Are you ready? I hope you are. Because this is a topic I’ve been wanting to talk about for a really long time now. In this article, we’re going to be talking about the structure of Allomancy in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy.
I’ve wanted to do this for so long. Oh my God, this is going to be great!
I want to be clear upfront, this is not going to be an in-depth analysis of Allomancy. We aren’t going to be looking at the types of magic or any of the variables you would find on the magic system blueprint. Nor will we be diving into the limitations or the various ways that it’s used throughout the story.
No. What we’re looking at here is the structure, that underlying formula that Brandon built the entire rest of the magic system around. After we identify the structure, we’re going to talk about why it’s cool and why you might want to use it. Last, we’ll apply the structure to a brand new magic system.
There are several key elements that make up the Allomancy magic system structure, and we’re going to go through those one at a time.
Categories of Magical Effects
One of the things that I find cool about Allomancy and all of the metallic arts is how Brandon broke it all down into several large categories.
First, you have physical effects. These are any of the magic effects that alter the magic user’s physical abilities and senses or have a direct impact on physical matter. Then there are the mental effects that allow mental manipulation of people’s emotions, or even the mental ability to sense or cloak the use of magic. Next, are the enhancement effects that allow a magic-user to either enhance or neutralize the magical abilities of either themselves or another magic-user. Last are temporal effects that alter the flow of time or can provide information from either the past or the future.
Opposing Action Verbs: Push / Pull
These action verbs are a big part of what makes Allomancy stand out, and Brandon Sanderson uses the terms push and pull to describe different types of magical effects. In some cases, the push and pull are very literal. Take steel and iron, for example, where the metal allows the magic-user to push the metal directly away or pull it directly towards themselves. In other cases, like with copper and bronze, it’s a bit more of a metaphorical push or pull.
Whether literal or metaphorical, Brandon keeps the parallels throughout the entire structure. He even strengthens the metallic theme by making the pushing metals be alloys of the pulling metals.
Positional Words: Internal / External
Brandon also used positional words to create an additional level of distinction between specific magical effects. In the case of Allomancy, they are internal and external. Now, when you combine these three elements of the structure, you end up with this four-by-four grid, which allows us to have up to 16 powers right away.
With the grid in place, we can see pairings and parallels, which automatically makes things more comprehensible and easier to follow. That’s part of the reason this structure is so awesome.
Distinct Performance Action: Burning
In the case of Allomancy, magic users consume the metals and then burn them within themselves to fuel the magic. So you have a bunch of words related to that like burn and flare. They’re both very distinctive from what I had seen in most other magic systems, which helped it stand out even further.
Now that we have this grid of sixteen boxes and we know what category it falls under, whether it’s supposed to be pushing or pulling internal and external, it’s just a matter of filling them in. This leads to the final part of the Allomancy magic system structure.
Distinct Magical Effects
Each of the sixteen powers in Allomancy is incredibly distinct. There’s not much overlap between the two. They’re connected, but no two metals really produce the same thing, and, to a certain extent, no two metals can even imitate the other. There is some room for deception over the course of the series, but it is usually clear which metal is being burned and which effect is being produced based on what’s happening.
If you aren’t familiar with Allomancy and you want an overview of the rest of the system, I really recommend that you check out the Allomancy Overview video by Daniel Greene. I really enjoy it. It’s quite simple and he covers the basics of the system, as well as the basics of the other two magics systems in the story.
There you have it. That’s the underlying structure of elements, and we can now use that for our own magic systems.
Why Would You Use This Structure?
Well, for one, it’s awesome!
That, and because, if you use it there are going to be some instinctive, deep-seated parallels that people going to draw between your system and Alamance. And that can only be a good thing, right?
The Allomancy structure is also amazing for rational magic systems. For one, it puts things in an easy-to-understand order, and it invites exploration and extrapolation. If people know the basic patterns and structure, but they only know a handful of the magical effects, then they’re going to want to brainstorm and think about what might be in the rest of those boxes. And that’s a fantastic way to engage your audience and pull them into both the story and the magic system.
Now I mentioned there will be connections to Allomancy. There will be because people who see this grid are probably going to make a connection. That doesn’t mean that we’re building a cheap copy of Allomancy. Not at all. We still have plenty of room to make the system our own and unique. Creativity lies in combination and distinction is in the details. Even after filling out this grid, we’ll have tons of room for details.
Last, I just find a structure like this easier to work with. I find an empty grid far less intimidating and overwhelming than a blank page. I don’t know about you, but that’s something that helps me. It’s already there, the structures in place, and I just have to fill in the blanks.
So now let’s take all of that and use it to build a new magic system. This is going to be fun!
The Example Magic System
Before I do anything with the magic system, I always need a seed crystal.
A seed crystal is the point of inspiration, the origin, and the core concept of your magic system. Without it, I find that I and a lot of other people tend to get stuck or in a rut or aren’t really able to get the creative juices flowing. So that’s where we’re going to start, and oh boy is this a fun one!
The seed crystal for this magic system is utility fog.
If you aren’t familiar with utility fog, that is a science fiction term for nanites clouds that can be linked together into any kind of object or structure. For this magic system, I want to focus on the creation of tools and autonomous creatures/robots that roam around the spaceship that I have in my head for the setting. And that’s the seed crystal.
All right. Well, following the Allomancy structure, the first thing we need are the major categories. For this system, I have chosen to go with utility, communications, combat, and mobility.
Categories of Magical Effects: Utility / Communications / Combat / Mobility
These categories will cover a variety of different abilities, but that doesn’t have to be the entire system. That’s another great thing about this structure. It’s really easy to add on. If I thought of a fifth, sixth, or even seventh category, all I would need to do is create another four-by-four section and fill in the blanks, and Bam! Magic system expanded.
Next up are the action verbs.
Action Verbs: Bind / Rend
The binding and rending effects are ll bout fuzing the nanites together or forcing them apart. Whether it’s a metaphorical or literal binding and rending depends on which magical effect we’re talking about, but those are the action verbs.
“Position” Words: Personal / Autonomous
We have tools and we have the ability to work with the nanites on a very individual personal level that the magic-user can interact with them or there are the automatons. So the two words I’m going with here are personal and autonomous. I know these aren’t exactly positional words like we see in Allomancy, but that’s totally fine. The point is to provide us with another set of opposing words and these do the job.
The autonomous and auto effects focus on the behavior of the autonomous structures. Personal effects are more, well, personal, whether it’s creating a tool for the user or the user interacting directly with the nanites. That’s what I’m going with there.
Last, we have the distinctive performing action.
Performance Action: Broadcasting
Because we’re dealing with utility fog and signals are going to be sent to the nanites in order to do stuff, I decided to go with broadcasting.
So in the Mistborn trilogy, it was always, “Vin burned steel” or “Kelsier or burned tin.” In my story, if this did go into a book, it would be, “so-and-so broadcast rend” or broadcast lock, assault, or whatever. If I were publishing this system, I might also come up with more magical or sciencey names for the different effects and create some actual symbols to go with.
So we have the grid, we have the action verbs, we have the “position” words. Let’s start talking effects.
In Allomancy, Brandon kept it real simple. Two of the effects were just “pushing” and “pulling,” and I want to do something similar here. So the personal utility effects are just going to be “bind” and “rend”. This is where a magic-user is broadcasting a command for the nanites to fuze or separate. Now that could cause entire structures to fall apart. They could use this to lock an automaton in place, or maybe even just sculpt the cloud into the desired object.
For the binding effect on the automatic side, I went with “repair”. That’s when somebody is broadcasting to a specific unit to repair or sustain something. The rend effect would be to “absorb”, which would direct the nanites to deconstruct whatever this is and absorb the material into themselves.
For the personal binding effect, I wanted to go with “link senses” or “network”. Whether that’s with a helmet, goggles, or a cerebral implant, this command allows them to actually tap into the network of creatures, objects, and sensors they have claimed and placed around them. For the personal rending effect, I went with “jam sensors,” so this would allow a magic-user to try and jam the sensing and potentially the commands of other magic users in the area.
The automatic comms effects were where my brain started going a little wild because for the automatic binding effect I chose “claim.” This command allows a magic-user to claim a portion of nanites or an entire automaton as their own, so they can be commanded more readily.
So, yeah, I basically created Nano-Machine Pokemon and I have no problem with that. None at all!
So the automatic rending effect for comms is going to be “liberate,” which does the opposite. A magic-user can try and break somebody’s claim over a cluster of nanites, which would allow you to integrate it into your own items. It could also free up the automaton for you to claim yourself. It can do a whole bunch of interesting things.
The personal binding effect for combat is just going to be to “summon armor”. I know that sounds simple, but we’re talking about a SciFi setting, and there’s no reason that it has to be the same set of armor all the time. There could be a lot of due to personality, the person’s job on the ship, or even the role that they have to play in the combat. There’s lots of room for flexibility. It doesn’t have to be a rigid system, because summoning armor is still distinct from any of the rest of the effects.
Soooo badass SciFi armor made out of nanites? Yes, please!
On the flip side, the personal rending effect is “summon weapon”. As you would expect, that’s where you’re going to use a nanite cluster to form a weapon, Whether it is a dagger, a spear, a pistol, or whatever, that’s what you’re doing. And similar to the armor, I see no reason to limit it to a very specific weapon. It can be flexible based on the situation or the knowledge of the user or any number of things.
OK. Automatic effects.
The automatic binding effect, I’m just going to put as “guard.” That’s just where they are commanding an automaton to guard or protect a specific place or structure. There will, of course, be nuances based on who has claimed it and its previous programming. You don’t know exactly what it will do, but it’s being bound to a place to protect it.
Then the rending effect is “assault.” That could mean the creature is just storming forward and ripping through doors, people, and hulls to get to its target. Or if it’s just an ambulatory nanite cluster, it may just float through the air and disassemble everything it passes over into its particulate matter.
Oh man, am I loving the system.
That’s All For Now
See how useful that structure is and how different the magic systems can be? It doesn’t just have to be a rinse repeat of Allomancy. We have options.
I do want to note that at this point, we’ve mapped out a good chunk of the magic system. I mean, we have the structure, we have a whole bunch of magical effects listed out, have even more ideas about how they can be used and all that kind of stuff. But the magic system is not done.
We haven’t gone over the limitations. We don’t really know anything about the magic users. We haven’t worked through the blueprint at all. There’s still work to be done before this is a fully fleshed-out and usable magic system, but we have a really good start, and that’s the point.
Now I can hear you screaming mentally, probably verbally, at me right now. “What about mobility?! It’s empty?!”
Yep, sure is. I did that on purpose because I want to know what magical effects you would put in the mobility area. Or if you have ideas for an altogether different category and its effects, tell me all about it. I just want to see what you come up with because I have no doubt that you are every bit as creative as I am.
Finally, if you don’t want to wait around an entire month for my next article/video, I understand. If you want to hear more about magic systems or just hear from me more in general, you should sign up for my mailing list. I talk about magic systems, games, productivity hacks, mental health, dealing with anxiety, all that kind of stuff. And I send those out every week, so please consider signing up.
Thank you so much for being here. Keep building and stay awesome. Rowenson out.