What’s the first thing you think of when I say “magic system”? As a savvy, hard-working magic builder I’m sure many different monsters, effects, and technology spring to mind. That’s because you, my friend, are a marvelous exception.
Upon hearing the words “magic” or “magic system”, most people jump to the wands and wizardry of Harry Potter or some other classical concepts. Systems like alchemy, divine magic, energy manipulation, and necromancy are often the first that spring to mind.
There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what many are most familiar with. We have seen them time and time again across various mediums and dozens of stories. They have been around so long and reused so many times they’ve become foundational in our understanding of the topic.
These systems are just a few examples of popular magic system archetypes, which are both good and bad. They can be bad because it’s easy for an archetypical system to feel overdone. On the plus side, using such familiar archetypes means we have less to explain and provides us more room for creativity.
Just the word “necromancy” summons a massive, rotting host of ideas and images in the minds of your audience. As awesome as those images are, the last thing we want is our audience to view our magic system as the same old corpse returning for yet another zombie apocalypse.
That’s why today we’ll go over three ways to stop beating that dead horse of an idea and resurrect it into something useful.
Change How It’s Perceived
Like so many of my hobbies, most people label Necromancy as unholy. Fortunately for both of us, it doesn’t have to stay that way. Make some changes to your magic and your world so evil becomes good and unholy becomes useful.
There is an infinite number of ways to go about this but there are a few that stand out to me.
For example, what if undeath was a natural step in the circle of life? You’re born, you die, you revive, and you die again. In a world like this, necromancers could help people transition from death to undeath, heal wounds that can no longer recover naturally, and even ease your final passing from the world.
Or what if a great enemy has risen from the deep places of the world and threatens all of humanity? Necromancers, with their ability to recycle fallen soldiers, friends, and families could be mankind’s last hope for survival. They would become heroes holding the line and keeping us safe.
That’s all there is to it. With just a few changes your necromancers transform from evil creeps lurking in graveyards to valued members of society.
Change Their Abundance
In most fiction, necromancers work alone or in minor cults. This may be to hide their craft or because they no longer need anything from the living… or maybe it’s because mobs hunt them down and slaughter them before they can get a good horde going.
But what if you increased how many necromancers were in your world? Think about how that could change things.
More than anything, we fear what we don’t understand. Maybe society has progressed to where individuals aren’t murdered simply for displaying such power. Others might consider them a shameful secret to hide away in internment camps and on reservations. No need to kill them if you can just ignore them.
What if the population continues to grow? With time they might unite and form a small country populated with necromancers. Once that happens, any necromancer born has a place willing to grant asylum and a home.
The rest of the world might see their powers as horrifying and wrong, but at that point, it doesn’t matter. The world may view them with disgust, but even a small country of necromancers would drastically change how the world works and the magic’s role in the story.
Narrow the Scope of the Magic.
Traditional necromancy covers a wide range of abilities from raising the dead, speaking with ghosts and spirits, and draining the life force from targets. One way to make your version of necromancy interesting is to narrow down the range of abilities or limit their magnitude.
What if necromancers could only resurrect and maintain a single body at a time? Armies of the dead would be out of the question and necromancers would need to choose their one body with great care. One character may drag a cart full of bodies with them so they can swap to whichever corpse will be most useful. Another character might go full Frankenstein and craft the biggest, baddest zombie imaginable.
Maybe necromancy has nothing to do with living and dead humans, plants, or animals. What if necromancy was all about manipulation of the populations and life-cycles of different bacteria? Destroy the bacteria in someone’s guts and they will waste away as though cursed. Cause a population explosion in the bacteria native to a target’s skin and minor cuts will turn septic and cause flesh to rot away.
Alter the scope of a magic system and you can present something new while keeping the original tone.
And That’s How to Make Necromancy Fresh Again
These are just a few of the many tricks you can pull to freshen up a system. The best part is, this will work with any type of magic system be it a system archetype or one of your own that you want to take in a new direction.
Here is where I give you permission to “steal” my ideas, “bother” me, or both.
If you liked any of the ideas mentioned above, please take it and see what you can do. I want to see a higher quantity and quality of magic systems in stories; I don’t care if they’re my systems or not.
If you want to tweak your own system or work from another archetype, I recommend starting with the limitations. Building interesting limitations from scratch can be tough, but that’s what my workbook Restrictions May Apply: Building Limits for Your Magic is all about.
Oh and don’t forget that you can always contact me if you want some more direct guidance or even just to chat. If you couldn’t tell, I enjoy talking about magic systems, so I promise you it won’t bother me in the least. Until next time, stay safe, stay healthy, and stay awesome. Rowenson out.