep? They’re not any smarter than you, they’ve just had the training to develop and understand certain patterns.
Reason 2: It opens new options.
Whenever you are creating something, dead ends are inevitable. At some point you won’t know how to get your players on track, your characters will be stuck in a tree somewhere, or you need to dissolve the bodies before the police arrive.
If you’ve done your legwork, then your magic system can provide the answers. Finding new ways to use the tools you have already presented and made available can solve many problems. And if you do this in a way that nobody else thought of, then you will look even smarter.
Reason 3: It helps your readers/players engage more easily.
As I mentioned, our brains love patterns.
I can’t speak for everyone in this, but when I see the beginnings of a new and interesting system, I will keep reading/playing just so I can learn more about it. It grabs me by the hair and pulls me right out of reality.
A well built magic system will create character conflicts, story problems, and deepen the world building. All of which sounds pretty good to me.
Reason 4: It leads to better fiction.
Everyone hates plot-holes. This is clear to anyone that has read any book or movie review ever… EVER!
Whether the gaps are larger than the plot itself or just tiny things only an nut job would notice, that one nut job is going to see your work be be forever displeased. You will never catch everything, but if you take the time, plan things out, then your magic, your worlds, and your stories will be better because of it.
4 Reasons Planned Magic is Better — For Consumers
As a consumer of someone else’s craft, your interactions with magic will be quite different. You don’t have the power to change anything once it’s written, but by learning to understand and analyze the information presented you will see the following benefits.
Reason 1: It lets you engage more deeply in the story.
The magic is another potential opportunity to latch your brain tentacles onto the story your reading or playing. Sometimes this can be difficult in the beginning, but if you begin hunting for every little hint you can find, you will be into the thick of things before you know it.
Additionally, studying the magic can serve as a gateway into a deeper understanding of the setting and characters themselves. Don’t just learn the rules of the magic, find out why the rules exist. Look for the tiny ways its very existence alters the world around it. Analyze what you are given and think about what it means.
Now that you are actively engaged with the world or story, you can spend your energies focused on that rather than this “normal life” everyone keeps ranting about.
Reason 2: It lets you see new options.
Once you’re brain grasps a concept, there’s no knowing what will turn up. The only certainty is that you will start to spot inconsistencies and interesting opportunities.
Is that a false assumption made by the character? Is that going to come back and bite them later? If they can do X, can they do Y? If the people in this city hate this, what is going to happen when the character shows up?
If you are playing a game, you can take this knowledge and start getting more creative with how you solve and anticipating your problems. Speaking as a tabletop gamer, creative players lead to the most amazing stories (if you want an example, just ask me about the “Hoblider-Bear”). As a reader, you can start to anticipate the awesome things coming down the pipeline and begin extrapolating all sorts of cool scenarios.
Reason 3: It makes you feel smart.
Now you are engaged with the story unfolding before you and your mind has begun racing along new paths and possibilities. You think to yourself, “Wouldn’t it be cool if THIS happened?” And then, BAM! There it is right on the next page.
I don’t know about you, but it’s about that time I start feeling wicked smart. And that’s just the beginning.
You anticipated things once, what else are you right about? Even if you’re wrong, the author might have come up with something even more awesome. And if they didn’t, maybe it’s just setting up for something coming later. No matter what, you used your brain to understand something new and extrapolate awesomeness from that knowledge.
Feels good, doesn’t it.
Reason 4: It leads to better fiction.
Be warned: sometimes you will be disappointed. A story arc will fall flat, a creator will miss an obvious hole or solution, or game won’t give you the agency you need to fully explore the system’s potential.
Not everyone agrees on this topic, and some just don’t want to put in the effort it would require. But despair not; there is still hope. Want to know why?
Because no-one is forcing you to read their books or play that game.
Unless they are. Blink twice if you are being held against your will… No? We’re good? Cool.
Never forget that you are an important part in this relationship. I’ve talked about this before on my blog. If you don’t like a book or game, then find something else. It’s a big world out there with hundreds of people dying to entertain you.
Take a chance on something new (maybe one of the books suggested here).
Here’s the really cool bit. If you support good fiction and gaming and ignore the rest, the industry will have to improve to match. That’s right, you have the power to create better fiction by supporting those you love.
Déjà Vu Anyone
Good; that’s kind of the point. I firmly believe that magic has something for everyone… Sounds kind of like Disney Land, now that I think about it.
Even if you never create magic of any form, you can still benefit from understanding the process of creating such a system. By making yourself aware of the steps of the process, you will find yourself more capable of analyzing and extrapolating from the information that you have been given.
I don’t have time for the full story, but that is actually how I got to where I am today. I loved digging deep into the twists and turns of a particular magic system. I suppose it was only a matter of time before I transitioned from being a consumer to a dealer- I mean creator.
Remember, whether you are a writer, a reader, a gamer, or something else entirely, understanding the magic will lead us all to a world of better fiction. Regardless of our backgrounds, I think that’s a goal we can agree on.
You know, I hadn’t really thought about it. WAIT! I was just kidding. Please put the rocks down.
It should come as no surprise that planning a magic system is going to take time and effort. There is going to be a ongoing series of posts on the topic to help you through the process of designing or understanding how such systems can be built.
I’m not sure how long this series is going to take, but I promise to post at least one post every month until the series is complete
I know that seems like a long time, but the pause will be necessary for you to really dive into some of the steps.
If you sign up for my newsletter, you will get notified of the exact dates you can expect new content. Also, sign up now and receive a list of my favorite YouTube time-wasters for free.
Warning: Many contain explicit content. These are all things that I would have watched in High School, but they might not be something you want your high schooler watching.
Have you tried creating a system? What parts of the process are you struggling with? What questions do you want addressed? Or maybe you’re just sick of seeing the same trope over and over again.
Comment below or email me and we will get it figured out. Otherwise, we’ll talk again soon. Thanks for stopping by.