We recently talked about several of the more important magic system variables you need to address, but they’re only the start. To finish mapping out your system, there are five more magic system variables you need to know about.
If this is your first time hearing about magic system variables or want a refresher, this post will tell you what you need to know about magic system variables. Now, let’s start with one of my favorites: Flux.
The concept for this variable comes straight from my college days. Physics and chemistry define flux as “The rate of flow of a fluid, radiant energy, or particles across a given area.” In Chemical Engineering, flux is used to calculate and predict the transportation of mass and energy into or out of a defined system.
Working with Magic Flux is the same but we are only concerned with magical energy and the boundaries of your system. Given the definition of flux, your system can be in one of three states of flux: positive, negative, or neutral.
Positive flux occurs when the amount of magical energy, power, and/or the number of magic-users is increasing. What exactly this means is completely up to you.
Positive flux can lead to the birth or discovery of new powers like in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or it can be the resurgence and return of old, forgotten magics like in Game of Thrones or The Stormlight Archive. Maybe the number of Users isn’t changing at all, but their power continues to grow with each passing year.
In the case of negative flux, the net energy in your world is declining. If you want a story about the slow decline and decay of a once-powerful, magical empire, negative flux is likely the best choice. As with positive flux, this can manifest in a variety of ways. A decrease in the total number of Users or the potency of the magic are two common examples.
This situation arises when the overall levels of magical energy stay the same. Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher is an excellent example of a neutral system. Nearly everyone in Alera possesses the ability to Fury Craft, and there is no sign of the numbers swelling or dropping off. Remember, just because a system has neutral flux doesn’t mean nothing is changing. Power may increase in one place and decrease in another, but the overall levels of magic must remain constant.
Next up is your system’s ease of use.
Ease of Use
This variable is fairly straightforward. On a sliding scale from easy to hard, you need to decide how easy it is for characters to use the magic.
To fully understand how easy a system is to use, you need to consider each of the following factors: time, education, components, precision, control, focus, intent, and experience.
The less you need of each factor, the easier the magic becomes to use. Magic that requires little time to cast, no education, and is wielded instinctually without direct intent is very easy to use. On the other hand, if the magic requires high precision, intense mental focus, and lots of time, then the system is much more difficult to use.
Examples of Ease of Use
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a perfect example of an easy to use magic system. Few people have magic, but those that do can use it frequently and instinctually with few complications.
Allomancy from the Mistborn trilogy is on the other end of the spectrum. It’s easy enough for an Allomancer to use the magic (provided they have the required metal on hand), but training is an enormous factor. Developing skill and precision is essential to get the most from the system. A clever and well-trained Allomancer will always defeat an unpracticed, imprecise Allomancer regardless of their respective power levels.
There are no right or wrong answers with this variable, just consequences and implications. If your magic is easy to use, it will appear in the story with greater frequency than it would if it were difficult to use. There are lots of fun and interesting ways to utilize this variable.
We still have three more magic system variables to cover, so let’s move on to the next one. Ease of abuse.
Ease of Abuse
This variable focuses on how the magic can be overused, scaled up, and manipulated to maximize the result while minimizing the price. Magic is a powerful tool and you need to understand how it might allow the magic-user to dominate in physical confrontations, produce wealth, or even change the status of the magic users. Sometimes the abuse happens on an individual level but, depending on your setting, it can just as easily happen on an industry-wide, national, or even galactic level.
You will often find Ease of Abuse to be directly proportional to the Ease of Use. The easier it is to use, the easier it usually is to abuse and vice versa. Of course, that doesn’t have to be the case. Magic may be incredibly difficult to manage, but once you learn how you can quickly scale it out of control.
Just like when with Ease of Use, there are several factors you should consider to understand how easily the magic can be abused. This time you want to explore the following components: frequency, duration, magnitude, range, area of effect, efficiency, flexibility, and how difficult it is to block or counter. The higher you can spike any of these components, the easier it will be to abuse the magic.
Examples for Ease of Abuse
Consider the technology from Stargate SG1 for a moment. Most of the technology, while powerful, has limited power efficiency and duration. Some more significant pieces of tech, like the gate itself, have little to no flexibility in their use. They do what they do and that’s it. On top of that, most of the technology can be incredibly effective when used properly but is easily blocked or stymied, leading to powerful technology that is fairly difficult to abuse.
The powers from the Marvel Cinematic Universe are a different story entirely. Most powers that people have can be used constantly (high frequency) and can be used in a wide variety of ways (flexibility). The magic of the universe is easily abused, which is exactly why the world needs heroes in the first place.
When setting this variable, focus on ways someone could “hack” or “optimize” their use of magic to gain the upper hand. Search for loopholes in your rules and identify any power feedback loops you can. And if you find your system is easily abused, don’t panic. You can always rein it in by setting a few limitations.
Two more magic system variables to go. This next one is particularly interesting and examines how naturally the magic fits within the world.
Normality shows how natural or aberrational your magic is compared to the rest of the surrounding setting. Magic with high normality is a natural part of the world that matches its patterns, behaviors, and laws (even if they don’t match our own). In cases like this, you will often find forms of magic in the environment and animals of the world. Conversely, systems with low normality are strange and mysterious outliers standing out in stark contrast to how everything else seems to work in the world around it.
If the magic is a normal part of the world, then there’s a good chance you’ll find it occurs naturally out in the wilds. Maybe creatures have magical powers, or nature itself performs wondrous and mystical things regularly. It could be that the world itself has rules and physics vastly different from our own that the magic follows perfectly. You want to know what the rules of your world are, whether the magic breaks those rules, and how it breaks them.
Examples of Normality
The magic of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has fairly low normality. Most of the characters and powers we see are anomalies (at least in our world if not in the entire universe). For the most part, there aren’t magical storms raging across the landscape, or magical creatures drifting through the mist. While several of them have “scientific” explanations there is always some gigantic leap where things went wrong or different and nobody understands why.
The magic in The Lord of the Rings is particularly interesting here because, while wondrous and mystical, it has high normality. The magic is natural and infused with the world around it. In fact, we find magic mostly within the creatures of Middle Earth. Trolls, Ents, dragons, even the elves have wondrous abilities that fit into the very fabric of the world around them.
If you’re having a hard time deciding, just remember that all of this is subjective. What seems natural to you may not to someone else. Pick what makes the most sense to you and helps you understand the world and the magic on a deeper level.
Which brings us to variable number ten: perception.
Perception, surprise surprise, focuses on how people and creatures within the setting view or perceive the magic. This can fall anywhere between an overwhelmingly positive perception of the magic to an overwhelmingly negative one. They might consider it holy and purifying or profane and corrupting.
This variable, by its very nature, is the most subjective of all the variables. No two characters will have precisely the same perception of the magic. Your goal here isn’t to pin down how every single person feels about the magic, but rather to take your best guess at how it will be regarded.
Examples of Perception
Consider Allomancy from the Mistborn trilogy. The powers granted by this magic are often extremely potent and effective. As such, they are highly desirable throughout the noble houses. While having the powers isn’t something you broadcast openly in their world, it does automatically raise you in station and importance.
Stargate is a bit different. For the most part, they see technology as something neutral. It is a tool to be understood and used by people. Tools are not inherently good or bad it is how they are used. Everyone wants the technology and everyone knows it’s dangerous, leading to an overall neutral perception of tech.
In Ash vs Evil Dead, most of the magic we see is tied to the Necronomicon or demons. Any power gained or unleashed comes at a terrible price or rests in the hands of horrifying monsters. This leads to an overwhelmingly negative perspective on nearly all things magic in the series.
And that’s it.
Combine these five variables with those covered in 5 Important Magic System Variables You Need to Consider and you’ve got all the magic system variables. You are now fully armed with all the magic system variables you need to understand your system.
The magic system variables are one piece in the entire magic-building process. Don’t get me wrong, they’re an important part and can quickly tell you a lot about your magic system, but they are still just a piece. My current work in progress is a tool and book that combines all the pieces you need to quickly and easily develop your magic system.
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