What’s up, storytellers? I’m C. R. Rowenson, the magic engineer, and it’s time to talk about magic.
As in all the other articles (Using Magic-System Tropes and Making Necromancy Fresh Again), I’m going to be using my three steps for twisting tropes. You can read the first article here or honestly; you can just stick around. It’s self-explanatory.
Step 1) Understand the Trope
Elemental systems focus on the fundamental forces or aspects of the world.
In Western culture, that is often earth air, water, and fire. Traditional Chinese Medicine (and some martial arts) uses the five elements of wood, metal, fire, earth, and water while the classical Japanese element system is actually earth, water, fire, wind, and void. You can see there’s already a fair bit of variety, but they many hit on those core elements of the world.
Magic-users in these systems usually only have access to a single element. There are some cases where it deviates, but that’s usually a special instance, either in the system or in the individual. The users often have some kind of immunity or at least a resistance to the element that they are attuned to.
Most of these systems have a kind of rock, paper, scissors set up where one element is always strong against one and weak against another. That way, you end up with this give and take and a sort of natural balance, which is also a big part of elemental magic.
This kind of magic also has strong connections with nature and the environment or at least parts of it. It’s also very consistent and stable in the setting.
Step 2) Should You Change It?
Elemental Magic is a classic for a reason. It’s intuitive, makes everything feel more natural, and, to a certain extent, more rational because it provides some patterns into a world that might not have them.
It’s also a staple in most games, especially tabletop RPG systems. If the game has magic in it, players will expect to see the standard elemental powers, even if that’s not the core portion of the magic system. Because everybody wants to throw fireballs.
Beyond that, this type of magic system doesn’t carry a ton of implications with it. It often has a lot of philosophies and assumptions tied to the system’s elements, but that leaves a fairly flexible magic system archetype. So just look at what you’ve got.
Consider how it fits into what you’re trying to do, and you may not need to change anything. If you do want to subvert it and twist it, then it’s time to move on to step three.
Step 3) Change the Trope
Obviously, you can just change the elements that are involved in the system. This is the most obvious place to start and leads to the most blatant differences between your magic system and the standard Elemental Magic archetype.
And you can always look through other parts of the world to find different setups and different combinations and pairings of elements that different cultures and people have used. A word of warning for you. If you are lifting some real-world cultures, make sure that you do so respectfully and appropriately.
Change the Scope
If you don’t want to use systems from our cultures, then you can always keep the standard elements, but make them more specific. You can subdivide each core element into further subcategories, or just focus on one.
For example, you could build an entire magic system around the earth element alone. Maybe it’s broken down into things like mud, stone, sand, and maybe even silt. You can also go in the opposite direction, broaden the spectrum of power available to individual users rather than narrowing it.
Maybe the magic-users have access to multiple elements, but their magical strength is reduced. A fire-water elemental wielder would differ from a fire-stone elemental wielder. You can take this even further so that, depending on the two that they have to, the user gains control over a third, more exclusive element. This would give you all kinds of combinations to play with.
Creating combinations like that would be a ton of fun and would make your system unique without needing new elements of your own.
That said, if that’s what you want to do, then don’t let me stop you!
Invent Your Own Elements
This can be a little tricky, though, because you need your elements to be fundamental aspects of the world around your characters, which can be a little tough to pull off sometimes. It’s going to take some creative thinking and probably a bunch of brainstorming, but it can be done.
For example, if you wanted to tell a science fiction story taking place on a generation ship, the elements for your system might be digital signals, wiring, gravity, and heat. Not fire, just thermal heat. These would all be core elements to the character’s lives and would certainly be a new kind of elemental magic.
Change the Source
In the standard system, the matter and energy comes from the environment around the magic user or, in some cases, manifests from nothing. You could change it so that it has to come from the magic user themselves. Either they’re providing the water, the mass, or the thermal heat from their own bodies.
Maybe the material comes from the environment, but it has to come from a very specific place like their homeland. If a country sends off too many magic users to fight a distant war, they might end up devastating their homeland in the process. That would definitely be interesting.
By changing the source like that, you are creating a choke point for the use of power. Suddenly, things shift from an infinite source to a finite or renewable source. This will force all of your characters and magic users to think more critically and carefully about how they wield their magic, which is always makes for more compelling story moments.
If none of that works for you, you’ve still got options.
Change How Elements Interact
Maybe when distinct elements collide, rather than just negating each other, they might reinforce each other, create uncontrollable bursts of energy, or even produce new elements altogether. Which could be where strange elements like void comes from.
Mixing things up like this would overhaul how the different magic users need to interact with each other. Suddenly magic users must work together to generate and manipulate the rarer elements. They’d need to build bonds and plan how they’re doing things, which would be a pleasant change from the standard countermeasures from one user to another.
This is your chance to throw out the rock, paper, scissors, elemental trope and replace it with something more interesting. Don’t hesitate to take it!
There you go. That’s a few ways that you can make elemental magic fresh again.
Again, and I can’t stress this enough, consider if you even need to change it. I am a sucker for elemental magic systems, and I’m not the only one. Tropes and archetypes exist for a reason, especially with the very popular ones. There are people out there that have seen it already, love it, and simply want more.
Need Help? I Got You!
If you’re building a magic system, elemental or otherwise, and you’re struggling, please let me know. You can reach out to me on my website. You can look up any of my books.
I have one called Restrictions May Apply, which is a workbook specifically designed to help you find the weak points of your system and shore them up with interesting limitations.
Or you can check out The Magic System Blueprint, which is a tool to help you quickly get a holistic understanding of your system and how it fits into your world and story.
And if all of that isn’t doing it for you, I offer one-on-one coaching to help with magic systems, story structure, or any of your writing woes, really. You can find more information here.
If you have no interest in any of that, that’s totally fine too. I just want you to work on your magic system. That’s all I’ve got for now. Above all else, keep writing and stay awesome!