Updated Post: Originally Published Feb-7-2018
Greetings and salutations. Today — Wait! Don’t run away; I just want to talk about magic system variables!
*One intense, 30-minute chase scene later*
Whew. Have you been working out? That was a lot tougher than usual. At least now I have a captive audience.
As I was saying, today we’re discussing magic system variables. We’ll start by defining what they are and look at the three most important magic system variables out there. Once that’s clear, we can explore three levels that can guide you in setting your variables and look at a few examples. Then we’ll wrap it all up with why the variables are so important for your system.
Sound Good? *Muffled shouts for help* Outstanding. Let’s get started.
What are Magic System Variables?
Magic system variables are the universal qualities of any magic system that we adjust and tweak to create something unique.
I’m not talking about your magic effects or limitations here; variables aren’t a single idea or statement. Your magic system variables are the settings you tweak to manipulate how it’s experienced by your characters and your audience. They’re like the various settings you can find in any video game.
Whether it’s Skyrim, Borderlands, or Farmville, there are a variety of default options available to you as the player. You almost always can adjust the screen brightness, tweak the color contrast, balance the music/voice volume, alter the controls, and with few exceptions (looking at you Borderlands) set the game difficulty to a level you can enjoy.
Separately, these game settings can seem insignificant. Taken as a whole, these settings can have a massive impact on your enjoyment of the game and your play style. Just like the video game settings, your magic system variables are more like a state of being that you can set rather than a single idea or statement.
Make sense? Don’t worry if it hasn’t clicked yet. Let’s take a quick look at three of the more important variables; that should help.
The Three Most Important Magic System Variables
The Source of Magic
The source of magic covers everything about where your magic comes from. Top-level considerations of how the magic came into being to the minutia of where energy comes from to generate the effect are both a part of this variable.
The Inheritance of Power
Inheritance is exactly what you think. To set this variable, you need to consider how the ability to perform magic passes from person to person and generation to generation. This magic system variable also covers any methods to subvert, cancel, or steal power away from a practicing or potential magic user.
The Prevalence of Magic
To address this magic system variable, you need to think about how common, widespread, or prevalent this magic is across genders, families, countries, and species. The more prevalent the magic, the more places we can find it in the world or universe.
I hope this is making more sense because we’re not quite done yet. There’s one more thing to discuss.
The Three Levels of Magic System Variables
As you probably noticed, each variable encompasses a lot of information both in detail and in scope. To provide more structure and to combat analysis-paralysis, I like to examine each variable at three different levels of magnification.
The three levels are — are you ready for this? — The user level, the system level, and the universal level.
If you’ve been around with me for a while, these might sound familiar. Also, could you do a little less cardio? Chasing you down gets harder every time.
In the past, I used these levels to separate my different variables into groups. Then I realized that many of the variables could have distinct settings for the individual user, the system, and the universe at the same time. Hence the change.
Let’s look closer at those levels.
The User Level
This is the most intimate and focused level you can set a variable. Here is where you explore how the characters experience the magic. Sometimes this is the same for all characters, and sometimes it is different for every single user.
Powerful story moments can blossom from this level if you give it some attention.
The System Level
When setting a variable at the system level, you are exploring how the magic works as its own entity separate from the rest of reality. Explore how it knits together, overlaps, and maybe even contradicts itself.
For many, this is the most familiar level of the three. When people set out to figure out how their system works, this is often the level they’re working at.
The Universal Level
This level is all about how the magic functions on the largest scale of your story and world. That could be how it functions across a city, an entire globe, a galaxy, or even an entire fictional universe. Take the magic system variable in question and consider how it fits or interacts with the macro-setting around it. How does it shape, collide with, or synergize with reality?
This level is worth exploring just for the sake of your magic, but it is wonderfully helpful for worldbuilding. In fact, I can’t think at this level without it leading to some worldbuilding.
A Note on the Levels
When you’re setting a variable, make sure you explore how that variable works and changes at each of the three levels. In the end, you may find that not every variable has a distinct setting at each of the levels, and that’s okay too. It’s all about determining what your system is and why it is unique.
If things are still a little fuzzy, don’t worry. It was tough for me at first too, but now it is almost second nature. I’m sure an example of a magic system variable in action would be helpful right about now, so let’s do exactly that.
Example: The Source of Allomancy from Mistborn
User Level: Those gifted with Allomancy can consume and “burn” specific metals to generate magical effects. The specifics of the energy transfer are unknown, but the metals are the fuel for the magic. Run out of metal and you run out of magic.
System Level: All Allomantic abilities (in fact, all the abilities of the three metallic arts) originated from two god-like powers called Ruin and Preservation. This level is also where Brandon Sanderson distinguished the sources of power for Allomancy, Feruchemy, and Hemalurgy.
Universal Level: This is also where we move beyond the Mistborn series. From the beginning, Brandon Sanderson has been building something he calls the Cosmere. There are many other powers in the Cosmere acting as sources for other systems, and we don’t yet know where their power came from.
But Why do Magic System Variables Matter?
If I say, “They matter because you’re chained up and I’m the only one with the keys,” will you accept that? *Sigh* Didn’t think so.
Let me put it another way.
Just as your variables are more than a single idea or answer, your magic system is more than a cluster of disparate qualities. Your system results from these qualities acting together, blending and harmonizing into something unique and beautiful.
Imagine a massive soundboard covered with dozens of knobs, buttons, dials, switches, and sliders. Each piece has a unique function we can manipulate individually, but together they allow a sound engineer to do amazing things with the simplest of inputs. Done right, a song becomes a beautiful requiem, an upbeat dance, or a discordant mess.
Your story is the symphony, your magic system is that sounding board, and your variables are all the knobs, switches, and sliders resting at your fingertips.
That gives you a massive number of opportunities to explore and exploit. By twisting a few knobs and adjusting a slider or two, you can generate drastically different magic systems without changing the core mechanics. After a few adjustments, the system you built for an epic fantasy will be perfect for a hair-raising horror story.
That’s all for now.
There you have it. It should now be clear what magic system variables are, why they’re important, and the various levels we can set them. You’ve even got the three most important variables outlined for you, so you should be good to get started.
If you want more, don’t worry. There are more posts coming soon exploring specific variables in greater detail. If you just can’t wait that long to hear from me, I understand… it means the brainwashing is coming along nicely.
At any rate, you should sign up for my newsletter. Emails go out every week talking about building magic systems, mental health, productivity, gaming, book progress, and giving out a special deal here and there.
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That’s enough for one day. Until next time, stay awesome. Rowenson out.